I am back from Tokyo. Actually, I’ve been back for a few days already, but I haven’t had the time for almost anything but catching up with my email and organising the move to Spain. But I owe this one to Nick.
I enjoyed Tokyo. Last Tuesday morning, I got on the plane in Sydney and arrived in Cairns a few hours later. After 45 minutes I got on the same plane again. My assigned seat was an aisle one (as usual), and the person on the next seat was a sulky teenager sporting trendy white headphones. After they closed the plane doors and we started rolling on the tarmac, a tall and handsome male flight attendant that reminds me of Jude Law comes to my seat and says “Mr Gonzalezperez, I need to ask you a favour” (Gonzalezperez is Qantas‘ reinterpretation of my two surnames, given that their information systems do not handle spaces or hyphens for the surname field). I say “sure, how can I help you”. “I would like to ask you to move to another seat”. I say “sure, as long as it’s an aisle seat”. And he explains that he has two reasons for asking me so. The first is that Mr Wilson, the gentleman sitting next to me, has a friend who would like to sit with him for the flight. So far so good. The second reason is that (literally) Qantas regulations forbid an adult from sitting next to an unsupervised minor. I don’t flinch but think “gee, perhaps I do look like a pervert, or perhaps this guy is kidding”. Making a joke actually crossed my mind, like saying “well, Mr Wilson is not exactly my type”. But Jude’s face is straight and he looks ready to kick me out of the plane if I don’t comply with Qantas regulations, so I smile (“just smile and wave”, as Madagascar’s nasty penguins would say) and say “of course, where is that seat?” Jude points to a seat close to me, an aisle one, and I obey diligently. I hope my criminal record stays unchanged after this.
It was dark when I arrived in Narita airport. I got a limousine bus to Tokyo, and spent the 87 minutes looking through the window. Coming into Tokyo felt like being inside Blade Runner, with all those huge and sleek buildings flashing red lights here and there, and those little and dodgy old houses falling apart at the foot of the skyscrapers. The city feels more European than Australian, if something, but unique in its own sense.
I checked into the hotel and the first thing that struck me was birdsongs. They had birdsongs playing all over the place. Instead of elevator music, they had elevator birdsongs. In the corridors, at the reception desk, in the lift, in the restrooms. Luckily enough, they were Turdus-style birdsongs rather than Cacatua-style. My room was tiny, with a narrow bed and barely any room to walk around it. It was hot inside. The bathroom was also tiny, and looked like a single piece of plastic extruded from some huge machine and set up in place. Sink, shower plate, toilet, everything was integrated into a single beige, flowing sheet of plastic. To the left of the toilet, at the appropriate height so somebody sitting on it could operate it conveniently, there was a control panel that looked more like the dashboard of the Oenone, with lights, buttons and funny icons. One button read Flush (easy), another one Two Flush (?), another one Rear (what? my rear?) and another one Front (yes, my front). A fifth one was red and read Stop. To my uncultured Western mind, this was too good to be missed, so I decided to try it. I pushed some buttons while crouching by the toilet, but nothing happened. I quickly realised that there was a cable coming out of the toilet seat into the wall, and after a few seconds of exploration I found the sensor. Logically, the toilet wouldn’t work unless somebody was sitting on it. I tricked the thing putting some pressure with my hand on the seat (I noticed it was heated up) and pushed the button labelled Rear. After one second and with a whirr, a thin tube extended from somewhere under the toilet seat and a jet of deliciously warm water squirted up from it, with so much energy that it left a nice round mark on the ceiling. I quickly covered the damn thing with my hand and pushed Stop. The tube retracted and everything was quiet again.
Next day, breakfast was gorgeous. In addition to Western stuff such as cereal, coffee and pastries, they had salty and sour plums, cooked salmon, various seaweed concoctions, and other things which I wouldn’t identify but which I rejoiced trying. Great. I walked to the conference venue (2 minutes away), spent my day there, met some nice people, listened to some interesting papers, was once interrupted rudely by the chairperson while making a question, made a few more with no interruptions, and, in the evening, attended a lovely biwa performance by an apparently very well known artist. I was impressed at her voice, extremely low when singing but crystalline and high-pitched when talking. After the music, a Japanese gentleman, one of the conference organisers, climbed to the mike stand and started speaking in Japanese. A lady accompanying him would translate his words into English every two or three sentences. He said to the 60-odd people that he had been asked to give a short welcome speech and address the opportunities that the conference would create to solve software problems in the world. He went on to say that, rather than boring us with that, he preferred to talk about sushi. He spent ten minutes masterfully describing the structure of a piece of sushi, emphasising the transition zone between the rice and the fish. He concluded by asking us all to enjoy sushi. In fact, we then had some dinner, which included sushi plus other delicacies. I tried to focus my tastebuds on the above mentioned transition zone, and I must confess that I felt a tingling sensation in a couple of occasions.
One evening they took us to a restaurant for dinner. Perhaps they were trying to find something exotic, so they booked at an aussie-themed Outback Steakhouse. Funny. Even funnier was the Brown Thunder from Down Under, a massive chocolate dessert in the menu that, as one of us commented, might as well have been a big fart.
I soon realised that we were starting quite early in the morning (8 or 8:30) and staying up until quite late (usually 9 or 10) in the evening. I don’t know if this intensity is common in Tokyo or not, but it was definitely a characteristic of the whole conference. I had a great time. I would like to go back to Japan with some time to spend at leisure.