Sea Urchins, Kabuki Theater, and an Ocean of Memories in Japan – Lisanne Winslow – Japan 2009

My 2009 Fulbright experience at the Misaki Marine Biological Station (MMBS), University of Tokyo, was one of the most memorable and transformative experiences of my life. As a marine biologist and cellular immunologist, I worked with renowned marine scientists in a satellite campus situated at the edge of Sagami Bay. The professional experience was stimulating and exciting, breaking new ground in understanding the cellular immunity of marine animals, and sea urchins in particular.

While uni is a popular type of sushi, our interest in sea urchins was far more than a bite to eat. Our experiments monitored changes in the sea urchin’s immune cells as an early indication of pollution or climate-derived decline in the ocean ecosystem. While I am happy to report that the research was successful with several papers, presentations, and pedagogy that resulted, my experience, and that of my family, went far beyond the scientific successes.

The time we spent in Japan was absolutely beautiful. My daughters, then 8 and 10 years old, attended a local Japanese school where they made friends and engaged in Japanese culture. No, they did not speak the language very well, but I had a Japanese-American student from my home institution in the US come with us as a nanny, helper, and friend.  She not only helped my girls at school by attending and translating, she was our bridge to the people and culture. My daughters were introduced to the work of Studio Ghibli, which meant watching Ghibli films such as Totoro, and yes, we took a fun afternoon trip to the Ghibli Museum. We made many friends in Japan and were welcomed into the homes of several of my colleagues.

Through their kindness and hospitality, we were able to peer inside the culture and learn far more than we imagined. We learned Japanese calligraphy, flower arranging, how to conduct and participate in the Japanese tea ceremony, as well as attending performances of Noh and Kabuki theater. When I had time off from my laboratory experiments, we traveled to Tokyo to explore cultural attractions including the Ueno Zoo, the Tokyo National Museum, the stunning Meiji Shrine and Akasuka Temple. We were also able to travel down to Kyoto to see Japan’s original capital, as well as to Kamakura and Nara to stand before the immense and statuesque Diabutsu Buddhas. We frequented the onsen often, the Japanese bath across from our little Japanese house in the bamboo forest. That little house, faculty housing at the MMBS, was like living in a dream. A short walk through the bamboo forest and I was at my lab.  The girls would meet me and we would take another short walk down to the edge of the sea where I conducted my fieldwork as they explored in the tide pools.

We still look at our pictures and speak of our Japan experience with great fondness. I am ever-grateful to the Fulbright Association for allowing me this incredible, professional, and personal opportunity and the ongoing collaborations that have resulted.

Lisanne Winslow – Fulbright to Japan 2009

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