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Facebook Knew Android Call-Scraping Would Be ‘High-Risk’

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Russell Brandom, the Verge:

In March, many Android users were shocked to discover that Facebook had been collecting a record of their call and SMS history, as revealed by the company’s data download tool. Now, internal emails released by the UK Parliament show how the decision was made internally. According to the emails, developers knew the data was sensitive, but they still pushed to collect it as a way of expanding Facebook’s reach.

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

The key message here is that Facebook is only concerned about how it looks publicly — not the reasons why it would be negatively received. They don’t care that asking Android users for permission to read and upload logs of their phone calls and text messages is a profoundly creepy thing to do. They care that, when it is reported, there are talking points ready to go.

Furthermore, according to these emails, Facebook’s developers worked to remove the part where the app has to ask for users’ permission to read their call logs. They figured out a way to simply take it.

Facebook has made a series of disturbing choices unparalleled by any of its competitors. When they’re not mining individual users’ phones for details they can use to feed their advertising and user retention figures, they mislead users to download VPN software that helps Facebook know which apps are popular so that they can either buy or copy them. They also track web browsing activity, retain non-users’ contact details, and unfairly monopolizes the web in developing nations. Oh, and they’ve been a contributing force in escalating violence and even genocide in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and India.

To blame one company with a few websites and apps for so many of the world’s woes seems out of scale; however, it is not inaccurate — and perhaps that level of control and dominance is the most terrifying aspect of all. I can’t make the argument that Facebook ought to be shut down. But what would we really lose if that happened?

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6 days ago
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Chinese Businessmen: Superstition Doesn't Count

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Chinese Businessmen: Superstition Doesn't Count

This is the third post of The Chinese Businessman Paradox. View the previous post here.

A couple of years ago, my mum asked me for the birth date and the birth hour of a girl I was dating.

“Wait, why?” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “I want to check her bagua.”

The bagua are eight symbols found in The I-Ching— the handbook of Chinese cosmology that is said to represent the principles of reality. The bagua is used for a variety of things — things like telling if a match between partners is suitable, to predict if you were going to have health problems in the coming year, or if a spell of bad luck was about to beset your business.

Chinese Businessmen: Superstition Doesn't Count
The bagua. Each colour represents a different trigram and element.

For relationship matches, a Chinese fortune teller would take the birth datetimes of two people, do some ‘calculations’ to get the ‘fundamental element’ of the person’s personality type, and then look up the details of this particular matchup. The fundamental elements could be one of five things: fire, water, wood, earth, and metal.

My mother, like many overseas Chinese, believed in the methods of the I-Ching with the confidence you and I have for gravity, or quarks.

A few weeks later, she came back to me. “She’s a big water to your small fire!” my mother exclaimed — and I’m paraphrasing here, I can’t remember the exact terms — “Stop seeing her immediately! If you continue to date her, she will hold you back by sapping all your flame!”

I was mostly insulted that I was considered a small flame.

You may laugh at this anecdote, but the influence of superstition is alive and well amongst the overseas Chinese. It is an indelible part of our cultural identity.

When my mum found out that I planned to leave my old company to start a company of my own, she went to the fortune teller to get my Chinese name changed, and had a pendant made with my new name engraved on it. The Chinese believe a good name would help a person on their adventures.

I know she did this out of love for me.

Superstitious Chinese Businessmen

It’s no surprise that superstition is alive and well in the greater Chinese diaspora. Traditional Chinese businessmen are no exception.

Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok best typifies this approach to superstition. In his memoirs, Kuok mentions an episode where he was nearly hoodwinked by an Australian businessman, introduced to him by way of famous Singaporean stock broker Jacob Ballas. This Australian man arranged a meeting at a hotel downtown and invited Kuok over to have a chat. In Kuok’s own words — ‘he then proceeded to cast a spell over me’. The pitch Kuok received was so compelling that within hours Kuok was on the verge of handing over millions of dollars. Luckily for him, he excused himself at the last minute to confer with his mother.

On the phone, Kuok’s mother listened for a few minutes, and told him to wait as she checked the fortunes. A few minutes later, she returned, clearly disturbed by the results of her kau cim sticks, exclaiming “Stay away from that man! Nothing good can come of it!” Kuok immediately left the building.

Kuok reflects on this and other events in his life and writes, later, “what is superstition but a part of life?” He mentions how he once wondered, in an off-hand comment to his mother, how it was that every business he touched eventually succeeded, and his mother responded that she was not surprised; she had checked his fortunes when he was young, and foresaw that he would do very well in business.

I’ve mentioned before that I thought rationality matters for achieving success in business. But if rationality matters so much, how is it that an entire generation of Chinese businessmen could remain so superstitious yet achieve so much success?

Rationality Communities on the Web

Let’s contrast this observation of traditional Chinese businessmen with impressions taken from the largest community of rationality practitioners on the web — a community called LessWrong.

LessWrong was a community blog started by Eliezer Yudkowsky, whose writings on rationality are considered by members of that community to be amongst the best on the topic. Yudkowsky later wrote Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality to popularise his ideas; HPMOR remains one of the most popular Harry Potter fan-fictions out there.

It’s easy to dismiss the influence of this community — most people have never heard of it, much less spent time reading the Sequences. But I believe the ideas originally popularised by LessWrong’s members have spread throughout the intellectual blogosphere, due to the prolific output of its early members. Effective altruism was popularised and eventually helped into the mainstream by many writers of the LessWrong community; economist Robin Hanson was associated with an earlier iteration of the movement (his blog’s name, ‘Overcoming Bias’, is a carry-over from the old days, when he used to blog with Yudkowsky); AI prognosticators still draw on fanciful ideas developed on LessWrong years ago. Whenever you see the words ‘epistemic status’ in a blog post, or whenever someone invokes the idea of the Chesterton Fence or a Schelling Fence — you’re probably seeing LessWrong’s influence in action.

LessWrong’s definition of rationality may be loosely captured by psychologist Jonathan Baron’s definition in his book Thinking and Deciding: “whatever kind of thinking best helps people achieve their goals”. Or, as they say on the site: “rationality means winning!”

The problem with LessWrong is that they don’t seem to do a lot of it.

Today, Yudkowsky’s research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute isn’t taken seriously by the majority of Artificial Intelligence researchers; very few of his papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals; LessWrong itself split up as a community, and the two startups to have come out of it have been abject failures.

(And I don’t mean abject failures in the conventional sense of failing — most startups fail, but startups are something I know a bit about because my entire career has been around startups; I mean abject failures in the sense that I read the retrospectives and conclude that these people have either learnt the wrong lesson from their startup experiences, or learnt some incredibly obvious business realities way too slowly.)

I have great fondness for LessWrong and its community, but let’s be honest: for everything that its members say about the importance of rationality to winning, very little of what they say has actually resulted in actual winning. On the other hand, an entire generation of superstitious migrant businessmen have succeeded across South East Asia, in the face of overwhelming odds and racial discrimination, despite a distinctive lack of ‘rationality’.

Which begs the question: does rationality really matter to success in business? Superstition is the antithesis of all that LessWrong members prize, about as useful and as rigorous as believing in quack medicine and psychic science. If rationality matters so much in business and in life, how then do we explain the erroneous beliefs held by so many Chinese businessmen?

The Two Types of Rationality

To explain this, it helps to understand that there are two commonly understood forms of rationality, and LessWrong is mostly concerned with only one of them. The two forms are:

  • Epistemic rationality — how do you know that your beliefs are true?
  • Instrumental rationality — how do you make better decisions to achieve your goals?

Jonathan Baron calls the first form, epistemic rationality “thinking about beliefs”. He calls the second “thinking about decisions”.

LessWrong has concentrated most of its efforts on epistemic rationality. The vast majority of writing on the site focuses its attention on common cognitive biases and failures of human thinking, and discusses methods for overcoming them. In other words, LessWrong’s community of rationality practitioners desire the ability to hold accurate and true beliefs about the world, and believe that doing so will enable them to achieve success in their lives and in pursuit of their goals.

This is not an uncommon belief today. Ever since Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced the Heuristics and Biases program in the 70s, there has been a wellspring of thought that overcoming our biases and developing better reasoning strategies would lead to greater success in life. You merely have to throw a stone at the mountain of self-help articles on Medium to see an example of this kind of thinking.

My current bet, however, is that this simply can’t be true. LessWrong’s decade of existence, and my experience with traditional Chinese businessmen, suggests to me that instrumental rationality is the thing that dominates when it comes to success in business and life. It suggests to me that don’t need to optimise for correct and true beliefs to succeed in life if you’re instrumentally rational. You merely need a small set, related to your field; these beliefs can be determined from trial and error itself.

In other words: put a traditional Chinese businessmen under one of Kahneman and Tversky’s famous cognitive biases tests and you will find that the businessman fails terribly. But compete with one of them in business, and it’s highly likely that you’ll be crushed.

Why, exactly, does this discrepancy exist? I believe it exists because compensating for cognitive biases quickly reaches diminishing returns, to the point where it’s probably not worth it to spend much time studying cognitive bias avoidance. I’m not the first person to be making these criticisms; in a 2012 LessWrong post Aaron Swartz argued that perhaps the cognitive biases worth overcoming aren’t the ones explored by Kahneman & Tversky at all, because the academic literature focuses its attention on biases that can be easily detected in an experimental setting. These biases might not be the biases that matter most for success.

So what does instrumental rationality look like, and how do I know that traditional Chinese businessmen have it? Here I draw from observation and personal experience. Consider the kind of thinking that was demonstrated by one traditional Chinese businessman, from a conversation I had with him in 2016 (I’m paraphrasing from a mix of Mandarin and Singlish):

“I want to do business because I need to provide for my family. But business is so hard. You need to be good with people. So I worked for my uncle to learn how to manage people. You need to know how to motivate your staff, you know? (To succeed in business) you also need to know how to manage money, so I asked my bosses, my uncle, for advice and I learn from them. You need to know how to do sales, so I try and do sales a lot at the beginning. But very tough lah. Very tough. Also need to be lucky.”

I’ve noticed that Chinese businessmen often have an intuitive grasp of the skills they need to success in business — skills that this businessman had identified from observation of the successful business people around him. But not everyone I’ve met was as explicit as this particular businessman; most of them functioned at the level of unspoken intuition, waving me off when I asked them about their success by saying “Aiyah, I just work hard lah.”

There is some benefit, perhaps, to having so many businessmen around you, as is the privilege of growing up with business being a core part of your culture. But regardless of the benefits, this particular Chinese businessman then went out — as best as he was able — to systematically acquire those skills. This was, to me, a perfect example of instrumental rationality in action. As a reminder, psychologist Keith Stanovich explains that instrumental rationality consists of:

(…) Stanovich laments that almost all societies are focused on intelligence when the costs of irrational behavior are so high. But you can pick out the signatures of rational thinking if you are alert to them. According to Stanovich, they include adaptive behavioral acts, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization, reflectivity, and the proper treatment of evidence.

This particular Chinese businessman demonstrated at least four of the traits listed by Stanovich. The last time I checked, he was still expanding his spa business in Singapore.

In my previous post I’ve argued that trial and error dominates in business as compared to studying from theory and insight, and I want to highlight this as a clear example of a Chinese businessman learning the ropes by doing and failing. But you can also see where the superstition fits in — Chinese culture believes that luck is hugely important to business success, so they pray at temples, give offerings to deities, and pay fortune tellers to tell them what to do. My mother changed my name; Kuok’s mother paid to get his fortune told. The randomness of luck dominates in our cultural consciousness.

Chinese Businessmen: Superstition Doesn't Count

Rational Trial and Error

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been digging into one pocket of human knowledge in pursuit of explanations for the success of the traditional Chinese businessman. The hope I have is that some of these explanations are directly applicable to my practice.

Here’s my current bet: I think one can get better at trial and error, and that the body of work around instrumental rationality hold some clues as to how you can get better.

I’ve argued that the successful Chinese businessmen are probably the ones who are better at trial and error than the lousier ones; I posited that perhaps they needed less cycles to learn the right lessons to make their businesses work.

I think the body of research around instrumental rationality tell us how they do so. I’m thankful that Jonathan Baron wrote a fairly good overview of the field, with his fourth edition of Thinking and Deciding. And I think both Ray Dalio’s and Nicholas Nassem Taleb’s writings have explored the implications of some of these ideas. If I were to summarise the rough thrust of these books:

  • Don’t do trials where error is catastrophic.
  • Don’t repeat the same trials over and over again (aka don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again).
  • Increase the number of trials you can do in your life.
  • In fields with optionality (i.e. your downside is capped but your upside is large) the more trials you take, and the more cheap each trial costs, the more likely you’ll eventually win. Or, as Taleb says: “randomness is good when you have optionality.”
  • Write down your lessons and approaches from your previous successful trials, so you may generalise them to more situations (Principles, chapter 5)
  • Systematically identify the factor that gives positive evidence, and vary that to maximise the expected size of the impact (Thinking and Deciding, chapter 7)
  • Actively look for disconfirming evidence when you’ve found an approach that seems to work. (Thinking and Deciding, chapter 7, Principles, chapter 3).

This is very preliminary stuff, though I’ll probably write them up when I have results worth reporting. But it’s probably important to note that this doesn’t take away from the act of actual practice. You cannot succeed in business by pure thought alone.


I want to close here by saying that there could well be alternative explanations for the success of traditional Chinese businessmen, in spite of their superstition.

One alternative explanation is that the businessmen I know don’t examine their beliefs for superstition as closely as they do their models for business, because the superstitious stuff turns out to not have a huge impact on their money. In contrast, superstitious beliefs and practices may actually help a business person deal with the psychological stress of facing randomness in business and in life.

Another explanation that I find plausible is the argument that Kevin Simler makes in his essay Crony Beliefs:  that is, that we hold certain beliefs for pragmatic reasons, but others for social ones, and it happens that superstition is useful to show that you are a member of an in-group.

But my main point still stands: it doesn’t seem like the sorts of rationality that LessWrong prizes, or even the sort of rationality explored by Kahneman and Tversky’s research matter that much when it comes to success in business or in life. I suspect that instrumental rationality, deployed in the service of trial and error, is ultimately what matters.

It is the thing that is worth striving for.

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73 days ago
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Bar Joke


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The good news is that when the man gets caught running naked through the park, there's no self-consistent way to say he's at fault.

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141 days ago
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Software Development

Update: It turns out the cannon has a motorized base, and can make holes just fine using the barrel itself as a battering ram. But due to design constraints it won't work without a projectile loaded in, so we still need those drills.
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145 days ago
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Coupling


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Sometimes we also adjust their brains so they think they no longer enjoy their life's work. You should see all the crazy stuff they start doing!

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165 days ago
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Noah Smith's Japan Travel Guide


Now is a GREAT time to travel to Japan. The country has really opened up, thanks to Abenomics, a weak yen, and the impending 2020 Tokyo Olympics. New technology has also made it a lot easier to get around the country, and to find cool stuff. Japan is in the middle of a huge tourism boom, and who knows how long it'll last, so you might as well be part of it. Go see the world, take a trip to Japan!

Anyway, for a long time, people have been asking me for tips about what to do when they go to Japan. So instead of re-writing a list of recommendations every time, I thought I'd write a blog post. So here it is: Noah Smith's Abbreviated Illustrated Guide to Travel in Japan.

This list is HEAVILY weighted toward the "urban Japan experience", rather than touristy/historical stuff like temples, shrines, etc. or outdoorsy stuff like skiing and hiking. I've found that Japanese cities are the most distinctive thing about the country, and that people who do the "wander around in the city" thing and hit up some of these attractions on their first trip there tend to have the most fun. 

It's also heavily weighted toward a first-time or second-time visitor who probably doesn't speak fluent Japanese, so it doesn't contain much hole-in-the-wall or out-of-the-way stuff either - i.e., Japan residents or regular Japan-goers will find this pretty "basic". If you're a Japan resident or regular Japan-goer who wants cool hip underground stuff to do and little unknown hole-in the wall restaurants or whatever, hit me up. Or better yet, you show me stuff. ;-)

When to Go

The most popular time to go to Japan is in late March/early April for the cherry blossoms (hanami). Warning: It will be very crowded and expensive. 

July/August is also a great time to go - you can see fireworks and go to little traditional festivals with a bunch of yukata-wearing folk. It's fairly hot and humid. November is also a nice time to visit, and is much cheaper than spring or summer. 

Getting Around

Getting around in a foreign country can be a bit of a challenge, but with these handy tips you should have no problem, even if you don't speak a word of Japanese (though you should learn Japanese because it's a cool language!).

Flights: There are lots of random cheap flights to Japan, and you just have to search a bunch to find them. But one trick you might want to try is to fly out of LAX. Try booking a round trip from LAX to NRT (Tokyo), and then booking a separate round trip to and from LAX to your home airport, and see if that saves you some money.

Lodging: Airbnb, at least until recently, has worked AMAZINGLY well in Japan. Many Airbnb owners are commercial operators, rather than owner-occupiers as in the U.S. So for a much cheaper price than a Japanese hotel, you can stay in a fully furnished Japanese apartment! Apartments for 2 or more people are especially cheap and often spacious. However, Japan has just stepped up regulation of Airbnb, and there was one episode where many reservations were cancelled. The cancellation thing should be a one-time event (I hope), but still, you'll have to check to see how available Airbnb is when you make your trip. If you can't find an Airbnb, try staying at a cheap hotel like Solare.

Pocket WiFi: This is incredibly useful. It'll let you use wifi anywhere in Japan, even on trains. This means you'll have a functioning cell phone without having to pay for international data rates (or phone if you use a voice calling app), AND wifi for your laptop. You can rent a pocket wifi from Global Advanced Communications. You pick it up at the airport when you arrive, then put it in an envelope and drop it in a post office box when you leave.

Google Maps: Google Maps works incredibly well in Japan. Many Japanese streets don't have names, so you can find yourself wandering around aimlessly for a long time...unless you use Google Maps, in which case you can unerringly walk directly to your destination every time. You can copy-paste Japanese addresses into Google Maps and it will handle them just fine.

Japan Rail Pass: This pass allows you to take any JR train for free. That includes the shinkansen (bullet train), which is the easiest way to go between most cities in Japan. It also lets you ride JR trains within cities, which are especially useful in Tokyo. JR passes come in 1, 2, and 3-week-long varieties. If you're going to travel around the country, this will save you a lot of money, but if you're going to just stay in Tokyo, or just go to one other nearby city, it probably isn't worth it. You can buy a Japan Rail Pass in your own country at an approved location or through a travel agent, or you can buy it in Japan at the airport until March 31, 2019.

Suica/Pasmo Card: Suica and Pasmo are actually two names for the same thing. This is a refillable RFID card that will let you use JR trains AND subways AND private rail lines throughout Japan. The only things you can't use it for are shinkansen and a few other special rapid trains. It's super useful. You can get it at the ticket machines at any train station. That is also where you refill it. Suica/Pasmo cards can also be used at all convenience stores, many drink machines, and many supermarkets! Super useful.

From the Airport: If you fly into Tokyo, use the Keisei Skyliner to get to the city, UNLESS you got the JR pass, in which case use the Narita Express because it's free. If you fly into Osaka, use the Nankai Airport Line.

Local Transportation: You'll mostly be using the train. Taxis are around but they're very expensive. Uber is basically nonexistent. The train stops running between midnight and 1:00 AM, so be careful not to get stranded. In Osaka you can also buy a bicycle if you want, which will run you about $100.

Paying for Stuff: You will need cash in Japan, so keep some on you. Visa cards can be used at a lot of stores and restaurants. Suica/Passmo cards can also be used in many grocery stores and convenience stores. But you will need cash. To make international ATM withdrawals, use the ATM in 7-11, which is pretty ubiquitous, or another ATM chain called Prestia. Google Maps can help you find the nearest 7--11 or Prestia if you're short on cash. 

Places to Visit

There are too many cool places to visit in Japan for me to tell you even a few of them, and if I do tell you some, you'll all just go to the same places and won't be able to swap stories. So I suggest you wander around, ask friends who live there, look on the internet, etc. etc. But just in case you still want me to tell you some places to check out, here's a short list. 


Much of what you'll visit will probably be on the west side of the city. This is where all the famous "cool" neighborhoods are: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shimo-Kitazawa, etc. So I recommend staying somewhere near that area, for easy access. You'll mostly use the JR Yamanote line (loop line) to get around.

Shibuya: Remember that one crazy neon-drenched intersection you see in every Western movie or news report about Japan? That's called Shibuya Crossing, but its real name is Hachiko Square. (It used to kick Times Square's ass, before they redid Times Square and turned it into Blade Runner.) Hachiko Square is a convenient place to meet up with people, people-watch, or begin your adventures into Shibuya. Shibuya has tons of good places to eat, lots of giant stores and malls, alleys full of cool little bars and trendy dance clubs, and (weirdly) startup offices. Just go there and wander around. It's the quintessential "urban Japan experience" you're probably looking for.

Harajuku: This is where the fun kids hang out, or used to before it got taken over by tourists. You can still go to cool boutiques like Dog or 6%Dokidoki and see fashion kids of the type advertised on the @TokyoFashion Twitter account. Fight the crowds on Takeshita Street, or wander the less crowded backstreets of Ura-Harajuku. Most importantly, visit Tokyo Design Festa Gallery, a free art gallery with a cool cafe out back. I've met too many interesting people there to count, and the crowd is fairly international. 

Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Koen): This is Tokyo's equivalent of Central Park or Golden Gate Park. It's right next to Harajuku station on the JR line. The park has a huge and beautiful old Shinto shrine called Meiji Jingu, a huge hangout area where people picnic a lot, and wooded jogging/biking trails. During hanami season in late March/early April it's especially amazing, especially on the weekends. At the south end of the park is a footbridge that crosses to a cool amphitheater area where they have events on weekends, and if you keep walking that way you'll get to Shibuya.

Shinjuku: This maze of neon backstreets is another quintessential "urban Japan experience". If you come out of the east exit from JR Shinjuku station, you'll arrive at an old red-light district known as Kabukicho. In where you can go to Robot Restaurant (warning: it's silly), hit the bars at Golden Gai, explore Japan's most famous gay district at Ni-chome, or even see the last few yakuza if you go to the right monjayaki restaurant. Or just wander around, really.

Akihabara: This is known as "geek city", but it probably won't seem that different from the rest of Tokyo. Go wander around some geek shops, play video games (Taito Station is my favorite arcade), visit a maid cafe (warning: pointless, cheesy and overpriced), etc. But don't expect to be mobbed by anime geeks in full cosplay (for that, go to Comiket or other similar events).  

Shimo-Kitazawa: If you want to go to a hipster neighborhood, this is probably your best bet if you're in Tokyo for the first time. Jake Adelstein lives here, so make sure to bring a sword.

Odaiba: A giant game center, with some little beaches nearby where people party in the summer. Nice views of the city and bay from the monorail (which is actually not a monorail, interestingly enough).

Ikebukuro: Where the fun kids hang out and do fun stuff now that Harajuku and Shibuya have been mobbed by tourists. Of course now you'll read this guide and mob Ikebukuro too, and they'll have to find somewhere else! Damn general equilibrium!

Shimbashi: Also known as Shinbashi, this is where to go if you want to see and interact with Japan's famous "salarymen" in the after-work hours. Well, this or Yurakucho. Or Kanda. Or Ikebukuro. Damn, Tokyo has a lot of salarymen.

Daikanyama: This is a very cool, modern, "new urbanist" style mini-neighborhood near Shibuya.

Asakusa: This has another cool shrine, and an old-looking district around it, as well as a nice riverwalk.

Roppongi: Here's where to go if you want to hang out with English-speakers, meet seedy characters, or hit the international clubs. Go to the top of Mori Tower for a nice panoramic view of the city. There's a nice art gallery in the building too, which always has surprisingly good stuff in it.

Ageha: Ageha is probably Japan's best dance club, if you like dance clubs. It's a little ways out of the city, so you have to take a bus. 


In Osaka, you'll mainly be getting around via subway. The Osaka Municipal Subway is the best-run train system in the entire Universe. In most of Japan, you walk on the left, but in Osaka you walk on the right, so remember to do this, so that you bump into all the people visiting Osaka from other cities. Also, watch out for bicycles. 

Umeda: Umeda is Osaka's answer to Shinjuku, but is actually kind of what Shinjuku was like before it got mobbed by tourist hordes. Lots of great food and cool neon streets. Visit the Hep Five mall and go up on the ferris wheel to get a nice view of the city.

Namba: Even cooler than Umeda. See the Glico Man and the other big neon signs next to the Hikakebashi bridge, and walk around the riverwalk there. Go to Dotonbori street and eat some yummy food and go to cool shops. Walk down Namba Walk, a covered shopping arcade, all the way up to Shinsaibashi (where there are many good restaurants and clubs). Or go underground and wander the endless vast subterranean shopping centers. Or head over to Nipponbashi (where I used to live) and go shopping for electronics. You really can't miss, in Namba. 

America-Mura: This mini-neighborhood, near Namba in the south of Osaka, is called "America town", but is neither American nor a town. It IS, however, a very cool place to hang out, with fashion shops and fashion kids in the daytime and cool clubs and bars at night. The streetlights look like robots, and one building has a giant clown on it. Go catch a live show at Sunhall, which was a rockin' place a decade ago and probably still is. Or go buy rock & roll records at Time Bomb. Or just hang out in Triangle Park, which isn't actually a park, but more of a concrete slab where kids sit around. In Ame-Mura you can almost feel the ghost of young Noah Smith wandering around taking pictures of fashion kids and asking for band recommendations...

Osaka Castle Park: Also known as Osaka-jo Koen, this is a big nice park with a castle at the center. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, and is now a facsimile, but the park is really great and has fun people to meet and excellent views of the city. And lots of stray cats.

Tennoji Zoo: A zoo that has some Asian animals that you might not see as much in Western zoos.

Sakuranomiya: The best place to do hanami if you're there for cherry blossom season.

A Few Other Places

Kyoto: Everyone likes to go to Kyoto and see the temples and shrines and geisha (who are actually not geisha but who cares). If you do that, make sure to go to Kiyomizu, Yasaka, and Gion, and then Kinkakuji and/or Ginkakuji if you want even more traditional stuff. If you'd rather hang do something more hip in Kyoto, go hang out on the Kamogawa riverbank.

Okunoshima: This is an island full of bunnies. It takes a day to get there and a day to get back. You decide if it's worth it, for an island full of bunnies.

Hakone: A town with a bunch of onsen. If you want the real "country ryokan and onsen-hopping" experience, go here. You can also take a bus or taxi to a tea shop that has great views of Mt. Fuji. But if you want to see my favorite onsen in Japan, go to Kawayu in Wakayama south of Osaka, and visit the senninburo (giant outdoor river bath). 

Himeji: Possibly the only real samurai castle in Japan. Unfortunately, samurai were quite short and didn't have access to much metal or other materials, so the castle consists mainly of plain wooden corridors that are too small to stand up in. It also has a haunted well. 

Really, I'm the wrong person to ask about touristy stuff around Japan, since I don't do a lot of touristy stuff. Places like Sapporo, Okinawa, Hiroshima, Mt. Fuji, etc. are pretty famous tourist destinations, but I've actually never been to them.

Food to Eat

The problem with Japanese food is that A) there is a ton of amazing stuff, but B) the traditional stuff that people typically go for is not the best, and C) there is a lot of bad stuff too, so if you go around trying random stuff you also won't have the best experience. On top of this, I'm a bit afraid of sending too many people to a few awesome restaurants that I know, for fear of swamping them and forcing them to become uncool tourist attractions. So writing a Japan food guide is tricky. Instead, I'll focus on types of food to try, and mostly let people find their own stuff, recommending only a few places. To search for good food, use Google, Tabelog, and Tripadvisor.

Izakaya: The best food in Japan is actually found at izakaya, which are basically Japanese tapas restaurants. The problem is that lots of izakaya are cheap chain restaurants - good for parties, but not exactly fine dining. But the slightly upscale izakaya are the place where real creative cuisine happens in Japan - in fact, not eating at izakaya is the biggest food mistake that tourists make. But there is such a dizzying array of izakaya that it's impossible to give any general guidelines for how to find the good ones. Just two of the many that I'd recommend are Teppen in Shibuya and Fumoto Akadori in Tamachi. If you must go to a chain, go to Nijyu-Maru or Za-Watami.

Ramen: Everybody loves ramen, but you should definitely eat ramen in Japan, because it's just...better. There are two basic types: A) ramen without a ton of fat in it, and B) ramen with a ton of fat in it (aburamen). For normal ramen, a very good place is the most famous touristy place, Ichiran. For fatty aburamen, my favorite is Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Harajuku. Ramen is one of the rare foods that's as good in Tokyo as in Osaka. There's actually better stuff out there too - ramen gets as fancy (and as snobby) as you like.

Nabe: Japanese hot pot. Really damn good. Served year-round but more popular in the winter months. Try chanko nabe, the traditional food of sumo wrestlers. 

Yakiniku: Barbecue! Japan does it very well. This can include pricey wagyu, Korean-style stuff, or weird seedy places that are difficult to describe. Try them all! A favorite of mine is Shibaura, not to be confused with the neighborhood of the same name.

Okonomiyaki: A bready cabbage pancake with meat or other stuff inside and sweet barbecue sauce and mayo on top. Do NOT eat this in Tokyo; eat it only in Osaka. 

Kaitenzushi: This is what Americans call "sushi boat" - sushi on a conveyor belt. Japan does it better than anywhere, of course, and it's actually pretty cheap. Genrokuzushi in Osaka is the best, and Heiroku Sushi near Harajuku is fun and touristy and good.

Monjayaki: This is a Tokyo specialty - a gooey hash made on a griddle at your table. The best places are in a neighborhood called Tsukishima. 

Kaiseki: This is a kind of restaurant where you get a long series of very small, very well-presented dishes. It's fairly expensive.

Italian food: Japanese Italian is different from what you'll get in the States or elsewhere. For lunch, little Italian eateries can't be beat. Il Buttero in Shibuya is a good example. 

Beer: Japan has gotten into the craft beer game, and there are lots of nice places where you can try good stuff. My personal favorite is Craftheads in Shibuya. Weirdly, Japan is into craft pilsners, which you don't see a lot of, so that's worth trying.

Sake: There are too many awesome sake places in Japan to count. The key is to try "amakuchi" and "karakuchi" sake, to avoid just getting the dry-tasting stuff we usually get in America. Also, of course, try a bit of nigori. 

Crepes: The best place to eat Japanese crepes is probably on Takeshita St. in Harajuku, or Namba shopping arcade in Osaka.

Fun Stuff To Do

This is just a random list of fun stuff to do in Japan. Some of this is redundant to stuff above.

Shell out some money and go to a music festival like Fuji Rock or Sunset Live.

Shop for cool clothes in Shibuya, Harajuku, or Ame-Mura.

Buy some fireworks at a corner store and shoot them off in the park (legal!).

Drink on the street or in a park (legal!).

Shop for kitschy fun stuff at Village Vanguard.

Go to a rabbit cafe, an owl cafe, a cat cafe, or whatever type of animal cafe you can imagine. It probably exists. Just Google it.

Play goofy video games at Taito Station

Go see the awesome art at Design Festa (and don't miss Design Festa Gallery, open year-round!). 

Visit the Shibu House art incubation space (you have to email them for an invite).

Take a riverboat cruise around Osaka or a boat cruise around Tokyo Bay.

Walk around the huge underground shopping malls in Osaka and get totally lost.

Picnic in Yoyogi Park or Osaka Castle Park.

Go to a rave, which is still probably fun even now. Or go clubbing at Ageha

Go to a live house (music club) like Sunhall, Fandango, or any of the places in Shimokitazawa.

Go to a summer festival. Or see some amazing Japanese fireworks, which often put the 4th of July to shame.

And obviously, go to a park if you're there for cherry blossom season. In fact, just live in the park. Camp out there every day. Meet all the people. It will make you happy.

And there you have it! Noah Smith's Abbreviated Illustrated Guide to Travel in Japan! This guide will be updated with random recommendations over time, but those are the basics. Happy travels, and post pics!
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