Charlene: "You’ll be caught up in something else and then suddenly something strikes you, something unusual, or beautiful, or simply something that draws you in"
“Hey Charlene, hope you’re doing well! How’s Japan?”
This, or some variation of this, is a message I received numerous times during my time in Japan, and always struggled to answer. How do you condense an entire country into one sentence, let alone the one word people are often looking for? Inevitably, I go with the “It’s great, thanks for asking!”, a copy-and-paste kind of answer that appeases the other person without actually really saying anything.
I remember a time my friend and I were catching up over a call. “I miss you too!! How are you?" She then asked me to share one of my favourite Japan moments.
After thinking about it for second, I told her about a fleeting instance the previous evening. I was rushing to meet a friend when I came up a hill and saw the most BEAUTIFUL sky I had seen in a long time. Purple and pink and like something you would see in a Miyazaki film.
I stopped rushing. In fact I stopped completely on the bridge, put down my bag, and spent five minutes staring at that magical sky. It lasted only that long, and then the night well and truly rolled in, but it didn’t matter.
This has been Japan for me. You’ll be caught up in something else and then suddenly something strikes you, something unusual, or beautiful, or simply something that draws you in, and you forget what had you worried and are filled with wonder. Tokyo has been a city of wonder for me. Pure, childish wonder.”
Charlene made the most of her weekends and free time by exploring Japan with friends and colleagues
In my first week in Japan, I visited the beautiful island of Enoshima, only few minutes away by train, which looked plucked out of a fairy tale with dreamlike views, a town with the charm of a well-loved past and the surreal nature of huge eagles everywhere eyeing you from the sky. In my second week, I had coffee sitting next to an owl. Twenty owls in fact. In my third week, I got lost while descending Mt Takao, and ended up walking through a small town at the bottom of the forest that was so quiet you could hear your own heartbeat. The following week I went to a beautiful upscale jazz bar on the Yokohama waterfront to listen Bosanova jazz band with a brilliant lead saxophonist.
The people also make the experience. There is reverence instilled in the nature of every interaction, one I feel may take years to truly understand. My colleagues were wonderful and friendly, throwing a welcome party when I arrived, taking me to hike Mt Oyama to see the beautiful autumn leaves and my first shrine experience, eating lunches together - every day experimenting with new foods in the canteen bento or from the FamilyMart a short brisk walk away.
My placement with Mitsubishi Electric's Information Technology R&D Centre involved working with the Advanced Machine Learning Research Group to explore global blackbox optimisation techniques for optimising machine learning models. We were assigned mentors who helped to guide us in our internship.
The topic of global blackbox optimisation was one of interest for the research group, which I was happy to explore to further my own knowledge despite not having much background on the subject. They were extremely accommodating in working with me to find a project where I was in the best position to make the most valuable contribution to the team.
Japan is nothing if not a contradiction, rich in heritage and tradition, yet buoyed forward by technology and economic development.
It’s as though the country is being torn in two, as the past and the future struggle to overwhelm the present. Yet, instead of destruction, this tearing is a process of creation. The creation of wonder, of magic, of awe. It’s as though the roots of tradition hold a stick, and the swelling tide of technology also carries one, and as they scrape against one another, instead of breaking, they only create sparks.
It’s the sparks that have made Japan such a special place for me.
So now, when I'm asked “How was Japan?” I don’t have to think twice. The answer is simple: magical.