Mel Pardock – Staff Writer
Hey there Gusties! I’m sure our dedicated readers have been saddened by my incredibly noticeable absence here at the Weekly, but despair no more! I have returned. Well, not physically… but your favorite news-writer-turned-world-traveler is here to share some notes on my study away adventures!
I am a double major here at Gustavus, belonging to both the Political Science and Japanese Studies departments. As a Japanese Studies major, it’s required for me to take a Japanese language course taught in Japan. Kind of an insane expectation, but I digress. Gustavus partners with two universities in Japan where Gusties studying Japanese can go – Hosei University in Tokyo and Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, a city between Osaka and Kyoto. Seeing as I am not quite fluent in Japanese, actually far from it, I applied to Kansai Gaidai back in October, and by some miracle, I was accepted and have been kicking it here in Hirakata since January! Now, I’m sure you’re wondering “Mel, if you’ve been there for over three months, why are you just now writing about it?” Well, if you’ll believe me, packing up your life, moving across the world, adjusting to a 14-hour time difference, and learning to live in a country you hadn’t set foot in since you were 12 years old all while being a full-time student takes up quite a bit of your time and energy. I’ve finally gotten used to life here – just in time for me to leave in less than a month.
Throughout my time here, I have gone on many an adventure and had my fair share of mishaps. When I first arrived in Osaka with my father, he immediately fell ill. How fun! This gave me my very own first-hand experience with the Japanese healthcare system after being in the country for less than two weeks. After forcing my dad into an ambulance, going to an emergency room that blamed everything on stomach problems, and finally ending up at a hospital in Hirakata a mere fifth of a mile from my dorm, we finally concluded, with the help of a lovely staff member of Kansai Gaidai’s Center for International Education acting as a translator, that my dear papa had an awful infection that rendered him unable to keep any matter in his stomach and he wound up in the hospital for a week and a half while I got to navigate Osaka and move into my dorm completely on my own. After spending about $300 on taxis and a good four or five good stress-induced crying sessions, I was all moved in and as ready as I was ever going to be to begin my life as an international student.
Despite this rather massive bump in the road, I’ve been having the time of my life here. I get to spend every day learning about a culture that is so very different from my own, getting real-world experience speaking a language I’ve been studying for years, and experiencing new things. I’ve been on trips both around the Osaka prefecture and outside of it, even hopping across the Sea of Japan to South Korea over spring break back in March.
One of my first big adventures here in Japan was heading to Nara for a day with some friends at the end of January to experience something called “Wakakusa Yamayaki” – a festival in which the people of Nara set the dead grass on the mountain known as Wakakusa on fire to make way for better farmland in the spring. At this festival, I was also able to live amongst some very… interesting creatures. Nara is known for its tame population of deer, which you can feed, pet, and play with. These deer were crazy. You get to feed them these little biscuits called “Shikasenbe,” and yet they will still try to eat your scarf.
A few months later, over a series of school holidays known as “Golden Week,” I returned to Nara with a friend with one mission and one mission only – to pet as many deer and see as many shrines as possible over the span of a little less than two days. We even got to stay at an inn where the deer would come right up to the windows to greet us! Throughout our stay, we got to explore many Shinto shrines and see many monuments, including the Daibutsu, a gargantuan statue of the Buddha. We even got to go to a museum within a shrine that contained many statues of Buddhist deities, and my friend and I got to light candles to honor the ones associated with our Eastern zodiac signs.
Also on this Golden Week excursion, my friend and I made the trek to Uji, a beautiful city surrounding the Ujigawa River. We were able to see beautiful statues and pagodas with Sanskrit inscriptions so old that they were barely even there anymore. We were also able to see the main event, the thing that draws tourists from around the globe to Uji – the famed u. An u, or Japanese cormorant, is a loud, large, extremely goofy-looking bird, the likes of which seem to run Uji. Anywhere you go in Uji, you’ll see posters and standees depicting Wooti-san, an adorable u clad in the cutest little blue and yellow outfit.
Throughout my stay here, I have been on many trips around Osaka to do a plethora of things. While some were heading out of the prefecture every weekend to climb mountains or go shrine hunting, I didn’t exactly have the energy to do so. Instead, I would venture into Osaka or Kyoto and simply wander around. In doing so, I’ve found many wonderful thrift shops, cafes, restaurants, and shopping streets to keep me occupied for hours. I have also been able to explore Dotombori, a huge shopping and entertainment district built around a river that tourists flock to. I’ve even been lucky enough to go to Osaka to see two concerts during my time here, including two of my all time favorite K-pop acts.
Also during my travels, I was able to pack up shop and head to Seoul, South Korea for a week over our spring break at the end of March. There, I experienced yet another incredible, rich culture and got to spend time with a friend of mine that is currently an international student at Yonsei University. In Seoul I got to do a lot of shopping, to the point that I got charged $30 at the airport on my way back to Osaka because my luggage was 6kg over the weight limit, eat a lot of good food, see some beautiful architecture (both new and old), meet some incredible people, and consume alcohol legally – which was crazy. I was even lucky enough to get a hand-poked tattoo there, which was an amazing experience. I wake up every day thinking about how much I miss Seoul and how badly I want to go back as if that trip didn’t put a significant dent in the money I had left for my time in Asia.
Now that my time in Japan is coming to an end, I am a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, I have been here for so long that the ‘magic’ so to speak has worn off, I’m beginning to miss my family and friends a painful amount, and I’m hitting the dregs of my bank account. On the other hand, I’m going to miss waking up every day with the knowledge that my painstaking hard work has paid off and that I’m living completely independently in a foreign land. I’m going to miss the cheapest, most delicious food I’ve ever been blessed enough to experience, the environment of the international and local students supporting each other no matter what, the ability to be an hour-long train ride away from an adventure, and I’m sure many more things I’m taking for granted right now. Now, there’s nothing left to do but begin packing, double down for finals, put the package that I’m mailing home together to avoid spending a fortune on overweight baggage, round up some souvenirs for friends and family, and wish that my time here wasn’t coming to an end.
My dear readers, if you take anything away from this word vomit, please let it be this – study away! This experience has provided me with so many friendships, journeys, and lessons that I cannot even begin to put into words. Every day has been an adventure, and I hope that everyone gets to experience something like this. So, get to the Center for International and Cultural Education and have a chat with my good friend Matt Hirman! The CICE is full of an amazing staff, not to toot my own horn as an incoming study away peer advisor, that will ensure your application process and travels go as smoothly as possible.
Well, that’s enough of my babbling. For now, at least. Get out there, Gusties! Time’s a-wastin’ and the world is waiting for you.