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Seen to be green at Japan’s Expo

I’m not sure how much publicity the expo has had outside Japan, but is still a pretty big deal here in Tokyo.  As you can imagine, a world expo in Japan is going to be a pretty hi-tech affair, with more than its fair share of oohs and aahs in the rides and gizmos departments. 

The whole theme of this expo is about technology and the environment, so the official mascots (called Morizo and Kiccoro), are fuzzy and green. They look like two piles of lawn clippings.   As the organizers did not want to offend anyone, from any race, colour, creed or phylum, these two critters lack discernable features of any kind, except for a pair of beady eyes.  These green blobs appear everywhere we have been in Japan, so we thought we ought to pay them a visit, breaking our trip from Kyoto to Tokyo.

We thought it would a simple matter of changing our non-reserved train ticket at the office to have stopover in Nagoya on the way back to Tokyo.  But to change a ticket once you’ve bought it is an enormous calamity in Japan.  After a barrage of “sumi-masens” (which means ‘excuse me’, ‘forgive me’, ‘sorry’ or just plain ‘hello’) we found out it would cost us almost twice our express fare to Tokyo for the privilege of stopping in Nagoya.  

That’s right.  Though traveling the same distance, on the same train, without reserving a seat or any other kind of mucking around, we still had to pay double our fare, just because we wanted the trip to take a little bit longer.

But there was no point arguing with twenty sumi-masens.  Our courteous JR officials checked their “bible” again – the JR train schedule book.  The book is literally thicker than the average phone directory, and almost as thick as the average Mangga comic.  Despite all these options there was no loophole. Sumi-masen.        

So we bit the bullet(train) and went anyway.  The venue site was on a green fields industrial area about 45 minutes out of Nagoya in a town called Aichi, (famous as the home of Toyota).  Most of the directories, maps and signs for the World expo were in Japanese.  The only information we had about the displays and attractions came from a DVD that our brother-in-law had recorded a few moths ago.  Unfortunately that was in Japanese too.

With only one whole day to spend, we knew we could only cover a fraction of the exhibits.  Naturally, the exhibit of the host country, Japan would have to be special.  I also wanted to see pavilions from my own country (Australia), my wife’s country (Malaysia) and our adopted home (Indonesia).  Everything else was guesswork.
So we simply applied conventional tourist wisdom.  The longest queues must have the best stuff. 

Unfortunately, the balmy spring weather we had been enjoying for sakura viewing had come to an abrupt halt, and cold wet weather had set in, making queueing a bit of a health hazard.   Of course, we only had one umbrella between us.  Yes, there was a guy selling them at the front entrance, but I spurned him, applying conventional tourist wisdom that there would be heaps of collectable Morizo and Kiccoro endorsed umbrellas on sale inside. 

Unfortunately is seems that green blobs have no use for umbrellas, and after half an hour of trying to find one, my wife had no more use for my conventional tourist wisdom.  The one-hour queue in the rain to enter the Japanese pavilion did nothing to improve our predicament.

Judging from the Japanese exhibits, there is a real thrust in this country to use technology to battle the environmental problems of the new millennium.  Rather than wow the crowds with dancing robots and plasma screens and microchips the size of a grain of sand, the Japanese pavilion boasted of its fuel efficiency, enhanced by an outer casing of woven bamboo.  If you wanted plasma screens, you needed to visit the Indonesian pavilion.

Actually, the Japanese pavilion was high-tech, but in a cool, low key kind of way.  The centerpiece was a completely spherical theatre – basically four Imaxes stitched together, that you viewed from the center on a glass platform.  The five minute “audio visual experience” gave you the sensation of traveling through clouds before plummeting in the ocean then catapulting in space.  All the while a lecture ensued about the fact that we only have one planet.

On the way out were displays showing Japanese innovations to improve alternative energy sources and recycle as much as possible.  While I was impressed with their vigor in promoting recycling, I did find their bin system a bit confusing.  Rubbish collection points had up to twelve separate receptacles, for everything from used chopsticks to PET plastics.  But what do you do with a piece of shrink wrap that has a paper sticker? Hmm?  

The Australian pavilion was very quick to pick up on this recycling theme, by well recycling its themes.  It had a giant platypus, an audio visual display that looked like a Sydney 2000 olympics promo and sold opals from the gift shop.  At least we didn’t have to queue for long.   

Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on my compatriots.  Clearly a lot of time and money had been spent on the building and the audio-visuals.  At its heart, three sets of plasma screens arranged in triangular columns that provided a very up-beat and theatrical ten minutes of contemporary urban Australian icons.  Unfortunately, from what I observed, few guests wanted to hang around and watch TV.   

So the pavilion concentrated its energy on it’s entry display.  Only small groups were allowed in at a time. These guests could be treated to a brief hologram production, harking back to the dreamtime, and the indigenous wisdom that humans are the custodians of the Earth.  It was a neat fusion of technology and theatre, which carried a wonderful message.  But where was the evidence that we were actually practicing those values in Australia?

The Malaysian pavilion had a bigger queue, mainly because they had cunningly placed their roti vendors near the front entry.  On a cold wet afternoon, the aroma of freshly cooked roti can be irresistible.  I’m glad to say that no amount of technology can compete with the spectacle of roti dough being twirled around to a pumping techno backbeat.  And the roti boys knew it.  Inside, there was a nod to paper recycling, with the use of  paper mache fish on sticks to recreate a tropical reef and an awesome “multiscreen video display” (ie two TV sets, playing  Malaysian Airline advertisements).

We were kind of disappointed that there were no umbrella boys to greet us at the Indonesian pavilion (where are they when you need them?).   It was very crowded and filled with stalls.  But it was a long walk to get there from the Malaysian pavilion.  No doubt the organizers had deliberately kept these two apart. I’m sure no one wanted arguments over the ground in between.

Apparently there was a UN pavilion too, but as usual, they were nowhere to be found.    
The Thai pavilion had a lovely display of herbs and spices, encouraging visitors to touch, feel and guess. This proved that you didn’t need plasma screens to make an effective display.  But then, in a seemingly ad hoc attempt to fit in with the rest of the themes, they had pasted the walls with a bunch of mixed motherhood statements about commitment to the environment on one side, and slabs of their bilateral agreement with Japan on the other. 

But it was the Cambodian pavilion that cut straight to the chase.  They had their “Rules and Regulations to Investing in Cambodia” on display at the front door.

Leaving the country pavilions for a spell, we decided to check out the big ticket items.  In the centre of the grounds was the ‘World Tower” – boasting itself to be the “World’s largest giant kaleidoscope”  I bet you all the other giant kaleidoscopes around the world are now  gnashing their teeth in envy. 

The robot pavilion was entertaining.  There was a robot ‘Information officer’ that looked like a real person.  It blinked, moved its arms and responded to questions.  When you asked it a question, it frowned and said “I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer to that question”.  Exactly like a real information officer.  Apparently the designers are now working on a politician version.

There was also a scary looking “security robot”, that looked as if it had been cobbled together from spare parts off a patrol car.  It would have been intriguing to see one of these beasties would have been able to operate a metal detector.

The really dazzling stuff came from the electronic companies.  Hitachi used an ‘endangered species’ theme to advertise its new I-chips and power cells.  Visitors were taken through a virtual reality hologram train ride to see virtually extinct critters.  Sony used a ‘National Geographic type special (‘our fragile planet’) to show off some mind blowing laser digital effects on a mammoth twenty-five metre wide screen.

All these displays were fantastic, but each required a half hour wait in the cold and damp.  What we really wanted to do was find was the global warming exhibition!

Then a funny thought crossed my mind.  For all the facts and figures on display about the fragility of our environment, for all the rhetoric about the increased use of non-renewable resources and the threat of over population, global warming etc, no one dared suggest that we, as individuals, could improve the situation by merely decreasing our consumption. 

But that was only a fleeting thought, because by then we’d arrived at the souvenir shop, which was nice and warm and dry.   

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