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.

Returning to Hiroshima and Tokyo

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The Great Buddha in Kamakura

It’s been almost a week since my partner, Theo, returned home to England. We spent 4 intense weeks travelling around Japan, and it’s taking me some time to sort out all of the happy memories in my head. In the mean time, the new semester started at Kobe university, with new students and teachers, and… extra work. At least the fluffy sakura blossoms are helping me feel positive about coming back to my studies.

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Deer whisperer

Hiroshima is a bit far from Kobe and quite expensive to get to, but I knew I had to take Theo there, both for the history of the place and the beauty of Miyajima. It was harder to figure out the logistics without guidance this time, but I managed to get a decent deal, and so we took a bus there, which goes 4 hours one way, and costs about 8000 yen overall. Again – absolutely worth it. I picked a lovely flat to rent through AirBnb, so we had lots of space and comfort for a low price, which I learned really matters on a trip. I described how much I love Hiroshima in an earlier post, and my opinion hasn’t changed: it’s still a cosy town with tragic but inspiring history, and Miyajima was stunning even though we went before the sakura began blooming. I’ve been looking forward to cuddling some more deer and so has Theo, who turned out to be a real deer whisperer: they spent a good half an hour cuddling a particular deer who even put its head on Theo’s chest a few times. In addition to covering the things I saw last time I came, we went to the Hiroshima castle, which offers a great view of the city, and a small exhibition about the older history of Hiroshima.

It was a good call to do a lot of travelling at the beginning of our holiday, because we started getting tired about halfway through, and I caught a mean cold just before we left for Tokyo. Well, despite being surrounded by a fascinating new country, Theo and I agreed that there’s nothing better than lazy days spent together watching TV and cooking tasty food! 🙂

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Good old Tokyo skyline… with the infamous “golden turd”

Tokyo was just as big and confusing as I remembered. It remains a great place to visit and (I assume) terrible to actually live in. We started in a rather strange place: Kabukicho, which I did not visit on my last trip. It certainly made for a funny first impression on Theo: the crowd was younger and rowdier than anywhere else, quite unusually for Japan. Kabukicho is known for being a bit “seedy”, which was our impression too – the “girl bars” (where men go to be attended by young women) alone are an uncomfortable sight. We had a great time though. After gobbling up a vegan burger each, we headed for karaoke, which was so much better to do with Theo, as we know and love the same songs – with my other friends who listen to different music I just ended up falling asleep!

After that I got to do something I’ve been excited to explore for a long time now: looking for the infamous “love hotels”. They get funny media coverage in the West, which turned out to be completely exaggerated. These days love hotels look just like normal ones, and offer the same services; nothing like the outrageous theme park-like rooms you see in Western articles. The only difference is that they offer visit times of 3 hours, 5 hours, and a full night. Most Japanese couples use love hotels as a way to get some privacy, because they can’t afford to move away from the tiny flats they live in with their parents, though that is changing nowadays, so love hotels are on the decline. It was a fun and fairly normal experience, where we paid an average normal hotel price for a luxurious, huge room with a Jacuzzi! I think that it’s much cheaper than mainstream luxury hotels because many tourists feel shy about the label of a love hotel and so do not choose to stay in one. Well, I enjoyed the cheap-ish comfort, and I’m glad we explored the infamous Japanese phenomenon.

In contrast to the day before, we spent our second day in Tokyo in the Tokyo-Edo museum, which was as fun as last time. That day we discovered that the accommodation I booked through AirBnb was absolutely terrible, unfortunately. It was cheaper than a hostel and offered private rooms with locks, but was dirty and felt like a prison. Next time I will know to pay a bit more for a better stay. Even if it was just a place to sleep in, it did bring the mood of the trip down. It is noteworthy that this was the cheapest private room I could find in Tokyo, for only £18 per night, so we could afford the whole week.

It rained quite a lot while we were in Tokyo, which was annoying as we wanted to see temples and parks, and the sakura was beginning to bloom. We did manage one great rainy day though: shopping in Akihabara and its outrageous Don Quixote; a few turns at the games in the arcades and a cute purikura session; bowling in Tokyo Dome and dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant.

And we certainly made up for the rainy days: visiting Sensoji, walking around Ueno park, exploring my beloved Tokyo National museum, contrasting Meiji shrine with Harajuku, checking out the hipster vegan cafes around the city.

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One of the magical tiny temples

The best day might have been the one when we went to Kamakura, which is just over an hour by train from Tokyo, and is the ancient warrior capital of Japan. I’ve not been there before, so it was extra exciting. We spent a couple of hours hiking through the neatly laid out trails and cute tiny temples, finally getting to the giant Great Buddha statue. The best part was that you could go inside it – I’ve never seen a statue from the inside before! We finished the day with people watching on the windy beach. I’d say Kamakura is a must do on a trip to Tokyo.

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The view

I noticed that Tokyo was very foggy in the spring, in contrast to the crystal-clear views it offered in December. We decided not to bother with the Sky Tree this time, and took the free entry to the Metropolitan Building instead, which still offered a decent view of Tokyo. Definitely a thing to keep in mind – Japan offers the best views during the winter.

And that was about it for Tokyo. It was lots of fun, but also chaotic and tiring. We managed to miss our plane on the day of returning to Kobe, which was horrific as I’m the kind of person who is never late to anything, but I sorted it out and we even managed to make the most of hanging out in the airport waiting for our new flight. See, it’s all about who you’re travelling with: Theo and I balance each other out so that we’re organised but not stressed, and can make each other laugh in any situation. I definitely enjoyed travelling in Japan with my partner more than alone or with other people.

I’ll be back with a few more exciting stories from Theo’s visit to Japan. For now, I’ve got to get a start on those daily kanji tests that are just around the corner…

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We saw a tradition wedding at the Meiji shrine

A glimpse of Shanghai

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Classic view of the famous Bund

China is a huge contrast to Japan, and made me appreciate the country I’m currently living in, while enjoying a holiday in an exotic place.

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The delicious tea

We started off with spending a couple of days at Diana’s place, which is on the eastern outskirts of Shanghai, near a huge lake, and is a bit of a resort. Diana took us to a nearby ancient town called Zhujiajiao, otherwise known as the Water Town. It features a large area filled with thousand-year-old houses, currently used for a bustling market. Immediately I was submerged in foreign scents, and amazed at all the fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before. We rested in a tea house that served chrysanthemum tea with actual flowers floating inside, and it was probably the best I’ve ever had.

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Just another mind-blowing view

Central Shanghai was nothing like Diana’s serene childhood home. People often think of Tokyo as a futuristic city, but they’ve clearly never seen Shanghai! Never before have I been surrounded by such a crazy range of shapes and heights of buildings. It’s breathtaking just walking around the centre. English colonialism also left a mark, so walking near the river takes you past a building that makes you feel like you’re in Liverpool. There is some Soviet architecture scattered here and there as well. Somehow it all works together as an amazing city with a truly unique feeling about it.

The city centre is pretty small and you could cover it on foot, though we greatly benefited from the cheap tour bus that takes you to all the key places. You know the one: the red double-decker you can see in most cities around the world. It was absolutely useless as a source of information, because the recording was boring and glitchy; however, we got to ride around for free for 48 hours which was convenient. Alternatively, the underground is one of the cheapest I’ve ever been to, and easy to navigate.

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One of the tea houses in the area

One of the highlights was definitely the Chenghuang Miao Temple and Yuyuan Garden. Both are wonderful landmarks based in the same touristic area. The temple was big and impressive, full of people who came to pray to the various gods. The garden was simply stunning: artificially designed half a millennium ago, it is still full of natural features, and feels like a romantic, fairy-tale maze. Definitely the place I would recommend visiting the most in Shanghai.

We spent lots of time simply eating, which is what most people recommend to do in China anyway. They’re not wrong. The food is often delicious and very varied, making you appreciate the differences between the cuisine of the many regions of China. I did rather suffer as a vegetarian though. Practically every time I ordered a dish that was supposed to not have meat in it, I would still get bits of meat. Also, every restaurant in China seems to have an official statement about the place’s cleanliness, on a scale of “happy face”, “frowny face”, and “angry face”, and only very few places had a “happy face” rating, which was worrying. I’m pretty sure several of our boys got a slight food poisoning and were uncomfortable for days. People also talk about how cheap it is to eat in China, which is true for some places, but others have the same prices as London’s mid-range restaurants, which is way more expensive than the food you can get in Japan and South Korea.

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The Water Town

One thing I’ve learned from my trips to South Korea and China: think twice about going on a group trip. I’ve travelled on my own to many European countries and felt lonely, so I thought it would be ideal to travel in a group in South East Asia. It certainly was safer. However, different people have different holiday habits, and we all ended up disagreeing about our agendas, which turned out unproductive. I still had a great time and only grew to love my friends more, but I also regret not being able to do the thing I usually prioritise when going to a new city: seeing as many cultural sites as I can. It is actually possible to have a perfect travel buddy, and I’ve met mine: it’s my partner Theo, and it works because we know each other very well and have the same holiday preferences. But unless you have a person like that, it might be worth the personal challenge to make your own way through a new place.

Still, China was wonderful, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The closest comparison I can make is maybe Russia. South Korea and Japan are both very different from China, and I’m very keen to learn more history about how that happened.

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Inside the Yuyuan Garden

3 days in Seoul (and the DMZ)

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Gyeongbokgung palace

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

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

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

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Creepy view of North Korea

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

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

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

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In Bukchon

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

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Myeongdong

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

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Us, looking so happy and oblivious…

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

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

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

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!

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 1)

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Breathtaking view from the Skytree

I’ve been obsessed with all things Japanese since I was about 10, and Tokyo of course was at the forefront of that obsession. I remember when I got to visit New York a few years ago, and it was a little underwhelming, because at that point I hardly cared about America – I was still spending my time watching and reading about Japan. So, even though Tokyo really is just another metropolis, it gave me many fuzzy feelings to simply walk around the concrete jungle, and to visit the areas I heard so much about. It sure made for a lovely New Year.

I will break writing about Tokyo into several posts, so that I don’t dump too much information on you in one go.

The trip started with the infamous night bus journey, the cheaper alternative to the Shinkansen (bullet trains) that cost a small fortune. Taking the train from Osaka to Tokyo gets you there in about 4 hours, but it costs around £300 for a return ticket, so that wasn’t an option for me. I booked a night bus ticket instead, which was still a bit pricey since I travelled during a peak period. It cost me around £97, which made a huge difference to a student on a budget. And during the rest of the year they are even cheaper! Back in England I travel by Megabus quite often to visit my partner in the North of England, so I’m used to a stuffy, smelly, cramped bus. Here in Japan I booked with Willer Express: the bus they provided was spacious enough, and I managed to get some sleep during the 10-hour journey. It was about 9 of us, all travelling by bus, and most of my friends found it comfortable enough to bear with, so I definitely recommend the night bus as an alternative to the bullet train.

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Tokyo Tower

Still, I was pretty delirious when I got off the bus at around 9 am, on December 31st, right at the bottom of the Tokyo Tower. We had to sit down for a coffee to let it sink in that finally, after all the anticipation, we were in Tokyo!

One of my classmates, called John, has an aunt living right in the centre of Tokyo, in Shinjuku. She was extremely kind (and brave) to let 9 young adults stay at her place for New Year while she was away visiting England, and I’m so grateful to her – hostels in Tokyo are unsurprisingly pricey! As we got there towards the afternoon, we all collapsed on the beds, the sofas, the floor… and had an indulgent nap. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and we needed energy to stay up.

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Mount Fuji over Tokyo

We managed to crawl outside before sunset, and spontaneously headed straight for the Skytree. Some statistics: the Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting and observational tower; the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest construction in the world; it is 634 m in height. It’s also a cheesy touristic destination, and although I normally avoid those, it was a surprisingly great thing to do. We got there just as the sun was setting, and discovered that the general queue for the 2000 yen tickets (£14) would take about 3 hours. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the time to come back, we decided to splurge for the fast-track tickets for 4000 yen (£28), which gave us access to the higher platform at 450 m, and I do not regret a penny of it. The view was breathtaking. We arrived at the top just in time to see the red glow of the setting sun frame mount Fuji, creating a sublime view. As the sky grew dark, I watched the various areas of Tokyo turn their lights on. I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the city. I think it was at that point, while counting the lit-up bridges (there must be over a hundred in Tokyo), and straining to see the edges of the metropolis, that I realised I already loved the city.

I would have stayed in the Skytree for longer, but, unfortunately, human beings have to eat. We regrouped with our friends and headed to the nearby part of Tokyo called Asakusa, and picked a presentable-looking restaurant called Watami. As usual, I struggled to find a vegetarian dish, and had to do with a boring margherita; but the company and the wine made up for that.

Right next to the restaurant, it turned out, was Tokyo’s most famous temple: Senso-ji, and we tried to get in at around 11 pm. However, as we got momentarily distracted by some souvenirs, the queue to enter the temple grew so long that the street normally walkable in about 15 minutes was at a complete standstill. The Japanese have various traditions based around New Year’s Eve, some of which are to ring the large bells inside the temples after midnight, and to give prayers for fortune in the coming year. We had no chance to get into Sesno-ji to do that, so an urgent scout for a smaller temple was in motion.

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The temple from the outside

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View from the inside

We were successful just in the nick of time. I couldn’t possibly remember the name of the temple now, but it was gorgeous and welcoming, even though we were practically the only foreigners there. We were given numbered pieces of paper for the queue to pray, and mine was 92. Yup, this was a small, hidden temple, on New Year’s Eve – still very busy. I feel like it was quite an honour to take part in the prayers on such an important holiday for the Japanese, even though I’m not at all spiritual. When my turn came, I had to go up to the altar, bow, make a prayer, toss a 5 yen coin in for luck, and take a careful sniff of some incense. Then we were led through a maze-like layout deeper into the temple, where we queued to ring the giant bell, the vibrations of which I could feel down to my bones. I was tipsy, surrounded by friends, taking part in a beautiful spiritual ritual, and I was very intensely happy.

The magic wore off quite fast and the exhaustion caught up with us, so some headed home while others stayed out to party. Luckily, Tokyo runs some of its metro lines all night on New Year’s Eve. Even though I more or less collapsed when I got home, it was undeniable that this was one of the best New Year’s Eves in my life.

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The large bell I got to ring!

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