I am an Associate Professor of Tree Physiology at Michigan Technological University, USA, and I spent my 3-month sabbatical at Kobe University, Japan supported by a HUMAP researcher exchange fellowship. This trip was meaningful and enriching professionally, culturally, and also a phenomenal experience for my family.
I spent my time in Japan working in the Graduate School of Agricultural Science at Kobe University, where I was embedded in the lab of my faculty host, also a forest canopy ecophysiologist. In addition to training and getting trained in laboratory techniques by his excellent students, my faculty host and I initiated a collaborative study. I participated in many lab activities, including classes, lab lunches, weekly seminars, practice defenses, and the graduation ceremony. I had the opportunity to give talks about my research at Kobe University, Kyoto University, Doshisha University, and at the Ecological Society of Japan meeting in Kobe. My host traveled with me and facilitated many occasions for networking with colleagues at universities in Kobe, Kyoto, Okayama, and Hokkaido, including many prominent female professors in our field. I felt very honored to be given a tour of the Tomokomai Experimental Forest in Hokkaido as the inspired forest canopy research there was one of the main reasons I had wanted to visit Japan! My faculty host also brought me along on field trips in Kobe to long-term research sites in sacred forests surrounding Nishinomiya Shrine and Taisanji Temple. The field trip to Nishinomiya Shrine was one of the highlights of my entire trip, as I was able to climb a glorious camphor tree aptly named after the goddess Benzaiten.
I relished learning about the intricacies of the etiquette, food, art, celebrations, and basic life in Japan. We stayed in Japanese-style inns, wore yukata, soaked in onsen baths, and participated in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. We threw soybeans at demons for Setsubun and experienced the primal boom of taiko drums at a memorial of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. I learned how to navigate the train and bus systems adroitly, and with the help of Google Translate and the patience of Japanese people, I was somehow always able to communicate. In Japan, one thanks the food itself for giving life before eating it. While I have a hard time remembering this word (‘itadakimasu’), I will never forget the concept. We explored all of the local fare with gusto, including yakitori, sushi, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, tonkatsu, and ramen. I learned that I liked my soba and udon noodles cold with my tempura on the side (I cannot eat those hot noodles fast enough!). While enjoying kaiseki meals, I learned not to think too hard about what I was eating, but rather to just enjoy the varying textures, colors, and beauty of each morsel within each tiny exquisite dish. We visited many museums, large and small, soaking in Japanese art, local artisan traditions, and modern Japanese culture. We learned about traditional Japanese decorative knot work, marveled at lacquerware shops in Ishikawa Prefecture, sought out Bizen pottery in Okayama, and enjoyed anime from the brilliant mind of Hayao Miyazaki.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to share my Japanese sabbatical with my family, and I believe it has been an especially formative experience for my daughter. I gained a great appreciation for the Japanese way of life, including the walking culture, the careful attention to detail and beauty, and the humble gratitude expressed for each facet of life. In addition to learning new laboratory techniques and collecting data for a collaborative project, I made important professional connections and life-long friendships. My faculty host, along with his lab members, colleagues, and family, all went above and beyond to make sure we had the highest quality experience possible. Overall, my time in Japan was an adventure for my entire family, and truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.