Sunday, June 15, 2008

Weekend 4: Tokyo & Tsuchiura

Week three / weekend four has come and gone. It’s amazing how fast the summer is whizzing by. Lab-life was a little slower this week, conducting two-synthesis in parallel for the first time, which is fun but confusing. And I have a presentation this coming Wednesday which I need to prepare for; I really don’t think I have anything novel to say, but I guess it’ll help my presentation ability and the labs English listing ability.

Went to Tokyo again this Saturday with two of my fellow NNIN program mates (Arrive Akihabara; metro to Shinjuku; walk to Shibuya; metro to Odaiba; metro to Akihabara). We departed Tsukuba on the express at around 11am and managed to make the second to last train back. Funny story though, after good times at a Japanese bar in Akihabara (conveniently located in the basement of a rather sketchy building a few blocks from the station), we come to discover just how bad alcohol can make bladder control. We had to get off the TX at after a few stops for a bathroom brake. Knowing that the TX we would be getting on at station 5 was the last, we threatened his bladder into submission and made the rest of the trip ex-potty breaks. That said, the moral of the story is that the TX should run until 02:00 instead of 23:30.

Sunday was biking around Tsukuba. We took a really nice scenic route to Tsuchiura, the next town over from Tsukuba. We poked around the city, and visited this windmill water pumping facility on the edge of Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan. Good times overall, but unfortunately I’m the slowest of the bunch. The rest of the guys had to keep waiting for me to catch up. I’m honestly quite surprised that they didn’t just ditch me.

Overall I’m not finding Japanese culture in and around Tsukuba/Tokyo too much outside of the realm of my US experience. I am surprised by how quickly areas evolve to and from rural as one travels – one minute you’re in rice paddies, pass a bridge and you’re at the JR station is Tsuchiura, another bridge and you’re on a pristine lakefront. But other than that relatively trivial feature, life here is about the same as else where – people eating, sleeping, popping and making babies (or not) while simultaneously trying to find a place for themselves and there respective cultures/societies in a steadily more confuzzling world.

Beyond science or adventure, being here is making me challenge my many assumptions about the world, mainly US hegemony and superiority. On a more philosophical note, my experiences here seem to be pushing me more towards support of relativism and an axiomatic approach to worldview.Fundamentally, I have yet to see any large-scale divergence in the axioms of a Japanese “worldview” versus my particular US blend, only very slight, almost imperceptible gradations in derivation and subsequent outcome. I attribute this to my own naivety, lack of faculty with the Japanese language and western upbringing more than anything. To deliberately look for differences in culture is, I think, a distinctly western phenomena; one that I am not proud of, but can nevertheless not cease in doing. I feel as though I am a captive of my own upbringing, language and culture, effectively blinded to facets of life that cannot be definitively compared to western life.

While sitting for a coffee break right off the main intersection in Shibuya, on the second floor sitting area overlooking the pedestrian street below I couldn’t help but wonder how the other half live. There was a group of five advertising girls (for lack of a better word) outside of an electronics store directly across the street – holding up signs advertising a Nintendo DS sale, shouting into the stream of people entering Shibuya Crossing or passing out advertising tissues to the occasional passerbyers that would accept (I noted about 1/5 accepted the tissues if directly solicited; 1/2000 entered the store). Where do the live? Who do they love? What’s there story? How do they possibly make enough money doing this to survive in Tokyo? I’m 3m up and 10m away, yet we are utterly disconnected. I no more important to them than the next gringo John; and they no more important than a passing attraction, eye candy (3 out of 5 were decently attractive) to dull the ache in my feet (walking for several hours straight does have that tendency).

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Farther Afield

Summertime – exploration, fun, excitement and a chance to drift just a little farther from home: New York in 2006 (Gateways to the Laboratory Program; Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program), Seattle in 2007 (National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network REU; University of Washington at Seattle), now Japan in 2008 (National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network iREU; National Institute for Materials Science, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan). It seems I’ve out-done myself; with a 13hr time difference from Baltimore, the only way to get significantly farther from home is extra-planetary.

I’ve been in-country for a little over two weeks now and it has been an adventure. Racing into Narita airport 3hrs late (flight from Seattle), I caught the last bus to Tsukuba; much to the amazement of the NNIN program coordinators and their Japanese peers. Arriving in Tsukuba at about 22:30 on May 23rd, I crashed. Interestingly, the jetlag didn’t set in for three days, when I crashed again. Not sleeping on the flight over was surprisingly effective; thank you Delta for the personalized in-flight entertainment. The first weekend was low-key, mainly getting comfortable with Tsukuba – locating the grocery stores, good cheap eats, etc.

Life at NIMS (National Institute for Materials Science) got off to a quick start. First day was an interesting, but excruciatingly long tour of all three NIMS sites spattered throughout Tsukuba; second day orientation with Dr. Takeuchi, the Macromolecules group advisor, and Dr. Sugiyasu, my direct supervisor; third day I’m running my first reaction.

Then came the second weekend, an all day trip to Tokyo with my roommate, Alex, and a fellow program mate, Little Brian (yes, there is a Big Brian). We arrived in Akihabara, looked around and walked all the way to Ginza, past Tokyo station. From the Ginza mega shopping strip (Apple store, Sony Showroom and every high-end retailer I’ve ever heard of), we headed to Roppongi at dusk. All in all Tokyo was lovely, but I hated my experience at Roppongi. Solicitations for “titty-bars” and prostitution every 2-4 steps is not my idea of a good time. I couldn’t even find good o-sake.

Second week of work, I’m starting to get into the groove. Trying to get in between 9 and 10am; usually working until 7-11pm. The 1am night was killer, but the column needed to be done. It threw my sleep schedule out of whack for the rest of the week. Dr. Sugiyasu has been extremely patient with me, teaching me the basics that I never learned (in chemical engineering they call them unit operations: columns, reflux distillation, wash extraction, etc). I’m astonished how useful Chemical Kinetics is and ashamed of myself for not taking Organic Chemistry II and Lab after my miserable showing in Organic Chemistry I (I’m still proud of that C).

Third weekend, I went a little farther afield – to Nikko on a Ninomiya House sponsored bus tour to Edo Wonderland and Toshogu Shrine. Edo Wonderland reminded me of Colonial Williamsburg and treads a very thin line between creepy-commercialized B.S. and a decent attempt at presenting history to the touristo-masses. I can say a lot of things about Edo Wonderland, but I can’t say it wasn’t fun. An awesome, if tad unrealistic, Ninja show was the icing on the Edo-cake. Toshogu Shrine was absolutely stunning, although I was saddened by the extent of commercialization – the sales stands seemed more entrenched than many of the shrines. Although all expenses were covered by our payment to Ninomiya, the pay-per shrine irritated me a little. I feel as though historical sites as magnificent as this should be completely free and open to the public. On the upside, every temple was gorgeous, possessing some of the most awe-inspiring/well-decorated ceilings I have ever witnessed.

I wonder if this place can get any better…

A Fresh Start

Unfortunately,, the site that previously hosted my blog, has been shutdown. I have not found a way to retreive my old blog entries, so I will be restarting here. If anyone knows how to recover blog entries from livedigital, please tell me!