“We zipped past half bemused traffic policemen and puzzled pedestrians as we sped on our way to Arashiyama, home of the Bamboo Groves and Kimono forests (one of my wingies and his co-intern had come to visit me in Kyoto all the way from distant Chiba) We were hurtling down a road cutting through bamboo groves on both sides when we emerged at the foot of a lake. Halting as one, we cast quick glances at each other. The jury’s decision was unanimous – Japan was guilty of being a breathtakingly beautiful country and it pleaded as such”
The fall semester last year saw me anxiously scanning the portal for any interesting internships doing the rounds. I was pretty clear that I would not settle for the tedium of a routine coding internship. Honda Research Labs came-a-calling with a work profile related to computational neuroscience and a hefty stipend to boot. Delighted with the work profile though I was, I was also a tad confused. What did the makers of renowned bikes (and atrocious F1 engines) have to do with neuroscience ? Nevertheless, I signed the JAF and was among the five people who got shortlisted. I later learnt during my interview that my professor was being funded by a joint venture of HRL and Kyoto University and my work station would be at the Cooperative Intelligence Lab of Kyoto University. The interview was a piece of cake, primarily because I had previously taken a course on Statistical Estimation and he was pleased that I already had a solid base. Some easy questions (on Bayesian Estimation and Poisson Processes) followed which I answered satisfactorily. It was at this point that I first got an inkling that I had clinched the intern. When he asked me what were the top 3 things on my bucket list if I came to Japan, I knew I was through. My professor sent me two heavy duty papers to read before the intern. We also had Skype Calls regularly through the Spring Semester where he kept filling in the gaps in my basics. Apart from perusing the papers occasionally during the semester and once at home before I left, I confess that I hardly “prepared” for my internship.
The day I landed in Tokyo was the day I first got to travel on the much renowned Bullet Train. We caught the Tokaido Shinkansen (operating between Tokyo and Osaka) and I can safely say that it was the most interesting vehicle I have ever been in. When that pointy nosed marvel on wheels first purred it’s way into Tokyo station, I had to pinch myself to believe the scene. A childhood dream was being realized. The shinkansen is just as comfortable on the inside as it is austere on the outside. It is very easy while inside to think that the train is not going all that fast. A quick look outside the window banishes all such thoughts. The blur of rice fields that we swept past was enough proof that we were going at about 250 km/hr. I used the 3 hour journey to let that sink in. Suffice to say, the first day of my internship set the pace for the remainder of it.
I was given a fully furnished apartment close to Kyoto University. I have a ringside view of the Kamo river and lazing on it’s grassy embankments on the weekdays is something I really look forward to after work. With both a bus and a subway station being a stone’s throw away ( quite literally), travelling around the city is hassle-free. Kyoto plays host to probably the world’s highest concentration of temples and historic buildings in an urban area and walking around the city let’s you soak in those sites at leisure. Cycling is also a very popular option here. The city is ringed by mountains and bisected by a river and both are amazing places to bike and/or walk to.
My official project title reads “Using State-Space methods for extending the Ising Model for Neuronal Populations”. The truckload of jargon aside, I am mainly modelling neuronal interactions through models borrowed from Statistical Physics. Extending the method to effectively simulate a large bunch of spiking neurons and their interactions (in pairs, triplets and so on..) and subsequently extracting parameters via sequential Bayesian Estimation is what I am working towards. The work is heavily based on statistical estimation and I am getting to apply what we learn in our Probability courses on a daily basis. I personally love such stuff and I am really enjoying my work so far. Our professor is really hands-on and we have meetings with him almost daily. Even when I am coding ( and ironically enough, I am having to do a lot of that), I am usually translating the stuff my Professor teaches me into code. The learning curve is steep and my plate is full with work through most of the week. However, the brutal regimen the Electrical Department puts you through makes you more or less immune to such situations. Moreover, the work is now taking on a more original turn where I am free to suggest alternate approaches and pursue my own ideas independently.
The university in itself is picturesque and exemplifies the Japanese principle of maximising productivity in the least amount of space. My lab is a cosy building and has a path leading to a street full of Ramen Shops. Frequent lunches with our professor have seen us complete most of the gastronomic circuit around the university. I have gotten the chance to interact with a lot of foreign students courtesy these visits. Food is invariably a slight problem for Indians. The Japanese like their food bland and their meat strange. But my family herded me into my flight with enough Gujarati dry snacks to open an Indian Namkeen Shop in Kyoto. I mostly cook rudimentary meals for myself. In short, I get by with a little help from my Khakras.
With my Canadian co-intern,I have travelled to Tokyo ( albeit briefly), Kyoto and Nara. The latter two are chock-a-block with temples and museums. Fushimi Inari (where scenes from Memoirs of a Geisha were shot), Arashiyama and Nijo Castle stand out in Kyoto while the massive Buddha Statue at Nara’s Todaiji Temple is awe-inspiring. The plans of the future include trips to Kobe,Osaka, Hiroshima and a reciprocal visit to Chiba ( because it rhymes with Sheba and we all know Balkis is mythical level hot). I am trying to coordinate with the other IITB interns at Osaka and Kobe to pull off a visit to the Japanese Alps and the 7 islands cycling route. Hokkaido ( and Okinawa as well) I am afraid will remain a bridge too far. I hope to round off the visit with the quintessential climb up Mt. Fuji where on it’s summit I will contemplate the question of life, the universe and everything with the rising sun( The answer will stay 42 though :p). Speaking of rising suns, I still haven’t been able to catch the sunrise here. There is no way I am getting up at 4:30 am.
The Japanese people are exceedingly polite. I have lost count of the number of clumsy half-bows and mumbled words of thanks (“Arrigato Gosaimashta” for the inherently pedantic) I engage in during a typical day. My back just hasn’t felt the same since coming here. Jokes aside, people here are extremely punctual and have a most fascinating obsession with rules. No one violates traffic rules, the roads are spotlessly clean and there is not a single loud voice to be heard. Even the babies keep quiet here. As a stereotypical rule-breaking Indian lout abroad, I find this both curious and hilarious. Japan is also a highly advanced country and the monthly bills that I stack up bear testimony to that fact. 5 bread slices here are worth 200 Yen. It’s outrageous. Barring ramen, I have not found Japanese food to be all that palatable. Sushi sucks and sake burned my insides. Except for possibly the Wasabi sauce, there is nothing close to spicy in their diet. Weird non-vegetarian meat abounds and I have ticked octopus and deer off my strange-meat-to-eat list.
It is Sunday night as I make my way back to my apartment after dropping my friends off at the bus-stop. It is getting late, but the city is only getting started. I take the route adjacent to the river where I espy a teen band thrashing out a tune. I wait while they warm up and notice the lead singer. It’s a girl. She sees me and waves. I wave back. They start playing “On top of the World”.
As she gets to the chorus, I flip a coin into her guitar cover which doubles as a makeshift cash bowl and walk away, grinning from ear to ear. The song has perfectly summed up my stay in Japan so far. There is wonder in most everything I see here. And I do feel on top of the world!