Castles and Eels (or Catching Up With Friends)

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I am currently writing this entry sitting on a shinkansen heading back to Tokyo from Shizuoka Prefecture, where I spent a close to perfect day seeing castles, art museums, and splendid temples. I woke up bright and early to catch a train to meet up with my friend and former tutor student, Yumiko. Yumiko and I worked together for my entire freshman year of college, when I tutored her in English at the Nationalities Services Center in Philadelphia. We were an odd pairing indeed—me a red jeans-clad, skull wearing 19-20 year old and her, a Japanese woman in her thirties who had just moved to Philadelphia with her husband so he could do research at UPenn. Shaky lessons of me talking too fast and having no idea what to do soon transformed into excellent conversations and lessons on idioms, colloquialisms, and grammar and we bonded over shared interests in our weekly lessons. Unfortunately, they had to move back to Japan in June 2013, and I was left saddened by the thought of never seeing her again. We kept in touch via email for the past year, and our continued contact helped spark my interest in Japan and learning Japanese. When I found out I would indeed be coming to Japan, Yumiko and I set a time to meet up. She lives in Shizuoka Prefecture and she offered to show me around. I was more than happy to get out of the city for a day.

A slow, uncontrolled smile crept onto my face as I disembarked the shinkansen at Shizuoka Station. It’s been over a year since Yumiko and I said our last goodbye in Philadelphia, and over email she had promised a day full of sightseeing and the chance to pick our own tea leaves. Unfortunately, the tea leaf picking was rained out, but we visited Kakegawa Castle and made up for the rainy afternoon with a visit to the Shiseido Corporate Museum and Art House and the Hattasan Soneiji Temple, all after a delicious lunch of grilled unagi.  Unagi, or eel, is particularly famous in Shizuoka and while I inwardly cringed at the thought of eating eel for lunch, I didn’t want to say no. Well, I’m glad I went for it, because unlike the eel sushi I’ve eaten in PA, fresh, grilled unagi is quite oishii* and not chewy whatsoever.

The rainy afternoon was spent poking around Kakegawa Castle, a reconstruction of the original 15th Century stronghold from the Bunmei Era. We befriended a ninja, inhaled the fragrant smell of tatami, and took in the incredible views both of and from the castle before venturing the the Shiseido Museum and Art House. As you probably know, Shiseido is the largest cosmetics company in Japan, as well as one of the oldest. The Shiseido Museum provided an interesting visual and audio history of the company from humble beginnings to cosmetics empire. The presentation and content were, at least to me, quite interesting, although I’m sure many a male visitor may not have thought the same. The Art House is a gallery-like museum filled with paintings and sculptures from various well-known contemporary Japanese artists.

IMG_1800 Kakegawa Castle in the misty afternoon

We finished off our sightseeing for the day with a visit to the beautiful Hattasan Soneji Temple, a Buddhist temple set in a gorgeous, mountain woodland, before heading back to Shizuoka and a sushi dinner. When Yumiko suggested sushi, my American mind immediately pictured a couple of tuna rolls and instant happiness. My American mind was a little off the mark. This sushi was the real deal. Chefs directly in front of us at the counter expertly sliced, diced, and served up ultra-fresh cuts of everything under the sun. From squid tentacle, which is not bad-tasting but just too chewy, to the most heavenly tuna and mackerel, it certainly was an experience to remember. I swallowed several bites of slimy baby sardines and while the taste didn’t bother me, their judging little eyes made it difficult to want to pop them in my mouth. The chunk of their mom that came later in the meal, however, was delicious, and in my sick sense of humor I made sure to acquaint parent and child before devouring the delicious former. I enjoyed all the different types of fish, most of which I’d never eaten before, and even managed to tolerate the chewiness of squid. The one exception to the tastiness of the meal came in the form of the expensive delicacy that is sea urchin. If you’ve never tasted sea urchin before, it is impossible to describe. It’s not fishy. In fact, it doesn’t particularly taste like any sea creature I’ve ever eaten before. The flavor is decidedly…”non-Western,” and even Yumiko, who loves it, admitted it is an acquired taste. I regret to say I have clearly not yet acquired that specific taste, but determined to at least try everything, I choked down the orange-y blob as best I could. Despite the unfortunate flavor of my formerly spiky friend, the sushi meal was a well-enjoyed and exceedingly memorable end to an excellent day.

IMG_1857 Sea urchin. Looks harmless, no?

The sights and taste of Shizuoka Prefecture are wonderful, but the best part of the day was reconnecting with an old friend. I hope to see her again someday soon, either here in Japan or back in the states. Seeing her brightened the end of a stressful and exhausting last week of classes and provided a respite from the hustle and bustle of both Tokyo and academic life. We may have been from completely different worlds when we met in October 2012, but despite our apparent differences, all it takes to reconnect with someone you care about is a little grilled unagi.

IMG_1858Not the best picture, but the only one of all three of us!

Terms:

Like I said, unagi is eel.

A shinkansen is a bullet train. They really are fast.

Oishii is the Japanese word for delicious


 

The (awesome, crazy, ‘ballin’) Life of an ESL Intern

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One of the main reasons that I wanted to come to Japan was the internship program offered through TUJ. Back in the winter, as I was trying to decide what to do with my summer but feeling trapped in the bleakness of one of the worst winters PA has ever seen, I got an email: “Up to $5000 Freeman Scholarship available for internship participants.” Well, if that number doesn’t pique interest, I don’t know what would. I started looking into the different internships available, and the moment I stumbled upon Kanagawa Sohgoh High School, I knew it would be a good fit. I want to teach English after I graduate, and what better way to see if that’s actually what I want than to intern in a high school English department?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne view of the high school, courtesy of Wikimedia

I am here in Japan because of this internship and the fact that I was fortunate enough to receive the Freeman Internship Scholarship. When I first boarded the 7:15 train and began my commute (yeah, THAT commute) in May, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Would I be responsible for a whole class? Would I be grading papers? I had no idea.Visions of rowdy classrooms full of 17-year-olds throwing paper at each other (my high school chem class) danced through my head. Turns out I had no reason to worry. My students, ranging through all three years of high school, are amazing and even the quiet ones participate and try to learn. The school itself is also vastly different from my small (*tiny*) high school, where there were roughly 230 other kids in the entire school, not just one grade. There are six languages available for study here: French, German, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, and, of course, English. There is a whole floor dedicated to art studies, and nine other floors containing everything from science labs to kitchens where students learn to cook. The students don’t wear uniforms, and once graduation credits are met, one can have as little or as much free time during the day as desired.

As an intern, however, my free time is limited. I arrive at 8:50am every Tuesday and Thursday and usually head to my first class at anywhere from 9-9:45, depending on the teacher’s request. The rest of the day, until 4th period begins at 2:50, is a flurry of going from classroom to classroom assisting in English teaching. In class, I usually read texts aloud for students to repeat chunk by chunk. I also explain vocabulary words and difficult concepts, initiate discussions, and assist with pronunciation. I’m happy to answer and ask questions and serve as a “native speaking” voice in the classroom to weigh in on words, phrases, and what Americans do and don’t say. After school, I assist the debate team on Tuesdays and help run “Chit Chat Club” on Thursdays, an organization where students can gather and have English conversations in a relaxed, informal setting. The debate team is prepping for their first competition, in which they will be arguing for and against the reinstatement of nuclear power in Japan. In Chit Chat Club, arguably my favorite part of Thursdays, students ask questions about American culture, we talk about our plans, weekends, likes and dislikes, and have had several excellent lessons on (appropriate) American slang. They eagerly learned phrases such as “see ya later,” “I’m a boss,” and “What’s up?” and I was astounded at the huge amount of slang and idioms we use every day without even realizing. How does one explain the subtle difference between “I’m a baller,” and “I’m a boss” or the intricacies of “It’s raining cats and dogs”? And “hot,” and “cool,” which should be antonyms, really mean just about the same thing. It’s baffling, but wickedly fun.

I realized I like teaching because it gives me a chance to interact with others and learn more about different cultures. It’s sweet, bad, ballin’, awesome, and cool, all at once. Norman Rockwell was a “sick” painter, but he wasn’t ill or diseased, as my Communication English II classes just learned in their lessons on the American icon. Pandas live in the wild, but the amount of money they cost to keep at a zoo? Now that‘s wild, according to what we just learned in Katayama Sensei’s class. And that is the crazy, beautiful, wicked, confusing language that I get to teach and re-examine every week.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

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The roar of the crowd, the bright lights overhead, vendors winding their way up and down stairways peddling snacks and drinks? For a moment, the raucous atmosphere of the game left me thinking I was home in Philly, cheering on Utley, Howard, and Hamels. But the friendly smiles of the rosy-cheeked beer vendors selling cans of Asahi for 520 yen stood out in sharp contrast to the sweaty, noisy, gruff old men who hawk $8 Bud Lights at Citizens Bank Park, reminding me that I was cheering for the Hanshin Tigers, not the Phillies. Japanese chants mixed with the English, “God Baystars!” as blue-clad supports rooted for the home team, while across the stadium a sea of yellow and black performed perfectly memorized chants and flag-waving that spurred the Tigers to eventual victory over the Yokohama Baystars.

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I love a good baseball game. Heck, I even love a bad baseball game (as a Phillies fan, I have little choice in this). The Baystars-Tigers game we attended on Saturday night was scoreless for most of the game, but that didn’t stop the fans from cheering like their lives depended on it. Towards the end of the game, the Tigers finally managed to knock in a solo home run, followed an inning or two later by another home run, bringing their total score up to 3 against the Baystars’ big, fat, zero. Aside from some minor suspense in the bottom of the 9th, the Tigers had the game in the bag, ending the night with a 3-0 victory over the home team. It might be easy to generalize something as simultaneously American and Japanese as baseball, saying that the two were “exactly the same” or that American baseball and its huge stadiums and glittering jumbo-trons are “better,” but the truth is that there were quite a few ways in which the two countries have completely different games on their hands. Sure, the game play is relatively identical, but when you think about it, there’s so much more to baseball than just how the teams function.

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In the US (at least in Philly), booing is practically as common as cheering, directed toward both the home and away teams. The opposing team scores? Time to boo! The home team commits an error? More booing! You don’t like the umpire, or the batter, or some random fan in the crowd? Hey, why not boo them, too? I once sat next to a man who returned to his seat in the midst of a volley of boos that were due to a bad call. He look around, cried, “Why is everyone booing? I like booing!” and proceeded to shout and hiss and spit as loud as he could. At the Baystars-Tigers game, there was no booing. None.  Not at all. Half the stadium was comprised of Tigers fan in Baystars territory, and not one of them received a single “boo” from the home team’s rabid fan base! I didn’t know that was possible! The positivity and team spirit of the fans was apparent not only in their lack of anti-cheers, but the precision and enthusiasm of their favored team chants and songs as well. Complex songs lead by trumpet and brass (there was no organ to be found), were sung in full voice by entire sections of the crowd. Volleys of percussive noise flew out into the stands in rhythmic beats as every single Tigers fan hit their noise-makers or clapped their hands or banged on any conceivable surface. Cheerleaders ran out onto the field with the Baystars mascots to lead the enthusiastic crowd in song and dance. The love for the team was apparent in full force, but the seething hatred for the opposition so signature in American sports was conspicuously absent. Everyone was just there, decked out in team colors from head-to-toe, to cheer on their team and have a great time. After the Tigers’ win, disappointed-looking Baystars fans lined up and shook hands with us and other victorious Hanshin supporters, proving that the love of one team does not have to equate being a bad sportsman or sore loser towards everyone else.

 

Adventures at Nagatoro and more

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Pretty lights against the night sky as we waited for our dinner

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Little did we know, we’d be cooking out own food!

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This was taken before we went rafting at Nagatoro

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We got instructions on what to do before we departed

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And took an unexpected group shot

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Study abroad students on the river.

Pictured: Trevor Flournoy (Champlain College), Paarth Malkan (Main Campus), Louis Graup (Main Campus), Ryan Fish (Indiana University), and Neil Sullivan (Main Campus)

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Pictured SA students: Chris Daily, Rasmy Nguyen, and Alex Chisar (All from Main Campus)

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Pictured: Daniel Kim, Maggie Lindrooth, Mike Allen, Michael Vy, Amanda Entenberg, Jeffrey Chan and Chloe Lieberman

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And the all-female boat

Pictured: Sara Birchard and Robin Zheng

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Afterwards, we relaxed by going to an onsen

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Chris Dailey (Main Campus) spots and interesting bug outside of the onsen

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Here is a closer look…

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And then we visited the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

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The insides of the caves

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Corrina Brown stands at the top of the Hundred Caves

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It was Tony’s birthday so we decided to surprised him by buying him a princess set in Kawagoe

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And finally, my friends and I decided to to end our week by spending our free time at this playground in Mita

 

Note: all of the river rafting photos were taken by a photographer at the site, Outdoor Center Nagatoro.

The weekend of onsen and Darumas

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TUJ students in front of a steam locomotive bound for Minakami hot springs. The beginning to a long weekend of adventure.

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View of the top of the train

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We were welcomed to Minakami by the captain. Mike Allen (Main Campus) and Amanda Entenberg (Main Campus) pose upon arrival.

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Beautiful view of the river in Suwa Gorge

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We observed a man bungee jump from the bridge. Unfortunately, none of the TUJ students participated.

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Then we went to a glass-blowing factory and museum. Here are a bunch of TUJ students watching the process . (Pictured: Louis Graup, Alex Chisar and Ryan Fish)

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The railings outside were covered in amazing hang-made glass animals and objects.

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Tree at the bottom of Ikaho Shrine. People were writing their wishes on these pieces of paper and hanging them up here.

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Then it began to rain so we ran for cover. Pictured: Eric Mousin, Alex Kosaka and Darrel Kurogawa

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And a couple of us went to a indoor archery range. (Pictured: Trevor Flournoy from Champlain College)

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A bunch of Kewpies at the Toy & Doll Museum

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Darrel Kurogawa plays pinball as other TUJ students cheer him on

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At the end of the museum trip, we even got to paint our own miniature Kewpies!

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Next, we went to the Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple for an introduction to darumas

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Eric Mousin and I pose in front of a giant Daruma

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Finally, we went to daimon-ya where we all got to paint our own Darumas! Ours didn’t turn out quite as well as the ones in the shop

Let’s Get Traditional: Onsen, Daruma, and More

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It’s hard to believe we’ve been here over a month now. The lazy days of orientation have melted into late nights studying and busy afternoons of school and internships. The shining beacon of hope, beginning for me every Friday at 3:40, is the weekend, which promises adventures in the form of field trips, museums, parks, and nights on the town. Weekend before last we attended one of our first Temple Japan-sponsored day trips. Waking bright and early on Saturday morning at the lovely hour of 5:30am, some of the other girls and I were out the door at 6:00 sharp, heading to TUJ to hop on a bus. This bus carried us out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and into the countryside, where we white-water rafted on the Arakawa River, were treated to a sumptuous barbecue of meat and vegetables, and spent the afternoon relaxing in an onsen. Though I was initially nervous about rafting, as I’d never done it before, the hour-plus we spent in the water was a burst of energy, adrenaline, and laughter which I sorely needed. Though the river may have bored more experienced rafters, the freezing water and rush of the rapids, as well as the healthy competition between the groups, left me wanting to hop on a plane to Colorado, New Zealand, or anywhere really, so I could raft all day. All in all, it was an excellent adventure and I ended the day excited for what the next weekend would bring.

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Our delicious post-rafting barbecue. It’s definitely a serious one-up over burgers and hot dogs.

This past weekend, we once again boarded a 6:50am bus from TUJ. This time, however, we brought our overnight bags in preparation for a stay in Gunma Prefecture in the northwest of the main island of Japan not far from Nagano. We took a historic steam train that cut through mountains and past rivers, rice beds, and small, increasingly rural communities. Unfortunately, our first day was somewhat dampened (pun maybe intended) due to rain and once we arrived at our hotel, a massive, modern take on a traditional Japanese ryokan, I spent the next two hours relaxing in the onsen and napping on my comfortable futon.

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The steam locomotive preparing for its journey.

Onsens are traditional Japanese bathhouses located near hot springs. They are most often gender-separated facilities consisting of an indoor and outdoor “bath,” full of steaming-hot mineral water where one can soak and relax. The process of going to an onsen can at first seem quite ritualized and a little strange to the unsuspecting foreigner. First things first: NO tattoos. Large, bright yellow signs adorning the walls, both at the entrance and in the changing rooms, highlight this fact loud and clear. That being said, it is overwhelmingly possible to wear a sweatshirt, long pants, or otherwise cover oneself up and sneak by the watchful eyes of the proprietors. However, if another customer is made uncomfortable by the presence of ink, it is best to leave. Once inside, there are two changing areas: one for men and one for women, in which you strip down completely before showering off. As this is done in the company of whoever else happens to be at the onsen that day, I was exceedingly glad that years of changing for plays and dance competitions cured me of any embarrassment regarding the female form. After showering, including washing hair and body, it is permissible to enter the healing waters. We sat first in a steaming indoor bath which quickly became unbearably hot, before moving outside. At our ryokan, the onsen also offered a steam room and a sauna which we took full advantage of before plunging into the cold water also on offer. As counterintuitive as it seems, there is nothing more exhausting than sitting in hot water. Relaxing, yes, but in the way that causes an entire busload of college students to fall fast asleep until dinner time.

The next day, markedly improved weather set the stage for a trip to the Temple of Daruma, in Takasaki, and then to the daruma factory, where we painted our own. The daruma doll is a traditional Japanese symbol of perseverance and good luck and can be given as a gift or kept for personal wish-fulfillment. At the time of painting, only one eye of the doll is colored in. On fulfillment of the wish or dream, the other eye is then colored. Of all the activities I’ve done here and all the sights I’ve seen, onsen and painting darumas have to be two of my favorites. These traditional parts of Japanese life are quite different from anything we have in the States. Darumas are spiritual symbols of the common idea of hope, and onsen are the best way to relax I’ve ever experienced. These past two weekend trips were necessary diversions from studying, a much-needed break, and adventures full of laughter, relaxation, spirituality, and entertainment—something that, with my nose to the grindstone most of the time, I sometimes forget is absolutely vital. In school it is unfortunately all too easy to forget that I am in Japan and on the weekends, coordinating plans with friends is fun but sometimes exhausting. Although I normally despise feeling like a tourist, here I know that I stand out as one regardless. And you know what? My camera and I are having a great time.

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A pile of darumas, brought back to the temple after a year with both eyes colored in.

Ryokan: Type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways (Wikipedia).

 

Stormy Days and Sports Night

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It was another stormy week in Tokyo. This is a view from the balcony of the Kitazono Women’s Dorm

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While the weather may not have been perfect for going outside, it was perfect for a visit to the cat café where we were able to experience this kitten’s first day at the café.

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Sports Night provided by TUJ. Pictured SA students – Mike Allen (Economics, Main Campus), Michael Vy (Main Campus) and Rasmy Nguyen, Communication Studies, Main Campus).

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We began the night with some intense basketball

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Full-time TUJ students Tomohito and Shun pose mid-game

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On the other side of the gym, students participated in playing volleyball. Check out that jump on the left!

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The Sports Night crew!

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Even cleaning up afterwards was a friendly competition

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Afterwards, we were able to experience something rare: a full moon on Friday the 13th. The next time we will be able to see this is in 2049.

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Eric Mousin (psychology, University of Vermont) and Sarah Maloney (film studies, Sarah Lawrence) pose in front of Temple after class