Japan (As Magical As You Think It Is)

Christie-bannerSo it’s about 800 degrees centigrade and I’m wondering if I’ve lost my mind hiking Mt. Arashiyama in this heat. I turn and watch two children and their elderly grandparents skip gaily up the trail as if the incline and humidity are non-existent, and I curse their effervescence. I start gathering leaves and sticks to form a sort of make-shift grave site and mentally draft my goodbye note to my friends and family, because surely this is where I will die. How can people withstand this type of heat? Did you know that the back of your knees can sweat? Isn’t this the temperature at which meat starts to cook (and because I’m sweating so much does that mean I’ll start….poaching alive?)? I’m losing it.

In the distance I hear hoots and hollers, the call of one Japanese macaque to another, and I am reminded of what awaits me at the top: MONKEY PARK. “Do it for the monkeys!” I think to myself as I rise to my feet, “FOR THE MONKEYS!”

If I can give young graduate students any advice it’s this: APPLY FOR EVERYTHING. This philosophy is what led me to win a generous travel award through the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) that sent me to Japan to participate in the Japan Neuroscience Meeting. I got the news at around 7:00 a.m. after rolling over in bed to check my email on my cell phone.

If I can give young graduate students a second piece of advice it’s this: DO NOT RESPOND TO EMAILS AT 7A.M. ON YOUR CELL PHONE. I know this because instead of forwarding the email to my PI, I accidentally hit “reply” and sent the arbiter of the award an expletive ridden “OMG, I’M FREAKING OUT” style email. I’m a true beacon of professionalism.

I told my classmate that I was planning on applying for this award and he promptly scolded me. Here’s an actual excerpt from our gchat conversation (*with all the curse words and typos removed):

Me: Did you get that email from SFN about the Japan award?!  I’m going to apply for it!

Brian: Ugh…don’t even bother, you won’t get it.

Me: You’re probably right, but….it’s worth it to try….

Brian: It’s international, you’re competing with everyone. Don’t waste your time.

I like to remind Brian of this conversation as often as possible. When I texted him to tell him I won the award he didn’t respond, and when I pressed later, he responded, “You ruined my morning. Congrats or whatever.” Ahhh, friendship.

kobe beef

The conference was hosted in Kobe, which is located on the southern side of the main island of Honshū. As the capital of the Hyōgo Prefecture, Kobe is the sixth largest city in Japan. It’s quite famous for Kobe beef, which is incredibly tender and well-marbled, as the cows that produce this meat drink beer and receive daily massages (for real). Yes, I tried Kobe beef. Yes, it was the best beef I’ve ever eaten. Yes, I think about it everyday. I could  only afford to indulge once, so I took a thousand photos of it to remember the meal.

My PI is incredibly reasonable, and although the conference only lasted four days, I was in Japan for over two weeks. I went from Tokyo, to Kobe (with a day trip to Hiroshima), to Kyoto (with a day trip to Nara), and then back to Tokyo. For me, traveling alone is invigorating. It almost seems like the universe dares you to find your own way, to enjoy your own company. I find I take far fewer photos, especially of myself, when I travel alone, and for this I am so grateful because I am able to enjoy myself in the moment and really be a part of the experience, instead of observing through a lens. Especially in Japan, because Japan is, in a word, magical.

There’s no way to explain what it feels like to be in Japan, but I imagine it’s how a tea bag feels when it’s first plunged into hot water. A rush of warmth and a fullness, overwhelming and immersive. Japan is boundlessly beautiful and the people are equally so, polite and patient and polite all over again, tripping over themselves (sometimes literally) to help you.

It’s like you couldn’t spend enough time there, because there’s so much to marvel at. As it is, I was only able to explore the main island, and even in two weeks I barely scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer. It would be easier to list the things I didn’t do in Japan (eat horse meat sushi) than it would be to list the things I did.

In addition to finally summiting Monkey Mountain:

monkey and baby

monkey face

I ate the most delicious sushi somewhere in the bowels of the Tsukiji Fish Market:


(I also ate delicious “Kaiten” or “conveyor belt” sushi in Shibuya, an area of Tokyo made famous by an elaborate and enormous intersection called “the scramble” where up to 3,000 people cross the street at once.)

I went to an owl café and had a complete excitation-induced nervous break-down the whole time:

cherry tomato
This guy’s name is Cherry Tomato, and he is my soulmate.


(Kabuki and I sharing a more serious moment.)

owl orange beak


I saw Hiroshima Castle and the Atomic Dome (one of the only buildings to survive the impact of the atom bomb) and the Sagano Bamboo Forest::

hiroshima atomic dome

sagano bamboo forest

and went to an Onsen (a natural hot springs bath) where little fishies nibbled the dead skin off my ham foot:

fish feet


I also laid my eyes upon the most beautiful vista I’ve ever seen in my life, Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavillion (and no you’re not nuts, it’s not silver, it’s made of wood, but who cares?)

Oh, and I guess I also presented my data at the conference. I….don’t think I have any photos of the conference…whoops!

During a day-long tour of Tokyo our group stopped for lunch. The lady sitting next to me told that she was enjoying Japan, but that the language barrier made things difficult. I really had to disagree. Unless you’re craving some really deep, existential conversation, most people in Japan know enough English to help you. But more than that, you don’t really need to talk most of the time to communicate. When I asked people for confirmation I was headed the right way, I just pointed to my map and asked “Akihabara?” Like anyone would, they put together that I was a tourist, that I didn’t speak Japanese, that I was trying to get to Akihabara and needed their help. All of that was conveyed simply by using a single word and context.

I was thinking about this on the subway when a lady entered the train, and sank into her seat, fanning herself. I’m not sure what the exact temperature was in centigrade, but I think the technical term for the temperature in Japan in the July is “the temperature the Nelly was rapping about in Hot in Herre.” The subway cars are air conditioned and she closed her eyes, relishing the AC. She caught me watching her do this and made a face at me like “it’s so hot out there, don’t you love this AC?!” and smiled. I nodded, conveying, “Oh YAS girl tell me about it, I’m a sweat monster myself, and I might just ride the subway out as far as it will go just to avoid the heat,” and she tilted her head back and smiled, shaking her head slightly. But we didn’t use any words, no sounds. But I know that’s what she was “saying” and she certainly knew what I was “saying.”

I had so many interactions like that, where despite a “language barrier” I was able to communicate very clearly with people, and they with me. And it’s sort of….the most wonderful, amazing, fantastic reminder that language is not communication, and that it is a choice to regard things as barriers, that we can carry on wordlessly, a whole subway car full of people silently spilling their guts.

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