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05/16/2016

Being a Foreigner in a Japanese University and Joining a Club

As I have come to find out throughout my time in Tokyo, studying abroad is what you make of it. It could be a positive experience or a negative one, it all depends on how you choose to spend your time and engage with those around you. I have been here for a little over eight months now and today as I reflect on my time in Japan I can honestly say that I’ve immensely enjoyed my time here. More than a year ago today I applied to be a part of CIEE’s year long exchange program, and since then I have had the opportunity to dabbling in the various social spheres and activities available to 留学生 (ryuugakusei) at Sophia. My very first semester at Sophia, I spent most of my time exploring Japan with other CIEE students, studying Japanese, and adjusting to living in Japan; and though last semester was a blast and I wouldn’t change it for anything, I decided that I wanted to do something different this semester.

Instead of staying within my comfort zone and making new friends only among the foreign exchange student population at Sophia, I opted to pursue the full Japanese experience before returning to America. In other words I decided to make more of a concerted effort to befriend Japanese students and immerse myself in Japanese culture. And the best way I have determined to do that is to join a club or サークル. There are actually two ways to find out about the various clubs on campus. The first would be to check out the university’s webpage to get a sense of what clubs are in existence and to read about them in the descriptions provided (as can be seen in this link: https://www.sophia.ac.jp/eng/studentlife/support/EA ), and the second would be to go to Sophia’s Freshman Week.

If you are wondering what that is, its essentially just a giant club fair that is held sometime in the beginning of the semester to introduce first years and foreign exchange students to the clubs and organizations on campus. Even though this event was a bit overwhelming for me at times as returners from numerous clubs were all vying for my attention and trying to entice me to join their clubs, it was a fun activity to participate in as I got a chance to sample the activities of various clubs before finally settling on one that I wanted to commit to. Choosing a club was not an easy task for me as my options were quite expansive with over 100 clubs and organizations in areas ranging from sports, to video gaming, to the fine arts, cultural activities, social circles and more to choose from, but in the end I decided to join Sophia’s 茶道部 (Sadoubu) club (Japanese Tea Ceremony Club). I chose this particular club for because it fulfilled my goals for this semester, as I am able to make Japanese friends, immerse myself in Japanese culture by learning/ practicing the traditional art of Japanese tea ceremony, while simultaneously helping me improve and gain confidence in my Japanese speaking skills. Though we are already a month into the semester and I am busier than ever, I am honestly quite happy with my decision. So my advice to future applicants would be to join a club, yes it might be a little scary/ intimidating at first but in the end it’s worth it. I love being a part of my サークル and I hope to tell everyone more about it in the future! 1463305485731

Tea Ceremony Tools

05/15/2016

Carving Out A Space to Be Yourself

Everybody searches for a center. People naturally seek out places to plant their roots; they instinctively look for spaces they can return “home” to. Studying (and being) abroad is inevitably hard because it necessitates that one severs oneself from the familiar. And this is a good thing—it really is. But it’s also a hard thing. Everyone says it is, but hardly anyone expects it to hit as hard as it does.

Today is May 16, and this is my fifth month abroad. I spent my first two months doing an internship in Korea, and the next three weeks in the United Kingdom visiting friends. And like all people who are estranged from the old and offered the opportunity to remake themselves in a new place, I challenged myself and tried things that my past self would have never touched. In a new place, I didn’t have to be the “Kelly” people remembered. I could be the “Kelly” I always (thought) I wanted to be. But really, it’s a hard thing.

Even if you’re having fun, it’s a hard thing. Even if you’re exceedingly successful, it’s a hard thing. Because really, there’s a sense of shattering. An un-centering. All the components you thought of as quintessentially “you” disintegrate. One’s identity becomes an even bigger question mark, and that’s a lonely thing. When you can’t recognize yourself, you begin to doubt whether or not you’ve actually “become” someone at all. Fun suddenly isn’t enough, because you worry about the price you paid and the person you’ve become. And this feeling is human, and it isn’t exclusive to being abroad (though being abroad often compounds it). It took five months, and I’ve finally begun to feel it.

It is in this moment that I turn to the small things. Everyone has their own way of coping with the world, but sometimes even the very reminder that I'm in Japan is enough to snap me out of my funk. I take long walks along idyllic rivers and crowded parks. I allow myself to become immersed in the commotion of a language I vaguely understand. I daydream in hopefully un-crowded trains and let myself just “be” without thinking too much about its implications. I spoil myself with overpriced sweets shaped like cute characters, and entertain the idea of staying in Japan forever. I find a routine (in school, in waking up, in early dinners and even earlier breakfasts), and subsequently find ways to disrupt it (with impromptu plans and questionable decisions). I, beyond anything else, remind myself to forgive myself for my perceived failings. I forgive myself for not being myself.

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So take at least this much from me: Japan is a different place, and in difference we (meaning “I”) look for change. We run towards it blindly, trying to drown ourselves in the surface (superficial?) aspects of difference. We marvel at cherry blossoms, admire kimonos, and vaguely express the desire to do the tea ceremony. We imagine and try to realize our fantasies of huge groups of friends, our wistful hopes for a close-knit community. We’ve been told that we will evolve and become a new person when we’re abroad—someone with a broad worldview and a completely renewed perspective of the world. We rush, trying to take in all the big things at once, swallowing them up desperately as if it will make a difference.

And of course, not everyone who is abroad feels the same way I do. And not everyone will be as phased. But for those who are and/or will be struggling, know you are not alone. Know that it is okay to take a moment and breathe. To find your space. Japan is a different place, but there’s no rush to figure out whether you’ve become a different person just yet.

05/12/2016

When Sweet Isn't Sweet Enough

Japan loves its seasons. And no, I’m not talking about just good ol' autumn-winter-spring-summer-type seasons. Those are kisetsu (季節), and as much as Japan enjoys gazing at cherry blossoms during the spring and watching fireworks in the summer, it adores shun (旬) just as much.

Used to describe seasonal food rather than seasons, I've come to learn that shun is likely the largest determinant of the contents of one’s meals. Well, at least that's how it is with my particular host family. This became very apparent to me during my very first night in Japan, when my host mother served me ichigo (Japanese strawberries). And these, my friend, are nothing like the strawberries you pick up at your local Ralph's. 

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These perfectly shaped, ruby red fruits were everything I ever wanted a strawberry to be, and then some. That night, I was convinced that I had just tasted the most supreme of supreme fruits. I swear a smile was being compelled out of the deepest depths of my sugar-loving self. I was practically floating in strawberry-induced bliss until suddenly I heard my host mother exclaim: 甘くない! (not sweet). 

“Really?” I inquired in Japanese, not quite-sputtering. “Whatever could you mean?” I imagined myself saying in an overdramatic English accent.

She simply replied: 残念ですが、旬が終わった。(It’s too bad but the season is over.)

Suffice it to say, we didn’t have strawberries again.

Later on, I learned that peak indoor-grown strawberry season takes place between December and March. Apparently the strawberries we had that night can't even compare to in-season strawberries. During this period, a small box of strawberries can run upwards of 1000 yen (~USD 10) at a grocery store, or 6900 yen (~USD 69) at Tokyo’s luxury fruit parlors. Following strawberry season is cherry season, and summertime welcomes melons of all varieties, mangos, and grapes. Persimmons and apples are particularly tasty in the autumn, and citrus have a reputation as being quintessentially winter. Of course, shun applies to far more than just fruit, and almost every meal with my host family has been accompanied by a brief culinary lesson.

For instance, my host father’s handmade takuon (pickled daikon radish) tastes best for the two months following January, and katsuo (skipjack tuna sashimi) is at its most delicious in the spring. One of my host father’s personal favorites, takenoko (bamboo shoots) are at their softest and most expensive just after cherry blossom season. Once the last of the beautiful pink flowers had fallen, my host father kindly asked my host mother to make some takenoko for dinner.  She obliged and we proceeded to eat some variation of a takenoko-and-rice for the next three days.

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All in all, I’ve become increasingly accustomed to my host mother’s daily explanations of food over the last month and a half. Beyond mere flavor, I feel there is something about abiding to the seasons that pays respect to the cycles and limitations of life. Like cherry blossoms, there is a temporality and impermanence to the food that my host family consumes. Because they willingly partake in the natural restrictions of nature, even the most beloved of food is off-limits until the appropriate period has begun. I will never quite forget my host father’s face when my host mother served takenoko (for the sixth time) with the firm declaration that this was saigo (the last time).

Asakusa

Hello everyone! During Golden Week, my mom visited from the States, and we stayed in a district called Asakusa! In case you don't know what Golden Week is, it is a three day holiday from May 3rd - May 5th. The holiday is comprised of Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day, and Children's day, in that order.
 
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Asakusa is much more traditional than many of the other districts found in Tokyo. The city is known for Sensoji, a very popular Buddhist temple. The temple can be reached via a busy shopping street called Nakamise. Here you will find many little trinkets, masks, rice snacks, and other such things. I think many of you have probably seen pictures of Sensoji before, Kaminarimon gate is really famous.
 
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I thought the temple grounds were really nice, though I would have liked to walk inside the actual buildings. I took many pictures for your viewing pleasure. We visited the temple a few more times in the subsequent evenings, mainly to look for souvenirs for friends and family members.
 
My mom and I frequently walked around the streets surrounding the temple, checking all of the little shops and restaurants along the way. There is a charm to a lot of these stores, and the people are all very nice. In the mornings, we frequented Doutor Coffee, a Japanese coffee chain. I highly recommend the honey au lait! We also tried the Japan-only Cantaloupe Frappuccino from Starbucks. There was literally nothing coffee about it, but it was one of the most tasty concoctions I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. I actually had about five of those drinks during my week in Asakusa.
 
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As for food, we mainly ate at some of the other districts around Tokyo. However, we did visit a place called Tiger Gyoza Hall in Asakusa a couple of times. I had... well gyoza, and also a traditional hot pot. We also ate in Asakusa at a burger chain called Freshness Burger, because my lovely girlfriend from the States asked me to try it. The food in Asakusa was good, but not the best I have had by any means, that honor would go to the sushi from Tsukiji Fish Market, and the yakitori/skewer food from Golden Gai in Shinjuku.
 
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Anyways, if you are in the mood for a more traditional spot, one where you can get a feel for Japan's past, then Asakusa is the place for you!
 
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Most of my posts for the next few days will be about my journeys during Golden Week. I went to A LOT of places, some old, some new. My absolute favorite was my day trip to Hakone, so be on the lookout for that post in the very near future!
 
That's all for now!
 
See You Space Cowboy.
 

Miyajima

Hello everyone! I am going to talk about my recent trip to Miyajima!
 
As part of the Hiroshima study trip, we had the pleasure of taking a day trip to the absolutely breathtaking Miyajima island. Miyajima is so beautiful in fact, that it has been rated as one of the top three best views in Japan! The island is accessible by a short ferry ride, and honestly, that in itself is a really cool experience. The island is absolutely filled with stunning sights and rich cultural locations.
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It is most famous for the torii gate which sits out in the water. The island also houses Itsukushima shrine, an aquarium, a large pagoda, and the most casual deer you are likely to find anywhere. Interestingly, Itsukushima shrine is also built over water. The experience here felt quite different than some of the others shrines I have been to over the duration of my stay.
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After checking out the shrine in its entirety, I made my way over to the small shops, and eventually towards the mountain. I was tempted to buy a cute little frog trinket, but did not think it would make it back home in one piece. Mount Misen is where I spent the majority of my time.
 
At the foot of the mountain, I walked around the gorgeous Daisho-in Temple. Daisho-in features a lot of traditional buildings, religious statues, and other buddhist related objects. The most interesting experience for me, was walking through a dark cave filled with buddhist icons. The cave roof was lined with candles, and an incense burner in the middle of the cave filled the room with an extremely pungent and thick smoke. All of the culturally important locations in Japan feel genuine, but this one was absolutely oozing with authenticity.
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After making my way through the temple, I walked higher up the mountain, and witnessed absolutely breathtaking scenery. I have said it once and I will say it again, Japan is green, VERY green. The most beautiful sight was a waterfall I found high up on the mountain. I actually sat there for about 20 or so minutes, just listening to the sounds of the forest, and watching the perpetual stream. It definitely ranks as one of my top five favorite moments of my trip thus far.
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When I finished on Mount Misen, I made my way to the aquarium, only to find an entry fee, and my empty wallet due to the Akihabara trips from the week before. I finished my trip sitting by the beach, and just taking it all in. This trip was not only the furthest I have been from Tokyo, but also felt the most remote. Even with the amount of people, it felt extremely closed off from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Tokyo can be overwhelming, so it is nice to get away once in awhile. I know I will be back someday, and I absolutely cannot wait to experience it again with the girl I love.
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That's all for now! Selecting the best pictures was extremely difficult for this post, since I took an unreasonable amount, and all of them are awesome.
 
See You Space Cowboy.
 

Hiroshima

Hiroshima, as many of you know, is the first city to be targeted by a nuclear weapon. On August 6th, 1945, near the end of World War 2, the USAAF dropped a nuclear bomb called "little boy" on Hiroshima. The bomb killed over 80,000 people in the blast and firestorm alone, with many more perishing over time. The history is very rich in Hiroshima, and while the city has completely rebuilt, there are still remnants of the bombing.
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As a CIEE sponsored activity, all of the students met at Sophia University, before riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) for Hiroshima. It was actually my first time riding the Shinkansen, so I was pretty excited. The interior is similar to that of an airplane, but you have a lot more leg room, and are able to recline pretty far back.
 
After about 4 hours, we arrived in Hiroshima, and made our way to the hotel. After checking in, most of the students went to sleep, but me and a few others went out and checked out a few places. 
 
The following morning, after breakfast, all of the CIEE students listened to a presentation about the creation of the bomb, which was really quite fascinating. I left with an entirely new perspective on the bombing than I had before. After the presentation, we went to Peace Memorial Park, which was the main purpose of our trip.
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I started by walking through the museum. Many remnants of the blast were on display, like singed clothing, hair, and personal belongings. I have shared some of the pictures through dropbox, via the link below, but know that you may find them a bit upsetting.
 
The park is a really beautiful place, there is a feeling to it that I can't quite describe. There are many things to see on the grounds, like the A-Bomb Dome, one of the only remaining structures from the bombing, and the Children's peace monument. I have attached all of the pictures I took in the park.
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To finish off the day, we listened to a legitimate survivor of the atomic bomb. It was really something. I just sat there, and listened, and wondered how something as terrible as this actually happened. You can't fathom just how awful the bombing was until you hear from an actual survivor telling you the things she experienced, and the horrid sights she witnessed.
 
Visiting Hiroshima was a one of a kind experience. I really enjoyed it, even if I found it emotionally heavy. I encourage any and all visiting Japan, to spend a day there and walk through Peace Memorial Park. I also thank CIEE for this opportunity, I won't forget it.
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Now that I am all settled in, I can go back to regular posting. Next post will be all about Miyajima. Miyajima is an absolutely gorgeous place, so you don't want to miss it! 
 

05/11/2016

Little Tim in Big Tokyo: Movies, Baseball and the Ramen Museum

Stadium overview

Golden week in Japan is synonymous with trips to places like Kyoto and Hokkaido, but my time off was filled with local trips, events and anything else I could find to keep myself outside of the dorm.

The holiday also means big bucks for the movie business with big budget releases like the new Captain America opening a week earlier here than in America. Seizing the chance to make our oversea friends jealous, I mean see a fantastic film, we had our first Japanese movie experience. The snack options were surprisingly normal. I settled on caramel popcorn. At the cost of sticky hands and Japan’s aversion to napkins and toweling, we dug into the popcorn with our shovel like hands while waiting for the lights to dim. Besides Japanese ads the experience was the same. That is until the credits rolled. No one got out of their seat until the credits finished in their entirety. It was unusual to say the least, but I did get to appreciate the little guys such as the man who got paid to caffeinate the staff on the set. Good job caffeinator guy.

Continuing the Aziz Ansari “Treat yo self” Golden Week mentality, the time came for my first baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. The Yomiuri Giants were set to play the Hiroshima Carp and it didn’t take me long to notice the Carp’s cap logo is pretty much the Cincinnati Red’s logo. Odd, but a lot of the other teams share logos too. I decided to find a jersey and become a fake Giants fan for the day. Entering the gift shop I used my improved Japanese to purchase a jersey. I said improved because although I was able to buy it, I mistakenly purchased a t-shirt. Oh well, don’t know who Sakamoto, or any other player on the team, is anyway.

Finding the correct gate to enter the stadium was simple enough. When I found my seat, the towel taped to it led me to believe it was free towel day. It was not free towel day. You’re actually supposed to wave the towel around when something big such as a homerun happens, although that didn’t stop me from using it in the bathroom at the end of the day.

Towel Waving

Fans of America’s favorite pastime will quickly notice differences at a Japanese ballpark. This was the first time I’ve seen cheerleaders in baseball. On a similar note, the older men yelling unenticing phrases like “Beeeeeer” and “get your popcorn here” are replaced with young girls wearing brand logos on their clothes, such as Coke, darting around the aisles. One man in front of me got his picture taken with the Coke girl. I wonder if he tried to get her number too. If so, I hope he succeeded.

Speaking of fans, they are passionate and respectful. A pitch close to a player that would have drawn taunts from American fans merely led to surprised exclamations. Their passion comes through in their cheers and chants that I can only describe as cult like. In the states most cheers are started by screen prompts, but in Japan fans start all the cheers, sometimes with instruments. I think an instrument would be confiscated at Yankee Stadium as a potential weapon.

Adding to the camaraderie are little sticks people hit together in unison to make sound, giant flags a few fans wave and synchronized standing and sitting motions in tune with the chants that I couldn’t understand. At least I understood when the guy next to me shouted hooray whenever a player on the other team grounded out.

Half inning slates stating “Bottom of the X inning” made it feel like Rocky Balboa was starting the next round with Apollo Creed. Getting a hot dog was a safe option, so I opted for some sort of meat rice bowl. It was mediocre, expensive and unsatisfying, or in other words, the true American ballpark food way. The Giants won and I reverted back to a New York Yankees fan. Maybe next time I’ll root for the underdog.

China Town

Another adventure brought us to Yokohama’s China Town where we fought through large crowds to get into line for soup filled steamed buns. You want to quickly bite into them for their great taste, but the risk of the soup burning your mouth or splattering all over your clothes makes eating them dangerous. China Town pro tip: If you’re meeting friends in China Town do not tell them to meet you at the arch. There are at least five of them and tracking down the rest of our group took far longer than it needed to because of that.

Unfortunately there was some disappointment. Enter Yokohama’s ramen museum, except never actually enter it. The ramen museum is merely a few glorified ramen bars with high price tags. There’s a small fee to enter the “museum,” but you may soon wonder if you’re in the right place. No history or exhibits exist. Instead you can enjoy a randomly placed slot car racetrack and a wide selection of “One Piece,” a popular manga, memorabilia because both just scream ramen.

We tried the Italian ramen (pictured below). Partially out of curiosity, mostly because the other lines were too long. Coming from an Italian family, I cannot say why the ramen was Italian but we enjoyed it. The problem is better ramen can easily be found at cheaper and more convenient locations like ramen street in Tokyo Station.

Italian Ramen??

Staying in Tokyo for Golden Week gave me more opportunities to hang out with different groups of people since many of my friends left for home or traveled to other prefectures. While I didn’t discuss all of our adventures, days past and something no one wanted soon happened. Break ended. They say all good things come to an end, but I say they just temporarily stop so something even better can happen.

CIEE Takes on Hiroshima and Miyajima

Peace memorial

Waiting for classes to end the day of the Hiroshima trip was reminiscent of the cringe worthy scene in “High School Musical 2” where the students keep checking the time before summer break. Thankfully no one was chanting Hiroshima and we were all able to resist strong urges to jump on top of our desks and transform into pitch perfect Troy Boltons.

Our group looked like children eager to run downstairs to open presents on Christmas morning when waiting to board the Shinkansen at the massively maze like Tokyo Station. With time to spare the staff opened the floodgates by letting us loose into the wild to buy snacks and drinks for the long ride. I purchased a Tokyo Banana. I’m still uncertain if Tokyo Banana is famous or if they just do a fantastic job advertising the product throughout the station.

The Shinkansen is similar to an Amtrak train except for the mild ear popping and attendants selling food and drinks in the familiar airplane aisle style. The CIEE staff kindly provided bentos, although as adventurous college students we were determined to fill up on foreign snacks and cheap junk food. There’s always that moment of bliss when you bite into a mysterious Japanese treat and enjoy the unexpectedly delicious flavor. Just don’t buy Teagurt. I don’t recommend it.

The chipper tone of the guides along with the positive atmosphere created by the locals and moving words from the survivor of the bombing contrasted the heavy history and made for an enjoyable experience. The Children’s Peace Monument (pictured above) commemorating Sadako Sasaki and other child victims was especially touching thanks to Sasaki’s story about creating a thousand cranes to grant her wish of a world without nuclear war.

Okinomiyaki

Hiroshima is known for Okonamiyaki, a grilled savory pancake with ingredients ranging from kimchi to fish and meat. Naturally we had to have one so what better place to go than an entire building filled with Okonamiyaki bars. What was the logic behind our decision to eat at the corner bar on the fourth floor? No idea, but the food was delicious and unlike anything else.

Our Saturday night ended in true Japanese fashion at a karaoke bar. One friend’s attempt at “Hello” is still mentioned today. Whether for all the right or all the wrong reasons has yet to be decided. For some reason we ended the session singing “My Heart Will Go On.” Well, I did pick it thinking it would be an amusing way to end the night. Little did I know a Japanese man would shout “gaijin” (foreigner) in surprise when we stepped out of the entrance. They say looks can kill, but they weren’t talking about mine.

Floating gate

A short ferry ride took us to Miyajima, or what I like to think of as a possible location for a horror film involving savage deer feasting on innocent tourists. The beautiful island is known for the “floating” torii gate and makes for great photos, something many of us have proven you can never take enough of. After exploring the Itsukushima Shrine, we rode rail cars to the top of the island.

The rail cars were on the small side comfortably fitting six with the option to squeeze in eight for a less spacious ride. Not worried about cramped space, we began our ascension of breathtaking views. Unfortunately for me, I was sitting next to a person with a fear of heights. Adding to the inevitable disaster was a jokester of a friend ready to shake the already shifting car and bang on the windows. It didn’t take long for the circulation to get caught off from my right hand thanks to the death grip from the person to my right. Spoilers, in case it wasn’t obvious, we made it to the top and back safely and my right hand is hard at work writing this blog.

Rail car view

The trek continued with larger cable cars taking us across a large gap between mountains in what could pass as a location in the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Specifically, the scene when Jaws tries to ram Bond with a cable car and fails spectacularly. Skipping past a few I’m king of the world “Titanic” poses at the summit and an incredibly cheesy eternal flame contraption where you and your special someone simultaneously hit buttons to light a torch of everlasting love, (do people actually take that device seriously), we descended the mountain for lunch.

Call it schadenfreude, a German term for pleasure from the misfortune of others, but I was hoping a deer would attack someone after hearing the many warnings. However, by attack I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, maybe just some stolen food or a ripped bag or two. My sinister wish was granted. During our free time food hunt we became the hunted. One girl in our group was enjoying a mixture of sweet potato and ice cream when two deer snuck up on her. We may have also obliviously walked into the deer but that’s not the point. One of the deer spotted the food and strut its way over. Meanwhile, our friend began to panic. First she tried to hide behind one guy. He stepped away. Then she tried to give me the ice cream. I wouldn’t take it. Chivalry is dead when aggressive deer are involved. As if the deer ate the ice cream with its eyes, it began releasing red bean like pellets from its rear. Our friend escaped to a nearby gift shop and the deer went on its merry way.

Deer

The deer coordinated assaults on a few other CIEE students, although no one was harmed. My shirt even got nipped once when I had no food. Regardless, our weekend excursion gave us a new perspective of history, created new bonds between our peers and further immersed us in Japanese culture.

Not so Lost in Translation at the Sophia University Club Fair

Sophia East Entrance

Making my way through the endless sea of students and dodging umbrellas like obstacles in an old arcade game was a casual part of finding clubs during Sophia University’s rainy Freshmen Week.

Various club members shouted words of encouragement, most of which I could not understand, to entice students to sign up. This brought back fond memories of my dog Yellow. My father tried his best to talk to Yellow. However, all Yellow could do was wag her tail in excitement and look back with her eternally friendly smile that almost every dog seems to share. I expressed interest in clubs by walking up to tables and nodding in ways that would make even the friendliest dog in a crowded park jealous.

The seemingly random placement of student organizations throughout the university’s Yotsuya campus makes finding the right club difficult, but the true challenge comes once a club catches your eye. While your eyes may glisten at the sight of brand new cultural ventures or your favorite athletic pastime, club members instantly see the reflection of passion in your eyes and attempt to catch you like fishermen reeling in a large fish with their last piece of bait.

As a journalism major with a love for crafting the smallest bit of informative, inspirational or helpful news into a story, I was naturally drawn toward the newspaper club. After walking around campus multiple times doing my best impression of Sherlock Holmes hot on the trail of a criminal, the club found me. I enthusiastically accepted the student’s greeting and the conversation quickly sped down a dark tunnel that I knew would never see the light. The paper was understandably, and unsurprisingly, only written in Japanese.

Deciding to search for experiences I can’t find back home at George Washington University, I met a few friends from the CIEE program and soon found I was not the only one overwhelmed by the large number of diverse clubs and large crowds. There were signs for clubs, except from my perspective the signs could have been written in some alien “Star Wars” language and still maintained the same ambiguous meanings. Thankfully many of the CIEE students have a good grasp on Japanese, although they’ll never tell you that, and made club hunting easier.

The weather worked against me as I realized I still hadn’t found a few of the clubs. Fortunately being a tourist came in handy as I rode the wave of students darting from the campus main road to a discreetly positioned side entrance between buildings. Seeking refuge from the rain and eagerly anticipating the discovery of more clubs, we entered the building and found student organizations occupying entire classrooms. The first classroom had no signs. Lively sounds and large groups of people within piqued our interest. What club could this be? Eyes from across the room turned to us one by one in rapid succession like a chain reaction of dominos as we stepped inside. Lively chatter erupted into enormous cheers. It didn’t take me long to realize we had made a mistake. Snickering to ourselves we left the room before a conversation could develop. The recognition was nice, but we weren’t going to join the American Football team.

If the club fair were a game of baseball I’d say I enthusiastically ran up to the plate, missed swinging at a pitch or two, fouled off at least five balls and ended my at bat with a line drive into the outfield gap that could potentially extend from a double into a triple. Playing baseball for most of my life means I never got to try racket sports. Signing up for the badminton club was an easy decision and I may even go to a few tennis practices if I’m feeling up to the harsh criticism and critiques that come with being a beginner.

Knowing I had at least one club to try meant my day was a success. Despite accomplishing my goal, the best part of my day was something else entirely. A vaguely familiar voice called out to me near the outdoor dining area. I figured it was one of the CIEE students since I’m not nearly social enough to befriend other students on day zero at school. The fact that the person said Timmy and not Tim also confused me because I usually go by Tim outside of my hometown. A tap on my shoulder ended the mystery. An old friend stood mere feet from me. For the first time I understood the term speechless and could only muster a, “wow I can’t believe you’re here.” We hadn’t seen each other since my sophomore year of high school. I hate to sound cliché, but really what are the odds? Maybe I should have entered to win the Powerball jackpot a few months back.

Club Fair picnic site

Two of my friends were nice enough to join me for the badminton club meet and greet. Different kids united by shared interests at the same university made the beginning comparable to a middle school icebreaker. We took off our shoes and sat on blue tarps underneath the row of cherry blossoms overlooking the campus fields. Three club veterans sat down and graciously offered us a colorfully diverse range of snacks and drinks. Fears of language barriers were quickly demolished. Despite being Japanese locals, two of the members spoke English fairly well.

Tales were told, smiles were shared and friendships were formed. Although we had yet to practice, we already made plans to have dinner the following week. There were a handful of times when I had to rephrase sentences so that they could understand, but less phrases will be lost in translation as our Japanese develops and we spend more time teaching our new friends English words and expressions.

Yokohama/Golden Week

            Golden Week is a scam. A string of national holidays falling within the same week, it is when the entire country is on spring break. But it is not a week, but a string of weekends. One will find oneself in class with exams and assignments due on Monday and Friday during this break, a jarring interruption to what should be a relaxing time. Everyone complains about it. One can either suck it up or skip. I skipped.

Profenius BP3 2

            I found the week to be less reflective than other times I’ve had in Japan. It falls at an interesting time in my stay. I’ve been here long enough to be over the initial hump of acclimation. I’ve thought the grand adjustment thoughts and made the global cross-culture comparisons. After all the mental and physical strain that came with the first six weeks, the settling into a new university and new classes, I’ve become comfortable enough to do whatever I want with my time. It’s liberating, and comes as an intangible milestone, one that is fundamentally underwhelming because it signifies a lack of struggle rather than a triumph over it.

            So I took my milestone and went to Yokohama with friends. There was rumored to be a J-Pop festival in Yamashita Park. I’ve never really listened to J-Pop, but I know the scene is colorful. There were festival food stands and one tent of cos-players. More or less measly. We later found the action was going down in Chinatown.

Profenius BP3 1

            I’m sure there was a reason for all the parading, and I’m sure it had to do with the holiday that was taking place on that day. I don’t know what it was or why, but the drums in the streets, firecrackers, and dragon gave off more energy than the (lack of) festival in the park. The parade dragon entered into restaurants and harassed those eating to the nervous shooing of the proprietors. We then tracked down the Buddhist temples. Some one who knew much more about the culture explained to me the differences between Chinese and Japanese temples while we timed our photos of the paper lanterns with the sun going down. The time was care free in every sense.

            It is strange to be past the cusp of mere tourism and to be onto something more culturally authentic, while still being a tourist. At times when I may not give myself enough credit, I will notice the difference between myself and the nervous over-packed westerner who fumbles and elbows their way through the pulse of Tokyo. I forget how that person and I were once the same. Dissolving into a culture is more of a tiered process than I’d originally thought. One begins to figure out where to go intuitively if one wants something more than branded trinkets. At the same time, I still cannot order food in Japanese. My progress there is the brute loss of shame in pointing at the menu with a smile. I can see where the next tier begins and where the last one has ended, and I have a growing curiosity in how my self-image will have changed once I return home.

Profenius BP3 3

            As Golden Week concludes, there is a depressing realization. The vacation feeling of my semester has gone. From here on out the weeks will creep by in uniformity until the finish. I know the time will fly, but will also be full of busy work. It will be a persistent effort to keep making the most of my time, and I’ve learned already this persistence is one’s most essential asset when traveling. Once adventure is replaced by complacent routine, one essentially ceases to travel, and might as well head home. I’m not quite ready to head home yet.