Picture of cloud formation from airplane

Amazing cloud formation from the airplane window

At the end of July I went to Fukuoka, Japan, to present my paper “Decentralized Congestion Control in Random Ant Interaction Networks” at the Eight International Conference on Swarm Intelligence.  The event was held at JR Hakata City, or Hakata Station, a huge railway station meets subway station meets mall meets a slew of restaurants meets conference center meets cinema, surrounded by hotels, more restaurants, and giant department stores.

There’s no direct flight from the east coast to Japan, so I took a China Airlines flight from JFK to Taipei, Taiwan, and from there backtracked to Fukuoka.  Let me tell you, 15-16 hour flights suck!  However the scenery was, at times beautiful.  The airports in Taiwan and Japan were incredibly clean, and service throughout the trip was excellent, whether at a corner store or fancy restaurant.  Actually everything was clean and neat, compared to the US, down to even the excellent subway system.

The highlight of the trip was clearly the food.  Hakata City features a plethora of restaurants, including an entire section dedicated to places serving ramen.  Where it got interesting was at the conference’s banquet, where the first course was a whole cooked fish.  This was followed by a squid, so fresh that its skin was still changing colors and it appeared to try and swim away.  Other courses included shrimp, with the heads still attached but the tails removed, cow tongue, and some sort of vegetable dish with lots of wasabi.  I got the general feeling that being a vegetarian or vegan in Japan must be difficult.

Among the multitude of stores in Hakata Station I ran across a “Pokemon Center”, of which there are apparently 11 in all of Japan.  There one can acquire a host of exclusive merch.  I picked up a vacation-themed Pikachu and a super cool Pokeball-shaped mug.

The biggest barrier I faced during my trip was the language.  It’s difficult to order at a restaurant when you’re in a country that doesn’t even share your alphabet.  However shokuhin sampuru or 食品サンプル, the practice of developing plastic food models to put in restaurant street displays, made it easier.  Once I acquired a prepaid sim card at Yodobashi Camera, a huge Best Buy-like store, Google Translate with its picture translation function became an invaluable tool.  Hands and feet help too.  As previously mentioned, people in the service sector are incredibly polite, nice, and thankful and will go the extra mile to figure out what you’re looking for.

Unfortunately typhoon Nesat cut my trip a day short, as I elected to leave early instead of waiting around until it blew over.  This led to a rather nasty layover at JFK, where I had to spend the night on a baggage carousel as my flight to Charlotte didn’t technically count as a connection and was located in a different terminal than my inbound flight.  As a result, American Airlines wouldn’t allow me to check into the terminal proper so I could at least get some food and coffee.  Lesson learned.

If you ever get the chance to visit Japan, go!  It may be intimidating at first, but I had a wonderful experience.

Before I forget, here’s a video of the squid dish in action:  


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