I suppose that by some measures, my trip to Japan could be deemed a failure. I am not fluent in Japanese – not even marginally conversant. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to locate pit-viper ice cream. I barely even ventured out of Tokyo. Indeed, the things I expected to enjoy the most were ultimately some of the biggest disappointments. (Remember all that nonsense about “80 flavors of Kit-Kat”? Yeah, I counted three…)
But in one crucial, borderline miraculous, and wholly unexpected way, my UTRIP adventure was valuable beyond my wildest dreams: I got science back again. Somehow – without my even noticing – the Ozawa lab single-handedly restored my confidence and love of learning, which had been somewhat eroded by a relentless 4-year academic grind. Along the way, I made some incredible friends, consumed my body weight in noodles, picked up a few choice Japanese phrases (言語を一つは決して足りない – “one language is never enough!”), acquired a pretty nifty pair of slippers, slept in a cylindrical tube, braved the Tower of Terror and the Tokyo metro at rush hour (not sure which was scarier), embroidered an umbrella, and all in all had the time of my life.
I still have many more world destinations to cross off my checklist (next stop: Bhutan!! Don’t worry ma, I’m kidding… for now…), but there’s one thing I can say with absolute certainty: Japan ain’t seen the last of this dromomaniac.
Oh hey guys: I can sorta kinda possibly maybe do science after all.
College was a – shall we say – humbling experience, especially when it came to research. I never quite found my scientific niche, and every day, laboratory work left me feeling weary, inadequate, and totally uninspired. By the time graduation rolled around, I had convinced myself that I was leaving the natural sciences for good, never to look back. My trip to Japan was intended to be a cultural adventure and a linguistic experiment – the “science” part was purely a means to an end. The very last thing I expected was to fall head over heels for my work.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Our results were actually quite promising: we performed the Ozawa lab’s first ever 3-color colocalization experiment, and obtained preliminary data that strongly suggested our three target molecules interact concertedly during clathrin-mediated endocytosis. But it wasn’t the final outcome that ultimately convinced me I might have a future in this field; it was the process itself, the day-to-day “grind” in an analytical biology lab, that I fell in love with. I loved the gentle rhythm of pipetting and aspirating and incubating as I subcultured my crop of monkey cells. I loved coding up cluster analysis algorithms in Matlab. I loved reading papers on GFP at my desk while sipping roasted green tea. I nearly died of joy when I got to use a confocal microscope for the first time. (You can see cells!! I mean, actually see them, in real time – not just pictures in textbooks. It’s absolutely magical.) I think the very best moment, though, was when I presented my data to the rest of the UTRIP interns. As I clicked through my opening slide, the door at the back of the auditorium slid quietly open, and the entire Ozawa lab – 25+ members – slipped in to listen to my talk. It was one of the most humbling and empowering moments in recent memory.
Anyway, because I am a shameless self-promoter… check out the attached powerpoint!! 😀
You know what I didn’t eat, the entire time I was there?
You know why?
Because the darn things cost the equivalent of four dollars – apiece!!! They weren’t kidding when they said Tokyo was expensive…
Had you chanced to stroll through a park in Kinshicho one sunny Wednesday morning in early August, you would have seen a mother with a stroller, a homeless man with a tote bag full of old newspapers, a cluster of disgruntled pigeons, and one gawky white girl resolutely embroidering an umbrella. You would have been forgiven the double take, because – seriously – what the heck is she doing here? And more to the point, what the heck is she doing?
The answer is simple: trying desperately to repay the unbelievable generosity of her research hosts. I added it all up, and it seems that during my time at Todai, Ozawa-sensei paid for:
- My meal at a lab welcome dinner for me
- My meal at a lab farewell dinner for the other intern, Te
- A very elaborate 7-course dinner for me, Te, and Nasu-san
- Ice cream at Haneda Airport
- Lunch in Karuizawa
- Fancy froyo in Karuizawa
- Entrance fee to a national park
- Dinner in Karuizawa
- Tickets for a traditional Yumomi performance
- Another dinner on the way home from Karuizawa
- My meal at a lab farewell dinner for me
- A sushi banquet for the assistant professor and me
- 4 taxi fares
- An authentic Japanese fan
- A bottle of gourmet soy sauce, available only in specialty stores in Japan
- An umbrella
Bottom line: I CAN’T HANDLE ALL THIS NICENESS.
Seriously though. I know part of it is attributable to the Japanese culture of extreme hospitality towards foreigners; part of it is attributable to the fact that UTRIP is a thinly disguised recruitment program; and even more is attributable to Ozawa-sensei just being a very kind man; but I quickly became uncomfortable with all the generosity. My good friend Te and I (the other UTRIP intern working in the Ozawa lab – she arrived two weeks before I did and left two weeks earlier) discussed it at length, and we were both at a loss as to how to reciprocate. I subscribe to the pay-it-forward philosophy: there’s obviously no way a destitute college student like myself can repay that sort of benevolence in kind, but I like to think that someday I’ll be able to make my own students feel similarly welcomed. However, that still doesn’t quite solve the problem of how I could adequately express my gratitude to Professor Ozawa.
But I tried. I ordered a copy of The Wizard of Oz from Amazon and inscribed it for Ozawa-sensei, then presented it to him at my farewell dinner. The whole operation cost about 5 dollars (I guess the Baum books are in the public domain by now), but Professor Ozawa seemed thrilled nonetheless. He promised to read the whole thing, and then make his lab members read it. “There will be a test!” he informed the assembled company. He later showed me a book that another student had once given him, and there were all these adorable notes in the margins: question marks and exclamation points and definitions in Japanese, etc. He wasn’t kidding – he really will read the whole thing. I don’t know whether to feel touched or guilty.
My gift-giving luck faltered somewhat when it came to my grad student. As far as I can tell, this guy pulls an all-nighter at least once a week, sometimes twice, and he drinks coffee as though his life depends on it – which perhaps it does. One day, while we were collecting data on the TIRF microscope, I “discreetly” asked him about his favorite coffee shop. (Well, I like to think I was discreet; but I have all the subtlety of a grackle with a headcold when it comes to this sort of thing.) Anyway, his reply was – perhaps predictably – Starbucks. So the next day, I sought out the nearest Starbucks (turns out there’s one right on campus) and bought him a gift card. Gift-certificate-giving is apparently not “done” in Japan; although he thanked me very politely, he gave me a somewhat quizzical look and said, “Is this an American custom?” I felt very awkward. Compounding the awkwardness was the envelope in which I had given him the card… The Japanese are very particular about their envelopes, and the stationary stores sell dozens of different kinds, all of them lavishly decorated with ribbons and glitter and calligraphy. I picked out what I thought to be a very tasteful one, but for all I know, it was the “Congratulations on your new baby girl!” kind… and the fact that the entire table burst into laughter when they saw it didn’t exactly assuage my misgivings.
Anyway, the $5 Wizard of Oz book hardly made a dent in the debt I owed Ozawa-sensei… so another idea began to percolate in my mind. It had rained one night as we left a restaurant together, and even though the subway station was about 10 feet away, he insisted on buying Te and me an umbrella at the convenience store next door. It wasn’t particularly fancy or anything – just the standard white plastic kind – but it was incredibly thoughtful all the same. Somehow I got it into my head that I should embroider it with the words “Thank you very much for all you have done” in Japanese before returning it. BAD IDEA. This stupid umbrella had become such a headache by the end of my trip… it wouldn’t fit into any of my suitcases, so I had to carry it everywhere; the plastic was prone to tearing; I used up the red thread prematurely, and went to great lengths to secure more; I scratched the handle badly one day when the umbrella nearly blew away in a freak gust of wind; and by the end of my trip, I wanted nothing more than to chuck the goshdarn thing into the nearest recycling bin. But I finally finished it; and despite being aware that this was a terribly, terribly lame expression of thanks, I left it outside his office right before catching my train to the airport.
Moral of the story: if you ever get it into your head to embroider an umbrella while homeless in a foreign country – just – just don’t.
From August 1st through 3rd, my lab had the opportunity to take part in a joint summer seminar, and I was lucky enough to tag along. The participants were three biology labs: one from Kyoto University, one from Waseda University, and my own. The location was Karuizawa, a resort district famous for its stunning natural beauty AND for being the only town in the world to have hosted both summer and winter Olympics (in 1964 and 1998, respectively).
Prof. Ozawa insisted that I make the journey not in the charter bus with all the other grad students, but in a private car along with the assistant professor (Yoshimura-san) and the special guest speaker from South Korea. I worried that a four-hour car trip with three older male scientists would be terribly awkward, but it actually turned out to be quite pleasant. Since Dr. Min doesn’t speak Japanese either, I didn’t feel so guilty about the others having to revert to English in my presence, and we spent a pleasant few hours discussing research trajectories, language barriers, academic environments in our respective countries, and pet poodles.
When we arrived in Karuizawa, the air was noticeably fresher than the Tokyo smog, and at least 15 degrees cooler. Ozawa-sensei treated the three of us to some authentic cold soba at a restaurant famous for that very dish. Then we adjourned to the retreat site – which turned out to be a collection of ramshackle cabins on the outskirts of town – to sit through a few hours of seminars before dinner, more discussions, and bed. I was sharing a dorm room with 12 other young women, so space was a bit tight: nevertheless, I was so exhausted from the day’s events that I slept like a rock, despite the raucous party that was apparently taking place right next door. The following morning, the girls told me that the carousing had lasted until 2 a.m., and that at one point, the festivities had even spilled over into the room where I was sleeping; but I have no recollection of that whatsoever. 😛
On the second day, we had the afternoon free for sightseeing; so Ozawa-sensei took Yoshimura-san, Dr. Min, and me on a private tour of the surrounding countryside. We visited the Shiraito waterfalls for which Karuizawa is famous, and then ventured a bit further afield to 鬼押出, which literally translates into “Push Away Devil Mountain.” This turned out to be a highly active volcano, which last blew its top in 2009. According to legend, the first recorded eruption (in 1783) drove away the demons who had previously inhabited the peak – hence the colorful name. Thankfully, the volcano lay dormant on the day we visited, and we were free to wander amidst the craggy rock formations left behind by previous blasts. For all its periodic outbursts, Asama Volcano was actually one of the most peaceful sites I’ve ever visited: perfectly quiet, caressed by just the slightest hint of a breeze, and featuring breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.
Back at the retreat house that evening, it was my turn to give a brief PowerPoint presentation. I didn’t feel prepared to discuss my current research in the Ozawa lab, so I decided to give a brief overview of some related work I had done at my home university. (There was another, more devious reason for my choice: I figured I was less likely to be caught saying something dumb if I discussed an obscure research project being conducted halfway around the world. :-P) I was feeling pretty confident until a few moments before the presentation, when Ozawa-sensei, catching sight of a printout of my introductory slide, said “Oh, you’ll be talking about the Mootz lab! Why, I’ve collaborated with them for years!” So much for obscurity…
Later that night, Dr. Min gave a presentation on a paper by Ronald Vale, entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Career as an Academic Scientist.” In the paper, Vale lays out the top 10 reasons he pursued a research career, and Min elaborated on each point in turn. Since I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering if science is really for me, the topic was remarkably apropos. I was particularly struck by Reason #2, “Reinventing Oneself throughout One’s Career” – that sounds right up my alley! I get bored easily, and I’m always itching to learn something new. Or how about Reason #5, “Pleasant Travels”? – that’s pretty appealing to a dromomaniac like me! I also especially liked Reason #3, “Participating in the Great Era of Discovery,” and Reason #9, “Doing Some Good.” It was Reason #8, however – “Flexible Daily Schedule” – that gave me pause. Anyone who has spent some time in my company knows I am abysmal at achieving work-life balance… so if there are no externally-imposed limits on my working hours, I run the risk of neglecting everything else. This problem isn’t exactly unique to a research career; but I wonder if a more standard “9 to 5”-type job might not be a bit more healthy in my case. Anyway, I’ll stop rambling now; but Dr. Min’s talk certainly gave me a lot to think about.
On the final morning of the conference, the normal proceedings were suspended in favor of an inter-university tennis match. While everyone else played, my friend Lingzhi and I retreated to the lawn opposite the tennis courts to play our own makeshift game. We were perfectly matched (i.e. both of us make contact with the ball about once per 10 random swings), and we spent the majority of the time chasing after each other’s errant balls and laughing at our own ineptitude. As the day grew hotter, we abandoned the game and took to chatting under a tree; the two of us have oodles in common, and it was one of the most enjoyable hours of the entire internship. When the official game ended (Todai came in dead last; I am among my people!), the grad students piled onto the bus for the journey back to Tokyo. Since Dr. Min had left earlier that morning, there was an extra spot in the car, and Ozawa-sensei – presumably having noticed my budding friendship with Lingzhi – invited her to join us on the return trip.
We took a bit of a circuitous route home, stopping for an hour or so in Kusatsu, a town famous for its sulfurous hot spring Yubatake. The water bubbles to the surface at a temperature of 54 degrees Celsius and a pH of about 2: not exactly ideal bathwater. Over the centuries, the local people have developed an elaborate water-tempering ritual, during which they mix the hot acidic water with cold basic water until it is suitable for prolonged human contact. This ceremony is called Yumomi, and we were treated to a live reenactment; Lingzhi and I even got to participate! Afterwards, we took a leisurely stroll around the town square (the centerpiece of which is a large basin for harvesting sulfurous residue) and ventured down a quaint little side-street lined with lanterns, where we sampled cider and steamed green tea buns.
It took us four more hours to reach Tokyo from Kusatsu, but the time flew by: Lingzhi and I babbled nonstop to one another in a combination of Chinese and English (often switching languages mid-sentence) about everything from cooking to science to finance to family. With all the giggling that was going on in the backseat, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ozawa-sensei and Yoshimura-san thought they had accidentally left the two of us behind in Kusatsu and were chauffeuring a pair of 13-year-old girls instead.
When we finally reached the university at 9 p.m., the day’s adventures hadn’t ended. I stopped by my office to pick up a few things and there experienced my very first Japanese earthquake. It passed soon enough, but it gave me quite a fright: the floor pulsed, the bookshelves trembled, and the tea mug on my desk slopped its contents all over my notebook.
This’ll be a short one, I promise: but I couldn’t wrap up this blog without dwelling briefly on something Japan does better than any other nation I know of: namely,
From the erasers shaped like hedgehogs to the USB sticks shaped like eggplants to the sparkly sushi stickers (see below!!), everything is unbearably cute; not to mention functional. HAVE I TOLD YOU GUYS ABOUT JAPANESE ERASABLE PENS YET??? (I know half of you are rolling your eyes right now…) But seriously, HAVE I????? You know how when you use a typical Bic erasable pen, it smudges (like a pencil), but doesn’t erase properly (like a pen) – the worst of both possible worlds? Well, in Japan they’ve somehow circumvented both problems… the ink is completely indelible, unless you attack it with the built-in eraser, in which case the ink completely disappears. Without a trace. Oh, and to top it all off, the eraser never wears down. It’s nothing short of miraculous. I pretty much bought out the store of these puppies.
Japan also make a mean mechanical pencil: the lead rotates as you write, so that the sharp side is always in contact with the paper. God how I love this country.
Since I spent the vast majority of my time in Tokyo at the university, I thought I’d post a few photos of my everyday environs. Dang, I’m gonna miss this place…
Behold, a laundry list of the more memorable foods from my last 5 weeks in Japan:
- There is NO BEVERAGE more refreshing on a scorching summer afternoon than ice cold jasmine tea. Nope, don’t try to dispute it – there’s simply no contest.
- Tempura: Deep fried veggies on rice? Count. Me. In. (I even bought a mini replica of pumpkin tempura at that fake food store in Kappabashi to commemorate this unbeatable dish.)
- While we were picking up his colleague at Haneda airport, Ozawa-sensei bought me and the assistant professor matcha ice cream cones, thus fulfilling a long-held gastronomical dream of mine. This electric green confection was just as delicious as I had imagined it would be, particularly when paired with mochi and red bean paste.
- There are three principle types of noodles in Japan: ramen noodles of Cup Noodle fame, which originate from China; udon noodles, which are thick, white, and wheat-based; and soba noodles, which are thin, brown, and made from buckwheat seeds. I preferred the soba sort, and they figured prominently in many of my favorite dishes:
- Cold soba, served on a bamboo tray (known as a zaru) with soy sauce on the side, is a quintessential Japanese delicacy. You add a dash of wasabi, radish, and scallions to the pot of soy sauce and mix vigorously; then you pick up a helping of noodles (which should be quite dry, since any excess water drains through the bamboo slats) with your chopsticks, dip them into the soy sauce mixture, and enjoy – but don’t forget to SLURP. (Actually though: slurping your noodles is a sign of appreciation in Japan, and failure to do so with appropriate gusto is considered quite rude.)
- Kitsune soba is served hot in a soy-based broth, with strips of aburaage (deep-fried tofu) floating on top.
- My go-to dish at the school cafeteria was kamatama soba: hot noodles mixed with a soft boiled egg, scallions, seaweed, crunchy little crouton-like things, and a dash of soy sauce. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, and in my humble opinion, also the most delicious.
- Every convenience store in Tokyo sells a mysterious product called “CalorieMate,” which is supposed to provide “balanced nutrition for an active lifestyle.” The lackluster packaging gives absolutely no indication as to the nature of the contents… out of curiosity, I purchased a serving, and was mildly surprised to find dry, grayish, rectangular biscuits inside. CalorieMate comes in all sorts of flavors, ranging from the fairly conventional – like chocolate or fruit – to the slightly bizarre – like vegetable, potato, maple, or cheese. Pretty much all of them taste like cardboard. For those who prefer their nutritional supplements in potable form, CalorieMate is also available as a liquid or a gel.
- Umeshu: this stuff is DANGEROUS. It’s made by steeping unripe fruit – usually plums, though apricots are also quite common – in alcohol and sugar, and it tastes precisely like juice. Really really good juice at that. During our lab group’s nomihodai* outings, I had to exercise extreme restraint.
- This was a 20 cent impulse purchase in the Todai convenience store: I had no idea what I would discover inside the flat little package, but I just had to find out. The contents ended up being what I can only describe as the wasabi and eel-flavored equivalent of a fruit roll-up. Suffice it to say I never tried that again.
- In Karuizawa (more on that later), I had the most spectacular snack in a trendy little coffee shop on the outskirts of town. It was acai berry frozen yogurt, adorned with delectable chunks of strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, grape, banana, apples, peach, watermelon, kiwi, and more fruits that I’m forgetting, served with granola on the side. Not particularly Japanese, it’s true – but worthy of mention all the same.
- Okonomiyaki: Coming from the words “yaki,” meaning fried, and “okonomi,” meaning “whatever you like,” okonomiyaki is the ultimate fast-food experience. In an okonomiyaki restaurant, the table doubles as a grill: you douse the steaming surface in front of you with oil and plop on whatever ingredients you fancy (usually meat or fish, cabbage, eggs, and a bit of flour thrown in as a thickener). After the mixture has achieved a pancake-like consistency, add the signature okonomiyaki sauce, some mayonnaise, and dried fish shavings, and enjoy!
- Gyuudon: In its simplest incarnation, this dish consists of thin strips of beef stewed with onions in a sweet broth and layered on top of white rice. I ordered it in a fast food shop on my last evening in Tokyo, and received a tray laden with all sorts of little dishes: one contained seaweed, one contained an unidentifiable whitish paste that wasn’t quite sweet yet not quite savory, another had the beef and onions, another the rice, and another contained a single raw egg; there was also a little crock full of dark sauce. I knew enough to mix the sauce with the rice and layer the beef on top – but I tried to eat everything else separately, which elicited many curious looks from the other patrons. It wasn’t until another guy across the counter ordered the same thing that I realized you were supposed to mix all the ingredients together in one bowl before consuming. So much for trying to blend in with the locals.
- Remember how I rhapsodized about Japanese curry in a previous post? It’s smoother and somehow richer than Indian curry, with none of the accompanying spiciness… utter bliss. Anyway, when they put this stuff in bread and fry it, you’ve got yourself a pretty unbeatable lunch.
- The most unforgettable meal of the entire program was on the second-to-last day of the UTRIP internship. My professor invited the assistant professor and me to an authentic sushi supper with all the bells and whistles. A kimono-clad hostess ushered us into a private dining room, where we were instructed to kneel on tatami mats beside a low table while the waitress brought us course after course of unbelievable dishes: raw mollusks we had to yank out of their shells with toothpicks, creamy sesame tofu, a soupy substance reminiscent of flan, and of course, sushi the likes of which I’ve never had before. I had been so worried that the evening would be terribly awkward – what was I supposed to say to a professor and an assistant professor over the course of a 3-hour meal? – but conversation flowed remarkably easily, and it ended up being one of my favorite UTRIP memories.
*Many restaurants offer a “nomihodai” option, which allows the patron to order unlimited drinks within a 2.5 hour period. (Yikes!) “Tabehodai” is the all-you-can-eat equivalent.
In the third week of my internship, I started taking private lessons with Takeda-sensei, a local Japanese instructor who specializes in tutoring international grad students. Her apartment is tucked away in a quiet corner of Tokyo, and is pretty much the spitting image of the place I hope to own one day. There are eclectic yet tasteful knick-knacks in every nook; flowers and ferns in every cranny; portraits of her grandkids tacked onto every vertical surface; exquisite pieces of furniture from Cairo, Paris, and Beijing (where she lived for several years each); bookshelves overflowing with volumes in Arabic, Japanese, English, and French; and sunshine streaming through a skylight and two gigantic picture windows. As she drilled me on vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, we drank green tea in delicate china while the gentle tinkle of furins filtered through the curtains from the garden outside. And to top it all off, on the first day she greeted me with an armful of TEXTBOOKS. (I should probably mention, for those of you who may not be familiar with this particular Olivia-idiosyncrasy, that I dote on textbooks of any sort. I protect them from creases with the assiduousness of an overbearing mother; I horde every one I’ve ever owned in boxes under the stairs, until I have a library of my own someday; and I’ll probably end up marrying the first guy who presents me with a dictionary on Valentine’s Day (are you listening, Barack?). So yeah, to put it mildly, textbooks are sort of a big deal for me.) I could not have asked for more perfect environs in which to study a language.
But alas, pretty textbooks do not a fluent Japanese-speaker make. Much as I loved my teacher, her tea, and her textbooks, research in the Ozawa lab claimed the vast majority of my time. By the end of my trip, I had picked up enough grammar and vocab so that I could convincingly ask for directions in Japanese – but I couldn’t make heads of tail of the response. So whenever I got lost (which was about 18 times a day), my algorithm for finding the way again was to ask a passer-by for help, nod vigorously as answered in rapid Japanese, walk about 10 feet in whatever direction she pointed to, and then ask another person the exact same question. 🙂
The UTRIP program sponsored a number of Japanese cultural activities, including Shakuhachi –bamboo flute – lessons (during which I nearly asphyxiated myself), calligraphy lessons (I have not improved one iota since I took these in China), and “survival Japanese” classes.
The Japanese are very fond of what they call “self-introductions:” two minute speeches detailing who you are, where you’re from, whom you’re grateful to, what you hope to accomplish over the coming weeks, etc. All the UTRIP participants had to give at least half a dozen of these over the course of the internship. In particular, there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance associated with our arrival and departure: an introductory banquet featuring several hours of speeches, cocktails, and fancy finger food; and a closing ceremony presided over by the Dean of the Graduate School, where we received these ridiculously over-the-top certificates encased in red velvet. (My grad student says they were more ornate than the PhD diplomas issues by Todai.) The UTRIP organizers certainly seemed to be pulling out all the stops to recruit us as graduate students… and the fuzzy, gold-embossed diplomas may have just clinched it in my case.