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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3 days in Seoul (and the DMZ)

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Gyeongbokgung palace

I started out my spring holidays with a bang – by travelling to South Korea for a few days.

All these months I’ve been hearing a lot about a cheap airline many people living in Japan use. It’s called Peach and it’s a bit of a sham. Their normal prices are actually quite expensive, and the only way you can get a good deal is by subscribing to the website and waiting for sales. But even with the sale prices I recently found cheaper tickets from other airlines. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this back in December when I booked my tickets to Seoul – oh well. The plane was averagely comfortable at least (unlike the dreadful Air China).

The area of Seoul we stayed in is called Hongdae and is famous as the place for young people to hang out, full of hostels, bars, and quirky shops. I’m glad we chose it, as well as the comfy hostel we stayed in – Able Guesthouse. In the evening, especially on weekends, you can walk down the main road and watch a dozen different wannabe Korean idols sing to groups of squealing girls. It’s surreal and hilarious.

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Creepy view of North Korea

The absolute highlight of the trip for me was also the first proper touristic thing we did: an organised trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) just north of Seoul, which was a 45 minute bus ride. It is the space between North and South Korea, a rather large piece of land, containing over 2 million landmines and more than 20 secret North Korean war tunnels, only 4 of which have been found so far. To this day, South Korean soldiers work in the area to keep looking for the tunnels and be prepared in case of attack. There are several tour companies you can go with; all of them are associated with the military. We used a half-day tour from a company called Koridoor, which was very helpful and cost us 36$ each.

The tour started at 8 am in central Seoul, from where they took us to the DMZ. We got some background information on the decades of war and tension between North and South Korea, and then we got to go down into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which left us only about 100 m from North Korea. It was a claustrophobic and sobering experience. From there we went to the Dora Observatory, to see a panoramic view of the border of North Korea. You can spot the fake villages, abandoned factories, and even some skyscrapers of the nearest city. At certain times of day both Koreas play music of their choice, and we got to hear a haunting melody emanating from behind the wall. After that we went to Dorasan station, which is a symbol of the hope of unification, because it would be the last South Korean station before a train would enter North Korea. We also got lunch which we paid a bit extra for: the traditional, delicious bibimbap (see below for me gushing about food). The tour concluded with a visit to the Imjingak Park, another symbol for peace, built on the place war prisoners were released after the Korean War. This was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and I’m now a little bit obsessed with gathering information about North Korea, especially as the threat it poses grows with every day.

On a lighter note, the food in Seoul was incredible. It was very cheap compared to Japan, delicious, and most importantly for me – there were many vegetarian options! The only challenge was the spiciness, and on the very first day the three of us managed to thoroughly burn our mouths, but by the next day we were enjoying the food with a renewed enthusiasm. I’m a picky eater, but to my own surprise I ended up liking kimchi a lot! It’s a great snack while you wait for your main meal. My favourite dish is definitely bibimbap, which contains a pot of rice with fried vegetables, with a fried egg on top. Healthy and filling!

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In Bukchon

In terms of cultural tourism, we managed to go to Gyeongbokgung palace, where we got a free tour from an extremely smart 14-year-old Korean boy, which lasted a whole hour, as the place is huge and bursting with history. We also visited Jongmyo Shrine, which is a World Heritage site, that to this day performs ancient imperial rituals. My favourite was the Bukchon village – it’s an area between two palaces, full of ancient houses that people live in to this day, and is simply stunning. Also many Koreans wander around the centre in the traditional clothing called hanbok, which grants them free access to palaces and shrines, and adds a special ambience to the city.

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Myeongdong

In contrast to historical sightseeing, we also did plenty of shopping. Seoul is famous both for cheap and bustling markets, as well as for high streets lined with fashionable shops. The market we popped into is called Insadong, where I got hold of many affordable souvenirs. Then we kind of went crazy about all the Korean beauty shops – which there are more of than any other kind of shop in the main shopping area called Myeongdong. My friend Nick had to buy an extra suitcase to carry all of his new possessions home… Again, stuff in Korea is cheap and great.

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Us, looking so happy and oblivious…

I also have a kind of embarrassing anecdote about the very first day there. In Korea barely anyone speaks English, much fewer people than even in Japan, so sometimes it was a challenge to get by. When Elena and I kept trying to catch a taxi to go to the Gyeongbokgung, the drivers just kept making an “x” hand gesture, but eventually one took us in… and ran into a wall of policemen. There was a protest! I love protests! So of course we joined, without any idea of what it was about. I figured something was suspicious when we only met fairly old Korean people… but they were so delighted to see us, random white girls, there, that they gave us blinding smiles and free flags and wanted to take pictures together. Once I got to the hostel and found wifi, I checked the news and… of course. I, the very liberal, politically engaged Maria, managed to stumble into a protest organised by the Korean Conservative party, in attempt to keep the corrupt President from impeachment. I’m still mortified. I really care about politics, ok? Moral of the story: don’t join random protests. It’s probably about something dodgy.

I mentioned before that we took the taxi around town, and that was another amazing thing about Seoul. The taxis are extremely cheap! Sometimes cheaper than taking the underground,especially if you split between a few people. The underground is also not bad, has station names in Latin letters, pretty easy to navigate. Both Gimpo and Incheon airports have a dedicated underground line which makes it quick and easy to get there.

Well, this more or less sums up the frenzy that my 3 days in Seoul were. I was glad to go back to Japan by the end, it does feel like home after all these months.

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 3)

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Ueno

It’s almost the end of January, but I’m back with some more anecdotes from my trip to Tokyo.

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Meiji Jingu

On the third day of the trip I managed to pop into another famous Tokyo shrine: the Meiji Jingu. It’s quite a contrast to Senso-ji, because it was founded as recently as 1920. It is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. Unfortunately, the temple was partially destroyed in the Tokyo air raids during World War II, but it has been rebuilt in 1958. Meiji Jingu is the go-to shrine for famous foreign visitors, such as George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many others. I loved that the shrine was surrounded by woods, so that you feel separate from the bustling city, and can find a bit of peace and quiet for a change. Well, aside from when it’s January 2nd and hundreds of people are visiting the shrine, creating a crowd akin to those at a pop concert… still, it was a very pleasant visit.

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Takeshita Street

Leaving Meiji Jingu, it takes about a 10 minute walk to get to the polar opposite of the shrine: Harajuku, and especially Takeshita Street. It’s Camden Market multiplied by ten and injected with a heavy dose of crazy Japanese fashion! Think ‘kawaii’ cuteness, gothic lolita, and cyberpunk shops side-by-side. Again, the crowd was crazy, but I loved seeing some of the trippy stuff in Harajuku, and got to try the famous pancakes (I got the chocolate and banana ones and definitely recommend it).

In the same day we managed to pop into an area of Tokyo similar to London’s Brick Lane: Shimo-kitazawa. It’s full of trendy second-hand shops and hipster cafes. We got there after sunset, so shops were already closing, but still spent some quality time browsing around. I wouldn’t prioritise this place as a thing to see in Tokyo, but if you have the time it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Koto demonstration

On the 3rd of January I popped into the Edo-Tokyo museum and got lucky because it was open for free that day. Most Japanese museums charge a small entry fee, though some prices, like that of the Samurai museum, are quite steep. The museum itself is charming and full of explanations in English and reconstructions of all sorts of things like a kabuki house. There was also a koto music demonstration! I was really impressed because most visitors were Japanese, which is not something you see in European museums: those are normally full of tourists, whereas here in Japan the locals seem to be more active in going to galleries and museums.

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Pokemon Paradise

By this point I caught a mean cold, courtesy of my friend who brought it all the way from England, but still managed to walk around Tokyo and enjoy the city itself. I spent some time in the two famous ‘otaku’ (pop culture fan) areas: Akihabara and Ikebukuro. I mentioned in a previous post that Akihabara is more male-oriented, with maid cafes and adverts featuring anime girls in suggestive poses. Ikebukuro did indeed seem to have more host clubs (mostly female-oriented establishments where you pay for chatting and drinking with an attractive male), and anime goods from more girly shows. I also had a quick look at the Pokemon mega-centre in the Sunshine City shopping centre, which was lots of fun.

John’s aunt was kind enough to take us out to a shabu-shabu restaurant at some point, which turned out to be a fantastic time. Shabu-shabu is a partially self-serving dish, where you get a hotpot and some broth, and then you mix and match meat and vegetables that you want to cook. Finally, as a vegetarian, I got to eat a delicious meal without any trouble! I had my separate veggie broth and revelled in lots of tofu, mushrooms, and greens. Certainly a recommended experience.

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Ueno Park

I also visited the Tokyo National Museum. You can find it in Ueno Park, which is a giant area full of various museums and galleries, as well as a zoo. It’s the perfect place for family-oriented fun. As for the museum I went to, my nerdy self had a fantastic time, as some of the exhibits are directly relevant to the historical topics I learned about last year at Oxford. For example, they had a beautiful copy of the poetry collection Kokin Wakashu from the 12th century, which is a particular interest of mine. There was even some pottery all the way from the pre-Japan time, the Jomon era, which took place around 10,500-300 BC!

On my way from Ueno I popped into Ameya Yokocho, a shopping area that was recommended to me many times. Maybe it was the setting sun, or my persistent cold, but I didn’t really get why Ame Yoko is included in every tourist guide. It’s a place full of somewhat suspicious little stores selling cheap goods; there was also a food market. I guess it might feel more authentic than the polished feel of most of central Tokyo, but I’d rather spend time in the ‘false’, futuristic and pretty Tokyo. After all, if I want dodgy little Japanese shops, there are plenty of those in Kobe!

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Busy-busy Shibuya

My final stop before going home was Shibuya. If you picture Tokyo in your mind, you probably think of that famous giant crossing, surrounded by LED screens with endless adverts. That’s the one in Shibuya. Shibuya is An Experience. It is indeed full of people madly dashing across the road, which was interesting to be part of. There are lots of Western shops there, but I was more curious about Japanese fashion. I went to the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre, full of female-oriented stores (it has a male-oriented counterpart next door). It was terrifying. Whenever you go into a Japanese store you get accosted with repeated shouts of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome); but it was multiplied by the fact that early January is the time of mega-sales here. The more they yelled at me, the faster I backed away from the shops… There are around 12 floors in Shibuya 109, full of clothes, shoes, and make-up. Prices range from affordable to ridiculous. Unfortunately, I’m still disappointed in Japanese fashion: you either get exactly the same kind of sweater and blouse across all the different shops, or you stumble into an overly frilly-and-lacy store glorifying the image of a young girl. Yes, oriented at middle-aged women. I don’t really get the hype around this stuff. Shopping in Japan still feels like a hellish experience, even though back in London it’s an activity I do with gusto. Oh well.

And that was about it for my time in Tokyo. It was an intense week full of fun and happy moments. Tokyo is huge and there is so much more to see, but I think I got a good feel of the city. It is and isn’t what I dreamed of for all those years. Tokyo has many quirks and is a vibrant place to live in. It’s also a typical city, and those who live in it complain that it’s too large and too expensive. The same thing can be said about London, I guess. A capital city is often fun to visit but hard to live in. I’m looking forward to coming back to Tokyo for some more sightseeing, but also I’m really glad that I actually live in Kobe – a much less stressful place surrounded by nature!

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 2)

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Second gate to Senso-i

The New Year’s Eve was intense for me and my friends,  9 young adults struggling to move or do anything the morning after. Some didn’t even make it out until sunset.

But in Japan it’s more traditional to go to a temple in the morning or afternoon of January the 1st – to make prayers and celebrate the way we did at midnight. This is called hatsumodeand I found out just how many people follow it by visiting Senso-ji temple that day.

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Kaminarimon’s giant lantern

I’m a Londoner, and yet the crowd was still a total shock. In a very Japanese way, police officers directed the crowd through crossings and passageways, creating currents of people. It was just Matt and I who made it all the way to see the temple, and we queued for a very long time to get to it. (Ha! British queuing is nowhere near as extreme as Japanese queuing!) Senso-ji is worth it though. It’s arguably the most important temple in Tokyo, famous for several reasons. For example, as you approach it, you come across a huge entrance gate called Kaminarimon,  with a giant paper lantern suspended from it. More importantly, Senso-ji is an ancient temple, originally founded in 645 AD, though it has since been bombed and rebuilt. Once we finally made it to the temple grounds, Matt went to buy himself a new goshuincho: a book with plain pages, used for collecting stamps and calligraphy when visiting a temple or shrine. These books cost around £10, and each stamp is an extra £2.50. It’s a wonderful idea and a memorable souvenir, so I enjoy looking through Matt’s collection (he’s almost finished his second book now!); though I decided that it was  a bit pricey for me personally.

Senso-ji is located in Asakusa, which is an area of Tokyo that has for centuries provided entertainment, and is dotted with shrines. Today it is a very touristic place, full of restaurants and exciting shops that sell stuff from vintage toys to real katana swords. It was probably my favourite part of Tokyo.

In contrast to our visit to the temple, Matt and I headed off to the very modern area of Tokyo called Akihabara, to meet up with the rest of our friends. One thing let to another, and it was spontaneously decided that we would go to one of those famous maid cafes! Akihabara is the perfect place for this purpose, as its many shops are aimed at male fans of pop culture, whereas Ikebukuro caters more to a female audience, and offers butler cafes instead. (Unfortunately, LGBT+ is hardly recognised in Japan even today, so it’s almost exclusively hetero culture that makes it into pop media).

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Posing with Yurari-chan. Note “Licence of your majesty”

All I can say is… it was the cutest nightmare ever. We went to a cafe called “@home”, and queued for a little while. Most of the other patrons were middle-aged men who came alone, specifically to chat with the cute young maids. This surprised me, as I expected the maid cafe concept to be more of a tourist attraction, rather than a real cultural phenomenon. The food and drink was unsurprisingly expensive, but each of us got a set that consisted of a drink, a dessert, and a picture with one of the maids, which turned out to be a reasonable price (I think it was around £15-20). Not everyone in our group spoke Japanese, and the cafe offered good service in English. All of the women were dressed up in cute and quirky maid outfits, the kind you’d find in a Halloween shop. The women also spoke in high-pitched voices, acted over the top, and were noticeable trained in making it seem that they are interested in you. The guys were addressed as “master” and us girls were addressed as “princess”. The most awkward bit was probably when we had to make a “spell” to charge up our drinks with “moe power” (which is an anime-related term for having feelings for a fictional character, so the relevance was lost on me). To be honest, I felt weird and uncomfortable during the whole thing, and bad for the women working in the cafe. These women also have to take part in many photoshoots which are then sold to the primarily male customers. I could go on a much longer rant about why this whole maid/butler cafe concept is not very healthy, but instead all I will say is this: it was a wonderfully weird experience and I would definitely recommend it, even if simply for the feeling of utter bewilderment it offers.

This was just my second day in Tokyo, and yet I was already overwhelmed with how different it is from the Kansai-region cities I’ve been to. 2017 sure started with exciting stuff.

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Yodobashi Camera: capitalist paradise and one of the most terrifying places I’ve been to

Kobe Luminarie

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On January 17, 1995, at 05:46 am JST, Kobe was shaken up by the Great Hanshin earthquake, otherwise known as the Kobe earthquake. Up to 6,434 people lost their lives; around 4,600 of them were in Kobe. According to wikipedia, this was the second worst earthquake of the 20th century in Japan.

I asked one of my Kobe language instructors, Ito-sensei, about his experience of the event, and this is what he shared:

Back in 1995 he was a student around my age, living alone in an apartment block on the second floor. At around 4 am he just finished writing a last-minute essay, and settled into bed to get some much-needed rest. That night he would not get any. Japanese people are very used to experiencing earthquakes in their sleep, so initially he did not think much of the shaking. However, when the first floor collapsed through to the ground floor car park, it was clear he needed to get out fast. Back then Ito-sensei wore glasses, but he could not find them in the dark, and he could not even use a lighter to help him search, as the electricity was out and there was a smell of gas in the air. After grabbing whatever he can, he had to jump out of his window, as there was no other way to get out. It took a long time for help to come, because the phone booths have fallen over and were unoperational. That night Kobe had some rare mid-January snowfall, though Ito-sensei could hardly appreciate it, waiting outside barefoot.

Most people of my parents’ generation and above seem to remember this earthquake, even in the West, and were concerned for me when I shared that my year abroad was going to take place in Kobe. However, the city today is fully revived, and only small tremors can be occasionally felt – I already experienced one in October and it felt just like being in bed on a train. Of course, today’s safety is no reason to forget the tragedy of the Kobe earthquake.

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This is why every year Kobe organises the Luminarie, which is a 9-day memorial, done by creating intricate light-up displays along the central streets. Moreover, the event attracts hundreds of tourists, promoting what a lovely city Kobe is. It happens every November and also helps create a bit of a Christmasy atmosphere as people start shopping for the holidays.

I went to see the display with some friends on a Monday night, and the crowds were huge, despite it being a work day. It probably took us 2 hours to walk through a street that normally takes around 15 minutes. Definitely a recommended experience, though. The light displays were breathtaking, and at the end of the street there were many stalls with food and souvenirs. There was a festive atmosphere, which is quite strange for a memorial, but I guess it is hard to remind people of the tragedy when all they want is to enjoy themselves. The organisers clearly tried to give it a more serious feeling by playing some dramatic Bach music, but the resulting mood felt a bit strange – a clash between celebration and mourning. I guess it gave the Luminarie a special charm.

P.S. Fun fact: after the earthquake, because the phone lines were down, the police struggled to help the citizens. Instead, the city was rescued by the yakuza, who were quick to offer supplies and shelter, and are still prominent in the city today!

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