さようなら日本!(Goodbye Japan!)

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Well, this is it. The time has come. My last couple days in Japan have arrived. It seems to surreal right now. On August 26th, I arrived on Japanese soil and now it’s time to leave.

Throughout my time in Japan, I have had both good and bad experiences, but they have all helped me grow. For instance, back in the US, I have a tendency to refrain from approaching people and speaking to them, especially in social situations (yes, I am that socially awkward person). However, as time progressed, I found myself coming out of my shell more and speaking to others. I surprised myself when I would go out with some friends and I would be the one speaking to Japanese people and being able to understand them without asking おそく話して下さい (Osoku hanashite kudasai = please speak slower). I definitely have noticed that my listening and speaking abilities have strengthened and I have become more confident (I cannot wait to speak to my Japanese professor when I return. Maybe I will surprise even her).

One big happy Taiko family!

One big happy Taiko family!

I'm so glad I got to be by such an experience man.

I’m so glad I got to be by such an experience man.

Nevertheless, I can’t put into enough words what I have taken away from this experience. I have not only learned more about the Japanese people and their culture, but also myself. I’ve met old friends on the other side of the world, which I never thought would be possible. I’ve made new friends, whom I will cherish forever, but will miss dearly. I even had the opportunity to learn how to play the Taiko drums from Yukihiko Sensei, an incredible man who has been doing Taiko for 40 years! He was even so kind as to inform my friends and I before the lesson that Taiko wasn’t an art, but a sport! Sure enough, for the next couple of days, my arms and legs felt like I had been playing a sport (But the soreness and the memories that accompanied it were welcomed).

I will miss you girls so much! You made my time here so much more amazing <3

I will miss you girls so much! You made my time here so much more amazing <3

Yes, Japan. I will even miss your bizarrely good flavored snacks.

Yes, Japan. I will even miss your bizarrely good-flavored snacks.

Studying abroad also came with responsibilities, the primary of which revolved around academics. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had some challenges managing my time and prioritizing, but I took it upon myself to make the effort to triumph over such challenges. For instance, there was a concert I really anticipated going to during the week of finals, however, the night before, I realized I wasn’t prepared for my one of my classes so I put my final first, stayed home, and studied. When the week was over, I found out I received an A on that final. If there’s one thing I found to be the most important in my time in Japan, it has been finding that balance and knowing what to put first. It means growing as a student and an adult. As an ongoing process, I take it one step at a time to adapt and believe that being in another country has given me constant reminders of the benefits that can be reaped from hard work, determination, and perseverance.

It has been 15 weeks since I landed in Japan, but I have definitely gained more than 15 weeks of memories. So while the sun is setting on my time in the land of the rising sun, I have a strong feeling it will rise again soon. So for now, I take back the title of this final post. I won’t say goodbye, but  またね日本!(See you again, Japan!)

Cross Cultural Understanding Tour

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Honestly, it’s still hard for me to believe that I’ve been in Japan for almost fifteens weeks. Looking back, it feels like it was only a few weeks ago that I was getting on the plane to Japan, feeling both nervous and excited to begin my new adventure. I honestly still feel like a tourist when exploring areas off campus, which brings us to this week’s blog post!

The Saturday right before finals, my friends and I decided to sign up for a guided tour around Akihabara to explore and feel like tourists once more before some of us return to the US. The tour was hosted by Hosei University’s Cross Cultural Understanding (CCU) group. The group was created in 2012 to promote cultural exchange among Japanese citizens and those from overseas. Their vision is “Spreading Japanese Culture Overseas.” Their group occasionally hosts free guided tours around popular destinations in the Tokyo prefecture, so for future study abroad students, I definitely recommend attending one of their events! It’s always a fun time, and it’s a great way to get to know local students!

I went a little early to make sure I didn’t miss the event, and I found an unusual sight:

Just a man....walking his....ducks?

Just a man….walking his….ducks?

Just when I thought I was getting used to the things in Japan. But then again, I don’t think this is a common sight in Japan either.

Anyway, the CCU group was pretty easy to find since they had a cosplayer in their group.

My new friends, Chamomile and Frank! Chamomile is cosplaying Christa from Attack on Titan, an anime that has recently become popular in Japan and the US. Frank, isn't cosplaying, but he looks like he could be!

My new friends, Chamomile and Frank! Chamomile is cosplaying Christa from Attack on Titan, an anime that has recently become popular in Japan and the US. Frank isn’t cosplaying, but he looks like he could be!

We begin the tour by visiting Superpotato, a famous retro video game chain throughout Japan. It was well-hidden in the upper levels of another store (when searching for stores in the US, we tend to simply search horizontally. When in Japan, you also have to search vertically!)

Following Superpotato, we visited Kotobuyiya and Manarake, two popular stores in Japan for your anime products.

Apparently anime-themed food is a thing in Japan!

Apparently anime-themed food is a thing in Japan!

Then, we visited Busoushouten, a very small but fascinating replica weapon store. The cosplayers and role-players of the group excitedly rushed in, searching props. However, once everyone got in, it was very difficult to get out!

For our next destination, we visited Gachapon, a capsule-toy vending machine specialty store. The store has over 530 Gachapon machines! For 100 Yen (about a $1) you can capsule toy of almost anything!

Next stop, Don Quijote! Don Quijote is a discount chain store that carries a wide range of products from groceries to clothes to toys and much more. Our guide told us that Don Quijote tends to keep very late shopping hours (lots of them are open until 3 or 5 AM, some are even open 24 hours!), which is very rare in Japan, where most places close up by 9 or 10 PM. The closest thing I can probably compare Don Quijote to is Walmart. Okay, maybe a very cramped Walmart with multiple floors. The business plan is very similar, but for some reason, it feels completely different.

Showing our Christmas spirits in Don Quijote!

Showing our Christmas spirits in Don Quijote!

Afterwards, we visited Taito Station, a popular arcade chain in Japan!

Group Picture in front of Taito Station!

Group Picture in front of Taito Station!

The original plan was to play some arcade games together, but the girls convinced everyone to take purikura together.

My current purikura collection!

My current purikura collection!

These were all taken at CCU events! The first one was from their Harajuku tour! The other two were from this tour! This particular Taito Station let their customers borrow cosplays to take photos for free!

I think the one of the greatest thing about studying abroad is how it broadens your perspective on the world. At these tours, you get to meet lots of amazing people with different perspectives, and explore places you simply could never find in the US. At these kinds of events, you can really notice and appreciate the differences between other cultures. Studying abroad has given me the opportunity to truly immerse myself in a manner that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was simply visiting Japan, and I am truly grateful that I was given this opportunity!

Mt Koya and Nara, Part 3:

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Finally, for the last part of our trip, Nara! If you haven’t read the previous two parts of the Mt Koya and Nara trip, here are the links!

Part 1: http://templejapan.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/mt-koya-and-nara-trip-part-1/

Part 2: http://templejapan.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/mt-koya-and-nara-part-2/

Nara was probably the most anticipated part of the school trip for many students. Nara is known for its abundance of deer, especially in Nara Park. According to legend, Takemikazuchi (considered the Japanese god of thunder and swords) arrived in Nara on a white deer to protect the newly built capital of Heijou-kyou. Since then, deer have been regarded as sacred messengers of the gods who protect the city. The park is home to hundreds of deer.

The deer at Nara Park are tame, so if you bow to the deer, they will bow back!

Angela, excited to feed a deer that bowed to her!

Angela, excited to feed a deer that bowed to her!

Most of the group brought Shikasenbei, a snack to feed to the deer. A couple of us tried taking pictures with the deer!

If you want to be popular with the deer's, having Shikasenbei is a must!

If you want to be popular with the deer, having Shikasenbei is a must!

Slightly north of Nara Park is Todaiji Temple, considered one of the world’s most powerful temples. The temple is still used today as a headquarter for teaching Buddhism. It houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.

Group picture!

Group picture!

Inside we found a line forming near a pillar. No one is certain why or how the hole in the pillar was formed, but we were told by locals it was a superstition that if you could get through the hole, you can stay healthy and be blessed with enlightenment in your next life.

Our group had to try it out! I wonder if anyone has ever gotten stuck in there before.

Our group had to try it out! I wonder if anyone has ever gotten stuck in there before.

Finally, when it was time to call it a night, we stayed at a youth hostel. Compared to the rest of the trip, it wasn’t anything fancy—I guess the futon isn’t for everyone, but it certainly beats sleeping on the bus.

After breakfast, we went to a mikan field to get some mikans! I was kind of confused about why this was on our itinerary, since our trip was supposed to be about Zen and seeing the more traditional side of Japan. It was fun regardless, and it was a great to give to my host family!

Mikans are kind of similar to oranges, but smaller and sweeter.

Mikans are kind of similar to oranges, but smaller and sweeter. I think it tastes similar to a tangerine (if it isn’t the same thing)….I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison to know for sure.

Our last destination was to an onsen before returning back to Tokyo. There isn’t much of a difference between an onsen and a hot bath, besides the fact that onsens are bathing facilities located around hot springs. They both follow similar rules of courtesy: absolutely no clothes or towels, shower first, before entering the onsen or bath, and then shower again before putting your clothes back on.  The awkwardness of being naked had already faded away for most of the group.

I think everyone that went on this trip had a great time and it was exactly the kind of break we needed before our final weeks of school! It’s still really hard to believe that in a couple days, I’ll be returning home and my adventure in Japan will be over (or will it?!). I really do miss my family and friends back at home, but at the same time, Japan has been such a wonderful experience for me that I don’t think I ever completely exit the “honeymoon phase”!

Can You Hear the Drums?-Kodo Taiko Performance

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Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, my ears are ready! Grace them with the sounds of Taiko drums!

Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, my ears are ready! Grace them with the sounds of Taiko drums!

Doctor Who references aside, on December 2nd, I had the pleasure of going to the Kodo Taiko Performance at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall. This was my first time seeing a taiko performance so I didn’t know what to expect.

The TUJ students were seated on the second floor, but the seats were really good, considering we got student discounts. Honestly, I think they were better than those that were on the first floor and close to the stage because there were certain effects that were incorporated into the performance that would not have been as visible to the first floor attendees as they were to us on the second floor.

The first part of the performance left me with tears in my eyes (yes, I was literally crying from how powerful it was). Before the intermission, there was a piece that included one center performer and four surrounding performers. The center performer started with five different taiko drums in front of him but by the end, he was surrounded by a circle of twelve drums. As it progressed, I got more and more emotional but could not quite understand why. The surrounding performers, in addition to playing their own drums, alternated and played alongside the center performer. It looked as if they were each battling the center performer but at the same time playing with him. I saw this as an intricate and powerful dance and my heart raced. The sound that was produced was indescribable. Thanks to the acoustics of the symphony hall, it felt like the rumbling of thunder was coursing through my body, from my ears all the way down to my feet. It resonated and I cried, but I wasn’t the only one. Andrea, the Kitazono Dorm Manager, who had eight years of playing taiko in the US, shared in my emotions and also cried. At the end, we both wondered how they would top themselves in the second part.

Part two of the performance was just as good as part one. They added humor to it, which was unexpected. For one part, there were three performers on stage, two females with small taiko drums and one male with a bigger drum. The two females stepped forward and as one played a fast-paced rhythm, the other mimicked, without hitting her own drum. Realizing she was “caught” she stopped. Then it was the male’s turn. He stepped forward, head raised proudly, and began to play furiously. His hands moved faster and faster and we all applauded. The only problem was that his drum was invisible.

I can't even begin to imagine playing a drum that big O_O

I can’t even begin to imagine playing a drum that big O_O

Then they brought out three big taiko drums (and I mean BIG) and I was amazed. Each drum was three times the size of the player’s upper body and the way they played it made it seem like there was an enormous amount of strength needed to play something that size. However, according to Andrea, it doesn’t take that much strength since different parts of the drum produce different sounds and the Kodo Taiko group definitely utilized that knowledge beautifully. Throughout the two hour performance, they used everything to hit the drums, including their own hands and I loved every minute of it.

We couldn't resist. Kodo inspired us :)

We couldn’t resist. Kodo inspired us :)

Pre-Finals Relief: Gaming the Stress Away

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As finals are just around the corner for me (next week to be exact), I can just feel the tension and anxiety building in my mind. So before I barricade myself in my room to study, I decided to spend the weekend partaking in some of the gaming culture of Japan.

I’m not what you would call a serious gamer, but as someone who loves music, I’m automatically attracted to anything that has to do with a beat. That being said, besides the obvious Dance Dance Revolution, I was immediately drawn to two rhythm games, Jubeat and Taiko no Tatsujin (also known as Taiko Drum Master).

Why hello Jubeat. I've figured out some of your tricks.

Why hello Jubeat. I’ve figured out some of your tricks.

Jubeat was definitely something new to me, but still surprisingly fun. The premise of the game is simple enough: there is a board of buttons and as the song plays you press the button or buttons that light up with the rhythm. You can plug in your headphones for a more focused play, but the songs range from anime to pop to rock to heavy metal, with different levels of difficulty. You can even play against up to three other players in a showdown. I tried to refrain from looking at those around me and watching them play, but alas, I gave in and was amazed. Their hands were moving so fast and I tried to keep up with them but couldn’t. I just kept thinking, “How? Just how?” Getting back to my game, at some point I figured out a trick. For me, it’s best when I don’t focus on any particular area of the board. This way, instead of my head darting from one side to another and trying to have my hands keep up, I focus on the light of the buttons I need to press and am able to hit the right buttons on time. I can easily see myself playing this game for hours as long as the songs keep coming.

Head to head Taiko no Tatsujin battle against two study abroad students. Who will win?

Head to head Taiko no Tatsujin battle against two study abroad students. Who will win?

Taiko no Tatsujin (or Taiko Drum Master) is a game that you can find everywhere, in  smaller arcades as well as larger ones like Club Sega. Yours truly even as the Playstation version at home so of course, I had to take on the original arcade version. My arms get a nice little workout when I played at home and here in Japan, it is no different. If anything, I get more of a workout because I’m standing up to play. Nevertheless, this has become my go-to game, not just for entertainment, but also as a form of stress relief. Some people smoke, some drink, some exercise, but I play Taiko no Tatsujin. 100円 gets you 3 songs, which can be picked from anime, J-pop, classical, etc. I am nowhere close to being on the same advanced level as some players, but I still enjoy the feeling I get as the sticks hit the drum. This game makes me yearn to learn to play actual Taiko drums. Perhaps I can find a taiko workshop nearby?

Mt Koya and Nara, Part 2:

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The futons (a traditional Japanese bedding, it’s kind of like a really thick sleeping bag) that Rengejoin Temple provided us was surprisingly comfortable (but then again, after a night sleeping on a bus, the group could probably sleep anywhere!). And at 6:20 AM as promised, we were woken up to attend otsutome (Morning Prayer) as requested by the monks of the temple. After breakfast, we would head to Okunoin, the largest a cemetery and sacred area in Japan with over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas!

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, the thought of visiting a cemetery sounded rather depressing, and not quite what I would consider a tourist attraction. While funerals are still depressing, it seems as though Japan follows a more “circle of life” belief.

For instance, along the path in okunoin, we saw many Gorinto (five tier Stupa).

For instance, along the path in okunoin, we saw many Gorinto (five tier Stupa).

Our guide explained to our group that the shapes of the five tiers represents the five elements taught in Buddhism. The cube at the bottom represents earth, the sphere represents water, the pyramid presents fire, the hemisphere represents wind, and finally, the jewel shape at the top represents void. Japanese Buddhists believe that when we die, our bodies are not destroyed, but rather our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental forms.

In addition, we also saw many little statues wearing bibs. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I ask our guide, who explained that they were statues of お地蔵さん (Ojizo-san), who is believed to watch over and protect children in the afterlife.

The bibs are placed by parents who have lost children, with prayers that Ojizo-san would watch over and protect them as a surrogate parent.

The bibs are placed by parents who have lost children, with prayers that Ojizo-san would watch over and protect them as a surrogate parent.

We then stopped by a well to check on our life expectancy.

Apparently, if you don’t see your reflection in this well, you will die within 3 years.

Apparently, if you don’t see your reflection in this well, you will die within 3 years.

Then we entered the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the place where Kobo Daishi is said to remain in eternal meditation.

It is said that Kobo Daishi entered his eternal meditation in 835. Twice a day, monks ritually offer meals to Kobo Daishi at the mausoleum as seen in this picture.

It is said that Kobo Daishi entered his eternal meditation in 835. Twice a day, monks ritually offer meals to Kobo Daishi at the mausoleum as seen in this picture.

This was actually the first museum I’ve ever been to where we were allowed, and encouraged to touch stuff, so I was quite thrilled. There were thousands of lanterns and miniature statues of monks. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed in the museum. At first, I always thought this was an annoying rule since so many famous places in Japan did not allow photographs, but recently I’ve been embracing it. There is something nice about occasionally disconnecting myself from technology to truly appreciate the moment in front of me, instead of trying to share it with friends via pictures consistently.

On our way out, we tested our strength and connection with Future Buddha! In this little stand, there is a heavy rock, which is said to be as heavy as our sins. Those who are able to lift this rock, and bring it to the second level, will apparently be closer to the Future Buddha, and will be welcomed to his paradise.

Joshua's face of victory as he completes the challenge!

Joshua’s face of victory as he completes the challenge!

I suppose the idea is that if you are a hard worker, it would probably show in your arm strength. Personally, I’m not very superstitious, but it was interesting to hear about superstitions of other cultures.

As we visit more historic sites and hear more about Japan’s culture, superstitions, and religion in person, I realize that our there is so much about Japan that is simply omitted from textbooks. The more I explore Japan, the more I realize how little I know about the country! And the more excited I become to learn more about it!

Food? Is There Food? I Want Food!

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Warning: Do not read this post on an empty stomach. You will get hungry. I repeat! YOU WILL GET HUNGRY!

Have you grabbed a quick bite to eat? Yes? Good. Then allow me to continue.

I realize that I’ve been in Japan for the past 3 months and have yet to write about the one thing that I encounter every day, food. Since I have been in Japan, I’ve noticed some major similarities and differences between Japan cuisine and American cuisine. So, let’s dig in, shall we? いただきます!(which means “I will humbly receive” and is said before eating a meal).

Tomomi made such wonderful Endomae Nigirizushi and I loved every bite!

Tomomi made such wonderful Endomae Nigirizushi and I loved every bite!

She even made a mixed berry tart for dessert. It looks so perfect, I don't want to ruin it.

She even made a mixed berry tart for dessert. It looks so perfect, I don’t want to ruin it.

There’s one thing that I’ve always admired about Japanese cuisine, and that is the amount of dedication that goes into each dish. From preparation to presentation, even making something as small as a sushi makes me love the cuisine every time I eat. For example, my friend, Tomomi was kind enough to invite me into her home for dinner and I was amazed at what she prepared. Tomomi is 25 years old and in addition to salad, dim sum, and yakitori, one of the dishes she made was called 江戸前握or “Edomae nigiri zushi,” which looks similar to what I see in the grocery stores here, but it tasted so much better. Maybe it was because it was eaten shortly after made, nevertheless, I thank her so much for the food and the work she put into making it. ごちそうさまでした!(which means “Thank you for the meal” thus is said after eating.)

Hamburger Steak with spaghetti, shrimp tempura, potato salad, salad, and rice. A little taste of Italy, courtesy f Japan.

Hamburger Steak with spaghetti, shrimp tempura, potato salad, salad, and rice. A little taste of Italy, courtesy f Japan.

Even in Japan, there are restaurants that serve their take on foreign cuisine. For instance, I went to Fresca in Akihabara and was treated to Hamburger Steak (ハンバーグ), which came with salad, potato salad, spaghetti, shrimp tempura, and of course, rice. There’s a popular restaurant by TUJ that specializes in kebabs and a Chinese restaurant next to the nearby 7-Eleven. There are also Mexican, Indian, and Korean restaurants all over Tokyo. Just like in the US, Japan manages to incorporate the tastes of different countries without customers having to travel there.

Thanks to cream yaki, I now know that fishes can fly!

Thanks to cream yaki, I now know that fishes can fly!

Filled with golden cream, so warm during the winter.

Filled with golden cream, so warm during the winter.

Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe

いちごチーズケーキ (Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe)

SA student, Christina, couldn't help but get one as well :)

SA student, Christina, couldn’t help but get one as well :)

No meal is complete without a little dessert. I’ve come to like cream yaki since being here and winter has deepened this liking. During cold nights, on my way home, I sometimes buy a cream yaki from my favorite vendor. It’s so warm and fluffy that it hits the spot. Speaking of fluffy desserts, while in the US, I tend to favor a nice, thick slice of strawberry cheesecake or a rich double fudge brownie, Japan takes a more light and airy approach to their desserts. For instance, two other students and I went to Harajuku and we bought crepes. As soon as I saw a strawberry cheesecake crepe, I thought “Oooooh, I can have thick cheesecake in a crepe? Yes please!.” To my surprise, the “cheesecake” had the consistency of flan rather than the cheesecake I knew, but it was still good. Crepes, tarts, cream yaki, Japanese desserts have the same amount work put into them as meals and they look just as perfect so you don’t want to eat them, but eat them you must! Nom nom nom…

All this talk of food makes me want to get in the kitchen, go crazy, and make everything I possibly can!