Research Trip to Japan (Debrief)

Well, in my last post I said that in this one I would talk about procrastination. I imagine that that particular piece will, quite fittingly, be a long time coming!

Hokkaido Shrine
Hokkaido Shrine

So I’ve just arrived back from a research trip to Japan. I spent two weeks in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, the most northerly island of the Japanese archipelago. It’s on the same latitude as central France but doesn’t benefit from a warming current like that of the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic. In fact, in winter the fresh waters flowing from the Amur River result in an Okhotsk Sea that is full of ice, and extreme weather conditions lead to (sometimes fatal) snow drifts.

A bad shot of the snow covered mountains behind Odori Park, Sapporo city centre
A bad shot of the snow covered mountains behind Odori Park, Sapporo city centre

Hokkaido had just woken up from a cold winter when I arrived and the island had clearly been celebrating. The white cherry blossoms littered the ground like confetti, and the dregs of the snow were piled to the sides of walkways here and there, as though the spring clean was under way. People were beginning to abandon the warmth of the wandering subterranean walkways to take in the sun, which beamed down between the many skyscrapers. Between the skyscrapers the still snow-covered mountains were visible and were a reminder of the cold grip of winter which had just been released, but also served as a picturesque backdrop to the city’s springtime happenings.

What, you might ask, is involved in a “research trip”? I know I wondered what I would *actually* spend the whole two weeks doing! I went with only two or three meetings confirmed but one stimulating discussion led to another and, before I knew it, I was flying home again. I could have done with at least another week but I came away with lots to think about and to follow up on over the next couple of months. The trip consisted of meetings, museum and site visits, book-buying, networking and viewing archaeological collections held by the university, from both current and previous excavations. One of the collections, which had an incredible array of material, from a whale skull to a finely decorated needle case, was from the excavations on Rebun Island (NW Hokkaido) which I will be a part of this August. It was so useful to get a head start in understanding the site, its stratigraphy and the kinds of material we will find, including the various types of pottery and stone tools.

Possibly my favourite item I saw during my trip. an Okhotsk (5th-9th c.) wooden bear-head sculpture/container
Possibly my favourite item I saw during my trip. an Okhotsk (5th-9th c.) wooden bear-head sculpture/container

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And the obsession with representing bears continues to this day. Corn-bear anyone?
And the obsession with representing bears continues to this day. Bear-corn anyone?

I was very lucky to be shown around the National Museum by Prof. Hirofumi Kato (Kato Sensei to me), Professor of Archaeology at the Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies, Hokkaido University, and Ren San, another PhD researcher whose extensive knowledge and excellent English (given my negligible level of Japanese) were of great benefit to me during my trip.

My supervisor Peter, Ren San, Kato Sensei and I outside the National Museum
My supervisor Peter, Ren San, Kato Sensei and I outside the huge National Museum

My trip also included a landmark moment in my PhD. I was finally in the same room as both of my supervisors! Before he left, my primary supervisor Peter and I met with my second supervisor Prof. Andrzej Weber, the director of the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project, which jointly funds my PhD, along with the University of Groningen (He is now based in Hokkaido on sabbatical). This meeting, among others, was extremely useful in helping to focus my research questions and settle on viable research strategies to answer them. The same can be said of the many meetings with other Japanese colleagues and I have a lot of follow up work to do between now and when I go back. Sometimes there is no replacement (not even Skype!) for getting round a table and having a good chinwag. And going to Japan is always nice too!

Peter, my second supervisor Andrzej and I after out first ever research meeting
Peter, my second supervisor Andrzej and I after out first ever research meeting

If the productivity of the trip itself wasn’t making me feel more confident in my abilities and optimistic about the next three and a half years, then the post-trip feedback from both my supervisors assured me that I am right on track, which is always nice to hear.

Rock art (also Okhotsk period) from Fugoppe Cave site
Rock art (also Okhotsk period) from Fugoppe Cave site

It’s quite easy to look back and pick out a particular point in your life where everything changed, or where something big started. I can definitely pick out a few, but what I’ve never done before is acknowledged one of these transitions in the moment. At the minute I’m looking at the opportunities I’ve been given – to carve out an enjoyable and fruitful career, to travel and learn new languages, the support I’m benefiting from, the people I’m working with…I’m looking at all of this and thinking “F**k me! These will probably be the most formative years of my life.” I’m sure any of you who might be reading this who have been through the PhD process will be laughing at my naïve optimism! Let’s see how long it lasts!

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Beginnings!

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So here it is! My very first blog post. Taking this simple step has felt to me like that moment when you’re trying to jump from a height, into a pool, or the sea, and you want to lift your feet, springing away from the ground to begin your descent… but your legs just won’t let you.

Speaking of descent – this blog is going to document my journey through my PhD. Think 4 years of posts about academia, archaeology, The Netherlands, Japan, other travel opportunities, writing and, realistically, my slow descent into madness (I’ve been assured of this. If it doesn’t happen I’ll be one of the lucky ones). But more than that I want the posts here to be testament to where life can take you when you do what you love, when you’re passionate about it, and when you are lucky enough to meet, know and share your work with wonderfully supportive and encouraging people. I hope the blog can eventually become a source of support and encouragement for other people who want to embark on a career in archaeology, or academia more generally.

So, starting this blog was my 2015 New Year’s resolution (recycled from the year before) and as you can see it’s only the middle of April! Not bad (for me)! And so to celebrate this perfect display of my procrastinatory (this needs to be a word) skills my next blog post will be about the first few months of my PhD, moving to Groningen and how and why I am not going to let myself procrastinate through my PhD.

But part of me thinks this blogging thing will simply be another means of procrastination. We’ll see.

Tot volgende keer! (Until next time)