"The physics department at Hokkaido University is organising an international conference and we'd like to see your meeting facilities."
The hotel employee looked at the three people in front of him; two foreigners and one Japanese, all wearing the equivalent of jeans and hoodies and two of whom were clutching cameras. There was no way around the fact we looked more like tourists hoping to go on the merry-go-round than representatives from a prestigious national university.
Yes, there was a merry-go-round. I'm getting to that.
To give him credit, the receptionist's face did not suggest that this was the most improbable story he had heard in his life and instead called through to the hotel's conference facilities to locate us a tour guide.
While we waited, I had to admit that although we might look out of place organising a conference, the lobby of this hotel didn't exactly fit the bill either. Behind a decorative iron gate, a brightly coloured merry-go-round with the usual collection of ridable fantasies --white horses, dragons and a grinning pig-- rotated slowly. To its right, a collection of slot machines blinked an epileptic cascade of lights and directly in front of us, signs pointed up two escalators promising shops, restaurants and bars.
I wondered how any participant was going to take this conference seriously.
Our guide appeared in a crisp business suit and armed with envelopes containing details of the hotel's facilities. The usual bows were exchanged along with business cards, although the latter was a one-way transaction since I never think to get any made up. No doubt this confirmed all the warnings our host had been given when he was summon by telephone.
"Do you speak Japanese?" he asked me, in Japanese.
"A little," I replied which was correctly interpreted as: 'None whatsoever. I've just got really good at guessing what questions people ask me'. The conversation was then directed towards my friend, who had the advantage of being:
(b) Not wearing wearing bright yellow Doctor Marten boots with a winky smily drawn on their toes.
He was also not directly connected the conference, having been roped in to provide the wheels that made this road trip possible. However, the only person who was involved was me, and no one was believing that just then.
I should add that had I planned to be touring these hotels, I would have been slightly more prepared. Astrophysics doesn't really use business cards, but I could have toned down the colour scheme to pretend I understood that copulation with a rainbow was unlikely. My plan had been to visit hotels under consideration for the meeting location and scout out the area. However, the regions surrounding the hotels were small and there wasn't much to see unless you went inside the building whereupon you get questioned and…
… this is where we started our story.
Despite the pig riding merry-go-round, the attached conference suit was smart and evidently well used for purposes such as ours. When my friend directed our hotel guide's questions towards me, I was formally introduced.
"Sensei?!" (Professor?!) This time it was no longer possible to keep the blank astonishment out of his greeting.
Hey, all geniuses have a unique look, don't you know? Mine says my research made me look into the Total Perspective Vortex, whereupon I lost my mind.
After the final goodbyes, we were left to exit the hotel on our own. I was initially surprised we weren't escorted off the premises but apparently it was felt that if we had been terrorists, we would have thought of a more believable story.