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4 posts from April 2015

04/26/2015

Wanderlust: Journey to Japan

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You must immerse yourself into another world in order to fully understand your own. In the game of life, people often change and develop as they begin to come closer to discovering who they truly are – whether it be a devoted father, music enthusiast, dedicated housewife, or self-proclaimed foodie. For me, however, I strive to be a zealous wanderer. More commonly known as a world traveler, the concept of adventuring to new and exciting places has slowly become a dream of mine.

While I have always possessed the desire to see and experience life’s many foreign wonders, I did not feel entirely comfortable with the idea of stepping outside my comfort zone into a whole new, unknown world. However, as I got older, I began to realize the importance of putting myself in uncomfortable situations and how doing so can led to a certain type of maturing. That being said, it was not until the sixth grade when I completed my first – less than perfect – sketch of Sailor Moon that I realized my passion for all things Japanese. From then on, I knew, without a doubt, Japan would be my first destination.

Nonetheless, in my mind, the thought of venturing to Japan remained an improbable and unobtainable dream that would forever remain at arms length. In high school, the closest I ever got to a true cultural experience was during Japanese class when I referred to my teacher everyday as “sensei”.  Even then, I was still yearning for the chance to understand wholeheartedly what it felt like to live within the rich, Japanese culture.   

Finally, during my senior year of high school, the opportunity presented itself. As a required class assignment, I was instructed to attend a Japanese speech contest where I would address a panel of judges – along with a sizeable audience – and share my thoughts and sincere condolences regarding the 2011 tsunami that – quite literally – shook the Japanese nation.

After all of the contest awards were distributed, The Youth Ambassador Organization of San Jose stepped forward to extend the invitation to any and all participants who desired to spend ten days touring Japan. Of course, I immediately presented the idea to my parents and, after much deliberation and prayer, was signed up for the summer of 2012 to journey to Japan.

Needless to say, the ten days I experienced abroad were more than I had ever imagined. Not only did I get the opportunity to travel to places like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kyoto, but I was also chosen out of eleven high school students to present my original competition speech to the mayor of Okayama – in Japanese. Not to mention, the whole ordeal was locally televised. Overall, the invigorating experience left a lasting impression on me. So much so, I knew in my heart I would return one day the next possible chance I could; but this time for more than a mere ten days.

That being said, not only did I make my dream of traveling to Japan a reality once before, but a second time as well. As of March 25th, I made the eleven and a half hour journey back to Japan, this time to Tokyo. Never before has my wanderlust spirit felt so energized as it does now. Even as I sit here writing this, I still cannot believe this will be my home for the next four months. And, despite only being here for one week so far, I already feel like this is where I am supposed to be.

Granted, I am still getting adjusted to the hustle and bustle of the city. Coming from a small, suburban hometown in sunny California, Tokyo is completely opposite to what I am accustomed to. However, the biggest adjustment I have made so far is getting acclimated to the Japanese transportation system. For instance, before coming here, I had no idea the extent of the Japanese railway system, nor did I understand any of it. In California, if I wanted to go somewhere, all I had to do was hop in my Dodge Challenger, enter a destination into Google maps, and I was on my way. Luckily, each day I am getting more familiar with the various train routes and finally understand the distinction between a JR line and a metro line. But, I know once I master the different transportation systems, I will be able to go wherever I please, whenever I please – at least until the last train stops running.

Thus far, Japan has been nothing but a dream turned reality. I will say, I would not be here today to enjoy the memorizing cherry blossoms in their full glory, or taste the tantalizing Okonomiyaki, or observe Japanese people move through their daily routines with undeniable ease had it not been for the support of my parents – and more importantly – God. I truly believe I am exactly where I am supposed to be. 

04/23/2015

The Great Buddha of Kamakura

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Ahhh Kamakura. I really enjoyed visiting each time I was here. I came two years ago with a group of awesome people from Hope College, and got to go again with a group of awesome people from CIEE. Although, Kamakura is only about 40-50 minutes from where I live, so I really can just go whenever I feel like it. And I will feel like it again! Haha!

We started off touring a shrine close to town called the Hachimangu. A bunch of candy stands lined the road up to the main shrine, so on the way back many of us got a candy apple or candied grape. It was like the greatest lollipop. There were even candied strawberries, and I want one of those too (next time, Emily). The coolest part was the two traditional Japanese weddings happening there. It is always neat to witness these rare ceremonies because it reveals another part of Japanese culture and tradition. Music was also playing from inside one of the shrines for the ceremony. I didn't get any good pictures because I was hesitant to infringe on their special day. 

Near Kamakura station is a Studio Ghibli shop that I absolutely love. Studio Ghibli shops are not too too common, so whenever I see anything with Studio Ghibli characters on it, I freak out. I could buy the whole store ( bye money, I didn't want to go to college anyway! Haha, just kidding). But really, after we had lunch at a restaurant where we took our shoes off before entering, we took a short train to see the Great Daibutsu. This Buddha is amazing! You can even go inside! Its construction began in 1252, and has never been built on since its completion. It is totally original! I ended up buying a mini Buddha figure of the larger one because I love Buddhas ( in case you wanted to know what to get me for my birthday....). I took a Japanese religions class at my home school, and have always admired the teachings of Buddhism. The mini statue looks like the Daibutsu, so it will always remind me of my time there.

Next we went to the Hasedera temple, which has a beautiful garden and koi pond. Many parts of the temple are built in layers on the side of a hill, so you have to walk up a decent amount of steps to see everything. It also has an excellent display of Jizo statues, and a giant Kannon statue inside one of the buildings. There is definitely a lot to see there, including a great view of the sea. Once we arrived there it actually started raining, and then continued to pick up once we returned to Kamakura station. I'm glad the rain waited until the end though (otherwise my shoes would have been soaked all day). It did kind of infringe on my plans to explore Kamakura some more, but next visit I will succeed!

 

-Emily Oliver 





SPRINGTIME FUN IN JAPAN ON A TIGHT BUDGET: WHITE WATER RAFTING IN SHIKOKU

                In one of my previous blog entries, I wrote about how pretty the autumn sky looks on a clear and sunny day in Tokyo. Well, it is around the middle of March that spring begins in Japan, and as though to tease the famous springtime saying “April showers bring May flowers,” I got to enjoy many sunny days in Tokyo as the new season slowly arrived. In fact, the number of consecutive sunny days grew so great that I eventually found myself inspired to take a trip down south to Shikoku, one of Japan’s four major islands.

              The end of March was approaching, along with the final day of the 2-month interim break. Fearing that the good weather would soon leave me as well, my friend Chieko (a fellow CIEE student) and I decided we wanted to do something that would make the most of the remainder of our holiday – but it couldn’t be just anything. It had to be an outdoor activity, something fun and exciting, preferably in a location close to nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and most importantly: something that could be enjoyed particularly in Japan; a few minutes of internet research revealed that white water rafting in Shikoku was to be our next adventure. We packed our bags, booked budget airline tickets, emailed our study abroad program coordinators, and were on our way down south faster than you could say “rapid.”

              Shikoku is divided into four main prefectures: Kagawa, Ehime, Tokushima, and Kochi. We arrived at Matsuyama airport in Ehime prefecture, probably the furthest prefecture from our destination (a rafting company called “Happy Raft” in Kochi) early on a partly-cloudy morning. Grumbling at the fact that our budget airline didn’t service a closer airport, we hopped onto a limited express train down to Oboke Station, our only solace being the opportunity to stock up on sleep on the 4-hour ride. The excitement at the prospect of riding down the rapids of the Yoshino River however, kept us awake.

              When we arrived at Happy Raft Headquarters (a little hut built by the bank of the river), we were warmly greeted by our guide for the day, a Japanese rafter named Toru. He gave us a safety briefing, lent us wetsuits, and drove us to the starting point of our journey along the river.

 

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              Happy Raft really gave us a full experience. Strapped in our rafting gear – a helmet, three layers of wetsuits, a life jacket, and even special rafting sneakers – we fully inflated the raft on our own, placed it upon the surface of the water, and embarked upon the rapids of the Yoshino River with Toru. My recollection of the next part of this adventure is comprised of mainly auditory elements: splashing water, wooshing white rapids, laughter, and excited screams. Toru told us that we had been blessed with a perfect water level that day, as he steered us into the river’s fast currents. We were followed by another employee of Happy Raft, Mark (a rafter from Australia), who was equipped with a waterproof camera to capture the moments. Our boat capsized once as we were traversing the fastest rapid on the course, and according to Toru, we’d been his first capsized group of the season. Fun fact: it’s a tradition amongst the rafting companies in the area that if a guide capsizes the tour boat, then he or she must buy the entire company beers at the end of the day.

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              At the end of the tour, we were sent off with warm lemon drinks, and even warmer sentiments.

              This adventure in Shikoku was probably one of my favorite moments of my experience in Japan. For those looking to travel around Japan on a tight budget, I strongly recommend this island as a destination. Not only was the travel fare cheap, the people we met were extremely kind and helpful; after the tour, Toru personally delivered us to the train station, and even helped us figure out cheap routes to the few tourist destinations we had decided to stop by before our flight home. I will definitely be returning to Shikoku before the end of the CIEE program. Also, I think Happy Raft gives you a free shirt on your third visit, which is nice.

04/22/2015

When the Sakura blooms

One of the main reasons why I decided to go study abroad in Japan is because of the Japanese unique culture and custom. Inclusively, Tokyo is a city with such exciting contrasts between modern and traditional culture that will give me an extremely challenging and enriching international experience. CIEE has done a great job in providing students the opportunities to explore Japan in order to assist our adapting process. I have not met anyone from the CIEE program that is unhappy about either the host family or the dormitory thus far.

Personally, I am in love with the location of my home. There is a small shopping street on the way from my station, including Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, and many other Japanese restaurants and shops. In addition, I found a germ when I coincidentally looked out from the window during my train ride home. I saw something that looks so much like my current Facebook's cover photo that I got from Google. I was shocked at first, but suddenly I realized that it is really the the Meguro River- one of the most famous Sakura viewing spots in Japan, which is only two stops away from my station. I was more than escalated.

Luckily enough, I came to Japan just in time for the Sakura season. Naturally, I made a trip there with a few friends. The Meguro River was extremely packed, but I still got a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Sakura. Furthermore, I used to go to festivals when I was living in Vietnam at a young age. To me, it felt exceptionally nostalgic especially with all the festival food stands. I spent most of the time there trying several types of festival food because to be honest, who wouldn't do that? I did not think that it would be possible to experience all sorts of feeling at once, but I no longer surprise that to me,  anything is possible in Japan.

Wherever I go, a mixture of traditional and modern beauty always blends in so perfectly. Even though it has only been more than a week, living in Japan has helped me mature. Despite the fact that many people  tend to focus on their electronic devices at all time, I have learned to appreciate my surrounding more, take a deep breath and enjoy whatever is in front of me. The reason being I do not want to miss any of the precious moments of living in Japan. I am sure that this will be the once in a lifetime chance for me to live my dream to the fullest. From a flowing Sakura petal, to a rush of people crossing at the intersection; I found beauty in all of that including a fusion of amazement and fascination.

Even though the Sakura season has more or less subdued to the windy and rainy days, but somehow, the Sakura in my heart has bloomed. I have become much more comfortable and optimistic despite the culture difference and the language barrier. I am determined to do my best in order to get fluent in Japanese and to be completely immersed into the culture. That is my way of living the moment here in Japan, and that is the encouragement I get when the Sakura in me blooms. 

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- Festival food- お団子(odango)

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- Festival food stands

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- The Meguro River through my lenses 

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- The Meguro River through my lenses