Some observations

It is in the small things we see it, they say. During my stay in Japan (unfortunately, I already returned to Belgium), I noticed some things that you would never spot somewhere else, things that are so typically Japanese, but so unremarkable that they are barely mentioned. Probably, these observations are closely linked to me being a Belgian, so it is possible that I am only observing from a European/Western perspective (and probably with a focus on the city of Kobe, the place where I lived). Nevertheless, I thought that these kind of small things are worth mentioning nevertheless, and maybe I am able to add some couleur locale to your image of Japan.

Obaachan (grannies) with colored hair

When you imagine Japan, you think perhaps of the crazy hairstyles and fashion that can be seen around Harajuku in Tokyo. In Kobe, however, the ones with the most funky hair colors are almost always elderly women, doing their shopping at the local grocery stores or chatting with their neighbors at street corners. These women have short, permed hair, as most grannies around the world, I suppose, but dyed in unusual colors like purple, blue, green or pink. At first, I thought it was a hair dyeing gone wrong, but I encountered far too many grannies with a flashy hairdo to rule it out as an exception.  When I searched on the Internet, I found some possible explanations:


  • When Japanese people get gray hair (actually called “white hair” 白髪 in Japanese), it has a slightly yellow shade which makes the face looks older. So, they apply some colored rinse such as in the opposite color purple, to cover up the yellow shade and make their hair look white. In most cases, however, the hair still has a purple shade, certainly when it is dyed regularly. (Hitomebo)
  • On the other hand, there are some obaachan who fancy a very strong shade of purple, blue or green. Just because it is trendy to do so. (also, purple is traditionally a “noble” color) Apparently, bold hair colors for elderly women became a big hit during the ’80s and has never been out of fashion since. (Quora)
  • People believe that a bright color reflects a bright personality. (Oshiete)
  • Simply because they can. They are no longer expected to play the role of the Japanese working woman or housewife with a traditional appearance, they are retired, the kids are all grown up, in short, they have the freedom to do as they like. A bold hair color symbolizes their social status as an elderly free woman. (Quora)


On the streets in Kobe, I often heard people singing to themselves while walking or riding a bike. Not just humming, as many of us probably do, but really singing aloud, not afraid that anyone else could hear them. In a country where karaoke is almost a national sport, it should not be surprising that the Japanese, young and old, participate in many singing events. At school, I heard a-capella clubs practice daily on campus, whenever they were free. It struck me that being asked to sing, regardless of your skills, does not cause any shame in Japan. Maybe they humbly state that they are very bad at it but at least the Japanese are always willing to sing. I don’t think many people in Belgium would be very enthusiastic to perform a song in front of their co-workers, the whole family or their neighbors. I like singing a lot, but was still embarrassed and nervous every time it was my turn, certainly in front of people I didn’t know that well.


In Japan, singing is a form of bonding: everyone cheers you on, sings along and claps when you finishes. Next to that, it is a way to relieve stress. Of course, karaoke is often combined with drinking alcohol, which really livens up the party. I also read in some articles that the “singing culture” of Japan is often contrasted to the “dancing culture” in America. It is said that in the west, people prefer going to clubs and bars where they can dance. (Hapa Eikaiwa)

“Centiliter” vs. “milliliter”

812401At one point, I realized that on cans and bottles the contents are not written in centiliter (cL) as is usual in Europe, but only in milliliter (mL). Also, a pack of milk for example, contains “1000mL” rather than “1 L”. When I asked whether “cL” was used in Japan, they told me that it is usually not the case, as they shorten the word for cm to senchi センチ, which only refers to centiMETER. Deciliter and decimeter are barely used as well. I am not sure why, but it appears to be a choice they made when the metric system was adopted. Before that, Japan had been using the traditional shaku-kan system.

Fun fact: There are even characters for measurements in the metric system! 竕 – deciliter; 竰 – centiliter; 竓 – milliliter (Wikipedia)

Japanese fashion and colors

Not only do Japanese people have a different fashion sense, the color palette of their clothes is also different. During my stay, I made the following observations:

  • Japanese people like pale or more toned-down colors, like white, light yellow, pink and blue, black, grey and brown. Too eccentric or too bright colors are avoided. This is a big contrast with the traditional Japanese dress (着物kimono), which often comes in bold color and patterns, especially for young women.
  • Stripes and checked patterns are always in fashion. They are everywhere.


  • Japanese boys and men often wear light pink shirts in summer. I was surprised, because you do not see that usually in Belgium (it is either a very fashionable and bold statement, or associated with homosexuality here). But in Japan, pink is just another color that has no particular gender connection (bright pink, on the other hand, is seen as a very girly color and is not worn very often by men). The choice for light pink shirts in summer can perhaps be compared with white clothing worn in Europe during the summer, as the color white evokes a feeling of lightness and freshness. In Japan, however, white shirts are the standard uniform for business men, and are therefore associated with formality and work. To create the same lightness as white but keep their dress informal, Japanese men opt for light pink. Or at least, that is my theory.
  • Pastel colors are a big hit among women, especially for pyjama’s and clothes worn at home (very soft, by the way, but a tad too Helly Kitty-ish for me).



Once during a grammar class in Belgium when we were translating sentences from English to Japanese, I came accross the sentence “The mathematician who was wearing rainboots was staring at the stars above and fell into a ditch” or something like that. At that time, it seemed highly unlikely to me that you could fall into a ditch just like that, because the Belgian gutters and ditches I knew were very shallow, and the sewage pits were always covered with a lid. Once arrived in Japan, I realized how easy that actually is. In Japan, ditches are deep holes (around half a meter or more) at one or both sides of the road. I believe that most of the time these ditches are covered with a grid or a stone, as is indeed always the case in front of houses, but where I lived in Kobe, the danger of falling into one at dark was very real. Frightening as well was when cats suddenly jumped out of a ditch in front of your feet. In short, the mathematician has my sympathies. I took extra care and managed not to suffer the same fate, but at times when I was reading while walking or looking at my phone, I came very close to the danger of stepping into nothing, falling into rain water, or crushing a hiding cat. I did not take any ditch picture, but maybe this photo can give you an idea.


Anthropomorphism in Japanese Culture

japan anthropomorphism nippakuAnthropomorphism, or “the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object” (Oxford Dictionary), is a cultural phenomenon that can be observed throughout history all around the world. The Old Egyptians depicted their gods as animals, Aesop set the trend of moralizing animal fables and several Native North American tribes’ share the tradition of totemism. Japan as well, has a rich history of anthropomorphism, gijinka (擬人化)  or gijinhō (擬人法) in Japanese.


Cute flyer from my university

It is remarkable, however, to what extent anthropomorphic objects and animals are integrated into Japanese society. Due to their enormous popularity, everyday life in Japan cannot be imagined without  these “mascots” and other forms of anthropomorphism. Take for example the cute mascots every company and institution creates to sell products or promote services. Because a mascot should represent the best qualities of the product its company has to offer, it has to be unique, eye-catching and above all, kawaii (cute 可愛い). For example, the mascot of Sato Pharmaceutical is an elephant, because in Japanese culture this animal symbolizes a long life. Another example is the mascot of my university here in Japan, Kobe University. The main campus is situated on Mount Rokko, where you can often spot wild boars (I met one once! And fled.) and the University is therefore represented by a wild boar piglet (uribō 瓜坊).

Minister Hatoyama as Saiban'inko.

Minister Kunio Hatoyama as Saiban’inko.

Without doubt, these kind of mascots would be considered childish and highly unprofessional in the West. In Japan, on the contrary, not having a mascot would be like a huge missed sales or advertising opportunity. Mascots are a way of familiarizing the public with a certain product, company or service. Because of their cuteness, human characteristics and approachability, people will feel an emotional connection with these mascots. Not only animals, but also lifeless objects and even concepts are strategically transformed into huggable human-like creatures and given cute names, referring to what they stand for. The local public transport in Japan is often represented by an anthropomorphic vehicle, for example. Even prefectures have their own mascot, resembling a specific historic or cultural aspect of the prefecture in question. Also, institutions who should be taken very serious, like the police or the government, rely on mascots to appeal to Japanese people of every age. For example, the introduction of the new jury system to the public in Japan, is smoothed by the appearance of Saiban’inko the parakeet (saiban’in 裁判員 means lay judge; inko インコis Japanese for parakeet). Japanese Minister of Justice once made an appearance on TV wearing a Saiban’inko costume to promote the new system of trial by jury.

This kind of customed mascot character is called a yuru-kyara ゆるキャラ. Because of their huge popularity in Japan, there is a countless number of yuru-kyara, all with their own way of walking, talking and dancing. There is even a specialized school where you can master the mascot art: the Choko group mascot school in Tokyo provides specific training for aspiring mascots. In short, it is not at all unlikely in Japan to run into mascots at matsuri (festivals 祭り), tourist attractions, on shopping streets and in extreme cases, at events like the one in the following video (World Character Summit):

From Animism to Anime

Anthropomorphism is a crucial concept in Shintoism 神道, Japan’s ethnic religion. Shintoists believe that everything – the universe itself included – has a soul or spirit. Based on this belief, called animism, the Japanese regard animals and nature as the messengers of the gods. The Kojiki 古事記 (“Records of Ancient Matters”, 712) contains a few stories in which animals speak, think and act like humans. Next to that, the transformation of foxes and raccoon dogs into human beings is a returning topic in Japanese folklore. Not only animals and elements in nature, but also artificial objects can obtain a soul. These animated objects are named tsukumogami 付喪神, after the work tsukumogami emaki 付喪 神絵巻 from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). This work contains drawings of old household items that gain a soul after 99 years and change into ghosts.


Tsukimogami in Hyakki Yakko Emaki 百鬼夜行絵巻

With the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, animals were also associated with reincarnation. Despite the fact that this kind of reincarnation was considered a punishment, animals were able to attain nirvana which was still in line with the animistic Shinto theories. The Buddhist work Nihon Ryōiki from the Heian Period (794-1185), for example, mentions various animals with anthropomorphic characteristics. During the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), animal stories became more popular than ever, and with the development of Noh theater 能 and Kyōgen 狂言 (Noh comedy) in particular, animals who behaved like people were put on stage regularly. Sometimes even plants played a lead role. Just like animals, plants were attributed certain qualities or characteristics. The iris, for example, represents a young women while an old woman is impersonated by the willow.

The Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画 Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga) are four scrolls in monochrome drawing style depicting various scenes of daily life. The scrolls date back to the 12th of 13th century. This work is nowadays known as the first manga, but was already popular back then. The scrolls are an excellent example of anthropomorphism in Medieval Japan. There are animals preparing for a matsuri, horseback riding, holding a Buddhist funeral, making jokes, bathing in the river, playing a game and so on. The animals depicted include animals well-known to the Japanese public as well as exotic animals and even mythological creatures. Although the caricatures are a slightly ironic representation of typical human activities, they are not meant to moralize the reader.


Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画), first scroll. A stealing monkey is being chased by rabbits and frogs with sticks.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) and after that, stories and pictures like ukiyōe 浮世絵(woodblock prints) featuring anthropomorphism became increasingly popular. Cats, mice and insects were the animals most often depicted as human beings. From the moment Japan opened up his borders in the nineteenth century, the introduction of foreign anthropomorphic figures soon followed. In the ’50s and ’60s American comics and Disney’s animation movies heavily influenced the Japanese manga scene. Animals and objects were given large eyes and a head that was proportionally too big for their small body, features contributing to their cuteness.



Today, this trend is called “moe anthropomorphism”. Moe 萌え refers to one’s strong affection towards a certain character (kyara キャラ). One of the more advanced forms of moe anthropomorphism is kemonomimi 獣耳(“beast ears”): the depiction of a cute, human-shaped character with animal ears and a tail. Apart from the many official moe characters, these kind of characters are usually created by amateurs and fans and circulate freely on the internet. The result is always cute and innocent, but the animated concept itself often is not. There exists, for example, a moe character to depict terrorist organisation ISIS.

Anthropomorphism explained 

Why is anthropomorphism so prevalent in Japanese culture? The reason remains unclear but scholars have already formulated some plausible explanations. 1) Anthropomorphism in Japan is heavily influenced by animistic Shintoism. The Japanese ancestors shaped objects and animals like human beings in order to understand the world around them. In the same way that monotheistic cultures attribute incomprehensible phenomena to their god, Shintoism describes these phenomena as having a soul. 2) Another explanation is based on the Japanese psychology. Japanese people tend to internalize their own feelings because they want to express sympathy towards the other, rather than stating their own opinion. Doing so, the relationship can continue in harmony, and the personal feelings of the other are not expressed but only assumed. In the same way, the emotions animals and even inanimate objects cannot express are being assumed and interpreted in a human way. 3) Thirdly, there is a social explanation.  When communication as a basic need is not being fulfilled, the tendency to interact with a human-shaped object becomes stronger. This could probably explain the enormous popularity of characters among socially withdrawn internet users like hikikomori 引き篭もり.  4) And last but not least, anthropomorphism would appear to have a positive effect on our efficiency. We consider predictable operations as human and expect the same from anthropomorphic objects. When these objects do so, it leads to peace of mind and improves our efficiency. This is for example the reason why Japanese people prefer android robots.

Fun Facts 


  • 平野重雄, 関口相三, 奥坂一也, and 喜瀬晋. “モノ創りにおける 擬人化と縮み志向の文化について.” In 日本設計工学会. 山形大学, 2014.
  • 高畑、勲.十二世紀のアニメーション―国宝絵巻物に見る映画的・アニメ的なるもの―.初版.東京:徳間書店、スタジオジブリ・カンパニー、1999.
  • 榊原、悟.江戸絵画万華鏡―戯画の系譜.初版.大江戸カルチャーブックス. 京都:青幻舎、2007.
  • Imuhata, Hachiri, and Tachibana Calamansie. “KEMONO: The History of Japanese Anthropomorphic Culture.” 2013. Prezi

Money Matters (2)

You keep it in your pockets every day, you spend it, you worry about it, but what or who exactly is depicted on these bills? Time to find out. This post deals with 5000 and 10,000 Yen, readers who want to know more about 1000 and 2000 Yen should check out my previous post


This lady is Higuchi Natsuko 樋口夏子 (household name Natsu 奈津), but widely known as Higuchi Ichiyō 樋口 一葉, her pen name. Higuchi was born in 1872 in Tokyo and died of tuberculosis at the very young age of 24. She was one of the most influential writers during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the first woman to make it as a writer in modern Japan. Her work is characterized by an elegant use of language, reflecting Heian literature, mixed with a modern sensibility.

As a little girl, Natsuko loved picture books and she started reading literature at the age of seven. Because her mother considered education unnecessary for girls, Natsuko dropped out of school when she was 9 years old. But Natsuko’s father realised her literary talent and allowed her five years later to take classical poetry lessons at the famous academy Haginoya 萩の舎. There, she also gave lectures as a teaching assistant. Nevertheless, she was treated as a commoner by the rich kids at the academy because of her low rank. Eventually, Natsuko became very introverted and wrestled with an inferiority complex.


at Haginoya

The Higuchi family - Golddust

The Higuchi family – Golddust

From that point on, the Higuchi family’s life turned into a tragedy. When Natsuko was 19, her father lost everything in a failed business enterprise and died shortly after that. Natsuko became head of the family – unusual for a woman at that time – and she, her mother and her sister desperately tried to meet the ends by doing all kinds of odd jobs, like house-keeping, needlework, weaving sandals and laundry chores. It is said, however, that Natsuko despised this kind of labor and was therefore looking for another source of income. Inspired by a female class mate who published a successful novel, she decided to become a writer.  Natsuko choose “Higuchi Ichiyō” as her pen name and wrote her first novel Kareobana hitomoto かれ尾花一もと (“Withered silver grass”) at the age of twenty.


Nakarai Tosui

In 1891, she was introduced to journalist and novelist Nakarai Tōsui 半井桃水. Ichiyō became his pupil and with his help and advice, she managed to publish her short stories in some magazines. From her diary, we know that Ichiyō had a crush on the tall, handsome and gentle widower Nakarai, but unfortunately her love was not returned. On the contrary, her mentor turned out to be an infamous womanizer. As a female writer in the male-dominated world of literature, Ichiyō was often the topic of rumours and speculations about her love life. She would never marry, but broke off her engagement due to money problems and turned her ex-fiance down the second time he proposed. 

51Y62QACTHL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Luckily, she had more success with writing. Her break-through came with the publication of Umoregi うもれ木 (“Buried wood”). Ichiyō wrote stories for the famous lit-magazines Bungakukai 文學界and Miyako no Hana 都の花 and her talent was soon acknowledged by prominent Meiji writers. Economically, however, the Higuchi family was not in a good shape and they had to move to the Yoshiwara district, a poor neighbourhood and infamous as a pleasure quarter. This environment served as a setting for one of Ichiyō’s masterpieces, Takekurabe たけくらべ (“comparing statures” often translated as “Child’s play”). Ichiyō opened a variety shop, but closed it the same year, after which the family moved again. Between December 1894 and February 1896, her so-called “14 miraculous months”, she published 10 works of outstanding quality. After that, she only wrote one more work before she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died three months later. Higuchi Ichiyō, the most famous female writer of the Meiji period lived in poverty, but her image will make you rich. Ironic isn’t it?

5000yen_backThe reverse side of a 5000 Yen bill is inspired by a painting on a wall screen by Ogata Kōrin (1658 – 1716). The flowers on the left side are irises 杜若 (kakitsubata). Irises have been considered “classical plants for gardening” since the Edo period and stand out because of their purplish blue color and speckled light yellow interior. The irises screen is a National Treasure of Japan.


Fun Fact The Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari 『伊勢物語』) mentions the prefecture of Aichi as a famous place for irises. The story goes that the protagonist composes the following poem when he and his companions are enjoying the view of an iris marsh from a bridge. The first syllables of every line together form the Japanese word for iris.

ら衣                karagoromo                 I have a beloved wife
つつなれにし   kitsutsu narenishi         Familiar as the skirt
ましあれば      tsuma shi areba           Of a well-worn robe
るばる来ぬる  harubaru kinuru           And so this distant journeying
びをしぞ思ふ   tabi wo shi zo omou     Fills my heart with grief
(translation by McCullough)

References Wikipedia Jp, Wikipedia Eng, Copeland, Rebecca, and Melek Ortabasi. The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan. Asia Perspectives: History, Society and Culture. Columbia University Press, 2006, Jaanus.


Finally, we have arrived at the highest bank-note denomination. The 10,000 Yen bill was first introduced in 1957 and portrays Fukuzawa Yukichi 福沢 諭吉 (1835-1901), engraved by Oshikiri Katsuzō, since 1984. Japanese people often refer to the 10,000 Yen bill as “Yukichi”. Fukuzawa was a versatile man. He was a writer, teacher, translator, entrepreneur, journalist, liberal ideologist and Enlightenment thinker. He is often called “the Japanese Voltaire” and “one of the founders of modern Japan”. Without doubt, Fukuzawa has played an important role in the transition from the Edo period (1603-1868) into the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan made an end to its feudal system, opened up its ports for foreign trade and underwent a drastic modernization.

FukuzawaYukichiFukuzawa grew up in a low-ranking samurai family in Osaka. From the age of five, he received schooling in Confucianism and Chinese classics. It was soon clear he was a gifted student and at the age of 19, he went to Nagasaki to study Dutch. At that time, Dutch merchants were the only Europeans allowed on Japanese soil, more specifically on Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki. The Japanese were particularly interested in European warfare and artillery, and because they prohibited the Dutchmen to study Japanese, official translators were employed to communicate with and learn about the West (the study of Dutch is called rangaku 蘭学). Although his study in Nagasaki was succesful, his host got envious of his talent and tried to send him away. This attempt failed, but Fukuzawa decided to travel to Edo nevertheless. When he stopped by his family on the road there, his brother persuaded him to complete his study of Dutch in Osaka at Tekijuku 適塾.

doeff halma

The Dutch-Japanese Doeff-Halma Dictionary

In 1856, his elder brother died (his father passed away a long time before) and Fukuzawa became head of the family. Nevertheless, he did not give up studying. To pay his school fees, he successfully translated a Dutch book about fortification as a military strategy and was rewarded free housing and schooling at Tekijuku. There, he mastered the Dutch language in three years and became head teacher at the age of 22. Apart from studying Dutch, Fukuzawa was also interested in the topics introduced in these Dutch books, untill then unknown subjects to Japan such as chemistry and medicine (although he could not stand the sight of blood). In 1858, he was appointed official Dutch translator and sent to Edo (Tokyo today) as a teacher. There, he founded a small, private rangaku school.

The end of Japan’s “splendid isolation” drew near with the arrival of the “black ships” of the American Commodore Perry. Japan signed a treaty with the United States and opened three of its ports to European and American ships in 1859. During a trip to Kanagawa to see the arrival of the foreign ships, Fukuzawa was baffled by the fact that all foreigners used English instead of Dutch. So he started learning English. The same year, he volunteered to be part of a diplomatic mission to San Francisco. The many cultural differences made a big impression on him.


Fukuzawa with Alice Theodora, the daughter of the photographer, in San Francisco.

Upon his return five months later, he became an offical translator for the Tokugawa shogunate. His first publication was an English-Japanese dictionary, which was actually a translation from a English-Chinese dictionary he bought in America. From that moment on, he changed the subject of his classes from English to Dutch and translated several English works. Fukuzawa embarked on (the first) Embassy mission in 1862, this time via Hong kong and Singapore to France, England, The Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Russia. He wrote down his experiences abroad in “Things Western” seiyō jijō 西洋事情, a work of ten volumes that soon became a best-seller. In 1868, Fukuzawa changed the name of his school to Keiō Gijuku 慶應義塾, where he taught mainly political economy. He also brought in foreign professors. Later, Keiō Gijuku would become a university in 1889, the forerunner of today’s Keiō University.


Keio University, then and now.

fukuzawa-yukichi_Fukuzawa authored several works of educational interest, among which An Encouragement of Learning (gakumon no susume 学問のすすめ) is considered one of his most inspiring works. He stressed the importance of education for everyone, and advocated gender equality. Fukuzawa also published critical works and essays, like An Outline of a Theory of Civilization (bunmeiron no gairyaku 文明論之概略) in 1875. As a thinker, Fukuzawa believed that knowledge about the West was essential for the development of a modern Japan and the resistance to European imperialism. Therefor, he introduced many aspects about Western society, like the banking system, postal services, conscription laws, hospitals, electoral systems, parliaments and so on. He established his own newspaper Current Events (Jiji Shinpō 時事新報) in 1882. Thanks to this widely read newspaper, Japanese common people got familiar with the idea of a reformation and modernization in Japan. In 1898, Fukuzawa collapsed due to a cerebral apoplexy. Although he recovered, it occurred again three years later, and eventually led to his death in 1901.

Fun Fact Fukuzawa invented a new letter combination to write the “v”-sound, foreign to the Japanese language. Just like today, it is written as an “u” with two dashes ヴ. So it is thanks to Fukuzawa that I can write my very Flemish name in Japanese.


On the other side of a “Yukichi” we see the Phoenix statue of the  Byōdō-in 平等院 in Uji. This mythological bird represents peace and is the symbol of the imperial household. The Byōdō-in is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan. It was designed as an earthly reflection of the Pure Land Paradise. The main hall is nicknamed Hōō-dō 鳳凰堂 (“Phoenix Hall”) and is actually depicted on the reverse side of a 10 Yen coin. I visited the Byōdō-in during last summer and it certainly is a splendid temple. Can you spot the two phoenixes?

byodoin hoodo


References Keiō University, Wikipedia Eng, Wikipedia Jp, Fukuzawa, Yukichi, and Eiichi Kiyooka. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.[Google Books]

Money Matters (1)

You keep it in your pockets every day, you spend it, you worry about it, but what or who exactly is depicted on these bills? Time to find out. This post deals with the 1000 Yen en 2000 Yen bank-notes.


On the 1000 Yen bills we have Noguchi Hideyo (野口英世), a bacteriologist who became famous because he discovered the causative agent of syphilis. Noguchi is also the first scientist to appear on a Japanese bank-note.

After his operation. -

After his operation. –

As a baby, Noguchi fell into a sunken fireplace, which resulted in a burn and the deformity of his left hand. At the age of eight, he underwent an operation and was so impressed by medical progress that he decided to become a doctor. Noguchi proved to be a very smart kid and obtained his medical license at the age of only twenty. He started working at several hospitals and institutions. As a doctor he distinguished himself by discovering a bubonic plague patient at the quarantine station, and was shortly after that dispatched to Manchuria in order to investigate and prevent the plague that was spreading there.

Noguchi was fluent in Chinese and English, and dreamed of pursuing an academic career abroad. In 1900, he set out for the United States. When his study of venomous snakes proved to be a success, he was appointed an assistant position at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, while working as an assistant for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he studied for one year in Copenhagen, Denmark.

in Pennsylvania. -

in Pennsylvania. –

Upon his return, Noguchi started working at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, Washington. There, he dedicated the rest of his career to bacteriological research. He took a particular interest in yellow fever, and traveled to Central and South America and Africa to do research and develop a vaccine. His findings, however, were heavily criticized and discredited. Next to that, Noguchi had been accused of conducting an unethical human experiment by injecting extracts of syphilis in orphan children. In 1928, Noguchi contracted yellow fever himself and died at the age of 51.

busy with alligators to discover yellow fever -

busy with alligators to discover yellow fever –

Despite the fact that later research proved many of his theories false, his findings about syphilis and snake venoms are valuable contributions in the field of medical science. Noguchi was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times and received several honours around the world.

Fun Fact Noguchi was actually born Noguchi Seisaku, but changed his name because of the publication of “Portraits of Contemporary Students” (当世書生気質) by Tsuboichi Shoyo, a novel about a doctor named Nonoguchi Seisaku who lead a life of dissipation and eventually ruined himself.


The reverse side of a 1000 Yen bill is a cliché representation of Japanese nature: Mount Fuji, lake Motosu and cherry blossoms. It is based on a work of photographer Okada Kōyō (1895-1972). Okada had photographed Mount Fuji for over 50 years and published many Fuji collections. He even established the Fuji Photo Association in 1940. Besides Japan’s most famous mountain, Okada has taken pictures of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.

Fun Fact Before 2004, this scenery was actually depicted on the reverse side of a 5000 Yen bill.

References Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, The Rotarian,  Wikipedia, kotobank


A 2000 Yen bill is rather rare in Japan (some people compare it to the American 2 Dollar bill). I received a bunch of them when I exchanged money back in Belgium, but it appears that Japanese people do not like to use them. They are inconvenient because you cannot use them for vending machines or ATM (I used them without any problem in shops, though) and their unpopularity even lead to concern for the bill’s survival. Which is a pity, because I like the design of this bank-note.

Wikimedia Commons-picture by 663highland

Wikimedia Commons-picture by 663highland

The 2000 Yen bill was only introduced in 2000, to commemorate the millennium and the 26th G8 Summit, held in Nago, Okinawa. For that reason, the obverse side of the bank-note depicts a castle gate in Naha, capital of Okinawa prefecture, namely the Shureimon (守礼門), one of the main accesses to the Shuri Castle (首里城). This castle functioned as the palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom (15th – 19th century) and was almost totally destroyed during the second World War. Besides its long history, the castle is remarkable because of its architecture: influences of Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese architecture are visible in the use of orange-red, clay tiles and its resemblance to the Forbidden City. The tablet on the gate as well, is in Chinese and reads 「守禮之邦」.When a Chinese delegation visited Okinawa, every Japanese official lower in status than the king had to perform a kowtow in front of the gate to welcome them: three times kneeling and nine times touching the ground with their head.

Fun Fact I The Shureimon was featured in many brochures and guidebooks to attract tourists. The gate, however, did not meet their expectations and got labelled “disappointing landmark”.
Fun Fact II For gamers, the Shureimon may seem familiar. Shuri Castle is the battlefield for the last American mission in Call of Duty: World of War.


The reverse side of a 2000 Yen bill displays a scene from the Genji Monogatari 源氏物語(The Tale of Genji), and a portrait of a peeking Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of this Tale. In the past, I have published some posts about Genji and his adventures on this blog (here and here). Often called the world’s first modern novel, Genji Monogatari is considered one of the most important works in Japanese classical literature. The tale was written around the 11th century and features a handsome and charming prince, Hikaru Genji 光源氏 (“shining Genji”), leading a life of amorous escapades and political intrigue. The scene depicted on the 2000 Yen bank-note is taken from a handscroll from the 12th Century and is linked to the 38th chapter “Suzumushi” 鈴虫, “The Bell Cricket” of the Genji Monogatari. It is a parallel chapter 並びの巻(narabi no kan), which means that it tells a short story that runs parallel with the main story line. The characters depicted are Prince Genji (right) and Emperor Reizei 冷泉院(left), actually his son, conceived out of an illicit affair with his stepmother.

Genji suggested that the whole night be given over to admiring the bell cricket. He had just finished his second cup of wine, however, when a message came from the Reizei emperor. (…) Even though he in fact had few commitments these days and the Reizei emperor was living in quiet retirement, Genji seldom went visiting. It was sad that the emperor should have found it necessary to send for him. Despite the suddenness of the invitation he immediately began making ready. (…) The Reizei emperor was delighted. His resemblance to Genji was more striking as the years went by. The emperor had chosen to abdicate when he still had his best years ahead of him, and had found much in the life of retirement that pleased him. (translator: Edward Seidensticker)

Now it gets complicated. The calligraphy on the bill does not describe this scene, but is an excerpt of another part of this chapter. It is difficult to read, but this is written in Japanese:


This is, however, only the half of a “caption” (kotobagaki 詞書), an arranged version of the original text. Compare:


with the original text:


translated as

On the evening of the full moon, not yet risen, she sat near the veranda of her chapel meditatively invoking the holy name. Two or three young nuns were arranging flowers before the holy images. The sounds of the nunnery, so far from the ordinary world, the clinking of the sacred vessels and the murmur of holy water, were enough to induce tears. Genji paid one of his frequent visits. “What a clamor of insects you do have!” (translator: Edward Seidensticker)

e0131814_21271739The woman in question here is Onna Sannomiya 女三宮, or the Third Princess. She is Genji’s niece and he marries her. Unfortunately, Genji has somewhat lost his youthful charm and his wife gets seduced by a young fellow called Kashiwagi. This liaison results in a baby boy. Onna Sannomiya feels so guilty she enters the nunnery, hence the chapel, holy images and nuns described in this excerpt. The link between these two scenes is the parallel theme of adultery and sons born out of wed-lock (and in my opinion, a hint of incest). Genji recognises himself in the affair his wife was having, blames himself and goes in exile. Maybe the message the Bank of Japan wants to send us by picking out these scenes for their 2000 Yen bank-note, is that you should not spend your money on adultery?

References Wikipedia, The Nation, Genji Monogatari (Eng), summary of Genji Monogatari (Eng), Mixi

Living in Japan: Pros and Cons

Living in Japan is great. It feels like a totally different world, but at the same time I automatically understand and reinterpret the things happening around me, because I have been studying about this country and its culture for years. Adapting has been easier than I thought, and after six months I can safely say that I feel at home here in Kobe, rather than feeling like a tourist or an ignorant foreigner. Some days things do not go as smoothly as I would wish, I stutter or fail to make myself clear, I realize too late I have done something very non-Japanese or I make a stupid remark in class. But I guess these struggles are familiar to every exchange student. At the same time, being a foreigner gives you some space to be “different”, to do things your own way and claim “oh, but that is a Belgian thing”. To make up for not having posted in a while on this blog, here is my non-extensive list of pros and cons in Japan.



queuing at the bus stop.

When being asked to describe the Japanese, many people will give you the answer that “they are so polite“. They queue up wherever they can, apologize very easily, treat strangers with respect and use keigo (polite speech). As a customer, service in Japan is great. You get the feeling the staff is really delighted with your visit to their store. You notice the downside, however, when you look closely: the forced smiles, the somewhat insincere  “irrashaimase!” (welcome!), and the staff continuously shouting “thank you for your visit and please feel free to look around” without even looking at you. For people like me, this kind of surplus service appears sometimes as a waste of energy, but it is only normal and expected in the Japanese society.

Japan is without doubt a great travel destination. This country offers fantastic nature, lots of culture and history, big cities and traditional villages, great food, all year round festivals and comfortable transport.


Japanese gardens: nature and culture in one

krekel (2)Speaking about nature, there is one thing that I won’t be missing at all back home. All of you who have spent the summer in Japan will know what I am talking about: cicadas. Or rather, the horrible loud sounds they make. There is a tree right next to my window full of these noise-makers and during the summer months they made sure to wake me up every morning around 5 o’clock.

In fact, Japan is noisy in general, certainly on the streets. Annoying jingles, beeping sounds from traffic lights, school girls, whistling traffic agents, yelling shop staff, pachinko parlors…


pachinko, the Japanese version of gambling.

As most travelers in Japan probably have noticed Japanese people tend to stare at you. On the train, in the super market, on the streets. And not only on the countryside but in the big cities as well, it seems like some Japanese people have never seen a foreigner (let’s say non-Asian) in their life. Which is pretty weird because there are tons of tourists, and many TV programs and commercials nowadays star foreigners. But at the same time, the Japanese show a lot of interest in the foreign you. They want to know where you come from, what you like about Japan and what your favorite food is here (believe me, every time these things in this exact order). And then there are also the school kids, who yell “hello!” when they see you and run away giggling.

A very lonely bin.

A very lonely garbage bin.

Japan is very clean. Streets and buildings look spick-and-span, not sorting the garbage correctly is considered a crime and smokers have their own designated smoking spots. On the other hand, it is very frustrating that there are almost no public bins, even at train stations (apparently bins disappeared after the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack). Next to that, smoking at bars and coffee shops is allowed, and I am not the biggest fan of passive smoking.

I love Japanese food, and even as a vegetarian there are plenty of dishes here to enjoy. The Japanese cuisine is known for its healthiness and varied use of ingredients. Next to that, eating out in Japan – compared to Belgian restaurants – is actually quite cheap. You always get free water, except in izakaya 居酒屋(Japanese pubs). Nevertheless, going to izakaya has somehow become my new hobby, especially because of the food (and the sake, let’s be honest). In Europe it is hard to find places where they sell lots of drinks and lots of food at the same time. Izakaya usually have an extensive menu (salads and veggies as well), although it seems that Japanese people mainly go there to drink.

traditional vegetarian Japanese meal (washoku)

traditional vegetarian Japanese meal (和食 washoku)

Another thing that I have noticed, next to the extreme fondness of Japanese people for alcohol even if they are not the strongest drinkers, is the omnipresence of meat. I imagined Japan had more of a fish culture, but yakitori (grilled chicken) specialized izakaya and so on are everywhere. Good for you if you’re a real meat lover, but as a vegetarian you have to watch out with everything they sell as a full meal: even salads in the konbini (convenience store) sometimes contain meat. 

P1110207 (2)I already covered the part about Japanese comfort in this post. Read to find out how great 100 Yen shops, supermarkets, konbini and vending machines are! The (Western style) toilets are worth mentioning as well: they are everywhere, free and clean. And they come with a lot of options.

Moreover, transport in Japan is well available and overall comfortable, apart from rush hours. Japan’s pride, the shinkansen 新幹線, is truly one of the fastest way to travel across the island. I was surprised by the luxury of extra leg room and comfortable seats.

11896182_10206734726502685_1251280518596063780_n Cyclists. They are a real danger on the road, especially because they use the same pavement pedestrians use (and the road and every other space possible) and apparently because they think that owning a bicycle means that everyone else has to jump aside when they ring their bell.


A foot bath with 42°C onsen water outside Kin no Yu (“golden water bath”) in Arima, a small town near Kobe famous for its onsen.

I recently went to an onsen, a hot spring, for the first time. I was afraid that being naked would be the most difficult part, but it turned out I couldn’t care less once I realized how hot the water really was. My first experience was nothing more than a painful challenge of my limits and stubbornness to stay as long as possible in the water, but I started enjoying it the times after that. Especially outdoor baths are nice and I am really looking forward to visit an onsen in winter. Nothing more relaxing than a hot bath while surrounded by a snow landscape.

Too much airconditioning. Agreed, Japan is hot in summer (and in spring, compared to IMG_20150922_021955Belgium). But somehow the Japanese succeed in making it so cold inside you have to bring a sweater against freezing. Or at least, that is what I did the past few months when I arrived at school all hot and sweaty. I guess our definition of “room temperature” differs. Nevertheless, it feels like a huge waste of electricity, especially when they are sitting there in their suits and long sleeve dresses. Just open the window already and wear a T-shirt.

Knowing that they always strive for perfection, the Japanese still baffle me with their incredibly ridiculous translation skills. It feels like no effort at all was made to check some English words or grammar before putting their message on a sign board. Google translate could have done a far better job. Luckily, these things never fail to amuse us foreigners.

12047616_10206361334565777_795789440_n (2)


Omiyage (souvenirs, mainly food typical for the city you visited), are things I love to receive but always forget to return. If I go somewhere, I do not want to spend a whole afternoon and half of my budget on nicely packaged cookies I am obliged to hand out to everyone I ever received souvenirs from. Most of the time I simply forget to buy them. On the bright side, I am always forgiven (advantage of being a foreigner).


Momiji souvenir cookies from Miyajima

More pros and cons worth mentioning: fashion sense, too much wrapping, structure and punctuality, conformism, shrines and temples,  humid climatefeeling safe at night, traditions in general, limited living spacearchitecture, beer (as in: not so good as Belgian beer), free tissues, natural disasters (taifuns, earthquakes), hard-working, overwork, worldwide known pop culture  and so on!

Food in Japan: Home Cooking and Eating Out (Veggie)

Food is an important part of culture all around the world, and “the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic and passionate of any race”. Every town has its local specialty, on every corner you can buy Japanese snacks or drinks. The traditional Japanese cuisine is based on white rice, fish, miso soup, sea weed and vegetables. Red meat was not eaten till the Meiji Revolution (1868), when Japan opened up its borders to western countries and the taboo on the consumption of “four-legged creatures” was abolished. Also, the traditional diet consisted barely of dairy products. Seasoning (soy sauce, mirin, vinegar, pepper, wasabi…) is indispensable. As a result, Japanese cuisine contains a lot of salt but is relatively healthy compared to Western (greasy) food.

Traditional Japanese meal (和食) –

This post is entirely devoted to my eating habits here as a student in Japan. Except for one big meat incident on my second day in Kobe, I managed to remain vegetarian (no meat, no fish). And it is actually easier than I expected. However, I have to admit I make an exception for dashi  出汁, fish stock, used as the basis in miso and noodle soup. There are restaurants with absolutely no vegetarian options, but most of the time there is at least one dish, or you can ask to leave the meat/fish out. This far, people have made so much effort when I request something veggie, that I have never fallen short on food.

I try to make a bentō 弁当(lunch box) as much as possible. When I do not feel like cooking, I enjoy Japanese or not so Japanese food at the countless restaurants here. Below, you will find a bunch of photos from both home cooking as well as restaurant food. Enjoy! Warning: do not read this if you are hungry.

Home Cooking (家庭料理 katei ryōri)

I usually cook with the same ingredients I used in Belgium like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber (really small in Japan), in combination with Japanese ingredients like daikon, tsukemono (pickles) and Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, enokitake). I am not really good at cooking and I am on a student budget, so I like to keep things simple.


Rice – tōfu, umeboshi (dried plums), soy sprouts fried in soy sauce,  – salad: cucumber, Japanese pickles, lettuce, dressing.


A bit unclear and does not seem so tasty but actually is! Soba noodles with egg, daikon (Japanese radish) and broccoli


Miso soup with great burdock – rice, fried soy sprouts, egg – tomato, lettuce, daikon


When I crave for a Belgian sandwich (“belegd broodje”). Brown bread is nowhere to be found in Japan. Funny thing: cheese is wrapped per slice!

Bentō 弁当

Bentō is a packed lunch you can make yourself or buy at the supermarket. I bought every item of my bentō set on the picture below at the 100 yen-shop. Most bentōs are made with leftovers from dinner and put in the fridge. Because it is pretty time-consuming, making it in the morning has become quite impossible for me. Some people have a special small bag to bring their bentō to school or to work, but I usually wrap it in a colored piece of cloth. I also bought a two-layered bentō box that you can tightly close (a bit more expensive, but certainly worth the purchase).



The cute bentō stuff section in a regular shop.


Lettuce, fried tōfu, cucumber, mame (soybeans), egg and I think there are some shiitake hidden in there as well.


Cold pasta is also great for lunch. I use this sesame dressing a lot, it is delicious.


This is how I make onigiri. I use plastic triangle-shaped molds so my lunch does not get crushed  by school books. I sprinkle a vegetable and sesame seed mix on the rice and cover the sides with nori (seaweed). Sometimes I add a umiboshi.


My two-layered lunch box: first layer is rice with steamed vegetables, second layer is a salad. Between them is a compartment with chop sticks and a cold pack for during summer.

Eating Out (外食 gaishoku)


I guess you could not really call this eating out: kitsune udon (thick wheat noodles with fried tōfu and spring onion on top) from the university cafeteria.


Vegetarian curry rice with extra eggplant.


Okonomiyaki – Japanese pancake/pizza. I ordered one with mochi (sticky rice) and cheese. The chef was so kind to leave out the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) for me.


A Japanese set meal (定食 teishoku). Usually this means white rice, pickles, sometimes tōfu and a main dish, like nikomi udon this time: udon with fried tōfu and (without for me) meat.


At an izakaya 居酒屋, a Japanese “pub” with friends. Next to a “all-you-can-drink” 飲み放題 (nomihōdai) we enjoyed many dishes, starting with seasoned vegetables and pickles.


A speciality of Akashi: takoyaki (octopus dumplings) dipped in dashi. Because I got dumplings without octopus it tasted a bit like typically Belgian deep-fried dough balls (“oliebollen”).


Italian food is popular in Japan too. I have eaten some great pastas before and the pizza is, well, okay. Among Japanese restaurants, the cheapest place to get food is at a “family restaurant”. Prices are ridiculously low, and you mostly get free drinks. Of course the food is no haute cuisine but if you choose wisely, you can score some tasty things.


Indian food is great in Japan. I ordered a vegetarian set meal with a salad, naan, vegetable yoghurt, rice, tomato soup, some deep-fried thing stuffed with chickpeas (forgot the name), and two types of curry (one with various kinds of vegetables, the other with beans). I honestly ate too much that day.

There is a great vegetarian/vegan diner in Sannomiya, Kobe: Modernark Pharm Cafe.


wrap sandwiches, tofu burger, soup and pickles.


Curry rice with honey yoghurt, pickles and tofu burger.

Sweets (菓子 kashi)

You can find the same cookies and sweets they sell in western countries here as well (洋菓子 yōgashi) – although the chocolate doesn’t come close to Belgian chocolate, of course.


The Dōshima roll with fruit from famous shop Mon Chou Chou in Osaka.

Popcorn comes in various colors and flavors.

Popcorn comes in various colors and flavors.

I personally prefer traditional Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi), mostly made from mochi (sticky rice cake) and other natural ingredients, like anko (red bean paste). I would love to share some of my own photos, but unfortunately I forgot to take pictures before stuffing my face with them.


I simply cannot resist mitarashi dango: mochi dumpling with sweet soy sauce.


Daifukumochi (rice cake stuffed with sweet bean jam or matcha) has a soft texture and is delicious as 4 o’clock snack. It is not too sweet and very filling.


Less traditional is melon pan. This sweet bread has, except for its pastel color, nothing in common with melon. There are versions with extra butter or chocolate chunks.

Dorayaki - Doraemon's favorite snack - is bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Dorayaki – Doraemon’s favorite snack – is bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Matcha parfait with ice, cream, nuts, cookies, cornflakes, mochi and almonds

Matcha parfait with ice, cream, nuts, cookies, cornflakes, mochi and almonds

University Life as a Double Degree Student (Kobe University)

Before I came to Japan, I had not the slightest idea what to expect from the Double Degree program at Kobe University. Of course, I knew I had to take Japanese classes, but on how the university systems works, how many classes I had to take or how I should write my thesis and so on I couldn’t find any specific information. So I decided to describe my experiences up till now in this blog post, in the hope it will give aspiring Double Degree students an idea of their future university life. Please note that I can only inform you on the Double Degree program in Intercultural Studies at Kobe University, the program at other universities or graduate courses could be different.

Faculty and Graduate School of Intercultural Studies - Kobe University

Faculty and Graduate School of Intercultural Studies – Kobe University

Let’s start with the basics of a master degree program:

In Japan, the master course takes 2 years (M1 and M2). Students should obtain 30 credits in total over these 2 years, but as a Double Degree student, you aim for 20 credits during one year abroad. Up to 10 credits obtained in your home university are exempted to meet the master requirements. Make sure you have obtained these already (during first semester for example)! Since a class counts for 2 credits, you take 8 regular classes and thesis counseling every semester (=2×2 credits). You can choose any class you want, although you are advised to take some classes on your thesis topic or specialization. There is an extensive list of classes they will send to you in advance, but the best way is to select based on your interest and knowledge, and to try them out during the first week. You can sign up during registration period. It is also wise to take more classes in first semester since you are busy writing a thesis/final report in the second.

Speaking of reports, there are two options: either you write your thesis in Japanese (if approved when applying) or you write an extended report in Japanese (20~30 pages), like is usually done by M1 students. You do not get extra credits for this, but you take thesis counseling like I said before. The counseling takes place at a regular basis (once in two weeks in my case) and you should present your progress to your supervising professor – whose field of specialization is close to your thesis topic. As a Double Degree student from Leuven I was assigned a professor specializing in Belgium. The supervisor advises you, lends you books and helps you writing your thesis or report.

As things may be still unclear in the beginning, at the start of the first semester you will be flooded with information, brochures and paper work (I could stuff one drawer with it after introduction week). Graduate students receive an over 200 pages manual (学生便覧 gakuseibenran) on deadlines, specific rules and detailed information. And if you are still not sure about something, you can always ask your tutor, an assigned Japanese student who will be happy to help you out.


Classes last for 90 minutes (without break). Between lessons, there is a 20 minute break to change classrooms.

  • 08:50 ~ 10:20  1st period      一限
  • 10:40 ~ 12:10  2nd period     二限
  • 12:10 ~ 13:20  lunch break      昼休み
  • 13:20 ~ 14:50  3rd period      三限
  • 15:10 ~ 16:40  4th period      四限
  • 17:50 ~ 19:20  5th period      五限
  • 19:30 ~ 21:00  6th period      六限

 Careful readers may have noticed the irregularity from the 5th period on. The schedule above is for master students; the 5th period mysteriously starts later than for bachelor students (so don’t trust the school bell that time). 6th period classes are highly unusual.


On the way to the faculty. You don’t see it on the picture, but at the left there is a stable for the university horse riding club.

Most of the master classes are seminars (演習 enshū). This means students are required to participate in discussions, give presentations, and prepare for every class. A seminar belongs to a certain field (I follow art, bioethics, japanology, society etc) but the content of a series of classes is different every semester. For example, some seminars are based on textbook(s) written by specialized scholars and focus on a particular event or topic (art: literature on the Charlie Hebdo shooting; bioethics: iatrogenic diseases; japanology: Japanese movies and cinema techniques; society: immigration). Every week students prepare a report: we have to read a chapter or text and write a one/two page report about it with our own reflections, criticism and points of uncertainty. During class, a detailed resume of the text is presented by one student (rotation system). After that, every one takes part in the discussion.

Lectures (講義 kōgi) are unusual, due to the fact that there are very few master students compared to Belgium. I take classes with 2 to maximum 8 other students. This makes it more easy (and less avoidable) to participate actively. It is also possible that a class is a mix of lecture and seminar. In any case, preparation is required for all master courses. Students are graded based on their attendance, participation, weekly homework, presentations and final report. A lot of reading, speaking and writing in Japanese awaits you! I experienced and still experience this as difficult as I sometimes feel bad for not always being able to express myself in Japanese as clearly and eloquent I could have done in my mother tongue. I felt rather unproductive at first, because reading or writing a text takes much longer than expected and days are short here. I guess this is a challenge for every exchange student, so don’t let it take you down. Also, there are many non-Japanese master students at Kobe University. You are not alone!

As a Double Degree student you take these master classes, but you are also allowed to take Japanese language classes (no credits) at the International Student Center. I take a special class preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験nihongo nōryoku shiken) N1. You can take this test at university twice a year (I have enrolled for July). The test is not available in Belgium, so this is your chance! There are 5 levels (N5 is easiest, N1 most difficult) and it costs 5,500 Yen. Another class I take aiming at foreign master students is academic writing (2 credits), which should enhance my writing skills in Japanese.

Most master students, as well as research students, are assigned a desk in the research room (研究室 kenkyūshitsu). I was pleasantly surprised to get my own work spot, a privilege which, in Belgium, is only given to research students. Next to that, there are computers, books, stationery, printers and a copy room everyone can use freely. There is a refrigerator, microwave, electric kettle and tableware, and you can have lunch in the cozy sofas. I have my own key and can leave books and school stuff at my desk when it is too heavy to carry home. It is good to have a place where I can focus on my work. Unlike most exchange students, Double Degree students are granted a “real” student ID with which we can use library services (up to 20 books can be borrowed for 1 month) and digital databases. We also receive a copy card.

my desk

my desk

But there is more than classes and studying. By describing my daily routine I will try to give you an idea of university life in Japan.

I usually wake up around 7 or 8. I don’t have classes in the morning, but prefer to go to school earlier for several reasons: 1) going to school together with a friend is more fun 2) it is most likely I won’t do anything before noon if I can choose when to wake up 3) It is not yet that hot in the morning. I try to pack a bentō 弁当 lunch box as often as possible, to save money and to be sure lunch will be vegetarian (I am working on a food post!). I also check the weather forecast every morning, in case I should bring an umbrella or apply sunscreen.


If I can give some advice on clothes, especially for the girls: don’t bother to bring tank or strap tops to Japan, for some reason it is not done to show your shoulders and/or cleavage. You can wear tops with sleeves or bolero vests to cover up. Now it is around 25 degrees here (summer for Belgians) and the Japanese are wearing pullovers and coats. Short skirts are no problem at all, although everyone wears sheer stockings underneath. I can also recommend at least two pairs of walking shoes. Shoes are expensive here, and Japanese people have smaller feet than we, Europeans. And you will walk a lot, I guarantee that.

The trip to school is usually the hardest one of the day. If I could describe Kobe in one word, it would be “slope” (坂saka), ironically, a bigger slope than Osaka 😉 . The university campus is situated on Rokkō Mountain (六甲山), Kokui dorm close by Maya Mountain (摩耶山). As a result, the road is downhill and uphill and it can get pretty hot. Up till now, I have only taken the bus in bad weather circumstances. It takes 20 to 30 minutes to get to the campus, and another 15 minutes to get to Intercultural Studies. The campus is as big as Leuven in total, I guess.


Once arrived, I usually spend some time at the research room, preparing a presentation, doing research or making homework. I have lunch at the Intercultural Café, together with the other exchange students and tutors. If I didn’t bring a bentō, I buy food at the cafetaria or コンビニ konbini (convenience store). You can just take your food tray outside and bring it back when finished. The IC Café is also a meeting place for Japanese students who want to chat a bit with foreigners or practice their language skills. French, for example, which seems to be an extremely popular language at Kobe University. Although my mother tongue is Dutch, I have studied French in school, so people often ask me to review their text or to correct their pronunciation. It feels like I have spoken more French in one month in Japan than in four years in Belgium… Never thought I would brush up my French here as well!

After lunch, I have class (one or two a day). Then I return to the research room to finish some homework. When I get hungry – I mostly stay at school till past 7pm, so when I get home and prepare dinner, it is already 8:30pm – I get a snack from the mini-market or eat a home-cooked onigiri. A lot of people stay at school till late at evening. You can hear music outside, because there are orchestras, choirs and a capella groups which practice daily. Sometimes I am asked to participate in an extracurricular activity, like the Belgian movie evening, or a working group on the foreign study trip. On invitation of a friend, I joined a クラブ kurabu or 部 bu (university club): 少林寺拳法部 shōrinji kenpōbu.  Shōrinji is a modern Japanese martial art based on the Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu. It requires concentration, strength, discipline, speed and an impressive elegance. It is nice to do some sports (besides mountain walking), moreover a typically Japanese sport, and to get to know Japanese students from other faculties. There is training almost every day, but members are free to join whenever they want to. I have set my goal at once or twice a week. Martial arts are totally new to me, but everyone is very kind and teaches me with endless patience.


After Shōrinji training we have dinner together, other days I prepare a meal at home. The evening walk is pleasant, though you should not underestimate how soon it becomes dark in Japan. At night, streets all look the same. I have lost my way numerous times… (or maybe that is just me). In the evening, I relax, skype with family and friends, do the laundry. If I am not yet too groggy, I manage to do some school-related stuff. Be aware that dorms are usually located in a residential area, relatively far from any supermarket or konbini. Therefore, you should do grocery shopping in the weekend or during free mornings. There are lots of vending machines everywhere, but only with drinks…


As a Belgian, you become incredibly aware of your own nationality and the cultural differences you will experience. It is interesting for Japanese people – and for yourself – to question familiar and unfamiliar cultural values, to discuss them in class, but also, to respect them. This can be simple things like removing your shoes, greetings or the way you interact (相槌aiduchi, for example). Sometimes it is difficult to find the balance between your own habits and  Japanese customs. Of course you should make an effort to fit in as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean you should lose your personal habits if they don’t harm anyone. For example, I tend to cross my legs in class. I know most Japanese women do not do that as it is considered “impolite” in front of a teacher. However, I end up like that unconsciously (my desk in the research room is so low I always make noise when I try to do it). Further, I really cannot stand not being able to blow my nose in public, so I do it anyway. In these cases, I guess I have the “gaijin pass” (foreigner pass) …

There are probably lots of things I have forgotten to write down. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

Facts for Fun

* It is not a myth, insects are huge here. I encountered some bees on my way to school, they are at least as double as big as the ones you find in Belgium. Around the size of a thumb. I am not afraid of insects, but I freaked out slightly when I heard one buzzing next to my ear.

* Apart from the insects, nature is indeed spectacular here. The woods, the mountains… And I have quite a view from my dorm. The mascot of Kobe University is a wild baby boar, うりぼう uribō (the big one is イノシシ inoshishi). It is said you can see them at night on campus.


~ A Room With a View ~

Japanese Comfort

I have been living in Japan for two weeks now, and I am already taking the Japanese comfort for granted. Of course there are things that are difficult to understand (misunderstandings about culture or language) or hard to get used to (walking at the correct side of the road in my case) but the most important thing is that I already like living here. In this post I want to write about the “Japanese luxury” of 100 Yen shops, vending machines and other conveniences.

100 Yen shops

author: akiyoshi's room - wikimedia commons

author: akiyoshi’s room – wikimedia commons

In this shop everything costs only 100 Yen, comparable with 0.80 Euro or 1 Dollar. Tax is not included, so mostly you will pay around 108 yen per item. You can buy the most basic things here, like cutlery and tableware, slippers, underwear, cosmetics, sweets, laundry and cleaning stuff, stationery, cookware and much more. There are 100 Yen shops everywhere in Japan. It is not difficult to understand that these shops are heaven on earth for people on a budget. I was wondering why 100 Yen shops – or any other shop with a fixed price for every item – only exist in Japan (but apparently there are 1 dollar stores as well in America). A short history:

author: Andrea Schaffer - wikimedia commons

author: Andrea Schaffer – wikimedia commons

The first shop where you could buy anything for 10 sen was established in 1926 in Osaka. Since 1932, around 50 shops with the same concept were opened in Japan. In 1937, the enactment of a law on 10 sen shops brought along stricter regulation. By 1941, more than 100 chain shops were established, but due to the war, many were plundered and went out of business. From those who did not close their doors, business flourished again after the war. Around the same time, 10 sen was revalidated to 100 yen. In 2004, there was a discussion whether or not the 100 yen shops should be called 105 yen shops legally because of the exclusive tax, but apparently it was not necessary because the price with consumer tax is shown on the price tags.


There is a shōtengai 商店街close by my dorm where I go grocery shopping. A shōtengai is a long shopping street, often covered, with various stores, restaurants, supermarkets, 100 yen shops, pachinko parlours, coffee bars and drink stands.

maxresdefaultI have written my bachelor paper about wrapping culture, and this is an especially eye-catching phenomenon in supermarkets. Most of the time wrapping is self-service – behind the check-out there are tables and plastic bags provided – but the cashier will always give you some bags when you pay as well.  Food, most of the time already wrapped in plastic, is wrapped separately again and then put in another bag, and the bag closed with scotch tape. I ignore all this, say the bags are not necessary because I bring my own and put everything together in the same bag. Belgian habits, but better for the environment. In the first week alone, I could fill the garbage bag for plastic with plastic bags alone. It is, however, a relief to know that a big deal of these plastics is being recycled.

At this moment, I am still a bit unsure about what food to buy, so I mostly choose the safe options like tomatoes, rice, tofu, soy sauce, noodles, shiitake and eggs. When I am more familiar with names of dishes, ingredients and brands, I will try to make some Japanese recipes – and of course a (vegetarian) food post is on my blogging list.

A great thing about supermarkets here is that they close only at 9 or 10 p.m. Where in Belgium it is actually impossible to buy food after 8 pm (except for junk food at night shops), here you can go shopping at the konbini コンビニ, short for convenience store, in the middle of the night. These shops are 24/7 open. You can also send packages, pay your electricity bills and eat what you bought there when in a hurry. There is a konbini at the campus, and they also sell motorbikes and computers inside.

Vending machines

Japan is beyond doubt the country of the vending machines. On almost every street corner you can buy a drink – hot or cold – for 100 ~ 160 yen. Not only soft drinks are sold, but also canned coffee, tea and beer. My favorites are green tea and milk tea. At the university there is a vending machine with cup noodles and udon, also providing hot water and chopsticks.

More comfort:

– The streets in Japan are extremely clean. I have not seen a single can or snippet of paper on the ground. That it is in fact possible that the entire population of a country throws their garbage where it belongs, is hereby proven. It is absolutely not “cool” to dump it in the streets, like in Europe. It is also forbidden to smoke on the streets. As a Japanese student told me about her trip to Belgium: “if you look up, everything is so pretty, all these beautiful, old buildings! But when you look down, the street is so dirty and that reminds you again of where you actually are…” The Japanese are also very strict about collecting and separating garbage. A bottle of tea, for example, belongs in PET but only after having been rinsed with water and dried, the label and cap belong in recyclable plastics.


– I find restaurants surprisingly cheap here, and you always get free water or hot tea (and they come again to refill it). The service in Japan is definitely good. While entering a shop, the staff will greet you with いらっしゃいませ! irasshaimase, welcome – although I once heard a shop keeper shouting loud “èèèèèèèè” to me and figured out that that is what has become of the expression after having said it more than thousand times. In the bank there is one man standing at the doors who only has this function: greeting the customers. Next to that, everyone is extremely friendly and polite. People on the street as well, when I ask for the road descriptions.

– In a previous post, I told about the many warning signs. I think this is the Japanese way of “making sure“, just like the fact that you will always know what the next stop is on the bus of train because it is displayed on many screens (still waiting for that to happen in Belgium) and announced as well. That “making sure” is also a part of the verbal behavior. When you buy something, the cashier will say: “Good day! What you bought cost … yen, I received … yen, your change is … yen, I will wrap it now, here you have it, thank you very much for your purchase”. It has become more of an automatism for them of course, but it is still weird for me to hear people explaining what they are doing at the same time.


Japanese people work a lot, and they do their work with the utmost effort. Without doubt they experience a lot of stress and pressure from a young age (think about the entrance exams for school) and still they manage to have the highest life expectancy world-wide. In my opinion, the fact that the Japanese try to make each other lifes as pleasant as possible, explains this a bit. In an environment where everyone is friendly, public transport is on time, there is no loud talking on the train, needs like food and drinks are easily fulfilled, you hear classical music inside stores and so on, irritation is reduced to a minimum. What do you think?

First Week in Japan

I have only been a week in Japan, but I am more or less settled here, facing one year of studying at Kobe University. Of course there are things that are difficult to understand (misunderstandings about culture or language) or hard to get used to (walking at the left side of the road in my case) but the most important thing is that I already like living here. My Japanese adventure up till now in a nutshell:

volunteer abroad Japan


Kokui Residence

Having spent two days in a hotel in Sannomiya, I packed my bags again to move into my dorm in the district of Nada (Kokui residence 国維寮). Every exchange student at Kobe University is appointed a Japanese tutor, who helps you finding the way to the dorm and university, dealing with many procedures and answers all your questions. On the first day of April, we met with our tutors and set off, heavily loaded, to our dorm. It was raining cats and dogs, and of course I did not buy an umbrella yet… Aside from the weather, everything went smoothly. First we had the procedures for the dorm, then we went for lunch, we spent the afternoon at the city hall for immigration registration and health security, went to buy a futon 布団 afterwards and shopped at the supermarket for food and other essentials.

The next day, we were guided around on university campus and opened a bank account. On Friday 3 April, I had a meeting with my teacher and went to see a Belgian friend who is living on Port Island. The tutors had organised ohanami (お花見 “watching the flowers”) on Saturday, something like a picnic in the park under the cherry blossoms, and we played games, ate snacks, and had a lot of fun.



Today was Easter, so I went with some other foreign students to a Catholic Church in Kobe. The mass was half in Japanese, half in English. Except for the Japanese songs it was pretty much the same as in Belgium. Chocolate eggs were missing though. I compensated by treating myself on a “Belgium hot chocolate” at a coffee-house near the station.


Some thoughts:

* My name appears to be quite difficult to remember, so most people shorten it to “An”, which makes up for a cute nickname: “An-chan”.

* The weather here is really unpredictable. One day it is so hot I get sun burnt, the next day it is raining and cold. And when it rains, it rains all day long. I am a bit worried about coming summer, though, because I am not so familiar with heat.

* The area I live in has tons of slopes. Guess I will be working out a lot. I am also glad I brought walking shoes.

From tomorrow on, university life starts. I normally will receive my (rental) phone tomorrow as well, so then I will be able to upload some nice pictures (thanks to Risa and Yonsu for the ohanami pictures in this post!). To be continued!