The beach near Yurihama was not particularly interesting. Sure, it was cool to see the Sea of Japan, but really, the coast was just a lot of sand, some old Japanese fishermen and an overly-aggressive seagull. What was cool, however, were the circumstances that had led me there.
I’m in Misasa, Japan for a cosmochemistry internship at The Institute for the Study of Earth’s Interior, part of Okayama University. For the next six weeks, twelve other interns and I will be researching meteorite composition and behavior. The analytical planetary chemistry group I’m part of has been tasked with investigating enstatite chondrites, a particularly rare type of meteorite formed in oxygen-poor environments. We will do the vast majority of our research in clean labs, wearing full-body suits, while enduring an air shower every time we leave to use the bathroom. At the end of the program, we’ll present our findings to a joint committee of faculty and graduate students. We will also attend a multi-day lecture course on imaging Earth’s interior, given jointly by a Harvard professor and a US Geological Survey researcher.
We left the guest house at 9:30 a.m. this morning and set out on the bikes provided to us by the lab. There were eight of us on this expedition, all in various states of discomfort on our ancient, single-speed mounts. Our first stop was the town of Kurayoshi, where we visited an old sake factory, accidentally disrupted multiple tour groups at a Buddhist temple and ate raw quail eggs and soba, a Japanese noodle dish.
We resumed our journey around noon, heading for the coast. We followed the river through the valley, past a statue of a naked man playing a saxophone and down through baseball diamonds populated by preteens. I made a game out of saying “konnichiwa” to every person I passed, after which my Japanese friend and co-intern would politely inform me that my greeting policy was probably a little odd.
We finally hit the beach around 1:30 p.m., after riding for about 10 miles. It was underwhelming, although it’s possible we were significantly distracted by our sore legs and posteriors. Once there, we opened my only box of traditional American Cheez-Its and talked about the accuracy of recent space movies. My Norwegian and Canadian roommates and I burned every inch of our exposed skin over the next two hours, and after a hearty dose of selfie stick usage with the Taiwanese intern, we departed.
Like I said, the beach was not a particularly stellar one. The trip took about seven hours and covered 20 miles (uphill both ways, in the snow). I have a gnarly Birkenstock tan and I can’t feel my butt. I still haven’t found an explanation for the naked saxophone man sculpture. But I think today’s trip was an experience I’ll always remember fondly. The eight of us on the beach, with seven nationalities and six languages between us, were there under amazing circumstances — I mean, how often does the Japanese government pay to fly you over and fund your green tea Kit-Kat addiction? We’re here to study amazing things. And yet, there we were, laughing about our lack of cell phone service and eating gas station sushi.