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Japan, the Land of Stunning Experiences
Irianna Vlachopoulou
Fisheries Research
Yokohama National University

I will never forget my 27th birthday; it was the day I found out that I was going to Japan. Over half a year of frenzied preparations had finally paid out. I was about to plunge into the unknown and live some of the most colourful experiences of my life.

The following April, I was landing in Osaka without having caught a whiff of sleep on the plane and was told to make my way by myself to Yokohama. The airline was going on strike and they dumped me 500km away from my destination. Mind you, my Japanese barely rivalled those of a two-year old.

Two years of constant breath-taking adventures had started.

Since the very beginning, even before I landed to Japan, my case did not follow the usual path. I was already enrolled in a PhD in Marine Sociology in a Greek university and wanted to only conduct research in Japan. My prospective Japanese supervisor was not even employed by a Japanese University, so I had to have a second supervisor in order to become affiliated with an academic institution; my two wonderful sensei, who took me in their care and pushed me forward to achieve academic excellence and develop deep links with Japan full of fond memories.


Minato Mirai by night, Yokohama
I somehow managed to reach Yokohama and was received by my tutor, who helped me through the first few months of an emotional rollercoaster; from wonders to hurdles and back.

I settled in the university accommodation which was pretty overpriced, considering the fact that I spent almost the same amount of money in rent for the apartment I rented afterwards, and dove into my new life as a gaijin in the most foreign-friendly city in Japan, and the most beautiful –at least in my opinion. Yokohama is the second largest city, and it is neither as crowded nor as expensive as Tokyo. The views are stunning and the lifestyle is diverse and interesting.

I enrolled in Yokohama National University (YNU) which has a really good reputation and quite a few foreigners joining every year its courses. The staff are willing to support the students and their researchers and the facilities are well maintained. I started my research while attending Japanese language classes which really helped with surviving in the completely unfamiliar setting.

YNU opening ceremony 2014

Still, everyday life was quite bumpy at the beginning. The extent of bureaucracy made my knees buckle. My lack of Japanese skills and the differences in mentality drove me crazy. I had to make great effort to adjust to the Japanese way of thinking and operating, which was very far from my own.

The Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency museum
Everything changed for the better however when I started working with the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency. My first supervisor is the Head of Fisheries Management Research (Kanri Group) and my work was divided between YNU –where the other supervisor was stationed- and the Agency for the whole time of my stay in Japan. The Kanri Group embraced my presence there and took it up to themselves to help me enjoy the Japanese experience to the fullest. They helped me practice Japanese an awful lot, visit places, enjoy traditional experiences, and of course, progress greatly with my research.

MatsuKen members
Slowly, between the Kanri Group, my lab mates from the Matsuda Lab (known as MatsuKen) in YNU, and the other friends I made, I started enjoying my stay in the country and savouring the most unique things in Japan. Life in Yokohama was fairly priced and the scholarship supported not only adequate research, but also a good lifestyle. Coupled with research funds available from my two laboratories and the occasional part-time job, I was able participate in a lot of research fieldtrips and enjoy travelling around Japan at the same time. Working on fisheries research definitely has its perks!


I had the opportunity to see breath-taking views across the country, both natural and built; Tokyo, Kamakura, Nikko, Kyoto, Osaka, Niigata, Nagano, Sapporo, Shiretoko, Ise – only some places among the ones I visited.

Yakizakana and dango at a matsuri (festival)
I had the opportunity to taste rare delicacies and drown in a gourmet experience beyond the ordinary; ramen, okonomiyaki, freshly made yakizakana, boiled hairy crab, raw budou ebi, namazake – only a slither of what I ate.


And of course, I had the opportunity to participate in once-in-a-lifetime practices; eating at stalls during the hanami in Kyoto, going to onsen in Hakone and Atami, hiking gorgeous mountains during the kouyou, kyuudou, chadou at the Golden Pavillion, whale watching, cosplaying during the Jump Festa, watching the snow monkeys taking a dip in onsen in Jigokudani, going to baseball games, walking on drift ice in Shiretoko, watching the Kagura dance in Sendai, eating piping hot mochi at dawn with the Ama divers of Ise after having gone fishing with them…

Attempting traditional Japanese chery (Kyuudou) Traditional tea ceremony (chadou) at the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto Fresh mochi in an amagoya (preparation hut of the Ama divers), Ise Budou ebi and namazake

It has been a year now that I have returned home and I am completing my PhD which would not have been possible had I not spend these two amazing years in Japan. There is only one thing I can say to anyone who is thinking about applying for the scholarship: go for it!

It has been a year and with every day that passes, my longing for Japan grows. So much so that I have travelled back once already. The memories truly feel like that poem by Kiyohara no Fukayabu from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu:

Snow monkeys in Jigokudani, Nagano
Too short the lovely summer night,
Too soon ‘tis passed away;
I watched to see behind which cloud
The moon would chance to stay,
And here’s the dawn of day.*


夏の夜は
まだ宵ながら
明けぬるを
雲のいづくに
月やどるらむ

*Free translation by William N. Porter (1909)










Cosplay during the Jump Festa Whale watching in Shiretoko, Hokkaido Walking on drift ice in Shiretoko, Hokkaido
Kagura dance, Sendai Watching the Yokohama BayStars playing
 
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