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8 posts categorized "Russell Ottalini"

04/30/2012

One year afterwards: Rikuzentakata and Ishinomaki

The terribly destructive earthquake and tsunami that devasted the Tohoku region of Japan, otherwise known as the "Great East Japan Disaster," occured last year right around the time that I and many of my fellow students in CIEE were considering coming to study abroad in Tokyo. Obviously it had great impacts on students who were already abroad in Japan (many from my own university were strongly encouraged to come home), but I remember being very concerned I might not be able to come to Tokyo at all. I certainly breathed a huge sigh of relief when the issues were cleared up and my university gave me its approval to go; however, the earthquake left an impression on me just as it has done for many others, and I knew that one of my goals for my time in Japan would be to go volunteer in Tohoku. This past March marked the first anniversary of the great disaster in Tohoku, and with plenty of time during spring break, I felt that I had an excellent opportunity to get a first hand look at the region one year later.

A few Japanese friends and I looked into the various volunteering programs that are available, and eventually decided upon one that would take us to Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, one of the towns most devastated by the earthquake. Unfortunately, these "tours" are relatively expensive, but include transportation to and from Tohoku, lodging, some meals and guides for help. I was lucky to be with friends, as well, because the tour was clearly meant for Japanese: no English translators here.

We left Tokyo on a yako (night) bus, and arrived around mid morning in Iwate, making our way through various small towns on our way to Rikuzentakata. Although we were exhausted from a night spent on the bus, the images we saw were enough to wake anyone up.

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As we drove through the town, we learned a bit more about the current situation: much of the debris has been cleared away and piled into somewhat organized heaps of wood, totaled cars and other machinery, and more. Its fields are no longer covered in the destruction left in the wake of the disaster, but merely barren. Grocery stores, Businesses and restaurants are finally starting to return to the area, although they are running out of portables. Making our way towards the volunteer center, we caught a glimpse of the single pine tree left standing along a stretch once covered in them before 3/11/2011. Some in Rikuzentakata have taken it for a mascot of sorts, a symbol of solidarity, strength and perserverance in the face of adversity. I wish we could have gotten a closer look, but there was indeed something awe-inspiring about the silhouette of that tree standing alone amongst so much destruction and emptiness.

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After arriving at the volunteer center in town, we were put to work. Our task was to clear dirt left on the shore of the bay the town lies on, packing it into bags and restacking them. Although I suppose I had hoped our work would be a little bit more hands on with the debris, my friends explained to me that such tasks are better left to the work crews with heavier machinery. As we dug, packed and piled, we kept an eye out for personal effects taken away by the tsunami's currents, particularly photographs, which are cleaned and ideally returned to their owners if they can be located. Although we didn't find anything quite so important, the occasional utensil or gardening label did turn up; indeed there is something powerful about holding another person's lost belongings in your hand and realizing that it made up a part of that individual's life experience. I came to feel that we were really digging for treasures of the memory sort instead of clearing dirt away.

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The volunteer center, as I found out, was also comprised mostly of portables; despite the temporary set up, this compound directs and serves hundreds of volunteers on a weekly basis

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After our day of work came to an end, we spent the night in a hotel before taking anoher trip to Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture. Here, we found the impact of the earthquake and tsunami was still obvious to the naked eye: lots where former buildings stood dominate much of the landscape in the worst effected part of town, and many of those houses that still stand lie disheveled and abandoned. The sheer size of the heaps of cars, metals, wood and other debris is jaw dropping, and makes you wonder at how much longer the work to clear it all away will take.

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We were given an opportunity to get off of the bus and to walk around one of the former residential areas that was nearly wiped away by the disaster; personal effects still lie strewn about the former foundations of houses that may or may not have belonged to their owners. CDs, computers, shoes,  toys and much more litter the area. Amongst the more powerful images I saw was a stove pot that looked as though besides dirt and muddy water, the remains of a lunch or dinner were still contained inside of it. Across the road was a former elementary school, as well as a temple, where the graveyard still remains in poor condition, its gravemarkers toppled over as if the quake had struck yesterday.

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Although some of these images may be hard to look at or to believe, progress is being made. Slowly but surely, life is returning to these towns; in Ishinomaki, plans are being made for the conversion of the former residential area into a new park, and the sheer volume of volunteers flowing into Rikuzentakata (in the hundreds weekly, even a year after the disaster) are encouraging signs. I look forward to returning to Tohoku someday in the next few years, to see how things proceed from here. If I learned anything from my time in Rikuzentakata and Ishinomaki, it is that the Japanese of Tohoku are extremely resilient, courageous, resourceful and most of all selflessly generous. Full recovery will take time, but it will come, and I hope to be here to see it when it does.

04/29/2012

American Antiques find a second life in Tsudanuma

Making the 30 minute plus commute into and out of Tokyo everyday may be something of a nuisance when you are in a rush or doesn't enjoy feeling like they are packed into a sardine can, but it can be a great way to see parts of the city if your train affords a view. I have ridden the JR Chuo Sobu line almost everyday over the past few months, and particularly when I lived with a homestay family in Chiba prefecture, I never grew tired of the hour-long trip because there was always something new I hadn't caught before. Tsudanuma, one of the JR train hubs in Chiba prefecture, is one of those places I saw everyday. I would often look for the appealing signs for what looked like small novelty or thrift stores I had noticed at some point during one of my first few commutes, but whether it was because it was so close to my last stop or because schoolwork caught up with me, it took me awhile to actually get out and take advantage of a stop along my route to and from school.

When one gets off at Tsudanuma station, nothing really seems to stand out in comparison with other JR station fronts; yet walk a few blocks to the northwest parallel to the train tracks and you will understand that it is in the small corners and backstreets of Japanese cities that hold some of the more charming spots. Luckily for me, one of those small pockets was in plain sight if you pay attention as you pass Tsudanuma, and with a little patience for going out of my way, I was able to find it. 

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What awaited me on this sidestreet was a row of antique shops dealing with what might be considered a kind of fashionable Japanese novelty: American antiques. I had heard before I came to Japan that in the past few decades certain iconic elements of American pop-culture had become wildly popular in Japan; for example, interest groups about cowboys (with members in full costumes) are apparently still going strong (see one group called Real Western's website for more). However, the sheer amount of these antiques was a bit surprising to me at first.  To be sure, there is a lot of clothing and accessories to peruse in some of these shops; in fact, when I first entered some of the stores, I thought that was what they primarily dealt in. Judging by the amount of clothing some had, that might be true, depending on the store; but what really caught my eye was the collections of American pop culture relics from bygone fads of decades past. More than anything else, this array of foreign antiques, and store owners with interests to match, is what ties these shops together in my mind.

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Garage Sale's storefront was one of the shops that originally attracted my attention one days that I rode the JR sobu line.

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Garage sale's huge selection of clothing, with some shoes and luggage thrown in for good measure


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Looking around each of these stores, one comes to realize that it takes a special group of people who all share an odd fascination to create such an unusual gathering of novelty items. The owner of the first shop I entered, called "Naked," has been to America over fifty times, and knows more about several states than the average American (such as myself) does. Others, like the owners of "Garage Sale" and "Jokers" travel to America frequently on antique hunts or make requests of friends to bring them new products.

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Garage sale's owner proudly overviewing his eclectic assortment of used clothing, knick nacks and American antiques

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"Jokers" storefront

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"Jokers'"'very friendly owner also boasts an impressive selection of iconic American merchandise from years past 

The cluttered shops (Joker is no larger than a shed) are really pleasant, and have a lot of charm per square inch.  From classic Peanuts figurines to Star Wars merchandise, as well as Elvis memorabilia and old election buttons from the '50s and '60s can be found aplenty. I had some expectations that prices on these antiques might be high, but the price of a single model "Lego" car at Jokers confirmed it. Antiques can certainly be expensive in America, but the premium these shops put on them indicates the sort of fashionable, value-added image they have here (at least for those willing to pay for them). 

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I thought cars lost value when they were driven off the lot...

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I've grown to expect that Japan will constantly surprise me, and the antique stores in Tsudanuma are a perfect example. Although it was certainly different from the image I had of a typical thrift store in Japan, I feel now that it is a more accurate representation of those kind of stores that are filling niches in the market here. It's quite a trip to walk into a store where you are nearly knee-deep in iconic American pop-culture images of the past when you grow used to the normal patterns of everyday life here, but that made it all the more interesting for me to get a sense of what Japanese people consider appealing in antiques. For most Japanese who buy these antiques, their knowledge or personal connection with the original context of their purchase may be pretty distant, but perhaps that is precisely what makes it fashionable; the fact that they are so removed from it, and that it represents quintessential of another time and space. If you're an American, you'll be well acquainted with most of these emblems, and its very interesting to see new life breathed into them as fashionable accessories and house decorations for Japanese with an urge for a little something from the States. 

02/29/2012

Winter, Hokkaido Style

February may be thought of as the last real month of winter, but you wouldn't think of it that way if you travel to the northern parts of Japan around this time of year. I certainly found that to be true during my recent trip to Hokkaido earlier this month. Along with the heavy snowfall it brings to this northernmost main island, February is also a time for many wintery festivals for various Hokkaido cities.

The biggest and most famous of these is Sapporo's Snow Festival, with this year marking its 63rd annual celebration. Odori park, which runs through several blocks of downtown Sapporo, plays host to the winter-themed festivities and exhibitions. This year these included a snowboard jump, performance stages (at least some of which were constructed out of snow), food and souvenir stalls characteristic of any Japanese festival, and of course the snow and ice sculptures of every size and shape that are the main attraction for tourists from around the world.

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I arrived on February 8th, a few days after the festival's official opening. Every year the "yuki matsuri," as it is called in Japanese, begins in early February and runs for one week, although those wishing to see the construction of the snow sculptures often come earlier. However, apparently this year the sculpting overlapped with the start of the festival; I suspect that was done purposely so that the sculptures would last longer. Since I arrived in the middle of the festival week, I was able to see the finished product of the efforts of amateurs and profesionals alike. Certainly, Japan's pop-icons served as sources of inspiration for several of the sculptures.

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An amateur Anpanman and Cheese, some of Japan's most famous cartoon characters

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One of the larger promotional sculptures for series like "
One Piece"

Sapporo's yuki matsuri got its start when a few high school students built several snow sculptures in Odori park in 1950. Apparently several years later, Japan's Self Defense Forces began lending their help in the construction of even larger sculptures; this year was no exception. Some of the largest and most impressive exhibitions this year can be attributed to their work.

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The Taj Mahal

As the above sculpture suggests, the Sapporo Snow Festival is a pretty international event in terms of theme as well as the make-up of its participants. This year marked the 39th annual "International Snow Sculpture Contest," for which sculptures from around the world come to Sapporo to represent their countries and regions by depicting their unique attributes through sculpting. In addition to promoting friendship between Japan and other countries, this year's theme was climate change. Although I think it related more to this being the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, the winning sculpture this year was crafted by the team representing Hong Kong.

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Other sculptures were also very impressive, and for me were the most impressive and professional ones at the festival.

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"Climate Change," a representation of how people suffer from global warming

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"Janseung," sculpted by representatives of Daejong, South Korea, one of Sapporo's sister cities

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"Friendship," Singapore

Before leaving Sapporo, I was able to check out some of the city's more permanent landmarks, such as JR Tower at the JR Sapporo train station (the view was spectacular), the  clock tower which dates back to the Meiji period and the former government office. I was also very happy to visit a small museum dedicated to the Ainu, Japan's indigenous people,  on the campus of Hokkaido University. The story of the Ainu is not dissimilar to that of Native Americans, and is all the more fascinating because of the general perception amongst both foreigners and Japanese alike that Japan is a homogeneous nation. 

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View of Sapporo and outlying mountains from JR Tower

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The clock tower, a symbol for Sapporo

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The former government building, complete with a bit of winter cheer

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Traditional Ainu clothing at one of the few free mini museums that can be found in Sapporo

North of Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second largest city, holds its own annual snow festival takes place concurrently. Asahikawa doesn't try to outshine Sapporo, but puts on its own quieter, and in some ways more attractive and approachable, version of a snow festival. After spending a day at Asahikawa's great zoo (the penguin walk is especially recommended), which draws a majority of the tourists that come to the city, I checked out the festival grounds myself. This year's theme was "Transformers" and had two (yes, two) huge slides for kids and adults alike. Forgetting the meaning of "dignity" for a moment, I took a ride myself after checking out a large igloo that included an ice bar and a small movie screening area. Finally, walking back to my hotel from the festival gave me a chance to appreciate the ice sculptures making up another international competition  lining "Kaimono Koen," the main shopping thoroughfare in town.

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The "penguin walk" at Asahikawa's famous zoo

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The Transformers-themed stage, with Asahikawa's symbol, Asahibashi bridge, in the background

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"This year there are TWO slides!"

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"Ice Village" Igloo, complete with ice bar and screening area

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Kaimono Koen

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An example of ice sculptures that lined the street

 I'm sorry for the quality of some of the pictures above: I ran into some problems with my camera during my trip, and so had to resort to my iTouch for a majority of my picture-taking. However, I hope you enjoyed, and that reading this has either brought back fond memories of your trip to Hokkaido during this time of year or that it may inspire you to take a trip there someday yourself. Until next time!

01/23/2012

Some Days Well Spent in Fukuoka

Hello again! I'm back as promised with an overview of my trip to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu, the third largest main island of Japan. If you are so inclined, you can read a bit about how I got there by looking back at my post on the seishun 18 ticket, a great opportunity to see Japan on the cheap. In short, I spent about day and a half travelling by local train from Tokyo to Hakata, the main JR station in Fukuoka, making some stopovers in Fukuyama (unintentionally) and Hiroshima (intentionally). That I enjoyed the journey in hindsight is a certainty, and although I would say that some boredom along the way is to be expected, I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it to anyone.

But enough about the journey -- on to the destination! I arrived in Fukuoka on the evening of December 27th, in time to catch the Christmas, winter and pre-New Year's festivities and light displays spread around the city. Walking out of Hakata station for the first time, I saw what might have been my personal favorite light displays of the season. Right away I got the impression that I had come to a pretty cosmopolitan place.

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After spending some time appreciating the light display, I started to make my way towards Nakasu, another part of town where my hostel was located (somewhere). As I walked along one of the main streets, Canal City, a mall that has made Fukuoka a major shopping destination, came into view. I can't say that I am a fan of malls in general, but this one is worth taking the time to explore. In my opinion its really very attractive, and you can tell that the designers put a lot of thought into the way that customers would interact with the layout itself. As the name implies, there is a sort of canal that runs through one part of the mall, very close to an ampitheater-like open area and a walk that runs along the water's edge. Even though I wasn't the least bit interested in going shopping at a mall during my time in Fukuoka, I found myself returning to Canal City at least two more times for the sheer novelty of it. Even if you don't buy a single thing, walking around this mall is entertaining in its own right.

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After coming out on the other side of Canal City, I found that I was near a bridge that would take me from the Hakata side of town to Nakasu. As I crossed the river, I came to understand why Fukuoka is a canal city in its own right. At night the water comes alive with reflections of the city lights around it, as riverboats cruise slowly up and down the river. If I ever get a chance to go back, I'll be sure to take one of those night cruises!

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After a long day of travel and even some brief sightseeing, I checked into my hostel and got some rest. Even though I had taken the trip solo, I was really pleasantly surprised to discover some fast friends in my fellow guests. After a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes the next morning, a few of us decided that we would go sightseeing around the city together. With a list of places we wanted to go in mind, we set off on foot for the nearby "Acros" building, another landmark of sorts for Fukuoka. 

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Hostel Friends

Acros Fukuoka is a combination of many things -- government offices, a performance hall, and an observatory, but it is best known for its rooftop step garden. We went on a Wednesday, and apparently the observatory is closed except for weekends, so we decided to enjoy garden walk instead. I had expected the weather to be a bit warmer in Fukuoka, being farther south than Tokyo, but surprisingly it wasn't. Still, it was a nice day, the garden was still relatively green, and several flowers were in bloom. The Acros step garden is certainly a a Fukuoka-exclusive experience, and a great free view of the city.

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View from the top of the garden

Next, I and one of my hostel friends hopped on a city bus to get a different view of the city from Fukuoka tower, the second tallest tower in Japan (after Tokyo Tower, although it is soon to be bumped down to third with the opening of the Sky Tree). After entering the tower, we paid a reduced price (the "foreigner" discount) and ascended to the top. It certainly earns its name as the tallest seaside tower in Japan, with spectacular 360 degree views of the city and ocean, complete with directions and distances to cities across the sea (such as Pusan in Korea and Hong Kong). After taking in the city from its highest vantage point, we walked over to the Yahoo! Dome, home to this past year's Japanese baseball major league champs, the Softbank Hawks. Nearby is Hawks town, a small mall that is presumably packed during the regular season and on game days, but looked to be doing a brisk business nonetheless.

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Later that afternoon, we found ourselves walking through Ohori park, known for its running track and island in the middle of the large lake at its center. One understands almost immediately what makes this park such a popular spot for Fukuokans to spend time, particularly on days where the weather was as nice as it was then. Aside from its beauty, there is a theater in the park where performances are put on, as well as the ruins of an old castle, which we decided to visit after walking from one end of the park to the other across.

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 The occasional dog-shaving can be taken in at Ohori, as well

Next, we moved on to the ruins of the former castle, which are essentially an extension of the park itself. I found it to be an oddly quieting experience; apparently the castle's past is shrouded in mystery, and nobody is quite sure what it looked like. The foundation remains, and the top of the former battlements afforded us our third view of Fukuoka's skyline for the day, right as sunset began to come upon the city.

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Another view of Ohori park

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Finally, we returned to Nakasu for some dinner, looking forward to sampling some of Fukuoka's local fare. I would be remiss if I did not mention yatai, which are essentially food stalls, but that are a yearround tradition in Fukuoka rather than the exclusive domain of festivals or other kinds of events. They can be found along various streets and crowding corners around the city, but the most famous ones are supposedly located in Nakasu. The bridge I crossed on my first day was very close to some of the more attractive ones that line the side of the canal. Yatai stands are typically only open during the nighttime, and so if you pass by that way around 10 o'clock at night, you are almost certain to see groups of impatient diners waiting to enter the slightly cramped (perhaps "friendly" or "cozy" are better words, for that is more of the feeling) tents for a snack or meal.

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Fukuoka is known for its tonkatsu ramen, chinese-style noodles in a thick (and somewhat strong-smelling) pork-based broth, and that is one of the more popular dishes served in yatai around the city. Another is mentaiko, fish eggs that are made into what I can only describe as spicy sausage-like packages (in a process I don't think I want to learn about) that are used in various local dishes, although they can be found in Tokyo as well. I was glad that I got the opportunity to try both of them in Fukuoka myself, especially being in one of the yatai stands that a local friend of mine living in Tokyo brought me to. It was great to sit amongst other locals and to get a real sense of what Fukuokan's are like: I have to agree with my friend that they seem light humored and friendly, yet hardworking and perserverant. Apparently many of Tokyo's top celebrities come from Fukuoka, which impressed on me how great their drive for success is. Sitting down to a meal with them was a certainly a great experience I won't forget soon.  

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mentaiko wrapped in egg

Looking back now, it seems amazing to me that I was able to fit as much in to this trip as I did; for being rather short, I felt that I covered a fair amount of ground in Fukuoka, and I certainly want to go back to get another look. I am very intersted in spending more time in Kyushu, and as the self-proclaimed "gateway" to the island, I felt that Fukuoka was a good place to start my wanderings outside of Honshu. Of the more useful things I learned, traveling solo does not necessarily always mean that you will be exploring a new place by yourself; although it can seem daunting, more often than not if you simply go a bit out of your way to establish some relationships with fellow sightseers, particularly those in your hostel or hotel, you are sure to make a friend. After all, nothing brings people together like a joint goals, and I found that sightseeing is definitely one of them. I'm looking forward to more such trips in the future, and I can only hope they are as pleasantly surprising as my last one to Fukuoka was.

Thanks for reading this semester, and please check back soon for more!


12/31/2011

Seeing Japan by Seishun 18

Hello all! Today, I’m going to write a bit about travelling by local train in Japan. The image that is conjured up by those words for Americans is usually a bad one (and pretty fairly, in my opinion) –unreliable, slower than planes and more expensive than faster highway busses. However, this isn’t as much the case in Japan, which is much more reliant on trains as a means of public and long-distance transportation, especially considering that gas is more expensive here.

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 There are a lot of breaks in the Japanese academic calendar, and winter break is no exception. Sophia University’s began this past Friday the 23rd of December and will continue through January 5th, and having so much time with so little to do, I was really interested in getting out of Tokyo for a little bit and doing some travelling. As it turns out, it's a good time of year for just that sort of thing.

Japan Railways (JR) has a special ticket, the “Seishun 18” ticket, which is good for five all-day norihodai (unlimited rides) on all local and rapid trains; in other words, no shinkansen or even express tickets, unlike the JR passes popular for short-term tourists. Despite the name’s implication (“youthful" or "young 18”), the ticket can be bought and used by people of all ages. The ticket can be used on any five days during its period of validity, meaning that you can choose freely whether or not you wish to ride on consecutive days. Furthermore, the ticket can be shared between multiple people: for example, two people can use four of the ticket’s 5 all-day passes over two days, and then one person can use the fifth pass on another day. My friend studying abroad near Kobe is actually planning a trip with four other friends for which they bought two of these tickets, and will split them between themselves in order to use two all-day passes. At ¥11,500, the ticket may seem a bit pricey, but it is an incredibly good deal. As an example, to get from Tokyo to Nagoya costs roughly around ¥6,000 one way, and since it is possible to get there in a single day, if the pass is used twice for that distance, it has already paid for itself. On top of that, JR’s network extends from Kagoshima in Kyushu (the southern tip of the four main islands) and all the way up through even some of the remotest parts of Hokkaido, so there is a way to get almost anywhere you want to go.

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The catch is that the ticket is only sold twice a year: from the beginning through the end of December, and then again from July through August. These tickets are good through January 10th and September 10th, respectively, so the periods for which they can be used can be limited. However, given the good timing of the tickets being around the winter and summer holidays, they are good times for travelling.

Feeling that this was the perfect chance to visit someplace new on the cheap, I made plans to spend this week travelling by the Seishun 18. My interest in going on this trip originated more from an attraction to the idea of the chance to see more of Japan at a relaxed pace by rail rather than having a particular destination in mind. I wanted to see how far I could go using the passes to cover the entire trip, and it turned out that Fukuoka, a major city on Kyushu, was just about right. The entire trip takes about a day and a half to complete (including stops), and would normally cost around ¥28000. I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to get my money’s worth on such a long trip, and so I made hostel reservations, did some research on good things to do in the area, and made plans to set out earlier this week on the 26th, right after Christmas.

Its really true that travelling by local train through Japan gives you a lot of unique glimpses at Japan’s more remote and beautiful countryside. The first leg of my journey took me along the JR Tokkaido line, during which time I had many opportunities to view Mt. Fuji across the Kanto plain.

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 Travelling west and then south along the Tokkaido, Sanyo, and Kagoshima train lines reveals many of Japan’s obscure locations. Naturally, there is some really beautiful scenery, but there is also the more mundane side of the inaka (countryside). I wanted to get a sense of what “normal,” non-urbanized Japan looked like, and riding local trains across half the country certainly allowed me to do that. Aside from intimate views of countless small towns with a variety of mountain ranges in the backdrop, I was treated to some amazing views of the inland sea that separates Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Unlike travelling by bus or even shinkansen, the big windows in local trains give you some really unparalleled glances at scenery, and especially when you have hours to spend, it's a great way to pass the time.

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I also had a distinct feeling that I was moving through the seasons on my way to Fukuoka -- on the first day alone, I seemed to pass through both fall and winter as I sped through Aichi and Gifu prefectures and not only saw some recently fallen snow, but went through a storm myself.

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But it wasn’t only the countryside I saw. Although I didn’t stop there, I passed through Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka to name a few major cities. I also went through some places of historical importance, such as Sekigahara and Shimonoseki, where some of battles that have decided the course of Japanese history were fought. I wish I’d had more time to spend stopping at each and every one of these places, although I was lucky enough to have the chance to spend some time in Hiroshima (including an okonomiyaki lunch, of course) and Nagoya. I’m already thinking of buying the Seishun 18 again next summer to return to Kansai; even by local train, its within one day’s journey, and having spent a bit of time in Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, I think it’s really worth it.

Right outside Hiroshima station

    Right outside of Hiroshima station

I did encounter a few problems along the way, as is bound to happen with this sort of trip. I set out a little bit later than I had originally intended on the first travel day, and so made my first transfer about half an hour behind schedule (8:15 as opposed to 7:45 AM). I was hoping to make it as far as Hiroshima, a trip that takes around 17 hours by local train from Tokyo, and even though I’d known before going that trains come less frequently in the countryside as opposed to the major cities, but I hadn’t been aware of what a difference 30 minutes can really make. Even towards the more populated areas of Japan, local and rapid trains may only come once every half hour or even every hour, making catching a particular one very important if you plan on travelling this way. Even riding the train without stopping all day, I only made it as far as Fukuyama, which is about an hour and 45 minutes away from Hiroshima, and so I had to spend part of the night sleeping at an Internet café (less expensive and more comfortable than one might think; they are frequented by businessmen who stay out late and are in similar binds) before catching the first train out the next morning. If I hadn’t caught that train, I would have had to wait another 30-45 minutes for the next one bound for Hiroshima.

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While I would have preferred to have had a full night’s sleep in a real bed, it was nice to take a trip without so much planning involved. I highly recommend the Seishun 18 because it's truly a great excuse to literally see some (or even half) of Japan. The few pieces of advice I would give to anyone interested in travelling by the ticket would be to spend a fair amount of time checking train options. In hindsight, I probably would have stopped in Kyoto or Osaka rather than Hiroshima, as they were closer to Tokyo, and even being a little bit late I would have been there in plenty of time. Building room into your schedule is truly a must. In line with that, transfers can often take less than five minutes, so its best to bring snacks or even meals onto the train for the long stretches of time, especially if you are making a longer trip. I found that sometimes I had to wait for a few hours for a chance to buy something to eat for in order to avoid missing the next transfer and having to wait even longer for the next train. On the bright side, each train I rode had a bathroom onboard, something which made the long journey easier to manage.

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 時刻表 (Train schedules) can be a bit tricky

Finally, make sure to bring something (or some things) to do -- those long stretches of time can leave you feeling spent, and I found that it was nice to have music, books, reading materials, and even something to study along the way. Believe me, you'll run through them.

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Finally, if you do decide to try the Seishun 18, I recommend making plans early. There are express night trains (such as the “Moonlight Nagara,” which can get you as far as Ogaki, past Nagoya, before 6 AM) which the ticket can be used on – they depart before midnight or even early in the morning, and allow you to get the most out of your travel day. The trains are extremely popular for this reason, and because they are reserved seats only, they are often booked to capacity far in advance (you can start reserving a month before your travel date). Hostel or hotel reservations are also important, especially considering that the period you can use the ticket is prime travel season for many people that they are likely to get full as well.

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I would highly recommend trying the Seishun 18 out – its tiring and occasionally boring (like any long-distance travelling), but if you have the time and the patience, you'll be in for something really special. You really come to realize how much more there is to see of Japan beyond Tokyo once you get out there, especially if you go by local trains that run through some pretty remote and amazing areas. For my next post, I may write more on my trip to Fukuoka, so stay tuned! Happy holidays andよいおとしを!




 

12/25/2011

Autumn 2011: Koyo and other seasonal images in review

Happy holidays everyone! Its been awhile since my last post, and while it may be a bit unseasonable, I'd like to discuss this past autumn and the beauty of the changing of the seasons here. For something a bit more Christmas-y, I'd highly recommend Cynthia's post just down the page a bit.

Koyo, or the changing of the leaves' colors, is one of the more pleasant long, drawn-out seasonal experiences I've ever had. Although it may already be Christmas, fall didn't really seem to even begin to come to an end in Tokyo until about two weeks ago. There aren't really many signs of "winter" that make themselves present even at this time of year (beyond a few glimpses of snow, which I'll touch on later); in fact, the weather here is rather warmer compared to my native Maryland and especially Pittsburgh. So the fact that the leaves continued to show some really beautiful colors until very recently struck me as a strange but pleasant surprise, and if I didn't think it before it has certainly come to represent the beauty and variety of Japan's four seasons. With that, let's take a look back on that autumn that was.

My first real attempt to get a taste of Koyo was a brief trip to Kyoto I took back in early November, the height of autumn in America but pretty early for any real color in Japan. I won't say that I was completely disappointed with the colors I got to see, but it was really too early to get a good sense of what the true beauty of the season is like. Of course no matter how well one plans, it all changes from tree to tree, and so you can't really tell where the best spots are going to be with any real certainty that early. In hindsight, I might have tried to delay the trip for another time, so I might have seen Kyoto in its full autumn radiance, but on the same hand one doesn't have as many breaks from school, and as I've learned its much better to take life by the horns and just go.

First signs of autumn in the park adjacent to Nara's Todaiji (the largest wooden structure in the world)
In truth, as far as I could see the only thing that was really in full bloom at that time was kaki, or persimmon, a fruit that grows like dandelion all over Japan. There were available to the extent that one could very easily pick them off of a low hanging branch without much effort (not that I was inclined to take someone else's property, as many of these trees grow in yards).

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Just like Koyo or even Sakura (cherry blossoms), kaki  have their own place in the pantheon of seasonal symbolic images, as reflected by their presence in several offerings that I saw during my time in Kyoto, including in a great offering at the Gosho, the imperial court and palace of the Heian era.

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To return to the topic of koyo, the trees along the banks of the Kamo river had begun to show the early signs of the season as well.

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The annual changing of the colors of leaves is in my opinion a much bigger deal in Japan than in the U.S. Perhaps this is because the four seasons are regarded much more as a unique aspect of this country's aesthetics, and as a result the Japanese have a sense of national pride and interest in actively engaging in seasonal activities of this sort. I can't remember the last time I heard a bunch of college students in the U.S. sitting around a computer talking animatedly about whether the autumn colors were still in season at such-and-such mountain, but I've heard it here. TV news reporters travel around for the express purpose of covering koyo. Daily tv updates on where the colors are peaking are common, with more detailed information available on the web. There is much of a similar consideration given to sakura in the spring, and as I mentioned before, even college students make a point to take time out to enjoy these natural wonders. truly, this is a country that values natural signs of seasonal change.

The best look I got at Japanese koyo in its full glory would have to have been during our time on Miyajima island in Hiroshima. It was completely unexpected (being closer to December at that time), but nonetheless a truly nice surprise. The leaves are really only at their peak colors for a short time, and the mix of shades of red, yellow, orange and even green respectively make for some great picture opportunities. Even if you're just an amateur photo-taker like me, you'll find that the leaves provide all of the シャッタチャンス("Shutter chance," or photo-ops) you could possibly want.

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After Miyajima, I had one last opportunity to see the changing of the seasons on a day trip to Takao-san, a mountain within about an hour's reach by train from Shinjuku. Although a majority of the trees were already past their autumn primes and were beginning to shed their leaves in preparation for hibernation, there were still some trees sporting colors. Most of these had begun to show their age, and had turned the dull brown most do before falling from their branches, but accompanying an early, light snowfall, even these can retain some of their beauty. In my mind, that's a true representation of the Japanese aesthetic taste for seasonal transition.

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I feel fortunate that I witnessed the transition from both summer to fall and fall to winter here; it really is something unique, if only in that it is given so much consideration by the Japanese. I'd say that on the next go around, I'm planning on paying a little more attention to the leave peak reports so that the next season I'm lucky enough to see will be an even better experience than this one was. Nikko is one prime viewing spot I haven't made it to thus far, so hopefully I'll be able to catch Japanese autumn in its prime. I'm looking forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms next year, and when they do I'll be there to capture a few pictures of my own. I hope to share them with you all at that point; until later, happy holidays again, and よいおとしを!(Happy New Year!)

11/23/2011

Getting your coffee fix in Japan

Starbucks, Tully's, Excelsior Caffé, Beck's...the list of chain coffee shops in Japan goes on and on. Add that to the many kinds of canned coffee and espresso variants lining conbini and vending machine shelves and you would probably agree that there certainly isn't a shortage of coffee available in Japan. At first glance the experience seems to parallel what one might expect in America, but I've found that the slight differences make for an interesting twist on coffee culture in Japan.

Like their American counterparts, Japanese coffee drinkers seem to differentiate between drinking with a purpose and for pleasure. For those times when a caffeine boost after an all-nighter is necessary to keep you going, coffee is just as much a quick-fix in Japan as anywhere else. The aforementioned grab-and-go coffee is readily available in bottle, can, and even jelly forms (trust me, look it up), sold at conbini both hot and cold, and is also dispensed at vending machines that can be found on almost major street or cramped alleyway in Tokyo. On Sophia University's campus, there are also vending machines that brew a variety of delicious blends of instant cup coffee (again, available hot and cold). One of the most surprising things to me when I first got here was to see names like "Suntory" and "Kirin" associated with these pre-packaged coffee brands. I would never associate a name like "Budweiser" with a decent brand of canned coffee. Still, I have to admit that Japanese beverage makers (as I call them, since they don't especially restrict themselves to alcoholic drinks) certainly have done well expanding their market shares. I can easily imagine the average businessman buying "Boss Coffee" (or Bosu, Suntory's well-known coffee brand) early in the morning, and then winding down at the end of a long day with least one glass of Suntory " The Premium Malts" beer.

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 Certainly conbini and vending machines are more...well, convenient than going into a coffee shop in many cases. But I am more inclined to want my coffee to be (reasonably) freshly brewed, and handed to me in that classic cardboard "Solo" lookalike cup by a barista across a cafe counter. Although this type of pre-packaged coffee is relatively available in the U.S. (I'm thinking of Starbucks' refrigerated "frappacinos"), it never seemed to me that it was as popular an option for Americans. After all, there isn't really much of a difference in the pricing, at least as far as I can remember, and the quality is pretty different to say the least.

That's not the case in Japan. Can coffees and espressos runs anywhere between ¥110 to about ¥200, which  at current exchange rates is about $1.50 to $2.50, whereas a small cup of regular, no-frills drip coffee at a major coffee chain like Excelsior can run you from ¥200 to over ¥300. I was honestly a bit shocked. No wonder people go for the cans despite the small size -- the cheap alternative allows consumers to get their fix while enjoying some of the more "exotic" varieties like caramel lattés that, while priced similarly to Japanese drip coffee in the U.S., would be much more expensive at a coffee shop. Of course, Japan is a country that relies a great deal on imports, and coffee is no different; but I was still amazed at the price of a simple cup of small, regular coffee. That's not to mention that the sizing of those cups are far smaller than what one might consider "normal" in America. If you are looking to buy your coffee in Japan brewed for you right there, expect that even the large (which could run you close to ¥450-500) will only come up to an American medium in many cases. To be sure, coffee prices are hiked up everywhere: Starbucks in Japan is just as overpriced as Starbucks in America is. But the lousy exchange rate doesn't really help that, either.

That being said, I find the other side of Japanese coffee experience, the café culture, to be pretty appealing. It's clear from the pricing of food and drink alike, as well as the atmosphere of relaxation and socializing cultivated in even the chain cafés, that this is something of an everyday luxury, perhaps even more so than in America. In addition, the local, independent cafe may perhaps be more associated with the U.S., but I'm pleased to say it exists in even in a country with as many convenience and chain stores as Japan.

The first independent coffee shop I visited was the "Label Café" in Azabujuban, within walking distance of Tokyo Tower. After doing a bit of reading up on the place, it seems that it's owned and operated by a small design group called "Label Creators" that makes clothing and furniture, with other projects to boot. Label Creators seem to have another restaurant in Osaka, as well; perhaps they aren't quite so small after all.

The café' itself is what caught my eye: on a whim, I walked up a side street in Azabujuban and happened upon the three floor building. After looking at the menu outside and taking note of it, I walked on, meaning to return later that day to scope it out. Unfortunately I was too late that day (it closes rather early, around 5 pm), and so I came back the next day in the hopes that I would find my first favorite coffee haunt in Tokyo.

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Even  from the outside of the building, one gets the sense that this is a place where people are meant to sit down and relax for awhile. Just to the left of the door is a bench sitting in front of an ivy-covered fence that practically begs you to stop and rest a few minutes. The bikes resting there gave me the impression that this is a place for locals, and one that people willingly go out of their way to visit on their day off.

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The inside of the Label Café certainly looks like it was the brainchild of a modern design company. The entryway gives one the sensation of having entered a house, and the stairway to the right seems relatively plain, leading to a small library/gallery on the second floor (the third was closed off, and I received weird looks from café staff even when I climbed up to the library). However, look to the left as you enter, and you encounter the small "store," where you can buy clothing and other products made by Label Creators. From there, you enter the café/restaurant itself (the building serves as an Italian cuisine place, as well), a long room with a bar that commands attention from guests. The café also serves beer and wine, so in that sense the "baristas" here might actually deserve the title.

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I chose one of the tables near the doorway and ordered a café au lait (seeing as how it was only an extra ¥50 apart from the regular coffee at ¥650, I felt I should just bite the bullet and really have the café experience). I took an instant liking to the furniture, which is apparently produced by Label Creators as well. The chair I sat in is oriented in such a way that one must sit at a diagonal angle: perhaps not the most comfortable of seats, but worth trying out. Getting to use furniture designed by the owners of a café itself was an interesting experience that for me has so far been unique to the Label.

I wish I could speak better for the coffee itself. My café au lait was a little bit too milky for my taste, and rather small for having paid around $8-9 (big surprise). Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about my expensive drink was appreciating the ceramic ware it was served in. Having come from a tea ceremony demonstration earlier that day, it would seem a fitting consistency in Japanese culture if one would appreciate the sugar cup just as much as the coffee itself (I would mention the mug, but it wasn't really anything special). Of course, I may just be trying to make myself feel better for having spent so much on an unsatisfying cup of coffee. 

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The rest of the menu looked to be interesting, so perhaps the Label Café deserves another look. Apart from the furniture, I discovered another few cool cafés I mean to visit in the future thanks to some of the coffee shop guides the Label has set out as free reading material. If you're looking for more than just a cup of coffee in a shop, then the Label Café may hold some interest for you.

The second independent shop I went to was a bit different in tone from the first. I sought out Café Hinata-ya after my host sister recommended it as a good place to spend some time studying. After arriving at Ochanomizu station, its almost a straight-shot down a street until one comes to the point of a triangular building. The Café is on the fourth floor, and the sign is easy to miss unless you are looking for it. After entering through a small side door and walking up a steep, cramped staircase, one comes to the entrance itself. Café Hinata-ya is a very cozy setting, more familiar where the Label was sophisticated. Used books and magazines are tidily stacked on bookshelves and an assortment of knick- nacks line the space beneath windows that wrap around the room and afford a nice view of the city streets below. Its a really pleasant place, and I have to admit that I was more comfortable spending an hour there than I would have been at the Label Café. It felt more like I'd been invited into someone's apartment rather than a coffee shop.

Amongst the other things that made my experience at Hinata-ya more enjoyable were the expansive menu, the welcoming staff, and the face that the place was full (but not packed) of regulars who seemed to be enjoying themselves. Certainly the drink deserves a mention, too: I ordered a really nice, rich café mocha, which cost around ¥600.  Once again, the size wasn't as large as I would have hoped for, but you learn to appreciate the amount you get pretty quickly here (or I suppose you don't go to cafés). Unfortunately the one thing I didn't feel comfortable enough to do was to take a few pictures, so I don't have any of the inside of the place itself; but check the website (linked above) for an idea of what it looks like.

Ultimately, if you are interested in checking out the coffee scene in Tokyo, from what I've experienced thus far, I would say it's best not to expect too much for your money and to take the time out to enjoy whatever you get. Sit a minute, bring some work or a book, and stay awhile. As (comparatively) cheap as coffee is in America, I sometimes find it all too easy to guzzle down what I've ordered; but in a country where imports like coffee are considered more along the lines of everyday luxury, its best to try a different way of approaching the way you think about it. Who knows: maybe I'll learn to appreciate my coffee a little more in the future.

10/14/2011

An Introduction is in Order!

Hey there! My name is Russell Ottalini, and I'm one of the academic yearlong CIEE students who came to Japan a little more than a month ago this past Semptember. I am a junior out of the University of Pittsburgh, and I am majoring in Japanese (language as well as area studies) and Sociology. I'm twenty-one years-old, and the comfort food I am missing most here is good ol' peanut butter and jelly, or rather, peanut butter with preservatives or jam. Specifically strawberry jam. Yes, they have it, it is in fact sold here: but to spend more on a sandwhich whose purpose is to be cheap, quick and dirty (or 手っ取り早い as they say here), that seems to defeat the purpose. Nevertheless, I can pretty much guarantee I'll have to buy some at some point in the term.

It's very hard for me to grasp the fact that I've been in Japan for a month now; the time really does fly by. I've been wanting to come to Japan since I was in the third grade, when I was first exposed to this country's fascinating culture (even through a few days' lessons) in social studies. There is something about the combination of its beautiful traditions refined over several centuries and the tireless adoption of new ideas and the Japanese appreciation for novelty, which makes everything seem so futuristic, that simply clicked with me. Perhaps one of the most alluring thing about Japan to Westerners, particularly Americans, is that things seem so similar, but are simultaenously completely different. It is that divergence, amongst other things, that has brought me here.

Perhaps a good example might be baseball culture here. Japanese baseball is, in almost every respect, exactly the same as American baseball: so far as I can tell, the rules are the same, the uniforms are rather similar, and yes, there is no shortage of beer and hotdogs to be had when spectating. However, if you have ever seen even a clip of a Japanese baseball game, you will know that the attitude and spirit of the Japanese fans is much livelier here than their American counterparts exhibit. In fact, I'm going to correct what I said before: if you are cheering on your favorite Japanese team in a stadium, you are not spectating: you are actively engaged. Diehard fans pay more to sit in designated cheering sections for each game in order to participate in organized cheers for their team, as well as for each individual player who comes up to bat. Some fans even bring their own instruments in order to provide real musical accompaniment. From what I recall of the last American baseball game I went to, I spent more time concentrating on planning a beach trip with my friends than watching the actual game; the focus was not on cheering on the team, and it was indeed a shared concept amongst my friends and I that baseball was a "sport you could chat to" of sorts.

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I can't say that I know American baseball extremely well, so I won't claim that I can speak with too much authority on whether or not the experience of most fans is similar to mine. Nor will I deny that there aren't tense moments in American baseball games that hold the crowd's rapt attention. However, I really feel that the palpable spirit and enthusiasm for actively rallying around baseball teams is something truly characteristic of Japan. It seems to be a carry over from other aspects of Japanese culture, as well: see Omikoshi, the portable street shrines featured in smaller festivals, for example, or perhaps even simply the versatile word "ganbaru" which seems to be imbued with this spirit of perserverance. So there we have them: American baseball and Japanese baseball, one in the same and completely different at the same time.

It's been great to have the opportunity to see and experience such cultural activities, like Japanese baseball, and I cannot wait for the many more that are to come in the following months. One of the reasons I chose to come to the capital was because of my interest in the "Tokyo lifestyle," and I would like to learn more about the city itself. Even commuting on the train almost every day of the week has already been quite an educational experience, and I hope to share more experiences here. I am also hoping to join a hiking club through the university, which will give me an occasion to travel to other parts of the country, as well as a chance to see the beautiful countryside. With that, I'll have a lot to write about here; until next time!