Invited to coordinate the conference of an international organization, I flew to Tokyo and drove to Chiba City. The capital city of the Chiba prefecture is a port town on the Tokyo Bay with an attractive artificial beach. The Japanese government was a conference sponsor and the waterfront business district doubtless had an interest, because conference participants were coming from sixty countries.
The international center where the conference would take place looked attractive and I felt buoyant. The feeling evaporated quickly when I was led to my room. Since I was the coordinator, I had been given the best room in the place, but its dimensions left me aghast. How would I spend ten days in this minuscule room, which seemed a quarter of the average room of a middle-range western hotel? The second thing that deflated me was the supposed machine on every floor. It dispensed only green tea. Ugh.
I was introduced to my conference assistant, arranged by the center. I expected a clerk or stenographer who would take notes and carry files. Instead, I met an elegant and attractive woman, a senior executive from a major airline who spoke four languages fluently. When I explained hesitantly that our work might occasionally extend beyond office hours, she forthwith told me that she had taken a room in the center to make herself available the entire time, day or night.
Languages and availability were the least of her skills. She was untiring and unflappable, everything at her fingertips. From the schedule of the conference to the menu at the dinner table, she carried the precise, punctilious details in her tiny electronic tablet. The schedule changed every day as planes carrying lecturers tarried and the menu was modified as some precious tuna remained undelivered, but my indefatigable assistant was always uptodate.
How was this possible? I got my answer the fourth day when I returned briefly to my room during a break to pick up a forgotten file. The evening before, sipping some burgundy, I had inadvertently spilled two drops on the carpet and had guiltily removed the stain with a moistened paper towel. Now I saw a maid working assiduously on the faint vestige of that stain. She worked on it as if her life depended on it, long and hard, until even a detective could not find the slightest trace of a stain. Clearly to the Japanese employee, keeping the place impeccable was not just a job but a veritable mission.
Since the conference participants came from different countries and, after the closing session, some were leaving early in the morning, we announced that the kitchen would serve boxed breakfasts that the participants could pick up on their way to the airport. The chef came and remonstrated to me that Japan’s foremost international center could not let its guests part in the morning, however early it was, without a proper warm breakfast. He said the kitchen staff had decided on their own to sleep that night on the dining room floor in sleeping bags, so that they could get up at three in the morning, prepare a decent, varied breakfast meal and serve it to all the guests, even the earliest-leaving ones. I was astounded, but I had little option but to agree. It was a truly delicious breakfast.
Let me end with two postscripts. Missing my usual black coffee, from the third day I started using the green tea dispensers at every corner. I found it surprisingly agreeable, kept drinking gallons of it during the conference. By the end of my Japan days, I was nearly an addict. Even now I drink green tea periodically. I think it is wonderful.
Also, in the first couple of days, as I got over my western assumption that a hotel room should be bigger or my role merited larger space, I found the small room amazingly well organized and comfortable. Everything I needed was there, near at hand, and that was refreshingly convenient after an exhausting conference day.
Yes, if I have to attend a conference I would rather attend it in Japan.