I had the pleasure of visiting Japan for RubyKaigi 2010 and a week's vacation at the end of August, squeezing a rich microcosm of the country's electric energy, serene grace, warm mirth and artful cuisine into my short time there. I enjoyed myself immensely, but I felt compelled to share this particular little nugget of social calamity, for whatever reason.
I was self-conscious before even arriving to spend a night in Hakone in a lovely traditional Japanese inn (Mikawaya Ryokan, recommended if you find yourself in the area), as a foreigner not speaking Japanese, traveling alone -- usually not accepted in luxury ryokan -- unfamiliar with the highly refined etiquette and customs of the setting, bearing tattoos in the public bath. A hostess showed me around upon arrival, taking care to try to explain things to me and give subtle warnings of faux pas to avoid, and I changed into my yukata and read a book in excited anticipation of kaiseki to be served sharply at 6:00. At some point, I left my phone sitting atop a door frame running LCD Clock, as practically no one had the number of my rented SIM card in Japan.
Naturally, in the midst of being privately served my elaborate multi-course dinner, all of the elements of which I still cannot identify but savored without prejudice, one of the only people who knew my phone number in Japan, well, called. The forgotten phone vibrated and fell to the tatami-covered floor in an unceremonious cacophony, the dreadfully out-of-place artifact of technology sending the decorous old woman in care of me into momentary panic as I profusely sumimasened and gomen nasaied. Seconds lingered like uninvited in-laws as she picked it up and handed it to me, holding it as if it were a dead animal, as though pleading for me to just make it stop. After I snuffed it out and we both had a moment to collect our wits, smirks grew on both our faces, turning to laughter and bringing great relief as the only language common between us.
I try hard to be considerate and culturally sensitive. I can relate pretty well with the Japanese value of not causing inconvenience for others. What can you do but laugh when it all just caves in?
The Japanese in general are as kind to foreign strangers as locals of any place I've been, even in oft-prim Tokyo, and I never felt unwelcome. Going to Tsukuba for RubyKaigi added a third dynamic to the trip: beyond bustling, image-conscious Tokyo and the mountain getaway of Hakone, Tsukuba felt like regular people letting their guard down, a science center and college town with punk teenager hangouts and boisterous locals not hesitant to roll drunkenly into the yakitori place on their way home and be tacky. I dare say a tinge of Japanese redneck.
RubyKaigi was an outstanding tech conference. Bright, quality community without a load of hot air. I was blown away by the dedication of the organizers and the fine job that they did running a bilingual conference, for a pittance of a fee. Getting away from the duties of work, and then escaping to a mountain spot lost in time set the stage perfectly to think freshly at RubyKaigi and be inspired by the spirit of open-source camaraderie and innovation. I do increasingly miss strong tech community in Bangkok.
My first real vacation in at least a couple of years has given me some perspective, and it's time for some realignment.