By Jen Wurtzel
*This travel was funded by an AQUA Student Travel Prize with additional support from the RSES D.A. Brown Travel Scholarship.
It was a hot and humid week at the end of July 2015 when nearly two thousand scientists from all over the world gathered in Nagoya, Japan for the INQUA XIX Congress – the first to be held in Japan since the organization’s 1928 inception. Nagoya is located in central Japan and is easily accessible by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo and Osaka. Though there weren’t many accommodation options in the immediate vicinity of the Nagoya Congress Center, there were a number of bustling neighbourhoods within 2-3 short stops on Nagoya’s efficient subway system.
A few of us RSES students found ourselves staying at a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Kamimaezu.
Exploring the surrounding area on Sunday morning led us to discover that we were within a few blocks of the Osu shopping district, a large arcade-style mall filled with a wide range of shops, including tiny 5-person sushi bars, vintage clothing, Japanese street food, traditional craft stores, and ¥100 (dollar) shops.
While the main streets were mostly modern, on some of the back streets, rice paper lanterns and wooden sliding doors which marked the entrances of many shops made you feel like you were walking down an Edo-period street. Despite the oppressive heat, we enjoyed wandering and cooled off with a pineapple-flavoured shaved ice from one of the local shops.
The conference kicked off on Sunday evening, 26 July, with an icebreaker, where attendees had the opportunity to catch up with old faces and meet some new ones, all while sampling Japanese beers and snacks. Following the icebreaker, AQUA members proceeded to dinner at a local izakaya (Japanese bar and grill), where communal dining and unlimited drinks led to an inevitably good time.
On Monday morning, at the Opening Ceremony, delegates were honoured and awed by the presence of Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress of Japan, as well as Guests of Honor, the Minister of Science and Technology Policy and the Governor of Aichi Province. After brief speeches by the Local Organizing Committee, the conference was underway, starting with business meetings in the early afternoon.
Oral presentations began that evening with the plenary lectures. The honour of the first talk went to Georgia Tech’s Kim Cobb, who gave a brilliant lecture on Holocene ENSO variability in the tropical Pacific. This was followed by plenary talks on climate impacts on biodiversity, and biomarker proxy development.
After that, delegates broke off to listen to the first sessions on a wide range of Quaternary topics, including paleoclimate, human dispersal, tephrochronology, archaeology and much, much more.
The first evening ended with a welcome function that featured greetings from Nagoya’s mayor and traditional Japanese taiko drummers.
The conference schedule was intense; the day regularly started at 9am with two oral sessions separated by a 30-minute tea and coffee break (which didn’t include biscuits, much to the dismay of the Brits and Aussies who cherish their proper morning tea). While the morning tea left something to be desired, I was personally delighted with lunch. Though there were a few options including Japanese style pork or veggie sandwiches, my absolute favourite was the onigiri, which is a Japanese rice ball containing varieties of seafood or vegetables wrapped in nori (seaweed).
The hour break for lunch was followed daily by plenary lectures and the poster session, before oral sessions resumed at 5pm, running until nearly 7pm. Throughout the week, up to 14 sessions could be running concurrently, leading to some difficult decisions about which sessions to attend. I thought the poster sessions were well-sized for the allotted time. It was also nice to not have to choose between attending talks and wandering the posters.
Thursday served as a reprieve from the overwhelming schedule talks, with some delegates participating in mid-conference field trips to various geologic sites around Japan and others venturing off on their own.
Friday saw the resumption of presentations, as well as a number of business meetings. One major purpose of the business meetings was to vote on the location of INQUA’s next congress. Zaragoza (Spain), Rome, and Dublin all put in bids. The Irish wandered around in bright green INQUA Dublin 2019 t-shirts, while the Italians tried to win us over with wines and cheese during one of the poster sessions (it worked on me, at least). In the end, Dublin was the winning bid.
It was obviously not possible to attend all the sessions, and I tended to stick mostly to the paleoclimate topics. I attended a number of sessions on the Asian Monsoon, interglacial climate, Holocene climate, and Southern Hemisphere paleoclimate. Some of the highlights were hearing UC Berkeley’s John Chiang talk about the role of the westerlies in monsoon dynamics, Pedro DiNezio from the University of Hawaii speaking about the Indo-Pacific in models and proxies during the LGM and the role of sea level, and Simon Armitage of Royal Halloway telling us about a new record to help constrain the timing of the onset of the African Humid Period. These are just a few of the dozens of memorable talks I attended during the conference.
Even though I mostly attended the paleoclimate sessions, I did venture out of my comfort zone a bit by attending a session on human activity in paleoecology records. When I wasn’t being overwhelmed by pollen diagrams, I found the human aspect very interesting. Many of the talks were related to the identification of fire in the record, and whether or not spikes in charcoal could be related to human activity.
My own presentation was given Saturday morning in the SHAPE (Southern Hemisphere Assessment of Paleo-environments) session. I was a bit nervous as the previous talks had been really well-presented and featured cute pictures of small, furry creatures (of which my cave contains none). However, the talk went off without a hitch and while I didn’t receive a whole lot of useful feedback, I felt the talk had been well-received. Relieved to be done, I was able to enjoy that night’s conference dinner (yakiniku! (grilled meat)) with the knowledge I had just one more days of talks to attend. Interestingly, a lot of the most interesting paleo sessions were scheduled on the last two days, which meant things didn’t exactly wind down until the very, very end. That was on Sunday. Two more excellent morning sessions, a few more plenary talks, and a farewell function brought the conference to a close. My group opted to pass on the function in order to get a head start on our post-conference trip, but not without a fond farewell to Nagoya, which we had really enjoyed.
From the start, Nagoya reminded me a lot of Canberra. Just like when I told people I was moving to Canberra, when I mentioned I was going to Nagoya, people would ask ‘Why would you go there?’ And to be fair, it’s probably not a city that would have made the itinerary had I been planning a non-conference-related trip to Japan. Yet, when I arrived, I found that Nagoya had plenty to offer. There were really cool shopping districts, gardens, shrines and castles, and a number of museums (including a Questacon-like science museum boasting the world’s largest planetarium).
We enjoyed trying all the local family-run restaurants, where the owners were often friendly and welcoming, despite the language barrier. I would definitely consider Nagoya an underappreciated city, much like Canberra.
From Nagoya, we met up with friends and fiancées in Osaka, and spent a fun week travelling through the country. Below are a few of our favourite photos from our travels. Enjoy!