Raphael Emberger spent a semester in Nagaoka. Here he recalls his experiences in the land of the rising sun.
Nagaoka is a moderately small Japanese city, almost two hours away from Tokyo. It is home to a couple of hundred thousand citizens and has its own specialties and history. And it is home to the Nagaoka University of Technology (NUT), which’s full name 長岡技術科学大学 (Nagaoka Gijutsu Kagaku Daigaku) is usually shortened to 技大 (Gidai). And at exactly that Gidai I had the opportunity to work on a project and spend nearly five months, immersing myself in the Japanese lifestyle of a university (exchange) student.
留学生(Ryuugakusei) is printed on the student ID I received upon entering Gidai – “International student”. This very ID was the key that let me enter the laboratory of Prof 湯川 (Yukawa – “Hot-water river”) who was my supervisor during my time at Gidai. My tutor was a Japanese master student of the same age as me and we hit it off well with each other. I was glad he picked me up at the train station after my long and taxing travelling to Japan – especially because there wouldn’t have been any busses to Gidai that late in the night. Sitting next to him in our lab, I quickly befriended most of the lab members that frequented there more often which led to numerous funny evenings where we went to different restaurants and enjoyed local and famous foods. A visit to an Onsen, a trip to the seaside, eating crab, enjoying Sushi and other activities all contributed to a well-rounded experience in Japan.
Apart from the Japanese students I also made bonds with the international student community there and built friendships that shaped my time there. The most prominent “factions” of this community were Mexican and Chinese next to various far eastern countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. This contributed to a colorful and lively mix at the international festive with many tents that the Gidai organized, serving delicacies and presenting traditions of their respective culture. The European faction was comparatively small but we still found one another and formed a small circle of friends who ate together at the 食堂 (shokudou – dining hall) daily, spent time together at Friday evenings and went on trips together.
Two dining halls, a cafeteria, a shop, a gym and even a barber were all available on campus and allowed for a well-rounded living experience for students living in the campus dormitories (including me). I’m not going to lie and say everything was perfect and flawless, but it was well over good enough.
My usual day consisted of Japanese and Kanji classes, working on my project in the laboratory and working out at the gym. From time to time I went to various stores and places in Nagaoka like the craziest shop ever “Don Quichotte”, the shopping mall Riverside Senshuu, gaming hall, all-you-can-eat Okonomiyaki, Shabu-shabu, Sushi, the Itou Youkadou supermarket, the city hall (imo the most beautiful building in Nagaoka) and many more. From the high buildings of Gidai one can see a wide panorama of Nagaoka and surrounding cities, spanning from one side of the valley to the other and beyond up until the snow layered peaks of distant mountains. Maybe it is due to Nagaoka being so close to the sea, but the clouds tear apart and streak across the sky in graceful movements, which made for some surreal and beautiful pictures. However, these are not so common occurrences, since Nagaoka is the England of Japan with four times as much rainfall than the rest of the country. This also leads to it having the most snow during winter season which in turn also creates stunning views. One of the details that I found interesting was that the streets have built in sprinklers to deal with snowfall by sprinkling some sort of water-based solution onto the road. Even though this results in an ugly feeling when walking through this water-snow-mixture, it does indeed lead to freed and dry streets the next day – provided that it didn’t snow in between, which would only initiate another round of this curse of snow slush.
I came to love and hate Nagaoka and Gidai over the course of those five months. But I didn’t think leaving would pain me so much. I have made so many wonderful memories in that place.
To whoever is interested in spending a semester (or preferably more) in Japan – even with little to no knowledge of Japanese – I can only recommend doing so. It will be a memorable and enjoyable experience that you do not want to miss.