Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The primate psychedelic reel

Back in the day, when I worked at King's Buildings, Danny and I devised a plan to help motivate ourselves to work on our respective PhDs. We would arrange to meet on the corner between our flats at 9am sharp, and then walk to uni together. The intention was that we would put in a honest morning's work, rather than rolling in at half ten and spending the first hour checking email and reading news, as both of us were prone to do. We called these morning meet-ups 'powerstarts'.

How things have changed. 9am now seems disgracefully pedestrian to me, as I have to be at school by 8:20 every day. But yesterday I had a start that threatened to set the rice paddies ablaze with its raw power. You see, on sunday night I was drinking with Marie et al, and one of the al is the wife of the local Buddhist priest. She mentioned that their temple was hosting the Rotary Club (a different one to the one I've been hanging out with - Nanyo appartenly has at least two) for a special morning zazen (Zen meditation) session. Knowing that I was interested in Zen, she asked me if I would like to go to. Possibly against my better judgement, I accepted the invitation. Thus, I awoke at 5:40, to be at the temple for 6:30.

First we had a spartan Buddhist (i.e. vegetarian) breakfast of okayu (watery rice porridge) and tsukemono (pickles), including umeboshi (pickled plum). Allow me to go on a quick umeboshi digression. This breathtakingly sour plum has a reputation second only to natto for troubling foreigners. It's taken me a while to get used to the squishy pink fruit, but I now quite enjoy it. Popping in an umeboshi is the perfect way to enliven an otherwise boring glass of shouchuu (rice spirit). The thing is, you have to be mentally prepared for umeboshi. If you're chomping on a riceball that you believe to contain salmon, then hit an unexpected umeboshi, it can be quite a shock, rather like the time I mistook cullen skink for white chocolate mousse.

Breakfast over, some obligatory speeches were made, and the priest explained what to do. Obviously I didn't understand much of this, but having done zazen before I felt confident that I knew the drill. Actually, this was a very non-threatening context to meditate in, since the guests were all businessmen rather than trained Buddhists. Despite the language barrier, I felt that I probably had a firmer grasp of what was going on than most in the room. We only had time for about about five minutes of actual zazen, which really isn't enough - it usually takes about twice that for my mind to get anywhere near settled. The priest said that he normally does eighty minutes of a morning, which is an impressively long time to do absolutely nothing.

Ok, let's backtrack to the weekend. A dozen gaijin form Yamagata (actually, 11 and a Japanese girlfriend) decided to take a trip to Fukushima City, the capital of Fukushima, which is one of the four prefectures neighbouring ours. As I said before, it's not far away, but it seems distant because between here and there lies a formidable mountain range. Driving there I seemed to spend about as much time in tunnels as out of them. First on the agenda was a trip to Round One, a kind of adult playground. By this I don't mean that it was filled with S&M gear, but rather that it was essentially a warehouse packed with all manner of sports, games and entertainment for you to play. Highlights for me included:
  • Inline skating. Whenever I don protective gear I throw caution directly into the wind, so despite having negligible skating ability I was charging around aggressively, several times eating wall with considerable velocity but always getting back on my feet laughing.
  • Baseball. Being British, I had never swung a baseball bat in my life. Here they had those machines that fire balls at you, like in the movies. Even at the slowest setting, I found it a real struggle.
  • Bucking bronco. This was sufficiently tame that boredom, as opposed to the robo-bull's gyrations, was the real limiting factor to one's stint in the saddle. I attempted to up the ante by riding it backwards, a position which looked at least three times as obscene, but my reverse-cowboy antics were swiftly shut down by a vigilant attendant.
  • One-man table tennis. Inside a cell made of netting (there were a lot of those in this place) a ping-pong table was set up, with another machine firing an ever-quickening barrage of balls at you. The opposite half of the table was split into sixteen squares kitted out with LEDs and sensors. When a square lit up, you had to hit it, just like Whac-a-mole. This was incredibly addictive, and around 60% more fun than actual table tennis.
  • Free arcade machines. Arcades are pretty popular in Japan, so I find myself in them quite frequently. I've noticed that most of my gaijin buddies favour the shooting games, but not me. I'm very much a rhythm games man. The king of arcade rhythm games is of course Dance Dance Revolution, and on this particular machine I was delighted to find a cheesy J-pop reworking of My Favourite Things. That's the second weird cover of My Favourite Things I've encountered in the space of a month.
  • Kids' area. This was set up as two well-padded forts, with hundreds of little foam balls lying around. So far, so Codona's. But these forts had weapons, namely cannons, into which you fed the balls before propelling them out with a burst of compressed air at the slap of a button. Trying to hit the opposing gunners while dodging their salvos was, I'm pretty sure, more fun than any adventure playground of my childhood.

There were also tiny electric bikes you could race, but unfortunately I had to sit that one out because I weigh more than 80kg. Comfortably the oddest thing I witnessed was the fishing corner, where there was a circular pool maybe 3m in diameter, into which a lone old man was solemnly dangling a crappy plastic rod. I found it strangely heartbreaking. Judging by the organic bait, I think the fish were, unlike the bull, real. However, I didn't see any fish in the two minutes I watched.

For us gaijin living in the inaka (countryside), any trip to a big city is a golden opportunity to eat food that isn't Japanese. Dinner that night was Mexican. The food was very tasty, but the place was jumping and the waiting and/or kitchen staff seemed to be struggling to keep up. Anything we ordered had a roughly 70% chance of arriving. The make-your-own tacos in particular were a logistical nightmare due to their numerous components. Then duplicate items started appearing, as stuff which we had presumed forgotten turned out just to be horrendously delayed. I identified that there was virtually no chance of the bill being correct, and was preparing myself for a painful dispute over renumeration. While I was right about the inaccuracy, fortunately it had gone in our favour, and I ended up paying about 12 quid for a big bowl of 'taco rice', a beef enchilada, a tequila, a margarita, and one-sixth of a copious raft of appetisers. I felt more than a little guilty, but couldn't face trying to explain the mistake in Japanese.

It is interesting to see the Japanese interpretation of foreign food. My aforementioned taco rice is a case in point. The Japanese love a rice bowl - rice topped with beef and onion is gyuudon, with curry sauce is kareeraisu, and with raw fish is chirashizushi. Taco rice, it turns out, is a bowl of rice topped with chili beef, cheese, salsa, and - unexpectly - a fried egg. I have long contended that any hot savoury dish can be enhanced by adding a fried egg. Though inauthentic, it was filling and delicious; I approve heartily.

After the Mexican we went for a late-night karaoke session, eventually getting back to our hotel around half two. The next morning I took a stroll around Fukushima, which seemed like a nice place, but then most places do under a cloudless summer sky. Something seemed not quite right but I couldn't put my finger on it, until I realised that I had virtually no shadow. Approaching noon in Japan in June, the sun is almost directly overhead - an unusual phenomenon for a Scot.

We didn't squander the opportunity to have more foreign cuisine at lunch, enjoying a tasty and reasonable Indian buffet. After that we went our separate ways. Because it was such a beautiful day, I decided to take the spaghetti-like mountain road back, instead of the more practical tunnel-fest of the previous day. First I encountered a dam which was striking enough that I decided to park the car and check it out. (I currently lack the facility to extract photos from my camera, so you'll have to rely on my turgid prose for now.) After this the road became very silly indeed, just a single track barely clinging to a forested mountainside. Rounding one of many sharp, blind bends, I was astonished to see a group of three or four Japanese macaques gambolling across the road not ten metres in front of me. I quickly pulled over, killed the stereo and hit the hazards, but the monkeys had scarpered into the forest, the shaking treetops being the only indication of their existence. I later spotted some more further along the road.

I had known that there were wild monkeys around these parts - there are road signs warning of them, and at the dam earlier in the day there were signs instructing you not to feed them. I had never seen any before, leading me to suspect that they were mythical. But no, I can confirm the primates are genuine. I was/am really excited about this, and told anyone who would listen at school the next day. They didn't share my enthusiasm - it was like my first earthquake all over again. I suppose if someone was waxing lyrical about seeing a deer in the Scottish Highlands you would think them a little foolish.

The border between Yamagata and Fukushima - at the summit of a mountain pass - was the second time I was moved to disembark my vehicle by the sheer beauty of my surroundings. To the west was the rice-covered basin I call home, to the east a steep-sided leafy valley stretching into the distance. I continually surprise myself with how much I love the mountains. Fetching though Scotland's mountains are, they have all been worn down and smoothed off as the result of being buried for aeons under incomprehensible masses of ice. The mountains around here have not been mellowed in this way, and thus thrust up from the surrounding terrain at gradients that seem, to my eyes at least, frankly implausible. These conical volcanic peaks are like a children's drawings of mountains, beautiful in their simplicity.

To a scientist like myself, I am struck with the irrationality of being happy at the mere existence of mounds of inanimate rock. But what can I say? Cheesy though it sounds, just looking up at the mountains that permanently ring my horizon is enough to lift my spirits whenever I'm feeling down.


  1. Hearing about your travels gives me a real sense of anticipation for our holiday.
    Interestingly, I spent some time thinking about why (from an evolutionary perspective) grand views and mountains are so attractive to us. Best I could come up with is that it might be linked to our nomadic ancestry (that large empty spaces represent potentially bountiful hunting and gathering grounds and so came to have associated feelings).

  2. Adam: In the time-honoured tradition of evolutionary psychology, I'd like to offer some lazy, unscientific, unfalsifiable speculation on this question. Firstly, I think viewpoints have fairly clear survival benefits. If you can see for miles, you are able to scope out food shelter, water, etc., as well as having plenty of warning of potential threats.

    Secondly, I think environments that promote hassle-free survival tend to look beautiful. We like looking at lush greenery, flowers and fruit. Water features are nice too. I suspect this is also why one feels automatically cheerful when the sun is shining - you don't have to worry about procuring the energy to stay warm, and you know (or rather, your genome 'knows') that all the plants around you are busy converting the sunlight into sugar for you to eat at your leisure.

    However, this doesn't explain why I find some decidely hostile environments beautiful. A frozen landscape covered in three feet of snow would not be good news for a nomadic hunter-gatherer, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. To explain this, I think we have to bring in novelty. We are drawn towards situations that we don't often see, because they represent valuable learning opportunities. In machine learning, it makes sense to pay more attention to the outliers that you don't have much experience of, rather than the scenarios that occur every day. Thus, we have evolved to enjoy occasions when the sky is crimson rather than its more customary blue, grey, or black; and I love the Japanese mountains whose steepness falls outside of my training set of glaciated landscapes.

  3. Interesting theories, not sure I entirely agree but we can debate it atop a Japanese peak over a cup of green tea in a month or so.
    Also, clearly it's the unscientific, waffly, 'I reckon'ness of evolutionary psychology that makes it so fun!

  4. I think it's just because you love 'The sound of music'.

  5. Im excited about the monkeys!!! Also, I have noticed since raising my very own psychology subject that new faces and things he has less experience of are definitely smile inducing. Think of how happy he will be to meet his uncle Finlay!
    Happy belated birthday by the way, I have been useless. Seriously jealous of the holiday makers but plan on sending you a little reminder of home with Graham, any requests? Haggis? Fajita mix? macaroni pie?

  6. If there was any way you could get a macaroni pie here intact, that would be amazing! I think the Japanese might enjoy the carb/carb combo; after all, one can walk into any convenience store here and buy a noodle sandwich.

    Haggis would be great - I've exhausted my supplies. Other than that, it's just boringly functional things I need, like Nytol and fluoride toothpaste. Japanese toothpaste is wack.