Osaka, A Tech Meetup, 360 Camera, and Koyasan Buddhist Temple

Our Second Week Travelling in Japan; Featuring: Totoro

Our first week in Japan was full of new experiences — we started our Honeymoon in Tokyo, and then spent the weekend in Hiroshima and Miyajima. We got very enthusiastic feedback about our first blog post, so here is the second one, telling the story of our stay in Osaka and Koyasan.

Hello, Osaka!

As we arrived Osaka, we were greeted with a warm welcome dance:

She dances like that non-stop

We checked-in at the hotel and were surprised to find an Android phone in our room. Apparently, they lend you a phone with internet and unlimited calls for the duration of your stay. Nice!

Next, we went to look for dinner. Google Maps recommended a hidden Japanese BBQ place which served Matsuzaka beef. If you ever heard about Kobe beef, it is pretty similar: the same cattle breed, called “Wagyū,” and raised under strict standards, which supposedly include massages from the farmers and occasionally drinking beer.

We ordered a set-menu with different parts, as well as some beef sushi for starters, and what can I say — It was delicious! 😋

Beefy Sushi!
Super delicious Matsuzaka beef, served with labels (as if I know what “Ichibo” even means)
Just imagine being there yourself…

An Early Birthday Gift 🎁

When we experienced the teamLab exhibition in Hiroshima, it felt like the phone camera was no good for capturing this experience. It was all around us, very immersive. Ariella has a birthday in two weeks, so I decided to buy an early birthday gift, in hope to provide us a better way to capture similar experiences in our future adventures: a 360 degrees camera.

Finding where to get this camera while traveling proved to be tricky, as Google translated お取り寄せ (Back-order) to “In Stock Now,” causing us to spend an hour looking for the camera in a store with no stock. 😟

We learned the hard way: never trust Google Translate. Better ask a local!

Eventually, spending some more time researching online, we found that the Apple Store also sells this camera. And so, Ariella got her first 360° camera:

Hooray! Expect some fancy 360° photos down the road…
Our first 360° Selfie, in Osaka Castle

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan🐟

The next day, equipped with the new 360° camera, we went to visit Osaka’s Aquarium. It’s one of the world’s largest aquarium, with the biggest tank being 9 meters deep (and full of fancy fish):

A ray or a spaceship? You tell me!
I have never seen such a marvelous jellyfish before!
These glowing fish… 😍

They even had an “Interactive” spot where you could pet rays and sharks. Ariella was so brave and tried that, reporting they felt silk-smooth. Speaking of sharks, they had some pretty large ones, the biggest was 5-meters long!

Overall, we enjoyed the aquarium visit very much (the ambient classical music was a nice touch). When we left, it was already dark outside, and the Aquarium entrance was beautifully lit:

As we were hungry, we headed into a nearby all-you-can-eat cook-it-yourself tempura restaurant. You have a big selection of skewers with meat, fish, and vegetables, you dip them into tempura mixture, and then deep-fry them in boiling oil:

Dip, Fry, Eat — Repeat

We ended this evening with a 15-minutes ferry-wheel ride, viewing Osaka heights:

Ferry Wheel ride timelapse

Rainy Day in Shinsekai and Makers DiY Shop 🔨

The next day was rainy, so we spent most of the morning finishing our blog post about Tokyo and Hiroshima. We then headed to the Shinsekai distinct, following a recommendation from Daniel Gwerzman who sent us to a big Makers / DiY / Electronics shop.

Shinsekai Distinct

The shop had three floors full of electronic equipment, many DiY kits and even a small workshop with some solder irons. A maker’s heaven!

Just look around…

One thing I especially liked about the shop is that they had demos showing how many of the kits and components worked. So you could see how bright the LEDs were, and play with a bunch of assembled kits such as a small touch-piano.

A Day in Nara

Nara is a temple-packed city that used to be the capital of Japan in the 8th century. It also has roaming deers, though we weren’t really excited about them as we already saw similar deers in Miyajima. We started randomly wandering in the streets until we encountered a traditional Japanese house that has been turned into a museum:

A 360-selfie in the traditional Japanese house

They also offered free Kimonos for walking around the house. The staff there helped Ariella to put one on:

Ariella modeling her Kimono in the traditional Japanese house

We then had lunch and tried a new Japanese dish called Omurice, an omelet filled with rice:

Our lunch: Omurice (オムライス), in a thick demi-glace sauce

After lunch we visited the Gangoji Temple:

Gangoji Template, One of the most important Buddhist temples at the time

The template itself wasn’t super exciting for us, but the garden was beautiful:

Speaking in a Japanese Technology Meetup

As soon as we got back from Nara, I headed to my next adventure: speaking in a local meetup event!

When we first arrived at Osaka, I checked meetup.com to see if there were any interesting tech meetups around. I heard that Japanese people make plans ahead of time, so I was surprised to find an event that was still looking for speakers just two days before the event. That wasn’t my only surprise…

I volunteered to speak in the meetup, and after a lengthy email exchange with the organizer, we decided that I will present WebVR. When I checked the event page the night before, I saw that only 12 people RSVP’ed, so when we arrived at the venue, I was surprised to see a small classroom packed with 25 people. I was even more surprised to learn that some traveled from Kyoto and even Tokyo just for this event.

We live-coded a small VR game where you had to collect spinning Totoros

Some friends, who spoke in front of Japanese audience, told me that the attendees were very passive, so I expected low levels of participation. My talk format is slightly unusual: there are no slides, and it consists entirely of live-coding, and I interact with the audience quite often. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the audience interacted, and even helped me to spot a sneaky mistake in my code.

Overall, this was a very positive experience, the atmosphere was very positive. The attendees laughed at my jokes (and even made jokes), and the feedback was very good. It wasn’t very much different than speaking in Israeli meetups, perhaps except for one thing: all the Japanese attendees had notebooks and took notes as I was speaking. Nice!

The meetup after party

The best part was, however, just after the event ended. Some of the attendees went for after-meetup drinks (and dinner), similar to what we do after JavaScript Israel events. This gave us the opportunity to get to know them better. We chatted with Karen, a missionary who moved to Japan twenty years ago and uses technology to help promote Christianity.

We also met a couple of bright developers from the UK, who studied Japanese and were living in Osaka for a few months to practice. I chatted with a developer from Nara who thanked us for visiting his city earlier that day (I never thanked anybody for visiting my city, perhaps I should start?), and taught us some Japanese words:

Now we know how to say “Delicious Water” in Japanese!
They gifted me this shirt for speaking in the meetup. I wonder what it says?

Sweet Making Workshop

Many friends recommended going for a cooking workshop, so we signed-up for sweet making workshop. These sweets are called Wagashi and are traditionally served with tea as part of the Japanese tea ceremony. We made them out of Nerikiri, a special kind of dough made of white kidney bean paste mixed with soft Mochi.

The workshop itself was pretty basic, and while it was fun it felt too short — we only spent 10 minutes or so making one sweet each. I went for a flower, while Ariella was a bit more ambitious and creative:

Sweets are ready, let the tea ceremony begin!
Ariella created Totoro!

Experiencing Buddhism in Koya-san

At the end of the week, we left Osaka and moved to our next destination: Koya-san, a small city with many Buddhist temples, on top of a mountain. You get to the city by 5-minute cable-car ride, which was a nice opening for our visit.

Welcome to Koya-San!
Small Man, Big Temple!
We arrived on March 3rd — the day they celebrate the spring with a big fire in the city center
One of the temples had a secret, dark underground passage, where we found this led-lit Buddha

Then we checked-in to our hotel. Actually, not a hotel — rather, we slept inside a Buddhist temple! After joining a short esoteric Buddhism meditation session, and taking a quick bath in their artificial Onsen, we got our dinner, served by two monks directly to our room:

Our room, “Kikyo,” was spacious, floored with mats and decorated in a traditional style
Dinner served!

After dinner, we opted-in for an unusual “attraction”: a night tour in the cemetery. It wasn’t just an ordinary cemetery — rather, as our knowledgeable guide explained, it was built at the foot of Okunoin temple, where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Esoteric Buddhism, is believed to rest in eternal meditation.

We walked in a beautiful lantern-lit path for about 45 minutes, as we heard some interesting stories about the cemetery and its burial traditions. Surprisingly, many of the tombs contain no bodies nor even ashes — rather, only a single bone, “Nodobotok,” a part of the neckbone whose shape resembles a sitting Buddha.

Only a single neckbone is buried in these tombs
The cemetery-scape was so amazing we visited it again the next morning
Buddha will take care of you

Among the 200,000 (or so) tombs, we were surprised to find some with company names on them, such as Panasonic, Nissan, and UCC Coffee:

A memorial for Nissan workers
A gigantic coffee cup in the middle of a graveyard

At the end of the path, we crossed a small bridge and arrived at the Okunoin temple. It was beautiful, decorated with hundreds of golden lanterns. The tour guide asked us to think of a wish while he skillfully recited the Heart Sutra. He asked not to take any photos or videos there, and we respected his request.

Good morning, Koya-San! 🌞

We woke up early to make it to the Morning Service, where the monks recited their Sutras. It was an interesting experience, though it felt a bit repetitive at some point. Shortly after, we attended “Goma,” their daily fire ritual. The fire is said to help clean the spirit and the body. The sacred fire which symbolizes the wisdom of Buddha burns the human desires, represented by the wood sticks which are thrown into the fire:

A taste of the Buddhist experience

Overall, we had an amazing week, full of new experiences. We also started learning some Japanese, and start to occasionally recognize letters and at times even whole words. Let’s see how this goes! 🉑