Again I was invited to write for my German university’s blog. A year after publishing the first part of me describing my experiences doing an exchange year amidst pandemic conditions, I was asked to reflect on the rest of the year.
Like the first time, it is all written in German but please have a look, if you are interested.
In January 2021 I held a presentation about my experiences as an exchange student in front of students and faculty members at Ferris University. On their blog they shared some of the slides used and they also quote me from my speech.
The language here is Japanese, but again feel free to take a look.
First things first – I arrived without delay at Narita airport on March first and thus started my untroubled vacation before studying abroad. Or so I hoped: The last weeks have been packed with news on the novel corona virus – or Covid-19 – as I assume we are all aware by now I will not repeat them, but I will tell you about my experience arriving here amidst these turbulent times.
Since the beginning of February news about the virus and it’s spreading were quite intense. As I was just as intensely preparing my year abroad I didn’t pay them any mind at first, but was of course aware of the ship “Diamond Princess” at Yokohama. But after carnival the virus spread rapidly in Germany and as my date of departure approached I really worried about not having bothered about a trip cancelation insurance…
On February 27th it was announced that Japanese schools would remain closed for the majority of march and the University I’ll attend in April warned me of visiting Hokkaido during my stay, due to too many cases. At the same time, cases in my area of Germany grew every night and one entire subarea of 400 people was placed under quarantine. I checked German, English and Japanese news sources afraid there would be an issued travel warning after all.
Departure day was stressful for many reasons and most of them positively. But due to the virus I also worried about packing sanitary masks and disinfectant into the carry-on baggage and made sure to arrive extra early to prepare for extended safety and hygiene cautions. The airport was earily empty, though that might just have been the time of the day as the flight was scheduled for 8pm. Despite my worries there were no extra checks because of the virus.
We wore masks on the way to the airport and were the only ones doing so even at the airport. In Germany there were news about people buying masks in bulk and hoarding them, but I never saw anyone wearing one outside. I guess buying was more about “being prepared” than actually putting them on.
However that impression immediatly changed as soon as we entered the boarding area. In Japan wearing masks is so much more common and so nearly everyone boarding the plane wore one.
The flight went by with flight attendants and most passengers wearing masks but without any issues. I was able to watch Japanese news with English commentary on board and did so. It was announced that tourist attractions as Tokyo Disney Land and Tokyo Skytree would close until March 15th. And while we didn’t plan on going to Disney Land, we had booked our accomodation close to Tokyo Skytree and were looking forward to visiting their special exhibition on Final Fantasy.
Skytree in Midgar – the exhibition we were planning on seeing.
Arriving in Tokyo Narita, we went through the infrared cameras that check for fever. There were also two staff positioned next to a sign reading quarantine, ready to accompany sick people. But nothing about that was out of the ordinary and is common practice at every international airport as far as I know. After passport control, baggage pick-up and customs we were free to go.
TeamLab Borderless closed
So now we’re in Tokyo!
Nearly everybody is wearing masks, including us. Some of our plans had to be rearranged with attractions closing and opening hours varying. Besides Tokyo Skytree, Miraikan and TeamLab Borderless closed as well for the time being and we’re also not able to go to USJ…
Fortunately, we’re quite flexible in our planning and enjoy Japan just as much for the simple things – like the amazing food we get to eat every day. Visiting the districts of Tokyo still is a lot of fun. And the sightseeing we still want to do, we can do in masks.
After literal years of not blogging, I’m finally getting ready to leave for Japan once more!
This time I’ll be around Yokohama for an exchange year in preparation of my Master’s thesis and I’m excited! I’m not quite sure what to expect at the same time. Since I opted for the intership during my Bachelor’s program, I never stayed in Japan much for an academic purpose. Further, I never stayed in Japan quite as long.
My first time in Japan was in 2010 for a High School exchange program. During that time I was with a private organization and, to be honest, I was 15 – so all of that planning and organizing was left to my parents. I also only stayed half a year eventually.
Now – 10 years later – here I go again. The exchange program is part of a cooperation between my university in Germany and Ferrys University in Yokohama, so most stuff goes through my department, but I still had to collect many of those documents like a certificate of enrollment or certificate of language proficiency. I also have to provide proof of financial stability, which sucks the most because Japan is expensive. I’m still trying to get a scholarship as the last one didn’t work out…
I’m like more than halfway there already and at the same time there is still so much to do. This feeling of inbetween has me almost constantly stressed these days. Still, I’m trying to view all that optimistically. I really wanted to go abroad again, I really wanted to stay a year at a Japanese university. I want to speak the language more and my academic project is not only scientifically relevant but also just the kind of research I really like to do. Right now it just feels so far away!
But I know that it’s not.
I’m positive I’ll get my thoughts sorted, though. I remember getting anxious right before my internship just as much. It’s just earlier than expected, I guess. One step after another. I’ll post about my preparations a bit on here to get rid of these feelings – if there are still readers on here feel free to tag along 🙂
today we have an important anniversary. As some of you know, I have tried to avoid talking about this for six years now. Since some time, however, I have come to realise that this date is an unerasable part of my story and who I am today, and I’ve decided to finally share it.
When I decided to go abroad for a year, I was way too young (15), but as it often comes with being young, I firmly believed I could achieve anything. So in September 2010, I hugged my parents goodbye at Hamburg Airport and got on my plane to Tokyo, Japan.
“A year abroad will change you.” As soon as I had applied for the exchange, this was repeated to me from all directions. When I looked out of the plane’s window, the earth several ten thousand feed beneath me, I thought I kind of knew what I was getting into, but I really had no idea, how much this would impact me.
There were many things I had underestimated. The euphoria I felt in the first month soon became a bit tainted. Life in a host family was not always easy and communication really became a problem sooner than I’d expected. To get more precise, I was expected to change families, but nobody told me. I severely struggled with the language and soon had to find out that not being able to talk meant not being able to make friends.
But some people were admirably persistent. I did make friends, I did find my place both in my new host family and among the students of my class. I finally made progress with the language and was actually able to have clumsy conversations without switching to English out of insecurities. After a very hard six months in Japan, things were actually starting to look up.
On the day of the Tohoku Earthquake, there were exams to be written at St. Ursula High School, Hachinohe.
As the two exchange students with the least communication abilities, my friend Sara and I had luckily been relieved from taking any of them and waited for our host sisters in an empty class room. We had been running off from the school grounds earlier to buy some off the Japanese sweets we were addicted to and just chatted away, trying to pass the time.
We didn’t think much of it, when the earthquake started. It really wasn’t unusual and just a few days ago, there was another one. We did however decide on casually walking away from the heater we had been leaning against. As soon as we had walked our steps, the trembling seemed to increase. I got immensely scared. We hid under the next desks, as everybody always tells you to do, and I remember doubting they would actually be able to save me, should the ceiling come down. I got lucky Sara was with me.
We got evacuated to the gym together with all other students. I don’t actually remember much of that, which is really frustrating. I was there, I talked to people, I heard the teachers advising us, I even send my family E-Mails on my Japanese flip phone that I was okay but scared – but I do not remember any of that actively. I had to piece it together afterwards.
The most confusing part is that, somehow, I don’t know how much later, I was at the town’s train station, slowly realising that something big had happened and by host mother wouldn’t come and pick me up as usual. By that time there were policemen and firemen, calmly but firmly evacuating everyone, because of the tsunami coming our way. Hachinohe is a town directly at the sea, with an important harbour, and although the tsunami arrived considerably late and slow, it was destructable.
As one of the fire fighters continuosly tried to talk to me with the help of a station employee, who happened to speak English, my host mum found me. It must have been pure intuition and a lot of luck, because the entire mobile network had already shut down and traffic was terrible. As she hugged me and – probably – scolded me for disappearing from the gym, I just cried and thought that as soon as we would arrive at their house, everything would go back to normal.
For the entire 24 hours following, nothing was normal. We lacked electricity and water. Every member of the family got their blankets and slept in the living room. It was cold and there wasn’t much space. I don’t remember what we were eating, but my host family was well prepared for an emergency. They had food stored, flashlights and a portable radio. We kept listening to it for hours that night, a calm voice read what sounded like many names and places but I didn’t understand a word of what actually happened or how big it was.
I was given the responsibility over the family dog. Strong aftershocks happened every other hour and we would all have to leave the house until it was over. By the end of the day we would know one was coming, because the dog ran into my arms.
Sunday morning started bustling, when suddenly the lights turned on and all phones reconnected to the service at 6 am. I got up immediately and turned on my laptop. It was late night in Germany, but so many people were still up. My grandparents were the first to saw I was online and contacted me crying and it was only then that I slowly began realising, that the earthquake didn’t just affect our town, not even just our area. I saw German news for the first time. And I saw the destruction the tsunami had caused – at the coasts and at the nuclear power plant of Fukushima.
It soon became clear, that I couldn’t stay in Japan. But it took me almost one more week until I arrived back in Germany.
Leaving was the right thing to do, but in the following weeks I did nothing but trouble myself with hurtful what-ifs. Everybody back at home wanted to hear the story I could tell, but I just wished everything had turned out different. It took me months to stop feeling the ground shake at random and then again some more time to stop being scared of meeting new people, because they could ask me about my time in Japan.
Nuclear energy is generally an eagerly discussed topic in Germany and in 2011, because of the accident following the tsunami, the discussions became even more heated than before. Naturally I got confronted with it every other day, personally and in classes, but reduced my opinion to general statements, rather than talking from personal experience, simply because I couldn’t without being overwhelmed with anxiety.
I know how presumtous I must sound: At least I got to leave all of that disaster behind, while my friends and my host families had to live with it. I was too young to help and too young to understand. It took me a while to mature enough to understand at least that.
Going back to Japan last year with an internship settled many things for me again. I feel more stable this year than I felt the other years around the anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake. And even though I still don’t remember many things that happened in that week, I got the feeling, it would be important to share those memories that did make me me after all.
it’s been a while. I went through some pictures of my last days in Japan and couldn’t believe I forgot to tell you about our amazing time at Sweets Paradise!
Me and the two girls I worked with all had a pretty sweet tooth and it happened quite regularly that we would drop by our local ice cream parlour after lunch to get our share of creamy, icy sweetness before getting back to work.
So when we heard of a place called “Sweets Paradise” we immediately made a promise to go there before we all had to leave Japan.
No sooner said than done:
At “Sweets Paradise” (or sui-para) you decide on how long you want to stay in advance. For us, it was 1500 Yen for 70 minutes (a bit less than 15€). Had we payed extra, we would have been able to order special themed food and pretty fancy drinks, as this restaurant cooperated with some popular game.
But, in all honesty, we didn’t even know the game and the variety of regular sweets and desserts was already mesmerizing.
There were a lot of delicious cakes, like this pancake tarte above, and also cupcakes, jelly, cream puffs and also very traditional Japanese sweets, like mochi. Whenever something was finished, new masterpieces arrived immediately.
Right next to the desserts were vending machines for hot or cold beverages. I enjoyed drinking some cocoa while eating my desserts. It went better for me than soda.
It was just sooo difficult to decide on the sweets!
You kind of know, that you probably won’t be able to try all of them, but they all look so good. At some point you can’t help but ask yourself: Do I want to try that cake I haven’t tried yet and risk being too full for the cake I already found to be delicious? Or am I going to eat the same cake again and risk missing another delicious kind of cake?
As you can tell, we almost went into existential crisis 😛
But seriously, eating there was simply great and so much fun as a last event together with my co-workers.
If you plan on going there, here are my tips for you:
bring fun people. This may sound basic, but you really don’t want to spend 70 minutes with someone who will discuss diets at an all-you-can-eat. Make sure your group enjoys sweet things and doesn’t mind eating a bit too much either.
share things from your plates. You can enjoy it together and won’t have to waste something if you don’t like it but really wanted to try it.
rather pick many smaller things, than one big piece.
drink unsweetened tea. It helps your digestive system and neutralises the sweet flavour in your mouth. Green tea worked best for me.
have a walk afterwards and maybe a broth based soup later if you feel like you have overeaten.
Did some of you already go to a place like this? How did you like it? Tell me about it 🙂
I hope you all had some fantastic holidays and equally amazing New Years! I spent the days together with my family and friends in the town I grew up and it was so good to see them all again.
Of course, just returning from Japan, there were many questions asked, many stories shared and so many pictures to be shown. And as if that did not already do to convey the fantastic craziness I could find in Japan, I also brought some sweets to try for everyone.
And by sweets I mean mainly KitKat, because for some reason Japan has infinite flavours of KitKat chocolate.
KitKat with “green tea flavour” is marketed today as the “number one souvenir from Japan” because of how uncanny it is.
There are a bunch of western sweets paired with green tea flavour in Japan and to be honest, it matches quite well to combine the sweetness of chocolate with the bitterness of green tea.
Those slightly bitter sweets are labeled “adult’s sweetness” in Japanese, but don’t get confused: The green tea here is paired with white chocolate and it’s bitterness comes nowhere close to that above 60% dark chocolate.
Strawberry is the next standard flavour that Japanese just seem to love. I guess I’ll have to admit at this point that I’m not really into strawberries and these ones feature an especially strong flavour. My little sister loved them, though.
We’ll stay at fruity and pink. While strawberry didn’t do it for me, I really liked the raspberry flavour.
This one, again, was part of the “adult’s sweetness” series and really conveyed the raspberry for me. I always gave just a few away to selected people, just so I could have some more for myself, haha.
My personal favourite however was “rum raisin” which actually tasted like a raisin drained in rum. It was amazing.
The box it was in also features “Tokyo” written on it, so I believe this one is a special flavour only available in the Tokyo area. When I was in Aomori six years ago, I remember how everything featured apples, and also how we had our own special “Aomori Apple”-KitKat.
Nestle actually provides KitKat-hunters a map for those regional special flavours.
It really is a pity that I basically never left Tokyo this time.
But besides the regional special flavour there are also seasonal ones. When autumn came around, I found the flavours of baked sweet potato and red beans in a leaf-shaped bread.
Both were super tasty.
From my trip to Mt. Takao, I actually brought the leaf-shaped breads with red beans as a goodbye souvenir for my coworkers.
The KitKat version of them even has a differing shape, so that the recognizable leaf-shape could be engraved on them.
Unfortunately, over all this excitement, I apparently completely missed the pumpkin flavoured Halloween special, which is supposedly the best thing about autumn in Japan…
During my last weeks I found the flavour “butter cookie”, which I probably would have ignored, had I not seen the character for “baking” on it. Yes, this KitKat is bakeable.
You are supposed to store it in a frigde and then put it in a Japanese toast oven, which I unfortunately don’t have here in Germany. So far, I just managed to melt them, but I’ll keep you guys updated.
I also found another unexpected KitKat shape with the flavour “cranberry and almond”.
Instead of two bars of KitKat, this one only consists of one for some reason.
I believe over the last month there were also some more Christmas flavours. I heard of a “ginger”-flavoured KitKat and since on Christmas you eat strawberry cake in Japan (again: for some reason), I can very much imagine a KitKat flavour for that, too.
Last but not least, when I went souvenir shopping on my very last day, I found some extremely Japanese flavours in one shop and I believe those are also purely marketed for tourists, like me, who want to tell some crazy stories. Naturally, I gave in to that marketing strategy and bought them.
They were “sake” and “wasabi”.
Sake actually impressed me with it’s smell, which I thought of as quite authentic.
Wasabi however didn’t smell at all. That didn’t quite help with my fear of trying it.
Both flavours, however, were not intense at all. (Can’t scare the paying tourists away, I guess…)
Wasabi actually contains only the flavour of the horseradish and absolutely zero of it’s spiciness. Sake, comparably, contains no alcohol.
Trying so many flavours was quite fun actually, but keep in mind, that most of these are only intended to last a few months or target tourists, whether from Japan, on a visit to another region, or from overseas. Not all of them are intended to be a gourmet masterpiece – and you can taste that. 😉