Amazingly, I have been in Japan for just over 6 weeks at this point! There are only 3.5 weeks remaining, which means that my experiments are well underway and the end is just around the corner. Since I haven't yet shared my experimental set up, I thought I'd do a quick post here to show what my science here looks like. Photos from an experiment like this are just a little bit more exciting than those from my usual genetics lab and computer work!
I have two main experiments running, one on temperature and one on salinity. These are testing what range of conditions the fluffy sea anemone can survive in over an extended period of time. To test this, I have four different temperatures increasing at intervals from the outside ocean temperature, and five different salinities both increasing and decreasing from the outside ocean salinity. Each temperature and salinity level has multiple replicates within it, with anemones kept in cups to follow more closely each individual. These are kept in as stable of conditions as possible during the experiment and are fed, but nonetheless I measure and record any changes in temperature or salinity at least every other day, as well as check for any deceased individuals.
Metridium senile isn't the only anemone that is in the area! I've collected a few others that are common in Hokkaido waters.
If you have ever traveled with me before, you know that I might measure my successfulness of sightseeing in the number of ice cream cones I have consumed. However, you might not know that there is a region of Japan known for their ice cream, and I assure you that it was purely unintentional that I am in the midst of it! In Hokkaido, there are many ice cream shops known for their soft [serve ice] cream, and understandably so. The many farms in the surrounding area allow their cows to graze in spacious fields shared only with cranes and Sika deer, creating landscapes with rolling green hills not unlike the British Isles. The town of Hamanaka next to Akkeshi specializes in producing milk; they are the sole supplier of raw milk for Haagen-Dazs Japan.
I will admit, however, that I have been mildly disappointed in the selection of mochi ice cream flavors available at the grocery and convenience stores here. So far, I have fallen short of my high hopes and dreams of trying all the weird and wonderful flavors of mochi that were sure to be found. Altogether, I have found and tried three:
Of course, there is hard serve ice cream as well, with one of the best locations at a road station we have been fortunate to pass more than once. They have had different flavors available each time, some more appealing than others. Another benefit of this road station is the foot onsen (hot spring) that is available for weary travelers to rejuvenate their feet and ankles in.
Speaking of onsen, many of the onsen in the area have either milk or soft cream available to enjoy after your time in the steaming hot water. Definitely a welcome treat! I have yet to try the one that has nori flakes on it.
I've also enjoyed things that are not ice cream as well, such as a pikachu mcflurry (chocolate covered banana) from McDonald's, delicious gelato (on the same day :|), and a strawberry crepe with whipped creme in it that looked like an ice cream cone.
To be sure, the ice cream in Hokkaido is very tasty. However, somebody else enjoyed some Japanese ice cream in 2010: matcha green tea ice cream in Kamakura (near Tokyo). This earned the name of "Obamatcha" from local shops, so I know I'm not alone in enjoying the dairy-licious treats that Japan has to offer!
Monday was a holiday in Japan, so several of us (Mizuho, Takaaki, and Franz) took advantage of the day off to go climb Mt Meakan. This is the highest mountain in Akan National Park and an active stratovolcano in the Kurile arc, though it has not had significant activity for ~10 years! Our hike began with us clambering over roots of trees as we headed up the steep incline in the boreal forest. I was thankful that it was not a hot day, as we had dense fog blanketing everything and cooling the air down.
As we continued climbing up through the forest, there was a sudden shift to nearly a monoculture of stunted pines. These were at a much higher elevation, thus no more boreal forest. Normally, we could see a beautiful view looking down, but, well... there was a little fog. So we were treated to an eerily beautiful and peaceful view instead.
Soon even the trees were nonexistent as we entered into the moonscape above the tree line. Here there was little protection from the wind and fog, and the going was much rockier. Having never done the climb before, it was interesting to be completely in the dark as to how much further we had to go. However, mountains in Japan are divided into 10 sections, with a marker after each section. Therefore, I always knew what percentage of the mountain we had left to go before reaching the highest peak.
At the summit, we couldn't see very far. I thought I was hearing a highway with lots of cars (strange), but in fact it was the constant noise of steam escaping out of a small hole in the volcano. As we started climbing down the opposite side of the volcano, the fog began to lift and we could start to see the turquoise blue lake in the crater near the sulfuric steam clouds. At times, we covered our faces with towels as the foul-smelling steam would occasionally drift over us.
On the way down, we saw the same zones in reverse. This time in the boreal forest I kept my eyes open looking for the Koro-pok-guru, the little people in native Ainu folklore who live under the giant leaves of the butterbur plant. Spoiler alert: I didn't find any. I did find some really neat glowing luminous moss (Schistostega pennata?) while peering into a hole in a pile of rocks though, which I had never seen before. I was amazed that it was clearly glowing in the daylight, and how it was near the trail though it's probably a rare find. At the end of our hike, there were several onsens (hot springs baths) to choose from, so we could ease our tired muscles before heading back to the station.
Work for most generally begins between 8:30 and 9 and ends around 5 or 6, with an hour lunch break at noon. Most of the students take lunch at the dormitory where we can cook or eat leftovers. Several of the students here will keep most of their food in the dormitory and eat both lunch and dinner at the dorm during the week, staying later in the evening to work in the quiet dining area.
Various research projects are ongoing at the station, with a large majority of them focused around the biodiverse and productive sea grass beds plentiful outside of the station. Others deal with potential effects of climate change, water chemistry, or working with the oysters that Akkeshi is known for. The station has plenty of space, with an immaculate molecular/water chemistry lab, wet lab, environmental chambers, teaching/seminar room, offices, and of course, the aquarium room where I spend most of my time. This room used to be an aquarium but has since been converted to research space where there are ample running sea water and compressed air taps to feed into multiple aquaria large enough to fit several people in.
The only thing difficult in living at the station is the lack of independent access to, well, anywhere else. It would take about an hour to walk into the nearest side of the town, and longer still to get to the grocery store. Therefore, I depend fully on my labmates to provide rides into town for groceries, research supplies, medicine, recreation... anything. However, the Japanese are extremely gracious and generous people as a whole, and they usually offer before I get a chance to ask. Fortunately, another student is here from Germany for 6 months, and he is in the same position as I am.
Wednesday's are cleaning in the lab! This is just an example of the level of teamwork that exists at the station - everyone pitches in to help each other out, and are happy to offer suggestions or their expertise in a certain area to each other. Another benefit of living at a field station that only has about 17 people total working there is that lab members instantly become friends! The town is very small, and their lives revolve around the lab, so you work, play, and eat with the same people. That means that weekends are the time to see some of the sights or visit the festival in town together.
This past week was the time to collect over 100 individuals of the fluffy sea anemone, Metridium senile, for my experiments on environmental limitations at the Akkeshi Marine Station (Hokkaido University). Fortunately, a similar experiment on the same species has previously been done by a member of the lab, Haruka, so she was ready and willing to assist me in tracking down a large number of anemones. With ecological experiments, there are always two big steps unlike in medical research labs: collection and experimentation. The key thing is to always leave ample time for collection, just in case the target organism isn't where it's expected to be.
Our first location was in Abashiri, where they had previously collected the anemones off of scallops using scallop fishing boats. This species prefers to attach to a hard substrate, and the scallop shells allow them to do that. The scallop fishermen were going out to collect data on the scallops and pull up substrate samples for Tokyo Agricultural University, so we were welcome to join and get our anemones. Several years ago using this method, they had collected over 150 anemones; however, we did not have as much luck and collected around 50 very small, orange anemones. Still useful, just not enough for all the experiments I am planning on doing.
Most importantly about our trip to Abashiri was that I drove half of the time and I always turned into the correct lane!
So, on Wednesday, I headed out to another source of bivalves: oyster aquaculture in Lake Akkeshi. Here, after swimming around a little in my drysuit and discovering a very soft unsuitable sediment and cleaned lines, we took the boat over to some lines that hadn’t been cleaned, pulled them up using the hook, and hit the jackpot. Plenty of anemones to go around – large, small, orange, brown, white. Luckily, I am now only two days behind where I thought I would be!
Now these are acclimating to life in the lab for a week before starting the experiments next week!
The time has come! I arrived in Tokyo, Japan on June 13th, and went directly to a hotel near the airport to spend the night. All 106 graduate students in the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) summer program arrived that day as well, representing 6 countries: U.S., Canada, England, France, Germany, and Sweden. For context, all students are supported in-country by JSPS, and receive a stipend from their home country sponsorer. In return, we do a piece of our graduate research here and build relationships with Japanese researchers. I like to think of us as science ambassadors :).
The following day, we all moved to our lodging at SOKENDAI, a graduate student university. Our orientation began with welcome addresses from a variety of different people, including members from each country’s agency, JSPS, and the SOKENDAI President. The first night culminated in a beautiful spread of a buffet, and early to bed for those of us not fully adjusted to the time change. During the time there, we each presented our research in poster form, which provided an opportunity to visually see what each other’s research was all about. The topics ranged from sea anemones, birds, heart attacks, music, to cultural perspectives.
At Sokendai, we had cultural experiences organized for us which gave us the opportunity to observe a tea ceremony and have some of the thick matcha tea, and try our hand at origami, calligraphy, and some games. The last day of orientation we had some masters of traditional music come in and give us all a private demonstration and concert of the koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. At the end they let us try our hand at them. We visited the big Buddha and large temple in Kamakura, led by our fearless (and oh so sweet) tour guide. She went around and shook each of our hands at the culmination of the tour, and really made the experience excellent.
One of the richest experiences during this time was to do a homestay with a volunteer family in the area. For me, I stayed with Isamu and Hiroko Takahashi, a lovely retired couple who have a beautiful home and gardens in Yokosuka. They accepted me into their home, treating me to fantastic food (sashimi, tempura, yakitori, ramen), and taking me to Tokyo to see the Asakusa Kannon Temple from where we took a boat down the Tokyo River to see the Hamarikyu Gardens. This garden was built during the Edo period and originally used by Shoguns for falconry hunting, and is immaculately kept to this day. While there, we visited a traditional tea house inside the garden and had iced tea as it was ridiculously warm out. Once we made our way back out of the city, we had just enough to time to visit an impressive iris farm, before meeting up with one of Hiroko-san’s friends from her community English class for a rousing good time at dinner. The following rainy day I was shown around a little more and saw the old temples in their town. That evening I was sad to have to say goodbye, but I hope to see them again the next time I visit Japan.
Yesterday I flew from Tokyo (Haneda) to Yushiro in Hokkaido, and have since arrived and settled into the Akkeshi Marine Field Station, just over an hour from the airport. I am looking forward to the coming weeks of doing my research here!
With the final teaching meeting behind me as of yesterday, I can finally say: Summer is here! I can now focus on tying up some lab work while, most importantly, prepping for my upcoming research trip. I was awarded an East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute fellowship through NSF (jointly with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) to conduct a short-term research project with a host researcher in Japan. Thus, come June, I'll be headed to the Akkeshi Marine Station, run by the Field Science Center for Northern Biosphere Hokkaido University, for 2.5 months. Here I'll work closely with my host researcher who has kindly agreed to work with me, Dr. Masahiro Nakaoka, on a short-term research project.
Akkeshi is in the far northern reaches of Japan, so despite orientation meetings telling all of the participants in the program to expect warm, balmy weather, I know that in my case I will not have that luxury. However, this temperate weather also brings great habitat for the fluffy sea anemone (Metridium senile), which is what I'll be working on. These anemones are the species I was collecting in California over Spring Break, and are part of the genus that is the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation. Not only will this research experience get me in situ with my anemones for an live animal lab-based project, but it will also give me the opportunity to collect some much needed specimens for my overarching questions regarding their diversity and historical distributions.
So, stay tuned for more updates during the prep and while I am there!