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6 posts from June 2011

06/23/2011

A day in the life...

You may be wondering, "what is a typical school day like for a CIEE student in Tokyo?" Read this post to find out!

My day starts bright and early at 7:00am when I wake up to start getting ready for class. I have one period of Japanese starting at 9:15am; others have a double block from 9:15-12:30, and a lucky few have only second period Japanese starting at 11:00am. Most of those with a first period leave the dorm by about 8:00am in groups of one or two or three, and the commute to school is about an hour door-to-door. Once leaving the dorm, we have about a 10 minute walk to Nishikawaguchi Station. There are several combinations of trains that can get you from Nishikawaguchi to Yotsuya, but most of us do the same thing. From the station, we smush into the train and take the Keihin-Tohoku Line to Akabane (7 minutes), and then transfer to the Saikyo or Shonan-Shinjuku and take that train to Shinjuku (~20 minutes). The Saikyo and Shonan-Shinjuku trains are supposedly the most crowded trains for the morning commute, and we've each had enough rides squished into a mass of Japanese bodies to believe that it's true.

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Rush hour on the Keihin-Tohoku

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Rush hour in Akabane Station.. so crowded~~

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Yotsuya Station in the morning!

Once reaching Shinjuku, we transfer to the Chuo Rapid Line train and take that one stop to Yotsuya (5 minutes), where our campus is located. Once reaching Yotsuya, we exit the station and join the mass of people crossing the street. All of our Japanese classes are in building 11, which is at the far end of campus from where we enter. My Japanese class is in the basement by the cafeteria, so I usually walk through and get a drink or a snack before class.

Once my first period Japanese class is over, I don't have another class until third period (starting at 1:30pm). So, I usually read or study in the library or in the cafeteria. I get my lunch around 12 or 12:15 every day, and stake out a place to sit with friends. Others, however, are not so lucky - those who get out of class at 12:30pm are caught in the rush of students coming in to get food and seats. It gets unbelievably crowded in the cafeteria during lunch and it's really hard to get food, much less get seats together. I'm a big fan of not having a second period :).

108_3607The Building 11 cafeteria (when it's not crowded...) 

After lunch, we split off to go to class, the library, or to run errands before class. Once done with class, people either go home, meet for group projects, or explore nearby areas like Shinjuku, Harajuku, or Shibuya. Our campus is in a really great location - we can be in all of those areas within about 10 minutes.

Wednesdays are a nice exception because, due to the Mon/Thurs or Tues/Fri scheduling of classes, almost no one has afternoon classes (I acually do, but there are only four of us with a seminar in the afternoon). So, on Wednesday afternoons the city is ours to explore. Yesterday, I went to Ginza to "shop"/mostly sightsee in the famous Mitsukoshi department store that has really high-end goods. Other options include will go to Asakusa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, or pretty much any combination of consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel you can think of.

Whenever we decide to head home, the night commute is usually better than the morning commute. Night rush hour can be anywhere from 6-10pm, but it's usually not as bad as in the morning. At any rate, the trains aren't as muggy and hot. At the end of a long day, however, the walk home seems to take forever, but getting home to bed is great motivation!

06/22/2011

東大ーTokyo University May Fair

     The nation's iconic and renowned university, Tokyo University, opens its doors to the public during its annual May Fair on the 28th-29th. Interestingly enough this also coincided with Japan's very own Oktoberfest in Hibiya Park, which I wanted to go to but never found the time or people to go with :(. I was lucky enough to have a Singaporean friend studying in Todai at that time, so I managed to coax him to take me on a tour of his university. I later realized that Todai is not only a top university but also a legitimate tourist attraction in Japan! My friend informed me that Todai conducts its own tours for groups of tourists who come mainly to see the Todai clock tower and the heart-shaped lake within the university.

    Anyway, the weather was wet and depressing that weekend, but the sea of crowds at the University would not be deterred. Todai's student societies were out in force. They were selling food from different regions (I had some yummy vietnamese cuisine for lunch), cosplaying, rocking out in rock bands, and even breakdancing / dancing in the rain. While waiting to meet up with my friend, and to get my dose of a Todai education, I dropped in on a lecture about the impacts of radiation on the Fukushima food and agriculture industry. While it was completely in Japanese, I could understand the gist of it and the speakers and guest speakers were all very knowledgeable.

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The iconic clock tower of Todai was also the stage for some wet and evocative dance performances

     My high-school friend brought me around campus, showing me the different buildings and introducing me to his friends. Many of Todai's buildings were made of brick and seemed to have been there for ages. The buildings were intimidating, but the students were all very warm and sociable. My friend brought me to the heart-shaped lake in the center of the Todai campus (which, by the way is HUGE). The lake was shaped like the kanji for heart (心), and was thus a major tourist attraction for the area. Even though it was raining, I saw large groups of tourists walking around the perimeter of the lake.

    I spent the rest of my time with my friend watching dance performances and trying out different kinds of food available in the fair. I had planned to drop by Hibiya park after Todai but I stayed a little too long in Todai for a visit to Oktoberfest to be practical. Oh well, there is always something to do in this wonderful country caled Japan!

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Todai's engineering building is a feat of architecture and engineering. They actually built a new building on top of the old one, supported only by the pillars seen here O_O.

 

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An amazing lake in the middle of Todai! It's shaped like the kanji for heart, 心

Himeji Castle: The Castle in a box

    Since it was not too far away from Osaka, the CiEE recommended that I visit Himeji-jo, one of Japan's only authentic, undestroyed castles. I happily obliged. The visit turned out to be extremely surprising and intriguing, because I arrived when the castle was having its first ever restoration since 1956. The train ride to Himeji took no more than an hour, and the walk to the castle involved passing through a busy shopping street. In this particular shopping street, I found a taiyaki stall that sold this amazing white bean taiyaki and even ice-cream taiyaki! Amazing!

    Anyway, I finally reached the castle and the outer grounds and moats were even bigger and grander than those of Osaka Castle. The granite architecture and wooden bridges were also great additions to the historic and grandiose atmosphere. I received a big surprise when the main tower of the castle came into view. Or rather, it never came into view, because there was this immense box scaffolding covering it! What was even more hilarious was that the fastidious Japanese contractors took the time to draw an exact outline of Himeji Castle on the box so as to preserve the scene for tourists as much as possible.

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The Mascot of Himeji-Jo

 

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The Castle-in-a-box, with a 2D rendition on the box!

     It was an unfortunate time for the restoration to be carried out, but I recognize that the castle has weathered earthquakes and erosion for an extremely long time and am impressed that it was still standing in the first place. I was honestly disappointed when I saw that the castle was covered by a box, but the Japanese went out of their way to compensate for this restoration. Not only were the entrance fees to the castle grounds slashed, the staff also opened to the public new, never-before seen parts of the castle! I visited the storehouses and the baileys of the castle, and learned about the many castle defences. There were triangular, circular and squareish holes cut into the castle walls to allow archers to fire arrows through to repel intruders. There were outcroppings in walls from which boiling oil could be poured out and onto any invaders below. My personal favorite were the concealed nooks and crannies within the castles from which hidden warriors could spring from if intruders ever entered the castle. As expected, the bailey and storehouses were converted into museums showing off many historical artefacts such as the suits of armor used by shoguns, farming tools, and the living quarters of princess Senhime.

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That did not make the inside any less spectacular though

     The scaffolding over the main tower also provided the rare opportunity to have "The Egret's Eye view of Himeji's Main Tower" as coined by the staff there. Lame pun aside, I was impressed at the exhibition within the main tower, as they showed videos of how workers repaired the tower. Workers had to re-lay the entire foundation for the roof, replacing roof tiles one by one, and adding subtle but necessary protection against earthquakes. The lift in the scaffolding brought us right up to the top of the outside of the main tower, affording us an jaw-dropping view of the castle grounds and the main tower within the scaffolding as well.

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I got to observe the restoration process first-hand

     I left Himeji with the sense that although I did not get the castle experience that I had expected, I had experienced something in a class of its own. I felt that Osaka Castle was really fancy and catered to the tourists' tastes very well, but Himeji Castle seemed to remain authentic and true to its historical roots to a greater extent. Both castle experiences will remain engraved in my memories for years to come!

06/20/2011

Enoshima

Hello again! The week since my last post flew by and I had another good weekend. Yesterday (Sunday), a bunch of CIEE students went with SISEC to the island of Enoshima. I'm not sure if I've already described what SISEC is, but it's basically a circle at the university that holds events for foreign students and Japanese students to hang out and get to know each other. It's a lot of fun and we've all made some really good friends through their events. So, yesterday morning we set off from our dorm at about 9:30am to make the  journey down to Enoshima. Luckily, we caught a rapid train so we cut about 30 minutes off our travel time, but it still took us almost two hours from door to door to get there. Thankfully, though, we weren't last, so we had time to get some lunch around the station while we waited for the last stragglers to arrive (who may or may not have been CIEE students... ahem).

IMG_1573 Outside in Enoshima

Once we were all there, the group of about 40 students set off for the Enoshima Aquarium. I actually went to the aquarium in Kobe a few weeks ago, but for many people it was their first time going to an aquarium in a number of years. So, we had a lot of fun reliving our childhood and marveling at all the different fishies. The Japanese Giant Crabs and all of the jellyfish were my particular favorites. Later in the afternoon, there was a dolphin show that also featured a sea lion - it was really cool! There was one animal swimming around that we have deemed a "wholphin," or a cross between a whale and a dolphin, although if you actually click that link you will read that apparently there are only two in existence (both in Hawaii). This thing at the Enoshima Aquarium, however, could secretly be a wholphin - it was ginormous and really did look like a cross between a dolphin and a whale. It also didn't do any tricks - it just kind of swam around in circles. I think it's sole purpose was to be impressively big and disprove Wikipedia articles.

IMG_1664 The sea lion!

After the dolphin show we had more fun squealing at the touching pool, and then headed out to the beach. It was an overcast day but wasn't too chilly, and we were just lucky it didn't rain. The water wasn't actually terribly cold, so most of us put our feet in, and some of the guys went actual swimming. We got a lot of great pictures in the waves - it was really entertaining to see every group pictures be interrupted by people sqealing as a wave broke over the back of their ankles. Eventually we had had enough, however, so we went back to an area where we could all sit down and rest.

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A picture of the group right as a wave hit :)

Everyone cleaned up, and then the group split up to go different places. Some people went to the "Sea Castle" which is a tall observatory on the island, though it was really cloudy so I'm not sure what the view was like. I actually headed home with some people, since it was already after 5pm and we were looking at a long trip home. We were really looking forward to having dinner at our favorite ramen place by the dorm, but unfortunately it was closed, so we had delicious okonomiyaki instead. Can't complain! Overall it was a really nice, relaxing day and it was nice to be home relatively early to get ready for this week. We are past midterms, but now we only have about three weeks of classes left - absolutely insane! We all want time to slow down! Matane~ :)

06/12/2011

Hiroshima and Miyajima!

It is a cool but cloudy Monday morning in Tokyo, and the CIEE students just finished an amazing weekend in Hiroshima and Miyajima. On Friday afternoon, we left from campus to go to Tokyo Station to take the shinkansen up to Hiroshima. Our nozomi shinkansen train was super fast and comfortable – we made it to Hiroshima in just about four hours – but when we got to the station in Hiroshima it was raining. But, we didn’t have far to go to the hotel, so we packed into the street car and set off for the hotel. Hiroshima is one of the few cities in Japan that still uses street cars, so it was pretty cool to get to ride in one. We only had a few stops to go, and once we got off the street car we were only about a 10 minute walk from the hotel, so were in our rooms by 10pm or so and were able to run any errands we needed to run before turning in early to get ready for the big day ahead of us!

Street car A street car in Hiroshima!

Saturday started out dreary and drizzling, but it actually cleared up and turned into a beautiful sunny day. We had a buffet breakfast in the amazing hotel restaurant – it was on the 15th floor and had a spectacular view of the surrounding area, including the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. After breakfast, we left the hotel and walked over to the Peace Memorial Museum that was built to honor the victims of the bomb and continue to advocate for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. We had a few minutes to explore the exhibits downstairs before going to watch a film about the experience of the mothers of victims from the bomb. It was a pretty heavy film and started the day off on a somber note, which continued as we spent the rest of the morning wandering around the museum and seeing the exhibits. It was a personal experience for all of us and being there is hard to put into words, but I will say it is definitely a place you should visit at least once if you go to Japan.

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A view of Hiroshima - you can see the a-bomb dome over to the left

After the museum, we went on a walking tour of the Peace Memorial Park. By that time the rain had gone away and it was a beautiful sunny day, so we got a lot of great pictures. The park is really well done and is a beautiful memorial to the victims. Monuments in the park include a cenotaph housing the names of all the victims, a flame that will burn until all nuclear arms are decommissioned,  the museum itself, and the atomic bomb dome, which was pretty close to the hypocenter of the bomb but remained (comparatively) pretty intact. All of these elements lie in a straight line, which made for a really cool picture!

ParkThe cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park. Behind it you can see the eternal flame, and behind that you can see the a-bomb dome

After walking around the park, we had obento for lunch and then had the amazing opportunity to hear an “hibakusha,” or someone who was affected by the bomb, speak. The woman, Matsubara-san, was a school child at the time of the bombing and was working outside helping the government to demolish houses for a fire break when the bomb hit. Her story was really emotional and it was an incredible opportunity to hear her speak in person. There are currently about 70,000 hibakusha still living in Hiroshima, but of course that number is continuously declining. She seemed to be in pretty good health, and although it was hard to understand her English at times, she said a lot of interesting things. She concluded by talking about how the hibakusha won’t always be around to fight for peace. She passed the “torch of peace” on to us and urged us to continue fighting against the use of nuclear weapons in the future. It was really moving and definitely got us all thinking.

Later in the afternoon we had free time to explore Hiroshima more. A group of people went with our tour guide to Hiroshima Castle, where they explored the castle grounds and got to try on samurai and period costumes. But, instead of the castle, I went with several people to explore the “hondori,” which is a covered arcade lined with shops. It was incredible, and I definitely did my part to stimulate the Hiroshima economy -- I did more souvenir shopping this weekend than I had done in the whole semester combined. After shopping, the whole group met back at the hotel to go to dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is a type of pancake made with flour, cabbage, egg, meat, and whatever other toppings you want, and it originated in Hiroshima so is a big part of the local scene there. The dinner was delicious and a lot of fun – we all sat around a big grill and watched them make our food. After dinner, we split off to wander around the area some more, either shopping or just seeing the sights. It didn’t rain the whole time we were outside on Saturday – we really lucked out with the weather.
 
Girls Girls in Hiroshima!
 
Sunday, however, was a different story. We woke up to rain and it rained steadily the rest of the day. But, we didn’t let that stop us from enjoying the beautiful Miyajima Island and Itsukushima Shrine. We left the hotel around 8:15am to take the bus to the ferry to get over to the island. I had been to the island before so I knew what to expect, but as the famous Itsukushima torii (gate) came into view for the first time, the boat almost tipped over from all of the people on that side of the railing taking pictures. (Not really, but it was fun to see everyone run to one side to take pictures. Myself included.) It was rainy and foggy but some of the pictures actually turned out pretty well!
 

Shrine 
 The famous torii of Itsukushima Shrine!
 
When we got onto the island, our tour guide took us to some places of interest before heading over to the shrine, which is absolutely beautiful. The shrine has been  designated as one of the “top three most scenic places in Japan,” so it’s definitely worth a visit whenever possible. We actually had the amazing opportunity today to see part of a Shinto wedding that was going on in the shrine. It was really beautiful and we saw part of what I think was the “vow ceremony” before the bridal party moved to an outer part of the shrine to watch a performance of traditional dance. The costumes were amazing and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – we were really to get to witness it.
 
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A traditional dancer dancing in front of the bride and groom
 
After our tour of the shrine finished, we all split off to explore the island on our own. A group of us walked out into the marshy area to the actual gate – it was low tide so you can walk pretty far out in the sand. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets of Miyajima, trying the local momijimanju (mapleleaf shaped waffle type things with various fillings) and oysters – both of which the island is famous for. Despite the rain, it was a lot fun, and we all got some good omiyage (souvenir) shopping done. I also did this thing called "Dr. Fish" where you put your feet in a pool and this special type of fish eats all of the dead skin off your skin. It sounds gross but it was really cool - it tickled a lot and left my feet noticeably smoother and feeling better. And it was pretty cheap - about $5 for 10 minutes! Definitely worth it.
 
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Out in the mud and rain by the torii!

But, eventually the rain took its toll and most of us got back to the ferry station a few minutes before our scheduled meeting time of 1:55pm. After that, there were five different means of transportation between us and getting home – the ferry, our bus, the shinkansen, the JR rail trains, and then the walk from our home station back to the dorm. But, we all made it back safely and collapsed into our rooms to get ready for the week. This weekend flew by and I can't believe it's already the middle June! Can't wait to see what's in store for this week - mata!

06/07/2011

Onward Osaka: Osaka Natural History Museum, Botanical Gardens, & Aquarium

    Alas, this is my final chapter about my voyage to Osaka during Golden Week. My second day of the Osaka Unlimited 2-Day Pass involved my morning trip to Namba to visit the Osaka Natural History Museum & Botanical Gardens, and my afternoon excursion to the Osaka Kaiyukan (aquarium) near Osaka Bay.

Osaka Museum of Natural History + Botanical Gardens

    Located in the southeastern section of Osaka, Namba is a quaint town with a very serene ambience. Everything I wanted to visit was conveniently clustered together next to the subway station. They were the Namba baseball stadium, park, botanical gardens and museum of natural history. As it was about 9.00am in the morning, the air was chilly and the people in the park were working on their morning exercises.

    The natural history musem was awesome, with a gigantic fin whale skeleton hanging from the roof right outside the premises. Inside the museum, there were impressive fossils of dinosaurs, mammoths, and other prehistoric beasts. There were also large taxidermic displays of insects and birds and rocks native to Osaka.

    The botanical gardens were less impressive, but that was expected since most of the flowers were not in bloom (the rose garden was especially green >_<). The most popular attraction seemed to be a heart-shaped flower arrangement the size of one and a half people. Couples were taking photos with it all the time. For me though, the coolest sight was a pair of swans attacking trying to eat some guy's foot. He was feeding them bread pieces and the swans wanted more than what he could give hahaha...

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Osaka Museum of Natural History

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The fossils were happy to see me

 

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The most exciting thing I saw in the Botanical Gardens

Osaka Aquarium 海遊館

    Though entry to this spectacular attraction was only partially subsidized by the 2-day pass, this place was well worth the ¥1900 I paid to get in. The star attraction in the Kaiyukan is the Whale Shark, the largest fish in the world. I arrived serendipituously at whale shark feeding time (3.30pm) and got to witness the once-in-my-lifetime sight of the whaleshark guzzling food down like a vacuum cleaner. The other animals in the Kaiyukan are not to be overlooked either. The aquarium has an impressive array of penguins, capyberas, puffer fish, sharks, rays and turtles. They also have many spider crabs (native species to Osaka) on display. Add in a petting aquarium, fluorescent jellyfish, and a huge souvenir store, and I can assure you that you will have a whale of a time here.

    There was lots to see outside the Kaiyukan too. I visited during the annual kids' dance competition and thus got to witness middle schoolers perform choreographed J-pop dances. There was also a huge mall next to the Kaiyukan, with the largest ferris wheel in Japan (tied with the one in Yokohama) (And yes, the 2-day pass granted me a free ride on that too). My favorite attraction outside the Kaiyukan was the 45-minute Osaka Bay tour on the traditional ship Santa Maria. From the ship, I could see Universal Studios Osaka, Cosmo Tower and the Osaka Maritime Museum.

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If you could only visit one place in Osaka, I recommend this!!!

 

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The Osaka Kaiyukan even has it's own boat ride called the Santa Maria!

On the way home

    Unfortunately, my time in the Kaiyukan was drawing to a close and it was time to head back to my hotel. I stopped by Cosmo Tower to use my free pass to the top of the tower, but the view from the tower was nothing spectacular compared to Landmark Tower in Yokohama or Tokyo Tower in Tokyo. I also made one extra pit stop at Ebisucho to visit Tsutenkaku Tower, famous for the god of luck that resides at the pinnacle of the tower, Biliken. By rubbing his foot, you would be blessed with good luck, supposedly.

    I got home late at night and had to get ready for my trip to Himeji the next day. I exhausted 75% of the coupons on the Osaka 2-day pass, and felt very satisfied about my touring of this wonderful city. Until next time, look forward to more stories and adventures in this terrific country!