I’ve been in Japan for the past two weeks on a Japan Society for Promotion of Science short-term Fellowship, visiting laboratories and major research facilities to cement current linkages and to develop new collaborations between Australia and Japan. I’ll need to provide a formal report on my activities from this visit, but what won’t be included in that report are the following important points.
I had an unnecessarily long flight to Japan from Brisbane. It was my fault entirely. I had left the travel organisation so late that the only affordable flights were via Singapore. This meant 24 hours of travel from Brisbane to my final destination of Sendai, rather than 14 hours. After arriving in Nagoya, I was already very tired and then a little annoyed when the gate-staff very gently asked me to check-in my hand luggage because it was too large for the commuter flight to Sendai. However my tetchiness melted away when, from my window seat on the plane, I watched the ground staff on the tarmac skilfully prepare the aircraft for takeoff and then alternately bow and wave towards us for several minutes as we pushed back and then taxied out to the runway. Unexpectedly, that sight gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that uplifted me for the whole day and set the scene for the entire 2 weeks. Welcoming and farewelling people arriving and leaving an establishment – hotel, café, restaurant, ticket office, laboratory – is a lovely Japanese custom. I needn’t have worried about my luggage either, it was already making its way around the carousel when I arrived at the baggage collection area in Sendai. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to the return 24 hour flight to Brisbane tomorrow.
At 5’4″ (1.63 m) I am relatively short in Australia, but relatively tall in Japan. Well perhaps not so tall, but at least on the upper end of the normal curve rather than the lower end. That meant I was the go-to person in my row of seats to retrieve articles of luggage from the overhead shelf on the Shankensen train. While this relative tallness may seem like a good thing, there are some downsides (pun intended). For example, sometimes when getting up from my seat on a domestic flight I would bang my head on the overhead luggage compartment. Sometimes my feet dangled over the end of the hotel bed when lying at full stretch. Then, perhaps more a consequence of advancing years than advancing height, I couldn’t get comfortable at a restaurant when sitting at a low table on a cushion with my legs folded underneath me in the traditional Japanese manner. “No problem,” said the woman Prof seated beside me “just stretch your legs under the table like I’m doing. No one else will do that, so there’s plenty of room.”
I don’t eat fish. You might think this would make it difficult to find a diversity of good quality food that I would enjoy in Japan. But you’d be wrong. The food is delicious. The flavours are incredible. The diversity is astonishing. I can’t wait to investigate new options on my last day today. On several occasions these past 2 weeks I had been invited to dinner by academic hosts around the country, so I let them know about my food preferences in advance. I was treated to the beauty and theatre of shabu shabu, sukiyaki, teppenyaki, Korean barbecue and tempura meals as well as a traditional Japanese dinner (where I swapped the sushi course with my appreciative neighbour at the table).
One potential difficulty was in Yokohama, a port city renowned for its fish markets and seafood restaurants. In this case, my host’s secretary was charged with the mission of finding a restaurant to suit requirements. An internet search helped her select a new establishment run by a Japanese chef who had trained in France. He was developing – experimenting shall we say – his own dishes in a renovated traditional Japanese home with a beautiful Japanese garden. The whole enterprise was located opposite a famous Buddhist temple in Yokohama. Not content with an internet evaluation only, the secretary paid a site visit to the French-Japan fusion restaurant to go through the menu with the chef to ensure each course – there must have been a dozen – would be appropriate. It was amazing. Shades of Iron Chef. The only little issue was that the seaweed dish was rather slippery and difficult to consume as it slid off chopsticks or fork. Transferring it with the fork to the finger-sized slices of de-crusted homemade bread on the side plate was a winning combination. Verdict. Delicious. Like everything else I’ve had here.
I’m in absolute awe of the rail system in Japan. So many trains. So many directions, speeds, options. So much order in commuting chaos. Long distances. Short distances. It doesn’t matter. The trains don’t just run on time every time, they also stop at exactly the same spot each time. The carriage doors line up with platform queues formed along painted lines assigned to each train carriage. Incredible. You can arrive 10 min before your train does, and make your way to exactly where your carriage will be. None of this frantic lugging of suitcases around from one end of the platform to the other trying to find your carriage and seat. And then there’s the astonishment that comes with the realisation that it doesn’t matter which way up or around the train ticket is inserted into the electronic access reader at the gate, it is still read and stamped and spat out within a millisecond in the correct orientation on the other side of the gate. Thanks Helen_E_MC for pointing out that lovely gem. (caveat – bending the ticket will cause conniptions). The electronic screens inside the carriages on suburban Tokyo trains report and update in real time the number of minutes to reach each of the remaining stations on the journey. In Japanese and English. When the Shinkansen glides into the terminus, and before it glides out again on the return journey, all the seats in all the carriages perform a slow pirouette in unison to face the new direction of travel. What’s not to love about that?
the little things
There are so many little things that simply delight. The 3-min timers that accompany teapots to the table at cafes (5-min for coffee pots). Baskets provided at restaurant tables to stow luggage, such as my ratty old backpack which has – let’s be honest – seen better days. The backpack in its basket was often also covered with a large brightly coloured cloth. I was assured this was to protect it from spills and splatters but I suspect it was more likely to protect other patrons from the unpleasant sight underneath. Tiny little kettles in the tiny little hotel rooms, for tea-making (my current hotel has a tiny little induction heater built into the desk for the tiny little kettle). Warm towels handed out ceremoniously before a meal. Beautiful ceramics used to serve food. Self-heating lunchtime bento boxes. The way serving staff accept payment and provide change using both hands. And the ubiquitous vending machines, serving everything from Pocari Sweat to Creamy Blendy. The obsessive replacement of shoes with slippers upon entering not just houses and restaurants and hotel rooms, but also some experimental labs – mass spec, NMR, SAXS and x-ray crystallography. The thoughtful provision of shoehorns to speed up the process of reintroducing feet to shoes (note to self – wear slip-ons rather than lace ups next time in Japan). And I haven’t even mentioned the fascinating electronic toilets.
I’ve had a wonderful visit to Japan. I’ve been treated like royalty, by everyone everywhere. Although this isn’t my first visit to Japan by any means – I’ve been here on conferences and synchrotron trips on a number of occasions – it’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to really enjoy and travel around this wonderful country. I hope it won’t be the last.