Two Weeks in Japan, Part 5: Takayama

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone.

After Hikone we headed to Takayama, it was August the 15th, 2012. The scenery was beautiful, you will read in guides that Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps, that means beautiful dense forests, creeks and mountains. Bullet trains in Japan were very comfortable and fast but it was actually nice that the train that took us to Takayama was not a high-speed one, this way we could better appreciate landscape.
Our seats were right after the driver’s cab, he wore white gloves and we were intrigued with these gestures he did: about four times per minute he would raise his hand, point it to a railway sign and then to some of the panel’s instruments which looked like some kind of ritual…

Japan 2012

Driver waving: a mystery to be solved!

Japan 2012

The Japanese Alps

When we arrived at Takayama, it was already night and we had to walk about 20 minutes to our ryokan: Sosuke. The room was about 50 €/person/night, it was much nicer than the one in Nagoya but less fancy than the expensive one at Kinosaki Onsen.
Since we had waken up early, walked all over the castle area in Hikone, and ridden the train for more than 5 hours, all with a smothering heat and humidity, we decided to grab dinner at a supermarket nearby and eat at our room. After that I just laid back and watched Japanese TV as they have quite some interesting TV shows there!

The next morning we went to a local street market. It wasn’t as impressive as our Lonely Planet Guide mentioned so we walked all over town, visiting some temples, traditional stores and even a small museum. Wood craftsmanship is a traditional art in Takayama so there were really beautiful wood carvings but we also entered a very interesting shop with the most original figures hand-made with bolts, nuts, washes, etc. We ended up buying a small donkey figure which we named Giló (just a funny sounding Portuguese name).

Takayama

Our donkey Giló doesn’t look this dangerous but it is also awesome!

Takayama

Beautiful bridge in a temple in Takayama

Hida Furukawa

During the evening that same day, we also took the train to a small town nearby, called Hida Furukawa which has some canals going through it with giant Koi fish. There were small wooden boxes in front of the canals with small bags of pieces of bread. Each bag 100 ¥ if I remember correctly and since it’s Japan and everybody is honest, there was no security mechanism whatsoever in the boxes to guarantee people paid (and yes, in case you’re wondering, we did pay). I love Koi fish, so I really enjoyed this small trip.

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

Koi fish are great!

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

It’s a beauty!

After a visit to some of the Hida Furukawa’s temples, we headed back to our ryokan in Takayama only to find some kind of ceremony in the entrance of a fancy hotel nearby. People were playing traditional songs and dancing in a circle with a strange participant: someone with a costume of what looked to be Godzilla… :)

Takayama

I thought Godzilla liked Tokyo, maybe he retired to Takayama for the relaxed environment!

Hida No Sato

The next morning we went to Hida No Sato (or Hida Folk Village), an open air museum about 20 minutes walking from our hotel which turned out not to be so easy to make because we took a wrong turn and it was freaking hot!
Anyway, we eventually got to Hida No Sato and it was totally worth the walk and the price (about 10 €). It had many traditional houses which belonged to several parts of the region and had been reassembled there. Inside the houses there were texts and pictures showing how the villagers used to live. We saw pictures of men carrying tree logs (which looked bigger then themselves) down a snowy mountain; it was a very hard life.

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama

Us, passing as locals in the museum!

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama

A traditional house of the region

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama

A gate in Hida No Sato

After Hida No Sato, we took the train to Tokyo. It would be the 2nd half of our trip and we would spend an amazing week at this great city but that is the subject of the next post.

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen.
This series of articles has been dragging but I need to make an effort and finish it, especially because I have had such a great feedback.

Our original plans for Kinosaki Onsen were to go to the beach to the north of it but it was raining a lot and we decided instead to start the trip to Takayama but it was just too far away so we chose a point in the middle of the route to stay: Nagoya.

Nagoya

I had read on our guide that Nagoya didn’t have much to see and it was right. We found a ryokan to stay by choosing one from the list we got at the tourist information office at Nagoya’s train station and calling them to check for the availability.
This ryokan, which I cannot really remember the name (and I don’t have my notes here unfortunately) was a bit cheaper than the others but of course, it wasn’t half as good as the others.
The room was big and with a Japanese garden in a patio but while it looked nice, the garden turned out to be composed of artificial plants and the tatamis, futan, etc. also didn’t have the same quality as the other ryokans we stayed at.

Our room's plastic garden in Nagoya

Zen fake: always green, never ending relaxation

On Toilets

The worst though, was the toilet. In the previous article I forgot to tell you how cool the toilet was in Morizuya ryokan. Yes, it was one of those high tech Japanese toilets. When I opened the door to the toilet’s cabinet, the toilet opened it lid automagically! It also included a heated seat but there was no toilet paper… Instead, I had a control pad mounted in the wall next to it, illustrated with pictographs of what the buttons did. See, one doesn’t need toilet paper in Japan… think water jets. I can tell you that you’ll feel very fresh! In comparison, we’re in the dark ages of hygiene here in the West. I could go on about how I think they got smart computer vision algorithms who can find the exact spot where to point the water jet but I’m not.

Hi-tech toilet controls

Hit the right button and you’ll feel reborn!

Anyway, this was not the case in Nagoya’s ryokan. You would think that with such advanced technology in fields for which innovation isn’t the first thing we think about, I expected the “beginner’s” level to be a regular, western toilet but it was in fact a squat one. I still tried to utilize it but my lazy, western body doesn’t have the balance required. Luckily there was a 7-Eleven around the corner with a regular toilet and very clean (as everything in Japan).

During the evening we didn’t know what to see so we just took a walk until the Nagoya Noh Theater which has a nice samurai statue outside.

Japan 2012

Nice Samurai statue outside Nagoya Noh Theater

Hikone Castle

The next day, we headed to Takayama but we did a little detour to visit Hikone Castle. I love Japanese architecture so I wanted to visit a Japanese castle during our trip but we discarded the famous Himeji Castle because it is under restoration until 2014. Hikone Castle was the alternative we chose, it was conveniently located on our way to Takayama.
Hikone Castle is a small one but is one of the few which hasn’t been destroyed in any war or any other tragic events throughout history. I also kept thinking “I think I sneaked into this place in Tenchu“!

Hikone's Castle

The Magnificent Hikone Castle

Hikone's Castle

Simply beautiful

Hikone's Castle garden

Relaxing at the garden on the back of Hikone Castle

Since our backpacks were very heavy, it was crazy hot&humid and there were too many steps to climb, we kindly asked for the tickets office to keep them, which they kindly did even though it couldn’t fit any of the lockers.
We had to queue for a little while at the entrance of the castle and chatted a bit with the guard there. He was very nice and knew some Portuguese words (there are a lot of Japanese immigrants in Brasil and he had family there) and said that Helena’s eyes looked a bit Japanese. So far she’s been told that she looks Turkish, American (someone said it was because of her freckles… go figure) and now Japanese! She’s a citizen of the World for sure, let’s see when they say she looks Swedish or African :)

Hikone Castle was very nice and quick to see but the ticket also gave access to the gardens behind the castle which were very beautiful and relaxing. The town’s mascot is a cute samurai cat called Neko-nyan, be sure to take a picture with it if you go there.

Hikone

Neko-nyan loves taking pictures with Western tourists!

After Hikone, we finally headed to Takayama, the Japanese Alps. I will hopefully not take that long to write about it so stay tuned and enjoy some more pics meanwhile!

to be continued…

Big Changes Again

My life has seen some big changes this year with getting a new job, moving to Berlin, etc. Well, the changes haven’t stopped yet.

Before I applied to Red Hat, at the beginning of the year, I had applied to a position at CERN (if you don’t know what CERN is, look it up, but part of the reason you’re addicted to the internet is because of it). CERN has two periods throughout the year where it accepts applications, I knew it wasn’t easy to be accepted and I had to move on with my life so I was happily living in Berlin and working for Red Hat.
Turns out I was accepted and I had a decision to make.

On one hand, I was very happy to finally be living in Berlin, Helena was enrolled in an intensive German course (and doing great), we were living in the nice neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg and of course, I don’t need to tell you how great Red Hat is if you consider yourself a Free Software developer. On the other hand, I knew this opportunity with CERN would be hard to get again. So in the end I took the tough decision of leaving Red Hat and I have been working at CERN since last week. I am working on a project out of my comfort zone (and yes, it’s Free Software), but that’s part of the challenge.

I changed a unique company for a unique research center and I changed one of the cheapest, coolest cities in Europe for one of the most expensive in the world.

Regarding work and GNOME in particular, I will keep involved in it, even though my projects have been neglected with all the moving: I hope to finish the port of OCRFeeder to GI and to give some love to Skeltrack once I have time (and conditions: no internet at home yet…).

Even Bigger Changes

Oh, yeah, there’s something else I would like to share. I am in the first steps of what will surely be the biggest project I will ever develop: Helena and I are expecting a baby!
We just found out one week before moving out of Berlin. It surely doesn’t make all the moving easier but we can’t describe how happy we are with these news! It’s curious that we had to live in the “babyboom neighborhood” of Berlin to get a baby ourselves… there must be something in the water! :)

And that is all for now, let’s see what the next months bring!

Controlling GNOME with Leap

When I explained how the Leap Motion device could be used on Fedora 19, I mentioned how I had one of those early prototypes. Well, Leap Motion was extremely kind and sent me an actual device as a thank you for starting the thread asking for Linux support. Now that GUADEC is over and I am spending my vacation in Portugal, I had a little time to play with my fancy new device and wrote a relatively small script to control GNOME with it. I call it the über original name of: Leap GNOME Controller!

For those who don’t care about technical details, here’s the video showing what can be done with Leap, GNOME and this script. Technical details follow below the video:

The two videos that compose the one above were recorded with an HD camera and GNOME Shell’s screencast recorder. I tried to sync them the best I could but a certain delay can be noticed, especially at the end of the video.

The code

Leap Motion provides a “close source” shared library and a high-level API with the respective documentation for the many bindings it has. To code it quickly, I used the Python bindings and Xlib to fake the input events.

Leap Motion’s APIs make it really easy for one to simulate a touch-screen. It even offers a “screen tap” gesture that should be the obvious choice when mapping a finger touch/tap to a mouse click. However, this didn’t work very well. The problem is that if we are tracking one finger to control the mouse movement, when performing the “screen tap” gesture, the finger (and mouse) will of course move. Making it as frustrating as seen on ArsTechnica hands-on video.

I came up with a solution for this by dropping the “screen tap” gesture and using the “key tap” instead. The “key tap” is a simple, quick down-and-up finger movement, like pressing a key. This is much more precise and easier for a user to do than the “screen tap”. Of course that when the finger moves for performing the gesture, the mouse pointer would move as well, so I came up with a little trick to work around this: when the mouse pointer doesn’t move more than a couple of pixels for half a second, it will stop and only move again if the user makes it move for more than 150 pixels. This allows for the user to stop the pointer with precision where it needs to be and perform the gesture without making the pointer move.

Future

The Leap device offers a lot of possibilities for adding many gestures. Ideally they should be implemented per application but being able to control the shell is already pretty useful, so it would be wonderful to fine-tune the current gestures and add new ones. I also wish the library’s source code were open because I ran into small issues and I wish I could take a look at the source code, instead of trying to fix it based on the theories of what might be wrong.

I haven’t explored the AirSpace appstore yet so I don’t know if it is worth adding (or possible to add) this script there but I will check it out.

Have fun with Leap and GNOME!