Saturday, 31 August 2013

A world away: looking at the Korean divide

First, some Seoul-searching
Being so focused on Japan, I'd never given a lot of thought about travelling to Korea, even though the karate I studied in England was actually Korean. Last year I got into Kpop, and as I'm now studying Korean, my housemate Sam suggested we go visit Seoul this summer for a concert and some shopping.
She also had a keen desire to see the DMZ. Holidays are all about seeing new stuff for me, so I blithely agreed, not even thinking too much about where we would actually be going.

The DMZ stands for de-militarized zone, which in itself must be some kind of joke because I've never seen so many soldiers or barbed wire in my life. It's actually where the border lies between North Korea and South Korea. It's worth saying that this is not some ancient land division marked by a river or rock that Korean people themselves revere, but a divide created in the fallout from the Korean War. The sides drew up a line. This bit is mine now, this bit is yours. Guards stand day and night on both sides.

South of the DMZ, there is everything to enjoy. Capitalism thrives. Kpop dances the pants off any other music in Asia. Shopping, eating, laughing, dancing - all the things in life I've taken for granted are available to me. I'm sure most South Koreans feel like that too. But only an hour and half north from Seoul, and things change dramatically. First the landscape becomes rural, green grasses and grey mountains, and then it ends in a military checkpoint and entry to the JSA, Joint Security Agency.

The tour
When we sign up for the DMZ tour, the dress code is strict. No jeans. Cover your arms and legs. No army-looking clothing. No low cut tops. No bags allowed, put your passport and your camera in your pocket. Even our tour guide was reprimanded for showing a little too much knee. Because when you are taken to that area, where a thin cement line and three heavily armed south korean men are all that's between you and North Korea, they're not taking any chances. The reason they say is, the North Korean side take photographs of tourists at the DMZ and use it for communist propoganda. They use it to show people in North Korea how capitalism has failed. (How, exactly, I'm not sure)

So here we are, and on the other side all we can see is one man with binoculars, watching us. It's very strange. We on the south side are allowed to take photographs for a few minutes. I feel like it's a bit of military propaganda in itself, that tourists from other countries are allowed to come and gawk at the border. Then the strangest thing happens. Another North Korean guard goose-steps from the left, and more follow - and then I realise he's not actually leading a group of soldiers, but people. People in ordinary clothes. In this military zone, I was expecting to see North Korean soldiers, but not citizens. They marched into a block directly opposite us, and stood still, silently, facing us. We had already been warned not to wave, point, or gesture towards any North Koreans. So all we could do was stare back, until weirdly our tour guide encouraged us to take more pictures. I didn't take my camera, so I just stared across the divide, trying to send my heart and mind out towards that group of strangers. And afterwards, as we ate our delicious lunch and then snoozed on the bus back to Seoul, I couldn't stop thinking about those people. What does North Korea want us to think, seeing those people? Do they live at the base purely to be 'tourists' displayed for our benefit? Were they forced to stand there against their will? What will happen to them now? Do they really believe we are evil? Do they really think their country is the best in the world? While I've spent a lot of time (perhaps too much!) looking at pretty South Korean men, until the day they were stood opposite me, within shouting distance, I realised I knew absolutely nothing about North Korean people.

My housemate's picture of the North Korean group at the DMZ. See the thin line on the floor on the left? That's the border. South Korean guards have their back to us.

Reading up
Back in Japan, with these people still on my mind, my housemate recommended 'Nothing to Envy', a book with interviews from people who fled North Korea. I read it so quickly my head spun. I also read up on Amnesty International's information. Some key facts for me:

  • Not everyone living in North Korea was born there. Some were arrested during the war and forced to remain. Some have relatives in China and Japan.
  • North Koreans learn about loving the leader and hating the rest of the world as part of their schooling. But not all of them blindly believe it forever, and are constantly thinking of ways to get out while not risking anyone else's life. Some of them have wired TV sets and radios to receive news from outside the country, so they do know what the rest of the world thinks.
  • The citizens considered most obedient, smartest etc live in the capital city with food and shelter. This is the place we see news photograph of, because reporters and tourists are brought here. The rest of them struggle to feed themselves day to day, work without any hope of a wage, and some 200,000 people live in labour camps.
  • All North Koreans have automatic citizenship of South Korea, but to claim it they have to actually get there themselves. Guards on the borders of North Korea and China can be bribed to get people out of North Korea, but if North Koreans are caught in the act, they can be shot on sight. If North Koreans are caught in China, they are sent back to North Korea.
The more I learn about North Korea, the angrier it makes me. And the more questions I want to ask. How can one man be so terrifyingly powerful? He must have others around him who believe in what they are doing, but why?
How can China send those refugees back to their certain deaths? 
How can the UN help those people who have no means of escape? 
How is it, given routine starvation, and the number of people executed there, that there are any citizens even left in North Korea? 
How can any of those people still have hope? And they do, as these TED talks from escapees testify. (Click their names to watch): Hyeonseo Lee and Joseph Kim.

What can the rest of us who had the fortune not to be born in North Korea do to help? 
I'm still researching this one, but even just being aware of what's going on is, I think, the first step. I hope those people who stared at me across the border can one day enjoy the same freedom as me, and their countrymen less than a few meters away.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Now stalking Japanese actors...

So... I've got a new hobby, and that hobby is (mildly) stalking good-looking Japanese actors. I say mildly, because I'm not very good at the actual stalking bit, in fact waiting outside a theatre with a bunch of other fangirls for an hour was about my limit last week, but it sure paid off.

I met Shirota Yu, who's a half-Japanese, half-Brazilian actor. << - This is him. Google him and you'll probably see him with a variety of 'interesting' wigs, and if you're lucky, the magazine shoot where he stripped off (back shots only, but boy, do Japanese magazine editors know how to sell their magazines!)

Anyway. He's been in a tonne of J-dramas (Hana Kimi, Samurai High School, Rookies). He's also a singer, and recently I bought his latest single, and last weekend went to see him in a live stage performance of Romeo & Juliet. It was a rock/pop musical with him as Romeo, calling his mates on his smartphone. And kissing Juliet 10 times. And lying ona bed in just his underwear in one scene. Anyway... this play is what brought me to be hovering outside the Umeda theatre, squinting in the darkness at all the actors slowly leaving, thinking no -too short - no.. a girl... no.. not him... is he really gonna come out? Has he already left?

Finally though, he did come out, and was wearing a hoodie pulled up over his often-dyed hair, and a health mask, presumably to ward off any germs and protect him from wild fangirls throwing themselves at his mouth. Drat. Anyway. He was moving fast through the crowd, so I pushed my hand through a gaggle of girls, and he shook it warmly. I blurted out (in English) , 'We love you!' and without missing a beat, he said 'Thank you' (also in English) as his eyes twinkled.

I spent the next two days agonising over those words. I surely should have said something cooler... like, 'We loved your performance'. Or 'You're really hot!' Who the hell is WE anyway? The royal We? I wanted to make myself memorable, that's why I spoke English instead of Japanese, but I sure wish I'd said something a little less lame. *sighs* my only hopes are, having seen him being interviewed, he can be a little dorky himself at times... so I hope overall he was amused by my words and not terrified. If I were an actor I think I'd like people to say things like that. But still, I keep replaying that moment, thinking... WHY THOSE WORDS?

So. The minor stalking continues, as Yu-kun is going to be in a Halloween parade at USJ in Osaka this weekend, and I'm dragging some friends with me just to gawk at him. I'd like the opportunity to shake his hand again, and say, 'What I mean is, I, personally, love to watch your acting and singing and all-round amazingness. Thanks for doing all that. And if you're single, here's my number.'

I'm not sure if his English ability can handle all of that, so perhaps I should practice it in Japanese. More motivation to study... >_<

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Hiroshima remembers - stories from survivors

On August 6th 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Every year, a special ceremony is held to remember the event and commemorate the thousands upon thousands of victims. This year I went to see the ceremony, and I was fortunate enough to hear some first-hand accounts of the atomic bombing.

Please be warned, this wasn't easy listening so it won't make for easy reading. But these are real stories that need to be shared, and I feel as many people probably won't visit Hiroshima, they may find this blog entry informative, and heartbreaking, as I did.

I say I was fortunate to hear these stories, because the hibakusha, as they are called, are actively encouraged to keep their stories to themselves. There is a stigma, even now, for those who saw the destruction of Hiroshima with their own eyes. As if experiencing that horror would not be enough. As if they were excited to tell their stories, instead of reawakening again and again what must be deeply painful and carefully hidden memories.

But, not only do these people want to share their stories, they have studied English so they can share it with foreign visitors to the city. What brave people they are. What an honour to have met them. You couldn't leave that room without feeling emotional, human regret, sadness at what they had to live through. Every person alive should hear at least one of their stories.

We met four people; Isao Aratani, Shoso Hirai, Sumiko Hirozawa and Keiko Oruga. I didn't write any notes while they talked, as I wanted to listen carefully to their stories. We were given some notes on the speakers too. Here's what they said and any thoughts I had to add.

Isao Aratani was 13 years old when the bomb dropped. He explained that in the months leading up to it, students from his school were working to clear fire lanes in the city. So he should have been in the city centre on Aug 6th, but instead the school decided to put his class on farm duty, around 1 and a half miles from the hypocenter. He remembered working in the field, and an air raid, before the deadly bomb was dropped. Like most of his class, he suffered burns to his face, but they weren't permanent. The rest of his school were killed in the city centre. From his speech I learned that many of the victims were schoolchildren trying to help prevent fires in the city.

Hirai Shoso was 16 years old on Aug 6th. His story was the hardest to hear, as he talked about trying to find his family in a hell-like city, and helping his mother carrying his fathers' bones back to his home. He never found his younger brother. His speech made me feel sorrow for the families destroyed by the bomb.

Sumiko Hirozawa was 17 at the time of the bomb. Her family owned a temple, which over 60 students came to for aid and shelter after the bomb. Instead of telling her story, she asked for our questions, which was a difficult thing to do. What kind of questions do you ask someone who has been through that? A few brave people went for it, and most people's questions she replied to with: 'It was a horrible time, but now everything is OK, we are all alright now.' She kept repeating it, like a mantra, and this made me wonder if those who experienced the bomb simply have to block some of it from their minds to deal with it.

Keiko Ogura was the most eloquently spoken of the group, and the director of a peace organisation in Hiroshima. She was only 8 years old at the time of the bombing. She was knocked off her feet by the explosion, and awoke to a world of darkness and horror. Many victims staggered up towards her house as a local shrine was nearby; she witnessed many people dying. One of her most tortured memories is giving water to victims who asked for it; they died shortly afterwards. She didn't know at the time she wasn't supposed to give burn victims water, and she kept it a secret for many years. She says she still has nightmares about that – but no eight-year-old should have to feel guilty over doing what is completely humane. In the present day, she says she still suffers 'invisible scars'. On an interpretation trip to America she was able to see the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. She said that she broke down, sobbing, and many news cameras filmed her. After that, her brother called her and said; 'Thank goodness they used your married name – no-one knows we're related, so they don't know I'm hibakusha too.' She talked about his unhappiness at her sharing her story. But I'm so grateful she did. What a strong and brave woman. I was truly amazed by her, and truly saddened that an eight-year-old girl had to live through that experience.

She also made reference to the current situation in North East Japan. While a natural disaster, she feels that people there have seen the same level of destruction as she did in Hiroshima – a city physically and emotionally destroyed. She spoke about 'mind-mapping' the city, where survivors try to re-map the city they once knew, and it bringing together people who have experienced similar things. This seemed like a very positive approach to a disaster, which made me feel like she has turned her sadness to strength in moving on and helping others.

All of the speakers wanted us to understand they now feel no anger any more towards America or even the people who dropped the bomb. They only feel passionate now about peace; understanding; the end of nuclear arms.

They can forgive, and what amazing and inspiring people they are to do so; but they, and we as a human race, can never forget what happened here. It's as simple as that.

More reading ~

Hiroshima Peace Museum, where the talks took place

What makes someone a hibakusha? More info

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

There was an earthquake...

Where to even begin this update... ?

Japan has been on global news all day, every day for the last two weeks, for the worst of reasons. I was at my normal shift in Sanda when one of the biggest earthquakes in the world struck north-eastern Japan on March 11th 2011.

The school staff asked me if I had felt the earth shake. 'No – there was an earthquake?' I asked, then went about preparing for my kids lessons as usual. It was only after I finished my shift, and was checking my mobile on the train home, that I saw a load of messages from worried friends – 'Are you OK?' 'Let us know you're OK Donna.' So, it wasn't just a tiny tremor in Kansai.

And if an earthquake alone wasn't bad enough, the location of the exact centre – not even on land, but in the sea – caused an unstoppable, terrifying tsunami.

Thousands were swept out to sea, unable to outrun water moving faster than a jumbo jet. Thousands more were killed instantly by their homes, schools, offices, collapsing on them. Buildings in Tokyo wobbled like jelly. My housemate dived under the table at a multi-national WHO conference in HAT Kobe, the very spot of Kobe's tragic quake in 1995.

There was an earthquake? In hindsight my reaction seems so understated, flippant almost. But over the last few months we have felt a few small shudders, nothing scary or long, and I've missed one or two as I was walking around when they happened.

Just as the mind slowly begins to acknowledge the devastation that a huge earthquake, followed by a tsunami, can wreak, the news feeds upped the ante: a nuclear power plant in Fukishima, damaged by the quake, was in serious danger. Nuclear. Danger. The two words no-one in the world, let alone Japan, wants to see about the country they are currently living in.

Before March 11th, I knew next to nothing about nuclear power plants, except that they existed, somewhere in the world. Thanks to the world's media, and countless blogs and tweets, I now know more than I ever wanted. Too much, in fact. I need that part of my brain back for kanji study.

And as news of trouble at the nuclear plant continued to billow forth, while the rest of the people in my life – the konbini workers, my colleagues, my students – just carried on with life as normal, my foreign friends started to get a hunted look in their eye. And soon they voiced those fears.

'Are you scared?' 'Should we go home?' 'Is it safe for us to stay? Will the company say something?'

On March 15th, the company I work for did indeed, issue an announcement to native staff. It included this paragraph:

“You are here in Japan now because at one point in your life, you made some connection with Japan. I am proud of your bravery in coming to live and work abroad. Please stay with us as long as possible and see and learn more about Japan. I realize that it is now a difficult time to be here, but I do hope you will gain something out of being here during this turbulent period of time. Once again, I do hope you will see the real Japan and look to the Japanese people for inspiration. Let us be calm and act accordingly.”

Something in that struck a chord with me. Yeah. I did make a connection with Japan, and I followed it, chose to be here, and that wasn't an easy decision. It affected my family, my friends, my lifestyle. It took so many hours of heart-searching to get me here. I wasn't going to be scared away so easily. Still, seeing a map of Japan with a big yellow and black radioactive symbol slapped on it made me shiver. The media really know how to sell those papers.

Clearly, this wasn't going to sort itself out overnight. I decided the best plan of action was to:

1. Get informed – what exactly was going on? And what would be the worst case scenario?

2. Get prepared – I'd long been meaning to sort out an earthquake kit. This seemed like a good time to sort that ^^;

3. Check my family were OK and not having a meltdown themselves in the wake of the news.

So, I checked the BBC news updates, watched NHK and tried to follow some of the Japanese news to get a better idea of what was happening. I visited the foreign community centre in Kobe to get info on earthquake kits. And I messaged my parents. Who, like the amazing duo they are, were calm and confident I was safe. They really are quite unflappable! *hugs them hard*

While this was happening, my French housemate was getting the other side of the coin – her family, university and the French government all urged her to leave Japan. After giving me some advice about how to prepare a radiation shelter – plus all her leftover veg – she flew back home last Friday.

She was joined by about half the French residents in Japan. The French government seems to have terrified them about the possible radiation leak, while the British government has more of a 'stiff upper lip' and uses its update page to give a practical guide to radiation safety and precautions. Still chilling, but informative.

While I'm no scientist, I feel you have to place your trust somewhere in times of crisis. So I have placed my trust in the British government, and the Japanese government, and the hundreds of people battling even as I type to get that power plant back under control. And while my work continues as normal, there's always a tingle of anxiety when I check the news. I can't wait until this is just a TV movie and not my real life.

But right now all I can do is get on with my job here. Talk to my students, give them a place and a channel to discuss what's happening. Because while the media dances around the power plant, thousands of people are still looking for their loved ones in the rubble. Thousands more have lost their family, friends, homes, offices, livelihoods. It's a sadness beyond words.

I've met students who are still waiting to hear from friends in Sendai, a place that has just been wiped off the map. Still they come to school, study hard, smile at their classmates, and wait and hope. I'm not sure I could do the same in their place. Japanese people have a reputation for being resilient, cool-headed, and community-minded. They have heavy hearts, and concerns about the nuclear problems of course, but what good would it do to cry all day, or panic and run away? Better to get on with things and let those who can, do their jobs. We have to get up, and get on, and do all we can.

I've long been amazed and inspired by this country and its people. That's why I came here, and I'm still glad I did. Ganbatte Japan – keep doing your best, and I will too.

Donate stuff, or money

Second Harvest Japan is getting food and supplies to the thousands made homeless by the disaster. You can donate money or send them care packages if you live in Japan.

The Red Cross is a good place to send your money if you live outside of Japan.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Osashiburi! Winter greetings to you

Osashiburi (long time no see). I hope you are in good health and cheer for the winter holidays. In three days I'm flying back to the UK for Christmas holidays, so I'm excited. I've already packed one suitcase - it's full of Japanese goodies for my nearest and dearest.
I'm not looking forward to weather in the UK - it's been snowing for the last month with temperatures hovering way below zero. Japan's chilly 4 degree evenings are kind of balmy in comparison. But I'm looking forward to the warm welcome that awaits at my parent's home, seeing my family and friends and sharing stories from the last year. Part of going away on an adventure is about the excitement of sharing it with those you love.
But where to begin when talking about what it's like in Japan?
I'd like to be able to sum up Japan in a pithy sentence or striking image; give those who have never been a real insight into life and culture here. But Japan isn't so easy to pin down. It's a country of contrasts; of mountains and skyscrapers; kimono and dress suits; sushi and hamburgers; technology and nature; welcomes and isolations; old and new; fashionable and unfashionable. It's all of those things and more. There are many, many moments where I feel I've experienced something 'only in Japan'. Only in Japan would my elderly neighbour offer to carry MY bag because it looked heavy. Only in Japan would they put the eco-bag you just bought into a plastic bag, without even asking. Only in Japan could you admire the beautiful red leaves of Arashiyama in Kyoto, while eating one of them deep fried.
So far this has been an amazing adventure. The Japanese government have granted me a three year visa, so it looks like the adventure is to be continued. Fantastic.
Over the last six months, I've been lucky enough to pick up some private students, giving me an opportunity to earn a little pocket money and teach English in a different environment using different materials. Yesterday I was talking with one about inspirational speeches, and he showed me this one - Steve Jobs talking to Stanford graduates in 2005. It's a great speech, and certainly the first part echoes a lot of my feelings about the reasons I came to Japan: you just have to follow your heart sometimes, even if it's not the beaten path.
If you've never seen it before, enjoy - food for thought as we chalk up another year and welcome 2011. What will the next 12 months bring? You decide. Have a great Christmas and New Year!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Six month photo special ^_^

This week I celebrated exactly six months of living in Japan. And what a week for it - April is the first month of the new school year at ECC so I've been busy as hell in the last few weeks, training, planning lessons, getting to know new students and adjusting to my new schedule. It hasn't been a smooth week, but I'm sure I'll settle into things as the month goes on. Because time really seems to fly out here! I've already taught hundreds of students, eaten loads of different flavour kit kats and learned lots of new Japanese words. I've also taken hundreds of photos, so this time I'd like to share 6 of my favourites with you.
1: Training time! Dotonbori bridge, Osaka
This was taken in October not long after I landed. These guys trained with me and I'm happy to say we've all kept in touch, sharing the ups and downs of Japan, and ECC, together.

2: Hello Kitty! Universal Studios, Osaka
Living here instead of coming on holiday means I have time to explore the cool and quirky places of Japan, and take my time about it. Universal Studios is an American import of course, but it has a very Japanese twist, like these Hello Kitty trees. I faced my rollercoaster fear here, and laughed my head off.

3: Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake memorial, Kobe
A big part of coming to Japan for me has been about experiencing life in another country with another culture. On January 17th, 2010 it was the 15th anniversary of a massive earthquake in Kobe. I visited the museum to learn more about it, and how it affected the community. It was a fantastic, moving experience.

4: Dolpa, Kyoto
So I have a love of expensive Japanese hobbies - manga, anime, cos-play and dolls. When the Volks doll party rolled up to Kyoto I was there like a shot, and made some new friends to boot. These limited edition dolls cost more than half my monthly wage... so these are the only photos I'll take of them ^^;

5: Sakura, Himeji castle
Himeji castle is a landmark of Kansai, with its beautiful white walls standing the test of time (unlike many castles in Japan that were destroyed by bombs or natural disasters). Right now it's under cover for restoration work, so this month was everyone's last chance to see it for a few years. I combined it here with the coming of cherry blossom, sakura. This was something I'd always wanted to enjoy in Japan, and now I understand why people look forward to it so much. Just beautiful, delicate and so fleeting - like life itself, as they say.

6: Nipponbashi street festa, Osaka
The whole 'den den town' street is closed off for 5 hours just so people can wear costumes and take pics of each other. Why? Why not. Of course I had to join in. A fantastic, fantastic day - one of my favourites so far.

That's it for this post, hope you enjoyed the pics! :)

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Regressing a little...

“How long are you going to stay in Japan?’ Inquiring minds want to know.
‘As long as it makes me happy.’ Is my answer. Truthfully, it’s as long as I get a visa too, but that doesn’t sound as good.

It’s been almost five months since I chucked everything into the wind to come to Japan, and I can honestly say right now I’m loving it. I find joy in something almost every day. I’ve decided it’s like being a child (only with more pocket money). Here’s why.

My current Japanese language ability is about preschool. Probably less. I can understand generally what people are telling/asking me and I can read simple kana. I’ve just started to lean kanji, and I’m excited about being able to read more things (with a full on manga book being my goal!) I rely on simple words and lots of gestures though.

Putting that to the test, I’ve finally joined a karate club, which relies about 90% on body language: I watch my sensei and the other students carefully before I do anything. I remember my former teacher, Master Johnson, saying actions were more important than words in teaching martial arts and I can wholeheartedly agree: I can’t understand everything my sensei says, but because his movements are clear, I can keep up with the class, even when we do partner work or more complex combinations. Overall, the club have made me feel very welcome. There are about 6 or 7 women at the beginner’s level and we all have one tiny room to get changed in. Which makes pre- and post-class very sociable times for me!

For those who are curious, here’s how the lesson goes. It lasts an hour, with a short break to put knee and leg pads on. The first half is mainly warming up, and Godo-sensei drills us on punches, blocks, kicks and squats. After we’re padded up, we do more kicks, push ups and moving back and forth in front stance. Then we pair off for combinations. These usually involve one person grabbing the other, and a technique to get out of it (much like grabbing techniques in my old club). We also do a few exercises using pads. Godo-sensei sets a timer for 1 minute so we only ever kick or punch a pad for that each time. That’s the part when I really like to work up a sweat, because I know it\s only for a minute I can go flat out! At the end of class we sit on our knees, hands in fists at our waist, to meditate for a minute. From that position we bow to Godo-sensei and each other – every member of the class to each other says ‘Osu.’ This is like a Japanese dojo greeting/thanks/acknowledgement. Then we have to clean the dojo floor, with brushes and with cloths, before we can get changed.

At the moment I can only go once a week, which is the only downer, I’d love to go more often, but as my work is mainly in the evening when the classes are, it’s impossible. Still, it’s great to be back in a martial arts club, I get such a buzz after each class and I have a feeling I’ll make some good friends there.

Making friends is another thing that takes me back to being a child. It’s like being the new kid in school, coming to Japan. You have to really get a feel for what’s going on and who’s who before you start to feel a bit more settled. You’re the newbie, so you’re a novelty at first and you can get away with a lot – but not for long. Before I came to Japan I read up on culture shock, and it said ‘beware of living in a foreign bubble.’ That is, coming to Japan and only socialising with westerners. It struck me as a funny warning (why bother coming to Japan if that’s all you do?) but I can see how easy it is to do just that. There’s loads of ‘western friendly’ bars and clubs and a big social scene at ECC. You might say the job hours (finishing at 9pm and later and allowing plenty of time for a sleep in) practically encourage you to slip into the bar next door once you’ve clocked off. And the truth is, basically, you don’t need to speak Japanese to live in Japan. Which is kind of good at first, when you’re a baby with no language skills, but who’d want to stay a baby their whole time here?

If I wanted to hang out in western bars, drinking western drinks and eating western food, I could have stayed in England. I’m not saying that I don’t ever want to do it, in fact I think it might help cure a bit of homesickness. But it’s not what I want to do every weekend. So I’m keeping my adventuring spirit, that got me here, alive.

One of my best friends from the UK, Caroline, came to visit last month and we had a fantastic time. It was great to see my friend, and hear about the things at home, but as I took her to some of my favourite places – Ikuta shrine, Don Kihote, Harbourland – it was also great to see Japan through her eyes. She brought along a guidebook to Japan, something I couldn’t bring in my luggage, and I was just as excited as her to leaf through it, as we planned my days off. For one day, we settled on Hiroshima, a place ‘that for the saddest of reasons, needs no introduction,’ as her book said.

Hiroshima. You know it’s the place they dropped a nuclear bomb. You know lots of people died. You might even know there’s an eerie looking monument called the A-dome, a skeleton of a building left exactly as it was after the bomb struck. But visiting there is still an education. Everyone in the world should have to visit, and then maybe we’d dismantle nuclear weapons once and for all. The peace park museum, just minutes from the A-dome, is jam-packed with information, photos, personal items, stories, facts, scale models, figures… it’s overwhelming. We rented audio guides, and I only stopped listening as we got to a glass case containing a rusty-looking tricycle and helmet. They belonged to a three-year-old boy who was playing in the garden when the bomb exploded. His parents buried the trike with him, because they felt he was too little to be alone in the ground. Heartbreaking.

When you return to the Hiroshima of today, with its nifty trams and shiny buildings, and cheery people who chat to you on the way to the next stop, you really have a new respect for it. The city was destroyed, but the survivors rebuilt their lives. They rebuilt their city. They were told nothing would grow again in Hiroshima, but the peace park defies that with its bushy trees and flowers.

Every day thousands of them pass the A-dome on the tram, on their way to work, school, home. I saw a few of them lift their eyes silently as we passed the A-dome again on our way out of Hiroshima. I couldn’t help but look too. Everyone should.
At the risk of sounding gloomy, visiting somewhere like Hiroshima was important to me, in helping me understand a little more about my host country. The bomb may have been dropped on just one city, but it would have affected the whole country, and not that many generations ago to my own.

English people in general don’t know a lot about Japan, but we’ve all heard of Hiroshima. And now I’ve learned a bit more, I reckon that’s a good thing. The city wants to keep telling every generation across the world its story, in the hope it will never be repeated.

So, I don’t want to remain a child in my knowledge about Japan and Japanese people. But to say ‘I want to know about Japanese culture’ is too vague and wispy a concept. I’m seeing it just like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes I get a piece of information here, or have an experience there, and they fit perfectly: ‘ahh! That’s what it’s about.’ I don’t expect I’ll ever have a complete picture, but if I enjoy the process, that’s the important thing. That’s what I really came here for.

I enjoy going to the supermarket and not knowing what everything tastes or smells like yet. I enjoy looking for a new kit kat flavour or gashapon toy in every shop. I enjoy my Japanese teacher explaining a new word, and realising I’ve heard it before. I enjoy picking a random subway exit and not knowing what I’ll see at the top of the stairs. I enjoy peeking out of the window when I wake up to see what the weather’s doing. What did you enjoy today?