A few days after graduation, I wandered into the Japan office of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI). I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of the meeting, but a few weeks later I received an email from an aerodynamics researcher at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA, sort of the Japanese equivalent to NASA) offering me a six-week unpaid internship outside of Tōkyō. I’ll be working on a project that has the ultimate goal of preventing icing on airplanes,which means doing more “fundamental research” into supercold water and luminescent coatings. MISTI generously offered to cover airfare and a small stipend for living; my mom’s friend Sayoko Kinoshita arranged for me to stay with her friend Takako a few train stops away from the JAXA office; and I suddenly found myself trying to read subway signs in Tōkyō and wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into for a month and a half.
Sayoko picked me up at the Haneda airport at 5 am on Thursday when I arrived, then dropped me off at Tōkyō Station so I wouldn’t have to switch trains twice while hauling bags laden with gifts and food. The train system here is easy to navigate for us gajin with limited Japanese reading comprehension: stops are announced in Japanese and English, and the signs are in kanji, hiragana, and English. Reading hiragana, the Japanese syllabary for native words, as well as katakana, the syllabary for words of foreign origin, makes life a lot easier around here. Kanji, on the other hand? My goal is to learn one or two per day in terms of reading and writing, and maybe even the stroke order.
Takako picked me up in her car and we drove to her home in Fujimoto, a neighborhood of Kokubunji City, which is part of the Tōkyō prefecture. The streets are narrow and there are trees everywhere: persimmon, oranges, magnolia, loquat, apple… it’s astoundingly verdant and leafy compared to the dry expanses of Northern California and the Middle East. Alas, figs (and just about most things) are four times more expensive here than they are in Jerusalem or San Francisco or Boston.