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.