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55 posts categorized "Travel"

01/12/2016

Tea Ceremony Experience

It’s no lie when they say that Kyoto is the cultural hub of Japan. There’s so much to do, see, taste, and experience just for your own cultural enrichment that, when we first arrived, we were all overwhelmed on what to do first despite the planned itinerary. However, one thing was for sure: We wanted to witness a tea ceremony. More importantly, we wanted to do this while wearing kimonos as is part of the traditional experience.

Thanks to my friend Elysa, our photographer during this trip, we were able to do just that. She had looked up and found for us a place not too far from Nishiki Market a workshop on traditional tea ceremonies that also offered us the chance to learn while wearing kimonos. Of course we booked this ASAP.

We decided to go on Christmas day, thinking that it would be a nice, special touch to the holiday. Interestingly enough, we arrived late by 5 minutes. We had trouble finding the place and apologized consistently for making our instructor wait. Then we went right to work.

She took us upstairs where the first thing we did was change into kimonos. One instructor and two assistants quickly helped the four of us pick out kimonos, dress us into them, and do our hair. It was like a mini makeover, minus the makeup. A total transformation! In doing so, our instructor taught us a little about kimonos.

            Here’s what we learned:

Kimonos can be passed down from generation to generation because of the fact that it is always cut the same. The only differences in size are for a child and a full grown adult, but other than that it’s pretty much the same. However, the designs vary tremendously in terms of color, pattern, and print. According to our instructor, smaller prints and patterns that cover the entire surface of the fabric are meant for casual wear, while prints that cover less of the design are meant for more formal wear. I guess you can think of it as being more of simple elegance.

After the kimono, you can wear either a full or half obi. Obis are the thick belts with beautifully colorful designs that are meant to compliment the entire kimono. If you wear a full obi, then you need an obiyame, a smaller thinner fabric that would help hold the kimono together. A half obi does not require that. Additionally, there are collars and ties underneath the kimono and then the belt that is tied over the obi.

The outfit itself is meant to make you look flatter and is also very difficult to walk in. Truth be told, I praise women who walk around the streets of Kyoto and Tokyo in full blown kimonos.

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After getting dressed and pinning up our hairs, we went outside to the back for a small photoshoot. The back looked like a small oasis, and we were even given an umbrella for a prop. It was actually unexpected on our part so we were surprised that our time allotted for that.

Finally came the tea ceremony. We thought we were originally taking part in a demonstration, but in actuality, we were given the chance to make matcha tea ourselves. First, we took a small whiff of the different kinds of tea most common to Japanese culture.

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Then we watched carefully how our instructor took the time to approach the materials patiently and then cleaned each of the materials carefully. We witnessed the proper way to pour water from the kettle into the cup for mixing, how to measure matcha, and how to mix. The mixing was probably the hardest part – it looks deceptively easy, but really it does a number on your wrist. After that, we learned how to serve the tea, what to say when offering and receiving to both the server and the peers whom you are with, and that it was polite to slurp at the very end because it indicates that you fully enjoyed the tea.

Tc3Also, this came with traditional Japanese sweets. Normally, you are supposed to enjoy the sweets beforehand because it helps simmer down the bitterness of the matcha.

At the very end, we thanked her for the instruction and were given small gifts as a token of appreciation – Japanese phrase flash-cards, an added bonus to the entire experience.

Quite frankly, the experience was a lot more than what we bargained for, and it was a great time! I would encourage everyone to try this if they are ever in Kyoto.

 

Fushimi Inari

On a wonderful adventure to Kyoto for the holiday season, my friends and I took a trip to Fushimi Inari Shrine, most iconic for the series of bright Torii, or gates, fixated continuously along the path leading up to the top of the mountain.

            According to Wikipedia, “Inari is known for being the patron of business a place where merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. Each of the torii that line the way to the shrine is donated by a Japanese business. Additionally, Inari is the god of rice.”

            First and foremost, I did not expect the hike to be as rigorous as it was. It hadn’t quite dawned on me that I would be climbing up a mountain that is 233 meters above sea level. At least I wore sneakers.

            Our group included myself, Dynasty our guide, Elysa our photographer, and Isabella - a friend from my home university. Side note – she had just completed her semester abroad in China and had spent a great deal of it hiking all over the place, so she was probably the most physically fit out of all in regards to this hiking challenge.


Fi1When we first arrived, we were all caught a little off-guard by the amount of people present. Either sides of the walkway leading up to the side entrance of the shrine were lined with food and souvenir vendors. Dynasty, having been here before, suggested that we all eat something beforehand. She could not have been more right. Our journey up the mountain required more energy than we originally thought.

Fi3As always, we performed our ceremonial cleansing before heading up. Going through the series of smaller toriis wasn’t too bad. It was a slow ascension at first, but then quickly became steep and rigorous. I was amazed at the women who climbed with infants in their hands and tall, thin heels strapped to their feet. Incredible.

By the time I reached a clearing, I was able to look out over Kyoto and see the puffy clouds and sunshine that peaked though it. It was a clear day, perfect for climbing up a mountain as notorious as this one. Unfortunately, I was surprised to know that I had only made it 1/3 of the way up. “No way,” I thought. All that work and I still had a ways to go. And so, off I continued.

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Once you get up 1/3 of the way though, the path splits into three different directions. “This mountain is kind-of a find-your-own-adventure mountain,” Dynasty had informed us. Only now did I realize what she meant. I took the path towards the right. By now, all four of us had broken off and went at our own pace. On my way up, there were several smaller shrines that looked like they had been frequented by other hikers. Briefly, I wondered how many people visited Fushimi Inari – probably hundreds on average, I thought.

Once I got to the top, I was overwhelmed. Not because there was a breathless view or some grand shrine, but because I had actually made it to the top. There was a small shrine enclosed with, what I believe to have been, funeral pillars of some sort. I didn’t inquire. I was more concerned with praying and thanking God for having allowed me to come this far. To be honest, it was a very spiritual moment, which is the great thing about shrines and temples overall, I believe.

My way back down – I decided to take “the road less traveled by.” In other words, I went off the trail and into the woods. That was the best part of my adventure! The hike down had me shrouded by woods and greenery. I was super cautious going down the steep rocks that looked like they were part of the original path. I also met a few local travelers along the way – Elderly folk who were trekking it up with walking sticks and backpacks – they were the sweetest! The path took a lot longer than going up, and I almost got lost at some point. However, I wound up walking through stalks of bamboo that reminded me of Arashiyama’s bamboo forest, past river streams and small cottage rest stops and then all the way back to the original hiking trail where the toriis stood. The way down may have taken me 45-minutes to an hour or so.

Nevertheless, it was worth it. It was invigorating and breathtaking, and even meditative. Especially when you hike your way down alone – it can be quite peaceful.




 

 

 

 

 

 

11/24/2015

My Visit to the Ghibli Museum

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Why Japan? -- I'm often asked this question. To be completely honest, I ask myself too. To start, I think the language is beautiful, the harmonious juxtaposition of traditional and modern culture is fascinating, and the Japanese way of thinking is honorable. In Japan, the societal norm is for people to be considerate, respectful, and always try their best for the betterment of others. Also, everyone works together and contributes in some way, so regardless of how busy a place may be it's clean and organized. These are values I hold dearly and believe to be important. Beyond that, I don't have a definitive answer since everyday I'm discovering new aspects of Japanese life which I enjoy. However, I can say that my initial interest in Japanese culture sparked from a young age. It all started with Pokemon. I remember watching the show with my brother, singing the theme song without fail, and running around the playground during recess and after school with my friends imagining we were part of that world. When I was 7, I saw Spirited Away in the theater for my friend's birthday. A tall man sat in front of me partially blocking the subtitles, but within five minutes of the movie I hardly noticed. The stunning animation, and beautiful sound of the music and Japanese language had captivated me. I wanted to fully understand everything behind the movie. As I grew older I continued to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s other movies, and my interest in Japanese culture grew with me. I decided to study Japanese in high school, and often found myself going back and rewatching the Ghibli movies not only for their stories, but to study Japanese as well.

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In the same way a familiar smell provokes memories, each movie conjures moments from my adolescence. As I sauntered into the Ghibli Museum my emotions were flooded with all those memories at once -- it felt like I had entered one of Miyazaki’s curated worlds. Delicately detailed stained glass depictions of various characters from movies covered the ceiling of the entryway, and the rooms of the three floors were full of glimpses behind the scenes of the long animation process. The right side of the first floor showcased various processes in which paintings, drawings, and figures were manipulated to create the moving animations. The left side included a small theater showing short films exclusive to the museum (bonus: the theater tickets were three frames from a random Miyazaki movie film strip). A compact caged spiral staircase led up to the second floor which demonstrated the indescribable amount of hard work put into even just a few second-long clip. In addition, the fluffy cat bus from My Neighbor Totoro and one of the robot soldiers from Laputa: Castle in the Sky were stationed on the third floor and roof respectively.

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A few days before visiting the museum, a few of us watched a documentary titled The One Who Painted Totoro’s Forest at the CIEE Study Center, which focused on Kazuo Oga’s background art for Miyazaki’s movies. Oga’s workload was high and he was used to quickly painting only the necessary details to understand the scene in previous works. Of course there's nothing wrong with this -- often times less is more. However, part of what makes Miyazaki's movies so remarkable is the amount of detail put into each scene. Miyazaki preferred everything to be hand drawn rather than use computer generated imagery. Oga submitted what he thought would be sufficient, and was taken aback when Miyazaki said, this is the best you can do? Miyazaki asked him to pay special attention to the nature which would be present in the area and time period of the background scenes. Oga took the request to heart and his results were amazing. Background art is usually disposed of after it’s been used in the animation process, however Oga saved a few for himself, and many were preserved and displayed in the Ghibli Museum as well.

The spirit behind Oga and Miyazaki’s collaboration to push their limits and create something beyond expectations is an aspect of Japanese culture I truly admire. There may be times when we want to cut corners in art, and in life in general, however it’s the often overlooked details which hold the greatest significance.

10/19/2015

Discovering My New Community: School in Japan

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The weekend before my first day of classes, I had the opportunity to go to my host sister’s school festival. I slid my feet into a pair of forest green slippers, tucked my shoes in a small plastic bag, and shuffled in behind my host father. My host sister was about to play french horn in the brass band’s welcome performance in collaboration with the dance club. An upbeat tune filled the air as girls with matching pigtails and colorful tshirts danced around exciting the crowd. Students, family, and friends swayed side to side while clapping along to the beat, acting as a natural metronome. I joined in without hesitation. However, to my surprise, I discovered the musicians still guide the audience in clapping along even in a more formal concert performance. Japan is a group oriented culture, so I interpreted the audience participation as a way of integrating the community. Over the two days of the school festival, I attended four brass band performances -- each with different members, location, and duration of play. All were reminiscent of my brother’s numerous concerts growing up. Music is a universal form of expression which brings people together, so the familiarity was heartwarming and instantly comforting.

We explored everything the four floors had to offer while weaving through groups of giddy girls ranging from preschool to high school. The photo club covered the classroom walls with images depicting everyday life in Tokyo, reminding me of my first exploration of photography in an academic setting in high school. In contrast, the ikebana (flower arrangement) room had a minimalist aesthetic, filled with fresh flowers my mom and grandmother would love. From the windows of the fourth floor we watched the shodo (calligraphy) performance as my host mother exclaimed, jouzu!, or suteki!, in praise of the students’ skill and beautiful work after the completion of each scroll. We also visited the sadoubu (tea ceremony club), where girls were dressed in gorgeous, colorful kimonos as they elegantly carried out this traditional Japanese practice. The red bean mochi (sticky rice cake) and matcha (powdered green tea) were just as pretty as they were delicious. Unfortunately (and fortunately), my attempt to sit seiza (kneeling with the tops of the feet flat on the floor while sitting on the soles) for the entirety of the ceremony was interrupted when I was kindly presented with a small stool to sit upon for my comfort.

What I found most impressive, however, was a design course called Ad School. Students split into groups and worked to design and produce a commercial for Area Benesse (an educational assistance service) with the guidance of a professional, which would then be shown to employees of Benesse and Dentsu (an international advertising and public relations company). On the second day of the festival, the four groups gathered in the auditorium to see who would be announced the winner. There were three awards: Most Popular (determined by votes during the first day of the school festival), the Dentsu Creative Award (which my host sister’s group won!), and the award for the winner as deemed by Benesse. At the end a panel gave feedback and a lot of constructive criticism to the students. I was delightfully surprised by the extent of the students’ success after all their hard work and dedication. It reminded me to uphold the concept of ganbaru, which is deeply rooted in Japanese society, as I start my own schooling. While this directly translates as “to do one’s best,” it more importantly evokes the idea of persevering until the very end, and additionally its sentiment of determination translates beyond the individual to the community as a whole.  

Excited to finally start school myself, I walked from Yotsuya Station towards the main gate of Sophia University. Around me was a sea of black haired students congregating, happy to see each other after summer break. The majority of girls around me were dolled up in full face makeup and heels -- a stark contrast to myself who sports merely winged eyeliner and Birkenstocks, or combat boots. Although I was overwhelmed by the amount of fast-paced, casual Japanese spoken around me, it mentally prepared me for my first class: Japanese. Finding this classroom wasn’t a problem, however maneuvering the elevators was difficult. Not only because you cram as many people (and their backpacks) in as possible, but because the doors close so quickly. I’ve already lost track of the number of times the metal doors have sandwiched me within a few seconds of stepping in the crowded box. Navigating campus itself was easy since Sophia is a relatively small school with around 12,000 undergraduate students. However, the organization of the courses was rather confusing the first week. At Sophia there’s no capacity for class size, which is convenient since you’re guaranteed registration for all your desired classes. Unfortunately, in order to fit all the students, the classroom is subject to change at any time, so it’s important to keep track of your classroom listings on Sophia’s bulletin board.  

This semester I’m taking a Japanese language course, Gender in Japanese Visual Culture, Japanese Religions, and an Introduction to Linguistics course which looks specifically at English and Japanese. My language class has international students from America, Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Jordan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This wide range creates a rich context for the discussion of cultural differences in our home countries as we learn social norms and customs in Japan. Thus far, all of my time in Tokyo has been a learning opportunity. Navigating unfamiliar spaces, breaking through language barriers, and discerning differences in a foreign land is not an easy task. Just remember -- there’s people in the same boat as you eager to embrace these waves.

10/18/2015

Hanabi!

Everyone loves a good fireworks show - They're bright, colorful, absolutely beautiful, and if you're a hopeless romantic like me, then you can even call them "Magical".

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This past weekend, my friends and I - The usual band of international and local misfits - jumped on the train and rode a good 2-3 hours out to Tsuchiura, outside of Tokyo, to witness one of the last fireworks display of the year.

Note: "Tsuchiura is a city located in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. It is situated along the western shores of Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan." (WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE)

It's quite common to see fireworks in Japan up until the end of summer. But because this was happening in the beginning of October, it registered in my mind as a "Once in a Lifetime" opportunity.

The trip itself was inexpensive - only about 3000 yen, approx 30.00 USD, for the round trip. Admission itself was free. The event wasn't a festival though, rather a competition in a 3 hour long show of fireworks and music. But with the amount of people that attended, and all of the shops and vendors that were set up, you would have thought that everyone was swarming the town in celebration of something.

Once we exited the train station, we took a bus out to the location. So many people flooded the main street that led into the fields. Along either sides of the streets were food and toy vendors. There was so much good, traditional foods that we all indulged in! Dango. Taiyaki. Takoyaki. Okinomoyaki. It took me all day to learn how to properly say "Okinomiyaki".

Now, let me give you an idea about the group we went with. Imagine 14 very different individuals all together in a single group. There are about 6 international students, 4 post-undergrads, two of them being former international students, two of them Japanese locals, and four others who range in age from mid 20s to mid 40s. You are only familiar with the younger of the 6, but the others you have seen and talked with many times before so they're not strangers. But still, you're wondering how this day is going to go because you are so used to going on such adventures with your close friends back home. I'll tell you right now that it was incredible!

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The greatest part about the Hanabi competition wasn't the fireworks as one would assume. Instead, it was the fact that I was able to go out so far from Tokyo with an amazing and diverse group of people. Together, we laughed, practiced our Japanese, talked with locals, navigated the area that was new to most of us, (the eldest of the group were well equipped for the adventure), shared our delicious meals, got to know one another; we bonded! I can't remember the last time I ever experienced something like that. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the day, maybe it was the great weather, but something sparked with that amazing group of 14.

So, by the time 5pm hits, we are all settled in our spot in the fields. By the way, these are no ordinary fields - they're muddy and bumpy and definitely not what I was expecting. But, as mentioned earlier, the eldest of the group were well equipped for the venture. They had tarps ready for everyone to sit on. Additionally, they brought plastic bags to put our stuff in so nothing would get dirty and so we would have a place to put our trash. How great are these guys? We even wound up nicknaming the eldest and second eldest "Otou-san" (meaning father) and "Oji-san" (meaning uncle).

Now for the show itself: The sun is setting and the sky starts to darken to a deep indigo, then bam! Bright golden flares shoot up and crash into the sky, only to twinkle down and rain over everyone like a shower of fallen stars. Over and over again we were left in awe at the incredulous display of prismatic luminosity. The shapes they took, the synchronism with the music - you don't see anything like this during the fourth of July.

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Definitely the best part of my trip so far.

A Caution to anyone who reads this and decides to go see Hanabi in Japan - be prepared for the ridiculous amount of people all pushing and shoving their way into train stations immediately after the show has ended! As amazing as that night was, the trip back was unbelievable. Because of the crowds that all swarmed back to the train station all at once, the station officers had to seal off every exit and let groups in one entrance at a time! It was the perfect display of chaotic efficiency if I ever did see it.

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We reached home safely three hours later. Still the best experience yet. 

Looming Culture Shock

Looming Culture Shock

The past three weeks have demonstrated to me that even the most put-together person can be completely disarmed and left vulnerable by what is known as "Culture Shock" - This is something that happens when you are realize that your culture, your way of doing things, is suddenly no longer the normal way due to the new environment you now find yourself in. As a result, it's necessary to adjust.

Like almost every other person in the CIEE program, I originally thought I was ready to handle whatever was going to be thrown at me the minute I stepped foot onto Japanese soil. I had my goals in mind, I was eager to start school, ready to explore, and so very willing to just immerse myself in the culture and learn as much as possible about this wondrous country. Culture Shock never even registered in my mind as a something that I would struggle with so much.  In this case, all of my planning and preparation should have been categorized as "Easier said than done".

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Shibuya Crossing Chaos

 

I wound up dumb-struck and left in awe at Tokyo's fast-paced society. Even now, sometimes it feels like if I'm not walking like a New Yorker - quick and with gut-determination rooted in every step - then I will be bumped, shoved, and trampled. It's such a commuter-city! Trying to  keep up with the crowds in the train station proved to  be very difficult at first. The crowds all seem to move in waves, especially around the major cities, and trains can get so packed during rush hours that the station officers may even resort to cramming them in all at once - though I haven't had that happen to me, yet - the train schedule is actually very efficient. Oh, and there are even designated female-only cars during those peak hours! How's that for safety?

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The next thing on the Culture Shock menu was adjusting to the difference in food and diet. Cooking dinner for myself was intended to be an easy task, except for the fact that I had no idea what to buy and where to buy it. I had to use the power of Google in order to research some of the brands that I ought to buy. It took me several days to become a decent food shopper, but in that time this is what I learned: Because so much is locally grown here in Japan, it's really inexpensive to buy fruits and vegetables at smaller, local markets, as opposed to the larger grocery stores we are all probably used to back home! And it's only 10 minutes walking distance - everything is meant to be convenient here because of the way the society works. Even convenient stores here carry much more than sodas and snacks. You could literally do all of your grocery shopping at a 7/11 here. This is Culture Shock at its finest - rendering me incapable of providing for myself because I can't properly read the labels on the packages. It takes some getting used to, and a lot of Kanji memorization.

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My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

 

The first night, I remember trying desperately to order dinner, only to fail miserably because I couldn't read the menu. A couple of the dorm students paired up with the locals who also live in the building and wound up going out for ramen. I don't eat beef, so I had to keep asking "Toriniku? Toriniku?" Meaning "Chicken? Chicken?" If it weren't for the locals, we would have had so much more of an issue trying to order noodles than a Japan-born two-year-old!

Nonetheless, I was not shy about going out for dinner. If you know where to go, you can actually get a whole meal for under 500 yen, (approx. 4.50 USD). And if you want a taste of something traditional and inexpensive, an Izakaya is your best option. It's a small eating establishments that specialize in serving meat and drinks . While the prices can skyrocket, depending on what you order and whether or not there's a seating charge, there are inexpensive izakayas that tend to serve a lot of traditional snacks and skewers that make up a great meal among friends. Every single time, the atmosphere was fun and relaxed, the food great, and the bonding moments absolutely precious. It's funny to think that we don't have anything like that in the states - chain restaurants, sure. But inexpensive sit-downs that border between a pub and restaurant, no.  

Another thing about Tokyo,  Japan, that I find quite different from America are the amount of game centers here! I was talking with a new friend of mind, a Japanese local who had been showing me around town at the time. She called the centers "Pachinkos" and I had no idea what that was, until she started explaining about the games and slot machines. Originally, I thought about an arcade, but it's actually something else entirely.

I wound up learning that Pachinkos are slot machine parlors. Here, the idea of the game is to put little silver balls into the machine and try to win more silver balls by getting them to fall in certain places in the machine, which can then be exchanged for prizes.

However, there are several dozen arcades here in Tokyo that seem to be a popular past time for the locals. Back in the states, it's very rare to try and find game centers now-a-days because Americans make no time for it anymore. Therefore, they wound up shutting down. Similarly, to go to a place in America with slot machines would mean that you would be going to a casino to gamble, and there aren't nearly as many in one state as there are in all of Tokyo, (in my personal opinion, that is.)

Pachinkos and Arcades here though are always crammed pack with people, from teens to elder parents, I've seen them all! Perhaps it's their version of de-stressing from the day, or their own way to bring their inner child to the forefront for a good hour or so, but whatever the case may be, it was all too amazing just to see that video-game culture thriving in the most vintage of all tech-oriented establishments.

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My friends and I were about to go hard-core on Mario-Kart

Honestly, I can go on and on about the differences between my hometown and Japan, but that's not the point of this post. Instead, the point is for me to convey to you how taken aback I was by both the amazing and the frustratingly difficult. It has been no walk in the park, even now 3-weeks in.  I guess when it comes to culture shock, you never know what's going to be the next big difference that you are going to have to adapt to, but adaptability is the key! If not, then you will suffer and loathe your time abroad. It's one thing to know that you are going to have to make some changes in your daily routine, it's another to actually follow through. Nevertheless, bit by bit, I am adjusting and learning as I go - I look forward to what the rest of the semester has in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Box: My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

10/17/2015

Tokyo, Trains, and Taking Risks: My First Few Weeks as a Study Abroad Student

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After last minute preparations, hard goodbyes, and a 13 hour plane ride I've finally made it. The Land of the Rising Sun -- a land not quite as foreign as it was four years ago. Although my body traveled 14 hours into the future, my mind is still stuck in limbo and reality has yet to hit me. I'm in Japan. I'm constantly flipping between a mix of excitement, nervousness, and some sadness as if my emotions are TV shows not interesting enough to stick with for more than a minute or two. Luckily, navigating Narita Airport came naturally as I meandered through immigrations, baggage claim, and customs -- at least until I struggled pushing my cart back and forth across the airport in a frogger-like fashion to retrieve my pocket Wi-Fi and meet the CIEE staff. 

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Fast forward -- I've now spent three full days in Japan and am exhausted. It’s not jet lag so much as sensory overload. After welcoming us at the official program opening meeting, we took a bus to Naritasan Temple and roamed freely. We got our おみくじ (paper fortune) and I received bad luck. Under travel it read: "Be cautious as things will not go smoothly." This is not what you want to hear after traveling across the globe. 

At 13:00 (I'm still adjusting to 24 hour time schedules) we drove from Narita to Tokyo eager to see campus for the first time. During my homestay orientation I felt confident -- I've already done two homestays in Japan so I knew the basics of what to expect. However, about 10 minutes before we met our host families, my nerves got the best of me and my heart was racing. I've forgotten all my Japanese. Up to this point everything was conducted in English, so aside from the short conversations I had at the airport I'd only uttered はい (yes)、ありがとうございます (thank you)、and よろしくお願いします(please treat me well) as necessary. Mama-san greeted me with a bright smile while apologizing for her little knowledge of English. Without missing a beat, I automatically responded in Japanese reassuring her it's totally fine then quickly added「すみません夏休みがありましたから日本語がちょっと忘れてしまいました。」Oh. It's totally fine. We both laughed and left to find the train station.

I wish I had a picture to show how crowded Tokyo trains are, but I could not even raise my arms to take one. It was that crowded. Let me describe my route to school: Walk 15 minutes to Shin-Urayasu Station. Take the JR Keiyo Line and become familiar with people flush against every aspect of your body. Transfer at Shinkiba Station to the Tokyo Metro Yurakucho Line. Sit down and take a nap. Or study 'cause I mean that's why you're here anyway right? Transfer again at Nagatacho Station to the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line. Don't get too comfortable (you can't anyway -- you're most likely pressed against the door) because you get off at the next stop. Arrive at Yotsuya Station and walk to Sophia University. Got it? Good, hopefully I do too. Although everything is exceptionally orderly when entering/exiting on the platforms, anything goes once you're released in the stations. Everyone scatters like ants and beelines to their respective destinations. There's still a flow of traffic and if you disrupt that you hinder not only those immediately surrounding you, but practically everyone moving at the time. An excellent example of why I say you should go with the flow.

Takeaway of the day: Fight the annoying voice in the back of your head telling you to not make a fool of yourself. Make mistakes and learn from your experiences.

07/15/2015

Discoveries and suggestions

Just like that, and there is only less than a month before I complete my study abroad term in Japan. There was time when I felt a bit homesick, but now I do not want to leave. There are still so many things I want to do here in Japan, yet time is so limited. However, I do not think I will leave Japan with any regrets, because I have spent every moment in Japan very wisely. 

I always have an agenda and plan every day. It was pretty overwhelming to have a mindset of wanting to visit all the places and try all the food in Japan. I cannot go a day without opening my agenda, and looking through to see if there are any open spots for me to fit more places/ restaurants in there. I managed to go to at least one unique town/ spot of Tokyo, or try the food that I haven’t tried before, or go to a restaurant that I cannot find outside of Japan. I am always doing something every day. By doing so, at the end of the day, I feel very satisfied because I don’t want to waste a single moment to explore Japan (mostly Tokyo in my case). Also, by keeping a calendar, it helps me remember the places that I have been to and the things that I did in Japan. I want to forever remember the joy and happiness that I experience daily in Tokyo.

With that being said, I understand how stressful it is to having to keep up with everything, so I am coming up with the list of the places that I have been to, and want to recommend to everyone.

 One life-saving tip: utilize the “save” button on Google Map. Whenever I find a new place, I immediate go to my Google Map, look it up and save the location so I don’t end up forgetting everything, or having a long list untouched.  

There were several great shops which I do not remember the names, but I will try my best to make sure the best places are listed.

Note: I am a big foodie, so most of the places will be restaurants, but food is such a large part of the Japanese culture (especially sweets!). I am not sure about others, but the Japanese food/ sweets give me such a strange feeling of happiness that I don’t think I can find it anywhere else.

Most of these places can be found immediately using just the name on Google Map, so I hope finding these places will not be any problems.

 Restaurant:      

-       Nabezou / Momo Paradise / MK Restaurant (they have many different branches, from Shibuya to Harajuku to Shinjuku)

  • All you can eat for Shabu Shabu (hot pot) and Sukiyaki (special Japanese dish stew served in hot pot style)

-        世界で2番めにおいしいきたてメロンパンアイス in Shibuya

  • The one and only place that sells this unique melon bread filled with ice cream!

-       Soup Stock Tokyo (right outside Sophia in the Atre Building)

  • Famous healthy and delicious soups with a wide variety. They also serve curry and different lunch sets

-       Hatsudai (初代) in Ebisu:

  • White potato cream curry udon (shiroi kare udon)

-       Japanese Ice Ouca in Ebisu

  • In my opinion, has the BEST ice cream with the most unique flavors (4 tea flavors alone, pumpkin, premium milk, different fruits, cream cheese, etc.)

-       Bittersweet Buffet/ Sweet Paradise in Shinjuku/ Ikebukuro/ Shibuya

  • all you can eat Japanese sweets (the crepes and waffles here are amazing), on top of salads, Italian cuisines, drinks, etc.

-       Cosme Juicery in Daikanyama, Shibuya’s Hikarie Building

  • Healthy organic cold-pressed juice/ smoothies

-       SASA Grill Burger in Daikanyama

  • Serve avocado, salmon, mushroom, and all types of unique and delicious burgers with great atmosphere

-       Burn Side Café in Harajuku

  • Soufflé pancakes! One of the best

-       Rainbow Pancake in Harajuku / Honolulu Coffee in Yokohama:

  • Madacamia nut cream pancake

-       Pablo Cheese Tart in Shibuya

  • They have seasonal flavors! This is a great gift to buy and enjoy with host family because only a whole cheese tart is sold here (but it was so good that I could finish the whole thing by myself).

-       Rapoppo in Shinjuku Station/ Shibuya Tokyu Store B1/ Sky Tree:

  • Sweet potato sweets!

-       Bills at Harajuku/ Yokohama:

  •  Hot cakes!

-       Ichiran (一覧)everywhere

  • Known as the best ramen restaurant

-       Harbs in Shibuya/ Shinjuku Lumine Est

  • Mille Crepes with fruits filling- one of the best creations in the sweets industry in my opinion

-       Tsurutotan in Roppongi

  • Authentic and delicious udon. The size of one serving is three times bigger than normal, and the “udon” is all you can eat, so enjoy

-       Ice Monster in Harajuku:

  • Taiwanese ice shave

-       Bake Cheese Tart in Jiyugaoka/ Shinjuku

  • Famous baked cheese tart- there is always a line but it is worth it

-       Quil Fait Bon: fruit tarts

-       Croquant Chou Zakuzaku in Harajuku/ Shinjuku:

  • Premium Milk Ice Cream from Hokkaido and churros with custard filling

-       Pancake House: Dutch pancake

-       Gyukaku (every where): all you can eat yakiniku (Korean BBQ)

-       Croissant Taiyaki

 

Interesting shops to check out:

-       Kiddy Land

-       Tokyu Hands

-       Book Off

-       Troll along Harajuku/ Shimokitazawa for unique cheaper goods

 

Small local towns:

-       Daikanyama

-       Ebisu

-       Shimo kitazawa

-       Kagurazaka

-       Yanaka Ginza

-       Enoshima/ Kamakura

-       Nakano

-       Nakamekuro

-       Jiyugaoka

-       Tsukiji

-       Ameyoko

-       Jimbocho

There are many more places that I want to talk more details about, but I am sure if students take time to explore the local stops on their route home, there will be plenty of hidden gems are waiting to be discovered. 

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-       Soufflé Pancake at Burn Side St. Café

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- Melon Pan Ice (Melon bread filled with ice cream) at世界で2番めにおいしいきたてメロンパンアイス

 

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-       Ice shave at Ice Monster

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-       Premium milk ice cream at Croquant Chou Zakuzaku

 

06/22/2015

THE BEAUTY OF NATURE IN JAPAN: FIELD OF PINK FLOWERS IN CHICHIBU

In past blog posts, I’ve often enthused about the very admirable unity that exists between urban civilization and nature in Japan. And if that topic hasn’t gotten old to this writer, then it goes to show that natural wonders in this country really are astounding. It really depends on the season, I suppose, and after enjoying all the fall-slash-winter brand of natural wonders in Japan last semester, I feel myself very inspired to report on my personally preferred spring-slash-summer brand of outdoor tourist destinations. This time, I would like to talk about a little daytrip I took to a vast field of pink, purple, and white flowers out in the boonies of Chichibu, Japan.

               There were a few weeks before the rainy season settled in, when Japan enjoyed sunny day after sunny day. It was during one of these days that I was struck with the familiar urge to go do something outside. Usually, I would greet such a feeling with much dread, as back in Los Angeles, all I could find within a drive-able distance on such a day was concrete and more concrete. In Tokyo, however, the internet has thus far revealed to me many great outdoor locations within reasonable distance, including a field of beautiful flowers in Chichibu, just under two-hours away from the city via a limited express train. With little difficulty, I purchased my ticket from the ticket machine at Ikebukuro station, and hopped onto the train with little waiting time in between.

               Chichibu is a quaint little mountainous city in the west of Saitama that doesn’t get to enjoy a lot of visitors all the time, which I think is why so much energy surrounds the train station during the times of year when events are taking place there. I’d arrived too late to catch the bus up the mountain to where the flowers were, but there were plenty of signs in every direction (some in English) to show me the way by foot. Though I did regret having left so late, it was a relief to know that at least, I was going to get to enjoy a marvelous sunset as I walked through the city of Chichibu, even if the park had already closed for the day.

               As I made my way up a hill (where the field of flowers was supposedly located), I encountered more than a few signs in Japanese that said something about the park closing at five o’ clock. I solemnly glanced at my cellphone, saw that it was already a half hour past five, and nearly turned on my heels, when I decided that hey, I might as well just make it to the top. Boy was I not expecting there to still be a crowd of people walking through the field of pink, purple and white when I did reach the top, nor did I expect no one to stop me from walking through the gates – the security guard even waved at me with a smile.

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               Sure, the flowers and sunset were both really pretty, but what really got to me that day was the idea of how accessible nature is in Japan. In spite of it having been past the park’s closing time, visitors were still allowed to enter in light of the beautiful sight that had been spawned from the union of the golden sunset and pink petals. It’s the kind of nationwide appreciation for nature – free of all the artificial “save nature” campaigns which take the magic away – that I haven’t found anywhere else. And it’s an attitude which I will truly miss upon my return to the United States. For now, I’m planning to soak up as much of that Japanese sunshine as possible, before the rainy season hits.

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HOLDING BABY FOXES IN SENDAI, JAPAN: ZAO FOX VILLAGE

There are 24 hours in a day, right? So an itinerary consisting of 10 hours of travelling – 5 hours there, 5 hours back – plus maybe about 3 hours at the actual destination, not counting meals, should, in theory fit into a single day. This is, of course, if one were to negate the need for sleep and food, the possibility of getting lost, and assume that there would be no school the following day. Well, I am proud to announce that as of the end of May 2015, I have joined the ranks of people crazy enough to undertake such a demanding daytrip. Now, one might begin to ask, “what kind of tourist destination in Japan could possibly warrant exhausting oneself to such a degree?” The answer, in the case of this blog post, would have to be “Zao Fox Village” in Miyagi, Sendai.

               A friend of mine, whose favorite animal is the fox, spends much time on the internet looking up things about foxes. One day, whilst searching for fox-related things to do in Japan, she stumbled upon the website of a fox preservation site up north in the Tohoku region. I consulted my agenda, but it did not seem like we were going to have a good chance to go up there anytime soon, as Golden Week had passed, and there were no three-day weekends in sight. Upon my friend’s fervent urging, however, we eventually made plans to make a daytrip to Sendai. This was our plan, which was to be executed on a Saturday: leave extra early in the morning on a bus, get to Sendai station just before noon, ride down to Shiroishi station, catch a taxi to the fox village, then do the reverse on the way back. Equipped with an artillery of snacks and caffeine, we set off upon this journey.

               After hours of non-stop travelling, we finally reached Zao Fox Village. Around May, the weather starts becoming oppressively hot very fast, so I had preemptively dressed in single-layers. Unfortunately, I had failed to account for the fact that we were going to be at a higher altitude in the north, where the winds blow particularly cold. But once I paid the 1000-yen entrance fee and was brought into the village, the sight of adorable little baby foxes made warmth pour from my heart and flood my body.

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Prior to my departure, I’d seen many mixed reviews regarding Zao Fox Village. A lot of people were reporting how broken-hearted they’d felt to see such cute little foxes locked up in such small cages. Indeed, whilst the entry-area is where baby foxes are kept in cages, one of the village guides explained that it was for their safety as they were being raised, and once they reached adulthood, they would be released into a significantly larger free-roaming enclosure – one which guests were allowed to enter.

               The enclosure is designed to feel exactly like a naturally-occurring forest populated by foxes. Albeit, a forest with signs all over the places warning you against touching the foxes, lest they bite you. My friend had to fight hard to resist the temptation of petting her favorite animal, and was rewarded for her resistance when the staff announced the following: for 300 yen, we would be allowed to hold the baby foxes (which had yet to grow teeth) for as long as we wanted. Now, I feel pretty neutral about foxes, but the moment that baby fox was placed into my hands, my heart melted. At this point, I’m not sure what to say. It was seriously very cute.

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               With that said, one can only imagine the state of senseless bliss my friend must have found herself in. I almost had to drag her out of the village in order to make it back home on time.

               I feel like something such as a “fox preservation site” that is open to tourists would never fly back in the United States due to some inherent “dangers,” so I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have been able to get so physically close to one of nature’s cutest marvels in Japan. Though I probably won’t be undertaking a trip of this scale again, I don’t regret my decision whatsoever, and am glad I made the trip. Now, if only there were a pug preservation site in Japan…