Travelogue - Japan 2004

Week 1




To prepare my trip and during my stay in Japan I used two guidebooks that really complement eachother: Lonely Planet and the Capitool travel guide (originally DK.Eyewitness but available under different names, in several languages). I can really reccomend this combination, because Lonely Planet (LP) has very extensive information about places to stay and eat and covers almost any place in Japan, whereas the Capitool (Cap) guide zooms in on certain sightseeing spots and provides small maps many pictures and drawings. Notice the Japanese character translations for all city, temple, hotel and restaurant names, they can come in quite handy when you want to find your way! Both provide a small dictionary.

For the ICAS (International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences) 2004 conference I traveled to Yokohama, Japan. Because my ticket was paid for by my university, I decided to extend my stay in Japan with 2 weeks to explore the country. The beginning of September may not be the best time (the beginning of April for cherry blossom and early October for autumn colors are) and the high temperatures and humidity were a bit unpleasant, but I sure had a really good time, as I hope to point out with this text.

The trip

The adventure started august 27th travelling from Amsterdam (The Netherlands) via Copenhagen (Denmark) to Narita (Japan) in a McDonald-Douglas ## and an Airbus A340-300 respectively. With the help of I found (and got) a good seat with a lot of leg space, which made the trip quite comfortable. Copenhagen airport was very nice, but Narita did not really offer the culture shock I had expected: it looked quiet, low-tech and even a bit oldfashioned. The people at Narita Airport were very service orientated, and really thry their best to help in english, but getting a prepaid card for the public telephones (and finding a matching phone) took quite some time. After having called my home stay (Mrs. Suzuki) and obtaining my Japan Rail Pass I headed for Yokohama.

Compared with The Netherlands and most other European countries there is a striking difference when looking out the train window. In Europe buildings are often neatly ordered and have to meet certain demands on their appearance, and you will see lots of forests, meadows etc. But on this trip (and also later on to Kyoto) I only saw one big concrete mess: buildings everywhere, seeming randomly placed with random looks. Everything looked gray, dirty and dilapidated (although things appear to look better when closeing in).

During the conference I participated in a home stay program, so I stayed with Mrs. Suzuki instead of in a hotel. She showed me the way around in (Shin-)Yokohama, helped me to find the right trains (in Japanese character-dominated stations and time tables) and was good company all the time I stayed. It is good to have such a local "guide" to help you to get to know the habits, the right places to eat and a lot of the culture. I really enjoyed this.

ICAS conference

The conference (my first) started August 29th and concluded with a technical tour to JAXA September 3rd. There were 570 registered participants and 300 papers in 8 parallel sessions ranging from computational fluid dynamics to vehicle guidance and air traffic control. Although I'm not really an aerospace engineer, I had a good time because there were a lot of interesting presentations on control engineering or on more general mechanical engineering topics. My speech about an optimization program for structural design of aircraft structures (for ca. 30 people) was successful and I got a lot of good questions from the audience. Lunches were provided in the form of (cold) lunch boxes, which are very popular in Japan and can also be bought at the train station platforms. There were four types: Japanese (rice, fish, some vegetables, pickled stuff and a sweet for desert), French (rice, fish, some vegetables, spaghetti! and a small desert), Intercontinental (almost the same as Japanese) and one with sandwiches (and fried fish, vegetables and fruit). Except for the sandwiches they're all more or less the same. I made some friends, also at the student party which was especially organised with that goal in mind. Especially with Stefan Görtz and Peter Linde I spent a lot of time and I want to thank them again for their good company.

Yokohama city

The conference offered free entrance to the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum, which has a nice exhibition (especially for japanese school children I suppose) but is not very informative because everything is explained in Japanese only. However Peter, Stefan and I all thought the VR helicopter flight simulation was great fun (as Lonely Planet predicted) so the visit was worth the effort after all. Close to the Pacific Yokohama Conference Centre is the Landmark Tower, Japans highest building which also has the fastest elevator in the world (max 750 m/min). The trip is an unique experience: the elevator accelerates really smoothly, moves without any vibrations, has a speed indicator and makes your ears pop. Finally ofcourse the view from the observatory is very good (however the chances of seeing Mount Fuji are very slim). The Landmark Plaza has another specialty: one pair of circular escalators, purely for esthetics I suppose.

Two places also worth visiting if Yokohama is your first in Japan are the Sankei-en garden and the Shin-Yokohama Ramen museum. The garden offers a collection of historical buildings in a nice setting and is good for a 2 hour walk. Especially the gouvernor's house was interesting because an aged man gave me an individual tour in a sort of English. He showed that the living area for the gouvernor's family was covered with tatami (reed mats) and about 20cm higher than the part for the maids. Also the kitchen and the silk production facilities and small exhibition at the upper floor gave a nice impression of life in those days. The Ramen museum offers a small exposition about this kind of noodle soup and houses 8 little ramen shops in the setting of an old Japanese village. Here you can taste different varieties of this popular dish. In the weekends and afternoons you may have to wait for an hour or even more, but from about 6pm it is relatively quiet.


Much better than the Sankei-en garden is Kamakura, a little town about an hour by train from Yokohama. This city is famous for it's Great Buddha statue which is with 13.5m about 2.5 meters smaller than the Great Buddha of Nara, but by far the most beautiful one. A nice hiking trail leads from the Great Buddha (take a right at the stairs at the tunnel for the main road) via the Sasuke-no Inari shrine, the Zeni-Arai Benten shrine (where washing your money in the spring water would take care of all your financial problems), the kaizo-ji temple and the Jochi-ji temple to the Kita Kamakura station.

Directly next to the Kita Kamakura station is the Engaku-ji temple (not very impressive) and from the Kencho-ji temple (quite nice) another hiking trail can be followed to the temples in east Kamakura. The problem with these hikes is that the first sign is in English and all later signs only show Japanese Characters. This caused me to end up in the hills near another city somewere north of Kamakura, because I had no detailed map of the hike (which may have been available at the tourist information). Finally a hotel bus and a very kind Japanese man helped me to get back to Kamakura. From Kamakura station I walked through the main shopping street to the Hachiman-gu shrine which has free entrance and 2 ponds with lotus flowers (which probably looked better in june or so). Here I met Jeroen Dillingh who also attended the ICAS conference and is in the same department, in the same university and from the same year as I am, but I did not know him before... I feel ashamed.