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7 posts from December 2011


Seeing Japan by Seishun 18

Hello all! Today, I’m going to write a bit about travelling by local train in Japan. The image that is conjured up by those words for Americans is usually a bad one (and pretty fairly, in my opinion) –unreliable, slower than planes and more expensive than faster highway busses. However, this isn’t as much the case in Japan, which is much more reliant on trains as a means of public and long-distance transportation, especially considering that gas is more expensive here.


 There are a lot of breaks in the Japanese academic calendar, and winter break is no exception. Sophia University’s began this past Friday the 23rd of December and will continue through January 5th, and having so much time with so little to do, I was really interested in getting out of Tokyo for a little bit and doing some travelling. As it turns out, it's a good time of year for just that sort of thing.

Japan Railways (JR) has a special ticket, the “Seishun 18” ticket, which is good for five all-day norihodai (unlimited rides) on all local and rapid trains; in other words, no shinkansen or even express tickets, unlike the JR passes popular for short-term tourists. Despite the name’s implication (“youthful" or "young 18”), the ticket can be bought and used by people of all ages. The ticket can be used on any five days during its period of validity, meaning that you can choose freely whether or not you wish to ride on consecutive days. Furthermore, the ticket can be shared between multiple people: for example, two people can use four of the ticket’s 5 all-day passes over two days, and then one person can use the fifth pass on another day. My friend studying abroad near Kobe is actually planning a trip with four other friends for which they bought two of these tickets, and will split them between themselves in order to use two all-day passes. At ¥11,500, the ticket may seem a bit pricey, but it is an incredibly good deal. As an example, to get from Tokyo to Nagoya costs roughly around ¥6,000 one way, and since it is possible to get there in a single day, if the pass is used twice for that distance, it has already paid for itself. On top of that, JR’s network extends from Kagoshima in Kyushu (the southern tip of the four main islands) and all the way up through even some of the remotest parts of Hokkaido, so there is a way to get almost anywhere you want to go.


The catch is that the ticket is only sold twice a year: from the beginning through the end of December, and then again from July through August. These tickets are good through January 10th and September 10th, respectively, so the periods for which they can be used can be limited. However, given the good timing of the tickets being around the winter and summer holidays, they are good times for travelling.

Feeling that this was the perfect chance to visit someplace new on the cheap, I made plans to spend this week travelling by the Seishun 18. My interest in going on this trip originated more from an attraction to the idea of the chance to see more of Japan at a relaxed pace by rail rather than having a particular destination in mind. I wanted to see how far I could go using the passes to cover the entire trip, and it turned out that Fukuoka, a major city on Kyushu, was just about right. The entire trip takes about a day and a half to complete (including stops), and would normally cost around ¥28000. I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to get my money’s worth on such a long trip, and so I made hostel reservations, did some research on good things to do in the area, and made plans to set out earlier this week on the 26th, right after Christmas.

Its really true that travelling by local train through Japan gives you a lot of unique glimpses at Japan’s more remote and beautiful countryside. The first leg of my journey took me along the JR Tokkaido line, during which time I had many opportunities to view Mt. Fuji across the Kanto plain.



 Travelling west and then south along the Tokkaido, Sanyo, and Kagoshima train lines reveals many of Japan’s obscure locations. Naturally, there is some really beautiful scenery, but there is also the more mundane side of the inaka (countryside). I wanted to get a sense of what “normal,” non-urbanized Japan looked like, and riding local trains across half the country certainly allowed me to do that. Aside from intimate views of countless small towns with a variety of mountain ranges in the backdrop, I was treated to some amazing views of the inland sea that separates Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Unlike travelling by bus or even shinkansen, the big windows in local trains give you some really unparalleled glances at scenery, and especially when you have hours to spend, it's a great way to pass the time.



I also had a distinct feeling that I was moving through the seasons on my way to Fukuoka -- on the first day alone, I seemed to pass through both fall and winter as I sped through Aichi and Gifu prefectures and not only saw some recently fallen snow, but went through a storm myself.




But it wasn’t only the countryside I saw. Although I didn’t stop there, I passed through Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka to name a few major cities. I also went through some places of historical importance, such as Sekigahara and Shimonoseki, where some of battles that have decided the course of Japanese history were fought. I wish I’d had more time to spend stopping at each and every one of these places, although I was lucky enough to have the chance to spend some time in Hiroshima (including an okonomiyaki lunch, of course) and Nagoya. I’m already thinking of buying the Seishun 18 again next summer to return to Kansai; even by local train, its within one day’s journey, and having spent a bit of time in Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, I think it’s really worth it.

Right outside Hiroshima station

    Right outside of Hiroshima station

I did encounter a few problems along the way, as is bound to happen with this sort of trip. I set out a little bit later than I had originally intended on the first travel day, and so made my first transfer about half an hour behind schedule (8:15 as opposed to 7:45 AM). I was hoping to make it as far as Hiroshima, a trip that takes around 17 hours by local train from Tokyo, and even though I’d known before going that trains come less frequently in the countryside as opposed to the major cities, but I hadn’t been aware of what a difference 30 minutes can really make. Even towards the more populated areas of Japan, local and rapid trains may only come once every half hour or even every hour, making catching a particular one very important if you plan on travelling this way. Even riding the train without stopping all day, I only made it as far as Fukuyama, which is about an hour and 45 minutes away from Hiroshima, and so I had to spend part of the night sleeping at an Internet café (less expensive and more comfortable than one might think; they are frequented by businessmen who stay out late and are in similar binds) before catching the first train out the next morning. If I hadn’t caught that train, I would have had to wait another 30-45 minutes for the next one bound for Hiroshima.


While I would have preferred to have had a full night’s sleep in a real bed, it was nice to take a trip without so much planning involved. I highly recommend the Seishun 18 because it's truly a great excuse to literally see some (or even half) of Japan. The few pieces of advice I would give to anyone interested in travelling by the ticket would be to spend a fair amount of time checking train options. In hindsight, I probably would have stopped in Kyoto or Osaka rather than Hiroshima, as they were closer to Tokyo, and even being a little bit late I would have been there in plenty of time. Building room into your schedule is truly a must. In line with that, transfers can often take less than five minutes, so its best to bring snacks or even meals onto the train for the long stretches of time, especially if you are making a longer trip. I found that sometimes I had to wait for a few hours for a chance to buy something to eat for in order to avoid missing the next transfer and having to wait even longer for the next train. On the bright side, each train I rode had a bathroom onboard, something which made the long journey easier to manage.


 時刻表 (Train schedules) can be a bit tricky

Finally, make sure to bring something (or some things) to do -- those long stretches of time can leave you feeling spent, and I found that it was nice to have music, books, reading materials, and even something to study along the way. Believe me, you'll run through them.


Finally, if you do decide to try the Seishun 18, I recommend making plans early. There are express night trains (such as the “Moonlight Nagara,” which can get you as far as Ogaki, past Nagoya, before 6 AM) which the ticket can be used on – they depart before midnight or even early in the morning, and allow you to get the most out of your travel day. The trains are extremely popular for this reason, and because they are reserved seats only, they are often booked to capacity far in advance (you can start reserving a month before your travel date). Hostel or hotel reservations are also important, especially considering that the period you can use the ticket is prime travel season for many people that they are likely to get full as well.


I would highly recommend trying the Seishun 18 out – its tiring and occasionally boring (like any long-distance travelling), but if you have the time and the patience, you'll be in for something really special. You really come to realize how much more there is to see of Japan beyond Tokyo once you get out there, especially if you go by local trains that run through some pretty remote and amazing areas. For my next post, I may write more on my trip to Fukuoka, so stay tuned! Happy holidays andよいおとしを!



Okutama: From Skyscrapers to Mountains

Happy holidays everyone, I hope the season treated you well.  Christmas in Japan is very different than in the States.  Dating couples are the focus rather than family.  Also, Santa is not nearly as cool.  However, I am not here to do a cultural comparison.  My last post detailed my main blogging theme: to have a grand time for the least amount of money.  

On top of providing frugal tips and cooking recipes, I would also like to give future CIEE Tokyo students ideas for fun and inexpensive activities.  Thereby, I would like to provide you an account of a trip I took to Okutama; a town two hours west of Tokyo.  

Firstly, CIEE provides students with a deposit of cash called "cultural reimbursement."  This deposit is 10,000yen to use for culturally grounded activities such as attending a sumo wrestling match.  The money can cover both the charge to do the activity and the transportation costs. However, the Study Center will only dole out at most 3000yen per activity, so you need to be mindful of that rule.  Nevertheless, they are basically giving you money to use for fun.  If you get creative, you will be able to enjoy awesome aspects of Japan for free.  I was able to get my trip to Okutama for no charge thanks to cultural reimbursement.

I, by no means, call myself an outdoors person.  However, I really enjoy hiking.  Nothing beats getting your shoes dirty climbing a mountain then reaching the top to see the beautiful landscape below.  After about two months living in the city, I started to get the urge to climb. So I decided to head West into the mountainous area of Tokyo.  I chose Okutama since it was close to a mountain, Mt. Honita, and it hosted an onsen.  An onsen is a traditional Japanese bathhouse.  My idea was to hike all day, wear out my legs, and then head to the onsen for some therapeutic bathing. Furthermore, since the onsen is considered an authentic part of Japanese culture, all expenses were paid for.  I then headed out on a mild autumn day to experience some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.   Here are some photos from my trip:

Okutama and Thanksgiving 104

After I left the train station, I crossed a bridge and snapped this one. 

Okutama and Thanksgiving 029

I used the river as a guide to the mountain.   Would have been nice to have an IPhone GPS.

Okutama and Thanksgiving 061

I ran into some rickety bridges while trailblazing.

Okutama and Thanksgiving 074

The random shrines are very cool.  They appear out of nowhere in the middle of a mountain, yet they are still well maintained.  

Okutama and Thanksgiving 072

I came to a clearing on the trail.  This is a nice pic of the foliage on the mountain.

After all the hiking, I ventured to the onsen which was a ten minute walk from the train station. The steamy bathhouse felt great on the legs.  Onsens are basically enormous hot tubs; the hot baths and waterfalls really were heavenly.  Overall, that hike was extremely refreshing, an amazing way to escape the city, to do something cultural, and to release all the tension away.  I highly recommend going to Okutama for anyone that enjoys the outdoors or is looking for a really enjoyable Japanese experience.  

Although the crux of my post is the trip to Okutama, I want to provide another Cooking with Jon segment.  Today's recipe is spaghetti and meat sauce. 

More Pics 008

You can buy the pasta extremely cheaply at the grocery.  For the pasta, boil a pot of water and then add the amount of pasta you want to eat to the pot.  Stir frequently until the pasta is soft throughout the noodle (a trick is to throw the pasta against a wall, if it sticks, it is done).  Strain the pasta and set aside.

The ingredients for the sauce are canned crushed tomatoes, ground beef, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.  You can also add other veggies as well such as bell peppers and onions.  Heat a frying pan to medium-high heat and add some olive oil.  Then crack open the canned tomatoes and pour out the water in the can into the sink.  Then add the rest of the crushed tomatoes into the frying pan and cook for a few minutes.  After a few minutes, add the ground beef and other veggies.  Chop and stir the beef thoroughly, you will see the beef turn from a red color to a light brown.  The overall color of the sauce should change from red to a brown-orange.  As you stir, add the garlic, pepper, and a generous amount of salt.  These ingredients bring out the flavor in the beef.  Once the sauce is a nice brown-orange, you are done.  Grab some pasta and add the sauce for a tasty meal.  I usually make a lot of sauce so I can have 3-4 meals of this dish; I seal the sauce in a freezer-bag and store it in a fridge.

That's all for today, I hope by the end of my time here that I will have a variety of fun cultural activities for you to choose from.  Look into what you enjoy and see where Japanese culture can play a part.  All in all, if you get creative with the cultural activities, you can potentially have an extremely fun day paid for.  


Three day trip in Nagano!

As I mentioned in my last post, Sophia University is currently on winter vacation for about 2 weeks meaning lots of free time leading up through New Years. With all this extra time during a bustling holiday season I decided to make a 3 day trip to Nagano from Tokyo by Highway bus. Nagano is about three and a half hours by car/bus from Tokyo and is much colder with about 2.57 meters (101 inches) of snow total during the winter season. Nagano is also known for having hosted the winter Olympics in 1996.

I stayed at a cozy hostel very close to Zenkoji temple from Nagano station. It was an amazing and beautiful trip and it snowed the first 2 days I was there, which was perfect for me  as I wanted to see snow while in Japan! I arrived at Nagano station around 3pm and luckily it was still light out and so I headed out to explore Zenkoji temple after dropping off my luggage at the hostel. Zenkoji is a Buddhist temple built around the 7th century and houses one of the first known Buddhist images brought into Japan.

(Zenkoji main hall in the snow)

There were also many beautiful snow covered gardens and memorials sites around the temple worth seeing such as a memorial for the women who served the Tokugawa household as well as the Rokujizo statues.

(Rokujizo statues in the snow)

The shops around also Zenkoji sell unique flavored ice creams such as miso and soba flavored, both were interesting to sample and definitely worth a try if you enjoy unique flavored foods.


Also if you ever go to Nagano don't forget to have some soba while in Nagano as it is also a place famous for the origin of soba noodles (Japanese buckwheat noodles). Yes, don't be like me as I was too busy running around in the snow and regrettably forgot to have some while there.

(Snow covered streets leading up/away from Zenkoji temple)

Snow definitely makes beautiful places and things even more magical. It was getting dark and the winds and snow were picking up and so I headed back to my hostel for some much needed nabe dinner and rest to prepare for my trip to Jigokudani for snow monkey sight seeing the next day.

From Nagano it is about 45 minutes from Shibu onsen (an onsen or hotspring village) from there it is a 10 minute bus ride and 30 minute hike up to the famed snow monkey park in Jigokudani (the name literally means hell's valley due to the numerous natural hot springs in the area). The park gets more crowded during the day and I wanted a more peaceful experience hence I got up around 7 in the morning to catch the earliest train there.

IMG_3780(Monkeys relaxing in a nice onsen while it snowed)

The park offers a close up and unique experience for visitors wanting to see snow monkeys in their natural habitat. The hike up to the park itself was very peaceful and beautiful especially in the quiet early morning. On my way back down around noon it definitely got more crowded and noisy; which is why I highly recommend going there as early as possible if you do decide to visit.

IMG_3803(Mother and baby)

(A cutie pie)

The snow monkeys all had very interesting facial expressions and personalities. From the alpha monkey watching over and scaring young ones into place to the playful baby monkeys and relaxed expressions of older monkeys enjoying a good soak; the monkey park is truly a really wonderful place to visit.

Afterwards I headed back down to Shibu onsen and had a nice soak in an outdoor and indoor hot spring. It was very relaxing and pretty as light snow fell on me as I was sitting out. It made me understand the snow monkey's desires to bath in hotsprings on cold days as well.

On my last night, at the hostel I stayed at we had a okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) dinner party. I got to eat warm and delicious food alongside many other travelers visiting from all over japan and various parts of the world as well.

(Okonomiyaki made by a traveling businessman at my hostel)

On my last day in Nagano I decided to visit Masumoto castle (about an hour away by train). On this day the sun was peaking out. Around early noon the skies had cleared and melted away most of the snow.  Allowing for very clear and picturesque views of Matsumoto castle.

(View of Matsumoto castle with mountains in the background)


I am extremely glad I decided to take this 3 day trip to Nagano. The idea of traveling outside of Tokyo in a foreign country by myself was intimidating at first. But everywhere I went I met extremely helpful and kind people. Looking back on this trip I am so glad I went with it anyway and in return I got to see so many beautiful and wonderful places and met so many nice people along the way.

In addition to the places I visited there are many more places to visit in Nagano as well that I wish I had had the time for. Such as Togakushi, a place famous for its soba, cedar forests, natural scenary and the fact that it is home to the Togakure school of ninpo (in other words home to the Togakure school of ninja arts).

I have one more month left in Japan before the end of my study abroad experience. Time really did fly by quickly during the last couple of months. Even though school gets in the way of sightseeing and visiting places outside of Tokyo,  I plan to attempt as many activities in Tokyo and day trips outside as well before the end of this semester. Until next time I hope you all have a safe and happy new year!


Autumn 2011: Koyo and other seasonal images in review

Happy holidays everyone! Its been awhile since my last post, and while it may be a bit unseasonable, I'd like to discuss this past autumn and the beauty of the changing of the seasons here. For something a bit more Christmas-y, I'd highly recommend Cynthia's post just down the page a bit.

Koyo, or the changing of the leaves' colors, is one of the more pleasant long, drawn-out seasonal experiences I've ever had. Although it may already be Christmas, fall didn't really seem to even begin to come to an end in Tokyo until about two weeks ago. There aren't really many signs of "winter" that make themselves present even at this time of year (beyond a few glimpses of snow, which I'll touch on later); in fact, the weather here is rather warmer compared to my native Maryland and especially Pittsburgh. So the fact that the leaves continued to show some really beautiful colors until very recently struck me as a strange but pleasant surprise, and if I didn't think it before it has certainly come to represent the beauty and variety of Japan's four seasons. With that, let's take a look back on that autumn that was.

My first real attempt to get a taste of Koyo was a brief trip to Kyoto I took back in early November, the height of autumn in America but pretty early for any real color in Japan. I won't say that I was completely disappointed with the colors I got to see, but it was really too early to get a good sense of what the true beauty of the season is like. Of course no matter how well one plans, it all changes from tree to tree, and so you can't really tell where the best spots are going to be with any real certainty that early. In hindsight, I might have tried to delay the trip for another time, so I might have seen Kyoto in its full autumn radiance, but on the same hand one doesn't have as many breaks from school, and as I've learned its much better to take life by the horns and just go.

First signs of autumn in the park adjacent to Nara's Todaiji (the largest wooden structure in the world)
In truth, as far as I could see the only thing that was really in full bloom at that time was kaki, or persimmon, a fruit that grows like dandelion all over Japan. There were available to the extent that one could very easily pick them off of a low hanging branch without much effort (not that I was inclined to take someone else's property, as many of these trees grow in yards).


Just like Koyo or even Sakura (cherry blossoms), kaki  have their own place in the pantheon of seasonal symbolic images, as reflected by their presence in several offerings that I saw during my time in Kyoto, including in a great offering at the Gosho, the imperial court and palace of the Heian era.


To return to the topic of koyo, the trees along the banks of the Kamo river had begun to show the early signs of the season as well.


The annual changing of the colors of leaves is in my opinion a much bigger deal in Japan than in the U.S. Perhaps this is because the four seasons are regarded much more as a unique aspect of this country's aesthetics, and as a result the Japanese have a sense of national pride and interest in actively engaging in seasonal activities of this sort. I can't remember the last time I heard a bunch of college students in the U.S. sitting around a computer talking animatedly about whether the autumn colors were still in season at such-and-such mountain, but I've heard it here. TV news reporters travel around for the express purpose of covering koyo. Daily tv updates on where the colors are peaking are common, with more detailed information available on the web. There is much of a similar consideration given to sakura in the spring, and as I mentioned before, even college students make a point to take time out to enjoy these natural wonders. truly, this is a country that values natural signs of seasonal change.

The best look I got at Japanese koyo in its full glory would have to have been during our time on Miyajima island in Hiroshima. It was completely unexpected (being closer to December at that time), but nonetheless a truly nice surprise. The leaves are really only at their peak colors for a short time, and the mix of shades of red, yellow, orange and even green respectively make for some great picture opportunities. Even if you're just an amateur photo-taker like me, you'll find that the leaves provide all of the シャッタチャンス("Shutter chance," or photo-ops) you could possibly want.



After Miyajima, I had one last opportunity to see the changing of the seasons on a day trip to Takao-san, a mountain within about an hour's reach by train from Shinjuku. Although a majority of the trees were already past their autumn primes and were beginning to shed their leaves in preparation for hibernation, there were still some trees sporting colors. Most of these had begun to show their age, and had turned the dull brown most do before falling from their branches, but accompanying an early, light snowfall, even these can retain some of their beauty. In my mind, that's a true representation of the Japanese aesthetic taste for seasonal transition.



I feel fortunate that I witnessed the transition from both summer to fall and fall to winter here; it really is something unique, if only in that it is given so much consideration by the Japanese. I'd say that on the next go around, I'm planning on paying a little more attention to the leave peak reports so that the next season I'm lucky enough to see will be an even better experience than this one was. Nikko is one prime viewing spot I haven't made it to thus far, so hopefully I'll be able to catch Japanese autumn in its prime. I'm looking forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms next year, and when they do I'll be there to capture a few pictures of my own. I hope to share them with you all at that point; until later, happy holidays again, and よいおとしを!(Happy New Year!)


Christmas in Tokyo

    Hello everyone! It is already late December and Christmas light displays, costumes and Christmas cake advertisements are everywhere in Tokyo. Therefore I will be bringing you a customary post of the wonderful things I have been able to see and do during Christmas while in Japan! Although New year's (お正月) seems to be a bigger event in Japan than Christmas (i.e. New years = custom gift giving, new year obentos, staying up for the first sunrise of the year and visiting crowded temples). There are still multiple places that offer wonderful light displays to get you into the warm Christmas mood here in Tokyo. One of the places I visited was Tokyo Midtown's Starlight garden and various other Christmas displays within and around the large Roppongi department store. The main feature was a splendid field full of lights on display outside that played a captivating light show accompanied with epic music, color changes, steam and etc.

Photo-0051Starlight Garden

The garden light display at Midtown was hands down, one of the coolest Christmas light displays/shows I've seen. It was butt freezing outside, but we stayed out for about 20 minutes just viewing the show over and over. Within the department store there is also a Christmas tree decorated/made entriely out of different Santa Claus figurines. Adorably dubbed the 'Santa Tree'.


There was also a "Dazzling Tree" on display outside, dazzling because it vigorously flickered its lights every so often almost giving one a delightful seizure.

As well as sidewalks lined with decorated trees and wine glass light displays leading up to the starlight garden.

Wine glass light displays

Inside Midtown, there were lots of restaurants, cafes and clothing stores. As well as a gingerbread house display.

Gingerbread house on display inside Midtown

Also, because there were so many drool worthy patisseries inside midtown I couldn't resist and so we decided to eat some decadent cakes at a crowded store called Jean Paul Hevin.

So delicious and popular some of the desserts were sold out by the time we got there

Regrettably, my camera battery died early that day and hence I am unable to post photos of the Midtown Christmas boot and etc that was also on display. However, if you are ever in the mood for shopping, yummies and beautiful lights during Christmas season while in Tokyo--then Tokyo Midtown is a place worth visiting.

   The day before Christmas eve I also  attended a Christmas party that took place all day on campus. I was one of the Christmas event organizers for the SISEC (an international student exchange/communications circle on Sophia) event and so I arrived early to help set up, organize and partake in the circle event. We had gingerbread house building contests, games, Santa contests, a gift exchange event and even a chocolate fountain!

Gift table and Christmas Tree

Chocolate fountain!

One of the Gingerbread Houses a group made

Gingerbread houses were a really fun activity for both international students and Japanese students alike. When we first planned for the activity we were worried about the accessibility of all the materials normally used to build gingerbread houses in Japan. Most stores here sell items in small quantity and gingerbread or even graham crackers required going to an import store where it would only be available in small portions and be sold for way more than the costs for it in the states. Hence we made do with what was available (wafers and chocolate bars) and were relieved they turned out just as well!

There are many other things to do during Christmas in Japan (such as Christmas cake buffets) even when a world away and I am glad I was able to participate and see some remarkable ones. It is finally winter break here at Sophia and I am looking forward to a much needed break and rest as well as a trip to I will be taking to Nagano during break (which I hope to cover afterwards)! As well as the huge sales that take place during the first week in January, winter Comiket, and New Years celebrations while here! I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and I hope to share again real soon!


The Good Life Abroad

Hello everyone, I am Jon Poli and I hope that you are seriously considering studying out here in Tokyo. Sorry I am a little late in the game, but all I can say thus far is that my experience has been quite amazing. If it continues like this, it will hands down be the best decision I have made in my life. However, Tokyo life is much different from life in the States in a variety of ways. The most imperative issue that I am facing is finances; the dollar is currently weak compared to the yen and everything in the city is expensive. I thought I had plenty of money to last me at least a semester, but I was severely wrong. On the other hand, I still am having a good time and I plan to do so for the rest of my time here. So I write my blog posts with a theme of being able to show future students how to have a blast without going broke. This entails a variety of things; but first, an introduction.

  Saori's Magic 5

This photo of myself was taken by a fellow resident of DK House Tokyo on the roof. She is an incredible artist and I was fortunate enough to be photographed by her. As I mentioned, my name is Jon and I am a junior from Tufts University. My major is physics with a pre-med concentration. Back in the states, I am an avid fan of playing sports, especially basketball, and I am a member of Theta Chi fraternity. Currently at Sophia University, I joined the boxing club and Sophia Communications circle. I chose to study in Japan for many reasons, the most prevalent being that I wanted to experience a culture completely different from America. I could not have selected a better country.

Back to the crux of the matter: money is meant to be spent and in Tokyo you will surely pay to play. Nevertheless, you can have a ton of fun spending money in the right places. To start off, here is a little advice. Either make a ton of money before you leave so you will have sufficient funds to last you or plan to get a job out here. For year-long study abroad students, getting a job will be the logical option. So I recommend when you arrive here to obtain your working permit. Information on how to get the working permit is provided by CIEE and the staff is very willing to guide you through the process. English teaching jobs are available through Sophia and there are a variety of businesses that hire foreigners. The hours are usually very flexible since the jobs are part-time. I currently work for Abercrombie & Finch as a overnight employee. Foreign-owned businesses are more likely to hire gaijin (slang for foreigner), so keep that in mind. Overall, a source of disposable income is a nice luxury so you do not need to worry about funds.

You may be wondering where all the money is going to. That differs from person to person, as for me my two major expenses are transportation and food. Every weekend if I go out I am paying 500-700yen just to get to where the social event is. That may not be much but include those costs with paying to commute to work every week, the funds add up. On top of that, you need to pay for lunch at school five days out of the week. As for the food, the portions are terribly small compared to America. As a 6'2” 200lbs male, I require more food than the average Japanese gentlemen. If I tried to live off of bento boxes I would always be hungry and if I only went out to eat, I would not last the semester financially. So this leaves cooking my own food; luckily, I have discovered that I really enjoy cooking. As a result, it is my current aim in life to be able to cook dishes that are filling, delicious, nutritious, and cheap.

This leads to another theme I want a part of my blog posts: Cooking with Jon. I aim to provide simple dishes that students can make that will keep their bellies and wallets full. On that note, the first recipe on my first ever Cooking with Jon segment will be the simple stir-fry dish.

  Image (2)

Now this dish has a ton of potential with endless combinations of ingredients that can be used. However, the fundamental components I use are rice and chicken, leaving the vegetables variable; above I used lotus root, sweet peppers, green beans, and bean sprouts. The rice provides the good carbohydrates and is a good filler and the chicken provides flavor and lean protein. I prepare the rice in a rice cooker; I usually make a ton and then I wrap the extra in plastic wrap and refrigerate. The chicken is prepared first by cutting the raw meat into pieces of desirable eating size. Then, using soy-sauce, black pepper, ginger, and spicy red pepper flakes, I marinate the chicken in a bowl with my hands and place the bowl into the fridge while the veggies are being prepared. Note: experiment with what you marinate the meat with. Marinating with soy-sauce is an inexpensive method, but the chicken taste changes vastly if you use other ingredients like kimchi.

Now the veggies are prepared differently depending on the vegetable. Using the dish I made as an example, the green beans were from a frozen package, so I boiled them in water to thaw. The bean sprouts come in a pretty big package for 29yen, so they are a cheap serving of vegetables that work very well in stir-fry. The sweet peppers were cut up to fairly small pieces which was followed by the lotus root cut into very thin slices; the lotus root is similar to a potato in texture. All the veggies were then gathered and added into a pan with cooking oil on med-high heat. After a couple minutes, a splash of soy-sauce was added to the pan. Mix the vegetables thoroughly in the sauce, it brings out the flavors very well and even makes the lotus root taste like a potato chip. After another 5 minutes of mixing and frying, pile the veggies onto a plate with the rice.

Now, obtain the chicken and add more oil to the frying pan. Add the chicken and fry the pieces until completely cooked. You can tell this by poking a piece with a chopstick and if its cooked it will spring back into place. Once finished frying, throw it on top of the veggies and you have made successful stir fry.

A few other notes, the meat is variable as well, if you can afford it. I have used shrimp and pork as substitutes for the chicken which will give the dish a different taste. Also, I recommend making more than you can eat in one meal. The leftovers are a great way to save on lunch expenses. The dish above lasted me for three meals. If you add up the total amount of money for the ingredients then divide it to the number of meals, you will see that you spent significantly less per meal than going out to eat, eating healthy simultaneously. Ultimately, cooking will save you the extra 1000-1500 yen per week that you will certainly want to use for other things.

All in all, I hope you will find my advice and cooking tips helpful. By no means am I an expert on cooking or life in general, but I hope my experiences will provide you with a good means of going about the good life here in Tokyo.




Late Autumn in Tokyo

Autumn in Tokyo is typically mild, but this year has felt even warmer than usual. It was only late November's rain and colder temperatures that finally silenced the cicadas and brought scarves, gloves, and heavy coats to the Sophia University campus. While the school’s Christmas lights went on several weeks ago, the Japanese maples in front of Kulturheim Chapel are still holding on to their green leaves, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the season.
It's been a very busy semester at CIEE. In October, students participated in a taiko drum workshop, went on a walking tour from Yotsuya to the Imperial Palace, cheered for the Tokyo Giants at a Japanese baseball game, and joined an international exchange event with host families at Ueno Zoo.
Students were busy preparing for midterms in November, but still managed to make time for several J-Talk Japanese conversation sessions at the CIEE Study Center and a 3-day excursion to Hiroshima and Miyajima. For most students, the trip was not only their first journey by shinkansen, but also their first opportunity to hear a lecture by a hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor.
December has been an active month so far, with a trip to the Ghibli Museum last Saturday, an elementary school visit on Sunday, and a soba-making activity mid-week. The CIEE Study Center will close during Sophia University's winter break, from December 23-January 4. During this period, students will take trips to different parts of Japan, or spend the New Year’s holiday with their host families.
We'll be back in January with more activities—including a trip to a sumo wrestling tournament in Ryogoku!

Happy Holidays!

Shannon Quinn

Student Services Manager

Boy band? Nope. Just a bunch of CIEE fall semester students hanging out in Miyajima!