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06/27/2016

Meeting Takao-San

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Tennessee or Tokyo? (source)

Climbing Mt. Takao had been on my list of things to do while in Japan and I finally got to check it off! Takao-san, as it is called in Japanese, is located about an hour outside of central Tokyo. My friends and I met up at Takaosanguchi station (literally the entrance to Takao san) and proceeded towards the trails. There are six trails in total providing the range of difficulty and each passes through different parts of the mountain. We wanted to go up trail 6, but because a tree had fallen down on the path, we were re-routed to the main trail, or trail 1. This trail was paved and you would think that would make things easier but it was a bit like hell for the first half. :P The path was completely on an incline and we all had to take a break after what felt like every 5 or 10 minutes. It didn't help to see kids and grandmothers pass us at faster speeds but we kept on keeping on and finally reached the halfway point. At the halfway point, there are chair lifts and cable cars that run from the bottom of Takao-san to the halfway point and back around. The view was already amazing and that gave us the extra push to make it through the second half of the hike which was thankfully much less steep. The last leg takes you through several Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples which are perched at various points along the trail. Each one was unique and provided a good change in scenery as we made our way to the top. 

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One of the temples on our trail (source)

One of my favorite temples was quite Indian-inspired and included stone-carved images of women in saris. While it serves as a reminder of Buddhism's origins, it is interesting to see how the religion has manifested itself in different countries.

We finally reached the summit after what seemed like forever and were rewarded with a spectacular view. From the top of Takao, you can see all of Tokyo and even areas past it like Yokohama. On good days, it is possible to see Mt. Fuji, unfortunately we could not really see it due to the clouds. The view reminded me a lot of the mountains back home and the view of the Blue Ridge mountains from North Carolina. Of course, we took the token group photos with the view before moving through the tourist-filled crowds to start the descent back down.

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Seeing Tokyo from above (source)

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Dango made the uphill hike so worth it! (source)

The way back down led us past several little food stalls filled with Takao-san's famous foods like the fresh dango. Dango is practically a larger size mochi and the shops at Takao put a handful on a skewer and layer them with a sweet soy sauce glaze. At the stall I stopped at there were both black and gold sesame dango, I opted for the black sesame and did not regret it at all! Along with dango, soba noodles are a specialty of the place and are very refreshing after a long, sweaty hike. Instead of hiking all the way back down, we opted to take the chair lifts down the last half and it came with an amazing view. With no seat belts, the chair lift literally has you hanging right over the edge of the mountain which is quite the experience. Hiking Takao with friends is definitely worth the hour commute and is a great day-trip getaway from the city. 

06/20/2016

Housing: The Three Things I Love About Homestay

When it comes to studying abroad, especially with a program like CIEE, I find that a lot of students fixate on whether or not homestay or dorm is the right option for them. From my perspective both options have their own pros and cons, making neither necessarily superior to the other. Therefore the only real way to tell which option may be better for you depends on 1) the reason you are studying abroad in Japan, 2) what you hope to gain from the experience, and 3) who you are as an individual. I decided to write this post to give my perspective as someone who has done homestay for both of the semesters I have been in Tokyo with the CIEE program. Below you will find the three major things I love the most about my homestay experience.

  • Experiencing family life: Living with my host family is my favorite part of my study abroad experience. Growing up, family has always been a big part of my life and is one of the things that my family cherishes the most. So when I came to Japan I also wanted to have a home, however temporary, to ground me as I experienced living in a foreign country with limited communication skills for an extended period of time. My host family has been there for me, helping me through each new experience I’ve faced in Japan and have been vital to my understanding of life in Japan. The kids keep me constantly on my toes as we share jokes and play around in our free time, my host mom keeps me informed, giving me insider tidbits on where to visit and when (both touristy and not), and my host dad knows all the best places to eat! They welcomed me into their home, and allowed me to improve both my speaking and comprehension of the Japanese language, teaching me essential vocabulary and phrases that I did not learn in Japanese class.

Another reason that I chose to do a homestay was because I am very interested in Japanese culture and customs; and the best way to learn about them is first hand is from the locals. Living with a host family has provided me with the opportunity to experience what it means to be a part of a family unit in Japan and comparing it to my own experiences.

  • Learning about the different holidays in Japan and the traditions that go along with them: I got experience how the Japanese celebrate Christmas and New Years; the significance of shichi-go-san (the years of importance during a child’s life in Japan); and even the traditions associated with Hina Matsuri (a day celebrating girls in Japan) just to name a few.
  • Getting home cooked food!

My main goal for coming to Japan was to immerse my self in the language and culture so that I can in turn improve my own understanding of the language and customs. Taking into account that I am a natural introvert, I know that I needed to put myself in an environment where I would be forced to hear and speak Japanese constantly and homestay afforded me that possibility. If I had stayed in the dorm I would be living with Japanese individuals yes, but I would also be living with other foreigners that speak English. In this situation it is so easy to hang out with the other foreigners and revert back to speaking English because it is the language I am the most familiar with. This would have limited the amount of progress I would have made with my Japanese, which was not something that I wanted to occur. Homestay is obviously not for everyone as there maybe rules that you have to follow, an implicit curfew as most host families want students home before the last train, and compromise is almost always involved. I wish there was a sure fire way to say which is better but in reality there are a lot of factors that cannot be predicted and it really is up to the student to make the most of which ever housing option they decide to choose.

 

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06/19/2016

Grab Bag

            This post isn’t about anything in particular. It’s a list of things I’ve done that don’t warrant a post all their own. Together these are the moments that add up to a legitimate abroad experience. For me, rattling them off is a relief from the pressure of feeling I have to make meaning out of my time in Japan, to somehow justify to someone that I’ve thought critically and reflected on what I’ve been given the privilege to do. They reflect the experience better than any musing I could ever muster. Profenius BP5 1

            Cat café: They’re worth it. Some people may not be thrilled about cats. May not be thrilled at the idea of spending money to be around cats. But, if you’re an animal person and feel the lack of personal affection that can only come from a pet, go to a cat café for a professional surrogate pet experience. Therapy animals do some real deal good. In my experience the café aspect is downplayed, and it’s really all about the cats. You can sip juice or tea if you want to, but it costs extra and distracts from the reason you came in the first place.

            Museums: A touristy yet important thing to do. Even if you’re not an art buff, you should frequent at least a couple museums. I’ve gone to several, the names I forget. The trouble with Tokyo museums is that their names are all astoundingly similar, at least in English. Combine the words Tokyo, national, art, of, urban, metropolitan, the, for, and every combination will constitute a museum existing in Tokyo. I’ve gone to museums at different points in my stay in Japan, and each time it is interesting to revisit artistic motifs that are becoming more familiar as the culture at large becomes more familiar. As a bonus, CIEE and Sophia makes going to museums easy. CIEE hooks it up with the free special exhibit tickets. A Sophia student ID can get you in for free, or at least a discounted rate. I’d gone to the Kunisada and Kuniyoshi print exhibit at the Bunkamura museum in Shibuya. Most memorable museum visit, the drawings on the prints and the colors therein vivifying an older Japan, and I paid nothing to do it. The next day I attended an experimental fashion exhibit, one which emphasized efficient production with futuristic design. It was difficult to believe the same culture produced both, and that is the breadth museums can deliver if you choose to seek out what’s on display. Profenius BP5 2

            Conbinis: On the opposite side from the cultural high-brow there is the beloved convenient stores. Everyone in Japan already knows how great they are. I bring them up because someone about to come to Japan will rest easy knowing about how great they are. I was afraid of being left to starve if I couldn’t speak Japanese well enough to order food, or if I’d run out of money. Conbinis are a saving grace, carrying quick food that can actually be called food for cheap. American convenience stores be shamed. One could feasibly live off these places, albeit not the healthiest option. In addition, one can buy concert tickets, pay for health insurance and online purchases, and many other life tasks through them. The staff is always friendly, with the position surprisingly dignified when compared to American convenience store workers. This section isn’t really anything more than a praiseful advertisement, but conbinis have truly smoothed over what could have been some rocky moments in getting acquainted with Japan.

            Sumo: The last and greatest. Any visitor to Japan should make a good attempt at going to see sumo. It is perhaps one of the most recognizable traits of Japanese culture, and it delivers as being one of the most interesting. Though it’s somewhat violent, there is the honor and skill that comes with a martial art. Every step is laced with tradition, and would be interesting to watch even if the wrestlers never squared up in the ring. But they do, and each bout is as exciting as the last. There is a surprising about of pageantry, but it comes with the tradition, honoring the centuries of practice in conjunction with the steadfast dedication it takes to be a wrestler. Sumo combines the traditional with simple excitement more than anything else I’ve gotten to experience thus far. Profenius BP5 3

            And so concludes a brief list of a few things I’ve gotten to do. There isn’t much more to say about it than that. I recommend everything. I recommend also the things I’ve yet to do. It’s all good, and a matter of finding the time to do it all. And pay for it all.

Midterms

            Studying abroad comes with a constant need to compromise. One must always weigh the value of time spent, and it can be difficult to sacrifice a good time for grades. Micro-decisions become ever more significant as time begins to run out, and the thought that the opportunity may never come again makes the decisions all the harder to make.

            When I began classes at Sophia, there was a great anxiety leading up to the first day, when the courses are laid out and the requirements explained. I was not afraid that I’d have to face anything I’d never faced before. Instead I was nervous about holding up my end of the bargain, and seeing what would be required of me to do that. I know I’m not alone in viewing the semester as a prolonged vacation. But vacations aren’t free, and for this one I have to do the study half of study abroad. It sounds ridiculous, but after touring for a few weeks, the prospect can be jarring. Profenius BP4 2

            If I could calm the anxieties of any prospective Sophia international student, I’d tell them to take their typical university course and cut the difficulty in half. This is what one can expect to encounter in general. There are classes that are tough, some easier than belief, but in general expect the difficulty to be about half a normal university course load from competitive universities and colleges. Despite the ease, the classes are surprisingly fulfilling if one decides to take what they can from them. Lectures are more often dry than not, but the material seldom wastes one’s time. This, at least, has been my experience in the areas of literature and philosophy.

            Routine develops. Midterms on the docket. The morning commute. The daily struggle to print. Exams that actually count. First major paper assignments of the semester. The vacation feeling is on vacation, and we’re left to grind out the grind.

            I sense in myself a mentality that may not be exclusive to me. Though I’m still far from going home, I’m beginning to feel a strange draw back towards home. It is less a force than a complacent feeling. My weekends are less full, and I’m less inclined to go out of my way to take on some cultural experience. In a sense I’ve begun to get bored, which comes from acclimation. Granted, there’s still more things to do than I can imagine, and yet when I have a free day the hassle and expense overpowers my will to do them. I can be drained by academic priorities, or lack of sleep, but the complacent marks a turning point in the abroad experience. I’ve become acclimated to Tokyo enough for it to feel like home in the way that we all can feel boredom in our homes. Profenius BP4 1

            Daily inconveniences begin to mean more. I’m less amazed by some things and more irritated by others. I schlepp through a daily grind, and have seen my time management shift more towards responsibilities than to vacation. The vacation itself is making a final subsiding. Midterms and actual pressure have helped facilitate what I see as a crucial part of my experience. What’s developed is the settling of a reality, my life adapted to a new place with responsibilities that are more or less universal. I feel I’ve learned from it, knowing what to expect out of myself and new phases of my life as they unfold. And as my return date grows closer and my arrival farther, I’ve begun to look forward to the fat steak I’ve been promised when I get home.

Tokyo Toy Time

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I instinctively agreed to go with my friend to the Tokyo International Toy Show thinking I’d see outrageously foreign toys overflowing with the charming Japanese style advertisements and flair. Thankfully I got a greater dose of Japan than expected.

Tokyo Big Sight, the convention destination, looks like a large upside down pyramid. The structure reminded me of when I wanted to visit Egypt just to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Probably won’t happen now since my natural habitat is far from a barren desert.

Voice actresses from a popular idol arcade game and anime performed their character’s songs as they danced about doing what can only be described as short movements, tilts and poses in an attempt to maximize cuteness. This was my first J pop idol experience and if it weren’t for my friend’s interest in the game, I would have remained an idol virgin for some time. Feeling like a small-domesticated puppy that wandered deep into a vast forest alone, the show was uncomfortable to say the least. However I appreciate the experience and enjoyed seeing something so different from a cultural perspective. Plus whenever my friend would talk to me about the game a woman next to me would glare at her and say something in Japanese. My friend responded a few times. For someone in basic Japanese I was impressed. Afterwards I asked her what they spoke about only to learn she had no idea.

 

Filing through a lengthy line took us into the largest section of the toy show, the Bandai booth. Attendants handed us free goodie bags filled with promotional posters, pamphlets and cards to play arcade tie-ins. The goodies didn’t mean much to me, but who doesn’t love free stuff? Spotting a modern Power Rangers display we hopped into another line for a photo. The colors are the same for the most part although I wasn’t a fan of the animal designs on top of their uniforms. Just looks cheap and less cool, especially in comparison to the original designs. My friend asked me which of the Power Rangers were female. I guessed at least one was going by the slight purple above the White Ranger’s eyes. We quickly realized there were two females based on the simple fact that two were wearing skirts.

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Striking poses that go beyond the traditional Japanese peace sign like raising a fist in the air with oddly shaped short round mascots, we photographed our way through modern versions of many of our favorite childhood shows such as Pokémon. We even got to see a person dressed as Pikachu prance around on stage while classic scenes from the original anime played behind him. The numerous marketing performances throughout the convention center were a welcomed change of pace compared to what I worriedly expected to be shelves and shelves of foreign toys, many of which in the typical otaku fashion of young anime girls with disproportional bodies. I’ll always wonder why those are so popular in Japan.

One memorable toy was a hose nozzle attached to a large number of balloons that would simultaneously fill with water. Brushing it off as an as seen on TV like product that could never possibly work as well as shown, we entered the demo station and watched a man fill at least ten balloons at once. He proved us wrong. Feeling no shame we threw the balloons, fairly inaccurately might I add, at a nearby target. Hitting a bull’s eye can never be nearly as satisfying as pelting your friends.

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The marketing campaign for a baton that spins itself and a Skip-It like toy that attaches to one leg so that you can swing it around your body and jump were reminiscent of American commercials targeted at children, but if they were actually memorable and effective. The campaign involved separate songs with young girls happily dancing around using the product. The Skip-It girls wore street hipster like clothing, while the baton girls wore more traditional clothes. However, by the time the third and final song began I was losing interest simply because there are only so many moves you can do with basic children’s toys. I’d also never forgive myself if I did not mention how lame the automatic spinning baton looks. Just buy a real one.

My friend really liked the remote control submarine designed to take footage of the inside of a fish tank. It may have even won an award. Hopefully there isn’t a propeller underneath the sub because that could end badly very fast.

Another stand out was the glow in the dark aquarium room. The room was exactly what you’d expect: darkness, fish and splashes of warm and cool colors. The smaller tanks gave off chaos emerald vibes from the “Sonic the Hedgehog” video game franchise due to their shape and color.

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Some booths such as the Hot Wheels section really took me back to my not so glorious days where I would set up tracks throughout the house to race my cars. Looking back it was more like I was setting up traps throughout various rooms to trip unwelcome visitors or launch my mini model Porsche at them. Part of me actually considered dropping some yen on a Hot Wheels Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. It’s always nice to see classics from your childhood not destroyed by modern remakes. Strolling through the rest of the convention and wandering past a plethora of things I’ve never seen and most likely will never see again, I was glad to see toys that my younger self would actually want to play with.

Setting Sail for Adventure at Tokyo One Piece Tower

Sword slicing targets

Even though I knew nothing about the popular manga “One Piece,” I figured signing up for the CIEE trip to Tokyo One Piece Tower would be a great way to experience a Japanese landmark coupled with a fun diversion or two. The exhibition was nothing I expected, but that was probably for the better.

My friend jaywalked across the street outside the tower and didn’t notice the cop standing on the other side. In her defense she is from New York. Regardless, she didn’t hear the cop attempting to reprimand her. The cop quickly gave up and smiled to himself, probably shrugging it off as a foreigner being a foreigner.

The exhibit began with interactive panels from the manga. Shadows of hands appeared behind me in front of one of the panels. Unaware that growing multiple arms is one of the character’s powers, I thought my friends were spreading their arms behind me in different directions for inexplicable reasons.

Climbing an escalator to a higher floor, we realized the exhibit was massive, three floors to be exact. Suddenly a woman dressed as a pirate appeared out of nowhere and said something in what many people, but not me, would refer to as the super cute (kawaii!) tone. Grabbing my map, she turned to the third page and excitedly exclaimed, “dun dun dun dun” (similar to that fantastic Legend of Zelda item fanfare) as she pointed to the live show description. The show was just about to begin.

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Audience interaction is a big part of Japanese culture. We were all given colorful torches upon entering the show room. Apparently waving the torches in a specific motion wards off evil and brings happiness. Maybe I should try to invent one of those for my everyday life. The actors looked exactly like the characters if the show took a “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” aesthetic and mixed reality and animation. Although my situation was comparable to my Grandma watching Turner Classic Movies without subtitles, the whimsical personalities of the cast and the cheesy torch waving made for a memorable show.

The next attraction was an adventure course. A name like that meant we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. What began with a few recreations of seemingly important scenes from the manga took a turn for the bizarre when I entered a maze of mirrors. My friends closely followed me to easily navigate the maze. In hopes of making things more interesting, I drastically picked up my pace and left my friends far behind me in the maze. For better and for worse, the only thing that changed was that they now had to put effort into escaping.

Another mirror room later and we found ourselves on one of those bridges inside of a cylinder that give the illusion of the floor moving. Not wanting to get nauseous, I dashed across like a worried mailman running away from a vicious dog. Do dogs really attack mailmen because that always sounded far-fetched?

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Our adventure continued with a 4Dish video. I said ish because wind, smoke and strobe lights played in time with the video, but there was no 3D. A few intense fight scenes played out, while we joked that the smoke released into the room was going to knock us out. Apparently we’ve seen far too many James Bond films, or that’s just me.

The second floor was packed with attractions based on certain characters. One of my favorites was a haunted house simply because my friend panicked when she was startled by the sounds of glass bottles breaking all around her. The rest of the haunted house was relatively tame, featuring predictable jump scares and a strange Ping-Pong ball we had to place in a zombie’s mouth. The real horror from this attraction came from realizing we would have been trapped if we lost the Ping-Pong ball since it was the only way to open the door forward. I’d say we’re just a little too old for this sort of thing.

Interactive sword slicing akin to “Fruit Ninja” or one of those really bad Nintendo Wii motion control games was the next destination (pictured above). I’m not embarrassed to admit I hit none of the targets. The problem was I figured a sword could only reach so far and mistakenly waited until the cannon balls were too close to me to swing my arm. As a gamer you’d think I’d disregard real world logic in this instance.

The worst of the attractions was a casino game, which was further soured by the thirty-minute wait. A wait we will never know the reason behind since the attendant left for some time. All three games were entirely luck based in true Vegas fashion. The first was basically a mini game straight out of the video game “Mario Party” where you select a character and then helplessly sit back and pretend to influence the outcome in whatever means makes you feel more comfortable as you watch them race to the finish line. The second was a roulette wheel. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Pat Sajak or Vanna White equivalent to spur life into the dullness. The final game was something involving a chest opening. We have no idea what happened on that one. All we know is pretty much everyone lost, but isn’t that always the case when you enter a casino?

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After hitting targets with a slingshot and touring a boat set piece, we scaled Tokyo Tower. Kudos to CIEE for possibly picking this date knowing it was the first night that the inside of the tower would be lit up blue in honor of opening the staircase for the summer. On a side note, why is there a shrine for lovers in the tower? Anyways, numerous pictures later we took the stairs all the way down to the bottom and like the “One Piece” pirates, set off in search of more treasure to make our trip even more rewarding.

Under The Tokyo Disney Sea

Indiana Jones Ride

Having relatives in Florida meant Disney World was an almost annual event for my family. After tearing up at the end of “Toy Story 3,” going on numerous magic carpet rides through the “Aladdin” films and seeing more happy endings than a season of “Undercover Boss,” I was more than ready to experience Disney with a Japanese twist.

Disney Sea’s iconic Volcano, yes Volcano, loomed in the distance as the shuttle took us around the massive resort. The shuttle’s Mickey Mouse windows and handles brimmed with Disney’s trademark charm. We were greeted at the entrance by a golden steam punk style ship straight out of “Treasure Planet” along with a giant globe oddly reminiscent of the Universal Studios logo. A marching band played with various instruments and our nostalgia just outside the front gate.

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Our first objective was collecting fast pass tickets to cut lines for the busier rides. Wandering toward the same Tower of Terror ride I was familiar with from America, I noticed strange signs on garbage bins saying to keep NYC clean. Growing up in New York I couldn’t help but wonder if this was mere coincidence. Moments later we stumbled upon a New York Deli. Who knew there would be a section of the park called the American Waterfront? I wonder how popular it is with the locals.

I used my ticket to get one of our friends a pass for the Tower of Terror. Rookie mistake. Getting a fast pass at the next ride I actually wanted to go on proved fruitless and not just because I lost a banana I planned to snack on. Lame jokes aside, I couldn’t get a pass because I already had one for another ride during the same time slot.

My first burger in Japan, appropriately located in American Harbor, was filled with thin meat that might as well have been transparent because the burger was so light it might not even satisfy Jiminy Cricket’s appetite. But hey, they nailed those New York price points, so kudos to Disney. Speaking of New York, I have to discuss the New York Deli. Up until this point every sandwich I’ve seen in Japan has been exceptionally small by New York standards. Naturally I’d be excited to gorge myself in the true American way. The hype was crushed faster than Wile E. Coyote under a grand piano after failing one of his countless attempts to kill the Road Runner. Lets just say the sandwiches were a bit lacking.

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Better start talking about the rides somewhere before I hit that word count. We stepped into line and saw the typical wait time displayed for a ride, about 100 minutes. As a big Indiana Jones fan I eagerly anticipated what sort of wild adventure this ride would take me on. The problem comes when you begin to worry how intense the ride will be. The fear overcame two of our friends. Chickening out, they left for the very tame “Little Mermaid” section. At this point I contemplated leaving the line. I dislike roller coasters because of their sudden drops and loops that cause the strangest sensation in my stomach. I even resorted to Googling the ride to find out its intensity. The point of no return soon came. My passion for the film coupled with an acceptable description of the ride kept me going.

Waiting in this line made me realize two things. One, waiting in lines really gives you a lot of opportunities to bond with your friends. There really isn’t much else you can do in these situations, which brings me to my second point. We could have watched the entire Indiana Jones film in the time it took to get on the ride. Now I really want to see it again.

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I might be in the minority here, but the ride was slightly disappointing. Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it (See above picture). Fake Harrison Ford was a highlight, however I had no idea what he told us. The ride was a short coaster that jerked around cliffs and mysterious traps as we searched for the crystal skull. Thankfully this crystal skull is unrelated to the recent Indiana Jones film that probably prevented the current generation from enjoying the original trilogy. Constant worries of sudden drops or speed boasts during the many pitch-black sections had me on edge. Evading a giant boulder while listening to the famous theme song made us want to explore tombs with outdated cowboy hats and man purses, though no one wanted a whip.

Other things worth noting include special popcorn flavors scattered throughout the park like curry and cappuccino. I went with cappuccino, which tasted too bitter. Performances and parades had cultural flair. Imagine listening to your favorite Robin William’s genie song in Japanese. Meanwhile, most adults actively chased after Disney characters to get pictures. One more thing worth noting about the people is that the number of couples rivaled Paris. Plus they wore matching clothes. I don’t think I could wear the same outfit as my partner. Similarly, many groups of girls wore the same clothes and did their hair to look like quintuplets. #OnlyinJapan.

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After enjoying one of those barbaric like turkey legs in the castle at the Mediterranean Harbor section, we began Leonardo’s challenge. Leonardo’s challenge is a simple scavenger hunt with riddles and clues at specific locations throughout the castle. It’s most likely designed for kids, although everyone’s a kid at Disney right? Questioning our decision to participate, we almost quit out of embarrassment when hitting the correct sequence of buttons on a door triggered an enthusiastic “so desu ka!” Toughing it out to the end unfortunately didn’t lead to a physical prize, but we reigned supreme among the many kids and one elderly couple participating in the game.

06/15/2016

Snack Around Japan (without having to travel)

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   Japan is so packed with delicious foods and snacks that it might be a little overwhelming. However, if you’ve been in Tokyo for a while, you start to get the hang of things. But what if you want to get a taste of the rest of Japan, but can’t leave Tokyo? The dmart47 project has the answer. For a short period of time, the project has an open space in Shibuya where you can get your share of diverse local flavors. Located on the 8th floor of the Hikarie mall, you will find a tiny, but very colorful konbini. It might be a bit puzzling at first to see a little convenience store snuggled in between art exhibits on this floor, but it’s selection make it not only unique, but fun. The little pop-up is definitely aimed more towards local Tokyo-ites, but it also offers plenty of fun for any visiting student or tourist.

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              You walk in the door, a cute voice chimes “D-maaaaaruto” over the intercom, and all the goodies lay out before you. While the size is not very impressive, the space was very neat and all of the stock looked amazing! Most of the stock here you won’t find in any other local konbini, and some of the selection is not even produced on a large scale anymore, (A fact that was confirmed by my host parents, when I brought back a favorite childhood snack for them). The space was divided into several sections, the closest being favorite household goods, stationary supplies, and other odds and ends. This is the most eclectic collection with goods ranging from nice soaps to weirdly expensive umbrellas priced around 8,500 yen! (near $85 dollars) Thankfully the umbrellas appeared to be the only very expensive thing in stock, weirdly enough. The next selection was snacks and candies. All carefully packed in cute wrapping, the selection ranged from dried squid, to crackers, and sweets. My favorite section however, was the drinks. The entire back wall is chock-full of sodas, beers, juices, and sake. Most of them are so tempting, and that was just from their cute packaging. I did cave, and bought a delicious pineapple cider from Yamagata.

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              Unfortunately, the pop-up konbini ends mid-June, but Hikarie’s 8th floor has various other interesting rotating exhibits to offer all year round. Ranging from limited art shows to conceptual design stores, a “creative comic” café, and minimalist book store, the “museum floor” has a lot to offer, and that is just this month’s selection. Of course, if you’re looking for a change of pace, you have an entire mall at your disposal. However, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for pop-ups here and in other parts of Tokyo. Since I come from a small town, the idea of pop-up stores is particularly special, and being in a large city gives you the opportunity to check out conceptual stores like this. Keep your ears to the ground, eyes on the internet, and a good Japanese friend close, and you are sure to find an interesting pop-up store like this one.

 Here is their promotional video, if you would like to get a further taste:

8/TV/088 d mart 47 - 47都道府県のご当地ものコンビニ - / 日本のちゃんとでお買い物編 from 8/TV on Vimeo.

06/14/2016

Sometimes It's Good to Take a Break

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     Bustling subways, colorful lights, busy streets—if you’re in the city for a while, Tokyo life may seem as if it’s what all of Japan is like. It’s too easy to forget there’s a whole other country out there when you’re caught up with the daily commute, school, and events with friends. While Tokyo is beautiful and fun, it’s good to step out of the city every once and a while and see what the rest of the country is like. After all, you wouldn’t say someone who has only experience New York City has experience all of America, right?

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              This past weekend I was lucky enough to delve deep into Chiba prefecture to get a real feel of the county life in Japan—and it was stunning. Only after an hour the city had melted away and verdant rice paddies spread out on either side of the highway. A little farther and we were in a thick forest, sunlight filtering down from above and dappling the road. The contrast between Tokyo was breathtaking, especially at how quickly the congested city turned to wild countryside. Our car popped in and out of tunnels as we passed through small slopes until we were far away from all city sound. Fake bird calls from train stations were replaced by a loud chorus of birds and the sigh of the wind. It felt quite therapeutic and calming, especially after over two months of being in just the city.

              We spent some time hiking through the woods and had a lovely picnic with our host family, eating in a little wooden gazeebo by the road. Just a little way down the path from us we could hear children playing in the nearby waterfall. Back in the car again, we wove between small roads, which were occasionally dotted with signs warning about tanuki (a Japanese raccoon-dog) or monkey crossings. Who knew that just outside Tokyo, tanuki were running around everywhere? But in all seriousness, it was beautiful.

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              A little farther along in the trip and the terrain started changing again. Trees started to look a little more tropical and forests gave way to beaches. We had made it to Kamogawa. The little seaside town had a strong Floridian vibe—with little resorts and its very own (small) Sea World to match. There were quite a few differences however, one being the plethora of onsen spas sprinkled throughout the area. While some might be a little hesitant to be naked in front of strangers, the experience is actually not embarrassing at all. Some of the onsen in Kamogawa even have a lovely ocean view from their outdoor bathes! Nothing beats a soak in a hot bath next to the ocean after a long day of hiking and travelling.

              While leaving Tokyo may seem like a bit of a hassle at first, it as an experience completely worth taking. Getting a feel for a place of a completely different pace is not only rewarding, but also completely fun. You meet different kinds of people, try different foods, and experience some lovely onsen.

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A Brief and Inadequate Guide to Survival Japanese

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Before coming to Japan, I had studied Japanese for 2.5 years. In my home university, I am officially “advanced.” I will tell you, straight and clear, that I was nowhere near “advanced” when I arrived in Japan. I could and can communicate—so let’s just go with “survivable.” With enough gestures and a Japanese-English dictionary app however, one might even say that I was “actually more than just survivable!” However, one thing that has and still does hit me in the face is my total inaptitude at actually using practical Japanese.

Teachers will tell you that you will learn these skills on your own. You will be forced to use it, so there’s no need to waste study and/or class time on learning how to order food at a restaurant, or the most polite way to avert attention from restaurant solicitors on the street (TIP: if are a visible foreigner, they will follow and badger you). If you like me, you might just accidentally end up responding to the waitress’s irrashaimase (welcome!) with another irrashaimase.

For those who haven’t studied Japanese before, this barrier is (obviously) even higher. I knew, and still know the feeling. Not knowing kanji is hard enough, but having to get used to the two other writing systems can be hellish. Japanese words can seem long and ghoulishly impossible to memorize. I remember sounding out ever syllable in the beginning: “i-ta-da-ki-ma-su?” “shi-na-ke-re-ba-na-ra-nai”?

Simply ghoulish.

Thus, I have chosen to make my own extremely brief, and incomprehensive guide to surviving in Japan as someone who is far from fluent in Japanese. And someone might tell you that this excuse for a guide is inadequate and makes one sound like a total foreigner. They are absolutely right. Nevertheless, they are things that helped me navigate Tokyo.

  1. When you’re entering a normal restaurant, one of the first questions
    you will be asked is 何名様ですか (nan men sama desu ka—how many people?). If you’re eager to practice your numbers, you can say 一人 (hitori—one person), 二人 (futari—two people), 三人 (san nin—three people), and so on.
  2. When leaving the restaurant, I’ve been told that the proper thing to say is ごちそうさまでした (gochisousama deshita—thank you for the meal). ありがとうございます (arigatou gozaimasu—thank you) is of course also okay.
  3. When you’re in a fast food restaurant, and want to get carry-out, say 持ち帰り(mochikaeri). Alternatively, you can just gesture towards the door. If you want to eat in, ここで (koko de—here) is enough. If you want to get “only the burger,” for example, you can say たんぴん (tanpin—single item). If you want the set, just sayセット (setto).
  4. The most useful word you can know in Japanese is すみません (sumimasen). Use it to say sorry, excuse me, or to get someone’s attention. It’s honestly priceless.
  5. If the menu has pictures, and you want to try using Japanese, just point and say これをお願いします (kore o onegaimashimasu). Pointing is obviously also enough, but it’s always fun to try. When you’re done ordering all the desired items, you can just say 以上 (ijyou—that is all).
  6. If you mess up in the subway (for example, you enter through the wrong entrance, or use the wrong exit), I’ve found that walking up to the nice man watching the subway gates and hesitantly saying すみません、間違いました (sumimasen, machigaimashita—sorry, I made a mistake) is generally enough to have your mistake corrected. Of course, this should be done immediately after realizing that you have made this mistake. Similarly, there are moments when you can’t get through a gate even though you have enough money on your subway card. So far, hesitantly sayingすみません (sumimasen) to the same nice man has solved this problem for me immediately without requiring any extra explanation or context.
  7. If someone you don’t know is talking to you, or is trying to give you something on the street and you don’t understand/don’t want what is given, just looking down and slightly bowing/nodding your head is enough. In some ways, it’s the polite thing to do. If desired, you can also throw in the forever-handy すみません(sumimasen), if your heart desires.

But honestly, you’ll get a hang of it. People in Japan are extremely kind, generally speaking, and everyone is eager to help (or at least find someone to help). So let loose, listen closely, and speak badly! 

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