Sunday, July 7, 2013

Discovering a corner of Japan


My 15 days in the Tokyo area, working as guest of the National Institute of Polar Research and exploring as simple tourist.

1st day-2 days: the missing night.
Traveling towards east, the time seems shorter. Actually it is. I've left Brussels in a cold and rainy morning and after a short stop in Frankfurt I've landed in a gray and hot morning in Tokyo-Narita. The flight should have replaced the night, but I didn't sleep much. I was too much excited: first time to Japan and first time in the A380, the double-decker aircraft of the sky. Due to a delay in the luggage delivery, I've missed the planned bus to Tachikawa, the following bus left almost 2 hrs later. In the meantime I've realized that my quad-band phone is already "old" for this country: only umts smartphones work here. The shuttle bus didn't seem exceptionally new or technological advanced, but what really astonished me was the behavior of the "assistants". At the bus stop, a few guys, wearing the same uniform, load the suitcases and help people find the right stop (ok, that's normal). These guys bow down every time the bus arrives and leaves! I thought that bowing was an old-fashion honor for Queen Elizabeth II...

The journey with the bus was shorter than thought and I was more tired than expected, but I got the first idea of the landscape at this latitude. After crossing green areas for km and having a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, we ended in a traffic jam in the complex network of highways between skyscrapers. A walk in Tachikawa, my destination, made me enjoy a bit of less "contaminated" Japan, with a lot of cyclists, a few old people wearing traditional clothes, the monorail that seems outdated, the supermarket with fish seller-singers at the corners, the drummers practicing in a school, the low houses with small windows and gorgeous little gardens. Traffic is intense but not chaotic, houses and streets are minimal, clean, ordered but not too much. Bikes have a very simple lock and have a label with the name of the owner... if you do something similar in Vienna maybe you get a fine by the police because you tempt the thieves, if you try in Italy or in Brussels... your bike disappears in 5 seconds but you can hear the thieves laughing for years!

The NIPR is something in between the super-organization I've experienced in some research centers in Germany and the self-doing and randomization of happenings I've lived with in Italy. I'm staying in the guest house for visiting scientists, a one-floor building close to the research area. My room is small but super-equipped, with kitchen(dishes, glasses, forks (forks!!! not only chopsticks!), pans, etc. are also provided), bathroom, desk, tv, bed, and air conditioning. The picture is for those Italians that dream of a "bidet" when are abroad: here is built in the water closet. You can also select the pre-heating of the seat and the temperature and the intensity of the water, different for your "posterior" and front. Not tried yet, it was already a challenge understanding the instructions. The weather is awful, the hot mist can kill you, it seems Padova in the worst foggy days of July but, at least, here there aren't mosquitos. Now I'm definitively tired. Good night! (more pictures on Facebook)

2nd day: science and party time
Having a reverse jet lag is priceless. At 8 p.m. it is already dark, at 5 a.m. it is day, so I went to sleep at 8 and woke up at 5...when it is 10 p.m. in Europe. The working time was spent planning the next week and measuring 104 samples collected the last winter. I met many other scientists, but because my scarce understanding of their names and their poor English most of these new acquaintances will be forget soon by both. That's sad, I know. It's the same at many international conferences. Sometimes you meet again a person you met the first time years ago, you cannot remember his name but for some reasons you had never forgotten his face, then you become friends and never forget each other anymore. This happened to me many times, now I'm sharing the office in Brussels with a colleague I met in 2005!


In the evening there was a party to celebrate the 55th anniversary of something related to Antarctica. About one hundred of Japanese from the institute were there, exactly at 6 p.m. Official speeches of the different directors (hierarchy is amazing here) and then the cook introduced his specialities. The audience replied clapping or with enthusiastic ooooh... I did the same, but unfortunately I didn't get a word. The party was very nice, although for the 1st time in my life I've realized I'm... the black sheep, until I've recognized a "Western" face and heard that "the face" spoke English. Wow, he's European! Wait, he's French. Well, we aren't in Belgium, it is fine. He's a biologist who studies Antarctic species of penguin and is doing a post-doc here. Ok, 2 black sheep over more than 100 white sheep, but that's fun!

First weekend
On Saturday I've tried to go to Tachikawa Station for shopping but I quickly changed my mind, too hot and too expensive and western-style. I've preferred to stay "home" to work, with the air conditioning on, ... like a Japanese.

On Sunday I took a train to Tokyo. Stations are simply crazy. Tickets are sold for price, so you need to know in advance how much you should pay... not the distance. There are trains every 3 minutes, in peak hours even every minute. Stops are announced in Japanese, English and that I guess is Chinese. I've been lucky (or ability) enough to arrive at my destination, the Ueno Station, to meet John, an other Italian scientist doing a post-doc abroad and friend of a friend met in Vienna. We visited the National Museum of Nature and Science and a special exhibition about the deep ocean exploration. The museum was quite interesting but all the explanations were only in Japanese. We had lunch in a nice place with traditional hand-made noodles, then we crossed a local colorful market, just along (better, underneath) the local railway.

We've seen also the famous district of manga and technology shops but I cannot remember the name. It is famous for bars where people can play electronic games and be served by girls dressed as dolls. Sorry for the bad explanation, I know nothing about the manga world. We ended the day seeing the city from the 45th floor of the town hall in Shinjuku, just before getting lost in the subway station. But finally I reached safe the guest house in Tachikawa, just before a beautiful sunset. Thanks John for having showed me things I would have not seen alone. The next weekend I'll try to have a look to the most touristic spots in town, thanks to an Italian guidebook we found in the town hall, although I like more the authentic suburb.

A full week
A full working week is not worth of a post, except for a few episodes, one per day. On Monday morning, surprised to see me at 9 a.m., the host prof. said: - Oh, so you survived the weekend - Uhm... Japanese humor? Although I've told him many times that I feel like in Padova, or even better because there aren't so many mosquitoes here, he and his colleagues are always afraid that I get sick for the heat.

On Tuesday he informed me that an important seismic fault passes just underneath the building. A large earthquake is expected after the March 2011 event. The building is well insulated by ground shaking... but not if the fault moves exactly here. Thank you! I don't care of your precious database and sample collection... I'm terrified to be stuck here if an earthquake occurs. They said that the guest house is safe, that the safest place is the bathroom, etc. Ok, I trust them. But when the March 2011 earthquake occurred, scientists of the NIPR have been stuck in the building for days because trains stopped, the electricity was rationed (no heating, no air conditioning), and roads were closed.
On Wednesday I begun to use the microprobe. That was real fun! Never give a similar toy to a geologist! The only inconvenience was the temperature in the room: 20°C. Brrrr! I needed a wool coat to resist and then I risked to die when I went out of the building.
On Thursday my hosts brought me in a special place for lunch: a traditional Japanese restaurant famous for the thick noodle and tempura. It was delicious!
On Friday I've played with Raman spectroscopy, helped by a very kind Japanese colleague who can say two words in Italian (tanta neve = a lot of snow).
Now I'm ready for the second and last weekend in Japan!

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