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.

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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!

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!! ūüéä

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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 Рmost 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 Рsome 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

Christmas in Japan

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Kobe Harborland

Christmas over here is very different from England; it’s not an official holiday and you don’t get a day off if it falls on a weekday. There is no feeling of a countdown to a cosy time with family and gift-giving. Instead, it’s a commercial affair that is directed mostly at couples – and after having been out on the evening of the 25th I can testify that everywhere you look, you’re gonna see a couple. It’s funny and surreal. And everybody tries to go for a KFC if they can.

Japan does have the equivalent of a family holiday that Christmas is to England – it is celebrated on New Year’s Eve, much like in my home country Russia. I’m yet to experience the Japanese New Year celebrations, but that will come later, when I set off for Tokyo in a few days.

I managed to have a very lovely Christmas with my Oxford friends, who feel more like a family by now. Whenever it’s holiday time, or even my birthday, I feel strangely down – something many people experience. However, we were lucky to have days off on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, so I was determined to try and cultivate a festive mood.

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Willkommen zum Weihnachtsmarkt

We all went to Osaka on the 23rd to visit a German Christmas market. That was a surreal sight, because the market is right next to the Umeda Sky Tree building, amidst a steel jungle, and yet there was an atmosphere of a small and cosy European Christmas market. I guess this is how Chinese tourists feel when they visit the London China Town – it’s cute and sells familiar food, but something is a bit off. To top off the confusion, we went to a lovely Indian restaurant nearby, and enjoyed the cultural mix that our little Christmas outing turned out to be.

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Mini-feast

The 24th was a quiet day, spent watching Doctor Who Christmas specials and doing last-minute present shopping. By the morning of the 25th we had an impressive mountain of presents under a tiny Daiso-made Christmas tree in Hannah’s room. This was the cutest time – opening funny presents from each other and our families; helping each other not to feel homesick. Then we slowly started cooking Christmas dinner (I contributed mostly with my presence since I’m terrible in the kitchen). Frank made the loveliest vegetarian burgers! After eating together we crawled out of our comfy sits to go to Kobe’s Harborland, an area full of shops and other attractions. They had an open-air ice skating rink right by the sea and it really felt like a magical evening. We finished it off with a ride on the ferris wheel and spontaneous face-timing with our parents.

So, I managed to have a great Christmas in Japan, even though the country hardly acknowledges it as a holiday. It’s all thanks to my friends, of course.

New Year’s is next and I’m very excited, as I will be in Tokyo for it! I will update with my experience in a couple of weeks, because I will be on the go for the nearest future. Hopefully it will be a great time.

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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