For my exchange program, I was fortunate enough to be offered a place in Kyoto University, in the heart of Japan’s former capital (794-1868). Here, you get a mixture of old and new, traditional and modern. Although many of the other major Japanese cities are very modernised, for the old capital city, more efforts have gone into preserving the culture and tradition, rather than cramming the city with neon lights and skyscrapers. This makes Kyoto THE place to study Japanese culture.
What are the chances of me being able to spend a year in a country full of history and culture, respected for its technological edge, known for ninja, samurai and delicious food…? So I thought I’d make a list full of exciting challenges for myself, soaking up as much culture as Japan has to offer.
My very first challenge was to visit all the shrines and temples in Kyoto. I did the maths and worked out that if I average 2 per week, I can visit nearly a 100 temples/shrines by the end of my exchange, IF there were a hundred of them to see…it was not until later that I found out that there are over two thousand temples and shrines in and around the city…oh well!
Day:122, shrine number ??/2000 completed
Around November every year, hundred thousands of people flock into Kyoto to see its picturesque autumn leaves. I realise how fortunate I am to be living here. This view is 5 minutes from my doorstep!
The school system in Japan is a bit different. The official university year starts in April, ends in August; second term starts in October, ends in February. I never quite understood the logic behind this, but my guess is that it probably has something to do with cherry blossom, as it marks the beginning of a new start. On the other hand, it means I had two months off – time to tackle my challenge number two: travel around Japan by bike!
My plan was to travel down to Kagoshima in Kyushu, the south-west end of Japan, to escape the bitter winter of Kansai (the Western part of Central Japan). Though I tried to get some friends to join me for the challenge, most of them thought cycling some 900km across the mountainous landscape of Japan at the end of the winter season, did not quite appeal to them.
For me the timing was perfect. It was now or never. So, one chilly morning at the end of February, I packed all my survival essentials into my panniers, a daypack for snacks, hopped on the saddle and pedalled off into the unknown…
First stop: Kobe. I got there pretty early; had enough time for a cheeky lunch nap, and some sightseeing!
Atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima, under construction.
The famous torii-gate in Miyajima, Hiroshima.
…and we have a Samurai on watch!
Himeji Castle – said to be the finest surviving example of the prototypical Japanese castle architecture; truly spectacular when you see it in person.
I camped out that night, and bumped into a fellow traveller who has been cycling around Japan for the past two years. He raises travel funds by…well, you can hit him with the blue bat on his rear pannier twice for a hundred yen (60p).
Last stop: Sakurajima in Kagoshima; one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.
This journey has been an incredible one, I’ve seen some pretty impressive sights, eaten some deliciously weird food, and met some amazing people. It was definitely more than a mere tick in the box for my year-abroad bucket list challenges. However, before I can move on to the next one, I think I have some studying to do now…