"Are you here on holiday?"
The answer was bound to be 'yes'. I had fallen into conversation with the elderly lady sitting beside me as we had sought out the shuttle bus to transfer to the airport's domestic terminal. I was connecting from Tokyo to Sapporo, she was bound for Osaka. Judging from her accent, we had both just stepped off the London Heathrow flight.
Seeing my new companion take out a hired Japanese-style flip phone and look at it bemusedly, I had offered to call her new number from my mobile to check everything worked. She had been pleased with the offer (the phone worked fine. This is Japan) and told me that she had a Japanese sister-in-law who now lived in the UK. She was clearly touring: fly into Osaka, taking the train to Kyoto, check out the temples and maybe risk nibbling the end off a small piece of sushi...
"Actually, I'm here to assess ballet examinations."
... or maybe not.
My new companion turned out to be an ex-professional dancer herself who now taught and assessed ballet technique. Now that I looked a little closer, it was clear she had a dancer's slender figure. She certainly had no trouble swinging her case on and off the bus, speaking of misleadingly hidden strength. In the face of my dumbfounded ignorance, she explained that a dancer can train in different styles of classical ballet, and her speciality was the Cecchetti method. She was to assess dancers in this style in Kobe, Maruyama and Tokyo, also teaching for a few days at each school.
At this point, I began to suspect she might be rather famous. However, demanding 'who are you?' in an Alice in Wonderland caterpillar-style seemed a little rude. I vaguely wondered if I could get away with a selfie.
"Are the dancers taking the examinations professionals?" I asked.
"The exams cover the full range of levels," she explained. "My examinees are from 6 to 54 years old!"
I became painfully aware of how unfit I was.
She added that she suspected that the older dancers were not amateurs but ex-professionals who wanted the formal qualifications so they could teach. She then admitted that is how she herself started in the Cecchetti method, having been asked to help out later in her career. She then sat all the examinations within a few years in her late 30s and early 40s. Given she was now flown around the world as an examiner, I was prepared to bet these were no low level tests.
"I only know a few phrases in Japanese," she told me. "One is 'receipt please'. I need to collect a record of all my expenses, so I can say that one in many languages!"
While this was the first time she had been invited to Japan on work, she had previously been to a string of other countries, including Malta and Cyprus.
"So what is it you do?" she asked me warmly.
"Oh.... I'm ...."
OK, so 'astrophysicist' sounds pretty cool, but there are some competitions you just know you've lost before you throw your hat into the ring.