My husband and I have spent many a sabbatical or short stay living in Europe, following the trails of his collaborators in chemistry research over the last 45 years. Our travels as a couple and as a family have all been wonderful and we have loved the life style that has evolved, always returning to our home in the USA. But we'd never been westward further than San Francisco! Tokyo sounded like another world ... and the invitation came just as I was settling into some in-depth travel planning for some important trips that would happen before Tokyo! How could I plan for Tokyo too?? Truth was, my brain was nearly empty when it came to images of Japan, and I'd never been much attracted to the little I knew of the customs and culture of that part of the globe! And what about the language, the key to living in any country?
HOWEVER, the opportunity for my husband sounded terrific! The people we corresponded with at ELSI, all in English, seemed to understand that we needed information, and they were ready to answer our questions, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Our family and friends were excited for us and assured us that it would be great! So I wondered about myself, someone who was always ready for a new adventure! Why was I hesitant? Wasn't this another adventure that we should pursue? Eventually, I remembered that the key element in past travels was always "the people" who made the difference. It was not the housing (what was this International House?), or the food (I wasn't fond of fish and wasn't sure I would enjoy Japanese cuisine) ... it was always the people ... and the ELSI folks were all very helpful. At last, the fog cleared and we decided that Al would accept the invitation and we were sure that I would also find my way. Now, having spent two months as part of the ELSI community, we know for sure that it was the right decision! It was a memorable and meaningful experience for BOTH of us, professionally and personally. Perhaps others who might be considering coming to ... Tokyo! ... would be interested in a few more details of our experience.
Upon our arrival, Kyoko Akiyama and Ayame Okuyama from the ELSI Origins Network (EON) office very cheerfully and warmly (in the pouring rain!) met us at ELSI's door, helped us gather all our luggage and walked us to our new home at the International House (IH), just a few minutes away! They stayed with us as we were checked in and made us feel very welcome! We immediately received much valuable information, including a map of all the restaurants in the immediate area so we could find dinner! Eric Smith who was central in setting up Al's visit soon showed up at our door with more information for Al about those he would be working with, as well as leading us through other details of our new life. He connected our internet and described the train system, pulling up the train maps on our computer! Yes, our assumption was right - it is the people who make the difference - and we were with good people!
ELSI is creating an international community, and they are wise, so they are building the base of the community by making each individual feel at home in the beautiful new building which is ELSI's "home." One way this happens is that they have tea every afternoon at 3 and all are invited and encouraged to attend - including those who are accompanying the scientists - ie., me! On most Fridays, at the end of the day, there is also an ELSI Izakaya, their equivalent to a TGIF party! I quickly felt that I, too, was a part of the community.
And what about the International House (IH) that had been suggested as a place to live? What did we find? No, it wasn't the dingy apartment in an old many storied apartment building that I imagined we might find. It was a pleasant and fully functional apartment with lots of light from large sliding doors on the south (balcony) side, a kitchen with gas stove top, microwave, refrigerator, and the option to borrow previous residents' pots and pans and dishes to more fully equip it! It also had a washing machine! We had a TV with CNN and BBC for the news in English, and the internet. Wifi was available in the nearby central building of the IH and we were set!
The IH apartments also house folks who are visiting other departments across the Tokyo Tech campus, so, if one is interested, one can use this opportunity to meet others who are also away from home. At the side of the campus is a commercial street with groceries, restaurants (Japanese, Chinese, Indian, French, Korean, and Italian), dry cleaning and more! A walk around the neighborhood revealed very interesting homes and a lovely little lake and park. We had all we needed!
As the first weekend approached, we had identified the area of Tokyo we wanted to visit, but we had to figure out transportation on the trains! In some ways, the trains were the biggest challenge of our stay, as there are so many trains and so many people, as you may have read in Ramon's recent blog! Here again, the staff at ELSI was at hand to help us to purchase the best train pass for our travels, locate maps, learn some of the codes, and in general learn the system. It takes awhile to feel comfortable, and you certainly learn to keep tuned in to hear and see the English announcements! But with a little preparation on the best way to reach your destination, it all falls in place! This picture is on a Friday night about 10 pm, nearing our neighborhood. People on the trains are always very quiet ... either on their smart phones or sleeping!
The local Ō-Okayama train station, as is true for all stations, is amazingly clean, the trains are on time to the minute, and you never have to wait more than a few minutes! As you can see, there is a lot of information on the signs ... present time, times of train departures, whether they are local or express, the ultimate destination, and more! At this instant, the sign has changed to English for just a few seconds. You have to stay alert!!
Of course, a short term visit like this requires significant planning to prepare for the trip itself, as well as all the preparations in order to leave your home and local obligations. If there had been time to add one more activity before our arrival, it would have been to learn a little of the language. It is definitely limiting to have no ability to read, speak, or understand the spoken language, especially when it is written in characters unknown to you! However, we managed well with no knowledge, but there would have been so much more information available to us with some knowledge of Japanese (especially for the menus!!)
Ultimately, we learned so much about the fascinating culture and history of Japan, saw beautiful and very interesting sights, large and small, significant or "just fun", and interacted with the culture and the people in many different ways. When one takes a break from the exciting work at ELSI, Tokyo and all of Japan are just a train ride away! Though I have no scientific background, it was clear that the scientific collaborations that my husband developed were very productive as he became a part of the ELSI community. In general, we both had an excellent experience and are very glad that we said "Yes" when ELSI called!