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8 posts categorized "Samantha McDonald"


Ise, Nagoya, and Aichi

This past weekend my friend Yui gave me the wonderful opportunity to meet her family in Aichi. We left by Shinkansen Friday evening and arrived in Nagoya about 1 1/2 hours later. Yui’s family actually lived in America for 3 years, so they were very nice and understanding of my American background. Her mom even hugged me four times which is more than I have received from anyone in the past four months!



On Saturday we got up at 4 am and drove 3 hours to the town of Ise. Ise is home to the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮, Ise Jingū), one of , if not the most, important Shinto shrines in all of Japan.

Wikipedia Definition: “Located in the city of Ise in Mie prefecture, Japan, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami. Officially known simply as Jingū (神宮?), Ise Jingū is in fact a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮?) and Gekū (外宮?).


The shrines at Ise are rebuilt every 20 years as a symbol of death, renewal , and the impermanence of all things. Everything , at one time or another, will die and become anew. I believe this process of rebuilding has been completed 62 times which is 1,240 years that this tradition has remained intact. At each shrine, we placed coins in a donation box, bowed twice, clapped twice, prayed, bowed once more and moved onto the next shrine. This process is repeated for every shrine, each representing a different spirit of Shintoism. I was completely out of coins by the end of the day but it was worth it. I should also point out that even though the shrines were busy, I saw only 2-4 other non-japanese people the entire day. 

Imperial Regalia of Japan (三種の神器 Sanshu no Jingi) or The Deathly Hallows!!

Ise is also the supposed home of the sacred mirror Yata no Kagami which is part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there are three sacred Shinto items. A sword, a mirror, and a jewel.

Wikipedia:“Due to the legendary status of these items, their locations are not confirmed, but it is commonly thought that the sword is located at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, the jewel is located at Kōkyo (the Imperial Palace) in Tōkyō, and the mirror is located in the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie prefecture.”

These items are extremely sacred to the Japanese people. So scared in fact that no one except for the imperial family is allowed to ever see these items. No photographs or drawings of the items exist, but their divine power is still believed by all who hear about their story.



On the second day, we drove to Nagoya to explore the city. I really like Nagoya. It was like a mini version of Tokyo except much hotter. Yui and I went to a Kuma Cafe (Bear Cafe) for lunch and then had a really expensive but amazingly delicious parfait for dessert. In between we spent some time walking around the main city streets and walked all the way to Nagoya Station to ride the Shikansen back home.

It was a really beautiful trip. Yui and her family are some of the nicest people I have met in Japan. They were so kind as to let me into their home and take care of me for a few days. They gave me a wonderful opportunity to see a new place and Japan and to spend some time with some really amazing people.

Her mom gave me chopsticks at the end of my stay because the word for chopsticks is the same as bridge in Japanese and she enjoyed having me “bridge” the gap between America in Japan. I promised her that if Yui ever came to America I would definitely give her the same wonderful experience with my family.





I'm not religious, but the only way I could describe the view from atop Fuji is like looking at the land of the Gods. It was breathtaking, almost unreal.  I've seen Fuji from the bottom. I knew the size as seen from below, but looking from the top was ten times more amazing. It skyrockets over the surrounding mountains. I could see a few of the mountains I've already climbed but they looked so small and incomparable to the height at which I was standing. It was just an absolutely amazing experience.

My guide took us up the mountain VERY slow. Almost unbearably slow in the beginning. But I am so happy he did so because that slow pace became the fast past once we reached the higher altitudes. Saturday was cold, misty, rainy, wet, and slow going. Although it sounds miserable, I thought it was terrific climbing weather and made the height of the slopes look much more jaw dropping. You never knew where the slope ended in the wall of fog. The hut could fit an average 300 hikers during populated season. Sleeping bags lined the huts bunks. You definitely had no personal space next to or below you. We went to bed at 7pm knowing that at 2am we would start hiking again.


I prayed and prayed for nice weather the next morning.  Around 1am I got up to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom (by the way its 200yen to use the bathroom on Fuji). I looked down the slope and OMG I can see cities! So many cities all were twinkling in the night, like I was watching from a plane. I had no context until that moment how high we were because of all the fog the day before. I was so happy that I ran back inside, grabbed my camera and tried to take pictures. They turned out incredibly horrible because of the low light and no tri-pod but I tried! At 2am we set back out to summit before sunrise.


The line to the summit was LONG. It was 2 am and there was at least 1000 people waiting to reach the top. It took double the time than it would normally to reach the top but for me that was ok. The line of people going up the summit looked like lights on a Christmas tree weaving back and forth. It was really beautiful watching everyone just gaze at the sunrise in awe. The last time I saw a sunrise above the clouds, it looked like a sliver of golden liquid coming across the sky. This time, it was more like The Lion King; the way the sun rose in a full circle bringing some welcoming heat to our faces. After the sun came out, the view became even more amazing. You had so much more context for where everything and how small it all was. Mountains and lakes were more defined leaving a view that made my heart sing. I trained so hard for this. I climbed every week (but once) to prepare. Japan has made me learn so much about my capabilities as a person. Summiting Fuji was just that icing on the cake I needed to start of my last chapter in Japan. Only three full weeks left; so soon but still far enough to accomplish a few more things.

Again, it was by far the best day of my life.




The Whimsical Cafes of Tokyo: Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ghibli

So if you have ever watched Ki-Ki’s delivery service, you’ll know exactly what I ate last week. If you don’t, this is the Herring Pie, a signature dish made in the movie. A tiny cafe called Baby King Kitchen in Koenji recreates the dish for customers. One only has to call a day ahead so they can prepare to make it.

The cafe was located on the second floor of an old building. A small bell on an extremely large string ran all the way up a stair case to the front door of the cafe. When I rang it, a young woman popped her head outside a small window and greeted us to the café. Inside was a random collection of couches and coffee tables. The walls and floor were a rustic fading white. The shelves on the wall had little painted trains and children books were scattered on all the tables. It was very cozy and very cute. Lots of children’s toys and characters were scattered around the place and cute nesting dolls and doughnut pillows were on the couches. There was even a little swing for kids.

When our pie arrived it came with a little Ji Ji mug and JiJi Plushie. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep them L They were only for decorative display. The pie itself was absolutely amazing and had broccoli, cheese, herring, noodles, and potatoes in it. So good! I’ve also posted the original cartoon pie below.


Ghibli movies are very famous here in Japan, its represent a lot of the Japanese pop culture. So when coming here you will probably find a lot of things Ghibli themed, especially food and souvenirs. I personally came to Japan with only one Ghibli move experience, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I grew up watching the movie with my father and so the pie was like having a big slice of my childhood brought back to me. It wasn’t until I arrived in Japan that I saw a few other Ghibli films with my host mom. Their imagry and whimsical stories are always so exciting and so entertaining. So many of the movies focus on nature and spiritual creatures and are the Japanese versions of fairytales. One of the best parts about anime in general is that many locations in Japan are recreated so readers and viewers and can have their own experience in that location. It makes it very relatable. Before coming to Japan, I highly recommend watching at least a few Ghibli movies because you’ll see references to them everywhere. CIEE also takes a trip to the famous Ghibli museum which is even more fun when you know all the movies beforehand. If you want a taste of japanese culture at home, I definetly reccomend eating some sushi and watching come Ghibli. 


The Whimsical Cafes of Tokyo: Cats

It’s June here in Japan and that means rain! Lots and Lots of rain! But for me it means lots and lots of cafes. Tokyo is known for its frivolous and whimsical cafes.  There’s cat cafes, chocolate cafes, maid cafes, butler cafes, Alice in wonderland café, panda cafes, owl cafes, and goat cafes just to name some. I made sure to hold off venturing to these places until the raining season. It’s the perfect time to explore more indoor activities that will lighten my spirits on a dreary day. So starting now I will provide a few of my favorite cafes around Tokyo.  Starting with Cat Cafes. 


I have visited one cat café and cat house during my stay in Japan. What’s the difference? The Cat Café is an actual café .It serves coffee, tea, food and has relaxing chairs and seating. The one I went to in Shinjuku (キャリコ カフェ) has really good cheesecake, cushiony couches, even a video game area to play games while surrounded by cats. My friends and I spent about an house looking at all the cute purebred cats nap and eat our snacks. By comparison, the cat house was only cats and no café. The one in Ikebukuro (ネコブクロ)  was really well decorated. Everything was modeled like a little town of cats. There was a cat train, a cat city map, and little house rooms that acted as the cat’s personal houses. So cute. Both are great places with really beautiful cats. The cat cafés usually have an hourly rate and fairly overpriced food and drink. The cat house by comparison is a lot cheaper because of it lacks amenities. You can pay about 600yen for one whole day of cats. If you are there for the cats and just the cats, it’s the best place.

I would however warn those wanting to snuggle that there are some rules and unexpected things about going to a cat café. First, these cats get pet, A LOT, every day and all day by random people. Therefor most of them are not going to be the most cuddly and affectionate. They are all well-tempered cats but don’t expect one to want to sit on your lap. You are also not allowed to pick them up out of respect for the cat. The best part about the café is that you can buy food to give the cats which will attract a lot of them. But make sure you are going to be around cats and not just to have one as a cuddle buddy. 

A View of Fuji

One of my biggest goals while in Japan is to climb Mt.Fuji. However, in the two whole months I have lived in Tokyo I hadn’t seen it. I climbed some of the highest mountains in Tokyo, hoping to see the big white giant, but it never happened. It was always too cloudy or too muggy to be visible. There was even a viewing platform on Mt.Ohirayama specifically made for viewing Mt.Fuji (see photo below). Yet I still could not see it. By the end of the second month, I made it my goal to see Mt.Fuji, even if it meant going all the way to its base. 



Lucky for me, I didn’t have to travel that far to see its peak. On a cloudless Sunday I traveled to Kawaguchiko, a large lake at the base of Mt. Fuji. The train to Kawaguchiko was very cool. Unlike most trains, this train had comfy seats that all faced forward. It was perfect for viewing Fuji. After swerving in and out of mountain tunnels and riverside bridges, I saw my first view of Fuji. It’s peak was above the clouds. Perfectly white and absolutely breathtaking, my heart was pounding. It was so much bigger and more grand than I imagined. From the train, you could see farmers working in the rice fields, not even noticing the ginormous beauty lurking behind them. It was amazing. When arriving at Kawaguchiko, you could see the mountain top to bottom.  By the time I reached the start of my hike, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky blocking its view.

In order to get an even better view, my friend and I decided to climb Mt. Kachi Kachi. It was a fairly short and steep hike, but provided the best view of Fuji from the top. At the very peak, there was a spectacular panoramic of the lake and the mountain. Absolutely breathtaking. A note for the lazy travelers, there’s a cable car that goes to the top as well.  IMG_8717

Mt. Kachi Kachi has a very interesting story written on a sign at the top of the mountain. The whole story is fairly long and a bit gruesome, but a shorter more “kids friendly” version is posted on their website. A dog rabbit names Tanuki betrays a farming couple and as revenge, sends a rabbit to seek revenge. The rabbit sets his back on fire. This is why the mountain is called Kachi Kachi because it’s onomatopoeia for fire. A hilarious set of statues sits at the top of Kachi Kachi depicting the story.  IMG_8722

That day was one of my top ten best days in Japan. As much as I enjoy the city, I need my nature break. The raw beauty of Japan is just as amazing as its manmade features. Seeing Mt.Fuji was so humbling and so inspiring, I could see how the Japanese treasure it as one of, if not their best landmark of the country. If you ever come to Japan, you must see Mt.Fuji close up. None of my photos could ever do it justice on how big the mountain actually it. At the end of the day, my friend and I grabbed some My.Fuji Ice Cream (Vanilla on top and blue rose flavored at the bottom) and took the rapid train to Shinjuku back home. It was an absolutely magnificent day. 



Kita-Kamakura Archery Surprise


Today I went to Kita-Kamakura to do some hiking.

When I first arrived, I took a trip to Engakuji temple. The second I entered, I decided to leave the tourist crowd and locate the small less traveled routes to different small structures on the grounds. The moment I left the main stream of people, I discovered something amazing. As I was approaching one the buildings, I discovered it was purely dedicated to the art of archery.  I was even more fortunate to arrive on a practice day.

The small buildings housed 3 main areas. A prayer center, a bow storage area, and a shooting range. From inside the spacious and open buildings, archers were able to shoot at a row of targets placed in the garden grounds next to the building. Each archer was silent and took turns to individually try their luck at a target in the garden. The archers moved extremely slow. Every breath was precise. It took so long for the archers to actually pull back their arrow; I almost thought they were never going to shoot it. Once released, the archers showed no emotion and proceeded to collect to return their bow and retrieve the arrows. This process repeated over and over with multiple people. While waiting their turn, other archers were praying below different shrines while others were having personal lessons. One woman was teaching a man how to stretch his arm correctly, and used a big rubber band to mimic the tension in the bow.

Initially, I thought it was the same archery going to be displayed at Kamakura’s Matsuri. I learned about the town’s matsuri through CIEE’s first trip to Kamakura. The festival was to take place the next day to celebrate the history of the town. At the festival, Yabusame archers were to ride horseback to reflect the ancient skills of older samuri. The archers and riders have dragonflies sewn into the sleeves of their shirts to represent never going back. Dragonflies only fly forward.

After some research I've concluded that this was Yabusame but instead Kyūdō, the way of the bow. Kyūdō focuses on the meditation just as much as the archers accuracy. Wikipedia said, "[the] goal most devotees of kyudo seek is seisha seichū, "correct shooting is correct hitting"'. Therefor the process of shooting the arrow is more important that the actual shooting of their arrow. A sense of inner balance and control is needed to have the bow and the person be in harmony.

I watched the practice for quite some time, pondering my own impatience compared to the silent and graceful patience of the Kyūdō archer. Sometimes life in Tokyo can be too busy. It is nice to slow down and look more at the details of the journey, rather than the outcome. My special surprise allowed me to reflect on my first month in Tokyo, and to appreciate the process in which my adventure has started. I was very lucky to watch the archers that day. It was truly something special to watch.


Climbing Adventures

2014-04-27 15.17.12

Last week was my first trip with the ワンダーフォーゲル部 (Wondervogel Club)! At first I did not understand their name. The club is first and foremost a hiking club. They do activities like weekend hikes and day trips to climbing gyms. After spending some time on Wikipedia I discovered the reason for their name.

“The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird (differing in meaning from ‘Zugvogel’ or migratory bird) and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom.” Wikipedia

The club itself is really old. The earliest photos of the club posted on their website are in black and white and capture young men climbing mountains together. I am so happy to join such a historical club. It makes me feel a part of something culturally significant at Sophia. Today I was especially excited because we visited a bouldering gym. Rock climbing and bouldering is a long time hobby of mine. I was especially excited to meet some new friends to share their own experience climbing. In the past month, I have visited two rock climbing gyms in the Tokyo area. One was called B-Pump in Akihabara (秋葉原) that was strictly a bouldering (short wall) gym. The other gym was called Runnout in NishiKokubunji (西国分寺). With the club, I went to a gym called Apex about 20 minutes walking from Sophia.

As a climber in America, I already know a lot about the climbing culture. However there are many things in Japan that are completely different in terms of climbing etiquette and routine that caught me off guard. Most of it can be related back to the history of Japanese culture and how they approach sports. When inside the locker room, I was not allowed to open my chalk bag or put on my climbing shoes. Shoes must only be worn in the climbing areas. This of course is understandable and relatable to my life in the homestay where shoes are never worn in the house. Also, the rating of climbs is completely opposite of U.S. standards.

The Japanese use the Dankyu (Dan and Kyu) system which resembles that of martial arts. Climbs that are rated 1 are the hardest and get easier as the numbers ascend. Unless, the climb is labeled as 足+手 (hands and feet), you are only to follow the holds that are colored with your hands. Feet can be placed on whatever hold you choose, very strange in terms of U.S standards.

2014-05-09 14.34.10

The entire club was extremely nice and patient with my lack of Japanese speaking skills. Although some clubs at Sophia can be very demanding, this club is very kind and very relaxed. They are also very nice about having study abroad students join events. I made a lot of new friends and cannot wait for their next hiking trip!  

高尾山 Mt.Takao

While in Japan, I have made it my goal to hike one trail once a week to train for my hike up Mt.Fuji. Today I continued my weekly task and ventured to Mt.Takao (高尾山).

Mt.Takao is a protected mountain outside the town of Hachijoji (八王子市) that offers an amazing view of Tokyo from the top. It's about an hour train ride from Akishima (昭島) where I live and offers eight different trails to hike. I was told this is one of the best practice spots for Mt.Fuji. The entire mountain is covered in steep terrian beautiful views. The main trail, trail #1, is paved and offers the easiest pathway to the summit and main temples. It also has a monkey park, multiple small restaurants, and an observatory. 

One of the most famous parts of Takao is its main temple, Yakuo-in. It is a Buddhist temple established in 744 by Emperor Shomu as a base for Buddhism in eastern Japan. It is dedicated to the Medicine Bhudda, Yakushi Nyorai.


On the trail, there were a lot of mask and statues of long nosed red-faced creatures. After doing some research, I learned they are Tengu. Tengu, long-nosed demons, are believed to dwell on Takao and act as the messengers of the deities to harm evildoers and protect the good. Kind of creepy to think they are lurking around the mountain, but I never saw them in person :)

During the hike, my friend and I chose trail #6 to climb because it was the longest with most obstacles. The mountain can get pretty crowded on the weekends so we wanted a trail with less children and elderly. It was definitely a grueling climb. Parts of the climb were very narrow and very steep. There was one section where we literally walked upstream. So cool! The entire climb was beautiful. Flat stones were placed in the center of the stream as well as platforms for little brake points. Tree roots grew on the sides of the narrow path, and kept the soil strong for a solid hiking ground. Giant pine-like trees created a canopy of shade over the trail, keeping it cool and slightly breezy. When we reached the third quarter of the climb, the trail changed into a set of very high stair cases to help us finish and reach the peak. 


For all our hard work, we received an amazing reward. After turning a corner, we reached a wide opening at the top of the peak. From there, all of the Tokyo skyline could be seen. From Kokubunji to Tokyo station, I could see it all. A map placed at the top pinpointed where Edo castle, Tokyo Skytree, and Shinjuku was located. When venturing to the other side of the peak, layers of mountain side can be seen. I use the word layers because the scene literally looks like different lines of shaded blue were painted horizontally across the sky. Each layer carried its own set of ranges. On a clear day, even Mt.Fuji’s peak is visible from the top.


After completing the climb, we took trail #1 back down. This trail was paved and followed the main path of temples, gift-shops, and sacred statues. This is the main historical hub of Mt.Takao and offers a variety of things to do. A mini zoo, restaurants, picnic areas, gift shops, and mini temples are scattered around trail #1.


The mountain also provides a cable car and ski lift system for the exhausted hikers and lazy explorers. My friend and I decided to take the ski lift back down. It was a peaceful and rewarding finish to the end of a great hike. I plan to return to Mt.Takao multiple times this semester to hike the other trails and see the Tokyo skyline at night.

+1 for a great day