Tsukuba Travels

Hira Ayub Silat

© Copyright 2009 by Hira Ayub Silat


Photo of a table of Japanese food.

This is a travelogue of my visit to Tsukuba, Japan from 31st July to 10th August to attend the Asian Science Camp 2009.

My heart was thumping wildly as our cab halted at the International Departures terminal. It was the first time I was traveling abroad alone and my Mom kept reciting an endless list of instructions to me. Soon it was time for hugs and goodbyes.

I dragged my luggage and walked into the preliminary body and luggage check. I later learned that the security at Jinnah International airport, the largest airport of Pakistan, located in Karachi, was considerably tougher than many other airports worldwide. The Check In took unusually long but at the Immigration, I had the privilege of joining the separate queue for Unaccompanied Ladies and Children. My fingerprints were taken and so was a photograph for which I lowered my veil.

Soon I was heading towards the lounge. The Karachi Duty Free shops did not fail to dazzle me. They were full of cultural items and exquisite Pakistani food.

I did not have to wait for long in the Lounge. But although we boarded in time, the flight was delayed. I was unsure when to offer my fourth prayers of the day and eventually settled on offering them after take off. I was perhaps the only one in the plane who had not only listened to the safety instructions with rapt attention but had also read the safety manual very thoroughly.

Since I don’t travel by air very frequently, the experience of take off and landing thrilled me throughout my journey to and from Tokyo. It is, I believe a truly sensual experience-where one hears the thunderous noise of the plane dashing on the runway, and observes sprawling cities jeweled with lights shrinking and shrinking in size until they can no longer be seen. We reached Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in less than 2 hours. I offered the last prayers of the day after we had landed. As Muslims, we offer five prayers everyday. I also quickly called home, knowing that I won’t be able to contact again until I had reached Tokyo. As the passengers started to board, I had my eyes out for my team members, some of them I had only seen photos of previously.


 It had all started sometime in March 2009 when my A Levels school had received an invitation to nominate some students for the Asian Science Camp 2009. The nominated students were then to undergo a selection process. The camp was to be a 7 day event in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan which teams of students from countries all over Asia would attend. During the camp, Nobel Laureates in the field of Physics and Chemistry were to give lectures and participate in discussions with the students. There was also to be a poster making and presentation activity. One of the major objectives was to initiate peace and cooperation among science students on an international level.

My headmistress had wanted to nominate me but it took several quarrels before my Mom gave a halfhearted consent to let me go. This was because she is strongly against women traveling alone. It was my Dad who managed to convince all of us.

It was mid April when I finally got my selection letter. But there was still another problem-although the ASC organizers in Japan would finance the accommodation, food and transport expenses during my stay in Japan, they would not be covering the airfare for the round trip unless I win their Fellowship for selected students. The deadline for application for Fellowship was only two days away so I had to apply very hurriedly.

But by the Grace of Allah, I also won the Fellowship.


I soon spotted the only other girl in our team, Mahin. Two of the boys in the team, Zaki and Zain were traveling with us while the third boy, Abdul Wadood, was traveling in some other flight. Our accompanying person, Mr. Wajid Ali, was a PhD student.

Soon after we had dinner, I began to struggle to get some sleep but was largely unsuccessful. I offered my prayers when it was dawn and sometime later, we were landing in Beijing. But it was a short stay and I only saw China from the plane window. Maybe some other time…I thought, as the plane rose again.


Five hours later, I was dragging myself languidly out of Customs. Mr. Wajid and I had wanted to get our currency exchanged from dollars to yens at the airport, but we found out that the bus from the airport to Tsukuba was leaving in two minutes and there would be no other bus for two hours. So we ran helter skelter to the bus stop and collapsed on the bus seats.

It was Friday, 31st July. The camp was supposed to be from 2nd to 8th August 2009 so for two days, we could do as we chose.

The drive to Science City, Tsukuba was 1.5 hours long. I soon found out that bus rides in Japan were more comfortable than even car rides in Pakistan. This was because not only were the seats comfortable but also there was no smell of burning petrol in the air, no blaring horns driving you crazy, and no traffic jams.

Another difference that struck me was the greenery, even inside Tokyo. During the camp, I found that many people did not find anything spectacular about the greenery in Japan, but then they hadn’t been raised in cities like mine where there was such a scarcity of trees that I never noticed when spring came and went.

In contrast, I could see that the suburbs had beautiful streams, lakes and agricultural fields. There were also many small intricately designed, triangular-roofed houses, In Pakistan; we only have flat-roofed houses so these were quite a novelty to me.


We arrived in Tsukuba late in the afternoon and wandered off from the bus station with the map in our hands. We soon found out that the Daiwa Roynet Hotel, where we were supposed to stay, was very close to the bus stop. Soon we were checking in. A Japanese receptionist offered me and Mahin some feminine bath fragrances to choose from because, as she said, baths are meant to be very relaxing in Japan.

I quickly dropped an email to my parents that I had reached Tsukuba safely and then went on to explore my room. It was small, but comfortable. Soon I was fast asleep.

In the evening, we went out to explore the surrounding shopping malls. Just as we had expected, everything was very expensive.

But the thing that immediately struck me about Tsukuba was its peacefulness and serenity. Having lived all my life in a city with a population over 11 million, I have always been stuck in crowds, traffic jams and long lines. At times, I have felt there is no breathing space. The people in Karachi are always in a hurry, restless and easily irritable. It was in Tsukuba that I realized the irritability was partly due to constant noise. The peace in Tsukuba began to steal into me and I felt noticeably calmer during my stay there.

One of the challenges we faced that night was to find something suitable to eat. As Muslims, we can’t eat pork and drink alcohol but we also can’t have beef, mutton or any bird meat that has not been cut in the Halal way. Hence we had to resort to fish burgers. Another thing that was unusual to us was the blandness of Japanese food. In Pakistan, we are used to having food rich in spices.


The next day was Saturday. We had breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. There we faced the same dilemma as last night about which food could we eat. The Japanese staff was very hospitable but they could hardly speak English and it took us considerable time before we finally sat down to eat. I had chosen to eat two bowls of fruit salad, one banana, one apple, some fish and some soup. Japanese tea was not at all according to our taste but I still forced myself to put up with it since I was strongly addicted to tea.

One section of the restaurant was constructed in Japanese style. We had to take off our shoes to enter it. Food was eaten sitting on the floor. This reminded me of Pakistan where many of ate food sitting on the floor too.

After breakfast, we got ready to leave for Tokyo since camp was not supposed to start until Sunday evening. We couldn’t find any currency exchange in Tsukuba so me and Mr. Wajid borrowed money from the rest of the team.

The bus trip to Tokyo was again long but this time we were able to take in more of the scenery. When we finally arrived at Tokyo, we were overawed by the huge buildings. The city looked like a huge construction maze. We had no guide with us and had no idea about which places to explore. The subway was also quite complicated. Besides, there was hardly anyone who could speak more than a few syllables of English. But the collective help of many passersby helped us understand that one of the most famous shopping arenas of Japan, Ginza, was within walking distance.

We spent a lot of time exploring Ginza. Everything was extremely expensive so all I bought was a small Japanese purse from a souvenir shop. To our relief, we found a Tourist Information Center in one of the shopping malls. From there we obtained information about where to exchange currency and also a map of Tokyo.

We then went to the currency exchange and I finally got some yens. After that, our next stop was Imperial Palace. The gardens were so beautiful that my spirit rises even when I imagine them now. There was a pebbled path to the triangular roofed, ornately designed palace. The gardens were bordered by huge round stones that could easily be used as benches. The crickets made a tremendous buzz in the gardens, something that was not common in Pakistan. I prayed in the garden. In the afternoon, I had prayed near the Subway Help Center.

After leaving the Imperial Palace, we wandered off to a nearby lake. A bridge spanned across it and led into a huge square with beautiful fountains. We took many photographs there and then hunted down another McDonalds to eat some dinner. I prayed again at the shopping center. It was nightfall by the time we started waling back to the bus stop. We got lost several times and also stopped frequently when we saw something to marvel at.

Finally we sat on the bus and came back to Tsukuba, having seen one of the largest cities in the world.


On Sunday, we woke up late in the morning. After breakfast, we found the location of a 100 yen shop. There were many Japanese style souvenirs there which had been manufactured in China especially for these 100 yen shops. I bought many trinkets and souvenirs from there, since it was the only cheap shop I had found so far.
By the afternoon, many teams from other countries had started arriving.

In the evening we went to the Epochal Tsukuba Congress Centre for registration to the Asian Science Camp. It was a huge, beautiful glass building, with many halls and conference rooms and a large lobby. The lobby had glass walls which overlooked into a garden which was densely covered with trees.

We each got a bright blue coloured ASC t shirt, a name tag, handbag, pen, notebook and a 2 GB USB. We also met the teams of Nepal, Kazakhstan and Indonesia. Later we also met and became friends with students from Malaysia, China, India, Taiwan, New Zealand, Korea, Thailand, Israel, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam and of course, Japan itself. I was having the time of my life.


On Monday morning, the conference was to start at 8.30 pm. The Congress Center was 20 minutes by walk from our hotel so we had to wake up quite early. I also tried waking up at 4.00 in the night every night because that is the time of dawn in Japan and Muslims offer one of the five daily prayers at dawn.

The conference began with a short Opening Ceremony in which the Chairperson of the Organizing Committee of ASC 2009 and the Director General of the KEK High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (the host institute) made a speech.
This was followed by the first plenary lecture, Symmetry and Physics, by the Nobel Laureate in Physics, C.N.Yang. The lecture talked about certain fields in Physics that were currently the focal point of research, particularly Quantum Physics.

The concepts discussed during the lectures were very high level but presented in a very user friendly style.
Before the beginning of the camp, the 200 students had been divided into groups of 25 students each. Each of the groups was assigned a Conference Room where they had a lunch meeting. Each group had a leader and two helpers.
The leader made us introduce ourselves, our fields of interest and our hobbies to each other. We were then divided into teams of four to five students each based on our fields of interest. Coincidentally, mine was an all girls’ team, with Emily from New Zealand, Kaina from China, Hsu from Taiwan and me.

Soon it was time for another lecture, by Professor Kobayashi on the fate of antimatter. This was followed by a lecture on Astronomical Telescopes by Kozai.  Again the lectures were complicated but attracted many questions. After the lecture, we had a camp session. Unlike the lectures which were given to the 200 students all together, the camps were to be of 25-30 students each. The camp sessions focused on parallel discussions between the Nobel Laureates and the students. All members of each team had to agree on, and choose the same camp. The first camp we attended was Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century by the Nobel Laureate Y.T.Lee.

The professor talked about his experiences in America and Taiwan, and about how people have started to live a very wasteful lifestyle. He discussed the feasibility of the various solutions of global warming and the spirit young scientists need to have.

We then had dinner. Just like in lunch, there were separate boxes for halal, vegetarian and non vegetarian food. After the lunch, we had another group meeting in which each team sat together. Each team had to make a poster which was to be presented at the end of the conference. Some of the posters were to be given medals and awards.

I walked back to the hotel at 9.00 in the night, tired but very happy at the wonderful beginning of the conference.


The next day was very busy especially since we had four lectures, followed by two camps. The lectures discussed a diverse range of topics such as Dynamics of Chemical Reactions, details of the subatomic particle, neutrino, and how creativity in science can be enhanced by ignoring scientific classifications. One of the lecturers also discussed his life history as a scientist.

The camps we had chosen elaborated on how science is a creative subject with various links between fields. The Nobel Laureates explained how creative analogies could improve understanding in science.

The last thing in the evening was a group meeting. By this time, Emily and I had bonded quite well, but Kaina and Hsu were quieter and hence more reserved. We had finally reached the conclusion that our poster would be on Interdisciplinarity and how it was important to get the best in science.


The next day was excursion day. We had been given four choices of scientific laboratories to visit. I had chosen to go to KEK which was the host institute of The ASC and had a very large particle accelerator which was being used to conduct important research. The whole tour to KEK was breathtaking. We saw actual parts of the huge particle accelerator, which was a privilege since it is not open to the general public. We also saw Belle, a photon factory and were explained its functions.
After the lab tour, we were taken for sightseeing to Tokyo. During the long bus rides, I made a good friend, Momoka, who was a Japanese girl. We talked about our countries’ social and cultural similarities and differences, my religious practices, and our educational plans.

 Our first stop in Tokyo was a science museum. I had never seen anything like that in Pakistan. I had expected the museum to have items of scientific value on display, but I hadn’t guessed that it would be so interactive. The floor of the museum was divided into many sections, each covering a different field of science including medicine, astronomy, genetics, space exploration, history of the Earth and environmental management. The stairs leading to the museum floor encompassed a huge model of the Earth that glistened brightly with many different colours.

Our next stop was Asakusa, an area in Tokyo with a shrine. Outside the shrine were two bright red pillars and a large bell. There were also some statues. There was also a five floor pagoda close to the shrine where we were not permitted to go.
In front of the shrine, leading to a large gate, was a lane with souvenir shops on each side. The lane was packed with tourists, busy sightseeing and shopping. The shops were very expensive so all I bought was a mobile strap to which hung a foldable fan.

From Asakusa, we went to Akihabara, which was a lane of electrical appliances. By that time, I was feeling quite tired. Besides, I had no interest in gadgets. So I wandered aimlessly with Momoka and some other friends looking at nothing particular. Everything was in Japanese anyways. Two women were shouting at the top of their voices outside their shops to advertise their products. When it was about time to go back, I offered my prayers in the bus. I had previously offered my prayers in the museum.

Our last stop was a barbecue restaurant where I lined up in the Vegetarian with Sea Food category. There, we cooked our food in a pan at the centre of the table using some oil. I was sitting with Emily and two Indians. Since India and Pakistan have similar cultures, we kept remembering our countries’ food with sighs because we didn’t really like the restaurant’s food.

By the time we reached Tsukuba in the night, I was very tired. So I offered my prayers and soon fell asleep.


The next day began with the last three lectures of the camp. The first lecture was about Nuclear Energy and Energy Climate, and as the associate of the Nobel Laureate pointed out, it was a coincidence that the date was 6th August, exactly 60 years before the Hiroshima-Nagasaki tragedy. The camp was about green chemistry, which we had decided was going to be a major theme of our poster on Interdisciplinarity.
After the Camp, we had a long poster preparation session. We had been provided with a white sheet which was the size of 16 A4 papers. We had also been given markers, stationery, a laptop for research as well as a printer.
As we sat down to decide how we were going to design a poster on Interdisciplinarity, I noticed that Hsu was not so happy and Kaina was very quiet. Hsu was having trouble with the concept of the poster. I was worried that our team was not functioning like a team when it struck me to consult one of the helpers. He discussed Hsu’s point of view, and clarified our confusions regarding the poster’s concept. Soon, thank God, Hsu and I were enthusiastically discussing ideas about the topics we were going to discuss under Interdisciplinarity. Hsu told us about some of the research she had done in Taiwan in which students had suggested that viruses can be used to make clothing that changed colour. Meanwhile, Emily, who was very artistic, had hit upon a brilliant design for our poster. She had suggested that we make a spider’s web on our poster, the borders of which are the different colours of a rainbow whereas the center is white. This was meant to indicate that, just like the seven colours of light merge to give white, the different fields of science could, by merging together, give direction to whole new avenues of research. Hsu came up with the name of our poster: “1+1>2: INTERDISCIPLINARITY”. The mathematical expression indicated that combining two fields of science gives more ideas than two distinct disciplines.

Meanwhile, we had noticed that Kaina was not taking part at all. So Emily kindly asked her what she wanted to do but at this, Kaina stood up and rushed out of the room. We discovered her crying in the rest room, and speaking in Chinese with one of her Chinese friends. Hsu later told us that she was upset because she felt she was unable to contribute much in the poster. She had seen that other Chinese students were doing very well and she was the only one who wasn’t. We all felt really bad but she told us it wasn’t our fault. I had realized that Kaina did have some problems communicating in English as well.

But after spending some time with her friends, she felt much better. She came back and told us she wanted to help Emily with the design of the poster. We all heaved a sigh of relief and resumed working, considerably more cheerful.


The next morning we hurriedly finished our poster and put it up on our rack in the Multi Purpose Hall. We all had to give presentations to judges about our posters and the judges would then decide which 10 out of the 40 posters would be selected for detailed oral presentation and discussion. Out of those 10 posters, one was to be given a Gold medal; two were to be given silver medals and three bronze.

Our poster was by far the most creative. But there were posters far better in content. It was a little disappointing for me when my poster was not short listed among the 10 for oral presentation. Nevertheless, I listened to the oral presentations of the 10 posters that were selected with interest.

A short while after the presentation began the Farewell Party. We had been informed earlier in the Camp that the organizers had arranged for the Japanese Emperor and Empress to attend the farewell party for a while. Students had been selected from each country at random to have a few words with the Emperor and Empress.

Meanwhile, there was delicious food on long tables in the Hall. The waitresses were wearing traditional kimonos. Everybody was talking, eating, drinking and exchanging email addresses. One of the Egyptian girls who used to wear a headscarf took a special photograph of all the Muslim girls in the Camp who covered their heads. These included Malaysians and Indonesians as well. I had been the only one who covered my face as well. Before coming to Japan, I had been worried about how I would stand out among the students of the camp and how I would attract stares from the Japanese. But entirely contrary to my expectations, everyone had been very friendly and had treated my religious with respect and viewed it with interest.


The next day, we had a Closing Ceremony in the morning. I was still feeling a little upset about not being able to win the medals but was delighted to know that my poster had won one of the Review Committee awards. It was announced in the closing ceremony that the ASC 2010 was intended to be held in India. After the closing ceremony, we bade each other farewell, knowing that it had been a lifetime experience.


The rest of the day and the next were spent wandering in Tsukuba and packing. On Sunday night, I experienced the first long earthquake of my life. The whole hotel shook and me and Mahin went down seven floors by the fire exit, only to find the Japanese people sitting comfortably as if nothing had happened.

 On Monday morning, the 10th of August, we checked out of the hotel. I had fallen in love with the hotel and the courteous and humble Japanese staff. On our walk to the bus stop, we were drenched in heavy rain.  That day my A Levels result was also about to come but I didn’t find out what it was until I was back in Pakistan.

The flight back home was delayed by two hours. But I managed to sleep considerably longer during it. When we landed at Islamabad airport, my dad told me that by the Grace of God, I had gotten straight As. At Islamabad, I said goodbye to the rest of my team while I waited for a connecting flight to Karachi.

Back In Karachi, I soon added up all the friends I had made from the different countries of Asia and am now in touch with all of them. It had indeed been a great experience and I thank Allah for Blessing me with it. It is true that in travel, you sometimes gain whole new perspectives about life. One very major thing that I realized in the camp was that people were not at all intolerant with Muslims internationally. Another thing that I had learnt during my travel was that although different regions of the world appear very different from each other at the outset, it is the similiarities more than the differences that are the more striking.

I am a 19 year old girl. I live in Karachi, Pakistan. I have completed my A Levels and will be starting medical university this year, if God Wills. I am a devout Muslim who believes in peace and tolerance. My hobbies are reading and public speaking.

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