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13 posts from April 2012

04/30/2012

cherry trees and eccentricities

 

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Sakura trees along Sophia-dori planted by alumni

 The sakura cherry blossoms only last for a week or so once fully in bloom. Embarrassingly enough, I wasn't aware of this until about halfway through that time, after which I suddenly understood why Japanese people as well as tourists were taking pictures of them. As others have mentioned here, (amid a wonderful collection of sakura pictures I recommend for perusal), the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms is associated with a concept found in Japanese art of all kinds: mono no aware. This term means a sensitivity towards the impermanence of things that gives one a greater appreciation for their beauty. After seeing this concept evoked so frequently in Japanese anime, it's been great to witness in its native environment.

A group of the Japanese people in the dorm I'm staying in gathered a big group for hanami--a flower viewing picnic--on what I've since realized was Easter Sunday.

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Hanami at Hikarigaoka park

This was a simple occasion. I ate, I drank, and I participated in a tipsy, exhilarating, and ill-conceived game of soccer. We used a basketball for a goal at one end and a frisbee at the other; it worked about as well as you would expect. In addition, we essentially played through a passing crowd. Normally I might have been worried about us being disruptive, but space was so understandably limited that passersby either kicked the ball back at us in good humor or expertly stayed out of its way. There was even an elderly lady who dodged a stray ball with such ease we had to laugh. It was also nice just to lie about surrounded by the blossoms. Oddly I didn't mind how crowded the place was, because everyone seemed so laid-back. A whole extended family next to us even let us use some of their blanket, although they later expected me to take a group picture of them. It continues to make sense to me, though, that those living and working here really know how to relax when they do.

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TochoAnother sight that's left quite an impression on me is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, apparently known also as "Tocho." Most people in my program probably saw this during a scavenger hunt the first week here, but my group missed it at the time. Personally though, I'm glad I got a view from my roof first to warm me up. Even the plaza in front of its entrance is built to Adam and evesuperhuman scale, and a marvel to behold. There are nameless statues ringed around its semi-circumference that are nevertheless identifiable through a timeless lens, though my favorite one was pretty unmistakable. I can hardly describe the view from one of the main building's two observatories, though if I were asked to advise a fellow traveller planning a visit, I'd say this:

"The observation lounge of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building should not be approached lightly, especially since it only takes 35 seconds by elevator to ascend 45 of its 48 stories. You might have some notion of preparing yourself after the elevator attendant lists these numbers and shuts the doors, but chances are you'll be too busy staring at the floor-number display and popping your ears. When the doors open again and you go to the windows, peeping over the tops of neighboring skyscrapers and witness, all at once, the sheer sprawling madness of Tokyo, your brain might start to feel a little out of shape. It might also begin feeling small, very very small, so small and tired in fact that it might want you to go sit down for a bit, before you get up to look out the other side."

At least, that was my experience.

View from tocho

I'm genuinely in wonderland here, but it's not all jokes and tea-parties. That said, classes are going fairly well, especially when I manage to get to them on-time. It turns out the commute is more challenging now that I'm attempting it nearly everyday. I also find myself tasked, (through my own cursed ambition), with portraying a historical Buddhist leader with a bit of a Jekyll-Hyde thing going on, but I'm up to it. There was one especially rough day though when I was eating lunch on the go and dropped one of my chopsticks, my only recourse then being to break the other one in IMG_0383half and continue eating, looking like a giant with toothpicks. I think it was this same day, however, that a couple of friends and I found a nice sushi-go-round place in Shinjuku. The great thing about this city is that it doesn't run out of surprises. For instance, the other night I saw a man in a diner wearing a hat that had "Fort Worth, Texas" sewn on it. I accosted him and inquired as to what the name of my hometown was doing on his Japanese head, but he apparently had no more idea than I. That the hat in question had somehow made it to the diner I had no objection to; I did, however, hold some reservations on the behalf of sanity as to the fact of us both being there on the same evening. Of course, at the same time, I was terribly pleased.

 

One year afterwards: Rikuzentakata and Ishinomaki

The terribly destructive earthquake and tsunami that devasted the Tohoku region of Japan, otherwise known as the "Great East Japan Disaster," occured last year right around the time that I and many of my fellow students in CIEE were considering coming to study abroad in Tokyo. Obviously it had great impacts on students who were already abroad in Japan (many from my own university were strongly encouraged to come home), but I remember being very concerned I might not be able to come to Tokyo at all. I certainly breathed a huge sigh of relief when the issues were cleared up and my university gave me its approval to go; however, the earthquake left an impression on me just as it has done for many others, and I knew that one of my goals for my time in Japan would be to go volunteer in Tohoku. This past March marked the first anniversary of the great disaster in Tohoku, and with plenty of time during spring break, I felt that I had an excellent opportunity to get a first hand look at the region one year later.

A few Japanese friends and I looked into the various volunteering programs that are available, and eventually decided upon one that would take us to Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, one of the towns most devastated by the earthquake. Unfortunately, these "tours" are relatively expensive, but include transportation to and from Tohoku, lodging, some meals and guides for help. I was lucky to be with friends, as well, because the tour was clearly meant for Japanese: no English translators here.

We left Tokyo on a yako (night) bus, and arrived around mid morning in Iwate, making our way through various small towns on our way to Rikuzentakata. Although we were exhausted from a night spent on the bus, the images we saw were enough to wake anyone up.

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As we drove through the town, we learned a bit more about the current situation: much of the debris has been cleared away and piled into somewhat organized heaps of wood, totaled cars and other machinery, and more. Its fields are no longer covered in the destruction left in the wake of the disaster, but merely barren. Grocery stores, Businesses and restaurants are finally starting to return to the area, although they are running out of portables. Making our way towards the volunteer center, we caught a glimpse of the single pine tree left standing along a stretch once covered in them before 3/11/2011. Some in Rikuzentakata have taken it for a mascot of sorts, a symbol of solidarity, strength and perserverance in the face of adversity. I wish we could have gotten a closer look, but there was indeed something awe-inspiring about the silhouette of that tree standing alone amongst so much destruction and emptiness.

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After arriving at the volunteer center in town, we were put to work. Our task was to clear dirt left on the shore of the bay the town lies on, packing it into bags and restacking them. Although I suppose I had hoped our work would be a little bit more hands on with the debris, my friends explained to me that such tasks are better left to the work crews with heavier machinery. As we dug, packed and piled, we kept an eye out for personal effects taken away by the tsunami's currents, particularly photographs, which are cleaned and ideally returned to their owners if they can be located. Although we didn't find anything quite so important, the occasional utensil or gardening label did turn up; indeed there is something powerful about holding another person's lost belongings in your hand and realizing that it made up a part of that individual's life experience. I came to feel that we were really digging for treasures of the memory sort instead of clearing dirt away.

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The volunteer center, as I found out, was also comprised mostly of portables; despite the temporary set up, this compound directs and serves hundreds of volunteers on a weekly basis

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After our day of work came to an end, we spent the night in a hotel before taking anoher trip to Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture. Here, we found the impact of the earthquake and tsunami was still obvious to the naked eye: lots where former buildings stood dominate much of the landscape in the worst effected part of town, and many of those houses that still stand lie disheveled and abandoned. The sheer size of the heaps of cars, metals, wood and other debris is jaw dropping, and makes you wonder at how much longer the work to clear it all away will take.

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We were given an opportunity to get off of the bus and to walk around one of the former residential areas that was nearly wiped away by the disaster; personal effects still lie strewn about the former foundations of houses that may or may not have belonged to their owners. CDs, computers, shoes,  toys and much more litter the area. Amongst the more powerful images I saw was a stove pot that looked as though besides dirt and muddy water, the remains of a lunch or dinner were still contained inside of it. Across the road was a former elementary school, as well as a temple, where the graveyard still remains in poor condition, its gravemarkers toppled over as if the quake had struck yesterday.

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Although some of these images may be hard to look at or to believe, progress is being made. Slowly but surely, life is returning to these towns; in Ishinomaki, plans are being made for the conversion of the former residential area into a new park, and the sheer volume of volunteers flowing into Rikuzentakata (in the hundreds weekly, even a year after the disaster) are encouraging signs. I look forward to returning to Tohoku someday in the next few years, to see how things proceed from here. If I learned anything from my time in Rikuzentakata and Ishinomaki, it is that the Japanese of Tohoku are extremely resilient, courageous, resourceful and most of all selflessly generous. Full recovery will take time, but it will come, and I hope to be here to see it when it does.

Golden Week part 1: Izu Peninsula

Hello everyone!

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Golden week is a week where many company employees and students have time off due to Japanese national holidays. This year, today (Monday, April 30th) and May 3rd-4th are the holidays. For the first weekend, I went with a group of exchange students to the Izu Peninsula.

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We checked into your ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, K’s House Ito. We stayed in Ito for our three-night trip, and for the first day we took a bus and toured our area of the peninsula.

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Our beautiful room and ofuro, traditional Japanese bath

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We started off by taking chair lifts up to the top of Mt. Omuro, a dormant volcano. We were rewarded with beautiful sights of the coast by walking the circle around the top.

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Afterwards we headed to a suspension bridge and the Kadowaki cape lighthouse. We took a few detours from the traveled path, and ended up hiking over rocks to get to the shoreline. It was absolutely stunning!

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The next day, only a group of four took about an hour and a half bus and train ride to visit the seven falls of Kawazu. Unfortunately two of the seven were closed for construction, but the falls we were able to see were amazing!

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There was a section of the falls that had drinkable water- so refreshing! We went off the trail more than a few times, and ended up walking along the river’s edge to one of the bigger waterfalls.

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I cannot recommend visiting the Izu peninsula more than I already have! The views are amazing, and it’s a great change of pace from the Tokyo lifestyle.  Even if you can only go for a day trip- do it! Anyone and everyone in Japan should visit this amazing location. There s so much history, such as protected natural treasures, and life in the country offers an entirely different perspective on Japanese life. 

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04/29/2012

American Antiques find a second life in Tsudanuma

Making the 30 minute plus commute into and out of Tokyo everyday may be something of a nuisance when you are in a rush or doesn't enjoy feeling like they are packed into a sardine can, but it can be a great way to see parts of the city if your train affords a view. I have ridden the JR Chuo Sobu line almost everyday over the past few months, and particularly when I lived with a homestay family in Chiba prefecture, I never grew tired of the hour-long trip because there was always something new I hadn't caught before. Tsudanuma, one of the JR train hubs in Chiba prefecture, is one of those places I saw everyday. I would often look for the appealing signs for what looked like small novelty or thrift stores I had noticed at some point during one of my first few commutes, but whether it was because it was so close to my last stop or because schoolwork caught up with me, it took me awhile to actually get out and take advantage of a stop along my route to and from school.

When one gets off at Tsudanuma station, nothing really seems to stand out in comparison with other JR station fronts; yet walk a few blocks to the northwest parallel to the train tracks and you will understand that it is in the small corners and backstreets of Japanese cities that hold some of the more charming spots. Luckily for me, one of those small pockets was in plain sight if you pay attention as you pass Tsudanuma, and with a little patience for going out of my way, I was able to find it. 

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What awaited me on this sidestreet was a row of antique shops dealing with what might be considered a kind of fashionable Japanese novelty: American antiques. I had heard before I came to Japan that in the past few decades certain iconic elements of American pop-culture had become wildly popular in Japan; for example, interest groups about cowboys (with members in full costumes) are apparently still going strong (see one group called Real Western's website for more). However, the sheer amount of these antiques was a bit surprising to me at first.  To be sure, there is a lot of clothing and accessories to peruse in some of these shops; in fact, when I first entered some of the stores, I thought that was what they primarily dealt in. Judging by the amount of clothing some had, that might be true, depending on the store; but what really caught my eye was the collections of American pop culture relics from bygone fads of decades past. More than anything else, this array of foreign antiques, and store owners with interests to match, is what ties these shops together in my mind.

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Garage Sale's storefront was one of the shops that originally attracted my attention one days that I rode the JR sobu line.

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Garage sale's huge selection of clothing, with some shoes and luggage thrown in for good measure


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Looking around each of these stores, one comes to realize that it takes a special group of people who all share an odd fascination to create such an unusual gathering of novelty items. The owner of the first shop I entered, called "Naked," has been to America over fifty times, and knows more about several states than the average American (such as myself) does. Others, like the owners of "Garage Sale" and "Jokers" travel to America frequently on antique hunts or make requests of friends to bring them new products.

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Garage sale's owner proudly overviewing his eclectic assortment of used clothing, knick nacks and American antiques

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"Jokers" storefront

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"Jokers'"'very friendly owner also boasts an impressive selection of iconic American merchandise from years past 

The cluttered shops (Joker is no larger than a shed) are really pleasant, and have a lot of charm per square inch.  From classic Peanuts figurines to Star Wars merchandise, as well as Elvis memorabilia and old election buttons from the '50s and '60s can be found aplenty. I had some expectations that prices on these antiques might be high, but the price of a single model "Lego" car at Jokers confirmed it. Antiques can certainly be expensive in America, but the premium these shops put on them indicates the sort of fashionable, value-added image they have here (at least for those willing to pay for them). 

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I thought cars lost value when they were driven off the lot...

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I've grown to expect that Japan will constantly surprise me, and the antique stores in Tsudanuma are a perfect example. Although it was certainly different from the image I had of a typical thrift store in Japan, I feel now that it is a more accurate representation of those kind of stores that are filling niches in the market here. It's quite a trip to walk into a store where you are nearly knee-deep in iconic American pop-culture images of the past when you grow used to the normal patterns of everyday life here, but that made it all the more interesting for me to get a sense of what Japanese people consider appealing in antiques. For most Japanese who buy these antiques, their knowledge or personal connection with the original context of their purchase may be pretty distant, but perhaps that is precisely what makes it fashionable; the fact that they are so removed from it, and that it represents quintessential of another time and space. If you're an American, you'll be well acquainted with most of these emblems, and its very interesting to see new life breathed into them as fashionable accessories and house decorations for Japanese with an urge for a little something from the States. 

Classes and Circles!

Hi again! It's been a month already since coming to Tokyo and it has flown by!! I honestly don't know where all the time has gone, but I've got three months left, and am determined to make the very most of it. For starters, I'm in Ito-- a peninsula just close to Tokyo. I highly highly recommend it: I don't have pictures just yet, but the guest house we're staying at (K's House) is absolutely beautiful, and the surrounding area is just breathtaking. Expect a new blog soon with details about my weekend here! I'll also be going to Kyoto next weekend, because this week is Golden Week, which means days off of school, and what is better than travelling?

This post may be a little short on photos, because I'm dedicating it to talk about clubs and classes (I promise, photos in my next post!). Classes here are great-- I really love all the classes I'm taking. This semester I have Japanese Government and Politics (the professor is really good at lecturing; he tells interesting stories and isn't afraid to bluntly express his opinion on a subject), Introduction to Japanese Literature (I'm taking it with a bunch of people in my dorm, so it's really fun! I'm excited to touch on classics like the Tale of Genji), Regional Security in Northeast Asia (this professor is just ridiculous-- he's so funny, and yet the discussions he inspires are really informative and engaging), and of course, Japanese. I would have to say that my Japanese class is the toughest, but the professors are very good and I'm excited for the level of Japanese I'll be at once this semester is over!

I have to say though, that I'm much more excited about the circle (clubs) I've joined. AKB48 is a big pop idol group in Japan, composed of (supposedly, though probably more) 48 girls. AKB48 has inspired various colleges nationwide to create imitation groups, and Sophia University has its own SPH48, of which I am a new member. 

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The SPH48 chalkboard at freshman orientation week! I really just wanted to wear those schoolgirl outfits...

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Trying on the uniform (costume)!

We perform the dances that AKB48 does on their concert tours, music videos, etc. at venues such as clubs, school events, and stores. Coming up mid-May I'll get to perform with this fun group of girls for a school event, and then a week later at a CD store. I'm so excited! I'm currently learning two dances, and they're really tough since I can't dance, but ridiculous fun. Circles are really an amazing way to interact with Japanese college kids and learn colloquial language. The girls in SPH48 are all very fluent in English (as are many people at Sophia University) so when I get confused they translate for me, but for the most part we all converse in Japanese. 

 

Other than classes, clubs, and my current vacation plans, life has been pretty chill. Quick photo montage!

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Celebrating a friend's birthday at Sweet's Paradise! Dessert buffet for 1500 yen? Count me in~ 

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Trying amazake (sweet rice wine) at hanami! Check Cherise's post below (again lol) for more details on the Japanese tradition of looking at sakura flowers.

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With some of the other dorm girls! 

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Pre-clubbing in Roppongi! We got these amazing kebabs that we keep going back for. Roppongi is a little sketchy though, so just be careful~ 

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Hanging out with some friends at an arcade in Ikebukuro. Ikebukuro is one of the train stops on the way home from school, which means that with my commuter pass, I get to stop there whenever I want for free! Which is so much fun and saves a ton of money, cuz we've been busy exploring Tokyo~

That's it for now! I'll try to post soon with more pictures about my Golden Week travels!  

 

 

04/26/2012

I'm a Sucker for the Sakura Season <3

A whole month has passed since we first arrived here! So much has happened in such a short timeーclasses have started, we've starting joining some Japanese college clubs (サークル), we've formed some amazing friendships, and...

...we were here during cherry blossom, or sakura (桜),  season. This beautiful flower blossoms between the end of March and mid April and has an incredibly short life span of about two weeks.

In the spirit of the season, this post will be entirely dedicated to sakura. :) I'll be sure to post about the club meetings, new Japanese friends, delicious foods and interesting experiences soon! But for now, sit back and enjoy the beauty of Japanese springtime:

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The sakura flowers were just starting to bloom when we visited Kamakura for a program trip.


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While wandering in Ikebukuro later that day, we found some sakura that were more fully in bloom.

 

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We went hanami (花見)with some Japanese from our dorm a few weeks ago. At the park, these adorable little Japanese girls gave a beautiful Hawaiian-themed hula performance beneath the flowering trees.

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Doing "hanami" is basically going on a picnic beneath sakura trees. Here is one of the fellow Japanese dorm residents and my new long-lost "cousin," Momoko-chan! :)


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Trying our hand at jumping in the fluttering sakura petals between classes at Sophia University!

 

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Meguro is famous for the sakura that adorn the sides of its river, Meguro-gawa. I took a stroll down here one evening after a scholarship dinner I had that was in the same general area!

 

This time of year sakura is not just present in basically every shred of green landscape in Tokyo, but also in much of the food and drink!!

 

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Reading my Bible while sipping on a sakura latte at Doutor Cafeーnothing could be more relaxing :)

 

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A sakura macaroon that I picked up at a Seibu Department store with a friend visiting from Taiwan! Yummy!

 

There are many, many more foods, drinks, and beautiful sakura photographs I could show, but I'll leave these choice few...for now! :) Sadly the season has ended, but the memories still live on in my heart! <3

 

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These are not technically sakura, but the ongoing presence of these pretty flowers did much to ease my pain when the real blossoms rapidly disappeared! 

04/19/2012

East of Everything

Hello all, and greetings from the Land of the Rising Sun. I've been in Tokyo for several weeks now, and I feel it's about time I attempt some introduction of the overwhelming place it is. As for myself, my name is Trevor Flynn, if you don't know me, and I'm a junior student studying abroad here. I'm a Theatre major with a minor in Religion and some delusional aspirations to creative writing.

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The discovery of a yukata/bathrobe in my hotel room.

The first thing to comprehend about Tokyo is how bafflingly huge it is, and for me this may well take the duration of my four-month stay. Even when I started making my daily commute by train, I didn't really get it and I shouldered my way through crowds of suits just like everyone else. It was only when I stopped to think if I had actually seen anyone twice, and how many people I had seen each day, that I caught myself feeling a little dizzy. As if to confirm this, I got a view of the cityscape from the top of the building where I'm staying, and promptly went back downstairs.

Another thing to understand about Japan in general is that nearly everything is in Japanese. I know this might sound obvious, but it's important. To a Westerner like myself with little knowledge of the language, the picture-based characters called kanji might as well be formalized chicken-scratch; there's no Latin there to hold on to and it's very disorienting. However, one of the two other Japanese alphabets, katakana is graciously used for adopting foreign words, and knowing this helps immensely. In addition, one of the most entertaining things here is what English signage does exist. There is a sort of disintegration of grammar in one's mind that starts to set in after even two days of reading English directions written by Japanese people; it's like Yoda is following you around.

IMG_0276Once you get accustomed to these things, as much as you can, there's plenty to explore. I've ended up in Japan due to a gradually increasing life-long interest in things related to the place, such as its animation, architecture, and religion. I've already been ushered into some major temples (such as the Shinshoji Temple in Narita, left) and caught glimpses of local shrines nestled in between sky-scrapers as well as on top of them. One such opportunity was a day-trip to Kamakura, the historical seat of Japan's first shogunate and home to perhaps the most iconic of Japan’s colossal Buddha statues or daibutsu.  

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Daibutsu sandals copy
And his enormous shoes, made for him lovingly by grade school kids just in case he needs to get up and stretch his legs after more than 700 years of sitting.

Of course there have been many sights since these, including the flowering of the cherry blossoms which are already almost completely gone. I promise pictures of these and more in the next post.

Once you get used to these things, as much as you can, there's plenty to explore. I've ended up in Japan due to a gradually increasing life-long interest in things related to the place, such as its animation, architecture, and religion. I've already been ushered into some major temples and caught glimpses of local shrines nestled in between sky-scrapers as well as on top of them.

04/11/2012

はじめまして!

Hello everyone! I'm Anica, a junior at Skidmore College in New York. I'm an East Asian Studies major and currently in my second semester in Tokyo with CIEE. I grew up in Berkeley, California but recently moved to Seattle. I've have an interest in Japanese culture which began in elementary school when my mom gave me my first ever Ramune soda, and grew when I entered my last years of high school. I have a passion for Japanese rock music and other aspects of Japanese culture, both modern and traditional. I came to Japan to fully explore my interests and really get the feeling of what it means to live in Japanese society. So far I have loved every minute of it, and I am always discovering new things!

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Anyways, I wanted to talk about my main activity over the last week- Hanami! For non-Japanese speakers, Hanami means flower viewing. Japan is full of cherry trees, and once a year for a few weeks, these trees explode into a visual cacophony of blooms. To be honest, until they bloomed, I didn't realize that Tokyo has SO many cherry trees! It really is magnificent to behold. I thought I would provide a brief summary/comparison of my various Hanami experiences.

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Now, you may ask, "What's the big deal about cherry blossoms?" Well, it partially hails back to a particular piece of Japanese traditional values termed, "mono no aware." (物の哀れ) This basically means appreciation for the ephemerality of worldly things. Cherry blossoms only last for a brief amount of time, and so they fit nicely into the concept. Therefore, Hanami is one way of celebrating the temporary nature of this floral beauty.

 

Day 1: Ueno Park IMG_1889

By far the most well known park to see blossoms in, Ueno is a crazy and fun experience. The park is big enough to feature various museums, a pond with swan boats, and Ueno Zoo. Under the hundreds of cherry trees is a sea of people eating and drinking, their picnic tarps covering the ground so it looks like the trees are growing straight up from the blue plastic mass. There are also many stalls selling all sorts of food and drink.

 

As much as I enjoyed Ueno, I found the crowds to be a bit overwhelming. Good luck trying to move anywhere in a hurry, and finding a friend in the masses of milling multitudes is tricky. However, that being said, you really shouldn't be trying to move fast. Just relax, take your time looking at the trees, and go with the flow of the crowds! Also, I recommend a visit to the zoo while you're at it! It was un-crowded and lots of fun, not to mention cheap (600 yen) for those of you on a budget.

 

Day 2: Shinjuku Park IMG_1925

The day after I went to Ueno I went on a Hanami picnic with my club, SISEC. The park is just a short walk from Shinjuku station, so it's pretty convenient. We had to wait in line to get in, because everyone has to undergo a bag inspection upon entering the park. This is due to a no-alcohol rule that, while unfortunate, does help with keeping the crowds in the park a bit more sedate and quite a bit cleaner. By going to the park with my club I got to experience what Hanami is really about when it boils down to it: Spending time with friends while enjoying the beauty that nature has to offer.

 

Not only was Shinjuku Park less crowded, it had a lot to offer in terms of flora besides just the cherry trees. The park features beautiful landscaping, teahouses, and water elements. It was great to sit down amidst it all and have great food, play games, and catch up with people in the club. The day was pretty windy and got a bit chilly, but it was still fun and I really enjoyed learning more games (takenoko takenoko nyokiki anyone?).

 

Day 3: Kinshicho IMG_1931

To conclude my three-day Hanami craze, I went to a small park near Kinshicho with some friends from my dorm. It was a great day and I had a blast getting to sit down under the trees and watch the petals falling in the breeze. We got snacks from Seiyu on our way and had a great time just talking and enjoying the sun. Even though Ueno was impressive, and Shinjuku was fun to experience with a big group of friends, I much preferred the low-key local park. Therefore, although I would say that the big popular parks are certainly an experience, I think it's perfectly enjoyable to just grab some friends and head to your local park! You can get your own patch of grass under some trees and eat, drink, and chat to your heart's content!

Well, that's all for my three-day Hanami extravaganza! Now as the petals are beginning to fall of the trees it looks like Tokyo is covered in a floral snow. Truly "mono no aware" if you ask me. I really do believe that cherry blossom season in Japan is something that everyone should experience at least once in their life, and I count myself very lucky that I was able to be a part of it this year.

Signing off until next time!

~Anica

 

04/09/2012

みなさん、はじめまして!

Hello everyone! My name is Halee Haggerton, and I am a 20-year-old International Business major at Texas Tech University (which is a good 9 hour drive north from my hometown in Houston, TX). For my major, I am required to study abroad; however, I would have chosen to come to Tokyo through CIEE regardless of my studies.

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A few of the dorm residents and I eating crepes in Harajuku!

My interest in Japan was spurred many years ago. When I was around 8 years old, I picked up one of my father's National Geographic magazines and thumbed through the photos. I was particularly struck by the beautiful and unique pictures from what I learned to be the country of Japan. It was from that moment on that I knew I wanted to visit the gorgeous, seemingly magical country. In my earlier years and throughout my teens, I soaked up different aspects of Japanese culture, and in freshman year of high school I begun taking Japanese language classes. In Sophomore year, I helped form a sister school relationship between my high school and Toyota Minami High School in Aichi prefecture, and had the opportunity to host three Japanese high school peers as well as visit Japan three separate times (for a total of 5 weeks over all three trips). This last year I helped form my university’s earthquake relief group, and through performing a Japanese dance all across town we raised over $11,000 that we donated.

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Ikebukuro at night

I knew that somehow I wanted to incorporate Japan into my future life, so I decided to become an International Business major and minor in Japanese language. This is what led me to choose to come to Tokyo- the huge epicenter of businesses is perfect for a networking businesswomen. One of my most important goals is to become fluent in Japanese, and I will definitely practice as much as possible while I am in Tokyo!

I am living in one of the dorms, DK House Nerima, and it’s fantastic. A few other bloggers have discussed the living conditions, so I won’t dwell on it, but I highly recommend it for anyone who is thinking about coming to Japan through CIEE. It is an environment where your effort determines what you get out of it! If you want to push yourself to socialize and practice your language skills, it’s a safe place to do so- the people here don’t care about your mistakes or misunderstandings, and the dorm manager is really kind.

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We really like to hang out in the kitchen!

Yesterday marks two weeks since we have all been in Tokyo, and as a collective group we have done a lot during these orientation weeks. I’m going to explain two major events I’ve experienced so far: 花見 (Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing) and カラオケ (Karaoke).

Hanami is very important to the Japanese culture. These cherry blossoms, called 桜 (Sakura), have a bloom that only lasts around one week. This short period of time is celebrated by everyone in Japan. Families and friends go to parks (or other areas rampant with the flowers) and picnic under the blossoms. There tends to be a lot of 酒 (Sake, a traditional Japanese alcohol), and many people bring outdoor games to play and large tarps to relax on. It’s a very calm environment, although very crowded. There were roughly 30 people in our group!

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Our hanami group!

A few of us tried 甘酒 (Amazake), a sweet and usually non-alcoholic drink made from rice and traditionally enjoyed during hanami events. It was extremely sweet with a hint of ginger, and served warm. I recommend trying amazake- I’d personally never tasted anything like before.

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The amazake we tried!

Karaoke is also an important experience, surprisingly so! When we think of karaoke in America, most people probably envision a bar filled with strangers on a particular night of the week, or perhaps a personal karaoke machine in your own home. In Japan it’s almost always very different- you go with a group of friends to a karaoke place (sometimes a building over 10 stories high!) and rent out a room by hour. Depending on the location, you can order unlimited drinks (also called 飲み放題- nomihoudai), otherwise you can pay for beverages and food. There’s a wide range of songs, from Japanese to American and many in between.

IMG_9334One of the Karaoke locations we have been to

I have gone twice so far, once in Shinjuku and once near my dorm. Both times have been great experiences. Using the little electronic remotes, we all found songs to queue up, and took turns singing everything from solos to the entire room joining in. Karaoke is a very popular hangout for not only younger people, but also for working class adults, too! Many businessmen and working women will go karaoke with their coworkers. It’s a sort of bonding experience, and after witnessing it firsthand, it’s understandable why karaoke is so popular.

IMG_9335Getting a little crazy with the dance moves at Karaoke!

Karaoke and Hanami are just some of the things I have experienced so far in Tokyo, and I look forward to blogging more about the rest of my semester here at Sophia University. Thank you for reading my post! Classes start soon, so hopefully I’ll have some more unique things to discuss with you all next time. またね!

 

Hello there

I noticed you looking at the CIEE blog, so I thought I'd introduce myself. I'm Nick Powers, a native of Chapel Hill, NC, and a junior at the University of Southern California, majoring in East Asian Area Studies. 

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Shibuya at night. Shibuya is a popular place for shopping and nightlife, and a short walk from Harajuku, the clothing Mecca of Tokyo. They're my two favorite parts of Tokyo so far. 

I took an "Exploratory Japanese" class in sixth grade for one semester, and thought it was interesting, so when I found out my local high school offered a full 4-year Japanese program, I decided to keep up with it. In eighth grade, I bought myself "Teach Yourself: Japanese," and started chugging through it, to little avail if any. 

It's difficult to teach yourself a language. 

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Sakura mascarpone mousse cake in Shibuya. I'm still having trouble figuring out the sakura flavor. Around this time of year, you can find cherry blossom-flavored and cherry blossom-shaped pastries on every street corner, as the cherry blossoms are now in full bloom. 

I took Japanese my freshman year in high school, and felt very comfortable in class. The lessons seemed simple, and the points came relatively easily. Not only that, but I found I really enjoyed that one hour each day when I could experience a culture outside my own, when I could challenge myself to another point of view. From my freshman year on, I knew I wanted to study Japanese forever, and maybe other languages, as well, and someday to become an interpreter (we'll see.) 

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Fried sakura mochi. The frying adds an interesting flavor to the mochi. 

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We stumbled upon a street of food vendors in Ueno Park during our o-hanami. They had fried mochi, fish on sticks, tako-yaki, etc. This, so far, has been my favorite stumble-upon of the semester. 

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My host sister teaching me about Ueno Park and the Shinto shrine inside. You have to rinse each hand, your mouth, and the ladle before entering. 


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In Shibuya the first week to explore. We'll be coming back very often. We're all planning to do karaoke in Shinjuku tomorrow night. 

I came to college and declared East Asian Area Studies as my major, knowing all the while that I would spend a semester in Japan. It was my dream. It is my dream, and it's happening right now!
My mind wants me to say things that might not be appropriate, because I get to live in my favorite city for 4 months, and I know the exploration that awaits is more than I'd ever be able to consume entirely in that time. 

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The Great Buddha of Kamakura. We spent a day in Kamakura, visiting Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine. I spent the day buying sweets. 

I'm a foodie, and I love reading about men's fashion. My uncles work in the fashion industry, and come to Japan often for work, and I've been trying desperately to make myself look like a model in GQ or Details (to absolutely no positive result). I spent my first two weeks mostly in Shibuya and Harajuku, with the intent of coming back to the States the best dressed of all my friends. I'm determined to find the good clothes for reasonable prices. 

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The cherry blossoms were finally "mankai," meaning "fully opened," in their most beautiful state. I went to Ueno Park with my host sister and her friend, but the flowers hadn't bloomed yet. They taught me about cherry blossoms, o-hanami (flower viewing picnics), and anmitsu, my first authentic Japanese dessert. 

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Anmitsu is a bowl of seaweed-based jelly, sweet syrup (mitsu), black bean paste (anko), fruits, ice creams, and other sweet toppings. On the left is cherry blossom anmitsu, and the right is "kogura anmitsu," my favorite, with red bean ice cream. I'm a sucker for a good red bean. This place, Mihashi, is supposedly the best anmitsu in Japan. There's another confectionery near my house that makes anmitsu, so I'll have to expand my horizons a little. 

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This was on the grounds of a temple in Kamakura. I enjoy being inside the temple grounds, where the smell of incense and the distance from urban life helps me collect myself, but I find that Japan really isn't a stressful place. Maybe I just love being here too much. 

I'm also a pastry fiend. My sweet tooth knows no bounds, and Japan is one of the best countries in the world for pastries, possibly contending with France, Austria, or Italy. I even made a list of the most famous pastry shops in Tokyo, and I intend to learn all there is to know about Japanese confections. I found an amazing pastry cookbook the other day in Ikebukuro with nearly every Japanese pastry I've ever heard of, in Japanese, for $20. Prepare yourself for the food. 

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Kaiten-zushi, conveyer belt sushi. Each plate was 100 yen ($1.25), and some of the sushi was killer. They also had cake and mochi. I enjoyed pulling off random plates and seeing what I got. I found so many new favorites that way. Japan is the kind of place where you have to take risks to fully appreciate the culture.