We got off to a bright and early start today, at 3:30 AM. That’s about 3 hours earlier than planned, as we didn’t plan on the “Kai alarm clock.” Despite our sleep-disrupting day of travel, it was clear Kai wasn’t as willing as Maria and I to have his body clock reset. There’s no daylight savings in Japan, so it started to get light around 4, and Maria was kind enough to take Kai for a stroll to the beach. I tried in vain to get some more sleep.
We took the train out of Zushi at 6:30, and in Tokyo we switched to the bullet train, which took us up to Hachinohe in rural, northern Japan. We had a quick lunch at a tiny restaurant in the station. One of the great things about Japan is that you can get a good meal just about anywhere, including out of the way train stations. While eating, I confessed to Maria that I’d had the song “Mr. Roboto” stuck in my head all day. She said that happens to everyone of our generation when first visiting Japan. Here I was thinking this was a unique and amusing thing, only to find out it’s a universal bit of 70s brain damage. Anyway, we then switched to a local train line, which brought us to Mizawa. The Japanese public transportation system should be designated as one of the Wonders of the World. All the various airports, train stations, and bus lines are interconnected; it’s fast, clean, efficient, and reliable; and it goes absolutely everywhere.
Our reason for coming to this area was the Shibusawa Foundation’s 5th annual conference, which Maria has attended for the past 3 years (we all went to the one last summer in St. Louis, during our cross-county drive). The conference has a broad focus on “Challenges Facing Japan.” The first full day of the conference (tomorrow) covers economics, and the next day is for security issues and everything else. The sessions are intensive and they go all day, but while the 20 or so scholars who are involved aren’t working, they’re treated like royalty by the Foundation. Hangers-on like Kai and I get the royal treatment all day
The Foundation arranged for a shuttle bus to meet us at the train station, and we met up with everyone else at the Mizawa Air Force Base. This is one of the 3 largest US military bases in Japan. They were offering a briefing about the base, and Maria wasn’t interested, so she went to a playground with Kai and some other kids, and I went in her place (before I gave up on political science as a career, defense politics was one of my two main fields of research, so I was eager to go). Apparently, these briefings are usually run by lower-ranking officers, so we were lucky to have the Brigadier General in charge of the base running this presentation for us. He was a charismatic figure, but the officers who gave most of the presentations went by-the-numbers and were a bit dull. But the Q&A at the end was more lively. For example, someone asked whether language barriers hampered their cooperative efforts with the Japanese military. Each of the US officers gave surprisingly long answers for such a straightforward question, and then the commander of the local Japanese army unit provided a much briefer response: “it’s not a problem for the Army – we press the button, we pull the trigger – there isn’t much to discuss.”
After the briefing we got back on our bus, which took us to Shibusawa Park. One of the officers from Mizawa came with us (in exchange for the briefing, the Base was invited to send someone to attend the conference), and I chatted with him while we drove. It turns out he was from Newport, RI too and was an avid surfer, so we commiserated about the best breaks. It was not a conversation I expected to have with someone while in Japan!
The grounds of the Park were beautiful. Maria and the rest of the conference attendees went to a “welcome” meeting while Kai and I – as well as the other wayward parents and kids – explored the territory. After the meeting, we were then treated to a truly lavish dinner, with freshly prepared sashimi, sushi, yakitori, steak, tempura, etc, etc, as far as the eye could see. Local performers provided traditional music and dancing. In my youth I worked as staff at events like this, and I must say that being a guest is an altogether different (and more pleasant!) experience.
Kai conked out halfway through dinner, and once the evening was over, the bus took us to the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel, where we’ll stay for the rest of the conference. It’s actually three separate, Scandinavian style buildings, joined together by underground walkways. It’s known for its hot spring baths and dazzling views of the nearby mountains and river. We had the choice of a western style room or a Japanese style room. We went with the Japanese style room: tatami mats and futons mattress on the floor.
So today was a very full day. It was great, but I’m looking forward to a slower weekend. And hopefully Kai will sleep later tonight!