Nikolay Kapanadze Talks about Japanese Diligence, Inexpensive Tofu, and Tempura
Nikolay Kapanadze, a student of 'Asian and African Studies' bachelor’s programme, went for an exchange to Japan where he studied at Akita International University. The student tasted traditional food such as sushi and miso soup, travelled to Tokyo, and even worked in a local noodle restaurant. Nikolay told HSE – Saint Petersburg why it is necessary to have cash in Japan, where one can relax in Tokyo, and what are meal prices at the university canteen.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
I am a fourth-year student of the 'Asian and African Studies' programme where I study Japan and the Japanese language. So I really wanted to see everything I had read about it with my own eyes. Since Japan was a new exchange location for HSE University, and I was a final-year student, it was my last chance to go to Japan in that capacity.
This experience helped me get out of my comfort zone, meet new friends, and boost my Japanese and English skills. I managed to overcome my language barrier and improve my speaking skills.
How were your studies there different?
Akita International University campus has dormitories, cafeterias, clubs. The studying process is quite isolated there. Exchange students can attend any class, so I picked up Geography as I am interested in the subject. Students enrol in the courses via a system similar to LMS (Learning Management System) and have to make sure none of the courses they enrol in overlap. If they do, you need to choose another course.
I got the impression that it is not hard to get good grades at Akita International University, but I took courses which were not tough so I did not strain myself. Maybe it was easier for me because I know English while many Japanese students struggle with it. Since courses are taught in English, it is more difficult for those who don't speak English very well to complete assignments.
Students have their exams at the end of the semesters. The exam formats vary: sometimes students may have a test, write a final essay, or prepare a project. It depends on a course. Some courses include a midterm exam to assess how students are doing with the material so far. The number of ECTS credits for a midterm exam depends on a lecturer’s decision. Usually, it is half or a third of a final ECTS.
How are Japanese and Russian students different?
The Japanese student community is quite closed. Although I knew Japanese, it was difficult to get to know Japanese students, since as they were not engaged in extracurricular activities as much, and they tended to only hang out with each other. Probably, they do not talk to foreigners much since they don't speak English as well or they are afraid foreigners won't speak Japenese very well.
Japanese students are very diligent; they would rather spend their time with a book in a library. If they join the rugby team, for example, they go out and buy all the books they can find about it and never miss practice.
What are three things that surprised you about life there?
There are small shops where you can get Wi-Fi, get some food, and use the WC. Wi-Fi was especially important as I did not have Internet access. I also often ate delicious noodles there.
The city environment is great - there are tactile paving tiles and large convenient roads for people with disabilities. In the underground, there are also buttons for calling assistants who are ready to help. There are also elevators and ramps in buildings.
Toilets in Japan are high-tech and free of charge. They have flushing of different intensity and heated toilet seats, and expensive models open automatically when you enter the WC.
What were some challenges you encountered after arrival?
In Japan, there are not many places where you can pay by card, so you need to have cash when you go there. You can withdraw money from ATMs, but it took me a while to realize how to do it. The commission for cash withdrawal is just about 200 rubles, so it is reasonable to withdraw a large sum of money at once.
My university was far away from Akita, so I got there by bus. It was not cheap -- it cost 150 rubles for one stop. I wish it cost less, but I also got tired of walking around the neighbourhood. Buses ran every 30 minutes, and the ride took 40 minutes. So I had to think through the route and keep track of the time to keep up.
What new foods did you try?
The most unusual dish I tried there was sushi with pieces of octopus, squid, salmon, and tuna. I liked tempura, fried shrimp, and vegetables. Japanese eat miso soup three times a day - they prepare it from broth and soybean paste, and they sometimes they add vegetables.
What did you spend money on?
There are two or three meals a day at the university cafeteria, but it is at a cost. You can take an unlimited portion of miso soup and one of four dishes to choose from, but I did not feel it was enough for me.
I ate twice a day five days a week and paid 40 thousand rubles for four months. If you choose the option that includes three meals a day, you will also get your food on weekends but it will cost about 60 thousand rubles.
As I often ate at home, I spent about three thousand rubles a week at the supermarket. Japanese products, such as noodles and tofu, for example, are not expensive. A box of pasta costs 40 rubles and 400 grams of tofu costs about 30 rubles. In general, prices are similar to prices in Saint Petersburg, but sometimes they are a little higher. For example, cheese in Japan is more expensive.
I flew to Tokyo and Osaka. A one-way ticket costs around 3000 rubles. I also took the train, but the prices are always different. For example, a bus ride from the university to Akita, which is only one bus stop distance, cost 150 rubles, while in Tokyo I could ride half the city. A ticket from Osaka to Kyoto costs around 400-600 rubles.
What were the top three places you visited that you'd recommend?
Tokyo fish market
If you have the money, you can try excellent fish and seafood. There are both traditional and unusual dishes, and the fish is surprisingly fresh. I have never seen fish like that in Russia.
Public baths in Tokyo
They are called onsen. These indoor baths differ from the Russian banya or Finnish sauna. In the onsen, you take baths at different temperatures. Big onsens might have food courts and photo zones. In short, they are very similar to a water park.
I recommend going to the sea since it is very warm. Once, my friends and I even rented bikes to get there. We pretended to be tourists, not students, and we were speaking English. As a result, they let us ride the bicycles for free.
How would you describe your overall experience with the exchange programme?
I got to see the country I knew from books, movies, and word of mouth. After this experience, the magic disappeared, and Japan became an ordinary country for me.
Not only did I study in Japan, but I also worked there. When I entered the country, I was given a work permit at the airport. Eventually, I got a job in a noodle café where I washed dishes and delivered them. To be honest, I was not responsible enough when it came to the interview, so it was difficult to get my position. I was supposed to come well-dressed, speak the official language, and be well-prepared, and I came as a typical student. I was hired by the reason that the owner was not a Japanese woman, but a Filippino, and she was not strict with me. Anyway, now I know exactly how I should prepare for interviews and what it's like to work abroad.