‘Russian Lilacs Have Replaced Cherry Blossoms for Me’

PHOTO by Varvara Lozenko / Afisha.Daily
A Japanese student talks about Russia's fried sushi and clingy girls

Afisha.Daily presents an unpunctual Japanese student fond of the St. Petersburg ballet and autumn in Moscow.

Kazuki Ikeda, 21

From: Tokyo, Japan

Occupation: Student in Moscow State University’s Department of Economics

I came here six years ago when my father had to move here for his job. Of course, I could have stayed in Japan and enrolled in a university there but my father told me so much about Russia and the kind Russian people when I was a kid that I decided to come with him. My father exhumes the bodies of Japanese soldiers in Siberia and sends them home. Stalin forced the soldiers to live and work there after the Second World War, treating them on par with Russian criminals and political prisoners. My father has been looking for Japanese remains for the past 11 years. It’s a long time, but unfortunately a lot of Japanese soldiers were exiled to Siberia and it only became possible to search for them after the dissolution of the USSR. My father loves history and he is enthralled by his work.

He spoke endlessly about Russians when I was a kid. His first meeting with workers in Siberia left him quite scared – he was astonished at how gloomy their faces were. Eventually they became friends and my father still exchanges postcards with that first team of workers. I’ve always dreamt of seeing your country.

Six years ago, my Russian was limited to “zdravstvuyte” (hello) and “spasibo” (thanks), and speaking them was a challenge. When I arrived, I hailed a cab at the airport but the driver’s skills were quite poor so I felt carsick. I was also shocked by several trucks that had just been abandoned on the road with no drivers inside. It also felt as if Muscovites all bought the same cars.

I quickly realised that I had come to a country that’s quite different from Japan. I enjoyed being a foreigner and experiencing such an alien land. Initially, I just walked around and took in the sights. Red Square was exhilarating; I had read about it and looked through its pictures in a textbook and I couldn’t believe that I’d ever witness it in person. I stumbled upon Anton Chekhov’s house on Malaya Dmitrovka, which was quite an encounter as well. I had read his plays shortly before coming to Russia and there I was, standing right by his house. Amazing!

Japanese student in moscow russia

I quickly made Russian friends. I once sat on a bench in the Alexander Garden to rest for a bit and suddenly a girl sat nearby. I thought she wanted to be friends but she suggested we date, which surprised me. I wasn’t really looking for something romantic back then, so I said that I’d like to be friends but not to date. Each time we saw each other she brought it up, so eventually we drifted apart.

Two months after coming here, I started studying Russian at the Moscow State University International Education Centre. I met an Italian student there and we hang out to this day; thankfully, he didn’t try to start dating me. The best part is that the centre has a talented teaching staff that helped me start speaking Russian more or less tolerably.

I’m not the most organised person; I can’t even come to work on time. The Japanese in general are incredibly punctual. There’s a stereotype that Russians are the most disorganised people in the world but that’s not true. They often come on time while my French and Italian acquaintances do not.

Russians are sincere and that’s good. You smile only when you feel like it, while the Japanese smile constantly, even when they really don’t give a damn about you. We have way too many ceremonies. For example, when the Japanese make a toast, they have to raise their glasses to a certain height, depending on age and social standing. Things like that complicate life, and I think everyone intuitively understands how to act in Japan but I find it quite hard to grasp.

I eventually managed to convince my teachers that I really wished to learn Russian and we became close friends. I went to a former teacher’s wedding recently. She and her husband made a lovely couple. It doesn’t always happen that way. There’s a painting in Tretyakov Gallery entitled “The Unequal Marriage,” and the husband there is much older while the girl looks devastated.

I applied to Moscow State University and took the exams. I had no hopes of getting accepted but the exams turned out to be a breeze. All foreigners are apparently accepted on a paid basis, even if they barely speak Russian. We’re a good source of revenue for the school and MSU does need the money since the teaching staff is severely underpaid. If you’re on sick leave, you’re barely getting paid at all. This bothers me in Russia. Many teachers are constantly depressed due to poor financial standing. They’re working day and night for a measly 30,000 roubles ($500) a month. How is this possible?

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Moscow has improved over the last six years. It’s become cleaner, new pedestrian areas have opened up, some roads have been fixed up and you can’t really feel poverty. The rouble has weakened, yet life has become more convenient. I recently discovered a great grocery delivery service, so my life’s become easier. I don’t miss Japanese food. At home we rarely eat our national cuisine; sometimes we just stick to meat and potatoes. As for rice, sure, we boil and eat it, but Russians are quite fond of it as well.

Japanese restaurants here shock me with their deep fried sushi rolls. They serve those everywhere in Russia but not in Japan. Other than that, the sushi culture is similar – you’ve got your rice and your fish. Frankly, I try to stay away from Russian sushi. I’ve gotten food poisoning from bad fish a couple of times.

I like my district, which is Shabolovka. I love the Donskoy Monastery. It’s calm and walking there feels like a stroll through someone’s country house. I rent a room along with a journalist and her son. They talk about literature and read poems. I lived with Latin Americans before that and it was tougher. I discovered they were off their rockers, possibly on drugs, and one of them tried to strangle me when I didn’t wash the dishes.

I visit Gorky Park often and I like dancing on the boardwalk there. I studied ballet in a private school for five years before moving on to Latin dance. I’m not good at partner dances because I don’t know how to lead and, primarily, why should one lead if all the moves can be done without a partner? I love Russian classical ballet and the Mariinsky Theatre is my favorite, especially “Swan Lake.” The prince looks like a fool there, confusing his girlfriend with a stranger. If you pay close attention to the plot, it seems hilarious, but the second act sends shivers down my spine.

There’s not much in terms of contemporary dance in Russia and we are similar in that. Japan is a deeply traditional country. I think your culture in general is not quite modern. You do have places like Garage and Winzavod, but they’re few and far between. However, I do see at least three drop-dead gorgeous women in Moscow each day. I understand that it’s rude to judge someone based on their appearance but my Japanese friend and I agree that you’re lucky if you see a beautiful girl back home once a fortnight.

I love Moscow not just for its beautiful women. If I someday have to leave this place, I will especially miss the lilacs. They have replaced cherry blossoms for me. The Japanese need something to emphasise the changing of the seasons and in Moscow it’s the lilacs. I’ll also miss the birch trees. And the fried rolls, of course.