In February 2010, I received a forwarded email from the University of Tokyo (or TODAI as it's known in Japan), addressed to my college inbox at Queen Mary, University of London. In an effort to increase internationalisation at their university, TODAI was initiating a programme titled UTRIP (University of Tokyo Research Internship Programme) 2010. They were looking for 20 science undergraduates from around the world for an intensive 6-week internship. It was an enticing offer, one I couldn't easily ignore. As my application was accepted, I was instructed to reach Tokyo, by the 24 June.
The flight to Tokyo was smooth and uneventful, and I arrived early morning, on 25 June. My hotel was in Korakuen there I met few other UTRIP participants. Our nationalities spanned across the globe, including Indonesia, China, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, Canada, America, England and my motherland Bangladesh. After a quick introduction we all headed out to have dinner in the city that was to be our home for the next 6 weeks.
In the Opening Ceremony, the Dean of the Graduate School of Science greeted us with an inspiring speech. We were introduced to the personal tutors who would be assisting us on our respective projects. The University of Tokyo had three main campuses and Hongo was where some of the graduate schools, and most of our labs were located. As my tutor Tamura-san gave me a tour of the campus and its facilities, I was awestruck by the sheer size and ambience of the university. TODAI was an amazing balance between the old and new. As ground-breaking research was conducted in the different labs, there were places where one could hear the swish-thud of traditional Japanese archery being practiced.
There was so much to see and talk about in Tokyo, but certain outings that definitely stood out for me.
Odaiba was one of my favourite spots. My main intention for going there was to observe the Rainbow Bridge, an interest shared by a few other UTRIP participants. Though it doesn't have a lot of colours but it's definitely worth seeing from an engineering and architectural point of view. I would return another day to enjoy the Fuji Studio, Toyota Show Room, and of course the shopping malls. If I had to recommend malls, I'd suggest going to Ikebukero, Ginza, and Harajuku. Thus, I'd also recommend carrying lots of cash, as you're bound to haemorrhage yen like there's no tomorrow.
Another attraction that one should not miss is Tokyo Disneyland. The inner child in me was absolutely wild with excitement when a friend, Mari Soeda and I rode to our destination. We started out early, and were able to beat most of the crowd. We took numerous pictures as we happily rode on all the different rides also enjoyed a tasty turkey leg. At the end of it all, we were completely exhausted. We observed the last fireworks display eating hot dogs as our dinner.
Almost all my time was spent in Tokyo, but I had the opportunity to enjoy an excursion to Nikko (a UNESCO world heritage site).
Its elevation made it significantly cooler than the hot summer weather of Japan during this time. Our first stop was at Kegone fall, which is an impressive fall of about a good 100 meters tall. We took a lift close to the base of the fall, and enjoyed being sprayed in the icy-coolness of the water. The rest of the day we spent visiting the local temples. Unfortunately, we were assailed by a horrendous downpour of rain, and were forced to make a quick return to our hotel in Nikko. After a quick change, we were invited for a delicious traditional dinner complete with sautéed fish, meat in a pot (that was cooked in the pot while we ate!), vegetables and scallops, with rice and soup.
The next day we stopped at another waterfall, that wasn't big as Kegone fall, but was impressive in its own way. We even tried a bit of traditional Japanese woodcarving. Our final trip in Nikko was Edo Wonderland, a theme park that is designed like a typical village during the Edo period. The workers were dressed in traditional clothes, and there were several theatres across the theme park showing various plays. There was also a haunted house, Ninja maze, and many more surprising fun attractions to keep us busy until we left for Tokyo.
Probably the most exciting experience was when seven of us decided that to conquer Mt. Fuji. At this time of the year, Mt. Fuji is open to tourists and climbing enthusiasts, we took advantage of this opportunity to plan an ambitious expedition to the summit. We arrived at around 7pm at base camp, and enjoyed the breath-taking sunset at Mt. Fuji. We set off for the summit at 10:30 pm, hoping to make it for the sunrise. On the way, I stopped frequently to rest on the mountainside, and revel in the open expanse that stretched far below me. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but no picture will ever do justice to the amazing scenic views that one observes on the path to conquering Mt. Fuji. There's an old Japanese saying, 'A wise man climbs Fuji-san once, And only a fool climbs it twice'. We all made a unanimous decision to remain wise.
There was so much we did beyond the things I have shared so far, like the Bon Dance festival, the fireworks display, or when we went for karaoke and sang our hearts out. This internship made me realize that there is so much to appreciate about Japan. From an academic point of view, we gained invaluable knowledge from some of the brilliant lecturers at TODAI while working under the supervision of our professors for our respective projects. I'd like to thank Soeda-san, Kawamura-san, and the other OIP officers, who wonderfully organized this UTRIP. Most importantly, I'd like to encourage all the Bangladeshi science undergraduates to keep an eye for the next application deadline. UTRIP is an experience of a lifetime.
I will sorely miss all the other UTRIP participants. Without their company, I would have never had so much fun. I won't forget the time we woke up at 5:30am to go to the fish market, or to see the monstrously smelly flower that bloomed once in 20 years.
I shall count the days till my return to the land of the rising sun, I know that my love for Japan has just started.
(The writer is a final year student at Queen Mary University of London, studying Biomedical Science.)