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11/20/2014

Having Fun on A Budget in Tokyo: a Dorm Student's Perspective

Having Fun on A Budget in Tokyo: a Dorm Student’s Perspective

Hello, Hello~

    Leilani here from CIEE’s FA14 Semester! If you’re like me, you’d love going out with friends and having a great time. You’d also love to eat a lot of good food and buy a lot of cute and cool merchandise and clothing from your favorite shops. You know what’s a common theme present in all of the above? It all costs money, and it can end up costing a lot more than what you’d like to admit. I’m here to have an amazing study abroad experience, to learn a lot about the culture and myself, but also to ultimately have a good time! Now, having good time on a budget doesn’t mean that you’re missing out on anything remarkably special, or that you wouldn’t get the most out of what you’re doing. There are plenty of ways to have a ton of fun and eat a lot of good food for reasonable prices!! (We’re talking under 10-15USD) Here are some things my friends and I have come up with to enjoy a weeknight or weekend together. Some will be quite a bit pricey, but those are the ones you save up for and do once a month!

    For your every night kind of deal, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just hanging out in the dorm common room lounge with your friends and popping in a movie. In fact, we’ve had many an awesome night going to 7-11 (yes, the gas station 7-11, but let me tell you it’s a whole other world. The world of Conbini), buying a bunch of snacks for 100yen (~1USD), and just throwing in a good movie. It’s important to note that each dorm is a bit different, but in general dorms have common room lounges and space to cook.  The dorm that we currently live in is an international house filled with accommodations for your cooking and lounging needs. There is a larger common area with the kitchen and TV and game systems, but then there is a smaller, more private room that holds a very special place in my heart. This smaller room has a sliding door, and a TV with an hdmi cable to hook up your laptop to. In this fashion, we have watched many a movie or TV series and sat around the table with our endless snacks. It’s also a great place to study privately or in a group with your friends. One of my favorite things we did in there was celebrated one of our friend’s birthdays! It was a surprise event, and we brought down a Japanese styled birthday cake complete with candles and presents. He was so caught by surprise and it was such a wonderful night! Little things like that can be fun, and we didn’t spend more than 15USD each for that night!

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        Depending on your dorm location, you may be able to gain easy access to one of the many commercial hubs of Tokyo. Another big thing we love to do that doesn’t cost much is go to Sunshine City, a huge shopping complex in Ikebukuro. Ikebukuro just happens to be on our commuter route so it costs us nothing to get there by train, and it’s only one stop away on the express train from our dorm. Now, you could potentially spend a lot of money at Sunshine City, with it being a shopping center, but most of the stores there are very reasonably priced and the restaurants are delicious and affordable, as well!! I’ve purchased some very cute items for good prices, say 3 things for ~10USD, but the best part for me is, again, the food. There are so many good snack shops and restaurants where you won’t spend more than 10USD at a time. We’ve enjoyed…

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Super good Ramen…

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Amazing Tonkatsu Dinners…

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Bubble /Boba Tea…

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…and, the best crepes, next to Harajuku of course!

Sunshine City is definitely one of my favorite spots to visit! All of that for a decent price is definitely worth your while!

    Now, budgeting also means saving up for bigger weekend excursions. You’ll definitely want to do some pretty big trips to see some of the big things in Japan, such as Mt. Fuji, or going to Kyoto to visit the more traditional side of Japan. These are going to be events you’ll want to do a little planning beforehand to get your group together and to make sure you’ve put away enough money to save up for your little adventure! For instance, one of my all time favorite activities we did was go to Tokyo Disney for the day. Tokyo Disney is actually a good deal cheaper than Disney in Florida or California! A ticket was less than $70 and the food was only around $10. For the day, we spent maybe less than $100 on food, tickets, and merchandise. And, the best part about our trip was the timing since it was Halloween!! It’s definitely a must do for Disney fans and fans of cute and exciting fun! There are a bunch of Tokyo Disney exclusives you can’t experience anywhere else in the world, and it’s a great weekend trip for a group of friends! There is another Disney theme park next to Tokyo Disneyland called Tokyo Disney Sea, which is exclusive to Japan. We’re hoping to explore both parks for our friend’s birthday, which will be a lot of fun!

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    Hope these little activities were helpful or at least insightful as to what you can do for fun around Tokyo for just a bit of money. Budgeting is always important, and I think it’s always a good idea to have some emergency money in your room, too. But budgeting doesn’t have to stop you from having fun. There are plenty of ways to have inexpensive fun that will be memorable and amazing, while there are even greater experiences worth saving up for~

Ta Ta for now,

Leilani

CIEE FA14

Class of 2015

Studying Abroad in Japan: New Friends, New Families

For some people, going abroad is a terrifying experience because they are leaving their home, friends, family, comfort zone, and everything that is familiar and entering into a seemingly uncontrollable set of experiences. However, that shouldn't be a reason in stopping you from going to somewhere new and exotic because you can be a part of at least two new families right from the get-go!

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Studying abroad through CIEE has given me two amazing new families. One of the families that I have been surrounded by is the CIEE student family with everyone in my program who I got to know and love. Then there is the dorm family consisting of all the CIEE students who live in the same dorm, and then expanding out to the people who already live in the dorm. And then there are host families or student club/circle families whom some of my friends have been accepted into. From all the bragging about amazing cooking from their host parents and adorable children becoming like their siblings, it seems like another amazing experience to have.  

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All of these amazing people I have met have cared, loved, and looked after me like we have been friends since we were in kindergarten. The rate at which ties grew between us is just mind-blowing.  For me, one of my closest friends in this program was my roommate on the first night. Ironically, that person was later staying in the room right next to mine in the dorm. Then, some of my other closest friends somehow all congregated together that night to go to dinner. Those friends just morphed into a new family with barely any time passing. I didn’t even really see it happening, these people who are from all over the word come together under one program and just mold into one giant family that's always caring for one another. It’s an amazingly comforting feeling to know that even after being here for just about two months I already have a solid support system that I can go to at any time. The amount of love coming from all of these new people is unfathomable, and it makes me feel right at home.

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Now I’m not saying that you won’t get homesick. Of course you will miss your family and friends back home. And in being in such a different place than where you originally lived can be a very difficult transition. But the families I have gained here makes being so far away from home more bearable.  Personally living in the dorms, these people I have met are people that I see and interact with everyday just like I would do with my family back home. We eat meals together, watch movies, go grocery shopping, take the trains to and from school, and sit and do homework together.

There are no words to describe how thankful I am for all of these people. They have made the transition into a new country so much easier, and make me feel a little less homesick. While I’m sure we will all have our ups and downs, these people are always there for me because they are experiencing the same joys and challenges that I am.

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Not only that, but because we are all in Japan there’s a pretty high chance we all have some major things in common. Which makes starter conversations soooo much easier. Even if it seems like we are just going to be friends, the bonds in which I have made through all of these experiences knitted us into a family, and it's a relieving sense of comfort to have all of these different people and groups of families to catch me and support me.  WP_20141029_006

The Advantages of Studying Abroad with CIEE

The Advantages of Studying Abroad with CIEE

Hello Again!

    It’s Leilani from the CIEE Tokyo FA14 semester! Today, I just want to talk about the huge benefits I’ve come to realize I have through CIEE. I didn’t know I had such an advantage at first, but after being here for a few weeks and talking to some other exchange program students, I’ve found we have some great benefits provided by CIEE for us, and I really want to express my gratitude and relief for them! You wouldn't know what sort of advantage it is, but after living through the awkward language and culture barriers, they really come in handy! 

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    First is our Suica/PASMO cards, or our commuter train passes (SUICA is for Japan Railway lines, PASMO is for the subway; CIEE covers the details during orientation). In Tokyo, public transportation is HUGE. There are a lot of people who need to go to a lot of places in a certain amount of time. I happen to be one of those people. It can get very crowded, very fast, in the morning on the commute to school so a commuter pass is very important! Mine is a Suica card, and when filled out it has a blue stamp that has the different stations on your route printed on the front of it. I really like Suica mainly because of the penguin mascot, but the coolest thing about these cards is the fact that you don’t have to swipe or slide or insert the card anywhere on the ticket gate. You simply touch your pass to the sensor, and it will glow blue for go. You can even keep your pass in a wallet or bag and touch the bag to the sensor, and it will read the card through your material. Very handy! I had to get these set up in a certain manner since I’m part of the dorm students commute. CIEE gave everyone a neat little yellow slip and helped us fill the form out in order for us to have our Suica card edited into a Suica commuter pass. CIEE told us where to go to get this change made and how to do it, which was immensely helpful. We were given a stipend for it, to the exact cent I’ll let you know, and we were off to get our passes! The process was as smooth as can be, and I can travel to a lot of big-name Tokyo places, like Shinjuku or Ikebukuro for free since they’re part of my commuter route (depending on your dorm location you may have commuter route access to different, but still very cool, parts of Tokyo). It’s such a handy and wonderful feature, and the process was so smooth thanks to CIEE’s help and guidance. I had a lot of other exchange students in our dorm ask how I get my commuter pass, and I had to explain to them the process since they had no one to help them out. They didn’t have such a helpful program to walk them through and make sure it was working properly like I did. And doing it by yourself can be pretty daunting if you’re not at a certain level in Japanese, I can imagine. Since I’m pretty beginner, I was relieved to have the process go smoothly without much of a language barrier rising out of complications. 

    Another wonderful benefit would be the fact that CIEE helped us with more than just our travel plans. We even received help with our city registration, a very daunting and nerve-wracking process when done alone. With CIEE, it was a simple little sheet to fill out and turn in at the city’s main office. All the little paperwork that would be arduous and complicated to completely fill out and turn in was taken care of by CIEE for each of us, and we were guided through the process smoothly. It was such a great thing to have something so official taken care of so easily. What a relief! CIEE even helped us register for our classes and made sure we fulfilled everything we needed to. Even our Japanese health insurance cards came in with no problem thanks to the help and guidance of CIEE. All the documents in Japanese were pretty confusing, even for some upper level students, but we received the help we needed.

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    CIEE gives us tips and suggestions about cool activities available around the Tokyo area. There are also a number of cultural activities built into the program. For instance, we went to make handmade glass bells, something I never even thought of doing until they suggested it. Pictured above is my little glass bell, hand painted and personally glass blown!!

    We also went on a Yotsuya Walking tour, learning more about the city where our school is located and the history of Japan. This was one of my favorite little trips, since we could just walk around with a guide and learn all about the history and importance of our area. The guides were personable, funny, and could speak to us in English and Japanese, so it was very beneficial for learning the language. On the tour, we were guided to this wonderful and peaceful Zen garden complete with rock and sand gardens, koi ponds, and a beautiful waterfall! Some of the amazing sights we saw also included the Akasaka Palace and the Imperial Palace. It was truly a breathtaking experience.

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Thanks for reading!

Leilani

CIEE FA14

Class of 2015

Cultural Experiences in Japan

Wait, you mean fun cultural activities are built into the program? No way…. This was probably some of the best news I heard during CIEE orientation. I have never encountered another study abroad program that offers activities as an integrated part of the program.

This is an amazing opportunity to explore and immerse yourself even deeper into Japan’s culture.

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Activities range from movies, tours, museums, visiting historical sights, glass blowing, origami, visiting the Studio Ghibli museum and much, much more. Not only do you get to go out and explore Japan more, but you get to create deeper bonds with your friends by doing fun activities together in a country you love.

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One of my favorite experiences so far was the trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum. I grew up watching “My Neighbor Totoro”, and my love for his movies only grew from there. The museum displays art from all of Ghibli’s works, and there are no words to describe the pure beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s original sketches.  There are panels of ideas for parts of the movies, water color pages to test color palettes, and most exciting of all, full scale replicas of the Spirited Away Bath House, Totoro’s house, and Castle in the Sky’s coal mine. (Sorry I don’t have pictures, but cameras weren’t allowed). The memories of seeing his work, however, will forever be ingrained in my mind. And, the full-scale replica of the bathhouse was amazing!! The smallest, most intricate detail was sculpted into every inch of it. Even the inside was replicated to perfection. Definitely a must see site.

Personally, my favorite Ghibli movie is “Princess Mononoke”, so being able to see the original sketches of the Forest Spirit, Yaku, and Mononoke herself was amazing. For those of you who don’t know, “Princess Mononoke” has some CG graphics, but most of the movie was drawn by hand. The detail and realistic aspects of the movie just blow my mind, so seeing some of his frame-by-frame work just made me appreciate the movie even more. All of the little, extra details that go into his movies just show how talented he and his team are.

Looking at artwork might not seem like an exciting thing, but for me, it was like watching my favorite characters come to life before they made it to the screen.  And, even if you aren’t into artwork, there is a pretty fantastic gift shop full of adorable Ghibli creations. While I wish I had the money to buy a lot of it, sadly I couldn't. Maybe next time.

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You might not feel like you have time to go out on these explorations, but if you don’t try at least a few of them you will be missing out on parts of Japan that you otherwise wouldn't be able to experience. And that will be something you will regret for the rest of your life. For most people this is probably going to be the only time they will ever be in Japan so why not take it for everything it has? Go out, have a blast, take a ton of pictures, and have even more crazy stories to tell when you go back home. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and something that will not only help you grow as a person but give you mind blowing experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t have had.   

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Tokyo Incoming: My Flight to Japan

Tokyo Incoming: My Flight to Japan

    We often hear about how time flies and how quickly it can pass, but you know, it really does speed by! One minute, I’m at home imagining my semester abroad, and in the blink of an eye I’m on a plane crossing the Pacific on the way to my dream semester! It’s a time full of excitement, wonder, and lots of nerves!! I would be lying if I didn’t convey how nervous I was for this adventure, but the excitement of being in Tokyo, making new friends, and living in another world was all I needed to cope.  

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            Before explain the beginning of my adventure and how I got here, I’ll say a little something about myself. I’m Leilani, a senior in college majoring in Biology with a Health Professions concentration. That’s right; I’m a science major on the way to med school, so how and why am I over here in Tokyo? Well, Japan has always been one of my personal interests, culture-wise and linguistically. I love the Japanese language, and grew up with an admiration for the animation and gaming the nation has exported across the world. Since my home school offered Japanese, I took all the courses they had to offer, and when the Study Abroad seminars popped up, I was eager to see if my school offered any abroad programs for Japan. Unfortunately, my school lacked a program for Japan, but I was determined to find a way to make this Study Abroad experience happen in Japan. Working with my Study Abroad office, I came across CIEE’s Japan Arts and Sciences program, and found everything I was looking for. The best part about this was that I had already fulfilled my science credits and only needed electives! How perfect this opportunity became! Upon being accepted into CIEE’s program, I was so relieved, happy, and excited! I was really going to Japan, after years of dreaming and some painful semesters of searching. The online application process was easy to complete, simple, yet comprehensive. I knew what to turn in and when, and the staff was very accommodating, especially in helping me coordinate my return date with my other obligations. But, everything worked out in the end, and before I knew it, I was on that JAL flight to Tokyo! Leaving my home airport, waving goodbye to my mother with tears in her eyes, it was a bittersweet take off at 5am. Yet, the excitement quickly took over any sadness, and I could always FaceTime her anyway.

 

            I started my journey on JAL with tickets I booked through a wonderful student travel agency, StudentUniverse. The plane was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen, and being inside for 13hrs wasn’t as scary as I thought it could be. I had a nice aisle seat with a TV complete with games and around 15 movies. The flight even offered Wi-Fi, so my brother and I could send lovely selfies to each other throughout my flight. Here’s my map view:

 

Flight Map!
  

    After finishing one of the longest plane rides of my life, passing customs and claiming my baggage, I was here in Japan!  I was one of the first people to meet up with CIEE at our designated meeting spot at the airport, along with two other CIEE students. To kill some time before our bus took us to our hotel, I got a Starbucks, which was a great decision. With our luggage shipped and our tickets claimed, we boarded the bus from Narita to Tokyo!

 

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    CIEE met up with us at the airport and took us to where we were staying. We received an info packet, along with our cellphones, which have very interesting ringtones and text tones. Small group by group, more of the CIEE students arrived, and we eagerly traded numbers. Orientation ended up being a blast, and we made friends very quickly! We went out to eat at some fantastic places that were big on flavor even though they were small in stature.

 

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        We even had time to go to karaoke! Yes, the first song we sang was “Let It Go.”

  

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    So far, the journey has been very exciting, fun, and educational already. It’s the small differences in culture that really get to you and not the glaringly obvious ones, but that’s for another time.  Here’s our new school, Jochi Daigaku, or Sophia University, from a panoramic view.

 

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Thanks for reading, and I hope to talk more soon!

 

Leilani

CIEE FA14

Class of 2015

11/19/2014

STUDYING ABROAD IN TOKYO: OVERCOMING DOUBT THROUGH SMALL VICTORIES

            When I first found out I was going to Japan, I was so excited. It was a long awaited dream come true and I was on cloud nine. As my departure date got closer and closer, I got more and more excited, but with this excitement there were a few doubts sprinkled in with it. I doubted my ability to speak Japanese well enough to communicate, and I doubted my ability to navigate the vast Tokyo metropolis. I’m sure some of you who are reading this may also have these doubts, so allow me to try and help settle your fears with this post.

            For starters, the Japanese people are some of the most helpful people I have come across. They genuinely pay attention to your questions and are very sympathetic with the fact that, since you are a foreigner, you can easily get lost, in conversation or on the road. I have never been snarled at, or looked down upon like a nuisance by any of my Japanese friends, host mom or even complete strangers when I ask them a question. Even though my Japanese is lacking and often very broken, they still try to work with me and help me with the task at hand, whether it be getting from one station to the next, or simply needing help translating a phrase.

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            I had only studied Japanese for two semesters before coming over here, so I was worried about the language barrier and I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know how I would be received given my low language ability. As time went on, I began to become more comfortable and my Japanese friends have been such a great help in my Japanese improvement.

            I was also worried about finding my way through the big city. Before coming to Tokyo, I had never ridden a train or  subway before. I had never even been in a train or subway station! I was even further intimidated when I received a map of all of Tokyo’s train and subway lines. It was a huge colorful spider web that I thought I was going to be tangled in. But after a little bit of studying, this spider web becomes much less threatening. You begin to navigate effortlessly and it starts to become more and more familiar as time goes on. So much, in fact, I wonder why I was even nervous about it in the first place.

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            The best way to get over your fear and doubt is to just put yourself in the open and talk to people. Don’t rely on your smartphone to translate and try not to use Google maps to find your way around. Only break out these tools when it is absolutely necessary to do so, or they can, in my opinion, severely cripple your abroad experience. It is one of the most rewarding feelings to be able to move through the city without being overly dependent on technology. It is very satisfying to know that your language is improving along with your knowledge of the city. To illustrate this, I’d like to share a personal story about how I overcame my fear of speaking Japanese and my fear of traveling the city alone. 

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            I was heading home from Shibuya by myself. I broke off from the group I was with because I needed to be home in time for dinner with my host family. It was the first time traveling by myself. It was a little nerve wracking not knowing if I was on the right train or if I was at the correct platform. I made it to my connecting station by sheer luck and I started to make my way to the next platform for my train home. I had no idea what I was doing. I made it to the platform that I thought was the right one, but I was very unsure about it. So, I decided to ask if I was in the right place. I summoned up my courage and went and asked a girl who was standing close to me for help. It was pretty rough, but she understood me well enough and told me that I was indeed in the correct place. She also told me the number of stops that I needed to go. Now of course simply asking for directions wouldn’t be a big deal for me in my own country, but at that moment I felt like I was on top of the world.  It was so satisfying to be able to use my Japanese to find my way home. The experience really helped me get over the fears I had before coming to Japan and gave me more confidence in myself. 

            So my advice is to just get out there and talk to people! Don’t let fear constrict you or hold you back from experiencing everything this country has to offer. There is so much to see and so much to do, so who has time to be afraid?

MT. FUJI AND STAYING AT A JAPANESE INN (RYOKAN)

During one of our long-weekend vacations, a group of my friends and I decided to stay at a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan (りょかん) that was right by Mt. Fuji.

            On that Friday, my friends and I all grouped together to come up with a game plan. The city we set our sights on was called Kawaguchiko (河口湖), and it’s almost right at the base of Mt. Fuji, boasting a beautiful lake to boot. Our stay was going to be two days and one night. We made and packed some of our own food for a picnic, and to save on cost we split the grocery bill. By that night, we were all packed and ready to explore and we couldn’t have been more excited. When we met in the morning, we made our way to Shinjuku Station because there is a line that goes straight to our destination. Somehow we got totally lost, and what should have been an hour and a half train turned into an almost four hour escapade. We didn’t mind, though, seeing how the connecting trains we ended up riding were chockfull of stunning landscape and beautiful foliage.

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            We finally made it to Kawaguchiko by midafternoon. Since we had been sitting for quite sometime we decided to walk around the city and find a spot by the lake to have our picnic. We ended up finding a great place right by the water and it was a great experience.  Once we finished, we finally checked into our inn. When you arrive at a ryokan, they do not allow outside shoes inside the building; instead, they supply you slippers to wear for the duration of your stay. I was surprised to find that the slippers didn’t fit my feet whatsoever! I asked the host if they had any larger sizes and in response he said, “No, I’m sorry. Its because these were made for the Japanese.” My friends all proceeded to laugh at his joke seeing how they are all constantly cracking jokes about my size (I’m 6’3” and 195 pounds). After we all got our laughs in, we made our way upstairs to explore our room. The floor was made up of tatami mats and the doors were traditional sliding doors, so the feel of the room was fantastic. The rooms also came equipped with huge futons, and traditional Japanese robes called yukata[d1] .

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            That night, we all had such a great time! It was a lot of fun being able to wear traditional Japanese yukata and sleep in futons. We played cards, told ghost stories, went to a traditional onsen (Japanese public bath/hot spring) and just enjoyed the entire atmosphere that we were in. It was great being able to bond with the people I have grown to love while also enjoying a slice of the culture from the country that I have grown to love as well.

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Blog post photo

            The next morning, we were greeted with and amazing view of Mt. Fuji that was right outside our window. It was a great way to start the day. After breakfast, we split into two groups. Some of us went hiking to see the colors of the changing leaves and to experience the outdoors, and some of us went to an amusement park call Fuji Q Highlands. I was in the hiking group and got some amazing photos, so I was very happy with my choice. We finished the day with omiyage (souvenirs) shopping to take home to our families and slowly made our way back to Tokyo. All in all, it was an amazing experience that I will keep with me for the rest of my life. Getting up close and personal with the traditional Japanese ways was, in my opinion, extra satisfying due to the fact that we were away from the city and, more or less, in nature.

            When you come to Tokyo, I highly recommend traveling other areas of this beautiful country. It is a fun and engaging way to interact with the culture and to have experiences that, otherwise, might not happen in Tokyo. I love the city and it has so much to offer but, personally, I felt at times it was great to get away from the crowds and hit the reset button with a trip to the countryside. While you’re here, try and see all that you can see, and hear all that you can hear. Fully immerse yourself in the culture and history and, I think, your appreciation for this country will grow significantly.


 [d1] The word is yukata, although there is no plural form in Japanese so we don’t write it with an “s” at the end.

11/18/2014

GOING BEYOND THE BATTER WITH TAKOYAKI – MORE THAN JUST A GREAT JAPANESE SNACK

One question which I get asked a lot here is “what’s your favorite Japanese food?”

Now, taking into consideration all the great gastronomical treats Japan has to offer, it’s no surprise that for some, picking a single favorite dish might be a little difficult. For me however, there’s no doubt that the honor should go to a little wonder called “takoyaki.” It’s a simple snack which I love almost as much as life itself, and in this blog entry, I’m happy to report that I’ve recently had the chance to actually try my hand at cooking it.

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Homemade takoyaki: the finished product!

As my host grandmother is the one in charge of all the meals at home, she’s taken it upon herself to know everyone’s favorite foods. When I told her that my first and only gastronomical love was takoyaki – a popular Japanese snack made by cooking chopped octopus in spheres of gooey batter – she made sure to schedule a trip to the home of my host mother’s younger sister (technically my host aunt), who owns a takoyaki pan; I remember it was on the last Monday of October that we finally made this trip.

We arrived at my host aunt’s home in Odaiba just a few minutes shy of 4:30PM – a rather unusual time for a meal, but as good a time as any for takoyaki. All the ingredients and equipment we were going to need had already been laid out on the dining table: a large bowl of flour batter, chopped octopus, pickled ginger, bonito flakes, several condiment bottles, and a takoyaki pan. Needless to say, I was quite excited.

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Where gastronomical wonders are born

Before we began, my host aunt gave me a much-needed rundown on how we were going to proceed with cooking: heat and oil the pan, pour the batter, insert octopus, then garnish with condiments. As a single takoyaki takes the form of a sphere, I knew that the tough part was going to be flipping each batter ball over in the pan’s semi-spherical molds, using nothing but toothpicks – and I was right. Barely two minutes into that stage, my grandmother had to ask me to stop prodding at the batter balls, because she couldn’t cook and laugh at me struggling at the same time. And if I’m being completely honest, it really was a laughably pathetic struggle – who knew moist batter could be so slippery? So I threw in the towel after the “insert octopus” stage, and just watched my aunt and grandma flip takoyaki spheres like professionals.

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Trust me, it's harder than it looks!

Simply eating takoyaki is already a great experience on its own, but actually partaking in the cooking process brought me to a whole new level of appreciation for this Japanese snack. It wasn’t just due to the fact that homemade food is inherently better than store-bought food; I was consuming the result of my (host aunt and grandma’s) hard work, which tasted awesome.

In addition, cooking is an experience that really succeeds in bringing people together, even when language and cultural barriers are in the way. As my Japanese is still at the intermediate level, I am only able to communicate complex thoughts after expending a considerable amount of effort. Whilst cooking however, I was able to simply enjoy myself and everyone else’s company. It turned out to be a great bonding opportunity, and if I wasn’t sure before, I am now: choosing to do a homestay was the right way to go with this study abroad adventure to Japan.

All things considered, I think it was a really successful day. The only downside I can think of is the fact that store-bought takoyaki will now never taste as great to me – but even then, it’s still possible for one to make each store-bought takoyaki experience a unique one. For example: I know for a fact that different takoyaki stands in Japan offer their own unique selection of sauces to spice things up, whilst others offer fillings that aren’t octopus (like chocolate). However, both of these things are blog entries for another time.

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I wasn't lying about the chocolate!

LOOKING FOR A LOCAL FAMILY RESTAURANT IN JAPAN? HOW ABOUT DENNY’S

It’s no secret that many aspects of Tokyo take after the west, but the last thing I expected to find when I got here was a Denny’s. Then I recalled that Denny’s is actually a pretty widespread chain of family restaurants, and the more I think about it now, the sillier I feel for not having seen it coming. Still, I managed to do a pretty good job of telling myself that I had come all the way to Japan to enjoy uniquely Japanese things with my tight budget, up until a certain Saturday evening in October; that was when nostalgia and vicious curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I decided to explore this Japanese take on a uniquely American dining experience; it turned out to be a pretty cool and interesting adventure.

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Good ol' Denny's!

I was ready and eager to sniff out any detectable differences the moment I stepped into the restaurant. The first thing that came to my attention was how much tidier the Japanese Denny’s was: the floors and furniture were spotless, the front cash register was always manned, and the waiters/waitresses could be summoned with a press of a button. In short, the place felt like a fancy restaurant, whereas the design of a typical Denny’s back home is closer to that of a more casual diner.

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Yours truly, feeling fancy

Even the menus look fancier, as crude as that statement sounds. In addition to the varieties of steak, one could find several uniquely Japanese culinary creations, such as omelet rice and matcha green tea ice cream; the desert menu was especially stunning. Of course, being the manly man I am, I ordered the steak. That was when the biggest surprise came.

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Brown: the color of flavor

In all my years of dining at Denny’s in the United States, I have never come across a cut of meat that looks like that. This is as good a time as any for a confession: I didn’t pay enough attention to the taste in order to make a fair taste comparison (which I guess is the important part), but that’s because I was a little too busy being seriously impressed at the look of that steak. This isn’t to say that Denny’s back home is inferior in any way – the two are just shooting for different aesthetics. Personally, I think it’s an interesting window into the way Japan regards the western style of dining as cultured and fancy, whereas back home, the sloppy presentation assists that old, “homey” diner effect.

It’s also interesting to note how foreign cuisine is incorporated into the American gastronomical scene. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is fortune cookies. In spite of being a purely American invention (they really aren’t a thing in China), fortune cookies have become a quintessential part of the Chinese food experience in the United States. Though I’m certain that most patrons of Panda Express back home know that finding little prophetic papers in cookies isn’t an actual part of the Asian way of life, it’s still an interesting example of how Asian food is represented and marketed in a different culture. With that parallel in perspective, Japan’s Japanification of Denny’s doesn’t seem all that outrageous anymore. This “Japanification” isn’t restricted to just Denny’s though, as I learned when I moved on to patronize McDonald’s and KFC. Though the infrastructures of these fast food restaurants are more or less identical to their American counterparts, the menus are (unsurprisingly) different; for example, the McDonald’s here offers customers teriyaki and shrimp burgers.

Looking back, dining at Japanese Denny’s was a pretty fun and eye-opening experience, and I would absolutely return for a second, third, and maybe fourth meal. That steak really wasn’t half bad. Though maybe next time, I think I might go for the omelet rice.

11/11/2014

Why I Wake Up

As most college students know, the ability to wake up early is a superpower granted only to a chosen few. In Japan this is no exception, especially after the initial 2 to 3 weeks of excitement and jetlag wear off. Between doing homework until midnight and going out to explore Tokyo any (and every) day of the week, waking up in the morning is not appealing; most days, it is an all-out struggle. Yet it is a struggle I undergo gladly for the sake of two smiling faces and that wonderful “Ohayo.”

In the apartment where I live with my host family of Mama, Papa, L, and R (names abbreviated for privacy), mornings start around 6am when R, age 4, wakes up and decides to play with his train set with volume on high. This chorus of beeps soon harmonizes with the giggles of L, age 6, who joins her younger brother in morning playtime. By 7:30am Mama is ushering them in to the bathroom across the hall from me for bath time. Around 8am Papa leaves for work, and everyone sees him off at the door on the other side of my wall with cheerful hugs and more giggles. Once 8:30am rolls around, the children are out the door with backpacks and umbrellas and sweaters in hand as Mama takes them to the bus and then goes on to her own workplace.

This daily routine is imprinted in my brain; on the days I cannot get up early, I lie in bed and listen to the routine play out like listening to a movie on in the other room. The familiarity of their voices as I lay half-awake is comforting, rather than irritating. On the rare mornings when the children sleep in, I actually wake myself up because the house is too quiet. I love hearing the sounds of family life and the simple joy of L and R when they wake up to greet the new day. As often as I sleep past the morning bustle, however, I also push myself to get up in the morning at least 3 or 4 times a week, despite not having class until 11am, so that I can spend time with them. The few hours of playtime in the morning are some of the most joyful moments of my day, and it is now far more valuable than sleep to me. Fighting epic battles to save the universe or watching the ever-intriguing Japanese children’s television is much more worthwhile than the lame adult dreams my mind comes up with.

Elsa Costume
Elsa costume for Halloween

Back at my university in the States, sleep took priority over everything for me; I think I would have slept through my homestay experience very easily had I not received some valuable advice from the CIEE Student Services Coordinator. She explained that, for Japanese people, spending time together doesn’t mean going somewhere to do something. Often, she explained, Japanese people spend time together merely by sharing the same space. In a homestay, that means everyone may be in the living room on separate electronic devices, “doing their own thing” in a Western sense, but to Japanese, this is “being together.” This advice really helped me during the first week when we would all be home in the evenings not talking to each other, just watching TV. But it also helped me appreciate how important it is to my host family that I wake up to just be with them in the morning. As much as I love playing with the kids, I think my host parents also appreciate the effort I am putting in to be with the family in the moments of everyday routine, not just the exciting moments or the fun trips on the weekend.

My host family experience is turning out to be the most rewarding part of my time here in Japan. They are the reason homesickness has not hit me yet, even after 2 months; they are also the reason I feel so at home in this country. My host parents explain the difficult or unfamiliar aspects of Japanese life to me; the children help me learn alongside them as they read books or watch children’s TV; the whole family has made me feel welcome in a country not my own. I think this experience has also been so positive because of the extensive coaching and advice I received from CIEE prior to moving in with the family. I was better prepared for how to fit in with the family, and the transition went much smoother than I expected. I think my homestay is the best part of my CIEE experience so far, and I encourage every applicant in the future to seriously consider homestay as an integral part of their time in Japan. I laugh with my family, learn from my family, and love every single moment of it, even when I wake up early in the morning. 

Play Time
Play Time