Thursday, August 23, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.1

Well, I said I'd come out of retirement for my now-customary rundown of the year's personal highlights, so here I am.

I should warn you right now that this list will be quite Amber-heavy. I shall endeavour to keep the mushiness to an absolute minimum, but I fear it may still end up being the kind of document that would make the celibate Zen-master me of 2009 want to punch the current me in the face. So, please have your sick bags and insulin at the ready, and let's go!

10. Shirabu Onsen ryokan, February
As I sit here in the 30 degree evening heat, it's hard to imagine the metres of snow that blanketed southern Yamagata for this weekend of wintry revelry. On the friday night a large group of us converged on the Yonezawa snow lantern festival. I wasn't in the best of moods due to: a mysterious ache in my little toe, one member of the party's annoying religious taboos, Amber's whining about the state of my house, Amber's challenging dietary requirements (a perennial irritation), and Amber's negligent approach to forward planning. We ended up having one of our more severe fallings out.

The next day everyone went ski-ing / boarding at Tengendai, but I sat it out due to my aforementioned foot issue. To this day I have no idea what that was all about. I rendezvoused with the group and we checked into a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) in a little onsen village high in the mountains. We had time for a quick bathe before dinner. An outdoor pool, surrounded by walls of snow taller than me, on a still winter's night - onsen experiences don't get much better than that. My only complaint was that it was single sex, so I couldn't share the moment with Amber (who was, thankfully, speaking to me again by this point).

We donned our yukata and took our places in the dining room. Actually, I donned my new samue - how many opportunities would I get to wear the thing? Ryokans seem to pride themselves on just how complex they can make a meal, and they didn't let themselves down with dinner: a bewildering but mostly delicious selection of seafood, pickles, and mountain vegetables; some raw, some cooked, and some transitioning between those states before our eyes thanks to individual candle-powered rudimentary stoves.

Eventually we retired to the biggest room we had access to for an evening of drinking games. With our inside knowledge of each other's embarrassing secrets, Amber and I ended up in an amusing kind of mutually assured destruction ("Never have I ever shat myself in the last year"). As the game wound down, we got wind that there was a small private 'family' onsen on the premises, which some of the other couples had been using for some more intimate bathing, so Amber and I ended the night with a drunken bath.

9. Sokendai interview, December
Sitting on the shink in my suit on a friday morning, on my way down to the Tokyo area for a 3pm job interview, I was obviously quite nervous. But given my prodigious capacity for stress, I was actually remarkably calm. I didn't even fret over the content of the 45 min talk I was about to give, my first scientific presentation in well over two years. Perhaps had I fully grasped that I wasn't applying for a postdoc, but rather a faculty position, I would have been somewhat more anxious.

I arrived with loads of time to spare, so I paced edgily around the chilly, overcast campus for a while, receiving good luck messages from various friends. A particularly cute bit of well-wishing from Amber brought a lump to my throat. Around 2:30 I headed in, meeting my boss for the first time. We chatted briefly (including a little in Japanese, as a test) before he left me to set up for my seminar.

My presentation went smoothly, and none of the questions at the end gave me any serious problems. I surprised myself at one point by sketching a circuit diagram on the whiteboard; after two years of mental atrophe, apparently I still had it. Then it was time for the private interview section. I didn't attempt to bullshit at all: yes, I only have one respectable publication. No, I don't have any more publishable data in my locker. No, I don't have a strong background in biology. Yes, I reckon I could build my own experimental rig.

When it was over, I felt euphoric. Of course, a large part of this was just the relief of having got through it, but I also felt I could hold my head high in the knowledge that I had given it my best shot. I was thinking these things as I walked down the hill from the institute to the bus stop, at which point I looked out across Sagami Bay and saw a truly majestic sunset over Mt Fuji. The mist of the afternoon had acted as Mother Nature's spoiler alert to ensure my optimal enjoyment of this breathtakingly beautiful vista. I'm not a spiritual man, but I was very tempted to see this as a sign.

On the train back home I treated myself to a posh bento, which I only realised was self-heating as I polished off the last few morsels of rice and noticed the unaccounted-for volume and mass of the chemical pack under the bottom of the tray. I washed this down with beer, sake, and whisky, leading me to rebrand the vehicle a drinkansen.

8. Takamatsu, April
Amber's parents came to visit around Golden Week this spring. As part of her ongoing mission to visit all 47 prefectures of Japan, she decided to take them on a tour of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands. I tagged along for a couple of days.

The day I've selected was my third and final day with the Mezbourians, so I was over the initial stress of meeting the parents. I think I'd been reasonably charming, even when Amber deliberately tried to sabotage me by steering the conversation to politics. (Her mum is a local politician; I'm an anarcho-capitalist.) I did however seem to lose points for being "afraid" of pigeons, i.e. not wanting to have the filthy vermin perching on my limbs.

Anyway! The destination for the morning was Yashima, a small coastal mountain with a shrine at its summit. The shrine's gimmick was tanuki - the place was full of idols of the supposedly magical raccoon-like creatures. I'd introduced Mr and Mrs M to geocaching earlier in the weekend, and they'd really taken to it, so I was pleased to find a cache within the temple complex. It led us to a kind of terrace with a sharp drop overlooking the city. This place, the cache information told us, was the venue for a quaint custom whereby one would purchase a stack of brittle clay disks and hurl them over the cliff edge. It was only once we'd exhausted our arsenal that we walked along a little further and found a special clay-tossing zone marked out, complete with hoops to aim for. Oops.

Next on the agenda was an open-air museum at the bottom of the mountain, where historical buildings from all over Shikoku had been dismantled and reconstructed into a (probably very anachronistic) village. As I've mentioned many times on this blog, I find it very difficult to get excited about history. But this place captured my imagination in a way that countless other museums have failed to. Actually walking around the buildings and touching the millstones and soy... um... flagons? brought it home to me that this was actually how people lived just a couple of centuries ago, and gave me some real respect for their industriousness. Papa Mezbourian is a retired engineer, and I feel I bonded with him by puzzling over the workings of various contraptions. The sugar cane press was a highlight.

Takamatsu is famed for its udon (thick wheat noodles), which we hadn't yet sampled, so we rectified that situation at lunch. Amber's dad, being a northern gentleman of a certain age, has quite a no-nonsense approach to food, so I was a little concerned about how he would take to the noodly broth. The previous night I'd taken them to a fairly fancy sushi place, where he'd declared that he wouldn't eat any raw fish, and didn't fancy any grilled eel either, thank you very much. His fairer half, meanwhile, was relishing the experience of taking her life in her hands with the fugu (blowfish) sashimi platter. I eventually got him sorted out with some cooked scallops.

But there was no need to worry on this occasion. Although he eschewed the dashi (on account of it smelling like "wet dog"), he seemed to enjoy the starchy stodge of the udon and pronounced it delicious. Job's a good 'un.

Stay tuned, I can see this being a four-parter.


  1. I told you your work was first class, Finlay. Glad to see things are working out for you. Congrats on the new job, I'm sure it will be awesome. Look me up if you're ever coming over to oz.


    1. Thanks, that means a lot to me.

      So you're back in Australia now? What are you up to these days?

    2. Many things! We quit the UK though, and decided on changing everything in one go. So, I've become an apple farmer and daddy all in the same year. I've seen if I can find an email address for you online and give you an update.