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!

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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Wrapping up the semester

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Last days with this class, as everyone will disperse around the university for next semester. I’ll miss them all!

Coming from England, the Japanese academic calendar is very confusing. Christmas is not a holiday, the year is divided into semesters and not terms, and it actually ends now – in February. The biggest holidays are about to start: mine are from this week, February 8th, and until April 6th. I get almost 8 weeks!

The longest holidays taking place over spring and not summer makes a lot of sense here in Japan. I only caught the tail end of the summer weather when I arrived in October, but even that was unbearable: hot, humid, rainy. Apparently in the summer the Japanese try to escape the heat by going on holiday to nearby countries, and generally don’t like the season very much. In contrast, spring is famously the time to drink in the park, under blooming cherry trees, with your friends and colleagues.

First I had to survive the end of the academic year though. Technically the year abroad results don’t matter to my final degree outcome as long as I pass. Also, this may be the end of the year for the Japanese students and some international students, but my real final exams for this year are not until July.

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Celebrating surviving the exams at an izakaya

However, I’m used to trying hard in my subjects. I was panicking about kanji as usual, and the disappointed  faces of my Oxford professors haunted me as I barricaded myself in my room to revise. Back in November I only got 38% in my kanji exam, and I was convinced that I was about to do even worse this time. Spoiler alert: it turned out fine. After the November disaster I came to terms with the fact that I’m just gonna have to put extra effort in, and created a huge Anki deck that I used every other day since November. Anki is a program perfect for creating your own flashcards or using other people’s decks, and I really recommend it. It paid off! I got 70% on this exam which I didn’t even dream of. è‰Żă‹ăŁăŸ…

Other than kanji, I had a grammar exam and a reading exam, and they went smoothly. I also have until Friday to write two huge essays, which is not so good. One is in English, about travel and sacred spaces in Saigyo’s and Basho’s writing, and I’m enjoying the research immensely. The other I have to write in Japanese, and it will be about the history of the foundation of Nara – Japan’s first capital. I really missed writing essays, it’s what this year lacks for me compared to the Oxford course, though I wish I had more time for the research.

Finally, our class divided into groups of 3 to each give a 20-minute presentation on any topic. My group spontaneously decided to translate the 1999 Simpsons episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”, which was actually banned from being shown in Japan, because it involves a scene with Homer throwing the Emperor of Japan into a used sumo thong bin. To an English person, a similar scene with the Queen would not be a big deal, but the Japanese are not used to dark or self-deprecating humour, and the faces of my Japanese teachers as they watched this scene during my presentation were priceless. We tried to explain the controversial Simpsons jokes and turned our little talk into a fun and successful discussion about cultural stereotypes.

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Desperately making memories with those who are about to leave

And that’s that for my first semester in Japan. It’s actually only been 4 months since I’ve arrived, but of course it feels both much longer and much shorter than that. I had to say goodbye to some of the wonderful friends I made who are going back home; I also got to encourage some Japanese and international students who are entering a new academic year or even a new course. There is an atmosphere of relief and exhaustion around the university; even the dorm parties have been quieter lately; it’s not unusual to see people in tears as couples formed here are having to say goodbye.

But… it’s the long-awaited holiday time! Planning what to do with 8 weeks of freedom has been a painstaking process in itself, as there are costs, dates, and travel partners to consider. And at last, I’m off to Seoul in just three days! No kanji for me for a little while.

The English learning society’s speech contest

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I’m proud of every one of these kids… even though I’m younger and smaller than most of them myself! (a.k.a. spot the Maria)

At last, I’ve settled into a daily routine that makes me feel comfortable and productive. The down side is that classes start seeming mundane, and I struggle to motivate myself to wake up at 7 am every morning.

Something happened last Saturday that reminded me about why I’m here. After all, it’s such a privilege to do what I’m doing – studying as an exchange student all the way in Japan, learning a new language and getting to know a new culture. It’s hard to appreciate my privilege on a daily basis, when it’s 9 degrees C and raining, and the sky gets dark before 5 pm.

However, last weekend I was lucky enough to be on a panel of judges for Kobe University’s English learning society’s speech contest. I met one of the representatives by chance and was invited as a fluent English speaker to take part in a 9-5 event full of Japanese students my age making speeches in English. They actually had to learn their 10-minute speeches by heart! I’m not sure I could do that in English, let alone in my equivalent of a foreign language – Japanese. The choice of topic was free, which made for some very heartfelt speeches. My favourite has to be the guy who gave a speech on the Japanese azuki beans (the ones that red bean paste is made from). He named his speech “admirable azuki”, kept exclaiming about how much he loves azuki sweets, and popped out a pumpkin and azuki dish mid-speech. Seriously, these people’s enthusiasm was contagious, and I felt like a proud mum even though I only just met them all.

It was also an intimidating event for me, because the other judges on the panel were middle-aged and with teaching experience – and here was I, a mere 19-year-old student! I think I did a good job though, especially with the helpful advice of my fellow judges. The most challenging part was the last couple of hours, when we met each contestant one on one, gave them detailed feedback on their speeches, and advice on how to improve their English. I genuinely begged each one of them to feel proud and to go home and celebrate; it broke my heart to see one of the girls cry in the corridor because she didn’t get a prize. Finally I know how it feels to be behind the judge’s desk – almost as scary as on the stage!

I was soaring home on wings of inspiration. These students reminded me why I myself am learning Japanese: because I love meeting people from different cultures, who are so different from me, and befriending them. I was lit up with enthusiasm for a grand total of two mornings… nevertheless, the speech contest was an important lesson for me, and the routine became just a little more pleasant.

Kyoto stole my heart

It’s hard to believe I’ve already spent 3 weeks in Japan. Life still hasn’t settled down, exciting stuff keeps happening, and it feels like an eternity since I said bye to my family.

I’m gradually starting to feel that the streets I walk every day are not just a cinema landscape, but real life which I exist in. Last Sunday I took a long walk to the centre of Kobe – Sannomiya, and saw simple industrial landscapes, houses, schools, parks, and reminded myself that this is all just as real as my life in London.

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Just my everyday view

It’s only getting harder to wake up at 7 am every day, which limits what I get done. However, as soon as I get out of the dormitory and see the breathtaking view over the whole city, I regain some of my determination to have as much fun as I can. The routine is still broken into puzzle pieces, but at least I finally chose what lectures to attend: one in Japanese on Japanese society and culture, and one in English on the link between Japanese religion and literature. They are not as detailed as Oxford lectures, but it feels great to learn something other than kanji! 🙂

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Smiling for official photos makes my face twitch so much…

Oxford students get a bit of a special treatment here, which is both good and bad. I see no difference between myself and the other international students I attend classes with every day. However, we do get nice perks such as the student tutor system, or visiting Kobe university’s President Takeda the other day. He was very relaxed and chatted to us about Pokemon Go, of all things. (Kobe is fantastic for this game and I have caught many a rare type already…) This was nice because I normally expect a lot of formality in Japanese business settings. It also reminded me how much I appreciate the attention given to our well-being here, even though any other student should get the same.

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Absolutely breathtaking

The most exciting part of the week was, of course, going to Kyoto on Saturday. So far I’ve only been to places I don’t recognise very much; but I have daydreamed of Kyoto since I was about 11. It didn’t disappoint. Every little detail of the streets was elegant, creating a dreamlike impression. I was surprised to learn that Kyoto is actually smaller than Kobe in terms of population, but I guess it is more spread out, with space for numerous temples and shrines, so it feels like a bigger city. I was excited to see the æ™‚ä»Łç„­ (Festival of the Ages) that was advertised everywhere, but was surprised that it consisted of a sombre parade. It was beautiful  and attracted huge crowds, but I guess I have a different association with the word ‘festival’. Maybe we should have researched more.

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Magical blurry landscape

The best part of the day by far was visiting the æž…æ°ŽćŻș (Kiyomizu Temple). Because of the festival there were many people in kimono, and the crowds climbing up and down the hill to the temple buzzed with excitement. We reached the top at sunset. It was too dark to take photos, and just as well, since I forgot all about my phone and took in the surroundings. There is no way to describe the view that would not be cheesy or unsatisfying; the darkness gave the temple a sense of magic, the place felt sublime. Some of us bought the traditional fortune predictions, and Hannah and I were gifted with “bad luck” and “heartbreak”. Laughing it off, we speedily explored the temple, but had to leave fairly quickly because it was closing up.

I can’t wait to see more of Kyoto, and I’m absolutely in love with the city. It has a special atmosphere akin to Oxford, which is my favourite place in the world at the moment, so yes, I got very excited. I’m hoping to come back in November for the infamous red leaf season. For now, though, I’ve got a week of classes ahead, and a big trip to Hiroshima next weekend!

Crazy, lovely Osaka

Another week living in Japan went by. So much has been happening, it feels like a mini lifetime since I’ve arrived!

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Fancy Birthday Fronk

The weather has finally become pleasant – no more sweaty humidity; it’s chilly enough to wear a light jacket. Soon the tree leaves will start turning red and yellow, I can’t wait to go to Kyoto for this season. I saw beautiful autumn all the time in Russia, but I think because it doesn’t get cold enough in Britain, the leaves don’t change colours in the same way.

This weekend I’m enjoying some peace and quiet, especially as last weekend was full of new experiences. For example, we went to karaoke to celebrate Frank’s birthday. Initially I got overly into it despite my terrible singing, but halfway through I managed to fall asleep on the sofa! I guess the busy life in Japan is catching up to me. We also went to Osaka on Monday since it was a national holiday, and I loved seeing the bustling city, reminiscent of New York with its skyscrapers, but full of unique charm. I tried gyoza for the first time, but wasn’t really a fan, because there was only a meat option available. However, wondering around the centre and the Japanese answer to Chinatown – the “American Village”, or “amemura”, was lots of fun. We also visited the Pokemon centre, and I got some souvenirs for myself and my family, but it was a bit less exciting than I hoped.

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Crazy Osaka

After the long weekend it was hard to get back into waking up at 7 am. I have chronic fatigue syndrome as it is, so it’s already a struggle staying awake through classes and lectures. The academic side of things so far is sadly not very exciting. I keep struggling between the extremes of either finding things too challenging or too slow. My kanji remains terrible and I must put extra effort into it, but grammar classes are much slower than in Oxford (a lesson per week rather than 3-4 lessons we had back home). Similarly, the lectures in Japanese seem fascinating, such as a Geography one about the rise and fall of Detroit, but I can’t understand a word, and I’m worried about the end of semester report I will need to write. On the other hand, the lectures in English are a bit slow and I’m actually finding myself missing Oxford essays, even though they take lots of time. It’s really difficult for all of us right now, and every day my classmates and I grumble about how we want to sleep as soon as we get back to our dorm at 4-7pm, without any energy to explore Japan. Hopefully we will figure out a balance soon and perhaps use this year for learning through interacting with the locals more than through academics. Previous Oxford Japanologists advise this very thing anyway.

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My first Purikura!

On that note, we had our first International Hour on Wednesday, and despite hearing that it’s supposed to be boring, I actually enjoyed it. It’s yet another chance to meet a variety of people, especially helpful to someone as shy and socially anxious as me. For example, I immediately signed up to be a judge for some speech competition in the English learning circle for Japanese people. As I get older I find parties more stressful than fun, so I’m grateful for alternative options.

This week I’ve been feeling very homesick for Oxford, but my mum wisely reminds me to concentrate on enjoying Japan instead, so that’s my aim for the upcoming week.