Category Archives: Temple Japan

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!

 

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.

 

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


 

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.