Baseball in Osaka

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A Japan-shaped cloud!

What a busy time June has turned out to be. In between big presentations, mid-term exams, and other commitments, it’s been hard to find the chance to do something more exciting than tiredly collapsing onto my bed. Luckily, I carved out a few days to go to Sapporo towards the end of this week. While I’m preparing for my mini-trip, I’m going to share another awesome recent memory: a baseball game!

I’ve never been a fan of sports. I tried watching it and found it unappealing; I tried playing it at school and discovered I prefer exercising on my own. And I’ve also got opinions on over-paid sports stars.

So I was surprised to have had so much fun at a baseball game!

Baseball is a huge thing in Japan. Many people play it at school and stay fans of the sport for life. It was very clear how popular baseball is the day we went to see the game, which incidentally was between the Nippon Ham-Fighters, and a local team, the Hanshin Tigers. The local team’s colours are yellow and black, and as we joined a river of yellow t-shirts, scarves, and caps, we couldn’t resist buying some merchandise of our own.

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Posing with our merch

The game started at 6 pm and lasted 3 hours, so I was glad we packed some food. Surprisingly, it gripped my attention for the entire time. Between making jokes with my friends, yelling when the crowd yelled, and secretly hoping to be shown on the big screen, the evening flew by.

 

It took me almost the whole game to figure out how baseball scoring works, upon which I realised that our team was, in fact, losing. It was in the lead for most of the game though, and there was a truly touching moment when during the 7th inning what felt like the whole stadium stood up with pre-bought yellow balloons and released them into the air in support of the team. I guess I get the appeal of going to these games now – a feeling of belonging, of unity with the crowd.

I doubt I’ll make watching sports a regular way to spend my time, but it was lots of fun. A bit like going to a concert, really. And, considering it’s a quintessential part of Japanese popular culture, it’s definitely a thing to experience while you’re here.

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Preparing to release the balloons

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Universal Studios Japan

 

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Hogwarts – home sweet home

I’ve recently had a revelation: theme park tickets in the UK are so much cheaper than in the rest of the world!

I used to think that paying £20-30 for entrance to Thorpe Park or Alton Towers was expensive, which I used to do at least every year through my teens. Then I came to Japan, and heard many recommendations about the Universal Studios Japan in Osaka – only 1,5 hours away by train from where I live. The Americans here are amazed at how cheap it seems to them, because the average theme park ticket price over there is around £100. A USJ ticket costs around £50, which to me still seemed too much, so I prioritised other travel instead. Until now…

It’s actually been a couple of years since I’ve been to a theme park. It was going to be a fabulous day, so my roller-coaster buddy Alberto and I did some serious research, and made sure to buy our tickets in advance. USJ is famous for always being busy and offering so many cool things to see and do, that one day is simply not enough to fully appreciate it. So, we took the day off from classes on a Thursday, and went as early in the morning as we could wake up – 7:30 am, my normal weekday alarm. Even as we arrived there at around 10 am, just 30 minutes after the park opened, the place was already packed and some rides had queues over an hour long. In case you go on a weekend or holiday, people recommend arriving before the gates open, and rushing towards the ride you desire the most – going to a theme park is apparently serious business!

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Japan is going through a Cookie Monster obsession

A drizzly Thursday morning was an ideal time to be at USJ. The crowd was not as bad as those at UK theme parks, and the extremely popular Harry Potter area was not limited in terms of attendance like it normally is at USJ. We probably only queued 30-40 minutes for one of the most popular rides – the Forbidden Journey. Of course, the park filled up as the day went by, and in the afternoon we queued for about an hour for the Flying Dinosaur (one of the best rides I’ve ever been on), which was the longest wait of the day. Considering I’ve spent 3 hours in a Thorpe Park queue, this felt luxurious. Of course, if it was a weekend, we would have had to wait much longer.

There’s also a funny thing about Japanese theme parks – it turns out people don’t like riding alone, to the extent that they would rather queue for double or triple the time of a Single Rider queue just to sit with their friends. This must have saved Alberto and I at least an hour of waiting.

I think we managed about 9 different rides in total. That’s a crazy number for me, as I’m used to being happy with 4 rides at a UK theme park. It’s probably mostly because we went on a weekday. There was a wide variety of rides, from classic roller-coasters, to 4D experiences, to even a bit of LARPing!

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Some horrific minions – another of Japan’s strange obsessions

Another thing about the USJ, though, is that there are very few thrill rides, and most of the park is all about the decorations. I’ve never been to a Universal Studios theme park before, and I think I prefer the thrill-oriented Thorpe Park, but at least it meant that queues for the roller-coasters were smaller. I did enjoy the decorations a lot, and the Harry Potter section was especially stunning. I’ve been to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in London 3 times – that’s the one based around the making of the Harry Potter movies, with some real costumes and sets. And, in the end, the USJ version was much more fun, though obviously less informative.

We must have spent at least 8 hours in the park, and were shattered by the time we got home. Class on the next day was compulsory, of course. The day was so worth it, though, and I feel like the £50 were well-spent. I love roller-coasters, I love movies, I love wacky decorations, so it was a very satisfying day out.

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.

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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Guilt and Mental Illness on my Year Abroad

A month or so into my time in Japan, I felt lost. I was depressed and exhausted, wondering if there was something wrong with me for not enjoying life in the country of my dreams. Everyone around me seemed to be doing just fine.

Turns out, this is a common feeling that few people talk about.

Let’s start by clarifying some things. I suffer from major depression and generalised anxiety. This is a scary thing to admit online, where anyone could see it, but it’s better than letting my illness remain invisible. I’ve struggled with these disorders since I was 15, and 4 years later I’m doing better, but there are frequent downward spirals. I have some coping methods, a support network, and medication to help me. But it’s never enough, and I suspect depression will always remain the monster under my bed. That’s ok. But it does mean that dealing with everyday life is often harder for me than for others.

On top of being mentally ill, there is this thing people only recently started talking about: the Year Abroad Blues. Society insists going abroad is the best, happiest year of your life, despite the fact that there are as many different experiences as there are people moving abroad. Friends back home expect me to have endless stories about my adventures; it feels like a shame to talk about the sad stuff instead. There are so many ways a year abroad could go wrong, and it’s disorienting to be struggling when society tells you you’re supposed to be happy, you ungrateful fool.

In the first couple of months since arriving in Japan I struggled with some serious guilt, because back then I was especially unhappy. The truth is: moving abroad is difficult and exhausting, and it takes 1-3 months on average to adjust and start feeling stable again.

An interesting thing everyone notices when they move abroad is that they constantly feel tired and sleepy. I’m curious about this so I’ve asked dozens of international students at Kobe University, and pretty much all of them confirmed that they experience this. My foreign friend who is doing her doctorate in psychology here explained that one of the reasons this happens is that our brains have to put extra effort into processing information in a foreign language. 

This means that I have less energy to do everyday tasks than I did back home. Depression lurking in the background also steals some of my energy. So, for the first few months of being in Japan, I could barely stay awake through my classes. I still got dragged to awesome trips on the weekends, but I could barely enjoy them. I started avoiding time around people, and my grades slipped because I had no energy to study.

Another source of guilt this year is that I’m an introvert. I’m good at making close friends, and I’ve made some lovely international and Japanese ones here in Kobe. That’s all I need socially – people I already know, and who I can be sure I’ll have fun with. Some people around me recently made me feel guilty for not going to a bar every other night like they do, chatting with strangers. There’s nothing wrong with spending your year like that, but to me it sounds very unappealing – I get anxious when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know; I have to psyche myself up even just to go into town on my own. There is an assumption that going abroad is a constant hunt for new friends, and I wish people realised that this is not everybody’s idea of a good time.

Also, people don’t like admitting this either, but the thing is: Japan, or whatever other country you’ve always put onto a pedestal, is just not that great. For example, I was told that Tokyo is a crazy urban jungle wonderland. The reality is that it has some funny shops and cafes, but otherwise it’s hardly different from another megalopolis such as London.

Don’t get me wrong – I still like Japan. It’s a unique society with a mindset that’s very different from that of the West. I love Japanese art and history and I’m thrilled about being able to speak the language. Japanese people are sweet, and I enjoy the clean streets and great customer service. There are many voices out there sharing how fun and useful a year abroad can be. I just wanted to point out the other side of the coin: it’s not paradise. 

My everyday life here is actually more boring than back in Oxford. I have daily language classes that take up all morning, and most days also a lecture in the afternoon. Language classes are hardly exciting, and the lectures are not as interesting as back home. Waking up early means that I’m exhausted by the afternoon, and all I want is to get home, finish homework, eat, and sleep. The weekends are my only chance to catch up on sleep, so if I choose to travel instead, I might not enjoy it because I’m so tired. The only holidays I have this year already passed – one for New Year, and a long one for spring. I’ve done my share of awesome travel, and now I have 3 months of hard work ahead of me. About 70% of my year abroad has been work and everyday routine. It’s not a year in paradise, and we should stop assuming that it should be non-stop fun, because that’s harmful. Once we get abroad and realise it’s not perfect, we feel guilty for not being constantly happy.

Some of my friends here are healthier and more outgoing than me. They tend to look down on my inability to do more than just attend classes, go out with friends, and occasionally travel. They have part-time jobs, they climb mountains for fun, they often go out at night. But I physically can’t do that! I know my body extremely well, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone countless times. The fact is: I struggle with doing a lot of things at once. I need a full night’s sleep or I will not comprehend what’s going on. I know this, but I still feel guilty for not being as active as other people. We should all remember that different bodies have different limits, and respect that.

Finally, I’m just ready to go home. As I said before, I have 3 months of hard work ahead of me. Yes, it only matters that I pass this year, but even passing will take a lot of effort. After having my partner visit me I got a new wave of homesickness, and I crave being home, with my mum and my cat, where everything is just a bit simpler. I miss being able to read what’s written on the products in supermarkets. I miss being able to communicate with people without having to think hard of how to express myself. I miss not standing out in a crowd, and not being stared at. England has its problems, and as an immigrant child it took around 4 years for me to consider it home, but it’s my safe space now. Being in Japan feels too liminal and uncertain, a constant race to do and see new things, when sometimes all I want is to rest.

Of course, I’m not just gonna wallow in my misery for the last 3 months in Japan. I realise what a unique privilege I’m living, and that I will probably never get the chance to live in Japan again. I’m still certain that my year abroad in Japan was a great decision. I’ve had so much fun and I know there’s more to come. It has given me a lot of self-confidence and self-awareness. But I also went through hard times, and I feel like I would have struggled less if others around me were more open about their experiences.

I’ve read numerous articles about the infamous Year Abroad Blues, and I now know that plenty of others go through the same stuff I’m experiencing. It’s a shame that people are often scared to admit that they’re not having the time of their lives, because this reinforces the society’s assumption that the year abroad is one big merry-go-round. I think that should change, and that we should be more honest about feeling vulnerable and down. That way we can support each other in times of need, and help each other make the most of our time abroad!

 

Getting to know Kyoto

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Hello Kyoto

Now that I’ve spent 6 months in Japan, and travelled to various towns in Kansai and Kanto areas, I’m grateful that I live in Kobe. When I just arrived it felt small, especially as I’m used to living in London. There are many cafes and some places to have fun in Kobe, but the shopping is pretty bad and those who like clubs and bars often complain about the lack of those here. But Kobe is very cosy, and perfect as a home. If I want a big city, I can visit Tokyo. If I want to go out, I can go to Osaka. If I want cultural experiences, I can go to Kyoto. Nothing is too far away.

And Kyoto is the town I’ve changed my opinion the most about since October. From the start I knew I’m not a fan of Osaka or Tokyo, but I dreamed of living in Kyoto. However, Theo and I spent several days in a row commuting to and through Kyoto, and… it was a nightmare. The town remains beautiful and serene, but the transport system started grating on my nerves. And, well, the tourists. I can’t really complain because I’m a tourist myself, but Kyoto feels more like a museum and less like an actual town. In London and Tokyo tourists are less noticeable, lost in the crowds of the locals; but they really stand out in Kyoto.

So there. Kobe is wonderful, well-located, and peaceful. And Kyoto remains an amazing place to visit once in a while. Especially for dates.

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A heroic effort of putting up my hair

I fulfilled a life-long dream in Kyoto: I got to try on kimono!  I googled various kimono lending places in Kyoto and found the cheapest one; it was extremely busy when we arrived.  I rushed through picking kimono, a belt, and a bag, and then spent about 30 minutes getting it all on. I also spent some extra yen on getting my hair up in a fancy hairstyle. The assistants were amazed and horrified by my hair – most of their customers are Japanese, and Japanese hair is much easier to handle! Theo also put on kimono, but it was a little faster for him, though also complicated. Finally, we put on the infamous geta (traditional Japanese shoes) and wobbled out of the shop. We only had an hour before we had to take the kimono off, which was a real shame, as we spent most of it frantically taking photos. Still a magical experience though. The looks we got from strangers were funny – some smiled with approval, and some frowned at the silly foreigners appropriating Japanese clothing. Cultural appropriation is a sore topic and a grey area for me as a Japanologist, and deserves a separate blog post.

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Trying to keep up the rhythm…

That same day we went to a taiko drumming workshop. This was a particular delight for Theo, who is a talented drummer back in England. I had fun too! We shared the teacher with three other people, and the lesson was full of movement and rhythm. Theo now dreams of finding proper taiko lessons in the UK.

Another dream came true for me in Kyoto: attending tea ceremony. The kind we went to is designed as a workshop for foreign visitors who want to learn about it. Tea ceremony is not practised by Japanese people very often nowadays – it’s reserved for very special occasions. I have a Western friend who attended one in Japan, and she said it lasted 3 hours and was extremely formal. Our workshop was pretty relaxed and lasted 1 hour. The teacher explained the history and significance of tea ceremony, demonstrated how tea is brewed properly, and gave each of us a go at making our own cup of tea. The other guests brought young children, who decided real green tea tastes like spinach. Well, it is an acquired taste, but I rather liked it, and Theo was such a fan that he bought loads to bring home. Certainly one of the more interesting things I’ve done in Japan.

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Photos can’t do this place justice

At this point our time with Theo was running out, and we only got a little more Kyoto tourism in. We went up the Kyoto tower to get a great view of the sun setting over the city. It was far less impressive than the Skytree, but still romantic. The highlight was Fushimi Inari though. It’s one of the most famous temples in Japan, in particular known for the thousands of torii gates you can walk through. It was painfully crowded, but I imagine that if you visit early in the morning, the view gets truly surreal. The torii gate path leads up the foresty mountain, creating a real sense of magic.

And that was that. Kyoto left a strong, mostly positive impression. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the airport saying goodbye to my partner for another 4 months. It was extremely difficult, and right now I’m going through homesickness almost as bad as when I first arrived. Luckily for me, I’m surrounded by friends who are bursting with affection for Japan and ideas for what to do next, so my adventures here are not over just yet.

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Showing off our kimono on the streets of Kyoto