A Summer in Tokyo

by Jenny Wang
August 2019

This summer, I spent two months conducting research at the University of Tokyo’s International Research Center for Neuroscience (IRCN). I worked in the Hensch lab under Dr. Miyamoto, examining chloride ion dynamics in mice during their sleep and wake cycles. I really loved doing research at IRCN; everybody working there was very dedicated and enthusiastic about their respective projects, and there were many great opportunities and lovely outings organized by the IRCN staff, such as attending a Kabuki show, taking Japanese lessons, and seeing the Adachi fireworks. In general, the program was extremely organized and I made a lot of wonderful connections with researchers and staff there. In particular, I’m grateful that I got to work with Dr Miyamoto, who allowed me more independence in the lab than I’ve ever had before and was super fun to work with. He showed me his methods for conducting surgeries to inject chloride indicator virus into the mice brains and how to implant electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes (to see sleep and wake cycles) and a fiber (to measure chloride levels via chloride photometry). With these instruments implanted, we were able to compare EEG and fiber photometry recordings to observe how chloride levels change during sleep and wake cycles — something that has never been done in vivo. Getting to work on a project that nobody else has before was super exciting, and also left a lot of room for me to figure out solutions to problems on my own, like how to analyze the fluorescence changes from chloride ion levels. I did not expect to become so familiar with Excel and Graphpad, but with guidance from Dr. Miyamoto I managed to figure it out. Data analysis is one of the most important parts of scientific research and I’m pleased I was able to learn it this summer. I was pleasantly surprised by how successful our data collection was (since we were trying out a completely new method), and as a result also got to be one of the first people to observe that chloride levels increase during the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which was really exciting!

I similarly loved every moment spent living in Tokyo. IRCN did an amazing job with finding housing; the apartments at Elite Inn were always neat and comfortable, and the landlady was always present and responsive. Being on the Hongo campus of UTokyo and living in Bunkyo-ku made transportation and sightseeing very convenient. Pretty much every day I was able to either take a train or walk after work to see new sights, and I tried my best to make the most of it. I basically strolled and ate my way through all the big neighborhoods of Tokyo. (I will probably never be content eating sushi outside of Japan again, and will forever miss warm melon pan in Asakusa.) I was also very lucky to have other Harvard students around me who also enjoyed seeing and eating the city, and even made friends with Japanese students in Tokyo. I loved the more popular areas like Asakusa, Ueno (close to my Japan home), and Harajuku, but some of my favorites were less common areas like Shimokitazawa (which felt like a chill Harajuku) and Koenji (former punk rock district of Tokyo). I also loved getting out of the city once in a while– some of the most beautiful areas I went to were Nikko, Kamakura, and Yokohama. I enjoyed many of the museums around Tokyo as well, particularly TeamLab establishments and the Cup Noodle museum in Yokohama. What might have been my favorite experiences, though, were all the festivals around Tokyo: the lanterns, dancing, and street food were always high-energy and all the performers just exuded happiness. There were some lovely events near Asakusa, on Kagurazaka street, and near Yasukuni shrine that I went to over the course of the summer.

Honestly, though, I think what I will miss most is the freedom I felt in Tokyo. Despite the rainy season and the following heat and humidity, I found the city extremely walkable (almost to a fault– there were a few times I decided to walk 5+ mile distances which, in hindsight, could have been traversed with much less sweat and effort). I just loved wandering gardens and peaceful streets, listening to music (in particular I discovered a love of Japanese alternative), and even if I got lost I knew I could always find a konbini or at least a vending machine. (Incidentally, there are also some really interesting vending machines around Tokyo, including an entire “creepy” corner of Akihabara dedicated to weird ones.) Though I did learn some Japanese phrases over the course of my stay, I wish I could have spoken to and had conversations with people or been able to read guides and various signage. It would have made many encounters much easier, and I think would have reduced my shyness about trying less well-documented experiences, like going to smaller restaurants or attending a concert. That being said, doing research on various Internet platforms (Yelp, TripAdvisor, Tabelog, YouTube, Google Maps) really enriched my experience in the city, as it helped me discover hidden corners of Tokyo (creepy vending machine corner) and steered me to locations that were perhaps more foreigner-friendly, or at least were used to English and Mandarin speakers. (I unexpectedly got to flex Mandarin Chinese in some places where people didn’t speak English.) Most importantly, as the summer progressed and I tried more new things I felt more and more comfortable going to new places and trying new things, and experienced an exciting, positive snowball of growing confidence.

I am so grateful for my experience in Japan. I plan on spending the next few weeks happy-weeping over my pictures and videos from the summer (I have already made a sappy video montage set to music). Though I’m happy to be home and am excited about starting school, I already have a list of places I want to visit in Japan (Kyoto and Osaka to start!), and I cannot wait to go back.