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Friday, September 28th, 2007


International ATMs are a recent arrival in Japan—unsurprisingly for an island nation where most inhabitants have local bank accounts. I’d decided to play it safe and rely on good old-fashioned cash instead.

So, my first port of call was the post office, where I ended up in a time-warp into the last century. As I took a number in front of the foreign exchange counter, a woman approached and pressed an actual form into my hand. Passport number and all.

I filled it in. Then I played the waiting game, trying to aim for that zen-like calm which is the only way to deal with queues in post offices. Or worse: deserted foreign exchange counters and long queues everywhere else in the post office.

My turn came at last, and I handed over my money, realising that I might be in for a longer wait still. England has recently changed the look of its 20 pound note, and the new note looks like toy money. It didn’t help that the cash machine at Heathrow spat out four old-style twenties and six new ones, so that it looked like I carried a stash of mixed currencies. I expected to receive the same treatment as I get in London when showing up with Scottish sterling: “we don’t take Monopoly money here, mate!”

However, this wasn’t London. The service at the post office—here and everywhere— may be glacially slow (I think the trainee who served me had a minimum of three supervisors looking over her shoulders at all times) but it is unthinkable that an honourable customer whould attempt to defraud the honourable postal service.

So my money was accepted with a smile and the lady retreated behind some desks where I could see her and her three supervisors pore over a booklet with various denominations depicted in it. Chances are that the brand-new twenties aren’t in it. After mere twenty minutes or so of whispered debate, she turned back to the counter where she smiled and bowed and presented me with the exact change on a little wooden tray.

I bit down my irritation, smiled in turn and bowed. Chores completed, I was finally free. And it was still one hour until my train would arrive (yes, I had made a reservation. I didn’t know better—it was only my second time on the Shinkansen).

Kyoto: lunch

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Bath Talk

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Omikuji, Ayako-Tenmangu shrine, Kyoto

05/09/2007 (evening)

The people who were staying in the tatami rooms (with communal bath only) were mostly twenty years younger than me and look like athletes or models. I timed my ablutions so that I would be unlikely to encounter any of them while frantically showering and soaping myself, then tried to hide my bulk as best as possible behind the flannel-like towelettes that seem to take the place of bath towels here.

I’ve never changed as quickly as last night—except perhaps for tonight.

Last night had been a relatively relaxed affair. I figured that I could hear people a long time before they actually entered the bath, and if they were next door, it would be too late anyway. They’d see me butt-naked one way or the other.

So, after my frantic ablutions, I dipped my toe into the bath.


It would probably take a good couple of minutes to fully immerse myself in the steaming tub and a few minutes more before my circulation would give out.

Since I had open blisters on my feet, getting into the tub wasn’t an option anyway. I went back to the chilly changing room, threw my dress over my still-wet skin and sauntered back outside just as the next gaggle of teenage models arrived, looking pretty in their yukatas.

That was yesterday. When I came downstairs today, I saw that the signs had been switched around. What was ‘Ladies’ yesterday, was ‘Men’ today.

This could be someone’s idea of a practical joke.
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A Walk in Kyoto

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Roofs, Higashi Honganji


I was lucky that today was Wednesday—even if that meant that I seem to have lost a day among all the partying.

Today, Mr. Hajime Hirooka, better known as Johnnie Hillwalker (“not Johnnie Walker!” as he says) would hold one of his thrice weekly walks from the station via some of the temples and shrines and through Kyoto’s backstreets up to the famous tourist areas which he reckons we can explore on our own, after the tour. And he is right.

Walking around Kyoto with Johnnie Hillwalker is one of the more interesting experiences of travelling in Japan. His quirky wit can be a little self-deprecating for comfort, but he is refreshingly opinionated. This became clear at the foot of the steps of Amida Hall at the mighty Higashi Honganji temple complex, the very first stop on the walk.

“Take off your shoes,” he said, pointing at the containers with plastic bags in which we would carry our shoes as we walked through the temple complex. “We Japanese are very nervous about our shoes!

Gingerly, we stepped onto the chocolate-brown wood, worn smooth by centuries of bare or stockinged feet, and from there onto the cool tatami mats in the hall. A hush descended as we walked past the statue of the founder, Shinran Shonin—housed here while the Founder’s Hall is undergoing urgent repairs—and next to him the image of the Amida Buddha. A monk and a western woman sat in silent contemplation.

Johnnie waved us to one side and gave us a brief introduction to Shin Buddhism.
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Back with a Bang

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

I finished day-dreaming about Japan and woke up to harsh reality.

It’s icy cold. I refuse to put on the heating until October 1st. But if my upbringing in these matters is strict, that’s nothing compared to the zealots in government who tell us to lower the thermostats still further to save the planet.

I will, if they double the tax on 4WD cars or—better still—ban the things. In fact, let’s ban all company cars, included the chauffeured jags that the politicians whiz around in. Then we can start talking. But I will be on one of the last open flights out of this country—with a one-way ticket.

Meanwhile, it’s getting dark and I realize that I have wasted the entire afternoon (on one of the few sunny days we’ve had) sitting at the computer waiting for the carpet man to turn up, instead of going to Reading.

The UK must be the only developed country in the world where builders and repairmen take a sick pride in their unreliability. It is far from the first time that this has happened; in fact it would be highly unusual if it hadn’t. The fact that I have wasted an entire day thanks to a lunchtime appointment which hasn’t been honoured must give these people some sort of perverse kick. And naturally, there will be no apology (not that an apology from that sort is worth anything, since they’re not bound by a code of honour) and I will be expected to do the same thing again and again. If I’m lucky, they’ll eventually turn up and rip out half the floor boards before vanishing into thin air. Not without causing major disruption in the process, of course. For—when they deign to turn up—these people demand your full and undivided attention whenever they whistle/knock/shout out “Oy!” and no matter what it is you’re currently trying to concentrate on.

The Outdoor Pond

The flood happened over three months ago, and nothing has been done since. The ground floor is still basically uninhabitable, and sodden carpets and flood-damaged rubbish are piled high out at the front and back.

Can you imagine this happening in Japan?

Wait a minute: why do we have to put up with this shit? Is this our house?

I reckon we’ll move. But it may cost us if we end up paying double-rent when we sign the new lease before our notice has run out (this usually happens).

And to think that, following the flood, our neighbours received compensation for the inconvenience

Into Japan

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Kyoto: Fans

Japan has a sound. It’s not the clattering of the pachinko machines; as deafening as that is, you can’t hear it out on the street. Nor is it the whining of the cicadas, although that is definitely the sound of the Japanese summer. No, it’s the constant plonking and dinging emitted by countless loudspeakers, sometimes without any apparent reason.

This sound carried me out of Yokohama to the Shinkansen and hence to Kyoto, where it followed me down the street for hours spent looking for an inn—until I was suddenly faced with the walls of the Higashi Honganji temple and centuries of history.

It almost made it all worth it.

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Weekend interlude

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Borth: incoming tide

We’re just back from a nice long weekend in Borth and I’ve had to catch up with some domestic stuff.

More about Japan tomorrow. Meanwhile check out DILO (Day in the Life of) Sept. 23rd on Flickr. My set is here.

That’s it, for another Year

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Golly, I’m sick of writing about Worldcon.

Ferris Wheel, Yokohama


Up until now it felt as if I wasn’t really in Japan, and in a sense this was true. For while Japan was all around us, Worldcon creates a pocket-universe that’s all its own.

It was time to get out. Time to leave the cushy business hotel and familiar crowd of writers and fans and go to discover Japan.

Time for the real trip to begin.

My Computer is Bigger than Yours!

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Earth Simulator Supercomputer

By about 30 teraflops!


I have already raved about JAMSTEC. Well, not only do they have a ship that can drill 7km beneath the sea floor into the Earth mantle, they also have the world’s biggest supercomputer, the Earth Simulator System. It outperforms the then Number 2 (the ASCI White system in the US) by a cool 30 teraflops.

Earth Simulator Supercomputer moduleToday we went to have a look at the thing (and the rather cool JAMSTEC facility, which includes a nice garden, tennis courts and a social room with a bar and BBQ-barrels out front; just in case you’re looking for a job…).

It’s not at all what I expected. The Worldcon-special tour was limited to 14 members, so I thought we’d get a look inside the labs or at the aquarium or something, but it soon transpired that I was the only biologist. And when we approached the icerink-like building in which the real beast was housed, the geeks in the group (i.e. all but me) started to salivate.

Here we have a building that is shielded against all sources of electromagnetic radiation (internal light is channeled through fibre-optic cables), radio waves, lightning and seismic vibration (believe it or not, the thing is built on rubber mats) and which houses a computer system that spans 4 tennis courts, connected by 1,800 miles of cables (83,000 in all).

Earth Simulator Building lightning rod

In the main building, adjacent to the icerink, there is a museum and lecture hall. Our guide showed us a presentation of the Earth Simulator being put through its paces, running a climate simulation over the next eighty years. The changing colours made the hairs on my neck stand up. I don’t know whether this was one of the consensus models, but temperatures at the North Pole rose by over twelve degrees.


Visiting JAMSTEC was a fitting end to NIPPON2007, the 65th Science Fiction Worldcon and 46th Japan Science Fiction Convention. When we got back, they were already in the process of packing up. Boxes were stacked high, cables unthreaded and people were milling around various props as I made my way towards the bustling organisers’ offices and the Green Room at the end of the corridor, holding up my badge with the red ribbon at the entrance desk.

The atmosphere in the Green Room was different. An refuge from the frantic activity outside, people were clustering around long tables laden with plates and a long bar lined the wall, stacked with bottles and flanked by barrels full of cans of beer and chilled soft drinks. The Dead Dog Party is traditionally where the remaining booze is drunk down to the last drop: a final cheer raised to the organisers and volunteers, participants and fans who make worldcon what it is.

A cheer to past and future worldcons.

Dead Dog Party


Friday, September 21st, 2007

The Delegate


Yesterday somebody called me “Denni-san”. And somebody else called me “cool”.



I got savvy about signing up for time-keeping slots and reserved the space on Ted Chiang’s interview panel today.

The queue stretched around the corner. Apparently, while Greg Egan is regarded as a god here, Ted Chiang is regarded as a demi-god. I love this country.

When we’d advanced to the room, I broke off and walked up to the front doors.

“You know there’s a queue,” one of the organisers grunted.

“I know.” I flashed my time-slips.

“Oh, you’re the timekeeper! There’s a seat reserved for you in the front row.”


Ted Chiang I won’t bore you with details, except to say that I’m a complete fan. Ted Chiang has only written nine stories (ten by now), but his first sale won the Nebula.

Why so few?

“Writing for me is very hard.” An idea has to really interest TC, taking hold in his brain for months or years. Nevertheless, he made his first sale while still at Clarion.

“It’s embarrassing for me to say [that] what I’ve written can be read in one afternoon.”

What was that about writing less crap and getting it right?

Take ‘Story of your Life’. Chiang wrote it after watching a play about a wife dying of cancer; it’s a story about facing a pre-determined fate with acceptance, feeling both incredible pain and incredible love…

The organiser crept up to me, bowing low to avoid obstructing the webcast, and tapped his watch. I tapped mine in return. I know. Last two minutes.

In the kerfuffle, I managed to hold up the ‘Finish Now’ sign in error. The chairman hurridly wrapped up the session when he still had a minute to go, leaving me feeling guilty about stealing a minute of Ted Chiang’s time.


Bees in Petridishes The parties wound down that night, and once again we found ourselves at the harbour lounge, attending the Montreal Anticipation 2009 Bid thank-you bash which (even though I didn’t pay to vote) everyone was invited to.

But further down the hall there were people in labcoats. Café Scientifique was, sadly, just winding up, but they let me sample some of their delicacies: pickled bee pupae and wasps served in petri dishes.


Pacifico Yokohama Convention Center

Party On

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Dollers at NIPPON2007


I inadvertently found out how to switch off the fucking alarm which had woken me up at 7:30 a.m. on my first day and was roused by reception ringing to ask me, rather tersely, when I wanted my room cleaned. It was lunchtime.

Hazy memories surfaced, of whisky and coke being consumed in large quantities while chain-smoking with ‘Big Tim’ (pretty and female) and a couple of cool cats (plus one or two who were not so cool) at the abandoned concierge’s station in front of the Hotel Intercontinental at 4 a.m. that morning. This is why I like to stay within walking distance of the convention center.

And this was only the first of the party nights. Oh my…
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