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6 posts categorized "Shelah Larson "

06/16/2015

How to Have Fun in Tokyo, Japan While on a Budget

Before coming to Japan, one of the first things people warned me about was how expensive everything is – to which I’ve quickly come to discover, they were right. Unfortunately, being a major city, Tokyo turned out to be just as expensive as people warned, however, not in the way I was necessarily expecting it to be.

Essentially, I was anticipating spending all of my money on clothes, shoes, and other entertainment related goods, but to my surprise, most – if not all – of my money went to food and travel expenses. Not to say the food here is expensive – it’s actually quite the opposite. Most food purchases can be made at any local convenient store for no more than five dollars, the only bad part is convenient stores are almost too local. I routinely stop in and purchase a snack or two of some sorts (typically melon bread), which has quickly depleted my money supply.

I knew I had to break my bad habits of making daily trips to convenient stores and limit my travels to just the weekends. Looking back on my experiences adjusting to life in Tokyo, I would have benefited greatly from knowing how to spend my money more wisely on inexpensive fun and more substantial (and filling) meals. Luckily, after getting adjusted to Japanese life, I’ve been able to find fun places to go and cheap places to eat that are relatively cheap, affordable, and won’t suck your wallet dry.

First off, if you're looking for a place to hang out with friends that is easy and fun, local game centers are the way to go. Not only are these places hard to miss – as they are typically large, red buildings with the sign “game” plastered on the front – but these massive giants have multiple floors, each containing various types of amusement, able to satisfy even the pickiest of gamers. What’s more, each game typically costs around 200 to 300-yen, which is around $2.50 a game. In my opinion, this is a small price to pay for the amount of fun a person can have for one game alone.

And ladies, don’t worry! If gaming isn’t your thing, there is an entire floor dedicated solely to purikura – which is essentially a Japanese version of a photo booth. Basically, for around four dollars, you and your friends can get high quality photos taken. And, for a small fee, you can dress up in various costumes ranging from an adorable tiger to a dedicated flight attendant.  

Aside from common game centers, there are also local parks such as Yoyogi and Setagaya, located about ten minutes away from the heart of Harajuku. These natural playgrounds are the perfect place to go and enjoy nature and spend time talking with friend. The best part is, it’s completely free.

Ideally, to make parks more of an enjoyable daytime activity, stopping at nearby convenient stores to gather some tasty snacks is always a good idea. Essentially, some sun, a cold refreshing drink, and quality conversation is all one needs. As an added bonus, Yoyogi Park and Harajuku are optimal places to spend a few hours because they are both about a ten-minute walking distance from Shibuya.

And while I highly recommend doing some of the aforementioned activities with friends, these are just a few suggestions on ways to have fun in Tokyo while being on a budget. There are many different things to see and do in Japan and knowing how to save money wherever you can helps make the experience a little more enjoyable. Happy saving! 

The Road Less Traveled in Tokyo, Japan

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Day and night, hundreds of people – from tourists to natives – flood the streets of Tokyo. So much so, if you’re not careful, you can easily get swept away in the strong wave of bodies moving unanimously from one place to the next. And, while following a crowd around places like Shibuya and Shinjuku can lead you to popular and exiting places – especially if you do not already know where you are going – many unique side streets are sadly overlooked. I’ve come to discover, by getting lost, I stumble across places I never knew existed and may have never found while moving with the crowd.

Often times, when I find myself wandering the lively (and kooky) streets of Harajuku, I tend to stay within the areas I am most familiar with such as Yoyogi Park and Takeshita Street. Little did I know, by doing so, I really hindered my chances of coming across a really cool store, or truly awesome (and delicious) pancake restaurant.

Recently, I decided to be a little more unconventional and venture down streets I would always pass along my typical route down the main strip. Finally, I broke away from the swarm of people in order to venture a little farther into the maze-like streets; and, to my delight, I discovered places I would never have ventured into otherwise.

One place I stumbled upon in Harajuku was a large vintage thrift store – need I say more? This massive clothing wonderland had just about everything you could think of, from large tiger-faced fanny packs to sky-high platform boots – this place had it all. The best part about it was the location. It wasn’t near the main strip that was littered with high-end stores and overpriced coffee shops. This unique gem was hidden under a little walkway I only discovered after wandering a little ways deeper into Harajuku side streets.

Another great place with a few unique side streets is Shibuya – which luckily, is walking distance from Harajuku. After making my way through the famous Shibuya crossing, I came across a small alleyway that was lined with quaint little bars and restaurants. As I made my way through the cluster of tiny stores aligned closely, one next to the other, I stopped in front of one specific shop that peaked my interest and decided to give it a try. Fortunately, there was only one other customer eating what looked like octopus, which left room for me to comfortably set me things down and grab one of the seven seats available, which were lined against one narrow wall.

One of the aspects I loved most about this tiny shop was the fact it was run by an elder woman and her husband. I could tell, simply by observing the place, this dedicated couple had been running their shop tirelessly for some time.

On the other hand, I was a little apprehensive about sitting there in such confined quarters knowing I wouldn’t be able to hold a decent conversation with the shop owner and her husband. As much as I wanted to keep conversation light and airy with the welcoming couple, my Japanese speaking ability wasn’t up to par. However, once I ordered a small plate of bright red octopus legs, I broke the ice and started conversing with the shopkeeper. And, while I made many grammatical errors and endured enough awkward silence to last me a lifetime, I truly enjoyed myself. I even gained more confidence in my Japanese speaking ability – although, I can still use a considerable amount of practice.

But overall I’ve learned, gems are not so easily found and it takes patience and curiosity to discover some of the most secretive spots in the most obvious of places. And although Japan is a relatively safe place, filled with kindhearted people who genuinely care about the safely and well being of others, it is always important to utilize caution and common sense when traveling in a foreign place. That being said, if you do choose, or have a heart, to venture into the side streets of Tokyo – or anywhere for that matter – I advised you to do so with a trusted friend, and always be aware of your surroundings. Once you understand and recognize this, I highly recommend taking the road less traveled and wander a little farther, as you never know what awaits you in the heart of Tokyo.  

06/15/2015

Adventures in Kyoto, Japan

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Recently, I received the wonderful opportunity to join my friend on a weekend adventure to Kyoto, Japan. And, after a brief two and a half hour Shinkansen ride, I was away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and transported to an entirely new Japan.

Tokyo, known for it’s fast-pace city life, is unique in that it differs from the rest of Japan’s slower, more laidback areas, such as Kyoto. And, being from California, I truly appreciated Kyoto’s friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Not to mention, I was able to see clear, blue skies rather than dark shadows of towering skylines hovering above me. What's more, escaping city life for a short while was extremely refreshing and rejuvenated my wanderlust spirit.

Despite only having a brief two days to bask in the wide-open spaces, I did my best to make the most of it. In order to do so, I booked the earliest departure time from Tokyo to Kyoto, which meant I had the wonderful task of waking up bright and early at 4:45 in the morning to make it to the station on time. To my delight, the train ride itself was a great experience in and of itself. Whizzing by at an astounding 200mph, the Shinkansen is called the “bullet train” for good reason. Surprisingly, it was a fairly smooth ride with little bumps along the way, along plenty of convenient store bought snacks to keep my appetite fully subdued.

Once in Kyoto, I immediately went straight for the information booth to grab myself a 500-yen (around five dollars) bus ticket and local maps of the area. I wanted to do my best to cover as much local ground as I could, as I knew my time there was incredibly precious. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to meet up with some friends who were also in Kyoto the same weekend. Having them along with me definitely enhanced my experience for the better – I even got some awesome Purikura pictures out of it!

In regards to some of the more historical places I visited, Kiyomizu Temple unquestionably made a lasting impression on me. I undeniably fell in love with the vibrant, red temples intricately placed amongst the cluster of trees. Not to mention, the view was impeccable and truly breathtaking – I was even able to see Kyoto Tower from the very deck of the Temple itself.

After spending a decent amount of time exploring the temple grounds, I made my way over to traditional, Kyoto style house – one with a long entryway leading up to the front door. Here, I partook in the time-honored painting of traditional Japanese fans. This by far was one of the most relaxing activities I participated in, and I would surely jump at the first chance I got to do it again. The best part was, you didn't have to be an expert artist to paint something beautiful, as stencils were provided to help those achieve a more professional looking masterpiece. Unfortunately, being the perfectionist I am, I spent around two hours making sure my work of art turned out just how I wanted it to – even with the use of guided stencils.  

Lastly, after all of the site seeing was done and I had my completed artwork – which I was very proud of – to take back with me, I ended the trip doing what I love most, shopping.  Fortunately for me, I was able to exercise self-control and managed to walk away having purchased only one item – a beautiful gold necklace from a store located in OPA shopping center (it has quickly become one of my favorite pieces).

Overall, I had an amazing time exploring a different side of Japan and not only learning more about the traditional history of Kyoto, but actually seeing the innate beauty this rich land possess. It’s safe to say, I highly recommend Kyoto to anyone who is presented with the wonderful opportunity to go! 

05/17/2015

How To "Fashion" in Japan

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First thing that comes to mind when I think of Japanese fashion is vibrantly dressed girls, covered head-to-toe in glitter makeup, hidden under pounds of ruffles, and carrying around pastel parasols. And, while some of these girls do in fact exist in places like Harajuku, not everyone dresses to fit the Lolita status quo. I’ve come to discover, there is a vast array of styles in Tokyo ranging from “cool business” to rocker chic.

As a self-proclaimed fashion junky, one thing that intrigued me most about Japan prior to coming here was the unique – and often times loud – style found in places like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and the all-time famous Takeshita Street in Harajuku.

But, despite spending hours on Google images looking at what I thought was the “typical” Japanese fashion scene, I was pleasantly surprised to see the average person did not carry around a stuffed animal shaped backpack or look like a real-life porcelain doll – although, I have seen my fair share since being here.

Personally, when it comes to clothes, I gravitate towards neutral colors with simple designs, so when I saw how well Japanese people wore similar styles, not only did the inner fan girl in me go crazy, but I was so inspired to adopt some of their styling techniques – of course, adding my own personal twist on it.

In addition to the simplistic aesthetic Japanese style gurus have perfected, another extremely popular fashion trend is wearing socks with shoes – regardless of if the shoe is a flatform sandal or Mary Jane kitten heel. At first, when I saw this particular look I thought socks with 4-inch heels was a stretch, but then remembered, anything goes when in Tokyo. And, after being exposed to this trend on a daily basis, I decided it was actually a really innovative way to take basic socks and transform them from a necessity into an accessory.

That being said, Japanese socks are not your basic, everyday black and white. Here, they range from an assortment of shapes, sizes, colors, and designs. Most hosiery stores carry these dynamite pieces for around 1,000 yen (around ten dollars). What’s more, I’ve come to find the most common style is made up of sheer material decorated with various designs and patterns, such as tiny daises or colorful fruits. And, because of the sheerness, the strategically placed designs essentially look like temporary tattoos for the feet. It’s safe to say, when it comes to hosiery, Japanese women do not mess around.

Notably, the men are no exception. While I’m not as familiar with men’s fashion as I am women’s, I definitely have an appreciation and admiration for those who express their own personal style. And, let me tell you, Japanese men undeniably have a spin on fashion. For starters, in America, clutch purses (a bag without any straps) are exclusive to women; however, in Japan, countless of men confidently equip themselves with a more masculine version of this oversized pouch. Other widely utilized accessories by both males and females are felt hats, oversized reading glasses, and integrate jewelry.

One thing I have learned is there is no right or wrong way to dress in Japan. More importantly, there are no rules or guidelines telling people how to look a certain way or fit a certain style mold. In a homogenous society, it is difficult to stand out amongst the sea of black suits and determined faces; but with fashion, men and women can fully express themselves without feeling pressured to own a wardrobe consisting only of black suits and ties. On one end of the spectrum, Harajuku girls strut their style in sky-high flatforms, decorated stockings, and colorfully dyed hair; while on the other end, men rock their own styles in head-to-toe black or masterfully layered, oversized T-shirts. Modestly speaking, anything and everything goes in the way of fashion here and I’m constantly inspired by the innovative and effortless styling technique Japanese people possess. And, above all, everyday is a chance for me to learn new ways of taking traditional ideas and putting an exciting, Japanese spin on my own personal aesthetic. 

05/13/2015

How to Eat Healthy While Abroad in Japan

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Before arriving in Japan, I envisioned bustling trains, hordes of people, vibrantly lit skylines, and – more importantly – sushi for miles. And, while the trains are often packed to full capacity and the night sky is indeed brightened by the city lights, sushi wasn’t as commonplace as I had hoped. To my surprise, sushi was actually less common in Japan than people who owned cars – or so it seemed.

Once inside the city, I was welcomed by an array of konbini (convenient stores), which appeared around almost every corner. I had no idea 7/11 would become my go-to for meals, coffee, and everything in between. Not only are stores like Family Mart, Sunkus, and 7/11 extremely accessible and convenient in Japan – hence the name “konbini” – but they are also very affordable. Here, freshly brewed coffee is around one dollar and an average meal costs around 520 yen (essentially four dollars).

Yet, despite sounding like I hit the food jackpot, a diet of cookies and bread wasn't cutting it. Basically, I wasn’t getting the vital nutrients I would normally get from foods like fresh fruit and protein. And, while I greatly enjoyed cheap meals like steamy ramen, tantalizing curry rice, crispy onigiri, juicy udon, and one-dollar melon bread, I knew my diet had to change – and fast. But, unfortunately, eating healthy in Japan (or anywhere for that matter) comes at a price.  

Not only are nutritious fruits and protein-rich food hard to come by, it’s also more expensive than your typical convenience store cuisine. For instance, one red apple costs around 498 yen (around 414 dollars) depending on the season, and a small jar of Skippy peanut butter costs 568 yen (around 470 dollars). But, after countless of trips to 7/11 and a few unfortunate pounds later, I concluded the extra money was worth it. I figured, either spend a few extra dollars on healthy food or gain a few extra pounds – needless to say, I chose the former.

Taking it one step further, I purchased a protein shaker to help curve my insatiable appetite, along with powder containing a mix of fruits and vegetables for an extra dose of nutrients. This was especially needed since – up until this point – all I’ve been consuming was starch and carbohydrates. The only problem remaining was the aggravating fact I couldn't understand (or even read) Japanese food labels, making it extremely difficult to know exactly what I was ingesting.

That being said, I quickly grabbed my laptop and searched Google for answers. Shortly after, I across an extremely helpful website, survivingjapan.com. On this webpage, there are various tables explaining how to translate standard Japanese food labels. Also, Japanese calories are listed in kilocalories, and for those of you who may not already know, every one kcal is equal to one calorie. I highly recommend visiting this site as it contains many insightful facts and information about Japan. 

Luckily, while intimidating at first glance, the ingredient label is actually quite easy to understand. Personally, I tend to focus on the common nutrients such as the calorie, protein, sugar, fat, and sodium intake. Once I knew what to look for, reading and understanding what was in my food became much easier. And, as I started paying closer attention to what I was eating, I was more confident about the food chosen I made. What's even better, after cleaning up my diet, I finally felt I had more energy to explore Tokyo and all of the cool and exciting places around the area!

While this is not to say I don’t treat myself to delicious soft serve or donuts every now and then – I’m simply more aware of what I’m eating and how to make healthier choices for my body. 

04/26/2015

Wanderlust: Journey to Japan

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You must immerse yourself into another world in order to fully understand your own. In the game of life, people often change and develop as they begin to come closer to discovering who they truly are – whether it be a devoted father, music enthusiast, dedicated housewife, or self-proclaimed foodie. For me, however, I strive to be a zealous wanderer. More commonly known as a world traveler, the concept of adventuring to new and exciting places has slowly become a dream of mine.

While I have always possessed the desire to see and experience life’s many foreign wonders, I did not feel entirely comfortable with the idea of stepping outside my comfort zone into a whole new, unknown world. However, as I got older, I began to realize the importance of putting myself in uncomfortable situations and how doing so can led to a certain type of maturing. That being said, it was not until the sixth grade when I completed my first – less than perfect – sketch of Sailor Moon that I realized my passion for all things Japanese. From then on, I knew, without a doubt, Japan would be my first destination.

Nonetheless, in my mind, the thought of venturing to Japan remained an improbable and unobtainable dream that would forever remain at arms length. In high school, the closest I ever got to a true cultural experience was during Japanese class when I referred to my teacher everyday as “sensei”.  Even then, I was still yearning for the chance to understand wholeheartedly what it felt like to live within the rich, Japanese culture.   

Finally, during my senior year of high school, the opportunity presented itself. As a required class assignment, I was instructed to attend a Japanese speech contest where I would address a panel of judges – along with a sizeable audience – and share my thoughts and sincere condolences regarding the 2011 tsunami that – quite literally – shook the Japanese nation.

After all of the contest awards were distributed, The Youth Ambassador Organization of San Jose stepped forward to extend the invitation to any and all participants who desired to spend ten days touring Japan. Of course, I immediately presented the idea to my parents and, after much deliberation and prayer, was signed up for the summer of 2012 to journey to Japan.

Needless to say, the ten days I experienced abroad were more than I had ever imagined. Not only did I get the opportunity to travel to places like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kyoto, but I was also chosen out of eleven high school students to present my original competition speech to the mayor of Okayama – in Japanese. Not to mention, the whole ordeal was locally televised. Overall, the invigorating experience left a lasting impression on me. So much so, I knew in my heart I would return one day the next possible chance I could; but this time for more than a mere ten days.

That being said, not only did I make my dream of traveling to Japan a reality once before, but a second time as well. As of March 25th, I made the eleven and a half hour journey back to Japan, this time to Tokyo. Never before has my wanderlust spirit felt so energized as it does now. Even as I sit here writing this, I still cannot believe this will be my home for the next four months. And, despite only being here for one week so far, I already feel like this is where I am supposed to be.

Granted, I am still getting adjusted to the hustle and bustle of the city. Coming from a small, suburban hometown in sunny California, Tokyo is completely opposite to what I am accustomed to. However, the biggest adjustment I have made so far is getting acclimated to the Japanese transportation system. For instance, before coming here, I had no idea the extent of the Japanese railway system, nor did I understand any of it. In California, if I wanted to go somewhere, all I had to do was hop in my Dodge Challenger, enter a destination into Google maps, and I was on my way. Luckily, each day I am getting more familiar with the various train routes and finally understand the distinction between a JR line and a metro line. But, I know once I master the different transportation systems, I will be able to go wherever I please, whenever I please – at least until the last train stops running.

Thus far, Japan has been nothing but a dream turned reality. I will say, I would not be here today to enjoy the memorizing cherry blossoms in their full glory, or taste the tantalizing Okonomiyaki, or observe Japanese people move through their daily routines with undeniable ease had it not been for the support of my parents – and more importantly – God. I truly believe I am exactly where I am supposed to be.