Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Japan: Week 15

15 - Opera. Week ending Sunday 23rd June

I need to catch you all up, I think. To anyone who doesn't know me in "real life", I'm terribly sorry if you thought I'd fallen off the face of the planet. No longer in the incredible place I write about, but still here, nonetheless.

The week-days at this point were filled with studying and felt-pens and re-living exam stress of the like I had not experienced since the GCSE years. It's the sheer quantity of subjects you're supposed to be able to be interested in and theorise about which always got me.

However, as any perfectionist student will tell you, upon glancing up from their textbook, the way to study to the extent that it is feasible for you to hold yourself to such ridiculously high standards is to give your mind a break once in a while. Appreciating the beauty existing in so many places and ignoring the futilities of your worries for a few short hours is a wonderful way to gain some distance from those revision notes. Enough that when you return you'll realise how much you learnt from what you were trying to.

To arrive at the point, the appreciation of beauty which soothed my soul and calmed my fraying nerves was 'The Marriage of Figaro' by Amadeus Mozart, performed by Basel Theater, a Swiss company, at Aichi Arts Centre on 22nd June. This had been arranged for us by the university many weeks previously, and I was at once excited at the prospect of seeing the opera again, but this time in its original Italian. At the time it was merely from a cultural perspective; I will always enjoy an event held at a theatre. I hadn't calculated that this would be the weekend before deadlines would finally creep on top of us, and how necessary the performance would be to my sanity.

We were invited along with Japanese students taking culture classes in Global Studies at NUFS, and instructed to wear formal attire and bring opera glasses... I arrived in the closest dress I had to 'formal', but unfortunately sans opera glasses.

As it turned out, they were unnecessary. We had fabulous seats, ones I would have chosen if I could have my pick of the auditorium. The very front row of the first tier up, but not dead centre so that I could soak up the atmosphere from the viewers as well as the performers. Perhaps it was the fortunate acoustics which made this production so beautiful.

But I doubt it. It had been a while since I'd heard an orchestra of such a high standard play music by one of the most talented composers the Earth has ever known, and it could be needless to say that I was moved. I struggled to remember the plot-line (my spoken Italian and written Japanese not being up to much, and that being an understatement) and cursed myself for not looking up a synopsis before I left, as had been my intention. But in the end it mattered very little. The story is one of love, and all the tribulations which go along with it. This is how great minds become immortalised, they were the ones who figaro-ed out how to write down the stories the human mind obsesses over (Sorry. Not sorry). The plot contains jealousy, multiple story-lines, and the only truly confusing bit in the end revealed its meaning to me because I know the Japanese character for 'mother'.

So, the plot was sufficiently under control in my mind. It was unimportant, compared to the talent of the musicians. I discovered the perfection of orchestral music all over again that evening. Memories of all the ensembles and people I had played with often filled my mind, and these, coupled with the clarity and beauty of an orchestra in full voice tugged on my heartstrings and brought a tear to my eye more than once. In that place, 'Cherubino's Aria', sung by Franziska Gottwald, and her voice as pure and crystalline as water was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.

I'll be forever grateful that music has no language barrier. Not English, nor Italian, nor Japanese can mask the unadulterated joy caused by the soaring notes of the like of Basel sinfonietta.

And that, friends, is how a heart, tattered from stress like mine, can find its peace in music. And so we go home, and carry on revising.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Japan: Week 14

14 - Homestay

With time ticking horrifically fast now I spend a lot of time working. However I'm glad to be able to say I'm still doing at least one interesting thing a week. This week's occurred on Saturday, when I had a day out with a Japanese family.

It seems typical that I start to find yet more interesting people who I should have spent time talking to with less than a month left to me, and this is certainly true of the girl who joined me on the visit. Patricia, you're wonderful, and I'm so glad I got to spend the day with you.

We were met by three quarters of the family - Mother, Father, and youngest daughter, aged 8 - at I-House, and headed for the next-door prefecture of Gifu. My host-mother had an amazing talent for making you feel incredibly interesting just by telling her about your normal life on your own continent. She asked us about our families, our hobbies, our schools, pretty much everything about our everyday lives. She was also happy to answer questions about their home life as well, and I'm still learning about how Japan works as a society, so it was an educational ride for all of us.

We arrived in a small town called Gujo, famous for the purity of its water. The river water only has to go through a brief cleaning process before it is clean enough to be used in homes, and there was a theme of water apparent throughout the town, as well as the fish abundant in the sparkling river.

The town is clearly old, and beautiful for it, but in a different way from Kyoto. The cobbles were different, and the street lay-out... It was just interesting being in yet another place that had a feeling I've not yet experienced. The rain helped, too. The same smell as that of early Spring showers in England, I felt quite nostalgic as the water soaked through my shoes and the drops made their fantastically unique sound, falling amongst the leaves.

We ate soba for lunch, and the meaning of the trip to this town was made known to us. Gujo is famous for making sample food, a concept unheard of in the West, but an ingenious, albeit simple, one. In the windows of restaurants are plastic versions of the menu - yes, just like the food you used to play with as a child - so that hungry customers can see at a glance if that restaurant is the one for them that night. There are many grades of pricing restaurants can pay for sample food, and in the most expensive places you'd think you were looking at a bowl of tempura. So, in the town of Gujo, it is possible to make your own sample food!

It was a new experience to say the least. Unskilled at any type of art, I was unsurprisingly very poor at moulding wax around my plastic prawn to make it look battered, but it was enjoyable and interesting, and my host sister was brilliant at it.

After another walk round we headed back to Nisshin to my host family's house. It was in a nice neighbourhood, the sort of place you'd create with your bare hands to raise your children, and the house was lovely. Bigger than if you lived anywhere near a big city, and more recognisable as a family home than Westerners might imagine, complete with piano and family pictures.

I met the older of the two sisters, aged 11, who promptly demonstrated for us how to prepare for Kendo, and then how to fight! An interesting experience, being instructed by an 11-year-old who's house you're visiting to hit her over the head with a giant bamboo sword, but when the parents are encouraging you to try it harder, what exactly do you do?

Kendo practice finished, the girls demonstrated that they've been making full use of the piano, and it was time for dinner. The meal was temakizushi, or roll-your-own sushi! Fish and other fillings are laid out buffet-style, with a pile of nori (seaweed) squares and bowls of rice, and that's it, dig in. Cleverly orchestrated for a home-stay, I'd imagine, as there's less chance of a heart-stopping moment when the visitor doesn't eat the main part of the meal. It was delicious, of course, and fun.

After dinner we played card games, and this was clearly a normal occurrence. It was pleasant to see that neither of the girls glanced longingly at the giant TV even once, they really wanted to spend time and play games with us.

The day had to come to an end however, and after signing my host-mother's visiting book, we had to say goodbye, taking our home-made sample food with us as a pretty cool souvenir. It was sad that we only had one day to share in each other's culture, but as we left to countless invitations to return and see them all again, and as I've already had an email from the oldest daughter who adores to practice her English, maybe I'll see them again.

Discovering the similarities, not the differences, between our ways of living was the best part of that day. We're all human, and we interact in certain ways because that's how we're comfortable living. It seems wonderful that I can go half-way across the world and still find a place that's entirely recognisable as a home. This was definitely an experience I won't be sorry I spent the time on in Japan.

Yours, Abby

Monday, 10 June 2013

Japan: Week 13

13 - Ayana and Hana

This week was rather work-heavy but luckily I had a most interesting weekend to make up for it. On Saturday I had the unique experience of meeting up with two girls from Tokyo who I originally met in England and giving them a tour of Nagoya, where they had never been before. Ayana and Hana are both fabulous frisbee players, so naturally we're good friends.

We visited Nagoya Castle, of course
First stop was the castle. I felt proud of all the knowledge I've managed to pick up about Nagoya, and the castle specifically, so that I could keep coming out with Japan facts which genuine Japanese girls didn't know. Luckily my head was saved from becoming too over-inflated by my stumbling attempts at Japanese versus their fluency in English, which extended to topics such as the social comparisons between the two nations. Their conversation skills are exactly as impressive as that sounds.

Possibly because it was a Saturday, and possibly because it was a beautiful day, it was all happening in Nagoya Castle grounds, with food stalls, tombola (we won a packet of Nagoya Castle tissues each!) and some sort of play involving historical figures. As Hana and Ayana were unsure of exactly what was going on, I didn't feel the need to worry about it either.

Free theatre!

A new part of the castle was also open, the palace, with incredible replicas of the sliding doors it would have once contained. Art which encapsulates Japanese culture, in my opinion.

After a brief stop for a lunch of famous Nagoya chicken, we headed back out, this time to the Orchid garden which I've been dying to see for a while. Aichi prefecture is Asia's leading producer of orchids, explaining the existence of this gorgeous flower garden displaying many varieties (I'm afraid I didn't count) of orchid.

It was peaceful and relaxing, and enjoyable to see people who probably lived nearby, sketching and even reading the newspaper. We continued to explore Nagoya on foot, and I had some minor epiphany moments when I realised how different places I'd visited previously joined up when the right path was taken. We window shopped in Osu and took purikura (the hilarious photo booths which give you bigger eyes and rosier lips), but unfortunately all good things come to an end, and I had to say goodbye to the wonderful girls after one final stop at a cafe.

But time will fly, and I'll be back playing frisbee with these two at uni in no time. Thank you so much for visiting, you two!

Japanese photo booths. I'll be building some in England.

Sunday's weather allowed us our third hike, in Nara this time. The walk was slightly different from the previous two, which were very mountainous and through forests. This one was much less hilly, and is apparently one of the oldest paths in the prefecture. It was the sort of trail where you're walking through forest one moment, a rural village the next, and all of a sudden you're at a shrine with cockerels in trees.

Okay, so maybe that's not really a type of trail, but you see my point here. It was interesting and full of surprises. The feeling of accomplishment upon completing a walk makes these excursions delightfully worth the effort.

So it was back to I-House after an exhausting weekend, where I'm almost scared to add up the miles I walked. On with a week of work, as deadlines are fast approaching, and what will be another exciting weekend...


Sunday, 9 June 2013

One Year

What's a year? It's nothing at all. Not even a blink of the universe's eye, barely a flutter of its eyelashes. This show is infinite. In a truly never-ending spectacle of distance and time, how could we have the audacity to think that one year of our tiny earthly home is worth anything at all? Our own planet will not remember us forever. Our own tiny waterlogged stamping ground, who's largest leap has so far only taken us to the planet next door. There are entire galaxies undiscovered, why do we think surviving one rotation of our greenish blue planet around one small star is in any way spectacular?

There are several billion people living out their lives here every day. Sorrows they feel we may never come close to, certain happinesses will never be ours. Even their triumphs could never be matched by us. The longest-living couple have been together 87 years, did you know that? So just one of those little years together, how dare we think it's special at all?

I'll tell you why. This is our infinite we're living. This relationship has outlived whole lifetimes of some creatures, it's all relative. In reality, someone else's triumphs don't make yours any less great, and we can't  go around not feeling as proud of what we've achieved in order to congratulate others. Luckily, happiness isn't limited in this world, and there's no reason we should feel less content than a couple celebrating 100 years together in the future.

We've gone through four seasons, a handful of arguments, a thousand kisses, a cluster of frisbee tournaments, too many lengthy separations... and come out the other side. I'm all for holding myself to unrealistic standards, and this aspect of my life is not one of them. One year's an achievement, and one I've not experienced before. I enjoy your ongoing film education of me, I enjoy cooking with you, I enjoy hotly disputed frisbee tactics on-pitch, and the promises and that it was nothing personal once we're calm and off-pitch. I enjoy your little eccentricities, and travelling with you. How safe, how happy, how comfortable I am with every aspect of being with you; it would be impossible to deny that this is something I've got right.

Level up: Round 2...

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Japan: Week 12

12 - Rainy season, 'Tsuyu'

We enter a new month already, and I cannot express my thanks at gaining over 1,000 views again in May. It makes me feel a little more connected, knowing that lots of you want to keep up with my antics, so thank you.

The rainy season has begun in Japan. I think my fellow Brits would scoff at what the Japanese consider a rainy season. I haven't kept track faithfully (maybe I should start a weather diary...) but there's only been a couple of occasions so far when the rain's been heavy enough to warrant an umbrella; I think what Japan means by 'rainy' is 'not gloriously sunny at all times'. The humidity doesn't let up though, and I can no longer tell the temperature outside by looking out of the window. Overcast, yes, but you do NOT need a cardigan.

This week was very much normal, as perhaps we can tell by a post on time for once. I did my show and tell for English tutoring, and took my frisbee as I thought it might make an interesting topic. Lots of new vocabulary, at least. I tutored a different group as well, this one made up of local residents of all ages. Many of them want to visit England, and seemed very happy to have someone British to speak to. It was interesting speaking to a different type of people, rather than just students as it has been up til now, and seeing the variations of questions they ask.

On Saturday I took a trip to Sakae with a couple of friends. They both had things to do and I had a little time to myself in which to wander. There's always something cool to see in Japan.

Shop budgie guarding the watches

I discovered that there was a Hawaiian festival taking place in Oasis 21 that day, and saw many groups of dancers to take to the stage and a variety of stalls selling dresses and jewellery and paintings. I suppose, just about to enter the rainy season, Japanese people need a reminder of what summer will be like eventually.

Today was relaxing. I did some work, I went out for lunch, and I ran up a big hill which I need to return to at some point with a camera. There were some amazing sights and I want to share them with you.

Until next week, friends.


Monday, 27 May 2013

Japan: Week 11

11 - Culture party

The weekdays didn't contain too much excitement last week, although I have started a programme with the Arts & Sciences section of the university, and the first session was on Thursday. It's supposed to be an English tutoring system, but in reality it's much more entertaining, as a group of English-speakers just chat to a group of Japanese students. The idea of this class was to improve fluency and understanding of native speakers' speech patterns, which meant that we could legitimately teach the students slang. Next week we're doing Show and Tell!

On Saturday there was a cultural party given by the International Society of Nisshin (The town in which I currently reside) and hosted at NUFS. Members of the society performed Taiko drumming and set up an origami table, and NUFS did, in my opinion, what it does best, and set up food which looked like THIS:

The party was attended by a large number of us international students, and we were at least matched in volume by residents of Nisshin, who brought there whole families along. It was a lovely experience; in Japan people tend to completely ignore each other unless there is a deliberate removal of the boundary. There were no boundaries in the room that day, and if you were stood without someone to talk to for 30 seconds, someone would come up to you and introduce themselves, and ask you about your country and how you're finding Japan. This was also clearly a group of particularly open-minded Japanese people, who seemed to relish the difference in ethnicity we provided.

I also met the family I'll be visiting on a home-stay next month. The mother attended the party to meet me, and her daughter showed me ever so carefully how to fold an origami helmet. I'm hugely looking forward to seeing them again.

Sunday brought good weather, and so the chance for another hike! Enjoyable as the first, the views from 600m were spectacular, and there was definitely never any danger of falling off the edge. Ever surprised by Japan's superior natural beauty, we saw a hawk from very, very close, and continued to spot them all the way up the mountain.

We also visited a shrine in the middle of the forest, containing an earthly beauty I'm sure can be imagined. I have no idea how difficult it must have been to build, though.

The hike was finished in perfect fashion by a visit to the onsen. It was gladly received, as the trails we take aren't easy, and we covered 12 miles or so and 684 metres in 4 hours. I've never experienced too much hiking before, but the sense of accomplishment is something I could easily become addicted to, the exercise is refreshing, and the new things I learn about Japan all add to the experience. We saw a baby snake. How cool is that?

So, back to work for now, and more updates will follow next week.


P.S. For all the photos, visit my tumblr!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Japan, Week 10

10 - Noh Theatre

Late again! Moreover, we're getting to the point now where it's not even because I'm busy having a tremendously Japanesey time, but rather because, however society paints us, being a student really does require doing a lot of work... This grows ever more depressing when, back in England, my whole peer group is just about finishing up; handing everything in, throwing concluding parties and ceremonies, and starting summer jobs. Some people I've made good friends of over the past two years will be moving on altogether, and I'm reminded how soon the comforting rug of full-time education will be pulled from under me.

We need not dwell on that quite yet, however. By my count, two exciting things happened to me this (well, last) week. The first was that, on Thursday, I rose at 4.15 am to go for a run with a friend. The sun currently rises at about ten to 5, and it gets earlier every day. I wanted to experience the refreshment of being awake before everything, even the sun, safe in knowledge you never could be in England, that it won't rain if the weather says it's not going to. So we went to a nearby park, and of course there were lights on already. This is Japan, they were probably still studying from the night before. But the streets were ours for about half an hour, and still half an hour later the normal rules did not apply; I received a couple of 'Ohayo Gazaimasu's as I jogged past. Obviously I was thinking incredibly deep thoughts, such as how far I'd have to go before I reached the circumference containing a different supermarket's customers, as we runners do. You can blame my mother entirely for this kind of thought process, in another life I too would have studied Geography.

After a while the sun rose, and its heat was immediately felt. It's already been pointed out several times (mostly by Australians) that I am far too British, and there's nothing I can do but agree. The humidity doesn't really kick in until June, and I'm already complaining about it. The healthy behaviour of the morning was made up for by a breakfast visit to McDonald's, and still the whole day was stretched out ahead of me.

Interesting Thing No. 2 occurred on Sunday. There had been another hike planned, but unfortunately the trails we take would have been too dangerous even in the moderate rain forecast. Aforementioned Britishness keeps me bold in the face of these types of undesirable weather conditions though, so I took a trip to Nagoya, umbrella in hand, to revisit the Noh Theatre I had located with my family.

'Nagoya Noh Theatre'

The theatre itself. Surprisingly modern, I'm sure I'm not the only person who expects everything in Japan to be old.
There was some free theatre going on that day. From what I could make out (I'll be much more knowledgeable on the topic post-dissertation) the day was made up of many different acts, rather than one play, and audience members could walk in and out as they pleased. Noh is almost excruciatingly different from Western-style theatre. The focus is on form; the perfection of every step and every chanted note, rather than structure. This means that everything moves very slowly, and I'd compare the style to a traditional ballad, try and understand what's going on there if you're not fluent in the language! But it was fascinating to see, and interesting to observe that there were many different groups of people in attendance. Older generations, who were probably there for the entertainment, groups of middle-aged women, and even some families with quite young children, who I suspected were imploring their youngsters to appreciate their nation's culture.

I gave myself time to peruse a few shops on my way back. I took great enjoyment from a visit to the Japanese 'Lush', and its lack of language barrier. "Oh you like the smell of it? Buy it, that's all you need to know!" I now own some terrific ocean-coloured soap.

Walking back to the station in the rain gave me a sense of serenity. I don't spend much time in my own company in Japan, and walking in the rain is one of those small pleasures for me which lets me know I'm still doing okay. As the rain keeps falling, so too will I keep completing these essays, as probably goes some proverb or other.

I would promise you darling readers a post on time next week, but I'd hate to break it. So let's all just be fairly optimistic about the whole thing, shall we?


Oh, trusty converse. You are full of holes now, and I doubt would be suited to a UK climate any more