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. 良かった…

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 時代祭 (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 清水寺 (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.

A dreamlike week

After a difficult flight, time without internet, and continuous battles with bureaucracy, I’m finally able to sit down and type some of the adventures up.

So, the flight. I was methodical about choosing the cheapest tickets half a year in advance, and I settled for a STA Travel deal for £450, flying with Air China. I normally enjoy travel, because I can sit back and listen to music or watch a movie. Sadly, the flight was uncomfy, stuffy, and I had to sneakily use my phone under my blanket, because Air China is one of the few airlines that still forbid using your phone in airplane mode. Thankfully my classmates made the journey bearable, and we joked about getting more and more delirious from tiredness. By the time of our changeover in Beijing everything felt like a dream, and a glass of wine at a random Korean restaurant did what half a bottle usually does for me.

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I was amazed how smoggy it was in Beijing!

When we landed in Kansai Airport in Osaka, we were welcomed by about two hours of passport control queues. At least my medication declaration went smoothly – do email me if you need information about Japanese regulations on bringing more than a month’s supply. The drive from Osaka to Kokui dorm in Kobe was 1,5 hours, and we finally got there at about 1:30 am, despite being supposed to be there mid-evening. Poor teachers, having to wait up for us. The best part of the 24-hour journey time was stumbling out of the residence at 4 am for a little look around, turning to each other and exclaiming: we are actually in Japan! It’s the real thing!

Starting from last Saturday and up to Friday we were in a bit of a bureaucracy hell. Thankfully, we got the best babysitters ever! Kobe university does a student tutor program, where Japanese students get paid to look after us and show us the ropes of life in Japan. I think this week I’ve done more adulting than in the entirety of my first year of university. Opening a bank account, registering at the town office, paying for national health insurance, etc. We also had to go and buy such simple things as mattresses, kettles, bins. Makes me so grateful for Oxford colleges which provide all these things for us and much more. The rubbish collection system is very scary in Kobe – you can get fined up to 100,000 yen (around £782) for sorting things wrong! Oh, and my favourite thing right now is the Japanese shop Daiso – it has all the household items and food you could want for 100 yen each, i.e. £0.80. Fresh food is very expensive though. I miss fruit and veg, but I can’t pay 3 quid for each tomato I fancy. At least cafe and ready-made meals are cheap, tasty, and fairly balanced.

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Real sushi at last

Kobe university, and in particular the 文学部 (humanities) campus, is gorgeous. Everything here is up a hill or a mountain, but the workout provides amazing views. The campus is very modern, full of comfy classrooms with good equipment. The staff are incredibly welcoming, and have been looking after us amazingly well. Every morning, Monday to Friday, we have Japanese language classes from 8:50 until 12:10, which is painfully early, but the teachers make it fun and bearable. I’m panicking about how bad my Japanese turned out to be, but after a week I’m already more confident with spoken language. We have many opportunities to meet Japanese people, for instance in the lectures we must attend – the choices are very broad, and so far my favourite has been one about the link between Japanese religion and Japanese literature. I have to pick at least one series of lectures fully in Japanese, and having attended a lecture on philosophy of science, I realise it’s going to be extremely challenging, but hopefully some knowledge will diffuse into my brain. Oh, and I love the food on campus – we can go to a konbini (a mini store that has a bit of everything), a general diner, and a veggie diner. I’m vegetarian, and it has been very hard to find something to eat in Japanese restaurants, because veggie alternatives are not a thing, and veganism is completely unheard of. It’s a relief that on campus I can get my fix of a warm curry in the veggie diner, which just opened this year, lucky me!

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Exploring

Also, shout out to the typhoon red alert that we had on Wednesday – classes were cancelled, but no typhoon actually came, so we just sort of sat in Hannah’s room and had a typhoon party. Japanese nature is insane, with 24-hour cricket concerts, monster mosquitoes, and screaming birds. I guess the next thing will be experiencing a small earthquake, which are a common thing here.

Today, exactly a week after arrival, is the first day I could afford to wake up without an alarm. I guess this means I’m finally settling in. It’s been very difficult to go through this with depression and anxiety stepping on my toes, but the uni staff, students, my classmates, my boyfriend, and my family all made it doable and enjoyable. It’s Frank’s birthday today (he is a classmate from Oxford), and we have planned a surprise karaoke outing later on – classing Japanese activity, after all. I think everyone is quite homesick, but we support each other, and have been making the most of Japan so far.

It’s time to go and sing お誕生日おめでとう(happy birthday) to Frank now. 🙂

P.S. I will be posting the photos in an album on Facebook: here