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01/19/2015

Studying Abroad in Japan with Anxiety

Before I talk about my experience dealing with anxiety while studying abroad, I should add this disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional of any kind. I am just a college student who has been diagnosed with anxiety. I am writing about my own experiences and how I cope with my triggers. Also, people with mental health conditions react to different situations differently and have different ways of coping. While I hope that this entry will be helpful to someone, anyone with a physical, mental, or emotional condition should consult with a licensed medical practitioner before making the decision to study abroad. .

 

I would think that anyone living with anxiety, of any kind, knows just how hard it is to do things that should be “normal everyday activities.” For me, being in crowded places, going to new places, or talking to new people can be difficult. Now just imagine being in a foreign country and that feeling being amplified by one hundred. It's a pretty daunting thought, I know, just thinking about it used to give me anxiety. However, I am very glad that I did not let my anxiety hold me back from coming to Japan.

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Coming here is a huge change, something that sounded incredibly scary for me, but Tokyo is one of the most amazing places in the entire world, in my opinion. There were challenges everyday for me, but having anxiety just seemed to make those challenges even harder. My biggest fear in coming here was the massive train system. I was terrified of just how crazy the maps seemed to look, and how getting on a wrong train could take you somewhere you have never been. It was a terrifying thought. But, once I got here and started to understand the train system, it is actually pretty easy to use in my opinion. The stations were a little confusing at first, but I have never seen such a complex system set up in such an easy manner. I have gotten lost quite a few times, of course. But the more I rode the trains, the easier it got to navigate the city. Within just a couple weeks I had almost all of my lines and platform numbers memorized.

 

Another main anxiety of mine in coming here was getting lost and not being able to get to where I needed. Before coming here I had 4 years of Japanese, so asking for directions and getting help wasn't too big of a fear. But just the anxiety of getting lost in a place as massive as Tokyo was daunting. Thankfully, whenever I do get lost, when I ask for help people are more than glad to help me. I don’t even have to use difficult Japanese; simple phrases like “where is this train going?” and “where is this?” have worked fine. The Japanese people I spoke to always pointed me in the right direction, or even reminded me which stop was mine when we were on the same train.

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I know I said that I have anxiety about talking to people, so yes, asking for help from random strangers is scary, but at the same time I feel much more relieved when I’m able to find out where I’m going.

 

For me, the best way to deal with anxiety is to find ways to ground myself when I encounter “triggers.” For example, trains still make me anxious, but what helps me is listening to music and tuning out the world around me while I am on them. However, I have to be careful to know when my stop is! Another way I deal with my anxiety is traveling with people on the trains to different places. Going with friends is much more fun than going alone! With the anxiety of getting lost, the easiest way I have found to battle this, is to always carry a map with the train lines that I need to take. That might seem like a hassle, but they are always in my backpack just in case I can’t communicate what I need.

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The ways in which I deal with my anxieties will be different than yours, so the methods that I use might not work for you at all, but for me, listening to music and having the train maps with me makes me feel calmer. While that might not be your thing, the important thing to do is to find what helps you battle your anxieties and try to make sure you can have those things/do those things when you start feeling anxious.

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01/18/2015

“SEIJIN NO HI:” MY COMING OF AGE IN JAPAN

Standing at five-foot eleven and weighing in at one-hundred and fifty pounds, I am an adult in at least the biological sense. However, I still get lost in department stores, I can’t take cereal without milk, and I still throw tantrums over the smallest of things – characteristics not very becoming of what one might term an “adult.” According to the formal Japanese administration though, as I am 20 years old, I am definitely an adult in every sense of the word whether I like it or not. To that end, in this blog post, I’d like to talk about my experience with the day in each year Japan has set aside for the celebration of those coming of age throughout the nation: “Seijin no hi,” or “Coming of Age Day.”

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In Japan, Coming of Age Day is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of January. Those who turned 20 years old the preceding year are invited to their local city office, where they listen to speeches and come evening go partying. Also, girls are supposed to wear kimonos, and guys suits. At least, that’s what the preemptive Google search I did revealed. And as long as you’re a registered citizen of the city of Tokyo, even if you’re just a study abroad student in Japan for a limited time, you’ll get an invitation from the city office if you’re turning 20 that year. I didn’t know that last part until I found my own invitation in the mailbox last December, and it surprised me too.

My host family seemed more excited about my coming of age ceremony than I was, though perhaps my lack of excitement was due to the fact that I didn’t really understand what I’d been invited to. I mean, I understood that this was to be a celebration of my coming of age, but considering the culture which I’m used to, it was like the mayor was asking to be invited to my birthday party. “You should do it,” my host grandmother told me earnestly. “Sekkaku nihon ni kita kara ne,” she added. Since you came all the way to Japan.

She then asked me if I had brought a suit to Japan with me, and I replied that I didn’t. A few weeks later, I found myself at the home of my host grandmother’s younger brother, whose son had agreed to lend me a suit for this important day in the Japanese man’s life. Back in America, we don’t really have anything like Coming of Age Day – one’s sweet sixteen is the closest comparison I can draw. Back home, when someone becomes a man/woman (at age 21), the celebration is usually held amongst friends, as opposed to here, where the entire country designates a national holiday to celebrate its new batch of adults. So needless to say, I was quite surprised with the amount of attention I was getting in light of this upcoming ceremony. I spent a day playing dress-up with my folks, as we tried to find an outfit fitting for a ceremony of such importance.

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Then came the 12th of January 2015 – the day of the ceremony. I threw on my suit, and made my way to the Nakano Sun Plaza, invitation in hand, heart filled with excitement at the prospect of formally becoming a man.

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When I got there, I was ushered into a rather grandiose auditorium, and waited for the ceremony to begin. I recall speeches from a few contemporaries and older gentlemen, before eventually falling asleep along with every other 20-year old in the auditorium who had risen early for this day. I woke up about an hour later at the end of the ceremony, fully-rested, and a man.

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I decided to skip the partying part of the day, and returned home. Grandma asked me how it went, and I truthfully admitted that I had fallen asleep during the speeches. She laughed, saying that that was what she had expected. According to her apparently, the significance of Coming of Age Day for most these days is just looking good and having a great time afterwards – her excitement had been due to the fact that she rarely gets the chance to dress a boy up for a special occasion. It’s a special day, but not so much in the traditional sense anymore; the most valuable thing this day presents is the opportunity to have fun as you acknowledge the transition from one stage of your life to another. Personally, I think I accomplished all of those things that day. At least, I’m sure I knocked the looking good part out of the park; boy, did I look good in that suit.

THE END OF A JOURNEY: REFLECTIONS ON MY DECISION TO STUDY ABROAD IN JAPAN

There’s no doubt about it: studying abroad was the right thing for me to do. The nostalgic pangs that have been weighing down my heart recently could only mean one thing: I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that my semester in Japan is drawing to a close, and with that, I find myself falling into a state of deep retrospection. It has definitely been a crazy, fun-filled journey, but the point I’d like to bring to your attention and elaborate upon the most is this: I had absolutely no idea it was going to be as amazing an experience as it turned out to be. Prior to signing up, I had some serious reservations about putting my life in Los Angeles on hold. Jumping into Japan was a stunt I pulled with my eyes closed, and I’m happy to report that I’m extremely glad that I did. Thanks to CIEE, I fulfilled my personal life goal to visit Japan, gained a ton of valuable life experience, and most importantly, made friends whom I’ll keep in my heart probably for the rest of my life. And thus, in this final blog post, I’d like to tell you the story of how I came to the decision to study abroad in Japan with CIEE, and why I’ll never regret that I did.

 

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One’s collegiate years are a time for self-discovery. It’s a time when we make that awkward transition from high school brat to working adult, and are given the time to experiment with different ambitions. For me, as someone whose interests have always involved stuff like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z – amongst other popular anime and manga series – going to Japan has been something my heart has yearned for since childhood. I’d decided that I was definitely going to study abroad in Japan at some point in my college career. At the same time though, I’ve also always had a strong interest in the performing arts, and about 6 months after I moved to Los Angeles following my acceptance to the University of Southern California, I fell in love with the theater, and decided to pursue an acting career.

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Fast forward to the end of my sophomore year in college. I’d just gotten my foot through the door of the acting business, and was in a spot where, if I were to put things on hold for a semester to go study abroad, getting things back in motion when I got back might not be so easy. At the same time however, I still really longed to see Japan for myself. I still applied, deciding that I’d withdraw if I really couldn’t bear to leave Los Angeles in the end. I came really close to submitting that withdrawal form the day before my flight.

I’m so glad I didn’t.

I’m so glad I decided to follow my heart.

Opportunities to study abroad in a country of your choosing don’t come very often. I decided that it was going to be easier for me to jump back into the acting game upon my return, than to spend the rest of my life wondering what it might’ve been like if I’d decided to embark upon the journey I’d always wanted to go on after all.

It’s also important that I include this: Sure, anime and manga got me interested in Japan, but it’s the life and the people I found here that made me want to stay. Being able to learn about the culture, places, and people portrayed in my favorite stories through the excursions to major Japanese cities and heritage sites organized by CIEE has been an invaluable experience, and being able to share this journey with like-minded contemporaries resulted in some very strong friendships. Throughout my time in Japan, I’ve borne witness to vastly different lifestyles, seen incredible sights, met many great people with fascinating stories to tell, fallen in love, made sushi, and forged powerful bonds with people I won’t soon forget.

Most importantly, I believe the life experiences I’ve gained have made me a better actor – this is the point I’d really like to drive home. No matter what your ambitions may be, it’s more than likely an experience abroad will help you gain some very valuable – and applicable – experience (time management skills, communication skills, etc.). Thus, I’d like to end my final blog post by imploring each and every single one of you to follow your heart. Don’t be afraid of the future, and don’t dwell on the past, but treasure the present; don’t wonder what “could’ve been.” Fight for what you love, and never settle.

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Sometimes, I get a real giggle when I think about how worried I was prior to leaving for Japan. There is no doubt in my mind that broadening my horizons was the right choice, and I am ready to take back my life in Los Angeles with a fulfilled heart. This journey in Japan with CIEE will forever remain a treasure trove of sweet memories in my mind.

Seijin-no-Hi: Japan’s Coming of Age Ceremony

In Japan, everyone who turns 20 years old becomes an adult. To celebrate the occasion, everyone goes back to their hometowns to participate in a coming of age ceremony called seijin-shiki (成人式). The ceremony is seen as a rite of passage for many, although the level of participation has dwindled the past few years according to government reports. At the ceremony all the women dress in kimono and the men usually dress in suits. The city leaders such as the mayor give speeches to welcome everyone in to adulthood, and there’s usually a performance or concert that follows.

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Kawasaki's Coming of Age Ceremony 2015

This year I turned 20, and so I decided to participate in the coming of age ceremony as well. My host mother very generously let me wear her kimono from when she went to the ceremony. She also helped me make reservations at a salon to have my hair done and to have my kimono put on. Kimono are incredibly complicated to put on; two women at the salon helped wrap me nice and tight in all the layers of fabric and various ties. At first it was painful to wear, but it was definitely worth it. All the women looked beautiful in their kimono! They each have different colors and patterns, and the obi—the large bow-like arrangement in the back—are also of all different colors. I have never felt as beautiful as when wearing my kimono!

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My kimono from the back

At the ceremony location near my homestay, everyone was mingling with their high school classmates they haven’t met with in two years. Inside the stadium, even more people were gathered. My city is so big that the concert hall filled up both the ground floor and the first floor of stadium seats. After a drum performance by local middle school students, the mayor of Kawasaki and the various district government members gave their congratulations. The main attraction was a guitar performance by an up-and-coming celebrity called Rina Sumioka. It felt like an American graduation ceremony, but everyone was dressed for prom. After the ceremony, I went to lunch with a friend who happens to live in the same city and went to the ceremony as well.

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Waiting outside the ceremony

Almost all Japanese people have participated in the ceremony, and so it felt very special to say I have also had a coming of age ceremony. While some people in the United States have similar coming of age rituals such as Quinceanera or debuts, I never had such an experience. Also, since the Coming of Age Ceremony happens on the same day for everyone in the country on a national holiday called Coming of Age Day (成人の日), it felt like I was part of a greater Japanese experience. My host family was excited to see me in Kimono, I was excited to wear kimono, and overall it was a unique experience in which I was honored to participate.

 

01/17/2015

Sophia University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts: A Truly Global Experience

At Sophia University, in addition to a Japanese language course, CIEE students take classes in the Faculty of Liberal Arts (FLA). This faculty offers its classes in English. The classes are a mix of degree seeking and non-degree seeking international students, Japanese students that were raised abroad, and Japanese students that have never lived abroad but have very high English ability. With such a mix of students, I have found my FLA classes to be incredibly diverse, more so than my university in America.

This semester in FLA I took an intermediate Japanese class, Comparative Politics of Post-Communist States, Anthropology of Japan, and East Asian Media Flows. In every single class I found myself interacting with people from all over the world with very different perspectives and experiences than I have. Being able to hear different opinions and worldviews has been the best part of my academic experience here this semester. It has been both challenging and rewarding, and I think it is one of the best parts of studying abroad here at Sophia University.

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Ice skating with a German classmate


 

For example, my Comparative Politics of Post-Communist States class is a discussion-based class with a grand total of seven students. Three of us are Americans; there’s one Mongolian, one Japanese, one Mexican, and one Russian. In a class about Communist politics, talking with my Russian classmate – who has firsthand experience of Russia today and of the last few years of the Soviet Union – has been more interesting and more informative than any textbook. Mongolia was also a former Soviet country, and so having the Mongolian perspective also adds to a more personal connection between our class and the countries we’re studying. Moreover, the perspectives of how the world works and how international relations ought to be handled are completely different between my classmates at my university in America and my classmates here at Sophia. While my classmates in America always had their own opinions, their life experience was much more similar to mine; we were raised with similar educations, and so our worldview was more similar than different. Here in Japan, however, my classmates have vastly different educational and life experiences than what I have had. I have learned so much from my classmates in Japan. Although we sometimes disagree, we also have a lot in common, and we have all become good friends.

 

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German, Japanese, and Filipino classmates

Being in FLA has challenged me to question the assumptions upon which I base my view of the world. It has also challenged me to reexamine what it means to be an American in a foreign country. Through the perspectives of my classmates, I have learned to view my identity as an American from less of a privileged perspective and more from a sense of responsibility. Yet, more than that, being in FLA has taught me to appreciate the views from people all around the world. With classmates from Japan, Hong Kong, Hungary, Mexico, Russia, Germany, France, Taiwan, Belgium, Britain, Mongolia, and many other places, the classes in the FLA have given me an opportunity to learn about countries all over the world. It has also given me the opportunity to grow and learn in a global context, getting to know individuals that are all unique and all united by the experience of being in Japan. While I came to Japan to learn Japanese and to see the Japanese way of thinking – and I have been able to do so – I am glad to have encountered many other perspectives as well at Sophia University. 

Christmas in Kyoto- What we did during the winter break

For those of you who are studying abroad in the fall semester, there is a week and a half winter break. That might not seem like a long time, but the amount you can accomplish is amazing.

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Personally I am not really a very Christmassy person, so not going home wasn't too big of a deal for me, but for others it was very hard not being able to be home with family during the holidays. But, what better way to counter that than to go out on an adventure in Japan with your friends?!

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My friends and I decided to go to Kyoto for four days. Kyoto has been one of the cities that I have wanted to visit even before I came to Tokyo, so having the opportunity to go was amazing! Also, if you plan it right, you can go for a kind of insanely cheap price. We were able to go to Kyoto via train, get a hotel looking out over the Imperial Palace’s garden, and visit at least 5 shrines for about 150 dollars. Which is crazy cheap!

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We started our adventure at around 9 in the morning and traveled by train for about 8 hours, which was a lot more fun than it sounds. The scenery was beyond beautiful! We passed the ocean, Mount Fuji, and beautiful forest landscapes. I didn’t realize just how big Mount Fuji was until we passed by it. Most mountains in Colorado are tall and connected, but Mount Fuji is a force of its own..

 

 

Once we arrived in Kyoto it was dark, but we were excited to have made it a good 8 hours away from Tokyo. And personally, for me, being so close to the mountains was amazing. It felt like home, being so close to them. Our fearless leader planned the rest of the days for us perfectly. We started off visiting beautiful temples and shrines,  but just being in the mountains and its calm nature was enough for me. Being out in the open all day surrounded by trees and flowers completely relaxed me from all the stresses of school. It was like time stopped for a while and I could enjoy Japan for all of its beauty without worrying about school.

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The atmosphere at each temple is hard to explain and is definitely something that you would have to experience for yourself. But the architecture and symbolism were beautiful. At the famous Kiyomizu-dera temple you could drink from one of three fountains depending on what you wished to be blessed with; love, good studies, or money. My friends and I each took a turn drinking from the fountain, hoping to be blessed with good luck for love, wealth, and studies. Even if you don't believe in that sort of thing, it is a cultural experience that you can only get here in Japan.

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Another fun thing to do at shrines is buy omamori, which are little good luck charms for different aspects of life. When we visited the love shrine, my friend and I bought each other love-seeking charms for each other in hopes of finding some soon. While it was mostly just because they were cute, they are also a good way of remembering a fun time with friends in a new adventurous place. You can also buy your fortune for the New Year by paying 100 yen and then shaking this tin container and pulling out a stick with a number on it. You can get either a good or bad fortune depending on your luck. My friends seem to get the best fortunes! Getting fortunes was fun, but some of them were written only in Japanese, and translating them was challenging.

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Besides going around to beautiful shrines and temples, just the time spent with friends was enough of a treat. During the school year things tend to get really busy, so finding time to hang out with friends is a great treat. Being able to relax and run around a new place together, get lost, create new memories, and try new food are wonderful memories that I am never going to forget. 

It’s important to remember your studies of course, but it is also important to give yourself mental breaks and enjoy your time here. You may be here only once, so take in everything you can and make the most of it. Winter break might be short, but if you plan right, you can pack it full of amazing adventures all over Japan.

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Celebrating New Year’s in Tokyo: Meiji Shrine

Hello, Hello! 

In case you didn’t know, New Year’s is a very busy and celebratory time of the year for Japan. Many people go home to their families outside of the city to have a family party and welcome in the New Year together. Thousands flock to any of the numerous shrines or temples around their area to bring in the New Year with good luck, and to pray for a prosperous and healthy year for themselves and their loved ones. It’s a touching and wonderful time of year, one I was able to share with my friends in Harajuku of all places!

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Here we are walking up to Meiji Jingu! Notice the crowds…

My friends and I decided to bring in the New Year like many of the Japanese do and visited a shrine  to get a fortune for the year, and to wish us luck and good spirits. Specifically, we visited the very famous Meiji Shrine (or Meiji Jingu). On New Year’s Eve, we first set off from our dorm to get some good soba. Soba is traditionally eaten to promote good luck and a long life during this celebration. Luckily, our local train station had recently opened a new soba restaurant and we were able to get deliciously cheap soba to celebrate with.

After eating dinner, we made our way to the next station and boarded the Yamanote train line for Harajuku. Of course, I’m sure a few more hundred people had the same idea, and the trains were very crowded and rowdy. We could tell the excitement for the night was surely building up in the people around us. We managed to struggle through the crowds to get to the temple, and it was amazing! The entrance gate was illuminated nicely, and friendly police officers were escorting the floods of people to the shrine. Before even getting to the shrine, there was what seemed to me to be a huge food market, like at the State Fair. All types of food were offered, from traditional grilled fish stuffed with roe on sticks to Mexican tacos and Greek gyros. The choice of food and snacks was amazing and impressive!

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The choice of food here is glorious.

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Here we have grilled meats and the traditional fish on a stick.

There were plenty of souvenirs to pick up as well in the many gift shops that were open on the shrine grounds. They boasted some of the largest collection of “typical traditional” Japanese gifts I’ve seen since getting here. The options ranged from fans to small wooden toys to mini dolls and Kabuki masks and even purses. They had an adorable Hello Kitty doll in a beautiful kimono for sale that I was very tempted to get.

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Oh, how I wanted this so badly! 

As midnight approached, my friends and I stood in line to get to the actual shrine and pray for the New Year. The line was massive, at least a couple hundred people pouring in from all directions of the shrine. The police had the lines moving very neatly and quickly. Though we waited for over an hour and a half, it passed quickly as sections of people were allowed to go up to the shrine at a time. However, midnight struck while we were in line! It was fun though, since people around us were counting down from the 30-second mark in at least three distinct languages. It was a very powerful and unforgettable moment. By the time we got to the front of the shrine where we could toss our 5 yen coins and make a prayer, it was past midnight, but we were there in the early hours of the New Year, so I believe our luck still counted. Naturally, I prayed for academic success in the upcoming year and the happiness of my friends and family. I could have probably solidified it more if I had gotten one of the nice little charms they were selling right outside of the main shrine building, but I did get a nice fortune for my troubles.

Now, it’s apparently good luck to watch the first sunrise of the New Year, and since the trains to our dorm were closed off, my friends and I decided that it would be best to spend the next 5 hours inside a karaoke place. We took the next train to Shinjuku and did karaoke until 5am! Somehow my voice recovered. It was an amazing time with amazing friends.

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Karaoke! We drank a lot of coffee and melon soda to keep us going until 5am!

We headed back to Harajuku to catch the sunrise, since it was supposed to rise at 6:50ish. We needed food so we went to the local McDonald’s, but unfortunately we ended up staying in there for too long and missed the initial sun-rising. It was such a funny moment; to know that we spent our lucky sunrise hours in a McDonald’s eating 100yen apple pies. I mean, the sun was still rising so I still count it in my head, though one of my friends was crushed!

Overall, it was an amazing experience and I think that going to a shrine like this on New Year’s would definitely be worth the time. It didn’t cost too much, we got great food at the shrine, we sang karaoke for 4 hours straight, and we spent the morning in a McDonald’s. I can’t imagine a better scenario.

Thanks for reading, and may the New Year bring you happiness and good luck! 

Leilani 

CIEE FA14 

Class of 2015

Appreciating the Tradition: The Beauty of Shrines and Temples in Kyoto

Hi again!

While in Japan, I think it’s only natural to go and venture into the traditional and spiritual territory deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Yes, I’m talking about the shrines and temples. Japanese shrines and temples are actually very common around Tokyo and in Japan as a whole. In fact, there’s even a huge shrine in Harajuku that we were able to visit on New Year’s! Visiting a shrine is a great way to get an up close and personal experience with one of Japan’s most culturally rewarding activities. Shrines specifically are a huge part of New Year’s activities as well, which I’ll have elaborated more on a different post. Shrines and temples offer gorgeous scenery, day or night, and fun and charming fortunes to pursue and collect. Visiting a shrine or temple gives you a chance to sit back and observe how they work and why they’re so important to the people here. And how many times can I mention that the scenery is always peaceful and gorgeous!

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The beautiful gardens of Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto.

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The gang’s all here at Kiyomizu Temple!

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One of my favorite views of Kiyomizu Temple on the mountainside!

The above imagery is from Kyoto alone, and most temples that I’ve visited have equal beauty in their design and appearance. It’s very peaceful and promotes a sense of calm and relaxation. Walking through the gardens and looping mazes of ponds and trees is a tranquil activity and provides plenty of photo opportunities! Oftentimes, you can see small children, young couples, or elderly people walking around in traditional hakama, taking pictures or being a part of a ceremony. You can even see the temple priests and priestesses as they maintain the general upkeep of the shrines and keep them looking nice and well stocked with charms. The charms you buy are meant to give a certain luck to the person you’re buying the charm for. You’re not supposed to by your own luck! That only brings bad luck, or so they say.

The routes to the shrines or temples are generally busy streets littered with gift shops for you to buy plenty of omiyage, or souvenirs, that are shrine or temple specific. There’s tons of cute and popular anime themed merchandise, but at the same time they offer many traditional gifts such as fans, masks, shoes, and even hakama. A wonderful mix of tradition and modern meets here before the shrine gates in the shops. This is of course accompanied by plenty of delicious food as well!

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Tradition meets modernity!

Shrine and temple visiting has become one of my favorite things to do here in Japan, and I’ve gotten plenty of opportunities to do so, through CIEE and from my own volition! I highly recommend taking the time to go out and visit some of the big shrines and temples around Tokyo, such as Asakusa Shrine near Sensoji Temple, and get a feel for the shrine itself, take a look at the amazing scenery, and pick yourself up some good fortunes! You’ll be glad you did!

Well, here’s to wishing you the best of luck!

Leilani 

CIEE FA14

Class of 2015

Our Very Own “Family" Christmas In Tokyo!

Hello, Hello!

Since we’ve just returned from the holidays and the New Year, I’d like to share with you some fun holiday tips and treats that you can enjoy while abroad. I know the holidays can be a very trying time when you are away from family if your family holds certain traditions and parties that you’d be missing out on. Add on the cost of what it would take to go home for the holidays, and it’s just not a very fun situation to think about. That’s how it was for me this year. It was also my very first Christmas away from home; being without my family for the holiday season was looking pretty bittersweet. That was until my friends and I decided on making the most of our holiday and spend it together, travelling to Kyoto, holding our very own Secret Santa, and even squeezing in an impromptu day trip to Tokyo Disney Sea (which was beautifully decorated for Christmas!).

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Our Classy Family in Kyoto

We didn’t want this holiday season to be too melancholy, so my friends and I planned a quick day trip to Disney and a wonderful four-day excursion to Kyoto for Christmas. At Tokyo Disney Sea, the entire park was marvelously lit up in seasonal lights and décor, and there were plenty of holiday-themed treats to snack on. We planned our day in advance and even woke up at the crack of dawn (5am) in order to make it to the park right as it opened. Our planning and determination paid off as we were the first in line to the big attractions, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Both attractions were thrilling and memorable. They are Tokyo Disney Sea exclusives, so if you have the chance and the money saved up, I highly recommend taking a journey to this theme park for some exciting and exclusive fun!

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The beautiful Journey to the Center of the Earth Mountain behind us

The day was jam-packed with fun and delicious food, and even though most of us were running on five hours of sleep, the excitement and joy of being together in “the happiest place in Tokyo” kept us going. Of course, the weather did try to dampen us, quite literally, as we were caught in torrential downpour at night. Though we were cold and soaked, having to walk through puddles and seek shelter often, this only made for a better memory! We were laughing together as we ran through the rain from attraction to attraction and snack to snack, and the downpour we had to fight through was fought together, making it all the more memorable. Good or bad weather, Tokyo Disney Sea during Christmas is definitely a treat you should seriously consider to save up for and experience. It was truly a magical experience!

More disney christmas

In the freezing rain, the Christmas lights were heartwarming.

After a wonderful kick-off to the holiday break at Disney, our group prepped for the big trip to Kyoto. We took a few days to plan out this one, and if you’re planning on travelling over your winter break, or any break for that matter, you should definitely take a few hours out of your week to plan it out carefully. Without the master planning by our (self)-designated leader, Khoi, we wouldn’t have had half the amazing trip we did in Kyoto. We were able to get a student travel train pass split 6 ways from the JR lines, which granted us unlimited JR line access for a set amount of days. Since it took a good day of train rides (around 8 hours of travel) this pass saved us all a bunch of money. We were even able to afford a really nice hotel in Kyoto with the money we saved from this pass!

Christmas in Kyoto 1

 Here we are in Kyoto Station ready to explore and celebrate!

We spent Christmas Eve traveling around a few of the shrines and temples, which are bountiful in Kyoto. All of them were simply gorgeous and the scenery and slow pace was a refreshing contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life. But on Christmas Day, we all awoke early, just like we did as children, and exchanged Secret Santa gifts! If you’re unfamiliar with Secret Santa, it’s basically a “secret” gift exchange between friends. Generally a spending limit is set and everyone puts their names into a hat and draws out a different name. You don’t tell anyone which name you have and this is the person you give a gift to. Our Secret Santa was a huge success, and we all loved the gifts that were carefully picked out for each other. Everyone also received one small animal plushie to represent themselves in the group. It was a cute little bonding experience that was shared with Christmas Cake as well! 

Christmas Cake

                          Our Kyoto Christmas Cake!                

Buddies!

Our Alter Egos. 

Overall, it was a wonderful and truly memorable holiday season spent well with my Tokyo Family. Christmas away from home doesn’t have to be sad or boring or filled with too much home-sickness. It’s entirely possible to make the most of your holiday season with the new friends and family you’ve made while here in Tokyo, and it’s something you’ll never forget. I know I’ll always cherish the holiday I spent here, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the wonderful time I’ve spent with friends.

Hope this gives you some tips on the possibilities of the holidays in Japan!

Leilani

CIEE FA14

 Class of 2015

12/14/2014

The Paper Crane and Hiroshima: Origami with a Surprisingly Deep Meaning

Paper craneThe well-known favorite, The Crane

 I’m pretty sure you know of this little guy! This is a paper crane, and it is easily one of the most recognizable paper crafts from Japan. Japanese origami is a really neat and fun little past time that requires you to precisely fold, crease, unfold, and manipulate little sheets of paper into beautiful, fun and intricate designs! It’s definitely one of my favorite past times, which I enjoyed even before coming to Japan. Luckily, there are tons of different little origami books and paper supplies all over, so I’m in no way lacking in terms of supplies. Yet, I’ve definitely found a greater appreciation for origami after coming here to Japan. First of all, I’m able to learn many new little tricks and practice Japanese with the people who have taught me new designs. In fact, I was able to participate in a CIEE sponsored origami lesson/event during lunch, where I received a delicious bento lunch and learned to fold some cute little designs! I made a flying folding crane that flaps when you pull the tale and then made a sort of spinning top out of three sheets of origami paper!

Top spinnerThe top is made with three colors and actually spins!

The instructors were very nice and helpful, and most importantly patient with all of us who were learning! My favorite was definitely making the spinning top, because now I can idly spin this little contraption when I’m bored writing an essay or doing homework. It’s great.

However, there is more to folding origami than just being a little pastime. Origami contains some bearings in Japan’s history. When we went to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima last weekend, we were able to see the power of the belief in hope during dark times. I was very moved by the melancholy yet inspiring story of Sadako Sasaki and her belief in the 1000 Cranes Wish. Legend has it that if you fold 1000 paper cranes, your wish will come true. Sadako, at the age of 12, sought to fold 1000 cranes in order to recover from Leukemia caused by the radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during WWII. I’ve always been taken with the belief of the 1000 Cranes Wish and though I’ve never made 1000 cranes, someday I hope to. Though Sadako sadly passed away, her story inspired the nation and continues to inspire people today, like me! Hers is a story of hope and desire for peace.

Sadako mem

Sadako's Memorial. She's holding a Paper Crane.

The Peace Museum has a statue built in Sadako’s honor, featuring her on top with a giant paper crane to symbolize the power of hope and peace. Surrounding the memorial are giant clear spaces for schoolchildren to put the 1000s of creatively and diligently made paper cranes they fold in her honor and in the hope for peace around the world. I found the entire story and memorial very moving and I will never forget what I saw and learned at the Peace Museum.

Sadako cranes 2

Hundreds of students fold cranes for peace and hang them like so.

Sadako cranes 1

Th pictures made from cranes are intricate and heart touching.

Sadako’s story is one I’ll always remember when folding origami in the future, and it’s one I love to share. Origami holds more meaning than simply being a simple past time. I’ve definitely learned that here and maybe I will finish those 1000 cranes sooner than I think…

Hope you enjoyed this little post and you’ll have a greater appreciation for paper cranes like I do. Until next time~

 Leilani

CIEEFA14

Class of 2015