I'm sufficiently replete on fine food and marvelous sake that extensive movement is no longer an option. This provides an opportune moment to catch up on the weekend's activities, provided focus remains intact.
Saturday was spent with two of the postdocs, both of whom have been extremely helpful and friendly during my Tokyo stay, which is unfortunately drawing to a close. We started off by heading to the Sensoji temple in the Asakusa district. This is the largest Buddhist temple in Tokyo and, though crowded with tourists is a stunning building.
Apparently wafting the smoke over your head (rather Bingham style for those who took chemistry class with me all those years ago) is supposed to make you more intelligent.
and it appears that someone has larger feet than me!
I made the mistake of trying my luck with the fortune papers I spoke about before - Not my day it seems. The others had notes saying 'best fortune' and 'good fortune' with tales of joyous happenings ahead. Mine, with the message of 'bad fortune' had less in the way of positive feedback though I shan't comment on my luck in case I become jinxed. Suspicious, me?
After wandering around the streets with shops selling many traditional things including some stunning towels:
and artificial cherry blossom adorning the awnings:
, we had a lunch cooked on a hotplate in front of us in a little restaurant off one of the sidestreets. A rather fine omelet affair with noodles and squid set me up pretty well for the rest of the day.
Those who know me well know that I'm an enthusiastic cook, though my Beijing exploits would have told otherwise. Along with the territory of enthusiastic cook comes knife fetishist and for me, there's no better place than Japan. This shop selling hand crafted works of culinary saberdom was my idea of kitchenalia heaven and only my Beijing wage kept my wallet firmly in its place.
From the Asakusa area we also got a glimpse of the Asahi beer headquarters
After a coffee we headed to the river to go on a boat cruise out into Tokyo harbour to one of the most modern areas. The boat itself was, give or take the comfortable seating area for tourists, straight out of a bond movie and saw us well on our way under the Tokyo bridges and out into the bay.
We then had a short walk around this modern area apparently popular with dating couples. It's also home to a suitably underplayed cat emporium.
After this we headed to the Museum of Tokyo which is a superbly laid out and explained exhibition about Tokyo from the period where it was known as Edo, to the modern day. With excellent reproductions of shogunate villas and the layout of the city, this is one of the best cultural museums I've been to and well worth a visit. It has information about just about every aspect of life in ancient and modern Tokyo from the development of printing and censorship to childbirth and the story of the feudal system.
Models of the ancient streets and city dwellers:
and some impressive shoes used for fishing in shallow waters:
So after that we are up to the kabuke which I've spoken about at length. I haven't mentioned my post kabuke snackette of a curry doughnut, recommended by a friend (many thanks Pamela) and is a rather fine afternoon treat.
I figured last night that I should probably look through my slides again for the talk today so went through and planned roughly what I was going to say. I enjoy giving talks these days but find it frustrating that I'm never going to be able to explain what I do to a large audience and have everyone follow. In order to explain the more advanced areas to those who already know roughly what I do, I'm clearly going to lose a large percentage of the audience. Of course if everyone understands all of what I say, those who know about the area will be frustrated with lack of anything new. Today I gave the talk which was about an hour and three quarters and I hope that most people could follow roughly the first half of the talk. Certainly the intelligent questions at the end were a positive sign to me.
Also today I received a lovely present of an extremely elegant box of sweets from one of the students which, I've been informed goes very well with the green tea used in the traditional tea ceremony and have been told that Kyoto is the place to get that. So, if I haven't gobbled the lot by then, I'll be on the lookout for the specific tea.
This evening I've spent the last three hours in a local restaurant with the two postdocs, two of the students and one of the professors eating a huge feast of foods I've never tried and sampling a selection of sake at a variety of temperatures and of a range of ages. Another stunning meal including toro, the best part of the tuna and bits of a chicken that I've never sampled before (this is saying something having eaten what I have in Beijing!).
Anyway, a lovely treat from everyone has rounded off an excellent first week here. Just a couple of days left in Tokyo and then off to Kyoto where I've been given some good advice on food, temples, and areas to visit. All good fun.
Monday, February 27, 2006
I'm sufficiently replete on fine food and marvelous sake that extensive movement is no longer an option. This provides an opportune moment to catch up on the weekend's activities, provided focus remains intact.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Perhaps it's because I'm so clumsy. Well, maybe not clumsy. I'm a strange mix between being a perfectionist, but one who isn't terribly careful. This can make life pretty frustrating. I like to dress smartly but spend most of my time with coffee stains down my shirt, mud up my trouser legs and rips in my jackets. I'm a pedant, but I'm well aware that I make the same mistakes, and more, that I chastise other people for making. I've got some toggle in the mind-body connection which means that if I'm really careful, I can be relatively coordinated. With many thousands of hours of practice, I can juggle pretty well and my squash reactions are not bad, but as soon as I take my mind off the toggle, it all goes to pot, the spaghetti ends up on the shirt, the glass ends up on the floor, and of/off, where/were, which/that become a tangled mess that I simply don't observe.
Anyway, all of this and more may go some way to explaining why the five hours of Kabuki theatre today were such a joy to watch. Every movement was precise, every glance exact, every note in its correct position, every pleat symmetrical and every colour carefully balanced to make an absolutely incredible show. I was expecting it to be a hard going few hours but several additions made it very easy (except on my legs which were squished between rows that were not designed for the likes of me).
The main factor that added to the enjoyment of this incredible spectacle was that a receiver is provided with one earphone which gives a running commentary of the story, significance, history and importance of each character of the two plays and two dances that I watched today. This gives just the right amount of detail to keep you (or at least me) interested for the whole time.
The music is very strange but not nearly as cacophonous as I'd expected and perfectly compliments the serene, slow movements of the Kabuki actors. Along with the singing, the speaking and the instruments, at pauses throughout the performances knowledgeable men shout out the stage names of the actors as a gesture of applause and respect. Many of the actors (no actresses, all women are played by onnagata:
) are national heroes and come from long lines of Kabuki professionals, often training from the age of two or three.
The performances I saw were in Kabukiza, the main theatre for Kabuki in the whole of Japan:
The audience was almost entirely Japanese with many of the women wearing stunning kimonos.
The artform is around 400 years old and although each of the plays I saw was one of the traditional ones, more are being written even now. The stage of the theatre is very wide (I guess about 60 meters) but relatively shallow. For the dances, there are a line of musicians and singers at the back, all kneeling on tatami mats in traditional costumes though for some of the plays, there's a singing narration and accompanying music from a raised balcony to one side of the stage. Props are taken on and off the stage by stagehands dressed all in black who are considered invisible and do the job so carefully that they really do blend into the rest of the performance.
Unfortunately, photos cannot be taken within the theatre but here are a few I've chosen from elsewhere to give a decent impression of the kabuki experience.
Anyway, I would suggest this to anyone who comes to Japan but, without a doubt, you must get the headset and, if your legs are detachable, I would suggest utilising such an ability.
I'm still to sort out my photos from yesterday as I was using the camera of one of the postdocs. It appears that my camera currently eats batteries like I eat, well, whatever's put in front of me. I will however upload this slightly blurred one which I hope illustrates why the Tokyo subway line is somewhat daunting at first glance.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 9:50 a.m.
Saturday, February 25, 2006
As I was reprimanded previously for including some mild swearing in a post which my little cousins read (Greetings from Tokyo C+A) I should warn you that this post may contain a minor profanity. I would however expect to have scared off all but the hardiest reader by that stage.
First, a minor correction. I am informed that Gokukuji is in fact a purely Buddhist temple. The ji at the end of the word meaning temple. A shinto shrine is something completely different and something I am yet to see.
The ladies in the office are clearly worried about who may be lurking around...probably very sensible.
Frustrating indeed. It's five to midnight...I've been waiting roughly six hours for a bit of code to run. It's nothing terribly complicated but something that mathematica doesn't do automatically. Anyway, after 360,000 iterations it finished, and in the split-second it did so, I realised a shortcut, wrote it, ran the program and it took ten seconds...what a strange thing the subconscious is! I hadn't been actively thinking about the problem at all, just getting on with some other work and the idea sprang up, like I'd been mulling over it all afternoon. I love it when the low lying thought processes manage something that with pure logic, my higher level processes struggle over. The most satisfying feeling and one that doesn't happen as often as I'd like but it does occasionally is to go to sleep thinking about a problem and wake up with the answer, seemingly for free.
I'm working on a problem at the moment to do with placing eight dimensional objects into ten dimensional spaces. In fact this is what I spend most of my time doing. I'm attempting to study what happens when you have a few of these lying in different regions of the higher dimensional space. The idea, strangely is that it should tell me something about the four dimensional world of the strong interaction, one of the four forces of nature...
...OK, I've started so I should probably explain what I do in a bit more detail.
(In an attempt at some clarity, I've typed in bold all those parts of this explanation which are vital to get a rough idea what I'm talking about, the rest can be read if you're interested.)
There are four forces of nature (this is my usual opening gambit when asked to explain what I do). There's electromagnetism and gravity, both of which most people feel reasonably familiar with. Then there are the weak and strong nuclear forces which are more to the workings of the nucleus of an atom. In particular the existence of the strong force is the reason that the positively charged nucleus of an atom doesn't blow itself apart in an explosion of protons. The strong force is a strange beast. For a start, unlike the other forces, it gets stronger as you take two objects that feel the force further apart. In fact so much so that you can't pull them apart without creating more particles in the gap in between. This sounds completely ridiculous but there's a nice picture of a rubber band where the force clearly gets stronger as you stretch it.
Anyway, the point is that we have certain techniques for calculating how particles will interact in electromagnetism and the weak force (For gravity we use a different computational technique). When we try and use this methodology for the strong force, we find that the approximations we make aren't valid. This comes down to the fact that the force is strong and we can't in any way approximate it as a small deviation away from no interactions at all (which is what we do for the other forces).
This has puzzled us for a long time and we're pretty stumped when it comes to trying to do calculations of the strong force efficiently. We can do them on big clusters of computers but it's all pretty messy and we have to make lots of approximations (quarks only come in at tree level, some quarks are very light, others are infinitely heavy).
In about 97, a clever chap called Juan Maldacena made an interesting discovery. He showed that the symmetries of a strongly interacting theory, a bit like the strong force, were exactly the same as those in a ten dimensional theory of gravity. This doesn't sound like much but symmetries are just about the be all and end all when it comes to particle physics. By constraining a theory to have a particular set of symmetries (as well as being unitary, renormalisable and local) the theory is uniquely determined. This is an incredible result of quantum field theories (the method we use to do our calculations).
So, it was shown that there were two theories which look completely different apart from having the same symmetries. In fact they are more closely linked than that. In fact they are two separate descriptions of a stack of four dimensional objects (branes) in a ten dimensional space...I'm often asked what the other dimensions are. The only way I can explain it is to ask "what would somebody who was constrained to live in a sheet of paper say to the same question?". They can't miraculously point in the up-down direction. In mathematical terms it's just as simple to deal with ten dimensions as it is with four (well, not in practice but conceptually it's no harder). In fact in string theory (the area I work in) it's not (always) like we're stuck on a piece of paper. The other six dimensions of the ten are supposed to be curled up in some horribly complicated shape, the form of which dictates the physics we see in the four, non curled-up dimensions.
As a treat for getting this far I'll give you a picture courtesy of Brian Powell's website of the dual descriptions of M-theory:
Sorry, I'm going off track a bit. So there are these two descriptions of four dimensional objects sitting in ten dimensional spacetime. The two descriptions look completely different but have the same symmetries. One of them is a theory of strong interaction, the sort that we have a really hard time dealing with, and the other? Well, the other is a theory of gravity, a complicated one but one that we can do calculations in pretty easily. In fact we can do classical calculations in this theory because all of the unpleasant interactions, which make these theories of gravity into such beasts most of the time, vanish.
So it turns out that by studying a very simple theory of gravity in ten dimensions, we calculate quantities for the four dimensional strong interaction that gave us such a headache in the first place. (It was a clever chap called Ed Witten who showed us practically how to do this. He's quite smart).
I should emphasise: This is amazing! A ten dimensional theory of gravity is equivalent to a four dimensional theory of strong interactions. An interesting philosophical question is: If this equivalence is correct (and we're still not sure), then it is just as accurate to say that the world is described by a four dimensional strongly interacting theory (what we would normally claim) as it to say that the world is really described by a ten dimensional theory of gravity, where the ten dimensions are a strange deformed space with a boundary at infinity and an infinitely massive spectrum of particles? Amazing and indeed bizarre.
(The name of this correspondence is the AdS/CFT duality)
So that's pretty much what I spend my days doing. I'm trying to make this ten dimensional theory of gravity describe the strong interaction as accurately as possible by pushing and pulling the theory around to see where it breaks and where it doesn't.
Fun, fun, fun.
Actually, I love it and wouldn't have it any other way. I understand how fortunate I am that I can spend my days playing around with fun bits of mathematics and complicated theories of physics in an attempt to gain a slight insight into the way our universe is constructed. Though I'm under some pressure to publish papers, I don't have a boss who tells me what I should be doing (except for admin stuff). I can pretty much make my own timetable so long as I'm productive, and I get to go around the world seeing amazing places, meeting great people, talking to audiences who are sometimes interested in what I have to say, and of course eating interesting food.
It appears I am the essence of a jammy bastard.
You didn't understand a word of that, did you?
Japanese TV is truly something to behold...though not for very long. A mixture of bizarre gameshows where half of the people seem to be in hysterics while the other half are hysterical, cooking programs where it seems to be more about the eating than the cooking, a fine focus on the Japanese contestants to the Olympics and Monkey - back by popular demand and one of the most successful Japanese TV shows of all time.
Takeshi Kitano hosts one of the most popular shows and it's strange to see him in his comedy role having seen him so many times in his guise of the violent, silent type.
Speaking of T.K. I'd presumed that the woman on the TV in Battle Royale who introduces the contestants to the game was a characature of the Japanese hosts but in fact this is exactly what they're like, give or take the killing and maiming. In fact it's not just on TV, somehow the language constantly comes over as bubbly, friendly and excitable and as you leave a restaurant or a shop there's a chirpy chorus of arigato gozaimashita (thank you very much) which you echo with similar friendliness. Anyway, all very over the top but quite charming at the same time.
Incidentally, the psycho girl from Kill Bill with the big spikey metal ball appears to be a charming actress in a soap opera here. Another strange shift of perspective.
A lot of the gameshows seem to revolve around one half of the contestants making the others laugh though as far as I can gather, prizes have little to do with it. Yesterday I watched snippets of a gameshow where five contestants were chased for half an hour by a tiny Japanese woman, caught one by one until one was left and was uncatchable. Basically tag on television.
There is almost certainly a lot more to these strange spectacles than I'm gleaning but from my one dimensional perspective, it's all pretty strange.
It's now Saturday evening and I'm back in my hotel room after a really hectic but thoroughly enjoyable day. I'll explain it in more detail pictorially when I get some photos uploaded.
Yesterday I went to dinner with a few of the students and two of the postdocs to a soba noodle restaurant. Soba are traditionally served cold, dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, daikon (white Japanese radish, also sometimes called mooli), wasabi and spring onions (scallions to our US neighbours) and then slurped loudly and enjoyable. This was accompanied with some tempura which again was significantly superior to anything I've had in the UK.
Outside most Japanese restaurants, they have preserved or modelled versions of the dishes so you can see what you're going to get. Generally what you get is identical (give or take the varnish) to what was in the window.
My noodle bingo card was filled this evening with a fine meal of ramen in miso soup.
Anyway, I'll chat more about today tomorrow after my five hour kabuki marathon, if I can keep my eyes open.
Apologies for the rambly and lengthy post.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 12:55 p.m.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Been too busy with work today to do anything terribly exciting but quickly a link to some more photos from Professor Cho's blog. He's not the guy that I'm here visiting but he's been very helpful and has given me a decent plan of things to see this weekend.
Anyway, some photos from the last couple of days from him here.
Generally been chatting more with the students here who are all a really nice bunch and had another decent chat with the professor I am visiting. Kyoto is now all booked up and I'll be heading off on the Shinkansen on Wednesday to give a seminar at the Yukawa institute on Thursday. This will give me this weekend in Tokyo and next in Kyoto. Thoroughly looking forward to both.
I was hoping to go and see some sumo wrestling this week but it turns out that the competitions are only held at certain times. Much to the Japanese chagrin, it also transpires that none of the top wrestlers are Chinese anymore. The champions are currently a Mongolian and a Bulgarian. How things change from 1980s Sumo on British TV of a Sunday evening.
I am however looking to see if Kabuki theatre is on the cards. Will see if I can fit that in.
Anyway, I shall leave you with a short post and I, sated with a fine helping of udon noodles, will sign off.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 2:18 p.m.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Another fascinating day today, this time accompanied by blue skies and a friendly nip in the air.
People don't seem to get into work until pretty late in the morning but I get the impression that they do stay late into the evening. I've been rising on the early side and was the first in by some time when I arrived a little before nine. I sorted out some odds and ends and reread a few of my thoughts from yesterday before having a great, long discussion with the professor I'm visiting here. A really good chat and it's good to be able to share my knowledge and exchange ideas in a really relaxed atmosphere.
An early lunch in a canteen staffed by extremely jovial caterers was washed down with some rather nice coffee prior to the main event of the day. It was unplanned but since it was such a nice day, seven of us headed off to one of the nearby temples. Gokukuji is a rather fine example of a Buddhist temple though I'm still a little confused as to how this particular example intersects with the Shinto religion (at one time the State religion. The Wikipedia article is worth a read).
It's very refreshing to go to a temple which a) is in use and b) feels spiritual. There being very little authorised religion in China, though many of the temples are stunning, those I've been into so far lack any feeling of faith being attached to the buildings (I'm informed that this is not the case in a few of the Confucian temples in Beijing and certainly outside of the capital there are temples in some use). Gokukuji is peaceful with a strong emphasis on natural forms with many rocks engraved with old characters, and elegant paths lined by classically Japanese trees. A few photos from the day:
These are the masters students, PhD students, the postdoc and the professor who came on the stroll:
On the main gate are two burly looking guardians of the temple. This appears to be another, making sure that no ghosts sneak in.
The temple was built around 250 years ago. The main temple looks to be from around that time but I think that some of the buildings are somewhat newer. I find the form and curves of this one hugely appealing.
By throwing a coin into an offering box, people make wishes for their future. Shinto seems to be based on an emphasis of this life and not, like many forms of Buddhism on the next one. The animist spirits which are prayed to are, like the traditional Chinese Gods, representatives of earthly concepts and phenomena.
Inside, the temple is lightly scented with incense and in front of a large prayer mat is an alter area where the Shinto priests perform the ceremonies. From the little I've read, this particular shrine has the honor of being the overseer of the Japanese tea ceremony which is practiced in all other temples.
Some of the students picked up pieces of paper with their futures predicted on them. These are then tied to these bamboo branches were they will grow to fruition.
On exiting the temple, we had this view of the main shrine framed with a traditional Japanese pine tree.
On the walk back I commented that I'd seen many people reading comic books, in restaurants, on the train, in their cars and wanted to know a little more about them. Some of the students were really into manga and it's amazing the number of different varieties and the length of time that some of them have been going for. I asked which was one of the most famous and am now a proud owner of Golgo 13 perfect machine of snipe, which I clearly can't understand but am interested to have a look through to see what so many people are completely absorbed by.
Anyway, after a decent hour or so's excursion I headed back to the office to get my head down and try and work out how on Earth I can tackle the problem I'm faced with. I would say what I'm trying to do but someone might nab the idea (not that too many would be interested).
Anyway, Chinese characters to be learning and my latest Steinbeck sitting patiently while I blabber on (Incidentally, if anyone knows why I can't seem to get hold of the full text of The Sea of Cortez including the reports of their findings, but only the log, I would be most interested to know).
Another brief piece of physics gossip that I noticed today:
It seems that five papers have been written which took the bait on this one . Joke papers are published on the arxiv from time to time and this one is particularly amusing for those with a background in quantum field theory - a niche market in comedy perhaps but we can all laugh that much harder when we feel that we're in on an 'in joke'.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 12:44 p.m.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Shock 'o san checking in.
A busy day, unsurprisingly filled with surprises!
This morning I wandered towards the university in the damp but fresh breeze, feeling reasonably awake for having had such a long day the day before. I was hoping that somehow breakfast and my path would intersect before arriving at the department. I found myself in a little cafe sipping fine coffee and eating thick sliced bread oozing butter as Coltrane and Davis battled it out over the speakers. A few Japanese were talking quietly and smoking cigarretes as the bar tender washed the glasses. This could have been Paris or New York (give or take the smoking) and it felt like I wasn't going for the real-Japanese-deal breakfast-wise but this seems to be the way a lot of the locals start their day...no complaints from me.
So, the University...My Japanese friend Daisuke was right in his assumptions about it. I find myself in one of the two all female universities in the country! Even with the warning I hadn't really expected it but it is indeed the case. Ochanomizu was founded around 130 years ago and has always had an all female intake upto and including PhD level. Postdocs and professorial positions are filled by both men and women and the guy I'm collaborating with here is, well, a guy.
It's not the most elegent of universities but there are enough trees and plants to give it a pleasent atmosphere. From what I've seen, people are also really happy here though the laughter is kept to a considerate volume (apologies for sounded like a grouch, this is just another Beijing qualm). Everyone seems to work really hard but they've got a great balance of chat and work, something I'm much more used to and something that I think is conducive to good thought (I don't think that having your head stuck in a book all day is).
After a seminar this afternoon on this fun paper, which I've studied in the past luckily as the seminar was in Japanese, I chatted with the professor about his possible projects...we'll see what comes out of it over the next week. Some fun projects, almost all related to flavour physics in the AdS/CFT correspondence, my one area of expertise.
Following a chat of multiferous tangents, cakes were produced for two birthdays, one wedding, one leaving and one arrival (me!) and consumed with haste.
and then...and then...and then we went for the blindingly best sushi I've ever tasted. I figured that sushi might be a bit better here but it was far beyond anything I've ever had before, however close to the sea I may have been. This may be a curse in disguise as I may be a full on sushi snob and never want to eat it anywhere again, I hope not.
The ladies in the department were too full of cake to come for a meal so soon after the celebrations, but I'd held back knowing that cake vs. sushi wasn't a contest. I went with Dr Kaneko, one of the postdocs to a local restaurant, an unobtrusive little eatery with the traditional sushi bench in the front. Seemingly frequented by businessmen taking an easy evening over some fine food we started with some clam miso and a couple of local beers.
My father is highly highly alergic to shellfish and it may be that I've inherited this condition. I've always steered clear of clams and mussels (though I know that prawns etc. are fine), except when I was violently ill on oysters (though it either did or didn't have an 'r' in the month, whichever is wrong). I figured that if I'm going to cark it on seafood, there's got to be no better place to do so than Tokyo so this may be my last post.
A couple of photos of the meal to whet the appetite. The dark yellow one is uni which I've wanted to eat for a long time. It's sea urchin roe and I'd been warned that it's ghastly. Unlike 'stinky tofu' which is ghastly (though I like wikipedia's comparison saying that it's mild, like blue cheese!), this is absolutely heavenly. It's got virtually no texture, just a subtle nutty flavour that melts in the mouth. Along with the squid, the prawn, various other unknowns and lashings of wasabi on every piece (not me being over the top, that's how it's served), were three pieces of tuna from different parts of the beast. The far right piece being the most fatty and therefore delicate was as tender as marshmallow and as fresh as...well, fresh fish to me is about as fresh as fresh gets.
An absolutely awesome meal finished off by a half hour stroll home feeling pretty content for now as I feel I know more about what is in store for me this week (my first talk is next Monday).
So now, sitting in the hotel room:
wearing my ridiculously small slippers provided, as guests are not to wear outdoor shoes indoors (that's not me playfully dangling them off my toes, that's just as far as they go!)
and staring out of the window at the Tokyo sky-line
thinking about work tomorrow and planning an excursion for the weekend.
In some physics news:
Those who read The Reference Frame will know this already. A theory which has been around for some time called doubly special relativity (no joke), turns out to be a bit of a joke. It was supposed to give new physics at large length scales concerning gravity. Unfortunately, it has been shown to be simply special relativity with a change of variables and therefore contains absolutely no new information whatsoever. I'm mildly pleased at this having started Joao Magueijo's book (who popularised the theory claiming that it could be an alternative to inflation) and stopped because he was such an arrogant egoist (tautological perhaps but it needs to be stressed). Anyway, it's interesting to see a theory which has raised much interest over the past few years collapse with such a complete whimper. It's rare to see such well studied theories debunked like this.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 1:20 p.m.
Monday, February 20, 2006
I'm in Tokyo, and it's raining, and I love it! It's been a long day but I want to try and collect my first impressions of Japan before I get too caught up in them.
The rain...I haven't seen rain for four months and it's blissful. It's not some romantic, warm downpour. It's just drizzly, cold rain, but after living in what is close to being a desert, I don't care what sort of rain it is. The air feels clean, I feel clean. Like I've been stuck in a dry, dusty house for a third of a year and I've finally found the room with the power shower. The air is fresh and not suffused with the outpourings of the smoke-stacks dotted around Beijing. Here, there's a crisp smell of ozone in its place. My fingernails are not instantly blackened as soon as I get outside...instead, my hands are wet...and clean.
Anyway, enough of my British obsessions. I arrived here at Narita airport coming from Beijing airport (incidentally, I feel a lot of bad comparisons coming on which will leave Beijing in a bad light! I'm loving Beijing, it's just that it seems that so many things which are get on so many peoples nerves about life out there are non-existent here). Beijing airport is fine...it's tiring and the queues which weave chaotically in and out of one another are organically designed to cause maximum confusion. Having risen this morning at 5.30, my flight was then delayed by a little over two hours. Fine, don't mind...I got here in the end. Unfortunately, these days I'm a little scared of flying. I used to love it and I still enjoy it but I made the mistake on a San Francisco to London flight of consuming way too much coffee before hand and ended up having a horribly jumpy trip where I was tense for the full nine hours. That has sort of stayed with me so I still find flying a bit daunting (despite the obvious safety babble that everyone, including probably myself, spouts). I happen to be friends with an ex flight attendant for exactly this trip so I spent most of the time chatting to the NWA air stewardesses which made the short trip somewhat more fun. I also had all the leg room a lanky chap such as myself could want, in the emergency exit seat.
So, we arrived at the airport on a damp, grey, miserable day and I walked through the airport beaming like it was the first day of the summer holidays. Everything works...that's it, it just works. I was in the arrivals lounge within 15 minutes of leaving the plane, including all the various disembarkation faff and bag search.
With ease, I then boarded the bullet train which left as the digits on the clock changed from 4 to 5. 45 minutes later we arrived as promptly as we'd set off but in between, the journey was wonderful. It's strange to see houses again. Nobody I know in Beijing lives in a house, they're all in monotone, utilitarian, monoconcept apartment blocks. Dotted around the paddy fields are immaculately kept classical Japanese design houses, many decorated with solar paneling, many with their own closely cropped allotments where fruit and veg were growing healthily. Getting into the suburbs of the city, the houses because a dense sprawling mass of side-streets and alleyways full of neon and steel with the occasional burst of natural colour from an orange tree with its contrasting hues jumping out from between the buildings.
This feels like ordered chaos, compared to Beijing's chaotic chaos.
Helping someone with their bags, I got a thank you, a meeting of eyes and a genuine smile. I've tried the same trick in Beijing and been greeted by a wary stare or a suspicious turn of the back. Politeness seems to shine through everywhere from the polite immigration officials (Something I had previously put down as an oxymoron) to the shop keepers who bow and greet you as you enter the shop and smile kindly and bow as you leave.
One of the postdocs from Ochanomizu University met me at the station and we took another train towards my hotel. A friendly chat and some orientation before arriving and leaving me to get settled was the perfect greeting for one having traveled for many hours and feeling a little fazed, if euphoric from the rain.
I am however at sea again in one major respect. It makes me realise how relaxed I am with the basics of Chinese that I suddenly feel linguistically paralysed again. I know hello, thank you and goodbye which is a start but far from ideal. I recognise a few of the characters but of course the pronunciation is very different, so I am once again reduced to a somewhat muted status. I did at least manage dinner in a local restaurant where I sampled a salad of baby eel (I presume, and seem to remember that these have a special name in English), miso soup, wanton type snackettes and some good sticky rice. There was something amazing about sitting in a spotless restaurant in Japan, sipping miso soup as the rain pelts down outside.
There seems to be something else about Japan that immediately hits me. It's to do with the neatness, the cleanliness, the order of everything, the purposefulness by which people move and talk, eat and cook. Order and neatness aren't quite the right words for it but I shall think about it more over the next few days. There's something instantly relaxing compared to the shouting and barging, the dirt and mess in Beijing, all of which incidentally give Beijing some of its genuine character. A Beijing restaurant full of people shouting in all directions, slurping their noodles digging into wonderful dishes here, there and everywhere can be a lot of fun but coming out here, the contrast is like a sudden wave of soothing relaxation. I have to say, I didn't expect this at all. I expected Tokyo to be just as hectic as Beijing and with my limited knowledge I may be setting myself up for a rude awakening as I explore more but these are my first impressions.
Perhaps another thing that has made Tokyo feel far more welcoming is that I've built up a picture of it, mainly from reading Murakami novels. The last of which (Kafka on the shore) I'm seconds away from finishing. I was slightly worried that this illusion was going to be shattered by seeing Tokyo for real but so far, it fits my picture like a glove.
Anyway, a little past eight in the evening on day one. It's going to be a tiring trip I've not doubt. There's lots of work to do, many new people to meet and probably lots of interesting new challenges to tackle, but I guess that's what all this was about when I set out on Jonstraveladventures.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 11:35 a.m.
Friday, February 17, 2006
Strange as it may seem, I have been working...quite a lot. I'm anxious to talk about what I'm up to at the moment but this will have to wait as I have much work to do.
Briefly though, my heartfelt apologies to the poor soul who stumbled across this site recently having searched blogspot for "tooth extraction" clearly wishing to find tales of painless removal, naiadic dental assistants and quick recovery...you came to the wrong place. Sorry!
P.S The Fratricides by Kazantzakis is powerful stuff. Painful and intense covering man's struggle with himself and God - small fry but someone's got to do it.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 6:50 a.m.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
So Dan has shuffled off this ancient soil and left, in his wake, a mighty cold. Currently with much to do to prepare for whatever awaits me in Tokyo, I am sat in bed feeling like a soggy bag of mucus and tofu with nowt but pot noodle to comfort me. If I, three months ago could see my current culinary exploits I would have wept. Last night I felt proud at having cooked a meal with a total of four ingredients which may have doubled my previous record. I have neither fridge nor pantry and because people seem to eat out almost every meal, there's not a great deal to buy on campus to sustain one with streptococcal relations. Fear not however as last night's meal included a fine helping of seaweed and I shall therefore be up and active in no time, apparently.
Anyway, still a couple of days of Dan's visit to report on.
Thursday evening we thought that a mixture of Kung Fu, Chinese opera, acrobatics, contortionism and classical Beijing cuisine would quell our cultural and gastronomic appetites, if not give us indigestion. So we headed with three friends to one of the performances where one can get a concentrated dose of each of the above art forms without having to sit through two hours of opera. I think of myself as reasonably open-minded when it comes to music but Beijing opera is really pretty offensive to most Western ears, mine included. A strange, strangulated, high-pitched, highly fluctuating tone which is clearly perfectly controlled but is genuinely akin to cats in pain does not set my heart afluttering. A few five minute bursts was interesting but quite enough for me. We also thought that we should show Dan some of the more exotic foods since he's been missing out a little on the weird and wonderful and cold chicken's feet seemed to go down OK. I still find 'stinky tofu' a little hard to swallow though it makes me understand a little better why some people have such a problem with smelly cheeses. I think I mentioned before that though it has a foul odour, it's supposed to taste divine, however I can't remove the smell as I'm eating unless my honker is muffled.
Dan's last evening was spent in the local bars with us chatting idly, me dancing badly and generally meeting some new people. The seven o'clock start the next day was not wholly welcomed having returned to the flat only four hours previously. Anyway, Dan was packed off in a taxi and I returned to bed to nurture my incoming germs. They are now fully in bloom, some pruning is needed.
Since then I've been attempting to read some of the papers produced by the researchers I will be working with in Japan, and thinking about what I should tell them in my seminars.
So, I'm intrigued, this is a general state of mind for me but this time it's a particular puzzlement. I mentioned a long time ago that I'd put a sitemeter on this site which means that I can see if anyone is reading any of this. It turns out they are, not in astronomical numbers but some are. Many of whom I know but I think that there are a few who must have stumbled across this by accident, possibly via some of the strange searches that bring people here (I met Von Trier, for example). Most of the people that I don't think I know, or at least I may do but can't work out who they are, are from the States, a few from France and a few others dotted around the world. Anyway, my intrigue is getting the better of me. If you feel so inclined and you think that I might not know who you are, please feel free to send an e-mail. This is purely for egotistical enlightenment to find out who knows a lot more about what is going on in my life than I do in their's, and if you feel further inclined, fill me in on who you are.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 6:57 a.m.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Wednesday evening and I have a few moments spare to try and catch up before the flash of the last few days disappears into the blur of the rest of my life.
I believe we're up to Friday by which point Dan and I were feeling pretty shattered from much wondering around and seeing the sights. Days turned into nights as our body clocks adjusted to more nocturnal forays though we managed to do a bit more on the touristy side in the afternoons.
China appears to have a yearly link with another country and this year is Italian year. Consequently they've set up a reasonably impressive exhibition in the World Art museum, possibly the most horrotious building I've yet visited in Beijing though from the inside is reasonably attractive if a little disorientating. They had a decent collection of most of the well known Italian painters from the 13th Century to the 18th Century with a Da Vinci and one of the Caravaggio's which had been at the superb exhibition in London. The lighting in the museum however made everyone crowd around each picture making it all a little claustrophobic. A nice change nonetheless.
A true concrete monstrosity IMHO...
...overlooking a strange Chinese toytown...
...made for some fun silhouette photos.
No photos from the Italian exhibition but a couple from the central chamber in which there's a relief mural of Chinese history around the wall.
Including what may be the invention of the calendar though I'm not sure on this one.
We then headed towards an unknown but impressive structure that we'd spotted nearby which turned out to be one of Beijing's main train stations. Imposing and a mixture between Oriental and Soviet styles, it's another impressive international station. New York manages to have one, Paris manages to have one and it seems that London will have one soon when the exciting Channel Tunnel Rail Link opens.
Saturday was again a late start after spending Friday evening back in the local club in the Korean neighbourhood mostly chatting to Swedes.
It appears that fully grown men when combined with a frozen lake suddenly revert to being six again and though we did have a decent cultural look around the summer palace which is one of the most beautiful temple/palace complexes in the city, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that we spent 90 percent of our time being extremely silly on the immense frozen lake. It's a stunning lake when defrosted and I have photos of it in such a state here but it's also pretty amazing when frozen. Surrounded by many classical bridges, it's solidity made for great short cuts across what is a pretty huge area for some good photos.
Dan warming up pre-gymnastics attempt
Taking time-out to take in the view
Though it doesn't look like it, this is really a high-speed action shot as I daringly whiz past on a block of ice.
...and Dan in similar fearless fashion
With cold bums and cold feet but satisfied pre-ten year old urges we headed back in a taxi to warm up before meeting a friend in the East of the city for another night out.
Saturday night was spent in a refreshingly Chinese club where we were some of the only foreigners on view and we had a decent boogie before depositing a riotously drunk French friend in a cab and heading back.
Sunday, the last official day of my holiday was dedicated to rest a relaxation as I felt in dire need of a proper holiday before hitting the mental grindstone once more. Some good food and a second viewing of The Corpse Bride made for a good end to my weeks hiatus.
So at this point Dan was left, during daylight hours, to his own devices. With map, phrasebook, some minimal Chinese tuition from me and enough money to see him out of most situations I let him roam the Beijing streets. Three days later and he seems to have survived with minimal of fuss in what has to be said is not an easy city for a non-Chinese speaker to navigate.
I've been back at work trying to sort out bits and bobs pre-Japan where, I am delighted to say, wunderground tells me it is around 14 degrees in the day. I really miss being warm as my apartment has been pretty frosty recently and it hasn't been above about 2 degrees for the last couple of months here. I've never missed the warmth as much as I am at the moment and 14 sounds like paradise right now.
In the evenings we have continued to explore the weird and wonderful. Monday evening we stumbled across the beginnings of a Bob Marley birthday celebration where the local bar was showing a movie of him before a big reggae night in Zub. We stayed for some of the movie but were feeling pretty phased by about 11.
Tuesday we were sensibleish and simply watched a movie. I've spoken before about Lukas Moodyson, one of Sweden's most famous contemporary directors who seems to revel in making a diverse range of films. Both Show Me Love and Together are lovely films in their own way, but the same cannot be said for A Hole in My Heart. Panned by many critics for being so shocking, I'd read many reviews which criticised the acting, the music, the morals and the artistic license within the film. What shocked me most perhaps was that it wasn't as bad as I'd expected and left me feeling a little worried that whatever goes on in my own head may be so much more depraved than most film critics. Perhaps this is because it had been talked up so much but I found it a genuinely interesting film, shocking certainly at times, about social degradation and the inheritance of abusive and disturbing tendencies from our families. The sound track for anyone who doesn't like electronica would probably seem overly jarring but I thought that it tied in very well with the implied atmosphere. There are bits of it which are over the top but that's kinda the point so I thought it did the job it set out to do pretty well.
Speaking of electronica, though less about inherited abusive tendencies, Dan and I ended up at the end of a dark snowy wood past a drive-through movie theatre off a wide but empty road in a bar/hut at an experimental electronica evening. A really interesting experience and I hope to go again to this weekly event though I can't say I was hugely moved by much of it. It's strange watching musicians making music, some with guitars, mostly with synths changing wave-forms, playing with feedback and tuning forks slowly building on a mood to reach cacophonous levels of bass and moog as I nursed my jasmine tea, and Dan his Tsingtao. It's especially strange watching musicians make music from their I-books, screens facing away so they could just as easily have pressed play and be having a go at mine-sweeper. Some people were clearly not where they expected as they sat slightly aghast, fingers in ears looking at each other with ticks of bemusement, but some people seemed to be having a great time, ten year old kid included.
Sadly no photos from this slightly bizarre evening.
So now, Wednesday evening, just two full days to go until Dan arcs his way West and I pick up the pace before heading East. I shall sum up in more detail later but it's been a great though exhausting couple of weeks so far. Definitely pleased that Dan has been out here during my holiday time which is few and far between.
Anyway, to bed now to rest my weary and slightly dazed head.
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 3:51 a.m.