Getting to know Kyoto

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Hello Kyoto

Now that I’ve spent 6 months in Japan, and travelled to various towns in Kansai and Kanto areas, I’m grateful that I live in Kobe. When I just arrived it felt small, especially as I’m used to living in London. There are many cafes and some places to have fun in Kobe, but the shopping is pretty bad and those who like clubs and bars often complain about the lack of those here. But Kobe is very cosy, and perfect as a home. If I want a big city, I can visit Tokyo. If I want to go out, I can go to Osaka. If I want cultural experiences, I can go to Kyoto. Nothing is too far away.

And Kyoto is the town I’ve changed my opinion the most about since October. From the start I knew I’m not a fan of Osaka or Tokyo, but I dreamed of living in Kyoto. However, Theo and I spent several days in a row commuting to and through Kyoto, and… it was a nightmare. The town remains beautiful and serene, but the transport system started grating on my nerves. And, well, the tourists. I can’t really complain because I’m a tourist myself, but Kyoto feels more like a museum and less like an actual town. In London and Tokyo tourists are less noticeable, lost in the crowds of the locals; but they really stand out in Kyoto.

So there. Kobe is wonderful, well-located, and peaceful. And Kyoto remains an amazing place to visit once in a while. Especially for dates.

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A heroic effort of putting up my hair

I fulfilled a life-long dream in Kyoto: I got to try on kimono!  I googled various kimono lending places in Kyoto and found the cheapest one; it was extremely busy when we arrived.  I rushed through picking kimono, a belt, and a bag, and then spent about 30 minutes getting it all on. I also spent some extra yen on getting my hair up in a fancy hairstyle. The assistants were amazed and horrified by my hair – most of their customers are Japanese, and Japanese hair is much easier to handle! Theo also put on kimono, but it was a little faster for him, though also complicated. Finally, we put on the infamous geta (traditional Japanese shoes) and wobbled out of the shop. We only had an hour before we had to take the kimono off, which was a real shame, as we spent most of it frantically taking photos. Still a magical experience though. The looks we got from strangers were funny – some smiled with approval, and some frowned at the silly foreigners appropriating Japanese clothing. Cultural appropriation is a sore topic and a grey area for me as a Japanologist, and deserves a separate blog post.

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Trying to keep up the rhythm…

That same day we went to a taiko drumming workshop. This was a particular delight for Theo, who is a talented drummer back in England. I had fun too! We shared the teacher with three other people, and the lesson was full of movement and rhythm. Theo now dreams of finding proper taiko lessons in the UK.

Another dream came true for me in Kyoto: attending tea ceremony. The kind we went to is designed as a workshop for foreign visitors who want to learn about it. Tea ceremony is not practised by Japanese people very often nowadays – it’s reserved for very special occasions. I have a Western friend who attended one in Japan, and she said it lasted 3 hours and was extremely formal. Our workshop was pretty relaxed and lasted 1 hour. The teacher explained the history and significance of tea ceremony, demonstrated how tea is brewed properly, and gave each of us a go at making our own cup of tea. The other guests brought young children, who decided real green tea tastes like spinach. Well, it is an acquired taste, but I rather liked it, and Theo was such a fan that he bought loads to bring home. Certainly one of the more interesting things I’ve done in Japan.

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Photos can’t do this place justice

At this point our time with Theo was running out, and we only got a little more Kyoto tourism in. We went up the Kyoto tower to get a great view of the sun setting over the city. It was far less impressive than the Skytree, but still romantic. The highlight was Fushimi Inari though. It’s one of the most famous temples in Japan, in particular known for the thousands of torii gates you can walk through. It was painfully crowded, but I imagine that if you visit early in the morning, the view gets truly surreal. The torii gate path leads up the foresty mountain, creating a real sense of magic.

And that was that. Kyoto left a strong, mostly positive impression. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the airport saying goodbye to my partner for another 4 months. It was extremely difficult, and right now I’m going through homesickness almost as bad as when I first arrived. Luckily for me, I’m surrounded by friends who are bursting with affection for Japan and ideas for what to do next, so my adventures here are not over just yet.

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Showing off our kimono on the streets of Kyoto

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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

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.

Cat cafes – paradise, or?..

Japan is famous for the quirky cafes it has, and in particular for the cafes based around animals. This was a concept I eagerly researched for many years, long before the first cat cafe opened up in London. Now that I’m here in Japan, I’m not so sure that I like what I see.

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In a Japanese cat cafe you can pet cats and read manga at the same time

I guess the London cat cafe, which I finally visited for my birthday this year, has set the standards high for me. England’s animal welfare protection is by no means perfect, but I was pleased to learn about all the requirements the people opening Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in London had to fulfil. The cats have to stay healthy, be vaccinated, get enough rest and exercise, be fed properly, etc. They certainly seemed happy enough when I visited. Like many people, I expected a bit more of visiting a cat cafe than what I got: I did not get immediately swarmed by purring fluffballs, but the cats don’t mind making new friends if you approach them carefully and don’t disturb their sleep. The best part was watching the little star of the show, Lizzie, interact with one of the waitresses, as she deigned to walk inside one of those giant wheels for cats, demanding attention and affection in return.

Recently I made it to one of Kobe’s cat cafes. You could tell that here in Japan it’s a far less unusual experience, as the waitresses welcomed us just like in a normal cafe, and there were far fewer decorations than in the London one. Still, the cats seemed to have the facilities they needed, although the room was a bit dark and small. Both in this one and in the London cafe, the cats mostly wanted to sleep and not be disturbed. However, I noticed that here in Japan they looked extra sluggish, a bit too fat, and some of them had untreated eye infections. In general, the poor animals just looked very done with all this human attention. Also, in Japan the care for the cats really varies depending on the cafe, especially as the Japanese laws are far less strict than the British ones.

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Baron, my absolute favourite from Kobe’s cafe. He slept and snored the whole time.

Japan does really lack in terms of animal welfare. I heard many things, such as that zoo enclosures here are much smaller than in England. I also made the mistake of looking into one of those tiny pet shops that can be found on any major shopping street… the puppies and kittens were trapped in tiny cages, and apparently they get killed if they are not sold by the time they grow into adults. Another thing that really bothers me is the fashion for owl cafes – they are almost as common as the cat ones. But cats have more or less adapted to human attention, being awake at daytime, and living in a small room. Owls have not, they are animals that naturally want to be awake at night, and surely should have the freedom of using their wings in wide spaces, rather than being caged. And Japan just keeps on coming up with new cafe ideas – bunnies, hedgehogs, and… goats?! I’d rather pass up on the joy of seeing one of those animals in favour of them living a free life.

This is probably the least happy post on this blog so far, but it must be said – animal welfare in Japan needs improvement! There are so many glorious wild animals roaming the Japanese countryside, but my glee from that thought is dampened as soon as I remember how tired the cats looked in the cafe. Unfortunately, I added to their struggles by visiting, but I will not be going again.

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Cute but unnecessary gendering of cat toilets in Kobe’s cafe…

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. 🙂

 

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.

Hiroshima mon amour

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Torii gate at Miyajima (read about it below)

Last Friday we set off on a wonderful two-day trip to Hiroshima, organised by Kobe university.

There were 20 of us: most of the Oxonians, and many international and Japanese students. We were lucky to have two Hiroshima residents with us – a student and a professor. Soon after classes we got onto a surprisingly comfy inter-city bus and it took about 4 hours to get there.

I’ve heard a lot about Hiroshima at school, of course. We had to research the atomic bomb, its creation, its effects. I will never forget reading an interview with the American pilots who to this day are proud of dropping the bombs: it’s such a shockingly inhumane point of view that I simply cannot process. I’ve seen many images of the devastation; and the idea of a nuclear winter is an omnipresent background threat in the contemporary world.

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Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is the best thing ever

The Hiroshima of today is nothing like that. I walked out of the bus into a beautiful, modern city. It’s very tidy and less busy than Kobe, but that’s about all that’s different. As we explored Hiroshima at night, it offered us many shops, restaurants, izakayas. Lots of students littered the streets in their Halloween costumes. On Saturday night we stumbled into a lovely little festival full of street food, an outdoor theatre performance, and happy families. Hiroshima of today is full of life.

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However, Saturday was also a difficult day, because we faced the details of when the bomb was dropped. Walking through the Peace Memorial Park, and seeing the building that was near the epicentre of the bomb but stayed standing, I could imagine that moment so clearly. Over and over, I read first-hand accounts of survivors (the Hibakusha). Some of them passed away soon after the bomb, some of them discovered various detrimental effects on their health years after. Stories of doctors working non-stop, children fighting for survival, families searching corpses for their loved ones. Yes, Saturday was a difficult day. It made me all the more passionate during the key bit of the trip – the workshop about Hiroshima. We were divided into groups full of international people and more young Hiroshima citizens, and in particular we discussed the recent speech given by President Obama at Hiroshima, and the fact that Japan voted against the reduction of nuclear power usage at the recent UN convention. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a debate more than on that day.

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New best friend (until I run of of food…)

In contrast, Sunday for me was a day of feeling intensely happy to be alive and to be exploring Japan. At that point I’ve made some lovely new friends, both international and Japanese, and we delved into exploring the little island near Hiroshima, famous for its temples: Itsukushima, more famously known as Miyajima. We went there by a 10 minute ferry ride, and it greeted us with a stunning view of a torii gate in the middle of the sea. The highlight for me was that Miyajima is bursting with curious and hungry deer who cheekily approach you and beg for food in exchange for a chance to pet them. My poor new friends had to deal with me running around trying to combine taking photos of everything with hugging every deer in sight. We also had some of the famous Momiji snacks (the deep-fried cream ones are delicious), though nothing can replace Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki in my heart.

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At the Sadako Memorial, this is the famous thousand of paper cranes, forming various pictures

I would love to go back to Hiroshima and Miyajima if I can. Sadly, it’s quite pricey, but I think it will be worth every penny taking my boyfriend Theo there when he comes to visit in March. After the workshop I want to show how lovely Hiroshima is to the whole world! One of the workshop organisers pointed out that whenever he talks about his hometown Hiroshima when he travels the world, people only imagine a nuclear wasteland. However, this town is so much more than that: it is a stark example of how hardworking and forgiving humanity is, how even complete devastation can be healed and re-built. I’m so grateful for the chance to have visited Hiroshima.