Study Abroad in
I first said goodbye to home as a bright-eyed 17 year old, embarking on her first adventure away. Besides a few trips out-of-state for a science competition (yes, I know), I knew little more than the admittedly large area that comprises Los Angeles County. Cliché as it was, I felt like the entire world was at my fingertips. Goodbye was a word that was wagging on the tip of my tongue.
Goodbye this time is a stone in my stomach. Goodbye this time tastes like melancholy and missed opportunities. It lingers like a threat. I found home in Japan, and sometimes I doubt whether the home I left behind is still waiting.
And of course it is. But it’s hard to remember; especially when I'm in the midst of what I can confess is simply a dreamy escape. It’s hard to remember when I look at the kind faces of my host parents, who I may never get to see again. It’s hard to remember when I’m getting a delicious meal can cost as little as $3 at a convenience store. It’s been especially hard when I make my daily walk home, and realize how all routines come to an end.
I took a walk with my host mother to fetch groceries over the weekend. We had lunch at the same restaurant that she first took me to. When we first met, we wore coats and warmed our hands as we quietly admired the cherry blossoms. This time, we fanned our faces and sought out shade in the pauses in our conversation. Coming to Japan wasn’t easy, but like the weather, my world has warmed. I found contentment. I really did. And how can I say goodbye to something I’ve only just encountered?
And I don’t know. But I’m trying. Please believe me, I’m trying. And some of my fellow students might be ready to leave. But others will be just like me, waiting in apprehension. Fearing the weekends because it means one weekend less. Trying to squeeze in everything you “would find time for later.” Whining to friends about the possibility of returning.
But I’m trying. And it’s still July 11, and I don’t leave until August 5. So I don’t know when attempting becomes succeeding. But, I’m learning to say goodbye, I am. And I don’t know if it’s working, but it’s what I’ve been trying.
I stopped trying to think about the world as ending. I thought to possibility. I looked to the future I put on pause, and realized how much is ahead of me. I agonized over job hunting, and grimaced at requirements (Royce Fellowship—why!) I looked back to family, and back to friends who had stood beside me from the very beginning. Goodbye carries finality, but it doesn’t always have to. The world spins onward, and so do we. I love Japan, I do. But the first part of learning to say goodbye is recognizing that I need to.
So when the time comes, goodbye Japan. Thank you. Maybe I’ll see you again.
Vega and Altair on their meeting day (source)
Around this time of the year, many Japanese people get together to celebrate Tanabata matsuri (festival). This festival commemorates a Romeo and Juliet-esque story of two lovers, Vega and Altair, who were separated across the Milky Way and were only allowed to meet on the evening of Tanabata (July 7th). To celebrate, my friend's host mom set up an event with her English language elderly students to have a sort of cultural and language exchange. I was very excited to not only meet everyone, but to wear a yukata for the first time! I headed over to my friend's homestay earlier in the day in order to get properly dressed. There were several beautiful pieces to choose from, and I choose a white and pink floral pattern. The first part of the yukata is a long robe piece that is tied across by the obi (belt) pretty tightly. The yukata is made for the hot summer days as it has a opening from the sleeves that allows for much needed ventilation! The last part of the outfit is a flower hair pin for the girls and fitted geta (wooden slippers).
My friends and I all dressed up! (source)
The event itself was quite fun and we began the day by writing our Tanabata wishes onto thin, long, decorated paper slips and tying it to the bamboo tree as is customary for this festival. Following that, we were treated with a special finger flute performance by two of the elderly men who attended the event. Having never seen a finger flute performance (or even having heard of it), it was quite the treat and very entertaining. The two men played both American and Japanese songs! One of them has been training in the finger flute for over two decades and definitely proved his talent.
Next, we proceeded to the crafts and games part of the day, beginning with origami. While I have done origami several times before, I definitely did not remember all the steps. Luckily, the group at my table was able to show me how to make a cute paper crane! In the spirit of Tanabata, we also made "ama no gawa" decorations which are made to look like the Milky Way. It was great learning how to make some new origami, hopefully I will remember it when I get home! :)
Milky Way origami (source)
Lastly, we rounded out the day by playing some Japanese games including Karuta. The version we played started off with three stacks of cards in the middle of the table. On the cards are either a picture of regular man, princess, or monk and depending on which one you pick you either gain or lose cards. The players take turns going around the table and drawing from the deck. Drawing a card with the regular man lets you keep your card, a monk makes you lose all of your cards, and a princess lets you take the cards lost by other players or draw from the main pile. The goal is to end up with the most cards in your hand when the piles are empty. I was not lucky enough to win this time, but it was definitely a fun game!
Karuta cards (source)
I had a great time at the event and enjoyed wearing yukata with all of my friends, old and new! :)
Tennessee or Tokyo? (source)
Climbing Mt. Takao had been on my list of things to do while in Japan and I finally got to check it off! Takao-san, as it is called in Japanese, is located about an hour outside of central Tokyo. My friends and I met up at Takaosanguchi station (literally the entrance to Takao san) and proceeded towards the trails. There are six trails in total providing the range of difficulty and each passes through different parts of the mountain. We wanted to go up trail 6, but because a tree had fallen down on the path, we were re-routed to the main trail, or trail 1. This trail was paved and you would think that would make things easier but it was a bit like hell for the first half. :P The path was completely on an incline and we all had to take a break after what felt like every 5 or 10 minutes. It didn't help to see kids and grandmothers pass us at faster speeds but we kept on keeping on and finally reached the halfway point. At the halfway point, there are chair lifts and cable cars that run from the bottom of Takao-san to the halfway point and back around. The view was already amazing and that gave us the extra push to make it through the second half of the hike which was thankfully much less steep. The last leg takes you through several Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples which are perched at various points along the trail. Each one was unique and provided a good change in scenery as we made our way to the top.
One of the temples on our trail (source)
One of my favorite temples was quite Indian-inspired and included stone-carved images of women in saris. While it serves as a reminder of Buddhism's origins, it is interesting to see how the religion has manifested itself in different countries.
We finally reached the summit after what seemed like forever and were rewarded with a spectacular view. From the top of Takao, you can see all of Tokyo and even areas past it like Yokohama. On good days, it is possible to see Mt. Fuji, unfortunately we could not really see it due to the clouds. The view reminded me a lot of the mountains back home and the view of the Blue Ridge mountains from North Carolina. Of course, we took the token group photos with the view before moving through the tourist-filled crowds to start the descent back down.
Seeing Tokyo from above (source)
Dango made the uphill hike so worth it! (source)
The way back down led us past several little food stalls filled with Takao-san's famous foods like the fresh dango. Dango is practically a larger size mochi and the shops at Takao put a handful on a skewer and layer them with a sweet soy sauce glaze. At the stall I stopped at there were both black and gold sesame dango, I opted for the black sesame and did not regret it at all! Along with dango, soba noodles are a specialty of the place and are very refreshing after a long, sweaty hike. Instead of hiking all the way back down, we opted to take the chair lifts down the last half and it came with an amazing view. With no seat belts, the chair lift literally has you hanging right over the edge of the mountain which is quite the experience. Hiking Takao with friends is definitely worth the hour commute and is a great day-trip getaway from the city.
This post isn’t about anything in particular. It’s a list of things I’ve done that don’t warrant a post all their own. Together these are the moments that add up to a legitimate abroad experience. For me, rattling them off is a relief from the pressure of feeling I have to make meaning out of my time in Japan, to somehow justify to someone that I’ve thought critically and reflected on what I’ve been given the privilege to do. They reflect the experience better than any musing I could ever muster.
Cat café: They’re worth it. Some people may not be thrilled about cats. May not be thrilled at the idea of spending money to be around cats. But, if you’re an animal person and feel the lack of personal affection that can only come from a pet, go to a cat café for a professional surrogate pet experience. Therapy animals do some real deal good. In my experience the café aspect is downplayed, and it’s really all about the cats. You can sip juice or tea if you want to, but it costs extra and distracts from the reason you came in the first place.
Museums: A touristy yet important thing to do. Even if you’re not an art buff, you should frequent at least a couple museums. I’ve gone to several, the names I forget. The trouble with Tokyo museums is that their names are all astoundingly similar, at least in English. Combine the words Tokyo, national, art, of, urban, metropolitan, the, for, and every combination will constitute a museum existing in Tokyo. I’ve gone to museums at different points in my stay in Japan, and each time it is interesting to revisit artistic motifs that are becoming more familiar as the culture at large becomes more familiar. As a bonus, CIEE and Sophia makes going to museums easy. CIEE hooks it up with the free special exhibit tickets. A Sophia student ID can get you in for free, or at least a discounted rate. I’d gone to the Kunisada and Kuniyoshi print exhibit at the Bunkamura museum in Shibuya. Most memorable museum visit, the drawings on the prints and the colors therein vivifying an older Japan, and I paid nothing to do it. The next day I attended an experimental fashion exhibit, one which emphasized efficient production with futuristic design. It was difficult to believe the same culture produced both, and that is the breadth museums can deliver if you choose to seek out what’s on display.
Conbinis: On the opposite side from the cultural high-brow there is the beloved convenient stores. Everyone in Japan already knows how great they are. I bring them up because someone about to come to Japan will rest easy knowing about how great they are. I was afraid of being left to starve if I couldn’t speak Japanese well enough to order food, or if I’d run out of money. Conbinis are a saving grace, carrying quick food that can actually be called food for cheap. American convenience stores be shamed. One could feasibly live off these places, albeit not the healthiest option. In addition, one can buy concert tickets, pay for health insurance and online purchases, and many other life tasks through them. The staff is always friendly, with the position surprisingly dignified when compared to American convenience store workers. This section isn’t really anything more than a praiseful advertisement, but conbinis have truly smoothed over what could have been some rocky moments in getting acquainted with Japan.
Sumo: The last and greatest. Any visitor to Japan should make a good attempt at going to see sumo. It is perhaps one of the most recognizable traits of Japanese culture, and it delivers as being one of the most interesting. Though it’s somewhat violent, there is the honor and skill that comes with a martial art. Every step is laced with tradition, and would be interesting to watch even if the wrestlers never squared up in the ring. But they do, and each bout is as exciting as the last. There is a surprising about of pageantry, but it comes with the tradition, honoring the centuries of practice in conjunction with the steadfast dedication it takes to be a wrestler. Sumo combines the traditional with simple excitement more than anything else I’ve gotten to experience thus far.
And so concludes a brief list of a few things I’ve gotten to do. There isn’t much more to say about it than that. I recommend everything. I recommend also the things I’ve yet to do. It’s all good, and a matter of finding the time to do it all. And pay for it all.
Studying abroad comes with a constant need to compromise. One must always weigh the value of time spent, and it can be difficult to sacrifice a good time for grades. Micro-decisions become ever more significant as time begins to run out, and the thought that the opportunity may never come again makes the decisions all the harder to make.
When I began classes at Sophia, there was a great anxiety leading up to the first day, when the courses are laid out and the requirements explained. I was not afraid that I’d have to face anything I’d never faced before. Instead I was nervous about holding up my end of the bargain, and seeing what would be required of me to do that. I know I’m not alone in viewing the semester as a prolonged vacation. But vacations aren’t free, and for this one I have to do the study half of study abroad. It sounds ridiculous, but after touring for a few weeks, the prospect can be jarring.
If I could calm the anxieties of any prospective Sophia international student, I’d tell them to take their typical university course and cut the difficulty in half. This is what one can expect to encounter in general. There are classes that are tough, some easier than belief, but in general expect the difficulty to be about half a normal university course load from competitive universities and colleges. Despite the ease, the classes are surprisingly fulfilling if one decides to take what they can from them. Lectures are more often dry than not, but the material seldom wastes one’s time. This, at least, has been my experience in the areas of literature and philosophy.
Routine develops. Midterms on the docket. The morning commute. The daily struggle to print. Exams that actually count. First major paper assignments of the semester. The vacation feeling is on vacation, and we’re left to grind out the grind.
I sense in myself a mentality that may not be exclusive to me. Though I’m still far from going home, I’m beginning to feel a strange draw back towards home. It is less a force than a complacent feeling. My weekends are less full, and I’m less inclined to go out of my way to take on some cultural experience. In a sense I’ve begun to get bored, which comes from acclimation. Granted, there’s still more things to do than I can imagine, and yet when I have a free day the hassle and expense overpowers my will to do them. I can be drained by academic priorities, or lack of sleep, but the complacent marks a turning point in the abroad experience. I’ve become acclimated to Tokyo enough for it to feel like home in the way that we all can feel boredom in our homes.
Daily inconveniences begin to mean more. I’m less amazed by some things and more irritated by others. I schlepp through a daily grind, and have seen my time management shift more towards responsibilities than to vacation. The vacation itself is making a final subsiding. Midterms and actual pressure have helped facilitate what I see as a crucial part of my experience. What’s developed is the settling of a reality, my life adapted to a new place with responsibilities that are more or less universal. I feel I’ve learned from it, knowing what to expect out of myself and new phases of my life as they unfold. And as my return date grows closer and my arrival farther, I’ve begun to look forward to the fat steak I’ve been promised when I get home.
Japan is so packed with delicious foods and snacks that it might be a little overwhelming. However, if you’ve been in Tokyo for a while, you start to get the hang of things. But what if you want to get a taste of the rest of Japan, but can’t leave Tokyo? The dmart47 project has the answer. For a short period of time, the project has an open space in Shibuya where you can get your share of diverse local flavors. Located on the 8th floor of the Hikarie mall, you will find a tiny, but very colorful konbini. It might be a bit puzzling at first to see a little convenience store snuggled in between art exhibits on this floor, but it’s selection make it not only unique, but fun. The little pop-up is definitely aimed more towards local Tokyo-ites, but it also offers plenty of fun for any visiting student or tourist.
You walk in the door, a cute voice chimes “D-maaaaaruto” over the intercom, and all the goodies lay out before you. While the size is not very impressive, the space was very neat and all of the stock looked amazing! Most of the stock here you won’t find in any other local konbini, and some of the selection is not even produced on a large scale anymore, (A fact that was confirmed by my host parents, when I brought back a favorite childhood snack for them). The space was divided into several sections, the closest being favorite household goods, stationary supplies, and other odds and ends. This is the most eclectic collection with goods ranging from nice soaps to weirdly expensive umbrellas priced around 8,500 yen! (near $85 dollars) Thankfully the umbrellas appeared to be the only very expensive thing in stock, weirdly enough. The next selection was snacks and candies. All carefully packed in cute wrapping, the selection ranged from dried squid, to crackers, and sweets. My favorite section however, was the drinks. The entire back wall is chock-full of sodas, beers, juices, and sake. Most of them are so tempting, and that was just from their cute packaging. I did cave, and bought a delicious pineapple cider from Yamagata.
Unfortunately, the pop-up konbini ends mid-June, but Hikarie’s 8th floor has various other interesting rotating exhibits to offer all year round. Ranging from limited art shows to conceptual design stores, a “creative comic” café, and minimalist book store, the “museum floor” has a lot to offer, and that is just this month’s selection. Of course, if you’re looking for a change of pace, you have an entire mall at your disposal. However, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for pop-ups here and in other parts of Tokyo. Since I come from a small town, the idea of pop-up stores is particularly special, and being in a large city gives you the opportunity to check out conceptual stores like this. Keep your ears to the ground, eyes on the internet, and a good Japanese friend close, and you are sure to find an interesting pop-up store like this one.
Here is their promotional video, if you would like to get a further taste:
Bustling subways, colorful lights, busy streets—if you’re in the city for a while, Tokyo life may seem as if it’s what all of Japan is like. It’s too easy to forget there’s a whole other country out there when you’re caught up with the daily commute, school, and events with friends. While Tokyo is beautiful and fun, it’s good to step out of the city every once and a while and see what the rest of the country is like. After all, you wouldn’t say someone who has only experience New York City has experience all of America, right?
This past weekend I was lucky enough to delve deep into Chiba prefecture to get a real feel of the county life in Japan—and it was stunning. Only after an hour the city had melted away and verdant rice paddies spread out on either side of the highway. A little farther and we were in a thick forest, sunlight filtering down from above and dappling the road. The contrast between Tokyo was breathtaking, especially at how quickly the congested city turned to wild countryside. Our car popped in and out of tunnels as we passed through small slopes until we were far away from all city sound. Fake bird calls from train stations were replaced by a loud chorus of birds and the sigh of the wind. It felt quite therapeutic and calming, especially after over two months of being in just the city.
We spent some time hiking through the woods and had a lovely picnic with our host family, eating in a little wooden gazeebo by the road. Just a little way down the path from us we could hear children playing in the nearby waterfall. Back in the car again, we wove between small roads, which were occasionally dotted with signs warning about tanuki (a Japanese raccoon-dog) or monkey crossings. Who knew that just outside Tokyo, tanuki were running around everywhere? But in all seriousness, it was beautiful.
A little farther along in the trip and the terrain started changing again. Trees started to look a little more tropical and forests gave way to beaches. We had made it to Kamogawa. The little seaside town had a strong Floridian vibe—with little resorts and its very own (small) Sea World to match. There were quite a few differences however, one being the plethora of onsen spas sprinkled throughout the area. While some might be a little hesitant to be naked in front of strangers, the experience is actually not embarrassing at all. Some of the onsen in Kamogawa even have a lovely ocean view from their outdoor bathes! Nothing beats a soak in a hot bath next to the ocean after a long day of hiking and travelling.
While leaving Tokyo may seem like a bit of a hassle at first, it as an experience completely worth taking. Getting a feel for a place of a completely different pace is not only rewarding, but also completely fun. You meet different kinds of people, try different foods, and experience some lovely onsen.
Before coming to Japan, I had studied Japanese for 2.5 years. In my home university, I am officially “advanced.” I will tell you, straight and clear, that I was nowhere near “advanced” when I arrived in Japan. I could and can communicate—so let’s just go with “survivable.” With enough gestures and a Japanese-English dictionary app however, one might even say that I was “actually more than just survivable!” However, one thing that has and still does hit me in the face is my total inaptitude at actually using practical Japanese.
Teachers will tell you that you will learn these skills on your own. You will be forced to use it, so there’s no need to waste study and/or class time on learning how to order food at a restaurant, or the most polite way to avert attention from restaurant solicitors on the street (TIP: if are a visible foreigner, they will follow and badger you). If you like me, you might just accidentally end up responding to the waitress’s irrashaimase (welcome!) with another irrashaimase.
For those who haven’t studied Japanese before, this barrier is (obviously) even higher. I knew, and still know the feeling. Not knowing kanji is hard enough, but having to get used to the two other writing systems can be hellish. Japanese words can seem long and ghoulishly impossible to memorize. I remember sounding out ever syllable in the beginning: “i-ta-da-ki-ma-su?” “shi-na-ke-re-ba-na-ra-nai”?
Thus, I have chosen to make my own extremely brief, and incomprehensive guide to surviving in Japan as someone who is far from fluent in Japanese. And someone might tell you that this excuse for a guide is inadequate and makes one sound like a total foreigner. They are absolutely right. Nevertheless, they are things that helped me navigate Tokyo.
But honestly, you’ll get a hang of it. People in Japan are extremely kind, generally speaking, and everyone is eager to help (or at least find someone to help). So let loose, listen closely, and speak badly!
Located about an hour away from the center of Tokyo, Kamakura is a popular daytrip for many urbanites looking for a reprieve in the bustling, crowded concrete jungle. Referred by some as a “mini Kyoto,” Kamakura is a city known for its traditional architecture, temples, and shrines. It boasts a long history, and a giant Buddha.
Although I had been to Kamakura once before with CIEE, I and two of my non-CIEE Japanese classmates had decided to go back to Kamakura as a part of our Japanese project. A few weeks of flippant assertions of “going to Kamakura sometime before the project is due,” we finally decided on a day and a time.
Fast forward (or in this case, backwards) to 9:00 am on May 22, and you’ll find me asleep on a train heading towards (Kita-)Kamakura. No, I did not miss my stop. It was a hot, sunny day, and I hated myself almost as much as I hated the mosquitos that flocked around me greedily.
Our first destination was Engaku-ji Temple It is known for being one of the most important Zen Buddhist temple complexes in Japan, but we primarily chose it based on mere convenience. It was less than a 5 minute stop from the station, and we paid the 300 yen entrance fee without much fuss, and found ourselves staring at a beautiful, spacious temple space that we didn’t quite have context for. This confusion was exacerbated by the hordes of elementary school children who had a field trip and/or assignment to speak to foreigners in English. Nonetheless, we managed to enjoy the temple between our brief Q&A sessions with 11 year olds, and the “Hello, how are you” greetings they offered (over, and over, and over again).
We next headed to Kencho-ji so we could access the Ten-en Hiking Course. Although there are several ways to get to the trail, we decided to enter through the temple, which means we unfortunately also had to pay an entrance fee. Of course, the temple itself is well worth a visit, but if you’re keen on saving money, there are several other routes that lead to the exact same trail.
The Ten-en Hiking Course itself is steep. There are many stairs. These stairs are not fun. This was the resolute conclusion my (admittedly inactive) friends and I came to a few minutes into our hike. The trail itself? Absolutely gorgeous. It isn’t a hard hike at all, and after a brief incline you’ll be taken into a forested mountain area (with a sight-seeing spot where Mt. Fuji is occasionally visible!) It takes about an hour to get through the trail the short and slow way, and an hour and a half if you efficiently take the longer path.
Our next stop was the Hokokuji Temple, which boasts a lovely bamboo forest. It costs 200 yen to get in, and the garden itself is a lovely little pocket of nature. I highly recommend visiting during the summer, as the bamboo helps to cool down the surrounding area, and provides a sense of relief in the hotter days.
We ended our very frantic, sweaty-trip with a few leisurely hours at the Kamakura shopping street and the beach. There are tons of delicious snacks and temptations at the street, so be sure to come hungry (and/or with a very eager separate dessert stomach). We grabbed some dango and some fuwa-fuwa (airy, light) fruit shaved ice, and headed to the beach for the sunset.
We were absolutely exhausted and I eagerly succumbed to sleep on my commute home.
I (again, somehow, luckily) did not miss my stop.