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05/17/2015

How To "Fashion" in Japan

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First thing that comes to mind when I think of Japanese fashion is vibrantly dressed girls, covered head-to-toe in glitter makeup, hidden under pounds of ruffles, and carrying around pastel parasols. And, while some of these girls do in fact exist in places like Harajuku, not everyone dresses to fit the Lolita status quo. I’ve come to discover, there is a vast array of styles in Tokyo ranging from “cool business” to rocker chic.

As a self-proclaimed fashion junky, one thing that intrigued me most about Japan prior to coming here was the unique – and often times loud – style found in places like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and the all-time famous Takeshita Street in Harajuku.

But, despite spending hours on Google images looking at what I thought was the “typical” Japanese fashion scene, I was pleasantly surprised to see the average person did not carry around a stuffed animal shaped backpack or look like a real-life porcelain doll – although, I have seen my fair share since being here.

Personally, when it comes to clothes, I gravitate towards neutral colors with simple designs, so when I saw how well Japanese people wore similar styles, not only did the inner fan girl in me go crazy, but I was so inspired to adopt some of their styling techniques – of course, adding my own personal twist on it.

In addition to the simplistic aesthetic Japanese style gurus have perfected, another extremely popular fashion trend is wearing socks with shoes – regardless of if the shoe is a flatform sandal or Mary Jane kitten heel. At first, when I saw this particular look I thought socks with 4-inch heels was a stretch, but then remembered, anything goes when in Tokyo. And, after being exposed to this trend on a daily basis, I decided it was actually a really innovative way to take basic socks and transform them from a necessity into an accessory.

That being said, Japanese socks are not your basic, everyday black and white. Here, they range from an assortment of shapes, sizes, colors, and designs. Most hosiery stores carry these dynamite pieces for around 1,000 yen (around ten dollars). What’s more, I’ve come to find the most common style is made up of sheer material decorated with various designs and patterns, such as tiny daises or colorful fruits. And, because of the sheerness, the strategically placed designs essentially look like temporary tattoos for the feet. It’s safe to say, when it comes to hosiery, Japanese women do not mess around.

Notably, the men are no exception. While I’m not as familiar with men’s fashion as I am women’s, I definitely have an appreciation and admiration for those who express their own personal style. And, let me tell you, Japanese men undeniably have a spin on fashion. For starters, in America, clutch purses (a bag without any straps) are exclusive to women; however, in Japan, countless of men confidently equip themselves with a more masculine version of this oversized pouch. Other widely utilized accessories by both males and females are felt hats, oversized reading glasses, and integrate jewelry.

One thing I have learned is there is no right or wrong way to dress in Japan. More importantly, there are no rules or guidelines telling people how to look a certain way or fit a certain style mold. In a homogenous society, it is difficult to stand out amongst the sea of black suits and determined faces; but with fashion, men and women can fully express themselves without feeling pressured to own a wardrobe consisting only of black suits and ties. On one end of the spectrum, Harajuku girls strut their style in sky-high flatforms, decorated stockings, and colorfully dyed hair; while on the other end, men rock their own styles in head-to-toe black or masterfully layered, oversized T-shirts. Modestly speaking, anything and everything goes in the way of fashion here and I’m constantly inspired by the innovative and effortless styling technique Japanese people possess. And, above all, everyday is a chance for me to learn new ways of taking traditional ideas and putting an exciting, Japanese spin on my own personal aesthetic. 

05/16/2015

A Dream Come True- the Studio Ghibli Museum

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I grew up watching Studio Ghibli films, and have admired the talent of Hayao Miyazaki and his staff for a long time. Their films are unique and memorable, and I love the underlying themes they present. Ever since I heard about the museum two years ago, I was desperate to go, but knew it was hard to get tickets. THANK YOU CIEE FOR MAKING THIS POSSIBLE!


The museum was beautiful in every way. The building was a bit hard to get a decent picture of because I couldn’t capture its entirety. But, it had ivy growing up the side, and a winding staircase leading to the roof, where you could meet the friendly giant robot from Castle in the Sky. The cafe was a vibrant yellow and red and had a cozy inviting aesthetic that McDonalds doesn't have (because red and yellow, get it?). It was so whimsical and nature-y, it looked like it belonged in a Studio Ghibli movie. Unfortunately, I couldn't take pictures inside to show you its greatness, and I respect the property that is Studio Ghibli's.

My favorite part of the museum was this room covered in sketches and finished work from the various movies. Really, the entire museum was marvelous, but because I love drawing and painting, I could have looked at the pictures for hours. I have also been curious about what kind of paint is used to create the sketches and backgrounds. WELL I FOUND OUT!! Apparently the artists use Nicker poster colour. I've never heard of it but now I'm going to go ham and buy all of it. Oh my gosh you have no idea how badly I want to get some now and use it! The colors are vibrant and look almost like watercolors. Ha! No more secrets!

There was also an exclusive short film showing at the theater in the museum. It was adorable and very unusual in the way sound was used. It was about a girl who set off into the wilderness for some peace and adventure. She kept leaving apples as offerings to spirits along the way, and was very resourceful in solving small problems. There was no talking or music, only what I believe to be one person making noises for everything; such as the wind, animals, and the girl humming. It was quirky, but I enjoyed it!

When we were done touring the museum, Esther and I took advantage of the short wait to eat at the cafe. I was beside myself with happiness because of just being there. I got my fix at the gift shop and now I was about to enjoy cake and coffee. I would go back in a heartbeat. 

If you asked me which Ghibli movie is my favorite, I would just stare at you, pondering intently before spitting out the names of like five movies. They are all so wonderful in their own way! Go watch them if you haven't seen any! And if you haven't, here is a list of some of my favorites to start with:
My Neighbor Totoro (this was the first one I saw)
Kiki's Delivery Service
Castle in the Sky
Ponyo
Spirited Away
Whisper of the Heart


(Yes I know that's more than five)

Odawara- My Host Father's Hometown

Golden week is a consecutive week of holidays, and one of the busiest travel days of the year in Japan. Most people have this time off, so for three days and two nights I visited my host father's hometown in Odawara. Everyone I talk to doesn't seem to know where this place is, but its basically south of Tokyo in Kanagawa prefecture. Close to the sea and Mt. Fuji, I honestly could move here! 

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Upon arriving at his parent's house, I was greeted with warm smiles and a delicious lunch of homemade udon noodle soup (as in, the noodles were also handmade). It was amazing! I even put some butter in it, which I didn't know was a thing, but you might catch me doing it to some of my soup recipes now. Hehe. After lunch I was pressured a little bit by my sisters to go to the 100¥ store. I obliged but really didn't think I was going to buy anything. Well I actually bought around 1000¥ worth of stuff ($10, don't freak out) because I found some really beautiful dish ware and mugs. And guys, 100¥ stores here are far superior to dollar stores in the U.S. This place had some neat stuff, I actually could have spent more money...


But you know what's cooler than the dollar store?? The Daiyuzan Saijoji temple! We drove here after our little shopping spree (ok my shopping spree), and let me tell you it is one of the coolest temples I've been to. I am pretty sure not many people know about it, especially foreigners, because it is hidden in the mountains. We trekked the pathway through the forest embellished with statues and carved stones. Finally we came to a clearing and were met by the majestic curve of the temple rooftop, and the blazing sun. I took a picture inside the temple of an exquisite gold decoration in the center of the room. The above picture is from the perspective looking up into it. It reminds me of the sun, or of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. There is also a mirror in the center, which is an object often associated with Amaterasu. I can't say that this decoration has anything to do with her, I just found it interesting.

 I've been to a lot of temples and this one is probably one of my favorites. It carries with it a sense of peace and physical awareness, probably due to it being tucked away on a mountain.  After that though, we went to an onsen. An onsen is a natural communal bath and can be indoors or outdoors. When you go in you are completely naked, so the first time is a bit awkward, but really it isn't that bad. I'm a girl, she's a girl. Usually the sexes are separated but there are a few onsens that are not. They are the best though. If you ever get the chance to go to one, do it (be fearless)! After relaxing in the bath with my little sisters and host father's mother, I refreshed myself with an iced matcha. It tasted so good after the hot bath, that now I crave them! I know what I'll be making every day when I get back to school in the fall. 

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Day two started off with breakfast, then turned into a full blown car journey through the mountains. As we cruised the winding road, I couldn't help but feel as if I was in a Studio Ghibli film (like Princess Mononoke), surrounded by the splendor of nature. My eyes became misty and I felt a sense of longing for this place, which I'd never been to. I felt connected and a deep sense of yearning for the mountains, the trees, and Odawara itself. Yeah I know, I watch too much Studio Ghibli. :P My heart is connected to the pulsing life of nature, so if you haven't already figured it out, I thoroughly enjoyed that car ride! We stopped off at three different places, in an attempt to see Mt. Fuji. 

The first stop didn't yield the desired view. Mt. Fuji would have looked awesome, if I could have x-ray vision through the clouds. I did take lots of pictures and did some poses with the girls, and also attempted to blow the clouds away. It didn't work. :P Our second stop was at a little restaurant that sold bottled milk like you would buy sake and share it. Dangit that was the best milk I'd ever had, and now I wanna have a milk and cookies party and put the milk in a glass jug, and its going to happen. Eventually.

 The last stop had more promising results, yielding the snow-capped top of the splendid Mt. Fuji. After some more photos, we wound down the mountain and had sushi for dinner, and Emily was happy. The end.

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 So day three started off with me getting to wear an actual kimono! It involves a lot of wrapping, and tightening of things around the abdomen. Honestly, I'm not sure how people can wear these just around town. I awkwardly had to shuffle out the door, and forget using the bathroom. How does one even do that in this beautiful garment? It was a total blast and dream-come-true moment, so I was very pleased. I even did a tea ceremony in it, but afterwards it came off. Tea ceremonies are another thing I want to do when I have to (sadly) return to the U.S. What I did for the tea ceremony is mostly watch, but I noticed that the matcha was sifted, then I scooped my amount, added hot water, and took a special matcha whisk and furiously swished that thing back and forth. My host dad's sister who is apparently a tea ceremony sensei helped me make my matcha nice and frothy. Then, I turned my bowl twice clockwise, and was ready to enjoy. When you are finished with your drink, you turn the bowl twice counter clockwise.

 Soon after we ate steak for lunch! Sorry cows, but I love steak, and I prefer the steak in Japan over steak in the U.S. It is softer and juicy, and gets garlic chips on top. Garlic is delicious. Unfortunately, after that lovely meal, I returned to Shinagawa with my host family (I like Shinagawa too but...). My host dad said we would go back eventually, and I can't wait to do so! Thank you to everyone who made my time in Odawara so memorable! It is a beautiful place, and anyone reading this and planning to go to Japan should visit!

05/15/2015

CONQUERING MT. TAKAO

One of my favorite things about Japan is how the country has taken the effort to preserve its natural heritage. A survey of the country’s geography from a bird’s eye view will reveal that there is just as much green as there is gray, if not more. With the beauty of nature still flourishing throughout the country, taking a daytrip to a mountain, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to spend a weekend in Japan, especially on a sunny day in May. In this blog post, I will be detailing one of the best daytrips I’ve ever had in Japan: my day-long adventure to the summit of Mt. Takao!

Personally, I wouldn’t describe myself as especially outdoorsy, at least, not any more than the regular person; I will say, however, that the sight of the sun illuminating a clear blue sky can be very inspiring! That said, it was at midday on a Saturday, when the sun was at its apex in the cloudless sky, that I decided I wanted to climb something – something forested, preferably at least six hundred meters tall, and nearby. Through the power of the Internet, I learned of Mt. Takao, a popular daytrip destination for many residents of Tokyo. What sold me was the photo of tourists riding on the ski lifts surrounded by nature.

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From Matsudo Station, where my dormitory is located, Takaosanguchi Station is about an hour and forty minutes away if you manage to catch the “Special Semi-Express” Keio Line train once you arrive at Shinjuku Station. If you’re feeling like spending about two hours on a train, though, then there’s also the more-frequent Chuo Rapid line, which stops at Takao Station. As I was leaving at midday, I decided to try my best to catch the faster train, so that I could get there in time to do stuff.

As I exited the station, I spotted a couple of tourists walking with sticks of dango – a Japanese treat made of rice dumplings, covered in a special sauce – and realized that I had neglected to grab lunch. I traced this trail of tourists to a purveyor of dango near the station, and purchased my own stick for 300 yen. I mention this because the lady at the dango stand was telling everyone that whoever returned their finished stick to be properly disposed of would receive 10 yen back. This, I think, fits in with this blog post’s theme of preserving the environment and the beauty of nature

Dango in hand, I made my way up the trail, until I finally found the ski lift station. Intending to ascend the mountain by technology and descend by foot, I purchased a one-way ticket. Naturally, there was a trail where hardcore mountaineers could climb the whole mountain by foot, but alas, I was too well-aware of the limits of my legs’ strength.

It was only when I got to the top third (where the lift drops you off) that I discovered there were a lot of cool things to do other than actually climbing the mountain. In addition to the myriad of food stands selling dango and ice cream, there was a monkey park, where you could see Japanese macaques in enclosures, as well as a botanical garden showing off vegetation indigenous to the station. This was also the day I found out that in spite of being in the higher-intermediate level of Japanese language learning, I didn’t know how to say the word “plant” in Japanese.

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There was so much to see, in fact, that I didn’t get to the top until really late, by which time the lift and cable car services had stopped, and the mountain staff were going around on their motorcycles chasing people off the mountain. Ascending just the top third of the mountain had worn me out, so needless to say, by the time I’d gotten to the bottom, my feet were a mess. I returned to the station and hopped on the train home, exhausted but satisfied. The view which those who reach the top are rewarded with was really marvelous.

Then I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t returned my dango stick, and the thought that the trip could’ve been 10 yen cheaper continues to haunt me to this day. Still, I had a lot of fun, and will definitely be returning to Mt. Takao before my flight home. And I’ll also be sure to return my dango stick for that 10 yen back.

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THE WORLD’S SHORTEST ESCALATOR

I believe there’s a saying that goes, “it’s the small things.”

With the overwhelming number of big, bombastic recreational sites and events available around Japan, a lot of the smaller and lower-key things tend to get lost in the shadows. For example, everybody flocks to Sapporo during the winter for the city’s annual snow festival, which all the travel websites on the internet rave about. Few know about the Otaru Snow Festival in the neighboring city of Otaru, which sees a mere fraction of the Sapporo Snow Festival’s attendance each year. Personally, I found Otaru’s more soft-spoken and prettily-lit winter festivities much more appealing (I’d stumbled upon the knowledge of its existence purely by chance). After that day, I made it a point to always try my best to find the more obscure attractions each time I travel to a place, to explore worlds yet unexplored in Japan. With that in mind, I remember a time when I found myself especially tired of big festivals and museums. The desire to travel still lingering in my heart, however, I embarked upon a daytrip to a certain location in Japan I’d accidentally come across whilst loafing around on the internet: an escalator in the basement of a department store in Kawasaki, which also happened to be the world’s smallest escalator.

This was a trip which I had actually planned out. “Next week on Saturday, you and I are going to the world’s smallest escalator,” I’d told my friend, Chieko, who enthusiastically agreed to accompany me on this seemingly pointless adventure. Yes, I was perfectly aware of what I was doing: We were about to spend an hour on the train to get to a 5-step escalator. And the journey did turn out as quaint as it sounds. But there was something very refreshing about not heading to some festival, or a famous garden, or a historically-significant museum for once – it was just an escalator, located in perhaps one of Japan’s most inconspicuous places!

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I remember feeling a very comical brand of elation once we arrived at the basement of More’s Department Store, home to – according to the Guinness Book of Records – the “world’s shortest escalator.” The place wasn’t set up like any sort of tourist destination at all; shoppers were either using it like it was just another escalator, or walking right past it. There was no line to use it, no guard, which was good, because it meant I got to ride it about seven times in a row before I had to yield to the occasional passerby. Here’s what I managed to learn about it all on my own: it’s a five-step, downward escalator, and the entire trip takes about five seconds – one second per step. There’s a McDonald’s on the floor above, so you don’t have to worry about getting hungry during your visit. It’s also just a short train ride from Tokyo, making it a very convenient daytrip location if you’re leaving from Matsudo Station, so no need to book any hotels in the area in advance; I spent nearly twenty whole minutes riding up and down the escalator, and still made it home at a good time, even though I had left in the afternoon.

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Of course, with all that said, it’s pretty clear that this experience was valuable mostly due to its comical novelty. But I’d really like to drive home the point that Japanese culture isn’t defined solely by its many grandiloquent locations and events. Japan is also unique on the “smaller,” everyday-scale: the gratuitous number of vending machines, talking toilets from the future, high-tech bicycle racks, shopping mall escalators, etc. These are things which are probably very banal features of life to the local Japanese, but to those who look at this culture through their own cultural lenses, these features become very interesting. That little escalator in Kawasaki will forever hold a special place in my heart.

WAGYU WONDERLAND

I’ve enthused a lot about food in my previous blog posts, so I suppose it would be fair for one to think that perhaps, the topic might have grown stale to me. However, when it comes to the story I’m about to tell, my mouth still waters each time the images flash through my head: the softest, pinkest slab of beef I’d ever laid eyes upon, softly sizzling on a bed of butter as it slowly but surely approached medium-rare perfection. For those even just slightly familiar with the world of Japanese beef – otherwise referred to as “wagyu” (“wa” meaning “Japanese” and “gyu” meaning “beef”) – Kobe beef may be what you’re thinking of right now. Whilst close, in this blog post, I will be paying homage to what I consider a pretty well-hidden gem in the world of wagyu: Hida Gyu, or “Hida beef.”

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I’ve always been a huge fan of nicely-marbled beef, and to this day, I still sometimes think back to that rush of elation I got the first time I tried Kobe beef. This story takes place a few weeks after that day, after I had returned to Tokyo. It was a day in March; I had an unbearable craving for good beef, but not enough money to take a second trip all the way down south to Kobe. So, what did I do? I turned to the eternally reliable, truest best friend of man: the Internet. Unfortunately, I failed to find a worthy, affordable, and nearby substitute for Kobe beef. I opened up to my friend Lester – who had previously spent 3 years in Japan as part of an English teaching program – about these woes. Lester told me about the town he had been stationed in, a small town somewhere up north of Tokyo in the boonies: Hida Takayama. “It’s got better beef that Kobe,” I remember him saying.

“Ha, better beef than Kobe,” I scoffed at the mere concept. At best, I had been hoping for an only-slightly-disappointing substitute. However, Lester had successfully piqued my interest. I looked up a bus to Hida Takayama (for those already interested, the Willer Express Bus provides a straight shot to the Takayama bus station from downtown Tokyo), packed my bags, and was on my way the following week.

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The prospect of discovering a steak “better than Kobe beef” buzzing amongst my thoughts, it was hard to get any sleep on the 5-hour bus ride. I’d preemptively looked up an affordable Hida beef restaurant – a little mom and pop type shop called “Kyouya –” prior to my departure, and made a dash for it the second I got off the bus. I’d also downloaded the restaurant’s menu in advance, so I wasted little time when it came to place an order.

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Flowery prose do little justice to what I experienced when I took my first bite, so to put it plainly: it was delicious, and yes, Lester had been right all along – it was better than Kobe beef. To me, what makes wagyu a novelty is the softness and savory greasiness of the steaks, and Hida beef proved itself the epitome of such a definition. One pleasant surprise that actually surpassed the beef, however, was how nice the people of Hida were. I’d arrived on a snowy day without an umbrella, and left the beef restaurant with a free one in hand, a present from the owners. The next morning, on my way to the station, I was stopped by an old lady, who thanked me for coming all the way out to Hida.

This is about all there is to this story: really good beef, and really nice people. It was one of my most successful trips, and though I am still being made fun of for having spent over $300 to go get beef, I can proudly say I have no regrets. All I had to do was not eat or leave my room for the three weeks that followed. But other than that, it was a very good experience!

Hiroshima- The City of Peace

 

 

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Two years ago I got the opportunity to travel to Hiroshima and explore its beautiful city. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to return there again, and take in some new experiences. The big things to see are the Peace Park and Peace Museum. Going through the museum was one of the saddest things I've ever seen (and I've gone through it twice now). Pictures, artifacts, and dioramas are displayed to give you the full impact of damage created by a single bomb. The museum itself takes a neutral stance towards the events, presenting facts about the atomic bomb, and its effects on the citizens of Hiroshima. It is heartbreaking and hard to see and read about the gruesome injuries sustained by survivors, who later die from these deformities. But the museum never wants this to happen again, so it promotes peace and for the discontinuation of the creation of nuclear weapons.  

We also got to hear an A-bomb survivor's story. Keiko Ogura, who was eight years old when the bomb was dropped, has grown up to become a very inspiring woman. She and her family were lucky to not be injured. Part of this was due to her father having a bad feeling about the day, and telling her not to go to school. And, they moved farther away from the center of the city a few months earlier, because of her father's sixth sense. Today, she works for Hiroshima to deepen international exchanges with journalists, and is an interpreting coordinator for peace-movement visitors. In 1984 she founded Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, and in 2013 she was awarded the Hiroshima Peace Center Foundation's 25th Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize. Despite prejudice projected onto A-bomb survivors, Ogura has risen above and beyond to be successful and influential in promoting peace!

After that, we were given a tour around the Peace Park. Besides the Sadako memorial, and victims memorial, there is also a memorial for all of the Korean people who were forced to work in Hiroshima, and perished from the bomb. I like that they had this tribute, and that it was a statue of a turtle facing towards Seoul, South Korea's capital. Actually, some Americans and other non-Japanese people were exposed to the bomb, and these people are remembered as well. We took a walk to the hypocenter later on, but it was pretty inconspicuous. Initially we walked right past it, but then noticed there was a plaque in the ground explaining about how hot the blast was, and the damage it did. The hypocenter is not actually where the remnants of the dome stand today. The hypocenter actually was over a hospital. Despite this tragedy 70 years ago, the city is thriving and beautiful! The people here may never forget, but they have moved forward to create a prosperous community. 

Let's work towards a more peaceful world! Go do something nice for someone because happiness is the best gift. :)

05/13/2015

How to Eat Healthy While Abroad in Japan

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Before arriving in Japan, I envisioned bustling trains, hordes of people, vibrantly lit skylines, and – more importantly – sushi for miles. And, while the trains are often packed to full capacity and the night sky is indeed brightened by the city lights, sushi wasn’t as commonplace as I had hoped. To my surprise, sushi was actually less common in Japan than people who owned cars – or so it seemed.

Once inside the city, I was welcomed by an array of konbini (convenient stores), which appeared around almost every corner. I had no idea 7/11 would become my go-to for meals, coffee, and everything in between. Not only are stores like Family Mart, Sunkus, and 7/11 extremely accessible and convenient in Japan – hence the name “konbini” – but they are also very affordable. Here, freshly brewed coffee is around one dollar and an average meal costs around 520 yen (essentially four dollars).

Yet, despite sounding like I hit the food jackpot, a diet of cookies and bread wasn't cutting it. Basically, I wasn’t getting the vital nutrients I would normally get from foods like fresh fruit and protein. And, while I greatly enjoyed cheap meals like steamy ramen, tantalizing curry rice, crispy onigiri, juicy udon, and one-dollar melon bread, I knew my diet had to change – and fast. But, unfortunately, eating healthy in Japan (or anywhere for that matter) comes at a price.  

Not only are nutritious fruits and protein-rich food hard to come by, it’s also more expensive than your typical convenience store cuisine. For instance, one red apple costs around 498 yen (around 414 dollars) depending on the season, and a small jar of Skippy peanut butter costs 568 yen (around 470 dollars). But, after countless of trips to 7/11 and a few unfortunate pounds later, I concluded the extra money was worth it. I figured, either spend a few extra dollars on healthy food or gain a few extra pounds – needless to say, I chose the former.

Taking it one step further, I purchased a protein shaker to help curve my insatiable appetite, along with powder containing a mix of fruits and vegetables for an extra dose of nutrients. This was especially needed since – up until this point – all I’ve been consuming was starch and carbohydrates. The only problem remaining was the aggravating fact I couldn't understand (or even read) Japanese food labels, making it extremely difficult to know exactly what I was ingesting.

That being said, I quickly grabbed my laptop and searched Google for answers. Shortly after, I across an extremely helpful website, survivingjapan.com. On this webpage, there are various tables explaining how to translate standard Japanese food labels. Also, Japanese calories are listed in kilocalories, and for those of you who may not already know, every one kcal is equal to one calorie. I highly recommend visiting this site as it contains many insightful facts and information about Japan. 

Luckily, while intimidating at first glance, the ingredient label is actually quite easy to understand. Personally, I tend to focus on the common nutrients such as the calorie, protein, sugar, fat, and sodium intake. Once I knew what to look for, reading and understanding what was in my food became much easier. And, as I started paying closer attention to what I was eating, I was more confident about the food chosen I made. What's even better, after cleaning up my diet, I finally felt I had more energy to explore Tokyo and all of the cool and exciting places around the area!

While this is not to say I don’t treat myself to delicious soft serve or donuts every now and then – I’m simply more aware of what I’m eating and how to make healthier choices for my body. 

05/11/2015

Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone

It has been more than a month since I came to Japan, and I am surprised that my usual homesick stage still hasn't kicked in just yet. The main reason is probably because I am enjoying every moment here in Japan. Even though there were several times when I felt anxious and foreign, I have learned to overcome the "downs" by utilizing the “ups” to the fullest.  

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- CIEE Hiroshima Trip

The biggest challenge I have encountered thus far is forcing myself to step out of my comfort zone. From what I have seen in my home country, people usually formed groups during freshman week, and would stay with the same group for the rest of their college years. I brought that mentality with me to Japan. To be honest, I was afraid that I would not be able to join a “group” during orientation week. However, the CIEE students and other exchange students are super friendly and I am grateful to become friends with quite a few of them. I noticed that we have really bonded during the trips that CIEE has planned for us, especially the trips to Kamakura and Hiroshima. I have become more relaxed because I have found my own “comfort zone.” 

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- CIEE Karakura Trip (Group 10 Rocks!)

Naturally, we communicated using English 99% of the time because not everyone is in the same Japanese level. However, I started finding it stressful to speak Japanese to my host mother or during daily situations since I have only used English with my friends at school. I then figured out that I fell into the new “comfort trap" that I created for myself. I have to find a balance to break this barrier so I can truly adapt into the Japanese culture. Apart from hanging out with my CIEE friends, I have taken a step further to make friends with Japanese students at Sophia University. It was nerve wracking at first, but I am getting the hang of it. It takes time to crack open my shell to speak more confidently using broken Japanese. I asked my friends to correct my pronunciation or errors every time I say something wrong (which is about 80% of the time at this level). This has become very enjoyable and effective.  

Now, I found myself hanging out with my Japanese friends a lot more. It gave me a chance to practice my Japanese, and in exchange I offer to help them practice their English. It is like an “exchange program,” but much more fun and exciting. Through my Japanese friends, I also learned a lot about the customs that are not common enough to be found online. For instance, I learned how to purchase Shinkansen tickets and bus tickets via a Japanese website. I also learned how to bargain, how to know which price is good for different types of fruit, etc. Sometimes I no longer feel foreign, and that is the feeling I pursued when I first came to Japan. I am sure there will be tons of difficulties ahead, but I will find a way use these obstacles as a bridge to get closer to my goal.  

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- Purikura with my Japanese/ non CIEE friends

Even though I found myself pretty busy with schoolwork, I always leave room open for my CIEE friends, my Japanese friends, and also my host mother. It seems hard to fit everything with only 24 hours within a day, but I have learned to find the balance to make this study abroad experience worthwhile. Although it was only a short period of time, but everyone has become so important to me. They are the reason why I always worked hard to manage my time wisely so I can spend quality time with everyone.  

This sounds cliché, but when a challenge is conquered through hard work, the result will become much more rewarding. I am glad that I have finally stepping out of my comfort zone, because discovering new discomfort and learn from it- is my new way of adapting. 

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- With my awesome people during CIEE Hiroshima Trip :)

Golden Week- Kyoto: The Land of Traditional Japan

On the second day of my Golden Week trip, my friends and I went to Kyoto from Osaka. Time was limited so we did intense planning in order to complete all of our goals in one day. This would be the only chance for all of us to conquer this quest together.

We left Osaka at 10AM and arrived at Kyoto Station via train at around 12PM. We bought a daily pass for 1200 yen because most of the places that we wanted to visit were accessible via bus, since the pass could not be used for JR lines.

First, we visited the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine with the famous Senbon Torii (1000 gates). The bright orange shrine and gates were much better than pictures. Also, the street foods along the road to the shrine were fascinating! Luckily, there was also a festival going on, where 30 trucks were passing by slowly with people in costumes. It was the first festival that I have witnessed at a shrine, but a few people were getting impatient because the road was blocked for the avidity for about 30-45 minutes. To me, I relished seeing a different perspective of Japan because it has helped me getting a bit closer to look at things in a Japanese perspective.

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- Senbon Torii (1000 Gates)

On the way back, we made it to the Kiyomizu Temple. It was a pretty far walk from the station and we also had to walk up a hill, but it was completely worth it. There were several ladies and couples dressed in kimono walking up a road along the traditional houses, hotels and shops. Despite the fact that the temple was very crowded, I felt at ease because I was getting closer to the more traditional Japan. There were three streams of river where people could drink and pray for long life, success in school or good love life. However, one should only take water from one of the streams, or else that person would be seen as greedy. We passed on this opportunity because the line was very long, and we were satisfied with everything else that we have seen at the temple. The view once we have reached the temple at the top was majestic. We could oversee the Kyoto landscape and also the Kyoto tower. Once we headed down, the Kiyomizu-michi shopping street has filled the air with noise and excitement.  I got tons of omiyage for my host mother and my friends back in Tokyo. Most of the shops offer samples of the famous omiyage food from Kyoto: yatsuhashi. We tried many different flavors of yatsuyashi until we realized that we were too full for lunch. Everything was delicious, from matcha flavor, to red bean, to black sesame, and banana and chocolate flavors. Everyone needs to try this Kyoto’s specialty whenever a chance is given.  

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- Kiyomizu Temple (you can also see the Kyoto tower in the background)

Afterward, we took the bus to Kinkakuji, the golden temple. We made it there at around 4:30 PM, which was unexpectedly good timing because there were not many people at the temple since the closing time was 5:20 PM. The sunset turned the golden temple even more shiny and gleaming. On the way out, we saw Mt. Hidari- Daimonjiyama, where the enormous kanji大 was engraved along the mountain. The entire kanji is being fired up during Daimonji Gozan Okuribi festival, which held on August 16th. It was totally unplanned, so I was very pleased because I have only seen it in an anime episode of Detective Conan. The excitement was real! 

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- Kinkakuji- The golden temple

Lastly, even though it was getting late, we were determined to finish our goal to visit Arashiyama bamboo grove. It was dark once we got there, so we could not see the bamboo forest. However, the mountain, the river stream, and night shops were all lighted up with lights and lanterns. It is the sight that I would not trade anything for. At Arashiyama, I could smell the freshness and gain a sense of peace.  The place seemed to be "isolated" from the rest of the city, which strengthened my connection with nature- something that had long been buried by the liveliness of the city life.  

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- Arashiyama

In addition, we did not expect to save the best for last, but we came across a “kimono forest” at Arashiyama. For some reasons, not many people have heard about this kimono forest, which light up wonderfully every evening. Even my Japanese friends and my host mother were completely speechless when I showed them the photos. It was such a worthwhile day! We felt more than accomplished because not only we have completed our list, but we also discovered new unexpected stunning sites.  

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- The "Kimono Forest"

After living in the busy Tokyo city for more than a month, Kyoto is a traditional land that gave me a chance to really absorb what old Japan really is about. I truly appreciate the opportunity, a Golden Week trip to such astounding places with lovely friends.