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12 posts categorized "Khoi Dao "

06/22/2015

THE BEAUTY OF NATURE IN JAPAN: FIELD OF PINK FLOWERS IN CHICHIBU

In past blog posts, I’ve often enthused about the very admirable unity that exists between urban civilization and nature in Japan. And if that topic hasn’t gotten old to this writer, then it goes to show that natural wonders in this country really are astounding. It really depends on the season, I suppose, and after enjoying all the fall-slash-winter brand of natural wonders in Japan last semester, I feel myself very inspired to report on my personally preferred spring-slash-summer brand of outdoor tourist destinations. This time, I would like to talk about a little daytrip I took to a vast field of pink, purple, and white flowers out in the boonies of Chichibu, Japan.

               There were a few weeks before the rainy season settled in, when Japan enjoyed sunny day after sunny day. It was during one of these days that I was struck with the familiar urge to go do something outside. Usually, I would greet such a feeling with much dread, as back in Los Angeles, all I could find within a drive-able distance on such a day was concrete and more concrete. In Tokyo, however, the internet has thus far revealed to me many great outdoor locations within reasonable distance, including a field of beautiful flowers in Chichibu, just under two-hours away from the city via a limited express train. With little difficulty, I purchased my ticket from the ticket machine at Ikebukuro station, and hopped onto the train with little waiting time in between.

               Chichibu is a quaint little mountainous city in the west of Saitama that doesn’t get to enjoy a lot of visitors all the time, which I think is why so much energy surrounds the train station during the times of year when events are taking place there. I’d arrived too late to catch the bus up the mountain to where the flowers were, but there were plenty of signs in every direction (some in English) to show me the way by foot. Though I did regret having left so late, it was a relief to know that at least, I was going to get to enjoy a marvelous sunset as I walked through the city of Chichibu, even if the park had already closed for the day.

               As I made my way up a hill (where the field of flowers was supposedly located), I encountered more than a few signs in Japanese that said something about the park closing at five o’ clock. I solemnly glanced at my cellphone, saw that it was already a half hour past five, and nearly turned on my heels, when I decided that hey, I might as well just make it to the top. Boy was I not expecting there to still be a crowd of people walking through the field of pink, purple and white when I did reach the top, nor did I expect no one to stop me from walking through the gates – the security guard even waved at me with a smile.

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               Sure, the flowers and sunset were both really pretty, but what really got to me that day was the idea of how accessible nature is in Japan. In spite of it having been past the park’s closing time, visitors were still allowed to enter in light of the beautiful sight that had been spawned from the union of the golden sunset and pink petals. It’s the kind of nationwide appreciation for nature – free of all the artificial “save nature” campaigns which take the magic away – that I haven’t found anywhere else. And it’s an attitude which I will truly miss upon my return to the United States. For now, I’m planning to soak up as much of that Japanese sunshine as possible, before the rainy season hits.

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SEEING SUMO WRESTLING MATCHES LIVE IN JAPAN, UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL

On the topic of Japan’s most iconic indigenous sports, I’m sure many would agree that one is most likely to think of sumo wrestling. For me, just hearing the word brings to mind the image of two gargantuan human beings battling each other upon a clay ring, and since the last time I went to see a sumo wrestling match in Japan, that image has grown extremely clear.

               The first sumo wrestling match I ever saw live was at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, on a CIEE-organized event in December 2014. I remember feeling extremely pleased at the prospect of finally seeing in person something which I had thus far only had a very storybook image of in my head. We were seated on the second level, looking down as pairs of very large men entered and exited the stage. Too preoccupied with excitement, I failed to understand anything about the art of sumo wrestling. My knowledge of sumo wrestling, however, was to become much more profound the next time I were to visit the Ryogoku Kokugikan.

               I had the chance to become acquainted with the mother of one of my friend’s students at the international school where she teaches part-time – turns out, the mother’s what they call an “okamisan,” the master of a “sumo stable.” Indeed, sumo wrestlers train, eat, and are housed in what is called a sumo stable, and I was lucky enough to have met the master of one. Apparently, being the acquaintance of an okamisan comes with a few perks, as I eventually found out when my colleague and I were presented with free front-row tickets to another sumo wrestling match at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

               Here’s how a day of sumo wrestling matches works: The spectator area remains open, meaning you can go in and out whenever you want, thus facilitating the processes of getting a snack or going to the bathroom. Matches are held throughout the day in procession, beginning with the lower-ranking (not-so) small-fry sumo wrestlers. On average, each match lasts just a few seconds, so it’s easy to become familiar with the process after a few matches. A pair of sumo wrestlers enter the ring, and each wrestler bows to the other. Then, each wrestler begins to cycle between the motions of squatting at the starting line, performing a few motions (slapping their bellies, stomping on the ground, etc.), and throwing salt across the ring. Then, the fight begins. It usually only takes two to three seconds for one sumo to ring-out the other. This is a simple enough process, to say the least, and I was able to enjoy the matches my first time at Ryogoku Kokugikan. However, it took the okamisan explaining to me the significance behind these motions for me to really appreciate the art.

               As I watched from one of the front-most sections, the okamisan explained to me that the wrestlers wrestle each other when they feel like it, without exchanging a word. The cycle of motions and throwing salt serve to pump up the Japanese fighting spirit of the wrestlers themselves, as well as to excite the audience. When both wrestlers are ready to take on the other, they will communicate their readiness with a mere look – the referee is just there to make sure they don’t go over the time limit.

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               Apparently, there are both honorable and dishonorable ways for a sumo wrestler to win, and a wrestler is not liked simply for his fighting ability, but also for his “nihonseishin,” or “Japanese spirit.” I remember the okamisan expressing particular distaste for one wrestler who had won by tricking his opponent to come at him, then dodging out of the way.

               Occasionally, a match would be preceded by several people in robes walking onto the circular stage, and circling around the wrestlers whilst holding up flags with advertisements on them. It was a sight I had seen my first time at the stadium, but had yet to understand. The okamisan explained to me that these were sponsors for either one of the sumo wrestlers on stage, and that each flag was worth about six hundred US dollars. The victorious wrestler would be given six hundred dollars for each flag as reward money, a discovery which had me gaping for several minutes straight. Some matches were preceded by about two or three flags, others by over thirty, and most with none at all. I remember counting a total of over thirty flags for the final match, and watching with great envy as the victor left with literal handfuls of money.

               To me, the most interesting part of this experience was seeing how the wrestlers who were popular for their “Japanese spirit” weren’t all Japanese, but mostly Mongolian. There was even one Russian wrestler amongst the top-division sumo who was received with quite an uproar after winning his match. It goes to show that being Japanese isn’t a prerequisite to possessing the moral values which the Japanese people uphold, which gives me hope, as after seeing all those six-hundred-dollar flags, I am currently considering a lucrative career in sumo wrestling.

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HOLDING BABY FOXES IN SENDAI, JAPAN: ZAO FOX VILLAGE

There are 24 hours in a day, right? So an itinerary consisting of 10 hours of travelling – 5 hours there, 5 hours back – plus maybe about 3 hours at the actual destination, not counting meals, should, in theory fit into a single day. This is, of course, if one were to negate the need for sleep and food, the possibility of getting lost, and assume that there would be no school the following day. Well, I am proud to announce that as of the end of May 2015, I have joined the ranks of people crazy enough to undertake such a demanding daytrip. Now, one might begin to ask, “what kind of tourist destination in Japan could possibly warrant exhausting oneself to such a degree?” The answer, in the case of this blog post, would have to be “Zao Fox Village” in Miyagi, Sendai.

               A friend of mine, whose favorite animal is the fox, spends much time on the internet looking up things about foxes. One day, whilst searching for fox-related things to do in Japan, she stumbled upon the website of a fox preservation site up north in the Tohoku region. I consulted my agenda, but it did not seem like we were going to have a good chance to go up there anytime soon, as Golden Week had passed, and there were no three-day weekends in sight. Upon my friend’s fervent urging, however, we eventually made plans to make a daytrip to Sendai. This was our plan, which was to be executed on a Saturday: leave extra early in the morning on a bus, get to Sendai station just before noon, ride down to Shiroishi station, catch a taxi to the fox village, then do the reverse on the way back. Equipped with an artillery of snacks and caffeine, we set off upon this journey.

               After hours of non-stop travelling, we finally reached Zao Fox Village. Around May, the weather starts becoming oppressively hot very fast, so I had preemptively dressed in single-layers. Unfortunately, I had failed to account for the fact that we were going to be at a higher altitude in the north, where the winds blow particularly cold. But once I paid the 1000-yen entrance fee and was brought into the village, the sight of adorable little baby foxes made warmth pour from my heart and flood my body.

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Prior to my departure, I’d seen many mixed reviews regarding Zao Fox Village. A lot of people were reporting how broken-hearted they’d felt to see such cute little foxes locked up in such small cages. Indeed, whilst the entry-area is where baby foxes are kept in cages, one of the village guides explained that it was for their safety as they were being raised, and once they reached adulthood, they would be released into a significantly larger free-roaming enclosure – one which guests were allowed to enter.

               The enclosure is designed to feel exactly like a naturally-occurring forest populated by foxes. Albeit, a forest with signs all over the places warning you against touching the foxes, lest they bite you. My friend had to fight hard to resist the temptation of petting her favorite animal, and was rewarded for her resistance when the staff announced the following: for 300 yen, we would be allowed to hold the baby foxes (which had yet to grow teeth) for as long as we wanted. Now, I feel pretty neutral about foxes, but the moment that baby fox was placed into my hands, my heart melted. At this point, I’m not sure what to say. It was seriously very cute.

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               With that said, one can only imagine the state of senseless bliss my friend must have found herself in. I almost had to drag her out of the village in order to make it back home on time.

               I feel like something such as a “fox preservation site” that is open to tourists would never fly back in the United States due to some inherent “dangers,” so I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have been able to get so physically close to one of nature’s cutest marvels in Japan. Though I probably won’t be undertaking a trip of this scale again, I don’t regret my decision whatsoever, and am glad I made the trip. Now, if only there were a pug preservation site in Japan…

05/15/2015

CONQUERING MT. TAKAO

One of my favorite things about Japan is how the country has taken the effort to preserve its natural heritage. A survey of the country’s geography from a bird’s eye view will reveal that there is just as much green as there is gray, if not more. With the beauty of nature still flourishing throughout the country, taking a daytrip to a mountain, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to spend a weekend in Japan, especially on a sunny day in May. In this blog post, I will be detailing one of the best daytrips I’ve ever had in Japan: my day-long adventure to the summit of Mt. Takao!

Personally, I wouldn’t describe myself as especially outdoorsy, at least, not any more than the regular person; I will say, however, that the sight of the sun illuminating a clear blue sky can be very inspiring! That said, it was at midday on a Saturday, when the sun was at its apex in the cloudless sky, that I decided I wanted to climb something – something forested, preferably at least six hundred meters tall, and nearby. Through the power of the Internet, I learned of Mt. Takao, a popular daytrip destination for many residents of Tokyo. What sold me was the photo of tourists riding on the ski lifts surrounded by nature.

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From Matsudo Station, where my dormitory is located, Takaosanguchi Station is about an hour and forty minutes away if you manage to catch the “Special Semi-Express” Keio Line train once you arrive at Shinjuku Station. If you’re feeling like spending about two hours on a train, though, then there’s also the more-frequent Chuo Rapid line, which stops at Takao Station. As I was leaving at midday, I decided to try my best to catch the faster train, so that I could get there in time to do stuff.

As I exited the station, I spotted a couple of tourists walking with sticks of dango – a Japanese treat made of rice dumplings, covered in a special sauce – and realized that I had neglected to grab lunch. I traced this trail of tourists to a purveyor of dango near the station, and purchased my own stick for 300 yen. I mention this because the lady at the dango stand was telling everyone that whoever returned their finished stick to be properly disposed of would receive 10 yen back. This, I think, fits in with this blog post’s theme of preserving the environment and the beauty of nature

Dango in hand, I made my way up the trail, until I finally found the ski lift station. Intending to ascend the mountain by technology and descend by foot, I purchased a one-way ticket. Naturally, there was a trail where hardcore mountaineers could climb the whole mountain by foot, but alas, I was too well-aware of the limits of my legs’ strength.

It was only when I got to the top third (where the lift drops you off) that I discovered there were a lot of cool things to do other than actually climbing the mountain. In addition to the myriad of food stands selling dango and ice cream, there was a monkey park, where you could see Japanese macaques in enclosures, as well as a botanical garden showing off vegetation indigenous to the station. This was also the day I found out that in spite of being in the higher-intermediate level of Japanese language learning, I didn’t know how to say the word “plant” in Japanese.

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There was so much to see, in fact, that I didn’t get to the top until really late, by which time the lift and cable car services had stopped, and the mountain staff were going around on their motorcycles chasing people off the mountain. Ascending just the top third of the mountain had worn me out, so needless to say, by the time I’d gotten to the bottom, my feet were a mess. I returned to the station and hopped on the train home, exhausted but satisfied. The view which those who reach the top are rewarded with was really marvelous.

Then I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t returned my dango stick, and the thought that the trip could’ve been 10 yen cheaper continues to haunt me to this day. Still, I had a lot of fun, and will definitely be returning to Mt. Takao before my flight home. And I’ll also be sure to return my dango stick for that 10 yen back.

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THE WORLD’S SHORTEST ESCALATOR

I believe there’s a saying that goes, “it’s the small things.”

With the overwhelming number of big, bombastic recreational sites and events available around Japan, a lot of the smaller and lower-key things tend to get lost in the shadows. For example, everybody flocks to Sapporo during the winter for the city’s annual snow festival, which all the travel websites on the internet rave about. Few know about the Otaru Snow Festival in the neighboring city of Otaru, which sees a mere fraction of the Sapporo Snow Festival’s attendance each year. Personally, I found Otaru’s more soft-spoken and prettily-lit winter festivities much more appealing (I’d stumbled upon the knowledge of its existence purely by chance). After that day, I made it a point to always try my best to find the more obscure attractions each time I travel to a place, to explore worlds yet unexplored in Japan. With that in mind, I remember a time when I found myself especially tired of big festivals and museums. The desire to travel still lingering in my heart, however, I embarked upon a daytrip to a certain location in Japan I’d accidentally come across whilst loafing around on the internet: an escalator in the basement of a department store in Kawasaki, which also happened to be the world’s smallest escalator.

This was a trip which I had actually planned out. “Next week on Saturday, you and I are going to the world’s smallest escalator,” I’d told my friend, Chieko, who enthusiastically agreed to accompany me on this seemingly pointless adventure. Yes, I was perfectly aware of what I was doing: We were about to spend an hour on the train to get to a 5-step escalator. And the journey did turn out as quaint as it sounds. But there was something very refreshing about not heading to some festival, or a famous garden, or a historically-significant museum for once – it was just an escalator, located in perhaps one of Japan’s most inconspicuous places!

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I remember feeling a very comical brand of elation once we arrived at the basement of More’s Department Store, home to – according to the Guinness Book of Records – the “world’s shortest escalator.” The place wasn’t set up like any sort of tourist destination at all; shoppers were either using it like it was just another escalator, or walking right past it. There was no line to use it, no guard, which was good, because it meant I got to ride it about seven times in a row before I had to yield to the occasional passerby. Here’s what I managed to learn about it all on my own: it’s a five-step, downward escalator, and the entire trip takes about five seconds – one second per step. There’s a McDonald’s on the floor above, so you don’t have to worry about getting hungry during your visit. It’s also just a short train ride from Tokyo, making it a very convenient daytrip location if you’re leaving from Matsudo Station, so no need to book any hotels in the area in advance; I spent nearly twenty whole minutes riding up and down the escalator, and still made it home at a good time, even though I had left in the afternoon.

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Of course, with all that said, it’s pretty clear that this experience was valuable mostly due to its comical novelty. But I’d really like to drive home the point that Japanese culture isn’t defined solely by its many grandiloquent locations and events. Japan is also unique on the “smaller,” everyday-scale: the gratuitous number of vending machines, talking toilets from the future, high-tech bicycle racks, shopping mall escalators, etc. These are things which are probably very banal features of life to the local Japanese, but to those who look at this culture through their own cultural lenses, these features become very interesting. That little escalator in Kawasaki will forever hold a special place in my heart.

WAGYU WONDERLAND

I’ve enthused a lot about food in my previous blog posts, so I suppose it would be fair for one to think that perhaps, the topic might have grown stale to me. However, when it comes to the story I’m about to tell, my mouth still waters each time the images flash through my head: the softest, pinkest slab of beef I’d ever laid eyes upon, softly sizzling on a bed of butter as it slowly but surely approached medium-rare perfection. For those even just slightly familiar with the world of Japanese beef – otherwise referred to as “wagyu” (“wa” meaning “Japanese” and “gyu” meaning “beef”) – Kobe beef may be what you’re thinking of right now. Whilst close, in this blog post, I will be paying homage to what I consider a pretty well-hidden gem in the world of wagyu: Hida Gyu, or “Hida beef.”

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I’ve always been a huge fan of nicely-marbled beef, and to this day, I still sometimes think back to that rush of elation I got the first time I tried Kobe beef. This story takes place a few weeks after that day, after I had returned to Tokyo. It was a day in March; I had an unbearable craving for good beef, but not enough money to take a second trip all the way down south to Kobe. So, what did I do? I turned to the eternally reliable, truest best friend of man: the Internet. Unfortunately, I failed to find a worthy, affordable, and nearby substitute for Kobe beef. I opened up to my friend Lester – who had previously spent 3 years in Japan as part of an English teaching program – about these woes. Lester told me about the town he had been stationed in, a small town somewhere up north of Tokyo in the boonies: Hida Takayama. “It’s got better beef that Kobe,” I remember him saying.

“Ha, better beef than Kobe,” I scoffed at the mere concept. At best, I had been hoping for an only-slightly-disappointing substitute. However, Lester had successfully piqued my interest. I looked up a bus to Hida Takayama (for those already interested, the Willer Express Bus provides a straight shot to the Takayama bus station from downtown Tokyo), packed my bags, and was on my way the following week.

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The prospect of discovering a steak “better than Kobe beef” buzzing amongst my thoughts, it was hard to get any sleep on the 5-hour bus ride. I’d preemptively looked up an affordable Hida beef restaurant – a little mom and pop type shop called “Kyouya –” prior to my departure, and made a dash for it the second I got off the bus. I’d also downloaded the restaurant’s menu in advance, so I wasted little time when it came to place an order.

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Flowery prose do little justice to what I experienced when I took my first bite, so to put it plainly: it was delicious, and yes, Lester had been right all along – it was better than Kobe beef. To me, what makes wagyu a novelty is the softness and savory greasiness of the steaks, and Hida beef proved itself the epitome of such a definition. One pleasant surprise that actually surpassed the beef, however, was how nice the people of Hida were. I’d arrived on a snowy day without an umbrella, and left the beef restaurant with a free one in hand, a present from the owners. The next morning, on my way to the station, I was stopped by an old lady, who thanked me for coming all the way out to Hida.

This is about all there is to this story: really good beef, and really nice people. It was one of my most successful trips, and though I am still being made fun of for having spent over $300 to go get beef, I can proudly say I have no regrets. All I had to do was not eat or leave my room for the three weeks that followed. But other than that, it was a very good experience!

04/23/2015

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.

01/18/2015

THE END OF A JOURNEY: REFLECTIONS ON MY DECISION TO STUDY ABROAD IN JAPAN

There’s no doubt about it: studying abroad was the right thing for me to do. The nostalgic pangs that have been weighing down my heart recently could only mean one thing: I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that my semester in Japan is drawing to a close, and with that, I find myself falling into a state of deep retrospection. It has definitely been a crazy, fun-filled journey, but the point I’d like to bring to your attention and elaborate upon the most is this: I had absolutely no idea it was going to be as amazing an experience as it turned out to be. Prior to signing up, I had some serious reservations about putting my life in Los Angeles on hold. Jumping into Japan was a stunt I pulled with my eyes closed, and I’m happy to report that I’m extremely glad that I did. Thanks to CIEE, I fulfilled my personal life goal to visit Japan, gained a ton of valuable life experience, and most importantly, made friends whom I’ll keep in my heart probably for the rest of my life. And thus, in this final blog post, I’d like to tell you the story of how I came to the decision to study abroad in Japan with CIEE, and why I’ll never regret that I did.

 

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One’s collegiate years are a time for self-discovery. It’s a time when we make that awkward transition from high school brat to working adult, and are given the time to experiment with different ambitions. For me, as someone whose interests have always involved stuff like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z – amongst other popular anime and manga series – going to Japan has been something my heart has yearned for since childhood. I’d decided that I was definitely going to study abroad in Japan at some point in my college career. At the same time though, I’ve also always had a strong interest in the performing arts, and about 6 months after I moved to Los Angeles following my acceptance to the University of Southern California, I fell in love with the theater, and decided to pursue an acting career.

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Fast forward to the end of my sophomore year in college. I’d just gotten my foot through the door of the acting business, and was in a spot where, if I were to put things on hold for a semester to go study abroad, getting things back in motion when I got back might not be so easy. At the same time however, I still really longed to see Japan for myself. I still applied, deciding that I’d withdraw if I really couldn’t bear to leave Los Angeles in the end. I came really close to submitting that withdrawal form the day before my flight.

I’m so glad I didn’t.

I’m so glad I decided to follow my heart.

Opportunities to study abroad in a country of your choosing don’t come very often. I decided that it was going to be easier for me to jump back into the acting game upon my return, than to spend the rest of my life wondering what it might’ve been like if I’d decided to embark upon the journey I’d always wanted to go on after all.

It’s also important that I include this: Sure, anime and manga got me interested in Japan, but it’s the life and the people I found here that made me want to stay. Being able to learn about the culture, places, and people portrayed in my favorite stories through the excursions to major Japanese cities and heritage sites organized by CIEE has been an invaluable experience, and being able to share this journey with like-minded contemporaries resulted in some very strong friendships. Throughout my time in Japan, I’ve borne witness to vastly different lifestyles, seen incredible sights, met many great people with fascinating stories to tell, fallen in love, made sushi, and forged powerful bonds with people I won’t soon forget.

Most importantly, I believe the life experiences I’ve gained have made me a better actor – this is the point I’d really like to drive home. No matter what your ambitions may be, it’s more than likely an experience abroad will help you gain some very valuable – and applicable – experience (time management skills, communication skills, etc.). Thus, I’d like to end my final blog post by imploring each and every single one of you to follow your heart. Don’t be afraid of the future, and don’t dwell on the past, but treasure the present; don’t wonder what “could’ve been.” Fight for what you love, and never settle.

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Sometimes, I get a real giggle when I think about how worried I was prior to leaving for Japan. There is no doubt in my mind that broadening my horizons was the right choice, and I am ready to take back my life in Los Angeles with a fulfilled heart. This journey in Japan with CIEE will forever remain a treasure trove of sweet memories in my mind.

12/14/2014

WEATHER IN TOKYO: SEEING THAT BLUE SKY FOR MYSELF

For the longest time, I thought Tokyo was a city plagued by endless gray skies and rain; at least, that’s what Google image search always showed me. Even in the many documentaries I’ve seen on the city prior to coming here, barely a trace of blue could be seen in its skies. With that in mind, I still arrived on September 16th excited to begin my adventure as a study abroad student in Japan, though there was a lingering feeling of dread for the persisting ugly weather I had heard so much about. With that in mind however, one thing I certainly didn’t expect was for Japan to show me the bluest sky I’d ever seen.

 My home school is the University of Southern California, located in a city that’s known for its pretty Californian sky: good ol’ Los Angeles. I used to have to embark upon a 15 minute walk to campus from my apartment every morning; so needless to say, I’ve grown used to seeing pretty sunrises on my way to school. In addition to that, no combination of words could accurately reflect how much I dislike cloudy and rainy days (the latter especially); I could win the lottery during a drizzle and still feel upset.

So, one could only imagine how dismayed I was upon hearing that Tokyo was to endure a massive day-long typhoon within the first week of school; even the fact that all my classes for the day had been cancelled was no consolation. I spent the whole day doing what I usually do when the rain comes to destroy my happiness: surfing the internet in my room with the curtains drawn. At one point, I fell asleep, and then woke up to this:

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I couldn’t stop my camera arm. Surely, this kind of weather only happens when the planets are perfectly aligned or something; it went contrary with everything I had heard about Japanese weather, so I was understandably desperate to immortalize the moment through photos.

There’s something to be said about weather so good it merits its own blog post, and I’m sure many readers would say that I’m being a little too excited about something seemingly mundane. In my defense however, I feel like Japan – in spite of being a modern city of concrete and glass through and through – offers one a unique environment to experience nature. A look at the city of Tokyo from a bird’s eye view reveals that for every patch of gray, there is also a fair amount of green. Modern civilization exists in harmony with nature, and aesthetically, the two really contrast and complement each other, to the point where even an Angelino such as myself would have a difficult time not marveling at great weather. My favorite place to watch the sunset is at this place called Kitano Shrine. On a day when there’s a festival, this is what that sight looks like:

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 The best part is, I get to see this more often than I see gray skies. The weather in Tokyo is erratic, and the occasional rainy day still brings me down, but whenever the sun takes the stage, boy does it brighten up the city. And to be honest, I’m more than a little bummed out that I won’t be around during the spring to see how much prettier the sky will grow. I guess the moral of this blog post is: whilst internet research certainly does help you get a good idea of what a place might be like, nothing beats seeing the real thing with your own eyes.

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WHERE THE MODERN MEETS THE TRADITIONAL: HARAJUKU, TOKYO

One of the things I like most about the highly urbanized city of Tokyo is how I can still find old shrines and temples with little effort. From what I’ve seen in my few months here, Japan is a country that has managed to retain many of its historically and culturally significant artifacts, in spite of having undergone a staggeringly rapid stage of modernization.. This is a very exciting thing to know, especially for someone with an academic interest in the more traditional aspects of Japan yet can’t survive without constant access to the latest amenities and technologies. That being said, I feel my most recent trip to a little spot in Tokyo called “Harajuku” really drives home this point.

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For those who haven’t heard of Harajuku, a brief Google search of the name should reveal enough for one to imagine concrete streets bathed in sunlight gleaming off glass buildings – and such an image wouldn’t be inaccurate. Harajuku is, after all, internationally famous for being one of Tokyo’s most vibrant Japanese pop culture hubs; it’s a pretty shiny, high-tech place. My personal favorite place to shop in Harajuku is at this little 390-yen store on Takeshita Street – a little alley lined with clothing shops and crepe stands, and one of Harajuku’s most famous gems. Surrounding it are various other shopping malls, restaurants, and smaller stores, all swimming in a sea of Starbucks Coffees. And each time I go, the streets are crowded with well-dressed young students and workers, many of whom are tapping away at their smartphone screens (though I do sometimes spot the occasional flip phone).

It was sometime in late November that I suddenly decided I wanted a new hat. Japan grows chilly fast in the fall, and as a hardworking college student, I needed something to protect my thinking apparatus. I also just really wanted a new hat. Wallet-in-hand, I rode the train down to Harajuku station, rushed out the ticket gates (though not before weaving through a torrent of people), and in my excitement, made a wrong turn. Considering the fact that I had been to Harajuku many times prior to that moment, I must have been seriously excited for that hat to make a wrong turn.

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A few minutes later, I suddenly found myself walking down a gravel road, shaded by many tall trees very prettily bathed in sunlight; the cars, crowds, and concrete were nowhere in sight. I had accidentally stumbled into the Meiji Jingu Shrine (in spite of it being a spectacularly famous tourist spot, I had no idea what the place was called at the time). Perhaps it had something to do with how the weather was puzzlingly beautiful that day, but I was having difficulty connecting a scene so one-with-nature to the image I had of bustling Harajuku. The massive torii gates, the traditional architecture, and the various Japanese men and women clad in Shinto garments all existed just a right turn away from the fancy hat stores and Starbucks’. I was suddenly really glad that I had made a wrong turn (and that I had my camera handy).

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I’m sure the photos I’ve attached to this blog post do better justice to the pretty sights I saw that day than words, but again, the most interesting thing about all this is how closely together the “modern” and the “traditional” can be found here in Japan. I’ve grown much more attached to Harajuku in particular, as not only is it the place where I can buy fancy clothes and white chocolate mochas, but also draw fortunes and partake in Shinto prayer. My only regret is that I forgot about the hat I wanted.