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. ┬áHannah, 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!