Monday, January 22, 2007

Kyoto Story

I look forward to returning at some point to Korea to get an uninfected view of it, my opinions this time being clouded by a mucusy, feverish mist. On Saturday I left, another week's worth of antibiotics in hand having missed all but two lectures this week. And now, I'm in Japan, having landed in Osaka yesterday.

I can't put my finger on what it is about Japan but, although it's just as confusing and alien a place as Korea, I feel instantly peaceful and at home. I still don't understand the menus and the profusion of train lines is a mystery but the quiet, smoothness by which everything works (perhaps another example of mono no aware) just makes me smile.

I was picked up by Tatsuya, from the Yukawa institute and we communicated for the hour and a half back with me using a pen and paper (the voice is now returning today but it's still croaky) on the Shinkansen, through the lights of Osaka to the nearby lights of Kyoto. By taxi we made our way through Kyoto and I was reminded immediately of what a stunning city this is, with its 400 or so temples and palaces and its ring of mountains.

I'm staying in a minimal but comfortable guest house for the next month in a little street with a view from my window of the mountains and the classical Japanese houses surrounding it. Though the external architecture of the building I'm staying in is the least aesthetically pleasing around, I realise that this is the best situation. Who wants to be stuck in the most exquisitely designed palace when you can't appreciate it?. I'm rather looking forward to staying here. The minimal nature is rather monastic which feels very conducive to good work.

In my drugged up, deafened (my ears did funny things on the plane) state I managed to start ticking off the ways to offend people here straight away by stepping over the threshold of the hotel with my shoes on (not the done thing) and in my humble apologetic state, tipping over a vase of flowers. The elderly hotel manager smiled knowingly but appeared to accept my quickly drooping face as sign of true humility.

After the first good night's sleep for a week I wandered around the area and picked up some simple food for breakfast. Last time I was in Tokyo I had a local cafe for breakfast where I would drink coffee, eat toast and jam and listen to the barista's favourite CDs of Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson, those were very happy mornings. I look forward to finding something similar here.

Tatsuya then popped by and walked me the five minutes to the Yukawa institute to show me around. I stayed for a while to get myself settled in and attempted amongst other things to try and work out why none of my bank cards work here. I had presumed it was just a Korea thing so I'm getting a little concerned. (An update from the institute tells me that Japan just doesn't accept Lloyds TSB visa cards!)

Lots of great talks coming up here including Frank Wilczek on Wednesday which I'll report on. The Yukawa institute, though mostly made up of Japanese researchers has an international feel with several Western postdocs and visitors so most of the talks are in English, a wonderful change for me.


I just came back from dinner and am reminded of a tangible reason for my love of the place. I wandered around the quiet streets looking into the restaurants for one that caught my eye and that I thought I had a chance at getting roughly what I wanted. In the end the restaurant closest to me had some nice pictures in the window so I plumped for that. The elderly waitress in the kimono showed me to the sushi bar (though bar makes it sound modern) made of wood with comfortable wooden stools and tatami matting, signs above the bar saying how much each cut of each fish was and a selection of sake bottles filling those shelves not stashed with sashimi knives. Behind me a tank in which, amongst other things, swam fugu, the infamous puffer fish floating peacefully around. I don't know if this is for sale, I seem to remember that all licensed fugu chefs had a hanging paper fugu outside the shop which wasn't in appearance. Anyway, I'm only going for this dish when I'm with someone else who knows what they're doing!

Beside me at the bar were three generations of a family out to dinner and the mother and highschool daughter started chatting in English about whether I liked the food and where I was from amongst other niceties. My continuing inability to equilibrate the pressure in my ears made this a little tricky but I still appreciated the friendly chat - and then the food came, so simple, so unadulterated, such a contrast to Chinese food (which of course I'm a huge fan of too). It's almost certainly that it's been a while since I ate in Japan but the tempura seemed lighter than ever, the sashimi more succulent and fresh than I can remember and the miso soup a beautiful contrast of white tofu and bright green watercress in a lacquered mahogany coloured bowl. I have two words of advice for sushi lovers. First: come to Japan, the sushi will absolutely blow you away. I've been for some reasonable expensive sushi meals in various capitals of the world but none of them come close to the real thing. I can't understand why this is, surely really fresh fish is really fresh fish, but there seems to be something extra. My second piece of advice is: never come to Japan, you will never want to eat sushi anywhere else ever again, or when you do you will feel ultimately slightly disappointed. Strangely my advice for people who are fans of Chinese food differs slightly. The reason is that Chinese food in Western restaurants is so far removed from most (not absolutely all) genuine Chinese cuisine as to be non-influential on your likes or dislikes when you return home.

Another preposterous piece of ying and yang occured when I tried to pay by card. The restaurant accepted it but when fed into the machine there was a malfunction and the machine wouldn't stop printing receipts, even when rebooted. This went on for about ten minutes with about 15 m of tape spilling out onto the floor. I sat back unable to do anything but look like it was probably my fault. Finally it stopped, they tried again and it worked, no bad feelings apparently, all smiles. I left mildly confused, perfectly sated and very happy.


So, now that I'm in a more settled, better adjusted mood I can formally announce that I've accepted an offer of a postdoc position at Santiago De Compostela in Galicia in Spain. It's a great group, headed by Alfonso Ramallo with many excellent researchers and I'm hugely looking forward to starting up there some time towards the end of October. I've been doing a bit of scouting around about the city and the surrounding area and so I'll write about my findings soon. I'll also write about some of the research which goes on there some of which is very close to my own interests and some of which is in directions I'd like to turn at some point.

My last trip to Spain was when I was four in Ibiza. I remember little more than the loud, late music, the plane trip and, of course, the food. I'm looking forward to discovering a little more than that this time.

OK, I have more that I've written but most of it doesn't fit comfortably into this post so I'll save it for the next few days.


Anonymous said...

Congrats (again) on the new post Biscuit! Your memories of Spain as a 4 year old (loud, late music, the plane trip and food) will pale into significance against the experience awaiting you (loud, late music, the plane trip, food and beer). Looking forward to visiting...

Luca said...

Congrats for your new position!
I've always heard great things about Santiago and the route to (El Camino de Santiago) is one of my never realized dreams.

Enjoy your stay in Kyoto!

Anonymous said...

I echo the thoughts of Hernia. But I can't help thinking that it was bad parenting taking you clubbing when you were four.
After a mere 7 months in, I have handed my notice in at current job. I shall tell you more when I have the chance on MSN.

Unknown said...


Thank you, indeed I expect the added dimension will extend the experience no end.

Hi Luca,

Thank you. Yes, I've been reading about the route which sounds like an amazing journey to take. Many months into the future yet but you will soon have a friendly face at one end of the trip.


It was probably my nagging as a four year old that I wasn't being exposed to enough popular culture at the time that got us out there.

I'm intrigued as to your current job movements but look forward to hearing more.

All the best,