Throwback Time

Time flies! It’s already been over a year since I came back from my one-year stay in Japan. I’ve grown pretty nostalgic these days, thinking back to all the good stuff, and maybe forgetting a little bit about the things I liked less. I am planning to go back soon to do fieldwork for my research, but in the meantime I have saved some eye candy for you from my last trip, showing you what exactly I can’t wait to go back to. Now, let’s begin our stroll down memory lane.

The nature

Many people who have travelled to Japan will tell you that excursions outside the vibrant cities are certainly worth the trip. Especially for this journey, my family brought a nice camera – spot my brother in action among the sunflowers. As you can also see from the pictures below, we travelled around Japan during summertime. Being totally surrounded by nature was overwhelming, in particular because we Belgians aren’t really used to that much green (and the weather was also extremely hot for our standards).

The Japanese island is for 70% mountainous and for over 60% covered with forests, which results in sparse low-leveled, but densely populated areas popping up in between vast woods, rivers and mountain ranges. Lots of nature to explore, in other words. Below you see some of the “99 island” (Kujukushima 九十九島), a bamboo forest, a view of Kyushu’s countryside and colorful koi fish.

But even in metropolis centres, you can find quiet, green spots among the many touristic attractions. Below are two pictures from Kobe (the ropeway up to Rokko Mountain and the Nunobiki waterfalls) and two from Kyoto, displaying a magnificent temple garden and a proud heron in the garden of Nijo castle.

The culture

Well, isn’t this my favorite part about Japan! Living in Kobe, I was situated close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan. You probably know that I am more into (let’s call it) the ‘traditional’ stuff. Hence, the tourist in me is more drawn towards castles, temples, medieval art and so on. That doesn’t mean I don’t value modern cultural phenomena – on the contrary, I think they’re fascinating research material! Since this post is trying to be as visual as possible, the pictures below can seem a little cliché in that sense, since they depict mostly ‘the classics’. For the reason that I’m into ‘traditional’ stuff, I actually never visited Tokyo during my round trip (oh, the shame). Of course I would recommend it to everyone, but personally I do not really feel attracted to the hyper-modern, current capital of Japan (the previous ones I love, though – Nara, Kyoto, you name it). But one day, I’ll go to Tokyo, for sure! *pinky swear*

Besides the extraordinary craftsmanship, I love the abundance of colors, yet at the same time serenity of temples and palaces. Kyoto was great (how many temples can you visit in one day?) and as a Buddhist geek, I thoroughly enjoyed all the religious references in Japanese culture such as the many Buddha statues. During our journey, we often stumbled across unplanned festivals and other celebrations, for example the Gozan fire festival. On the other pictures, you can see the beautiful white Himeji castle and the ‘floating’ torii of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island.

Typical for smaller Japanese towns is that they specialize in a certain product which then attracts a lot of shopping tourists. That is the case, for example, in Uji, a town close to Kyoto and  famous for its matcha – but also known for its prominence in The Tale of Genji and its stunning Byodo-in temple. Another example is Arita, famed for its ceramics and pottery. Also, when nature and culture come together, great stuff happens. Like, deer in Nara. Or the Korakuen garden in Okayama.

Japanese architecture, traditional or modern, keeps fascinating people. Take for example the huge main temple in Nara (with my parents posing in front of it), the innovative water architecture of Osaka city station, the golden pavilion in Kyoto or the modern office constructions you see everywhere in big cities.

And last but not least, let’s talk arts. Japan is known worldwide for its origami, ikebana, kimono designs and performing arts such as puppet theater, kabuki and noh. These arts are constantly developing and modernizing, yet maintain their ‘traditional’ character. In Hiroshima, we saw ‘1000 folded cranes’ and a Kagura performance. On Shikoku, I was so lucky to watch puppet theater (they were so kind to pose with us for a picture), and kimonos were a common sight in Kyoto.

The Food

Apart from culture and history, food is also a big interest of mine. The Japanese cuisine is very different from the Belgian one, and this also influenced my taste palette and culinary preferences. I have been a vegetarian for some time now, so there are lots of Japanese dishes out there that I never tried – I had to make an exception for the unavoidable dashi (fish stock), though. Yet, I was often surprised about the availability of vegetarian dishes, and the willingness of the chefs to adapt to the (vegetarian) customer’s needs. Japanese people eat a lot of vegetables, tofu is everywhere and I enjoyed some great vegetarian meals, like the ones below. On one or two occasions, I had a fancy vegetarian set meal, and the Buddhist, vegetarian food on mount Koya was also a pleasant experience.

Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with a filling of choice, proved to be the perfect alternative for pizza. Back in Belgium, I also had to get used to the idea that there is no concept such as izakaya here: places where you can drink alcohol and order lots of food at the same time. You could say I mostly went to izakaya together with friends or colleagues to drink, but I always ended up stuffing my face with delicious foods. Not that I didn’t drink at all – sake was love at first sight.

Sushi is, of course, always a good choice. Try kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) for a lot of fun and a full stomach! If I didn’t have time to prepare a lunch box on a busy school day, I used to buy onigiri (rice triangles) or inarizushi (seasoned rice in a marinated tofu skin) at the supermarket. Other standard meals I often ordered in restaurants include udon noodles with tofu or don (rice) dishes with egg. From time to time, I treated myself to some curry: I like the Japanese ones with vegetables as well as the curry set menus at Indian restaurants.

An example of how my taste buds adapted to Japanese flavors, is the fact that I started prefering Japanese sweets over western, much sweeter and sugary desserts. There have been many days lately that I crave mochi! Also, matcha is a gift from the gods – I love all kinds of desserts stuffed with it (don’t the phoenix matcha pancakes from Uji look amazing?). Another favorite snack of mine is red bean paste, especially in manju, like the ones from Miyajima shaped like leaves on the left. I also cannot express enough how tasty mitarashi dango are (am I the only who feels like this?): Japanese rice dumplings with sweet soy sauce. Yummy!

The people

Japanese people and me went along pretty well! I always felt at ease because they would try to make me feel welcome as much as possible, be considerate and show me the utmost respect. It was a reassurance that the Japanese would never make fun of me or embarrass me – at least not in my face. Most conversations are pretty predictable (no sarcastic remarks or surprises from people you don’t know very well) which also helps you to follow and respond better by anticipating the rest of the conversation. One thing that is not supposed to be annoying but actually is when you live there for a while, is the complimenting: hearing time and time again how good your Japanese is and how baffled they are by your knowledge about Japan (“Even I as a Japanese didn’t know that!” – but then again I am the one majoring in Japanese studies and not you, and I am not an expert in Belgian history either, is what I would have liked to reply), can get a little tiring.

They often say that Japanese people do not have a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s true. Of course, the slapstick on Japanese television doesn’t crack me up either, but contextual jokes and puns were as funny in Japan as anywhere else. Another pro is that politeness is prioritized over personality – being rude doesn’t make you cool. And with people you want to befriend, you can discover a whole new personality behind this polite “façade” (tatemae). I believe I’m not a very warm person and a little distant myself when I don’t know another person very well, so I could relate.

In general, Japanese people were kind and always willing to help me. I experienced this while studying and researching at uni, as well as in the Shorinji martial arts club I was a member of. From my first day in Japan, I received a lot of help and friendship from the Japanese at my faculty. The professors, unlike in Belgium sometimes, were supportive and respectful towards their students. During shorinji training as well, I  was never left on my own. The more experienced “fighters” taught the newbies, and I learnt a lot from practicing together. Because I was mainly focused on my research, I wasn’t the most social one in the group but I had a lot of fun in my free time.

I could go on and list up many other experiences I had during my stay there, but I think it’s best to go back to Japan and make more memories! In the meantime, I will write a couple of new blog posts with a more academic content. Feel free to share your memories in the comment section below!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

kumap

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.

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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…

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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.

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~ A Room With a View ~