The 10 Shrines of Tokyo (A goodbye to Japan)

A friend of mine in Japan told me about the Tokyo Jissha, the ten shrines of Tokyo, a couple weeks before I left. In 1868, at the time of the Meiji Restoration when Tokyo became Japan’s capital, Emperor Meiji chose ten Shinto shrines scattered throughout the city to be the sanctuaries for the new capital. Every shrine and temple has a unique stamp (goshuin) that can be written in a special stamp book (a goshuin-cho), and my friend had decided collect the stamps of the Tokyo Jissha in her goshuin-cho. I decided to get a book of my own, and traveling to these 10 shrines during my last days in Japan to collect goshuin felt like a pilgrimage to say goodbye.

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goshuin stamp I got at this golden temple in Nikko, a town close to Tokyo.

Just because I keep leaving doesn’t mean that it gets easier to let go. I left Japan a few days ago and I’m still wrapping it up, cleaning it away. I feel like I have to do this spring cleaning every time I leave – change my number, close the tabs of “medtech companies in Japan,” tell my friends I arrived safely, and then drift out of regular contact with them. Is it easier to leave, or to stay? I’ve become someone who leaves and I don’t know how I feel about that.

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“The 10 Jinga of Tokyo.” This was at Hikawa Jinga, the first shrine I visited out of the 10 and where I got my goshuin-cho book).
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Hie Shrine.
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Up the stairs of Hie Shrine.

The thing is, as much as I live in these places and learn to love them and get to know their people, I don’t really belong. I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that no matter how long I spend abroad, I won’t become Indian or Japanese or Singaporean. I need to take all that I’ve done this year and bring it back with me to places I do belong. I want to know what my project would be like in the US – what impact I could have on medical technology there, where I can invest the time.

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This is my goshuin-cho. Each stamp in the book is unique – it has the name of the shrine and the current date. It takes a few minutes to get a stamp because you have to wait for the shrine attendant to paint it in.
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A bridge in Nikko.
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Kanda Shrine, probably the most popular shrine of the ten.

But I’ve gotten used to leaving everything behind every few months, and I wonder how that will manifest when I’m back home and trying to build something more permanent. Perhaps I’ll find that it’s easier to keep seeing new things, rather than to try finding new aspects of old things.

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The Kameido Jinja is very serene, and the Tokyo Skytree building is visible in the back.
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My favorite of the ten was the Nezu Shrine, with all these torii gates.

I was worried that my fleeting presence in various places this year would make people feel distant, but it hasn’t. Especially in Japan, where I was worried about the formality of the polite language, I learned that so much warmth can be imbued between the words of formal speech. It’s still hard to know, without speaking the language, if you’re doing things right or just the recipient of excessive politeness, but I’ve gotten closer to people than I expected to.

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I also traveled to Kamakura, a town very close to Tokyo, right before leaving. This is the country’s second-largest Buddha.
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The Buddha is hollow, and it’s cool to go inside and see how the different pieces were fused together.

Still, I’m getting tired of saying goodbye. I’ve arrived in Botswana now – my last project country – and that feels right. I’m used to leaving places, but I don’t want to be; it’s actually comforting to know that this cycle of coming and going, goodbyes every few months, is ending soon. I’m excited to spend two months here and explore one more new place. Also, on a lighter note, it’s lovely to be in a country with fluent English speakers!

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At the entrance to the big Buddha temple: “Stranger whosoever thou art and whatsoever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages.”

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A few days before I left, I finally found the prototypical Japanese garden scene in Kamakura. I really had a wonderful time in Japan and learned a lot about the culture there, and I’m also happy to keep moving forward.
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Last week in Japan

A week from today, I will leave Tokyo and travel to Gaborone. I don’t exactly know what to say or how to express my feelings (I’m not sure I know what I’m feeling), but I did want to post and share some photos from Fukuoka. I visited Fukuoka between project meetings in Osaka and Nagoya, and Fukuoka is the city from which I visited Hiroshima and Miyajima as well.

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At the ruins of Fukuoka Castle in Maizuru Park.
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Lantern at the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shinto shrine, just across the street from my Airbnb.
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A surprisingly beachy area at the outskirts of Fukuoka.

Fukuoka is a friendly town and quite small compared to the other Japanese cities I’ve seen. It’s easy to explore most of the city center in one day on foot, which was a refreshing change from the immensity of Tokyo, where even after many weeks here there’s still so much to see. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Japan in Tokyo, but as I’ve described before, my time in the capital city has been spent with host families and really trying to blend in with daily life. As I’ve avoided trying to be a tourist, I almost feel like I’ve seen less here than in the other cities. But I think it’s simply that Tokyo is more of a mega-city-complex than one city, and seeing everything (including the many possible day trips from Tokyo) was never going to happen over the span of a couple months, not with project meetings and language classes and host families thrown in the mix. I’d still choose the project and host families, though – this “Watson style” travel – over seeing all of Tokyo in one go!

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Fukuoka had beautiful flowers all over the city – lovely city planning.
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It’s also a canal city with many bridges.
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Looking at this building, I didn’t feel like I was in Japan anymore.

It’s still hard feeling as though I’m leaving things unfinished, and I wonder if I could have made more of my first month here. That’s the Watson, though – you have to pack up and go, whether you’re ready or not. I’ve been quite ready to leave every country I’ve traveled to so far this year; I’m not sure I’m ready to leave Japan. Of course, I hope to come back, and I am beginning to get excited and curious about Botswana – a good sign that it is, in fact, time to move on.

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Fukuoka’s ACROS building.
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Sunset over Fukuoka’s river. Far off on the right are yatai, the canal-facing food stalls for which Fukuoka is famous.
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Each yatai has a simple Japanese menu and about 10 seats. The idea is that people will come here to eat and drink and mingle with the other diners. After waiting a while for a seat, I joined a stall full of Japanese customers and had a hilarious Japanese/English conversation with my nearby diners.

Thinking about the project meetings I’ve had here, I’m fairly happy with the range (professors, doctors, people at start-ups, and people at larger corporations), but I still had a much wider range in India over the same time span (all of the former, along with ashram gurus, visits to hospitals, NGO workers, and more). I’ve wondered many times this year about order bias – how the order in which I’m visiting these countries is impacting my experience in them. I think my expectations get more defined (and thus more critical) as time goes on. As the year progresses, the end of each country visit fills in another detailed segment of the once-blank canvas of “What could this year look like?”. It’ll be a strange feeling at the end of Botswana when that painting is well and truly done – when I no longer have any questions about a year that once loomed before me in its uncertainty.

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A short train ride from Fukuoka is Dazaifu, a city of mountains and temples that’s perfect for a day visit over the weekend.
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At Dazaifu’s main shrine.
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I had never seen a tree supported by wooden slats before.

Also, I think it’s been a bit challenging to “break in” in terms of my meetings in Japan because of the language difference, which has been more difficult here than anywhere else. There are also simply fewer medical technology start-ups than I expected due to the ever-strong corporate culture. Maybe there’s something else, too, something I can’t quite put my finger on – but there’s some distance I haven’t always been able to break through when trying to schedule meetings and so on. I often get the sense here that Japan has such a unique culture and has so much figured out that it doesn’t need the rest of the world.

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A quiet area in Dazaifu.
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I managed to find my way to the top of one of Dazaifu’s nearby mountains.
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Overlooking Dazaifu city.

Of course, my time here has also been complicated by the fact that I’ve wanted to come to Japan for so many years – I was always going to have high expectations for my time here, as well as feel slightly pulled between wanting to see as much as I could, making the most of my time here, and figuring how best to approach my project. I suppose no span of time, then, would ever be enough!

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I loved the late-blooming pink-and-green sakura trees here (Dazaifu).
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Dazaifu had a lot of beautiful nature.

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On the way to RoboSquare, far from central Fukuoka.

While I was in Fukuoka, I made a point to visit the “RoboSquare,” a center showcasing various Japanese-made robots. I wanted to go because I had read that they had a Paro, a Japanese care robot made to look like a fluffy seal who has helped dementia patients worldwide. I contacted the government organization that made Paro a reality and was never able to get an interview, so I wanted to see it in person. (The agency is AIST: Advanced Industrial Science and Technology).

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Paro was “sleeping” when I first saw it, but after I petted its head (as the RoboSquare attendant instructed), it slowly lifted its head up and to the side, blinking its big eyes and making cute noises.

RoboSquare was a small room in a shopping complex, but it was still exciting to “meet” a robot I had read about months earlier. As far as robots go, it’s nice that Paro is soft and fluffy all over (though the big black eyes looked a bit creepy to me). There was an information card next to Paro that explained how the robot has been used in pediatric wards, nursing homes, and hospitals. AIST conducted studies that proved that both children and elderly patients had improved mental states and lower stress levels after interacting with Paro. The Paro robot has been around for over ten years now, so hopefully AIST can continue to sponsor more health technology projects in Japan.

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I also met this robot, which has nothing to do with healthcare but still caught my attention. This is the Japanese-made SR-01, a search-and-rescue robot that helped find missing people on 9/11 in NYC, over fifteen years ago.
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For some reason this was at the RoboSquare as well – a software platform that dresses you up in the outfit of your choice! I love space stuff, so I decided to be an astronaut.
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Last shot from the Fukuoka beach area. My guess is that this is a fancy resort, but I’m not sure.

Sakura Time

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Sakura at the grounds of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.
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Minato, Tokyo.
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A guard at the Imperial Palace.

Every spring, the Japanese celebrate hanami, which is sakura (cherry blossom) viewing. I was told that Japan’s famous trees bloom only for a week out of the year, and I was determined not to miss them. In fact, I mostly based the timing of my three months in Japan on sakura. It sounds crazy, but they bloom at a different time every year and only for a week, and I wanted to make sure that week fell during my visit! So when my host mom casually told me a few weeks ago that “oh, we might miss the cherry blossoms in Tokyo while we’re in Okinawa, oops” – in Okinawa, full bloom comes and goes as early as January – I got a bit nervous. Could it really be that quick?

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In some areas, the blossoms are surprisingly dense.
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This is in the neighborhood of Naka-Meguro. Everyone takes loads of pictures – and all the same one – but I couldn’t resist joining in!
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This is what they were photographing, by the way.
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See the green pushing through these rain-heavy blossoms? It’s evidence of what is soon to replace these beautiful flowers. I actually like them better with some green mixed in.

Well, the answer is yes, it’s very quick, but we didn’t miss them! We came back to a Tokyo in the midst of full bloom and covered in little pink petals. Over the course of 4 days, I took nearly 100 pictures of cherry blossom trees. I definitely went overboard (and I certainly won’t share all of them here). I’m not much of a flower person, or a nature person for that matter, but these trees are beautiful. It’s also hilarious to see the massive groups of people walking through the trees, taking photos, and having hanami parties (essentially, alcoholic picnics under the trees).

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Hanami in Shinjuku.
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Evidence of hanami – the most trash I’ve seen at once out in Tokyo!
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This guy keeps the crowds under control.
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In the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The best time to see sakura is on a rainy and foggy day like this one, when fewer people are out! 

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The cherry blossom season is often used to illustrate a Japanese fascination with fragile and delicate beauty, especially beauty so fleeting. I definitely agree that there’s an appreciation here for the delicate, whether that’s the cherry blossoms, or tiny pastries, or food flavors in general, or tiny exquisite designs on manicured nails. I suppose it even manifests in the traditional gender roles here – it’s definitely a thing for women to be ultra-delicate and feminine.

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Well, the cherry blossoms are certainly fragile. It makes for a beautiful scene: as you walk under the cherry blossom trees, the slightest breeze sends individual petals off the branches and swirling around you, ultimately blanketing the ground you’re walking on. But it also makes it evident that the cherry blossoms are soon to fade, even though the way in which they settle down on all of Tokyo makes them seem more durable.

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Check out how many petals have already fallen to the floor! The rain accelerates the process and thus shortens the period of full bloom.
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The Chidori-ga-fuchi Moat, surrounding the Imperial Palace, is lined with sakura.
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This is in Naka-Meguro. It was hard not to smile on such a lovely day! (Photo credit to my friend Soichi).
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Last shot from Shinjuku Gyoen. 

Lovely visit with lovely people

Early yesterday morning I said goodbye to the friends who came to visit me, and tomorrow morning I fly to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island, with my new host family. These are certainly busy times, and I’m glad to be seeing more of the country than just Tokyo.

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The 3 of us at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari shrine.
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Of course, we took loads of trains this trip, but this was the first time I had ended up in the first car!
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I like these streets in Tokyo that show small, old-fashioned houses nestled in among the more modern buildings.

I’m incredibly lucky that two of my best friends in the world were able to come visit me in Japan, all the way from NYC, while I’m on the Watson (as I was when my parents came to India for Christmas – though this is the end of visits for me!). I showed them around Tokyo for a few days, which was a blast since I’ve been here for a month now, and then we went to Kyoto with a half day trip to Osaka. We saw a ton and took literally thousands of photos and videos, so what I’m sharing now is only a quick summary of the highlights, but it’s something.

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On their first day in Tokyo, we walked into a retail store that had this robot helping people find the bathroom and access the store wifi. Though the robot was fun and eye-catching, we all found its help to be completely superfluous. What a great intro to the complexities of Japanese culture! (This is the ‘Pepper’ bot, by the way, and many different companies were using it for health applications at the expos I attended).
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Incense at the Senso-ji shrine of Asakusa, Tokyo.
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On this rainy day we visited Odaiba, a bizarrely artificial island of Tokyo devoted to companies, museums, a ferris wheel, and the like (I don’t think anyone can live there). For some reason they also have a replica of the Statue of Liberty!
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Pepper wasn’t the only robot we saw – this is a statue of the iconic robot from the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky at Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli museum.

Kyoto and Osaka were not as different from Tokyo as any of us were expecting. We were all picturing these non-Tokyo cities as far smaller and less urban than they were, and we expected Kyoto to be mostly old architecture, shrines, and populated by far more kimono-clad women. Well, Osaka is Japan’s 3rd-largest city and Kyoto its 7th-largest, so we had the wrong idea!

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Dragon moulding on a building in Kyoto.
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Kyoto’s Nijo castle at night.
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The Fushimi Inari shrine has to be Kyoto’s largest attraction. It’s packed with tourists and Japanese women in tradition dress, and it’s a huge complex of shrine buildings and the vermilion gates (torii) for which it is famous.
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Though it was hard to escape the throngs of people, the torii were truly beautiful. My favorite part was how the light filtered down through them. Made of wood, they seemed so fragile and so embedded in nature – though they appear to form a tunnel, walking through the torii still leaves you completely susceptible to the outdoor elements.
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We saw thousands of paper cranes next to a wall of these wooden wish tablets.

As for Osaka, we only spent an afternoon there, but we had dinner on the Dotonbori “food street” – and it was hilarious. This area of Osaka has packed pedestrian streets, huge funky illuminated signs, loads of casinos, and cigarette butts lining the sidewalk gutters (a very unusual sight in Tokyo and Kyoto, where smoking on the street is generally prohibited and the sidewalks are impeccably clean).

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Underneath Osaka’s Umeda Sky Building. The architect described this circular opening between as a ‘crater’ left by a UFO-style spaceship that once departed from the building. I liked that idea.
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My favorite sign in Dotonbori was this giant hanging blowfish.
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One of the casinos in Osaka.

It wasn’t until that evening in Dotonbori that I finally saw what I had imagined of Tokyo. My image of Japan was always two-faced: I would think of tradition, politeness, and organization, but also of bright lights, dark urban underbellies, and various futuristic sci-fi movies. More than Shinjuku or Akihabara in Tokyo – the typical ‘bright lights’ areas – Dotonbori in Osaka fit that latter idea.

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What I wanted to see most in Kyoto: the Arashiyama bamboo grove. Another packed-with-tourists attraction, but we managed to find more secluded spots in the neighborhood to get away from the crowds.
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Part of Arashiyama’s immense forest. I loved seeing this traditional boat on the water. Two men used long sticks of bamboo to steer it. Where did it come from?
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Is it just me, or does the dragon presiding over Kyoto’s Nishiki food market look…drunk?
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Maybe he’s modeled after this dragon, who presides over the purification fountain at a nearby shrine.
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My favorite person at Nishiki market: this elderly woman handing out samples at the sake shop. (My gleeful friend in the back is on his way to purchase the sake we tried!).

You may be wondering: what about that core part of the Watson, the project? I’ve been in Japan for over a month now and written only one project post, though there are a few meetings and events I haven’t written about. It’s tough to do my project with so much group travel, constantly moving around (that is, more than I already do solo on the Watson), and getting wrapped up in the family scheduling and “cultural immersion” that naturally accompanies homestay life. Luckily, I was able to have a project interview last week while my friends were here in Tokyo. Though I was bummed that the timing meant that I had to leave them for an afternoon, I was ultimately very glad to have a chance to interview someone (especially after 2 weeks of staying busy with my Japanese class rather than project) while giving my friends a chance to explore Tokyo themselves.

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While I’m thinking about my project and health attitudes, check out these stairs in the metro station. They clearly aim to motivate people to exercise by displaying how many calories you burn walking up each step. I’m not sure how motivating ‘0.1 calories’ is (apparently the whole flight adds up to 6 calories burned), or how many people would notice these faint engravings, but I thought it was fascinating! I’ve never seen anything like it.
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And in a similar vein of fascinating culture, this is “eyetape for men” at a cosmetics store (next to “eyebrow pencils for men”). As you may be able to tell from the photo, eyetape is a thin layer of tape that you’re supposed to put just above your eyelid to achieve the double-eyelid look of Western eyes. I’ve seen eyetape for women in a few stores and even women around Japan that have definitely altered their eyes with tape or perhaps even surgery. I have no idea why double eyelids are considered so attractive or why standards of beauty here are so based on Western looks, but it bothers me immensely.

In other news, I feel like I’ve been talking with a twinge of sadness lately – in Skype calls to my parents, letters to my friends, and certainly my last blog post – and I wanted to address that briefly. Of course, it was sad to say goodbye to my host family last week, and I think the reason that blog post came out in such a sad tone was because the difficulty of leaving them surprised me. Even now, I’m at my new homestay, typing in a house in the same neighborhood I left a week ago.

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We took the shinkansen (bullet train) between Kyoto and Tokyo. It travels at 160mph, probably due to its aerodynamic shape!

But overall, I think it’s just that I’m a bit tired. There’s been a lot going on, and in the past week and a half, I’ve finished Japanese class, traveled around with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, moved to a new homestay, and started packing for another weeklong trip. I had an amazing time last week, and I’ve been excited about Okinawa since I picked Japan as a project country, but it still gets tiring sometimes. It’s also a lot of traveling with people, and while I enjoy that immensely, I’ve gotten used to solo travel on the Watson, and I think there’s something very refreshing about it. Also, like I’ve mentioned, the solo nature of the Watson makes it sound like you won’t be saying goodbye to people, and as I’ve said, goodbyes are hard and exhausting – but I would always rather have the goodbyes along with everything else, the hellos and the being together, than no goodbyes at all.

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A hilariously Japanese menu.

I suppose what I’m saying is yes, the Watson is tiring, perhaps especially once it’s been going on for 8 months. But that’s okay, and that’s expected, and I love it. I’m so happy to be able to do these things, to have my best friends visit and to travel with a Japanese family (and it’ll be interesting to experience those juxtapositions). I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kyoto sunset.

Hajimemashite! (Nice to meet you!)

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Early cherry blossoms (sakura) at Tokyo’s Hamarikyu Gardens.

I’ve been in Tokyo for over 3 weeks now, and there’s still so much of the city I haven’t seen. But as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been happy taking this Japanese class every day. Though the routine has put a pause on my city-wide exploring, it’s allowed me to explore in a different way – getting to know the surrounding neighborhood in depth, talking to my classmates, nailing down my commute through the crazy underground complex that is Shinjuku Station, and learning about the culture through language. Returning home to dinner with my host family every evening completes this sense of ‘normal day-to-day life’ that I’ve rarely encountered on the first 8 months of the Watson.

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The tea house at Hamarikyu Gardens.
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A painted garage door at Tsukiji fish market, where fish from all over the country arrives early each morning to be sold to various restaurants in Tokyo.
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Ginza, one of Tokyo’s ritzier neighborhoods.

I would love to take the class for more than 2 weeks, which is the school’s minimum, but it’s expensive – and as I mentioned, it does take time away from researching project connections and trying to set up meetings. For that reason, I couldn’t justify spending much more of the Watson grant on the class than I already am, though Watson fellows are allowed to take language classes while abroad. I figured that I should try language study in at least one of my six Watson countries, and Japanese was a good fit since I’ve always been intrigued by the language and the culture, and I’ve wanted to study a language with a different alphabet (or 3, in the case of Japanese), and finally, I think English has the least amount of mileage here compared to the other countries on my list.

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The very fancy Mikimoto shop in Ginza, selling pearls.
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Sometimes the easiest way to cross the street at busy intersections is to take the pedestrian overpass!
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Have you heard about the vending machines in Japan? Well, I mentioned the cigarette ones, but the drink ones are certainly more common. Like the one pictured here, all of them dispense both hot and cold drinks! The red-labeled ones come out warm. These vending machines are all over Tokyo, sometimes in bunches all lined up together.

Anyhoo, before my class today, I was on a mission to get business cards. Yep, business cards, or “meishi” in Japan (often translated to “name cards”). I’m going to a trade show tomorrow here in Tokyo that will showcase various nursing products, including the healthcare robots that inspired me to name my Watson project “Robots & Gizmos: Interfaces of Health.” Though the expo is free admittance, I have to show up with proof of my pre-registration (a printed email) and two business cards. I’m not sure why – I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow – but of course my first thought was, well, I don’t have any business cards.

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The Zen garden at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Nothing like those little desk sets you see in the U.S.!
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Old Tokyo on the left, new Tokyo on the right.
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Sometimes Tokyo feels a lot like…Brooklyn.

A while ago, someone told me about a meishi-making machine in Shinjuku Station, the station I now travel to every day for class. A machine just for making business cards – could I be that lucky? I searched online and found a video from a few years ago of an American using such a machine. I watched the video, which printed 30 business cards for 1000 yen (just under $10), and memorized the look of the machine. Once I arrived at Shinjuku station, I looked around at all the machines. I was surrounded by metro-pass machines, ATMs, and even coin lockers, but Shinjuku Station is big and confusing; it took a good five or ten minutes of scoping out the scene to find the meishi machine, nestled in next to a photobooth machine (for passport or school photos) in a quiet spot. I was thrilled to find the machine exactly as it was in the video I had watched. Of course, being designed for Japanese business men, the whole interface was in Japanese. The first button I hit caused the machine to immediately spit out my 1000 yen bill, and I tried that a couple times before realizing it was the ‘cancel’ button.

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I love that this older Japanese guy was checking out this classically Japanese shop, which is filled with all sorts of “kawaii” (super cute) items.
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The United Nations University building in Tokyo.
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This is in Shibuya, though Shinjuku often feels similar.

There were about 20 one-sided black-and-white designs to choose from, none of them very thrilling or aesthetically pleasing, and I picked one but couldn’t figure out how to add my email address. Eventually I navigated back to the first screen, picked a less interesting but less confusing design, and I managed to figure the rest out. Basically, I pushed a lot of buttons until it made sense. Luckily no one else was waiting to use the machine! Once I was done, the machine started sputtering out the 30 cards one by one. One little plastic flap was all that stopped them from flying out of the machine, which looked fairly old. At this point, bending down to peek at the growing stack of cards, I was cracking up. Then finally I had all my cards! I was surprised at the quality of the cards – obviously not cardstock, but thicker than regular paper.

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A photo of the result (my first ever business card!) with the machine. You can see where it says that 30 cards cost 1,000 yen, and the different layouts are shown as well. (I forgot to take a picture of the machine, so the background shot is from a Japanese blog linked here.)
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Classic Tokyo. For a city with, well, business card machines, I’m always surprised at how many telephone lines you see here.

According to the internetmeishi are a big deal in Japan, and there are all sorts of rules about how to use them in the most polite and formal way: say “はじめまして” (“hajimemashite”, or “nice to meet you”) when giving your card, never give a wrinkled card, always accept someone else’s card with two hands and a bow, etc. Well, my meishi certainly lack any interesting designs or features, but I’m interested to see how this all comes into play.

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I love this mistranslation on a very touristy street: “The name is engraving for free of charge.”
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A shop called ‘Burlesque’ on the super busy pedestrian shopping street of Takeshita-dori in the Harajuku neighborhood. See all the people with the white face masks?

Later in the day, feeling bolstered by the success of my business card printing, I went to a 7-11 over my lunch break to print the aforementioned pre-registration email. The 7-11 stores here have a system called “net print” that allows you to create a free online account, upload various documents and/or photos from your computer at home, and print them at any store. 7-11 stores are all over Tokyo (along with the other brands of konbini, or convenience store), and most of them have a big Kinko’s-esque printer. I uploaded my pre-registration email in the morning, and in the afternoon, I typed the ‘reservation code’ corresponding to my document on 7-11’s printer screen. I put in my 30 yen (about a quarter’s worth of cash), and voila, it started printing…a photograph. The long, type-heavy email I needed as a printout for the expo was coming to me in 4×6 glossy form. I’m not sure what button I mistakenly pressed to have that happen, but I needed to get back to school for my next class, so here’s hoping it works! Well, you win some, you lose some.

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And sometimes Tokyo feels like…Italy?
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“No Fish, No Life.”

Anyway, all of this – the business card machine in the busy station, the net-print system in the convenience stores – is obviously for the large ‘businessperson’ culture here. In a city like Tokyo that is so focused on work, famous for its insanely crowded rush-hour trains, it makes sense that there would be such conveniences for the city’s career-focused individuals. But I also feel like this is a uniquely Japan thing, and I wonder why. I can’t imagine a business card machine in New  York’s Financial District. Wouldn’t you just go to a Staples or a Kinko’s and get your cards made there? Even if you needed them day-of, as I did, I’m sure you could find an express service at these places.

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A tribute to David Bowie at this otherwise unassuming home.
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For some reason, I really liked the look of this place not too far from Shibuya.

I think these conveniences exist here not only to be extremely practical for the average Tokyoite businessperson, but also to save customers the trouble of needing to talk to someone in person. Maybe it’s time consuming to have a conversation with someone, and it can be a bit awkward as well. Japanese has multiple layers of formality, and when a customer and a shopkeeper interact using the language, they will use many polite words that complicate and lengthen the conversation. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all – I think it’s lovely, and it’s nice to know exactly what’s appropriate to say in such situations – but I can imagine that it gets a bit tiring. So maybe if you’ve just had a packed commute, and you’re rushing off to a business meeting where you will be using a ton of formal language,  you want to get your business cards without having any extra interactions. That would also explain why the trains, where most people are on their phones wearing earbuds, and restaurants, where many customers eating alone at lunchtime and may have ordered by pushing a button, are so quiet – small moments of peace and minimal interaction and no need to worry about word choice in a city as busy as Tokyo.

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Just a thought.

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In other news, here I am with my new best friend Freddy the Hedgehog (I have no idea if that’s his real name, but I like it). You may have heard of cat cafés – well, Tokyo has the corner on these animal cafés, with cat ones, dog ones, and even hedgehog ones! I’ve heard of owl ones too but haven’t been yet. I went to this one, called ‘Harry Hedgehog,’ with some classmates on our first day of class together.

Singapore: Gone in a flash

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Many people in Singapore were surprised when I mentioned its new ranking as the world’s second-healthiest country (according to The Lancet). I’m still not sure why. One person scoffed and said “Oh, it’s because they don’t let anyone into the country who isn’t wealthy.” This actually makes sense, as the government-mandated “insurance” program Medisave operates like taxes; 13% of your income automatically funds an account locked away for medical costs, so the higher your income, the more hospital visits you can afford. What about people with little to no income, then? Someone at the Singapore National University Hospital told me that Singaporeans with incomes that fall below certain tiered levels can get additional need-based funding, though she acknowledged that those that just miss the cutoff – with incomes only slightly above the mark – struggle the most.

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The sunsets in Singapore are beautiful.
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Schoolgirls waiting for the bus.

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Much of Singapore is new – the expats, the skyscrapers, the governmental influence. I felt that the government is making a big effort to create a sense of shared culture and history, which is great but also means that Singapore seems to be lacking some of the tradition that roots other nations (this is not to say that Singapore hasn’t had inhabitants for centuries, but rather that Singapore has changed a lot over the past few decades and become a melting pot for many different cultures).

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The colorful old police station seen from above.
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Singapore was once famously described as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.” This is definitely part of the Disneyland part. (Singapore still has the death penalty, though very few people are executed each year).

One expat in Singapore said to me, “You know it’s a bad sign when the older generations are cooler than the younger generations.” In her experience, older Singaporeans have some interesting “back in my day…” stories to share, while the younger Singaporeans tend to be more law-abiding and well-behaved. As an expat in the creative field, she sees this as a less-than-inspiring trend. With life in Singapore being so easy, it makes sense that there would be few motives for revolution and innovation; I’m reminded of the adage that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

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The Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam, the red-roofed neighborhood where I stayed.
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Stone reliefs in Singapore’s Fort Canning park detail the nation’s early history as an important port.

In terms of the implications on medtech development, then, that explains why there aren’t as many medical device start-ups in Singapore as one might expect. Though many international medical technology companies are coming to Singapore, it seems like the focus is more on business and marketing rather than research and development; more about good sales and less about inspired invention.

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Colorful architecture in the Little India neighborhood (it did feel like I was back in India!).

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Despite the incentives for Singaporean start-ups put forth by the government agency A*STAR, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I only read about a couple local medtech start-ups. I asked someone about this at Abbott Laboratories, a global medical company with an office in Singapore (they do, in fact, have an R&D center in Singapore, but 95% of their focus in the country is manufacturing and marketing). “Is it because A*STAR is a relatively new organization, and they haven’t had time to fund start-ups yet?” I asked. “No, it’s not that new,” my interviewee replied. “Oh,” I said, frowning. “So it’s just…” I trailed off. “Not panning out,” I said eventually. He couldn’t explain it either. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging and laughing in return.

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The most imposing angle of the Marina Bay Sands building.
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An old sundial in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

I’m still not sure what factors contribute to Singaporeans having a more positive or negative reaction to medical technology. I suppose the reaction is generally positive due to the country’s high standards of education and safety, as well as the familiarity with technology one develops simply by interacting with Singaporean infrastructure on a day to day basis. But Singapore has multiple different ethnic groups (mostly Chinese, Malay, and Indian) and lots of expats as well, so it’s challenging to make generalizations for “all Singaporeans.” Singapore has a lot of surprising commonalities with Qatar, actually – both are very small nations with a high proportion of expats; both have highly involved governments that drive healthcare agendas; and both are dealing with fairly recent booms in wealth (Singapore, perhaps, dealing with it better than Qatar is), leading towards similar health problems – increasing rates of diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses along with an increasing proportion of elderly citizens.

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The mini Statue of Liberty in Singapore’s Haw Par Villa, an old and vaguely creepy sculpture park.
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Haw Par Villa’s laughing Buddha.
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No durians allowed in this park! Durians are a spiky and very smelly fruit. It’s very popular in Singapore, but it smells like fish to me.

Of course, my main challenge with the project in Singapore was timing. I had 5 meetings in two weeks, a few of them with very similar companies, and that wasn’t enough to give me a broad picture of Singapore’s medical device space and what works in the country as opposed to what doesn’t. I realized that two weeks simply isn’t long enough to build the ‘network of understanding’ that I try to create in each country. In India, that building process was very slow, and it wasn’t until I had spent a few weeks in the country that I finally found the right opportunities, and met the right people who could connect me to other people, and so on.

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The “Sky Mirror” below the lotus-shaped ArtScience museum.
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Of all of Singapore’s pricey attractions, the ArtScience museum is the one I decided to fit into my budget. I’m so glad I did! It had all sorts of fun exhibits including this “FutureWorld” area.
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The “FutureWorld” exhibit included an installation called the “Crystal Universe,” which was a room filled with strings of LEDs that light up in specific patterns that mimic the stars. With varying speeds and colors, standing in that room felt like traveling through the universe with beautiful background music. I was in heaven.

Though my project would have benefited from more time in Singapore, it’s a small enough place that it wouldn’t have been thrilling to spend much longer than 2 weeks there. Either way, I’m glad I went, and now I know – I’m excited to have a full 3 months in Japan to take things slow, hopefully making those connections and growing that network.

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Goodbye, Singapore!

Welcome to Night Singapore

Singapore lights up at night, sort of like Disneyland: strategically placed lights in neon colors illuminate every well-designed nook and cranny of the city. In a way, that makes the city at night feel more futuristic and less realistic than the city during the day.

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The ArtScience museum to the left and downtown & the central business district to the right.
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One of my first views of Singapore, as I arrived in the evening – a street close to where I’m staying.
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There are lots of cute bars and shops close to my hostel. This area mostly consists of 2- or 3-story shophouses with terracotta roofs.

Singapore is very much a transition point for me between India and Japan, which are my two biggest Watson countries in both size and importance. By devoting 3 full months to each, the plan has always been to make India and Japan the “cornerstones” of my Watson year. Singapore thus serves as a stepping-stone between these countries, not just geographically but emotionally and culturally as well.

Maybe for that reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be in the second half of the Watson year. I’ve gotten very accustomed to Watson life, which is a bit sad; part of me misses the way I felt when I first arrived in Sweden, the mess of emotions that included how I felt about my college graduation, profound wonder at the nature of solo travel and my sudden freedom, and nervousness and excitement at the full year ahead, with zero expectations. Well, now I’m in my fourth country (and Singapore is certainly an easy one to be in), and I know how this goes. I suppose this is the kind of thing that you never want to get used to, and that’s why it’s so important to keep packing up your bags and moving on – but that also serves as an indicator that time is passing, and maybe I don’t want the time to pass so quickly, either.

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The Sultan mosque in my neighborhood at night.
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Street art at Haji Lane at night.

Even the challenges of being by myself and setting up project meetings have quieted, either because I know what to expect now or because it’s gotten easier as my network grows (probably both). Friends I make in one country connect me to their friends in the next, and companies I’ve worked hard to meet in one country might have an office in a future country on my list and set up the contact. Since I’ve been more social as the year has progressed, I’ve spent less sustained time by myself – I feel like I’ve spent less time reflecting, arriving at fewer and fewer “grown-up” realizations. I don’t know if this means that I’m not growing as much on the Watson as I did at the beginning; I hope not, though the Watson definitely gets easier as it goes along. Maybe (hopefully) I’m simply growing in less obvious, immediately-out-of-college ways, learning things more subtle and nuanced as opposed to grand and profound.

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These “Supertrees” are tree structures in the “Supertree Grove” of Singapore’s famous “Gardens by the Bay,” an artificial park and garden. I wandered over there one evening for their nightly light show.
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The light show is a 15-minute spectacle of all the LEDs on the trees set to music. The music changes, but this time it was a mash-up of different classic Asian styles. Each tree has a circular bench around its base, and all the people in the Supertree Grove picked a spot on a bench, laid back, and looked up for the show (so this is a view from the bench).

Now that we’re in 2017, I can’t help but wonder where I’ll end up by the end of this year. I don’t want to think about post-Watson life yet, but it’s certainly on the horizon, and I have no idea what’s next. While that’s been true since I started the Watson in 2016, it’s merely been an exciting thing to think about – the future, that is – but once I start planning for it, which I should do within the next few months, I’ll be acknowledging the approaching end of the Watson. At this point halfway through the Watson, it’s difficult to disentangle myself from it and objectively assess what I’ve done so far, but I really hope that by the end of it all, I’m happy with all I’ve done and seen, with no regrets.

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I couldn’t get enough of these “trees”! There was no way to fully capture the experience on photo or even video, though, as they are simply so huge. 
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You can see the Marina Bay Sands building (also lit up at night) from the Supertree Grove. See all these people at the bottom of the shot, taking a bunch of pictures like me?

Anyway, there’s still a lot left to do, and I think Japan will certainly bring its set of new challenges. While I wish I could still say that I have no idea what to expect, and isn’t that thrilling (though quite honestly, that was something that terrified me just before starting the Watson), I do know what to expect now, and I’m looking forward to it.

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Gardens by the Bay has two large encased domes, one of which you see on the left. One is the “Cloud Forest” where apparently they generate real clouds inside the dome at specific times, and the other is the “Flower Dome.”
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The Helix Bridge and even the trees next to it light up at night.
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And of course, the classic view of Singapore at night: the Helix Bridge, the Marina Bay Sands, and the ArtScience museum.