Monthly Archives: February 2012

Fighting Homesickness

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Konnichi wa everyone!

I hope this entry finds you well and worry-free.  Here? Not only did we reach the halfway marker of our study abroad but we are in the thick of midterm season here at TUJ.  So, needless to say, things are starting to get a bit hectic around here.  I cannot believe that we are at this point already though! How did time move so quickly?  It seems like only yesterday that I was landing in Narita Airport.  I hope the rest of the term will go slowly so I can enjoy every minute. I only have a few more months left in Japan and I am already feeling sad about my future departure.  On the other hand, having been here for almost 2 months, I am beginning to feel a bit homesick.

Of course, I miss my family and friends back home but one of the biggest things I have been missing is FOOD! Japanese food is delicious, do not get me wrong.  However, there are those little things from back home that I have been craving for weeks now.  To ward off homesickness, me and my friends have made a point of it to find (or make!) the food from home that we are missing the most.  This past week, my friend Kelly and I went on a mission to find burritos.  It is so crazy, because back home, I do not even like burritos!  However, it was the little slice of American-esque life for a day that cheered us up.

A burrito made in Japan! Who would have thought...

Another way that I have been warding off any terrible home sick-ness, besides talking to friends and family back home, is to really just have some time to myself.  Living in a dorm with 40 other people, getting squashed in a crowded train going to school, getting squashed in a crowded train coming home…there is always something going on! But taking the time to recharge and just be alone has been one of the most beneficial things for me.  It allows me to sort through my thoughts and just have some quiet for once.

Once I am done being by myself, surrounding myself with new friends has made my time here so much more enjoyable. We like to go shopping, talk about life back in the US, just anything interesting that happened during the day, and go to a Japanese favorite… Purikura.  Now, taking silly pictures in a photobooth may not fight off the blues for everyone, but it is a nice place to just laugh and document a day out with friends. Together, you can decorate them however you want!

I do not mean to get sappy here, but being here has definitely made me appreciate my family and friends back home as well as the little luxuries that I take for granted some times…like burritos. Even if I do miss home from time to time, I will surely make the best of the time I have left here.  Until next time!

Matsugen with Maki

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This past Saturday I decided to indulge in some traditional にほんしき キュイジーヌ (Japanese Cuisine).  I met up with my friend, まきさん in the Ebisu section of Tokyo, about a half hour from the Ontakesan Dorm.  When we got there it really hit me that this was a very non-touristy restaurant. Since Tokyo is considered the capital of Japan, there is a lot more English within in the city than one would expect.  Albeit it is nowhere near as much as an English speaking country, but just enough for foreigners to make their way around the city.  Therefore, a significant amount of restaurants have partially English menus.  松玄 (Matsugen) had no English whatsoever on their menu.

The waiter escorted us to a table, long enough to fit eight to ten people comfortably.  There were already four people at the other end.  Thinking they were friends that Maki forgot to tell me she invited, I began to make my way down the table opposite of her.  Then I caught her glancing at me, with a small look of concern. She motioned for me to come to her side of the table.  In this particular restaurant you sat next to whoever you came with.  The others who were sitting at the end of the table were totally different parties.  The sense of privacy is different in Japan, something that has catches me off guard every once in a while during my travels.  In America it seems like we are much more concerned about who is in our “space.”  You’d be surprised by how much “space” we have that we really do not need.

Since my Japanese is limited, I suggested that Maki do most of the ordering, instead of reading every single dish on the menu to me. I told her beforehand that did not know much about Japanese cuisine, so she was more than determined to make me try anything she could think of.  I finally realized the reason why we had to sit next to each other in the restaurant: every course we ordered had to be shared between us.  Before each course, Maki would show me the correct way to remove the food from the main plate and prepare it with various seasonings and spices. Then I would make a clumsy attempt with my chopsticks to match her elegance.  Realizing your incapacity to accomplish tasks so simple to others is a very funny, yet enlightening, experience.  In between eating we would talk in English, and sprinkle bits of Japanese in between.  Maki kept her e-dictionary handy just in case I brought up words that she did not yet know. During conversations, I began to notice how abstract some words really in are in the English language.  It took me a good five minutes to figure out how to explain the word “motivation” in a way that Maki could understand.  It was not because her English was lacking; it was because motivation is a concept of American society.  Since we develop an understanding of it just from living in society, it is much harder to explain what it is.  What I am trying to say is that you can’t really teach someone a feeling.  Everyone thinks about and feels motivation in a different way.  I am sure there is a word in Japanese that has a similar meaning to motivation, but not the exact meaning though.

I enjoyed the food so much that I forgot to take pictures of it all!  We snapped few during the end of our meal:

Curry Udon for the main course....すごい

Mochi for dessert...too good

A Valentines Day to Remember

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A Valentines Day to Remember

Hello everyone!  I hope you had a wonderful Valentine’s Day.  Here in Japan, roles are reversed on this special day; girls give boys chocolate and not the other way around.  Luckily for us, we had a long weekend before the holiday.  But what should a single girl do on Valentines day in Tokyo? Especially on a day off!  There are so many things to chose from! Sleep? Nah.  Do laundry?  Maybe.  For me the answer was simple.  Go to the happiest place on earth, of course!

As a Valentines gift to ourselves, a couple of girl friends and I went on a day trip to Tokyo Disneyland! It sounds a little funny; going to Disneyland on a Monday in the middle of February.  But, it really was one of the best experiences of my entire life! I have been to the parks in America when I was younger, but it is much more rewarding to relive it all now that I am older.  And in Tokyo no less!

The park opened at ten, and I made sure that we would be there as early as possible. Thankfully, the trip from the Ontakesan dorm is only about an hour, and with the help of our dorm manager Aki, we were able to purchase our tickets in advance.  One of the great things about Tokyo Disneyland is that it offers a discounted price for college, university and high school students. They also offer maps and special assistance in English for tourists and park visitors.  Everyone in the park was so accommodating and helpful when we were unable to understand or having difficulty finding our way. Even princess Belle offered to show us around!

As far as attractions and rides are concerned, we really could not pick a better time to go.  The longest wait was only 45 minutes, and there was no line to wait for at the opening gate once we arrived.  One difference I quickly noted from American amusement parks is the amount of accommodation that they gave us, even just on the rides themselves!  As a group of three, we were concerned that one of us would have to ride with a stranger on certain activities, as per the usual standard in the US.  However, here in Tokyo,  that was not the case as our third person was offered their own single seat each time.  How nice!

Of course, this wouldn’t be Tokyo if the park did not have its own certain flare and specialties. One of these being the food! From King Crab pizza to Chocolate popcorn, Tokyo Disneyland has it!  Even soy sauce popcorn…which I simply did not have the stomach to try. Perhaps another day!  The chocolate popcorn though? Delicious!

Honestly, I could not recommend or praise Tokyo Disneyland any higher. If you have visited a Disney park before, you know that it is always going to be a fun adventure.  For me, since arriving in Japan, this experience of going to Disneyland has been one of the best in my entire life.  There were beautiful parades, kind people, fun rides, new and interesting food and, of course…Disney! Ah, I want to go again already!

Taming the Zao Monster

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This past weekend I, along with a bunch of other TUJ students, went to Yamagata to hit the slopes at the Zao Onsen Ski Resort. I only went skiing a few times in my life when I was a kid; this time I thought I’d take up something new, snowboarding.  We took a six hour overnight bus ride to northern Japan.  By the time we arrived it would be nice and early, and we would be some of the first people to ride on the fresh powder.
When we finally got to the resort and got all of our equipment, I and my friends Brian and Kevin decided to get on the gondola and head straight for the second peak.  On that long, long gondola ride up the mountain I began having second thoughts.  The snow was coming down so heavy that I could not see more than five feet out of the window.  Maybe I should have did a few runs on the bunny slopes before trying some serious snowboarding!  I eventually composed myself.  But when I finally got on the slopes, I lost all my concentration.  It was like the board had a mind of its own.  I had no control over where I went, or how to slow down.  I must have fell over ten times in that first run.  Back down to the first peak for me.  I left Kevin and Brian to practice on my own.

The first few hours on the easy slopes consisted of me falling, falling, and falling some more.  About to give it up entirely and call it a day, I happened find friends and in a guy name Alan.  He was passing through Yamagata that day, with a group of colleagues involved in tsunami relief and community service.  Sort of like what Habitat for Humanity would be in America.  Now I didn’t feel so bad when Japanese children raced down the slopes backwards with their parents.  Alan was falling down just as much as I was.  We practiced together for the rest of day, as well as practiced our Japanese on the lift back up the slope.  At the end of the day I parted ways with him and his friends, still not any better than I was before at snowboarding, yet happy that I got to talk to Americans not living in Tokyo.  Foreigners tend to only inhabit the metropolitan areas here in Japan.
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The Snow Monsters at the Peak of the Mountain
The next day my entire body was killing me.  It even felt sore to walk!  But it was our last day here; I couldn’t sit around and do nothing.  I made my way back to the top of the bunny slope and proceeded to fall the rest of the way down again.  “I’m done with this” I told myself.  My friends Sophie and Blake saw me sitting in the snow.  Blake boarded over to me and gave me the most obvious yet most enlightening advice that I had got: “Balance.”  From that point on I did not focus on where I wanted to go, I did not focus on how fast I was going.  All I focused on was remaining balanced on my board the entire way down the hill.  From that point on, everything clicked.  I was cruising through the slopes, flowing with whatever the mountain presented me.  I realized I was trying too hard to control everything.  It was almost as if I was trying to control the mountain itself.  Instead I learned how to flow with what was given to me, and adjust what problems may arise.  Therein lies the control.  Never I did expect to ever learn a life lesson from a Mountain.  じゃあ また
Photos Courtesy of TUJ OSS

No Boys in the Girls’ Hot Springs

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No Boys in the Girls’ Hot Springs

Welcome to Zao Onsen Resort in Yamagata, Japan – home to avid snowboarders, skiers, and hot springs enthusiasts.

In other words, welcome to the coldest, most boring place that a resin kid could possibly be.

It wasn’t all that bad, really. I just couldn’t go anywhere, except stay in Haru’s bag or watch the room that she and her friends were spending the night in… mostly because Haru was too busy face-planting down the mountain side to take care of me on the slopes.

Apparently, riding a snowboard is not like riding a bike. Ten years of neglect leads to eating a lot of snow, and complaining about bad joints like an old lady.

Haru couldn’t take me with her because it was too hazardous, for one. It was also too cold to take many pictures on the mountain, because the camera buttons kept sticking. But here are some shots that her shaking, frost-bitten hands didn’t mess up!

Check out how thick the snow is! Entire trees and shops were covered up from head to toe. Yamagata is actually known for its “Snow Monsters” or Juhyou (樹氷). It literally means “tree ice.”

Haru didn’t get to see them, since she didn’t go all the way to the top of the mountain, but here’s a photo borrowed from Google Images so you guys get the picture.

Of course, it’s not fun going to a winter resort, only to freeze to death. A hot meal, like hot-pot or Shabu-Shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) warms the belly well enough.

There was also sashimi, tempura, nabe, and other traditional Japanese food to enjoy.

However, a body melting hot spring, or a hot onsen (温泉), is probably the best way to go. Though I was cold, there was no way I would go to the girl’s hot springs! And there was no way Haru could take me to the boys’ area either, so all I did was lounge around some more in the room while the girls played dress up and went to the onsen together.

Here’s the girls’ changing area – don’t worry, no naked bodies were present when these photos were taken. While everyone else went skiing and snowboarding on day two, Haru spent it taking a five-hour nap in the hot springs by herself. Lazy bones.

Not to mention, Haru also spent quite a while enjoying the massage chair.

Here’s the indoor onsen. Before you can even go into the hot springs, you must be squeaky clean. That means you take a shower first before going in for a soak.

This door leads to the onsen outside, in the freezing cold. Many people wouldn’t dare walk stark naked into below freezing temperatures, but a short trip from the door into the onsen to stew a few hours is rewarding, according to my onsen-loving friend.

Haru told me that even though she was outside in the ice and snow, she only had to submerge her legs to stay warm. I could barely believe her, but then again, that steaming water looks like it could have boiled a lobster!

While she slept much of the time away in the onsen, Haru also spent much of her time reading while taking her bath. Old bookworm habits die hard it seems.

Looking at these pictures makes me envious of her. Perhaps one day when Haru trusts her snowboarding skills again and saves enough money to buy me some proper winter clothes, I’ll get to come back and see the view with her. Komame too… once I find him.

Until the next adventure,

Rowan

Mango Snowballs and Dragon Parades

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Mango Snowballs and Dragon Parades

Spring is here! And that means – go to Yokohama’s Chinatown and see how spring flings are really flung.

Did you know Yokohama’s known for its diversity here in Japan? I know I didn’t, but there are huge cultural communities here, including Hispanics, Indians,  Filipinos, Koreans, and more. One of the biggest hotspots though is Yokohama’s Chinatown, Yokohama Chukagai (横浜中華街). There are other Chinatowns riddled throughout Japan, like Kobe Chinatown and Nagasaki Chinatown, but Yokohama’s is arguably the most well-known.

On top of being one of the biggest Chinatowns around, it also throws some of the biggest parties. While Haru and her host family didn’t get to go to Chinatown for Chinese New Years (it would have been impossible to navigate around anyway), they got to go see this particular event: The Spring Festival (春節).

Parents even had little kids sitting on their heads just get a glimpse of the show.

Of course, it’s to see one of these – and to get one to “bite” your head to make you smart (頭がいい). Luckily, I was inside Haru’s bag when all this was going on. I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t like seas made of people and scary dragons flying around the place.

Nearby to  the event grounds is a really famous temple, Kanteibyō (関帝廟). It’s another must see here in Chukagai!

After that, it was time to tour the rest of town. Including, food, food, and more food. Here’s a “mango snowball” which is shaved ice with mangoes on top. But there is something unique about the shaved ice because it melts in your mouth in such a way, that it feels more like snow than shaved ice.

Haru also bought ice cream (again) in the middle of a cold spell. It may look like vanilla ice cream, but this is actually almond flavored. If you’ve never tried almond ice cream, you really should. It’ll turn anyone into a sweet tooth addict.

Now, some foods are made of ice. But others come in plastic or billboard.

Later when it was finally time to visit Yamashita Park (山下公園), I wanted to get some fresh air. I was really groggy at first. But soon came to realize this place had been very different than anywhere else I had been to in Japan so far.

But even with Haru and Kristina, I still felt… lonely.

Haru loves the sea though, and made sure she and Kristina spent plenty of time looking around the boardwalk and taking pictures. Beyond where I’m pointing is Sakuragicho (桜木町). It’s got a ferris wheel there, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to go on it.

I garnered a lot of attention from other visitors, including a sweet, old lady, who was the only one unafraid of coming up to Haru and telling her I was adorable. She really brightened up my day! It’s always nicer to hear people say that, than hear people say how creepy I look. Really now! I’m right there, and I understand everything perfectly too. I just can’t say anything or look angry – the downsides of being born with a resin face.

Behind her was the Hikawa Maru (氷川丸), an old Japanese Ocean Liner. This old ship survived World War 2, and has a very long history. Now, it’s a floating museum, which Haru was too much of a lazy-bum to go see. But seeing it from afar was already pretty cool. SHIP AHOY, MATEYS!

At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but have a look at the nice sunset. Yamashita Park is known as a popular site for couples and friends to meet. Haru tells me Valentine’s Day is next week, so it will be very crowded then. I might as well get a good look at the place while the quiet lasts.

Omake (おまけ) – extra things – including possessed, singing pandas, Hello Kitty pandas, and panda doorways. In other words, a whole lot of pandas.

Rowan

New Adventures With New Friends

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おはよう!  This past Sunday I went out on an adventure with a new friend of mine, やゆさん.  Yuya, a native of Japan, invited me to the Oedo Onsen with him and his girlfriend.  Having never been, but hearing about how awesome they are, I could not refuse the invitation.  When we arrived, we were given ゆかた (bath robes) to change into and wear within the resort.  I have to say, patience is a virtue I have become very fond of since I’ve been here.  I could not take my normally long strides in these tightly wrapped robes, or else I’d find myself indecently exposed!  After changing we entered into a very large center filled with all different types of food, entertainment, and shops.  Here we met up with Yuya’s girlfriend, みちよさん, and went outside to get our feet wet.  At first I was unsure about stepping out into the cold air, but the water was あつめ (hot)!  We sat on the edge of the pool, massaging our feet with the round rocks on the floor, and just talked.  Whenever I used a word or slang term that Yuya did not understand, he would right away pull out his iPhone and look up the meaning.  In the meantime I would ask him of Japanese words I did not know.  It was such an interesting dynamic.

ImageNext we decided to head inside to get something to eat.  Yuya introduced to me to some traditional Japanese foods that were really good.  I’m glad he refrained from telling me what they were, because I sometimes have a weak stomach.  Come to find out the dish i liked the most was たこやき (fried octopus)!  Afterwards Yuya and I headed to the onsen baths and and then sauna.  At the end of everything I felt beyond relaxed.  On top of that, I paid less than 3000 yen (less than ~$35).  I would be paying that much or more per hour at a spa equivalent in the US.  I could have even stayed at the onsen for the entire day for this price.

We parted ways on the Rinkai Line and I rushed back home to change before we met back up in Ginza, for a party a few hours later.  Ginza could be compared to the Walnut Street section of Philadelphia, just BIGGER.  Loads of high end fashion stores, and expensive cafes line its streets.  Here is where the upper-middle class urbanites hang out.  And I’m just staring googly eyed at everything around me.  Meanwhile, Yuya retains his cool and collected countenance.  We arrived at our destination and took an elevator six floors up, which opened up directly into a lavish, swanky, and grandiose lounge.  Yuya introduced me to his friends, and I took it as great opportunity to practice my Japanese.  Ironically, some of his friends were trying to speak in English to me at the same time.  It was a very entertaining exchange of cultures.  Although I’m almost certain that I was the only がいじん (alien/foreigner) at the party that evening, I was surprised at the type of music the DJ played, all of which was from American artists.  In addition to that the DJ played music from a spectrum of genres and time periods.  From present day Pop, to 90s Hip Hop, all the way back to Disco, Funk, and Classic Rock.  It was a set that flowed unlike anything I’ve heard of in the states.

What a day, what day to experience Japanese culture with a native friend.  When I first got here, it was somewhat hard to find a balance between living as a tourist or becoming fully engulfed in the culture of in Japan.  I feel that today I brought me one step close to that balance, じゃあまた.

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