Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Returning from Japan to Work the Problem

I think things are going to be different since I’ve returned from Japan.  In fact...  I know they are. 
Going to Japan marked an end of an era for me.  It was the return trip I wanted to take, “some day,” for quite some time.  Eight years.  After my first trip, which I enjoyed so much, I was waiting for the opportunity to arise when I could go there again.

I waited.  And I waited.  And waited. 

And finally, I made the decision to stop waiting.  The last “chance” was the WorldCon in Spokane, when a group of Japanese science fiction fans put in a bid to have the 2017 WorldCon held in Shizuoka, Japan.  The bid finished fourth out of the four cities vying to host the convention.  Only the write-ins, most joke selections, finished lower than them.

So, I decided not to wait.  I used a Japanese convention to target my trip, but that essentially and excuse to get me to the country.  A way of setting a target date, arrange travel plans, etc..  A way of getting me started. 

It gave me a mantra that I find myself using more often.  “Work the problem.”  I want to go to Japan?  Then work the problem.  I need, what?  Airline tickets.  Places to stay?  Both during and after the convention, right?  Work the problem of getting there, and finding places to stay.  Then work the problems that come up after that. 

And I got there.  I pretty much went where I wanted and pretty much got there when I wanted.  A lost passport kept me in Osaka, where the nearest American Embassy is, a day longer than expected, and it shortened my time in Kyoto by about the same amount.  But even then, I buoyed myself with that new mantra.  Work the problem of finding the passport and/or getting a new one.

And once evening fell, and I had done all I could do that day, I went to the baseball game I was there to see in the first place.  I wasn’t going to let the ticket I’d bought go to waste.  The Tigers won, 6 to 3.  The Japanese person sitting to my right gave me a slice of his pizza.  The Japanese person sitting to my left gave me a “jet balloon” to send up halfway through the seventh inning, what they do during the seventh inning stretch. 

Here’s what that looked like:

7th Inning Stretch at Koshien.

My balloon was one of the yellow ones.

And when my passport was found by someone in Numazu, where the science fiction convention was held, I worked the problem of getting it back, cutting back and forth across the country to return there and then head to Kyoto, where I climbed to the top of the Fushimi Inari shrine, the main reason I wanted to return to Kyoto in the first place. 

I’ll write more about my trip, I’m sure.  But on my first full day back in America, while taking care of things like getting unpacked, refilling my refrigerator that I’d ran down before leaving, going to the bank and the gym, I’ve been considering what having returned from Japan meant. 

If getting there was the end of one era, when I would wait for things to come my way, then what is the new era I’m in all about.  What changes will it bring. 

Things had already started to change before I left.  Things are alway changing all the time.  But signposts were springing up in my left to say, “the coming days and years are going to be different.”  Different not just because they’ll change on their own, the way they always do.  Different because I am going to move them forward.  I’ll work the problems of getting what I want to happen happening. 

On my last day in Japan, at the Meiji-jingu shrine, I went through the purification ceremony, washing my hands and mouth, then the handle of the ladle I’d used, tossed in a coin as an offering and clapped my hands three times, done to attract the god’s attention. 

I didn’t pray, per se.  Not to the deity at the shrine.  But I did close my eyes and say to myself, “I want to do better going forward.  I want to be a better person.  I want to achieve greater things.  I want live more, love more, experience more, make my heart beat faster than it’s done, sample what’s out there and live for life.” 

I opened my eyes, bowed and turned around to head to the airport after that.  To head home.  To work the problem. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Hal-Con 2016, Numazu - After Action Report

Hal-Con, the convention I came to Japan to attend, ended yesterday.  As with other conventions I've attended, her are my impressions of the event.  
Convention Site & Hotel
The Plaza Verde Convention Center in Numazu is well laid out with plenty of rooms.  The convention itself was small, no more than 150 people attended I would say, and used the rooms on the third and fourth floors near the entrance closest to the Daiwa Roynet Hotel, the official hotel for the convention.  With everything so close together it was easy to figure out where everything was in a hurry.  There were no water fountains that I saw, and no water dispensers in the meeting rooms where the panels were held.  The staff brought bottled water specifically for the panel participants.  There was an announcement at the start that the attendees could bring whatever food or drink they wanted into the center and the meeting rooms.  With a Lawson convenience store right around the corner, where you could buy a two liter bottle of water for about a buck, one didn't need to worry about becoming dehydrated.  
I liked Daiwa Roynet Hotel quite a bit.  I picked the hotel because it was both inexpensive and convenient, being connected to the convention building itself.  The hotel is fairly new, bout two years old, and looks more stylish than I expected.  The staff is very friendly and helpful.  It was probably the best hotel experience I've had during a convention.  The rooms are small by American standards, but clean and comfortable.  There were plenty of plugs in the walls and on the writing desk, along with a refrigerator under the TV.  If they had added a microwave, it would have been perfect.  
Convention Style
With such a small convention, I got the feeling that everyone knew each other from seeing each other every year.  Every one was so close that I sometimes got the feeling of being the new boyfriend or husband attending a family reunion, where my significant other had disappeared leaving me to deal with the relatives myself.   
The staff was well organized and the pre-printed badges were well done.  All transactions were done in cash.  No credit cards.  Same with the dealers' room.  I did get a hefty discount on the attending membership rate.  As a foreign attendee I paid 3000 yen, or about twenty-seven dollars and sixty cents.  
They did something which I had only seen done at events where the point is to get to meet as many people as possible.  Along with your name badge, I was issued a "Team Card."  I was on "Team Deep Sea Fish."  It was part of a game where you gathered numbers used to fill in a "digital number" inside your team card.  The numbers were posted at panels, at dealers' booths, and other places around the venue.  Since you couldn't go to all the places where the numbers were posted by yourself, you needed to find other members of your team and compare the numbers gathered.  The team and the individual who completed the code fastest were given prizes at the end of the convention.
Unfortunately, I did not see any one with the same team card.  I hope they aren't muttering amongst themselves about my lack of effort.  
One thing different was the program listings.  They were organized by day, then room in numerical order., with all the events in a given room listed sequentially.  With such a small convention, it didn't take much looking to find out what was happening when, but it seemed that it did help pinpoint where the details of the panels could be found that much faster.  
Panels & Events
Saturday 4/16
Opening Ceremonies - This event was very short, very informal, with few bells and whistles.  They introduced the two Guests of Honor.  The first was Ann Leckie, who won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke aware for her novel, "Ancillary Justice" in 2014.  Hal-Con makes a point of having a foreign and domestic guest of honor each year.  For 2017, they announced the GoH would be Ken Liu.  The other Guest of Honor was Nozomu Tamaki, a manga artist and illustrator.  The works he's best known for are Dance with the Vampire Band and Soul Liquid Chambers.  As part of the opening, they asked each GoH about their work and inspiration for it.  
Japanese Writing for Translation - I wanted to get my feet wet quickly when it came to trying to attend panels in Japanese.  I pretty much drowned.  This panel was hosted by an editor in charge of translation at the publishing house he worked for. 
The presenter tried to translate his presentation into English, but eventually returned to Japanese only.  I became quite lost, catching only snippets here and there about process of translating an English story into Japanese.  One of the things he mentioned besides grammar differences was to find concepts in the story that a Japanese reader might not understand.  In the example story he was using, a short story by Ann Leckie called "Bury the Dead," he underscored a line that said the story took place during "the first Thanksgiving since Grandpa died."  The presenter gave a quick description of what Thanksgiving was, most of which I was able to understand.  While an accurate description of a typical Thanksgiving, it sounded rather odd to me.  
Also fascinating was the reaction of the Japanese members attending the panel.  First, everyone there (except me) had the anthology where the translated version of the Bury the Dead appeared, along with notepads and pens to take notes.  The presenter even gave gave everyone five minutes to read the final version version of the translated story before going over the English version and the process he'd gone through to get there.  I likened it to being in a class at some some translator school where I was taking a pop quiz I hadn't studied for.  Finally, I saw no one leave the panel early.  This held true for the other panels I attended.  Once people arrived at a panel they stayed there for the duration.  
GoH Reading: Ann Leckie - This panel took place immediately after the translation panel in the same room.  Ann Leicke read her story, The Endangered Camp, which was then read along, in Japanese, by a Japanese speaker.  Once done reading, Ms. Leicke took questions about the story, such as where the idea came from.  Per Ms. Leicke, an editor at F&SF Magazine, when asked what stories he'd like to see more of, replied that he wanted to see stories with dinosaurs in them, as well as more stories about Mars.  Also more post-apocalypse stories as well.  Ms. Leicke described how she nearly ran off the road a few days later when the idea for a post-apocalyptic story about going to Mars with dinosaurs came to mind, which became The Endangered Camp.  
This was my first encounter with Ann Leicke's work.  I've been meaning to read Ancillary Justice since it won the Hugo Award.  Listening to her story and how she came about creating it makes me more sure that I should do so.  
Interview with Ann Leicke by Peter Grassmann of Locus Magazine - Pretty much what it says.  As with the story she read, Mr Grassmann's questions were translated, and Ms. Leicke's answers were translated after that.  Ms. Leicke' related that her parents assumed from the time she was very young that she would be a writer, they didn't think science fiction was something she should read.  When she wouldn't give up science fiction, they began providing her with copies of "approved" books which reached a certain standard of quality.  She didn't start actually trying to write until she was nearly forty, when she decided that she didn't care what other people thought about what she wanted to do in life any more.  
Retro-Game: Baseball Video Games from the 80's - I don't have the proper title of this presentation.  I was invited to attend by an someone I'd met at the WorldCon in Spokane, a member of a group that plays and cherishes the old, simple video games that were played back in the 80's.  It was all in Japanese.  I got next to none of the explanations about how the games were developed.  The games were presented on a giant display screen, with two of the panelists playing against each other for a couple innings.  The games looked fun.  I found myself wanting to play.  
Build The World - A panel where the audience works together to design a world from scratch and the civilizations that evolve or grow there.  I held my breath before going to this panel, having been taught that my level of Japanese was not quite good enough to attend a convention.  I expected to sit there in a haze, picking out a thing or two here or there. 
It ended up being much better than I expected.  It was my favorite panel of the convention.  First it was relatively small.  There were a total of seven people in the room, including the moderator.  I caught the fact that the core group of five people ran this panel ever year, getting together to build one world after another.  The moderator even jotted notes on a white board from where they left off last year.  When they saw me sitting there, they asked me if Japanese only would be OK.  I replied that it probably wouldn't be, but I was trying to challenge myself and to proceed.  
This panel became something of a Rosetta stone for me.  I've been in panels like this at WorldCon and other conventions.  I do this sort of thing myself when I write certain stories and for just plain fun.  The activity I recognized.  Plus, I had enough Japanese to at least know what I needed to ask to clarify the rest.  I was able to recognize concepts and words from the context.   And the other participants were very good about stopping and making sure I understood what they were discussing as best they could.  Once they had listed all the possibilities for a given point of choice, such as what type of star the system was centered around, everyone would vote.  The winning choice would be written down and we would move on to the next topic.  
And I contributed.  This was my biggest accomplishment.  The system we created was a Red Giant primary, such as what the Sun will become in a few billion years.  The world was a dwarf planet, like Pluto or Ceres.  The creatures living on it came from some other place, such as another system or an inner planet swallowed up when the primary bulged into its current size.  They populated the world with "seeds" that grew into the life forms that lived there at the time of the yet unwritten story. 
I did my part, asking questions and making suggestions.  The dwarf planet, I pointed out, wouldn't have the gravity to retain its water, in the form of ice, when the sun's heat turned it to vapor.  We talked about life forms that retain water, such as an eel that swims off the shores near Numazu, which stores fresh water via a slime that covers its form.  We also talked about making the dwarf planet tidally locked, with one side in darkness where the ice could reform.  When the time was up, everyone applauded and congratulated each other.  
As I gathered my stuff to head off to the closing ceremonies, I had a thought that nerds and geeks are pretty much the same the world over.  An extended family bound by fondness for science and speculation, instead of blood.  
Sayonara, minna-san.  Genki de, ne?  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Why Japan?

While riding in the taxi taking me from Haneda Airport to the hotel I had booked for my first night in Japan, an unexpected question came to me.  While watching the street lamps and traffic signals flash by, seeing how very similar the street looked to any street you might drive down in Los Angeles, until you got a look at the billboards and business signs, this question popped into my head.  
"Why are you here?"  
Considering the time, effort and money it had taken me up to this point to get here, it seemed an odd question.  I knew I wasn't asking myself in a more, existential, "why are you in the universe?" sort of question.  I was asking myself why had I returned to Japan at this time.  
And once a question is asked, I feel a compunction to answer it. 
To people that know me, it is not a surprise that I planned and executed a trip to return here.  For instance, when I told my landlord that I was going to be out of the country for a couple of weeks, he asked, "Where are you going this time?"  
I liked the question.  It seemed to predicated on an impression he had that I traveled to different places.  I've not been to nearly as many as some people.  The guy I shared a ride with to the airport has visited over 30 different countries by his county, and I would guess he's at least 30 years younger than me.  
When I answered my landlord, "I'm going to Japan," his reply was, "Of course.  Again."  He sounded as if it was someplace he though I'd gone numerous times, though this is only my second trip.
The first answer that I can come up with is that, for me, when it comes to my learning to speak and read Japanese, coming to Japan is like when a baseball player is called up from the minor leagues to play in The Show.  It's where you want to be.  It's where you want to test your skill and see if you really know what you think you know.  What better place to see if I can really use the language well than in the land where it evolved.  
I had a little bit of a stumble a week before my trip.  We'll call it a minor league game.  I knew my flight arriving in Haneda was coming in late, and that I might not get to the hotel until well after their normal check-out time.  I decided to call to warn them and make sure there would be no problem.  
"Hello?  My name is Erick Melton.  I have a reservation at your hotel.  My flight arrives at Haneda after 10:30 at night.  It might be close to 12 AM before I leave the airport.  Can I still check in that late?"  I rattled off what I wanted to say.  It sounded shaky even to me.  I was nervous.  This was very different from practicing with a native speaker that lives in the U.S., who you know can shift to English if I get stuck.  
Or so I thought.
"Can you speak English?" the woman on the phone, "Sherry," she said her name was, replied.  A bit crestfallen, I replied that I could.  "Ok.  Good.  Now, it sounds like you said you'll arrive late and you wanted to make sure you could still check in."  
It turned out not to be a problem.  They have arrangements for people getting their room key if they arrive from the airport after the front desk closes at 12:30 AM.  I didn't even need to use them.  It took only about 30 minutes to get through customs and a ten minute taxi ride after that.  
I was able to deal with a guy at a luggage delivery desk who spoke no English, though.  I found out that the soonest they could deliver my luggage to the next hotel I'll be staying at was Saturday morning.  I felt good about that.  Like getting a walk in the first inning.  
This trip is different in one respect from the other times I've traveled in that it's coming out of me.  Usually, I let WorldCon dictate my itinerary.  The first time I went to Japan, as well as the trips to Montreal, Melbourne and London were to see more of the places where WorldCon was held.  I had hoped Japan was going to get to host the WorldCon in 2017, but when that didn't happen I made the decision that I couldn't wait for circumstances to create the opportunity any more.  I still started with a science fiction convention.  Haru-Con is this Saturday and Sunday, and Numazu, where it's being held, is the first stop on my trip after I leave Tokyo today.  But that was more or less to get me started.  A two day convention to get me to the country, followed by eleven more days of going to other places.  
It would be good to come here to get me doing more to have what I want happen than waiting for them to arrive on their own.  
I'm almost done with this entry and I don't have a really clear, in-depth answer yet, but I can add one more thing in the category of unfinished business.  When I came to Japan in 2007, we visited a famous temple in Kyoto called the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.  It is famous for having hundreds of bright, orange-red tori gates that climb the hill above the shrine then continue back down.  When we visited the shrine back then, I started climbing the path leading through the tori gates.  Its said that as you step through each one, you are purified.  I wanted to reach the top then climb back down.  
I didn't make it.  About twenty minutes from the top, I realized that the tour bus I was supposed to be on was going to be leaving soon.  I turned back around to get to the bus.  I told myself, "when I come back I'll finish this climb."  As the years have passed and I waited for that opportunity to complete that task, I began to fear that it would be like most "someday" promises and remain unfulfilled.  
I'm back.  I'll be in Kyoto next Wednesday.  The Fushimi Inari Shrine is about 10 minutes by bus from the hotel I'll be staying at.  
Someday will be here soon.