Kyoto stole my heart

It’s hard to believe I’ve already spent 3 weeks in Japan. Life still hasn’t settled down, exciting stuff keeps happening, and it feels like an eternity since I said bye to my family.

I’m gradually starting to feel that the streets I walk every day are not just a cinema landscape, but real life which I exist in. Last Sunday I took a long walk to the centre of Kobe – Sannomiya, and saw simple industrial landscapes, houses, schools, parks, and reminded myself that this is all just as real as my life in London.

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Just my everyday view

It’s only getting harder to wake up at 7 am every day, which limits what I get done. However, as soon as I get out of the dormitory and see the breathtaking view over the whole city, I regain some of my determination to have as much fun as I can. The routine is still broken into puzzle pieces, but at least I finally chose what lectures to attend: one in Japanese on Japanese society and culture, and one in English on the link between Japanese religion and literature. They are not as detailed as Oxford lectures, but it feels great to learn something other than kanji! 🙂

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Smiling for official photos makes my face twitch so much…

Oxford students get a bit of a special treatment here, which is both good and bad. I see no difference between myself and the other international students I attend classes with every day. However, we do get nice perks such as the student tutor system, or visiting Kobe university’s President Takeda the other day. He was very relaxed and chatted to us about Pokemon Go, of all things. (Kobe is fantastic for this game and I have caught many a rare type already…) This was nice because I normally expect a lot of formality in Japanese business settings. It also reminded me how much I appreciate the attention given to our well-being here, even though any other student should get the same.

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Absolutely breathtaking

The most exciting part of the week was, of course, going to Kyoto on Saturday. So far I’ve only been to places I don’t recognise very much; but I have daydreamed of Kyoto since I was about 11. It didn’t disappoint. Every little detail of the streets was elegant, creating a dreamlike impression. I was surprised to learn that Kyoto is actually smaller than Kobe in terms of population, but I guess it is more spread out, with space for numerous temples and shrines, so it feels like a bigger city. I was excited to see the 時代祭 (Festival of the Ages) that was advertised everywhere, but was surprised that it consisted of a sombre parade. It was beautiful  and attracted huge crowds, but I guess I have a different association with the word ‘festival’. Maybe we should have researched more.

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Magical blurry landscape

The best part of the day by far was visiting the 清水寺 (Kiyomizu Temple). Because of the festival there were many people in kimono, and the crowds climbing up and down the hill to the temple buzzed with excitement. We reached the top at sunset. It was too dark to take photos, and just as well, since I forgot all about my phone and took in the surroundings. There is no way to describe the view that would not be cheesy or unsatisfying; the darkness gave the temple a sense of magic, the place felt sublime. Some of us bought the traditional fortune predictions, and Hannah and I were gifted with “bad luck” and “heartbreak”. Laughing it off, we speedily explored the temple, but had to leave fairly quickly because it was closing up.

I can’t wait to see more of Kyoto, and I’m absolutely in love with the city. It has a special atmosphere akin to Oxford, which is my favourite place in the world at the moment, so yes, I got very excited. I’m hoping to come back in November for the infamous red leaf season. For now, though, I’ve got a week of classes ahead, and a big trip to Hiroshima next weekend!

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Crazy, lovely Osaka

Another week living in Japan went by. So much has been happening, it feels like a mini lifetime since I’ve arrived!

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Fancy Birthday Fronk

The weather has finally become pleasant – no more sweaty humidity; it’s chilly enough to wear a light jacket. Soon the tree leaves will start turning red and yellow, I can’t wait to go to Kyoto for this season. I saw beautiful autumn all the time in Russia, but I think because it doesn’t get cold enough in Britain, the leaves don’t change colours in the same way.

This weekend I’m enjoying some peace and quiet, especially as last weekend was full of new experiences. For example, we went to karaoke to celebrate Frank’s birthday. Initially I got overly into it despite my terrible singing, but halfway through I managed to fall asleep on the sofa! I guess the busy life in Japan is catching up to me. We also went to Osaka on Monday since it was a national holiday, and I loved seeing the bustling city, reminiscent of New York with its skyscrapers, but full of unique charm. I tried gyoza for the first time, but wasn’t really a fan, because there was only a meat option available. However, wondering around the centre and the Japanese answer to Chinatown – the “American Village”, or “amemura”, was lots of fun. We also visited the Pokemon centre, and I got some souvenirs for myself and my family, but it was a bit less exciting than I hoped.

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Crazy Osaka

After the long weekend it was hard to get back into waking up at 7 am. I have chronic fatigue syndrome as it is, so it’s already a struggle staying awake through classes and lectures. The academic side of things so far is sadly not very exciting. I keep struggling between the extremes of either finding things too challenging or too slow. My kanji remains terrible and I must put extra effort into it, but grammar classes are much slower than in Oxford (a lesson per week rather than 3-4 lessons we had back home). Similarly, the lectures in Japanese seem fascinating, such as a Geography one about the rise and fall of Detroit, but I can’t understand a word, and I’m worried about the end of semester report I will need to write. On the other hand, the lectures in English are a bit slow and I’m actually finding myself missing Oxford essays, even though they take lots of time. It’s really difficult for all of us right now, and every day my classmates and I grumble about how we want to sleep as soon as we get back to our dorm at 4-7pm, without any energy to explore Japan. Hopefully we will figure out a balance soon and perhaps use this year for learning through interacting with the locals more than through academics. Previous Oxford Japanologists advise this very thing anyway.

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My first Purikura!

On that note, we had our first International Hour on Wednesday, and despite hearing that it’s supposed to be boring, I actually enjoyed it. It’s yet another chance to meet a variety of people, especially helpful to someone as shy and socially anxious as me. For example, I immediately signed up to be a judge for some speech competition in the English learning circle for Japanese people. As I get older I find parties more stressful than fun, so I’m grateful for alternative options.

This week I’ve been feeling very homesick for Oxford, but my mum wisely reminds me to concentrate on enjoying Japan instead, so that’s my aim for the upcoming week.

A dreamlike week

After a difficult flight, time without internet, and continuous battles with bureaucracy, I’m finally able to sit down and type some of the adventures up.

So, the flight. I was methodical about choosing the cheapest tickets half a year in advance, and I settled for a STA Travel deal for £450, flying with Air China. I normally enjoy travel, because I can sit back and listen to music or watch a movie. Sadly, the flight was uncomfy, stuffy, and I had to sneakily use my phone under my blanket, because Air China is one of the few airlines that still forbid using your phone in airplane mode. Thankfully my classmates made the journey bearable, and we joked about getting more and more delirious from tiredness. By the time of our changeover in Beijing everything felt like a dream, and a glass of wine at a random Korean restaurant did what half a bottle usually does for me.

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I was amazed how smoggy it was in Beijing!

When we landed in Kansai Airport in Osaka, we were welcomed by about two hours of passport control queues. At least my medication declaration went smoothly – do email me if you need information about Japanese regulations on bringing more than a month’s supply. The drive from Osaka to Kokui dorm in Kobe was 1,5 hours, and we finally got there at about 1:30 am, despite being supposed to be there mid-evening. Poor teachers, having to wait up for us. The best part of the 24-hour journey time was stumbling out of the residence at 4 am for a little look around, turning to each other and exclaiming: we are actually in Japan! It’s the real thing!

Starting from last Saturday and up to Friday we were in a bit of a bureaucracy hell. Thankfully, we got the best babysitters ever! Kobe university does a student tutor program, where Japanese students get paid to look after us and show us the ropes of life in Japan. I think this week I’ve done more adulting than in the entirety of my first year of university. Opening a bank account, registering at the town office, paying for national health insurance, etc. We also had to go and buy such simple things as mattresses, kettles, bins. Makes me so grateful for Oxford colleges which provide all these things for us and much more. The rubbish collection system is very scary in Kobe – you can get fined up to 100,000 yen (around £782) for sorting things wrong! Oh, and my favourite thing right now is the Japanese shop Daiso – it has all the household items and food you could want for 100 yen each, i.e. £0.80. Fresh food is very expensive though. I miss fruit and veg, but I can’t pay 3 quid for each tomato I fancy. At least cafe and ready-made meals are cheap, tasty, and fairly balanced.

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Real sushi at last

Kobe university, and in particular the 文学部 (humanities) campus, is gorgeous. Everything here is up a hill or a mountain, but the workout provides amazing views. The campus is very modern, full of comfy classrooms with good equipment. The staff are incredibly welcoming, and have been looking after us amazingly well. Every morning, Monday to Friday, we have Japanese language classes from 8:50 until 12:10, which is painfully early, but the teachers make it fun and bearable. I’m panicking about how bad my Japanese turned out to be, but after a week I’m already more confident with spoken language. We have many opportunities to meet Japanese people, for instance in the lectures we must attend – the choices are very broad, and so far my favourite has been one about the link between Japanese religion and Japanese literature. I have to pick at least one series of lectures fully in Japanese, and having attended a lecture on philosophy of science, I realise it’s going to be extremely challenging, but hopefully some knowledge will diffuse into my brain. Oh, and I love the food on campus – we can go to a konbini (a mini store that has a bit of everything), a general diner, and a veggie diner. I’m vegetarian, and it has been very hard to find something to eat in Japanese restaurants, because veggie alternatives are not a thing, and veganism is completely unheard of. It’s a relief that on campus I can get my fix of a warm curry in the veggie diner, which just opened this year, lucky me!

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Exploring

Also, shout out to the typhoon red alert that we had on Wednesday – classes were cancelled, but no typhoon actually came, so we just sort of sat in Hannah’s room and had a typhoon party. Japanese nature is insane, with 24-hour cricket concerts, monster mosquitoes, and screaming birds. I guess the next thing will be experiencing a small earthquake, which are a common thing here.

Today, exactly a week after arrival, is the first day I could afford to wake up without an alarm. I guess this means I’m finally settling in. It’s been very difficult to go through this with depression and anxiety stepping on my toes, but the uni staff, students, my classmates, my boyfriend, and my family all made it doable and enjoyable. It’s Frank’s birthday today (he is a classmate from Oxford), and we have planned a surprise karaoke outing later on – classing Japanese activity, after all. I think everyone is quite homesick, but we support each other, and have been making the most of Japan so far.

It’s time to go and sing お誕生日おめでとう(happy birthday) to Frank now. 🙂

P.S. I will be posting the photos in an album on Facebook: here