The Clock is Ticking

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In front of Osaka Castle

June and July are a difficult time to be in Japan. In part that’s because both for students and for working people there are few national holidays in sight, and the weeks kind of drag on. But mostly it’s because of the weather: we’re mid-rainy season, which means that it’s either pouring and storming, or, if the sun peeks out, it’s unbearably hot. Even though it’s yet to be hotter than +30 C, humidity has been as high as 90%, and that’s much more uncomfortable than the heat. It’s unbearable to be anywhere without air conditioning, and yet sitting under one for hours is a surefire way to get a cold. The worst time of the day is when you’re trying to sleep, when the air is heavy and you get unbearably sweaty. Today I heard that in the past some young children and elderly people have died from trying to deal with the heat, especially as the temperature in Japan has been rising in the past few years.

Not to say I’m not having fun from time to time, of course. I’m hyper-aware that the clock is ticking and that I have 5 weeks left of classes.

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The dog mobile!!

The other weekend we met up with a friend of mine who just finished his year abroad in China. We went to look around Osaka castle, and had a funny run-in with a man driving around 10 puppies in one pram, or as Hannah dubbed it, the dog mobile. The highlight of the day, though, was talking to my Sinologist friend, and realising how much has happened during this year abroad, and how much we’ve all learned. Living in China seems to be quite different from living in Japan, with its own good and bad sides. But the core experience of moving to the other side of the world, adapting to a new culture you don’t always understand, building lasting friendships – that’s something we all now get, and it’s easier to appreciate how much we’ve learned from another person’s point of view.

The year is finishing whether we like it or not, making me both frantically try to enjoy what’s left of it, but also intensely look forward to coming home. Last week we said goodbye to Elena: a wonderful friend I’ve made this year, who had to leave a bit earlier than the rest of us. A large group of foreign students came together to send her off; though most of us are also leaving soon. Some are going to be graduating, others will continue university life, like me. It’s strange to build up a life and a bit of a family in a foreign country, only to leave it all behind as soon as you get used to it. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and I’m sure I will meet many of these friends again.

It’s not all melancholic around here. Yesterday we had dinner with some representatives of the Mitsubishi company to answer our questions about what it’s like to work at a Japanese company. It seems Mitsubishi has links with Oxford and some of our senpai, so they contacted John to set up a dinner date, and treated us to lots of corporate wisdom and tasty food. Life is full of new experiences even right at the end of my time in Japan!

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Baseball in Osaka

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A Japan-shaped cloud!

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

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

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

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

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Posing with our merch

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

 

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

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

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Preparing to release the balloons

Universal Studios Japan

 

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Hogwarts – home sweet home

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

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

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

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Japan is going through a Cookie Monster obsession

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

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

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

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Some horrific minions – another of Japan’s strange obsessions

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

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

Instant Ramen Museum, Arashiyama, and the Golden Pavilion

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Adorable monkeys and a sublime view

It’s been lovely to relax into a pattern where I don’t need to know what day of the week it is or to set an alarm. I haven’t been complacent, though.

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The instant ramen tunnel

The bit of time between my trip to Shanghai and the arrival of my partner Theo was one of those liminal spaces where I finally had time to truly relax, but felt restless instead. It’s also been quieter around the dorm, since many students are moving out. I did, however, get a friend to come to the Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka with me. It was a cute little place, where we learned about how the idea was created and how it evolved into the extremely popular product of today. The best part, of course, was combining a few flavours ourselves and putting them into a noodle cup we got to decorate. We topped the day off with finding the tastiest sushi restaurant around, at the top of the Yodobashi Camera building in Umeda, which I really recommend. A day out in Osaka is also incomplete without popping into one of the arcade areas that you find on every corner – it’s so fun to watch regular gamers bring special gloves and take their hobby seriously and competitively.

And suddenly I was at the airport, greeting Theo, overwhelmed that they are a real person after all. I think having a long distance relationship warrants a separate post, as it’s quite an interesting and complicated thing that we dealt with well so far, and that more and more of my friends are finding themselves in.

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Theo making a friend

I’ve been in a mad rush to show Theo all the awesome places I’ve been to. We’ve also done a couple of things that are new to me too, such as visiting the wild monkey park in Arashiyama. We are both very interested in animals and their rights, so this was a real treat. You rarely get to see wild animals living happy lives in England, and certainly not monkeys! The park is up a small mountain near the train station, managed by a group of people who make sure the visitors do not bother the monkeys too much. The adorable animals ran around right next to us, though we were asked not to touch them and not to make prolonged eye contact, because in monkey language that’s akin to picking a fight. We also went into a small cabin with windows covered by nets, from which we were allowed to feed the monkeys – for once the humans were the one in a cage! Definitely a great day out, especially topped off with a stroll in the sublime bamboo forest.

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Us embracing the tourist life

Another new place I visited was the Golden Pavilion, otherwise known as Kinkakuji, in Kyoto. It was surprisingly confusing getting there, even though Kyoto is not far from Kobe – mostly it’s the busses that are a pain. It was worth all the trouble, of course. The Zen temple is breathtakingly beautiful and one of the most unique constructions I’ve seen in my travels. Theo also shares my love for Kyoto already – there is some special atmosphere around the city. Kobe and Osaka are lovely and unique, but they are not quite Kyoto.

And the travel carousel spins on. We just got back from Hiroshima and are off to Tokyo in a day. I’ve been loving the chance to see Japan from a fresh perspective, and not even catching a cold is enough to stop me from enjoying the long-awaited adventures with my partner.

Guns N’ Roses in Osaka

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The guitar god himself

It was a Thursday morning, and I was sitting in class, trying not to doze off. I was flicking through my planner and noticed a note I left for myself ages ago: Guns N’ Roses were gonna be here in Kansai, on January 21st and 22nd. I knew about this from way back in November, but with all the Christmas plans it seemed ludicrous to spend so much money on a gig. Now it was January, I just got a fresh instalment of my JASSO scholarship…

So I went ahead and bought a 19,000 yen (£131.50) ticket to see one of my favourite bands. Two days away from the show. I’ve never spent so much money on a gig or bought a ticket so spontaneously, so I was shaking all day.

I’m no stranger to going to rock gigs back in England. I’ve been with friends and alone, and always queued for hours outside of the venue, to stand in the very front rows and get squashed by the mob, struggling to hear the band play. I love that kind of stuff once in a while. But I also heard that Japanese rock gigs are very, very different. My former guitar teacher is in a rock band and they toured Japan before, and came back confused: the crowd is very welcoming, but eerily quiet, dutifully clapping at the end of a song, and making no move to start a moshpit. This may not be so weird to a pop music fan, but it’s far from what you experience at an English rock gig. So I researched and tried to psych myself up for a different kind of show.

And different it was. I went to the one on the 21st in Osaka, and the very first strange thing for me was that doors opened at 4 pm. Apparently that’s the thing with Japanese gigs: they either start early enough to finish before the last train, i.e. midnight, or, if it’s a club night, then they will start at midnight and go on until the first trains start running. It makes sense and I really didn’t want to sit in a McDonald’s until 6 am waiting for the first train, but it also felt weird to go to a gig so early.

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The view was pretty decent despite how huge the venue was

The venue was Kyocera Dome, and it was awesome. It’s a huge complex of shops and restaurants, normally used for the extremely popular baseball games, though many concerts also take place there. I assumed my ticket was for non-assigned seats so I got there as early as I could (around 4:30 pm, no thanks to confusing rail lines), and discovered I actually had a seat number. So I jealously stared down at the tiny area designated for standing (most of the ground floor was seated), and went to wander around the venue. The merchandise cost slightly ridiculous amounts, such as 1500 yen (£10) for a poster.

In fact, the concert ticket prices in Japan also really surprised me: they all cost between 10,000 yen-20,000 yen (£70-140) on average, including small and lesser-known bands. In the UK I paid maybe £40 to see the fairly popular 30 Seconds to Mars at the London O2 venue; but such legendary bands as Guns N’ Roses would cost upwards of £150 for the cheapest ticket. So Japan charges too much for small bands and surprisingly little for very popular bands. I guess I got a good deal. Oh, and standing tickets bizarrely cost more than seating ones, though it’s not so often that there is a standing area at all, it seems. Also, the ticket selling system looks very convoluted, where you have to either go to a convenience store at the exact time the tickets go on sale, or pay to join a fan club, or be lazy like me and grab a ticket off viagogo.com for a slightly higher price.

The show started exactly on time, at 6 pm, and the opening act was Babymetal. It’s a Japanese band where some speed metal is mixed with a bunch of girls dressed up in gothic lolita style, singing pop songs. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend checking them out. I couldn’t stop laughing through the 5 songs they played, in a good way. For many Japanese people this is a hugely important band and half the crowd seemed to be there as much for Babymetal as for Guns N’ Roses.

Guns N’ Roses were also surprisingly punctual, considering their reputation. They came on maybe 40 minutes after the warm-up act. Then again, their recent reunion with Slash seems to symbolise more focus on the quality of the performance, and less on the rock-star reputation. All I can say about the show itself is: this was the best rock performance I’ve ever been to, and my only regret was that I wasn’t downstairs with the standing crowd. The audience was not as bad as I expected, there was some movement in the crowd, and many of the people in seated areas stood and eagerly clapped along. By the end of the gig there was even a bunch of drunk young men swinging around a bottle of Suntory Whisky and yelling standard concert chants down at the band. It was a good atmosphere, which was very much thanks to the band’s electrifying presence. And, as my friend John said, towards the end you just kind of sit there thinking “and here goes Slash again, doing a solo that shouldn’t be humanly possible without breaking a sweat”.

After that people quickly dispersed, some probably to off to clubs to continue the party, others to get trains home. It was a great time and I don’t regret a single penny I spent on the ticket, though I don’t have much interest in going to another concert in Japan. Getting a ticket is just too much hassle; the atmosphere for the rock gigs is also not quite as intense as in England. Definitely an experience worth having though!

Shopping in Osaka

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Pretty much an Osaka landmark – iconic crab restaurant

In Japan you can really feel the countdown to New Year’s Eve. Yes, not Christmas – the holidays here are spent the other way round from Britain, with Christmas being a time spent partying or dating, and New Year spent at home with family. Aside from the annoying all-year-round Christmas shops, I’ve been spotting festive decorations even before Halloween. By now there are lights everywhere, and people around me are chatting about plans for the end of the month.

I’ve also been in a bit of a planning frenzy, booking tickets to China for February, and trying to organise a Tokyo escape with classmates for New Year. Everyone’s low on money because of this, so we pushed plans of going to the famous Osaka Spa World (I’ll write about this gem later when I get to go!), and went shopping instead.

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Busy Shinsaibashi in Osaka

Kobe is a lovely town with just enough to get by on a daily, or even weekly, basis. But I’m used to London, full of options of where to go and what to do, and Osaka provides that and more. For example, I’m a bit starved for European brands of clothing. I’ve been trying to find good Japanese women’s fashion shops, but so far they are more cutesy and less practical. Also, I never thought that my shoe size (UK 6, EU 39) is big, but it seems like a bit of a rarity in Japan! I’ve been warned about this before coming, but it’s still surprising to see lots of tiny shoes everywhere. In terms of what European brands I noticed in Osaka, there is a good range: Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Lush, Bershka, etc. These were enough for a budgeting student getting some layers for the winter.

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That festive feeling

Normally I love going to a big shopping centre like Westfield to browse stuff all day long for recreation. However, to me Japan seems like a bit of a capitalist hell. I keep trying to get used to it, but going shopping here is extremely chaotic, especially in the Sannomiya area of Kobe – there are too many colours, objects, and signs everywhere, and I simply can’t concentrate on what I need to find. Thankfully, Osaka was a bit more organised and familiar, though the sheer range of shops available on the giant shopping street in Shinsaibashi made my head spin. Osaka is also famous for its Brighton-esque vintage shops, some of which we peeked in, but it’s such a different world of stuff compared to what I’m used to that I had to idea what to look at.

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Never enough purikura 🙂

One thing Japan is brilliant for is gift shopping. There are so many random but awesome items everywhere, and there seems to be a shop for everything. I’m addicted to Daiso, which I might have mentioned before: it seems to have all the household items you might need for just 100 yen (£0.69 as of today). Another shop I adore is Tokyu Hands: the one in Kobe has more than half a dozen floors of every category of item, and it’s absolutely perfect for finding presents, especially if you don’t know the person that well, as it gives you lots of ideas. I’ve been recommended the other famous 100 yen shop Don Quijote before, but that was a terrible experience, as again it was too chaotic to find anything. Have a look here if you want to see some of the crazy stuff you can find in Don Quijote.

The scariest bit of shopping in Japan for me has been the drugstores – they are full of names and things I’ve never heard of. This is one of the difficulties of moving to a new country in general: not knowing what products are reliable, and having to get used to it all very quickly. I’ve been googling popular beauty products in Japan, so one day I’ll brave one of the drugstores and write about it if I survive. 🙂

 

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.