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I live in the commuting zone of Munich, Germany.
I have just returned from a trip to Tokyo to speak at AsiaBSDcon.
This text is supposed to serve both as a reminder for me for next year (if I can find a topic I'll definitely submit a talk again) and for other first-time visitors.

Travel


The trip out was also my first long-distance flight, and in the case of Munich-Tokyo, non-stop means a 12 hour flight.

    Wisdoms learned:
  • Do not get onto such a flight straight from work after a full work day. At least find a shower at the airport and do a change of clothes before boarding the plane.
  • A flight with a stop-over may actually be more pleasant, if longer in total.
  • Check in early online and pick an aisle seat, preferably one where you can stretch your legs a bit too (advice void where you don't fly Economy on the cheapest ticket you could get, as you should on the conference's money. Also, the experience for thin-and-short people may differ - I'm 1.72m and rather wide).
  • Be able to shed clothes to fit the "max" temperature forecast for Tokyo - you'll be dragging luggage around, that's plenty of exercise to keep you warm. Expect Tokyo to be at least 10 degrees warmer than Munich.
    Do the same for the trip back: I left a sunny Tokyo with what for me is t-shirt temperature (the locals disagreed), and was welcomed back by Munich airport with 4° C and sleet, which had turned to below 0° C and snowing at my home train station.
  • For me only, likely: get a larger suitcase. Sticking to cabin luggage size doesn't make sense if you are checking it in anyway. Forget about returning with less stuff than you brought.
  • Jetlag: There's a 9 hour time difference Munich to Tokyo. The advice I got worked for me, I got over it in a day (where I'd expect a day of recovery for a trip like that even without time zone changes): keep awake until local early bedtime and then get up at normal local time, and go outside for a walk, thus using daylight to reset the clock. This was helped a lot by the weather being nice to me, and not presenting me with worse than a light drizzle over the whole stay (predominantly sunny, even).
  • Given that I didn't need two days downtime to cope with jetlag, I could have flown out on Wednesday as well. The Tuesday ticket was ~100 Euro cheaper, if the conference paid list price at the hotel picking the shorter stay would have been more economical in total.
  • Getting a Suica/N'ex ticket, and thus the Suica card at Tokyo airport was a very good recommendation by the conference organizers (thanks). Expect to stand in line at the ticket office for a while, and then to have to leave for the next train immediately so you catch the train you have a ticket for. If you fly out from Tokyo within 10 days of arrival, you can get a round trip card for the Narita Express, directly.
  • Public transport within Tokyo is dirt cheap, compared to Munich. Putting about 20 Euro on the card (2000 Yen in addition to the initial charge) was way overblown.
  • There seem to be at least 3 routes to just about any point you want to get to on the public transport system. A warning: having a station near won't mean you won't walk a lot, some stations' exits are so far apart that they would be distinct stops in inner Munich. Lines are coded by color and a latin letter, and the metro uses the next stop as a direction indicator. There are a lot of English labelled directions around. I picked going to Akihabara and to Ikebukuro for short directed shopping raids on my own, and got around ok, if not exactly on the routes I had planned beforehand and as short as I had expected.
  • The stations for the speaker hotel (Villa Fontaine Kudanshita) were/are Jimbocho (around the corner, closest entry, longest walking around underground, long staircase with no escalator at the exit), Suidobashi (in my experience, most pleasant to use) and Kudanshita.
  • The station for the venue is Iidabashi south-west end (that's one of the two-stop stations), but from the speaker hotel it's a rather pleasant walk mostly along little streets not noticeably longer than getting to and from the stations.
  • Budgeting a daily allowance for food: I had heard that Tokyo was very expensive, so expected around 100 Euro a day. This is seriously off on the high end, very nice (and plentiful) dinners were 20-30 Euro/person. Also, during the conference proper, if you attend the social, lunch and dinner are covered - there's basically no time to spend money, except if you go to a bar after dinner.
  • For the trip home, time-budget the Narita Express to not be running due to weather conditions. The ordinary express train to the airport leaves from the same platform and will accept a ticket for a cancelled Narita Express, but will take closer to 1:45 for the trip due to more frequent stops and will start at a time offset, obviously. I had planned to be at the airport two and a half hours before boarding time to make sure I didn't miss my plane due to train delays, and just made still acceptable baggage drop and pass-the-controls time; since my gate was at the tip of the terminal, I didn't get to sit down to wait for boarding - shaving it a bit close for my taste.


Tokyo: Observations and Experiences


Visiting a city where you are effectively illiterate and don't speak a word of the language, plus manners and body language are different is an intimidating idea. Fortunately for me, Tokyo is pretty accommodating to visitors who (only) read Latin script and speak English, and while I would not expect to be able to make best possible time between two random points of the Tokyo subway map, I am now confident that I would be able to get from point A to B whatever they are (especially: to get to the hotel or venue) with a bit of extra time and wandering around to find something labelled in English, with zero preparation whatsoever.

Crowds in Tokyo seem to be amazingly pulsed. For me respectively in my experience, body language is off enough to make the automatic evasion algorithms fail, i.e. when I walked through an oncoming crowd I evaded to the same side as the person coming towards me frequently, whereas "at home" this barely ever happens without me even taking notice. Fortunately, when I am in a touristy setting I can just step aside and let the wave pass, and not be a mobile source of turbulence in the flow. When in a hurry, picking a person going the same way and trailing them like a duckling works pretty well - same, obviously, when following a guide. :)

Japan drives on the left side of the street. On escalators, stand on the left.

Mind the 110V line voltage. Get an adapter for a two-pronged socket, there may not be any three-pronged sockets in the hotel room.

Pedestrian traffic lights for street crossings of one or two lanes in total seem to be considered purely advisory by the locals; I picked up their cues (check and cross if there's no cars) without ill effect.

Car drivers seem to be very aware and considerate of pedestrians. A pedestrian giving up right of way for a car that's starving at a crossing seems to be unexpected, just slowing down noticeably and nodding at the driver doesn't seem enough cue.

Street population density, in general: walking around in Akihabara on a Saturday afternoon was about on par with walking between Stachus and Marienplatz off the touristy seasons on a Saturday afternoon, full but not reaching annoying levels, same with Ikebukuro on a Friday afternoon.

Another strong (and pretty immediate) impression I got is that Tokyo is what you get if you take an ordinary large city, and then compress it by a factor of four, while keeping the width of the thoroughfares. Then set another city next to it, repeat a few times.
Some of that compression is achieved by making buildings higher. Also, there are shops on other levels than the ground floor in places that are not something like malls.

Attention, weird people crossing? less goths or punks, instead people (well, women and girls) in neon-colored tulle or furs. About as many women in kimono (I did not notice any men in traditional garb) as you'd expect women in Dirndl in Munich outside of Oktoberfest season; I was told that it was a graduation day for students and that was celebration finery.

Less women in sensible shoes, instead pumps or sneakers (and the latter obviously not to business clothes). Walking in very small steps seems to be considered feminine and some execute it even if not forced by a ridiculously tight skirt.

The canonic length of skirt seems to be "a bit shorter than the hollow of the knee", which makes sense if you see how women sit (when not on chairs). Generally, sitting .. I was taught as a girl to not sit on the floor, it's bad for you (more likelihood of bladder infections for females), it's just not being done. Obviously, in Japan one does sit on the floor (inside, on a cushion, but still). Also, my jeans (any of them) turned out rather not fit to fold up my legs at a significantly acute angle, with the result that when I tried to sit at table, my feet went to sleep in turns due to lack of circulation. If going out to dinner with Japanese hosts, it seems a good idea to either warn them that you have issues sitting down on a cushion (the variant with the hollow under the table obviously just requires being able to get down on the floor, only a potential problem for the elderly or infirm, or seriously tight jeans), or get distinctly wider trousers or a skirt. Not going to wear such a short one though. :)

I've loved most of the Japanese food I got around to trying, yet. I've cheated and been eating at Sushi restaurants most work Fridays for a while, so I can handle chopsticks adequately well. I can imagine learning Japanese to the skill level I have for French: say good morning, good night, please and thank you, and everything that is likely to appear on a menu. Due to the remarkable (and very practical) drinks ordering system, being able to read the words for water, apple juice and grapefruit juice as well as cold tea would be very useful. And I didn't even get around to eating a bowl of soup with udon (which is one of my favorite dishes at home).

Akihabara (if you get out on the right end of the station and actually find the right area) is lots of little shops with electronics, many of them featuring used goods. About Schillerstrasse times ten. From my by necessity cursory inspection, the selection of actual electronics by and large is about the same as available in Munich; the selection of accessories is huge, variable, and including the utterly ridiculous. :) Definitely a sight to see. I got myself a mouse pad with a glittering-big-cat-spots pattern as a souvenir.
Also, prices for a lot of stuff are surprisingly cheap. Others, quite the opposite.

My excursion to Ikebukuro was to buy a toy or two to bring for my cats. I get the distinct impression that keeping a cat (or two) in Tokyo is a luxury not afforded by many (in Germany, a fifth of the households has cats). I picked toys and snacks not available at home (that being the point), and the shiny-bug-on-a-glass-fiber-spring toy is very successful and making even the old cat jump around like a kitten. :) I'd expect a similar item to be half the price in Munich, though, and I went to a department store with a pet section; there seem to be more boutiques selling art with cats on it (if such a shop exists in Munich I've not noticed it) than shops selling supplies for cats. That seems to be a symptom of rather severe cat deprivation.

On speaking English with Japanese (by necessity: I don't speak a word of Japanese and would be shy to try phrases lest I talk about eels in hovercrafts by mispronunciation): Japanese sounds distinctly percussive to me, and the rate of syllables a Japanese speaker can produce is impressive to frightening. Alas, parsing audio input at that rate is a learned skill that I didn't have time to develop, so while talking to (or rather understanding) relaxed (and slow-speaking) Japanese worked rather well, in other instances I had serious trouble following speech even though, in retrospect, it probably consisted of the appropriate words with the appropriate pronunciation, just in rapid fire.
The English skills encountered were as expected, rather well developed with the conference attendants I talked to, understanding-a-lot-better-than-speaking with the random ticket clerks I interacted with. Given the larger difficulty of learning English for Japanese speakers than German speakers, this is actually pretty impressive.

Regarding manners, either the people I interacted with are too used to non-Japanese to bat an eye at mine, were too polite to twitch enough for me to notice or I didn't blunder regarding the major differences between expected behavior that badly. My experience was pleasant, I hope my hosts' experience was too.

The hotel room was well appointed, small but (compared to European hotel rooms I've staid at) not unusually so, and entirely adequate for sleep, freshen up, look at mail, go out schedules like a town visit or a conference. Instead of hotel wifi, a wired ethernet port and two power sockets flush mounted in the top of the desk; an ethernet cable was supplied. There also was a large TV that I didn't turn on once. The blow-dryer was a useful model, not the useless heat-but-no-wind model most European hotels sport due to regulations limiting air throughput. That was fortunate, since the blow-dryer I typically travel with only does 220V (so I had left it at home). The soap dispenser produced bergamot-scented foam, very nice. The fixtures were "two valves, hot and cold, one outlet", no handling problems for me there.

The toilet experience is funny. :) Unless the toilet (room) was unheated (which was not true at any of the places I used), the heated seat seems a bit pointless, though. The "shower" setting might come in handy on occasion, the "bidet" setting for me does not end up anywhere useful.

I'm used to a mattress with at least 15cm give. The bed in the hotel room, true to local custom, has about 5cm. The first morning I woke up with lower back pain from a warped spine (men may not run into that problem due to usually not having wide hips), the second night I seem to have learned to pick a better sleeping position and that problem didn't reoccur. But enough on the TMI section.

The Conference


I fought with stage nerves and spent most of Friday fiddling with my slides, adding illustrations and examples which were partially culled again. Thankfully, my talk was early, in the second slot on Saturday, so I was able to enjoy the rest of the conference. Feedback to my talk was that it was ok, it would be useful to also receive criticism, especially how useful the distribution of talking and slide points was to attendants with less familiarity with spoken English.

As usual, breakfast, lunch, dinner and breaks were the most valuable parts of the conference. I picked up some ideas from the talks I attended, as well. They are all in the "time-consuming" quarter of Things To Do, so we'll see if and how and when I get around to them.

I quite liked the 10min talks format. Since it allowed to talk about uncooked eggs as well, it was rather information-dense -and- news.

AsiaBSDcon gender distribution is quite the familiar, aka slightly depressing.

The number of Germans, OTOH, was amazing.

EuroBSDcons manage to produce input overflow for me, this AsiaBSDcon was worse in that respect.

I think I met half the NetBSD developers at the conference, talked to a quarter, and will be able to put face and name together for about 2/3 of who I consciously met. Time definitely was too short :) Also, if I manage next year, I'll try to get t-shirt colors and sizes via mail beforehand; this year the flu I had three weeks before the conference seriously impacted plans, and getting the talk and slides done had to take precedence. Jörgs tip that the .jp NetBSD developers tended to "long and thin" and M and L were most useful sizes mostly played out, so those t-shirts I managed to pack found good new homes.

Conclusion


It was fun. I want to do it again (just not this week, or next, and with a bit more preparation time next time. Mercy!). It was exhausting. The latter would get better with repetition, since the sheer amount of new people, new places, new ways to interact would lessen.

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January 2014

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