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Report of the 43rd Natural Hazards Workshop, Colorado

By Rebekah Yore, on 30 July 2018

Blog post by Justine Uyimleshi and Emmanuel Agbo

 

The natural hazard workshop is an annual event organised by the Natural Hazard Centre in collaboration with the University of Colorado Boulder around the field of disaster management and emergency response to trigger interactions and contributions from different experts in the field of disaster management and humanitarian responses. This year’s workshop, which was held in Omni Interlocken Hotel Boulder, Broomfield Colorado, from 8 – 11 July 2018 attracted over five hundred participants including disaster managers, emergency response personnel, practitioners and academia from around the world with different expertise in interactive sessions around pertinent issues that globally result in loss of lives, property damage, loss of economic values and human displacement. As a part of the IRDR strategy for promoting continuous research around disaster risk reduction (DRR) and expansion of networks in strengthening collaborations with other disaster management and emergency response entities across the world, the Institute through its research assistance funding provided support for two of its PhD researchers, Justine Uyimleshi and Emmanuel Agbo, to take part in this international event. Our participation in the workshop availed us the opportunity of interaction amid experts with different knowledge about disasters and present our research to the international communities.

Presenting our research

The workshop was full of several concurrent sessions that created opportunities for vast interaction around social media and disasters, data and partnership need for improved disaster response, cascading disasters, institutional settings, community impact and recovery from disasters, Health and wellbeing of disaster respondents, among others which enriched our understanding of the different thematic areas of disaster management. Most interestingly, the workshop further availed us the opportunity during the researcher’s meeting to moderate sessions of paper presentations as efforts in promoting the IRDR commitment in global events.  Also, of great attention from the workshop was our meeting with Jim Murphy, project director, Civil/Water Resource Engineering, DC Metro Area. Jim in admiration of our presence in the workshop and presentation during the workshop sessions demonstrated a benevolent act towards us and offered us a tour to the wild fire and flood devastating sites in Broomfield.

On this tour, we were able to see the available response facilities, and measures that are in place to quell the likely impact from future occurrence of these hazards. Finally, we extended the exploration of Colorado to the Gold hill town, where the coal exploit took place and the city mountains, which are part of the historical features of Colorado. Resulting from our experience of this workshop, we wish to express our profound appreciation to the IRDR for their continuous support. The workshop was greatly an event worth attending.

A Short Tale of Fieldwork

By Claudia Sgambato, on 26 July 2018

Fieldwork represents a fundamental part of my PhD research, and, as a geologist, it is also my favourite part of the job. In June 2018, I flew to Italy for the first of many fieldtrips, with Joanna Faure Walker, my primary supervisor. Together we worked for five days to conduct detailed mapping of and data collection from the Auletta fault, located in Campania, Southern Italy.

The Italian Apennines are undergoing a southwest-northeast extension, associated with earthquakes of moderate and large magnitudes, occurring on active normal faults. The exact location of these faults and rates of movement across them represents an important factor for the seismic hazard.

The fault studied is located in the Vallo di Diano, one of the extensional intramontane basins that characterise this sector of the Southern Apennines; the basin, filled by river and lake fan and slope deposits, is bordered on the East side by a major fault system, terminating to the North with the 3 km long fault strand that was the object of this study.

The Auletta fault scarp seen about half way up the slope as a grey line that offsets the topography, where my fieldwork was focussed. This fault scarp crosses the Cretaceous carbonates of Mt. San Giacomo for about 3km (photograph credit: Claudia Sgambato).

Many large magnitude earthquakes have struck the Southern Apennines in the past 1000 years, with an average of one event every 50 years. For instance, in 1694, a M=6.9 event with epicentre in Irpinia caused about 6000 casualties; in the same area, in 1980, a M=6.9 earthquake caused about 3000 deaths. Some events had damage consistent with them possibly occurring on the Auletta fault, like the two events in 1561 (M=6.7) that caused 600 casualties. Moreover, there is a debate on the location and nature of the structure responsible for one of the strongest earthquakes in the area, which occurred in 1857 in the Northern Vallo di Diano and Val d’Agri, causing between 10,000 – 20,000 casualties.

The main aim of my fieldwork on this trip was to collect detailed data along the fault scarp of the fault geometry (strike and dip), together with offset and slip direction data, to understand how these vary along what we consider the termination, or tip, of the fault. In fact, my research project investigates how the geometry of both individual faults and fault arrays in the Central and Southern Apennines influences the seismic hazard. All these data collected in the field, such as the fault orientation, length, strike and dip, slip to length ratios, will be used to study what controls the variability in slip-rates along the faults and how the fault geometry and faults interaction can affect earthquake recurrence intervals.

Joanna is taking measurements of the strike and dip of the fault (photograph credit: Claudia Sgambato).

Our typical day in the field started with an early breakfast, to avoid the heat and to reach the fault scarp at an elevation of 750m, as soon as possible. Then we walked along the scarp, taking measurements of strike and dip and slip vector, and where possible, measuring the throw using a meter ruler, which requires lying on the ground and sliding through the slope for about 100m.

You would think that the best part of fieldwork is the immersion in nature, with the fresh breeze and the warm sun of an early summer in Italy. Indeed, growing up in southern Italy means I have many such memories. But, there is the other side of the coin: imagine starting a day by facing some steep, slippery, muddy, slopes, covered in thistles, the kind that grows taller than you! Then later in the day, while working in the sun, suddenly heavy clouds cover the sky and rain, loud long-lasting thunders, and all the things you don’t expect from an Italian summer, happen, every day over those five days. And while you are trying to save your precious maps and notebook from the pouring rain, your legs and arms experience all kinds of thorns and stings. Well, this is fieldwork! The joy of working in the best “office” in the world, and all the (mis)adventures that come with it.

Negotiating through the thistles on my way up to the fault scarp – the Vallo Di Diano in the background – my “office” view (Photograph credit: Joanna Faure Walker).

Even if this field trip wasn’t exactly as expected, I learned a lot thanks to Joanna. We had a fun time, enjoying the stunning views, and more importantly, we brought back some interesting data that will keep me busy while I am already organising my next trip.

Happy to have escaped the thunderstorm, after anticipating its coming and climbing to the top (Photograph credit: Joanna Faure Walker).

Pressure Cooker in Mexico City

By Lucy K Buck, on 5 July 2018

On the 14th May 2018 I found myself in a room in the beautiful Palacio de Mineria in Meixco City. Me and 34 other young researchers from various different disciplines were there to be part of the first 24-hour Pressure Cooker, organised by the Water Youth Network as part of the Understanding Risk Conference. We were to be split into groups to work on case studies looking at either hazards either in Izapalapa, Meixco City or Dzilam de Bravo, Yucatan. The aim was to develop a risk communication strategy for hazards, such as flooding, subsidence and fracturing, that these areas suffer from.

And this is where it became clear why we were in Mexico. Mexico suffers from geological (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, subsidence, fracturing and landslides), hydrological (flooding and drought), meteorological (hurricanes) and anthropological (over fishing, pollution, over exploitation of resources, over population) hazards. In fact, the area that my group was given, Izapalapa, suffers from both extreme flooding and water shortages, and often people’s houses are flooded but they have no drinking water. Of course many of these are interconnected, compounding the problem (shortage of drinking water -> over extraction of ground water -> subsidence -> flooding).

Iztapalapa, con el poder de la gente – with the power of the people

 

Iztapalapa

With a population of roughly 1.8 million Iztapalapa is the most populous and fastest growing district of Mexico City. It is also the poorest with most of the population living in substandard conditions, often without running water and electricity. However, the area has a very strong sense of community and a high literacy rate, only 4% of the population over the age of six is illiterate. This is a community that is very well aware of the problems the district faces but has very little knowledge about how they can have a meaningful impact in reducing these risks.

Go Team 1!

 

The Challenge

We had 24 hours to come up with a viable communication plan to help reduce the vulnerability and increase the resilience of this community. With support from experts in communication, urban planning and relevant hazards, as well as representatives from the local Government. As well as the different specialities represented by our team (my team included a geophysicist, an urban planning, a psychologist and more!) we had the best chance to come up with a meaningful solution.

We decided the best strategy was to engage kids, getting them involved and helping solve the problem themselves.

We discovered that Mexico City had run a test pilot scheme where people would use a rain catcher to provide grey water for the house, reducing pressure on aquifers and the leaking water infrastructure and in the long term reduce subsidence and flooding risk. We decided to extend this to children. Teaching them how to make their own water catchers, which also lets them to contribute to the household and cut bills. Along with this we introduced our ‘Water Ambassador’ group where we would teach children about the importance of water conservation, this came with a badge once you built your own water catcher and helped conserve water in your home, and the ‘Guardians of the Drain’ which also came with a badge and organised teams of older children/teens to clean waste from the drainage systems to help stop flash flooding from these systems overflowing (this would obviously come with safety lessons).

Building a demo rain catcher at 1AM

 

After 24 hours straight of hard work, feeling very tired but gratified, we presented out communication plan to the rest of the participants as well as various experts and local representatives.

The vulnerability of Iztapalapa was highlighted the next day when, on a fieldtrip to the district, a 5.1 earthquake hit the city. Demonstrating how resilience methods can work, the early warning system had meant many homes had been evacuated and no damage or injuries occurred.

However, the most lasting and important outcome of this challenge were the connections and friendships that we all built during the exercise. These relationships are the best foundation on which to develop disaster risk reduction.

Some of the UR family

 

A massive thanks to the Water Youth Network and NERC, without whom this experience would not have been possible. Can’t wait for next time!

IRDR Masters student publishes Early Warning and Temporary Housing Research. This is part of the on-going collaboration between UCL-IRDR and IRIDeS-Tohoku University

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 4 June 2018

Angus Naylor, an IRDR Masters student alumni and Masters Prize Winner, has published the research conducted for his Independent Research Project. The research was carried out as part of his MSc Risk, Disaster and Resilience with me, his project supervisor, and our collaborator at Tohoku University IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science), Dr Anawat Suppasri.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS wanted to join forces to learn more about both the fundamental science and impacts of disasters both in Japan and around the world. Naylor’s recently published paper adds to other collaborative outputs from the two institutes: Mildon et al., 2016, investigating Coulomb Stress Transfer within the area of earthquake hazard research; Suppasri et al., 2016 investigating fatality ratios following the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami; and IRDR Special Report 2014-01 on the destruction from Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The two institutions have met on a number of occasions, and have an upcoming symposium in October 2018.

In 2014, three and half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed much of Tohoku’s coastline, I led and Dr Anawat Suppasri organised a joint UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS team, visiting residents of six temporary housing complexes in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. While there, we used written questionnaires and informal group interviews to investigate the suitability of early warning systems and the temporary housing among the elderly population affected by this event.

When analysing the results, we found overall that age was not the principal factor in affecting whether a warning was received, but did play a significant role regarding what was known before the warning was received, whether action was taken and how temporary and permanent housing was viewed. The results suggest that although the majority of respondents received some form of warning (81%), no one method of warning reached more than 45% of them, demonstrating the need for multiple forms of early warning system alerts. Furthermore, only half the respondents had prior knowledge of evacuation plans with few attending evacuation drills and there was a general lack of knowledge regarding shelter plans following a disaster. Regarding shelter, it seems that the “lessons learned” from the 1995 Kobe Earthquake were perhaps not so learnt, but rather many of the concerns raised among the elderly in temporary housing echoed the complaints from 16 years earlier: solitary living, too small, not enough heating or sound insulation and a lack of privacy.

An example of Temporary Housing following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami visited during the fieldwork for this study (Photograph: Dr Joanna Faure Walker)

The research supports previous assertions that disasters can increase the relative vulnerabilities of those already amongst the most vulnerable in society. This highlights that in order to increase resilience against future disasters, we need to consider the elderly and other vulnerable groups within the entire Early Warning System process from education to evacuation and for temporary housing in the transitional phase of recovery.

The paper, ‘Suitability of the early warning systems and temporary housing for the elderly population in the immediacy and transitional recovery phase of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami’ published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, can be accessed for free until 26th July here, after this date please click here for standard access.

The authors are grateful for the fieldwork funds which came from The Great British Sasakawa Foundation funding to UCL-IRDR and MEXT’s funding to IRIDeS. The joint UCL-IRDR1 and IRIDeS2 fieldwork team comprised Joanna Faure Walker1, Anawat Suppasri2, David Alexander1, Sebastian Penmellen Boret2, Peter Sammonds1, Rosanna Smith1, and Carine Yi2.

Angus Naylor is currently doing a PhD at Leeds University
Dr Joanna Faure Walker is a Senior Lecturer at UCL IRDR
Dr Anawat Suppasri is an Associate Professor at IRIDeS-Tohoku University

UCL IRDR – Motorola Solutions Foundation Scholars on the MSc in Risk Disaster and Resilience

By Rosanna Smith, on 22 January 2018

The Motorola Solutions Foundation provided two scholarships that contributed towards tuition fees for two of our current (2017/18) full time students on the UCL IRDR MSc in Risk Disaster and Resilience. This scholarship was specifically targeted at public safety professionals and family members of fallen first responders, because the Motorola Solutions Foundation wished to enrich the careers of this community with the high-level and cross disciplinary academic study of risk, disasters and resilience provided by this programme.

See below the experiences of our scholars so far:

 

Irene Naa Quartey, Overseas Scholarship Holder

Irene was a Disaster Control Officer for National Disaster Management Organization, Tema – Ghana, before she came to UCL for MSc studies.

I feel truly honoured and privileged to be a recipient of the 2017/2018 Motorola Foundation Scholarship award. It is an absolutely life changing award for me and I cannot express how grateful I am to be awarded among many qualified applicants. This certainly contributes a great deal in covering my tuition expenses in this great University. The award serves as a springboard to my professional development and the next chapter of my career.

My desire to pursue this program derives from my passion to provide constant support to the vulnerable in society and taking a centre stage in leadership. Prior to joining the IRDR, I was a Risk and Disaster Officer professionally with National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), a branch of the Government of Ghana.

Over the years, I have used my experience and role as a Risk and Disaster Officer in different capacities to put smiles on the faces of people who have experienced disasters and victims of homelessness, loss of life and properties. I needed a push in my career to advance into executive leadership to affect policy making and national strategic decision on disaster management. I feel this master’s degree program at UCL will equip me with the knowledge and skills needed to fill that gap to help me advance my career while benefiting society as a whole.

My studies at UCL have been very enjoyable; the great teaching skills displayed by the professors are truly world-class. Wonderful learning facilities and the network of friends from different cultural backgrounds globally makes it very exciting. I also enjoy studying in London and experiencing the very many resources the city has got to offer.

I wish to transfer scientific knowledge of risk and disaster management gained through UCL to improve my previous organization. I’m also certainly open to gaining work experience in the UK and working with international organizations to broaden my exposure and leadership skills.

 

Cate Howes, UK/ EU Scholarship Holder

Cate was a Senior Humanitarian Programmes Assistant at Muslim Aid before she came to UCL for her MSc studies.

I was inspired to study with the IRDR after attending the careers and opportunities fair* last year. Hearing from graduates for whom the IRDR has helped to carve a diverse range of careers in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) was extremely motivating, as well as the outstanding reputation of UCL as a world leading university.

I have assisted in two disaster response projects in the Philippines, and later on a demolition team in Nepal. Uponreturn to London I worked for over a year with the humanitarian charity Muslim Aid in the International Programmes Department.

I am particularly interested in DRR and emergency planning for schools – with a focus on lower income countries, and how safety can be improved for school children.

I am immensely enjoying my studies at the IRDR. The lecturers have been inspiring and very supportive. My classmates come from a range of experiences and backgrounds, and we have already created a strong support network.

Having obtained the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience, I aim to continue my career in the humanitarian sector.  I will look to become a key player in policy change and advocate for safer schools.

 

* Note that the 2018 UCL IRDR Careers and Opportunities Fair will take place on 28th February. See the event webpage and register here.

David Alexander gives keynote talk in Canada

By David E Alexander, on 1 November 2017

 

On 26th November 2017 David Alexander gave the keynote speech at the Canadian Risks and Hazards Network annual conference. His topic was “One Hundred Years of ‘Disasterology’: Looking Back and Moving Forward”. His presentation can be found here:

The conference was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which, almost exactly 100 years ago was the site of a massive explosion that killed 2000 inhabitants and injured 9000, as well as devastating the city. Thanks to the work of a studious Anglican priest, the Rev. Dr Samuel Henry Prince, this event marked the start of concerted academic studies of disaster, which therefore celebrate – if that is the right word – a century of unbroken activity. Alexander reports that it was interesting to observe the compare the explosion, a thriving and peaceful modern city, with the devastation that prevailed in 1917.

New Research Published: Tourism Industry Financing of Climate Change Adaptation in Small Island Developing States

By Janto S Hess, on 31 July 2017

 

Tourism is the most important economic sector in many small island developing states (SIDS), often driving development. Tourism in these island nations is however, threatened by climate change impacts, such as sea level rises or tropical cyclones. To cope with the damage costs of these impacts, a larger amount of money will be needed. This raises the question of who should pay for climate change adaptations, and whether it is the government and the tourism industry that are ultimately responsible.

Picture1In this study, Ilan Kelman and I explore the perceptions of selected tourism sector stakeholders and investigate the potential of the tourism industry for financing adaptation among SIDS. A range of financial and political mechanisms, such as adaptation taxes and levies, adaptation funds, building regulations, and risk transferral, were examined. The results show that there is great potential for the tourism industry funding its own adaptation, but with significant challenges in realising this potential. Consumer expectations and demands, governmental hesitation in creating perceived investment barriers, and assumptions about cost effectiveness could undermine steps moving forward. Varying incentive structures, the sector’s price sensitivity, and the varying abilities of tourism industry stakeholders to adapt are all factors suggesting that government frameworks are needed to ensure effective and substantive action.

 

Highlights of our article include:

  • Several promising revenue mechanisms in the tourism industry among SIDS exist that can be tapped to fund the industry’s climate change adaptation (CCA).
  • Private adaptation financing initiatives presumed to be cost-effective and feasible for the tourism industry include investing in water efficiency and pooling resources in a targeted fund, which are then allocated by need.
  • The biggest barriers to engaging the tourism industry among SIDS in funding their own CCA, are the government’s assumed economic dependency on tourism, consumer expectations and demands, and assumptions about costs and benefits.
  • Varying incentive structures and price sensitivity suggest that government frameworks are needed to create substantive and effective action.

To read our article in full, click here: https://www.cddjournal.org/article/view/vol02-iss2-4

Understanding the Nigerian Emergency Management System: A Key to Improving Preparedness.

By Justine U Uyimleshi, on 16 June 2017

Nigeria has over the years, been challenged with human induced disasters unlike other parts of the world that have faced the challenge of natural hazards. Reports revealed that between July 2013 and March 2016, Lagos state alone recorded four major cases of building collapses with around 122 dead and several injured. Between September 2013 and March 2014, Nigeria recorded three major stampedes with 96 dead and several injured (Okoli and Nnorom 2014). Moreover, the frequency of power failures in Nigeria has escalated to the level that even the presidential villa has mandated the 24-hour use of generators to provide continued energy in the state house, Aso Villa.

The increasing frequencyJUSTINE_P of human induced disasters in Nigeria is becoming so alarming that urgent need for preparedness to improve response when disaster strikes is required. This requires adequate knowledge about the system to determine its capability and areas that need urgent attention.

In line with the UCL Grand Challenges initiative, I embarked on a research fieldtrip to Nigeria in May 2017 to conduct a survey as a part of my PhD at the IRDR. The aim was to meet and discuss with a number of relevant emergency response organisations, and obtain some crucial information about emergency management activities to develop a framework to improve emergency response in Nigeria.

The survey was conducted at a number of institutions, including the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH), the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and the national hospital (NH). All of these constitute key emergency response organisations in Nigeria, and the survey gathered valuable information regarding emergency communication, resource availability, staffing and training.

Initial evidencesuggests that inadequate funding, inadequate resources, insufficient training, lack of incentives, poverty, marginalisation and lack of political will are the major factors that affect emergency response activities in Nigeria.

JUSTINE_FRSC

Working in the USA for 6 months as a visiting researcher

By Alexandra Tsioulou, on 24 October 2016

I am a third year PhD student in the IRDR and the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL. My research focuses on the use of simulated ground motions in catastrophe risk engineering. Earlier this year, I travelled to the USA to work as a visiting PhD student for 6 months at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I worked with Prof. Alexandros Taflanidis from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences to develop simulated ground motion models that are compatible with the expected seismic hazard, particularly in the region of the western USA.

Farewell dinner in July with my officemates. I am on the bottom left side.

Dinner with my officemates. I am on the bottom left.

I was part of the High Performance System Analysis and Design lab and was based in a well-equipped office with other PhD students. I had a big desk and two computer screens that was really convenient. The atmosphere in the room was very different to the big open plan office I sit in at UCL, it is very quiet and there is little interaction between the students. However, they take lunch breaks together and I was often invited to join them. On the weekends, we sometimes got together for dinner or drinks and they were very keen to show me what the city has to offer. They were all very friendly and made me part of their group.

The biggest challenge for me was the cold weather and snow; in the winter it can get down to -30° C, although everybody said I was really lucky last year as it only got down to around -10° C! The campus was very beautiful covered in snow but the commute in this cold weather was not very easy.

Grove of trees.

Grove of trees in South Bend.

Another challenge I faced was the poor public transportation system; there were very few buses and they didn’t go everywhere in the city, so I had to rely on a shuttle service to commute in the winter. The commute was short; in London it takes me half hour to get to UCL from home by tube, whereas there it took about 10 minutes by bus. After spring when temperature went up, I could also walk to university through wonderful scenery including a grove of tall trees and a beautiful lake, which took about 40 minutes. I felt very grateful to have those views and connect with nature every day on my way home.

 

St. Mary's Lake.

St. Mary’s Lake

While there, I attended the Probabilistic Mechanics Conference held in Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a three-day conference and there were a lot of interesting sessions. This conference mainly attracts researchers from US universities, but there were a few people from universities outside the US, mainly Europe and Asia. I presented a part of the work I have done at UCL and had the chance to see and catch up with some old friends.

Overall, that was a great experience and I certainly encourage other PhD students to take any opportunities to spend some time abroad as visiting researchers if they have this option. Lastly, I would like to thank IRDR for providing me financial support for this research trip.

Not working in Japan, aka travelling

By Zoe Mildon, on 13 May 2016

As well as working during my fellowship in Japan (see previous blog post), I have been able to travel around much of the country and see a variety of sights.

My first travels outside Sendai were to the Fukushima prefecture to meet with a group of UCL students who were in the country for a cultural exchange to commemorate five years since the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (see recent blog article). I joined them for a weekend, and a lot was packed into two days, including visiting Fukushima Dachii nuclear power plan, a Japanese castle, painting Japanese candles and staying in a ryokan (Japanese  style hotel) with an onsen (hot springs).

My second long weekend trip was partly geological and partly touristy. Shinji (my supervisor in Japan) took my husband Peter and I (he had come to visit me while I was in Japan) to Kobe and the area that was damaged during the 1995 Hanshin earthquake. We visited a museum on Awaji Island where the surface

Preserved surface rupture from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

Preserved fault cross-section from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

 

offset from the earthquake has been preserved by pumping glue and preservatives into the soil. They had also dug down to reveal a cross-section of the fault at the surface. To get to Awaji Island we crossed the Akashi Kaikyō bridge which is the longest suspension bridge in the world. The 1995 earthquake actually affected its construction. The fault, which moved with strike-slip motion, passed between two pillars that had been constructed and offset them by ~1m relative to each other, hence they had to be realigned following the earthquake. After this, Shinji took me to one of the oldest seismic observatories in Japan, near Kyoto, which has a collection of seismometers from ~1900 to the present day.

Peter and I feeding the tame deer in Nara park

Peter and I feeding the tame deer in Nara park

The earliest seismometers took up an entire room, whereas the most modern one was the size of a brick and weighed only 1.5kg. Then our trip became more touristy, Shinji took us to Nara, the first capital of a united Japan in 710 AD. The biggest tourist attraction is the largest Buddha statue in Japan, housed inside the largest wooden building the world. There are also tame deer that wander around the old part of the city and can be fed. Peter and I spent the rest of the weekend in Kyoto and Nagoya (most famous for the Toyota factory) being tourists.

After a couple of weeks of hard work, I took a week off to travel with my husband and a friend visiting from the UK. This was quite unusual for the other people in my office, I think Japanese people don’t usually take such long holidays! We went right off the tourist track, into a small town in the central Japanese Alps, in order to climb a small active-ish volcano. We were probably the only westerners in the town, and we caused a bit of a stir when we went to the local onsen, which was otherwise full of old Japanese people, who spoke no English whatsoever! Before I came to

Sakura blossoms in Kenroku-en park, Kanazawa

Sakura blossoms in Kenroku-en park, Kanazawa

Japan, many people had told me about seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms) and how special an occasion it is. We were in a city called Kanazawa on what was probably the most spectacular day for viewing the blossoms, warm, blue skies and all the blossoms were out. Sakura really is a fabulous sight, both in the cities and the countryside. Our last stop was Tokyo, where we spent three days. Tokyo is as huge and crazy as I was expecting. Travelling into Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train), for about an hour before you arrive at Tokyo station there are dense buildings almost as far as the eye can see. Much of Tokyo is busy, built up and lots of neon lights, but there are pockets of quieter (and usually older) districts.

Left: The Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, the bomb exploded about 600m above this building. Everyone inside was killed instantly. Right: Children's Peace Monument to commemorate all the children who dies as a result of the bomb.

Left: The Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, the bomb exploded about 600m above this building. Everyone inside was killed instantly. Right: Children’s Peace Monument to commemorate all the children who dies as a result of the bomb.

Last week, four friends from university came out for Golden Week (national holidays). We mainly stayed in Kyoto and did a couple of day trips out, including to Hiroshima. The Peace Museum in Hiroshima is an incredibly informative and moving museum, documenting the physical effects of the atomic bomb, from short-term thermal radiation to long-term cancer, as well as the physics behind the bomb and why it was dropped on Hiroshima in particular. We visited a geisha show in a theatre in Kyoto, as well as numerous temples and shrines. The highlight of my week was going to the opening day of the sumo grand tournament in Tokyo. It was not at all like I expected it to be, there was a lot of ritual and ceremony involved, but the fighting only lasts 5-30 seconds!

Beginning of a sumo bout at the sumo arena, Tokyo

Beginning of a sumo bout at the Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Tokyo

Travelling around Japan by Shinkansen is incredible for so many reasons. Firstly (and probably most well known) they are incredibly fast, Sendai is about 350km from Tokyo, which is about the distance between London and Newcastle, and the Shinkansen takes only 90 minutes! The trains are also spacious and comfortable, even in standard class. Their only disadvantage is how expensive they are to buy tickets, but in my opinion the speed is worth paying for. At the other end of the spectrum, local lines out of cities are typically very cheap, for example I got a train to a place called Matsushima, just outside Sendai, a 50min train ride which cost 400yen (about £2).

My overall impression so far of Japan is that it is a culture of extremes, between the very old and the very new and technologically advanced. Wherever I have been, people are very friendly and helpful, even through the language barrier. Before I came, I have to admit I didn’t have a burning desire to visit Japan, but having been here, I would thoroughly recommend it as a country to visit.