Big in Japan – Or “How I ended up in Asia. Again.”

Konnichiwa, fellow world explorers and those to be!

Before getting into the actual interesting part regarding my experience at the INU conference on SOGI issues held at Hiroshima University August 4th – 12th 2017, I’d just quickly like to hit you with some boring stuff and introduce myself real’ quick. My name is Leah, I am currently on my 23rd lap around the sun and I have just recently graduated from Malmö University with a Bachelor of Arts in Peace and Conflict Studies.

Born and raised in Germany and between finishing high school in 2012 and starting my journey with Malmö University, I had successfully dropped out of university in Amsterdam (it just wasn’t my thing…) but also worked and travelled my way through life. Never in my life would I have thought that Malmö University would be the place that would offer me so many possibilities to not only earn a degree but even more important: let me go. Yes, Malmö University wants their students to go. Go explore, go adventure, go learn, go see something new. In fact, I’ve only spent about 2 out of 3 years in Malmö itself. Within my program, I had the honor to be nominated twice for exchange studies and went to both, South Korea and Australia, in 2016. And the best thing about it? I didn’t have to take out a loan or sell my soul to the devil to do all these things.

Malmö U got you covered for the most part. Coming from a pretty average middle-class background I could have never gone without the bilateral agreements between my host universities and Malmö U. Between graduating from MAU and starting my Master of Science in Gender Studies at Lund University, I did not have many plans for my summer and so I’ve applied to basically all summer programs out there and seemed somewhat affordable. As soon as the deadline passed mid-May it was clear: I’d go back to Asia. Again. This would be my fourth time there and yet I was so excited to go. Again. Excited to go to Japan and participate in a conference with a topic I really cared for but it also meant that I would be able to go and see my friends I had made during my study exchange in South Korea after the conference. So there I was in May, planning a 1 1/2 month long trip from Sweden, home to Germany, to Amsterdam to see my friends from my first failed university experience, on to Japan for the conference and, finally, Korea for some reunion time.

So after catching up with my family in Germany and visiting my beloved Amsterdam, I finally got on a plane to Japan. My fist stop was Fukuoka because the flights to Hiroshima were just unaffordable at the time I had booked everything. Fukuoka is one of the major cities in the South of Japan and only about an hour away (given you are taking the Shinkansen aka bullet train) from Hiroshima. I had been to Japan before in 2014 and therefore already knew Tokyo and a couple of other cities, so I decided to go for the way cheaper option and just see Fukuoka. Traveling in Japan is easy. The trains are fast and comfortable (leg room for days!), however, quite expensive. You can also take intercity buses, however, it’s a little more complicated to figure out when and where to be with limited Japanese only.Arriving in Japan after a 13h flight, having had the whole aisle to myself on the way here #winning, my jet lag was so bad I feel asleep in the middle of a park as my hostel would not let me check in yet. It was hot and humid at an average of 38 degrees but a little breezy as well so it was alright. Japan, and East Asia in general, is very safe. I am usually more on the paranoid site of life but whenever I am in Korea or Japan I never feel unsafe. You can literally drop a $100 note on the street and be almost 100% sure that it will still be in the same place 40min later if the wind hasn’t blown it away. So if you feel a little uneasy about traveling on your own: start in Asia. I spent the next two days exploring and just trying to adapt to the climate and time zone before heading up to Hiroshima.

I got to the hotel late on the 3rd of August and didn’t really do much other than jumping on my hotel bed, taking a long, long shower and going to bed fairly early. The next day turned out to be quite mellow as well. We only got to meet everyone at a get-to-know-each-other-kinda-event on campus that night. We had lovely Japanese “finger food” (or should I say chopstick food, as eating with your hands is very much a no-no?) and it was fairly easy to get to talk to other students and participating teachers.

People were split up into tiny groups of approx. 7-9 students each who got assigned to one country that they would represent at a Model United Nations role play on the last day of the conference. I had the pleasure to be with Team Brazil. Throughout the week we attended workshops about all sorts of topics (mainly related to LGBT and SOGI topics)  in the morning (my favourite one being about how different cultures tend to communicate) and worked in our little groups in the afternoon. Before the week of workshops and group works, however, we got to spend two days exploring around Hiroshima. From climbing up to Hiroshima’s castle, visiting holy temples and shrines, seeing the infamous Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island, trying all sorts of traditional food, trying Sake, seeing the atomic bomb dome, meeting and listening to the story of nuclear survivor Keiko Ogura, visiting the Peace Memorial watching Japan’s President Shinzo Abe holding a speech. You can check out my little video for non-conference related impressions:

  • How much does it cost? I received a travel grant from MAU over 3000SEK and the JASSO scholarship over 80,000 yen. Which comes to approximately 9000 – 10000SEK in total. The hotel was about 4000SEK for the whole stay. The flights came to about 10000SEK so you’ll have to make sure to have some money saved up at least.
  • How do I find cheap flights? You can fly directly into Hiroshima City or you check airports around the city such as Fukuoka or Okayama. Even airports further away such as Osaka or Tokyo might give you a good deal. Just be aware that taking the Shinkansen, the bullet train, can be VERY expensive from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Taking the train in Japan is one of the easiest, fastest and most comfortable ways of getting around though. If you are planning on traveling elsewhere you might want to consider getting a J-Rail pass which allows you to hop on and off trains for a certain amount of time (e.g. 3 days, 7 days, 14 days etc.)  You have to apply for the J-Rail pass BEFORE entering the country though.
  • Where is Hiroshima? Can I go to Tokyo? Hiroshima is located in the South of Japan. The distance between Tokyo and Hiroshima is about 900km. You can either fly or take the train between these two cities but most people just take the train as they go more frequently (every 10-15min) and can be booked more spontaneously.
  • Have you visited other cities than Hiroshima on this trip? I’ve been to Japan before and therefore didn’t feel the need to go up to Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto again. I’ve flown into Fukuoka and spent a couple of days there before heading into Hiroshima. 
  • How much time should I spend in Hiroshima prior or after the conference? As you will be exploring the city with your respective group, I don’t think you actually need to spend more time in Hiroshima itself prior or after the conference. I’d much rather use the time to go to other places.
  • Is Japan safe? Japan is probably one of the best countries to go to if you have never been to Asia or far away from home. The crime rate is insanely low. The Japanese culture is very polite. Even Japanese swear words would probably still be considered polite in other languages such as English.
  • Did you meet a lot of non-Malmö U students?  Plenty! In fact, I hardly got to see anyone else from Malmö as you get divided into different groups.
  • How was the food? JAPANESE FOOD IS INCREDIBLE. Try Okonomiyaki. You can’t leave Japan before you have tried it. Hiroshima is famous for it.
  • What about insurance? The insurance was covered by the university. 
  • On a scale from 1-10, how valuable has the experience been? To be fair, I didn’t have a ‘mind blown – never heard of this before’-kinda-moment in regard to the conference topic itself, however, it was great learning so much more about the Japanese culture and just meeting and networking with so many people from all over the world. It’s something no one can ever take away from you. You’ll come home with a full heart, that’s for sure.

Feel free to contact me in case of any questions.

Sayonara,

Leah

 

A Visit to the Peace Memorial Museum In Hiroshima

5th of August, 2016

After a night of barely sleeping at all, maybe because of the heat, or simply because of the excitement about being in Japan, I wake up at six in order to go to Hiroshima City with the rest of the INU students and staff. We are staying in Higashi-Hiroshima, a small town located east of Hiroshima city and the bus ride takes about an hour. A lucky few are able to sleep almost the entire trip, while I tiredly stare out the window, allowing my gaze to scan all the mountains and forests that we pass on our way.

When we finally arrive in Hiroshima City, at the Peace Memorial Museum, it is a herd of tired and confused people trying to navigate the site in search of answers to where we are supposed to go. Someone who looks like they know what they are doing wave us in one direction, and we do as we are told, ending up at the entrance to the museum. Inside the museum we are handed leaflets and audio guides before we make our way to the exhibition.

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The A-Bomb Dome

Not quite knowing what to expect I enter the exhibition, and the first thing I see is a life-size model of three persons, all of them with loose skin hanging from their dirty bodies, clothes ripped, and all wearing an expression of extreme pain. Horrifying. Even though I have read a lot about the effects of the atomic bomb, and how the burns from the radiation heat would melt the skin of the human body, having it visualised in front of me makes everything I’ve read feel extremely real.

The museum is filled with stories from survivors and unfortunate victims of the bombing, personal belongings have been donated by survivors and relatives, and they are all accompanied by a description of the person who it belonged to, their full name, age, and occupation followed with what happened to them after the bombing. The statistics, 150 000 dead, become real and the numbers turn into individuals as I walk through the exhibition. People with lives just like ours. People who went to school or work on the morning of the bomb, people who never returned home, some who just disappeared on that day, never to be seen again, perished in the flames.

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The Children’s Peace Monument

It’s overwhelming and shocking. There is a lot to process and all the small details of personal lives hit hard. One of the most heartbreaking displays is a collection of small paper cranes, folded by Sadako Sasaki, a girl who survived the atomic bombing at the age of two, but later suffered from leukaemia due to the radiation. She folded 1000 paper cranes, and, as per tradition, wished to be cured, but died in the hospital. She became the inspiration and model for The Children’s Peace Monument, a monument to commemorate the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We move on from the museum to a hall where we get to listen to Keiko Ogura, a survivor of the bombing, or Hibakusha as they are called in Japan. She was eight years old when the bomb fell and her stories about the fear, the bomb, the fire, and the cremation of often unidentified bodies is hard to listen to, but it is very important that it is heard. She doesn’t only talk about what happened in August 1945, but continues to talk about how it is today, what it means to have been a person who was in Hiroshima. How it is to feel like you need to hide who you are because people are scared that there is something wrong with you because of the radiation that spread all across Hiroshima on the day of the bombing.

And she talks about the silence. The silence that had somehow become the norm amongst survivors, to not talk about what happened because of the guilt. The guilt of having survived something so horrible while others suffered immensely before they died. The guilt of being alive while others perished in the flames of Hiroshima, of having lived all this time while others disappeared. 

Despite the horrors faced by the Hibakusha, Keiko Ogura talks about the hope for the future, and about forgiveness. She asks us all to bring this story to our families and friends, share it, and help make sure that something similar will never happen again. That no one should have to suffer like they have, and that the most important aim to prevent this is to abolish the use and creation of nuclear weapons. Despite everything she has been through, she still believes in a future free from war and nuclear weapons, and if that isn’t one of the most inspiring acts of forgiveness and hope I don’t know what is.

A view of Hiroshima City

A view of Hiroshima City

/ Kajsa