Just Do Your Own Thing

apr 2018

"Most problems here are solved with alcohol, so if you can hold your liquor — this is a great place to be"

When I went to Geidai at the end of my first day in Tokyo, most of the offices were already closed so I only managed to sign some documents concerning my stay at the dormitory in the administration. It's been already four months since I was officially admitted to the exchange program but I still couldn't get any information about the lectures available in English. On all my desperate emails they responded that I would be properly advised on this matter upon my arrival. It's easy to imagine how frustrated that made me.

So when I finally met an administration staff who seemed to understand some English, I expressed my concerns but, as you expect from my previous post, I didn't get any slightest relief from the answer. A young secretary woman had a very surprised expression on her face. "Classes in English?! I don't think so. One architecture professor can speak very well. But no lectures, no, no. I am very sorry. Please wait for tomorrow's meeting." After this she made an extremely forced smile, bowed to see me out and locked the office door behind me. Confused and irritated, I left the building and stood at the entrance, not sure what to do next. A pond with colorful koi carps beside my feet caught my eyes and hypnotized me for quite a while. When I calmed down completely, I understood that they keep fish ponds outside the student affairs office for a reason.

Not that I was eager to study hard this semester anyway, but I need quite a number of credits for my home university to recognize, otherwise I would lose lots of time on catching up later. However, that evening there was obviously nothing more I could do about it so I took my first leisure walk in Tokyo and looked around. You might have already seen the photos I took then in my first Telegram post. Together with several large museums and ancient shrines, the Geidai University is integrated into the Japan's most popular city park called Ueno, side by side with the Japan's oldest zoo with the same name. The mix of low-rise traditional faculty buildings and newer brick-glass-concrete boxes is not as captivating itself as the luxurious greenery densely permeating the university. The campus is distinctively divided into Fine Arts and Music departments by a quiet public road cutting through the entire park.

I took this road to get back to the train station and stumbled upon a very crowded square. The sakura viewing festival was already nearing its end but hundreds of people were still having grand picnics on plastic mats under the trees adorned with red lanterns. Some food stalls were placed along a narrow side path leading to one of the park's Shinto shrines. A variety of fried seafood pieces on sticks and dumplings stuffed with unknown ingredients scared me to death even though I was seriously starving since my last meal happened to be on board of the plane. After some hesitant inspections I finally saw a title in hiragana alphabet that said "soba" (buckwheat) beside a steaming pile of simple-looking noodles and decided to go for it. Incredibly satisfying for the first meal in Japan, I'd say! The moment when I sat down, took my first bite of soba and looked at the setting sun reflecting on the shrine's golden gate shall be indelibly engraved in my memory for years to come. Full and happy, I called it a day and returned to my remote Matsudo village on a packed train full of tired suburban commuters.

The next afternoon I went to Geidai for the above-mentioned meeting for architecture exchange students. Because of a persistent jet lag I missed three alarm clocks and was terribly late. On my way to the administration building I met two European-looking students and a Japanese woman, who asked me in elementary-level English if I was the missing exchange student and said to follow them. We walked through a lovely garden towards what it seemed to be the main Fine Arts department building, a complex 6-story glass and concrete box with a semi open patio in front of it.

When we got to the 4th floor where all architecture classes take place, the woman gave out some papers, told us to wait and left. The other two students were a girl from Germany and a guy from Austria who just like me had absolutely no idea neither about the courses nor about what's going to happen next. We stood in the corridor and laughed nervously about how ridiculously our situation seemed to develop. A minute later some Japanese staffs arrived, asked for our names and took each one of us into different directions without explaining anything further. This is how I ended up in my architectural lab.

Other than me and the man who brought me inside, there were five students inside the studio room full of abstract drawings, books, tool boxes and pieces of old maquettes. A long window was overlooking the park with several skyscrapers in the background. The room was beautifully lit and the screens of four stationary Macs gently gleamed on the desks along the walls. When I entered, everyone started gathering around the big discussion table in the middle. The person who led me to the room introduced himself as Kitagawara-sensei's assistant, Sawada-san. He showed everyone to sit down and started the explanation.

He said that by random assignment I ended up in prof. Kitagawara's studio, who turned out to be both my academic supervisor and a pretty famous architect (you can check out his projects if you're interested, for instance he did the Japanese pavilion for Expo in Milan in 2015). However, the sensei is already 67 years old and he is planning to retire next year. Actually, Kitagawara-sensei is so busy at his office that he never goes to university anyway, his assistant pointed out. One might be lucky enough to see him twice over the entire semester at best; he is more like a faculty mascot than a professor. Sawada-san probably saw my silent bewilderment after hearing that so he added that de-facto he is the person in charge of the laboratory and he can supervise my work. The other five students are one year older than me and should work on their individual diploma projects so we will not have anything in particular to do together as a studio this semester. There was a pause; all five Japanese students nodded several times into the space with approving faces. I processed this information in my head for a while. "This means you can just do your own thing while you're here, whatever you like. We don't have any midterms or exams in any case", Sawada-san summed up.

Never in my life had I an experience of a studio course without any common project, deadlines or final exams. I'm sure my Politecnico group mates reading this will relate to my confusion. Well, it doesn't seem so bad, even great actually, but I really need more credits for my university. I asked the assistant if I could take at least two more classes without speaking Japanese. He thought for a moment and proposed a couple of "easy" options he assumed could be possible, but then said: "Don't worry about this for now. In a few hours there will be a welcoming party for all architecture students in a nearby traditional pub where also some of the professors and assistants will come after they finish their own celebration. I can introduce you to some of them and we will figure it out later somehow". Welcoming party for the entire faculty in a pub with professors? Wonders will never cease.

We made a brief round of introductions. After I went to the length of describing my previous education and academic interests, the guy next to me made me extremely embarrassed by just announcing his name and that he loves watching Japanese TV drama. I waited for him to continue but he just smiled happily and the other person took on with the same format of presentation. Oh, Japanese modesty and restraint, I should had been more careful! Even with this bare way of talking plus poor English skills, all my new peers turned out to be very nice and fun people. We went downstairs together to join the beginning of the architecture party in the patio with already drunk first-years climbing on a high bucket and shouting their names into a cone — a wildest thing I've ever seen — while everyone else clapped, encouraged the people on stage and drank loads of alcohol provided by the newcomers.

Only when all the bottles were empty, the crowd headed towards the Ueno station, where someone had reserved an entire floor in a traditional Chinese restaurant for 60 (!) people. Later I will discover that this is a pretty common way to spend evenings with coworkers in most Japanese enterprises — sitting on the floor around round tables, smoking indoors and sharing tons of food and beer in an unlimited all-you-can-eat style. The intensity of the party was steadily increasing with the amount of food consumed and reached its peak with the arrival of the teaching assistants who were met and positioned with great enthusiasm in-between the drunk students. Sawada-san sat at my table (I think he wasn't sober either since he just attended the teaching staff party at another venue) and we managed to have a great conversation about Japanese architects. Can't imagine my design studio assistants in Milan ever having lunch with us, forget about the drinking!

Despite a considerable age gap, the Geidai students tend to rely on their assistants just as if they were their best friends. I was told that sometimes they even end up dating! In any case, the availability of didactic support in this way is much higher. Apart from taking care of my paperwork in the lab, Sawada-san actually introduced me to other teaching assistants at the party who later helped me to discover possible solutions for attending some courses with my limited knowledge of Japanese. Now, for example, I am participating in the AA (an ultra prestigious London-based architecture school) one-week workshop in English just because I met its coordinator that night and he invited me to join. This is the reason why I wasn't able to post much all this time, but now I am full of new topics to write about in my future posts and have a great photo survey of Shinjuku area to share with you next time! Let me just voice the conclusion: most problems in Geidai are solved with alcohol, so if you can hold your liquor — this is a great place to be.