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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".


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?


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.


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.


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


Japanese Festivals: Celebrating Culture and Community

Japan has a lot of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout almost every city. Besides famous temples and shrines in Kamakura, Harujuku, Nara, etc., you may inadvertently walk by one of the smaller local shrines or temples while you're out exploring. If you do, you can stop to draw your fortune or ring the bell. They are great places to spend a quiet afternoon reading or meditating, and they often have beautiful parks or gardens where people come to relax.  

Exploring a temple near campus in Asakusa with a fellow CIEE student

Also, since Japan has many holidays, you may run in to a festival at your local shrine or temple. Some of the festivals include ceremonies in which members of the community carry portable shrines (called mikoshi), or push or pull large festival cartsthroughout the surrounding area. You may see one of these ceremonies while out and about; I've seen it in Harujuku, Shibuya, and by my homestay. If you run into a full-blown festival, though, take the time to stop and look around. It some-what resembles a county fair in America with the various food stands, music performances, and massive crowds of people, but it definitely has a very unique feel that you should experience at least once. 

Festival Cart at the Chichibu Winter Festival

I have accidentally run into several festivals in the three months I've been here. One day I was walking home from the train station and heard loud rock music a few blocks away from my homestay apartment. Later that night my host dad invited me to go to the festival with him. "What festival?" I asked. It turned out the loud rock music I heard on my way home was actually a festival held annually by the local temple. There were stands with great food, games for the kids, and a stage where a famous retired rock guitarist was playing. They even had enormous heaters around the seating area to keep people warm. It was a really fun surprise just down the street.

Just a few weeks ago a Japanese friend invited another CIEE student and I to go see fireworks somewhere down the Seibu subway line. We weren't really sure about the details, but we decided to go. It turned out to be the Chichibu Winter Festival, which is a famous festival that people from all over Japan will travel to see each year. It happens on December 3, and for 3 hours there is on-and-off fireworks, great street food, lots of people, and 6 massive festival carts that different groups of local men pull throughout the city. It's like an American county fair mixed with a parade mixed with the 4th of July. It was a great surprise to be there, and both my CIEE friend and I really enjoyed it. It was really cold out that night, but the warm street food like local style udon and fried beef on a stick helped a lot. It was also really fun to spend the night practicing Japanese with our friend and feeling like a local as we blended with the crowd.

Fireworks at the Chichibu Winter Festival

Festivals are a great way to mix with locals and to enjoy local food and culture. While you're here in Japan, I recommend visiting many of the different shrines and temples you find in Tokyo and elsewhere, and try to attend a festival at least once! They happen often, and you might just run into one, so join in and have fun! 


Everything Disney

Knowing that my time is counting down, I immediately bought my boyfriend and me tickets to Tokyo DisneySea. The fact that the ticket was discounted was the icing on the cake. I was really scared that our trip to the Place Where Dreams are Made might be on a rainy day since the rainy season started a week before; luckily, the weather channel correctly predicted that the clouds would part and turn beautiful and sunny. For those wanting to go to DisneySea, buy the tickets when the rainy season begins!


DisneySea has eight attractions, which in turn has numerous entertainments in each of them. The first attraction we tackled was the American Waterfront. Since we were getting our “sea legs” ready, we fumbled a bit. We received our fast passes for the Tower of Terror but we went from one ride to another simply because it had a long line; we did not realize that every line would be long! We did not look at the waiting time estimate so we wasted about an hour going from one ride to another, hoping the line was shorter.

Finally, we became true “sea voyagers” at the Lost River Delta. Since we were walking around so much, we passed the time needed to receive our next fast pass. We decided to “fast pass” Raging Spirits and wait in line for about an hour and a half for Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull, a ride that was about five minutes long. Nonetheless, it was an amazing ride. We followed this pattern of “fast passing” rides, and visiting surrounding rides to pass the time.


Before we knew it, it was lunchtime! Luckily we were at the right place: the Arabian Coast. We ordered curry, rice, nan, white chocolate pudding, and a fruit pudding. After running from ride to ride and waiting for hours, this meal was absolutely filling.


After eating, we used our fast passes and also ran to other rides. Our goal of the day was to ride every ride in the resort. I was really scared we would fail because we arrived at 11am instead of the 9am I wanted. Once the clock hit around 6pm, people started to leave the resort. The sun was setting beautifully and the night shows were beginning. As people were watching the fireworks and shows, my boyfriend and I ran to the rides. With the people gone, we waited at most 30 minutes to ride the popular rides! It was amazing. Another tip for people wanting to go to DisneySea: if you don’t have time, buy afternoon tickets to the resort because the line is much shorter! The afternoon ticket goes from 6pm to 10pm, I believe. My third tip: Disney staff does not push you out of the resort by 10pm even though that is the official closing time.


I spent my entire day in DisneySea, and completed my goal of riding all the rides. The next time I go, I will make sure to watch the shows I missed. I especially want to watch the Little Mermaid musical in Mermaid Lagoon. I left the resort around 10:30pm, wanting to return soon.



    One of my favorite experiences so far has been going to see Sumo at Ryōgoku Kokugikan. Upon stepping out of Ryōgoku Station, you are immediately greeted by large paintings of famous yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) wrestlers with their signature horizontal rope belts. The top ranks after yokozuna are, in descending order, ōzeki, sekiwake, and komusubi. The sumo tournament CIEE took us to was the 11th day of the 2014 May Grand Sumo Tournament, one of the most important sumo tournaments in Japan. The objective of the match is to push your opponent out of the ring or to have them touch the ground with a body part other than their feet. This is usually done in one of two ways; using brute strength against your opponent or by manipulating your opponent’s strength against them. There are often times when a far smaller player defeats a much larger wrestler due to superiority of groundwork and speed.

    First up were the jūryō (second division) matches and then came the makuuchi (first division) matches. The atmosphere inside the arena was incredible. Both the wrestlers and the fans were full of passion for the sport. It seemed that everyone was having a good time. Spectators would scream the names of their favorite wrestlers and shout encouragements during the preparations for each match.

    The most memorable and intense moment was the match between Hakuho, the top ranked yokozuna, and Goeido, a sekiwake. As the best ranked wrestler in the competition, Hakuho was the sure favorite to win the match. Before the match began, various banners were paraded around the arena, each banner signifying sponsorship money the winner of that match would receive. This match had an especially large amount of prize money. After the traditional throwing of salt into the ring, the wrestlers squatted facing each other, poised for battle. However, the match did not begin. In sumo you can only begin the match once both players say they are ready, therefore, there are often instances where a match is about to begin only to have one player stand up and stretch or wash their face. This also serves to increase suspense and hype up the crowd. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only a few minutes, the match began. Typical sumo matches only last a few seconds, and rarely do they ever last more than a few minutes. Preparation usually takes longer than the match itself.

    After an intense few moments filled with scrambling hands and feet and lots of sweaty flesh, Goeido was victorious! The crowd went wild, throwing their zabuton (seat cushions) at the stage and onto the wrestlers! A completely unexpected outcome: the top wrestler defeated by someone two titles lower than him! Although technically prohibited, it is customary for the audience to throw their zabuton whenever a yokozuna sumo wrestler is defeated by an opponent of lower rank.

    The spirit of sumo thoroughly consumed me during the matches that day and I would gladly jump at the opportunity to go see sumo again. Despite the danger in sitting in what I call the “splash zone,” the first few rows in front of the ring, I would gladly risk being crushed by a sumo wrestler thrown out of the ring for a front row view of the action.