Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors (小惑星、彗星、流星)

May 16-20, 2012

Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors is a scientific conference held every three years, organized with support from the International Astronomy Union (IAU), the same folks who in 2006 voted to demote Pluto.  Planetary definitions aside, I was excited when they announced a conference in 2011 in Japan; small solar system bodies and the Land of the Rising Sun, what could be a better combination?  Then the Tōhoku Disaster of 2011 happened, and the conference was postponed until 2012, a year of uncertainty for me.  I cobbled together a project, support, and submitted an abstract on observations I’d taken earlier this year on a binary asteroid system, (22) Kalliope and its moon Linus, and packed my bags for Niigata, northwest of Tōkyō through the alps.

A sign at the local train station welcomed us to the conference.

The conference hotel was located on a peninsula in the middle of a river, connected to mainland Niigata by bridges.  Dredging barges and large ships came up and down the channel.

Welcome to Ceres!

Niigata is known for its rice, and wheat is very expensive, so most of the pastries at the breaks were made of rice flour, sugar, and butter.  This one had almond flour as well.  Amazing!

Discussions with a collaborator in an alcove.

The banquet

We arrived for the banquet, a few minutes late, as Ms. Niigata implored the crowd to please try all of the sake offered that evening.  A series of traditional dances by professional geishas followed the welcoming speech, and then it was time for the evening’s real entertainment: the announcement of who just got an asteroid with their name.  Rick Binzel and Wantanabe-san announced the recipients.

The geisha then wandered about the banquet, posing for photos.

Andy congratulated Cristina on her chunk of space rock, a member of the Koronis family!

I posed with a geisha, who was apparently 19 years old.  This is her primary job!  Niigata’s known for its rice (wine) and its beautiful geisha, so having sake and five geishas attending the banquet made for quite the cultural evening.

I made friends with Ito-san of the National Astronomy Observatory of Japan.

The next night’s dinner excursion went out in search of a noodle place.  Our directions were bad, but we wound up at a little curry house called VoVo.  The man behind the counter didn’t seem keen on a flight of six foreigners invading his hip but empty restaurant, but we figured out how to order and got our curries, Belgian beer in a bubbly bottle, and even shochu for Emily who was up for something aside from a brewski.

The next morning, someone posted a slide with an astronaut trying to crawl out of an asteroid.

My former advisor gave me bookmarks from the Japanese asteroid mission, Hayabusa.

After the conference ended, we proceeded up to the observation deck on the 30th floor of Toki Messe to watch the sun set.

The last night of the conference we set off in search of dinner.  I’d heard that Sho Sasaki was a noodle guru; a quick search confirmed he’d won a Japanese TV contest for correctly identifying the shop from which a particular ramen topping had originated.  Sasaki-san pointed us in the direction of a little noodle shop called “Sen”, across the river from the conference hotel.

We arrived at this little collection of shops in Bandaijima: a vegetable shop, a butcher, a bakery, and a liquor store that’d we’d all seen out of the windows of the conference center.  Between the shops were shipping containers converted into a ramen restaurant and a plant shop.  ”Sen is okay,” said Sasaki-san.  Thirteen of us, asteroid folks and a spouse who studies the atmosphere on Mars, trundled into the ramen shipping container.  ”Jyū san jin?” Andy asked of the cook.  The latter pointed at nine chairs and said, “Kyū jin.”  We somehow figured out that four of us would sit outside on folding chairs at a plastic table, though this rapidly turned into seven or eight.  Yen were exchanged for meal tokens, and the ramen ordering commenced.  A giant pig dressed as a samurai and wearing sunglasses kept watch over the diners.

The Martian and I, unable to eat ramen, went off in search of other food.  I found a kaiten zushi place in what I could only call this little strip mall of Bandaijima, found the term for food to go in the Martian’s phrasebook (持ち帰り), looked it up in Kotoba!, found the relevant phrase for asking if I could get a meal o-bento, and managed to order about eight pieces to go, even substituting more salmon for octopus.

The adjacent greengrocer was about to close, but I scored a box of jewel-like local strawberries (いちご) for about 200円 as well.  Score!  The Martian went to the kaiten zushi establishment as well, but had little luck ordering a vegetarian meal.  I encouraged her back, and she returned with a box of sushi with pickled plums, cucumbers, and eggs.  Not interested in my eel, I asked a colleague if he’d finish it for me.

“‘Would you like this eel?’ That’s not a question I get asked enough.”

A great final dinner in Niigata.

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