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6 posts from July 2011


Sumo in Nagoya


The Grand Sumo Tournament was held in Aichi Prefectorial Gymnasium

    Sophia University's school semester had been shortened by two weeks because of Tokyo's efforts to conserve electricity during the summer. Thus, blessed with two extra weeks after final exams, I went to Nagoya for 3 days to relax and watch some sumo! For those who want to learn more about the rules and history of sumo, the Nihon Sumo website has an informative beginner's guide here

    The Grand Sumo Tournament is held throughout the year in different prefectures in Japan. This year, it is held in Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka in spring, summer and winter respectively. I had missed my chance to watch it in Tokyo due to poor planning, but I would not make the same mistake twice! @_@

    I woke up at 7am and went to the Nagoya Aichi Prefectorial Gymnasium at 8am to buy tickets. Even then, there was a queue forming at the ticket booths. Ticket prices ranged from extremely expensive box seats (¥20,000++) to cheap, unreserved freeseating at the back (¥2800). Thrifty ol' me naturally purchased the cheapest seats.

I woke up at 8am to buy tickets, but the professional matches don't start till 2.30pm

     At about 8.40am, the sumo bouts started, but there was literally a dearth of spectators. I garnered from the brochure that the early bouts were all low-level fights and that the high level fights didn't start until 2.30pm in the afternoon. Therefore, I took the time to go have lunch and visit Nagoya Castle, which was just around the corner of the Aichi Gymnasium. More about the castle later. 

The top tier Yokozunas enter the ring in an elaborate ceremony.

    Sure enough, when I returned at 2.30, the stadium was packed and people were cheering loudly. The stadium got even more crowded by 3.30pm, because that was when the top-ranking sumo yokozuna-wannabes would have their bouts for the day. Before their contest, they entered the ring in rank and file, forming a circle while the ring announcer read their names out to the cheering crowd. Each sumo wrestler had their own sponsors and were dressed in brightly colored garb.

    The rituals prior to each bout involved the sumo wrestlers squatting and clapping their hands, followed by throwing powder into the ring.  Some wrestlers threw so much powder that I could have sworn those in the front row box seats got powdered as well. Bouts were generally shorter than the rituals that preceded them, but I witnessed some especially exciting fights that lasted for a long time. There were also foreign sumo wrestlers from Russia, Ukraine, and some other countries. It was impressive how some of them who were smaller could still hold their ground against the bulkier opponents.

    The sumo tournament ended with yet another elaborate ceremony at 5.30pm. This time, a rikishi entered the ring and performed a dance while twirling a long bow. This was considered an expression of satisfaction for the winning sumo wrestlers that day.

    Nagoya castle was more colorful than Himeji Castle but less brightly colored than Osaka castle. Nevertheless, it was a grand sight to behold. (I have become somewhat of a castle enthusiast now, since I have never set foot in a castle prior to my visit to Japan.) Like Himeji castle, part of Nagoya castle was under restoration and there were ad-hoc exhibitions detailing the reconstruction process. There was also a special exhibition on the ancient toys and clay dolls that Japanese used to play with.

    While exploring the area, I found tour guides dressed in ancient japanese costumes showing groups around. There was also a couple having their wedding photos taken here. The CiEE Japanese Teacher asserts that Nagoya Castle and the food in Nagoya are the most must-try things in Nagoya, and I fully agree!

    It has been fun writing for the CiEE blog and I hope readers find my posts helpful and informative. I hope these posts have encouraged you to visit and explore Japan! Ciao!

Nagoya Castle is right next to the gymnasium!


Dinosaurs in Ueno

    Rawr! From a poster in Kanda train station, I found out about a dinosaur exhibition that just opened its doors to the public on July 2nd. Naturally, I pounced on the opportunity! The location was in the Ueno museum of natural science and history. The event, the annual 恐竜博2011(literally dinosaur exhibition) !

Ueno Museum of Natural Science

    Ueno is home to most of Tokyo's top national museums including the museum of western art, shitamachi (historical downtown) museum, and the Ueno zoo. Entrance fees to these museums can be subsidized using Sophia University's student discount, or by using the CiEE cultural reimbursement fund. That day, when I purchased the ticket for the dinosaur exhibition, I also received a card from the popular japanse trading card game: Battle Spirits. It was none other than Bucky the T-rex, immortalized in a card! The Japanese really know how to capitalize on publicity and advertising haha.


    The dinosaur exhibition was located in the basement of the museum, and the stars of the show were two complete fossils of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex (affectionately named Bucky). Of course, there were other complete fossils such as that of stegosaurus, raptorex, and camarosaurus, but the Triceratops and T-Rex fossils seemed much larger. The main point that the exhibition tried to get across was that new research indicates that T-Rex actually had a use for its puny forearms, and that was to help it shift its center of gravity when getting up from a squatting position. Other interesting points that I learnt that day was that scientists now make use of MRI and CAT scans to study incomplete dinosaur fossils, and that scientists can now tell what color certain dinosaurs were based on the residue of a chemical called Melanosome.


Unlike the museum in Osaka, the fossils on exhibition were complete and huge!

The star of the exhibition was Bucky the crouching T-Rex.

A plesiosaur found off the coast of Fukushima

    The natural science museum housed many exhibits other than the special dinosaur exhibition, including a collection of geological rocks found in Tokyo and the rest of Japan, a collection of flora and fauna in Japan, as well as a collection of ancient japanese clocks and measuring devices. There were tonnes of taxidermically preserved specimens to gaze at, including some ancient pine cones that were the size of my fist! 

The museum's other biological exhibits were also impressive

    Overall, I think the natural science museum is definitely worth a visit (even if it isn't dinosaur season), especially if you enjoy history and biology. Be sure to check out the other attractions in Ueno as well; Ueno truly is a vast resource of historical facts just waiting to be discovered!

A whale bids you farewell at the exit of the museum

Nara and Kyoto

I believe I mentioned this in a post a while ago, but because of the electricity shortage Sophia University decided to shorten the semester -- so instead of finals going until the end of July, we all finished our finals on July 20th. That has given everyone a lot of free time to explore Tokyo and surrounding areas in Japan, which we have all taken great advantage of! Last Thursday and Friday, I took off to explore Nara and Kyoto - it was a great trip!

I left Tokyo Wednesday night by overnight bus, which actually wasn't too bad - I was super tired so I was able to sleep the whole way, and the bus was even darker than my room so it was a pretty good sleep. I got to Kyoto around 7:30am Tuesday morning and then took a train to Nara, which is well-known for all of its temples and shrines. I'd actually never been before -- when my family was in Japan three years ago we were supposed to go, but the afternoon my dad had planned for us was the same one when I found out I had a shellfish allergy (after eating seafood for lunch)... needless to say I couldn't make the trip.

But, this time I made it to Nara pretty early Tuesday morning and went to drop my bag off at the hostel before beginning to explore the area. I walked SO much today and yesterday - I should probably get better sandals. But anyways, I spent most of Tuesday wandering around looking at the different shrines and temples -- they were absolutely beautiful, so just look at the pictures! One thing of interest was at Todai-ji where there is another big buddha statue, and one of the temple columns has a hole at the bottom that is the same size as the buddha statue's nostril. If you can fit through the hole, supposedly it aids you on your path to enlightenment! It was a tight squeeze, but I eventually wriggled through and a very nice gentleman took some pictures for me. It was quite the experience! My favorite thing of the day were the lanterns at the Kasuga Taisha (Shrine) -- there were both bronze and stone lanterns, hundreds of them, and they were absolutely amazing.  Check out my Facebook photo album for lots and lots of pictures!



Wriggling through the nostril hole!


Kasuga Taisha lanterns~~




Later in the afternoon I got pretty tired so I went back to the hostel to take a nap. I met a girl from London who spent two weeks visiting a friend in Tokyo and is now traveling around Japan for another two weeks -- we bonded over the joys of solo traveling and then I passed out in my super comfortable bed until dinner time. For dinner, I wandered around looking for something to eat until I found a picture of something appetizing outside a restaurant -- I went inside and ordered it, and then when it came I realized it had some unknown bits of what I presumed to be seafood. I decided to eat some of it anyways -- big mistake. After dinner I was able to walk around more and see some of the sights that were illuminated at night, but when I got back to the hostel I started to not feel well. Later at night I had another allergic reaction -- something about me and Nara I guess.... But, I made it through the night and felt fine today, so things could be worse I guess.

This morning I woke up, packed up, and headed from Nara back to Kyoto (about an hour by train). I didn't have much of a plan, so I got a map "eigo no chizu" (English map) and started exploring. I came to Kyoto with my family before, and my dad is a great tour guide so I figured he had shown us most of the interesting places. The first temple I went to, I can't remember the name of, but it was apparently the biggest wooden building in the world. I lost my map there, so after that my plans were pretty much shot... But, after a lot of wandering around I made it to Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavillion, which wasn't as awe-inspiring as the Golden Pavillion (also in Kyoto) but was still really pretty. I also wandered through the Kyoto Imperial Palace Grounds, which are now surrounded by a big public park. You can't go into the actual palace grounds, but you can get closer than you can in Tokyo! I saw some royal roofs, at least.


The giant wooden building~




Once I was sufficiently tired out I headed back to Kyoto Station to take the shinkansen home. Let me just say, a 3 hour bullet train ride is definitely > a 7 hour overnight bus ride. But, it takes bus rides to really make you appreciate the shinkansen I guess. (For reference, Kyoto -> Tokyo is about twice as far as Boston is from New York City, but you can make the bullet train trip in less time than it takes to drive from Boston to NY!) I made it home to delightfully cool weather in Tokyo, which has continued for a few days now. It's nice to have a break from the heat, but I think it's supposed to get hot again starting tomorrow. A bunch of CIEE students are going with SISEC on a big camping trip -- it should be a lot of fun! After that, I'll have a few days left in Tokyo before heading home on August 1st - can't believe it's that time already. This semester has flown by! Matane~~



Ambling Around Asakusa


    Asakusa is one of the most highly rated tourist traps in Tokyo, thanks to the area's high concentration of traditional architecture and temples. In addition, it is also an area frequented by chefs and restaurant owners, because of the famous plastic food street Kappabashi just a few blocks down the road. I rode the Tsukuba Express Line for the first time that weekend, from Akihabara to this Asakusa, and the weather was perfect when I arrived. I basically scoured the entire area on foot that day, and even made a short trek to the still-under-construction Tokyo Sky Tree!


There are 5 Kappa in this picture alone @_@

      Kappaabashi was my first stop in my journey. The long shopping street was heavily decorated with Kappa themes, even though the items sold in this area had nothing to do with the mythical water beast. Rather, every shop here seemed to sell cutlery, restaurant signboards, and wind chimes. The Japan Tourism website said that this area was known for its culinery retail goods, especially the fake plastic foods that are so common at the window of every Japanese restaurant. Unfortunately, in my 30minutes there I found lots of knives and chopsticks but could not detect a single shop selling the coveted plastic food. It would have made such a great souvenir---- not really..

Asakusa had a very rustic and traditional feel to it

    The town of Asakusa felt like a blast from the past, with traditional Rakugo/performance theaters and Rickshaw tours. Oddly enough, there is also an amusement park embedded here, which felt totally out of place. The stores sold many traditional japanese goods like Yukata, samurai swords, wooden dolls and lanterns. The crowds were not dense, at least until I arrived at Sensoji Temple, where it was like a sea of tourists. Sensoji and its nearby Nakamise shopping street were flooded with people taking photos and visiting the many different shrines in the complex. I bought my first ever Omikuji (written fortune) which involved putting a 100 yen coin into a box and drawing a stick from a lottery-like dispenser. It was a fun experience (because my fortune was good haha).

Tokyo Sky Tree and Asahi Beer Headquarters

    At about 2pm I bought tickets for the Suijo bus (water ferry) across the Sumidagawa river all the way to Odaiba. Since I had time before the ship arrived, I visited the nearby (15++ minutes of walking) Asahi Beer Headquarters and Tokyo Sky Tree. When I reached the Sky Tree I could tell that once construction is complete, it is definitely going to be a fantastic sight to behold. It will also revitalize and invigorate the otherwise empty surrounding area through all the commercial activity it brings.

Himiko the futuristic boat to Odaiba

    The ferry ride to Odaiba was really cool because the boat was something I had never seen before. It was super streamlined with many windows for everyone to peek out of. The boat ride also included a tour of the various bridges around the Sumidagawa river. Unfortunately, I did not get to see them in great detail because a downpour started midway through the cruise. Nevertheless, for ~¥1500 it was a memorable experience.

    Well, that concludes my tour of Asakusa. The area exudes historical flavor and is definitely worth a visit if you are in Tokyo. Seeya Next Time!


Nagano and Matsumoto

One of the many (many many) great things about Tokyo is that it's only a few hours' train ride from so many places! A few weekends ago, I went on a weekend trip to Nagano and Matsumoto with my boyfriend who was visiting from America (lucky me!). It was an amazing trip! We headed to Nagano first by way of an early morning shinkansen. I didn't get us reserved seat tickets in an attempt to be a bit economical, but then we found out the hard way that they let people stand on the shinkansen if there aren't enough seats available -__-''. But, we were able to sit down after a few stops, so it wasn't too bad.

When we got to the station, we stored our overnight bags and began walking to Zenkoji, a famous Buddhist temple. You may remember that Nagano was the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics -- one of the first things we walked by was one of the platforms where they presented medals! It's condition has worsened a bit since then but it was still really cool to see -- I may or may not have taken advantage of my ignorant gaijin status and taken a picture or two on the medal podium :). We made sure to continue our walk quickly after that!

On the medal podium ;)



Despite the heat, we finally made it up the hill away from the station to Zenkoji -- the temple was amazing! There were tons of people walking around and the architecture was really beautiful. We were looking around in awe for a bit when a Japanese lady ran up to us and excitedly asked if she could show us around -- she was a volunteer tour guide! She gave us a lot of really cool information about the temple, and we were admiring one statue when she frantically tugged on my backpack and said something about "the governor the governor!". At first I thought she meant the statue, but then I realized that she was pointing to the stately Japanese man on the other side of the statue -- the governor of the Nagano prefecture was there with his family (this guy)! We were really lucky to bump into him and even more lucky that we were with someone who could tell us who he was!


After lots of bowing and konnichiwa-ing we continued exploring the temple. Our "volunteer" guide talked us into paying the (small) fee to go down into the "Kaidan Meguri," loosely translated as the path of Buddha. It's a dark tunnel that you walk through in search of the "Key to Paradise," which is the closest point to the main altar that the general public can access. Since we were following the voice of our guide she told us where to touch, so we took the easy way out to enlightenment. Still, it was a really cool experience as it was literally pitch black!


After we had our fill of temple scenery, we headed did some more exploring of the streets then made our way back to the train station to head to Matsumoto for the night. We had a relaxing train ride there and got to the station just in time for the shuttle to the ryokan we were staying in for the night. The place was REALLY nice -- we had great service and a delicious dinner before relaxing in the hot spring baths later at night. We were exhausted from our day of travel so we retired to our futon-style beds pretty early!

The view from the top of a dam near the ryokan ~ breathtaking


Dressed in traditional yukata in the ryokan :)


Matsumoto Castle!



The next morning, we woke up and had a hearty breakfast in the ryokan dining room before heading out to explore the area. Our main destination was Matsumoto Castle, but we also checked out some shopping streets and local specialty foods. The castle itself was beautiful -- we decided not to go inside, but the scenery outside was amazing! We took a lot of pictures and relaxed with some snacks before heading back to the station to go back to Tokyo :(. I actually just remembered this now -- that same night we had dinner with my homestay mother and daughter! They were really excited to meet my boyfriend and we had a great time playing together despite the language barrier. They are such a great family. I also picked up the cups that I made the first time I stayed with them -- pictures below!

Actually the cutest child alive


My masterpieces!


Our little family :)

If you've made it this far in this ridiculously long post, congratulations! Stay tuned for posts about my last few weeks in Tokyo and our CIEE final party -- can't believe I go home in 2.5 weeks! It's been a great semester!


Sushi Making!

Last Wednesday, there was a CIEE-sponsored sushi making event! We got the opportunity to try our hand at making one of the foods we've been eating pretty regularly while in Japan. It was a lot of fun, and it was nice to spend the afternoon inside out of the heat!

The event was located just a few stations from school, so we got there soon after lunch (although we had been told to have a light lunch since we would be eating our sushi after we made it). When we got there, we donned our aprons, washed our hands, and then got orientated with the kitchen environment. First, we watched a demonstration by one of the staff members. She showed us how to make two types of sushi--makizushi and inarizushi. They had a step-by-step guide book with instructions in both English and Japanese – it was really cute!

Our helpful instructors~

The inarizushi, or tofu rolls, were pretty simple – we just took a premade fried tofu pouch, squeezed out some of the oil, and then stuffed some rice in.  The makizushi, was a bit more complicated. The roll consisted of an egg, rice, cucumber, salmon flakes, ginger, and more rice. For the makizushi, we first cooked the egg in the frying pan. I don't remember what it was called, but it could best be described as an egg pancake--we beat the egg, then spread it out really thinly in the pan and cooked both sides.

In the meantime, rice had been cooking in a rice cooker, so we had to cool it down before we could roll it up. It was actually a pretty complicated process. We dumped the rice into a big wooden bowl, then were instructed to spread out the rice using "horizontal cutting strokes" while simultaneously fanning the rice. More than once we were instructed to fan more vigorously. When the rice had finally been cooled sufficiently, we took the egg pancake and covered it with a layer of rice and some pickled ginger. Then we rolled it up tightly and set it aside for later.

Hard at work cooling the rice!

Next, we took a piece of mori (seaweed) and covered it with a layer of rice. Then we placed the egg roll in the middle and put a long slice of cucumber on either side, and another slice on top. Then we rolled up the seaweed with the help of a bamboo mat called a makisu, and used more rice to connect the roll together. Then we sliced the roll into six pieces – the cross-section looked like a flower! We finished it off with a pinch of pink fish powder. It was really pretty!


Rolling up the makizushi

The instructor's finished sushi! 

By the time everyone finished rolling their sushi, we were all pretty hungry. The staff also prepared soup and orange slices for everyone, so we ended the afternoon with a great meal! It was really cool to make the sushi ourselves, and the inarizushi were simple enough that I may try it on my own again~ especially if it turns out as well as it did below!


Our delicious meal~