Saturday, October 31, 2009

Positive thinking

I'm almost certain that by far the biggest problem with my preparation for the World Memory Championship this year is that I just don't feel like I've done enough training. I'm sure if I could just snap out of that mindset, I would do much, much better at the competition, without actually doing any more training. I've often wondered whether hypnosis would help in this kind of situation - as I always say (usually to justify eating junk food at memory competitions), if I'm in the right frame of mind, I can always memorise a lot better. So having someone wave a shiny watch in front of my eyes and tell me that I believe I am fully prepared and confident that I can win the world championship... might actually make a huge difference.

Where does one find a hypnotist, anyway? I've never looked for one before. Blimey, there's about a million hynotherapists in the Nottingham Yellow Pages alone! Maybe I'll give one of them a call...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Techno-toilet go!

Yes, the toilet in my hotel room in Tokyo had a huge electronic control panel and a variety of hi-tech functions. When you sit down on it, there's a great gurgling sound of water and a green light marked "Preparation" starts flashing. You can then control the seat temperature and spray strength of the "bidet" and "shower" functions. I'm not sure what the "shower" one does, I didn't dare to try it. The toilet at the university we went to for our experiment on Monday had another function as well, marked "Flushing sound". Yes, when you press it a recording of a flushing sound plays from a speaker. I'm not sure exactly what the point of this function is. For those moments when you want to pretend to flush a toilet, but not actually flush it? Perhaps it's one of those cultural things that you have to be Japanese to understand.

Anyway, going to the toilet was only half the fun of the trip, so let's do a more chronological account of what I've been up to for the past week. As I whined in my last blog, my flight was three and a half hours late taking off, and when it's a twelve-hour flight anyway, you really want to minimise the amount of hours you spend sitting around waiting for it to start. Also, it was an overnight flight, and I can never sleep on planes, even though I got upgraded to a slightly nicer still-economy-class-but-better-than-normal-economy-class seat. Still, there was a reasonable range of in-flight entertainment - I got to see Bolt for the first time, and although the 'kids' section of the videos was very sparsely populated, it did contain the downright awesome (and not at all intended for kids) animation "La maison en petits cubes", which was fun.

I did finally arrive in Tokyo at about 7pm, Japanese time (after half an hour spent waiting for my luggage) to be greeted by the very friendly film crew - director Naoko and the camerman and soundman, whose names I can't remember, and there was also a driver who generally just stayed with the minibus and didn't join in with our various adventures. We drove into central Tokyo, checked into my very nice hotel right in the city centre, met up with Boris (who'd arrived a day or so earlier, despite missing the plane he was originally supposed to get, and had got upgraded to a really luxurious business-class seat as a reward) and we went out to eat. At the cameraman's suggestion, we had okonomiyaki, which I was very enthusiastic about, and explained that I was familiar with the concept because it featured prominently in the popular Japanese comic "Ranma ½". The camera crew already knew I was something of a comics and cartoons nut, but hadn't quite realised the full depths of it until I came to Japan and couldn't shut up about them, my tongue having been loosened by the lack of sleep and surfeit of sake (our Japanese hosts were all drinking beer, but I insisted on having a 'real Japanese experience' and drinking sake - it's possible I didn't make the best impression overall, but they all seemed entertained). By the time we'd got to the end of the evening, at about midnight, I had moved on from discussing comics and showing off my ability to read the katakana parts of the menu and had taken to loudly singing songs from Japanese cartoons I enjoy.

You'd think that I would have slept well after all that, but actually I woke up at about four o'clock and couldn't get back to sleep. Throughout all the time I was there, in fact, I had really terrible jetlag, even worse than when I went to Malaysia six years ago and famously missed the start of the final day of the world memory championship. Still, that gave me an opportunity to walk around Shibuya before the shops opened (most shops there don't open till ten or eleven in the morning, but stay open very late), then go back to bed and sleep until two in the afternoon. This set something of a pattern for my stay there, of going to bed when I felt tired, sleeping for three or four hours then getting up and going out again. Probably not good for me, but it seemed to work.

There are plenty of great sights to see in Tokyo, even if you don't go to the temples and museums and stuff and prefer to just tour the city centre. I did go to see the statue of HachikĊ the faithful dog at the train station, but that was all the traditional sightseeing. I preferred to admire the many video game arcades (the buildings tended to be taken up mainly by pachinko machines, but there were also some cool places with a wide range of games - the arcade as a concept may be basically dead in Britain, but it's still surviving over there), bookshops (including the invitingly-named "Book Off", which has more manga than I thought even existed in the world) and department stores. All of these were great fun!

In the evening, Boris and I went for a traditional Japanese meal in Burger King, where they were selling a "Windows 7 burger", with no less than seven giant-size meat patties in them. Didn't have one myself, but I saw some people eating them. It's the kind of meal that would probably kill you, but in a fun way. Incidentally, despite the metric system, a quarter pounder is a quarter pounder in Japan.

The following day, it was time for "the experiment". We added a translator to the gang of us in the minibus (not really necessary, since Naoko's English was actually a bit better than the official translator's) and went out to the university, where we were greeted by the very mad-scientist-esque professor who had arranged to scan our brains while we memorised things. This procedure involved being strapped into a big, scary MRI machine, which was quite an experience in itself, complete with mirrors so we could see a computer screen on which were displayed names and faces and then numbers. Being famously bad at names and faces, I was worried about disappointing the professor, but it turned out that that part of the test was really easy, involving multiple-choice answers, and I breezed through it with only one mistake. I even got the same score as Boris, which shows how easy it was!

The lab assistant responsible for strapping us into the machine, incidentally, looked quite strikingly like my brother. Not so much so when you saw him standing up, being more than a foot shorter, with a rounder face and also being Japanese, but when you can only see his face while he's leaning over you and strapping your head down in a very scary plastic cage, the resemblance is quite uncanny. I did wonder if possibly I was having some very strange freudian dream about my brother strapping me to a bed and sealing me in a tubular coffin. Anyway, the next bit of the test was numbers - 30-second numbers, with 50 digits to remember and a fill-in-the-blanks recall test. It was going to be 20 seconds, but Boris thought that wasn't long enough, the big chicken. Actually, even with thirty seconds on the clock I had a few mistakes, but all but one of them came from forgetting which button was which digit (not being able to see a keyboard due to being strapped into the machine, we had control panels with one button under each finger, and it took a bit of getting used to).

It'll take them a week or so to analyse exactly what my brain was doing and whether it's different from what normal people's brains do, but they did generate an extraordinarily groovy 3-D model of my head on the computer screen, which you can sort of slice open to see a cross-section of my brain. I tell you, it was very cool to see. I didn't realise I even had a brain, let alone one that you can analyse with computers.

After that we had another free day, which I spent travelling around all the different parts of Tokyo. It had been raining for the whole time I was there, but the sun started shining that day, and I completely wore myself out walking around the big city.

Next day was part two of the filming, but this was the rather more fun kind of filming that involved playing, eating and singing. We went to Odaiba, where an officious person told us that we weren't allowed to film documentaries without permission, so we spent the day disguised as tourists, with a hand-held camera. We went to Joypolis, the big Sega indoor theme park kind of place, and had a great time. There's a 3-D animation called "Dark Chapel" which is by far the best 3-D I've ever seen - things jump out of the screen and bite you! And lots of fun rides and attractions too!

Then we went back into the city and ate lots of sushi, while trying to memorise the names. As memory performances go, it wasn't very good, but the food was mostly nice (personally, I don't think that paying a surprisingly large amount of money for an octopus tentacle on a little pile of rice is a good idea, but I wasn't paying, so it was okay. Didn't taste good, though).

And then, because you can't go to Japan and not do this, we went to a karaoke bar in the evening. Not the kind of karaoke bar you get in this country, but a place with private rooms and electronic ordering of songs and drinks and foodstuffs. And also a book literally the size of the yellow pages containing nothing but karaoke versions of songs from cartoons. This really is my kind of country.

I am going to have to improve my singing voice if I go there again, though - I do like a bit of karaoke, and normally when I go out singing, people say I'm quite good compared to some of the people who go up on stage. In Tokyo, though, I was completely put in my place by the director and cameraman, who are both really amazingly great singers. And they even performed the Gatchaman and Evangelion theme tunes for my benefit, and did it really amazingly well! I had a stab at singing "Konya wa Hurricane" from Bubblegum Crisis, which went down well even though I can't read Japanese fast enough to sing it and I could only remember half the words.

And that, sadly, was that. Back home again the next morning, another much-too-long plane journey and then back to work today (I should have been sleeping all day, really, but I had to go in because practically everybody else in the company had the day off and they booked it first). This has been a hugely abridged account of my stay in Tokyo, missing out lots of fun adventures, but I hope it gives you an idea at least. I wish I was still there! Somebody give me another free trip, quick!

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Yep, I'm back home with no problems or delays - even getting from the aeroplane at Heathrow to my front door took no more than three hours! Still, I'm extremely tired, so you're not going to get a travelogue tonight, I'm afraid. Just suffice it to say that my trip to Tokyo was by far the most fun I've ever had being filmed for a documentary, and I wish I could stay there for another month at least!

Yes, I know that would mean missing the world championship. I had that much fun. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow!