Six month reflections

At the time of writing, I’m well into six months living in Japan, and about to hit the seven month mark, which marks the start of my countdown to finishing up my year on exchange and leaving Japan instead of eagerly anticipating all the time that I have stretching in front of me as I begin to explore this little corner of the world.

And to compare, I was rereading all the posts that I had posted prior to, and at the start of my exchange.  There were so many feelings and details that I had forgotten about, thoughts that I deemed important enough to put down, but quickly erased by all the new experiences that I have gained in the time since then.

For one, I didn’t expect how intense the friendships I’ve made here would be in comparison to all the friendships that I’ve made so far in my life.  Maybe it’s the way my exchange program here at Kyudai is structured, with one semester in the JTW exchange program and the following as a normal Kyudai student, maybe I was blessed with the right people, but I have never felt as down and as upset as when all my friends finished up their year here and went home.  I didn’t cry leaving my friends and family in Sydney, but I was ugly-crying for at least one airport send-off, and I remember tearing up for many more, disregarding the times when I would start crying in the prior weeks at the prospect of everyone leaving me.

I want to cry now, thinking about all the times when everyone was together, and it’s been three months since everyone left.

I think it was the fact that they had become my family here, they who welcomed me so openly, they who took me places and included me in their jokes, they who introduced their non-JTW friends to me because they cared and wanted me to have friends after they left, and we all knew that it would nearly be impossible for all of us to be in the same place at the same time ever again.

And I think that so far, this has been the hardest part of my exchange experience.  I talk to some regularly, and I got to meet some of them again during summer break as I traveled around East Asia, but I miss them.

Another thing that I didn’t expect was just how seclusive Japanese society can be.  I knew beforehand that they didn’t really associate with foreigners unless you actively approach you, but it’s so hard to really get to know a Japanese person properly.  I don’t consider myself a shy person, and I certainly didn’t hold myself back talking to Japanese strangers at club activities or whatever, but even so, the fact that I couldn’t speak fluently to them already stopped them from trying to speak to me.  Our conversations mostly went like this:

“Hi, I’m blahblah, a 1st/2nd/3rd/4th year of blahblah faculty.”

“Hi, I’m Joyce, an exchange student from Australia.”

“Oh that’s cool! How is Japan?”

And I’ll give a slightly stilting answer about Japan, and they’ll laugh politely, and then as a friend passes them, turn towards their friend and strike up a conversation, leaving me to stand awkwardly behind them as I try to follow their very fast speech.  It’s gotten better, now that I’ve become better at speaking, but even for Japanese people, there’s this certain procedure to follow if you want to integrate into a pre-existing group, and I’ll elaborate on this in a later post.

On to something more uplifting, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot during the last six months, and I’m so thankful that I could, because I’ve seen so much more in the last half year than I have so far in my life prior to Japan.  And the more I travel, the more I believe that traveling will not just give you a broader perspective of the world, but give you a deeper understanding of yourself, and how you interact with the world around you.  I’ll be aiming to see more of Japan in the next few months before going back to Australia, so expect to see many many many travel posts happening as I slowly catch up on the last six months WHILST continuing all my adventure times.

And then… home time.

I wonder, will it feel like a return to Sydney?  Or will it feel like a departure from Fukuoka?


Golden Week: Dontaku

The first week I arrived in Fukuoka, one of the teachers had already mentioned at our orientation about this mysterious festival called ‘Dontaku’.

“It’s one of the biggest festivals in Fukuoka, and there’s a parade every year in which some KyuDai students participate.  I always go every year; it’s great fun.  If you’re around during that time, you should definitely have a look.”

So I promptly forgot about Dontaku, until I began seeing ads in the subways leading up to Golden Week about this mysterious Dontaku festival.

And then one of the girls in the exchange program posted something about how we could participate in the Dontaku parade as part of the Asia-Pacific Children’s Committee or something like that, so I signed up, because what better way to see the festival and the parade than actually be in it?

But in all honesty, I had no idea what Dontaku even was during the festival, except that these massive floats were hoisted through the streets as part of the parade.  But it turns out that the name Dontaku is from the Dutch word zondag, which means ‘Sunday’, or ‘a holiday’.  Starting in 1179 as a New Year performance called matsubayashi , in the Edo period it evolved into a parade called torimon, where people dressed up as auspicious gods when they visited the Lord of Fukuoka Castle.  The costumes were so extravagant that the Meiji government actually banned this parade, but the citizens preserved the whole thing by renaming it to dontaku.

And I got to be in this centuries old parade.  And I had no idea at the time…

Because we were part of the parade, we had to learn a simple dance and perform that in traditional costumes.  Most of us didn’t have traditional costumes with us, so a lot of us were just borrowing costumes from the APCC.  I was lucky that one of my friends had a few spare Filipino costumes, so I could borrow that from her.  I mean, even if I did have something traditional with me, it would have been a Chinese qipao, which would have been hard to move around in anyway.  And what even is a  traditional Australian outfit?  Either the paints and cloths of an obscure Aboriginal tribe, or the stereotypical singlet, shorts and thongs made famous by the Australian version of ‘Jingle Bells’.

Anyways, it was good fun, even though the day was pouring rain on and off.  When we were actually parading, it wasn’t raining so that was fortunate.  And we all know that although being in the parade was fun, the actual highlight of the festival were the food stalls that lined one of the parks, because there you could eat these okonomiyaki-on-a-stick, yakiniku, chocolate bananas, karaage by the cup, takoyaki, kakikoori… A friend and I were also able to get a chuuhi each from a vendor, so we were just walking around with these alcoholic cans in our hands, which is illegal in Australia and oh so liberating feeling here.

From memory, apart from food there were other performances that were being held on smaller stages during the day, and the most memorable was one by a dance studio, where their dancers were all children below the age of 12, and there was this one dance where a whole group of them were performing, and a few of those kids were the height of my knee, but they could move so well.  It makes me wish I kept up with dancing throughout the years.  Makes me sad, seeing kids outdance me.

Recommended: Hiroshima Bugi

Hiroshima Bugi, by Gerald Vizenor, was introduced to me through my professor for one of my exchange classes, Contemporary Japanese Literature.  The whole class is about reading Japanese science fiction and then breaking them apart and thinking about how it deals with society and life, but I have no idea now for which story Hiroshima Bugi was used as an example.  I only know that, when it was put up on the screen, the format, the writing style, the content was so very innovative, so original, that I wanted to read more.

First page to Hiroshima Bugi

First page to Hiroshima Bugi

So naturally, being a fanatic reader, I asked my professor where I could find the book so I could read the rest.  It turns out that it got a super limited print because it was an independent publication by a university press (the University of Nebraska), and somehow or other a copy landed in the hands of my professor, so I ended up borrowing the book to read.  And the read was so worth it.

To be honest, when I read that first page in class, I thought the work was an independent poem, and not the opening to an entire novel.  The novel separates its paragraphs using indents, and the third indent is always used throughout the novel for direct dialogue, where the speakers alternate lines and the speech is short, staccato and symbolic.  And the most amazing thing was, the writing style is so experimental that I assumed the book was a translation from Japanese, but no.  The author is American, and so the book was already in English.

The book itself is a novel written with alternating chapters between two voices.  The first part is written through the eyes of Ronin Browne, a half Japanese half Native American who recounts the history of Japan using a mainly autobiographical style from the moment of the first atomic bombing, and keeping Hiroshima as its focal point.  The second half is written by Manidoo Envoy, a friend of Ronin’s father, and the one who gives explanations to what Ronin is doing, what historical references we need, and what background story to which character we need to know more of to understand what is going on.  His chapters are written more conventionally, and without his voice, I think the whole book would become super pastiche and experimental and not an approachable read at all.

Ronin’s sections are very poetic, Manidoo very factual.  They are so contrasting, but the author has done such a great job on interweaving the two voices together that I didn’t feel any sense of misplacement whilst reading the book.  However, the content is quite heavy, and even though things are explained to you, it is not a leisure book.  I’m pretty sure that I fell asleep quite a few times reading this book simply because it takes concentration to read.  Although the language isn’t particularly complex, the density of the content meant I couldn’t just skim over the paragraphs and understand what was going on; I really needed to focus on the words.

Regardless, if you manage to find it sometime, this is definitely worth dedicating a few days of your life to read.  Even if only to marvel at how the author has crafted each sentence in Ronin’s sections to show so many things in minimal words.

Golden Week

Golden Week! A magical collection of four public holidays that fall within the space of a week, so that everyone gets a mini-holiday to rest at home! To play! To see the world!

The links to all my Golden Week adventures are at the bottom. But first! What holidays are actually in Golden Week? And what are you supposed to do on each of those days?

Showa Day (昭和の日): 29th April

Emperor Hirihito | Gaijin Pot

Emperor Hirihito | Gaijin Pot

This was actually only called Showa Day from 2007. Before that, it was known as Greenery Day (see below). Made to celebrate the birthday of the Showa Emperor (Hirohito 裕仁), who reigned from 1926 to 1989, the whole point of the celebration is for Japanese people to reflect on the unsettled events during his reign, and not to glorify the emperor.

Some places do have parades and festivals on this day, I’m sure, but I didn’t see or hear about anything… so I assume it’s not widely done.

Constitution Memorial Day (念日): 3rd May

As the name suggests, this is to celebrate the creation of the Japanese Constitution in 1947. Nothing happens today either except encouraged reflection on the meaning of democracy and Japanese democracy and the Japanese government.

Midori no Hi | pelican-travel

Midori no Hi | pelican-travel

Greenery Day (みどりの日 ): 4th May

Originally celebrated on the 29th before it was changed back to Showa Day, Greenery Day encourages people to go out and appreciate nature and the natural landscapes, and to be thankful for the blessings that they have. Historically, the Emperor’s Birthday holiday on the 29th was renamed to Greenery Day after his death to acknowledge the Showa Emperor by referring to his love for plants without actually mentioning his name. Once they decided to revert back to calling the 29th Showa Day, they put Greenery Day onto the 4th, which was previously just a generic public holiday to extend Golden Week.

Children’s Day (こどもの日): 5th May

Carp flags on Children's Day | nippobrasil

Carp flags on Children’s Day | nippobrasil

The only day in Golden Week where special things actually happen! Children’s Day (previously called Tango no Sekku 端午の節句) used to only celebrate the personalities, happiness and the future of boys, but the government changed this to include boys, girls and parents in 1948.

To celebrate, families fly one carp-shaped koinobori flag each for the father, the mother and every child in the family, and can also display a Kintaro doll riding a carp, and the traditional Japanese military helmet, as they both represent strength and vitality. In addition, mochi with red bean paste centres wrapped in oak leaves or with a glutinous rice paste wrapped in an iris or bamboo leaf are served.

Even though it’s supposedly a week, I guess the other three days are optional holidays… but for sure, most businesses give the entire week off for their workers anyway, so Golden Week it is!

To read the rest of my Golden Week adventures…

Golden Week: Yamaguchi
Golden Week: Dontaku
Golden Week: Kyushu~!

Golden Week: Yamaguchi

I decided to hop on the bus after class and go visit my friend in Yamaguchi for a day as Golden Week started because I had no plans and because yay for impromptu trips! Besides, from Fukuoka, it only takes a ¥3100, three hour-ish bus ride to get there, so why not? Seeing more of Japan is always a win~

I later found out that apparently international students get a discount that I didn’t know about, so I could have only paid ¥2700. Sadface. That could have been lunch money.

Anyway, I already knew Yamaguchi was a quiet place, so when we went exploring during the day, I knew that I wouldn’t really be seeing many other people. But still, the emptiness surprised me. For a supposed important town, having the streets as empty as one of the outlying towns near Fukuoka felt a little surreal.

The only place where I really saw a considerable amount of people was when my friend took me to see a football game between Yamaguchi FC and a visiting team (my first live sports match!). It was actually so exciting. I was a little bored as the game started (what is sports what is teams what is ball) but then the first half ended with the visiting team on 1-3, so the second half got really aggressive with lots of action and running and shouting and injuries and switching of players, and then the home team won 4-3, so everyone was cheering and clapping, and the marching band went ballistic. And they hadn’t stopped playing tunes and doing chants during the entire two hours I was there.

And because the football game was the first thing I went to that day, when I arrived in the actual town centre and saw no one… This was the emptiest town I have ever seen so far in my twenty-one years of life.  I’ve never felt so potential-zombie-apocalypse empty, ever.

Then my friend took me exploring Yamaguchi, and that was when I fully realised that Yamaguchi is really not a place you go to for any sort of commercial activity. You go to Yamaguchi to ramble down its little streets and paths, to walk along the rivers and streams, and to stumble upon little-known shrines, all meticulously well-kept and photogenic.  Although there were practically no people, this made everything so serene and peaceful and pleasant and if I wanted to go somewhere to retire, I would move there in a heartbeat.

We also managed to find what we suspect is the dubiously rich people area of Yamaguchi, because their houses were beautiful. Oozing traditional Japanese charm, roof tiles gleaming, gardens on point, the weird trees with flat discs of branches and leaves, These were definitely not just any old Japanese house.  These were legit.  And definitely encapsulating aesthetics that I want in the future. #futurehousegoals

If you really wanted to go and meet people, or go and play at night, you would have to be nearer to the university and Yuda onsen, because when we were in that area looking for dinner, I saw more people walking around there than I did downtown.

My friends later told me that most of the commercial activity was an hour bus ride away from Yamaguchi where the airport and the main JR station were located. But I could get that in Fukuoka.  But the vibe of Yamaguchi? Definitely worth feeling, just for a day.

First month reflections

I arrived in Japan exactly a month ago from today, but it simultaneously feels like I just got here AND that I have been here forever .  It’s weird… and I don’t know what to think about this, but whatever.  I am coping with living out of home for the first time, I am coping with living out of the country for the first time, and my room is still super presentable and not a total mess at all.

Major accomplishments, in my opinion.  I am coping, and I am surviving, and I am having one hell of a time doing it.

So… What have I learnt in this first month living in Japan?  What sort of life secrets have I discovered?

First of all, budgeting is nearly impossible.   Even though they sent me a form that listed all the expenses I would have to pay whilst I’m here, even though I had figured out previously weekly and monthly budgets and all, this DOES NOT help at all.  There are so many hidden expenses when you get here that I am crying at how fast my cash is going.  Examples: bedsheet costs, things that you need for your dorm like soap and bathmats and detergents, field trip costs, textbooks for Japanese class, student-organised welcome parties that will cost you ¥¥¥¥¥…

But all in all, it’s worth it.  All the money I have spent so far, I have not regretted at all.  A few tips that I’ve picked up from the older exchange students and other peoples are:

  • Write down all your expenses so you at least know where your money is going
  • Go to one big event a week. Unless the second event is something you promised to go to or else forfeit your first child, one big yen spending event a week will still get you heaps of funtimes and parties.  After all, everyone else you’re hanging out with are students living on budgets too.  So chances are you may be missing out on some massive party in town, but someone else is having a movie night in their room, and that’s fun and FREE.
  • Control your food money a week. In Fukuoka, food is cheaper to get than in the other big cities like Osaka and Tokyo, so it’s not hard to get a good feed for maybe 500 yen per main meal.  If you want to know what the standards for an expensive meal are…
    • Lunch: over ¥1000
    • Dinner: over ¥2000

This does not include snack money hehehehe

  • Alcohol is really cheap. Don’t go too crazy on building up your liquor cabinet.  EVEN IF THE ALCOHOL IS JUST STARING AT YOU AS YOU MAKE YOUR WAY FROM THE BREAD AISLE TO THE VEGETABLE SECTION, DON’T DO IT.
  • And if you like shopping, go on one trip a month. Everything is cheaper here, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to go out and impulse buy every time you walk past the store.  So dedicate one day where you know you have money to spend and then make it raaaaaaain.

Moving on away from money…

Japanese is hard.  Talking in Japanese is hard.  Unless you make time to go and speak to Japanese people on a day to day basis/have done exchange in Japan before and so you’re used to conversing in it, having Japanese thrown at you 24/7 is confronting.  Just watching anime or dramas all day is not enough, because being able to understand what they’re saying 100% does not equal to being able to respond to what they’re saying 100%.

I mean, I studied for three years before I came here (albeit not really studying as hard as I should have anyway…), and that was just enough for me to have enough vocab to be like ‘Where is ___?’ or ‘One ramen please’.  There are a lot of little phrases that you just don’t learn in class, and for you to pick up conversational every day Japanese, you’ll need to have lived here before.

What I think really helped me with my speaking confidence (which is still close to zero…) was that Kyudai has a tutor system where a local Japanese student is assigned as your tutor and is supposed to be your new best friend slash mother slash personal assistant slash Godsend, and for the first few days I was here my tutor was amazing and took me to all the places around the dorm and took me out to eat, and hearing what she was saying helped me kind of slide into conversing in Japanese.  Additionally, she went to high school in America, so it has been very easy for her to explain things to me so that I know what to do next time I need to deal with it.

Something else that also helped as well was that when I went on my #tokyolo trip, the friend that I was with most of the time did not speak Japanese at all.  Since I somewhat knew what I was doing, I ended up being the main speaker for the entire trip with no one to rely on to help me translate.  Especially because I had just gotten to Japan and was still like ‘What is Japanese can you eat it’, being forced to approach Japanese people to ask for directions, or to order food really made me think of how to communicate, and I think that made my brain transition into ‘YOU CAN JAPANESE’ faster than if I had not gone on the trip.

And in regards to keigo… no one cares.  They know you’re an exchange student the minute you open your mouth, and they don’t expect you to use it at all.  As long as you know enough keigo to understand what store people are saying to you when you buy things, it’s enough.  If you do use it, that’s just bonus brownie points for you, and you may or may not give off the impression that you’re fluent and so they stop speaking any English to you.  So unless your Japanese is actually somewhat fluent, don’t do it.

I mean, everyone is really friendly in Japan.  I apparently live in a sort of dangerous area in Fukuoka, but I am still perfectly safe if I go on a snack run by myself to the conbini down the road at 4am in the morning.  The other exchange students want to get to know you, local students may be shy because they can’t really English but they still want to get to know you… put yourself out there, and you’ll definitely make friends.

One friend once told me to ‘never say no’ when I’m on exchange.  If someone invites you to things, don’t say no.  This led me to a bar trivia the second night I was here, a comedy night followed by 飲み放題 (all you can drink) the third night I was here, movie nights with the older students, cooking parties with host mamas, drinks, dancing, karaoke…  You can say no, especially if you have an ICS assignment due soon, but it’s a lot easier to get to know people if you’re around and hanging out all the time.

And it’s fun.  If you think this violates my ‘one big event a week’ thing, it doesn’t, because errbody else be poor as well, especially because a lot of them are older exchange students who have been travelling it up and definitely have less money than you, the freshly arrived student, to spend, so I haven’t really missed out on any big events yet~

I’ve learnt this much in one month… let’s see if I still agree with anything I’ve said here in another month’s time.