A visit to the deep sea cafe Motoko Kakubayashi Apr 09

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With dozens of crustaceans bustling over displays and food, this cafe knew how to stand out in one of the most trendy neighborhoods in Tokyo.


Inside the Shinkai Cafe (Deep Sea Cafe) in Tokyo

Inside the Shinkai Cafe (Deep Sea Cafe) in Tokyo

From February to last Sunday, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) opened a special cafe inside major department store Tokyu Hands in Shibuya.  In an area most famous for attracting teenagers and young adults to its shopping malls and night life, JAMSTEC certainly chose the right place to promote its science to a new crowd.


I decided to go and check out this limited-time-only cafe last week, although I admit it took some courage to leave my apartment.


First, with my jeans and sweater look, I was clearly out of place in Shibuya surrounded by girls wearing the latest spring fashion and guys who clearly took better care of their hair than myself.


Then there’s the fact that Shibuya is crowded.  More than two million people use Shibuya station every day, making it one of the most crowded train stations in the world.  I remember bringing a kiwi friend to Shibuya once, and while waiting at the crossing he asked me whether an event was going on because there was such a huge crowd on the other side of the road.
“They’re just waiting to cross the road,” I said.


Anyway, after finally reaching the Shinkai (Japanese for ‘Deep Sea’) Cafe, it was fantastic to see photos of critters like the flapjack octopus, Opisthoteuthis californiana, on the walls, toys in the shape of giant squids, and models of JAMSTEC’S deep sea submersible, the Shinkai 6500.


The food was fun with a deep sea theme.


First to come was my Shinkai latte, topped off with a giant squid picture.  Giant squids have become famous in Japan, especially after a team from public broadcaster NHK and the Discovery Channel successfully caught footage of a live giant squid on camera, and following a popular deep sea exhibition at the science museum in Tokyo last year.

Giant squid pictured coffee

Giant squid pictured coffee

Then came my Shinkai curry plate recreating a hydrothermal vent environment.  This deep sea hotspot is found around volcanically active areas.  The water from the vent is rich in minerals, attracting lots of organisms like the crabs and shrimp covering my curry dish.

Shinkai curry dish.

Shinkai curry dish.

The marine research institute had also been holding weekly talk events and workshops for kids and adults too.


I still have to contact JAMSTEC about whether they plan on opening another cafe, but overall I found it to be a very entertaining and delicious experience.

24 metronomes in synchronisation Motoko Kakubayashi Sep 21

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It has been known if you put several metronomes (set to the same frequency, or same number of ticks per minute) on a movable platform, then no matter how out-of-sync you set them up to be at the beginning, eventually all of the metronomes will tick at the same time in the same direction.


A team of engineers at Saitama University, just outside of Tokyo, lead by Professor Tohru Ikeguchi decided to do an experiment with 24 metronomes.  All of them are placed onto a board which hangs from a solid frame by pieces of string.  You can see one of the researchers setting off each metronome quite randomly.  After two or three minutes, they are (pretty much) in synchronisation.




I’m not a metronome expert, but what I do know is that when one metronome’s pendulum bob swings to the right, the base is pushed to the left (because that’s what Newton’s third law of motion says will happen). The moving base makes the hanging board move left, which then gives the neighbouring metronome’s pendulum bob an extra push to swing to the right.  This is how each metronome influences each other.  The total effect of the tiny movements created by each metronome on one another will be that they eventually swing in the same direction at the same time.  This is true whether it be two metronomes or 24.


If you want to get a better explanation about synchronisation, and how it’s used in real life, here’s a fun TED talk by mathematician Steven Strogatz I found:

World’s first smartphone for senior citizens Motoko Kakubayashi Jul 24

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With an advanced touchscreen, big icons, automatic sound adjustment during phone calls in noisy places, is waterproof, has an 8 megapixel camera, and a 4-inch display, the Raku-Raku Smartphone F-12D is getting ready to hit shop shelves in August in Japan.


The smartphone was developed by Fujitsu and will be sold by Japan’s largest mobile phone operator NTT Docomo.  Shops started taking preorders for the Raku-Raku Smartphone F-12D last Friday (raku-raku is the series name for mobiles developed by Fujitsu for first time mobile users or senior citizens, which could also refer to the Japanese word for easy or effortless).


Smartphones are big business in Japan.  In November 2011, MM Research Institute in Tokyo had reported just under 43 million mobiles were shipped out to shops in 2011, and about half of those were smartphones.


In order to get ahead of the competition, perhaps NTT Docomo saw first time smartphone users and senior citizens as a big enough group to invest in developing this mobile.


I do remember reading an article a few weeks ago in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a leading economic newspaper, which reported on a growing number of senior citizens who were switching to smartphones and tablet computers because they were much easier to operate than desktop computers.


One smartphone enthusiast the article talked about, a 78-year-old iPhone 4S user, said his favourite feature was Siri.

“My friends and I, we’ve got reasons that make it hard for us to use (mobiles), like my fingers keep shaking.  It’s handy to be able to control it just by saying, ‘call home’.”


The F-12D has solved this with it’s new touchscreen, which requires the user to push down harder on icons for applications they want to use.  It eliminates any accidents caused by brushing fingers over the wrong icon.


In fact, this also allows you to scroll down easily too.  Normally, if you’re holding your mobile and a finger has slid on the screen a bit too much, the phone won’t let you select anything until you’ve taken that finger off the screen.  In the new smartphone, you can scroll down pages no matter how many other fingers are touching the screen.


While it has many other features that are just as impressive, we will have to wait until next month to see whether Docomo have done enough to entice new users.


World’s tallest tower becomes Tokyo’s new icon Motoko Kakubayashi May 25

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The world’s tallest tower Tokyo Skytree opened to the public this week.  The broadcasting, restaurant, and observation tower uses some of the latest technologies developed by Japanese companies.

I read a story outlining a few of the highlights, and here they are:

  • Control device at tip: At the top of the tower (634 metres up) is a vibration control device which detects and balances out movements the tower makes in the wind to millimetre precision.  It also does not need electricity.
  • Strong antenna: The tower’s antenna will not budge in winds blowing up to almost 400 km/h.
  • Super elevator: An elevator developed by Toshiba takes 50 seconds to transport people from ground level to the observation deck 350 metres above.  It’s 10 times faster than the average apartment building’s elevator, and each elevator fits 40 people.
  • Earthquake resistance: Central shaft made of reinforced concrete runs through the tower’s heart to give it extra strength.
  • Lights: LED lights made by Panasonic use 60% of electricity conventional lights would use.

For anyone wanting to visit the tower on their next trip to Japan, click here to go to their English website.

Tokyo Skytree (By Kakidai (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

What to do with 20 million tons of debris Motoko Kakubayashi Apr 27


Piles of debris I saw during a trip up north in Miyagi prefecture in March 2012

Tidy piles of rubbish line the north-eastern Japan coastline where there used to be towns.  The question is, what can you do with so much stuff?

The tsunami which hit Japan’s coast on March 11 last year destroyed houses, shops and entire communities, condensing it into more than 22 million tons of debris.  To get a better picture of how much that is, it would take the people living in north-east Japan a decade to generate the same amount of household rubbish.

Just before the one year anniversary of the Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, I had the opportunity to go up north to see the place for myself.  Around sea level, everything had been wiped out.  From time to time you could see the giant piles of debris, all organised into different piles like steel, wood, cloth, and so on.

I had recently read a story in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun about what was going to happen to the rubbish, which I thought was worth sharing.

Firstly, anything in good condition will be recycled.  Wood can be re-used to make furniture, and glass or aluminium can be used to make parts for new refrigerators and TVs.  Anything that cannot be recycled, like old clothes, will be burned.

Some debris, however, will be buried to help create an anti-tsunami barrier.  They’re called 防潮林 (Bochorin), and it refers to forests grown along the coastline which will help protect inland towns from tsunamis or other sea disasters.

By breaking up concrete debris and burying it in the ground, the debris acts as a platform and allows the trees to be planted higher above sea level.  It’s not the first time such forests have been made either.  Back in 1923 when a lot of the Tokyo area was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake, debris was broken up and buried to make a seaside park.  More recently, up to half of the debris resulting from the 1995 Kobe earthquake was buried in the harbour too.  Work is expected to start on Sendai’s version in June.

The last concern is about radiation.  At the moment the Japanese government has said anything with a reading below 1000 becquerels per kilogram for radioactive cesium is safe to re-use.  Fukushima prefecture is an exception, where a 3000 becquerel per kilogram limit has been set for concrete which could be re-used to make roads.

Sushi robot with top speed of 3300-sushi-per-hour Motoko Kakubayashi Apr 05

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Spinning, pressing, chopping, and precisely-arranging sushi at speeds man could not achieve is the way for one Japanese manufacturer.

Sushi-making robots are on display at a food business expo in Tokyo this week, including a shari robot (shari is prepared sushi rice) and a norimaki robot (norimaki or makizushi is sushi usually wrapped in seaweed, and it’s the most common sushi I’ve seen sold in shops throughout New Zealand).

The SSN-FLA and TRS-FMA robots made by food machine manufacturer SUZUMO are capable of making 3300 shari sushi every hour.

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Then there is SUZUMO’s SVR-NVE norimaki robot, which can be programmed to make 400 thin sushi rolls, 300 normal sushi rolls, or about 280 thick sushi rolls every hour.

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SUZUMO has an English website if anyone is interested at looking at their product range.

A trip to the doctor in Japan Motoko Kakubayashi Apr 02

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Following a visit to my tenth doctor since moving to Tokyo, I think I have seen enough to give an insight into how different it is from seeing a doctor in New Zealand.

To get an idea about my medical past, firstly, I was born in New Zealand.  A Plunket nurse came to check up on me when I was a baby, the immunisation nurses pricked my arm when I was at intermediate, and then at university the nurses told me about the things I could catch as an adult if I wasn’t careful.  But for most of the 25 years I spent around the lower North Island I went to one doctor, a GP who lived about 15 minutes from my house in Palmy.

I’ve been living in Tokyo for two years now, and yesterday I went to see my tenth doctor.

The biggest reason for the high number is because there are a large number of different specialists and clinics which have helped me in various situations.  A dermatologist down the street had helped me on a number of occasions when my skin reacted badly to products using chemicals I’d never come across in New Zealand.  On other occasions the physicians in a clinic which was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, had made it easier for me to get a check up at 7am before going to work (or not).  More recently I have found a women’s-only clinic which is open in the weekends and until late at night.

But with such a large number of doctors and hospitals, it has also been a challenge to find the right doctor for me.  The doctors I have stuck with talk to me.  They ask me how my day has been going, remember I’m from New Zealand, explain what they’re doing, even draw diagrams, and tell me why they’re prescribing me with drugs.  The doctors I have stayed away from have treated me like a check list, they’ve asked me a series of closed questions about my symptoms, taken a quick look, and finally written out a prescription.  In these cases I’ve been in and out of their offices within five minutes.

I don’t think these doctors had acted mean on purpose, or I hope so, but I do think it has something to do with the country’s health care system.  For doctors, their income is partially determined by the number of tests they run and prescriptions they make, which could possibly explain why some doctors I’ve seen work like machines, examining as many patients as they can.  For the people seeing doctors, health care makes it cheap, but it also means there are large numbers of people waiting to see a doctor for small things.

This has been a problem for ambulance services, who have been flooded by a growing number of calls over the years.  According to Japan’s national public broadcaster NHK, there were 480,000 ambulance calls last year, and one third of these couldn’t be answered.  To try and lower these numbers, the Tokyo Fire Deparment launched a website yesterday which is a guide to help people decide whether they need to call an ambulance when they are unsure.

Of course, it’s important to understand I’m only talking about Tokyo, where a large bulk number of doctors like to stay.  The situation out in rural areas is much the same as in New Zealand where doctor numbers are declining.

As for my own medical needs, I’ve slowly been able to build up a list of doctors I get along with who work at clinics or hospitals within 10 minutes of my apartment.  But I know that if I move, I’m going to have to go through my doctor audition process all over again.

Bonobo apes look for injured ape Motoko Kakubayashi Mar 19

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For the past year in Japan, there’s been a big emphasis on unity following the Japan Earthquake.  Helping a friend in need.  I came across an interesting story in the Yomiuri Shimbun suggesting humans aren’t the only ones with this ability or emotion.

Japanese scientists from Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute studying Bonobo apes in Congo saw something totally new in their behaviour.  A search party of 15 bonobos traveling a long distance to find a bonobo who had been injured from a trap a day before.

The bonobo got his fingers trapped in a trap set up by locals to capture wild boars.  He managed to break away from the trap but the snare was still clasped around his fingers.  Seven of his fellow bonobos surrounded him, tried to help him remove it, and licked his injured fingers.  At the end of the day, however, they abandoned the injured bonobo to go back to their sleeping ground about two kilometres away.

The next day the group returned to the same spot, but this time there were 15 bonobos in the group.  But when they found the injured bonobo had moved somewhere else, they gave up and headed back to find food.

Because there was no food around where the bonobo was injured, it seems as though the 15 apes had come back with the intention of finding their friend.  There have been observations in the past of injured chimpanzees being treated by other group members, but never one about apes sending out large search parties.

The scientists think it’s because bonobo males are less aggressive and a party tries to keep together as much as possible.

A $1.5 million fire experiment to test whether school buildings are safe Motoko Kakubayashi Feb 24

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Spending more than a million dollars on building a school and then burning it down doesn’t sound logical, but to a group of Japanese scientists it sounded very logical.

These scientists wanted to test how fire-resistant school buildings made from wood were, and the only way to do so was to build their own three-storey high school and burn it down.  They needed to test whether there would be enough time for students to evacuate from the building in the event of a fire, how could the fire spread, and how long could it take for the entire building to collapse.

It’s all part of a process to help re-build the forestry industry.  There’s growing support for wooden buildings in Japan, but the problem is the rules for building a three-storey public school are so strict it’s slowing progress right down.  The government has said they want to ease these laws, but no one knows what’s safe to change.

So a group of scientists working for Japan’s National Institute for Land and Infrastructure Management have been asked to find the problems with building a school out of wood, and find out how to make it safer.

Their NZ$1.5 million experiment on Wednesday had showed it took less than two hours for the entire building to collapse, which was considered not too bad.  Now the scientists will try and make an improved school building, which they’ll burn down next year.

Just FYI, the room they set fire to first was the staff room.

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Hayabusa movies might be a plus for science Motoko Kakubayashi Feb 14

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Over the weekend, the second of three films (four if you include a documentary originally made for planetariums that was later released on the big screen) about the spacecraft Hayabusa opened in movie theatres across Japan.

Hayabusa (Japanese for Falcon) was the first unmanned spacecraft that traveled to an asteroid, collected a sample of it, and came back to Earth with the sample intact.  A team of scientists at Japan’s space agency JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) designed and guided Hayabusa during its seven year trip over which it traveled six billion kilometres.

I’ve seen movies about science or scientists before, but never so many movies made by different film companies about the same mission.  So what makes it special?

For one, it is a story that has inspired Japan.  After it was launched in 2003, Hayabusa experienced power failures, engine breakdowns, and at one point its communication with Earth was lost for more than a month.  Its failures had gotten huge media attention.  Eventually, most of the media lost interest.  But through it all, the scientists remained persistent and dedicated.  They found ways to fix the problems, and in 2010, Hayabusa landed safely back on Earth in the Australian outback.

The spacecraft’s return became front page news, and was praised by everyone, including the Emperor of Japan.

Each of the three films being released tell Hayabusa’s story from the point-of-view of a scientist involved in the development team, and the challenges they faced.

20th Century Fox’s “HAYABUSA”, which premiered in Japan last October, tells the story from a fictional researcher character’s perspective, but things she says and does are based on real life accounts by JAXA scientists.

Toei company’s “Hayabusa: Harukanaru kikan (Hayabusa: the long return home)”, which opened in cinemas a few days ago, depicts the obstacles overcome by the project’s manager, played by Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe and based on Hayabusa’s real project leader Junichiro Kawaguchi.

Shochiku’s “Okaeri, Hayabusa (Welcome Home, Hayabusa)” is the only movie made in 3D, and has a side plot revolving around one of Hayabusa’s engineers and his family.  It is set to be released in March.

An added bonus is the movies are a chance to show people what scientists do, and how important their jobs are.  They might also be a good way to promote JAXA’s space projects and scientific research, both to taxpayers and a future generation of scientists.

Whether it’s successful in doing so though, we’ll have to wait a few more years to see.  In the mean time, I better go and check it out at the movies.

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