The most important thing I have learnt about Japanese life so far is that it’s probably not a good idea to try to ride a fairly old “mama-chari” (or bicycle with a neat little basket on the front) around in the snow. Especially if you haven’t ridden a bicycle since you were 10 years old. The result could be that you find yourself upside down in a bush, with snow all over you, your food shopping strewn along the path, and your bicycle 5 feet away, wondering exactly how you actually ended up there. Not that this happened to me or anything. Just a story I heard.
Luckily (or unluckily?) the girl who was studying here before left me her bicycle so I have a way to get around. And the best thing about it is that it now only takes me a short 15 minute bike ride to get to uni. As long as there are no accidents along the way of course. It sure beats the one and half hour commute I was taking back home! Yeah, that’s right, I have started uni classes again…I shouldn’t really complain, I mean at least I have something to do now. It was nice to have a full 4 months off though, and actually they’re not that bad, but they’re still uni classes. They started last Monday and I have to go everyday, although only for a couple of hours each day.
I have to take four different Japanese language classes, with different teachers and different content. A speaking class, a grammar and vocabulary class, a newspaper reading class and a class where we interpret surveys and other statistics and do presentations. They’re not too easy but not that difficult either, the hardest part is when I don’t understand something and the teacher explains it to me in Japanese. I keep telling myself that in the long run this will be beneficial, but right now it’s just frustrating. Especially because when the other Chinese students (Kuang and Ro) I study with don’t understand, the teacher writes the kanji (Chinese characters) on the board and they get it straight away.
I also attend a class with 2nd year students on teaching English to primary school students. The class is taught in Japanese but the people who take it do English as their major so they can speak some. The teacher has excellent English though, so he can explain something to me when I don’t get it. My first lesson in this class I had to introduce myself in front of the whole lecture room and take questions from the students, in Japanese, and it wasn’t until I sat down that I realized I wasn’t in the least bit nervous throughout! That’s a big step for me. I’m not a fan of public speaking at all, and in a foreign language is even worse, but I think I did a pretty good job of answering the questions. I’m quite proud of myself! I suppose spending a year in a different country by yourself is a good way to boost your confidence. Actually, there’s a speech competition for foreigners at the youth centre where I go coming up so I might just join it, while I have the confidence to join!
The other classes I take are culture related. I do traditional Japanese pottery two times a week, and it’s really quite hard to get the hang of! In our first lesson we learnt how to knead the clay properly; we had to do in a special way so that you make this flower shape. In the second lesson our teacher made us spend the whole 3 hours perfecting this “skill”. Needless to say my shoulders and hands were very sore after! And it wasn’t until the last 5 minutes that I actually got the hang of it, and I’ve probably forgotten by now too! Who would have thought that kneading some clay would be so tough? We do this class with 4th year students, who naturally are very good because they’ve been doing it for the past three years. I promised myself that I will come away from this year with at least something that I’ve made though!!
I also take calligraphy lessons. Like I said the other two girls who I study with are Chinese so they learnt how to do this when they were little, so once again I have the disadvantage here. My technique severely needs work! My teacher tells me that it should feel quite meditative, but all I seem to be able to feel is frustrated that my lines are not as fluid as everyone else’s. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be better.
The final class I take is a Japanese culture/arts and crafts class that the university puts on for people from the public who want to practice, so our first class was made up of a group of old ladies, Kuang and myself! It was actually quite fun though because they told us stories of how certain cultural aspects of Japan came about. Apparently every week we’ll be making something different. Last week I learnt how to make a small 3D kimono that I stuck to some card and decorated. Quite cute!
The week before uni started we were told there was an entrance ceremony for all the new students starting uni that year. Fukuda Sensei, the program director, told us it would be a good experience to watch it, so we decided to go. In Japan you have to take entrance exams to get into uni and naturally the more prestigious the uni the harder it is to get in and therefore the harder the exam. High school students spend hours and hours every day studying for these exams. So once you do get in they hold these entrance ceremonies to congratulate you. However we weren’t told it was a really formal affair, and when we rocked up in our jeans and jackets we felt very out of place. Everyone was wearing black! Everyone! It actually looked quite somber. However, we were quite embarrassed actually; I already stick out in a crowd, so I definitely didn’t need any more attention! We didn’t end up staying long as you might have guessed. Oh well, just another learning experience!
So apart from uni I have been trying to keep myself busy as I promised myself. Kuang and I were introduced to an old Japanese couple who live just outside of town and they invited us around for dinner. They have been having exchange students round for dinner for a few years now apparently. They asked us to call them “Okaasan” and “Otoosan” (literally Mum and Dad) and told us to go over once a month so they could cook us traditional Japanese home-style food. Okaasan told us that she understood how difficult it can be when you’re away from home and have no Mum to cook for you, and she doesn’t want us to be eating unhealthily. Otoosan told us he would supply the alcohol! They are such nice people and the food was absolutely delicious! And true to his word Otoosan brought out a 20 year old bottle of sake to taste after dinner. I felt very privileged to have found such generous people!
The weekends have also consisted of karaoke! It’s all the Japanese people seem to do! Hakodate doesn’t have any clubs that I know of so if you want to go out it’s either to an izakaya (a Japanese style pub where you can eat and drink) or karaoke or both. I really didn’t think I’d be all that fussed about karaoke, I’m not the best singer in the world and singing in front of a group of people just seemed mortifying, but actually it’s a lot of fun! You hire out a room for a certain period of time and you get all you can drink for that time. Beer, wine, cocktails, soft drinks etc. We were there for a total of 6 hours (yes 6 hours!!) and it only cost us $25 each. Not bad for a night out. Now I just have to practice those Japanese songs a little bit more…
I’m still doing my tea ceremony lessons every Saturday and now both Kuang and Ro have joined me. This means that I am the “senpai” (elder) which is quite funny because traditionally the senpai is supposed to know everything and show the less experienced people what to do. I still have no idea! I am catching on though and I still love it! Actually I get on so well with my teacher that she asked me to teach her English once a week. She took me to a great little Italian restaurant that’s just opened in town last week and we had our lesson there. I love that lady!!
So as you can see I am settling into life quite well, I don’t know what I was so worried about really! There’s still a lot of things that I need to get used to (especially the showering situation) but I think I’ll get there. And I am absolutely loving Hakodate. The majority of people who I meet are really friendly and the weather is starting to get warmer so I can spend more time outside. I can’t wait for spring; everyone tells me Hakodate is quite beautiful. So until then…ja mata ne!