Okay Gaijin you think you’re ready for RubyKaigi? I’m no expert, but I’ve been a few times and I want to share what I wish someone had told me about attending the conference as an outsider.

RubyKaigi is the premiere Ruby conference held once a year in Japan. It’s huge. This year there were about 1000 developers. I’ve been to RubyKaigi twice in Tokyo and once in Hiroshima. If you’re looking to get a talk accepted there, know that the conference HEAVILY favors technical talks (versus professional development). Think code heavy presentations.

Many of the developers who work on Ruby Core live in Japan, so this is the single largest gathering of Ruby committers (those that have commit access to MRI - Matz Ruby Interpreter). The conference is a unique opportunity to get to hear presentations by these Japanese developers. Many give talks in Japanese and you will not be able to hear them anywhere else.

Speaking of talks in Japanese, the talks are live translated. Before Japanese developers present they give slides to translators to give them time with difficult words. Then as they speak there is a live Japanese to English translation. To listen you grab a special device that uses IR to hear the translations. You get an ear piece that plugs into the device and then you sit around and pretend like you’re in some kind of a mock UN meeting. It’s a bit tiring to listen to a talk translated from another language, but it’s also a pretty cool experience. At the end if you have questions, the moderator of the room will do their best to translate your questions.

While the talks are translated, the videos are not. This means if there’s a choice between an English and Japanese talk you really want to see, pick the Japanese talk. The videos of both will be posted later, but they won’t include the translations. As I mentioned before though, listening to extremely technical foreign language talks back-to-back can be tiring, so maybe try to take some breaks by listening to talks in English or hanging out on the “hallway track”.

Speaking of the hallway track, it’s very different in Japan. Culturally many Japanese developers are not comfortable walking up to strangers and asking questions, introducing themselves, or joining a group having a conversation. It took me awhile to figure this out.

The first Kaigi I went to I thought that everyone hated me or something. I don’t think I talked to a single developer the entire conference that I did not initiate a conversation with.

While that sounds intimidating I’ve found that developers want to talk to you, but they also do not want to appear rude. After a talk approach speakers and compliment them on their topics. You can start conversations with people by asking them about their company if it is on their shirt or their backpack. If you see a group of people standing around and they appear to be using English ask “may I join you”. These sound like simple suggestions, but make a world of difference.

BTW if there are any Japanese developers reading this, please talk to foreigners at RubyKaigi! They came all the way to Japan just to hear from you and would love to make new friends. You will not be rude by introducing yourself and asking “where are you traveling from” :)

The next thing you need to know about is food. In Japan it is hard to go to restaurants with large groups. Going out to dinner and sitting with a group of 6 is huge. If you try to find a place that will sit 10 you’ll likely only find a Japanese bar or izakaya. While they will have lots of beer and sake, the food is not very good it’s typically very salty, very fried, and very small portions. As a result of this do not expect to find a really large group to go to dinner with in the evening (or depending on the Kaigi you may also have to find your own lunch).

Normally after a typical conference I would mill about and try to see who had plans and try to join up with a group after the last conference. In Kaigi I found that I would be talking to someone after the conference, turn my head for a second and when I turned back they would be gone. This isn’t to be rude or cruel. It’s just they formed a group, and couldn’t take any more. To announce their departure would invite conversation into how you weren’t invited and that would be rude, so ghosting isn’t unusual.

Likewise it’s not unusual to make plans with a group and then not be able to find them later. I find myself making plans with several people, or when push comes to shove just asking “are you going to dinner and do you have room for one more?” to those around me. If you can, try to go out to dinner with a Japanese speaker, many of the good mom-and-pop restaurants do not speak any English. You can get by with pantomime and google translate, but it is less awkward for you and them if someone can speak Japanese. If there is not a Japanese speaker with you try to find somewhere you can point at a menu or description of food on the wall.

After your dinner with a small group it may make sense to find some more friends and go on adventures. There may be official conference after-parties, or if not there are karaoke places and bars you can visit. It’s not unusual to ask “what are you doing after dinner” to meet up with friends if you want to meet up with someone later but cannot take them to dinner if your party is full.

BTW yelp exists in Japan, but use https://tabelog.com instead. It’s much better. Also in a crunch, convenience stores also serve some surprisingly good food. I don’t know what it’s called but they sell these rice balls wrapped in seaweed with various meats in them and they are delicious. The blue ones have a tuna/mayo mixture that’s great.

Update: Those delicious rice balls are called onigiri.

For data I use t-mobile. They have an international plan that gives me free data and texts. It’s been rock solid so far. If you have a different provider some may offer a plan to make international data cheaper. Alternatively at the major airports they sell SIM cards as well.

Transit is huge in Japan and very good. I use google maps to get transit directions. Also hotel staff should be able to help you. Plan for some extra time getting to and from stations if it’s your first trip on that path. While most of the stations are well lit and labeled they can still be overwhelming. English proficiency is very high in Japan, when I’ve been lost asking random security guards, or employees, or even those around me questions has been very successful. If someone does not speak english they may be able to point you to someone who does. If you can show them where you’re going on your phone or via a card or paper it can help.

The last thing I want to address is respect. I would recommend at bare minimum learning a phrase or two of Japanese. “Thank you” or Arigatou gozaimasu is extremely common and shows at least a little effort on your part to learn about their culture. If you are drinking with Japanese there are lots of customs around who pours the drinks and what you can say. While you don’t have to strictly observe these things it can be fun to learn about them and again shows that you care about local customs. In all I would say not to worry about being a silly foreigner.

You will likely go somewhere and be confused, or you will take the wrong train, or you will do the wrong thing. It’s a trip and you’re in a foreign country, it’s part of the experience. While you should be respectful, don’t be too worried about looking foolish.

I know I wrote a lot about “do this” and “don’t do that” but I think the most important part is to show up, have a good attitude, and appreciate the Japanese Ruby community. Thank you for reading ありがとうございます!

If you liked this post you may enjoy my recap of RubyKaigi 2017 Day 1.