Wednesday, April 27, 2005

168. A Visit to the Aichi Expo

I counted 400 coaches already in the parking lot when we arrived yesterday morning at 9.30, with new coaches arriving at a rate of about half a dozen every ten minutes. Each coach holds an average of about 40-50 people so that will give you some idea of the various groups (mostly students) that are coming in on a daily, hourly basis.

In addition to this there are packed trains running into the Expo station from Nagoya every 5-6 minutes, not to mention people who arrive by private transport. Numbers in Japan have to be seen to be believed.

The organisation of all these hordes of people is typically efficient, which is what one comes to expect in Japan. Nothing is left to chance and new arrivals are streamed and sorted by a benevolent version of Bergen-Belsen in which scores of uniformed staff arrange parking of buses and the progression of milling crowds towards the entrance gates.

In spite of the huge numbers, our school group of about 600 encountered very little delay.

Once inside, the sprawling size of the exposition grounds strikes you immediately. There are a minimum of three transportation systems in operation (possibly five) apart from the option of simply hoofing it.

Many nations of the world are represented in separate or shared pavilions (Oceania, the Caucasus, West Africa, the Baltic States, parts of South America, several others: Chad hasn't shown up yet so the other Africans use their booth as a coffee break area; the Ecuadorians are late, too, having recently thrown out their president). The pavilions are grouped in geographic clusters -- Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas -- and so on. Some of these national pavilions are thoughtfully designed and informative whereas others, frankly, are a waste of time and money.

The Irish pavilion was pretty cool -- literally so, since they had provided black curtains at the entrance and the air-conditioned interior had reduced light and a rather relaxing greeny-blue ambience. Considering the brazen blazing sun of late April in Japan this was a definite plus. The chief exhibit was a display of truly enormous high crosses arranged in a central circular chamber with a separate surrounding corridor wrapped around it. The walk-around corridor had brilliant graphics with Japanese (no English) explanations and some pretty chancy scaled-down versions of the Cross of Cong and the Ardagh Chalice, plus the Book of Kells. Any Irish person would know straight away they were fake ( a bit small, hmmm?) so I don't understand why we couldn't have made actual-size better fakes.

One brilliant idea was to set up a bank of reclining seats in a semi-circular alcove along one of the outer walls of the corridor. The wide video screen was up on the inclined ceiling. That was a stroke of genius. Everybody wanted to see what was going on, but there were only 20 seats. People waited for those seats. You could almost hear the sigh of relief as people sank into these comfortable seats and took a little break from the pandemonium and the heat outside. Whatever showed up on the video they were certainly well-disposed to watch it. And it was a good video, a lot of shots of Ireland from the air, with some great music which was ruined because you couldn't really hear it.

Overall, the most popular sites are the technical ones run by the major Japanese corporations. Why does this come as no surprise? These exhibits and multi-media shows were designed to impress and they certainly do. Japan, after all, is the host and 90% of the visitors are Japanese -- and possible future customers!! The queues were long and the projected waiting time, from 90 minutes to two hours, prevented me from visiting any of these places. I am sure they are fantastic and impressive -- and a great advertisement for the companies involved!

I took the overhead cable car from one side of the exposition grounds to the other. That was fun. It was a floating five-minute ride over the whole shebang with thousands of people below. It cost Y600 -- 4 Euros, $5.60 -- and this is one of the problems I have with the Expo. Why is it so expensive? The prices for everything, from simple transport to food, is extortionate. There are even rules prohibiting the introduction of certain kinds of food and drink which can be bought more cheaply outside.

Overall I was impressed, largely by the intelligent layout of the grounds and by the efficient (but rather overpowering) nature of the organising principles behind the way people were moved in and shunted about. At the same time, I was glad I didn't have to pay for travel and entrance fees (it was a school excursion) in addition to the money I spent on food, a couple of drinks, and transport within the site. It could be a very expensive day for an average family.

Without wishing to appear overly critical, my general impression was that the Aichi Expo was designed for a mass public with access to a huge amount of disposable cash -- a public that enjoyed a bit of spectacle but, basically, didn't want to have to think very much about what it was seeing.This is the winning combination in Japan.