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10/02/2014

Fall 2014 Semester Begins!

Twenty-one students from schools across the US arrived safely on September 16, eager to begin an unforgettable semester (or year) in Japan!

Our comprehensive two-week orientation period began soon after arrival, so students participated in icebreakers and intercultural training activities, and also learned about safety and important logistics. Other sessions focused on group-oriented Japanese society, behavioral norms, expectations, cultural adjustment, and of course, academics.

Here are just a few highlights from the orientation:

Life Safety Learning Center

Safety is a top priority for CIEE. As part of orientation we visited the Life Safety Learning Center, operated by the Tokyo Fire Department. Students learned how to use a fire extinguisher, how to evacuate a burning building, and how to protect themselves in an earthquake simulation.

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Putting out a simulated fire

Kamakura

On September 26, we enjoyed a guided tour through Kamakura, one of Japan’s former capitals. We visited Hachimangu Shrine (over 900 years old), followed by the Daibutsu (‘Great Buddha’), and Hasedera Temple. Our local tour guides did an amazing job explaining the importance of these sites and their impact on Japanese culture, religion, and art.

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Hachimangu Shrine

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Daibutsu (the 'Great Buddha' statue)

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In front of Hasedera Temple

Classes

Classes started for our students at Sophia University on September 30. By actively engaging in coursework, participating in CIEE activities and excursions, and being immersed in Japanese society, we are confident that our students will develop skills for living in a multicultural, global society.

Stay tuned for more updates throughout the semester. Until next time! Mata ne!

 

 

08/04/2014

Celebrating a Great Spring 2014 Semester

After a hectic few weeks of final exams, the CIEE Spring 2014 semester program officially came to an end on July 31. Over the past four months our students immersed themselves in Japanese culture and society by joining student clubs, spending time with host families, exploring the country on their own, and participating in CIEE activities and excursions. Here are just a few things that happened since our last post...

Taiko Drumming Workshop

On June 18, CIEE students participated in a taiko drumming workshop. In taiko, sound is combined with dynamic movements to create truly exhilarating performances. We learned some basic rhythms and by the end of the lesson were able to play a simple, upbeat song. Hitting the drum properly is a lot harder than it looks, and we were all quite sore the next day. At the end of the workshop the instructors kindly treated us to an incredible performance!  

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Learning some basic rhythms

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Students Shoko, Jessica, and Andre are actually members
of the taiko club at their home university! Before going home
they played a song and showed us some more cool techniques.

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Amazing performance by the instructors!

 

Wagashi Confectionary

On June 25 we had the privilege of learning how to make wagashi confectionaries from an experienced professional. Wagashi are delicate snacks made from rice, beans, and other natural ingredients, and are shaped into flowers that represent the seasons. These characteristics reflect the strong connection between nature and Japanese food and art. They are fun to make and very tasty, too!

Wagashi 1

Wagashi 2

Wagashi 5

 

End-of-Semester Celebration

We celebrated a successful semester with student presentations, prizes, and delicious food! During the first half, some brave volunteers stepped on stage to talk about their most memorable activities in Japan. Two groups presented on the taiko workshop and on their climb up Mt. Fuji, respectively. This was followed by a heartfelt thank you message to host families and a student made video presentation. Later that night we gave out prizes for a photo contest, as well as for the scavenger hunt that was held at the start of the semester.

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Presentation on the taiko drumming workshop

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Dr. Jensen posing with students after distributing prizes

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Students eating and chatting with the dorm manager (left)

Our students have grown significantly over these past four months. We had an amazing group this semester, and while we are sad to see them go, we are also excited to see what the future has in store for them. Mina-san, ganbatte kudasai!

 

Check out more posts by our student bloggers!

Ildiko Kemp: http://study-abroad-blog-tokyo-as.ciee.org/ildiko-kemp/

Samantha McDonald: http://study-abroad-blog-tokyo-as.ciee.org/samantha-mcdonald/

Teresa Fong: http://study-abroad-blog-tokyo-as.ciee.org/teresa-fong/

Tori Fukumitsu: http://study-abroad-blog-tokyo-as.ciee.org/tori-fukumitsu/

Tyler Pircio: http://study-abroad-blog-tokyo-as.ciee.org/tyler-pircio/

 

 

 

07/23/2014

Exploring Edo-style Kawagoe

One of my most memorable experiences here in Japan was visiting Kawagoe. Through Seibu Travel (partnered with CIEE), I went with four other students on a day trip to the Edo-style town about an hour outside of Tokyo.

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We started the morning visiting a shrine and a temple, taking in the peaceful silence and admiring the woodblock prayers that hung on wooden archways. At lunchtime, we took a bus to "Old Town," a series of streets based on the old Edo-style architecture. Our guides welcomed us in front of a mochi shop, and we were led to a special room in the back where we were served delicious teishoku set meals.

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As expected, the food has been one of the biggest highlights of my experience here, and I really liked how the set tray divided each of the meats and vegetables--chicken, fish, eel, cabbage--into their own separate compartments. Each compartment had its own unique flavor, alongside by a bowl of sticky rice.

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Kawagoe is especially known for its sweet potatoes, and many of the shops in Old Town sell dishes and sweets with cooked sweet potatoes. We stopped at an ice cream shop after lunch and ate purple sweet potato ice cream, which was really good.

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Our next activity was a trip to a yukata shop, where each of us got to wear a traditional yukata and walk around the town in wooden block shoes. The shoes made it pretty difficult to walk around very far, but wearing the clothing and looking the part of an old-time Japanese person while checking out the small shops was a very unique experience.

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Though the test tour ended in the early afternoon, my group and I decided to walk back to Old Town and keep shopping. By that time many of the shops were closing and it had started to rain, but with the quiet lantern-lit streets and the sun setting in the background, it was really beautiful. Our last stop of the evening was at a rice waffle shop where we ate fudge-topped rice waffles. It was also really interesting to see that the owner's house was directly connected to the shop itself, something about which added to the homely feeling of Kawagoe. We caught a rapid train headed back to Shinjuku, and fell asleep, exhausted, on the hour-ride home.

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Before I came to Japan, I thought that I would be spending a lot of time in solitude. While I love being around people, I pictured myself traveling the countryside and learning about my heritage and identity mostly on my own. But as my time abroad has progressed, I have realized more and more what a big difference it makes to share those experiences with other people. While I would probably have really enjoyed Kawagoe on my own, it was even more special because I got to enjoy it with friends. I have been very lucky to have these memorable experiences, but moreover to have made such amazing friendships that I know will exist beyond my time abroad.

Living the Homestay Life

Though my study abroad experience is on the back-nine, I have found myself enjoying my experience more and more, and have grown really comfortable living in Japan. Some of my best experiences have been shared with my host family, making food, playing games, and picking blueberries. 

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Part of what influenced my decision to choose to live with a host family was a film I watched for a Japanese Film class called “Still Walking” (Aruitemo aruitemo). Depicting a single day in the life of a Japanese family living in the suburbs, the film made me think of myself living in that house. With the sounds of crackling tempura, kids running in and out of the house during the day, and crickets chirping at night, I constructed an image of what my homestay experience would be like. 

At first, it was actually somewhat difficult for me to adjust to my new living situation. Because I am half Japanese-American but know very little Japanese, I felt somewhat discouraged to try to speak Japanese even in places as common as convenience stores and restaurants. While I look Japanese on the outside, as soon as I opened my mouth and started speaking, I would receive strange looks and reactions, and felt embarrassed. This transferred to my interactions with my host family, where I felt somewhat discouraged that they were might be disappointed that I could not speak Japanese. 

But after I while, I remembered why I chose to live in a homestay in the first place, and on a larger level, to come to Japan at all: I was here to learn about a part of my identity, and to immerse myself in a culture that was both familiar and completely foreign to me. I made a concerted effort to try to speak Japanese in public, realizing that I would make mistakes, but that they would be constructive to my learning of the language. I also spent a lot more time at home with my three host kids, playing tag, watching Ghibli films, and playing UNO. 

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My host parents are very busy with work on top of taking care of the three kids, so doing activities together have been really special. A few weeks ago, we were eating a delicious sashimi dinner that my host mom had fixed, and I asked her if I could make pancakes with the host kids. As I am used to going to the grocery store and getting all of the ingredients and making them from scratch, I had something of an idea of what I was expecting. It turned out that my host mom had her own pancake-maker, and when the kids and I got around the table to start making pancakes on Sunday, she had already kindly bought all of the ingredients for us. We made pancakes with a nutella-ish chocolate fudge and it really made my weekend.

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Typically my weekends are spent doing work and out exploring Tokyo, with Sundays devoted to games and movies with the host kids. This past weekend, we took a walk to a nearby farm and filled little baskets full of blueberries. We really lucked out on the weather that day as the summer heat seemed to evaporate for that hour. But something about the experience really reminded me of that movie “Still Walking,” with the sounds of the farm, the kids running ahead excited about picking blueberries. It has been experiences like this that have made me feel at home here at my homestay and in Japan, and I am very grateful for all that they have done for me. 

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Ise, Nagoya, and Aichi

This past weekend my friend Yui gave me the wonderful opportunity to meet her family in Aichi. We left by Shinkansen Friday evening and arrived in Nagoya about 1 1/2 hours later. Yui’s family actually lived in America for 3 years, so they were very nice and understanding of my American background. Her mom even hugged me four times which is more than I have received from anyone in the past four months!

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Ise

On Saturday we got up at 4 am and drove 3 hours to the town of Ise. Ise is home to the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮, Ise Jingū), one of , if not the most, important Shinto shrines in all of Japan.

Wikipedia Definition: “Located in the city of Ise in Mie prefecture, Japan, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami. Officially known simply as Jingū (神宮?), Ise Jingū is in fact a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮?) and Gekū (外宮?).

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The shrines at Ise are rebuilt every 20 years as a symbol of death, renewal , and the impermanence of all things. Everything , at one time or another, will die and become anew. I believe this process of rebuilding has been completed 62 times which is 1,240 years that this tradition has remained intact. At each shrine, we placed coins in a donation box, bowed twice, clapped twice, prayed, bowed once more and moved onto the next shrine. This process is repeated for every shrine, each representing a different spirit of Shintoism. I was completely out of coins by the end of the day but it was worth it. I should also point out that even though the shrines were busy, I saw only 2-4 other non-japanese people the entire day. 

Imperial Regalia of Japan (三種の神器 Sanshu no Jingi) or The Deathly Hallows!!

Ise is also the supposed home of the sacred mirror Yata no Kagami which is part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there are three sacred Shinto items. A sword, a mirror, and a jewel.

Wikipedia:“Due to the legendary status of these items, their locations are not confirmed, but it is commonly thought that the sword is located at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, the jewel is located at Kōkyo (the Imperial Palace) in Tōkyō, and the mirror is located in the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie prefecture.”

These items are extremely sacred to the Japanese people. So scared in fact that no one except for the imperial family is allowed to ever see these items. No photographs or drawings of the items exist, but their divine power is still believed by all who hear about their story.

Nagoya

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On the second day, we drove to Nagoya to explore the city. I really like Nagoya. It was like a mini version of Tokyo except much hotter. Yui and I went to a Kuma Cafe (Bear Cafe) for lunch and then had a really expensive but amazingly delicious parfait for dessert. In between we spent some time walking around the main city streets and walked all the way to Nagoya Station to ride the Shikansen back home.

It was a really beautiful trip. Yui and her family are some of the nicest people I have met in Japan. They were so kind as to let me into their home and take care of me for a few days. They gave me a wonderful opportunity to see a new place and Japan and to spend some time with some really amazing people.

Her mom gave me chopsticks at the end of my stay because the word for chopsticks is the same as bridge in Japanese and she enjoyed having me “bridge” the gap between America in Japan. I promised her that if Yui ever came to America I would definitely give her the same wonderful experience with my family.

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Ramen of Tokyo

Ramen in the States often has the misconception to be only a quick and cheap packaged food that is really nothing special.  But in Japan, it’s a warm delicacy of perfectly cooked noodles, delicious broth, marinated egg (almost always cooked to perfection with a golden yellow yolk, making it often the best part of the ramen), slow cooked pork, and other toppings depending on the shop.  It may not be very healthy, but it is one of the most satisfying foods of Japan. 

            My first inclination was to check out Ramen Street in Tokyo station, filled with some of the most famous ramen shops in Tokyo.  First I tried a restaurant serving a classic shouyu or “soy sauce” broth ramen, called Honda Ramen.  There was a bit of a line, but it moved relatively quickly and the anticipation may have made it even better.  Once we got our seat, we quickly received our ramen.  The presentation was pretty; nice, simple, elegant.  It was really tasty, and included one of the best marinated eggs that I’ve had.  Overall rating: 8.5

            We soon went back to Ramen Street to try another ramen shop there, this time going for a Tsukemen (the noodles are separated from the broth, so one dips the noodles into the broth, hence the name “dipping noodles”) restaurant called Rokurinsha.  It was my first time having Tsukemen, and I quickly became a believer (though I still prefer classic ramen).  The broth here, was exceptional.  Overall rating: 8

R-tsuke

            I had been hearing rave reviews of a very accessible ramen shop near to Sophia University campus, a ramen shop serving “tomato ramen.”  It sounds slightly revolting at first, but it’s rapidly growing trend in Japan.  I decided to order the “cheese ramen” and in it was tomato broth, thin spaghetti-like noodles, celery, and loads of parmesan cheese.  It was much better than I expected, and I would certainly go back for more.  Overall rating: 7.5

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            Next was another place of easy access, this time located near our dorm.  Nicknamed “Protein Ramen” by many of the students living in the dorm due to its overwhelming amount of pork, and overall oversized portion for an unbelievable 600 yen, this Jiro Ramen copy is only suggested for the extremely hungry.  Inside is no talking, only eating.  Maintaining concentration is key.  The broth is an extremely fatty Tonkotsu or “pork bone” broth.  Larger portions of the already immense bowl of ramen are offered, but it seems to be only for the big guys.  The sluggish feeling after eating this ramen that occurs may not be worth it, though it is tasty while eating it.  Overall rating: 5.5

            On the contrary, the small chain Ippudo (haling from Fukuouka on a Southern Island of Japan) which has a shop in New York City, offers a clean and simple ramen, with thin noodles, non-fatty pork, an array of toppings on the table in an elegant Tonkotsu Broth.  It was great.  Overall rating: 8

            In Japan, there seems to be a low tolerance for spice, so it’s easy for spice lovers to crave something extremely spicy.  This led us to our ramen adventure in Kanda, to the devil’s shop called Kikanbo.  The décor is of demons with endless demon masks, and music playing is intense percussion music.  After placing your order, you are asked how spicy you want your ramen on two different levels: “hot” spiciness, and “numbing” spiciness, both offering three levels from which to choose, and if you can eat level three, they give you permission to get “demon level.”  But I got level 3 of “hot” and level 1 of “numbing.”  The broth was just hot.  The topping were different: baby corn and white onion.  It was good, and definitely satisfied by craving for something spicy, but the after effects for my stomach were not fun.  Overall rating: 6

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            The next place, located in Shibuya, was really great for it’s beef.  It was a slowly cooked, pot-roast-like beef that came on top of noodles with the broth in another bowl, therefore making it Tsukemen.  The meat was completely falling of the bone, and had unbelievable flavor.  The broth was great too, hinting at small amounts of perhaps tomato, carrot, and other unusual ingredients.  The noodles, here, were cooked to perfection.  Overall rating: 8.5

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            The next shop is a very famous shop in Tokyo, despite its obscure, hard-to-get-to location.  Located in Rokucho, the only way to get here is by the Tsukuba Express train line, which can be slightly hard to reach.  Then, it’s about a 15-minute walk from the station.  Once we arrived, there was a long line of people waiting outside the brightly lit shop.  We got on line, and it luckily moved very quickly.  Our order was taken while on line, so we got our famous, extremely rich tonkotsu broth ramen upon sitting, and it was amazing.  The scallion was piled on, and it contained some of the best pork that I’ve had in ramen.  The egg, was unbelievable.  Overall rating: 9

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            Next was a place famous for their combination tonkotsu-soy sauce broth.  Named Bario in Ochanomizu, this shop has the character for “men” all over the shop, and supposedly, if one can finish the entire dish, the bottom of the bowl says “you are a real man.”  There was no way I could finish; the portion size was huge!  Bean sprouts were piled on high, and there seemed to be endless noodles. It was tasty, yet we all felt slightly sick after consumption. Overall rating: 6.5

            Lastly was a place that cooks their ramen broth at a temperature so high that it’s called “burn miso ramen.”  Called Gogyo and located in Roppongi, this shop is quite tricky to find.  But if you can find it, it’s worth it.  Inside, the tables look like they are just chopped trees, giving a very natural feel to the interior.  The ramen came out, and the broth was dark, but it smelled irresistible.  Everything about the ramen was perfect; the noodles, the toppings, the broth, the egg, the pork, the portion, the atmosphere, etc.  It was surely my favorite ramen of Tokyo, due to its extremely unique taste.  Overall rating: 9.5

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Mt. Fuji Trek

Climbing Mt. Fuji was treacherous, exhausting, fun, long, and cold, but the climb was just half the battle; both preparation and the descent are parts we may forget about, yet they are certainly just as arduous if not more so than the climb up.   It may have been one of the most grueling things that I’ve ever had to endure, but once at the top, it was all worth it. 

            Preparation was stressful because everyone seemed to be over preparing, buying tons of gear and really creating a stressful environment before the hike.  Luckily having each other, though, was helpful as we could all find out exactly what we needed from those who have had more experience hiking. 

            On the day of the hike, we all met at Shinjuku at 7:30 to catch the bus to Mt. Fuji.  There were 18 of us, all ready and raring to go at the start.  Once we arrived at the mountain, we grabbed some lunch and sat for a bit to get acclimated to the thinner air.  Then the hike began.  It was a misty day, a constant light spray of rain.  Visibility was low; off the side of the mountain, we could only see white clouds.  We were worried as to what we would be able to see from the top of the mountain. 

            The beginning of the hike was easy-going.  It was a relatively low-incline slope, though rocky.  But it quickly became more difficult, with steeper slopes and slippery rock.  We had to take breaks every 30 minutes or so everyone could grab water, and to make sure no one was getting altitude sickness.  Our goal was still five hours away. 

            We climbed and climbed, making it to the different stations of Mt. Fuji, and entered thinner trails that got more crowded with people.  People on their way down who had reached the top had informed us that they could see nothing because of the clouds, really bringing our spirits down.

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After what seemed like days of hiking in the rain, we finally reached the eighth station of Mt. Fuji at 6 pm, which was our resting stop for the beginning half of the night.  We stayed in a hut there with many other hikers, getting curry for dinner and a bento for breakfast before our hike to the top.  The hut was crowded, damp, and dirty, and other hikers were getting sick and fainting.  Yet we were so exhausted, that it was just nice to have a place to rest. 

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Many of tried to sleep, but failed.  At least our bodies rested for a few hours.  At 2:00 am, we headed up the remaining two hours of the mountain.  It was dark, very cold, and extremely crowded at this point on the trail.  However, the rain had miraculously stopped, and we could even see city lights all the way at the bottom of Mt. Fuji! 

After stop and go traffic of people up the rest of mountain, we finally made it to the top!  We arrived about and hour before sunrise, so in the meantime we tried to stay warm.  The sun began to come up, and it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  The colors of the sunrise were magnificent, and the view below of lakes, towns and smaller mountains was breathtaking.  I wish I could relive that moment. We were later informed that we got to view one of the best and clearest sunrises that occurred in almost 30 years on Mt. Fuji, making it all worth it. 

F-sunrise

After the sun had arisen, we went to check out the rest of the summit, seeing the gigantic, snow-filled crater, as Mt. Fuji is a volcano, as well as going to the highest point of the mountain, all while viewing the impeccable landscape around us.  It was so strange to be up so high, but it is something that I’ll never forget. 

F-crater

The hike down was miserable.  The first two hours down, we could barely move because the trail was so thin and people were going both up and down.  And once past that, our legs and feet were so tired that it was hard to maintain balance. We were on a winding, never-ending trail of gravel, causing many of us to fall.  Luckily, I didn't. 

We finally reached our starting point, and most of us wanted to sleep on the ground until the bus came.  Instead, we got some Mt. Fuji famous “cowberry” ice cream to end our long but awesome hike.  It’s something I would probably never do again, but I couldn’t be happier to have done it. 

F-top

07/22/2014

Nikko

It’s easy to take advantage of the train system in Japan to take day trips out of Tokyo, and sometimes it’s necessary to get out of such a bustling metropolis.  Nikko is a perfect example, only two hours away, hosting some of the most beautiful natural scenery and traditional Japanese shrines. 

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            The train ride was simple, yet we messed up, forgetting to transfer and causing us to go further than needed.  We realized this pretty early on, fortunately, and were able to catch a train going to Nikko at one of the stations.  The train we caught, however, was peculiar.  It was two cars only, and was old-fashioned with various decorations on the inside.  While on the train, people were selling pickles, and later we were given maps of Nikko.  I’ve never been on such a train while in Japan, but it was certainly a cool experience. 

            When you arrive in a place of misty mountains, you know you’re in Nikko.  The town was small and quaint with shop-lined streets.  It’s easy to navigate Nikko if you buy an all-day bus pass that takes you anywhere in Nikko. 

            Our first stop was the famous Tosho-gu Shrine.  There, we were able to immerse ourselves in the culture by entering through a straw ring, circling through it three times before going up to the temple.  We also witnessed a Buddhist ritual occurring, seeing a monk chanting a sutra while making a fire. 

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            Next was lunch.  We found a street filled with restaurants, and we went for some excellent tempura.  We checked out some shops, including an interesting music box shop with music boxes playing traditional Japanese music, and then headed for Kegon falls.

            The ride to the massive waterfall was long, up a tall mountain via a winding road on a big, speeding bus.  It was a little scary, but fun nonetheless, and the awesome views helped too.  After thirty minutes up the mountain, we arrived at the top and falls, and it was raining hard.  We could hear the waterfall, but couldn’t see it because of the mist.  But as we got closer to it, it began to appear. 

            It was such an amazing sight.  Despite the rain and long bus ride, the view made it all worth it.  The mixture of the tall mountains and soothing sound of the waterfall provided for a magical experience. 

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            A giant lake was nearby, so we walked to check that out.  It was mysterious, with fog floating eerily above the lake.  A giant red Torii gate with lake in the background made a really cool view. 

            On the way back to the station, there was one more thing on our list: get some honey ice cream, as it was the first time we had seen it Japan.  We all loved it. 

            Although Nikko is known for ninjas as well, we unfortunately did not get to see any.  And the rain couldn't ruin our day, because we got to see some great sights of traditional Japan. 

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Obon Matsuri

    Last Thursday night I slept over at my friend’s house in Yokohama. What I thought was a regular sleepover turned out to be a surprise matsuri (festival) celebrating Obon. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist holiday in which people honor their ancestors. Many festivals have fireworks and an assortment of street foods to enjoy and people often dress in yukata (cotton summer kimono).

    My friend’s host mother and her friend helped us to wear yukata. We each got to pick out our favorite yukata pattern and obi (belt). She also let us borrow bags and some flip flops. I chose a yukata with a black base with small white leaves and large flowers colored in green, orange, and blue. I chose an orange obi to go with it. Two of my other friends also chose dark colored yukata with floral patterns. One interesting thing about yukata and obi is that it is perfectly ok, and normal, for the yukata and obi not to match in color or pattern. Contrasts are supposed to make it more interesting and appealing to the eye. However, because I am American, I had to have my obi match at least a little bit to my yukata.  Obon Matsuri Yukata    One important part of Obon matsuri is Bon Odori, Obon dances. The dances were originally intended to welcome the spirits of the deceased but now it has become fun and entertainment for people of all ages. Dances differ from region to region, which explains why my host family did not know any of the dances when I told them about the festival (we live in Tokyo). My friends and I tried to follow along with the dances and it was a lot of fun even though we messed up a lot. We did an obake (ghost) dance and a dance where everyone shouted “ai shiteru” (“I love you”). We also did a dance move that looked a lot like swimming.

    After dancing we worked up an appetite so we walked down to the food stalls. There was so much to choose from and it all smelled so good. I wanted to eat everything. My friend and I decided to split two things: a baked potato and buta bara (grilled pork on a stick). You buy a baked potato and then you get access to all the condiments. We chose corn, butter, and salt. There were huge buckets of soft butter and we smothered the baked potato in it. So delicious! The grilled pork was also really tasty and well-seasoned. After eating we washed it down with some peach flavored ramune (a type of soda).

    After we got home we went into the back yard and proceeded to do hanabi (fireworks). My favorite was the sparklers. Because I am from New York City I never had the chance to do fireworks when I was younger because they are prohibited in the city. Therefore, it was a really special treat for me to use the fireworks. We concluded the day with cake and showers, extremely tired and extremely satisfied with the day’s events.

Rakugo

    Last week I went with a friend to see Raguko. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese art of comedic story telling. Rakugo is as much about aesthetics and customs as it is about the jokes themselves. Rakugo is performed by a single actor who plays every role in the story. The actor wears traditional Japanese clothing, yukata and kimono. There are only two props the actor is allowed to use, a fan and handkerchief. With these two props the rakugo master can produce any item imaginable. The rakugo actor can also manipulate their voice in order to imitate a man, a woman, someone old, someone young, etc. They can also manipulate their voice to create setting in a story. For example, an actor can throw their voice so that it sounds as if they are far away from the audience or in a spacious room.

    I was also given the opportunity to see a traditional Japanese art called Daikagura performed by Michiyo Kagami. This art involves balance and juggling as well as Shinto beliefs. Through balancing various objects on her head, the priestess could bring you good fortune in life. For example, by spinning a square ring on the top of a parasol so quickly it took on a circular shape the audience is blessed by financial success. The act of transforming a square into a circle brings luck to the viewer.

    My favorite story was performed by Diane Kichijitsu, an Englishwoman who had come to Japan on a backpacking trip and then never left. She told a story about a young foreigner who came to Japan for the first time and how every Japanese person he met asked him the same questions: can I speak to you? Where are you from? How old are you? Do you like Japan? He meets up with his Japanese friend later after answering all these questions multiple times to different strangers. In the end his friend ends up asking the same questions.

    Another great story was by Kaishi Katsura. He told a story about a man who signs up to play a tiger at a zoo because their famous tiger has died and the zoo must continue to entertain the customers. He eventually learns he must put on a show at the zoo by fighting the zoo’s lion. He becomes very scared and calls for the manager but the lion enters his cage and comes closer and closer ready to fight. The fight is about to start and so he calls for the manager one last time. The lion replies “don’t worry, it’s me!” and we find out that the manager is inside the lion.

    Lastly, as a side note, before going to rakugo, my friend and I were able to find a restaurant that served pho, a kind of Vietnamese soup, which I had been craving for a while and had trouble finding. While it wasn’t the best pho I’ve had, it certainly hit the spot. It was located right near Shinjuku station and Kinokuniya Southern Theatre, where the performance was held.

Pho in japan