Squid and barnacles

Last week, in a change from my usual desk-based work, a professor invited me and two Japanese students to help him with some fieldwork.  An important consideration for marine renewables is biofouling – how fast the subsea surfaces will become encrusted in barnacles and other creatures. A number of people around the world, including researchers at my home institution, are investigating this, but the answers depend a lot on the local water conditions, so it’s valuable to do it in different places.

The experiment is about two hours drive from the university, on the outer breakwater of a small fishing harbour in a fast-flowing tidal channel. We drove over in time for an early lunch before starting work. In this sort of scenario in the UK I’d probably expect sandwiches, but the professor treated us all to a restaurant meal. I have no idea whether this is normal, or whether he is just very kind! This being a fishing village, fish is what they serve. As we entered, a look of doubt crossed the professor’s face, and he asked whether I would be OK with raw fish, clearly expecting that a Brit would not be. I assured him that I love raw fish, and that it is one of the good things about being in Japan… so then I think he decided to challenge me, and/or provide amusement, and he ordered for me.

Me and a Japanese professor, each with a plate of transparent squid sashimi in front of us

Photo: Yutaro Torigoe

What turned up a little while later was all the edible parts of a whole squid, laid out in strips on ice in a squid shape, raw and transparent. The head and tentacles were taken away to be cooked and made into tempura, leaving me with the rest. I won’t say that squid is my favourite sashimi – I find the taste a little too mild and neutral – but it was certainly nice, and as I chomped my way through I think the three Japanese people present were both pleased and a little disappointed!

After the meal the professor showed me the fish market downstairs, where I saw more squid in a tank along with many, many other aquatic things that I don’t know the names for. And then we set off to do the work of the day.

Suspended on the side of the breakwater was a frame containing metal plates, each with a different paint or other coating. Every month they are removed, photographed, weighed, and returned to water, and that is what we did, as well as collecting data from instruments that were mounted on the frame to record factors such as water temperature. It was interesting work, but did involve being exposed continually to the mid-day sun and 36C heat, and when we finished after two hours I had just about reached my limit for warmth and sunshine.

A good, if exhausting, day, a break from my desk, and a chance to see some new bits of the Japanese coast and countryside. Thank you, sensei!

Me, two Japanese students, and a Japanese professor, standing behind a barnacle-encrusted metal frame

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

Academics are the same everywhere ;-)

Today and tomorrow are the public holiday of Obon, a time that people take off work to honour their ancestors with their families. I’m working, because I have a very limited time in which to do my project, and I’m finding – judging by the lengths of the job queues – that the university supercomputer that I’m using is busier than on a normal day.

I suspect that a lot of Japanese academics, visiting their families and freed from the responsibilities and interruptions of their offices, are using the time to get on with research – just like at home!

Young person looking at an early IBM PC-compatible.

Waiting for computer time. Image from Bundesarchiv collection, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

Technology and travel

Today is a public holiday in Japan, and the campus was nearly deserted. I was still there, because when you only have six weeks to complete a project, you can’t take too many days off! This has been a delight, because the supercomputer has not been as busy as usual. I’m now back in my hotel, and thinking about how much easier this trip is now than it would have been ten years ago, in two specific ways:

One is smartphones and the technology of the apps on them. With Google Maps, I have little fear of getting lost in a place where I can’t read the signage, and with a combination of that and a local app, I have a good handle on public transport, without needing to read Japanese maps or timetables. With Google Translate, and in particular its ability to read text from a photo, I can usually take a pretty good guess at what a label or notice is saying. It’s also replaced my need for a phrasebook; I have one in my bag, but mostly just google the translation instead.* This causes much laughter as Google gets it wrong, but also understanding as Google gets it close enough. More mundanely, it’s nice to always have the ability in my pocket to show somebody pictures of home – photos from Orkney are a great icebreaker.

Sign saying "Translating prohibited" in Polish, with a translation into English directly beneath

Original image CC-by by Flickr user Roland

The second change is in communications. There’s an important meeting happening at my home university in Edinburgh today, and I’m planning to connect to it via Skype in a few hours time – which is why I was musing this topic in the first place. The time zones are awkward, but otherwise it’s no different to connecting from the Orkney campus as usual.

There would be bigger changes if one went back further, of course. Twenty years ago I’d have been reliant on guidebooks, leaflets, tourist offices and so on – there wouldn’t have been the plethora of information on the web (although even now it isn’t ubiquitous in English). And of course the prevalence of English is in itself another change that makes life easier for brits, in a mildly embarrassing way – albeit one that has not come to Japan so much as many other places.


* Other mapping and machine translation packages are available.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

I’m still here!

I’ve been a bit quiet, haven’t I?


The truth is that I’ve been really busy. During the week, after some initial delays with getting access to computing facilities, I’ve been working pretty hard to catch up on my planned schedule of work. At the weekends, I’ve been out having adventures, and I do have a post drafted to tell you about last week’s – but I want to wait until I have photos ready to go with it, and that is suffering from lack of time for photo processing during the week – since it’s obviously a lower priority than my research!

Please be patient; I will write more – both about work and play – in due course! In the meantime, here’s a blurry phonecam picture of me with SpaceGodzilla (actually, the original suit from one of the movies) at an exhibition on the art of daikaiju:

Me, posing next to the orignal SpaceGodzilla suit.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

One week in

A view of university buildings among treesSo, I’ve been here a week now. I’ve done a lot of settling in, a certain amount of figuring out systems, a decent bit of useful work, and a little tourism.

I’m on a small campus here which consists almost entirely of research institutes – so there’s little or no undergraduate teaching. In that respect it’s a little like home… except that “a small campus” here means around 100-200 academic staff, still an order of magnitude greater than Orkney! The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that the campus is noisy, and not from anything man-made: trees and bushes here are loud, filled with cicadas (or similar. I’m no biologist). In summer in Kyushu, you can hear green space coming! Beyond that it’s fairly ordinary university-campus buildings, although the presence of the QUEST experiment is rather cool.

I was told before I came that “the language of the lab is English”. It’s interesting to see what that means. It means that the staff can speak English, and any foreign students use English as a mutual language. The Japanese masters students understandably avoid it as much as they can, except when forced to use it in occasional meetings and presentations. It’s brought home to me something that I’d thought about before: what an advantage people from English-speaking countries have from the start as they go into academia. For the Japanese students here, use of English is a prerequisite for an academic career, and becoming proficient is an extra burden on top of their subject-related study and their research.

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Tourism count so far

Temples: 3
Castles: 1 (ruined)
Museums: 2


Posted by simon in Working in Japan