The first week: Bunka, Bears and Banks

“Douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!”
Having introduced myself to the the research group at RCNS, I lowered my head with a little bow to express my gratitude for their hospitality and convey my hopes for a smooth cooperation. The past few days had been eventful. Aside from making the long journey from Amsterdam to Sendai on Monday and Tuesday, I had gone back and forth between the University administration, the post office, the bank and the dormitory reception in order to finish all procedures necessary for my stay the coming half year. And now that it was Friday and that I had finally had the chance to properly greet my coworkers and fellow students during the weekly analysis meeting, I felt pretty tired — fortunately mostly in a good sense.

Let me recount the events that happened by starting from the moment where my journey began. My flights from Amsterdam to Helsinki and from there to Japan went by pretty smoothly. Considering my proneness to motion sickness, I had braced myself for the long hours spent inside the airplane and for potential turbulence by taking some traveling pills beforehand. But looking back, I might have been able to do without them. During the entire flight, we had perhaps only one case of slight atmospheric disturbance. That didn’t mean I got much sleep. Even though the leaflet of the traveling pills stated drowsiness as a near-inevitable side-effect, I wasn’t able to truly doze off (perhaps also because of all the excitement).
When I did feel drowsy enough to wander off into a deep sleep a few hours later, I was unfortunately unable to. Just a few minutes before, I had boarded the high-speed bullet train (the so-called Shinkansen) to Sendai. So I felt the need to stay awake in order not to miss my stop. I had previously stumbled across the underground maze of Tokyo station, awkwardly dragging my heavy suit-case behind me, in search of something to eat for lunch. As it turned out, the real question was what to buy, not where to buy it. Bread-stores, noodle-shops and warehouses full of traditional Japanese lunch-boxes (o-bento’s) had all been beckoning me with tempting meals. In the end, however, I chose to go the traditional way and bring a modest-sized bento with me to eat on the train.

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When I arrived in Sendai, I traveled to the Aobayama subway station, where my principal contact from the University over the past three months, Hiroko-san, was waiting for me. She helped me immensely during the following days. First off, we went to Aobayama University House, a new housing complex recently opened by Tohoku University to accommodate international guests. After receiving instructions on the rules and regulations of the premise, I went up to drop off my bags in my new room: a three by five meter space with a European-sized bed, a desk, a wardrobe and a spacious closet. I also briefly spoke with some of my roommates. With three students from China (Kan, Shou and Shi) two Japanese students (Juichiro and Toda) as well one researcher from Germany (Simon), my dormitory turned out to be quite the international hub.

I woke up early the next morning to visit the Research Center for Neutrino Science for the first time. Initially I was struggling to find the correct location (the Tohoku University campus comprises several square kilometers), but I fortunately arrived in time for my appointment with professor Shimizu Itaru, my local supervisor for the coming months. As it is custom to take off ones shoes in most houses and offices in Japan, I had to exchange my loafers for some official RCNS visitor slippers at the entrance. Shimizu-san then took me with him on a small tour of the premise.
The research institute consists of a two-story building with several labs for detector development and a number of offices with computers for data-analysis. I was surprised to find out that nearly all computers within the building were Macs. In the beginning, working with them felt a little awkward, but I managed to find a way to operate them effectively by the end of the week.

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After the tour at the institute, I went back to the administration office where Hiroko-san awaited me. She guided me to the city center, where she helped me register myself at the ward office (i.e. the district town hall). For a country which is as technologically advanced as Japan, i.e. where semi-automated toilets provide you with seat-warming as well as a variety of bidet-like options for maximum hygiene and comfort, the amount of paperwork that came into this, really surprised me. There were forms in three- and fourfold which all needed to be properly filled out and signed. An employee would then hand these over at a large multi-colored desk, which stood as the demarcation line between the everyday on our side and a bureaucrat bonanza on the other: behind it, some twenty to forty civil servants and bureaucrats were busy checking paperwork and providing them all with stamps. And that wasn’t the last of it! As it turned out, the bank which we headed to the next morning functioned in the exact same way.
What was also surprising to me, was the fact that nearly all payments are done in cash. At the end of the week my average-sized Dutch wallet was pouting out with tens of yen bills and an even larger collection of copper and silver coins. These fortunately came in handy, when we went to a Japanese wagyu-restaurant with several people from the physics department on Friday. Sendai is apparently famous for housing some of the best traditional style beef restaurants. Considering that I’m not an avid meat eater, I felt a little out of place, but it did provide for a very enjoyable night. In fact, I was even invited to join the group to a local bar for seconds (“ni-kaime”).

During the weekend I went to a cultural festival at one of the University campuses. Having slept in a little, I still somewhat drowsily, walked down the curvy path leading out from my dormitory in the direction of the place where the festival would be held. When I tried to take a different route than the ones I had taken the previous days, I soon hit a fence which prevented anyone from going further. Apparently, a black bear had been sighted in the proximity of the nearby hills some days prior to my arrival. Local authorities had hurried to deter the beasts using electrical fences and by flying noisy helicopters over the hills. So there was no choice but to head back and follow the usual route towards the campus.
When I arrived an hour later, the festival was already bustling with music and people. Outside there were several tens of small food stores, a large podium occupied by a modern dance group and an on-cheering crowd as well as a small stage housing the university’s broadcasting club. And inside the faculty buildings there was even more: rooms upon rooms filled with students exhibiting their interests and showing the work of their clubs and associations.

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Apparently, the third of November is celebrated in Japan as a national holiday called “Bunka no hi”, or culture day. Knowing this, the festival comes as no surprise. I wonder why we don’t have anything similar at universities in the Netherlands. Perhaps cultural education is less ingrained in our school systems than it is here? Something to think on, whilst I write the next blog entry. Since I wasn’t able to do so this time, I hope to be able to explain a bit more about the actual topic of my research next week, as well as about the ins and outs of KamLAND-Zen itself. I hope you will all read it! また今度!

7 thoughts on “The first week: Bunka, Bears and Banks

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      1. Hey Bouke, leuk om te lezen hoe het daar is. Is je eerste echte werkweek goed bevallen. Ik hoorde van Mirik dat in het Engels converssren best een dingetje is voor de japanse medestudenten. Het is dus te hopen dat jij heel snel goed Japans onder de knie krijgt. Hier gaat alles rustig. Volgende week is Kiara uitgerekend dus het wordt spannend. We laten het je weten zodra het zover is. Geniet van Japan, kus Helma

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  1. Sounds like you are having a good time! You write like a pro, it is a nice read 🙂 It is fun to see so many of my own experiences in your story. And Wagyu beef is amazing!
    Have fun integrating in Japan!
    (PS I just threw my 1¥ coins away, or left them (and all <10¥) as a tip somewhere)

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  2. Hey Bouke, leuk om te lezen! Inmiddels ben je al weer een weekje verder. Begin je al een beetje te wennen?

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    1. Zeker en vast. Ik lunch en dineer nu elke dag met mijn collega’s en medestudenten bij de kantine vlakbij. Komend weekend ga ik naar het International Center om te kijken wat de mogelijkheden daar zijn om Japanse lessen te volgen. Hopelijk lukt het om iemand te vinden die aan taaluitwisseling wil doen.

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