Bears, Ghosts and Grades : My First Impressions of University Life

First impressions count. When I first saw Tohoku University’s website about the Future Global Leadership program, I was excited. Japan is known as a land full of great food, historic sites, and cherry blossom trees. I jumped at the chance to study in such a country. Several months later, I arrived at the university dorm room and looked out the window. There were no houses nearby. No view of any nearby temple. No beautiful trees. Instead, I saw the sun brightly shining over a cemetery. I promptly chucked out my initial impression.

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My room overlooking the cemetery

As I tried to piece together a more accurate depiction of life as a Tohoku University student, I stumbled upon a strange find. I found anti-bear bells in the campus store. It was funny at first. I thought, “Who would buy bear bells? This campus is near the city. There are supposed to be no bears.” Until I heard that Tohoku University had a particular campus on a mountain. There, the mountain bears would occasionally come out of the forest and approach a certain building. For some odd reason, it was my faculty’s building.

While the fear of bears and of seeing ghosts did influence my opinion of life at Tohoku University, they did not matter as much when I started to attend my classes. Some of the professors were kind; others, strict. But they were human and held some compassion somewhere in their hearts. Their lessons, however, did not. I remember walking into a class one day, sitting down, listening to the professor talk for an hour and a half, and leaving the room without understanding anything. This happened several times for some of my classes. It was utterly frustrating.

Aside from mind-blowing lessons, I found out that the Japanese GPA system was quite unique. Basically, I could get five possible grades for each class: AA, A, B, C, and D, the last of which is a failing grade. Which letter grade I would get depended on what range my score fell in to. For example, a score from 90 to 100 points meant an AA while a score from 80 to 89 points translated to an A. So, even if I got a raw score of 89.99, my grade would still be an A, which translates to a value of 3 when calculating for my GPA. Compared to the grading systems of other countries, my own included, I found this to be quite unfair. Here, students who received an 89 would get an A while students who managed an 81 would also get an A. It made little sense to me as why the two would be given the same letter grade.

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One would think that, by that point, my impression of the life as a Tohoku University student would be quite negative. The combination of bears, perhaps ghosts, and mind-boggling lessons and grading systems does not seem to lead to anything positive at all. Yet, my impression is that life here is just different, and not necessarily in a completely bad way. As cheesy as it may sound, my friends were the ones who gave me a much brighter view of life as a Tohoku University student. Because as much as living accommodations and the university system matter in a great university life, the community plays an even greater role.

The community here is tight-knit. The network of senpais (upperclassmen) and kohais (underclassmen) is surprisingly welcoming. Unlike the stories of upperclassmen that I have heard from my friends back at home, the senpais here are not unfriendly at all. They give us plenty of support for anything and everything. Tips about classes. A list of the best places to eat. Apartment-finding advice. Advice on how avoid the bears. I was also infinitely relieved that someone could help me decipher all the messages in Japanese that I received in my mailbox. It was nice to know that there was someone who experienced the Tohoku University student life and was not afraid to share his wisdom.

Aside from senpais, my classmates in the FGL program are amazingly smart, talented, funny, and kind. No one hesitates to help anyone who asks. In a foreign land with only each other for company most of the time, it was not difficult for us to become friends. We laughed and cried together. We cringed over our perfect views of the cemetery and cracked jokes about the bears. We went over the lessons we could not understand by piecing together the whole picture with the different bits that each person understood. We had movie nights that lasted until dawn, and cooking parties almost every month. It was this gathering of brilliant people that really made my life here at Tohoku University enjoyable.

Being a student at Tohoku University is not how I first imagined it would be. The University system is tough and confusing. There are no magnificent views of temples or cherry blossom trees to soothe the tired soul. But in the end, there are amazing people here who brighten things up. Life here may not be perfect, but somehow, it is enjoyable. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?

As expressed by Shenelle Lim. Shenelle is from the Phillipines and is currently a first-year student under the FGL Program of Tohoku University. She is also a part of the editorial board of ‘The Sentinel’.

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Royal meets Rural: One Sendai Hotel’s Inbound Tourism Strategy

“How do we attract more tourists?” continues to be the big question asked by government agencies, tourism and travel companies, restaurants and finally major hotels here in Japan.

Several of the major luxury hotels here in Sendai, such as Metropolitan, Westin, and Kokusai Hotel, already boast high level service and partial, or complete, multilingual websites with multilingual staff, in addition to their excellent facilities. These hotels are also quite famous for their restaurants, which would be expected of any luxury hotel in the world. But what really sets these hotels apart from each other?

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While each are sure to have valid points to argue, one luxury hotel in Sendai is setting itself apart by combining the comfort of staying at a luxury hotel with the raw experience of rural nature, farming, and adventure.

Sendai Royal Park Hotel opened in 1995 with the theme of a European Manor. It appears almost castle-like in appearance, with an elegant interior and property-wide outside garden. Its location is both a blessing and a curse for tourism. Freeway access and the adjacent Izumi Premium Outlet shopping mall make this a great pitstop for those coming by car. However, while there is a free shuttle from Sendai Station, tourists from abroad are tempted to stay at more central hotels in the city center.

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In fact, Royal Park Hotel is on the border of Sendai’s suburbs and Izumi Ward’s farm country. And for this reason, as of last year, the hotel has started creating outdoor activities and programs specifically to attract international visitors– something other Sendai luxury hotels here have not yet started or simply can’t because of their confined location.

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Strawberry or mushroom picking, a cycle tour through rice fields and forest to a hidden waterfall, stargazing, and wintertime snowshoe trekking are starting to put the hotel on the radar of travelers. Another well-known program is “glamping” or “glamorous camping”. Think top quality cuisine paired with fine wine enjoyed inside a tent lit by a miniature chandelier. This was one of the activities introduced by Sendai-based YouTuber Chris Broad through his video “What does a $3000 Japanese Hotel Room look like?“, uploaded August 2017. The video has amassed over 910,000 views.

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Olga Zielińska, a Sendai resident with experience in Tohoku region travelling and tour guiding, recently tried the half-day cycling program. She remarked: “This is what none of the big metropolis in Japan have. The calm countryside of Sendai, lunch with fresh locally grown ingredients, the real traditional Japan experience within one hour drive from the city center, and, more importantly, without overwhelming crowds. Cycling along creeks and rice paddies while enjoying the view of Mt. Izumi, and later coming back for English-style teatime at the hotel was the perfect ending of an incredible stay at the hotel”

Director of the hotel, Katsuhiko Kasai, made it clear that that he wants to work together with locals and make sure they are happy during promotion efforts. He was surprised with the responses so far: “Farmers welcome us with waves and smiles, and once a tour group was flagged down and given freshly made sweets by a housewife! Sometimes our tours do lunch with farmers that have prepared rice balls from the same fields we cycle through!”. He also emphasized he wants participants to think about where their food comes from and to appreciate nature on a deeper level.

As the hotel has fewer rooms than other major hotels in Sendai, travel site reviews and word-of-mouth is challenging as there are just fewer guests compared with other hotels who are sharing their experiences. However, as Royal Park Hotel tours are also open for people in Sendai just visiting for the day, and there is a global trend in tourism for experiences over destinations, time will tell if such inbound tourism strategy will work—and how other hotels in Sendai will react. In the grand scheme of things, competition is good for business, especially when that business is promoting our city Sendai.

As reported by guest-writer Justin Velgus. Justin is an American who currently works with the Fukushima Prefectural Government but loves to explore Tohoku. He enjoys cycling and onsen and you can definitely treat him with gyozas!

A few additional comments were added by Manuel Campos. Manuel was born and brought up in Venezuela and is currently serving as the Managing Editor of ‘The Sentinel’.

Students at Tohoku University are facilitating the national goal of ‘Study Abroad’

On 14th March, the Instagram profile @tohoku.ryugaku1 announced the launch of the website ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’.  Aimed at telling stories from study abroad programs and helping aspiring exchange students with country/course selection and applications, it is established by the students of Tohoku University who are currently studying abroad. “We are also planning to help aspiring students with reviewing of application documents,” the website wrote in its introduction section.

Japan has long battled the challenge of low and decreasing number of Japanese university students studying abroad. About 70% of Japanese companies with overseas operations have complained about difficulties in finding and nurturing of globally minded talent. With the introduction of the ‘Japan Revitalisation Strategy’ by the cabinet in 2013, the government aims to double the number of students studying abroad by 2020. In such a situation, support facilities such as experiences of other students plays a key role in leading the change.

With 718 partners as of March 13, 2018, Tohoku University’s global network provides plethora of opportunities for students to engage in study abroad programs. Yuto Katsuyama, a student of Chemistry at Tohoku University is currently studying at University of California, Berkeley (UCB) for one year. He shall be joining UCLA from May 15 this year as a visiting researcher. One of the first few students to write for ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’, he explains the procedures to enter UCB along with his experiences in California. “There are so many professors who have more than 6,000 citations! It is also easy to access them and have one-to-one conversations,” he writes in his blog on the website.

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A screenshot from the ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’ website

For Katsuyama, there were several experiences that were new to him. “It is a bit scary when barricades are put up and you can see police officers with rifles whenever there are protests on the campus but the classes on these days are cancelled too,” he writes. In all, the overall experience is something he cherishes the most as he gets to step into the world of elite. One exchange student at University of California, Irvine has written how his baseball friends got to practice with Shohei Otani, the professional Japanese baseball pitcher and designated hitter for the Los Angeles Angels.

The statistics from MEXT, JASSO and JAOS have shown an increase in the number of outbound students by 15% between 2015 and 2016. As more and more students apply for outbound programs, support websites like ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’ by the current batch of study abroad students will surely act as a pillar of strength and motivation.

References

  1. More than 200,000 Japanese students aborad in 2016 : http://monitor.icef.com/2018/01/200000-japanese-students-abroad-2016/
  2. About Tobitate! (Leap for Tomorrow) Study Abroad Inititaive : http://www.tobitate.mext.go.jp/about/english.html
  3. Tohoku University Partners, International Exchange Division : http://ie.bureau.tohoku.ac.jp/partners?lang=en

As reported by Team Sentinel

The featured image is a screenshot of the website’s homepage.

Inspiring ‘Blueprints’ at TEDxTohokuUniversity 2018

“The cornerstone of everything that we do is part of the blueprint to build a better world,” President Hideo Ohno of Tohoku University remarked in his welcome address as he opened the 2018TEDxTohoku University on April 08 at the Qatar Science Hall, Aobayama Campus.

TEDxTohokuUniversity is the brainchild of Chanon Pornrungroj who is currently a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Science and his team who have breathed life into the event. It began in 2017 when the first TEDx was held at Tohoku University with the theme of ‘Opening Doors’ and with the aim of creating spaces for sharing ideas. This year, the team of 40 students who worked for over 6 months, chose ‘Blueprints’ as their theme.

“Blueprints of our communities, blueprints of the human minds and blueprints of technology is what we are going to present today. Let’s realise that for a better future for all of us,” said Pornrungroj in his remarks as the executive director and the licensee for the event. “You (the audience) are the main component to make this event a great success,” he added.

The event brought together 7 speakers and one performer from different walks of life with their blueprints in their hand. Jess Hallams, a former participant of the JET programme and currently a media producer for Sendai Television’s ‘Go! Go! Tohoku!!’ programme spoke how the Tohoku region made her realise a reverse Paris syndrome. “The media painted Fukushima as a nuclear wasteland but that just accounts for the evacuation zone which comprises of less than 3% of the area of Japan’s third largest prefecture,” she said. “ Fukushima is naturally beautiful and culturally rich. Therefore, to attract a potential tourist, we need a right blueprint,” she added as she emphasised on the overtly negative image of Fukushima which hides the reality.

The Go! Go! Tohoku!! Program has brought together 200 international students out of the 54,000 foreign nationals who call Tohoku their second home from 30 different countries in order to contribute to Tohoku tourism through social media, blogs, etc. “Tourism is perspective. What might look like as a point of interest to the locals might not be the same for foreigners,” she said. “Tourists look Tohoku as one and therefore it is more beneficial for all the prefectures in Tohoku to work together,” she suggested.

Kentaro Ono, on the other hand, had a different story to tell. His growing obsession with Kiribati reached a point of no-return when he was a high school student. “I used to watch a cartoon in my childhood which showed Kiribati. I loved it so much,” reminisced the founder and President of Japan Kiribati Association (JAKA). Yet, he made an impassioned plea asking everyone to cut down their carbon footprint. “Since 2000, the impact of global warming is serious. Look at these coconut trees! Their roots are exposed. This clearly shows the damaging effect of soil erosion,” he said. “Kiribati has no rivers and mountains and so, the only source of water is the rain. But with sea entering our homes, the ground water is becoming impotable,” he expressed his concern.

Ono believes that the problem is not political but human. “Do you really need fried chicken at 2 a.m? It costs so much carbon. What will we tell the children when they ask in the future why they had to become refugees?,” he questioned. He shaped the end by leaving something for everyone to ponder, “Opposite of love is not hate. It is the ignorance and indifference. If we cannot secure our children’s futures, how will they draw blueprints?”

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L-R (Stage) : Kentaro Ono, Marty Kuenhert, Kenichiro Nakamura, Rio Saito, Jess Hallams, Aya Takahashi, Yosuke Hara and Gregory Trencher

President Ohno had said in his opening address that for different goals, different blueprints are required. For Aya Takahashi, it was through managing share houses. A high school graduate, she now manages 5 houses in Sendai which she has been using as share houses. It was undoubtedly difficult in the beginning because no bank would treat her seriously. “Today’s generation faces stress due to isolation. Doesn’t it look good if the lights are on when you enter your house?,” she remarked. She believes that the idea of share houses fulfills the bottom three blocks of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and hence converted her love for a shared community to a sustainable business. With so many international students now staying in these houses, she says, “It is like travelling around the world while staying in Sendai.” She believes that having communities outside family can lead to a bountiful living.

The letter ‘E’ in TED stands for entertainment. This time, the organisers invited the 17-yr old child prodigy Rio Saito who plays Ukulele. Three years back, he picked up the Hoku award which is considered to be Hawaii’s equivalent to a Grammy. Before he started strumming and enchanting the jaw-dropped audience, he said, “My first blueprint was when I picked up my Ukulele.” The performance was a tribute and a celebration playing in the hands of Saito. He selected ‘Hana wa saku’ as his first piece as his remembrance for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and then cheered the audience with his energetic second selection ‘El Cumbanchero’. At times, he posed for the photographer Nguyen Chi Long and at times he also donned a modest style showing his maturity that he balances with fame and surely doesn’t let go of the honesty in his creativity.

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Aniko Karpati, Treasurer and Co-Founder of the event with members of the audience

The event had also organized for speaker’s café where the attendees could ask questions to the speakers directly and thereby facilitating a two-way conversation.

President Ohno had remarked that sharing, learning and growing is what defines education and university. Marty Kuenhert, who is a professor at Tohoku University and Sendai University is a prime example of the same. He is surely a sporting celebrity in Japan. “My love with Japan started in a bathroom,” the first foreign general manager of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles Pro-Baseball team opened his talk.

In what followed to be an edgy and a witty conversation with the audience, he spoke about his life at Stanford University. “I first came to Tokyo on a spring exchange program in the 1960s,” he reminisced. He spoke how important it is to have the wealth of friends which is an invaluable asset in the blueprint of success. He came in touch with the famous ‘Cappy’ Harada which later on benefitted him as Harada appointed Kuenhert as the general manager of Lodi (CA) Orions. “Laughing is the best way to get friends,” he remarked. “So, Learn abundantly, Adapt endlessly, Understand openly, Give ceaselessly and stay in Harmony with your hosts,” he said as he expanded the acronym LAUGH. He ended his talk as he threw some coins at the audience reminding them of an anecdote that he mentioned during his talk where he would say to the person on the other side of the counter, “Keep the change.”

On the other hand, for Kenichiro Nakamura, success came at a later stage. He wanted to make a career in music and dropped out of his university after entering it on his second attempt to play music in Tokyo, much to the dismay of his parents. “I came to Tokyo but couldn’t earn enough through music,” he recalled. It was during that time when he saw a Microsoft site and became excited about programming. “Many people didn’t believe that I can join Microsoft,” he said. Yet, through his perseverance in learning to program, he earned 17 Microsoft certificates and finally entered the company of his dreams. “Do you really know where will you be in the next 10 years?,” he asked. “I cared too much about what others thought about me but now, I pretend that I did not notice,” he remarked. If you ask him now what would he want to do in the next 10 years, he confidently says, “Street workout.”

The event was emceed in English by Pelonomi Moila, a South African student at Tohoku University and in Japanese by Eri Watanabe, an alumni of Tohoku University, Class of 2015 and also the curator of TEDx Nihonbashi. With ice-breaking events and constant interaction, they did not allow the audience to lose any interest.

It is rather remarkable to realise how far the idea of a ‘Blueprint’ can be stretched. For Yosuke Hara, an otorhinolaryngologist at Tohoku University, it is about taking the leap forward. “When the 2011 earthquake struck, I was performing a surgery. I thought I would not be able to make it,” he remembered. After this, he began questioning if it is ok to continue his lifestyle the way it is. He then joined Stanford University’s medical entrepreneur program and also worked in Silicon Valley. People started questioning if it is too risky for a doctor to enter business but he had a simple answer for all, “To do things outside of your work is what leads to innovative solutions.” “Have the courage to leave your comfort zone. Do what you really want to do,” he appealed.

One of the speakers Etan Ginsberg had to leave for Cambodia urgently on a business trip and hence his talk was cancelled. The event came to a close with Gregory Trencher, an associate professor at Tohoku University asking everyone to preserve the planet and achieve full human potential by upgrading to Homo Sapiens 2.0. He quoted research about individuals experiencing near-death situations and questioned the existence of soul. He also contrasted Rene Descartes’ idea that mind and body are separate by quoting researches and examples where we understand that both are interdependent on each other.

The curtains were pulled down with group photographs and visibly inspired crowd moving towards the after-party. Prof. Ryoichi Nagatomi, the Vice Dean of Biomedical Engineering department and the supervisor for the event, congratulated the organizing team for the event’s success. “This is a small event but definitely a melting pot,” he remarked.

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Prof. Ryoichi Nagatomi delivering the ‘Kampai’ address

This year, it was for the first time that live translation service was introduced for the audience. It is a rare service even across TEDx community in Japan. “I couldn’t participate last year but I realised that without translation, it is difficult for many to understand. I went up to Chanon and I said I want to do it. Our team had 18 meetings and though we had the speakers’ scripts with us, we were prepared for on-spot changes should the speaker make any on the day of the event. I am really satisfied and extremely proud of my team,” said Evdokiia Okhlopova, leader of the Translation team.

On asking about his thoughts about the event, Drew Borders, leader of the Speaker team said, “It is a very good experience. I learnt to organise people. It looks very easy but it is a tough job as you need to manage schedules and differing ideas. Next year, I am looking forward to an even more clarified theme. In the end, the audience should go home with open ended questions in their mind.”

The teams are already trying to conceptualise the next TEDx event in 2019. Before then, smiles and a small glass of limited ‘Blueprint’ labelled Nihonshu Sake shall keep the ideas spreading.

As reported by Trishit Banerjee. Born and brought up in Mumbai, he loves to chase words and Chemistry at the same time.

Drugs and controversy in Sendai

The reality, in which all our lives take place, is a complex system subdued to a seemingly chaotic algorithm responsible for creating stories that could deride even the most gifted of writers.  Albeit it concedes, among other altruistic pleasures, joy, realization, and satisfaction; it also leads to their counterparts, deception, anguish, and agony, among other crippling misfortunes. When this dichotomy is balanced or tilted towards pleasures, existence is a perennial gratification. Nevertheless, it can also become an endless punishment when life’s vicissitudes accumulate without enjoyment.  Naturally, for those living in the latter condition, a temporary escape can be the only way to subsist. This ephemeral transition to a blurred reality comes in form of drugs; substances that are able to numb the senses by altering the brain’s chemical equilibrium.

As logic ought to dictate, this dilemma has existed as long as humans have but, interestingly, it is not limited to our species.  From wallabies getting intoxicated on opium, by nibbling on poppy flowers, up to dolphins that have been recorded squeezing a puffer fish, with the intention to make it release a small dosage of trance-inducing neurotoxin, and even without taking into account the consumption of alcohol, observed in several animals, it appears that the dulling of the senses is a natural phenomenon. However, despite occurring naturally, numbing senses and taking hallucinogenic trips for recreational purposes is an extremely sensitive topic in our current society.

Virtually, every sovereign country of the world has laws to punish, the possession, consumption, and commercialization of a myriad of drugs. In some of these nations, the debate on which substances are dangerous enough to be banned, and which can be legally consumed, is on its apogee. Yet in others, like Japan, there is no debate. While some drugs (dangerous and statistically innocuous) are indisputably taboo, from the social and legal perspective, alcohol (responsible of an estimated 6,000 violent deaths on 2017) and Tabaco (linked to several diseases that cause approximately 157,800 deaths yearly) are available throughout the country.

This austerity was brought out into the light when 7 Tohoku University’s international students were linked to drug consumption.  These 6 men and a woman, from ages between 20 to 26 years old, came from 6 different countries, and, except for one, were short-term exchange students who lived at the Tohoku University’s Sanjo-Machi dorms complex. Peculiarly, while all the students confessed to the same misdeed, only 4 suspect’s names were fully disclosed, whereas 3 were kept anonymous. According to the police report, one of them, a 20 year old male originally from Australia, received an international parcel from the UK with 0.98 g of heroin and 6.99 g of MDMA, on last year’s October 29th. This student was taken into custody on December the 6th of the same year; during the raid to his apartment, the police found 0.07 g of heroin and 6.53 g of cocaine.  In addition, he allegedly distributed cocaine, without charge, to all the other 6 students involved in the case. The police stated that the drugs were distributed in the University’s dorm, and in an undisclosed local night club.

Despite the verdict of his trial has not been made public, if found guilty of the imputed charges, he could spend 3 years in an Australian penal facility. The home university of this student refused to comment on the matter. Regarding the 6 remaining suspects, even though they were not charged with possession of any illegal substances, according to the Japanese law, their confession was enough to grant them an expulsion from the university and a consequent deportation. As it could be expected, due to the historical significance of the event, the news became national. A few articles were written in English. However, in contrast with their Japanese counterparts, the discretion, regarding the details of the case, was kept; the names of all the students remained anonymous.

As controversy arose in the city of Sendai, the local Japanese community, despite isolated comments backing up the closing of the university’s dorm, showed support to the uninvolved foreign students of Tohoku University.  Concurrently, the institution issued the following statement, in Japanese: “As the police strive to elucidate the details of the event, we will work thoroughly to strengthen our criteria for accepting international students and provide them with education regarding prohibited drugs”.

Among rumors, gossips, and anecdotes, all conflux on an incident that took place during a trip to Ishinomaki (Approx. 50 kms from Sendai). The Australian student allegedly showed off syringes and a substance he stated was heroin. Others confirm that he was openly stating he was in possession of illegal drugs. Whether these are speculations or not, it was ratified what everyone knows but only a few understand, despite Japanese judicial procedures may seem irregular to some, immigrants are judged by the laws of their new country of residence.

As reported by Manuel Campos. Born and brought up in Venezuela, Manuel is a senior writer for ‘The Sentinel’.