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16 posts from May 2016

05/11/2016

Yokohama/Golden Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroshima/Miyajima

“Not too deep.-- People who comprehend a thing to its very depths rarely stay faithful to it forever. For they have brought its depths into the light of day: and in the depths there is always much that is unpleasant to see.”

            ---Friedrich Nietzsche from Human, all too Human

“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”

            ---Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

 

            The name Hiroshima carries a heavy connotation. It is difficult to discern one’s feelings when one visits the museums and sites in a city that has risen so far from its own ashes. I feel guilt, but not an exclusively American guilt. That guilt may have been for a different generation at a different time. My feelings now seem to transcend the mere history, being so far removed from the past, but at the same time are unable to reconcile with the history that so concretely took place.

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            From the moment I’d heard about the program trip to Hiroshima there was the thought that it was an intentional tearjerker. If there was humor around that fact it was because truth is discomforting. Knowing ahead of time what we’d confront gave off a strange anticipatory feeling, as though I could not really process the atomic bombing until I was there. I kept thinking that it shouldn’t make a difference whether here or there, but it does.

            Up until then the trip was an exciting opportunity to get out of Tokyo (for free). I looked forward most to riding the Shinkansen, a train of mythic engineering to the rest of the world. I wanted to see the Japanese countryside. Everyone was in high spirits. So much so that at one point we all needed a stern Japanese shushing.

            I found it difficult to talk about the bombing. I was less at a loss for words than at a loss for subject. In truth, the topic is inexhaustible. There is the history of building the bomb, the political theories, the statistics, the effects on medicine and science, and the individual and ongoing stories of hundreds of thousands. But somehow I didn’t think that was talking about the bomb, but talking around it.

            Not to say that any of the above topics should not be discussed. On the contrary it would be an injustice to not. The Japanese seem to focus their talk on the people, not the bomb, which I endlessly respect. There is a brave sense of acceptance in that stance.

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            What I may mean, as I’m unsure, when I feel talk may be around the bomb, is that it is hard to understand such magnitude without abstracting the reality in some way. Debating the politics or shocking a listener with staggering statistics seems to detract from the reality. To me it interferes with picturing the day when hell opened up onto the earth. But I don’t know how to talk about that. It leaves me silent, what this bomb was.

            The more I searched the more I found my guilt to be deeper, perhaps predating the bomb, beyond the responsibility of any nation, but some innate human characteristic that leads us to need bombs, to need guns, swords, and clubs. The bomb became to me the scientific pinnacle of Original Sin, the Fall renewed with the descent of all humanity’s potential directed in a steel tube. I’ve never been religious, but I don’t shirk the potency of people’s attempts to explain themselves through metaphor. The bomb seemed in line with symbolism long established. But this is still an abstraction of what was, is. By looking at the bomb this way I felt more oriented in the world that let it drop. My guilt comes from the responsibility of participating in that world, the only one I have.

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            No matter how I try I cannot place myself in the true reality, see the faces and relate to the terror. I cannot reconcile how this city and that reality are one in the same separated by less than a century. I cannot quite get to the center of the matter, or if I have, I’m not equipped with the knowledge to talk about it.

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            It is then tough to say that the next day I went to Miyajima and had a great time with the rest of the students on the program. But I did. I pet the roaming deer, wandered through souvenir shops, went up the mountain and saw wide across the Pacific horizon. It was the first forest I’d been able to wander through in ever more modernizing Japan. The island is almost untouched, culturally preserved I am told. The forest only knows conflict that is basic to life, not the organization that led to the bomb. I worried that I was simply vapid for having the good time I was having, that I shouldn’t let off the pressure that I’d felt the day before. That I should contemplate my silence more to think of something meaningful to say. But perhaps this is not the right approach to the past, to living beyond the past. Finding something to say may not always be meaningful, and being silent in the face of speechlessness may not preserve or prove anything. There is little else to do other than live. If one listens, one will find that no forest is silent.

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A First Month’s Reflections

            Just about everyone has asked me why I came to Japan. It is a big topic when getting acquainted with new people who have come for their own reasons. I’ve found the question a tough one, largely because I have no reason.

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            I got my first passport to come to Japan. The farthest I’d been from my home New Jersey was still within the States. I’ve only ever been a tourist in anime and I’m less into videogames now than I’ve ever been. I knew next to nothing about the culture and language, and traveling to the other side of the world came as a last minute decision. As many intending abroad students see Japan as off the beaten path, a reason is near required to travel here as opposed to more popular destinations. When I’m asked what about Japan drew me, I feel always disappoint. I can only say that it was a raw sense of adventure, the unknown, and (very important) credit approval.

            But I’m here, and not here alone. Home does not feel so far away when your significant other (who appears in most of the photos) is beside you. I find myself better understanding Japan through swapping our observations, knowing each other well enough to get as close to the bottom of something as we can in a space that couldn’t be safer.

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            That said, I still am far from gaining access to the deeper cultural nuances of the Japanese. I’ve tracked my feelings for the first six weeks or so. There was the literal shock of the first week, where I was presented with a functioning people so far from anything I could have imagined that I could only laugh nervously at my own aloof gawkiness. At the same time, I felt very anonymous. Though I’m an inept traveler over six feet, ironically I felt that because I could not communicate with the people around me whose backgrounds were so different, if I could manage to not get in their way it would be as though I didn’t exist in their world. I’d be free to observe the things these people do that would be seen as strange back home. The strangeness fulfilled an exotic kick some westerners might expect. But the kick wears off fast. So does the sense of strangeness, replaced by difference with reason.

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            The longer I stayed the more I wanted to piece together a larger picture. I’d take what I saw to be general attitudes and try to put all my observations in place. What I found were endless paradoxes that humbled my speculative reasoning. The paradoxes were large and small. If trash is so rigorously sorted, why does everything have so much packaging? Isn’t the convenience of vending machines thwarted by the taboo against drinking/eating on the go? How can a relatively conservative attitude be compatible with the casual availability of elicit magazines in convenience stores? Stigmas are placed and lifted in areas far different than the U.S. Opposite approaches to my norms kept presenting themselves.

            Before long my illusion of anonymity wore off as well. Once one begins to learn one wants to look in the know. I began to enter the Japanese world. I could pick up on spoken words, see when someone in a hurry became frustrated with someone in the train station, notice when someone trespassed on cultural no-no’s to the silent glares of an entire train car. I could see how good form meant being considerate, good taste meant being trim, quiet, subtle, clean. I began to see which consumer goods were popular and why. An attitude materialized to me, the value of everyone getting to their proper place together under the same system, rather than getting myself where I needed to be under my own system. One begins to get the feeling that if one puts in the effort one will be taken care of. If it can be said that cultures at large rely on common assumptions between people, it’s that agreement on effort that to me seems the most precarious, but also the most beautiful. And it works. I’ve often marveled at the Tokyo skyline, thought of all that is contained within, and think only a certain brand of community could pull this off.

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            I wouldn’t say that I’ve been searching for my reason of why I came to Japan. I think the reason is unfolding before me the longer I am here, but I couldn’t identify what exactly unfolds. At times I still laugh at my own aloofness, wondering what business I have being here while life at home rambles on without missing a beat. It doesn’t worry me. I’m having too good a time. For someone who has often pressed themselves too hard for a reason, I think a good time is reason enough. But there’s more to it than that. I’ll be lucky if time allows me to put words to that something more.

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05/10/2016

A Landscape of Sculpture: Sapporo's Moerenuma Park

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  There is nothing like the feeling of being made small. Hokkaido’s vast natural landscape and huge mountains can surely make you feel tiny, but there is also a human-made place right outside Sapporo that instills that same sense of awe. Moerenuma Park, open all-year round, is a massive expanse on the outskirts of Sapporo. Famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the park, which started being built in 1982. It wasn’t until 2005 that the park had its grand opening, but is easy to see why it took so long to create. Everything about the park is huge. The park is a great exhibition of Noguchi, a hugely influential artist and landscape architect. This park was his final project, as he finished designing it shortly before he died. It is quite the legacy.

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              Noguchi’s installations run from the size of small buildings to as big as the landscape itself, with geometric pyramids and hills scattered through the grounds. The whole place is wonderfully odd and impressive all at once. The geometric shapes seem completely inorganic, yet were designed to be completely environmentally friendly. Apparently the area was converted from a waste treatment plant into the beautiful place it is today. Even the air-conditioning system of the onsite Glass Pyramid museum uses green energy to run. And the Glass Pyramid is beautiful. Inside are several rotating exhibition galleries, a gift shop, a café, and a viewing platform high up. The area is cleverly designed to be a great place for people to gather and relax. Sometimes they even hold small concerts inside, often featuring local artists. Besides the sculptures and the museum, the park also contains a track and a full-sized baseball triangle for the public to enjoy.

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              The park is open for the whole year, but each season is quite different. I visited this spring and it was beautiful and, even though it wasn’t very warm yet, there were many people outside taking walks, having picnics, practicing sports, walking their dogs, and more (even someone having a wedding photoshoot!). During the summer the giant fountain in the center has wading pools for everyone to enjoy and winter is especially known for cross-country skiing and sledding. The park is full of many paths through small, cultivated forests where you can see the cherry blossoms in the spring, which is quite beautiful. Everything is placed with a geometric vision in mind, and even just walking through the open areas gives your eyes a lot to take in.

              If you want to visit the park, it’s open every day from 7 AM to 10 PM, and admission is completely free. Even admission to the galleries inside are free, which is quite nice. Parking is also free, and since the park is right on the edge of Sapporo, it does not take long at all to get to. The park is well worth going to, and having the entire experience for free makes it a real treat. For more information you can visit the official site (http://moerenumapark.jp/english/), and you can also see how the park drastically changes with the seasons. It’s a wonderful place, and if you’re in Sapporo, it warrants at least a few hours of your time.

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Hokkaido Ramen is Famous for a Reason

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Hokkaido is a beautiful and amazing place, but springtime is chilly and wet, and sometimes you just need a pick-me-up. And what’s one of the best ways to do that? A gigantic bowl of steaming, delicious ramen. Sapporo is famous for its ramen for a reason, so I went to check it out. In fact, there is a whole street dedicated to the noodles called “Ramen Yokocho.” Not only is this tiny street jam-packed with a variety of ramen stores, this place has been dubbed as the birthplace of miso ramen. No, these shops aren’t modest in their boasting – several of them flaunting signatures of famous visiting celebrities and chefs – but they have a reason to boast. Anthony Bourdaine along with several other prominent chefs have even written books about the place. It may sound like a bit of a tourist trap at first, but you have to know what you’re looking for if you want to find it (easy to do with a map app). Therefore, even though it might be a bit busy, you can still have a great time without wading through huge throngs of tourists.

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Once you head off the Sapporo main streets, Ramen Yokocho is clearly marked with a big yellow sign, so even though it’s narrow, it’s not too hard to find. Inside the alley is a collection of with tons of shops, most displaying different local types of seafood (though one did specialize in just beef and pork, if seafood is not your style). I could only fit one bowl of ramen in my stomach for the night, so I selected a place that specialized in miso ramen with clams. The restaurant’s name is Shimijimi (しみじみ)and it sits about ten people max. And the small size was perfect. Right at the counter you can chat and watch the chef duo whisk, boil, and mix your meal into perfection. Then your beautiful bowl is delivered right in front of you, piping hot and mouthwateringly delicious.

Each bowl comes with spring onions and mushrooms, and almost all of their ramen feature seafood here – and the fresh Hokkaido catch is delicious. You can also add egg and pork if you feel you can fit it all in your stomach. Ordering is simply done from a ticketing machine, though be warned, it is all in Japanese (though if you can’t read, the pictures of all the different bowls are displayed with labels outside). The two chefs were very friendly and totally fine with pictures and questions!

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After enjoying your ramen you can go to the end of the street where a brief history of Ramen Yokocho is posted. Also the location is right in central Sapporo so you can have a nice long walk to work off a warm, bellyful of noodles. The city really comes alive at night, so there is no shortage of things to do. And Sapporo Tower is just a few minutes away by walking, so you can stroll in the park around it as well. If you find yourself in Sapporo, Ramen Yokocho is a fun, cheap, and interesting place to stop by for a wonderful meal.

 

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A Day in Harajuku

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Takeshita Street (source)

A few weeks ago, my friends and I decided to take on Harajuku and spend our Monday off exploring Japan’s fashion central. Harajuku is known for its colorful, lolita fashion and its trendy shops that line the streets. The day started by making the trek from my homestay to the nearest station (which I could probably do blindfolded by now…). The line that always take to Tokyo, Keihin Tohoku, took me to Shinagawa where I transferred to the Yamanote line to complete the trip to Harajuku station.

As soon as I exited Harajuku station, it was very apparent that I was in a very different area from my school. I was facing the entrance to Takeshita street, one of the more touristy spots in Harajuku because of its crepe stands and cute boutiques. There was a woman singing very loudly and dressed quite colorfully right by the entrance to Takeshita street which was quite a sight. Once everyone had arrived we proceeded to Takeshita street and entered the mass of people that were flooding through the various shops. You can find just about any type of fashion here, from cutesy/girly to more trendy street wear in Harajuku which draws in a large variety of people. The group found a Lotteria (common McDonalds-like joint in Asia) for lunch and after we decided to explore the famous Meiji Jinja, or Meiji Shrine.

Like many places in Tokyo, shrines (Shinto) or temples (Buddhist) are near even the busiest shopping areas. The shrine was less than a 10 minute walk from Takeshita street and was free to enter. The shrine was absolutely beautiful and reminded me of walks in the park back home. At the entrance of shrines, there is a torii, or a gate marking the beginning of the shrine complex. Once you pass the torii, the road lined with the most majestic looking trees leads to the shrine itself. Meiji Shrine is named after Emperor Meiji who is enshrined there along with his consort Empress Shoken (more info here).

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Torii at Meiji Jinja (source)

It was very relaxing as we walked through the forested area and it makes you appreciate the nature more after being surrounded by skyscrapers in the city. The main shrine was filled with people coming to pray and watch the monks in the inner shrine quarters perform their rituals and activities. Many people also come to write their wishes on small wooden plaques and hang them up to ensure that their prayers will be answered (I am planning on doing this probably in Kamakura). We spent quite a bit of time roaming around the shrine grounds and then decided to head back towards the main streets, specifically Ometesando.

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Omotesando – window shopping at its finest (source)

This street and surrounding buildings are known the high end shops (more internationally well-known brands like Chanel, All Saints, Opening Ceremony) and big Western retailers like H&M and F21. There are also a handful of shops that are second hand retailers of expensive brands (Goodwill 5.0), like Ragtag Harajuku, which we briefly stopped in to take a look. The prices are marked down (still expensive…) but with very minimal wear n’ tear if any. The group split ways soon after and we headed back to station to take the trains home. Harajuku was amazing and is definitely worth multiple trips!