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5 posts from October 2015

10/19/2015

Discovering My New Community: School in Japan

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The weekend before my first day of classes, I had the opportunity to go to my host sister’s school festival. I slid my feet into a pair of forest green slippers, tucked my shoes in a small plastic bag, and shuffled in behind my host father. My host sister was about to play french horn in the brass band’s welcome performance in collaboration with the dance club. An upbeat tune filled the air as girls with matching pigtails and colorful tshirts danced around exciting the crowd. Students, family, and friends swayed side to side while clapping along to the beat, acting as a natural metronome. I joined in without hesitation. However, to my surprise, I discovered the musicians still guide the audience in clapping along even in a more formal concert performance. Japan is a group oriented culture, so I interpreted the audience participation as a way of integrating the community. Over the two days of the school festival, I attended four brass band performances -- each with different members, location, and duration of play. All were reminiscent of my brother’s numerous concerts growing up. Music is a universal form of expression which brings people together, so the familiarity was heartwarming and instantly comforting.

We explored everything the four floors had to offer while weaving through groups of giddy girls ranging from preschool to high school. The photo club covered the classroom walls with images depicting everyday life in Tokyo, reminding me of my first exploration of photography in an academic setting in high school. In contrast, the ikebana (flower arrangement) room had a minimalist aesthetic, filled with fresh flowers my mom and grandmother would love. From the windows of the fourth floor we watched the shodo (calligraphy) performance as my host mother exclaimed, jouzu!, or suteki!, in praise of the students’ skill and beautiful work after the completion of each scroll. We also visited the sadoubu (tea ceremony club), where girls were dressed in gorgeous, colorful kimonos as they elegantly carried out this traditional Japanese practice. The red bean mochi (sticky rice cake) and matcha (powdered green tea) were just as pretty as they were delicious. Unfortunately (and fortunately), my attempt to sit seiza (kneeling with the tops of the feet flat on the floor while sitting on the soles) for the entirety of the ceremony was interrupted when I was kindly presented with a small stool to sit upon for my comfort.

What I found most impressive, however, was a design course called Ad School. Students split into groups and worked to design and produce a commercial for Area Benesse (an educational assistance service) with the guidance of a professional, which would then be shown to employees of Benesse and Dentsu (an international advertising and public relations company). On the second day of the festival, the four groups gathered in the auditorium to see who would be announced the winner. There were three awards: Most Popular (determined by votes during the first day of the school festival), the Dentsu Creative Award (which my host sister’s group won!), and the award for the winner as deemed by Benesse. At the end a panel gave feedback and a lot of constructive criticism to the students. I was delightfully surprised by the extent of the students’ success after all their hard work and dedication. It reminded me to uphold the concept of ganbaru, which is deeply rooted in Japanese society, as I start my own schooling. While this directly translates as “to do one’s best,” it more importantly evokes the idea of persevering until the very end, and additionally its sentiment of determination translates beyond the individual to the community as a whole.  

Excited to finally start school myself, I walked from Yotsuya Station towards the main gate of Sophia University. Around me was a sea of black haired students congregating, happy to see each other after summer break. The majority of girls around me were dolled up in full face makeup and heels -- a stark contrast to myself who sports merely winged eyeliner and Birkenstocks, or combat boots. Although I was overwhelmed by the amount of fast-paced, casual Japanese spoken around me, it mentally prepared me for my first class: Japanese. Finding this classroom wasn’t a problem, however maneuvering the elevators was difficult. Not only because you cram as many people (and their backpacks) in as possible, but because the doors close so quickly. I’ve already lost track of the number of times the metal doors have sandwiched me within a few seconds of stepping in the crowded box. Navigating campus itself was easy since Sophia is a relatively small school with around 12,000 undergraduate students. However, the organization of the courses was rather confusing the first week. At Sophia there’s no capacity for class size, which is convenient since you’re guaranteed registration for all your desired classes. Unfortunately, in order to fit all the students, the classroom is subject to change at any time, so it’s important to keep track of your classroom listings on Sophia’s bulletin board.  

This semester I’m taking a Japanese language course, Gender in Japanese Visual Culture, Japanese Religions, and an Introduction to Linguistics course which looks specifically at English and Japanese. My language class has international students from America, Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Jordan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This wide range creates a rich context for the discussion of cultural differences in our home countries as we learn social norms and customs in Japan. Thus far, all of my time in Tokyo has been a learning opportunity. Navigating unfamiliar spaces, breaking through language barriers, and discerning differences in a foreign land is not an easy task. Just remember -- there’s people in the same boat as you eager to embrace these waves.

10/18/2015

Hanabi!

Everyone loves a good fireworks show - They're bright, colorful, absolutely beautiful, and if you're a hopeless romantic like me, then you can even call them "Magical".

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This past weekend, my friends and I - The usual band of international and local misfits - jumped on the train and rode a good 2-3 hours out to Tsuchiura, outside of Tokyo, to witness one of the last fireworks display of the year.

Note: "Tsuchiura is a city located in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. It is situated along the western shores of Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan." (WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE)

It's quite common to see fireworks in Japan up until the end of summer. But because this was happening in the beginning of October, it registered in my mind as a "Once in a Lifetime" opportunity.

The trip itself was inexpensive - only about 3000 yen, approx 30.00 USD, for the round trip. Admission itself was free. The event wasn't a festival though, rather a competition in a 3 hour long show of fireworks and music. But with the amount of people that attended, and all of the shops and vendors that were set up, you would have thought that everyone was swarming the town in celebration of something.

Once we exited the train station, we took a bus out to the location. So many people flooded the main street that led into the fields. Along either sides of the streets were food and toy vendors. There was so much good, traditional foods that we all indulged in! Dango. Taiyaki. Takoyaki. Okinomoyaki. It took me all day to learn how to properly say "Okinomiyaki".

Now, let me give you an idea about the group we went with. Imagine 14 very different individuals all together in a single group. There are about 6 international students, 4 post-undergrads, two of them being former international students, two of them Japanese locals, and four others who range in age from mid 20s to mid 40s. You are only familiar with the younger of the 6, but the others you have seen and talked with many times before so they're not strangers. But still, you're wondering how this day is going to go because you are so used to going on such adventures with your close friends back home. I'll tell you right now that it was incredible!

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The greatest part about the Hanabi competition wasn't the fireworks as one would assume. Instead, it was the fact that I was able to go out so far from Tokyo with an amazing and diverse group of people. Together, we laughed, practiced our Japanese, talked with locals, navigated the area that was new to most of us, (the eldest of the group were well equipped for the adventure), shared our delicious meals, got to know one another; we bonded! I can't remember the last time I ever experienced something like that. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the day, maybe it was the great weather, but something sparked with that amazing group of 14.

So, by the time 5pm hits, we are all settled in our spot in the fields. By the way, these are no ordinary fields - they're muddy and bumpy and definitely not what I was expecting. But, as mentioned earlier, the eldest of the group were well equipped for the venture. They had tarps ready for everyone to sit on. Additionally, they brought plastic bags to put our stuff in so nothing would get dirty and so we would have a place to put our trash. How great are these guys? We even wound up nicknaming the eldest and second eldest "Otou-san" (meaning father) and "Oji-san" (meaning uncle).

Now for the show itself: The sun is setting and the sky starts to darken to a deep indigo, then bam! Bright golden flares shoot up and crash into the sky, only to twinkle down and rain over everyone like a shower of fallen stars. Over and over again we were left in awe at the incredulous display of prismatic luminosity. The shapes they took, the synchronism with the music - you don't see anything like this during the fourth of July.

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Definitely the best part of my trip so far.

A Caution to anyone who reads this and decides to go see Hanabi in Japan - be prepared for the ridiculous amount of people all pushing and shoving their way into train stations immediately after the show has ended! As amazing as that night was, the trip back was unbelievable. Because of the crowds that all swarmed back to the train station all at once, the station officers had to seal off every exit and let groups in one entrance at a time! It was the perfect display of chaotic efficiency if I ever did see it.

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We reached home safely three hours later. Still the best experience yet. 

Silver Week in Shinjuku

Silver Week (シルバーウィーク Shirubā Wīku) - a string of consecutive holidays in September; more specifically, the string of three Japanese public holidays that followed the weekend.

All of Japan rose up in celebration, especially Tokyo - how lucky could we get?

As fresh new foreign faces to the country, Silver Week was not something any of us were well aware of. I remember a friend, a Japanese local, telling me a bit about it earlier. But it hadn't quite dawned on me, or my friends, until we got off the train in Shinjuku station just how big of a celebration it was.

Just to note, the combining holidays that followed the weekend were "Respect for the Aged Day" (occurs the third Monday of September and, in this case, fell on 9/21), "Autumnal Equinox Day" (9/23), and "Kokumin No Kyujitsu"( Citizens' Holiday - By Japanese law, if there is only one non-holiday in between two public holidays, that day should become an additional holiday, known as a Kokumin no kyūjitsu.) WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE

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Anywho, it was Sunday, September 20th and Shinjuku was packed with locals and tourists, literally flooding the streets! There were a lot of food stalls set up that range from soba-noodles to chicken skewers - I even found an Indian stall where they had Samosas! There were a few other streets blocked off for shopping and food, and I don't think it was limited to Shinjuku either. But because Shinjuku is a pretty busy district, it's great for drawing customers in.

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In order: Nikita, Julie, and Jasmine (Me!)

This was a fabulous opportunity for us to really start practicing our Japanese with the locals. Because we couldn't read the menu, we had to ask them what it was that they were selling. So, we continuously said, "tori niku ga arimasuka" (do you have chicken?), "kore wa nan desuka" (what is this?) and "ikura desuka" (how much does it cost?) and so forth. Language barriers are usually intimidating, but the merchants really appreciated the fact that we tried to speak Japanese - it made the interaction a lot more fun and relaxed.

 Now, I went on this little adventure with other CIEE students with the sole intention of just finding lunch in the middle of a street fair. Boy did we get more than what we bargained for.

After our lunch, we wound up getting a front-row seat to the parade that came through immediately after. So, not only did we come on a good day, we came at the perfect time! Dozens of locals crossed through the streets of Shinjuku, dressed in parade-clothing called はっぴ, pronounced "happi"  while piloting floats and chanting through the streets. I'm sorry to say that I could not quite figure out why the parade was going on except for the fact that it was in celebration of the holiday season. Nevertheless, it was still really fun to watch! ''

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After that, we wound up finding a stage with live music going on.

OK - I'm am one of those peoples who believe 100% that music is something that you can love and appreciate even without understanding the lyrics. This experience was no different.

I was overwhelmed with childish joy as the lead musician sang with an energy that absolutely captivated everyone. You should have seen him, jumping up and down while singing the chorus, blowing into his harmonica and strumming on his guitar  - a real "GENKI" moment.

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(Genki meaning energetic in this case). We also got to a see a second act, a female singer who was performing a tribute to a rather old, yet well-known-to-the-locals, song. Don't ask me what it was because I really can't remember any of the lyrics, but again, it was just so wonderful to be part of it. On some level, it felt like I was back home - I didn't feel like I had to worry about being a foreigner in the middle of a local practice. I felt welcomed and was able to enjoy the festivities because I really appreciate the culture. In the end, that's what it should be about, don't you agree?

Looming Culture Shock

Looming Culture Shock

The past three weeks have demonstrated to me that even the most put-together person can be completely disarmed and left vulnerable by what is known as "Culture Shock" - This is something that happens when you are realize that your culture, your way of doing things, is suddenly no longer the normal way due to the new environment you now find yourself in. As a result, it's necessary to adjust.

Like almost every other person in the CIEE program, I originally thought I was ready to handle whatever was going to be thrown at me the minute I stepped foot onto Japanese soil. I had my goals in mind, I was eager to start school, ready to explore, and so very willing to just immerse myself in the culture and learn as much as possible about this wondrous country. Culture Shock never even registered in my mind as a something that I would struggle with so much.  In this case, all of my planning and preparation should have been categorized as "Easier said than done".

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Shibuya Crossing Chaos

 

I wound up dumb-struck and left in awe at Tokyo's fast-paced society. Even now, sometimes it feels like if I'm not walking like a New Yorker - quick and with gut-determination rooted in every step - then I will be bumped, shoved, and trampled. It's such a commuter-city! Trying to  keep up with the crowds in the train station proved to  be very difficult at first. The crowds all seem to move in waves, especially around the major cities, and trains can get so packed during rush hours that the station officers may even resort to cramming them in all at once - though I haven't had that happen to me, yet - the train schedule is actually very efficient. Oh, and there are even designated female-only cars during those peak hours! How's that for safety?

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The next thing on the Culture Shock menu was adjusting to the difference in food and diet. Cooking dinner for myself was intended to be an easy task, except for the fact that I had no idea what to buy and where to buy it. I had to use the power of Google in order to research some of the brands that I ought to buy. It took me several days to become a decent food shopper, but in that time this is what I learned: Because so much is locally grown here in Japan, it's really inexpensive to buy fruits and vegetables at smaller, local markets, as opposed to the larger grocery stores we are all probably used to back home! And it's only 10 minutes walking distance - everything is meant to be convenient here because of the way the society works. Even convenient stores here carry much more than sodas and snacks. You could literally do all of your grocery shopping at a 7/11 here. This is Culture Shock at its finest - rendering me incapable of providing for myself because I can't properly read the labels on the packages. It takes some getting used to, and a lot of Kanji memorization.

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My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

 

The first night, I remember trying desperately to order dinner, only to fail miserably because I couldn't read the menu. A couple of the dorm students paired up with the locals who also live in the building and wound up going out for ramen. I don't eat beef, so I had to keep asking "Toriniku? Toriniku?" Meaning "Chicken? Chicken?" If it weren't for the locals, we would have had so much more of an issue trying to order noodles than a Japan-born two-year-old!

Nonetheless, I was not shy about going out for dinner. If you know where to go, you can actually get a whole meal for under 500 yen, (approx. 4.50 USD). And if you want a taste of something traditional and inexpensive, an Izakaya is your best option. It's a small eating establishments that specialize in serving meat and drinks . While the prices can skyrocket, depending on what you order and whether or not there's a seating charge, there are inexpensive izakayas that tend to serve a lot of traditional snacks and skewers that make up a great meal among friends. Every single time, the atmosphere was fun and relaxed, the food great, and the bonding moments absolutely precious. It's funny to think that we don't have anything like that in the states - chain restaurants, sure. But inexpensive sit-downs that border between a pub and restaurant, no.  

Another thing about Tokyo,  Japan, that I find quite different from America are the amount of game centers here! I was talking with a new friend of mind, a Japanese local who had been showing me around town at the time. She called the centers "Pachinkos" and I had no idea what that was, until she started explaining about the games and slot machines. Originally, I thought about an arcade, but it's actually something else entirely.

I wound up learning that Pachinkos are slot machine parlors. Here, the idea of the game is to put little silver balls into the machine and try to win more silver balls by getting them to fall in certain places in the machine, which can then be exchanged for prizes.

However, there are several dozen arcades here in Tokyo that seem to be a popular past time for the locals. Back in the states, it's very rare to try and find game centers now-a-days because Americans make no time for it anymore. Therefore, they wound up shutting down. Similarly, to go to a place in America with slot machines would mean that you would be going to a casino to gamble, and there aren't nearly as many in one state as there are in all of Tokyo, (in my personal opinion, that is.)

Pachinkos and Arcades here though are always crammed pack with people, from teens to elder parents, I've seen them all! Perhaps it's their version of de-stressing from the day, or their own way to bring their inner child to the forefront for a good hour or so, but whatever the case may be, it was all too amazing just to see that video-game culture thriving in the most vintage of all tech-oriented establishments.

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My friends and I were about to go hard-core on Mario-Kart

Honestly, I can go on and on about the differences between my hometown and Japan, but that's not the point of this post. Instead, the point is for me to convey to you how taken aback I was by both the amazing and the frustratingly difficult. It has been no walk in the park, even now 3-weeks in.  I guess when it comes to culture shock, you never know what's going to be the next big difference that you are going to have to adapt to, but adaptability is the key! If not, then you will suffer and loathe your time abroad. It's one thing to know that you are going to have to make some changes in your daily routine, it's another to actually follow through. Nevertheless, bit by bit, I am adjusting and learning as I go - I look forward to what the rest of the semester has in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Box: My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

10/17/2015

Tokyo, Trains, and Taking Risks: My First Few Weeks as a Study Abroad Student

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After last minute preparations, hard goodbyes, and a 13 hour plane ride I've finally made it. The Land of the Rising Sun -- a land not quite as foreign as it was four years ago. Although my body traveled 14 hours into the future, my mind is still stuck in limbo and reality has yet to hit me. I'm in Japan. I'm constantly flipping between a mix of excitement, nervousness, and some sadness as if my emotions are TV shows not interesting enough to stick with for more than a minute or two. Luckily, navigating Narita Airport came naturally as I meandered through immigrations, baggage claim, and customs -- at least until I struggled pushing my cart back and forth across the airport in a frogger-like fashion to retrieve my pocket Wi-Fi and meet the CIEE staff. 

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Fast forward -- I've now spent three full days in Japan and am exhausted. It’s not jet lag so much as sensory overload. After welcoming us at the official program opening meeting, we took a bus to Naritasan Temple and roamed freely. We got our おみくじ (paper fortune) and I received bad luck. Under travel it read: "Be cautious as things will not go smoothly." This is not what you want to hear after traveling across the globe. 

At 13:00 (I'm still adjusting to 24 hour time schedules) we drove from Narita to Tokyo eager to see campus for the first time. During my homestay orientation I felt confident -- I've already done two homestays in Japan so I knew the basics of what to expect. However, about 10 minutes before we met our host families, my nerves got the best of me and my heart was racing. I've forgotten all my Japanese. Up to this point everything was conducted in English, so aside from the short conversations I had at the airport I'd only uttered はい (yes)、ありがとうございます (thank you)、and よろしくお願いします(please treat me well) as necessary. Mama-san greeted me with a bright smile while apologizing for her little knowledge of English. Without missing a beat, I automatically responded in Japanese reassuring her it's totally fine then quickly added「すみません夏休みがありましたから日本語がちょっと忘れてしまいました。」Oh. It's totally fine. We both laughed and left to find the train station.

I wish I had a picture to show how crowded Tokyo trains are, but I could not even raise my arms to take one. It was that crowded. Let me describe my route to school: Walk 15 minutes to Shin-Urayasu Station. Take the JR Keiyo Line and become familiar with people flush against every aspect of your body. Transfer at Shinkiba Station to the Tokyo Metro Yurakucho Line. Sit down and take a nap. Or study 'cause I mean that's why you're here anyway right? Transfer again at Nagatacho Station to the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line. Don't get too comfortable (you can't anyway -- you're most likely pressed against the door) because you get off at the next stop. Arrive at Yotsuya Station and walk to Sophia University. Got it? Good, hopefully I do too. Although everything is exceptionally orderly when entering/exiting on the platforms, anything goes once you're released in the stations. Everyone scatters like ants and beelines to their respective destinations. There's still a flow of traffic and if you disrupt that you hinder not only those immediately surrounding you, but practically everyone moving at the time. An excellent example of why I say you should go with the flow.

Takeaway of the day: Fight the annoying voice in the back of your head telling you to not make a fool of yourself. Make mistakes and learn from your experiences.