The Homecoming

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Hello, London

It’s been just over a month since I left Japan.

At the point when I got off the plane in Heathrow I must have been awake for about 22 hours. And yet, I couldn’t stop talking. I was greeted by mum and my partner Theo, and they patiently listened to my ramblings. I couldn’t stop commenting on everything around me, such as how different the clothes people wear in England are.

That night, going to sleep in my bed, being able to hug my partner, was surreal.

The next day I woke up early because of jetlag and discovered a strange abundance of energy, a desperate desire to get something done. I dragged Theo to Tesco to get cooking ingredients and kept loudly commenting on how cheap the apples are, and how the new thin Digestive cookies are a disgrace. I finally got to use the new £5 note. I took joy and interest in every little activity that was so mundane to me before Japan.

Many people experience a sense of alienation when they return home from a long time abroad. For example, their family and friends have changed, and they struggle to adapt to that.

Well, both myself and the people in England have changed too. But I’ve kept up with those closest to me, so it wasn’t a shock to see mum being swept up in her new hobby, or Theo having a fresh interest in fashion.

I’ve changed too. I didn’t notice it in Japan, but I can see it clearly now: I’m stronger, more confident in the knowledge that I can overcome challenges and find happiness in foreign places.

Since coming back I’ve been enjoying catching up with old friends and listening to their stories, admiring the ways they’ve changed. Some of them don’t need me to go into detail about Japan, because they have kept up with this blog, and the fact that someone enjoys reading these rambles humbles me so much. I’ve been dashing around seeing the dentist, the optician, trimming my hair, putting back together the lifestyle I had here in England. In under a week I’ll be going back to Oxford, my favourite place in the world, and taking on another busy year of learning. I’m ready.

I miss Japan. The memories are still vivid, but the idea that I spent an experience-packed year abroad already seems surreal. For now I look forward to learning more academically about the language, the literature, the history.

And one day I will book a plane ticket to Osaka again, and greet Japan like an old friend.

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Sleepy girl with all her possessions, ready to come home

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5 Days In Paradise

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As soon as I came to Japan, I heard about Okinawa: apparently a tropical, Hawaii-like island in southern Japan.

That’s certainly one way to describe it.

Okinawa is many things. For one, it’s not exactly Japan: the island was annexed by Japanese forces in 1879, disregarding its unique language and culture. Another important factor is that the US military has been stationed in Okinawa since World War II, and even now Okinawa contains 96% of the forces stationed in Japan.

The influence of both of these factors was easy to spot as soon as we got to Okinawa: the taxi driver’s dialect was hard to understand; as we were driven to our AirBnb, many military planes flew over us low in the sky. The taxi driver told us that there have been plane crashes every year since World War II.

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Our first sunset

Despite this slightly ominous beginning, Okinawa really felt like a tropical resort. We stayed in the most Americanised area, full of “American food” restaurants (mostly offering steak), and even prices in dollars here and there. There is also an “American Village”, which is basically an amusement park. The village was the closest spot to explore on the first day, so we window shopped, and finally dipped into the warm sea. The time during which we visited Okinawa is one of the busiest in the year, celebrating Obon, but the beach was hardly busy compared to European ones, or even the one near Kobe. I was surprised to find out that there is a strict time frame in which you are allowed to swim: around 8 am until 7 pm. There is also a clear, fairly small boundary within which you have to stay, because the net keeps away the jellyfish and all sorts of other sea creatures.

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We actually managed to go to a new beach every day of our five-day trip. On the second day we went to check out a beach a little further away, to get to which we had to take a taxi. Unfortunately, as we got there in the afternoon, the tide was very low, as it always is at that time of day. The boundaries and swimming times were the same. None of this prevented us from having lots of fun, of course! The sun in Okinawa is very hot, and most people prefer to swim in t-shirts or full-body swimsuits. As I found out from my own experience, that’s a very wise idea…

On the third day we found a beach that was very different from the first two. It didn’t have much sand, and was mostly composed of stones and pieces of dead coral – a bit morbid, yes.  Hannah, Thomas, and I were determined to trek over these stones through the water, even though it was very painful without flip-flops. We just kept getting distracted by the beautiful fish, and this strange sea cucumber called “namako”, which it turns out the Japanese sometimes eat raw. Thomas took it out of the water and let us touch it. It was indescribably gross! Certainly not a thing you find on your average European beach though. As we went further, the water got deeper, and finally we swam to a formation of rocks. Here lots of people with transparent pots were wondering around, exploring the numerous sea creatures, such as crabs and sea urchins. On the way back Hannah spotted a very poisonous sea snake, which luckily doesn’t tend to attack humans. As the boys headed off in search of food, Hannah and I exhaustedly collapsed on the rocks, and managed to fall asleep. Aaand that’s how I got the painful sunburn on my back. Lesson learned: don’t sleep in the Okinawan sun! On top of the sunburn, when the boys woke me up, it turned out that the pretty conical shell I picked up and put near my shoes walked off as I dozed. Oops. Sorry for disturbing you, shy little crab.

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The panorama is wonky from excitement

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The beach on the fourth day was hands down the best beach any of us have ever been to. To get to it we had to wake up really early, and take a ferry from Okinawa’s capital city Naha. It was quite expensive and took 2 hours one way to get to Zamami island. Absolutely worth it, of course. As Hannah put it later: it felt like swimming in a travel brochure! The water was crystal clear, and as soon as you step in you can spot cute fish swimming right by your feet. We all came prepared with goggles and spent hours doing improvised snorkelling: the sea gets really deep really fast, and you can swim over big coral formations, and watch dozens of types of fish and other sea creatures go about their lives. It felt like flying. That evening, exhausted from the mind-blowing experience, we stumbled into an Okinawan restaurant in Naha, and completed the awesomeness of the day by trying unusual food.

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Okinawan food. The green stuff is sea grapes!

On the last day we were all rather tired and a bit down about having to leave soon. It was Frank who found the enthusiasm to get us to go further north in search of another nice beach. It seems he found wrong directions on the internet and we ended up crashing a fancy hotel’s private beach instead, which was surprisingly small and dirty (clearly, we got spoiled by Zamami’s water). But with a great group of friends any place can turn into endless fun, and that’s what happened that day. We befriended a crab, drank wine on the beach, and stargazed. A sweet end to an amazing holiday.

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Now, two days after getting back, I’m sitting practically on top of my suitcases, writing my last blog post from Japan. Over 16 hours of travel time loom ahead; my alarm is set for 5:30 am. In the last 48 hours I’ve said goodbye to many dear people, ate a farewell ramen, and stuffed all of my remaining possessions into two suitcases. I’ve been looking forward to coming home, but suddenly it feels like I’m losing something important – this life and routine I’ve built up in one year in Japan. Browsing through some of my pictures, I realised how intense and magical it’s all been. There are many questions on my mind: have I changed during this year? Will I feel at home when I step back into England, or will I feel lost? Is hummus gonna be as good as I’ve been nostalgically fantasising all year?

So, here it is – my last post from Japan. But not the last one on this blog!

Bye bye Kobe uni

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After months of preparation, I finally did my presentation, and now I’m freee!

The task was to write a fairly long essay in Japanese on any relevant topic, and then make a 15-minute presentation also in Japanese about it. Mine was an analysis of the theme of misogyny in a novel called “The Goddess Chronicle” by Natsuo Kirino. This author is famous as a “feminist noir” writer so I was curious, and it was indeed pretty interesting. I’ve loved doing literary analysis since high school.

There was also some drama around the day of the presentation. On the very first day of classes back in October we were sent home early because of a typhoon warning, though the typhoon never arrived. Apparently it took it 10 months to get here, because on the day of the presentation a typhoon hit Kobe pretty hard… many people could not come. Public transport was not working properly, and as soon as you stepped outside even the sturdiest umbrellas would break in the wind. Still, we had most of our Kobe professors, the president of Kobe university, and a couple of Oxford professors, as well as some students. So the pressure was high. I did ok, even though the Q&A bit was pretty hard.

We were supposed to have lots of free food and drink after the presentation, but that was cancelled because of the typhoon. I was so tired I did’t even feel upset about it. Instead, as we always do, we piled into one of our rooms and ordered pizza.

It hasn’t hit me that I’m leaving in 10 days. My bags are packed for Okinawa, and tomorrow I get the joy of getting up at 4:30 – it will be worth the sunshine and ocean.

Last Few Weeks In Japan

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At the Noh workshop

As I’m sure it’s been said many times before about the year abroad… time sure flies fast. I still remember getting ready to move to Japan, worrying about the details, reading up on life here. Now I’ve got barely two weeks left until I fly home to England, and the process is just as chaotic. Many documents to sign, fees to pay, offices to visit. On top of that, I’ve just had 6 exams and the year is about to culminate in a huge academic presentation we spent months preparing. And in between all these scary adult activities I’m trying to see all the friends I’ve made here and say goodbye. It sure is an intense process.

I did get the chance to experience a couple of interesting things recently. On a rare free afternoon one of my friends took me to the beach! The weather certainly isn’t good for anything other than spending day and night in the water: the humidity is so intense that it constantly feels like I’m slowly boiling at 40 C. I even managed to catch a tan despite spending most of my days hiding in air-conditioned rooms.

The beach in Japan is a funny experience. Firstly, Japan has a pretty strict swimming season that coincides with middle school summer holidays, and is a 6-week period. It starts on the so-called “Day of the Sea”, the significance of which I’m not sure about, and ends just before the jellyfish emerge at the end of august and make swimming quite dangerous. However, the weather has been great for swimming much earlier than that, and if I had the time I would’ve gone to the beach much sooner. For Japanese people going to the beach is not a very popular activity – the women especially do everything to avoid getting a tan, including always carrying a parasol, wearing long-sleeved tops, and even going to the beach in a full-body swimsuit! The point of going to the beach is to have a picnic with the family.

Or so I’d heard, until I actually managed to go to a beach. It took us just over half an hour to get there from our university, and as soon as I got off the train, I was surprised with loud music and dozens of young adults in bikinis. It’s a sight I haven’t seen since being in Europe. The beach was stuffed with tents selling alcohol and snacks, and walking down the street we were approached at least four times by various promoters. There were more stalls than at any of the beaches in Spain! My friend explained to me that the young adult attitude to going to the beach in Japan is indeed different from what we expect in Europe. Rather than a relaxing activity, it’s more about a sort of clubbing, social atmosphere, a chance to hang out with friends and show off your body. It took us a while to get away from the noisy area and find a semi-secluded spot, but even there we were approached by a man who wanted to chat.

I did manage to relax a bit. The ocean was lovely and surprisingly warm, and I was amazed to see all the flying fish swimming and jumping near us. There are supposed to be quieter beaches in the Kansai area that are a bit harder to get to, but sadly I don’t have the time to explore them.

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An interlude: living in Japan is occasionally scary…

It was quite a shock to be so openly stared at and approached at the beach. I got used to men keeping a respectful distance from women in Japan. There have been a few incidents over the year, but nothing as bad as the kind of harassment that England is full of. I got a few cat-calls, one of which was in broad daylight. I heard stories of friends being touched in clubs, but a good curse is enough to scare the men away around here. I also heard a disturbing story about a girl’s drink being spiked at an international club just the other week, but considering I never hear about such stuff happening at Japanese clubs, it may well have been a fellow international student who spiked the drink. On the whole, the sexism in Japan is much subtler than in Europe, and experienced mostly in the workplace. I’ve studied the topic quite a lot since last year, and I suspect I know what my dissertation will be about!

On a lighter note, another interesting thing I did recently was going to a Noh workshop. Noh is a famous form of classical Japanese theatre. It’s also well-known for being very hard to understand and enjoy for people unaware of its intricacies. 3 actors came to our university to help us get into Noh, and it worked pretty well. The session took place in a lovely Japanese-style room, and after a brief introduction, we were encouraged to get up and try a few of the movements. The actor’s face is hidden by a mask in Noh, so instead of facial expressions, one acts with one’s body, therefore all movements convey some sort of meaning. We learned how to act out sadness, tears, and surprise using precise body language. Then we got to sit back and enjoy the actors showing us a few scenes from famous plays. Another interesting thing about Noh is the exaggerated, chant-like narration, which even natives cannot understand without knowing what will be said in advance. Listening to it felt a bit like going into a meditative trance. I do have to admit, though, that after the novelty of watching Noh wore off, it got a bit… repetitive. I can imagine getting a bit bored of it during a 4-hour performance. Still, if I had the chance, I would love to see a play live.

And that’s about it for recent stuff. I’m about to rush off for a practice of the Big and Scary presentation. Day X is the coming Monday 7th, and then we fly off for a week in Okinawa, and after that… home sweet home!

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My goofy class from England, staying smiley even through this stressful time!

Kabuki

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At the theatre entrance

When I was offered the chance to see a kabuki play, I was initially reluctant. I don’t know that much about kabuki, the ticket was 6000 yen (around £50), and the play lasts 4 hours (though it has breaks). But I thought: hey, this might be a cool experience, so I should try it out.

And thank god I did!

Kabuki was an absolutely sublime experience. It is theatre, but in a different way from stuff you see in the West. It is normally based on medieval plays, and lines are spoken in exaggerated voices, making the language hard to understand at times. There was live music, including instruments such as the shamisen (a stringed, plucked instrument) and the shinobue (a wooden flute). The costumes were incredibly detailed, and the dance at the end included some impressive kimono changes right on stage.

What really amazed me, though, were the movements. The entirety of the play looked like a dance, where every movement of every character was precise and filled with meaning. I was mesmerised by the scene where samurai Danshichi from the play “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami” was forced by circumstance to kill his father-in-law, which was a terrible crime in Edo Japan. I only read a short explanation before seeing the play, but even with limited knowledge of the significance of the scene, the costume, the movements and facial expressions, I was very touched by the acting.

Another interesting thing about kabuki is that it is still only performed by men. But it’s not the same concept as the men who performed female roles in medieval England, and a Western viewer would be wrong to judge the male-only casting in kabuki as outdated. The men of kabuki have made acting as a woman, or being onnagata, a real form of art: the only thing that gave them away on stage was their voice, but other than that, the costume, the movements – they were extremely convincing. I think onnagata can actually be used as commentary on society-imposed gender roles: gender is more than one’s genitals, it is also the way you move, the way you speak, and so on. I only actually knew about kabuki because I’m a big fan of David Bowie, who used kabuki as inspiration for his famous androgynous style and stage performances. I’m fascinated by the fact that such a liminal take on gender has been born in an otherwise ever-conservative Japan.

So, yeah, I’m thrilled I took the time to see a kabuki play. Even Hannah’s friend who is visiting at the moment and doesn’t speak Japanese enjoyed the play for its aesthetics. Definitely a recommended experience for people interested in Japanese culture.

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Inside the hall

The Clock is Ticking

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In front of Osaka Castle

June and July are a difficult time to be in Japan. In part that’s because both for students and for working people there are few national holidays in sight, and the weeks kind of drag on. But mostly it’s because of the weather: we’re mid-rainy season, which means that it’s either pouring and storming, or, if the sun peeks out, it’s unbearably hot. Even though it’s yet to be hotter than +30 C, humidity has been as high as 90%, and that’s much more uncomfortable than the heat. It’s unbearable to be anywhere without air conditioning, and yet sitting under one for hours is a surefire way to get a cold. The worst time of the day is when you’re trying to sleep, when the air is heavy and you get unbearably sweaty. Today I heard that in the past some young children and elderly people have died from trying to deal with the heat, especially as the temperature in Japan has been rising in the past few years.

Not to say I’m not having fun from time to time, of course. I’m hyper-aware that the clock is ticking and that I have 5 weeks left of classes.

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The dog mobile!!

The other weekend we met up with a friend of mine who just finished his year abroad in China. We went to look around Osaka castle, and had a funny run-in with a man driving around 10 puppies in one pram, or as Hannah dubbed it, the dog mobile. The highlight of the day, though, was talking to my Sinologist friend, and realising how much has happened during this year abroad, and how much we’ve all learned. Living in China seems to be quite different from living in Japan, with its own good and bad sides. But the core experience of moving to the other side of the world, adapting to a new culture you don’t always understand, building lasting friendships – that’s something we all now get, and it’s easier to appreciate how much we’ve learned from another person’s point of view.

The year is finishing whether we like it or not, making me both frantically try to enjoy what’s left of it, but also intensely look forward to coming home. Last week we said goodbye to Elena: a wonderful friend I’ve made this year, who had to leave a bit earlier than the rest of us. A large group of foreign students came together to send her off; though most of us are also leaving soon. Some are going to be graduating, others will continue university life, like me. It’s strange to build up a life and a bit of a family in a foreign country, only to leave it all behind as soon as you get used to it. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and I’m sure I will meet many of these friends again.

It’s not all melancholic around here. Yesterday we had dinner with some representatives of the Mitsubishi company to answer our questions about what it’s like to work at a Japanese company. It seems Mitsubishi has links with Oxford and some of our senpai, so they contacted John to set up a dinner date, and treated us to lots of corporate wisdom and tasty food. Life is full of new experiences even right at the end of my time in Japan!

Sapporo Getaway

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View from the chocolate factory

I was kind of anxious about disappearing off on a trip mid-semester to go to Sapporo. I went for 5 days, and 3 of those were class days, so it felt a bit bad.

It was awesome though, and I did get noticeably happier and more energetic when I got home.

I flew to Sapporo with Jet Star, which was comfortable and cheaper than Peach. It took 2 hours to get there from Osaka. The whole first day was basically taken up by getting to the town and then to my AirBnb.

This time I ended up staying with a really lovely office lady in her late twenties, who lives alone in central Sapporo in a one-bedroom flat. She was adorable and very helpful. Futchi (that’s her name) is one of those people who are able to get up at 5 am and be energetic even in the evening, which is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do. Futchi sleeps on the sofa even when guests are not around, and she was hardly ever home because she was working or hanging out with friends. We had a funny thing going where I would leave the house by 11 am while Futchi was still sleeping soundly, and I’d be out until early evening and go to bed by midnight, before Futchi got home. We did also have some nice chats though. She was maybe my favourite AirBnb host I’ve had so far.

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Juice in light bulb-shaped bottles

I had 3 full days to explore Sapporo, and I packed in a lot of sightseeing. I started the first day by going to the Hokkaido Shrine Festival that was going on, which was spread out around the town. One of the central parks had a large area covered in food stalls and ghost houses and a motorcycle trick arena. After having a look at that I headed over to see the shrine that organises the festival, which was beautiful and quite different in style from the ones I see in Kansai. At this point I was hungry and looked up vegan restaurants in the area. I was really impressed with how many there were. The one I had lunch in is called Itadakizen, and it turns out it has a chain in Tokyo and London, which I’m excited to visit. Vegan cafes are not that rare in Japan, but most of them serve Western food, so I was happy to eat traditional Japanese food without worrying about animal products.

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One of the processions

After getting lunch I headed to the town centre. As I got out of the metro station near the main shopping street, I stumbled upon several festival processions with lots of music and chanting going on. People were taking beautiful palanquins all around the place, and there were large crowds despite it being a weekday. Oh, and the weather was better than it was in Kansai: just warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt, and not humid. Being back in Kobe now I do really miss the Sapporo weather.

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The clock tower

There is a lot to see around the city centre. It’s picturesque and full of parks, which distract you from the blocky concrete buildings that look like they’re stuck in the 80’s. Hokkaido is very proud of its history, which is wonderful as it had a culture very different from Japan’s before it was invaded. However, Sapporo was not really a town until the 1870’s, when it was artificially designed and populated. There is a lot of American influence to be seen around the city, and Sapporo does not shy away from that. One of the main sightseeing spots is a clock tower that looks like it came straight out of the American West. There are maps and photographs available of how Sapporo looked like just after its conception. I also saw the former government office building, which again looked rather American, and had many historical artefacts on display. I was interested to see that the exhibitions there focus on different topics from Osaka or Tokyo museums: it’s all about ancient Hokkaido culture, its invasion, and its relations with both Japan and Russia. I ended the first day by going on a ferris wheel on top of a shopping centre, and getting a great view of the city in the setting sun.

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A tatami room

On the next day I headed straight to the Historical Village of Hokkaido, which had one of the most unusual ways of preserving history that I’ve seen. Old buildings from around Sapporo have been moved to this village on the outskirts of Sapporo, and it is organised in such a way that you do really feel like you’ve stepped into the late 19th century. You can go inside all of the buildings; and as well as government offices or shops there are also private houses filled with real people’s belongings, the way they used to be arranged. I loved the Japanese-style rooms the most. I must have spent 3 or 4 hours there, just wondering around, chatting to the staff and imagining what life must have been like. The village is situated near a large natural park, and I enjoyed walking through it to the Hokkaido Museum which was also nearby.

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When I got back to the city centre I stopped at another vegan cafe, which also served Japanese food. The whole holiday was a culinary paradise, really. The staff in all of the cafes were also really friendly and chatty, eager to compare Kobe and Sapporo. After getting dinner I headed towards the ropeway to Mount Moiwa – the best observational spot around. As usual, it was very expensive to go up, and I didn’t have enough cash to go all the way to the top, but even just halfway up the mountain the view was breathtaking.

My last day in Sapporo was just as busy as the rest. The first thing on my list was… a chocolate factory! Hokkaido is famous for the Shiroi Koibito biscuits that are produced there, and the factory in Sapporo was turned into a small theme park. It was mostly kid-oriented with lots of colourful interactive activities, but also had some interesting information on how the chocolate is made. I passed on making my own biscuits, but could not resist having cake at the cafe with an amazing view of the city. Bringing omiyage (souvenirs) back from a trip is a common practice in Japan so I made sure to get some biscuits for my friends and teachers.

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The sushi music boxes

Then I went to a bus stop, and… got on the bus in the opposite direction of where I intended to go. The next thing I knew I was on an expressway with no stops between Sapporo and the next nearby town – a port town called Otaru. After some frantic googling I just shrugged and settled in for the ride. This kind of thing actually happens to me a lot, since I’m rather absent-minded. Otaru is recommended for visiting anyway, and it was rather cute. I visited its Music Box Museum, which was overwhelmingly adorable, shiny, and expensive, and a couple of other shops. The funniest thing I’ve seen was definitely the sushi-shaped music boxes with Ghibli theme tunes. Then I just headed back to the hour-long bus journey to Sapporo.

I managed to get back in time to explore the Hokkaido University campus. It’s the 6th best university in Japan and generally a beautiful area. I enjoyed visiting its little museum that showcases the university’s research. After that I ended the day by going to yet another vegan cafe in Sapporo, and chatting to Futchi.

Aaand back to reality. The backlog of things to catch up on has been tough, but the trip was totally worth it. Definitely gave me a perspective on academic and health matters. Now only 7 weeks of uni to go!