A year under a rising sun

Day 0: Setting Out
I woke up today to a typically wet British morning. Albeit a good 4 hours before what I would have liked. It was pitch black outside when we set off, and the trip out of Dorset was uneventful, barely brightened by the short, sparse and grunt-like conversations with my Dad.

Frankly, I was glad to leave Dorset in such a damp and dark state. Firstly, because (as little travelled as I am) it is one of the most beautiful places I have known, and it would be painful to see its rolling hills slip by for what will be the last time in 10 months.

The sun greeted us briefly as we approached Gatwick Airport, lifting some of the gloom, but pent up anxiety and lack of sleep still fought against it’s brightness. Having never flown before, I was very restless at the journey ahead of me. Of course, had I known the process would include so many hours waiting at the check-in, the departure lounge, and on the runway, I would probably have delayed my anxieties.

So now, I’m over France, I think. Headed for Doha in the land of Qatar, and then to Osaka, Japan, higher and faster than I have ever been before. In that respect, take-off was magnificent, and though exhilarating, not in the least bit frightening. Excluding the occasional sway of the aircraft and perhaps lack of leg room (more owing to my over-packing than actual space), the flight seems quite enjoyable; The bings and bongs accompanied by various coloured lights; and the view from the window – Now that was something at take-off… And though now it is an uninteresting blanket of cloud, I’ll not soon forget the view of my home country from the air:

I saw for the first time, the fields and towns beneath the clouds. It was like passing through a giant mirror. After passing the Alps, perhaps over Switzerland, I lost interest in the view and failed, for the next few hours, to get to sleep.

Again, the landing was not nearly as nerve racking as I expected, touch-down consisting of a small jolt and a dull thump. I strained to hear the screech of tyres that I would recognise from TV, but heard nothing.

And that leaves me in Doha to get frisked through security. Despite the frisking, I don’t think they even looked at my passport. I also had an empty bottle with me, which, to my knowledge you’re not supposed to do.. Still, no point in complaining, and it was amusing to see how the bottle had been crushed by increased cabin pressure as we had descended. Although I was hoping to take a look at Doha, in the very least from the airport windows. But of course I should have guessed I’d be arriving here at night, and for that, the view was not so impressive. Back home the sun would only just be setting, I realise. But here it is pitch black outside.

Dark, but hot. Living in England, it is a huge surprise to walk into the night and feel so hot. All I can say is thank God there was plenty of air conditioning. The walk from the plane to the air-conditioned bus was short, but the heat was still overpowering.

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t arrive during the day. I’d brought my black jacket and cap with me, and probably wouldn’t have lasted too long outside. Of course, over here people take the proper precautions, and I see many people in long white robes. Anyway I’ll make do with the pretty pictures of sandy beaches and luxurious looking streets that decorated the airport. Perhaps I’ll come back and take a proper look around one day.

Day 1: Arrival
I touched down at Kansai International Airport in the mid afternoon. I had been staring fixedly and contently out of the window, leaning precariously into the aisle in order to do so, trying to identify the cities and islands as they passed the frustratingly small windows. Every now and then, I’d glance at the flat screen TV in front of me, which I currently set to show the aircraft’s position, in order to further get my bearings.

Touch-down occurred on an artificial headland upon which the runway sat, and it took what seemed like forever before the plane had taxied all the way to the terminals. Getting off the plane revealed a climate somewhere between that of the previous 2 airports. Warmer than England, though just as cloudy, and cooler than Qatar (thank goodness).

We were herded out of the plane, and greeted by a line of smartly uniformed Japanese men and women, who were constantly smiling and saying something I’m not sure what to us as we left the plane behind. The route out of the airport was well sign-posted, and occasionally on the route other smartly uniformed Japanese people would repeat in what seemed like an excited voice, some other bunch of words I couldn’t make out. At this point, I hadn’t slept for something like 24 hours and wasn’t sure whether my lack of understanding was due to inadequate Japanese proficiency, or simply because I was too tired.

Eventually we came to a wide, tall ceilinged room, with 2 huge queues. I was carefully herded (I think herded is a good term for this, but I don’t mean it impolitely, after so much sleepless time on the plane, I was very, very glad to be herded) into the queue for foreigners, and even more eventually I reached a desk, behind which another smartly dressed Japanese man with a look of tired determination on his face (at this point it may be worth mentioning that every employee of the airport was smartly dressed in a uniform or suit, and as I discovered later, the same seems to go for employees everywhere here). I handed the man my passport and disembarkation card, he scrutinized both briefly and stamped my passport. He then exclaimed, evidently having done something wrong, and got another stamp, and stamped it again. He then spent a long while writing something down, got another stamp and stamped something else. Another few minutes of typing, stapling and writing and I was passed through into the baggage area.

On the way to the baggage area a Japanese person dropped some important looking paper on the floor, seemingly not noticing. Deciding to use this as an excuse to practice my Japanese, I picked it up, chased the chap down.
“ano-ne, kore-wo ochita”, Erm, you dropped this, I told him.
“arigatou gozaimasu!”, he thanked me.
I told him it was nothing (“iie, iie”), and carried on down the stairs. We met again at the bottom, and he said “thank you”, perhaps wishing to practice his English. At the time it didn’t surprise me at all, in fact I didn’t register at all the fact he’d just spoken in English at all. But it was a funny encounter, and I enjoyed not only the small exchange of words, but also that I may have helped someone in the process.

I grabbed my luggage, passed through security (I didn’t get frisked this time), and out into a large mall-like area. I headed for the train station, stopping every now and then both to find out where I was, where I was going, or just to rest. My baggage was a awfully heavy, and of course now I didn’t have Dad to carry it for me.

Opposite the train station was a line of ticket machines, the ones on the right hand side were green, with a signpost above saying “English Machines”. Thank goodness, I thought examining what people were doing from a distance headed over to one, only to find it completely in Japanese… I stared at the machine for a minute, often glancing at the German couple to my right, who seemed to be having no real problem. After the second minute I realised that on the screen was a little button with “English” on it. I quietly exclaimed at my stupidity and ordered a ticket.

I passed through the ticket gates into the station, and down an elevator to the platform. I looked at the ticket. “ Car: 3 Seat 3A”. Not wanting to lug my baggage around to car 3, wherever that would pull in, I decided to ask someone where along the platform I should stand. I looked around and saw a suitable kind-looking old woman. This time remembering to be polite I asked her where I should be standing. She scrutinized my ticket and exclaimed quietly. Then she pointed at the ground, not 2 metres away “you should be standing here”. I followed the line of her finger to some writing on the ground. It read “car 3” in both English and Japanese. I thanked her profusely, and felt somewhat embarrassed. I’d not thought to look on the ground.

The train pulled in early, and I picked up my bags. No-one else did, and my confusion over this was cleared by an announcement in English that the train would be cleaned. Now that was a shock, what was even more of a shock was to see the cleaning staff (who seemed to appear from nowhere, in their smart blue uniforms) bustling through the train, at impressive speed, wiping and cleaning up litter as though it were a race. It looked almost comical, but there was also an elegance to it, they must have done this countless times before, as they swept from row to row of seating finishing each row in a matter of seconds, each movement seemed so precise. Again, maybe it was just because I was tired.

Still, in England such a thing would be unheard of. Firstly the trains are always dirty. Secondly, I don’t think I’ve seen a cleaner in England ever have as much energy for their job as that. Another thing that amazed me, was that the seats were automatically rotated to face the direction the train would now be travelling. I smiled in disbelief, and waited to board. When the announced the train would be cleaned, I never would have expected to have enjoyed waiting and watching it.

Anyway, on the train I went. As one would expect from such a rigorous clean, the inside was immaculate. Two things surprised me however, firstly, unlike English trains which announce regularly “Please keep all personal items with you at all times”, there was at the entrance to the car a luggage stow, where everyone left their luggage. Secondly, the trains are so much quieter! If I weren’t so excited, I could have dozed off easily on that train.

After stowing my luggage I sat at the first seat I found, and let out a sigh of exhaustion. People came in and took their seats, except for one Japanese chap, who stood anxiously, and glanced in my direction with a look of mild terror. I suddenly realised that my ticket required me to sit in a certain seat, and presumably this lad was destined for the one I’d thoughtlessly plonked myself on. I exclaimed once more at my stupidity and looked for seat 3A.

As it happens, I’m very glad I didn’t doze off. Though the sun was setting now, there was a lot to be seen from the window. This was the first time I really saw Japan properly, and it was all too brief. I sorely regret not getting an earlier flight, in order to have enjoyed my trip to Okayama all the more. As it was the train was moving fast, and many of the wonders I saw were just glimpses. Even so, I was completely amazed.

The train passed through some suburb. And I think I understand now, to some extent, why the Japanese refer to areas like this as “countryside”. Amidst the very Japanese looking houses and small stores there are very often little plots of vegetables, even crops of rice. Something you would almost never see in England (later I came to decide that Japan feels almost opposite to England, with respect to the fact the fields always seem to be sandwiched between buildings or cities as opposed to buildings and towns nestling amongst the fields). There is really too much to remember, and it went by too fast, but it was an amazing sight for someone like me.

I looked out, noticing a hundered things I’d never find in England, all flashing by so fast. The abundance of topiaries and well trimmed bushes, pretty gardens, the bulky, heavy-looking Japanese style roof tiles, the writing (“tomare” – stop) at T-junctions, signs using English to promote Japanese products, elderly people riding mopeds, cyclists everywhere, a very Christian-looking church poking above the rooftops (despite the lack of Christians), and for some reason this memory sticks very strongly in my mind, a Japanese man and his toddler son smiling and waving as the train went past. I couldn’t help but smile, and wanted to wave back, but they were already gone. It was with these things that it first really hit my I was actually, finally and thankfully in Japan.

At Shin-Osaka station I transferred to the Shinkansen (Bullet-train). I had to pass through a wicket gate, and had to ask “which ticket do I use, the fare ticket, or the Shinkansen ticket?” apparently one has to put both in at the same time, the tickets pressed against each other. I was now getting very tired, and I cant remember whether I was speaking in English or Japanese when I asked for directions to the platform, but I got there anyway, with 10 minutes to spare.

I was painfully hungry, and went to a kiosk for a packet of something to eat. I thought, Hey, its my first day in Japan, I should get something Japanese. So I took a packet of what looked like it might possibly (hopefully) be rice crackers and paid 250 yen. I resumed my place in the queue for my designated car and opened my pack of rice crackers, to find they weren’t. They were fishy-tasting and chewy. Probably squid-based. At first they seemed unpleasant, but my hunger drove me to eat 4 or 5 sticks before I decided they really weren’t that nice. Still, I wasn’t hungry anymore, though I attribute that more to the taste and texture than anything else. In fact, those sticks are still in my bag, just in case I run out of real food (not that I dislike Japanese food. I had some on the plane and it was delicious, and I love England’s Wagamamas chains. But frankly, for all intents and purposes, these fishy-sticky things are more suitable as a pencil eraser than anything else). My tip: if you see イカ天カット(Ikaten katto) and you’re not sure, don’t buy it as your only source of food.

Anyway, I finally boarded the Shinkansen. Again, it was immaculately clean, and this time I found my seat. But no luggage store this time, so I put as much of it in front of me as possible (the overhead storage being woefully inadequate) and the rest on the seat beside me, hoping that noone would be sitting there. Another good thing about trains, is that they have all sorts of things on board, not just the toilets and people with refreshments on a cart, like in England, but on the Shinkansen there are vending machines, telephones and all sorts at the end of the car. I wandered to a phone and dialled one of three numbers I was given to contact. The phone put me through to some Japanese automated message, I didn’t understand all of it, but apparently to dial that number I required a special service or something.. Well, OK I admit I didn’t understand at all then. So I tried the next number, same deal. Now I’m thinking, Oh no! What if I’m stranded at the station? So I anxiously type the next number, which happens to have a different dialling code, and I get through to someone, and after a little explanation everything is settled, the conversation ended, and I go to sit back down.

The train is going ridiculously fast, by British standards, anyway. A notification pops up on the information display to inform me I’m travelling at 300km/h. Thats probably the fastest I’ve been without leaving the ground. Looking out of the window is interesting, watching the buildings fly past, but it is also frustrating, since there is often a wall between the train and the scenery beyond, and so for a lot of the time one cannot see anything interesting. Every now and then, there is a gap in the wall, which lets in a flash of the street lights beyond. This is literally a flash, going this fast past such a small hole doesn’t give the brain time to register the shape or distance of the light source. The smallness of some of these gaps is such as to not even create a blur, just one eye-grabbing flash that leaves you staring at the wall for 10 minutes to work out what that was. But the larger gaps, some of them must be really long (taking a minute to cross maybe), allow a decent, fast-forward view on the world. Eventually a little jingle sounds (yes a jingle. Seemingly there are no bings or bongs in Japan, just oh-so-friendly jingles over the PA) to let everyone know a stop is imminent. Then an bi-lingual announcement tells us we’re stopping. So I get off at the station and await pick up.

After 10 minutes or so, I’m approached by a 30-something Japanese lady who introduces herself as Ai. I recognise her as the International student advisor, and feel a sense of relief. I had no intention of being stranded at the station in a strange country. She leads me across the station, and to the taxi rank. Its very warm still, and I’m sweating heavily from pulling the luggage, half-heartedly regretting my decision to take my jacket, however an essential item it may be.

Waiting at the taxi rank is another Japanese woman of about the same age, we exchange greetings and Ai explains to a taxi driver where we plan on going. Surprisingly, the driver doesn’t seem to realise at first where the university is. My main experience of taxi drivers is of those in London and Guildford, and they seem to know where everything is. But the driver seems to get the idea in a short while, and the trunk and rear-left door open automatically, allowing another taxi driver to take my luggage and load it into the trunk. We get into the taxi, and the rear-left door closes automatically, just as it had opened.

On the way to the university, we talked in Japanese and English. This was my first real lingual exchange of any length in Japanese, and it was difficult to get my head in gear. Every now and then, Ai would turn to her colleague and talk to her briefly. They would talk astoundingly fast, and though I tried to listen, I was usually lost 1 or 2 words into their conversation. All it takes is to miss one word of the sentence, and you think about it too much to continue the thread of the conversation, which continues to flow over you as a string of meaningless sounds with only the odd word here and there that you recognise.

At length, we reach the International house where I would be staying. After a number of brief explanations in Japanese and English, I’m lead up to my room, S407. First of all, I’m surprised by its size. I’ve always heard of the cramped conditions the Japanese live in, but if I’m to be honest, as my time as a university student, this room is the best room I’ve had, both in terms of space and facilities.

As you first enter the room, you are in the kitchen. This is somewhat unimpressive, and I’m disappointed to see no crockery, pans, or pots. There isn’t even an oven, but there is a single hob. I guess it will have to do. To the right is the bathroom. It is tiny, but amazingly a toilet, bath and shower is present. I notice that the water temperature can be changed using an electrical device on the kitchen wall next to the bathroom door, however it is completely in Japanese, and I had no clue as to how it is operated. Turning right out of the toilet, or straight on from the front door, there is a rugged-looking cloth divider, held shut by 3 magnets along its left hand edge. Pulling on its small wooden handle reveals the bedroom, a spacious, well lit room, with a huge window, complete with a wire mosquito barrier and a balcony. There is also a desk in the far left corner, and bed to the right.

Since the bed was completely bare, I was lead again down to the ground floor (that’s first floor, in Japanese. Ai explained at length how the English and Japanese way of counting floors was different, as though I might have trouble grasping it, but as with a few other things about the Japanese language, I actually find this easier to deal with than the English…[One such other thing is the way the Japanese will answer the following question “Aren’t you hungry” with “Yes” to indicate they are in fact not hungry. At first this is confusing, but when I was a child, I always felt as though that was a more logical way of answering.]). Once there I chose a futon mattress and the accompanying pillow, covers and duvet, and we carried them back to my room. Finally, I was left to myself, and I decided to set up the futon, and sleep as soon as possible. In fact, it took me 20 minutes to work out how to set it up, much to my frustration. I ended up hot and thirsty, and pressed all the buttons on the air conditioner remote until cold air began to permeate the room, realised I didn’t own a mug any more (its in England, damn!), and drank from the bathroom sink, improvising with my hands. (I later learned this was a mistake, and as with back home, the bathroom water isn’t necessarily clean. I was also told how Tokyo tap water comes out brown… I’m still dubious about that one though..)

I finally went to sleep to the sound of crickets chirping and cars passing on the nearby road.

Day 2: Alien

I intended to get up at 8 in the morning.. My body clock had other ideas, and I woke at about 5. I got up feeling relatively alert and excited, but also quite hungry. I looked at my campus map, spending about 10 minutes trying to find out where I could get some food. I noted that I would have to wait till 8 anyway, and so spent a good while unpacking, and updating my journal, after which my laptop battery all but died, and I put “electrical converter” on my shopping list. The Japanese use an obscure electrical system, probably in part due to the fact a good portion of electronics used in Japan are produced there too. Then I made a list of all the things I was missing that I thought I could get with my measly 20000 yen.

Eventually It became time to get some grub, and I set off into the warm morning. As I came out of the building I took a good look around me, taking everything in eagerly. In front of me where some very Japanese looking houses, electricity pylons and their connecting wires criss-crossing everywhere, and behind all this, what I mistook to be some mountains. In my defence, I’ve not seen a mountain from the ground since I was 2 years old. They were clad in green trees, and surrounded by buildings. The buildings stretched up parts of the mountain-hill, almost like grey water lapping against a large green rock.

I started walking along the pavement, and looked out to my right as I did so, again, there were large plots of arable land, harbouring some kind of crop. However, I know from examining various maps of the campus that these are experimental fields, perhaps testing out some new genetic advances, or novel agricultural chemicals. The crickets weren’t singing so loudly now, but the swallows were chirping in their place.

I walked through the shade of some tall trees lining the road, and came across a pay phone. Suddenly I remembered my pen friend, whom I had asked to meet. Her name was Masako, and she’d been outstandingly helpful in helping me with my Japanese, as well as lending an ear and kind words to my many worries building up to this trip. She’d said she had made a reservation at a hotel near the station, so I thought I should call and tell her I’d arrived and would meet her later. As I walked to the cafeteria I reflected at how it would be nice to be able to talk without the distortion of the internet phones.

My first proper meal in Japan was small, but filling, and very oishii (delicious!). I’d picked something from a plastic display of dishes, basing my decision on how easy the dish would be to pronounce. However, for some reason or other it wasn’t available, so I ended up just pointing at something on the menu anyway, feeling slightly disappointed that I didn’t manage to make the exchange of words without appearing like such a novice of the language.

As with most breakfasts here, it had rice and miso soup (thats soya and seaweed in a watery soup.. And probably something else too). There was also 2 different types of vegetable I didn’t recognise, and some salmon-like fish in a rich sauce. Evidently, despite my hunger, my stomach was still working on English time, and objected to the meal such that I couldn’t finish it.

Upon finishing I noticed a line of bins, each one for a different kind of rubbish, and also wondered where to put my dirty dishes.. I asked someone who was dealing with their own finished meal, and he showed me that one rinses the dishes in a special raised metal gully lined with tiny water jets that divided the tables from the kitchen. He then showed me what bins to put my rubbish in. All this was accompanied by brief Japanese explanations, but using vocabulary I’m unfamiliar with, and probably too fast for me to keep up with anyway. Nonetheless, I was grateful to be shown in such an understanding manner and thanked him a couple of times as I departed the cafeteria. I then made my way to the lobby of International house for a meeting with Rie, Who helped me with my Certificate of Eligibility forms and a multitude of enquiries via email earlier in the year.

At 10:30 a number of us gathered, Rie, 3 Americans, a Scotsman and myself. we spent some time filling out forms, and then we proceeded by taxi to Okayama City Hall. Again, the taxi ride was another excuse to gaze out of the window and observe the bustling of Japanese daily life. I was together with the Scotsman, called Lewis, and both being from the UK, we got on well. He’d already been in Japan for several months, and told me of how he had endured the Japanese summer. I reflected on that, noting that it was at least 27 degrees and it was October, and thought I might die if I ever see the Japanese summer. Though it goes some way to explaining why there are vending machines dispensing cold drinks on EVERY street (some even dispense beer, cheap and in bulk! A refreshing change from England).

Another thing we noticed was a few meaningless signs. However these ones were in English. It appears that the Japanese love to use English to promote goods and services, but have a severe lack of proficient or affordable translators. “Hair & Make, under one umbrella” is one of the better examples of this that we discovered. Also, to our childish amusement, there was a pizza shop named “Willy’s” only it was written with a very small s, and so all you notice is a huge, house-sized billboard atop the building with “Willy” written in cute, bubbly writing.

Arriving at Okayama City Hall, we proceeded to an area signed: “Alien registration”. We all exchanged a few jokes at this. As correct as the term is, outsiders are usually referred to as “foreigners” in Engish, and “gaijin” in Japanese (literally outside person).

Once all the paperwork was done, we were allowed to go about our own business. Lewis and I agreed to get something to eat, and we found a curry house. Japanese curry is very, very oishii (I prefer the Japanese word for delicious lately, since Japanese food has its own uniqueness to it, and I’ve associated the word too the taste).

Anyway, from there I proceeded to the train station, departing from Lewis to call Masako again and see if she would meet me. Which she said she would, so I took a look around the station’s shops and then went outside into the tiring heat of mid-afternoon between a large, but not-so ornate spherical fountain and a statue of Momotarou: the main character of a Japanese folktale originating from Okayama. I’ve never heard the tale, but it has something to do with a peach-boy (Momotarou) and his animal friends fighting off some monsters… I think…

As the time to meet drew near I suddenly began to panic. Looking around me I could see many people, and a lot of them looked alike to my inexperienced eyes, and I wondered if I would recognise Masako if I saw her. But I reassured myself slightly in the knowledge that I was the only westerner in sight, and like the alien I was, I was getting glances from various directions. It’s slightly off-putting that you can’t just blend in, and its easy to become paranoid and mistake a curious glance as an ominous disapproval.

Eventually I saw Masako emerge from around the Peach-boy and his animal retinue, and I got up to greet her. We agreed to shop around for those things I was missing. I was most eager to buy a Japanese cell-phone, since the normal user market provides an amazing amount of gadgety features at quite a low cost, compared to England. For example, Masako’s phone is a phone, calender, calculator, camera, email client, TV and music player all in one. And I’m sure there are plenty of features she’s still not shown me.

Unfortunately, however, I had not set up my bank account yet, and without it, it was more difficult to get a phone, even worse was the fact I should have thought of earlier. That buying a phone comes with a LOT of technical language, on electronics, and finance etc. those areas are still well outside my vocabulary, and since Masako can barely speak any English, no-one was able to explain anything to me. Embarrassed and a little frustrated, I gave up on the mobile for now, and decided to work on the rest of the list.

Before doing, we stopped a while at a bench to work out our plan of action. During this, Masako pulled out a neatly wrapped box from her bag, and handed it to me. “A-re?” (huh?) I exclaimed, possibly not as politely as I should have, and opened it up. Inside was a new digital watch. It was a smart looking device, and suitably technical-looking for my taste. I’d mentioned to Masako a while before about my watch breaking, and I was carrying it around without its straps (and it was one of those annoying ones that you cant have those straps replaced), and she had bought me a new one. I thanked her profusely, and noted to my relief it was in English, and so was it’s manual.

At length, we walked through the streets towards one of the malls where we could find an electrical store, and hopefully a converter plug therein. In doing so, we had to cross a number of roads, and one can notice at each crossing, instead of the bleeps I would expect to hear in England, there was a different kind of jingle. It was only really two tones, but it sounded jingly and cheerful, in a way that impassive signs probably shouldn’t.

On reaching the mall, I managed, with Masako’s help to purchase most of the list, but still managed to miss the adapter plug. Under the weight of pans, washing up liquid and the like, I was getting tired, so we resolved to drop everything off at the hotel before getting dinner. Of course I had to do this all in Japanese, but somehow it wasn’t all that difficult.

We walked to the hotel, exchanging explanations. Masako would answer my questions about different signs, and she’d listen to me explain all the differences I’d found so far between Japan and England. It was nice to be with someone I had known for more than 24 hours, and time passed quickly on route to the hotel.

I explored the lobby and its vending machines while Masako secured the key, then we went to the room and set everything down. Masako was tired, and sat on the bed for a while. There not being anything else to do, I sat next to her. I looked at the new watch around my wrist, and briefly reflected on my relationship with Masako. I’d contacted her endlessly during the summer holiday firstly as a pen-friend, as a student of her language, and eventually she became a true friend. And now I don’t deny for a second that I was quite taken to her, though before I hadn’t really told anyone. And now having met her, and seeing that when she looked at me, it wasn’t the look of surprised curiosity or ominous disapproval of the people outside the station. I knew I wasn’t just another alien to her. After a little while, I shuffled closer to her and put my arms around her, and we embraced. For someone who had, apparently, never kissed before, she was quite good, and learned quickly. It must have been 2 hours before our hunger overtook the moment.

We exited the hotel and made for a traditional-looking restraunt. On entering, we were greeted (“Irashaimase!”) by a young Japanese woman. On hearing this, the other employees of the restraunt also called out to join in a cheer of “Irashaimase!”. I’d heard about that tradition before, and smiled to experience it first hand.

Taking my lead from Masako, I took my shoes off at the entrance, and stepped up into the restraunt with shoes in hand, which went into a locker nearby. We then were shown to a table and ordered a variety of dishes. The food was delicious and filling. At this point I was thankful to have my stomach fully with me during the meal, and I sampled everything, receiving many an explanation from Masako about what I was eating, and how to eat certain things. I offered to pay my half of the meal, but owing to my shortness of cash, Masako declined. I tried to insist but remembered a piece of advise I had read, not to argue a point if it is rejected more than twice, since it will just serve to embarrass the other person. I guess I also agreed with her, and wasn’t too keen on spending my money.. but I that’s just human nature.

So we went back to the hotel room and spent the night in each other’s arms.

Day 3: Parting

I woke at 5 in the morning again, and remembered where and who I was with. I cursed my body for still not being in sync with Japanese Standard Time, and my restlessness woke Masako. Until 9 o’clock the morning progressed much the same as the night before, only more sleepily. Then we went downstairs and had more glorious miso soup, with some ume (pickled plums) and daikon (I kind of radish, if I’m not mistaken… But it was cut in such a way as to look completely alien to me). After a coffee we returned to the room, spent ‘till 10 watching TV in each other’s arms.

Japanese TV is quite interesting to watch for a while. I don’t understand the majority of it, the news, for instance, is well beyond me, but there was some interesting, if not somewhat unconventional comedy. Its a bit more violent than English or American comedy, but I managed to keep a reasonably open mind, and laughed at what few jokes I could grasp. But usually I would laugh just at the ridiculousness of some advert or other.

So at 10 we left, and headed for my room, since navigating the city for recreation with several bags of shopping was bound not to be too fun. We went by bus, and not knowing where the bus was to stop, we asked before boarding. The (again, smartly uniformed) Japanese driver was kind and actually got out of his seat at the bus stop to examine our crude map of the University of Okayama, and tell us, yes, he could get us close to International House. We boarded, taking a ticket on the way in, and on the way off, placed the ticked into a machine, and the correct change into another. I didn’t have the correct change, so the driver helped me figure out the change machine. I thanked him twice (I seem to do that a lot… but then I ask for help a lot too) and alighted with Masako and walked back past the experiment fields to International House.

In my room we rested on the bed, noticing Masako was still tired, I cleared my luggage from the bed, and we lay down. She explained that she’d not slept till I had already been sleeping for a couple of hours, I worked out she must only have slept for a couple of hours. So we rested in each other’s arms, and again fell asleep. When we woke a couple of hours had passed, and Masako had to return home. Alas, the opportunity to anything else that day had passed, in spite of all the things we had yet to see.

As we waited at the bus stop, the heat and juice I decided to drink at the bus stop made me feel ill. The Japanese climate is far too hot for someone like myself. Masako rubbed my back reassuringly. I was kind of surprised, since I’d heard that public display of affection in Japan was very uncommon, but grateful of course. We negotiated a day for her to come visit again, and settled for next Monday. Less than a week away. Even so, when Masako got on the bus and waved goodbye, I suddenly felt very lonely, and struggled to keep my face impassive on the way back to my room. The task being all the harder for not knowing if I wanted to laugh in joy, or cry.

So now I’m in my room feeling calmer for having decorated it with my panoramas of Dorset, and listening to some music. All made possible by the fact we found another electrical shop, with exactly what I needed, this morning. To my mild surprise and relief, my laptop didn’t explode on exposure to Japan’s unique electrical system.

Day 4: Settling in

Last night I only woke up once, and I manage to wake again at 6 feeling reasonably refreshed. Considering I went to bed quite early, it seems reasonable. Maybe my body clock is finally adjusting…

Anyway, my breakfast consisted of a creamy pasta sauce that I drank like a soup (it tasted like one too). It turns out, what I believed to be a full pasta meal at a nearby convenience store, was actually just the sauce. But nonetheless it was quite tasty and felt nutritious.

I’m finally getting used to being here. I no longer wake up surprised that I’m in Japan, and relax in bed listening to the sparrows while I grab a stronger hold on conciousness. I still always wake up very thirsty, but I’m not sure what, if anything to do about it.

Today, I am to meet Ai again in the afternoon. I think I shall also be meeting my “tutors”. In this case my tutors will be people of about my age, hopefully with a good grasp of English, who will assist me with further settling in (personally, I’m used to tutors being old wise people [at least compared to myself]). I also hope I’ll be able to set up my bank account properly today. And, though maybe I’m hoping for too much, I’d feel much better if I can transfer some of my British pounds into my Japanese account today. I’ve only got a little over 6000 yen left, so I can’t risk getting that kettle I’m desperate for. But thankfully food is cheap here, as is eating out. I can get a delicious meal for 300 yen if I go to the right place (thats something like £1.50. A veritable bargain!).

While typing this, I suddenly hear a noise from outside. Classical music echoes around the buildings. I can’t see the source of the noise, but it is coming from the road, accompanied by a female voice talking in Japanese. Promoting or explaining something. Maybe this is something to do with an election campaign. I’ve heard they’re pretty much like that. Nevertheless, it came as quite a surprise.

At 9 I made my way to the international student common room, where I took my place at a computer and emailed everyone I’d left behind in England. It took me an hour and a half to complete this task, after which I went to lunch at the cafeteria I visited on my first full day in Japan. The dish I had last time was not on the menu, so I decided on tanukisoba. It was a delicious bowl of soba noodles and spring onions with what I recognised as puffed rice (this is the first time I’d seen what I knew as Rice Krispies used in a savoury meal. Wet soba noodles, however are very slippery and also hot, necessitating one to slurp while eating it, to simultaneously cool the noodles and prevent them from slipping out of one’s mouth and back into the bowl of soup. Luckily (and inevitably) slurping noodles is not considered bad manners.

On my way back to my room, I had to stop and wait at a crossing. The first time I had to do this, it seemed quite a clumsy affair. Once all of the road traffic is given the red lights, all pedestrians and bicycles are allowed to cross. The problem here being that no matter which side you’re crossing to, you have to avoid being run over by up to 50 bicycles that have gathered in the time the pedestrian light has been red. Even when not at a crossing, I’ve gained a habit of looking over my shoulder to check for bicycles before I switch sides of the pavement.

As I approached home I took the time to look at the wildlife. Again, the swallows were diving into the experiment fields, a ridiculously large number of them managing to all hide in the same area, completely invisible to me. It was as though they all flew down into a hole. Also there are small bright yellow butterflies I’ve never seen before, and a large black and yellow-spotted butterfly that I recognised, probably from some Japanese anime. It was probably the largest butterfly I’d ever seen before. There are also exotic looking flowers here and there, if one looks hard enough. And the spiders are huge. I’ve seen larger in England. The Japanese ones are just as large in leg-span, though slightly slimmer. The main difference being that it is not at all difficult to find spiders so large. Their webs, as one might expect, are a good deal larger too.

On my way into the International House I bought a drink from the vending machine. Well, I thought it was a drink. It was in fact half drink – half jelly, much to my surprise. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, but not quite as refreshing as a glass of water. Of course, I didn’t read until opening it that one is supposed to shake the can before opening. So now there is a fair amount of jelly still in the bottom. I think I’ll just get a glass of water…

I went to Ai’s office at just before 2pm for our meeting, and after 5 minutes a young Japanese girl of about my age made her way down the corridor towards me. She introduced her self in English as Noriko, and evidently she was to be one of my tutors. Her English was impressively good, and her accent had a rather American slant to it. Another couple of minutes and Ai appears around the corner, and starts jogging down the corridor towards us.

Ai and Noriko exchange a brief conversation in Japanese, too quick for me to catch, as we enter the office. Once inside, Ai explains that if I need anything, I just need to ask my tutors and they will be glad to help. It appears that my tutors are all English major students unsurprisingly I guess, who else would volunteer for such a task? but as the other two tutors file into the office, it appears that Noriko is the most proficient, and she takes the lead in conversing with me.

Since my money situation was getting quite urgent, I asked her if she could help me transfer the funds from my English bank. So the four of us made our way to the Chugoku bank. I was lead down several alleyways and I’ve no clue where that bank actually is in relation to my previous landmarks. Anyway, as one might expect, I couldn’t transfer the funds from this end, rather, I had to contact my bank.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to do that. So first I needed to get a contract for a mobile phone, in such a way as to pay nothing until November. Luckily this is a simple process, if not only for the fact I had 3 translators to help me.

We navigated town using bicycles, and I can see why they are so popular now. The populated land here is quite flat, and it is very easy to cycle. It takes less effort than walking, is quicker, and refreshing – helping to take the edge off the hot weather..

Now that my mobile was secured, all that was left was to phone a special service the next day to set up an international call service with which to contact my bank. Regarding my current money situation, Noriko suggested we go shopping for groceries at a supermarket, since this would be cheaper than eating out.

Indeed, the most expensive item I bought was a 2Kg bag of Okayama rice. 880 yen, and of far better quality than the American rice at home, I’m sure. Japanese rice is a lot plumper, and more chewy. Since I was primarily going to use it for risottos, this was probably a good thing. I also bought 6 pure-white eggs, such as I very rarely see in England. Even more intriguingly there were small speckled eggs for sale. Noriko explained to me that there was a small bird that the Japanese fed a special diet in order to get more speckled eggs. The other main thing I noticed was that, with the exception of the bags of rice and the loose vegetables (which were both larger than at home), everything was much smaller.

Day 5: Orientation

Last night I went to sleep to the sound of heavy rain for the first time here. The rain sounded impressively loud with my window wide open, and I was glad it hadn’t rained when I was riding with Noriko et al earlier that evening.

I was woken at 5am by mum. The night before I used my mobile to email her to tell her all was OK, and she’d used my mobile email address to tell me about the Korakuen gardens of Okayama. I’m glad she took the same enthusiasm as I did to the subject, but I would have preferred to stay asleep. As it happens I’ve not seen the gardens yet, but I would like to some time soon.

The fact my mobile can do emails is a great help to me, considering I don’t have internet access at home yet. I still have difficulty in using it, since it operates solely in Japanese, but I’ve slowly worked out the essentials of emails, making calls and the address book.

At 10am I met Ai again in the international student common room, where I compose my emails, and she escorted me to the office of professor Moriyama. After a lengthy and incomprehensible exchange between Ai and the professor, she took her leave, and professor Moriyama asked me in English what research I was interested in pursuing. I was lucky to have an interest in Genetics and molecular biology, since one of Okayama’s ongoing projects was concerning transport proteins present in secretory vesicles in neurones.

After a brief introduction of our backgrounds, I was handed Moriyama and one of his colleagues’ business cards (which, remembering my business etiquette, I showily examined for a while). Afterwards a tour of the laboratories commenced. The labs were all very cramped, but considering the wide range of equipment available, I wouldn’t complain about that for a second. Having only completed 2 years of a biomedical sciences course, I was unfamiliar with a lot of the equipment, but Moriyama pointed out some autoclaves, Polymerase Chain Reaction machines and centrifuges which I could recognise. He also opened the door to one room, which reeked of a vaguely familiar stale smell. He explained to me that this was where the lab rats were kept, and I instantly recognised the smell as that of domestic rodents.

I was then led to a second building, this was another building of laboratories, but it held the more expensive equipment, and was for use by all the scientific faculties, not just pharmaceutical science. To enter this building, one had to remove one’s shoes, and wear a pair of rubber slippers provided. It took a couple of minutes to find slippers of a size such as could fit my feet. Even the largest pair I found were slightly too small. I then met with another Japanese professor, who worked mainly in this building. As with the other professors he was very good at English, and I only had trouble on 2 occasions with the man’s accent.

This professor led me through more labs, containing even larger and more impressive equipment, including DNA sequencers and huge, specialise microscopes. There were also incubation rooms for bacteria, as well as a room kept at 4 degrees, where items where stacked in trays for storage. It was amazingly refreshing to stop in here for a few seconds after walking through the humid halls. Another room was marked, amongst some complicated Japanese, with “P2”. The professor explained to me this was a “Phase 2” laboratory. I realised this must be the safety level of the lab. As in England level 1 (P1 here) was a lab with no harmful pathogenic organisms, level 2 (P2) being a lab containing some potentially pathogenic organisms or dangerous chemicals (level 4 is the highest state of safety in England, I’m not sure about Japan, and requires biohazard-suits and decontamination rooms).

The floor above, he explained, was where all the radioactive equipment and isotopes were kept. He explained that security was very tight concerning this according to Japan being the only country to have endured the atomic bomb in war. Yet, I found myself thinking that radioactive isotopes are also very carefully handled and monitored in this country, and that the security regarding such materials is probably more due to health and safety than anything on a larger scale.

On our way around the labs we met a number of people, and I struggled trying to remember their names. Now I think I can remember only a couple, though I met many more. In spite of the excellent level of English among the scientists here, I greeted most of them with “Hajimemashite” (“nice to meet you”). This surprised almost all of the people I met, sometimes to the point of reducing the greeted into giggles. It doesn’t seem I’m expected to speak Japanese as a gaijin.

After a lunch of “Rou-su tonkatsu” (I think that is “Rose tonkatsu”, but I’m unsure. Anyway it’s some kind of breadcrumbed/battered fish with a tonkatsu sauce and some finely chopped cabbage-like vegetable. It was delicious and filling.), I headed to the post office, where I managed to use my debit card to withdraw some much needed cash. I was very glad to feel financially stable again, after the mess with the bank yesterday. Afterwards I called Masako, to let her know I was OK, and she invited me to Kagawa to see some festival in her hometown of Sakaide.

In the afternoon I was taken for a tour of the campus, visiting each of the faculty offices in order, and surprising our guide, Rie with the fact I’d already been to the Pharma building. In fact, I had to point the building out to her, much to everyone’s amusement. At the Pharma building I was issued with a campus card, which Rie took for some administrative something-or-other.

Afterwards there was an orientation, that concerned the subjects we would be studying this year, and explained the huge bundle of documents we were given. It was long, hot, thirsty and boring, but on the plus side, I managed to schedule my week to keep monday free, so hopefully I will be having 3 day weekends until the end of term in March. I was glad to get out of the room and find a drinks machine. I decided on cold green tea, and regretted my choice somewhat. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but a bit too bitter for my taste.

Day 6: Meeting the family

Nothing much happened the rest of that day, so I slept and waited for saturday to come, which it did, satisfyingly quickly. Then, the usual shower/shave ritual after another egg breakfast, and I set off for the train station. After some confusion over the tickets (non-shinkansen lines seems to use a different ticket system, instead of buying a ticket with the destination named, one buys a ticket with the origin and an amount of yen. One has to make sure this amount of yen corresponds to how far you’re traveling), I boarded a train and waited for it to set off.

The trip to Kagawa was quite interesting, much like the first train trip I experienced, except the train travelled through several mountains, facilitated by ridiculously long tunnels. After a few stops, the train was suddenly on a bridge. The same huge bridge I’d noticed from the air on my first day. The bridge seemed to go on forever, and gave a stunning view of the sea and the dozens of islands therein. Each island looked beautiful, enough to warrant exploring each of them, I thought. Though I probably wouldn’t get the chance.

Around the islands dozens more ships sailed, large tankers and cargo vessels, and smaller yachts, trawlers and even rowing boats, closer to the shores. But that’s not to say the scene was exceptionally busy, just that the bridge, being so tall, offered a view on a huge area.

At one point the bridge struck land on a small island, where a road bridge curved down, around my view to provide the people there with transport, but the island was quickly gone, left behind to make way for the island of Shikoku, home of the province of Kagawa.

As Kagawa fist came into view, I saw a park below me, with intriguing statues and odd structures, which I instantly recognised from a photo Masako had shown me. It was quickly gone, but the familiarity of the place left a smile on my face as I waited for the train to pull in at Sakaide.

Getting off at Sakaide station, the weather hit me again (this actually happens a lot. Every time I walk out of a shop, or train, no matter how warm it seemed before, I’m suddenly stunned by the heat), and I went to the side of the elevated station to take a look at Sakaide. The city was wide, and mostly low, with a few tall buildings, much like most of the urban areas I’d seen here, but the mountains here were far more impressive than those surrounding Okayama. Some of them were so steep that is it was a wonder the trees did not fall off, and that people dared to build houses so close to it. The mountains were like an arm, embracing Sakaide, pressing it against the sea.

Across the sea, the bridge could be seen stretching away, its far end blurred in the humidity, and one couldn’t make out where it touched down exactly. Beyond that mighty bridge were the mountains of Honshuu, the main Island of Japan.

Anyway, I distracted myself from the view, remembering Masako was waiting somewhere, and made my way down some stairs and through the ticket gates to meet her. She looked beautiful as she shyly came to meet me, and she led me out of the station to the road, explaining that her mum was to drive us to her house.

The car was lovely and cool as Masako and I hopped in. I exchanged greetings with Masako’s mum. She was a kind looking woman, about the same age as my own mum, and seemed all to happy to be driving us. She said something I didn’t understand, to which Masako told her I didn’t speak the Kagawa dialect, and she explained to me that we were to go eat lunch at an udon shop. Not being able to follow the conversation, I was surprised that Masako and I were dropped off at the shop, and Masako’s mum carried on driving, but it became evident later that we were to eat the udon, ordering some more to take away, which would then be eaten by the rest of the family. The udon were cold and refreshing. They were accompanied by a bowl of what I think was dashi, which one dips the udon into before slurping them up.

I walked with Masako, hand in hand, to her house, chatting and observing the beautiful landscape. It was a typically Japanese looking house, and we unlinked hands as we reached the sliding front door. Masako called out “tadaima!” (“I’m home”), but there was no response. Ducking under the low door and following Masako’s lead, I took off my shoes and had to duck again to enter the living room. The television was showing a childs TV program, and to my left was a child of about 2 swinging on a plastic-looking indoor swing of questionable stability.

Masako greeted the boy as “Yuu-chan”, but the child was fixedly staring at the TV, while rocking back and forth in the swing, barely noticing Masako, and unaware of my presence at all. Eventually, heaving the child from the swing, Yuu was finally introduced. I knew Yuu-chan to be Masako’s nephew (Masako was the youngest of 3 children) from my previous communication with Masako, back in England. Despite my previous inexperience with children, Yuu-chan took an immediate liking to me, and ignoring all attempts at correction, named me Purinsu (“Prince”), much to everyone’s amusement (I think this nick-name for me sprang from “prince-charming”, since Yuu-chan is totally obsessed with the film, Shrek 2… and my nose is somewhat similar to that character’s). It didn’t take long for it to become evident Yuu-chan was a great source of fun and happiness in this household, and I enjoyed my time with Masako’s family all the more for his presence.

The house looked pretty much how I imagined a Japanese house. The living room and spare room floors were decked with tatami mats, which are quite comfortable to sit on, if one changes position regularly. Every door in the house except, for some reason, the toilet door, were sliding doors. The spare room was quite large, and during dinner housed a low wooden table at which Masako and I were to eat. At night, it was occupied by a futon and the associated sheets, so that I would sleep comfortably (though the futon was somewhat short for someone of my stature, some extra sheets were used to add an extra foot to its length). The walls of this room were decorated in small hangings of traditional Japanese art, and the top of the door was carved into an exquisite Japanese countryside scene.

After a short while of watching the television (in Japanese. I watched a whole more than I listened the whole weekend), Yuu-chan’s mother, wife of Masako’s brother, was introduced to me, and shortly after Masako’s father also appeared. Again, he was about the same age as my own dad, he had deep-grey hair, and like everyone else in the family, a seemingly permanent cheeriness about him.

Despite everyone’s kindness towards me, I couldn’t help but feel like a hindrance. I couldn’t participate in their fast, incomprehensible conversations, they fed me, provided me with a futon, transport and some supplies to help me settle in easier, and all I really managed to do for them was buy them a small gift from Okayama, and fold some of their laundry.

Anyway, at 6 pm, after a dinner comprised of many odd, not-entirely appetising, and nameless entities we all headed out to the festival being held in a square not far from Masako’s house, The sounds of which could be heard through the open mosquito-netted windows of the house. This meant more ducking under low door ways and putting on our shoes on the way out.

As we approached the festival ground, the sounds began to resolve themselves as the banging of drums and chimes, accompanied by the endless chattering of the crowd. It was already dark, and there were huge floodlights showing an area cordoned off by people in fluorescent jackets holding ropes between each other, such as to create a massive space, within which one could have a comfortably large game of football. The other sources of light were the lines of shop stalls that were set up a little way from the festival ground, and also on large tower-like structures on long mobile-looking platforms.

After a while, hundreds of kimono-clad men gathered around these structures, and hoisted them onto their shoulders. on the long platforms of these structures, 4 people (2 at the front, 2 at the back), stood, each with a whistle in their mouth, and a small flag in their hand, that matched the colours decorating their tower.

It quickly became apparent that these people were helping to direct the mass of people under the platform as they started to blow their whistles to the beat of the drums, and waved their flags as the platform began to move to towards the crowd, which was now gathering as close to the cordon is possible.

As the platform came close I noticed their were also 4 people at the top, chanting down to the people below. Occasionally, these 4 people would all turn to face each other and then turn to chant down in front of them again, as though to make sure front and back was fully coordinated. Then, the whistles came out of the flag-wielders on the platform, and they began chanting a short, powerful chant, and signalling up.

The people around the platform were also chanting, and oscillated the platform up and down, in ever increasingly large movements. Their combined strength, and the balance of the people upon the platform and it’s tower (noone fell off at all during the night), was amazing. Then, suddenly, with one last shout of the chant, the platform was raised to a height where each of the platform’s carrier’s had to stretch to their fullest to help keep the platform in the air. At this point, the crowd nearby applauded intently, and a new chant from those riding the platform issued. The same process happened with each of the platforms, with some slight variations between platforms (one of the more impressive moments was where upon reaching the climax of the above process the 4 people on the tower’s top cast out hundereds of silvery-shimmering strands so it looked like a firework had just exploded out of the top of the tower).

After a while the platforms receded, and the attention of the crowd was focussed on a smaller area where young girls and boys dressed in red kimonos beat drums and chimes, while a two pairs of men, swathed in a colourful ceremonial lion costume, with a contorted face, danced a jerking, animal-like dance. After watching this, and having taken almost a hundered photos and several minutes of video, Masako and myself decided to head home, having seen most of the ceremony. Masako explained that she’d seen this about 12 times, and so it was a bit boring for. Again, my feeling of being a hindrance bit into me a little, but was quenched as Masako held my hand on the way back to the house.

After some more TV and being introduced to Masako’s brother (a rather cool character, seemingly, who wore the same smile as his father), everyone took turns in the bathroom. It was a small room adjacent the laundry room, that had a shower and a bath, and a small stool with which to sit on while showering. The general procedure is to wash oneself with soap and shampoo, then rinse off under the shower (which drained into a small outlet in the middle of the room) then dip into the hot bath for a few minutes. The bath is for relaxation, and isn’t about washing at all. In fact one washes primarily to ensure the bath doesn’t get dirty, since the water isn’t changed between people.

It seems very strange as a westerner to shower then have a bath, but when the entire family wants their daily bath, and the family is composed of a grandparent, two parents, two of their children, a daughter-in-law and a grandson, it makes perfect sense.

After the bath, people started going to bed, eventually leaving me too, to slip into my futon and wait excitedly for morning.

Day 7: Festival day

I woke up to the sound of the sliding door closing with a dull thwack. I looked over to the door, but it was closed. Confused but sleepy, I fell asleep again. I only woke up fully about an hour later, when I smelled toast and butter on the air, and heard the sliding doors open a crack. I looked over at the door. Before I gained the presence of mind to say anything they opened further, revealing Masako as she came in and closed the doors behind her. She woke me further with a long kiss, and I sat up to hold her properly.

After a short while she explained that I could eat breakfast now if I wanted, so I started to dress as she left and made my way into the kitchen. This was the first time I’d been in the kitchen, and it was mostly taken up by a large wooden table and its chairs. There was already a buttered slice of toast waiting for me, and as I sat an ate, saying my good mornings and watching the kitchen TV, Masako made me a coffee. I reflected how oddly British this meal was, where everything else around me seemed very Japanese.

Once Masako, her father and I had all eaten, he drove us to a department store, bought us milkshakes (which were delicious and had some kind of round, stiff, jelly-like spheres in the bottom, which although odd in texture, were quite tasty). After I bought some more essentials here, he drove us to a 100 yen store, where I bought most of my essential goods (including a 300 yen chopping board). He then drove us to yet another store, where I bought a water heater. It wasn’t a kettle, exactly, since one didn’t pour the water, rather it heated the water and dispensed it from a tap. I was grateful for all the trouble Masako’s dad went through, and felt like a great hindrance for the rest of the day.

That night, to contribute even more to my feeling of guilt, Masako’s parents took everything I had gathered, and packaged it, saying it was too much to carry on the train, and mailed it to my room in Okayama. If the average Japanese hospitality is even half as good as this, I would still find it difficult to believe, but Masako and her family insist they’re nothing extraordinary.

Before that, however, Masako and I walked to a nearby shrine to see the continuation of the festival. The shrine was bustling with people in cermonial dress. Again, small stores were set up around the shrine selling all sorts of food, drink and souvenirs. We had already had lunch, but it was oppressively hot, and we bought some ice cream at a stall. It wasn’t at all like Englands soft ice cream, it was almost crunchy, feeling more like ice than cream.

Eventually as another lion dance ended, a small crowd gathered around the path leading up to the shrine. A procession was forming, headed by boys of high-school age in blue kimonos, who moved forward one step at a time, with odd but precise, wide movements of their legs, accompanied occasionally by a hissing.

Behind the group of boys were men, wearing more blue kimonos, walking in pairs, on of the pair holding upright a very long,

A year under a rising sun

PouncingAnt

Joined September 2008

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

At the age of 20 I set off to the East to spend a year in Japan. It was a year of consecutive firsts that has essentially defined who I am today.

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