My time in Japan

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We all have dreams. Not all of us have the privilege of them materialising. It is sometimes easier to just have a bucket list. You try and complete it as the inevitable advance of time enriches you as a being. One item on my bucket list was to travel more. SAMBa has helped in this respect. Last time you heard from me was when I was on a plane back from Mongolia in 2016. (Robbie Peck took on the task of writing about this trip in his blog ' Building Links in Mongolia'). This time I will tell you about my time in the place that I have always dreamed of visiting: Japan.

During my first year of SAMBa, I learned about the National Institute of Informatics (NII) Internship programme. This is a scheme whereby the NII is trying to build global research links by partnering with research institutions around the world. Luckily the University of Bath is one of the partners. The primal aspect of the partnership is the yearly internship programme where partner institutes are given a quota of 2 students to send to the NII. I heard about the internship again in my second year and decided to apply. I thought to myself, “yolo”.

The wheels of the Japan expedition was set in motion. I was sending frantic emails to potential supervisors at the NII, and applying to various funds that would support my travels (including the Santander one, which I thought I qualified for, but apparently did not as they did not give it to me. For your info, Mr I-am-responsible-for-the-Santander-fund a return air ticket to Japan will cost you a whopping £700). Things slowly settled down on the logistics side as the application went through and was finally accepted. At this point though, delighted would not be the word I would use to describe my feelings. I was very apprehensive.

However this apprehension soon disappeared as I landed in Haneda airport just outside of Tokyo. The trip to my modest accommodation reminded me of one thing: I had dealt with culture shocks before when I first moved to the UK for my undergraduate degree. Moreover, the language did not sound as foreign as I expected. I watch a lot of anime in Japanese (with subtitles of course) and this made the sound, pitch and pace of Japanese quite familiar. I just needed to put meaning to those sounds now. Just as most things in life, this is easier said than done.

To my delight, the pace at the NII was not as hectic as it is at other Japanese work places. The attitude towards research and about work life balance was very much what I am used to in Bath. This was most probably due to the cultural diversity of the interns. We had people from Germany, Spain, Poland, Mauritius (that’s me), Thailand, China, Japan (obviously), Algeria, Argentina, Madagascar (this person joined the week after I left), Portugal, Italy, Finland, the USA and Vietnam. Most of them were people working in machine learning and had some sort of engineering background. The highlight of the day was lunch time. We would indulge in bentos, sushi, ramen (oh yes ramen), indian food (it was surprisingly good), the menu of the day at the canteen (the claverton rooms need to up their game), chinese food, udon noodles with tempura, soba noodles and okonomiyaki.


My supervisor, Dr Yinqiang Zheng, happened to have supervised a previous intern from Bath. He was very laid back and let me chose my research project. We looked at some extremely noisy images from a high powered microscope. We tried de-noising them. This did not go so well. I then moved to trying some generative models for my x-rays (they form an integral part of my research). I was given my own Nvidia tesla graphics card. For those of you who game or use GPUs for your work, you will understand the feeling of power and enlightenment that comes with owning such a device. The very sound of it running would send chills down my spine. And boy did I use it. I flooded its memory with tensors and operations and let it run. Sometimes I would just sit there and listen to it hum while it would do gradient updates on my model. I suppose I should stop with the graphics card eroticism and move to something else lest I get censored.

Japan was also synonymous to travel and adventure. I explored Tokyo as much as I could and made friends when I had the opportunity. During my inter Tokyo exploration I developed a particular attraction towards Harajuku and its little artsy streets that were full of sub culture items. The second hand clothing scene around this area is probably one of the best in the world. There is a shop selling used clothes every 20 metres. Together with my friend Francisco, who I met at the NII, we used to go to distant districts of Tokyo in search of a good football game. I often had to travel for 90mins just to get to the football pitch. It was worth it though. This travelling made me see places I would not go to otherwise.

I probably saw more places in Japan than I have seen here in the UK. I went to Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima and Okinawa. The most interesting one out of these has to be Okinawa. After a 3 hour flight from Tokyo, we landed in Naha, the capital. I have to say that the smell reminded me of Mauritius. It was full of the wild aroma of the beach and of the sea. I felt very much at home at that instant. With my university friend Martin, we went during the down season for Christmas. Naha did not have its usual busy tourist laden streets to offer. Yet, we still managed to have fun while trekking up to shuri castle and sleeping in a capsule hotel that was right above a bar. We took a ferry to a nearby Island called tokashiki. The population during that period of the year did not reach more than 400. Christmas was spent there in an izakaya watching 3 drunk fishermen having the time of their lives drinking with two local school teachers. I did have a broken Japanese conversation with this lot, which I have to admit was quite fun.


Japan allowed me to discover who I am. I faced my fears, and learned about my strengths, but more importantly, I have enriched my existence with experiences, people and memories. I have to take a few words out of Gianluca’s blog post and say “travel is life”. I will go one step further and say, if you want to understand humanity, go meet it.

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