Top of the list, as it should be. Before I came, some aspects of Japanese food, such as azuki bean paste, I remembered with trepidation from my last trip. Over the course of this year, I’ve become a fan of all of them – except natto. Ramen, okonomiyaki, sushi, shabu-shabu, yakisoba – not only are they all delicious, but most are pretty healthy as well. I honestly don’t know how I’ll get by at home without them. Also, my time in Japan has introduced me to Korean food, which is so good that I resolved to travel to Seoul to try the real thing.
Because I live in a small town with not a lot going on, I enjoy going into Osaka or Kyoto. Osaka definitely has the edge in big-city atmosphere, and I enjoy wandering around Umeda, Shinsaibashi, Namba or Tsuruhashi, experiencing the crowds, the bustle, the crazy arrays of neon lights, and the many opportunities for fun.
As I fond out, people from the Kansai region behave quite differently to the traditional view of Japanese people. They’re often upfront, direct and pretty in-your-face, which makes for fun conversations. Osaka is renowned for its contribution to Japanese comedy – many comedians on TV speak in Kansai dialect – and you can see some of that humour in how Kansai residents go about their business.
I’ve written a few times before about how much I like Japan’s hot springs and public bath houses. They are a fantastic way to relax, and although they’re better in winter, I’ve enjoyed them in all seasons. Although your fellow patrons (at least in the male side) will be on the old side, I have no problem with public nudity. Unless it’s done by other people, in which case it’s disgusting.
I’ve done a fair bit of travelling while I’ve been here, mostly thanks to the cheapness and convenience of public transport over here. In particular, Japan’s widespread rail network is very friendly to the student traveller. I’ve gone by shinkansen three times for some long journeys, but for others, such as trips to Ise and Toba, we took a local train and got amazing views of the Japanese countryside as we trundled through.
Just as festivals across Europe provide an intruiging glimpse back into our pagan history, Japan’s traditional festivals let you look past the usually formal, buttoned-up view of Japanese society. There are family groups, tourists, stalls selling all kinds of food, and usually groups of middle-aged men in traditional happi-coats, who look like they’ve been drinking heavily all day. At the Kishiwada Danjiri matsuri, which I went to last September, these men were in charge of pulling large floats, or danjiri, round corners at breakneck speed (see above). Nobody died last year, which according to some people was unusual.
On the occasions when the TVs in Seminar House 4 weren’t being used by clueless Americans to watch CNN or the Discovery Channel, I loved checking out Japanese TV. Sure, it’s renowned for its craziness, and rightly so. But you can also learn quite a lot from it, mostly thanks to NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting service, which is second only to the BBC in terms of size. I remember watching a Japanese sign-language program on one of NHK’s channels, at prime time on a Saturday evening. I can’t think of any other network in the world that would give such a prominent slot to that kind of programming.
My fellow gaijin (and Japanese friends)
Over the course of this year, I think the greatest help to me has come from the other international students. We were pretty much all in the same boat, and apart from a few exceptions, snobbery over language ability or knowledge about Japan never reared its head. Along with the Japanese friends we made, they were the best support network for finding yourself in a strange country that I can imagine. Together we explored Japan, from remote countryside shrines to city-centre bars, learning about Japan, our own countries and ourselves. It’s been brilliant.