Archive for the ‘Early days’ Category

Japan can often seem like a bewildering place for a gaijin (outside person = foreigner) and I still get surprised about some of the little things that occur on a daily basis.

Once you get over all the obvious differences like vending machines every 50 metres, height difference, the cutsie cartoons that tell you how you should behave/how to operate a water fountain etc, the abundance of advertisement (even on handrails on escalators in a major station – now THATS thinking outside the box!) you start to notice the smaller things.

The following are a couple of things which really stuck out.


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This first month has absolutely flown by, and I can hardly believe its October already! I’ve just got internet in my room which I’m so happy about (even if it isn’t wireless and has taken a month to arrive!) So I’ll be able to update more frequently from now on.

I just got back from a study trip to Kyoto which was one of the best things I’ve done so far in Japan. It was so nice to really get to know my classmates and spend time in such a beautiful city! First of all we went around the Ritsumeikan University Peace Museum. We could do the tour in Japanese or English so I decided I would go for the challenge! Luckily I was pleasantly surprised how much I could understand. My Japanese has already improved so much; a couple of months ago I would have only got the overall meaning, but I’m now at a stage where I really understand things like this in more detail. The lady who gave the tour was so passionate about war history of Japan that it was not only educational but really interesting.

After the tour we did a workshop to help us think about ways we can make our world more peaceful and at the end we had to create a “recipe for peace”!

We had a big party at an Izakaya (very traditional Japanese pub-restaurant, where one eats a large variety of small dishes whilst drinking heavily) and many shenanigans followed. Drinking in Japan is great fun, not only because Japanese people love the silliness of drinking, but also because of a wonderful thing called 飲み放題 which means you pay about £7 and you can drink as much as you want (or can) for 90 mins. And the next day, unlike in the UK, none of the Japanese discuss the embarrassing details of the night before!! Whilst this is kind of expensive for most of the Japanese girls, pink and merry after 1 drink, for the exchange students it was very good value for money! Even our teacher of older years downed a drink or two!

The next day we saw a few shemples (shrines and temples; 数きれない), had a fantastic lunch at a rather posh restaurant, did some shopping and generally mooched about in the rain.

For the first time since arriving in Japan, I felt a very strange mixture of emotions. Arriving at Kyoto station, all the memories of teaching near there flooded back! Visiting Keihan Sanjo tube and other places was also very nostalgic; I used to visit them once or twice a week for 3 months! Going back to Kyoto a second time, this time being able to read all the signs and understand the announcements etc was also a strange feeling, because last time couldn’t understand any of it!

I was also surprised because I could actually notice differences in the way people speak! I couldnt put my finger on what it was but the accent was somehow different, and they use different words too. We always learn about it in linguistics but I never thought I would be able to tell the difference.

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Toyota factory tour

Yesterday afternoon the CJS office arranged a trip for students to go around the Toyota factory and museum which was really interesting. We saw all the “dancing robots” doing welding, and it was like something out of star wars or the matrix, or that Picasso advert where the robot goes crazy and starts painting the car all over! The most amazing thing is that now 97% of the manufacturing process is done by robots/machines, and they can produce almost 1000 cars a day. The museum was pretty good too, but what I found most interesting is how they developed the hybrid cars by using nature as inspiration. They studied a particular bird which can fly high over Mt Everest purely by using thermals and very little effort on its own part, and from that they developed the concept of a hybrid car which is much more environmentally friendly. They also showed what they hope cars will be like in the future – environmentally friendly, affordable, and able to react and respond to other cars/objects to minimise collisions. The tour ended with a performance by the a robot which can play the trumpet – and pretty realistically as well! Certainly better than I could!

Ive been struggling to find time for myself  this last week as every free moment I have is filled up instantly with preparation for classes, homework, trips to the bank and trips to the ward office! Ive finally got my Foreigner Card and have sorted out money now, but since the bank is only open Mon-Friday 9-3 and classes finish at 5 most days, its hard to find time to go there!

Ive been meeting a lot of really cool Japanese people at uni, but sometimes I feel intimidated by how smartly everyone dresses for uni. Whilst SOAS adopts the “wear whatever you can find on the floor which hasn’t been covered in mud from the last protest you were at or isn’t being used as a towel” approach to dressing, Japan takes dressing for classes much more seriously. All the girls wear heels and jewelery, and the boys are all so stylish; its unbelievable. SOAS people should clean up their act! 😉

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I’m serious. Last night I went to prison. Well a prison themed restaurant at least! What an experience it was as well! Mina, Jenny, Cynthia and I made our way to Yaba-cho station where we met 4 Japanese girls, who I had met at one of the welcome parties on campus, and one of whom had given me a tour of the campus. We approached the venue not entirely sure what to expect, but being lead through the front door down a dark corridor splattered with UV paint and filled with rock music into the main prison area we knew we were in for an interesting night out!

The place looked and felt exactly like a creepy prison museum; 2 floors and about 10 barred cells, very dark and dingy, complete with mannequin replicas of famous movie murders. We ordered drinks and soon after got a multi-course meal of really delicious Japanese food. But then, towards the end of the meal, all the lights went out and the show began. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who might like to go but I shall just say we were all screaming and holding each other during the whole show!

To top it all off, the end of the meal came with a rather interesting visitor, in the shape of a dangerously blue alcoholic drink with a IGUANA in it. Now, at first I actually thought it was real and was slightly concerned about its health, but (luckily?) it was just a gutted lizard skin. Anyways, as with all major decisions in Japan, we played the Japanese equivalent of rock paper scissors to decide who would have to bite its head off. Luckily it wasn’t me.

In other news, things continue to go well, and I’m enjoying all my classes but this week is particularly busy for me what with one thing and another. On Friday I have my first proper seminar class – essentially a student run class where we decide what to discuss and how to approach topics set and moderated by the teacher. This week is on Hiroshima and atomic bomb literature so I know its going to be controversial! We have a plan so I hope its going to go well; with this kind of class you get out as much as you put in, so its going to be a real challenge!

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Last night most of the students in the dorm and I went back to the main campus green area to do a “moon viewing”. It sounds a bit awkward when you translate it like that, especially as we don’t really have an equivalant festival, but thats exactly what we did. Its the first full moon of the Autumn and traditionally one would eat moon-shaped cakes (dango) and sweets to celebrate the start of autumn, but mostly we just took a lot of photos by the light of the moon and tried to avoid getting eaten alive by the ants and mosquitoes! (Bugs in Japan = not very friendly. My feet are covered in itchy red lumps which will last for maybe a week but I’m getting better at ignoring them.)

Today we are having a drill to teach us about earthquake and typhoon emergency procedures. I know a little bit about this already from our classes at SOAS, but it will be useful to go over it. A few people have been talking about a large earthquake which is overdue in Nagoya, but I dont really see any point in panicking as theres nothing we can do to stop it happening! It was supposed to have occured last weekend but I didn’t find out until this monday when I heard that a few Japanese people had gone to Tokyo, presumably to get away from the area!

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Life in Nagoya is very laid back compared to London – it seems like there are always people around, but they don’t rush in the same way that Londoners do. Even in Sakae (the heart of Nagoya where we all hang out, go shopping etc) the piped music makes it feel like toy-town or Disneyland! (It certainly solves the problem of ASBO kids playing music on their mobile phones!)

This weekend I went to Sakae with a girl I met at a welcome party (so many welcome parties!) and we went for tea and cake, and purikura. Purikura is a kind of photobooth where you take between 5-8 photos with various backgrounds and you can then pick the ones you like and decorate them with writing, glitter, stars, and other images. You then get a sheet of them printed out on sticker paper so you can decorate folders/files etc with them. Ive done a few before but late at night when they are pretty quiet. So it was a great surprise to see the purikura room at its fullest. Matching outfits, fancy dress… I saw two girls dressed exactly the same in Pikachu outfits (from Pokemon). This is no simple pastime – this is a serious endevour! We did some and you can get them sent to your phone so here they are:



I also went to Nagoya Castle which was really nice, worth a visit. Hopefully going to do some more sight seeing next weekend too. So much to do and see!

My only gripe so far: I never thought I would say this but I am really missing vegetables and Im almost sick of meat, ramen and yaki soba! Vegetables are really expensive here – ¥260 (GBP 1.50) for ONE courgette!! Not really sure why, but apparently all vegetables are all organic and produced in small quantities due to the lack of space. On the other hand, a portion of fresh noodles are 15p so hopefully all the maths will work itself out!!

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I’m already feeling very settled in my new life here, I cant believe its only been a week. Settling in has been very easy as the Japanese students in my dorm have made me feel so welcome and helped me all with getting to grips with everyday life. Some things are incredibly different (like recycling) and other things are surprisingly similar.

Yesterday I went with a few others to get registered as an alien (still makes me giggle a bit!) and to get health insurance. So now I am officially allowed to be here and once I receive my 外人カード I will be able to do a lot more stuff like open a bank account. After that we went to get our 携帯 cell phones. Although it is essentially a very simple process (you pick a phone, you sign a contract, everything works) it was made so much harder by the sheer variety and choice of phones on offer! They all come in about 5 colours and have so many features that I’ve never seen before. For example, on my phone, the screen rotates 90 degrees to the right to make it wide screen which optimises TV viewing. It has a camera with a macro and a standard lens, it subscribes to Asahi news which scrolls across my screen every couple of hours with the news headlines, it can play music, blue-tooth, and if I wanted to pay extra, I could use it like an Oyster card at convenience stores or on the subway. But the best part is how cheap it is; it works out as around 5 pounds per month on a contract which I can cancel at anytime for free. Now I no longer have to rely on fate to meet up with people since calling all my friends on the same provider is free! We even got given a free 1GB memory card and a whole goody bag – if only getting a mobile at home was so easy!

I’ve registered for my classes and other than the compulsory language classes, I’m taking Hanga (woodblock carving) , Shodo (calligraphy) , a seminar on War and Peace from a transnational perspective, and Japan and American foreign relations. I could have taken another class (or even done one less class), but I decided that would be enough for the moment and I will see how it goes. Tomorrow I actually start classes, and Im excited to see what its going to be like.

Right, well I’m off to the cafeteria for a bowl of ramen. GB 1.50 cant be wrong! It feels slightly extravagant eating out so much but when its so cheap AND delicious…!

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The first few days have been a total whilrwind of food parties, meeting new people and JAPANESE! Its already been such good practise as I have to speak Japanese 90% of the time, and my confidence has skyrocketed. Theres no way I could write it all down, but a few things that have amused me so far include:

Jelly in a can – bought from a drinks vending machine. Is it a drink? Is it food? Im not quite sure, but its very yummy!

Engrish – its absolutely everywhere. I have a file which says: “Yeah, I want to make my arms like ham… pretend like you`re a pretty kitty” and a notebook which says: “tiny flowers of shine”. Ive also tried a beer which according to its description on the label* “taste of autumn”… whatever that means.

Oh and we went to a fake English style pub last night where you could choose from 4 sizes of beer: half pint, Pint, 3/4 pint, and a LITRE. (I had a 3/4 pint just to see what it looked like, but it is actually just a 3/4 pint sized glass filled to the top, not a pint which isnt fully filled up in case you were wondering.)

Everything is going really well, everyone is really nice, my jetlag is non-existent and the food is delicious. Today I had yaki-soba for breakfast, mochi icecream for lunch, jelly in a can as a snack and who knows what for dinner. Not particularly healthy, but very Japan.

There has been a LOT of orientation (more like disorientaion in the case of the talk on finance) and had a campus tour, Ive discovered internet which you dont have to log-on to (we havent had that orientation seminar yet!) in the CJS office so thats where I am right now. The campus is amazing, and massive compared to what Im used to at SOAS, so its going to be a while before I really know my way around! Theres a gym, a pool, (free to use!) a (proper) bookshop, a movie rental store (free!!) a language exchange centre where Japanese is prohibited so to promote other languages, about 4 or 5 cafeterias, a couple of cafes, sports grounds…. whereas SOAS is essentally one building! So I feel like Im having a real university experience! Its much more what one would expect uni to be like. The best part is, my dormitory is literally spitting distance form the main gates! 

Will try to update again soon, Im thinking about getting internet in my room; its very expensive (25 pounds per month) but I think its a necessity. Especially since there are no wireless networks on campus (its all dial-up!!) all the wireless networks around my hall are secured and even though there is a room where one can skype from on campus, the computer rooms shut about 8.30. Even to using an internet cafe requires registration, so its a bit of a hassle really.

Hope you are all well back home!

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