Archive for Japan

For the sake of a seminar..

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 17, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post while I drink my morning coffee. Yesterday afternoon I gave a seminar here in the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute at Nagoya University. It was actually at 5pm; I almost made a mistake when I saw it on the the high-tech digital display screen shown here (see top right) because I thought that 16 meant 1600 hours:


Although I’ve got used to the time difference pretty well, I am still struggling to work out what day it is. The 16 stands for 16th January of course…

Anyway, it seemed to go fairly well and was pretty well attended by the students and postdocs as well as faculty. The lecture theatre was extremely well equipped with AV equipment and I got distracted quite often playing with the various gadgets. Also there were two projector screens, side by side, so the audience got my slides in stereo, so to speak.

In case you’re interested, here are the slides from my talk – complete with artistic flourishes:

For the cosmologists among you, the main protagonists here are Naoshi Sugiyama, who has a joint appointment here and at the Kavli Institute in Tokyo, Takahiko Matsubara, and Chiaki Hikage. The latter was a postdoc working with me at Nottingham and Cardiff; he then worked in Princeton before returning to Japan; Chiaki has been my host during my stay here.

After my talk, and a question-and-answer session, the staff treated me to dinner. We had some discussion about where to go during which I mentioned that I’d seen a place called Hamakin, which claimed to be a Japanese-Italian restaurant:


I wasn’t convinced by the concept but it turned out that, although it was a new place, Takahiko had been there before and thought it was very good. We ended up there and, much to my surprise, it was excellent. It was a lot more Japanese than Italian, I have to say, but we did try an interesting take on pizza with cod roe as part of the topping. They had an English menu, with some curious choices of English words. I wasn’t really tempted by “Economic Steak”, and “Cod Ovum” suggested, by use of the Latin singular of “egg”, an extremely small portion. I still don’t know what “pastured chicken” is, either.

As a special treat some sake from a bamboo container was served for me in a bamboo cup; the bamboo is supposed to make it taste nicer but I wasn’t able to discern a difference between the special sake and normal sake. I clearly don’t have a sufficiently cultivated palate. Apologies for the pun in the title of the post too!

Today, Friday, is the last working day of my visit so I’d better get on and finish what I’m here to do because there’s another seminar this afternoon which I’d like to attend. Tomorrow, if I can get myself organized, I might take a trip on the bullet train for a day’s sightseeing in Kyoto, which I am told is a must-see city.


Home-thoughts from Abroad

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on January 15, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am, about half-way through my trip to Japan and more-or-less getting the hang of life here. I have to admit that when I was a bit apprehensive ahead of my arrival because various friends back home had warned me that everyday things, particularly food, would be quite difficult to get used to in such a different culture; one even advised me to put plenty of sachets of Cup-a-Soup in my luggage in case I couldn’t find anything edible. As it turns out I’ve taken to the food rather well. First night here we had a traditional meal with various forms of Sashimi, which I liked very much indeed. At the weekend I went to a different kind of traditional eating-place and ate a hearty and very filling lunch of roast pork. The staff and other diners at this second place were quite surprised to see a European person there; they were impeccably polite, but clearly found it hilarious to see a middle-aged man struggling so much with his chopsticks. It occurred to me that they probably thought that only a barbarian could be such a messy eater. The food, however, was delicious.

Being conspicuous is something I’ve had to get used to. Although Nagoya is quite a large city, it’s not really a prime tourist location and there are not many Europeans to be found. There are numerous shops and eating places on the Nagoya University campus in which the clientele is overwhelmingly local; I always feel that I stick out like a sore thumb when I walk in. I can’t read a word of Japanese either, which means I have to point at the menu and hope that there are no options because that would require a question to be asked and answered. Today at lunch in one of the University Dining Halls I didn’t know how to answer a question and ended up with a side order of chips by default. They probably assumed that’s what I wanted, but in fact I’d have been happy trying something a little more exotic.

People don’t seem to eat any kind of dessert here, at either lunch or dinner. There are several pleasant coffee bars that serve good quality coffee near us, and there’s also a Starbucks. Also, people never tip in restaurants: you pay at the door on the way out, rather than at the table.

Supermarkets are interesting too. Most products have only Japanese writing on them so guesswork is often involved in figuring out the ingredients. Only rarely is there any English writing. Sometimes there’s a picture, but it doesn’t always help. I bought a bag of crisps the other day but had no idea what flavour they would be. After eating them I still haven’t a clue. Tasty though.

A small convenience store near the department sells pastries and the like so that’s what I’m having for breakfast these days. There’s a small water boiler in my room so I can make tea or (instant) coffee there; green tea is provided in the room. I bought some allegedly English (“black”) tea in a supermarket the other day, but sadly it turned out to be revolting. Perhaps I’ll bring it home with me and give it to someone I don’t like.

Generally food is pretty cheap: you can get a substantial meal in a reasonable restaurant for less than the equivalent of £10; items in supermarkets where I’ve been able to make a comparison are about 2/3 of the price you would pay in Britain. Come to think of it that’s probably less to do with Japan being cheap and more to do with Britain being expensive.


Selfie, with Yukata

Among the items provided in my room is a Yukata, a simple cotton robe with wide sleeves worn with an obi (belt). I decided to try mine on and the result is shown on the left. Unfortunately I broke the symmetry incorrectly: one is supposed to wrap the left side over the right, whereas I did it right over left. The way I did it is apparently the way a body is dressed for burial. At least it looks right correct in the mirror.

Incidentally, the Japanese also drive on the right side of the road, ie the left.

The Yukata is extremely comfortable, and is often worn outdoors during the summer months or so I’m told. It’s too chilly in Nagoya at this time of year to go out wearing one, but it’s fine for indoors.
And before you ask, that’s not a telephone by the mirror but a hair-dryer…

During the days I’ve been busy getting on with work as well as talking a very great deal with some of the Doctoral and Masters students here at the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute about their work. I think they relished the chance to practice speaking English as much as to get my input into the science. Anyway, the topics are very wide-ranging: higher-order perturbations to the Boltzmann Equation, analysis of Hα galaxy surveys, weak lensing in modified gravity theories, primordial magnetic fields, luminous red galaxies in clusters, analysis of 21cm surveys, etc.


A strange thought struck me walking to the office this morning. To me Japan is a foreign culture and I can’t speak a word of the language but, despite all that, I find it much easier to imagine living here than, say, America (where I can at least speak a similar language to the locals).  I’m not sure that this makes sense in terms of an explanation, but Japan seems to be a country that probably makes a lot of sense once you come to terms with it. I’m not saying that I want to move here, just that I feel a lot less alien here than I expected, and a lot less alien than I do in places much closer to home.

The Flowers of January

Posted in Art, Biographical, History with tags , , , , on January 12, 2014 by telescoper

Today’s tourist itinerary  took me first to the Tokugawa Art Museum, which contains family treasures from the Owari Tokugawa family, one of the families from which the Shogun was chosen during the Edo period (which lasted from 1603 until 1867 and is sometimes called the Tokugawa period). The collection is magnificent, comprising arms and armour of the elite Samurai warriors as well as art, garments, furniture, and household objects of the period, all made to a standard befitting a Japanese noble family. The highlight for me was the wonderful display of maps and books illustrated with exquisite ink drawings. What struck me most is how stable was the general form of artistic expression in the period covered by the museum, in contrast with what you would find in a European collection over a similar timescale. Japan was very much a closed country during the Edo period  and consequently did not experience foreign influences on its culture in the same way as Britain did in the 17th-19th centuries.

The Tokugawa Art Museum is adjacent to the Tokugawaen, a formal Japanese garden originally built in 1695. January is probably not the best time to visit this place – the numerous cherry trees must look beautiful when covered in blossom – but I was quite surprised to see a significant number of flowering plants even at this time of year.

I’m no botanical expert but these look like Camellias to me:



These are Peonies:

Some of the trees are still wrapped in their winter bamboo coats for protection from the frost:

The lake contains an impressive collection of multi-coloured carp


The Tokugawaen is worth a visit even in the off-season, but I really must find an excuse to come back in April or May when the cherry blossom will be out and, according to the literature handed out to visitors, thousands of Peonies will be in bloom all around the lake. That must look amazing!

Anyway, after that I travelled across town to visit the famous Atsuta Shrine, a holy place for the Shinto religion:


Light was fading and I was already feeling a bit tired, but I did the necessary ritual ablutions, and had a quick look around. Visitors are allowed to make a wish after throwing a coin in the appropriate place, then bowing and clapping twice. I wished for a beer, and lo and behold on the way home I found a bar in which my wish was granted!

Out and about in Nagoya

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , on January 11, 2014 by telescoper

I spent an enjoyable morning wandering about Nagoya, so I thought I’d post a few pictures before settling down to do some work (which is, after all, what I’m here for…)

First off, here’s the place I am officially visiting. This is the central building of the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, the top two floors of which comprise the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute, which covers particle physics and astrophysics.


I’ll be giving a talk there next week, in fact. I’m staying on the campus about 5 minutes’ walk away from this building in a pleasant guest room in the Green Salon Higashiyama which is not green and is not a hairdresser’s shop.

The nearest Metro station is a very short walk from the Department building and the first thing I discovered when I entered was surprising evidence that the Japanese have an interest in cricket:


Given that I posted a picture of the place before embarking on my travels I decided to visit Nagoya Castle. This enormous complex of buildings and fortifications was constructed in the early 17th Century, but a visit by American B29 bombers on 18th May 1945 dropping thousands of incendiary bombs destroyed everything except the massive stone walls; the other buildings were made of wood and would have burned easily in such an attack. At the time the Castle was being used as an army base, so it was inevitable that it would be a target.

The perimeter of the Castle is defined by massive stone walls surround by a wide moat. Similar stone fortifications surround the central buildings and the only approach to the centre of the Castle by water is surrounded on both sides by similarly formidable structures from which missiles would no doubt rain down on unwelcome visitors. The central buildings are also ringed by a deep ditch which was clearly designed to be flooded when necessary; today there are deer grazing at the bottom of it.

The two main keeps or donjons of the castle have been reconstructed and now house very interesting museums containing not only military artefacts but also lovely screen prints and pieces of furniture from the Edo period, during which the castle was constructed.

Here are a few pictures just to prove that I was there!

One of the smaller buildings inside the perimeter of the Castle:


Approaching the main keep:


Entrance to the main keep:


Main keep, with walls and ditch..


This is the view from the gallery at the top…

From Nagoya

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on January 10, 2014 by telescoper

So, my first ever trip to Japan has started pretty well. The flight via Frankfurt arrived on schedule and I arrived with all the luggage I was supposed to have too! I didn’t get any sleep on the long flight from Frankfurt to Nagoya, but then I never seem to manage to drop off on aircraft. I was quite jealous of the lady next to me, actually, as she slept soundly for most of the journey.

Here I am, then. It’s mid-afternoon local time but ridiculously early morning on my body clock. Travelling West to East is always more difficult, I think. Going the other way you can usually sleep off the jet lag pretty quickly, but going East-West and arriving in the morning (local time) means you’ve basically lost a night’s sleep. On a trip to Shanghai years ago I was in a similar situation, arriving at the airport in mid-morning to be met with a welcoming committee and taken to a very big lunch (complete with beer). When this was over, around 3.30 in the afternoon, my hosts suggested that I must be tired and took me to my hotel. No sooner had I unpacked my bags and put my feet up than I fell sound asleep; I didn’t wake up until midnight. So it was that I remained completely out of kilter with the time zones. It took most of my stay in China to get adjusted. I thus learned the hard way that if you want to deal successfully with the problem of jetlag then you have to stay awake as long as possible on the day you arrive…

I must seem like a complete wimp to those observational astronomers who not only go jet-setting around the world but also climb up and down mountains to get to observatories perched on their summit as well as working all night rather than day once they’ve got there.  How they manage to cope with all that and remain (relatively) compos mentis when they arrive back at their day job is beyond me.

Anyway, despite lack of sleep the flight wasn’t too bad. I was impressed by the collection of classical music and jazz available on the in-flight entertainment system offered by Lufthansa, and there were even some decent movies on offer. I managed to see the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, which I quite enjoyed though I found some of the set-pieces far too drawn out. I also watched, for the first time in ages, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

First impression of Nagoya is that it’s basically an industrial city. My hosts tell me that the city was very heavily bombed during WW2 because of the important factories in the area. The campus at Nagoya University where I’m staying is fairly small but facilities seem pretty good. I’m looking forward to doing a bit of exploring at the weekend, when hopefully I’ll find some interesting historical buildings!

I was a bit worried about how well I would manage without being able to speak (or read) any Japanese. There are challenges, but the excellent Metro system is actually quite well signposted in English so I’m not anticipating too many problems sightseeing. Buying food might be another matter!

Better draw this rambling post to a close. Hopefully my brain will be up to writing something more substantial tomorrow..

The Day the Earth Didn’t Stand Still..

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 19, 2011 by telescoper

I just came across this amazing visualisation of the recent Earthquake in Japan, created using GPS readings from a network called GEONET. The video shows the horizontal (left) and vertical (right) displacements recorded when the Earthquake struck. For more information and images, see here.



Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by telescoper

I haven’t commented so far on the crisis engulfing Japan after last Friday’s devastating earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. I can assure you that it’s not because I don’t care, it’s just that it’s hard to see how simply adding to the blizzard of words can do anything to help the Japanese people meet the immense challenges ahead. I’ve also wanted to make sure that everyone I know who’s actually in Japan at the moment was safe before I felt comfortable about writing anything.

The first thing I want to do is to express deep condolences to anyone who has lost relatives or loved ones in the disaster. Catastrophes such as this, coming out of the blue, must be extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with. My thoughts are with everyone struggling to provide assistance to those still suffering in the aftermath. It’s important to express compassion and humanity at times like this, especially when so many others seem anxious to do the opposite. An even better way of distancing yourself from the revolting pondlife that lives at the bottom of the internet is to donate to the relief effort. There are various ways to do this, but a good one is via the Red Cross.

One of the thing’s that has disturbed me most about the way the media (at least here in the UK) have behaved the aftermath of the earthquake is that they have focussed almost exclusively on the state of the nuclear power station at Fukushima. I’m not saying that this isn’t newsworthy, but it’s certainly not the only thing in Japan that merits coverage. Half a million people are homeless, many of them in freezing conditions, needing food and medicine, and emergency repairs will need to be carried out over a large part of the country. I think it’s disrespectful to all those caught up in the wider catastrophe to be so fixated on Fukushima.

Moreover, much of the press coverage of the Fukushima situation has been at best ill-informed and at worst scaremongeringly hysterical. I suppose that’s the sort of stuff that sells newspapers. It hasn’t helped that accurate information has been hard to come by – speculation always follows when that’s the case. Nevertheless, not to put too fine a point on it, I think we should all be concentrating on doing whatever we can to help the victims of the earthquake, instead of jerking off over the prospect of a nuclear catastrophe.

I’ve reblogged a much calmer account written by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, which might help calm some fears.

Situation at the Fukushima Plant, 16/3/2011

Hopefully the situation will be contained before long, but whatever eventually happens at Fukushima it’s clear that there will now be hugely increased political opposition to further investment in nuclear (fission) power around the world. Indeed, the German government has already overreacted in bizarre fashion by shutting down existing reactors. One can certainly question the Japanese decision to build reactors so close to a major fault zone, but I can’t see any justification for German panic because the events in Japan over the last few weeks can’t possibly be repeated in Germany.

I have to admit that although I don’t fear nuclear power, I’ve never thought of the fission reactor as anything other than a stop-gap. I’d personally like to see much higher investment in long-term renewable energy sources and on fusion power, and rather less on fission reactors. We also need to learn to use less fuel, especially petrol. I don’t understand it’s so unthinkable to so many people, but I’ve never had a car fetish.

The loss of capacity from its nuclear reactors is going to be a major factor for Japan for some considerable time. Before the earthquake, Japan relied on nuclear energy for almost 30% of its electricity generation. Even if there were both the political will and the financial resources available to rebuild and restart nuclear power facilities – both of which are highly unlikely – it would take many years to restore the losses. Japan is not blessed with rich fossil fuel reserves, and it is unlikely that renewable energy can make up much of the shortfall. It seems to me, therefore, that Japan has no alternative but to cut its power consumption by a significant fraction for some considerable time. It’s going to be tough to achieve that, but they have no choice; just as much of the rest of the world will have no choice when the oil and gas runs out a few decades from now.

Alongside the critical question of how Japan will power itself in the short to medium term, there is also the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure so comprehensively destroyed by the tsunami. Estimates of the cost of this are well over £100 billion. Moreover, Japan’s economy was struggling with a very high level of per capita debt even before this blow. Likely power cuts and short-time working will not make it easy to rebuild the country.

The full impact of the Japanese disaster on the rest of the world is difficult to assess, but it’s not impossible that it may precipitate another global financial crisis.

Put all this together and it’s hard not to disagree with the Emperor of Japan who is reported to be “deeply worried”. I think we all are. But worrying won’t help anyone. Crises like this have a habit of bringing out the best in certain people, and although the forthcoming months and years will severely test the resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese people, I hope and believe that they will pull through. And teach the rest of us a few things on the way…