Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Traveling through Japan

Cars drive on the left side of the road, but power outlets are 110V (generally close enough to 120V for most U.S. products to work) using ungrounded (2-pin) North American plugs. Hotels generally don't have fitness rooms, and if they do, they are aimed at leisure travelers opening well after your business meeting will start. Hotel breakfasts are awesome, often including a mix of western and Japanese items (without missing any from either cuisine.) Only downside is that it makes you miss the fitness room even more. Traveling through Japan is relatively easy because most locations are labeled in latin script. Bus and rail ticket vending machines always offer an English option. Nevertheless, there are invariably surprises. The good news is that service providers really do want to help. Indeed, the level of politeness is like white noise. It feels wrong only when it's not there. Surprisingly, everyone takes it for granted, rarely acknowledging the bows and the various statements of "domo origami gozaimasu" offered multiple times any time you go near (let alone interact with) a service person. Whenever possible, just say "domo." It means please and/or thank you. Most importantly, it conveys an acknowledgment that you are ready to treat the person in front of you like a human being.

I was lucky to have local hosts to make many of the steps work without having to fumble through them. I suppose that part of traveling like a scientist is that you have scientific friends wherever you go. The other part of traveling like a scientist is that you use the scientific method in figuring out how to use some common appliance or in facing whatever obstacle you encounter. For example, when I was setting up the projector for my talk, I was faced with a remote control whose buttons were entirely in Japanese. There had to be a button that turned it on and another that would switch the mode to the VGA input. The former was easy: it was the big red button. The latter was trickier but limited to a few likely candidates based on pattern recognition with US remotes. A little trial-and-error and, voila, my presentation was ready to start. I guess I could have waited for my hosts to do this, but after all their kindness, I wanted to give them one less thing to do. We could then move sooner into the purpose of my visit: discussing our latest scientific results, and using them to enable each other's next scientific advance.


  1. For me, it was the air conditioner remote in the tiny business hotel on the Japanese coast that was the challenge! Glad you are enjoying the experience, and do try the baths!

    1. You were there during the summer! In the winter time, particularly in Hokkaido, cooling was not a problem. Lowering the overly warm thermostats was easy. I just pressed the down arrow. :-) I did try two different baths on my last day in Hokkaido. It was, as you suggested, not an experience to be missed!

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