Travelogue: Japan

Last week, my co-founder, Adam, and I, traveled to Japan. The official reason was being invited to the b-dash camp conference in Osaka by our Japanese investor, Tak Miyata of Scrum Ventures, and we piggy-backed on the opportunity to visit a country we both wanted to go to for a long time.

My history with Japan

I’ve been a fan of Japanese culture and entertainment for quite some time now. I really like the Japanese themed online slots and roulette, back home I am always playing to my hearts content. Japanese society has a lot of rules and preconceived notions, but once they break through that, they have no limit on their imagination.

Manga and anime was my first exposure to that, about 10 years ago. Western story-telling, even when delving into fantasy and science fiction, tends to mimic reality – they create a setting and then think how to make it look believable in the “real world” (i.e, what our world would look like if we had Dragons, for example). Japanese story telling and concepts have no such limits, to the point of being completely foreign to a westerner mindset – it drew me in, and still does to this very day.

Japanese creativity and dedication to their craft extends to other areas, such as design and food, that I’m a big fan of. There’s something about Japanese art and design that appeals to me very much – their ability to make very simple things unique and special with their extreme attention to detail. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should definitely watch Jiro dreams of sushi – to see what real dedication and mastery of a “simple” craft is.

The Japanese connection

Aside from my appreciation of their culture, I’ve made a few friends in Japan over the years, thanks to the Internet and most recently our inclusion in 500startups.

Around 4 years, when I was active in the PHP developmers network forum, someone posted that he’s looking for a programming mentor and is willing to teach Japanese in return. I grabbed that opportunity, and that’s how I met Umemoto Non, who just started to pick up programming in his late 20s. This worked out great for both us, with Non teaching me Japanese and me teaching him general programming practices such as OOP, refactoring and design patterns. We had a very good connection, with a shared interest in manga and anime, and a passion for entrepreneurship and startups. Today Non is an iOS developer – so don’t let the haters convince you that starting with PHP is so terrible.

At that time, Binpress did not exist and we building web products for other entrepreneurs as founders of Lionite, a web development shop (that site has not been updated in a *long* time). One project that came in was from a Japanese client through Elance, with the concept of building an online manga translation and sharing community. At the time, we had the privilege of picking which projects we want to work on – and this was a no brainer for me, and I quickly convinced my other 2 partners to take it. That site had a good run and is now defunct, but that’s how we met Akiko Naka, who is now the CEO of Wantedly, a social recruiting startup in Japan.

I already mentioned our investor, Tak Miyata, but the other Japanese connections we have all happened through the 500startups accelerator program we attended earlier this year. 3 Japanese startups participated – Whill, Appsocially and Unda (which is also part Mexican), and we became good friends with the teams.

Visiting Japan

So when the opportunity came, in the form of an invitation to the b-dash conference, which would also give us a chance to network in an area we want to expand to, it didn’t take much from me to convince my co-founder that we should go.

We planned our trip for 7 days and later extended it to 8 (which was a mistake, as you’ll see below), as Adam found a cheaper ticket returning on that day. We both got return tickets to Tokyo, where our trip would end, but that means that after the initial flight we needed to make our to Osaka, where the conference was being held.

Day 1, arrival at Narita -> Osaka

Visiting a foreign country where most people don’t speak English can be a bit daunting. I do speak a bit of Japanese, and can read the basic Japanese characters (Kana) but not the Chinese characters (Kanji), so I mapped my entire itinerary out in evernote to make life easier for me. It also contained all the numbers and addresses I would need in one place:

It went pretty smoothly, except for the last part. After taking the bus from Itami airport, I arrived at Osaka station. Now, this station is pretty damn big, with multiple exits and terminals – on Google maps it just appears as a big block with not much detail. That would be fine if my GPS had functioned properly, but throughout my visit in Japan I had problems getting good GPS lock and accuracy.

In addition, another small surprise is that buildings in Japan, though technically numbered, do not have any numbers on them (or at least, it’s very rare). Every Japanese person I asked about this said they just use google maps or landmarks to find addresses. This added to my direction problem, since I couldn’t tell if I’m headed in the right direction or how far I am from my destination, even once I got on the right street.

Eventually, I stopped at a small information counter next to a bus stop on the way, and tried my Japanese for the first time there to get direction. The nice person even drew me a map, and I arrived at our hotel with about 8% battery left in my Android, after spending most of it walking in circles with the GPS on.

After grabbing a shower, the both of us went to dinner. We went to a small, quaint restaurant in the underground mall near our hotel called “Chanto” (which means something like doing things seriously or earnestly) and had a very nice dinner. We found out that there is an entire city underground there – restaurants, shops and a long tunnel connecting to the various subway stations, including Osaka station (information that would have been helpful a bit earlier…).

(Fried soba noodles with sea food and skinned tomatoes)

I want to take the opportunity to talk about food in Japan –

One of things I really liked about Japan is the food. Almost everything tastes good and is healthy (relatively). In 8 days there I ate *a lot* (sometimes multiple dinners), and did not have any physical activity aside from walking. For reference, I train 4-5 days a week in BJJ and eat significantly less in the U.S, while maintaining the same weight.

I gained only 2 pounds in Japan – when I first moved to the U.S, I gained about 10 pounds in the first 2 weeks, eating out. Japan food is definitely more lean and better for my digestion – not to mention, extremely tasty.

Day 2, first day of the b-dash conference

Monday was the first day of the conference, which took place in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. We were located just across the street, and the underground mall actually connected both hotels making it very easily accessible. We went over there to check in and attend the kick-off lunch. With our name tags we also received a gift bag of sorts – filled with promotional materials (i.e, spam), I’m guessing from some of the sponsors (though most of it had no relation to technology).

Just outside the main hall, Sony was demoing a few products that are distinctively Japanese:

(An Android controlled mech)

As part of the conference, there was a pitch arena we were invited to attend. We went to see the other startups pitch in the afternoon – while some had decent pitches, some were quite rough. I kept imagining Dave McClure shouting profanities at the pitchers :) 500startups pitch-prep does make a big difference.

After the pitches we went to do some sightseeing at the Umeda Sky Building. This twin-tower building has a very nice view of Osaka from the top floor, which is called the Floating Garden observatory.

In the evening, our investor, Tak, took us and a couple of other people to dinner at an Okonomiyaki restaurant. The best way to describe Okonomiyaki is a pancake base with various fillings / toppings that make up the core. You grill it on a hot plate to make something like a Japanese pizza (but with batter instead of cheese). Unlike pancake, it is not supposed to be sweet (though there are probably some variations that are). At some restaurants you make your own okonomiyaki, but here we had ours made for us and just left to sizzle on the hot plate. It was very, very good.

(Fully loaded Okonomiyaki getting sliced)

Day 3, 2nd day of the conference

On the 2nd day of the conference, it was our turn to pitch in the pitch arena. We gave a modified version of our 500startups demo day pitch, which went pretty well. We got some interesting questions from the CTO of Livesense, which was on the judging panel. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the contest – a local company called PlanBCD that provides a web A/B testing platform, did. We did get some nice coverage on the local tech media, including TC Japan, Yahoo! Japan, Cnet Japan and e27.

To cap our last day in Osaka, we went to Dotonbori St. with Steven Chang, Scrum’s analyst. Dotonbori St. is the main street of one of Osaka’s downtime areas. It is filled with restaurants and shops, that run through its many side alleys as well.

We stopped for Ramen in one of the alleys in a very small and homey place:

Dotonbori St. runs near the Dotonbori canal. The water of the canal is extremely dirty, making bathing in the water an extremely unhealthy proposition. Apparently, fans of the local baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, jump into the canal after the team wins the league.

Day 4, Arrival at Tokyo

We went from the hotel to Osaka station – underground this time (much simpler). We took the subway to the Shin-Osaka station, and the Shinkansen (bullet-train) from there to Tokyo. It’s worth noting at this point, how well spread the train system is in Japan – it is by far the most common way of travel and reaches almost every nook and corner with only a few train switches.

The fastest Shinkansen (the Nozomi) covers the ~500km between Osaka and Tokyo in about 2.5 hours. Switching trains to the local included, we arrived at our hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo, at around 2:30pm – still quite early.

After winding down in our hotel, we went to meet my friend, Umemoto-San, for dinner. We wanted sushi, since we didn’t have any since arriving in Japan (shocking, I know), so sushi it was. Side note – The most common form of sushi in Japan is nigiri sushi and not sushi rolls as is more common in western countries. In fact, most of the fancy rolls you know are actually western inventions (the california roll is an obvious example, but so are most of the other “special” rolls).

(A full plate sushi plate for dinner. Goal achieved)

After dinner we went to Harajuku, which is considered as the fashion district of Tokyo, and where all the fashionable kids go to hang out. Unsurprisingly, Tokyo has all the major brands you would expect to find in a shopping center in the U.S, though they sometimes appear in funky buildings –

As a jeans-and-Tshirt guy, Harajuku didn’t have a special appeal for me, but the weather was great and it was a good start for soaking up the Tokyo vibe. We wrapped up the evening in a cafe shop there, where we had a long discussion about the local startup scene – why does it seem like there doesn’t seem to be many notable exists for Japanese startups (a more likely scenario is those growing into huge companies, such as Mixi and DeNA).

Day 5, Akihabara, Ghibli Museum

For the next couple of days, my friend Umemoto would show us around Tokyo. This day started by visiting Akihabara, one of the more well known districts to fans of the Otaku culture. It’s a center for computer, anime, manga and game shops, with people cosplaying in the streets. Anime and manga commercials are visible everywhere on district buildings –

Akihabara is a pretty interesting place, so it was unfortunate we only had about 2 hours to visit there. We went into a game center, which is hard to find nowadays in the U.S, but is still quite popular in Japan. This game center is 4 stories high with different types of arcade games on each floor –

(Old school is still in session)

Japan is known for its sweets. One of things I really wanted to try was a Taiyaki – which is a sort of a large cookie in the shape of a fish, with different sweet fillings inside. And so we found it in Akihabara –

(You can still recognize the fish scales, even with the head bitten off)

We had to leave Akihabara early, since we had 4pm tickets for the Ghibli Musuem. To visit the Ghibli Musuem, you have to order tickets in advance for a specific time (limited capacity per session). It’s a pretty smart way to ensure the place is never overcrowded and people arriving can always go in.

For those of you not familiar with the Ghibli Studio, it is one of the most well known animation companies from Japan, producing classics such as Castle in the sky, My neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. Their films had worldwide success, and are characterized by extremely creative settings and characters that are unlike anything you would find in western animation movies.

The museum is located in the Mitaka district, which is considered one of the richest districts in Tokyo, and is known for being having a lot of greenery. The scenery in Mitaka is said to have influenced many of the settings in Ghibli films.

(Ghibli museum from the outside. No cameras are allowed inside)

The museum has some beautiful demonstrations of early-years animation techniques (such as moving characters at high speed while flashing light at certain intervals), as well as some of the history of the Ghibli Studio, such as a reproduced animation workshop and original storyboards and drawings from the films.

The museum has 4 floors in total. On top of the 4th floor, there is a life-size reproduction of the robot from Castle in the sky –

We wrapped up the day at a Yakiniku restaurant (Japanese barbecue), where you prepare yourself slabs of meat on a hot plate (there’s actually a really good one in Cupertino, that I go to occasionally).

Day 6, Asakusa, Kokyo, Wantedly, Shibuya

This day was more for seeing traditional Japan culture, and meeting with some of our Japanese friends. We started out in Asakusa, a district known for preserving more of the “old Tokyo”, and which has many shrines and traditional shops. You could tell the difference immediately when getting out of the subway, as even the subway alleys have an “old” feeling to them.

Asakusa is filled with small street markets, with various small shops along a main street, sometimes with a closed dome above –

(That McDonalds sign kind of ruins the authentic look)

Those street markets are said to have been dying out in Japan and being replaced with malls and modern stores, however in Asakusa they are still doing well as people come here specifically for this kind of old school shopping.

After walking around a bit, we sat down for lunch at a Monja place. Monja is sort of a Tokyo variation of Okonomiyaki – a pancake-like batter base with various chopped ingredients mixed inside and fried together over a hot plate. The base is much more liquid and thin compared to Okonomiyaki, and in the specific place we went to, you have to prepare your own. The waiter showed us how to make one and then each of us made one ourselves.

(The Monja I made. Kanpeki desu)

After eating, we went to see the Sensoji shrine, Tokyo’s oldest temple, but unfortunately it was closed down for construction.

Our next destination was the Imperial Palace, Kokyo. It is located in Chiyoda, one of the smallest and least populated wards in Tokyo, thanks in a large part to the Palace area taking up a huge chunk of it.

You can’t visit the palace without reserving a tour well in advance, so we could only look at it from the outside.

(A shark-infested moat is all that separates us from the inner sanctum)

(The tree park outside is quite beautiful)

Next, we had a meeting planned at the Wantedly offices, with its founder, Akiko Naka, whom I mentioned at the beginning. Their office is located in a light commercial area of the Meguro ward, in a high-rise building. Akiko is a very interesting person and somewhat unusual for a Japanese. She studied in New Zealand (where I traveled for 3 months about a decade ago), and later attempted to become a professional Mangaka (manga artist). When that didn’t pan out, she then took a job at Goldman Sachs as an analyst, but still true to her manga passion, she contracted us for the Magajin project (online manga translation community), eventually leading to her joining Facebook Japan which then led to her starting a social recruiting startup.

In Japan, leaving a corporate life to start your own company is very rare, as it’s a big cultural and financial risk. In addition, female founders are even rarer as women are still expected to give up their career to raise kids at home, so Akiko-san is quite unique in that respect. It’s funny, but most of the startups I met in Japan are actually run by foreigners, as the culture is quite resistant to the startup route – which is a shame, considering the technical aptitude and creativity that can be found in Japan.

From the Wantedly offices we headed to the nearby Shibuya district, for a dinner with some our batchmates from 500startups that went back to Japan after the program. We met Nao Tokui and Takamitsu Mizutori, both from Unda, a video messaging startup. We ate at a very fancy restaurant, with the meal preordered and composed of 7 individual dishes. Definitely worth the price –

Day 7, Hotel transfer, Wind down

For the last night we had to switch hotels – our original stay in Tokyo was booked only for 3 nights, but we ended up extending our trip by 1 day after finding cheaper tickets for those dates. Turns out, there was a reason for the cheaper pricing – there was some sports game on that day that made all hotels in Tokyo completely booked. All hotels showed 0 availability online, so with the help of my friend Ume, we called up about 20 hotels before finding one that had one semi-double room (that cost more than the twin room we were staying at in Shinjuku).

The hotel was in Ikebukuro, so we had to do some hiking with our luggage early in the morning to switch hotels. The room ended being the smallest hotel room I ever seen – truly, a wonder of space efficiency. The bathroom even had the toilets positioned at an angel to save horizontal space. I would end up sleeping on the floor since the “semi-double” bed was barely enough for one person.

After switching hotels, we went for a lunch meeting with Patrick McKenzie (of Kalzumeus software), who is one of our angel investors, and a couple of people from a local startup (not surprisingly, foreigners). We ate at a very western restaurant, engaging in casual conversation about startups and Japan. Patrick is a very interesting person, and having lived and worked in Japan for over 11 years (I think), he has quite a few good stories about corporate Japan.

After that, we went to look a bit for souvenirs in Shibuya (well, Adam went and I tagged along).

(The square outside Shibuya station during the day)

In the evening we went to find sushi again, and ended at a small, simple place in Ikebukuro, with the traditional rotating sushi plate counter. The fish portions on the rice were pretty huge while being very cheap (I think it was something like 120 yen per plate). A nice way to end the trip, culinary wise.

Day 8, Sayonara Japan

After 8 days our trip has come to conclusion, and we departed Tokyo towards Narita on the skyliner express train. We parted ways in the entrance to the airport as I was going back to the valley and Adam to Israel – hopefully I’ll see him in a couple of weeks as he moves to the valley.

I enjoyed Japan immensely, and would seriously consider living there for a while in the future (after a successful exit? one can only hope :) ).

(And I hope to come back soon)

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