Koyo Season

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Gorgeous Kiyomizu Temple

The colourful leaf (koyo) season is a big deal here in Japan, almost as much as the cherry blossom (sakura) season. There are entire websites dedicated to tracking what cities have the best views on which days, and people flock to all sorts of destinations by the thousand to enjoy the nature.

Kyoto is famous as one of the best places to see koyo, and we visited it last weekend in a large and merry group of international students. Even as a Londoner, supposedly used to crowds, I was pretty overwhelmed by the number of people on the streets. Last time I was in Kyoto I went for the popular 時代 festival, but it was nowhere near this busy!

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There were many people in lovely kimono

I got to re-visit the Kiyomizu temple, this time in daylight, and the views really were breathtaking. Growing up in Russia, I already have seen many an autumn full of beautifully-coloured leaves, but the Japanese tradition of celebrating this season means that people notice and appreciate the nature more, and use it as a chance to spend quality time with loved ones.

Travelling in a big group of people is fun but also quite a lot of time gets spent on organisational stuff. We meant to go to a place called Arashiyama in time to catch daylight, but only got there in the dark. Arashiyama is a district to the west of Kyoto, famous for its nature such as the picturesque mountains, the wild monkey park, and a majestic bamboo grove. The latter was pretty spooky in the dark and I’m looking forward to seeing it again in daylight. However, night time was perfect for the light display that was set up in the traditional Japanese garden of one of Arashiyama’s temples. Again, it was a celebration of the season, and the temple was busy with hundreds of people admiring the natural colours of Kyoto.

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Arashiyama looking mysterious

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Meeting the Daibutsu

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Todaiji temple. Note how tiny the humans look!

Last Sunday we had quite a special trip to Nara, Japan’s first capital, established in 710 AD. In particular, this trip was for visiting the Todaiji temple, known in the west as the “Eastern Great Temple”, built around 728 AD. The temple has been burned down twice, but has been rebuilt, and today its Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the largest wooden building in the world, as well as housing the largest statue of the Buddha in the world.

 

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Nara combines both the old and the modern

So, you can imagine how excited I was to visit the temple, especially as our course supervisor managed to arrange a private tour with one of Todaiji’s monks! Despite having learned much about this temple back at Oxford, it was fascinating to hear the story of an actual inhabitant of Todaiji. The tour was in Japanese, but with the help of my classmates, I was able to understand that we were taught about some basic Buddhist concepts, about Todaiji’s history, and about the daily life of a modern monk. We also got to go slightly behind the scenes and avoid the crowds. A magical experience indeed.

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The Buddha’s legs survived the fire and are the original ones from the 8th century!

The Buddha is absolutely enormous, by the way. My head doesn’t even reach the top of its crossed legs. Also, as we looked around, we noticed a pillar that had a large hole in it supposedly the size of the statue’s nostril, enough for a child to fit through, which is supposed to bring good luck.

It was almost momiji (red leaf) season in Nara, and simply walking through the city was lovely. Just like in Miyajima, I ran around excitedly petting deer. The deer in Nara are a bit more scruffy and very cheeky, since they are spoiled by tourists. In fact, that’s something that made me a bit sad – Nara is an extremely touristic town, full of signs in comprehensible English (a rarity in Japan), and it all feels pretty staged compared to the authentic historical atmosphere of Kyoto. Nevertheless, we are going back to Nara next weekend for another university-organised trip, and I’m excited to see more of the town and its temples.

The English learning society’s speech contest

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I’m proud of every one of these kids… even though I’m younger and smaller than most of them myself! (a.k.a. spot the Maria)

At last, I’ve settled into a daily routine that makes me feel comfortable and productive. The down side is that classes start seeming mundane, and I struggle to motivate myself to wake up at 7 am every morning.

Something happened last Saturday that reminded me about why I’m here. After all, it’s such a privilege to do what I’m doing – studying as an exchange student all the way in Japan, learning a new language and getting to know a new culture. It’s hard to appreciate my privilege on a daily basis, when it’s 9 degrees C and raining, and the sky gets dark before 5 pm.

However, last weekend I was lucky enough to be on a panel of judges for Kobe University’s English learning society’s speech contest. I met one of the representatives by chance and was invited as a fluent English speaker to take part in a 9-5 event full of Japanese students my age making speeches in English. They actually had to learn their 10-minute speeches by heart! I’m not sure I could do that in English, let alone in my equivalent of a foreign language – Japanese. The choice of topic was free, which made for some very heartfelt speeches. My favourite has to be the guy who gave a speech on the Japanese azuki beans (the ones that red bean paste is made from). He named his speech “admirable azuki”, kept exclaiming about how much he loves azuki sweets, and popped out a pumpkin and azuki dish mid-speech. Seriously, these people’s enthusiasm was contagious, and I felt like a proud mum even though I only just met them all.

It was also an intimidating event for me, because the other judges on the panel were middle-aged and with teaching experience – and here was I, a mere 19-year-old student! I think I did a good job though, especially with the helpful advice of my fellow judges. The most challenging part was the last couple of hours, when we met each contestant one on one, gave them detailed feedback on their speeches, and advice on how to improve their English. I genuinely begged each one of them to feel proud and to go home and celebrate; it broke my heart to see one of the girls cry in the corridor because she didn’t get a prize. Finally I know how it feels to be behind the judge’s desk – almost as scary as on the stage!

I was soaring home on wings of inspiration. These students reminded me why I myself am learning Japanese: because I love meeting people from different cultures, who are so different from me, and befriending them. I was lit up with enthusiasm for a grand total of two mornings… nevertheless, the speech contest was an important lesson for me, and the routine became just a little more pleasant.

Hiroshima mon amour

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Torii gate at Miyajima (read about it below)

Last Friday we set off on a wonderful two-day trip to Hiroshima, organised by Kobe university.

There were 20 of us: most of the Oxonians, and many international and Japanese students. We were lucky to have two Hiroshima residents with us – a student and a professor. Soon after classes we got onto a surprisingly comfy inter-city bus and it took about 4 hours to get there.

I’ve heard a lot about Hiroshima at school, of course. We had to research the atomic bomb, its creation, its effects. I will never forget reading an interview with the American pilots who to this day are proud of dropping the bombs: it’s such a shockingly inhumane point of view that I simply cannot process. I’ve seen many images of the devastation; and the idea of a nuclear winter is an omnipresent background threat in the contemporary world.

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Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is the best thing ever

The Hiroshima of today is nothing like that. I walked out of the bus into a beautiful, modern city. It’s very tidy and less busy than Kobe, but that’s about all that’s different. As we explored Hiroshima at night, it offered us many shops, restaurants, izakayas. Lots of students littered the streets in their Halloween costumes. On Saturday night we stumbled into a lovely little festival full of street food, an outdoor theatre performance, and happy families. Hiroshima of today is full of life.

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However, Saturday was also a difficult day, because we faced the details of when the bomb was dropped. Walking through the Peace Memorial Park, and seeing the building that was near the epicentre of the bomb but stayed standing, I could imagine that moment so clearly. Over and over, I read first-hand accounts of survivors (the Hibakusha). Some of them passed away soon after the bomb, some of them discovered various detrimental effects on their health years after. Stories of doctors working non-stop, children fighting for survival, families searching corpses for their loved ones. Yes, Saturday was a difficult day. It made me all the more passionate during the key bit of the trip – the workshop about Hiroshima. We were divided into groups full of international people and more young Hiroshima citizens, and in particular we discussed the recent speech given by President Obama at Hiroshima, and the fact that Japan voted against the reduction of nuclear power usage at the recent UN convention. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a debate more than on that day.

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New best friend (until I run of of food…)

In contrast, Sunday for me was a day of feeling intensely happy to be alive and to be exploring Japan. At that point I’ve made some lovely new friends, both international and Japanese, and we delved into exploring the little island near Hiroshima, famous for its temples: Itsukushima, more famously known as Miyajima. We went there by a 10 minute ferry ride, and it greeted us with a stunning view of a torii gate in the middle of the sea. The highlight for me was that Miyajima is bursting with curious and hungry deer who cheekily approach you and beg for food in exchange for a chance to pet them. My poor new friends had to deal with me running around trying to combine taking photos of everything with hugging every deer in sight. We also had some of the famous Momiji snacks (the deep-fried cream ones are delicious), though nothing can replace Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki in my heart.

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At the Sadako Memorial, this is the famous thousand of paper cranes, forming various pictures

I would love to go back to Hiroshima and Miyajima if I can. Sadly, it’s quite pricey, but I think it will be worth every penny taking my boyfriend Theo there when he comes to visit in March. After the workshop I want to show how lovely Hiroshima is to the whole world! One of the workshop organisers pointed out that whenever he talks about his hometown Hiroshima when he travels the world, people only imagine a nuclear wasteland. However, this town is so much more than that: it is a stark example of how hardworking and forgiving humanity is, how even complete devastation can be healed and re-built. I’m so grateful for the chance to have visited Hiroshima.