Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I'm writing this as we tear our way on the Shinkansen through the Japanese heartland on our way to Kyoto, and for others on the train, to Hiroshima. Japan it seems is a patchwork of interweaving industrial towns and densely packed urban areas interlaced with paddy fields and stunning mountain scenery. Today, Japan is largely hidden in a mass of low lying clouds making the air humid and the countryside seem particularly quiet. As the Shinkansen speeds its way up to 300 km/h and gently rolls from side to side as it turns on its banked corners we appear to get a good overview of the makeup of this densely populated island. This land which is one of the most technologically advanced civilisations on Earth and the second largest economy still retains an air of mysticism as we pass the many temples, jutting off the hillsides and the houses with tatami matting and interior paper walls. It seems to have stayed like this because it ain't broke. The quiet, observant, hard working way of life seems to have paid-off sufficiently to have been kept on as a work and life ethic for today. It's a fascinating place with fascinating people and I do hope to spend more time here in the future.

As I leave Tokyo it's time to assess the possible collaborations. It's been useful for me, in many ways it's been an exciting experience where I really do feel that my knowledge is valuable and I hope that I have helped with some of their projects. At the same time, it's got me thinking about some ideas that I'd thought about a long time ago and haven't considered in many months but I think should be interesting lines of enquiry. I certainly hope that we can retain the links that have been built up over the last week and keep in contact with the postdocs there working in similar and dissimilar areas to mine.

Kyoto is likely to be a somewhat different atmosphere where the string theory group is very large and the area that I work in is probably pretty well known. My seminar tomorrow will need to be tuned from that which I gave in Tokyo to appeal to a slightly different audience. I think I'll have to play it by ear.

I pause to look out the window in the knowledge that I could be staring straight at Mount Fuji without seeing it. I know that we pass it on the train but it takes a clear day to get a good view of one of Japan's most spectacular features. The landscape is becoming hillier as we dive in and out of the tunnels though the industrial plants still pepper the landscape.


I'm currently reading The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by Steinbeck which is in a strangely different style from his previous works I've read. He wrote several non-fiction books but the only other one I've read was Travels with Charley, In Search of America, in which he took off with his dog and his faithful van, Ricconante, to discover the real America. It's a lovely book and I find that it's Steinbeck’s simple style of observation which is so powerful. East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are character studies which take in vast tracts of human emotion without ever becoming flowery or overly complicated. This simplicity makes them cut straight to the key ingredients of the human psyche. In The Sea of Cortez he takes a slightly different path as the purpose of the journey was to observe and record the marine life of the California Littoral first hand with his friend Ed Ricketts (on whom Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday is based). Steinbeck is trying to do something huge with this book. He and Ed are trying to uncover not only the mysteries of the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico but to try and discuss life, the universe and everything, something most people have done with enough Whiskey and few enough hours on the clock, though any recording of such a conversation would almost undoubtedly be cringingly awful. I find it's his parables and tales in his other books, which he does not analyse, that cut to the heart of the matter whereas in this book he's trying to explain his thoughts and observations without metaphor or hidden meaning. I'm still not sure whether I like this as much. He writes about the complex structure of the animals in a technical language but I can't help hearing the voice of Tom Joad or Lennie Small when he talks in this far more articulate language and it jars a little. It's Lennie's unclouded, simple view of life which makes Of Mice and Men so painful. I'm not that far into the book and it will probably be that I become used to this different style of writing but for the moment, its mixture with his lovely, pure turn of phrase isn't sitting quite right.


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