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3 posts categorized "Gabriela Santiago"

11/24/2015

My Visit to the Ghibli Museum

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Why Japan? -- I'm often asked this question. To be completely honest, I ask myself too. To start, I think the language is beautiful, the harmonious juxtaposition of traditional and modern culture is fascinating, and the Japanese way of thinking is honorable. In Japan, the societal norm is for people to be considerate, respectful, and always try their best for the betterment of others. Also, everyone works together and contributes in some way, so regardless of how busy a place may be it's clean and organized. These are values I hold dearly and believe to be important. Beyond that, I don't have a definitive answer since everyday I'm discovering new aspects of Japanese life which I enjoy. However, I can say that my initial interest in Japanese culture sparked from a young age. It all started with Pokemon. I remember watching the show with my brother, singing the theme song without fail, and running around the playground during recess and after school with my friends imagining we were part of that world. When I was 7, I saw Spirited Away in the theater for my friend's birthday. A tall man sat in front of me partially blocking the subtitles, but within five minutes of the movie I hardly noticed. The stunning animation, and beautiful sound of the music and Japanese language had captivated me. I wanted to fully understand everything behind the movie. As I grew older I continued to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s other movies, and my interest in Japanese culture grew with me. I decided to study Japanese in high school, and often found myself going back and rewatching the Ghibli movies not only for their stories, but to study Japanese as well.

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In the same way a familiar smell provokes memories, each movie conjures moments from my adolescence. As I sauntered into the Ghibli Museum my emotions were flooded with all those memories at once -- it felt like I had entered one of Miyazaki’s curated worlds. Delicately detailed stained glass depictions of various characters from movies covered the ceiling of the entryway, and the rooms of the three floors were full of glimpses behind the scenes of the long animation process. The right side of the first floor showcased various processes in which paintings, drawings, and figures were manipulated to create the moving animations. The left side included a small theater showing short films exclusive to the museum (bonus: the theater tickets were three frames from a random Miyazaki movie film strip). A compact caged spiral staircase led up to the second floor which demonstrated the indescribable amount of hard work put into even just a few second-long clip. In addition, the fluffy cat bus from My Neighbor Totoro and one of the robot soldiers from Laputa: Castle in the Sky were stationed on the third floor and roof respectively.

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A few days before visiting the museum, a few of us watched a documentary titled The One Who Painted Totoro’s Forest at the CIEE Study Center, which focused on Kazuo Oga’s background art for Miyazaki’s movies. Oga’s workload was high and he was used to quickly painting only the necessary details to understand the scene in previous works. Of course there's nothing wrong with this -- often times less is more. However, part of what makes Miyazaki's movies so remarkable is the amount of detail put into each scene. Miyazaki preferred everything to be hand drawn rather than use computer generated imagery. Oga submitted what he thought would be sufficient, and was taken aback when Miyazaki said, this is the best you can do? Miyazaki asked him to pay special attention to the nature which would be present in the area and time period of the background scenes. Oga took the request to heart and his results were amazing. Background art is usually disposed of after it’s been used in the animation process, however Oga saved a few for himself, and many were preserved and displayed in the Ghibli Museum as well.

The spirit behind Oga and Miyazaki’s collaboration to push their limits and create something beyond expectations is an aspect of Japanese culture I truly admire. There may be times when we want to cut corners in art, and in life in general, however it’s the often overlooked details which hold the greatest significance.

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.

10/17/2015

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.