Hello CHME friends, faculty, and students,
Yoi otoshi wo![Merry Christmas!] [Have a Happy New Year!]
The holiday season is in full effect here in Japan. I have been really surprised by how festive everyone gets in preparation for New Years as well as クリスマス (kurismasu). The malls, supermarkets, department stores, and cities are lit up so beautifully with kurismasu displays that are truly amazing. We have noticed this all over Japan. Many places in Tokyo are really colorful at night, and with the extra light displays the city is even more vibrant (see the Shinjuku and Roppongi pictures).
I was surprised to find out that just about all Japanese families love kurismasu and celebrate it fully. The tradition here is to decorate, exchange gifts, eat fried chicken and have cake. I think that Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) gets a ton of buisiness on that day. J
With all of the holiday cheer, the last few weeks have been so nice. We have been spending time with friends and enjoying a few work activities. Some good family friends we have met have taken us to various places like the Aviation Museum to visit the birthplace of aviation in Japan–where there were lots of historic hikooki (airplanes) on display. There was even a small exhibit on Bernoulli describing the fluid mechanics of lift and drag. I will share those pictures with my CHME 305 class in the spring! We also visited the famous Railway Museum showcasing many train engines including Japan’s very first steam engine and shinkansen. Densha and chikatetsu (trains and subways) are incredibly important in Japan. The railway museum was very interactive and had a great history of JR (Japanese Rail). Both of these museums are in Saitama so we went with our friends who were able to drive us.
Driving around the cities here is pretty interesting and not just because Japan follows left side driving. I think it is more interesting because the streets are narrow and shared by cyclists and pedestrians. Most people have small vans and cars and even with all of the commuting by train, many people use cars or bikes to get around the city. This makes the small roads pretty crowded at any given time of the day. Not only that, the city streets are super confusing because every street is narrow, winding, and the neighborhoods look the same. GPS is used to navigate by all drivers, even those who have lived in the same city all of their life. So, luckily our friends have been willing to drive us around and even take us to their homes to enjoy homemade traditional Japanese food like takoyaki (a hot dish of tempura, dough and octopus shaped into small round bites).
When not visiting with friends on weekends, I have been working with Miho’s lab. At the end of November I attended the Annual Conference for the Molecular Biology Society of Japan (see pictures). It was a great meeting, and some of the sessions were in English. I enjoyed walking around the posters. I hadn’t realized that the main journal for this society, which is called “Genes to Cells”, has cover art that always replicates some aspect of molecular biology in traditional Japanese Artistic fashion. For example, the picture shown here represents Japanese acrobats imitating immunoprecipitation using a phosphorylation-specific antibody. Each boy represents, by their body shape, different forms of a substrate protein. There was a large display of cover art dating back the past few years so I captured many pictures of this. Miho and her students presented at this conference and there was a lot of discussion at their posters. I was glad to see that because Kevin and I helped edit their posters to improve the English grammar. The week after that meeting, Kevin and I both presented formal research talks to all of the students in Miho’s seminar class. Later that afternoon she held a group party in our honor. It was fun to sit around with all of the students and have sake, rice crackers, and many other traditional japanese snacks (like dried calamari). It seems like we’ve finally become comfortable at Saitama University and working with the students here, so it is unfortunate to be heading back in only 1 month.
Last week I was also the guest speaker at a university-wide workshop organized by Dr. Satoshi Takahashi, a 2017 Japanese Fulbright recipient. Dr. Takahashi is a faculty member at Saitama University whom I met a few months ago. He organized a session for students, faculty, and the public, which we called: “International Research Collaborations at Saitama University.” I led an interactive discussion about our experiences in Japan and presented on why I’m visiting Saitama. I spoke about the Fulbright program, as well as described my research to the broad audience. We had a packed room! Satoshi said some introductory remarks, and Miho started with a really nice presentation to introduce our collaboration and history as friends and colleagues. Kevin also presented his research in breast cancer. We created a slideshow of pictures from our experiences in Japan and both of us talked about life here. We then fielded questions from the audience. It was a really great discussion because students asked us about differences between Japanese students and US students, about diversity in science, representation of women in engineering, and how education might differ. These topics are so universal and it was refreshing to discuss them with students whereas we have mostly been focusing strctly on research the past several months.
As we wind down our last month here, we have more travel and fun experiences planned. Joaquin, Kaleb, and Kyraluna’s last day at their elementary is Dec 21. They will miss their friends and teachers, who have all been so gracious to us while we spend this past term navigating the complete elementary school experience. Slowly but surely, our Japanese experience is coming to an end!
Well, I hope now that your semester is over you also have some fun planned. Have a great time with your family and friends over the break.
Jessica P. Houston, Ph.D.
Faculty Fulbright Fellow, Japan-US Fulbright