In Japan...

"Hey, is that a ninja up there?"
(Japan, Aug 20 - Sep 19, 2011)

September 07, 2011

Typhoon Talas Time!

I just wanted to clarifty that I'm fine after typhoon Talas meandered its way across Japan. Last Friday, right before it was about to hit Japan, I was unsure how to anticipate what may be on its way due the modest nature of the Japanese people; everyone was just playing it down. I'm used to the USA, where people are on hurricane watch 24/7 days before it approaches. In Japan, everyone just went about their business as if nothing was the matter. The best advice I got from the assitant professor,

"So eh, be carefuly of typhoon, ok?"

OK. I'll do that. Some thought that the typhoon would blow over Tokyo. In the end, it struck further south and Nagoya just caught some of the edges, so did nothing more than spoil the weekend by forcing us indoors. It made a bit of a mess elsewhere though.

As it turns out, I have since been told that Japanese typhoons are not nearly as dangerous as Atlantic hurricanes in terms of sheer force. You won't see assorted objects being chucked around in 140 mph winds, but you may see your car floating down your street.

In fact, more rain fell in 72 h in one area than ever recorded before. It is the flooding that is why 50 people and counting have died. More details here:

Why Japan's Typhoon Talas Was So Deadly?

Also, Japan has a new Prime Minister. You could be forgiven for not noticing, because I'm in the country and I almost missed it! The old finance minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has been promoted. He is known as a "fiscal hawk". Considering the reason for his promotion was the hooplah around the March tsunami cleanup causing the previous leader to step down, it's understandable why it's not been a hot topic of conversation.

Difference between Japan and the West: No. 8):
The Japanese do not talk about issues of crisis or that draw criticism or embarrassment of their country. They will leave that to their politicians, who they do not openly question.

September 06, 2011

Kyoto (kickin' it, old school)

Last time in Japan I didn't get the chance to do much exploring around the country. It turns out it is rather expensive to get anywhere. I wasn't about to waste the opportunity again, so this time I made sure to connect through Tokyo so that I could check it out before flying home. I also happen to have a friend in Kyoto, a fellow chemist no less also in Japan for research, so what better excuse to visit the old capital? Be warned, the following post contains images of temples that some viewers may find enchanting.

1) Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine

Located just outside Kyoto, we started the day at the Inari shrine at Fushimi, located on the side of a mountain. It's composed of thousands of red gates (torii) that weave a path up the mountain to various shrines. I love this straight from the wikipedia page:

"Since in early Japan Inari was seen as the patron of business, each of the Torii is donated by a Japanese business. First and foremost though, Inari is the god of rice."

The pictures were taken BEFORE the hike up the mountain, which is not advisable way to start a day in 80% humidity. The evening was spent wandering around the old district of Gion. Unfortunately no Geishas were to be seen wandering around between engagements.

2) Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)

IT'S GOOOOOOOOOOOLD. Well, it's gold leaf, but it looks pretty sexy nonetheless. The blue heron (that I originally assumed to be fake due to its Zen-like stillness) complimented the regality of the temple rather nicely I thought. Check out his reflection in the 'Mirror pond' that surrounds the back of the temple.

The Temple of the Golden Pavillion as it is known, located just outside the city centre, is an understandably popular attraction in Japan. It even featured as a Macintosh desktop background at one point. Nevertheless, you must be respectful and abide by the rules of the grounds.

3) Ryoan-ji

Just down the road from the Temple of the Golden Pavillion is the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, a truly Zen name for a Zen temple in possession of a famous Zen garden...It's Zen, yo.

It was even the object of a scientific paper published in Nature, which I do not recommend you read unless you are interested in "inwardly propagating fires" (note the missing hyphen) and "medial-axis skeleton(s)". Nevertheless, even the naive should be able to enjoy this garden. With so many visitors though, it is difficult to feel at peace. Let's just say, dragons must have a lot of patience.

 Goodnight Kyoto, thanks for all the temples.

September 05, 2011


Coming back to Japan almost feels normal, which itself is strange. Despite all the massive differences, I remember all the little intricacies to the point where it felt so very familiar. Arriving at the office on Monday, rather than faced with an endless number of new faces and a list of even newer names to remember (see last time), I was greated by many of the those who I met 10 months ago.

Max: "Hello (Name), so nice to see you again."
Every person I greated:  "Aaaahhh!", with a shocked, smiling expression on their face.

Everyone was amazed that I actually remembered their name; I was shocked that they didn't expect me to!

I arrived in August this time opposed to November. As I mentioned last post, I'm often in Florida at this time of year. As it turns out Japan has a very similar climate, i.e. hot and incredibly humid days in the middle of a typhoon season. However, Japan is still recovering from the Earthquake/tsunami disaster, therefore across the country there have been recommended energy cutbacks.

Everything from streetlights to elevators have been affected, but most importantly...air conditioning, which is recommended to be set no lower than 28 C. Tell me how anyone can be mentally productive whilst being permanently coated in a thin layer of sweat. Hey Japan, how about you turn off 10% of the millions of refrigerated vending machines that you have littering your country? Then you could let us turn it down to 27.

I should finish on a high, because I have been lent the lab bicycle (a real bicycle, not a rare, permiscuous, Japanese girl).

Check it out, metallic sky blue paint job, aluminium chassis, 3-speed internal gear hub, back-wheel safety lock, kick stand, bell and a sick basket on front! And with all this I have been able to fulfil one of my Japanese fantasies from last time, cycling in the rain with an umbrella up! (NB. I've been informed that this is actually illegal, but that doesn't seem to stop people, at least around campus).

September 02, 2011

It's the return

So I never finished the Japan blog like I said I would, which was incredibly rude of me after promising to go out with a bang. However, in case you haven't noticed, or are confused as to why i'm not answering my phone, I am back in Japan! Therefore, I can wrap this all up nicely. It all happened so fast: in the space of a month I went from looking forward to the Fringe Festival and a wee jont back to Florida at the end of summer, to returning to Japan to complete work that should

Last year, many of life's stresses mixed with the uncertainty of spending a month in an alien country with no comprehension of its language to perform research that I was not totally prepared for, left me anxious about the whole experience. Now, with that experience under my belt, familiar faces on the other side and better health (screw you, glandular fever), I was ready.

I won't bore you with the travel details, so here are the highlights of my 56 hours without a bed:
  • Japanese airplane food. Dinner was a Salmon, rice and carrots. Fine. Together with the side of wasabi spaghetti, potato salad and prociutto ham, meso soup and French cheese for dessert. What? Alongside the croissant, fruit cocktail and yoghurt (surely enough already) for breakfast, there was a main course of pizza with sides of broccoli and whole mushrooms.

  • Customs and immigration. I had a mini Japanese lesson from the immigration officer after he allowed me through. The customs guy who searched my bag was initially scared for his personal safety and not of his country's from the truly suspicious-looking chemical samples I had brought with me. Once I said "scientist" he was impressed and let me through, before also teaching me some Japanese and walking from behind his desk specifically to shake my hand. So nice.

Difference between Japan and the West: No. 7)
It seems perfectly socially acceptable to drink beer before noon in Japan. I know there are vending machines with beer everywhere, but still.

  • Quite a few passengers had a beer with breakfast on the airplane. On the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, a perfectly-respectable Japanese man next to me cracked open a brew at 9.30am! It was just one though, not like the Edinburgh-London trains on the weekend.

Shinkansen (bullet train), Tokyo Station.