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August 16, 2007

Sunrise from the top of Japan

A perfect shadow for a perfect mountain Us at the crater

You are wise to climb Fuji once, but a fool to climb it twice. -- so goes an ancient Japanese saying.

With Mt. Fuji just two hours outside of Tokyo, we felt that it would be best for us to follow such sage advice. With this being our last week in Japan, an ascent up Japan's tallest and most notable peak will be the perfect capstone to our stay. The guidebooks note that you should not be fooled by all the stories of grandmothers striding up to the top -- this is no easy climb. And like everything in Japan, the trail is pretty crowded. We were told that the comraderie that comes with density is all part of the experience, so off we went...

We're happy to report that we made it up all 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) and back safely and effortlessly (well, maybe it did take just a little effort). We climbed above the clouds, stayed in a mountain hut that sells hot ramen all night long, and saw sunrise from the mountain top. Click on the link below to continue reading highlights of our ascent, or click here to take a look through our photos.

Remembering Hiroshima

Dove release Lanterns with Atom Bomb dome

As Americans spending time in Japan, we decided it was important to visit Hiroshima. We were able to visit during the international Peace Festival, which occurs on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. Japan is very serious about its place as the only country upon which an atomic bomb has been dropped, and they hope that the festival gives the entire world the chance to reflect on the impact of atomic weapons. When we arrived at the ceremony, an NHK (the main national broadcasting company) reporter approached Loraine and asked her several questions about what she thought about atomic weapons, and we think she made it onto the national news.

The ceremony featured dignitaries from around Japan, including the mayor of Hiroshima city, the governor of Hiroshima prefecture, the Prime Minister of Japan, and representatives from the United Nations. Along with a few groups of children, each spoke briefly about their goals to preserve world peace. There was a dramatic release of doves, the laying of wreaths, and singing by a choir dressed in white.

We later toured around the museum, which starts off with a relatively balanced look at the decision to drop the atomic bomb, acknowledging the Japanese' strong resistance to surrender that would have caused horrendous loss of life. It then gave a very grim look at the effects in Hiroshima. The most graphic display was a life-size diorama of a family with its melted skin literally dripping off the bodies. We didn't want to look, but one point of the museum is to see these things. I was surprised it was so vivid, considering how many children visited the museum. Though someone pointed out that many of the victims were children.

Hiroshima, a thriving city Hiroshima, after the bombing
Models of before and after the bombing.

They mark the end of the day with a beautiful ceremony where people cast paper lanterns into the river with prayers for peace written on the sides. It's a beautiful sight, done with the destroyed atom bomb dome in the background.

It was an interesting opportunity to reflect on the horrors of war. Unlike the controversial Yasakuni shrine war museum, this was a relatively balanced presentation. There was still a clear message they were trying to convey, but I think it was done in an effective way.

See all our photos from the ceremonies and museums by clicking here.

Way back in January, we decided that we wanted to visit Hiroshima for the anniversary of the atomic bomb dropping in August. When we went to book a hotel, we found that we could barely even find a room 8 months in advance. We ended up booking a single room (rooms designed for one person are common in Japanese hotels), figuring that we could cram two people in if we needed to. Well, when Alex decided to join us, it turned into three people. It was a bit tight. Alex slept on the floor on a blow-up camping mat that we brought along for him. I was able to get an extra pillow and blanket for him by explaining to the front desk staff that I wanted them to practice yoga in my room.

Snow monkey hot springs

Hey, you looking at something?

Alex had read about a place where Japanese snow monkeys frequent a scenic hot spring pool in the Japanese Alps. We loved the idea of trying to find them, and so off we went. We passed through Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics and a colorful Buddhist temple), and then went up into the mountains. We visited the monkeys and then took a hike to the most beautiful mountain marshes and ponds. A gorgeous nature experience, which was a great balance to the lively city life in Tokyo.

To see plenty of cute pictures of monkeys splashing, click here!

Alex in Japan

Alex in Japan

We are so excited that we have been able to host so many visitors during our stay here in Japan. Our latest guest is M's friend from college, Alex. He currently lives in Moscow and is a journalist for the Moscow Times. While he has done some great travel writing, this visit was purely for fun. Stay tuned as we share a few stories about our adventures around Japan together.

August 10, 2007

Neighborhood summer festival

M with Kato-san Us Dancing

We had a very special opportunity to visit my host from the University of Tokyo's house for dinner, and then attend a local neighborhood summer festival.

Kato-san's apartment is 4 rooms, and is probably less square footage than our apartment. He has told me that he lives in Chiba because he can get more space for his son to play than he could in central Tokyo. His commute of 1.25 hours is pretty typical for Tokyo, and their apartment is in beautiful condition. Like about 60% of Tokyo area residents, they own their apartment. Almost nobody can afford a single-family detached home in the city -- they're just too expensive. Kato-san's wife is also a professor, and she works at Chiba University (about a 10-15 minute walk from their apartment). I want to stress how exceedingly rare it is to find a female seismologist in Japan. I think they enjoyed spending time with us because both Loraine and I are scientists like the two of them. They prepared teramaki sushi for us to make for ourselves at the table. It's simple to assemble: just throw fish and rice into a piece of seaweed and consume. We discussed what it was like to live in a foreign country (they lived in the US for 3 years while Kato-san was a postdoc at Brown) and many of the interesting differences between our two countries.

After dinner, we attended a local festival. Held throughout Japan at different points during the summer, "O-bon" festivals have their origin in Buddhism as the day during which the spirits of the dead return to spend time with their families. However, today, it appears to be a lot more like an American style carnival with junk food and carnival-like activities for children. The centerpiece of the event is Japanese style folk dancing. The tunes are supposedly very modern (written postwar and played on a stereo system accompanied by real taiko drummers and other percussion), but the movements are supposedly quite old. They were originally designed to comfort the spirits of the dead. We were encouraged to give the dancing a try, and we did our best to follow the folk-dance movements. It was a great treat to participate in this small, neighborhood festival.

August 3, 2007

Father's Day Sail

iconic Matt and bridge family pose

This is an "old" entry, in that it took place back when we were in the US in June, but better late than never, right? Though we weren't originally planning to visit California, it was nice to be able to spend Father's day with Matt's dad, Jon. We decided to go on a family sail, Jon's favorite activity, and we managed to toss away our cares for awhile and have a wonderful afternoon on the bay. We resolved to go for broke and head straight for the Golden Gate and beyond. This trip is a rough sail on any day, but this was clearly the perfect day to do it. Share the adventure with us here.

August 2, 2007

Tune in...

A few months ago, I led a National Geographic TV crew around Tokyo and told them some about earthquake hazards here. The show airs this coming week, so if you have access to the National Geographic Channel, tune in. I haven't seen it, and I'm worried it's going to be a little too ridiculous. It's an hour long show, and I have no idea how long my brief appearance will be.

Thursday, August 2, 10pm (Eastern or Pacific)
Friday, August 3, 1am
Saturday, August 4, 2pm

It's on Channel 273 for those on ComCast digital cable in Marin. The show is part of the "Naked Science" series (don't worry, I'll be fully clothed -- I have no idea about the name), so check your local listings to confirm the time and the channel.

To get a preview of the program, watch this slideshow here. Be sure to stick around for slide number 7!

Friends in Canada can watch me on Discovery Channel-Canada on August 12 at 9pm Eastern/10pm Pacific. Note that this is not the same as Discovery Channel in the USA.

India Street Scenes

bull view from Jagdish

Even though I was traveling amongst relatively priveleged people and places, India's poverty was apparent in most areas except for a few of the most upper-crust blocks of Mumbai and Bangalore (which cater to pocketbooks beyond my own means). The parts of my trip I'll remember most involved simply walking down streets watching life go by. So, I've collected a few of the street scenes not already posted into a separate album to give you a better flavor of local existence. There's even a movie of traffic as seen from inside an auto-rickshaw.

According to the world bank, India has the largest population of people living on less than $2 per day in the world, which is the world bank's definition of poverty. That "$2" has actually been adjusted for the lower costs of local items -- so it's actually more like about 40 cents in non-adjusted cash (this is called a "purchasing power parity" adjustment, for those into jargon). As of 2000, about 80% of the population was living at or below that level of 40 cents per day, which comes to 800 million people, more than twice the population of the US.

I've tried to think about what insights I might have gained into development issues from my trip. Two weeks is not enough to grasp the complexities, but brief experiences left some deep impressions. I remember scenes like the groups of cows feeding on heeps of trash in the midst of rush-hour traffic, rickety hand-made scaffolding stretching up 10-story buildings, and the four rickshaws that stalked me, blocking traffic when I tried to walk rather than ride the three blocks to my destination. Most observations did not necessarily contain new information but brought it home more effectively than before. For example, I knew about large income inequality in India and in many parts of the developing world, but I was taken aback by the number of exclusive hotels far out of my price range resting just a few blocks from citizens living in squalor. Other times, I found myself dwelling on how different city-dwellers' lives would be if only there were regular trash pickup. (Of course, I'm sure clean water is a higher priority, but it was the garbage-filled streets that affected me personally.) I hope that India finds a way to harness its recent economic growth to invest in infrastructure. My impressions, however, are that the growth is primarily benefitting an exclusive minority. Maybe that means that smaller projects like micro-loans have more potential for success. I really have no idea, it's probably worth a try. If you want to, you can make your own micro-loan at a site like kiva.org.


formerly known as Princeshiva

My last stop was Mumbai (Bombay) for a workshop at the Tata Institute of Fundamental research. (I noticed that most every institute we visited is connected in some way to the name "Tata" -- the name of an influential Indian family, which owns many companies such as the car company Tata motors, Tata airlines, and a slew of other companies mostly in the industrial sector.)

I found Mumbai quite different from the other cities I visited. British influence was everywhere, something I had not noticed in other areas. Also, Mumbai has a collossal division between rich and poor, even more pronounced than in other cities. Its thriving downtown area is filled with fancy hotels and designer stores that contrast with miles of crowded shanty-town slums on the outskirts of the city.

I had only a short visit to Mumbai, but I managed to visit the fabulous museum formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum (it's current name is a very long Indian name which no one uses it because it is too complicated), the gateway of India, the markets of Colaba, and some 8th-century Buddhist carvings on Elephanta Island, off the coast. See pictures here.

August 1, 2007


temple wall Ganesh

laurndy and bathing monkeys and ruins

Next I visited Udaipur, the lake city in Rajasthan. My main objective was the Udaipur Solar Observatory, which is located in the middle of the lake to improve atmospheric seeing effects around the telescope. My colleague Monica and I visited the observatory and gave a workshop at their headquarters on the shore. I also had some free time to visit the city palace, a beautiful garden, some ruins on a hill, a folk dance, and some beautiful monkeys by the Monsoon palace overlooking the city. Pics here.

Public Talks

giant hole audience of teachers

I gave a number of talks to the public while in India, mostly in Bangalore. The thirst for science and for learning among the audiences was palpable. For each lecture, the question session would go on for longer than the original 1-hour presentaion, and large portions of the audences would swarm around me afterwards with additional questions. Hours after the presentation for the largest audience, I essentially had to be escorted out of the building like a rock star.

It was also fascinating to see the contrasts in facilities that I visited. One university seemed very lacking in resources, with dirt floors in some places. Another was a beautiful campus that reminded me of Stanford, but inside of the physics building was run-down, with relatively small labs.

Most poignant of all was Infosys, a corporation in "electric city," the burgeoning Silicon Valley of Bangalore. I spoke there because an attendee at one of my other talks invited me to give a presentation to the company's astronomy club. The firm is one of the largest of India's vital IT industry, and its website advertises itself as "pioneering a new generation of strategic offshore outsourcing." The campus in Bangalore employs 15,000 people and was a surreal science-fiction-like realm of glass pyramids, fountains, and spirals (see picture above, left). Most striking of all was its spotless gleam -- such a stark contrast to the streets lined with trash throughout Bangalore. It was guarded on all sides by high security, with guards searching my bag on the way in and out and recording the serial number of each of the electronics I carried. I'm glad I accepted this unique invitation because it was such an interesting window into the the IT enterprises on which India is resting its hopes. Pictures here.