The Adventure Begins!

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The Adventure Begins!

So like most study aboard students, I did a lot of studying on Japan culture and language before arriving so that I knew exactly what I signed up for. Initially, when I entered Japan, I expected a high tech country. The way my textbooks told me stories of Japan’s high-tech toilets, bullet trains that reach speeds of approximately 150-200 mph, and earthquake resistance infrastructures left me with the impression of a country that was decades ahead of the US in terms of technology. But in reality, Japan really seems to be more of a mixture of ancient and modern culture. I got previews of both cultures and how they co-existed within the country when my host mom took me home after a long trip from the airport.

The impression my textbooks give me

The impression my textbooks give me

Hidden behind all the technology and streetlights, I found a more traditional side of Japan

Hidden behind all the technology and streetlights, I found a more traditional side of Japan

As I began to adjust to accepting the fact that I’m certainly not in Philly, I began to shift my attention to differences between the two cities. Everything felt so familiar, yet was completely different upon closer inspection. The familiarity of 7-eleven, was especially welcoming in a country where I felt completely lost!

Oh look! Something familiar in a completely different country!

Oh look! Something familiar in a completely different country!

Upon entering, I quickly realized how different it was from the 7-eleven’s I knew back at home. The plethora of anime merchandise certainly brought a smile to the child inside of me, however, realizing I wasn’t as good as I thought at reading kanji, I resisted the temptation to purchase a copy of this week’s Shonen Jump. I decided to I settled for the familiar katsu-don instead of trying out some of the more adventurous options. After meticulously planning the conversation I was expecting to have at the register, I ended up resorting to using nods instead since the speed of his honorific language was a bit too much for me to handle.

Why can't 7-eleven in the US have a mini library?

Why can’t 7-eleven in the US have a mini library?

Another noticeable difference between Philly and pretty much all of Japan, was the degree of cleanliness. The grossness of public transit which is the norm for Philly, was not seen at the public transits of Japan. While the trains were uncomfortable cramped and quiet, it was super clean and everyone was very polite. Even the streets are spotless despite not having any public trash cans (a friend later explained that this was a precautionary measure against terrorist threats). In fact, it was pretty difficult to find any place that wasn’t clean. I consider myself to be pretty organized and clean, but the degree of cleanliness and organization that my host family demonstrated in their house is simply astonishing.

So after much debate, I decided to spare my readers a summary of my long journey from the airport since it was pretty uneventful and went exactly like it was supposed to, despite me feeling like a lost child throughout the whole process. Instead let’s skip to the fun part, the Barbeque at Ranzan Gorge!

Not as popular as the beach I suppose, but just as fun!

Not as popular as the beach I suppose, but just as fun!

Checking out the picnic area

Checking out the picnic area

My group was awesome, and I got to experience my first time setting up a camp fire with the group.

Team awesome!!

Team awesome!!

We also played some traditional Japanese beach games, which was a great time!

A splendid miss!

A splendid miss!

This was definitely a great time, despite the fact that I totally forgot to bring sandals with me and had to walk on rocks!!

Group shot, courtesy of Student Activities!

Group shot, courtesy of Student Activities!

Face Your Fears-Morning Rush Hour Subway Commute in Japan

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Since Fall semester has officially begun, it’s time for students to revisit their class schedules, decide whether or not they want to add, drop or withdraw from one or more of their classes and overall get reacquainted with the real world, which includes commuting to and from school.

I had only seen pictures and heard frightening stories about the dreaded morning rush hour subway commute in Japan. In an attempt to avoid having to experience it (as well as any level of claustrophobia that may decide to do a sneak attack on me) firsthand, I tried to schedule my classes accordingly, but alas, I could not escape. With my first class at 9:20AM on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I leave the dorm just in time for the 8’oclock rush hour. Oh joy….here we go.

Well, what can I say? It is certainly…an experience? (Yeah, experience, we’ll go with that.) I arrived at the Itabashi-kuyakushoumae Station (“いたばしくやくしょまええき” or “板橋区役所前駅”) and when the first train came, I could not believe what I saw. There were so many people packed in the train like sardines. Then I looked around me and realized there was a large number of people who were all intending to board the same train. At that moment, my eyes widened and I said to myself, “Nope! You’ll get on the next one.” Oh, foolish, naive me.

The next train came within 10 minutes and by that time, an entirely new large group of people had formed on the platform. The second train was packed even tighter than the first, with people pushing their way in, entering backwards and trying to avoid getting caught in the train doors as they were closing. I stood there in both amazement and fear for my fate. I was finally brought back to reality once I realized what time it was. I thought, “Ok, clearly this is not going to get any better and you will NOT be late for your class. You’re getting on the next train, no matter what!” I stepped away from the wall and up to the line to wait for the next train.

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O_O—my face when I saw this. NOPE! Next train, you’ll get on the next train.

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O_O I thought…it wouldn’t be so bad….Next train, you’ll DEFINITELY get on the next train. Time to face your fears!

As expected, it arrived and it was packed, but I boarded anyway. Immediately, I was pushed further in by those behind me. I spent the last 20 minutes watching people pack into a train car like sardines and now I was one of them. It would be another 30 minutes until the train would reach my stop and hoped I would survive until then.

I didn’t know where to breathe. I was surrounded. There was someone in front of me and I didn’t want to breathe in his ear (like Brainy from Hey Arnold, the one who would always breathe heavily behind Helga.) My solution? Look up and admire the wonderful Japanese advertisements! Luckily, they had the air conditioner on because if they didn’t everyone would have died from carbon dioxide poisoning. But alas, I survived the rush hour experience and lived to tell the tale (which in and of itself calls for a self-congratulatory pat on the back,) and now I know what to expect on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. All in all, the morning rush hour is an adjustment and once I get used to it, it will get better. We learn from our experiences and taking the Japanese subway during morning rush hour is definitely one I will never forget.

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The next day around 10 AM. Oh, what a difference an hour or two makes when it comes to the morning subway commute.

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Evening Rush Hour—not as bad as morning rush hour. Phew!

 

Introductions!

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Hello everyone!

My name is Steven! よろしくお願い!Since this will be my first post from Japan, I will begin by dedicating my first post to introductions. I am a student form Temple University Main Campus, dual majoring in International Business and Management Information Systems. I have always wanted to travel to Japan, so when I learned about Temple’s study aboard program, I immediately signed myself up. I had various reasons for enrolling in this exciting program. For instance, as an adult, I want observe how globalization has transformed the world, and to learn as much as I can about Japan by completely immersing myself in it. However, the child inside of me wants to roam the country and buy everything (especially anime and Gundam related products). For my readers’ sake, I’ll be sure to try to keep it balanced.

I am living with the wonderful Sakashita family. We live in Shimo Kita-ku, a town about 45 minutes from TUJ’s campus. Shimo is a very quiet and peaceful town, especially in comparison to the surrounding cities. The Sakashita family is a family of four: otou-san, okaa-san, Takahiro, and Erika. Otou-san used to work at a pharmacy, but now, he has retired. It seems that his company likes to call him into work all the time to train the new drug store workers so he usually comes home pretty late. I recall that he likes to play golf. Okaa-san works in real estate. Her cooking is the best, and she is very organized! I’ve been taking pictures every meal to brag to friends, and as my way of showing her how much I appreciate and enjoy her cooking.

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Some Indian Curry and Yam that Okaasan made for dinner! For our side dishes: tofu with soy sauce, and salad!!

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For breakfast, pizza toppings on toasted bread! Of course with a side of salad and fruits! Japanese people seem to have a very balanced and healthy diet.

おいしいそう!

Takahiro, apparently has his own house, however he occasionally visits for dinner. He told me that he is part of a band call Mrs Scottie Pippen! Isn’t that cool? I’ll be sure to listen to his band’s music before he visits for dinner. Last but not least, is their energetic and intelligent daughter, Erika. She went to high school in the US so she is fluent in English (she will be your lifeline if you enter the Sakashita household). She currently works for MathWorks and has worked for amazing companies such as Oracle and Google. Living with a host family has been great so far, and I feel extremely fortunate and grateful to the family for their kindness and patience.

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Our local post office! Once of the landmarks I took a picture of to make sure I don’t get lost on the way home.

It still feels very surreal that I’m actually in Japan. The past few days passed by so quickly, I can hardly believe that I’ve been here for almost a week already! I already acquired tons of stories I would love to share with my readers in this past week. Originally, when I entered Japan, I thought I would be entering a really high-tech country! But it seems that it is more of a mix of a very traditional culture along with a lot of high-end technology. I’ll be sure to take some pictures to show the contrast next time. At this point, I’m still having trouble getting a normal sleep schedule and often find myself awake around 5 am messaging family and friends back home. This probably due to a combination of jet-lag, the excessively bright and early sunrise, and my desire to explore. I honestly doubt I will ever experience homesickness while in Japan! With so many adventures to explore, there are simply not enough hours in each of my days! In my next post, I will go into more details about this week’s adventure with the airport, train station, BBQ, and trip to Shibuya! Please look forward to it!

Welcome to Japan! Now What? TUJ Study Abroad Student Orientation!

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August 26th was the day that began everything. I arrived in Japan at Narita Airport and was officially on Japanese soil. My heart was ecstatic, but unfortunately, my body was exhausted from the 13 1/2 hour nonstop flight it had just been through. Nevertheless, I had finally made it to my destination. I was in Japan.

After making my way to the Kitazono Women’s Dorm and getting a good night’s rest (or a much needed coma really), I realized I had to overcome another obstacle: Temple University Japan Campus Study Abroad Orientation. (Insert intimidating thunder and lightning here.) Dun Dun DUUUUUUN!

Welcome to Temple University Japan Campus (^_^)

Welcome to Temple University Japan Campus (^_^)

Various TUJ staff members gave presentations throughout the orientation, including Dr. Kyle Cleveland, the Study Abroad Coordinator, Jonathan Wu, the Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Wataru Nishida, the Chief Information Officer and through the wonders of technology (aka the Iphone), Mariko Nagai, the Study Abroad Academic Coordinator. After each speaker approached the front to give their words of wisdom to the group of curious (and let’s not forget jetlagged) new arrivals, one question was asked: “How many of you are from the main campus?” (It was asked seven times to be exact and yes, I counted!) Apart from this little icebreaker, the information that was provided was extremely helpful. They covered topics such as the procedure to add, drop, or withdraw from a course and the different timeframes allotted for each, emergency and crisis procedures (have to be prepared from those earthquakes and typhoons after all), different student government and semester activities, and getting settled in Japan.

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Chief Information Officer, Wataru Nishida, encourages the study abroad students to not just “live in” Japan, but to “experience” Japan.

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Chief Operating Officer, Paul Raudkepp, reviews emergency and crisis procedures. We must keep the children safe!

The two-day orientation was filled with humor, useful information, the Japanese Language Placement Test (for those registered for a Japanese course level higher than Japanese Elements I) and good pizza (thank you Japanese Dominos), but at the end of it all we were left with memorable comments such as:

“Your experience is largely dependent on what you make of it.” -Dr. Kyle Cleveland

and

“Take a risk and experience anew. If you want to go to an onsen, take off all of your clothes and go to an onsen. There are so many things waiting for you, but you have to experience them.” -Wataru Nishida

Reflecting back on it now, they made perfect sense. Think about it for a minute. We all made the decision to take the initiative and fill out the application to study abroad. We all applied for the Japanese Certificate of Eligibility and student visas. We all bought our plane tickets, boarded our planes and are now in Japan! Now there are two options for what can happen and they are both dependent on the individual. It can be the most wonderful experience in a person’s life if they can have an open mind, allow themselves to relinquish the control they are so used to having, and delve into a world they are unfamiliar with or it can be an utterly miserable one, where each day becomes torture to get through until the day they board the flight back home. I don’t know about you but personally, I’ll take door number one, please and thank you. So I say make an effort to learn the language, explore the country that you are in, and let yourself really experience it because let’s be honest; no one else is going to live your life for you so why not take that leap and make the most out of it?

Final Reflections on a Summer Well Spent

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So I’m now officially home. In fact, this will be my last blog entry and my final (written) words on an adventure of a summer that I’ll remember forever. I learned a lot, both about myself and the world around me, so I compiled a list of some of the things that I discovered while abroad.

Things I learned from Japan:

  1. There is no set of stairs too short to have a paralleling escalator.
  2. Always bring a mini towel everywhere you go. You never know when the humidity is going to hit 90 percent when you’re wearing a business suit. Or really any clothes at all. They will be soaked immediately along with your face and your soul. Goodbye, meticulously applied makeup. The same goes for fans. Always carry a fan.
  3. Life is too short not to eat as many Mister Donut donuts as humanly possible. There’s an old Japanese proverb that goes: “A cronut a day keeps the doctor away.” At least, I think that’s how it goes….
  4. Sometimes the tourist crowds are worth it. Sometimes they’re not. Don’t let a guidebook decide for you what’s worth seeing, because if you hate crowds, the Sumidagawa fireworks festival is going to be awful no matter how much you love fireworks.
  5. It’s okay to wear heels wherever you want, whenever you want. This applies to both men and women as far as I can tell.
  6. A little politeness and courtesy go a long way. Say “please” and “thank you” to food service workers, don’t walk and eat a meal, and being the only loud person on a crowded subway or bus means you’re probably doing something wrong. Is a little consideration too much to ask?
  7. Don’t be afraid to use a foreign language, even if “please,” “thank you,” and “hello” are the only words you know. It does a make a difference.
  8. It’s okay to not like a food, especially if it’s squid or sea urchin, but major points for at last trying it. Especially if you didn’t pay for it yourself, it’s just the polite thing to do to try what’s put in front of you. Life isn’t always burgers and fries, and that’s really for the best.
  9. Be responsible, but don’t miss out on opportunities because you’re worried about money. I know this is easier said than done, but as someone who is largely frugal, I’ve regretted not doing things because of money before. I don’t really know how I’m going to buy books this fall, but Tokyo is what I’ll remember forever. There were no holds barred on this trip and I had an amazing experience. No regrets.
  10. Always take opportunities, even if they’re scary. Doing something is always better than wondering what could have been. My prime example of that is this trip to Japan. Before I left, I panicked about whether I was making the right decision to go. I freaked out. I tried to talk myself out of it. I looked for reasons not to go. But I’m so glad I did. Coming to Japan has been an incredible experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Of course, I learned many things that aren’t included on this list, but these seemed to be the things, both lighthearted and serious, that stood out the most. A year ago, I would not have believed you if you’d told me I would spend Summer 2014 studying in Japan. It’s one of the most impulsive, random choices I’ve ever made, and I don’t regret it for an instant.

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The End of an Era

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As predicted, the last two and a half months in Japan have flown by in a whirlwind of classes, internships, and activities. In fact, my time in Japan has already drawn to a close, and I am writing this entry from a hostel in Seoul, South Korea, where I am spending a few days visiting friends before heading back to the US of A. I’m faced with the prospect of returning home to my first three weeks of summer since, well, summer began, and I am beside myself. A small part of me is excited to go home, but the rest of me, the overwhelming part that never gets homesick and constantly seeks adventure, is heartbroken over the prospect of settling back into the “same old, same old” and the doldrums of the fall semester.

This experience has been so different from what I anticipated in so many ways. Japan crept up on me. I didn’t have many expectations, either good or bad, about my experience, which consequently made it hard to form opinions once I arrived. The more time I spent in Tokyo, the more things I discovered to love and hate in very unequal measure. There are definitely things about Tokyo that bothered me, or that I, as a foreigner, found unnerving and frustrating. But there were many more aspects of the culture and daily life that I found pleasantly different from daily goings-on in the States. I am frequently asked the question “What will you miss most about Japan?” And though the obvious answer is “the food,” or “the culture,” or “matcha lattes, of course!” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. More than anything, I am going to miss the people. I’ve made amazing friends both at school and at my internship and it tears me apart that I have no idea when I may see any of them again. I’m going to miss being surrounded by the Japanese language and feeling a sense of accomplishment in communicating even the most basic ideas. I’m going to miss the utterly ridiculous over-prevalence of combinis, because how will I survive without a Lawson’s, Family Mart, and 7-11 every 300 feet? Where will I buy my mildly overpriced, oddly tiny hot matcha lattes and accompanying baked goods?

IMG_1880The Great Buddha at Kamakura, a place I would love to spend more time.

I reflect on all the tourist attractions I didn’t get a chance to see—all the places I didn’t visit due to either time or monetary constraints: the shrines unvisited, cities unexplored, museums unsought—and I know I have to come back. Already, my brain is working furiously to find a way to return as soon as possible, somehow tying a trip across Siberia and down to Tokyo into my potential study abroad plans for next spring. I think about all the friends I made here, plenty of whom are coming back to Philly, but just as many of whom are not. Will I be able to come visit? I can’t help but hope that I’ll be back as soon as possible to see old friends and make new ones, experience new sights and places and return to those that I fell in love with this time around. Tokyo is unlike any city I’ve ever been to in so many ways, both good and bad, and I know it will call me back again.

Yokohama by the Bay

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Classes are over. Finals are over. In fact, my time in Japan is effectively over. I had my first real, commitment-free day of summer this past Tuesday and I spent the majority of it at Kanagawa Sohgoh High School, the site of my internship, eating lunch with my boss, seeing some of my students  friends, and helping teach English to the most endearing elementary school children on the planet. Though summer break is in effect for Kanasoh, I suppose some students, much like me, just couldn’t stay away. After I bid them adieu and saw the elementary schoolers off, I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the beautiful Yokohama bay area. My plans to pay homage to everyone’s favorite instant ramen at the Cup Noodle Museum were foiled by a “closed” sign, so I meandered around the waterfront and enjoyed the salt breeze instead. I then took a trip up Japan’s fastest elevator to the top of the Yokohama Landmark Tower and Skygarden to take in the stunning views of the bay and cityscape. Passing cargo ships carved patterns into the sparkling blue water. The glassy buildings of downtown Yokohama glimmered in a hushed blanket of photochemical smog, intensified by the humidity. Yokohama seems to sprawl out forever—flat bay land giving way to hills and valleys. It’s impossible to tell where this city ends and the next city in the Tokyo Metro Area begins in the continuous expanse of concrete and glass. The city of Yokohama itself has about 3,700,000 people, making it just a little smaller than Los Angeles.

IMG_1929Yokohama Landmark Tower

Its Chinatown is a grand expression of all things both stereotypically and more traditionally Chinese. Hundreds of restaurants, all seemingly selling the same dishes, line the streets, inviting in the hungry tourist with colorful picture menus. Souvenir shops punctuate lantern-lit alleys and if I wanted a fan, a charm, or a lucky cat, I’d have fifteen different options to buy them from. The Bay Area boasts “Cosmo World,” an amusement park with a brilliantly lit ferris wheel that towers over the rest of the substantially less-exciting rides. Shopping co-mingles with office complexes and museums in this shimmering, modern area, and for some reason I can’t quite explain, Yokohama’s downtown reminds me a bit of Philadelphia, though there aren’t too many wild similarities.

IMG_1316The impressive Chinatown Gate

I was told several times, “There’s not much to do in Yokohama,” but I’m not sure I agree. No, it’s not as big as Tokyo nor as crowded and busy, but maybe that’s why I liked it. Its downtown was more singular, in place of Tokyo’s various “downtowns” such as Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and Otemachi, and the glass skyscrapers that dotted the skyline were more reminiscent of Center City than Times Square. It is by no means as exciting as Tokyo, though they share a metro area, but I suppose having ten million more people is bound to provide excitement. The strange thing is, as much as I like huge cities (which is good because Tokyo’s the largest in the world), I for some inexplicable reason found myself wishing I’d spent more time exploring Yokohama. I could almost see myself living there in a way that I sometimes struggled to in Tokyo, though I’d live there in a heartbeat as well. Besides, in Japanese commuting time, the 35-40 minute long express train to Shibuya is really a hop, skip, and a jump from Yokohama to Tokyo. The idea of the two largest cities in Japan essentially being connected is bizarrely mind-blowing to me, perhaps because the U.S.’s two largest cities are on opposite coasts. In some ways they blend together, but in others they are totally separate entities. More like siblings than twins, Yokohama is often overshadowed by its high-achieving older brother and precocious younger cousin, Kyoto. But this city has a thirst to be recognized and plenty to offer, if only you’re willing to take a few days and seek it.