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9 posts from May 2011


Homestay Weekend!

Hello everyone! This past weekend, CIEE students had the amazing opportunity to do a homestay weekend. I was really excited when I found out we would have this option, because I was originally signed up to do a homestay for the semester, but those plans changed after the earthquake. But, CIEE arranged for students to have the option to stay with a family from Friday night until Sunday, and many of us were paired with the family we would have originally lived with -- so it was really cool to actually get to meet them. My family was absolutely amazing. The mom and dad are in their late 20s/early 30s, with a four-year-old daughter and another child on the way (due in late July!). On Friday afternoon, there was a small party at CIEE where many of the families came to the study center office to pick up their students and take them home. But, some of us met our families directly at the train station (myself included). Around 6:30pm the mother, Hanae-san, met me outside of a coffee shop and we headed back to their apartment. I'm a beginner at Japanese so I was kind of worried about how well I would be able to communicate, but it actually went really well!

108_2958My room for the weekend!

When we got back to the apartment, the father (Yosuke-san) and daughter (Kohaku-chan) weren't home yet, so I settled into my room and talked to Hanae-san some more. Their apartment is really nice -- they have wireless internet, which is atypical for Japanese homes, and a really nice layout and living area. The father is really into music and has a record player and a cabinet full of vinyl albums -- the jazz albums constantly playing set a really good mood for the house. The CIEE staff had told me that the daughter, Kohaku-chan, was really shy, but when she got home we immediately hit it off. We played various games and once she discovered YouTube on my computer, we watched about 50 videos of "Purikuya," which is kind of like Sailor Moon for today's generation. Friday night was really nice and relaxing -- we talked a lot, I showed them some pictures from home, and we had a really delicious dinner!

Saturday, I had an amazing breakfast with bread and lots of fruit, and then we drove to Chiba to go ice skating. It was Kohaku-chan's first time going so I knew it was going to be an adventure. When we got there, it was pretty crowded since it was a rainy day, but we found a place to sit down and changed into our skates. At ice skating rinks in Japan, there isn't an attendant handing out skates -- you just go choose your own and keep your shoes with you. Once I found skates that fit and we got Kohaku-chan into her training skates, myself, Kohaku-chan, and Yosuke-san headed out to the ice. Kohaku-chan was pretty good at it, and by pretty good I mean she was capable of standing up while her dad or I supported her and moved her forward around the ice... She was super cute though, and had a lot of fun. But, with the amount of people packed onto the smallish rink it was kind of stressful at times, especially when we all rendesvouzed at one point and her parents sent Kohaku-chan off skating alone with me. I was pretty much terrified for her saftey but we went really slow, and she didn't fall the whole time I was with her! We all had a lof of fun and Hanae-san got a lot of great pictures -- she is really into photography and wasn't skating because of the baby :).

DSC_0053Ice skating with my host family little sister!

After ice skating we went to this pizza place that was actually the best pizza I have ever had. Seriously. It was so delicious. Yosuke-san said he thought it was the best pizza in Tokyo, but it seriously might be the best pizza anywhere outside of Italy. If you're in Japan or Chiba you should definitely check it out -- it's called Pizzeria Veicolo and I have their business card if you want the address (in Kanji..)!

After eating we headed back home and had a relaxing Saturday night before Hanae-san and I started to prepare Sunday's dinner (I actually missed that memo originally and thought we were going to eat it later Saturday night, so I was pretty disappointed when I found out we had to wait until Sunday night to eat it). I haven't done that much cooking before, but Hanae-san was a patient teacher and she picked something pretty easy for us to make. Basically I just cut up a bunch of vegetables, fried some meat, and put it in a pot with some noodles and various condiments to boil -- but it was really delicious. I went to bed shortly after we finished making dinner because I had been told I had to wake up early on Sunday!

108_2847Sunday night's dinner!

Sunday was another rainy day, but Hanae-san had special plans for us to go to a ceramics studio and throw our own pots! So, Hanae-san, Kohaku-chan, and myself got out our umbrellas and trudged to the bus stop to ride over to the area where the studio was. It actually took us a while to find, but we finally got there and it was such a cute little shop. I'm pretty sure the owner lives in the back, and the store was half shelves with things he was selling, and half his studio where there were two potter's wheels, the table, and the kiln. We all squeezed inside and set about to "learning" how to throw -- it was a lot of Japanese so I basically just copied what the sensei did and they threw in a few English words like "faster," "slower," "thin," and "thick" -- which I know how to say in Japanese anyways... but, after a few good attempts and lots of corrections I finally made two little cups, and Hanae-san made two bowls. Kohaku-chan made two plates by hand (not on the wheel), and she was really cute while doing it. The ceramics studio was a lot of fun and was a great bonding experience. The clay was too wet to paint, so we selected our colors, and the sensei is going to paint and fire it, and then we pick it up later. I'm excited to see the finished product!

108_2909The cups and bowls we made!

The rest of Sunday was a great day with the family. We had lunch in the area and then walked to this shrine whose god is the protector of "car safety," so people can drive their cars up and park them in front of the main temple. It was pretty cool. The street outside the temple had lots of vendors giving out samples, so we got lots of little dessert treats for free! It was a great way to end the afternoon before heading home (and the rain had let up soon!). Sunday night we finally ate the meal we had prepared the night before, which turned out pretty well if I do say so myself, and then after dinner we did origami as a family at the table. It was amazing. I made a few simple things myself (a heart and a hat), but the parents pulled off some pretty amazing folds. They ended up giving all of the finished products to me as a present, which was really sweet. In all, I had an amazing weekend with my family, and everyone else I have talked to had a positive experience as well. We have enjoyed living in the dorm together, but it was really cool that we could still get a taste of what living with a Japanese family would be like. My family invited me back for dinner any time, and of course I am going to go see the baby when it is born! I can't wait!



和太鼓 Taiko Drum Workshop

Taiko Workshop 002 

Last Wednesday, CIEE students spent the afternoon learning how to play taiko drums at Taiko Lab Aoyama in Gaienmae.

The instructor began the session with a brief introduction to the history of the taiko drum, mentioning that the taiko drum (which can be heard as far as 4 kilometers away) often defined the size of the Japanese village, as drums were used to call villagers together for important meetings and events.

Next, students moved on to a brief group stretching activity before tackling the drums. After spending an hour teaching students several traditional rhythms, the instructors dimmed the lights and performed two pieces, including a well-known song from Miyakejima, an island 180 kilometers south of Tokyo.

Taiko Workshop 020 

Taiko Workshop 041plus 



Last month (April 16-17) CIEE students who have been here since fall semester got to visit Kyoto for the weekend. Kyoto was Japan's capital for over 1000 years. The emperor resided here from 794 until 1868 when the capital was moved to Tokyo. The city is known for its traditional Japanese culture and important historical sites.

We left on Saturday morning and took the shinkansen to Kyoto station, about 2 1/2 hours. After dropping luggage at a hotel, we split into small groups and individuals set off to explore the city independently. Each of us was responsible for investigating a certain aspect of Kyoto as part of a small project: food, theater, handicrafts, Buddhism, etc. It seemed like a lot of people chose something related to visiting shrines and temples in the area. Kyoto has around 2000 Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city, and since we only had about 6 hours to wander around, I decided visiting temples would be the best use of my time.


I took a bus to a temple northeast of the station called Ginkakuji. From there I could easily walk to the meeting point via a scenic stone pathway called tetsugaku no michi or "path of philosophy/philosopher's walk." I had picked out 9 temples I would be able to tour along the path during my 6 hour time periodalthough I was only able to see 7 in the end.

Some temples were smaller and built low to the ground, composed of modest wooden corridors that bent around the temple gardens. Others featured more robust, towering main halls, gold leaf decorated walls, and extensive Buddhist iconography. All seemed to be dressed in the same off-white and dark wood covering the outside.

When our time was up, we met at Yasaka Shrine and walked through Maruyama Park to a restaraunt where we ate traditional Kyoto cooking.


That night, we attended a show at Gion Corner where we experienced a medely of traditional Japanese arts. The show included short demonstrations of Kyogen theater, Bunraku puppetry, tea ceremony, flower aranging, koto music, and traditional Gagaku court music.

The next morning we split into two groups for a bike tour that took us through Gion, a famous geisha district, and brought us to the Imperial Palace. Along the way, our group stopped at a mochi shop where we had tea and sakura mochi, a sweet pink rice cake wrapped in a salty sakura leaf. Even though it was mid April, I was happy to see there were still sakura in bloom around the city, as Kyoto is supposed to be one of the greatest places to see them in season. On the ride back, we rode along the bank of the Kamo River where many families had come to eat lunch together in the grass.


Our lunch plans were at a restaurant specializing in shojin-ryori, the vegetarian cooking traditionally served to Buddhist monks. The restaurant was located in the grounds of Daitokuji temple and was a bit of a hike by bus. The food was delicious and I have to say I don't think I've seen tofu served so many ways in one meal.

Overall it was a great trip and one of my favorite places I've visited in Japan so far. I could easily spend a full week there and still not see everything worth seeing.



Kobe and Fuji-san!

It is a cloudy Monday morning in Tokyo and I am writing from the ninth floor of the Hotel New Otani overlooking the rose garden (in short, things could be worse). I am really lucky to have my family visiting me this week - my parents lived in Kobe for two years and have several family friends in the area, so with my 21st birthday being last Friday and my sister having a break between the end of classes and start of summer job, this was a great time for them to visit. I have been staying with them in their hotel, which is approximately 3.5 minutes from my 9:15am classroom. Sure beats taking the train for an hour in the morning.

Having my family here has been a really interesting experience. My Japanese could be considered "beginner" at best, and so I've been relying on a lot of other people since I've been here to translate for me. However, showing my family around has shown me just how much I know about the city and how I can actually get by with my Japanese in several situations. For example, yesterday we went to Kawaguchiko to see Mt. Fuji and I had to make our bus reservation over the phone! It was really stressful but between my broken Japanese and the operator's broken English, we got it done. Success!

As I said, my parents lived in Kobe so they are pretty familiar with Japanese culture, but didn't spend very much time in Tokyo. So, our agenda was very open when they got here. Thursday night we spent some time walking around the Yotsuya area around campus, and had a nice dinner all together. I kept them busy until after 10pm so that they would have a better time adjusting to the jet lag. On Friday, I had two classes but in between we got lunch near campus, and then after class I took them to Harajuku to do some shopping (my dad was really excited about that part...). My mom, sister, and I ended up doing "purikura" (those Japanese photobooth things where you take pictures and then decorate them), while my dad wandered around exploring the area. We had dinner in Harajuku, and then my parents went back to the hotel while my sister and I went over to Shibuya. We were going to meet some friends but ended up getting window seats on the second floor of Starbucks, overlooking the intersection across from the JR station. We got really absorbed in watching the crosswalk -- it was amazing how many people crossed every 30 seconds or so. At one point, an ambulance and police car were trying to make it through the intersection, but they had to sit and wait for a while to let people go by and cars in front of them move!

Shibuya crossing pandemonium

On Saturday, I went with my family to visit Kobe (where I was born). When we got there, my mom's good friend picked us up and we went to have lunch at the church where I was christened, which is now a German cafe... my parents pointed out where the altar used to be, and where the pews were, and the friend with us thinks she actually sat in the area our table was in. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. After lunch we went over to the Kobe aquarium, which was really cool -- I can't remember the last time I went to an aquarium, and this one had a ton of different kinds of marine animals. The jellyfish especially were really neat -- there were at least three different kinds. We also saw a dolphin show, which was really cool. I sat just outside the splash zone, so I had a pretty good view but my camera was safe! After the aquarium we went back to our friend's house for dinner, and then had a very informal personal tea ceremony -- and my sister and I got to try mixing the tea! It was a really cool experience, although the tea itself I am not that fond of -- it's very bitter, and is definitely an acquired taste.

Church turned German cafe...

Jellyfish in the aquarium!

Sunday was a great day -- we were pretty tired from the day before, so we didn't leave the hotel until 12noon, and decided to head towards Mt. Fuji. I made the bus reservation (as I mentioned previously), and we made it to Kawaguchiko by about 3pm. From Kawaguchiko there is a bus that will take you to the "5th Stage Trail" area which is basically the bottom of the mountain, but it turned out we had missed the last bus. However, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we decided to walk around the area, and found a ropeway car that took you up a hill to an AMAZING view of the mountain. It was a cloudy/rainy day but the mountain itself was actually very clear -- we were very lucky and got some great pictures. It was incredible to see Fujisan in person -- it's obviously very tall but is also very wide at the base -- the amount of land area it takes up is incredible. That view is something everyone who visits Japan needs to see!


My family is here for another few days, so I am showing them more of Tokyo this week. They are actually in Nagano today and tomorrow (without me since I have class!), so Wednesday and Thursday will be jam-packed. It has been really nice to see them though -- it's hard to believe it's been almost two months since I left home! Time is flying by, and I can't wait to see what else Tokyo has in store for me this semester!


江戸風鈴 handblown glass wind chimes

Last Saturday afternoon, CIEE students traveled to Shinohara Maruyoshi Furin to learn how to make Edo Furin, or handblown glass wind chimes. Glass furin are a traditional craft of Edo (Edo is the old name of Tokyo), and Shinohara Maruyoshi Furin is one of two places in Tokyo that are carrying on this centuries-old tradition.

After watching a glass-blowing demonstration by Shinohara-san, students had a chance to create their own glass windchimes and paint them. 

Furin Making 043













Furin Making 016








Furin Making 040


Onward Osaka: Osaka Castle, Onsens and Ferris Wheels

    Greetings again! It's time to publish more of my Osaka Adventures! My first day using the Osaka Unlimited 2 Day Pass started off early at 9am. After grabbing the complementary breakfast from the hotel, I left to visit Osaka Castle, Tenjimbashi-suji, a public Bath and Onsen, and the HEP-Five Ferris Wheel in the heart of Umeda.

大阪城~ Osaka Castle, Gardens, and Museum of History

     Osaka Castle was located near the Tanimachi-4-chome subway station. I also visited many other interesting buildings around this subway station, namely, the NHK broadcasting station and Osaka Museum of History. The castle grounds were very busy even at 10am. Apparently, the castle was celebrating its 80th anniversary after restoration and rebuilding since the war, and there were joggers all over the place. It must be a popular exercise spot!

    Overall the natural scenery around the castle were very beautiful. The moat water was  so clear that I could see the koi swimming in it. There was also a plum grove and a martial arts dojo on site! Even the paint on the castle tower seemed new and glistening. There was also supposed to be a road-train tour ride in the castle grounds but I could not find it :( My first stop was not the main tower but the Nishinomaru Gardens in the castle grounds.     

    The ambience was serene with crisp morning air in Nishinomaru Garden.  This is apparently a favorite place for Hanami/Sakura viewing. Unfortunately, almost no flowers of any kind were in bloom when I visited, probably due to my bad timing. There were many old men with cameras lingering around here. I suspect that they were all avid birdwatchers.


The spacious Nishinomaru garden and the view of the castle.

    Next, I was treated to a rare sight at the Hokoku Shrine in the castle. A couple was having a traditional wedding, and the priests and wedding guests formed a procession walking towards the shrine. The priests were playing a nice melody on their musical instruments (flute, if i remember correctly?). The bride had an awkward white bib over her head O_O.


A rare sight at the Osaka Castle : A traditional wedding!

    The main tower of Osaka Castle was a hive of activity with traditional storytellers, street performers, and street artists abound, all celebrating the 80th anniversary. The inside of the main tower had been converted into a museum, which depicted the history of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the daimyos that unified Japan. There was an english brochure and most of the exhibits had english titles so if your japanese is rusty like mine it's still a worthwhile trip. Little kids could also try on shogun helmets and get their photos taken. SO JEALOUS! Anyway I left the castle with a cool unsheathable samurai-sword keychain and a castle keychain :)


Osaka Castle Main Tower!

    The NHK broadcasting station was adjacent to the Museum of History and both within walking distance from the train station. NHK was having some live idol program in their lobby with random mascots like DOMO-kun walking around. Pretty 'meh'.

    The Osaka Museum of History was not as english-friendly as the Castle museum. Many of the exhibits looked cool, with maps detailing the growth and expansion of Osaka, the Water City. What really caught my eye were the superbly detailed miniatures of society and life in Old Osaka. These miniatures were accompanied with video and vocal aids that made understanding what was going on a little bit easier. I also managed to sneak myself into a complimentary tour of the 7th floor, where the guide talked about the crops and fish that were on sale in the markets of Old Osaka.


The Osaka Museum of History

     After an educational afternoon, I decided to ride the subway over to Tenjimbashi-Suji, the longest shopping street in all of Japan! 2.6 kilometers in length, there were a tonne of shoppes along the street. I grabbed a quick lunch from a bakery here and window-shopped my way to the next nearby destination, the "Yu" natural onsen.

    Apparently a popular public bath and onsen in the Kansai region, the Osaka 2 Day Unlimited Pass provided free entry to this building. I am still puzzled why it is called a natural onsen when the bath was actually on the 7th floor of the building @_@. Anyways, the onsen was full of... naked people and stuff so no photos for you. However, I did not realize there were so many types of onsens that you could submerge yourself in here! I did some green-tea onsen at 42.5C and some black silica onsen as well. I tried to get into another jacuzzi-like bath where the water was dyed red for some reason, as well as another bath where the water was a frigid 18C, but was deterred by the masses of naked old men there. All in all though, I left the building refreshed and my muscles were definitely more relaxed. I am now a believer of the power of Onsen!!!


My only photo of the Onsen and public bath in Osaka. Don't want photos of naked men right?

    My night was spent in Umeda, the heart and nightlife of Osaka. The underground mall was super huge but nothing really caught my eye. The Osaka Unlimited Pass offered a free ride on the HEP-Five Ferris wheel, which was smack in the middle of the city, so as usual I obliged. This wasn't a really big ferris wheel, but the atmosphere and night skyline was really good. The carriages even had speakers with an external jack to play your own music! I'm marking this down as a romatic spot to bring a date in the future.


The HEP-Five Ferris wheel was a really fun experience at night.

    I got back to my hotel late at night and started planning my next day of intensive tourism. In retrospect, I am astonished at how much I managed to squeeze into just one day and will have fond memories of several of these unique places for a long time!

    Next time, I will write about my trip to the Osaka Coast and the many many cool things to do there!



Onward Osaka: Golden Week Tourism

     Hello again! I've been having a blast exploring Tokyo! Every year on the school calendar there is a set of consecutive national holidays between May 3-May5 (namely: Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day and Children's Day.) Together, they form Golden Week, and I strongly encourage travelling and exploring more of Japan during this time. In my case, I left my Tokyo home and visited Osaka!

    I had multiple novel experiences during the 3 days of May 3-5 and might have to resort to writing in parts to blog about all of them. Briefly though, I did the following: Nozomi Shinkansen to Osaka, Osaka Castle, Osaka Museum of History, Tenjimbashi-suji (Longest shopping street in Japan), My first Onsen, Two Ferris Wheels in Osaka, Osaka Museum of Natural History, Osaka Botanical Gardens, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, Tsutentaku Tower, Cosmo Tower, Shitennoji Temple, and Himeji Castle (not in Osaka but in Himeji).

    You might think I must have spent exorbidant amounts of money on transport and admission to these sites of interest, but in fact, for most of the places I visited, transport and admission was free thanks to this handy card I purchased: The Osaka 2 Day Unlimited Pass!


This pass is available only to foreign tourists of Osaka but costs only 2,700 yen. It grants free transport on subway lines and buses, and free admission to most of the attractions in Osaka! Read about it here: . In addition to this pass, the CiEE also offers up to 10000 yen of Cultural Reimbursement to students who use expenses for travelling to historic and iconic sites in Japan. How handy!

初めの一歩 The First Step: Shinkansen

    Getting from Tokyo to Osaka is relatively easy and cheap (Night buses that take about 6 hours cost only three to four thousand yen.) However, in order to experience my first bullet train ride, I paid 28000 yen for a two-way ticket to Osaka. In my opinion, the price was steep for the awesome but less-than phenomenal experience. Indeed, the world famous Japanese Shinkansen was efficient and punctual, and the scenery along the way was breathtaking, but I did not feel the sense of speed as I expected. Well, maybe my expectations were too high. Bullet trains are not as fast as bullets.

    There are currently three types of bullet trains; The Kodama was the oldest and slowest model, and serviced all the stations between Tokyo and Osaka. The Hikari was the newer model, with a flatter cockpit. The Nozomi was the newest and fastest Bullet train. It had the most aerodynamic cockpit and stopped at the fewest stations between Tokyo and Osaka. The journey on the Nozomi was only two and a half hours.



Kodama Shinkansen



The Hikari Shinkansen



The Nozomi Shinkansen

    The interior of the Shinkansen smelled like that of an airplane’s. At tokyo, workers dressed in pink would come onto the train and clean the upholstery before the next set of passengers got on. The seats had huge amounts of legroom and could be rotated 180o. I felt like I was on an airplane without turbulence, but with a good view out the window. The reserved seats were comfortable and I was happy I did not buy unreserved seats (The queue for the unreserved cars 1-3 were huge). The food and drinks sold in the station and in the train itself are expectedly overpriced, so it is recommended to bring your own bento to consume.

    Overall, I was impressed with the frequency and efficiency of trains in the Tokaido Shinkansen. While other Shinkansen lines were having problems due to the earthquake. the Tokaido line was unaffected. The punctuality and service on the trains served as a stark contrast to American infrastructure (eg. Amtrak or American-brand airlines, which are often late or cancelled.).

大阪へ到着: Arrival in Osaka

    Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised at how different Osaka is from Tokyo. Osaka is less crowded (No more packed trains!) and the buildings seemed more spread out from each other. There are multiple cultural differences too! For example, I was shocked to find that in Osaka, people keep to the right of escalators instead of the left! Furthermore, Osaka, like the rest of Kansai, has it's own special dialect. I could hardly understand some of the people I stopped to ask for directions. Also, Osaka has a very strong bicycle culture, almost everyone I saw was zooming by in a bicycle.


    I made my way to Shinsaibashi, a popular shopping street, home to some iconic places like American Mura (An American-style shopping bazaar) and my 3-star, $80 a night, hotel: Hotel Villa Fontaine Shinsaibashi. Recommended by Lonely Planet, it was pretty decent for accomodation and included an all-you-can-eat breakfast every day. It was about 3pm upon checking into my hotel, so I explored the vicinity a little, only beginning intensive tourism the next day.



    There were the basic top-brand stores in Shinsaibashi; ZARA, Luis Vuitton, Chanel, and also popular Japanese franchise stores such as UniQlo and Parco. There was also a cool underground mall that was as large as the distance between two train stations. It seems Osaka has many underground malls because there were even huger malls under Namba and Umeda as well. American Mura was rife with foreigners and artsy street design, but apart from that, the place was not as memorable as I had hoped.

    I turned in for the night at 11pm, with brilliant plans for the next day of activities: Osaka Castle, the longest shopping street in Japan, and my first Onsen!


Jolly Jaunts in Japan: Self Intro and Tokyo Tower


    初めまして、This is Colin Wee, a student gone rogue from his college in America just so he can study in Sophia University, Japan for one semester with the CiEE. I was born and raised in Singapore, and am studying Psychology and Neuroscience in the US. While I am definitely not as mean as in the self-portrait below, it is certainly more fun to draw myself that way :P ColinTeme copy

After the terrible March 11th Earthquake in Japan, The US travel warning and situation in the country compromised my study abroad program so I had to weave my way through some bureaucratic red tape to get to Japan. Now that I am here, I can say it is truly a historic time to be a part of this great country. Despite the minor aftershocks, there is a strong solidarity here and people are going through their lives while trying to save electricity.

Now, in order to do my part for the tourism industry in Japan, I have vowed to explore every tourism hotspot in this beautiful country and write about it on this here CiEE Blog. Future students considering Japan (just come you won't regret it) will hopefully find this blog a useful reference for short expeditions during breaks.

Tackling Tokyo Tower - April 24th

Where : 15 Minute Walk from Hamamatsuchō Station 浜松町駅

A sweet juxtaposition of old shrines with modern city awaits you on your journey to the tower.  P4240154

The tower itself is awe-inspiring, with exhibitions year round. This time, outside the tower, there was an exclusive Fukushima Food Expo with people trying to spread the awareness that most of Fukushima agriculture is in fact far enough from the radiation zone of the Fukushima Plant and is thus safe. On this special day, my friends and I participated in some charitable activisim by making the human hiragana character 「が」in 「えがお」which means "smile". The Pink "thing" is one of the two twin mascots for Tokyo tower, while the red radish is Radish-boya, a mascot for the organic agriculture industry.  Egao

Photo not taken by us. That's because we were in the "が"

    Inside the first floor of the tower was an aquarium and Dinosaur exhibition. The second floor was for food and souvenirs, where we had delicious overpriced katsu-don for lunch. The third floor was an arcade and a wax museum. The fourth floor held steps that would lead on almost forever to the middle observation deck of the tower. There was an elevator on the first floor but because the lines for the elevators were huge (and since real men use the stairs anyway), we decided to do things the hard way. From the fourth floor, we were 600 steps to the top. Although this was akin to a vertical marathon, the view from the stairs and the encouraging messageboards along the way made the experience very memorable and fun. Upon reaching the main observatory, we were rewarded with tiny certificate acknowledging our effort and accomplishment.

Climbing certTiny Tiny Certificate

The 360 degree view afforded by the main observatory in the tower was breathtaking. There were signs pointing to different areas in Tokyo, such as Shibuya, Ikebukuro and Odaiba. We also went up to the special observatory even higher up in the tower, but my personal preference was that the main observatory was cooler, because they had a gift shop and café on that floor. The main observatory also  had portions of glass flooring that could allow you to look straight down from the tower.


 View from the Main Observatory


View from the Glass Floor Panel

We left Tokyo Tower in the late afternoon, heading to the Pokémon Center Tokyo just next to Hamamatsu-cho station (Yes Japan has 6 real life Pokémon Centers!). Had we stayed past 7pm ,the tower would have lit up (albeit not as brightly as pre-earthquake times) with heartfelt messages to the people of Japan. Tokyo Tower is an iconic location in Tokyo that I thoroughly enjoyed. Complemented with a cool looking pair of mascots, Tokyo tower is truly one of the Great Towers in Japan.


Going to Osaka for Golden Week. See you next time~

Volunteering in Tohoku

Hello all! My name is Anna Morris and I am a student with the CIEE Tokyo Arts & Sciences program at Sophia University for the spring semester. I am a junior majoring in economics at Wellesley College, which is just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. You could say I have "family roots" in Japan -- my parents lived in Kobe, Japan from 1988-1990, and I was actually born there right before they moved back to the states. Since then, I lived in North Carolina all my life before going up to Boston for college, where I have spent most of my time for the past three years!

This semester, I am taking four courses: public economics, NGO management, an anthropology class on the recent disaster, and beginning Japanese. I really like all of them and have great professors. My NGO management class is taught by the founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan, which was started about 10 years ago and is the first organized food bank in Japan. It's pretty cool stuff.

I know the recent disaster is at the forefront of everyone's minds, so I might as well go ahead and address my experience with it now. I had an internship in Boston from January until March, and March 11th was actually the day I was scheduled to drive from Boston to NC to spend some time at home before leaving for Japan. Of course, everything changed when I woke up to the devastating news of the earthquake and tsunami. I finished up packing and moved through the motions of saying goodbye to people in Boston, but my mind was on Japan and how this was going to affect my semester. Once I got home the next two weeks were very up and down as tons of information poured out of the country (and the American media certainly did their part to make it seem like the apocalypse was coming). I had no idea when I was going to leave for Japan, if at all. However, the decision to postpone the program start date by two weeks was eventually made, which put me and my parents more at ease, and I finally made it to Japan on April 8th. Things in Tokyo are very safe and seem relatively normal, but last week for Golden Week I had the amazing opportunity to go up north and do relief work in Tohoku. Talking about it will make my first post on this blog relatively somber, but it was an incredible experience and I'm glad to be able to share it.

I was working in the city of Rikuzen-Takata in the Iwate prefecture, which is about an eight hours north of Tokyo (by bus). It is a costal town that was hard hit by the tsunami -- 5,000 of 8,000 homes were submerged, and over 70% of residents were reported dead or missing immediately following the tsunami. The coastline featured over 70,000 trees (mostly pine) before the disaster, but now one lone tree remains -- which has become a symbol of hope for the city and prefecture.

PhotoThe lone tree standing on the coastline

108_2342The backyard of a house in Rikuzen-Takata

I was with a group of about 30 other individuals from all different backgrounds and ways of life, and we came together to do what we could to aid the immense cleanup process. I was there for four days, and did about four hours of solid work each day. The campground we were staying in was about two hours away from the worksite, so the commute took a good chunk out of time out of the day. But, we did a lot of good work:  two of the days we were removing from rice paddies the trash and debris that were left on them by the flooding. We picked up everything from soggy newspapers to tatami mats to a mostly full vending machine (I watched the men move that one). Having followed the developing situation closely on the news, I knew mostly what to expect, but removing items like that was one of the hardest parts -- we found so many stuffed animals, articles of clothing, and everyday items that were remnants of the homes that used to stand there.

Cleared rice paddies with the piles of removed trash on the side

Most of the main roads in Rikuzen-Takata have been cleared and are driveable, but most everything else is still under a two-foot layer of mud that was left behind by the receding waters. So, Wednesday and Thursday we worked to clear the sidewalk of one of the main roads so that the children could use it to get to school. It was very physically challenging -- the mud was caked down so first we had to loosen it up with crowbars, and then shovel it all off, all the while pausing to pull out items such as blankets, tree roots, and even a kitchen sink that had been buried in the dirt. However, we made great progress and it looked great when we were done.


108_2347Part of the cleared sidewalk!

We also visited an "asaichi" (morning market) that has been set up in the town for anyone in the area to buy prepared food, groceries, clothing, and other everyday items. Some people from our group worked there each day, and on Thursday I got the opportunity to volunteer there. It was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. Thursday was Children's Day, so all of the koinobori (carp streamers) were hanging up and tons of local children were playing in the area. They all got a bag of treats and then we raised the koinobori that they children had decorated. It was very inspiring to see the children and their parents coming together in the face of tragedy and maintaining some semblance of normalcy. My Japanese is very limited, but I was able to talk to some of the locals, who mostly asked where I was from (I have reddish hair and am tall so I stand out), and then thanked me for coming -- both in Japanese and English. It was really humbling that they took the time to say thank you even given what they were facing.


Koinobori at the asaichi

Local children raising their koinobori

The trip was both emotionally and physically challenging, and it's hard to believe I'm back in Tokyo where there are very few reminders of what's going on up north. I caught up on sleep last weekend and am getting back into the schedule of class and homework. My birthday is on Friday and my family is coming to visit next week, so I have a lot to look forward to! I'll blog again soon about my adventures in Tokyo -- thanks for reading, and happy belated Mother's Day to all the moms out there!