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142 posts categorized "Student"


It's Coffee Fest Time


    Once you’ve been in Tokyo for a little while, you start to notice people here really love coffee. From traditional kissaten (cafes that also often have smoking sections) to more mainstream cafes and coffee shops, Tokyo has a lot to offer in terms of coffee culture. You can even find small boutique coffee shops aplenty with just a minimal search. While any of these previous options are available all the time, sometimes there are special events as well. I was lucky enough to attend this year’s spring Tokyo Coffee Festival, which was held at the Saturday’s famer’s market in front of UNU (United Nations University) in Shibuya. A short walk from the Omote-Sando Metro station (or a slightly longer walk from Harajuku or Shibuya station), the location is very convenient and easy to spot. Before entering the coffee festival, the actual farmer’s market was being held, so lots of local goods and fresh produce was out on display (and looking quite nice). Several nice food trucks were also parked right in front of the university entrance, so I got a quick snack before my big caffeine binge.


              How the festival works is pretty simple: you buy a “ticket” for 1,000 yen and receive five stickers, which you can use at different coffee stands to sample their coffee, and five small cups. You can also enter the festival without the stickers, but you won’t be able to taste test; you’ll have to buy a full-sized beverage. The stickers you redeem at different stands will go up to display, and each coffee stand vies for the most stickers, and therefore the most popularity. The whole air of the place was quite festive and fun, with all of the stand owners eagerly calling out to new customers.


              While there were a lot of people at the festival, the lines actually went quite fast, so no need to worry about waiting (I waited 10 minutes maximum for one of the more popular stands). Most stands offered cold or iced coffee, but be warned it was almost always black! I’m weak for cream and sugar, so the raw coffee taste was a little overpowering, but it was still quite an enjoyable experience. Thankfully for me, one of the stands was a Thai iced coffee shop, so I got my sugary fix with all of the added sweetened condensed milk.


              One of the greatest aspects of the festival was being able to meet and chat up the owners/employees of the stand and learn a bit about their coffee. Most of the shops proudly displayed all the sources for their beans, and each stand had a very particular way about preparing their special brew. It was very fun to watch and see how made their coffee just-so (and good to know if you are planning on buying any of their beans, which are also for sale at every stand).  A few of the shops even had additional merchandise such as coffee mugs, shirts, and bags also for sale. Even some non-coffee-related shops were there, including a little bakery that made gorgeous and delicious cupcakes. Overall, the festival was a great way to spend a nice, spring Saturday afternoon. Just prepare for the big caffeine buzz after downing five different types of coffee in a row!



Carving Out A Space to Be Yourself

Everybody searches for a center. People naturally seek out places to plant their roots; they instinctively look for spaces they can return “home” to. Studying (and being) abroad is inevitably hard because it necessitates that one severs oneself from the familiar. And this is a good thing—it really is. But it’s also a hard thing. Everyone says it is, but hardly anyone expects it to hit as hard as it does.

Today is May 16, and this is my fifth month abroad. I spent my first two months doing an internship in Korea, and the next three weeks in the United Kingdom visiting friends. And like all people who are estranged from the old and offered the opportunity to remake themselves in a new place, I challenged myself and tried things that my past self would have never touched. In a new place, I didn’t have to be the “Kelly” people remembered. I could be the “Kelly” I always (thought) I wanted to be. But really, it’s a hard thing.

Even if you’re having fun, it’s a hard thing. Even if you’re exceedingly successful, it’s a hard thing. Because really, there’s a sense of shattering. An un-centering. All the components you thought of as quintessentially “you” disintegrate. One’s identity becomes an even bigger question mark, and that’s a lonely thing. When you can’t recognize yourself, you begin to doubt whether or not you’ve actually “become” someone at all. Fun suddenly isn’t enough, because you worry about the price you paid and the person you’ve become. And this feeling is human, and it isn’t exclusive to being abroad (though being abroad often compounds it). It took five months, and I’ve finally begun to feel it.

It is in this moment that I turn to the small things. Everyone has their own way of coping with the world, but sometimes even the very reminder that I'm in Japan is enough to snap me out of my funk. I take long walks along idyllic rivers and crowded parks. I allow myself to become immersed in the commotion of a language I vaguely understand. I daydream in hopefully un-crowded trains and let myself just “be” without thinking too much about its implications. I spoil myself with overpriced sweets shaped like cute characters, and entertain the idea of staying in Japan forever. I find a routine (in school, in waking up, in early dinners and even earlier breakfasts), and subsequently find ways to disrupt it (with impromptu plans and questionable decisions). I, beyond anything else, remind myself to forgive myself for my perceived failings. I forgive myself for not being myself.

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So take at least this much from me: Japan is a different place, and in difference we (meaning “I”) look for change. We run towards it blindly, trying to drown ourselves in the surface (superficial?) aspects of difference. We marvel at cherry blossoms, admire kimonos, and vaguely express the desire to do the tea ceremony. We imagine and try to realize our fantasies of huge groups of friends, our wistful hopes for a close-knit community. We’ve been told that we will evolve and become a new person when we’re abroad—someone with a broad worldview and a completely renewed perspective of the world. We rush, trying to take in all the big things at once, swallowing them up desperately as if it will make a difference.

And of course, not everyone who is abroad feels the same way I do. And not everyone will be as phased. But for those who are and/or will be struggling, know you are not alone. Know that it is okay to take a moment and breathe. To find your space. Japan is a different place, but there’s no rush to figure out whether you’ve become a different person just yet.


When Sweet Isn't Sweet Enough

Japan loves its seasons. And no, I’m not talking about just good ol' autumn-winter-spring-summer-type seasons. Those are kisetsu (季節), and as much as Japan enjoys gazing at cherry blossoms during the spring and watching fireworks in the summer, it adores shun (旬) just as much.

Used to describe seasonal food rather than seasons, I've come to learn that shun is likely the largest determinant of the contents of one’s meals. Well, at least that's how it is with my particular host family. This became very apparent to me during my very first night in Japan, when my host mother served me ichigo (Japanese strawberries). And these, my friend, are nothing like the strawberries you pick up at your local Ralph's. 

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These perfectly shaped, ruby red fruits were everything I ever wanted a strawberry to be, and then some. That night, I was convinced that I had just tasted the most supreme of supreme fruits. I swear a smile was being compelled out of the deepest depths of my sugar-loving self. I was practically floating in strawberry-induced bliss until suddenly I heard my host mother exclaim: 甘くない! (not sweet). 

“Really?” I inquired in Japanese, not quite-sputtering. “Whatever could you mean?” I imagined myself saying in an overdramatic English accent.

She simply replied: 残念ですが、旬が終わった。(It’s too bad but the season is over.)

Suffice it to say, we didn’t have strawberries again.

Later on, I learned that peak indoor-grown strawberry season takes place between December and March. Apparently the strawberries we had that night can't even compare to in-season strawberries. During this period, a small box of strawberries can run upwards of 1000 yen (~USD 10) at a grocery store, or 6900 yen (~USD 69) at Tokyo’s luxury fruit parlors. Following strawberry season is cherry season, and summertime welcomes melons of all varieties, mangos, and grapes. Persimmons and apples are particularly tasty in the autumn, and citrus have a reputation as being quintessentially winter. Of course, shun applies to far more than just fruit, and almost every meal with my host family has been accompanied by a brief culinary lesson.

For instance, my host father’s handmade takuon (pickled daikon radish) tastes best for the two months following January, and katsuo (skipjack tuna sashimi) is at its most delicious in the spring. One of my host father’s personal favorites, takenoko (bamboo shoots) are at their softest and most expensive just after cherry blossom season. Once the last of the beautiful pink flowers had fallen, my host father kindly asked my host mother to make some takenoko for dinner.  She obliged and we proceeded to eat some variation of a takenoko-and-rice for the next three days.

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All in all, I’ve become increasingly accustomed to my host mother’s daily explanations of food over the last month and a half. Beyond mere flavor, I feel there is something about abiding to the seasons that pays respect to the cycles and limitations of life. Like cherry blossoms, there is a temporality and impermanence to the food that my host family consumes. Because they willingly partake in the natural restrictions of nature, even the most beloved of food is off-limits until the appropriate period has begun. I will never quite forget my host father’s face when my host mother served takenoko (for the sixth time) with the firm declaration that this was saigo (the last time).



“Not too deep.-- People who comprehend a thing to its very depths rarely stay faithful to it forever. For they have brought its depths into the light of day: and in the depths there is always much that is unpleasant to see.”

            ---Friedrich Nietzsche from Human, all too Human

“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”

            ---Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five


            The name Hiroshima carries a heavy connotation. It is difficult to discern one’s feelings when one visits the museums and sites in a city that has risen so far from its own ashes. I feel guilt, but not an exclusively American guilt. That guilt may have been for a different generation at a different time. My feelings now seem to transcend the mere history, being so far removed from the past, but at the same time are unable to reconcile with the history that so concretely took place.

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            From the moment I’d heard about the program trip to Hiroshima there was the thought that it was an intentional tearjerker. If there was humor around that fact it was because truth is discomforting. Knowing ahead of time what we’d confront gave off a strange anticipatory feeling, as though I could not really process the atomic bombing until I was there. I kept thinking that it shouldn’t make a difference whether here or there, but it does.

            Up until then the trip was an exciting opportunity to get out of Tokyo (for free). I looked forward most to riding the Shinkansen, a train of mythic engineering to the rest of the world. I wanted to see the Japanese countryside. Everyone was in high spirits. So much so that at one point we all needed a stern Japanese shushing.

            I found it difficult to talk about the bombing. I was less at a loss for words than at a loss for subject. In truth, the topic is inexhaustible. There is the history of building the bomb, the political theories, the statistics, the effects on medicine and science, and the individual and ongoing stories of hundreds of thousands. But somehow I didn’t think that was talking about the bomb, but talking around it.

            Not to say that any of the above topics should not be discussed. On the contrary it would be an injustice to not. The Japanese seem to focus their talk on the people, not the bomb, which I endlessly respect. There is a brave sense of acceptance in that stance.

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            What I may mean, as I’m unsure, when I feel talk may be around the bomb, is that it is hard to understand such magnitude without abstracting the reality in some way. Debating the politics or shocking a listener with staggering statistics seems to detract from the reality. To me it interferes with picturing the day when hell opened up onto the earth. But I don’t know how to talk about that. It leaves me silent, what this bomb was.

            The more I searched the more I found my guilt to be deeper, perhaps predating the bomb, beyond the responsibility of any nation, but some innate human characteristic that leads us to need bombs, to need guns, swords, and clubs. The bomb became to me the scientific pinnacle of Original Sin, the Fall renewed with the descent of all humanity’s potential directed in a steel tube. I’ve never been religious, but I don’t shirk the potency of people’s attempts to explain themselves through metaphor. The bomb seemed in line with symbolism long established. But this is still an abstraction of what was, is. By looking at the bomb this way I felt more oriented in the world that let it drop. My guilt comes from the responsibility of participating in that world, the only one I have.

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            No matter how I try I cannot place myself in the true reality, see the faces and relate to the terror. I cannot reconcile how this city and that reality are one in the same separated by less than a century. I cannot quite get to the center of the matter, or if I have, I’m not equipped with the knowledge to talk about it.

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            It is then tough to say that the next day I went to Miyajima and had a great time with the rest of the students on the program. But I did. I pet the roaming deer, wandered through souvenir shops, went up the mountain and saw wide across the Pacific horizon. It was the first forest I’d been able to wander through in ever more modernizing Japan. The island is almost untouched, culturally preserved I am told. The forest only knows conflict that is basic to life, not the organization that led to the bomb. I worried that I was simply vapid for having the good time I was having, that I shouldn’t let off the pressure that I’d felt the day before. That I should contemplate my silence more to think of something meaningful to say. But perhaps this is not the right approach to the past, to living beyond the past. Finding something to say may not always be meaningful, and being silent in the face of speechlessness may not preserve or prove anything. There is little else to do other than live. If one listens, one will find that no forest is silent.

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A First Month’s Reflections

            Just about everyone has asked me why I came to Japan. It is a big topic when getting acquainted with new people who have come for their own reasons. I’ve found the question a tough one, largely because I have no reason.

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            I got my first passport to come to Japan. The farthest I’d been from my home New Jersey was still within the States. I’ve only ever been a tourist in anime and I’m less into videogames now than I’ve ever been. I knew next to nothing about the culture and language, and traveling to the other side of the world came as a last minute decision. As many intending abroad students see Japan as off the beaten path, a reason is near required to travel here as opposed to more popular destinations. When I’m asked what about Japan drew me, I feel always disappoint. I can only say that it was a raw sense of adventure, the unknown, and (very important) credit approval.

            But I’m here, and not here alone. Home does not feel so far away when your significant other (who appears in most of the photos) is beside you. I find myself better understanding Japan through swapping our observations, knowing each other well enough to get as close to the bottom of something as we can in a space that couldn’t be safer.

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            That said, I still am far from gaining access to the deeper cultural nuances of the Japanese. I’ve tracked my feelings for the first six weeks or so. There was the literal shock of the first week, where I was presented with a functioning people so far from anything I could have imagined that I could only laugh nervously at my own aloof gawkiness. At the same time, I felt very anonymous. Though I’m an inept traveler over six feet, ironically I felt that because I could not communicate with the people around me whose backgrounds were so different, if I could manage to not get in their way it would be as though I didn’t exist in their world. I’d be free to observe the things these people do that would be seen as strange back home. The strangeness fulfilled an exotic kick some westerners might expect. But the kick wears off fast. So does the sense of strangeness, replaced by difference with reason.

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            The longer I stayed the more I wanted to piece together a larger picture. I’d take what I saw to be general attitudes and try to put all my observations in place. What I found were endless paradoxes that humbled my speculative reasoning. The paradoxes were large and small. If trash is so rigorously sorted, why does everything have so much packaging? Isn’t the convenience of vending machines thwarted by the taboo against drinking/eating on the go? How can a relatively conservative attitude be compatible with the casual availability of elicit magazines in convenience stores? Stigmas are placed and lifted in areas far different than the U.S. Opposite approaches to my norms kept presenting themselves.

            Before long my illusion of anonymity wore off as well. Once one begins to learn one wants to look in the know. I began to enter the Japanese world. I could pick up on spoken words, see when someone in a hurry became frustrated with someone in the train station, notice when someone trespassed on cultural no-no’s to the silent glares of an entire train car. I could see how good form meant being considerate, good taste meant being trim, quiet, subtle, clean. I began to see which consumer goods were popular and why. An attitude materialized to me, the value of everyone getting to their proper place together under the same system, rather than getting myself where I needed to be under my own system. One begins to get the feeling that if one puts in the effort one will be taken care of. If it can be said that cultures at large rely on common assumptions between people, it’s that agreement on effort that to me seems the most precarious, but also the most beautiful. And it works. I’ve often marveled at the Tokyo skyline, thought of all that is contained within, and think only a certain brand of community could pull this off.

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            I wouldn’t say that I’ve been searching for my reason of why I came to Japan. I think the reason is unfolding before me the longer I am here, but I couldn’t identify what exactly unfolds. At times I still laugh at my own aloofness, wondering what business I have being here while life at home rambles on without missing a beat. It doesn’t worry me. I’m having too good a time. For someone who has often pressed themselves too hard for a reason, I think a good time is reason enough. But there’s more to it than that. I’ll be lucky if time allows me to put words to that something more.

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A Landscape of Sculpture: Sapporo's Moerenuma Park


  There is nothing like the feeling of being made small. Hokkaido’s vast natural landscape and huge mountains can surely make you feel tiny, but there is also a human-made place right outside Sapporo that instills that same sense of awe. Moerenuma Park, open all-year round, is a massive expanse on the outskirts of Sapporo. Famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the park, which started being built in 1982. It wasn’t until 2005 that the park had its grand opening, but is easy to see why it took so long to create. Everything about the park is huge. The park is a great exhibition of Noguchi, a hugely influential artist and landscape architect. This park was his final project, as he finished designing it shortly before he died. It is quite the legacy.


              Noguchi’s installations run from the size of small buildings to as big as the landscape itself, with geometric pyramids and hills scattered through the grounds. The whole place is wonderfully odd and impressive all at once. The geometric shapes seem completely inorganic, yet were designed to be completely environmentally friendly. Apparently the area was converted from a waste treatment plant into the beautiful place it is today. Even the air-conditioning system of the onsite Glass Pyramid museum uses green energy to run. And the Glass Pyramid is beautiful. Inside are several rotating exhibition galleries, a gift shop, a café, and a viewing platform high up. The area is cleverly designed to be a great place for people to gather and relax. Sometimes they even hold small concerts inside, often featuring local artists. Besides the sculptures and the museum, the park also contains a track and a full-sized baseball triangle for the public to enjoy.



              The park is open for the whole year, but each season is quite different. I visited this spring and it was beautiful and, even though it wasn’t very warm yet, there were many people outside taking walks, having picnics, practicing sports, walking their dogs, and more (even someone having a wedding photoshoot!). During the summer the giant fountain in the center has wading pools for everyone to enjoy and winter is especially known for cross-country skiing and sledding. The park is full of many paths through small, cultivated forests where you can see the cherry blossoms in the spring, which is quite beautiful. Everything is placed with a geometric vision in mind, and even just walking through the open areas gives your eyes a lot to take in.

              If you want to visit the park, it’s open every day from 7 AM to 10 PM, and admission is completely free. Even admission to the galleries inside are free, which is quite nice. Parking is also free, and since the park is right on the edge of Sapporo, it does not take long at all to get to. The park is well worth going to, and having the entire experience for free makes it a real treat. For more information you can visit the official site (, and you can also see how the park drastically changes with the seasons. It’s a wonderful place, and if you’re in Sapporo, it warrants at least a few hours of your time.

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Hokkaido Ramen is Famous for a Reason


Hokkaido is a beautiful and amazing place, but springtime is chilly and wet, and sometimes you just need a pick-me-up. And what’s one of the best ways to do that? A gigantic bowl of steaming, delicious ramen. Sapporo is famous for its ramen for a reason, so I went to check it out. In fact, there is a whole street dedicated to the noodles called “Ramen Yokocho.” Not only is this tiny street jam-packed with a variety of ramen stores, this place has been dubbed as the birthplace of miso ramen. No, these shops aren’t modest in their boasting – several of them flaunting signatures of famous visiting celebrities and chefs – but they have a reason to boast. Anthony Bourdaine along with several other prominent chefs have even written books about the place. It may sound like a bit of a tourist trap at first, but you have to know what you’re looking for if you want to find it (easy to do with a map app). Therefore, even though it might be a bit busy, you can still have a great time without wading through huge throngs of tourists.


Once you head off the Sapporo main streets, Ramen Yokocho is clearly marked with a big yellow sign, so even though it’s narrow, it’s not too hard to find. Inside the alley is a collection of with tons of shops, most displaying different local types of seafood (though one did specialize in just beef and pork, if seafood is not your style). I could only fit one bowl of ramen in my stomach for the night, so I selected a place that specialized in miso ramen with clams. The restaurant’s name is Shimijimi (しみじみ)and it sits about ten people max. And the small size was perfect. Right at the counter you can chat and watch the chef duo whisk, boil, and mix your meal into perfection. Then your beautiful bowl is delivered right in front of you, piping hot and mouthwateringly delicious.

Each bowl comes with spring onions and mushrooms, and almost all of their ramen feature seafood here – and the fresh Hokkaido catch is delicious. You can also add egg and pork if you feel you can fit it all in your stomach. Ordering is simply done from a ticketing machine, though be warned, it is all in Japanese (though if you can’t read, the pictures of all the different bowls are displayed with labels outside). The two chefs were very friendly and totally fine with pictures and questions!


After enjoying your ramen you can go to the end of the street where a brief history of Ramen Yokocho is posted. Also the location is right in central Sapporo so you can have a nice long walk to work off a warm, bellyful of noodles. The city really comes alive at night, so there is no shortage of things to do. And Sapporo Tower is just a few minutes away by walking, so you can stroll in the park around it as well. If you find yourself in Sapporo, Ramen Yokocho is a fun, cheap, and interesting place to stop by for a wonderful meal.





A Day in Harajuku


Takeshita Street (source)

A few weeks ago, my friends and I decided to take on Harajuku and spend our Monday off exploring Japan’s fashion central. Harajuku is known for its colorful, lolita fashion and its trendy shops that line the streets. The day started by making the trek from my homestay to the nearest station (which I could probably do blindfolded by now…). The line that always take to Tokyo, Keihin Tohoku, took me to Shinagawa where I transferred to the Yamanote line to complete the trip to Harajuku station.

As soon as I exited Harajuku station, it was very apparent that I was in a very different area from my school. I was facing the entrance to Takeshita street, one of the more touristy spots in Harajuku because of its crepe stands and cute boutiques. There was a woman singing very loudly and dressed quite colorfully right by the entrance to Takeshita street which was quite a sight. Once everyone had arrived we proceeded to Takeshita street and entered the mass of people that were flooding through the various shops. You can find just about any type of fashion here, from cutesy/girly to more trendy street wear in Harajuku which draws in a large variety of people. The group found a Lotteria (common McDonalds-like joint in Asia) for lunch and after we decided to explore the famous Meiji Jinja, or Meiji Shrine.

Like many places in Tokyo, shrines (Shinto) or temples (Buddhist) are near even the busiest shopping areas. The shrine was less than a 10 minute walk from Takeshita street and was free to enter. The shrine was absolutely beautiful and reminded me of walks in the park back home. At the entrance of shrines, there is a torii, or a gate marking the beginning of the shrine complex. Once you pass the torii, the road lined with the most majestic looking trees leads to the shrine itself. Meiji Shrine is named after Emperor Meiji who is enshrined there along with his consort Empress Shoken (more info here).


Torii at Meiji Jinja (source)

It was very relaxing as we walked through the forested area and it makes you appreciate the nature more after being surrounded by skyscrapers in the city. The main shrine was filled with people coming to pray and watch the monks in the inner shrine quarters perform their rituals and activities. Many people also come to write their wishes on small wooden plaques and hang them up to ensure that their prayers will be answered (I am planning on doing this probably in Kamakura). We spent quite a bit of time roaming around the shrine grounds and then decided to head back towards the main streets, specifically Ometesando.


Omotesando – window shopping at its finest (source)

This street and surrounding buildings are known the high end shops (more internationally well-known brands like Chanel, All Saints, Opening Ceremony) and big Western retailers like H&M and F21. There are also a handful of shops that are second hand retailers of expensive brands (Goodwill 5.0), like Ragtag Harajuku, which we briefly stopped in to take a look. The prices are marked down (still expensive…) but with very minimal wear n’ tear if any. The group split ways soon after and we headed back to station to take the trains home. Harajuku was amazing and is definitely worth multiple trips!


My Visit to the Ghibli Museum


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


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


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

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


Discovering My New Community: School in Japan





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

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

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

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

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