- Gavan Reilly - https://gavreilly.com -

Tokyo, Part 2

The second part of yesterday’s re-run.

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While there are only so many distractions to occupy you while flying – again, there was more spontaneous study to break the in-flight movies, walking out of Narita International Airport was the single most memorable thing of the trip. The planes and airport were air-conditioned, but while we were conscious of the impending monsoon season and the promise of humidity, we had no warning of just how sudden it would attack. We were warned that we’d feel a blast of humidity upon stepping outside, but were lulled into false security as the canopy over the entrance extended out for a few metres. As we finally let sunlight fall on us, we felt the sheer blast of heat.

There is no way of preparing people in advance of feeling the true blast of Japanese humidity. I had a suitcase on wheels and not much in it, and I didn’t have much weight to carry. What’s more, Michael – a teammate who had had his bag left behind at our changeover in Amsterdam and hence was travelling empty-handed – was carrying my guitar for me; yet, extraordinarily, I was covered in a film of sweat within ten seconds (literally) of leaving the terminal. It’s like an instant sauna. If you’re ever walking out of Narita in a t-shirt in early July, be warned.

Out we hopped, though, and into our bus – thankfully air-conditioned – expecting to catch a short sleep before arriving at our accommodation. No chance. Despite having gotten up at 7am to get to Dublin (Diarmuid, Michael and Hugh had flown from Shannon too, so they’d been up since 5am), spending 90 minutes on the plane to Amsterdam, 90 minutes in Schiphol airport, and 12 hours in air going to Tokyo, and arriving in Japan at the same time as we’d departed Dublin – but a day later – we were fit to collapse. The adrenaline of the city took over though: as our bus slowly made its way through the city [1], around the cusp of Tokyo Bay, we were just captivated.

The Japanese school of urban planning, it seemed, had one philosophy: up. Up, up, up. Quite simply, there were skyscrapers everywhere. They stretched as far as the eye could see; even as we navigated over bridges around the coastline, buildings rose majestically from the sea and far over any height we could see from the bus. Between trying to take in the scale of the epic urbanisation, and the novelty of seeing advertisements we all knew to see in the Latin alphabet, but not in any other script, kept our hearts pulsing as we mazed through the metropolis.

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The inside of the National Olympic Memorial Youth Center [2] belied its age. Built to serve as a contributory facility of the Olympic Village for the 1964 Summer Olympics, the marbled lobby of the accommodation seemed almost newly built. Perhaps after seventeen hours’ transit and ten hours in time difference, anything other than the inside of an aluminium carriage seemed slightly more lustrous.

We were assigned our rooms and given our accreditation, and went to wander the corridors meeting some of our fellow contestants. Rooms were assigned along the corridor on an alphabetical basis, and the six Irish were split across two four-bed rooms, nestled between the Iranians and Israelis. Irish neutrality had never seemed less jovial.

Further down the corridor were the Indians, Hungarians, Cantonese, Indonesians and Hungarians. The pillars outside their quarters were covered in Microsoft Publisher flyers advertising their own local websites: 數獨開 being the most prominent message on most of them, being only identifiable to us through the .hk ending on the website, and the encouraging inclusion of the rather more identifiable phrase ‘Math Game’ advertising the Fun Math Super-Cool Website that the six from Hong Kong had put together as part of their own training.

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The opening ceremony almost seems like a parody in hindsight. We had a parade of athletes, where the six of us walked across the stage – myself with a tricolour draped over my shoulders, waving to people we couldn’t see through the haze of halogen lights pointing to the stage – as part of some sort of Parade of Athletes. The six Mexicans, of course, wore sombreros. Sandwiching this bizarre bazaar of mathletes (it was sometime around June when a schoolmate first saw Mean Girls and introduced me to the word) was a procession of traditional Japanese musicians and the Japanese Minister for Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (or at least that’s what we figured out afterwards, having merely had him introduced as ‘文部科学省’).

[3] [4]

Examining all the other entrants as only a frustrated 16-year-old can, it seemed that many of the other entrants – mostly clad in uniform suits, and the rest in matching t-shirts – seemed more stereotypically geeky, but almost to the point of ineptitude. Perhaps there was a chance that, with a sense of creativity, I might have a chance here. Not a chance of success, but maybe the chance to avoid a distinct fear of failure.

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Sunday July 13th, 2008. Day 1, Paper 1.

Each paper in the International Mathematical Olympiad is four-and-a-half hours in length. Each paper has three problems. Those finishing in the upper half of the IMO are given medals: the top twelfth of entrants win gold medals, the next sixth below that a silver, and the quarter below that take bronze. Ireland’s history in IMO’s up to that point had been somewhat mediocre; despite being well known for a high standard being set for its youth, its participants had only ever scored four bronze medals (two of these going to the same person, an Indian immigrant).

The IMO is split into two papers, each held on seperate days. Each paper is four-and-a-half hours in length and contains three – three – problems, for which a maximum of seven marks can be awarded. Being from a country like Ireland, where a bronze medal is seen as a glorious pinnacle that we’d be thrilled to get, if you think you can make good progress on any one of the three problems, and get some points on the board, you pretty much spend your entire time on that problem.

Day 1’s paper [5] offered me a little of this hope. In the second question, involving pairs of integers, I had whittled out the answer that either of a pair could be twice the other. Maybe there were marks to be made after all.

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Though we had struggled immensely with jet lag and sleeplessness on the previous night, Day 2 [6] again offered similar hope. I spent three-and-a-half hours on the final problem, proving that manipulations of indices of prime numbers left remainders of one (happening to be based on something that Eoghan has recently blogged about [7]). Again, I thought there was hope – a couple of marks here and there, and I would at least have avoided the ignominy of a zero-point finish.

Afterwards, while speaking to our new friends from New Zealand – a few of whom were returning contestants from 2002 and who had befriended Diarmuid and Michael that time round – we realised just how seriously some people took the competition. One of the New Zealanders was an expatriated Chinese guy, and he had overheard some of the Chinese participants huddling in a corner shortly after the paper.

It seemed that one of the Chinese had had a mental block, and having answered two of the questions perfectly, could not begin to make an attempt on the final question of the paper. Distraught, he had ran out of the room, gone straight back into his living quarters and would not, simply could not, unlock the door behind him. The Chinese, it seemed, were one of the nations we had heard about – the ones that identified the potential participants years in advance, sent them to special boarding schools from the age of 13, and trained batches of students each year who would all easily make any other country’s team. The Chinese organisers would then have about 40 potential gold medallists from which to choose their six participants. Those who made the cut, therefore, not only had to satisfy themselves with their performance, but also prove their worth to those who were left behind in their gruesome selection process, and to those who had faith to pick them themselves.

While the Kiwi couldn’t make out which day’s paper they were referring to, he could succintly make out two feelings from the other Chinese: distress of the shame that been brought upon their team and country, and for the wellbeing of their teammate (apparently it didn’t seem like the first time such a thing had happened); and annoyance that their teammate had fucked up the competition for the rest of them.

Later in the afternoon, having no official engagements for another couple of days, we started our wanderings around the local area. Again, somewhat shallowly, we were captivated by seeing familiar sights, distorted by foreign lettering.

[8]

This, however, was breakout time. Because two of the three adults who had accompanied us on the trip were sequestered marking papers, and the third – Gordon – simply had different ideas of what he wanted to see and do in the city, the six of us were pretty much left doing our own thing.

There is no more exhilarating feeling in the world than being 16 years old, being on the other side of the world to your parents, wearing your Meath jersey, and taking a subway train to a station whose name you can barely pronounce, with two other young lads from your country, who are equally giddy at the sheer abandon and recklessness of not being sure if you can find your own way home again.

[9]

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We had three days off before there would be a banquet and closing ceremony for us, which were free for us to roam the city, with our assigned tour guide: a 20-year-old from Rathfarnham who was finishing a year on foreign exchange in the city.

While I won’t pretend to remember the exact itineraries of the few days, noted highlights were:

Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine
By far and away, the most serene place I’ve ever been. Built in 1920 to honour Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, the Meiji Shrine, amid the unimaginable urbanisation of Shinjuku and Harajuku around it, and even with the bustle of the NHK telly studios nearby – is so still and peaceful that it really must be seen to be believed. Even breathing felt sacrelege.

Photo by Stéfan on Flickr [10]
Photo by Stéfan [10] on Flickr

Slow flowing waters in the park, the hush of reverence… quite simply undescribable. I bought a small Shinto Scholarship Charm (it being a maths competition, after all) which I would keep in the corner of my desk in the Study Hall back in St Finian’s for the following Leaving Cert year.

Akihabara – ‘Electric Town’
Imagine walking through a town that is the manifestation of not just your childhood dreams, but of your childhood itself. That’s a little of what Akihabara was like for me: you walk around and see giant logos of video game companies everywhere, hanging ominously over open-faced shops selling spare PC parts with just a clear plastic anti-static wrapper. People haggled with each other over the price of RAM while more Harajuku girls (they’re everywhere, usually sat on subways wearing very little, and openly reading school uniformed pornography) hand out fans emblasoned with advertising messages for hyperstores that would make the new Ikea look like a dead pixel on a Bravia.

With this constant buzz – of people, electrics, traffic – comes an awful lot of noise. Akihabara is probably the noisiest place I’ve ever been. People are shouting to hear each other over competing music blaring from each shopfront, each of which is beyond synthesis and degenerates into an apocolyptic din. Yet, strangely, you feed off the noise: walking past shopfronts roaring with sound produces an energy you’re not used to feeling. You are, literally, electrified. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but merely transferred from one form to another: the sound becomes a carb and you buzz.

[11]

The video game arcades are the loudest. They are cramped, but multistorey: there’s barely room to manouevre between different games. You walk into a room the size of a kids’ bedroom and see twenty gamers or more, all hunched around futuristic fruit machines, each simultaneously squealing with slogans roared by anime characters. “君の勝ちだ!”, they all shout over each other, each demanding superior attention over their needy identical septuplet neighbours. And these things are multistorey: there are twenty rooms like this on each floor as high as you can conceive.

On the fourteenth floor of some crazy electro-skyscraper – about a year before iPods became it – I bought a personal CD player that played mp3s and CD-RWs, for the equivalent of about €35. I don’t want to think how little it would be worth today, but the same one in the Argos catalogue was marked at €89 when I got home.

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It wasn’t specifically an Electric Town-specific thing, but even in mid-2003, the Japanese were all about their 3G mobiles. As a gift for winning the trip, Dad had bought me one of the new-fangled picture phones that David Beckham was appearing everywhere to advertise for Vodafone. My brand new Sharp GX10, though, was a brick over there. The Japanese were so far advanced with their 3G networks that the standard GSM ones had all been switched off. Only the phones that showed up in Ireland at the start of 2006 would have been able to work over there: I ended up just carrying the phone with me anyway, as it was a better camera than the Kodak camera-cum-16MB-mp3-player I used to take the pictures you see in this post. You would often see three or four yuppies all sat alongside each other on train carriages, each of them looking into a phone as they shouted to their other halves to be heard amongst their companions.

One of the later evenings, as we took a quieter train back to Sangubashi, we were sat at the back of a large carriage with about ten others. We heard giggling coming from a seat in front of ours: a young woman – early twenties at the oldest – was wearing a revealing schoolgirl outfit, as many others tended to at this time of day. She was on a video call to another girl, about the same age, wearing identical clothing to her own, who was also giggling away. Slowly, though, the giggles became more muted and laboured. We had gotten on at the main station in Shinjuku and were only travelling two stops down the Odawara line, but after two stops, somehow the innocent giggly schoolgirl video call had already led to the girl at the other end of the phone giggling as she showed her hand throbbing furiously under her skirt.

God knows what would have been happening on that phone call by the time the train reached Odawara.

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Due to unforseen circumstances I’m going to be offline and away from the world for a few days. I reposted this epic – originally from Every Day is Electoin Day – to keep up the pretence of a blog a day.

The final part of my Tokyo memories will appear tomorrow [12], and normal service will resume soon – thanks for reading.