Dressed up like princesses

Friday 2nd February

This morning, we awoke to the news that an article had been published about the Aberystwyth Cultural Ambassadors in Kyoto’s daily newspaper, focusing on our kimono experience the day before. The newspaper was waiting for us as we arrived at the Town Hall, and we were told that the headline read “dressed up like princesses”, which we were all very touched by. The article gave us all a morale boost for the busy day ahead, where we would be working at the Town Hall to put together our presentations for the town council the following day.

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We began the morning by choosing a topic we’d like to focus our presentations on, and I chose to examine the education we had experienced in Yosano, as this was an element of the visit that had proved extremely interesting for me. We then shared photographs from the previous days, which helped us to put together our scripts, which needed to be completed by midday to allow Haruka time to translate them. We took a break mid-morning to get some drinks and snacks from the mini-market next to the Town Hall, and we were amazed that the shopkeeper recognised us from the newspaper article. We took a short walk along the road to the waterfront, where we paused for a few minutes to take in the beautiful surroundings, before returning to the classroom to finish our presentations.

 

We had lunch at a local restaurant which specialised in ramen, a delicious Japanese dish consisting of noodles and meat/fish in broth. We ate our food under the traditional Japanese low tables, known as chabudai – I found these very comfortable, but it was rather amusing to watch Val (who is well over six-foot) struggle to fit under one of these cross-legged! The food was amazing, as always, and we made our way back to the Town Hall, feeling very satisfied, if a little sleepy.

 

In the afternoon, we had a poetry workshop with the Assistant Language Teachers and a man called Koh, who we had heard a lot about over our trip. Koh was the owner of the museum we had visited a few days prior, and he introduced the format of his haiku challenge which we all participated in. First, we were instructed on the basics of writing a haiku, which is essentially a seventeen-syllable poem split into three lines of five, seven and then five syllables. Koh explained that most haiku focus on themes of seasons, nature and emotion, which made writing the haiku a very peaceful process for each of us. Once we had written two haiku per person, we rewrote each other’s poems in different handwriting to make them anonymous for the competition. We then compiled everyone’s haiku onto a master sheet, which we were each given a copy of – we then had to vote for our three favourites and explain our reasons for choosing each one. I was delighted that my two haiku came in first and third place out of fifteen entries, and I have documented them below for anyone who would like to read them:

Sunlight reflected,
the glistening water on the
endless horizon
(first place)

Trees bare, lilac sky,
the first dusting of snowflakes,
winter has begun
(third place)

We then had an informal chat with the ALTs about the JET teaching exchange programme, which I found especially useful as it is something I am considering doing myself in the future. This talk gave us the opportunity to hear the personal experience of each ALT, as opposed to the generic information that is available online, which was an invaluable experience.

At the end of the day we met our homestay families once more, and my family took me to a local Korean restaurant, where we had a traditional Korean barbeque style dinner. The food was all cooked at the table, which was fascinating to watch, and the plates of food were unlimited for the first ninety minutes! By the time we had finished, it was getting very late, so we made our home and went straight to sleep to ensure we were well rested for our presentations the following day.

 

Kyoto by the sea & wearing a kimono

Thursday 1st February

Today we participated in a newly constructed day tour of Kyoto by the sea, which was skilfully led by the knowledgeable Keiji Nagase. We met at town hall once again, before setting off to Kyoto by the sea, which was about an hour away from Yosano. On the way, we stopped at Tenki Tenki Tango, a toll road service station in Kyotango city. We visited an information centre for the San’ in Kalgan UNESCO Global Geopark, which is home to a number of geological sites related to the formation of the Sea of Japan. We were given a talk about the highlights of the geopark, including the infamous ‘singing sand’; a type of sand which squeaks loudly when walked on, due to the unique size and interactions of the sand particles.

The geopark is also home to Tateiwa Rock, a famous landmark which is over fifteen million years old, and about forty metres in height, and we drove for a few minutes to see the rock in person. The view was breath-taking; the rock was situated on an inaccessible part of the beach, surrounded by sand and snow. We stopped to take in the surrounding beauty, before moving on to the next part of the tour.

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We then visited The Ancient Tango Village Museum, a local museum which displayed exhibits relating to the Japanese Tango culture. Here we got to experience their traditions – I discovered a new talent from playing the Ocarina, an ancient wind musical instrument made from a hollow rock. We discovered an interactive section of the museum, where you were encouraged to try out the Tango native dress, which Marged and I enthusiastically experimented with. After purchasing a ridiculous number of Ocarinas between the six of us, it was time to leave, so we made our way back to the car, and drove for about half an hour before reaching our next destination.

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We arrived at Tamiya Raden mid-morning, where we were given the opportunity to explore their mother-of-pearl inlay workshop. Although we were initially unsure of what to expect, this was actually one of my personal highlights of the trip; we got to observe the complex process of designing and making objects using the specific Raden fabric technique, which derives directly from the local culture of the Tango region. Tamiya Raden inlays gold, silver and mother-of-pearl to the surface of washi paper, which is then cut into fine strips and woven on a handloom – the final product is used for traditional Japanese costumes, clothing and accessories, and the likes of Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior have been known to use their designs. We got to experience each stage of the process, from the initial hand drawn designs beings transposed onto a computer, to the weaving workshop where the designs materialised. We were told that each item took around a month to complete and could be sold for millions of yen per item. Before we knew it, it was time to leave, and we headed back to the car in awe of the sheer talent we had just witnessed.

We stopped momentarily to speak to the local postman, who was delivering the town’s post on his motorbike (despite the several feet of snow). We asked the rather amused postman if we could take a picture with him, before setting off on our way again to the next stop of the morning.

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Before lunch, we stopped at the Kotohira Shrine, a Shinto shrine whose main purpose is to hold religious objects, as opposed to being a place of religious worship. Accordingly, we were taught how to make a traditional wish (rather than how to pray), which was a lovely aspect of culture to experience. We threw a small amount of yen into the shrine, preferably one of the smaller denomination coins which have holes in the middle (as these are considered lucky), before ringing the bell to alert the shrine “guards” that you were about to make a wish. You were then supposed to bow twice, followed by two claps, before you could make your wish. We did this one by one, and there was something very magical about the whole experience. We then headed to Asano Shokudo to have some well-deserved lunch – I had chicken, with rice and salad, and we watched a traditional Japanese television drama whilst reflecting on our morning.

After lunch, we walked a short distance to the Onojin Soy Sauce Company, a local village shop who made and sold their own soy sauce and miso products. Although the family did not speak any English, we were very touched to see that they had gone to the effort of researching basic words and greetings in Welsh. We were given a talk on the process of making each product, which consists of the fermentation of soy beans, before doing a blind taste test of their three best-selling soy sauces, kakemurasaki, koimurasaki and koidashimurasaki. The majority of the group favoured koimurasaki, a soy sauce designed to be used on all types of food, and I bought a few bottles of this as a souvenir for both my home-stay family and my real family! We had a bit of free time before leaving, so Marged and I taught the family how to pronounce the Welsh words and greetings the family and researched, which was a very humbling experience.

We then made our way to the old house of the Bito family, which was a beautifully ornate traditional Japanese house located in the Kaya area of Yosano. We had been really looking forward to this part of the trip, as this was when we were to experience wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. We arrived at the house, where each of us met our kimono sensei, village elders who had kindly agreed to help us for the afternoon. The ladies had already assigned a kimono to each student, based on a photograph of us they had received in advance, and we were all delighted with their choices. We were amazed at the number of steps entailed in putting on a kimono; they are worn with an obi (a form of sash) around the waist, which is tied into an intricate bow once the kimono is on correctly. I was assigned a pale peach kimono, with a black and gold obi, which I loved. Once we were dressed, we had a mini photo-shoot around the old house, which was a lovely way to end the day.

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Wednesday 31st January

Today began with an early start – we met at the Town Hall at 8am, and travelled to Yosano’s Yoza Elementary School for 8.30am, to ensure we were there for the start of the school day. The school has around seventy students, ranging from six to twelve years old, so we knew we had a busy day ahead, observing and participating in lessons for all ages. As we arrived, we were told that the children were eagerly waiting for us, so after a brief introduction we hurried to the school hall. The children greeted us warmly with clapping and music, and we were asked to introduce ourselves in English, which was then translated into Japanese for the younger children. The student leader (who was a lovely girl from the sixth grade) welcomed us in both languages, before the students stood and sang a series of songs they had prepared for us. We then played games in groups, some of which we recognised from our time at the nursery school, including yet another fierce tournament of janken (rock, paper, scissors) and an adapted version of “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?”, both of which were a lot of fun and surprisingly competitive.

It was then time for me to give the long-awaited presentation of the children’s books that I had collected back in the UK – over one hundred books were collected, labelled and transported to Japan, and the majority of these were intended for children of this age. I explained to the children that I had collected the books in the UK, in the hope that they would aid the teaching and learning of the English language within the school and local community. The books were very gratefully received, by both children and teachers – twelve students were called forward to help receive the books, and there were shrieks of delight as many iconic children’s book characters were spotted among the batch. The whole school bowed in appreciation, and the students voiced their thanks in both languages, which was lovely. It was then break time, so we headed to the Principal’s office for a traditional cup of matcha (green tea), before the rest of the morning’s lessons.

Throughout the morning, the group observed and participated in the school’s English lessons, skilfully taught by Natasha; an Assistant Language Teacher from Barbados, who has been working as an English Language specialist for the Board of Education in Yosano’s Primary School’s for the past three years. The first class of the day were a group of children from the first and second grade, who began by introducing themselves in English one by one, which was incredibly sweet. We noticed that the children referred to each of us as sensei, and although we felt undeserving of the title ourselves, it proved to be an appropriate title for the day of learning, observing and teaching that lay ahead.

Natasha ran through a series of basic games to recap their previous learning, starting with numbers from 1-20 and ending with an adapted rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it…” We then played a game in smaller groups, designed to simultaneously reinforce the children’s vocabulary of body parts and direction – a member of the group is blindfolded, whilst the remaining three students verbally direct the students where to place different facial components onto a template drawing. Each of Natasha’s games was meticulously designed to maintain a combination of learning, with a sense of challenge and fun, and she deftly captured the children’s attention, interest and respect simultaneously. I noted that the children had an admirable desire to learn, which was incomparable to schooling I have experience in the UK – this was really rewarding to witness, and definitely one of the most memorable highlights of the trip so far.

The next class we observed was a mixture of third and fourth grade students, so their English Language skills were significantly more developed. Nonetheless, Natasha produced yet another series of games, activities and songs/dances to aid and develop their more advanced learning, which included a test of numbers from 1-100, the English phonetic alphabet, and various types of food. The children were equally (if not more) attentive, and the lesson ended with a fierce adaptation of Battleships, which was designed to test their phonetic pronunciation of various fruit and vegetables. As an English student who is very interested in teaching, with the possibility of carrying out placements abroad, I found it fascinating to observe and participate in Natasha’s lessons, as her unique teaching style provided me with a fresh perspective on how English can effectively be taught as a foreign language. This will be really useful to take with me into the world of work, where I will hopefully be able to put some of Natasha’s techniques into practice.

We then went to a different part of the school, where we observed and participated in a calligraphy lesson, where students are taught how to draw kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system). This was especially interesting to observe, as it gave us an opportunity to see the students in a more traditional learning environment. The students were being taught the symbol for nihon (Japan), which seemed very appropriate for us ambassadors to learn – however, the class were all naturally very talented at calligraphy, which soon put our not-so-talented group to shame. After a few tries, and with the help of the rest of the class, we finally mastered the symbol, and we were challenged to choose a different word to learn. I chose sakura (cherry blossom), and somehow managed to pull off a half decent first attempt at the appropriate kanji, under the watchful eye of the calligraphy sensei. It was then time for lunch, so we sadly said our thank yous and goodbyes, before heading to a local restaurant for our break.

After lunch, we travelled to Kohzan Bunko, a small museum in Yosano dedicated to the haiku, a beautiful, emotive form of poetry consisting of seventeen syllables, split across three lines. We had a brief tour of the museum, which detailed the history of the haiku across several exhibitions, before a talk about the haiku poetry form; from this, we learnt that the haiku tends to discuss themes of emotions, seasons or nature. We then attempted to write our own haiku, and we agreed to master a final version before our de-briefing session on Friday (watch this space…)

We then moved on to observing the Japanese art of storytelling, rakugo, in relation to the story of Frank Evans’ time as a prisoner of war. This was introduced by Itoi Teiji, an incredibly intelligent man who is responsible for the Japanese translation of Frank Evans’ story, Role Call to Oyeama: P.O.W. Remembers. Sebastian (another Assistant Language Teacher) eloquently read the moving story, alongside a traditional artistic representation, which moved in time to the story, accompanied by music. I was deeply shocked to hear of his terrible ordeal, however I was very moved to hear the parts of the story where Frank Evans reconciles with the community of Yosano, which prompted the start of the Cultural Ambassadors Programme. This afforded me with an increased sense of responsibility to highlight the importance of the trip upon my return to Aberystwyth.

We discussed this in detail for some time, before making our way back to the Town Hall, where our home-stay families were waiting to collect us. We had a delicious meal of fish in soy sauce with rice for dinner, and we spent most of the evening talking and laughing at Japanese television, which I find hilarious (if a little cringeworthy). My “mummy” then produced a beautiful home-made cake that her and her daughter had made earlier on in the day, which was very sweet of them. By this point it was getting late, so I made my way upstairs to settle down for the night, content with the wholesome nature of the day’s activities, and excited for tomorrow’s day tour of Kyoto by the sea!

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Silk dyeing experience & our Japanese TV debut

Tuesday 30th January

As Yosano is famous for its silk-producing district, Chirimen Kaido, we started the day at a silk factory, observing how silk is dyed. The process begins with the silk being soaked in cold water, which makes the material more susceptible to the dye. Dye is then added to boiling water until it reaches the strength for the required colour, and only then is the silk added. This is heated to a high temperature, whilst being continuously stirred, ensuring that the mixture does not reach boiling point (as this could affect the colouring process). The material is slowly lifted out of the water, to let air into the material, which apparently helps to ensure that the dye spreads evenly. Once the material reaches the desired colour, the silk is quickly placed into cold water, to rinse off the excess dye, before being placed into a machine, which spins the material to get rid of any remaining moisture. The silk is hung up to dry, before being ironed, which achieves the standard silk texture.

We were then given our own material to experiment with, and each of us chose colours from a colour chart – I chose to dye a light pink silk scarf, which I plan to give to my mum as a present when I see her in February. We had to leave before the process was over, but we were assured that the scarves would be finished and stitched at the edges, ready for collection on Saturday – I’m really looking forward to seeing how it turns out!

By this point we were all starving, so we went to a local restaurant to get some lunch. I had udon noodles, with egg and spring onion, followed by tempura (battered/deep fried) chicken, prawn and vegetables. We then paid yet another visit to the 100-yen store, where I purchased some more souvenirs for my family, friends and flatmates.

In the afternoon we went to the local television centre, where the popular local channel KYT is broadcasted (Yosano Cable Television). We were given a talk on how broadcasting works in Japan, and the team explained that the process is very different, as Yosano is surrounded by mountains, which affects radio signals. The team then asked to film some small interview segments, to be shown that evening on the local news – we filmed these in groups of three, during which we each spoke for a few minutes about Aberystwyth University and the Cultural Ambassadors Programme.

We were then given the chance to do some of our own filming, and the team split us up into pairs, before presenting each group with a camera. We then filmed various segments in the surrounding locations, although we soon got distracted by the snow, which ended up with us building a snow man, and having a snowball fight – all for the cameras, of course… (we were amused to find out that these segments were all actually shown on the 8pm news, perhaps not the best way to make our Japanese TV debut!)

We ended the day at the local silk museum, where we were able to see the history of silk in the local area, which was very interesting, especially after the work we had been doing in the morning. Our host families then took us home, and we had a delicious evening meal of Japanese nabe, which consists of a mixture of vegetables and meat, cooked on a portable stove at the dinner table. We spent the evening talking and laughing, before tiredness hit once more, and I made my way upstairs to get some sleep – yet another perfect day.

 

Rock, paper, scissors (guu, paa, choki)

Monday 29th February

Today was the first day of activities with the rest of the cultural ambassadors, and it was lovely to be reunited with everyone, and to catch up on our weekends. We started the day at Yosano’s Town Hall, as the local mayor had requested to meet us. Although we were all very nervous to begin with, as soon as we met the mayor our nerves were put at ease – he is relatively young, so he communicates well with people of all ages, which meant that he was very easy to talk to. We introduced ourselves, and each of us explained our reasons for applying to go on the trip. He stressed the importance of the friendship between the two communities, and we discussed ways in which we could help continue this friendship further. We also discussed the politics of the United Kingdom, as well as his proposed policies for his upcoming election, which were really interesting. The meeting was extremely insightful, as it allowed us to reflect on our roles as cultural ambassadors, and what this means for each community. Before long, the meeting was over, and we travelled to the local nursery school where we were scheduled to spend the morning.

We were greeted by the nursery staff, who explained that the children ranged from ages 0 to 6, and we were given the chance to visit each of the classes within this age range. We spent most of the morning with oldest class, which consisted of children aged from 4-6 years old. The children had prepared some songs and dances for us, which were very sweet – the nursery teachers then held a question and answer session. The children asked us a wide range of what are, no doubt, very important questions for that age (what is your favourite colour? what is your favourite Japanese food?), and they were delighted with our answers. We then played a series of games with the children, which included countless rounds of musical chairs, followed by the most complex, competitive version of rock, paper, scissors I’ve ever seen – from what I understand, janken (rock, paper, scissors) is taken very seriously in Japan, which explains how competitive the children were!

The children had also been working on a play for their upcoming hapyokai (a performance recital which is a compulsory component of the Japanese education system for all ages). I happened to mention to the teachers that I’m a joint honours Drama and English student, and before we knew it they staged the entire play for us. We were taken aback at the sheer levels of respect and discipline the children displayed from such a young age – the children performed for twenty minutes straight, nearly word perfect and with little intervention from their teachers (needless to say, we were amazed). We then had to say goodbye to the children, which was harder than any of us could have imagined, and they waved goodbye to us from the doorway as we drove away.

We then ate lunch at the local Dandelion Café, which was the first time any of us had eaten non-Japanese food in several days. The café specialises in burgers, so we each (guiltily) ordered a cheeseburger and chips, which they delivered (much to my delight) with a portion of mayonnaise!

We then went to a sake brewery, where a local Japanese wine is made through the process of rice fermentation. We were able to watch each step of the process taking place, from the starting stages of collecting water from the local mountains to wash and boil the rice with, to the final product. We were a little disappointed to find out that the legal drinking age in Japan is 20 years old, so three out of five of us weren’t allowed to taste any sake at the end!

This didn’t matter too much, as we left soon after, and headed to the local onsen (hot spring). As I had already been to a different hot spring a few days earlier, I encouraged the others who were a little apprehensive. This hot spring was a slightly different lay out, as it had a few different onsen, including a natural onsen, a jacuzzi-style onsen, a herbal onsen and a mineral water onsen. We finished with the steam room, which was a nice way to unwind at the end of the day, before we headed back to our host families.

That evening, I ate yet another delicious meal consisting of four dishes: miso soup, chicken with salad, meat with potato stew and sticky Japanese rice, all of which were amazing. By this point, I was really beginning to feel the effects of jet lag again, so I had another early night, to rest before the next busy day ahead.

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A lazy Sunday

Sunday 27th January

I didn’t think it would be possible to top the amazing day I had yesterday – I was wrong. After a breakfast of yoghurt with pineapple and traditional Japanese breakfast cakes, we had a lazy Sunday morning – I caught up on some blogging, whilst my Japanese parents did some work on their laptops. Towards the end of the morning, we were discussing what I’d like to do that afternoon, yet we got distracted (as usual), talking and laughing about various things, one of them being the difference between Japanese and British food and snacks. I explained that in the UK, a light snack would mainly consist of fruit, crisps or chocolate, and they seemed really surprised and I asked why. My Japanese mother produced a bag of small packets in a variety of colours and explained that they were her favourite snacks – I was a little taken aback to see that most bags contained some form of processed fish! Nonetheless, I went along with it and was surprised to find I really liked each of the ones I tried (my favourite was processed squid…)

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It was then time for lunch, and we had something which resembled an omelette filled with rice, meat and vegetables, which was delicious. As always, they had put a lot of effort into presenting everyone’s food – my name was written in tomato sauce on the top! We had this meal with a mug of home-made miso soup. Before long, it was time to leave, and we drove for about an hour into the mountains by Kyoto-on-sea, to a little town in Kyotango City.

 

Here we found a tiny little workshop, tucked away at the road side, where an elderly man ran pottery classes for the locals. My Japanese mother and I had a turn ourselves, and it was surprisingly difficult – we made two pots each in about three hours. We then painted the pots using the man’s design guide, which he had made himself. This was a book consisting of about fifty to sixty traditional Japanese pictures and designs, each of which had been exquisitely painted by himself for people to use as a guide. We gave the man our details, and he told my family that the pots would be heated and glazed, ready for collection in about a month’s time.

 

On the way home, we stopped at a Japanese convenience store, where most items were only 100 yen. I bought lots of souvenirs for my family, friends and flatmates from back home, whilst my family stocked up on some food and ingredients.

We then went to a classic sushi-go-round bar, where sushi dishes are placed on a conveyor belt that moves through the restaurant. If you see a dish you like, you take it and eat it, and if there isn’t anything you’d like to eat you can order using one of the computers. I absolutely loved every dish I tried, and my home-stay family were very enthusiastic about this, ordering even more exotic things such as deep fried pumpkin and octopus, both of which were delicious. We also had unlimited green tea, which I told my family my mum would have been a big fan of. When we wanted to pay, a waiter came to the table with a measuring ruler to work out how many dishes we had eaten!

 

We arrived home early evening, and my Japanese mother offered to run me a bath, which was very thoughtful. I had an early night, as I knew we would be up early in the morning for our first day of activities with the other ambassadors. Yet another amazing day!

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Friday 26th February & Saturday 27th February

We finally arrived in Yosano, after a three-hour car journey from the airport through the snow, and we stopped at a local supermarket to get a snack before meeting our home-stay families. We were amazed at the wide selection of food available (my personal favourites were English Breakfast flavour Doritos, and Green Tea Kit Kats, which we soon realised are common delicacies here!) I opted for a fast food option, similar to KFC, except that the chicken had been marinated in soy sauce and butter – this quite literally melted in my mouth, making any attempts at fast food in the UK look pathetic in comparison. We then drove a short distance to the town hall, where we met the parents of our home-stay families for the first time. We introduced ourselves, and the parents bowed and welcomed us in response, before we separated off into our individual families.

We drove to the family’s house, where each family member introduced themselves over a cup of green tea. We sat around a kotatsu, a low wooden table covered by a blanket. The table has a heater attached underneath, and the blanket retains the heat produced – I have never seen anything like it, but it is genuinely one of the best inventions ever, and I’m hoping the UK catches onto the idea soon! We laughed and talked (mainly through sign language) for hours, until we realised it was nearly 1am and then we decided to go to sleep.

I had the best night’s sleep in my cosy futon (traditional Japanese bedding laid out on the floor), which was incredibly comfortable. My Japanese “mummy” made us a delicious breakfast of yoghurt with kiwi, toast and a sweet Japanese bun. We sat and spoke for most of the morning, discussing what we’d like to do that afternoon, and before we knew it, it was lunch time. We had bowl of traditional udon noodles with egg and vegetables, and I was presented with a pair of chopsticks to practice with – I was shockingly bad at using these (noodles are surprisingly difficult to eat), and we all laughed together as I had to switch to using a fork instead. I then went shopping with my Japanese mother to the local supermarket, where we bought ingredients for that evening’s dinner. I was surprised to see that the layout of the supermarket was different – you take the basket up to the cashier, who, after scanning the bar codes of your items, places them into another basket, which you take into a bagging area at the end of the aisle after you have paid. It all seemed very efficient!

We then went to visit the historical landmark of Amanohashidate, a thin strip of land connecting the two sides of Miyazu bay. We walked around the surrounding town, which was beautiful – we made a wish using a coin in the traditional wishing well, we inhaled smoke/incense from a metal cauldron which supposedly makes you wise, and we stopped to eat some famous traditional rice cakes at one of the tiny village shops.

We then went to visit the onsen (hot spring), which is something I’d really been hoping to do during my time here. A hot spring is a source of water which is naturally heated by geothermal heat, and in Japanese culture they are thought to have both spiritual and healing properties. To enter the onsen, you are required to be completely naked, which should have been an awkward experience, but it surprisingly wasn’t (the springs were also divided by gender which helped). The feel of the warm, slightly salted water was extremely relaxing after the stress of the travelling the day before, and I found myself feeling a sudden inner sense of peace. We then moved to the outdoor hot spring to find that it was snowing, and the contrast between the two temperatures made the whole experience even more magical. Whilst taking in the surroundings, I felt overwhelmingly lucky to be able to experience such a beautiful place – a few days prior, I had been panicking in the library at 2am before an exam, and now I was bathing in a hot spring, in the snow, in Japan, having the time of my life.

We returned home, feeling content and very sleepy, and we all sat and talked whilst my Japanese parents prepared our evening meal. They made homemade yakisoba, a stir-fry noodle dish, right in front of us at the table, which was delicious. Each dish was prepared with a humbling amount of pride and care; we had noodles to start, followed by a Japanese-style vegetable pancake, with sweet beansprouts to finish. I then went upstairs to call my parents, but the combination of a full tummy and such an overwhelmingly amazing day soon took its toll, and within minutes I was asleep – it’s only our second day here, and I never want to leave.

We love Emirates! (not sponsored, unfortunately)

Thursday 25th January & Friday 26th January

When my alarm went off this morning at 5.30am, the whole experience suddenly seemed even more surreal – the day had finally arrived. The train journey from Aberystwyth to Birmingham passed in the blink of an eye, and before we knew it, we were at Birmingham International. We passed the time in true student style with breakfast at Wetherspoons, and headed towards our gate, excited to see what Emirates Airline had in store for us.

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It soon became clear that we were boarding an Emirates Airbus, a double-deck jet airliner, with capacity for over five hundred passengers across three classes. As students, used to traveling on a budget, we were completely overwhelmed by what we were about to experience – we were greeted individually by Emirates’ staff, each of whom looked immaculate in their iconic uniform and flawless makeup.

We arrived at our seats to find blankets, a pillow and headphones for the in-flight entertainment, which was controlled by a touch screen monitor (or a hand-held console if you preferred!) We each selected our preferred film or television series, and made ourselves comfortable whilst we waited for everyone else to board. We were able to watch take-off through cameras on the outside of the plane, which was fascinating, if a little scary… Once we had reached cruising altitude, the in-flight Wi-Fi was available to use, and we took advantage of this by informing our various families and friends that we were messaging them from 40,000 feet in the air! We were also able to get some work done, as each seat was fitted with in-seat power, meaning we could recharge our laptops, phones and tablets from our seat.

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We were amazed that the only place in Wales that was labelled on the in-flight map was Aberystwyth!

In true student style we took full advantage of anything being offered to us for free! After an hour or so, our lunch-time meal was delivered – we had potato salad with chives as a starter, and we were given an option for our main course. I had chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce, served with gnocchi, green beans and carrots, and it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had in a long time! Both meals were followed by fruit of the forest crumble with custard mousse, cheese and crackers and a choice of tea or coffee. Washed down with a mini bottle of white wine, it’s safe to say we were all in heaven. By the time we had finished, we were flying through the night-time of the Middle East, and with a few hours until we landed in Dubai, each of us tried to catch up on some sleep underneath the night sky which was projected onto the roof of the cabin! A few hours later, much to our amazement, the air hosts appeared armed with trays of Lindt chocolate, shortbread, granola bars and breadsticks. They reappeared moments later with glasses of fresh fruit juice for those who wanted it, and a tray of heated, lemon scented face towels to ensure we felt refreshed before landing.

After a short transfer in Dubai airport, we were soon boarding our transfer flight to Osaka Kansai airport. Although this plane was much smaller, and slightly less modern, our flight experience was equally amazing – we were also provided with socks, earplugs, an eye mask and a toothbrush with tooth paste to make our journey more comfortable. Although this flight was a lot longer, most us spent the majority of the flight sleeping, as by this point we had been travelling all day and were very tired. We were woken for breakfast, which was lovely but considering it was 4.30am UK time it felt a little strange! Nonetheless, we were all satisfied with a vegetarian full English breakfast, and most of us went back to sleep until the next meal which was served a few hours later.

As we were flying over Asia, I decided to opt for the Asian food option for lunch, which consisted of sweet and sour perch (fish) served on a bed of steamed Japanese rice. Surprisingly, this was my favourite meal out of the three we had across the duration of the two flights, which made me feel very positive about the food I was soon to experience in Yosano! Before long, we arrived safe and sound at Osaka airport, each of us singing the praises of Emirates. Although we were travelling for nearly twenty-four hours, the attention to luxury and detail made the time pass really quickly. We’ve all vowed to never fly with Ryanair again!

 

2nd Enfield Brownies: “A Taste of Japan”

As I explained in my interview for the Cultural Ambassadors Programme, I have been a member of Girlguiding for over a decade, progressing through Rainbows, Brownies, Guides then Senior Section, and finally ending up as Young Leader at my former Brownie Pack, 2nd Enfield Brownies. “Brown Owl” (Emma Supple) takes an active interest in the projects and successes of all members of her pack, past and present, and so I knew exactly who to go to when advertising my recent book appeal – if you haven’t already heard about this, please have a read here!

A note was sent home with the Brownies, explaining that “Squirrel” (Carys) will soon be travelling to Yosano, Japan with her university, and that she was collecting children’s books to take with her to give to school children in the local community. The Brownies were asked to have a look for lightweight, good condition books that they had perhaps grown out of, and, in return, the following Tuesday 16th January, I proposed to give the Brownies a ‘Taste of Japan’ – an evening themed around the exquisite food, craft and culture of the country I am so excited to visit.

As promised, the Brownies returned the following week, weighed down with book contributions for who they now referred to as their “friends in Yosano”. As they arrived one by one, each girl proudly presented their homework research about Japan,  and bombarded me with questions about life in Aberystywth – “What’s a University? Do you sleep there? So do you have to speak Welsh?” etc. After what felt like a lifetime of questions and answers, the Brownies had all arrived and we were ready to start the evening. I began by leading a group discussion, asking them to share what they had discovered about Japan – many had printed out maps, others had written down interesting facts and some had drawn pictures. They were amazed to hear that Japan is made up of 6,852 islands, and even more thrilled that I would be visiting the country where Nintendo was created! I shared everything I knew about Japanese culture, and told them I was hoping to find out more during my stay to report back to them!

I explained that for our first activity, they would be attempting to write using the three Japanese scripts, kanjihiragana, and katakana. The Brownies then used guides to attempt to write some very simple words, which they were very enthusiastic about – some even promised they would be fluent by the time I returned! For those who finished early, they designed posters with pictures of cherry blossom and maneki-neko, which I explained was a Japanese cat figurine, believed to bring luck to the owner.

 

After they had mastered their Japanese writing, much to their delight, each Brownie was presented with a pair of wooden chopsticks. After a questionable demonstration from the leaders explaining how to use them, Brownies were split into teams and raced to sort out bowls of Fruit Pastilles into colours. A number of the Brownies were actually better than the leaders at using them, and nearly all of the girls proudly took a pair of chopsticks home to practice!

 

Next, Brown Owl showed the Brownies a beautifully ornate Japanese fan that was given to her father a gift. I told the Brownies that the folding fan (sensu) was actually invented by the Japanese, and I asked them to design their own origami fan to take home. I explained that origami is yet another intricate art associated with Japanese culture, and they took great care to do this art justice. I was amazed by the effort and concentration that went into designing each and every last detail. Even the Guides decided that they wanted to make one!

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By then it was nearly home-time, and with two enrollments taking place that evening, I had to draw the session to a close. We reflected on the various things we had learnt, and the Brownies should each other the beautiful arts and crafts they had made. As a final treat, they were rewarded for their hard work with vegetarian sushi and prawn crackers – but only if they could remember some of the trivia we had discussed at the start of the evening!

 

The Brownies were sorry to see the evening come to an end – nonetheless, they left armed with their new facts and creations, and, more importantly, a newly found awareness of the beautiful cultures of Japan. Could these girls be the next generation of Cultural Ambassadors?

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2nd Enfield Brownies with Squirrel / Carys (centre left) and Brown Owl (centre right)

With thanks…

To HK Noodles, Enfield, for kindly providing the chopsticks!
To my wonderful Brownies (and parents!) for their generous book contributions, and for their endless energy, enthusiasm and questions.
To the gorgeous Guides – who are now all far too grown up!
To my fellow Young Leaders Alice, Maggie, Jess and the rest,

and last but not least to Brown Owl (Emma Supple), for allowing the evening to happen, and for providing unconditional love and support, always.

 

A gift to the people of Yosano…

Some of you may be aware that I have recently been selected to represent Aberystwyth University on the 2018 cultural trip to Japan. On the 25th of January, four other students and I will be travelling to the Japanese town of Yosano, as a part of an initiative to celebrate the longstanding friendship between the two towns. We will be staying with local families for eleven days, whilst participating in a wide range of activities including visiting local primary and secondary schools, and meeting the town council.

The five of us have been asked by the University to come up with some ways that we can return the generosity of the local community. As my trip is kindly being funded by the English & Creative Writing department, I thought it would be most appropriate to come up with an idea which helps local students to learn English. And so, over the next few weeks, I will be collecting English children’s books that I (with the help of the rest of the group) will take with us to Japan, to give to the children in the schools we visit whilst we’re there. Each book we take will have a book plate label placed on the inside cover, explaining the reason behind the gift and the ongoing friendship between the two communities.

I am therefore asking all those who are happy to help, to please have a look at home for any good condition, (fairly) lightweight children’s books you no longer need, which would be appropriate for primary and secondary school age. If you find anything that meets these criteria, then please would you get in contact, so I can arrange to collect them:

LONDON – I will be at home until the 16th of January, so if you are able to find anything suitable before then please let me know.

ABERYSTWYTH – I will be returning to Aber on the 21st January, and I’m more than willing to travel around campus / town to collect. We leave on the 25th January, so ideally, I need to have all contributions by the 23rd of January latest.

I am hoping to get a really positive response to this appeal – if this is the case, any books the group are unable to take due to luggage restrictions, I will be distributing to local charities in London / Aberystwyth. I will also try to photograph the books we do manage to take with us, and will keep you updated on the response from the local community you will all be helping!

Please, please help if you can, feel free to message me if you have any questions, and thank you in advance!

UPDATE: Over 100 books were collected in London alone, with many more waiting for me as I arrived back in Aberystwyth yesterday evening (21st January). I will be sorting and labeling the books later on the evening of the 22nd of January, so please contact me if you have any contributions ASAP!

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