Study Abroad in
Vega and Altair on their meeting day (source)
Around this time of the year, many Japanese people get together to celebrate Tanabata matsuri (festival). This festival commemorates a Romeo and Juliet-esque story of two lovers, Vega and Altair, who were separated across the Milky Way and were only allowed to meet on the evening of Tanabata (July 7th). To celebrate, my friend's host mom set up an event with her English language elderly students to have a sort of cultural and language exchange. I was very excited to not only meet everyone, but to wear a yukata for the first time! I headed over to my friend's homestay earlier in the day in order to get properly dressed. There were several beautiful pieces to choose from, and I choose a white and pink floral pattern. The first part of the yukata is a long robe piece that is tied across by the obi (belt) pretty tightly. The yukata is made for the hot summer days as it has a opening from the sleeves that allows for much needed ventilation! The last part of the outfit is a flower hair pin for the girls and fitted geta (wooden slippers).
My friends and I all dressed up! (source)
The event itself was quite fun and we began the day by writing our Tanabata wishes onto thin, long, decorated paper slips and tying it to the bamboo tree as is customary for this festival. Following that, we were treated with a special finger flute performance by two of the elderly men who attended the event. Having never seen a finger flute performance (or even having heard of it), it was quite the treat and very entertaining. The two men played both American and Japanese songs! One of them has been training in the finger flute for over two decades and definitely proved his talent.
Next, we proceeded to the crafts and games part of the day, beginning with origami. While I have done origami several times before, I definitely did not remember all the steps. Luckily, the group at my table was able to show me how to make a cute paper crane! In the spirit of Tanabata, we also made "ama no gawa" decorations which are made to look like the Milky Way. It was great learning how to make some new origami, hopefully I will remember it when I get home! :)
Milky Way origami (source)
Lastly, we rounded out the day by playing some Japanese games including Karuta. The version we played started off with three stacks of cards in the middle of the table. On the cards are either a picture of regular man, princess, or monk and depending on which one you pick you either gain or lose cards. The players take turns going around the table and drawing from the deck. Drawing a card with the regular man lets you keep your card, a monk makes you lose all of your cards, and a princess lets you take the cards lost by other players or draw from the main pile. The goal is to end up with the most cards in your hand when the piles are empty. I was not lucky enough to win this time, but it was definitely a fun game!
Karuta cards (source)
I had a great time at the event and enjoyed wearing yukata with all of my friends, old and new! :)
If you’ve ever watched anime or read manga, you’ve seen the scenario. Lots of young students gathered together at some remote location for an overnight trip. It’s almost always a time of warm nights. Maybe the protagonist falls off a cliff, and her love interest somehow ends up next to her. Or maybe there’s a test of courage. Or maybe it’s a sports-themed and the entire team has to get super-powered before some big competition. Whatever it is, it’s happening overnight.
Known as a 合宿 (gasshuku), these training camps/overnight trips are a quintessential part of most foreigners’ imaginary Japan. At least, it was a part of mine. This weekend, I got to participate in a gasshuku with my tennis circle, and this experience (as expected) defied my preconceptions while (happily) exceeding any and all expectations. Our location? Hadano—a small town located in the hilly田舎(inaka—countryside).
My trip began in darkness. Class ended at 6 pm, but dinner, bathroom breaks, and general delays resulted in us arriving at Hadano Station at around 11 pm. From the station, we had to walk 30 minutes to reach our lodging for the night. A few streetlights lined the street, and we walked in the quiet of the night. A few of the male club members challenged each other to じゃんけん (jyanken—rock-paper-scissors) on the condition that the loser carried the others’ bags for a set period of time. Another member tried to scare us with ghost stories that just so happened to have taken place in Hadano. It was a simple, carefree walk, but it was also a long one. By the time we reached our destination, we were thoroughly exhausted and quite sweaty.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for us, the night was only just beginning. After everyone showered, one of the members produced a DVD of Annabelle, a horror film, to my abject horror. We spent approximately two hours of screaming, yelling, and sharing mildly violent reactions. We clutched each other’s hands and stomped on the floor. Retrospectively, the film was really quite silly, but being able to be afraid with one another was an extremely fun (and tiring) experience. After the film ended, we retreated to our respective rooms and went to sleep. There was no test of courage, lost classmates, or hidden confessions.
We woke up early the next day to play tennis. From 7:30 am, it was already clear that was going to be a beautiful, sunny day, which means that it was also guaranteed to be a hot, horrible, and sweaty day. It was. We practiced often, and I tried my best to not make a complete fool of myself on the tennis court, and also did a wonderful job at failing at just that. I missed the returns, rarely served properly, and spent a lot of time resting/hiding in the shade. Nonetheless, it was incredibly fun and unbelievably fulfilling. I was able to get closer to other members in my club, and I was able to do so much more naturally. There’s something intimate about spending the night with people, and there’s almost an inevitability of getting closer to one another.
And that was all. Some might find it boring, and perhaps as a story (or a blog), it is. But as a memory, it is unforgettable, and as an experience, it is one of my most learning ones. There was no drama or excitement of puppy love or hot-blooded training. There was, in many ways, nothing but a quiet, and intimately shared contentment. But that, in the end, is more than I could have ever imagined or asked for.
Tennessee or Tokyo? (source)
Climbing Mt. Takao had been on my list of things to do while in Japan and I finally got to check it off! Takao-san, as it is called in Japanese, is located about an hour outside of central Tokyo. My friends and I met up at Takaosanguchi station (literally the entrance to Takao san) and proceeded towards the trails. There are six trails in total providing the range of difficulty and each passes through different parts of the mountain. We wanted to go up trail 6, but because a tree had fallen down on the path, we were re-routed to the main trail, or trail 1. This trail was paved and you would think that would make things easier but it was a bit like hell for the first half. :P The path was completely on an incline and we all had to take a break after what felt like every 5 or 10 minutes. It didn't help to see kids and grandmothers pass us at faster speeds but we kept on keeping on and finally reached the halfway point. At the halfway point, there are chair lifts and cable cars that run from the bottom of Takao-san to the halfway point and back around. The view was already amazing and that gave us the extra push to make it through the second half of the hike which was thankfully much less steep. The last leg takes you through several Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples which are perched at various points along the trail. Each one was unique and provided a good change in scenery as we made our way to the top.
One of the temples on our trail (source)
One of my favorite temples was quite Indian-inspired and included stone-carved images of women in saris. While it serves as a reminder of Buddhism's origins, it is interesting to see how the religion has manifested itself in different countries.
We finally reached the summit after what seemed like forever and were rewarded with a spectacular view. From the top of Takao, you can see all of Tokyo and even areas past it like Yokohama. On good days, it is possible to see Mt. Fuji, unfortunately we could not really see it due to the clouds. The view reminded me a lot of the mountains back home and the view of the Blue Ridge mountains from North Carolina. Of course, we took the token group photos with the view before moving through the tourist-filled crowds to start the descent back down.
Seeing Tokyo from above (source)
Dango made the uphill hike so worth it! (source)
The way back down led us past several little food stalls filled with Takao-san's famous foods like the fresh dango. Dango is practically a larger size mochi and the shops at Takao put a handful on a skewer and layer them with a sweet soy sauce glaze. At the stall I stopped at there were both black and gold sesame dango, I opted for the black sesame and did not regret it at all! Along with dango, soba noodles are a specialty of the place and are very refreshing after a long, sweaty hike. Instead of hiking all the way back down, we opted to take the chair lifts down the last half and it came with an amazing view. With no seat belts, the chair lift literally has you hanging right over the edge of the mountain which is quite the experience. Hiking Takao with friends is definitely worth the hour commute and is a great day-trip getaway from the city.
When it comes to studying abroad, especially with a program like CIEE, I find that a lot of students fixate on whether or not homestay or dorm is the right option for them. From my perspective both options have their own pros and cons, making neither necessarily superior to the other. Therefore the only real way to tell which option may be better for you depends on 1) the reason you are studying abroad in Japan, 2) what you hope to gain from the experience, and 3) who you are as an individual. I decided to write this post to give my perspective as someone who has done homestay for both of the semesters I have been in Tokyo with the CIEE program. Below you will find the three major things I love the most about my homestay experience.
Another reason that I chose to do a homestay was because I am very interested in Japanese culture and customs; and the best way to learn about them is first hand is from the locals. Living with a host family has provided me with the opportunity to experience what it means to be a part of a family unit in Japan and comparing it to my own experiences.
My main goal for coming to Japan was to immerse my self in the language and culture so that I can in turn improve my own understanding of the language and customs. Taking into account that I am a natural introvert, I know that I needed to put myself in an environment where I would be forced to hear and speak Japanese constantly and homestay afforded me that possibility. If I had stayed in the dorm I would be living with Japanese individuals yes, but I would also be living with other foreigners that speak English. In this situation it is so easy to hang out with the other foreigners and revert back to speaking English because it is the language I am the most familiar with. This would have limited the amount of progress I would have made with my Japanese, which was not something that I wanted to occur. Homestay is obviously not for everyone as there maybe rules that you have to follow, an implicit curfew as most host families want students home before the last train, and compromise is almost always involved. I wish there was a sure fire way to say which is better but in reality there are a lot of factors that cannot be predicted and it really is up to the student to make the most of which ever housing option they decide to choose.
This post isn’t about anything in particular. It’s a list of things I’ve done that don’t warrant a post all their own. Together these are the moments that add up to a legitimate abroad experience. For me, rattling them off is a relief from the pressure of feeling I have to make meaning out of my time in Japan, to somehow justify to someone that I’ve thought critically and reflected on what I’ve been given the privilege to do. They reflect the experience better than any musing I could ever muster.
Cat café: They’re worth it. Some people may not be thrilled about cats. May not be thrilled at the idea of spending money to be around cats. But, if you’re an animal person and feel the lack of personal affection that can only come from a pet, go to a cat café for a professional surrogate pet experience. Therapy animals do some real deal good. In my experience the café aspect is downplayed, and it’s really all about the cats. You can sip juice or tea if you want to, but it costs extra and distracts from the reason you came in the first place.
Museums: A touristy yet important thing to do. Even if you’re not an art buff, you should frequent at least a couple museums. I’ve gone to several, the names I forget. The trouble with Tokyo museums is that their names are all astoundingly similar, at least in English. Combine the words Tokyo, national, art, of, urban, metropolitan, the, for, and every combination will constitute a museum existing in Tokyo. I’ve gone to museums at different points in my stay in Japan, and each time it is interesting to revisit artistic motifs that are becoming more familiar as the culture at large becomes more familiar. As a bonus, CIEE and Sophia makes going to museums easy. CIEE hooks it up with the free special exhibit tickets. A Sophia student ID can get you in for free, or at least a discounted rate. I’d gone to the Kunisada and Kuniyoshi print exhibit at the Bunkamura museum in Shibuya. Most memorable museum visit, the drawings on the prints and the colors therein vivifying an older Japan, and I paid nothing to do it. The next day I attended an experimental fashion exhibit, one which emphasized efficient production with futuristic design. It was difficult to believe the same culture produced both, and that is the breadth museums can deliver if you choose to seek out what’s on display.
Conbinis: On the opposite side from the cultural high-brow there is the beloved convenient stores. Everyone in Japan already knows how great they are. I bring them up because someone about to come to Japan will rest easy knowing about how great they are. I was afraid of being left to starve if I couldn’t speak Japanese well enough to order food, or if I’d run out of money. Conbinis are a saving grace, carrying quick food that can actually be called food for cheap. American convenience stores be shamed. One could feasibly live off these places, albeit not the healthiest option. In addition, one can buy concert tickets, pay for health insurance and online purchases, and many other life tasks through them. The staff is always friendly, with the position surprisingly dignified when compared to American convenience store workers. This section isn’t really anything more than a praiseful advertisement, but conbinis have truly smoothed over what could have been some rocky moments in getting acquainted with Japan.
Sumo: The last and greatest. Any visitor to Japan should make a good attempt at going to see sumo. It is perhaps one of the most recognizable traits of Japanese culture, and it delivers as being one of the most interesting. Though it’s somewhat violent, there is the honor and skill that comes with a martial art. Every step is laced with tradition, and would be interesting to watch even if the wrestlers never squared up in the ring. But they do, and each bout is as exciting as the last. There is a surprising about of pageantry, but it comes with the tradition, honoring the centuries of practice in conjunction with the steadfast dedication it takes to be a wrestler. Sumo combines the traditional with simple excitement more than anything else I’ve gotten to experience thus far.
And so concludes a brief list of a few things I’ve gotten to do. There isn’t much more to say about it than that. I recommend everything. I recommend also the things I’ve yet to do. It’s all good, and a matter of finding the time to do it all. And pay for it all.
Studying abroad comes with a constant need to compromise. One must always weigh the value of time spent, and it can be difficult to sacrifice a good time for grades. Micro-decisions become ever more significant as time begins to run out, and the thought that the opportunity may never come again makes the decisions all the harder to make.
When I began classes at Sophia, there was a great anxiety leading up to the first day, when the courses are laid out and the requirements explained. I was not afraid that I’d have to face anything I’d never faced before. Instead I was nervous about holding up my end of the bargain, and seeing what would be required of me to do that. I know I’m not alone in viewing the semester as a prolonged vacation. But vacations aren’t free, and for this one I have to do the study half of study abroad. It sounds ridiculous, but after touring for a few weeks, the prospect can be jarring.
If I could calm the anxieties of any prospective Sophia international student, I’d tell them to take their typical university course and cut the difficulty in half. This is what one can expect to encounter in general. There are classes that are tough, some easier than belief, but in general expect the difficulty to be about half a normal university course load from competitive universities and colleges. Despite the ease, the classes are surprisingly fulfilling if one decides to take what they can from them. Lectures are more often dry than not, but the material seldom wastes one’s time. This, at least, has been my experience in the areas of literature and philosophy.
Routine develops. Midterms on the docket. The morning commute. The daily struggle to print. Exams that actually count. First major paper assignments of the semester. The vacation feeling is on vacation, and we’re left to grind out the grind.
I sense in myself a mentality that may not be exclusive to me. Though I’m still far from going home, I’m beginning to feel a strange draw back towards home. It is less a force than a complacent feeling. My weekends are less full, and I’m less inclined to go out of my way to take on some cultural experience. In a sense I’ve begun to get bored, which comes from acclimation. Granted, there’s still more things to do than I can imagine, and yet when I have a free day the hassle and expense overpowers my will to do them. I can be drained by academic priorities, or lack of sleep, but the complacent marks a turning point in the abroad experience. I’ve become acclimated to Tokyo enough for it to feel like home in the way that we all can feel boredom in our homes.
Daily inconveniences begin to mean more. I’m less amazed by some things and more irritated by others. I schlepp through a daily grind, and have seen my time management shift more towards responsibilities than to vacation. The vacation itself is making a final subsiding. Midterms and actual pressure have helped facilitate what I see as a crucial part of my experience. What’s developed is the settling of a reality, my life adapted to a new place with responsibilities that are more or less universal. I feel I’ve learned from it, knowing what to expect out of myself and new phases of my life as they unfold. And as my return date grows closer and my arrival farther, I’ve begun to look forward to the fat steak I’ve been promised when I get home.
I instinctively agreed to go with my friend to the Tokyo International Toy Show thinking I’d see outrageously foreign toys overflowing with the charming Japanese style advertisements and flair. Thankfully I got a greater dose of Japan than expected.
Tokyo Big Sight, the convention destination, looks like a large upside down pyramid. The structure reminded me of when I wanted to visit Egypt just to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Probably won’t happen now since my natural habitat is far from a barren desert.
Voice actresses from a popular idol arcade game and anime performed their character’s songs as they danced about doing what can only be described as short movements, tilts and poses in an attempt to maximize cuteness. This was my first J pop idol experience and if it weren’t for my friend’s interest in the game, I would have remained an idol virgin for some time. Feeling like a small-domesticated puppy that wandered deep into a vast forest alone, the show was uncomfortable to say the least. However I appreciate the experience and enjoyed seeing something so different from a cultural perspective. Plus whenever my friend would talk to me about the game a woman next to me would glare at her and say something in Japanese. My friend responded a few times. For someone in basic Japanese I was impressed. Afterwards I asked her what they spoke about only to learn she had no idea.
Filing through a lengthy line took us into the largest section of the toy show, the Bandai booth. Attendants handed us free goodie bags filled with promotional posters, pamphlets and cards to play arcade tie-ins. The goodies didn’t mean much to me, but who doesn’t love free stuff? Spotting a modern Power Rangers display we hopped into another line for a photo. The colors are the same for the most part although I wasn’t a fan of the animal designs on top of their uniforms. Just looks cheap and less cool, especially in comparison to the original designs. My friend asked me which of the Power Rangers were female. I guessed at least one was going by the slight purple above the White Ranger’s eyes. We quickly realized there were two females based on the simple fact that two were wearing skirts.
Striking poses that go beyond the traditional Japanese peace sign like raising a fist in the air with oddly shaped short round mascots, we photographed our way through modern versions of many of our favorite childhood shows such as Pokémon. We even got to see a person dressed as Pikachu prance around on stage while classic scenes from the original anime played behind him. The numerous marketing performances throughout the convention center were a welcomed change of pace compared to what I worriedly expected to be shelves and shelves of foreign toys, many of which in the typical otaku fashion of young anime girls with disproportional bodies. I’ll always wonder why those are so popular in Japan.
One memorable toy was a hose nozzle attached to a large number of balloons that would simultaneously fill with water. Brushing it off as an as seen on TV like product that could never possibly work as well as shown, we entered the demo station and watched a man fill at least ten balloons at once. He proved us wrong. Feeling no shame we threw the balloons, fairly inaccurately might I add, at a nearby target. Hitting a bull’s eye can never be nearly as satisfying as pelting your friends.
The marketing campaign for a baton that spins itself and a Skip-It like toy that attaches to one leg so that you can swing it around your body and jump were reminiscent of American commercials targeted at children, but if they were actually memorable and effective. The campaign involved separate songs with young girls happily dancing around using the product. The Skip-It girls wore street hipster like clothing, while the baton girls wore more traditional clothes. However, by the time the third and final song began I was losing interest simply because there are only so many moves you can do with basic children’s toys. I’d also never forgive myself if I did not mention how lame the automatic spinning baton looks. Just buy a real one.
My friend really liked the remote control submarine designed to take footage of the inside of a fish tank. It may have even won an award. Hopefully there isn’t a propeller underneath the sub because that could end badly very fast.
Another stand out was the glow in the dark aquarium room. The room was exactly what you’d expect: darkness, fish and splashes of warm and cool colors. The smaller tanks gave off chaos emerald vibes from the “Sonic the Hedgehog” video game franchise due to their shape and color.
Some booths such as the Hot Wheels section really took me back to my not so glorious days where I would set up tracks throughout the house to race my cars. Looking back it was more like I was setting up traps throughout various rooms to trip unwelcome visitors or launch my mini model Porsche at them. Part of me actually considered dropping some yen on a Hot Wheels Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. It’s always nice to see classics from your childhood not destroyed by modern remakes. Strolling through the rest of the convention and wandering past a plethora of things I’ve never seen and most likely will never see again, I was glad to see toys that my younger self would actually want to play with.
Even though I knew nothing about the popular manga “One Piece,” I figured signing up for the CIEE trip to Tokyo One Piece Tower would be a great way to experience a Japanese landmark coupled with a fun diversion or two. The exhibition was nothing I expected, but that was probably for the better.
My friend jaywalked across the street outside the tower and didn’t notice the cop standing on the other side. In her defense she is from New York. Regardless, she didn’t hear the cop attempting to reprimand her. The cop quickly gave up and smiled to himself, probably shrugging it off as a foreigner being a foreigner.
The exhibit began with interactive panels from the manga. Shadows of hands appeared behind me in front of one of the panels. Unaware that growing multiple arms is one of the character’s powers, I thought my friends were spreading their arms behind me in different directions for inexplicable reasons.
Climbing an escalator to a higher floor, we realized the exhibit was massive, three floors to be exact. Suddenly a woman dressed as a pirate appeared out of nowhere and said something in what many people, but not me, would refer to as the super cute (kawaii!) tone. Grabbing my map, she turned to the third page and excitedly exclaimed, “dun dun dun dun” (similar to that fantastic Legend of Zelda item fanfare) as she pointed to the live show description. The show was just about to begin.
Audience interaction is a big part of Japanese culture. We were all given colorful torches upon entering the show room. Apparently waving the torches in a specific motion wards off evil and brings happiness. Maybe I should try to invent one of those for my everyday life. The actors looked exactly like the characters if the show took a “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” aesthetic and mixed reality and animation. Although my situation was comparable to my Grandma watching Turner Classic Movies without subtitles, the whimsical personalities of the cast and the cheesy torch waving made for a memorable show.
The next attraction was an adventure course. A name like that meant we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. What began with a few recreations of seemingly important scenes from the manga took a turn for the bizarre when I entered a maze of mirrors. My friends closely followed me to easily navigate the maze. In hopes of making things more interesting, I drastically picked up my pace and left my friends far behind me in the maze. For better and for worse, the only thing that changed was that they now had to put effort into escaping.
Another mirror room later and we found ourselves on one of those bridges inside of a cylinder that give the illusion of the floor moving. Not wanting to get nauseous, I dashed across like a worried mailman running away from a vicious dog. Do dogs really attack mailmen because that always sounded far-fetched?
Our adventure continued with a 4Dish video. I said ish because wind, smoke and strobe lights played in time with the video, but there was no 3D. A few intense fight scenes played out, while we joked that the smoke released into the room was going to knock us out. Apparently we’ve seen far too many James Bond films, or that’s just me.
The second floor was packed with attractions based on certain characters. One of my favorites was a haunted house simply because my friend panicked when she was startled by the sounds of glass bottles breaking all around her. The rest of the haunted house was relatively tame, featuring predictable jump scares and a strange Ping-Pong ball we had to place in a zombie’s mouth. The real horror from this attraction came from realizing we would have been trapped if we lost the Ping-Pong ball since it was the only way to open the door forward. I’d say we’re just a little too old for this sort of thing.
Interactive sword slicing akin to “Fruit Ninja” or one of those really bad Nintendo Wii motion control games was the next destination (pictured above). I’m not embarrassed to admit I hit none of the targets. The problem was I figured a sword could only reach so far and mistakenly waited until the cannon balls were too close to me to swing my arm. As a gamer you’d think I’d disregard real world logic in this instance.
The worst of the attractions was a casino game, which was further soured by the thirty-minute wait. A wait we will never know the reason behind since the attendant left for some time. All three games were entirely luck based in true Vegas fashion. The first was basically a mini game straight out of the video game “Mario Party” where you select a character and then helplessly sit back and pretend to influence the outcome in whatever means makes you feel more comfortable as you watch them race to the finish line. The second was a roulette wheel. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Pat Sajak or Vanna White equivalent to spur life into the dullness. The final game was something involving a chest opening. We have no idea what happened on that one. All we know is pretty much everyone lost, but isn’t that always the case when you enter a casino?
After hitting targets with a slingshot and touring a boat set piece, we scaled Tokyo Tower. Kudos to CIEE for possibly picking this date knowing it was the first night that the inside of the tower would be lit up blue in honor of opening the staircase for the summer. On a side note, why is there a shrine for lovers in the tower? Anyways, numerous pictures later we took the stairs all the way down to the bottom and like the “One Piece” pirates, set off in search of more treasure to make our trip even more rewarding.