Leaving Tokyo: vegetables, electronics, kimono

May 24, 2012

My last night in Tokyo I wound up at dinner with Yuka, Yuki, Yumi, and Salvador (spot the outlier) at my favorite restaurant that Yuki found: 野菜の王様, King of Vegetables, in Hibiya.  We’d visited the other location in January, and I was so excited to see vegetables that we went again.

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Hello from Kokubunji, Tokyo, Japan!

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.

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Jerusalem Journeys

This summer I’m teaching computer science to Palestinian and Israeli high school students in Jerusalem through an MIT-affiliated program called MEET, which stands for Middle Eastern Education through Technology. My computer science skills are rusty at best (though I do understand the larger concepts of abstraction, modularity, testing, and all that good stuff), so building a prototype of the application we want our students to build is going to be a bit of a stretch for me, but we’re not worrying about that right this minute!

We departed from Boston in the early evening on Monday, and Domo-kun came along for the ride.

All buckled in

Arriving in Philadelphia, we met up with a number of other instructors, grabbed food, and prepared for the 11-hour flight to Tel Aviv. Fortunately, US Airways shows you not only where you are, the locations of various seamounts and shipwrecks, but also how fast you’re going (Mach 0.824!). Good things to know during your flight across seven time zones.

Off into the wild blue yonder
Mach 0.824

Our flight path took us right along the terminator line, the boundary between day and night, so for most of the flight Kim and I admired the (almost) perpetual sunset of orange, green, and Prussian blue, and then the long dawn from the edge of the Arctic Circle.

We 15 or so instructors arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday afternoon to find it even more humid and hot than Boston. The road to Jerusalem was lined with olive and cypress trees, and the hills around Jerusalem are all made of a very distinctive white sandstone.  There’s even a city ordinance that all buildings must be made out of the local, cream-colored stone.

Mountains in Jerusalem

The van we’re renting for the summer doesn’t have functioning air conditioning (but it does have an RFID chip that automatically pays for petrol!), so we had a very windy ride up the hill to Jerusalem, which was fortuitously dry, warm (80 or 90˚F, rather than the 115˚F it’d been on Monday), and extremely breezy.

We’re staying in apartment complexes owned by Hebrew University, near Mount Scopus. There are five rooms to a suite, and we all share a kitchen and a bathroom and a half. There are about a dozen buildings in the complex, some with nine floors. Many people have Israeli flags hanging from their windows—would you expect to see anything like that at a university in the US?

Apartment view

The wind rattles the metal window frames in the apartment, making a sound not unlike Jack Wisdom’s writing on a chalkboard. Our rooms are utilitarian, but hey, there’s enough wind so that we don’t have to use the air conditioning, so what more do you need in life?


Clare has some great photographs of what was stocked in the refrigerators when we arrived, and there are some more images of the apartment over here.

We successfully navigated a grocery store last night and returned home with 10 kilos of watermelon (for less than a dollar a pound!), six mangos, and enough chicken and vegetables for a passable stir-fry. The ever wonderful Clare even brought us a cutting board, tupperware, and plastic wrap. Huzzah! Tomorrow might involve raiding the spice vendors’ stalls for something aside from salt to flavor future meals. MEET provides a lot of food for us, but a lot of it is in sandwich form, so I’m going to be doing a ton of cooking. Think I can get quinoa here?

The MEET office is right by the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City, which means cheap (6 NIS; ~3.7 NIS to 1 USD) falafel and all manner of clothes. When I was here in December with Taglit, we went through the more tourist-heavy areas of the Old City, so it’s amazing to see more spice vendors, delis, dress shops, and a larger Arab Muslim population than was near the Zion Gate. One vendor even had a gigantic collection of dried loofah squash! Which reminds me: mom, how is my loofah seedling doing at home?

On that note, here are three questions for you to answer, either via comments or email. Best answers might be featured in the next post!

  1. What’s the strangest/most exciting thing you’ve seen at the market recently?
  2. What’s the lowest price of gas in your neighborhood?
  3. What’s the fastest speed you’ve traveled in the last month?

See you all next time!