Ladies and gentlemen, we have a venue! The Lyford House is a beautiful Victorian estate by the bay in Tiburon CA, preserved by the Audubon Society as part of a bird preserve. They have a lovely field for the ceremony, and ample parking for food trucks.
Check out our wedding website at ruthandjosh.net, and watch this space for more information as we get closer to the big day.
CEL was invited to a conference on political innovation, hosted by Google the Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The talks were off the record, so sadly I can’t share some of the juicier quotes, particularly from republican data analysts about the outcome of the campaign.
I was surprised at the level of techno-utopian “solutionism” present from some of the speakers. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but the notion that merely opening information is insufficient to create political change shouldn’t be novel to anyone. That was pretty much the takeaway from my graduate degree (that and creating online communities is hard). Someone who should know better even said that in four years the digital divide will be erased because “everyone interesting” will have a smartphone. There was a good conversation about whether “big data” is really good for democracy, or just winning elections. For me, the jury is still out on this one.
However half of the crowd really got it, and we had some real conversation once the free beer started flowing at around 4pm. And I got sit next to Anne Marie Slaughter, who tweeted up a storm. I was very impressed with the visual note-taking done by a google staff member. It does a great job at laying out the CEL model as presented by Ian during his session, and the snack table.
We flew from Chitose back to Haneda airport, left our bags in a locker, and headed back to Tokyo one last time. Due to some overconfidence on my part with the subway system, we ended up about half an hour south of the city before we noticed we were headed the wrong way. Deciding to make the best of it, we stayed on the train and ended up in Yokohama. It’s the second largest city in Japan, the home of lots of international corporations, and is apparently the “world’s larget suburb” after New Taipei. We wandered the bar district, which was similar to Golden Gai but not quite as boisterous, and found a lovely jazz club called “Junk”.
In the morning we got Krispy Kreme, and walked across an artificial island to the Cupnoodles Museum. A testament to the innovative spirit and imagination, the curation is actually really well done. The building is hyper-modern, and was designed by the art director for Uniqlo. We got to design our own cupnoodles, choosing flavors, drawing on the styrofoam cup, and watching it get heatwrapped and bubble packed. Very cool.
We headed back to Sapporo for our last day in Hokkaido. Found an excellent ultra-modern hotel with an onsen on the top floor, open to the winter air. Walked to the Sapporo beer museum for a tour of the former factory, and the all you can eat and drink Jinguskhan special at their bier garden. It was not priced for Americans, and I think we got our money’s worth.
After sleeping off the lamb, we packed our bags and headed towards the airport. On the way, we stopped at the Chitose Salmon Museum, for an inside look at our favorite fish. They have a very informative film which showed the whole salmon life cycle, from spawning to the open ocean, and back to spawn again and die. The cartoon salmon named Sammy treated the existentially fraught topic with grace. That, or we didn’t understand the Japanese.
Satisfied with our skiing, we descended the mountains back to the coast. On our way back to Saporro, we stopped at the smaller town of Otaru. It used to be a busy herring port in the early 1900s, and has great examples of victorian architecture. We stayed in a former bank, but sadly the vault was booked.
We walked along the canal and through the old downtown to a small six seat restaurant. The owner told us it was “lamb only” as if that would be a problem. It was not. After greasing the grill with a bit of lamb fat, she let us cook our own thinly sliced delicious lamb, leeks, and crunchy bean sprouts. Washed down with fresh Sapporo beer, it was a filling meal.
Back towards the hotel, we stopped to take a picture at the canal in the falling snow. Since it was quite cold, and we feel like walking much further, I ducked into another restaurant for a second meal. We proceeded to have the second best fresh fish of the trip, with gigantic crab hairy crab legs, succulent sea urchin, and plenty of hot sake. I may have embarrassed myself slightly by incorrectly cracking the crab, but the staff was very helpful and friendly.
The last day of our rail pass, we aimed to make the most of it. We booked a couchette on the overnight luxury train to Sapporo and settled in for a long ride. Saw Mt Fuji at sunset, and the slept through the ride past Fukushima and through the world’s longest undersea tunnel (23km!). Woke in southern Hokkaido, stopped in snowy tracks. We waited for a few hours for a new locomotive, arrived in Sapporo a little late, and eventually made it to Niseko after 25 hours of consecutive travel.
As we got close to the resort, accents and tourists changed, and we felt like we were entering Australia, as apparently a lot of their folks come up here for the winter holidays. Can’t blame them, as the snow is fantastic. Only spending one day at the mountain, but what a day it was. Thigh high light powder, -15C temperatures, and winds gusting hard enough that my beard froze with ice and I had to buy a new pair of goggles. I loved it, but Ruth was less thrilled. Got in 5 or 6 of the best powder runs of my life by following friendly locals into the trees (apparently most Japanese skiers stick to the piste, so the woods were relatively untouched). Will have to come back with my new Megawatts, or at least put them to good use back at home.
With one more day left on our rail pass, we thought, why not take an unplanned excursion? We had intended to go back to Tokyo, but I am loving the small towns and the ryokan accommodations. We looked in Lonely Planet for a day trip from Tokyo, and were not disappointed.
Ito is another hot-spring town, but the air isn’t as cold and the water isn’t as warm in Yudanaka. We stayed in K’s House Ito Onsen, which is one of a small chain in Japan. Their Kyoto branch was comfortable and clean, if a bit backpacker-ish. The Ito branch is lovely, in a 100 year-old restored bathhouse, with views of the river through the classic paper windows. We asked for a recommended place to eat, and ended up eating basashi, or horse sashimi (much better than in Slovenia).
Before going back to Tokyo for our long train ride, we went a little further down the coast for a quick hike. The rock here is volcanic, which made some nice features as the erosion meets the sea. Not quite as impressive as Big Sur, but I might be a little spoiled on California.
Left Kyoto and took the train up to the mountains for a relaxing weekend. We stayed at a lovely ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Shibu-onsen, a town that’s famous for two things: hot springs and snow monkeys. The springs come from volcanic activity under the mountains, and there are pipes running through the streets with wafting sulphurous liquid. The monkeys are in a park and are technically wild, but fed enough to appear frequently, and soak in the waters.
We walked through the snowy forest to the park, and were quite impressed with our first sighting, not knowing that there would be dozens more. The park itself is pretty developed, but where else can you feel like a National Geographic photographer and get shots like this?
The rain stopped last night, and the weather was much improved for wandering through temples. We took the train to Arashiyama and the foot of the mountains west of Kyoto. Ate a delicious lunch overlooking the Togetsukyō bridge, and then walked up through the beautiful bamboo grove. I guess the paved trail through the grove is technically a road, because we saw taxis driving through it. Didn’t diminish the Crouching Tiger feeling of the place, with bamboo swaying gently in the breeze.
At the top of the grove, we entered the Okochi Sanso villa, the former home of a silent samurai film star, and now a beautifully manicured garden that shows off views of the mountains and city below. It was snowing lightly, which delighted Ruth and made it all the more scenic.
With the light fading, we took the train and a bus to the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavillion). This is one of the more famous sights of Japan, and it had the crowds to go along with it. But it was lit perfectly in the afternoon light, and was a must-see according to both the book and John who had come here before. I had fun finding less crowded views of the temple and grounds to photograph, including the absolutely huge koi.
For New Year’s evening we walked to the Kiyomizu-dera temple to hear them ring the big bell 108 times. It’s a beautiful complex of temples, and was full of folks celebrating the occasion. We found a quiet corner under the stars, and I pulled out the ring I’d been carrying all day to ask Ruth to marry me. We’ve been trying to learn one or two Japanese phrases each day, so I used the occasion to learn “kekon shi masen ka”. She was gracious enough to say yes, and we returned to our hostel to call parents and toast Hakushu whisky, happy as gai.