Awajishima Farmstay

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Proud posing with trophy carrots

How did you spend your last weekend? I personally found myself harvesting carrots!

Well, it was much more than that, of course. Kobe University organised a fun hybrid of an experience for us: visiting a farm and then having a homestay with a local family. It all took place on Awaji island, which is about an hour’s drive from Kobe.

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The days are getting seriously hot over here, but not uncomfortable yet. Naturally, being the Brit that I am, I got sunburnt within the first couple of hours of being outside. Nevertheless, I had a great time visiting the local farm and helping them with their harvest. I didn’t realise pulling carrots out of the ground could be so fascinating, or that they come in white and purple as well as orange. Eating a home-made bento in the sun with my Oxford classmates and the farmers who hosted us is definitely one of my favourite recent memories.

We stuck to the north-eastern area of Awaji island, which is, in fact, pretty big. There was an onsen nearby that gets treated with incense, and the boys got to have a quick dip while us girls browsed the shops and ate lavender-flavoured ice cream (surprisingly yummy!).

Then it was on to meeting our host family. I get super anxious about staying in a stranger’s house, so I got to go together with Hannah, which worked really well. The family was very sweet and enthusiastic about getting to know us; I loved their house – it’s in the countryside, with a tiny bamboo forest just outside of the back garden. The family consisted of a married couple, their 4 year old daughter, and the mother’s parents.

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Adorable girl in adorable boat

Now, I’m normally pretty terrible with children, and tend to avoid them if possible. However, I was absolutely taken with this girl, called Mei-chan: she was like a little princess, demure and polite, but also extremely sweet, and making her laugh made Hannah and I feel really proud. I loved being called “onee-chan”, which is a cute way of saying “big sister”. Thanks to Mei-chan I had the most intensely cute weekend ever.

After a walk in a local flower park, the family took us home and started preparing for the evening: the neighbours were coming around for a barbecue. For once being vegetarian wasn’t an issue as the family got creative with grilling all sorts of veggies, especially corn, to the delight of the neighbours’ 13-year-old daughter. We had fun conversations with the children, though I kept slipping back into the polite form of Japanese, which must have been hilarious for the girls.

After a few rounds of Wii U karaoke, the dad brought out lots of sparklers and fireworks. Yet another upside of living in the countryside: no disgruntled neighbours when you feel like having a party!

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Hannah and I slept over in a gorgeous tatami room, full of scrolls and jade figurines. I’m still amazed at how comfy futon can be, considering it’s a thin mattress spread on the ground. I love this Japanese tradition, though another one made me a bit shy: Japanese families tend to conserve water by using the same bath water, after rinsing themselves with a shower. Guests get to go first, but I still passed on that one, mostly because I was exhausted and not that big a fan of baths. Hannah swears by evening baths though, so it’s on my to-do list.

The day after the family took us to a kids’ amusement park and bought us unlimited ride tickets. Poor Mei-chan got terrified of the animatronic elephant, but opened up quickly, and loved the little boat ride so much that she asked to go on it twice.

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According to Japanese mythology, Awaji island was actually the first island to be created. Today it also hosts Japan’s oldest shrine: Izanagi Jingu. We visited it on the way back, and although it’s not as pretty as some of the Kyoto shrines I’ve been to, it certainly felt special to walk where the very first settlements might have been.

Goodbyes went in a very Japanese way: many “thank yous”, many bows, and then Hannah and I were rushing off to catch our bus. I actually kind of dreaded this homestay, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences of Japan that I’ve had.

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Pottery, Ninja, and Ishiyama-dera

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Our tour group in front of the gate to Ishiyama-dera

This Monday Kobe University was celebrating its foundation anniversary. If I’m not mistaken, it makes the university 68 years old. It may be “young” by British standards, but it is apparently one of the oldest and largest national universities in Japan.

Not much actually happens on the university’s “birthday”. Undergraduates get a day off, but most professors and postgraduates turn up as usual. However, the university runs an annual trip to various places around Japan, and this year we were taken to a town called Shigaraki.

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Tanuki… creepy or cute?

As soon as we got off the bus, we got a surreal view of dozens of statues of various-sized tanuki. Now, in real life, tanuki is an animal described as “Japanese raccoon dog”. They do indeed look like raccoons, even though genetically the two animals are not related. The statues we saw in Shigaraki… looked nothing like real tanuki! They had their own charm, though. The legend goes that Shigaraki was a successful pottery town due to the clay they got from the bottom of Lake Biwa, which could resist high temperatures. One day a 20th century pottery artist called Fujiwara created the first ceramic tanuki, and the idea caught on. In 1951 the Showa Emperor visited Shigaraki, and alongside the artists he was greeted by dozens of statues of tanuki. So there is some history behind them, as well as meaning, which amounts to a symbol of wealth and success. We got a diagram describing different parts of the tanuki, and its testicles were labelled as “money bags”. Adorable.

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Some serious concentration here

In some shops around Shigaraki you can make your own pottery, as my friend Matt did. The session we had provided us with ready-made cups that we got to paint however we fancied. Unsurprisingly, my design ended up featuring lots of cute animals. See below for a small video of it. The cups will be glazed and sent to us in a month – a wonderful souvenir.

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Are we ninja now?

Then we were taken to a real “Ninja house”. It is a building with a thatched roof, and countless nooks and crannies. There were secret locks on the windows, doors in unexpected places, and even a deep well to catch out unwanted visitors. We got to crawl around the upper floors of the house, which were half the size of a normal corridor. Oh, and I got to throw a real shuriken! My inner 8-year-old Naruto fanatic was delighted.

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A new friend with great manicure

The trip ended at Ishiyama temple. It’s a gorgeous place up on a mountain, where Murasaki Shikibu apparently wrote “The Tale of Genji” in the 11th century – arguably the first novel in the world! I hold a special affection for the novel, since I made an effort to get through it in preparation for my Oxford interview. It’s slow in places and a bit raunchy, but also is a real masterpiece of poetic language. So, naturally, I enjoyed the exhibition based around “The Tale of Genji” that’s taking place at Ishiyama-dera.

Once we got back to good old Kobe, my friends and I celebrated having a great day by going to our beloved Saizeriya – an Italian food knock-off with 100 yen glasses of wine. A day well-spent indeed.

Pottery painting in tanukimura (I lov whales ok) 🐋🌊

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A Local Festival

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The palanquins all lined up

Most Western tourists who come to Japan tend to fall in love with the temples and shrines here. I guess it’s because Shintoism and Buddhism seem exotic to us, who are more used to Christianity and Gothic cathedrals. 7 months later, I still marvel at every little temple I pass.

I hold a special affection for the tiny Gomo Shrine, located a few steps down the hill from our dormitory. This week they hosted a lovely little festival for the local community.

For the past month, every Sunday I could hear children practising a melody to be played at the festival and inside the mikoshi – divine palanquins that get carried by people. The actual festival lasted for three days, and from afternoon until midnight I could hear a buzzing crowd follow these mikoshi around, chanting “ose ose ose” or “mawase mawase”. The first, “ose”, means “push”; “mawase” means “turn”. The divine palanquins are carried by several people, with others riding on top and inside, and crowds love to watch them go at a fast speed or perform difficult turns in the narrow Japanese streets.

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Looks heavy, doesn’t it?

Our dormitory is located on a high hill, just above the temple, and the community that celebrated together gathered all the way down the hill, which normally would be a 15 minute walk. There were stalls with all sorts of toys, snacks, and beverages – I was amazed at how much the quiet area transformed on a Tuesday while I was at university. I joined the celebrations in the evening, and was immediately swept up in the company of friends and acquaintances, and given lots of free drinks and food. There were four palanquins in total, and at around 9 pm we all gathered to watch them being carried up the hill, accompanied by music and chanting. There was something magical about that night – the spirit of the community, being with my friends, my head spinning slightly from the drink, and chanting “mawase mawase” at the top of my voice. I’m so happy I got to witness this small, local festival, and to be part of it.

The timing of the festival was no accident – it was around the middle of the so-called Golden Week. In Japan, about 5 different national holidays all take place very close to each other, which normally forms an entire week off work or studies (though this year we were unlucky and it was broken up by work days on Monday and Tuesday). I remembered about the Golden Week too late (in early April) and the prices for destinations both in Japan and abroad were triple or quadruple the normal. It all turned out for the best – I stayed home, spent time with friends and catching up on movies and books. Others went off to Okinawa or even South Korea, or on hitchhiking adventures. And now I feel almost ready to go back to classes tomorrow!..

There was a festival basically on our dorm's doorstep!! 🎊

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