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6 posts categorized "Tori Fukumitsu"

07/23/2014

Exploring Edo-style Kawagoe

One of my most memorable experiences here in Japan was visiting Kawagoe. Through Seibu Travel (partnered with CIEE), I went with four other students on a day trip to the Edo-style town about an hour outside of Tokyo.

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We started the morning visiting a shrine and a temple, taking in the peaceful silence and admiring the woodblock prayers that hung on wooden archways. At lunchtime, we took a bus to "Old Town," a series of streets based on the old Edo-style architecture. Our guides welcomed us in front of a mochi shop, and we were led to a special room in the back where we were served delicious teishoku set meals.

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As expected, the food has been one of the biggest highlights of my experience here, and I really liked how the set tray divided each of the meats and vegetables--chicken, fish, eel, cabbage--into their own separate compartments. Each compartment had its own unique flavor, alongside by a bowl of sticky rice.

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Kawagoe is especially known for its sweet potatoes, and many of the shops in Old Town sell dishes and sweets with cooked sweet potatoes. We stopped at an ice cream shop after lunch and ate purple sweet potato ice cream, which was really good.

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Our next activity was a trip to a yukata shop, where each of us got to wear a traditional yukata and walk around the town in wooden block shoes. The shoes made it pretty difficult to walk around very far, but wearing the clothing and looking the part of an old-time Japanese person while checking out the small shops was a very unique experience.

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Though the test tour ended in the early afternoon, my group and I decided to walk back to Old Town and keep shopping. By that time many of the shops were closing and it had started to rain, but with the quiet lantern-lit streets and the sun setting in the background, it was really beautiful. Our last stop of the evening was at a rice waffle shop where we ate fudge-topped rice waffles. It was also really interesting to see that the owner's house was directly connected to the shop itself, something about which added to the homely feeling of Kawagoe. We caught a rapid train headed back to Shinjuku, and fell asleep, exhausted, on the hour-ride home.

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Before I came to Japan, I thought that I would be spending a lot of time in solitude. While I love being around people, I pictured myself traveling the countryside and learning about my heritage and identity mostly on my own. But as my time abroad has progressed, I have realized more and more what a big difference it makes to share those experiences with other people. While I would probably have really enjoyed Kawagoe on my own, it was even more special because I got to enjoy it with friends. I have been very lucky to have these memorable experiences, but moreover to have made such amazing friendships that I know will exist beyond my time abroad.

Living the Homestay Life

Though my study abroad experience is on the back-nine, I have found myself enjoying my experience more and more, and have grown really comfortable living in Japan. Some of my best experiences have been shared with my host family, making food, playing games, and picking blueberries. 

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Part of what influenced my decision to choose to live with a host family was a film I watched for a Japanese Film class called “Still Walking” (Aruitemo aruitemo). Depicting a single day in the life of a Japanese family living in the suburbs, the film made me think of myself living in that house. With the sounds of crackling tempura, kids running in and out of the house during the day, and crickets chirping at night, I constructed an image of what my homestay experience would be like. 

At first, it was actually somewhat difficult for me to adjust to my new living situation. Because I am half Japanese-American but know very little Japanese, I felt somewhat discouraged to try to speak Japanese even in places as common as convenience stores and restaurants. While I look Japanese on the outside, as soon as I opened my mouth and started speaking, I would receive strange looks and reactions, and felt embarrassed. This transferred to my interactions with my host family, where I felt somewhat discouraged that they were might be disappointed that I could not speak Japanese. 

But after I while, I remembered why I chose to live in a homestay in the first place, and on a larger level, to come to Japan at all: I was here to learn about a part of my identity, and to immerse myself in a culture that was both familiar and completely foreign to me. I made a concerted effort to try to speak Japanese in public, realizing that I would make mistakes, but that they would be constructive to my learning of the language. I also spent a lot more time at home with my three host kids, playing tag, watching Ghibli films, and playing UNO. 

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My host parents are very busy with work on top of taking care of the three kids, so doing activities together have been really special. A few weeks ago, we were eating a delicious sashimi dinner that my host mom had fixed, and I asked her if I could make pancakes with the host kids. As I am used to going to the grocery store and getting all of the ingredients and making them from scratch, I had something of an idea of what I was expecting. It turned out that my host mom had her own pancake-maker, and when the kids and I got around the table to start making pancakes on Sunday, she had already kindly bought all of the ingredients for us. We made pancakes with a nutella-ish chocolate fudge and it really made my weekend.

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Typically my weekends are spent doing work and out exploring Tokyo, with Sundays devoted to games and movies with the host kids. This past weekend, we took a walk to a nearby farm and filled little baskets full of blueberries. We really lucked out on the weather that day as the summer heat seemed to evaporate for that hour. But something about the experience really reminded me of that movie “Still Walking,” with the sounds of the farm, the kids running ahead excited about picking blueberries. It has been experiences like this that have made me feel at home here at my homestay and in Japan, and I am very grateful for all that they have done for me. 

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06/23/2014

A performance by a world-famous benshi

During study abroad, I have been setting aside time each week to conduct research for a grant I received from my home school, Hamilton College. In collaboration with a professor from the East Asian Studies department, I am researching a very unique aspect of Japanese culture: benshi and their performance of setsumei

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To provide some historical context, benshi are silent film narrators. That is, they provide the narration, dialogue, inter-titles, and sound effects live alongside a silent film. Benshi are unique to Japan, and arose virtually in tandem with the introduction of the motion picture cinema in Japan. In the early 20th Century, benshi gained a level of popularity rivaling film stars, as people would travel across the country just to watch their favorite benshi perform. Today, as a result of the talkie motion picture (film as we know it), there are only a handful of benshi remaining, and very few Japanese recognize the term. 

It was thus that much more special when Professor Omori and I were able to attend a benshi performance by one of the most famous benshi in the world today, Ms. Midori Sawato. The small Sunny theater in Nippori was only lightly scattered with people, comprised mostly of older couples. Professor Omori and I sat in the back next to the camera, and the show started. 

The first two performances were done by amateur benshi, a young woman and a middle-aged man respectively. Both were quite skilled, but neither seemed to really capture the audience, and some people were falling asleep. Still, it was quite fascinating to observe how well-practiced they were in delivering their lines at precise moments of the film, adding crescendos and staccato to produce unique vocal effects. 

Then Ms. Sawato walked on stage, and everyone sat up a little straighter. A short, older, extremely polite woman, Ms. Sawato wore a tuxedo with a flower, and respectfully introduced the film she would be performing: Mary Pickford’s “Sparrows”--a silent from the 1920s.

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Then, she sat at the podium next to the screen, and unlike the previous benshi who had directed their attention to the screen, the audience, and their notes in a continual loop, she simply faced the screen with her back to the audience. I thought this a bit strange, but given that she had performed hundreds of times for audiences all over the world, I was very excited to discover the reasoning behind this.  

With just the music to accompany it, the film might have been mildly interesting. It was about a young girl (played by Mary Pickford) who is held in captivity along with a group of young orphans by a mean old man, and their eventual escape. What made this film so interesting was Ms. Sawato’s performance. She altered her voice to great lengths, being able to switch from young child to old man in quick succession to perform a brief dialogue. She was perfectly in rhythm with the accompanying orchestral music. Her performance contained so much enthusiasm that I could not help but feel the emotions of the characters: happy when they were happy, frightened when they were frightened. She infused the film with such an amazing level of emotion that by the time her performance was finished, I felt as though I had been transported to another world.  I then began to understand why she faced the screen with her back to the audience: she did not need to face the audience to communicate with us; rather, it was purely through her vocal alterations and inflections that we became so enraptured by the performance. 

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Currently, I am continuing to research the historical context of benshi, why exactly they are distinct to Japan, and the causes for their decline in popularity--among other things. More specifically, I am interested in tackling a very difficult question: how does benshi performance create an idea of what Japan is and what it means to be Japanese? Though I think there are numerous ways of approaching this question, the performance revealed one extremely important aspect about benshi and their art of setsumei: at the heart of their performance is a deep passion that is conveyed to and felt by the audience. That alone, of both benshi and audience having a fun, transformative experience, might well turn out to be an answer. 

1000 miles in one week

Coming up on about a month and a half left in Japan, I have found myself recalling more and more the really unique and special things I have done and encountered while abroad so far, and I always end up thinking about my adventures with my friends during Golden Week. I had actually never heard of Golden Week until the beginning of April, when a friend asked me if I wanted to be part of a group that would be visiting Osaka and Hiroshima. Golden Week is a week-long national break at the beginning of May in which a number of holidays (e.g. the Emperor’s birthday) are celebrated, and company employees and schoolchildren alike are given time off to relax. 

After a midnight bus ride from Tokyo that was a bit extended by holiday traffic, we arrived in Osaka, and checked in at a local capsule hotel. Unlike conventional hotels that consist of rooms with enough space to fit a bed, bathroom, and a place to put your luggage, a capsule hotel is made up of capsules with enough space to lie down and watch a mini television. Predominantly occupied by salarymen and tourists, you start feeling especially sympathetic to the residents at your local animal shelter. 

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The purpose of a capsule hotel is simple: it is just a place to crash. So instead of hanging around, we went out to explore Osaka. 

One way my friends and I came to describe Osaka was by comparing the city to Tokyo: though somewhat dirtier than Tokyo, Osaka felt much more relaxed and less overwhelming. You still had the same deal of blocks and blocks of restaurants and shops lined up and not having a clue which one to walk into, but something about the city just felt like you had much more room to breathe. 

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As Osaka is especially known for takoyaki (octopus balls) and skewers, we tried a few restaurants serving the specialties, and they were delicious. On one occasion, we were sampling the different skewers at a restaurant when one of my friends from China struck up a conversation with the server about Osaka, only to find out that the majority of the servers were also Chinese. Something about this discovery interested me, for I had not truly realized during my time spent so far in Tokyo that indeed, many people from other countries live and work in Japan, are Japanese citizens, that diversity does exist. It was refreshing in a way, showing a deeper level of what Japan is and what being Japanese means. 

The next day, we visited Osaka Castle and climbed to the top to look out upon a breathtaking view of the city. With a well-preserved traditional exterior and grounds, the castle interior had been renovated into a museum, making it oddly enough one of the more tourist-feeling places of the trip. Learning about historical battles inside the castle, walking around the castle grounds, watching a taiko drum performance, and eating okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and green tea ice cream--these all made the visit one of my favorite experiences in Japan. We ended the day with a trip to an indoor onsen (public bath), which was extremely relaxing after all of the walking around. 

After an evening bus to Hiroshima, with only a day left on our trip, we decided to visit Miyajima Island and the Peace Memorial. I had heard that Nara (near Kyoto) was famous for its docile deer, but did not know that Miyajima also shared this attraction. Domesticated deer roamed the entire island, walking up to people and bumping into them until they were fed food. We really lucked out on the weather that day, as the ocean was a very light blue and the hills flowed with bright green forests.

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We hiked around the area, exploring local shops and buying gifts for our friends, visited a small temple, and admired the very traditional Japanese architecture. 

After a lunch of fresh tempura udon, we took the ferry back to the mainland and visited the Peace Memorial. The first thing you notice is the decrepit and weathered skeleton of a building, renovated to serve as a reminder of the devastation caused by the first atomic bomb. It was extremely eerie and uncomfortable to stand at almost the exact spot where the bomb was dropped some seventy years prior. What I appreciated most about the Memorial was how it focused its recognition on the victims as individuals and not simply as numbers of casualties. We heard stories of survivors, where people were at the time of the bomb being dropped, the horrific aftermath and effect of radiation even to the present day, and I found myself discovering things I had never learned about in textbooks or history books.

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The museum tour concluded with blank books where visitors could write their signatures to advocate for the complete abolishment of nuclear weapons in the world and express their feelings after their visit. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

After the Memorial, we packed our things and headed to the train station. We ate our last Golden Week dinner at a small restaurant at the station where the waitress confused my bibimbap order with my friend’s order of a sautéed beef set. It turned out to be a really good mistake (at least for me), as it was one of the best meals I have had in Japan, the beef cooked so perfectly...My friend wasn’t too happy when he found out. We took the bus back to Tokyo, jumped onto the metro back to Sophia University, and I got to class just in time to perform my skit for Japanese class.

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In reflection, the trip was exactly what Golden Week should be: a time for relaxation, discovery, learning, eating good food, and having fun with your friends. It is hard to set aside time for those things during our regular busy schedules, which is why I am glad that Japan sets aside a whole week to have fun. 

05/29/2014

Tori in Toei

Deciding to go to the Toei Studio Amusement Park was one of many moments I have had during my study abroad experience where I have said to myself afterwards, “I’m really glad I decided to try something new.” I had just gotten back to Kyoto station as part of our CIEE weekend trip to Kyoto and Nara, and though it was the early afternoon, I was absolutely exhausted. My group had just trekked around the Arashiyama mountain, exploring the famous Tenryuji temple and passing through the beautiful bamboo forest, and I was about ready for a nap. But when we arrived to Kyoto station and were standing outside the bus to Eigamura, I asked myself when I would ever be making this specific choice again, and so I chose to get on the bus. 

Only five of us (four students and a CIEE staff member) took the trip to Toei, and out of all of them I think I knew the least about Toei--and probably Japanese animation in general. My two good friends both had a wealth of information about Japanese animation, and were also familiar with Toei productions. For me knowing nothing, I chose this activity because it was truly a unique experience, something I was completely unfamiliar with. 

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Because we got to the park in the later afternoon, we missed a lot of the crowds and fanfare that were probably there in the morning. But the lack of people actually allowed us to really do whatever we wanted with minimal waiting time. We only had an hour and a half before the park closed, so we randomly picked a nearby event: a live Goemon producton. I had only ever heard of the name Goemon through Nintendo 64, but my friends told me that he was a very popular character known to many Japanese people. I was sort of surprised by the audience, as really there were kids of all ages watching this performance. 

After a short introduction, this dude with crazy red hair (Goemon) jumped out onto the stage and was soon fighting these completely ninja-attired ninjas. Not only were the costumes amazing with colors like in a comic book, but somehow they had synchronized a projector to give life to the background, the illusion of other ninjas, and huge flames. Soon, a girl dressed in lighter colors flipped onto the stage and began fighting Goemon, and it seemed that from that point on everyone became extremely acrobatic: they cartwheeled and did backflips to avoid their opponent’s blade, jumped onto the stage from a balcony--all complete with the sound effects of swords clashing and this intense video-gamey fight music. In all, there were only five actors (not including the narrator) who put on this production, and by the end, everyone was clapping and turning to their neighbor excitedly saying, “Sugoiii!” 

The production lasted only about half an hour, so we moseyed around until we came to a gift shop. Inside they had a plethora of equipment and garb, anything from ninja stars to kamikaze headbands. We were admiring the samurai swords in a glass case when a shop attendant came over and encouraged us to try holding them. Because they were replicas and not real swords they could be taken on a plane (in your checked luggage), but they were a lot heavier than they looked and actually pretty dangerous. The attendant showed us how to properly unsheathe a sword, with the blade facing towards you allowing you to draw it out and immediately face your opponent. I had always wondered why Zatoichi would slide his blade against his fingers as he sheathed his sword, thinking that it served to wipe off the blood of his enemies. The attendant told me that this actually served the purpose of guiding the blade back to its sheath, and when he quickly sheathed the sword it looked really awesome. 

He also showed us over to a box of black daggers, and taking one, demonstrated that it was an envelop opener on a paper he pulled from his pocket. Then, he stuck the thing in my stomach and I instinctively jumped back thinking it would be sharp, but it turned out that it was only rubber. So I bought the trick dagger and fooled a bunch of the other CIEE students later that day. 

We then tried our luck at ninja-star throwing, but only one of us was able to hit the perimeter of the target. 

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Holding one of the four tips of the star, you then pull the star back towards your hand slightly, raise it over your head, and throw it as if throwing a baseball. I think we all wished we could have thrown more of those stars, as it was extremely satisfying. 

Our last event was another production, but very different from Goemon. Here, there were only three actors--a director, a good samurai, and a bad ninja--who performed on a real movie set complete with buildings and realistic-looking natural background. They were separated from us by glass windows, but right in front of the stage sat a cameraman whose video projected onto televisions. They comedically demonstrated how they could give off the illusion of being in the forest by holding a branch over the corner of the lens--as well as other camera tricks. Then they enacted an action sequence as if they were filming, which was amazing because it involved live fighting and prop effects like an arrow sliding on a thin line. By the end they had everyone roaring with laughter.

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I hope to visit Kyoto again in the future, and when I do, I am definitely going back to Toei to explore the other attractions and events. 

Adventures in Aikikai

After testing out a few different clubs during the first weeks of the semester, I decided to join Sophia University’s Aikikai circle. Aikikai is a sub-discipline of Aikido, and the main sensei who teaches the group is apparently the grandson of the Aikikai founder. 

Aikikai

What impresses me most about the circle is how well they blend a sense of professionalism and composure with genuine friendliness. During the practices, everyone is extremely focused on learning the moves; yet the senpai (older or more experienced students) who help the new students are very patient and devoted to teaching you properly. Unlike some of the other clubs that meet six days a week, Aikikai only meets twice a week for an hour and a half, and is actually mostly taught by a student. This adds to the creation of an atmosphere built on understanding fused with high levels of respect. Furthermore, the circle is co-ed, which adds even more to the circle’s inclusive nature. 

Part of the cause of such a disciplined and friendly atmosphere is the art of Aikikai itself. The moves we have learned so far are fundamentally built on a few steps that, when put in combination, can be extremely practical defensive moves. Practice begins with stretches, primarily loosening the joints and muscles that will be most used, such as the wrists. This is all done in silence following the student leader, who herself practices everyday of the week. Then, everyone lines up and goes through simple drills like falling and front and back rolls--all of which are essential to the moves we perform. Then, the student leader and one of the senpai demonstrate the move we are going to practice. All the while during this preparation, everyone maintains a sort of zen composure, bows when necessary, and gives their undivided attention to the student leader. 

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The same respectful atmosphere remains when we transition into the actual moves. Each new student pairs up with a senpai, and takes turns being the attacker and defender. Most pairs need to move extremely slow to understand the proper technique of falling, joint manipulation, and the shifting of body weight. In this extremely structured practice, everyone comes out feeling good for having learned the moves and proud of the group as a whole. 

The group atmosphere is another cause of why the Aikikai circle so strongly welds respect and friendship. A couple weeks ago, the circle took a weekend trip to Mount Tsukuba for a gasshuku (a new student welcoming event held by most clubs and circles). As we learned in our pre-orientation at the beginning of the semester, it is important for Japanese people that they identify and associate themselves with a group. For the circle, the new students are going to become part of this group for the next four years, and thus it is important to build that sense of family early on. 

As a foreign student, I certainly gained that sense just from the gasshuku. Because it was a weekend trip that started on Saturday, we really only had a day. But every moment was well-planned and coordinated by the group leaders: we spent a few hours playing games at a gymnasium, ate a delicious barbecued meal in a beautiful mountain setting, lit small fireworks in a parking lot, relaxed in an onsen bath, and spent the rest of the night hanging out and talking. While the separation between senpai and new student is very clear in practices, events like this showed that we could also be friends. This is an important lesson that I have learned about Japanese culture, that context matters so much in determining what kind of respect you show and how you act. 

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This is my impression of the Aikikai circle so far, but really I can only imagine my image of the circle improving as the semester progresses. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for the rest of the semester!