All in all

Well, this has been quite the time of my life until now. Actually, it was so fun that I decided to stay here during the spring semester too. Originally, during the applying process back at home I wanted to make my exchange a full one year in length, but the University of Helsinki allowed me to apply only for a semester as an exchange student. I felt that one semester, about 4 months, was not enough for me to start speaking. Apparently, I hit the nail with that thought since I only started to have flowing conversations during the spring break.

So, the process to continue studies as a fee-paying student are very simple compared to applying for the first time: you just take a short interview, write an essay stating your reasons and print some bank account details to show that you have enough money to pay for the fees and living. The messy part was this time back at Finland, since Kela needs all papers again, Hoas needs even more, notifications to the magistrate, post, foreign ministry  embassy, bank etc. took quite some time to complete. If you are doing the same thing, start as early as possible!

Now I’m getting used to my new class, new courses and the rising temperatures of Kyoto. Summer is still far away but the weather is already like that in June in Finland. Sakuras stopped blooming and is time for the crickets to start singing. I’m waiting eagerly for summer matsuris, foods and happenings. And since I have a work, I can make my travelling plans into reality. All in all, the previous semester was quite a hassle and now I can finally concentrate on important stuff instead of paper work and enjoy life here in Kyoto.

Things to consider

Ritsumeikan is a well know and precious university in Japan, but the ranking system here is based more on historical facts than reality, I have to say that for exchange students anything outside of Japanese is not on a level that you would profit coming here to study it. Japanese course system is well made, its really intensive, but you can learn a lot more in this environment (a.k.a Japan) than sitting in a class room once a week back in Finland. The teachers are natives, books normally okay and class size is small. Most things you will end up picking outside the lectures, so Ritsumeikan is good place to come.

Other things to consider: The temperatures are really high during summer and it’s really humid – so if you have big heath issues that might not like heat, there’s universities in Hokkaido, too. The money might cause some issues too. Japan is cheaper than Finland and Ritsumeikan puts the monthly allowance expectation really high, so if you can somehow make the limits, you should not have any problems. Food’s good and safe, medical care system works well, polices are everywhere, it’s safe (with the exception of earthquakes, but they don’t really occur in Kyoto) and easy to live here.

The only really big thing to think about is whether or not you can leave your family, friends, studies, home and Finland for the time of exchange. Here you need to be independent, ready to accept your mistakes and learn from them and accept the fact that you cannot function as well in a foreign culture as where you come from. For me it was hardest to accept the fact that I’m technically illiterate here. I need help every time I have to fill out a form and it’s so frustrating! So, if you feel like you can survive on your own or build a safety net fast, then you might be ready. Otherwise, you might end up returning after a month and regret it for a lifetime.

An exchange is really worth it – the reasons are different for every one I think – but it’s something you will never forget. You can learn so much new academically, as a youngster, as a human being, that you can’t believe it and I for sure can’t put it in words.

Ritsumeikan’s attitude towards holidays

As you might know, Japan has quite a lot of national holidays. Now, you might also think that the system is similar to that of Finland. But, nevertheless, in reality etc., you have the wrong idea: Japan is a 24/7 society, except for New Year, Obon, Golden Week and the case some one happens to pass away. Otherwise, the shops are open, the buses running and people are working. The only real exception are schools and universities.

But here comes the other big but: Ritsumeikan has graciously decided that the teachers and students are at campus no matter what reads in the calendar during the periods. So, from the orientation week (around the end of September or the first week of March) until the exams (end of January or end of July) there is no one-day holidays. Because this has to be difficult, there is one one-day holiday in January “the coming of age day”, but the reason is easy to understand: the only ones to celebrate it are the ones to have their 20th birthday during that year a.k.a. university students. We have a two week New Year’s holiday after Christmas, the real holidays of Golden Week are free, but the missed lectures will be held on Saturdays (which sucks a big time). The spring and summer holidays are really long, about to months each.

There’s some much travelling to be done, but the only chances to go further are the long holidays, or being a really busy tourist during week ends. During spring holiday, I managed  to see Sapporo, Tokyo, Uji and most of Kyoto. On the next holiday, when I don’t need to be guessing my future budget, I will be going around the southern islands, Nagoya and whatever there’s still to see.

There’s always something new around every corner

This post is about the surprises that Japan, Ritsumeikan and the exchange have had in storage for me. The biggest thing that anyone relocating to a new culture faces is the feared culture shock. In my case, I faced it in the materials of a course and that was it. At least it has not hit yet… But, since I saw some other students getting some really severe symptoms (not leaving their room, depression, etc), it’s something that should always be mentioned before even thinking about a student exchange.

My major causes of being pissed of to the point of not wanting to read my e-mail have been paper work, bureaucracy in Japan, bureaucracy in Finland and the international center of Ritsumeikan. So, I hope you will now understand how much time you will be spending trying to solve puzzles created by mad office clerks… In the end everything was solved nicely, but be ready for surprising avalanche level paper work problems. Just try to get all the papers you can imagine needed immediately – even if people are not asking for them now, they will later on. If Japan Post loses your insurance payment slips, contact the ward office first and then go to fill out a complaint in a post office. If you can’t get any sense out of the forms printed with miniature sized kanji combinations that can’t be found from any dictionary, go and ask someone to translate.

So, I think that was it for the scary department. Let’s continue to the happy surprises. Starting with the simplest: the weather in Kyoto is great! The temperatures from October to May are comfortable, it’s mainly sunny or at least it doesn’t rain. This is something big compared to the oh, so temperamental Finnish weather – I have been able to use my bicycle every time that I have wanted to go somewhere. Of course  the summer is a very moist hell, but otherwise it’s great.

Like I mentioned earlier, Kyoto is filled with history – almost every street, park, garden, neighborhood has something to see. I have been bumping into most of the best places I have seen by accident. For example, I was returning home with a friend, when we took a little different rout than normally and found a beautiful shrine with pond just when the momiji season was on its best. The best past time here is to get lost in a new areas.

The last point is: Japan is a really strange place. The old and modern mix up everywhere, there’s absolutely too much people living in small areas, keigo is impossible even for the natives, otherwise the Japanese are calm, friendly, intelligent people, but in traffic they are crazy ( got almost run over by around ten times by now), kombinis, stealing only umbrellas and bicycles, university is like a three year holiday, garbage sorting is a major pain, matsuris, cheap prices, sakura, fashion, scary school groups/clone armies, omiyage, food, biiig spiders, mountains, not-so-clean air, seasonal changes, well generally everything. I had read all the travel guides, blogs, Wikipedia articles, watched all the documents, so I knew something before coming, but still Japan is quite an overwhelming experience. Explaining it is really too difficult, so it is best if you come to see it by your own eyes.

Living in Kyoto

Earlier I explained about the I-House 1, but only on the basic level. Now I want to add that even though the place has seen better times, the people there are the best! Especially the kanrinin-san = dorm heads/parents are super nice and always helping every one. So, if you get to move there, remember to bake a cake for them every once in a while! Also the buddies (Japanese students) are nice and try to help the best they can. There’s potluck parties every now and then, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year… All the possible and impossible occasions are used well.

Since I decided to stay in Kyoto for more than one semester, I had to move out of dorm before the beginning of the new semester. So, during the small New Years holiday (around two weeks, from Christmas day to the new year’s side) I took my dictionary for daily walks to real estate/rent agencies. In the end it wasn’t too difficult to find a place, after memorizing the necessary vocabulary, the rent is cheap, but the problem is the Japanese system that requires  key money, present payment, real estate fee, guarantor (read as payment to a hosouninkaisha) and lots of hoping that the landlord is okay with a foreigner and only a half a year deal. It also takes quite a lot of time, nearly one month to make all the payments, sign the documents with a hanko stamp and to find furniture, fridge and the rest of appliances. This will be a major pain in your wallet and bank account for some time!

My place now is also a sort of a dormitory: everyone has their own room with a small kitchen, but we share bathrooms and a bath. Nice and clean, thanks to housekeeper. The other tenants are all Japanese, landladies are super nice and school is close. What else  is there to wish for?

In general Kyoto is a really nice city to live. Like all the other big cities in Japan, it has kombinis in every corner, police boxes, excellent shopping possibilities and all those intriguing little things that make a Japanese city. It’s safe, cleanish and small enough to use bicycle as the main transportation. But, Kyoto is so much more: despite being a modern city, Kyoto really shows its roots as the imperial capital. The whole place is like a open air museum with temples and shrines and cultural hotspots everywhere. There’s always something new to see or to experience here. The traditional arts are strongly visible. It’s normal to walk past a European style restaurant with an ikebana arrangement in the window – or in the main shopping street there’s people walking in kimonos side by side with fashionable youngsters. Kyoto lives of and breaths the air of history.