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…

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