Nippon 2007: Behind the Information Desk

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The complete itinerary from Aloha, OR to Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan:

  1. Taxi to Portland International Airport. The one thing about deciding to leave at mid-morning on a Tuesday is, you pretty much rule out being able to cadge a ride from a friend or relative.
  2. Flight to Seattle on a little commuter turboprop. Slow, noisy, but the low altitude gives you a terrific view of the Cascade scenery.
  3. Boeing 777 for a 9 hour, 50 minute flight to Narita International Airport, Japan. After the turboprop, the 777 seemed like a small city. Ironically, the turboprop has bigger seats, though.

    The one thing the international traveler really needs to know about this airport, which no guidebook or Web site will tell you, is that it's at the forefront of Japan's new energy conservation drive, where buildings are encouraged to turn the climate control down. Straight out of the jetway, you get to enjoy the subtropical climate.

  4. Narita Express from the sub-basement of the airport to Yokohama Station. Quite a few other Worldcon attendees spotted during this segment. Pleasantries were exchanged, but everyone was seriously jet-lagged and trying to conserve their available brainpower for finding their way to their hotels.
  5. Minato Mirai Line from there to Bashamichi Station.
  6. Three-block walk to the Yokohama Heiwa Plaza Hotel. Very short blocks, it turned out, and just as well. We'd landed in the late afternoon (or midnight the previous night, Pacific Time), and now it was pitch-black night and raining.

All this we managed without me having to speak a word of Japanese, which disappointed me a little as I'd spent over a year beforehand in intensive study with the Rosetta Stone software. I took three years of Japanese in college, but I had refreshed to the point where I spoke beter than I ever had. And it turned out to do me practically no good. Most people spoke too fast, and I just didn't have enough vocabulary. On the other hand, I'd also spent a year learning written Japanese better than I'd ever known it before, and that was a huge help. It's true that the most important signs have English on them, but sometimes it's really tiny, and there are many slightly less important things that do not provide English at all.

Our hotel was roughly equivalent to a Holiday Inn Express or Howard Johnson, except hotels in that category in Japan don't see a lot of foreign tourists; it's the luxury hotels that are designed to be accessible to foreigners, which hotels in the more budget range stick with locals, primarily businessmen. Along with the savings, I was pretty excited about being able to stay in a hotel that wasn't ultra-Westernized.

I loved it. Chris was not quite as thrilled by the experience. A large part of this can be explained by the fact that I am 5'3" if you round up, whereas Chris is 6' even. So while I was enjoying novel experiences like sitting down for breakfast and realizing I was really sitting down, with my feet flat on the floor, Chris was undergoing a series of painful reminders that he is what most of the world considers tall. He was taller than the doorway to our room. His feet stuck a little way off the end of the bed. (Although he says that was actually sort of useful in helping them stay cool.)

Anyway, check-in turned up the first non-Western feature of this hotel. The room key, the clerk explained, was to be left at the front desk if everyone in the room was going out. When you came back, you would tell the desk clerk your room number, and they would give you the key. In actual practice, it turned out that if that particular clerk didn't recognize you, they would first perform an identity check by pulling out the receipt for that room, pointing to the name, and asking if that was you.

Settled in, all that left was locating some dinner, for which we walked a few blocks over to the waterfront and the nearest mall, and had dinner at an Italian restaurant. This may sound like wimping out from a true cultural experience, but the fact is that there practically no actual Japanese restaurants in that section of Yokohama. Yokohama's reputation to the rest of Japan is as a place with heavy foreign influence, and the Minato Mirai area plays that up by offering just about every cuisine except Japanese.

The next day was Thursday, the first day of Worldcon, and we settled into what would be a daily routine for our time in Yokohama. I would get up, shower, get Chris up and moving, and then flip through the TV channels and see if I could make any sense of what I saw. Most of what was on at that hour looked like entertainment news, except for one channel where there was nothing but a stern-looking, formally dressed man who talked nonstop. On the second morning we were there, I saw a low-tech visual aid listing some information about the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II, and concluded that I was watching either a telecourse, or someone with an elaborate right-wing conspiracy theory who was taking advantage of the upcoming anniversary to present it. Chris would later remind me that when we had first glanced at the channel listing, it had mentioned something called "Air University".

Sunday I managed to catch the start of the program, and got as far as deciphering that it was in fact a history course and copying down the presenter's family name so that I could ask one of the Japanese speakers at the info desk how to pronounce it. His name turned out to be Ōishi.

The first day, I also unpacked the cell phones we were renting from G-Phone. They were running a special deal for Worldcon members, and even had posters up at their airport desk specifically welcoming us. In each bag was a cell phone, charger, and a set of instructions which turned out to be for a slightly different model of phone. A few minutes of experimentation eventually got each phone's number recorded in the other's address book.

Also there was a toy with each one. I'm not sure if they do this for everyone, or they just know how to treat science fiction fans.

Once Chris was out of the shower, we would head down to the hotel's breakfast buffet, which was, once again, not terribly Japanese. There was salad, bacon, sausage, various sorts of bread, and scrambled eggs with something added that made them sort of mayonnaisey. After that we would walk up to the convention center.

Most of the convention function space was in a building that was actually part of the Pacifico Yokohama, with the dealers' room, art show, etc. taking up one segment of the exhibition hall across the way. I would spend most of my time stationed at the information desk on the third floor, while Bobbi DuFault ran the one in the exhibition hall. Actually it was a combined information and volunteers desk, with occasional sidelines in handicapped access and masquerade registration. This turned out to be handy in that the information end was always staffed with native English speakers, and the volunteers end usually had native Japanese speakers, so if one of our tireless and dedicated translation staff was not around, we could always direct people with questions in Japanese to the other end of the table.

They say that behind the scenes of every Worldcon, there's at least one disaster that most attendees never even know about. If that was the case at this convention, I never knew about it either. We did, however, have a constant stream of small exciting problems to keep us occupied. The first, practically right out of the starting gate on Thursday, was Stanley Schmidt coming by to say that he knew he had a kaffeeklatsch later that day, but they'd forgotten to put it on the schedule in his packet. This was useful later when several people came by asking us to clear up confusion about when it was, and we could say, "Well, we told him it was at 4pm."

Three or four people had problems with the con hotels not having gotten their reservations from Nippon Travel Agency; pertinent information was passed along to people who could help, and as far as I know it was all resolved. A little tougher was the case of the guy who said the hostel he'd been planning to stay at in Tokyo after the convention had contacted him to say that they were overbooked and could not honor his reservation, so did we know of any other hostels in Tokyo that could take a reservation in English? Also he was blind, so pointing him at a Web site had to be ruled out. After conferring and drawing a blank, all we could think of to do was look up the number of the nearest US consulate for him. Then a passerby who had wandered into the conversation turned out to have some local knowledge, so she took him over to the Internet lounge to look up some possibilities for him.

Registration was on our floor Thursday, then moved to the exhibition hall on Friday, resulting in several people a day for the rest of the con coming up with a confused expression to say, "Wasn't registration supposed to be around here somewhere?" Luckily this only happened once with the handicapped access desk, which had also moved. It was clear the person in question was not going to be able to hike over to the exhibition hall for a scooter, so Chris, who had been going off-shift to catch a panel, instead ran over there to pry one loose for her.

The press desk made the move, too. Saturday, while I was away from the table, someone dropped off a note in Japanese with instructions that we were to show it to any Japanese press who turned up there. Someone did not explain what the note said, leaving us to speculate what was going through the minds of the journalists who would study the note with an expression of grave concern, then say "Thank you!" and dash off. Later one of the translators would assure us that it was really just instructions on how to locate the press desk in the exhibit hall.

Lost and found was a fairly busy area from Saturday onward. The famously compact electronics of Japan are apparently very easy to lose. Enough cameras and phones passed through our hands to supply a small news agency. There were the inevitable mislaid registration bags, and a whole bunch of backpacks, nearly all of them black.

On Sunday, news was spreading that an American fan was in the hospital, and one of the donation boxes was set up at our desk. The response was amazing. Whole groups of Japanese fans would come up together to donate. I tried to put some of my Japanese knowledge to work to say thank you. The problem is that there are a lot of ways to say it in Japanese. For everyday use, there's arigatō gozaimas', or just arigatō to be informal. When we left restaurants, the staff would say arigatō gozaimash'ta, which was clearly a more polite version, but I didn't know the exact circumstances that would make it appropriate. I decided to stick with dōmo arigatō gozaimas', to make it an emphatic thank-you. In reading up on this more afterward, it looks like arigatō gozaimash'ta would have fit better. Ah well, they got what I meant, and at least no one laughed.

I had a great spot for costume-watching. Japanese fan costuming, or cosplay, is nearly all recreation costumes. I saw two or three Ultramen, some robots, including a very convincing Optimus Prime, and a lot of anime character outfits, which even included a full-head covering looking like the character's face. It was a little disconcerting to notice that most of these characters were female, and most of the costume-wearers did not seem to be. Back in the States, an anime fan told me that these outfits are called kigurumi, and yes, mostly they're worn by men.

Thursday I managed to sneak off long enough to pick up lunch for Chris and me at the local Makudonarudo(McDonald's). While being able to read the entire menu, which was practically all katakana (most of the food names turn out to be the same as on your US menu, only the combo meal is a "value set"), was a nice confidence boost, we were too busy later on for me to go that far. I wound up having snacks from the staff lounge, which was just around the corner, guarded by R2-D2. As I mentioned before, this turned out to be my one chance to encounter genuine local food, such as:

Around this time, we also became acquainted with Japan's answer to Gatorade, Pocari Sweat. It's definitely an acquired taste, but one you can acquire very quickly when you've just been out in high humidity and high temperatures.

I made it a goal to go to one program item per day and nearly made it. Thursday I went to the opening ceremonies, at which the two most memorable appearances were the bunny girl from the Daicon animation in a new segment for this convention, and the mayor of Yokohama, who arrived on the stage in a rickshaw.

Someone showed me part of it on YouTube later on, and the thing that leapt out at me was that, at the bottom of the frame, there were two other audience members holding up video cameras to make their own recordings.

Friday I had thoughts about going to "Unexplored Alternate Histories", but I was the only one at the table, and so they remained unexplored.

Saturday I got to the "Middle-Earth Civil Service Examination", where it turned out those people who had been in the foyer a little earlier with the harp and the Numenorean flag had been bringing them in for this very event. They were members of Japan's Tolkien society, Shiro-no-Norite (White Rider).

Shiro-no-Norite was founded in 1981, and publishes three periodicals: Elanor, a monthly newsletter; White Rider, which covers translations, criticism, and general Tolkien scholarship; and Black Rider, for parodies, book reviews, etc. Interested persons should go to or write [specially mangled for Web version] norite @at@ with the word "Tolkien" in the subject line.

The program book said the test would concentrate on the Owarazarishi Monogatari. I didn't know what that was, and neither did any of the other English speakers who showed up and chatted before the test started, but we all agreed we knew Middle-Earth pretty well, and we'd be fine as long as it didn't turn out to mean Unfinished Tales.

Well, guess what Owarazarishi Monogatari turns out to be. (In fact, it turns out that Shiro-no-Norite is responsible for doing the definitive Japanese translation, which was published in 2003.) Nevertheless, a good time was had by all, and I got permission to reprint the test provided I gave sufficient attribution. To completely recreate the experience, give yourself 25 minutes to answer, and no peeking at your textbooks!

(1) Which is the Lord of Gondolin? (four points)
(a) Fingon
(b) Turgon
(c) Fingolfin
(d) Finrod
(e) Thingol

(2) How many gates existed at Gondolin when Tuor arrived? (four points)
(a) One
(b) Three
(c) Five
(d) Seven
(e) Nine

(3) What is the relation of Túrin and Tuor? (four points)
(a) brothers
(b) friends
(c) uncle and nephew
(d) cousins
(e) father and child

(4) Which is the Vala who met Tuor? (four points)
(a) Uinen
(b) Mandos
(c) Oromë
(d) Manwe
(e) Ulmo

(5) Which is the name of the Elf-maid who cared for Túrin when he just arrived to Doriath? (four points)
(a) Lalaith
(b) Melian
(c) Nellas
(d) Miriel

(6) Which is the name of the woman who is wife of Brodda and kinswoman of Túrin? (four points)
(a) Aerin
(b) Ailinel
(c) Rían
(d) Arwen
(e) Morwen

(7) Who attacked Túrin at Doriath, and, on the contrary, lost his life? (four points)
(a) Daeron
(b) Beleg
(c) Saeros
(d) Gwindor
(e) Mablung

(8) Which is the meaning of Turambar? (four points)
(a) Master of Doom
(b) Blacksword
(c) Secret
(d) The Wronged

(9) Which is the name of red flowers that grew on Amon Rûdh? (four points)
(a) seregon
(b) uilos
(c) aeglos
(d) vardarianna
(e) malinornë

(10) Which is the alias of Mablung? (four points)
(a) Strongbow
(b) Dragon-helm
(c) the Hunter
(d) Lord of the Fountains

(11) Select the Men of Brethil who went with Turin when he went to the last battle in Glaurung. (two points for one, four for both)
(a) Dorlas
(b) Brandir
(c) Hunthor
(d) Handir
(e) Asgon

(12) Which is the real name of Aldarion? (four points)
(a) Amandil
(b) Valandil
(c) Anardil
(d) Anarion
(e) Surion

(13) Which is the name of the Royal city of Númenor? (four points)
(a) Andúnië
(b) Meneltarma
(c) Emerië
(d) Armenelos
(e) Vinyalonde

(14) Which is the name of Ancalimë's spouse? (four points)
(a) Hallatan
(b) Hallacar
(c) Soronto
(d) Beregar

(15) Which is the name of the Last King of Númenor? (four points)
(a) Ar-Pharazôn
(b) Ar-Inziladûn
(c) Ar-Adûnakhôr
(d) Ar-Zimraphel
(e) Ar-Gimilzôr

(16) Which is the name how begged three times for hairs of Galadriel? (four points)
(a) Celebrimbor
(b) Feanor
(c) Enerdhil
(d) Celeborn
(e) Amroth

(17) Which is the name of Galadriel's brother? (four points)
(a) Fingolfin
(b) Finarfin
(c) Finrod
(d) Fingon
(e) Finwe

(18) Which is not the son of Isildur? (four points)
(a) Valandil
(b) Elendur
(c) Elendil
(d) Aratan
(e) Ciryon

(19) Which is the name whose tomb raised at Halifirien? (four points)
(a) Isildur
(b) Anárion
(c) Eärnur
(d) Cirion
(e) Elendil

(20) When and where Gandalf told the full story of the Quest of Elebor? (four points)
(a) at the Shire, before Frodo goes to Rivendell
(b) at Rivendell, before the Nine Walkers depart Rivendell
(c) at Minas Tirith, after the War of the Ring
(d) at the Shire,after the War of the Ring
(e) at the Gray Havens, before going to the West

(21) Which is the habit of Gandalf that Saruman imitated by stealth? (four points)
(a) drinking
(b) smoking
(c) gambling
(d) gourmet
(e) accumulation of wealth

(22) Which is the name of the son of King Théoden? (four points)
(a) Elfhelm
(b) Dernhelm
(c) Grimbold
(d) Théodred
(e) Háma

(23) When did the Istari come to Middle-Earth? (four points)
(a) the First Age
(b) the Second Age
(c) the Third Age
(d) the Fourth Age

(24) Which folk were the Druedain among chiefly in the First Age? (four points)
(a) Hador
(b) Haleth
(c) Bëor

(25) How many Palantíri existed at first? (four points)
(a) One
(b) Three
(c) Five
(d) Seven
(e) Nine

(The answers are hidden elsewhere in this zine.)

I managed 44 points out of 100, and I was a bit above the median. No sinecure in the Gondorian bureaucracy for me, but we were all allowed to pick out our own prizes from a pile of Lord of the Rings trading cards and some miscellanous art postcards. I now have a couple postcards that suggest someone has done a furry version of Sherlock Holmes. Must investigate this further.

Saturday I also attended the Hugos for the first time, in the overflow room, while Chris went out for Japanese food with friends from Baen's Bar. They had to be out of the auditorium by 8:30, so it ran just over two hours long, even with practically everything being translated. I understand this was shorter than most English-only Hugo ceremonies. At last the secret has been discovered!

George Takei was great, and so was Ultraman, who celebrated his anniversary by appearing on stage to unveil the trophy design, which featured... Ultraman! (And Mt. Fuji, but much smaller.) I understand there were a few complaints from commentators objecting to Ultraman being nearly as big as the rocket, but here was the audience reaction: "Oooo!"

Sunday I went to Farah Mendlesohn's presentation of her sf reader survey results, which was followed by a panel discussion. In addition the the survey, she talked about the changes children's sf has undergone through the decades, and differences between sf for kids and other books for kids. Lots of old ground on fannish psychology was covered in the discussion.

Monday, I got free just in time for the feedback panel, where the main gripe was that they'd forgotten to put it in the pocket program. This was a pity, because it had far more committeee members in attendance than I've ever seen at a US con. With the chair (Hiroaki Inoue), both vice-chairs, five or six other members, and a translator, it was very crowded at the front of the room. Inoue-san started by saying that this had been very educational, and there were definitely things they would have organized differently if they had known, and while it had been a wonderful experience, they were not planning to do this again. An audience member responded that he had been on an AussieCon committee, and he knew how they felt, but in a few years, they'd start thinking about holding another Worldcon.

There was very little complained about. Mostly the audience expressed thanks and wanted to ask questions about how the this compared with typical Japanese conventions.

The committee then had to rush off to the closing ceremonies, and I went back to the desk for most of the last hour, where cleanup was already starting and stacks of shipping forms were appearing from nowhere. I rounded up my and Chris's stuff before it could be inadvertently shipped, met up with Chris, and we went to say our goodbyes over at the exhibition hall. Most of the people who had put in a lot of time at the info desk had gone already, so let me say now: Lori Ono, Chris Marble, Juan Sanmiguel, Suzanne whose last name I didn't catch, and I'm sure I'm missing another name or two, thank you all. It would have been absolutely impossible without every one of you.

The plan for Monday was to check out first thing in the morning, stash our stuff in lockers at Yokohama Station, enjoy the last day of the con, and then take a slightly roundabout route to the Tokyo Disney Resort area. This would have worked a lot better had we not taken exactly the wrong escalator off the Minato Mirai Line platform in the morning and wound up on an entirely different floor than the one shown on the map I'd gotten off the JR East Web site. It took about 15 minutes of frantic circumnavigation (dragging all the luggage) to work this out and locate the right floor.

After leaving the con, we stopped at a few places in the mall next door for some souvenir shopping. Chris, being a Peanuts fan, had to visit Snoopy Town, where he picked up a box set of the Daisy Hill puppies. I wanted some souvenir candy for my coworkers, and after perusing the selection would up with some Yokohama Cocoa Drops and some Yokohama Mint Drops. The thing I wish I could have brought back, but it would have never survived the trip, was one of the giant chocolate bars with a wrapper depicting a lugubrious, Japanese-style Commodore Perry.

So back to Yokohama Station, where we picked up our luggage with no trouble, then by turning left instead of right, missed the quick and easy route to the Yokohama city subway. Instead, we followed a series of signs that took out out of the station into an adjoining mall, up a floor, back down again, and eventually back to the other end of the station where we finally found it. I really had had plans to do some reconaissance ahead of time, but with one thing and another we were always dead tired by the evening.

We rode a few minutes to Shin-Yokohama (New Yokohama) Station, where we were going to catch the shinkansen to Tokyo, just so we could say we'd ridden it. Shin-Yokohama turned out to be in the throes of a big remodeling project, which meant more roundabout hiking, and also we discovered that some of the shinkansen platforms did not have escalators to them.

We weren't expecting to experience top speeds, but it did move at a goodly clip. Chris noted that this was the first time he had ridden a train which had vertical stabilizers. As was starting to appear standard for long-distance trains, the seats were big and comfortable, with lots of legroom.

Tokyo Station is gigantic, and the line that runs out toward the Tokyo Disney area is fairly new, which means it's a long way from the center. This hike I was expecting, though, and a small part of the reason for taking the shinkansen was that the walk through this station would then all be downhill.

At twenty minutes out, we were passing through Maihama Station, the one at Tokyo Disneyland. Our hotel was one stop further along, at Shin-Urayasu. The surrounding area, where there aren't tourist hotels, is all docks and warehouses to one side of the tracks and residential buildings to the other.

When I say our hotel, the Oriental Hotel Tokyo Bay, was at Shin-Urayasu Station, I mean it was at the station, with a short bridge connecting them. The main entrance and lobby are actually on the second floor, right at bridge level. We were checked in quickly and escorted to our room (this is a genuine tourist hotel), where the first order of business was to flop on the bed, recover a little, and then figure out the air conditioning controls.

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