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5 posts categorized "Nick Powers Maher"

07/19/2012

Hakone: Story of Onsen

I spent the weekend in Hakone. It was great. I had hardly any homework (gotta love having finished all your major projects), so it was a weekend of relaxation, kicked off with 3 hours of staring into space while waiting in the CIEE Study Center for everyone else to get out of class b/c I was too tired to move. 

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We left campus around 3 pm on Friday, and got to Hakone that evening, checked into the inn and immediately bathed naked together in the indoor onsen downstairs (gender-segregated, of course.) That was my first onsen experience. Luckily, it was only the five of us the first night, and since it was just the three of us guys in the men's onsen, I didn't have to cover up my tattoo. Because tattoos are most often connected to the yakuza (like a Japanese mafia), people view them a lot more negatively here than in the States. I don't know if they were ever really connected to criminals, or at least any famous criminals (aside from Mike Tyson's Maori face tattoo), but mostly to bikers. Now, they're becoming more of a fashion statement, and we see a lot more types of tattoos. I explained this to my host family in April when the topic of yakuza scalp tattoos came up at dinner. I don't know why it never occurred to me that my tattoo might be an issue at public onsen. 

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We discovered a hill outside the convenience store shrouded in mist. It appeared as if from a magical land, like Brigadoon. So we attempt to conquer it. We got a good 5 minutes in before the trail ended and we have to turn around. Also, we had other plans. 

The first night, the three of us guys decided to make a conbini run ("conbini" = "convenience store"), for some dinner food to eat in the room. It was balmy outside (anyone from NC knows what a balmy summer night is: warm, humid, buggy...but dark), and there was fog galore. We didn't want to change out of our yukata (provided in the rooms for the onsen), so we slipped on our shoes and entered the darkness like three hapless, modern-day samurai looking for sandwiches. I am reminded of the Meiji Restoration, when Comm. Matthew Perry threatened to attack Japan if the nation didn't start trading with the States, and as a result, for the next few years, samurai attempted to attack the American sailors and traders now living in the Japanese ports.*

*Samurai comparison not mine.

 

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You know how hard it is to walk in yukata? Oh, the ankle chafing.

The few street lights on the way to the conbini (rather, the three streetlights in the entire city) combined with the fog and mist, created light effects never before imagined.

Too bad I left my camera in the inn.

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After our little adventure, it was time for some real exploration. We took a bus to the ropeway, and then flew right over the mountains! What a feat of extraordinary skill!

We rode over the top in a box.

I did this three years ago with my parents. I love discovering things that I had forgotten about from the first trip. Maybe next time I'm in Japan, I'll end up in Saitama again.

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In the ropeway station, before we made our final transfer, we found black boiled eggs. They dip them in hot springs on top of the mountains and the water turns the shells black and lightly cooks the yolk and whites. Japanese eggs are amazing. Often, with ramen, you get brown hard boiled eggs that taste like no egg I've ever had has ever tasted. Amazing. American hard-boiled eggs aren't even a proper match. 

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We're in Goura now, looking for the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the water park (both covered in the next post). Ajisai have been blooming for the last few weeks, replacing the sakura that closed up in May. You can find them in a wide range of colors: white, cream, pink, peach, orange, blue, purple, sunset, and more fake colors that I'm naming for fun. The Goura station had ajisai softcream. 

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Way back in November, while reading blogs about Japan to find things to do, I stumbled across an article or blog post about this, the Hakone Open Air Museum ("Sculpture Woods,") so I added it to my "may want to do if possible" list. As I mentioned before, I came to Hakone 3 years ago with my parents, but I'm geographically inept and paid little to no attention on the trip there, so I had no idea how long it would take to get to Hakone. My friends went earlier in the semester (on a date, which means smoochy-smoochy in the rain, and me having to put up with "ooh, this is where we kissed last time," all weekend), and mentioned they'd like to come back as a group. So we followed all the required protocol for such situations (created a Facebook event page), and started discussing things to do. I mentioned the museum, then immediately forgot I had mentioned it (I have a selective memory.)

It was some of the strangest, most interesting, most emotion-inspiring, and most beautiful artwork I've ever seen. We couldn't possibly see everything in one day. The photo immediately above is of a sculpture near the entrance called "The Crying Angel," and the bust was set in a reflecting pool. For more pictures (not mine) of the museum, here's the Flickr page (which soon will have to put up with my photographic attempts.) 

After a few minutes, we came upon the edge of a forest in the middle of the museum, and got separated. As I am wont to do, I wandered off, crashing through the bushes like an idiot (read: politely following the trails and bridges until I had walked them all), stumbling through the cob webs (looking at them from afar, paralyzed by fear of spiders), and discovering sculpture like none I've ever seen before (Roman nudes and Buddhist statues that you can see in many other places.)

There was art by modern Japanese artists, artists from other countries, and even things from various time periods. At the base of the hill coming down from the entrance was the Picasso Pavilion, a church-like building containing works from throughout Picasso's lifetime. I've never seen his work up close. It was mind-blowing. Now, if I could just visit the Rothko Chapel, I'd be a happy camper. Mark Rothko's work is some of my favorite.

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These works of art inspired in me many a feeling. The star-shaped labyrinth made me feel as if I were a character in Wonderland; the woods evoked an ancient jungle in my soul; the underground passages a sense of "will I make it out of here alive?"

But most importantly, this view. It made me think of food.

So we got a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the museum entrance.

Of the next event, there are no photographs, as it consists almost entirely of naked people. The photographs contained herein depict the scene at the close of our adventure.

After "lunch," we hiked up the road towards Yunessun, a water resort and open-air public onsen. It's split into two halves: the water park, and the traditional onsen (the onsen woods.) In the water park, you can bathe in green tea, coffee, wine, sake, or regular hot spring water (in bathing suits.) It's all supposed to be good for your skin. It is said that Cleopatra bathed in wine. That means I'm just as fabulous as Cleopatra.

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Luckily, my tattoo is on my upper back near my neck, meaning I can cover it easily with my towel without looking too conspicuous. I sat with my back away from everyone, trying to keep my towel from falling into the sake (no one likes an alcohol-soaked towel, even if they bathe in rice wine.) Mind you, this was all pretty diluted. We could smell the coffee and wine, and taste the tea (no one told me not to drink it), but I couldn't really smell the sake. I should emulate this at home. Maybe I can bathe in beer. I wonder what that'd do for my skin. After that half of the resort, we went to the other half (the onsen woods), for traditional onsen. I've never been in a room with so many naked people in my life. I got over my body-anxiety pretty quickly. After the hot springs, we got milk. Milk is great after a good nudy dip. 

We left right at closing, which, unfortunately, is half an hour after the buses stop, so we had to wait half an hour on the curb for a taxi. When we got back to the inn, we went to the convenience store for dinner, and fell asleep almost immediately after. School? What even is that?

Our plan for Sunday was to take a pirate cruise on Lake Ashi.

But alas, the weather was not conducive.

Arr.

:)

You saw that coming. Admit it.

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This is what happens when you let someone else hold your camera.

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The fog was redonkulously thick when we got out of the shrine, so we took pictures by the torii gate (on the lake). 

And then it was time for home. We got on the bus for Odawara, then the train, and then parted ways for the night. And now I'm dreading a sunburn from the mid-summer Tokyo weather. Granted, it's probably worse in Chapel Hill right now, but I never did enjoy the mid-summer anyway. 

06/11/2012

The People I meet and The Person I'm Seeing in the Mirror

Shhh, it's a special relationship I have to the person in the mirror. We aren't ready to go public yet. 

Kidding. 

I realize I haven't been able to write about the clubs I've joined, so this is a little late in coming, but still totally relevant to things that have happened recently. 

I joined two: Rakukku ("La Cook," the cooking club), and Wandervogel, a hiking club. Hardly any time commitment, very social, and great ways to learn about my area. I still can't believe I managed to get one club, let alone two. 

They say joining clubs is the best way to meet other students, and to meet other Japanese people. It's true. I enjoy my host family, and have met plenty of people on my program, but being in these university circles offers me something I can't find anywhere else. 

The hiking club has an event once a month, and so far I've only been able to attend one (I was sick for the second one), when we went to Gunma Prefecture right after Golden Week:

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We left on Saturday morning from Ueno Station, and this is where I make my first mistake: it somehow doesn't occur to me to purchase my own lunch, so I am foodless until dinner time. One of the senpai offers me some food, though, so we become quick friends (more about that later...)

We spend the night in their cabin in the mountains, after a short and hardly difficult hike (that is, objectively. Subjectively, I need to work out.) The afternoon was a game of "find the stinkbug" and "is it dead yet?" We swept and vacuumed the whole cabin, our activities punctuated by shrieks of newly discovered bug bodies, and lit the wood-burning stove to warm up. Here's issue number two: something in me thought we would be staying in Ueno, as that was where we met, and camping somewhere there (though, it now occurs to me, where in Ueno would one expect to go camping?) All I had was a thin hoodie, and let me tell you, it gets cold in the mountains. You'd think I would know these things, coming from North Carolina, considering I was in Asheville less than a year ago, but nope, never crossed my mind. So we went outside to play touch football and kickball. 

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Back inside for card games and guitar songs. People were talking to me, though the two senpai who had lived for a few (or many) years in the States had to translate for us (thank you, Yu and Sarah.) It was starting to feel more like a camping experience, as I found I was able to speak more comfortably to people. I knew this club was going to work out well. Unfortunately, they only have events once a month, so I think I'll only be able to see them twice more. I'll have to work up the courage to suggest karaoke to someone.

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We had dinner by the campfire, but no ghost stories (I bet they would've been pretty sick, too), and then walked into the woods to see the stars. During dinner, my new friend pulled me aside and told me I reminded him of his favorite comedian. Here's how that plays out:

"I'm going to teach you something. Say 'kimi.'"

"...kimi."

"It means, 'you.' Now, say 'kawaii ne.'"

"Uh...kawaii ne."

"Good. Now say it like this, 'kimi, kawaWEE ne!' and do fingers, too."

"Excuse me?"

"Come on, do it!"

"'Kimi, kawaWEE ne!'" 

"Good. Now go say it to the girls by the campfire."

-___- 

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It was quite the adventure. I honestly wouldn't have traded it for the world, and (warning: here we get touchy-feely-sentimental), all my fears of potentially being the only international student on the trip disappeared immediately (I was one of three, as it turned out.) I realized then that, as much as I promised myself I wouldn't, I'd been spending all my time with CIEE people. My friend who came to Sophia last year said she tried not to hang out with CIEE ppl too often, so she could get out and explore. I've done just the opposite, and I ended up doing what I promised I wouldn't. From this weekend on, I had the faith to become more of a presence in these clubs and talk to the people I was meeting. And everything changed.

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It isn't a proper camping trip without a bonfire guitar. Adele was the favorite of the evening ("Maybe someday I'll find someone like you...")

So, being an international student:

I will always feel like I don't belong. 

I live in a house that doesn't feel like home, with a family that doesn't feel like family. And I, as a result, feel like an intruder. 

I'm in a country where I don't implicitly know how to behave or react, and without even doing anything, I stick out as a person who doesn't belong. I don't get treated poorly as a result. People are very welcoming, and often they're excited to meet someone who can speak English with them (so they can practice), or even just a foreigner who can tell them about another part of the world. My favorite is when I learn that someone in my club or family has been to the States, and to a place I recognize. 

Fun fact: Sophia University has a study abroad program with the university in my hometown (UNC-CH in Chapel Hill, NC), and someone in the cooking club was there last year (I haven't met the person yet.) 

I feel like I will always make gaijin mistakes, and I'm not satisfied playing the gaijin card. I've been here two months and have two more months, shouldn't I feel like a true resident by the time finals are over?

I feel like a tourist who is taking up someone else's space. 

I feel like a freshman again (to be expected when it's your first semester here.) 

I feel like I'll never find a consistent lifestyle, or least a lifestyle that feels stable and productive simultaneously.

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I have no issue with exploring and experiencing. I feel I've done a lot, though I took as many pictures during the first month as I did during the next 6 weeks after that combined, so I should really brush the dust of my camera and take it for a go one of these days. However, it's gotten to the point where things are feeling stale. Walking around Harajuku isn't new and exciting for me anymore, so I need to find another district to explore. Buying daifuku by the armful doesn't feel like a coily guilty pleasure, it feels like spending money. 

I think I'm just in a slump and need to shake things up. 

At least I have my clubs to keep me away from my comfort zone, even if for only a few days a month. 

So I say, when the going gets tough, dull, or not going, get yourself going someplace new, even if it means leaving your desk chair when you'd rather just watch Community.

05/29/2012

My Sweet Tooth Knows No Shame

It's about time for a pastry overview post, methinks. One of my main goals for my time here was pastries. 

There's no shame in a life of pastries.

I'd actually been planning on doing research on Japanese food history, food history being my new favorite topic and dream job, but I haven't really done any "research." 

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European pastries and pastry shops are fairly prevalent in Tokyo, as are traditional Japanese/Asian sweets stores. My mom and I found this out when we came to Tokyo 3 years ago, and I've wondered why this is ever since. This, in fact, is what I had wanted to research. 

I haven't gotten very far, as I have no experience doing real research and don't really know where to look. I know what to eat, though. 

Everything.

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Pierre Herme's Raspberry Ispahan, a large macaron pastry, from the Pierre Herme shop in Aoyama.

My friends took me through Omotesando and Aoyama on my birthday, on a walking tour of Harajuku and Shibuya, and we passed by a branch of Pierre Herme. Pierre Herme is perhaps one of the world's most famous pastry chefs, especially when it comes to macarons (next to Laduree, who is accredited with the invention of the modern French macaron, and who has a branch in the Shinjuku train station), so I couldn't not go inside. I almost flooded the store drooling over the ware, and my friends offered to buy me some macarons, so I chose 6 to try.

Beware, though, as macarons are relatively expensive. You'll find that Asian sweets aren't very expensive, for the most part, but European ones can easily push someone's budget a little too far. Granted, Japan has some of the world's best pastries, so if it's something you can't get wherever you live, you may as well give it a shot.

I just give everything a shot. I think I have a problem.

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Viron, in Shibuya, was recommended in a CNN article by Yukari Sakamoto. It's a boulangerie, specializing in bread, that also serves sandwiches, coffee and expensive pastries. This was actually my first destination, conquered during orientation. I got a chocolate tart and strawberry meringue cookies. The chocolate tart was deadly. In a good way, though, as I'm a sucker for a good chocolate tart.

The bakery back home, that sells to many coffeeshops and restaurants where I live (called Guglhupf, in Durham, NC) makes chocolate ganache tarts with chocolate cookie crust. I'll devour a half of one, bask in the overwhelm, and then selfishly devour the other half. This was like that. I went back to Viron today while I was lost in Shibuya, and bought a coffee eclair. Not the best (for eclairs, find a branch of Cozy Corner, or go to Sadaharu Aoki in Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi), but enjoyable nonetheless. The coffee flavor wasn't very strong in the custard, and the coffee frosting tasted more like powdered sugar than anything else, but the choux pastry (the bread-y part of the eclair) was perfect. Cozy Corner eclairs are massive, and you can get many different flavors. The first time I went to Sadaharu Aoki, I got a yuzu (citron) eclair (Yuzu also happens to be my favorite Japanese band...of the two to whom I listen :P). The yuzu eclair was quite an experience. 

To get to Viron, leave Shibuya station through the Hachiko exit, and walk right immediately, towards Men's 109. It should be a few blocks down that street....or the next street over. There's a Cozy Corner across the street from the Hachiko exit, on the corner next to Men's 109. And for anyone in Saitama, there's a Cozy Corner right outside the east exit of Kita-Urawa station, and one outside the ticket gate of Akabane train station.

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One of the first weekends, my host sister and her friend took me to Ueno Park to go to the zoo (too crowded, so we didn't go in), and see the cherry blossoms (just starting to open, not yet "mankai"), and then around Ameyoko Promenade (the shopping promenade that runs along the train tracks), and Mihashi, a sweets shop that specializes in anmitsu. 

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"An" comes from "anko," meaning "red bean paste," or just "sweet bean paste" (sometimes it's made from white kidney beans, and called "shiroanko,"), and "mitsu," meaning "syrup," comes from "mitsumame," meaning "honey and boiled beans." Therefore, "anko mitsumame" is a dessert of red bean paste (I think it's usually strained to remove bean skins), jelly, boiled red beans, and some type of syrup, plus fruits, creams, ice cream, and whatever else. According to my host sister, Mihashi has the best anmitsu in Tokyo. I went to another anmitsu shop in Tokyo Midtown, and spent nearly twice as much for fewer ingredients, and no difference in quality...so I'd definitely recommend Mihashi, and don't bother buying the more expensive anmitsu in Tokyo Midtown.

Mihashi is just outside Ameyoko, facing the park and the large wall of lanterns.

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Throughout the semester, I've been asking my host family for recommendations of places to go and things to do, so I asked for pastry recommendations. For famous Western pastries, my host father recommended Shirotae (pictured above and below), and for Asian pastries, he recommended salted daifuku, from Sugamo. 

A few Fridays ago, when I was done with classes, I took a friend to Shirotae, located outside the metro station in Akasaka-Mitsuke, known for its cheesecake and cream puffs. Since I started practicing choux pastries December, I've been trying to eat cream puffs more often, so I ordered one here. Neither of us got a cheesecake, but between the two of us, we got 2 cream puffs, a slice of a cake topped with caramel (I don't remember the name), and a chocolate cake. 

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The cake had a slice of hard caramel on top, and layers of soft sponge cake and sweet whipped cream. I want that for my wedding. 

The cream puff was everything I thought it would be. Japanese versions of Western pastries are softer, fluffier, and sweeter than American versions, which are sometimes dense, more subtle, and thicker. I have to wonder why this is. It's interesting to note, on a tangent, that Japan is one of the world's largest importers of instant coffee and canned coffee, and a major purchaser of coffee from Hawaii and Jamaica (probably due to location), while America is full of Italian-style cafes and coffee drinks. specialty coffees, and watered-down American versions of traditional drinks. Canned or bottled coffee is almost taboo, unless it's a Starbucks Frappuccino. It would be interesting to figure out what causes these types of cultural differences. 

Back to the puff: the custard was smooth, unlike when I make custard (the yolks always cook too fast), and perfectly flavorful, but not cloyingly so, while the choux pastry was light and sweet, but not overpowering. 

Also, this place is cheap-ish, in comparison to most Western pastry shops in this city. It's one block from the station, going west, and surrounded by bars, funky architecture, souvenir shops, and food.

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Niru and her cream puff.

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 Going way back in time, back to my pre-birthday celebration. We celebrated my birthday a few days early because one of our friends was out of town on the day of, and then we celebrated again the next night. Well, I celebrated every day that week. We started out at Sweets Paradise in Shinjuku right after classes got out on Tuesday, and attempted to consume as much pastry as we possibly could to justify the expense. 

I tried to wake up my stomach by eating a plate of curry noodles before dessert. A stupid idea. And, as always, my eyes are larger than my stomach, so I took too much food and couldn't finish. The concept of Sweets Paradise ("Sweets Para") is an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. We paid Y1400 for 70 minutes. Tokyo has all-you-can-eat sweets places (Sweets Paradise), as well as "Vikings" (AYCE regular food). I haven't been to a Viking yet, but, judging from past experience with my stomach, it might not be financially efficient. The catch is that these buffets have a time limit, and sometimes an extra stipulation (like, you have to order a drink, or spend a certain extra amount of money on something else in addition to the main thing.)

There are multiple Sweets Paradises, but this one was in Shinjuku, and there's one near the Shibuya station. 

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During orientation, we spent a lot of money on sweets and food, and a lot of time walking around. Initially, sweets were almost a requirement for any day, until we realized that we had 4 months and not enough money to keep up. One of our earliest discoveries was Japanese crepe shops. Why are crepes so popular?

And again I ask the popular questions, why do they love French pastries so much??

We found a crepe place on Takeshita Street, in Harajuku, and then another one outside the Shinjuku train station. I'll never eat crepes again. 

Ironically, there's a store in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles that specializes in crepes and tea. 

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We had worked up quite the sweat from karaoke, so we needed to refuel with....crepes. They have branches of this store all over the city. This one was in Shinjuku, like I mentioned above. 

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Soy-milk based steamed red bean bun, in Nikko. 

The above is a type of manju, a pastry adopted from Chinese mochi. It was originally called "mantou" in Chinese, but the name was changed to "manju" when it came to Japan in the 14th century. Manju is made from steamed bun of flour and rice powder, and a filling of anko. In China, they're called "baozi" now, instead of "mantou." 

There are many regional varieties and also ingredient varieties. For example, Miyajima in Hiroshima is known for "momiji manju," shaped like maple leaves ("momiji"), and where I live, Saitama Prefecture, is known for "jumangoku manju" (meaning "100,000 stones manju"). I have yet to try one of those, but I brought back a box of momiji manju for my host family from Hiroshima.

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 Another type of manju is deep-fried manju, "age-manju," which I found at the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa. We all know deep-fried foods are a requirement for fairs and carnivals, and it seems Japan is no exception. In America, you can find deep-fried bananas, ice cream, and candy bars. In Tokyo, you can find grilled mochi, octopus, fish, squid, meat, and deep-fried manju, as well as a plethora of other foods. This one was green tea-flavored. 

As they say in Japanese:

どうぞ、salivate してください (please, go ahead and salivate)

They don't actually say that. They say "please, go ahead and try it."

05/07/2012

My oh my how time flies

Please don't remind me that we're over a third of the way through the semester. Please.

Golden Week is coming to a close, and classes will start again tomorrow, and then time will just hop on by. 

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Vegetable udon in Nikko

The first day of Golden week, I went to Nikko with three of my friends to hike. 

And to see the monkeys. Everyone I've asked says there are monkeys in Nikko, but we didn't see any. They must have been on vacation.

Or maybe we were just in the wrong part of Nikko. 

We walked towards Toshogu Nikko, one of UNESCO's "Shrines and Temples of Nikko," which was built in 1617 by Tokugawa Hidetada for his father, Tokugawa Ieyasu. We had to keep stopping and asking people where to see the monkeys. One person said they would be right up the road, in the shrine, so to the shrine we went. It wasn't until we got to the gate that I remembered, I've been here before, 3 years ago with my parents. The monkeys at Toshogu aren't real monkeys, they're carved into the wood, saying "hear no evil, "see no evil," and "speak no evil." 

Let's call this a learning experience.

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Buy all the monkey souvenirs. We stopped in here on the way for monkey souvenirs, and, needless to say, I'll have enough souvenirs to last me a few years.

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Hanging up her wish at the shrine. It will be burned at the end of the day and carried on the smoke to the gods.

Sunday we spent in Harajuku, at the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade, a small parade around the hub of Harajuku, one of the cheaper shopping districts in west Tokyo. It wasn't as big as a parade in, say, Los Angeles or San Francisco, but I wonder if queer issues are featured less in Japanese politics than in American politics. My friend explained to me that, though LGBTQ people in Japan don't have as many rights as they do in the States, it also isn't as hot a topic. LGBTQ life is tacitly accepted, not condemned, so they must not feel the need to fight as hard or as loudly for equal recognition. 

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  Pride-14

The Nyan-cat car!

A break from excitement was needed after that weekend, so I decided to take it easy on Monday. We met up near campus and went to Ginza together, to find the candy store in Tokyo Station that sells an array of kit-kats in various flavors, and then out of the station for Kimuraya, the first shop in Japan to sell an-pan (red bean paste buns). 

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I was told before coming to Japan that I needed to find the kit-kats and ice cream, and I've since discovered that, not only do they have as many flavors of kit-kats as one can imagine, as well as of ice cream, they also love soft cream (a softer version of ice cream.) We each planned out how many we'd buy, and started a small kit-kat trading circle. But they were better than trading cards. We had red bean paste, molasses, blueberry cheesecake, strawberry cheesecake, wasabi, red pepper, strawberry, orange, and cherry blossom/green tea. 

And then we had an-pan from Kimuraya. 

Inspired by our sweet-filled evening, I decided I wanted to do a weekly pastry tour of the city, trying one new place each week, so I created a Facebook group called Tokyo Sweets, where I create an event each week for a new destination. Last Wednesday was Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi, the basement of which has a whole floor of famous patisseries, and this week I'm going to Namjatown in Ikebukuro for the tens of flavors of ice cream they have.

If you look hard enough, you can find anything. 

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Because we hadn't made any plans to go out of Tokyo for our vacation, we decided this week was the best time to go to Tokyo Disney. I've only ever been to Florida Disney (Disney World), because I live in North Carolina and go down to Florida occasionally. Though I go to school in Los Angeles, I still haven't been to the California Disneyland (shame.) We went to Disney Sea, right next to Disneyland, with some water-themed attractions, and organized into geographic regions. 

It was pouring, but we powered through, making our way around "New York," "Cape Cod," the wilderness, Ariel's underwater palace, and Agrabbah, while grabbing the oddly-flavored popcorn at each stop. They had strawberry, curry, milk tea, and others. Curry popcorn is something I need to do often. 

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The koma-tora of Agrabbah; Shinto shrines are marked by "koma-inu," guardian dogs flanking the entrance. In this case, there are tigers, "tora." You can tell the koma-inu by their mouths: the one on the right is voicing the Sanskrit syllable "ah," and the one on the left, "m," together saying "om," the primordial syllable, from which creation springs. 

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Slightly distressed by how much money I spent during orientation and the first few weeks of school on food, and my lack of non-food cultural experiences, I decided to do my own weekly tours of Tokyo, choosing a new theme each week. I started with Shinto shrines (and also visited a Buddhist monument), and then moved onto parks. This week will be art galleries and museums. 

Unforunately, the weather was just slightly more than detestable the day I wanted to go to the parks, and I woke up late because my clock was an hour off (I blame gremlins), so I only went to two of the four locations I had planned: Shinjuku Gyoen and 21_21 Design Sight, an art gallery on top of Tokyo Midtown (I'd planned on going to two parks in Roppongi, but decided to stay close to Midtown and went to the gallery instead.) 

Shinjuku Gyoen was created as a garden for the Tokugawa shogun family, in the middle of Shinjuku. It consists of 3 sections: the Formal French section, the British section, and the Japanese Traditional section. The greenhouse was under construction, so I walked around the first part, which I assume was the British section based on the looks. And on my way back to the station, I discovered a curry restaurant.

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The point of my explorations is to force myself to see things I hadn't heard of or thought to see, and to go away from the train stations. On my way to each location, I might get lost and discover a whole side to the district I'd never seen, or I might go to a district I hadn't yet visited. When you're abroad, you should take the initiative to see what's around, and go out of your way to discover something new. Also, you should do things you might not have imagined yourself doing (like eating octopus-flavored ice cream, or riding a rollercoaster in pouring rain.)

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21_21 Design Sight is a design museum that focuses on reimaginations of everyday ideas and objects, and is located on top of the Roppongi Metro, and luckily you can walk underground all the way up to the front door. The current exhibit, which will end after our program in August, is called "Tema Hima: The Foods of Tohoku," and is about food and crafts from Tohoku. The exhibit follows one on clothes by Issey Miyake, one of Japan's greatest fashion designers, and pays homage to the area affected by the earthquake last year. Entrance to the museum is 800 yen, but I highly recommend the price, as being inside is a more calming experience than perhaps any monastery can show you.

 

I've finally figured out how to balance my time between my CIEE friends, studying, exploring on my own, getting to know my family, and engaging in extra curriculars. I wouldn't say my schedule is consistent, but I always enjoy the surprises I find each week, and welcome any challenge to try something new. 

04/09/2012

Hello there

I noticed you looking at the CIEE blog, so I thought I'd introduce myself. I'm Nick Powers, a native of Chapel Hill, NC, and a junior at the University of Southern California, majoring in East Asian Area Studies. 

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Shibuya at night. Shibuya is a popular place for shopping and nightlife, and a short walk from Harajuku, the clothing Mecca of Tokyo. They're my two favorite parts of Tokyo so far. 

I took an "Exploratory Japanese" class in sixth grade for one semester, and thought it was interesting, so when I found out my local high school offered a full 4-year Japanese program, I decided to keep up with it. In eighth grade, I bought myself "Teach Yourself: Japanese," and started chugging through it, to little avail if any. 

It's difficult to teach yourself a language. 

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Sakura mascarpone mousse cake in Shibuya. I'm still having trouble figuring out the sakura flavor. Around this time of year, you can find cherry blossom-flavored and cherry blossom-shaped pastries on every street corner, as the cherry blossoms are now in full bloom. 

I took Japanese my freshman year in high school, and felt very comfortable in class. The lessons seemed simple, and the points came relatively easily. Not only that, but I found I really enjoyed that one hour each day when I could experience a culture outside my own, when I could challenge myself to another point of view. From my freshman year on, I knew I wanted to study Japanese forever, and maybe other languages, as well, and someday to become an interpreter (we'll see.) 

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Fried sakura mochi. The frying adds an interesting flavor to the mochi. 

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We stumbled upon a street of food vendors in Ueno Park during our o-hanami. They had fried mochi, fish on sticks, tako-yaki, etc. This, so far, has been my favorite stumble-upon of the semester. 

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My host sister teaching me about Ueno Park and the Shinto shrine inside. You have to rinse each hand, your mouth, and the ladle before entering. 


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In Shibuya the first week to explore. We'll be coming back very often. We're all planning to do karaoke in Shinjuku tomorrow night. 

I came to college and declared East Asian Area Studies as my major, knowing all the while that I would spend a semester in Japan. It was my dream. It is my dream, and it's happening right now!
My mind wants me to say things that might not be appropriate, because I get to live in my favorite city for 4 months, and I know the exploration that awaits is more than I'd ever be able to consume entirely in that time. 

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The Great Buddha of Kamakura. We spent a day in Kamakura, visiting Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine. I spent the day buying sweets. 

I'm a foodie, and I love reading about men's fashion. My uncles work in the fashion industry, and come to Japan often for work, and I've been trying desperately to make myself look like a model in GQ or Details (to absolutely no positive result). I spent my first two weeks mostly in Shibuya and Harajuku, with the intent of coming back to the States the best dressed of all my friends. I'm determined to find the good clothes for reasonable prices. 

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The cherry blossoms were finally "mankai," meaning "fully opened," in their most beautiful state. I went to Ueno Park with my host sister and her friend, but the flowers hadn't bloomed yet. They taught me about cherry blossoms, o-hanami (flower viewing picnics), and anmitsu, my first authentic Japanese dessert. 

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Anmitsu is a bowl of seaweed-based jelly, sweet syrup (mitsu), black bean paste (anko), fruits, ice creams, and other sweet toppings. On the left is cherry blossom anmitsu, and the right is "kogura anmitsu," my favorite, with red bean ice cream. I'm a sucker for a good red bean. This place, Mihashi, is supposedly the best anmitsu in Japan. There's another confectionery near my house that makes anmitsu, so I'll have to expand my horizons a little. 

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This was on the grounds of a temple in Kamakura. I enjoy being inside the temple grounds, where the smell of incense and the distance from urban life helps me collect myself, but I find that Japan really isn't a stressful place. Maybe I just love being here too much. 

I'm also a pastry fiend. My sweet tooth knows no bounds, and Japan is one of the best countries in the world for pastries, possibly contending with France, Austria, or Italy. I even made a list of the most famous pastry shops in Tokyo, and I intend to learn all there is to know about Japanese confections. I found an amazing pastry cookbook the other day in Ikebukuro with nearly every Japanese pastry I've ever heard of, in Japanese, for $20. Prepare yourself for the food. 

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Kaiten-zushi, conveyer belt sushi. Each plate was 100 yen ($1.25), and some of the sushi was killer. They also had cake and mochi. I enjoyed pulling off random plates and seeing what I got. I found so many new favorites that way. Japan is the kind of place where you have to take risks to fully appreciate the culture.