Extreme Sight-Seeing in Kyoto

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When Temple University Japan gave students a two-day undergraduate holiday, my friends and I took the opportunity to go on a weekend-long trip to Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. The experience was simultaneously exciting, frustrating, tiring, and incredibly fun. I feel extremely lucky to see and experience so much of Japan, and I know the memories of this trip will stay with me for a long time.

Our group left for Kyoto Friday night, boarding a Shinkansen bullet train. The Shinkansen runs at around 200 miles per hour and brought us to our destination within three hours. We arrived, in freezing snow and surrounded by closed storefronts, though the time was only 8pm. For roughly an hour, my group of friends and I attempted to find our Airbnb apartment room before realizing it was on the fourth floor of an apartment across the street.

We woke up early the next morning, bought bus passes, and attempted to squeeze the maximum number of Kyoto tourist attractions into a 9-hour time frame.

Kyoto is Japan’s most popular tourist destination, with numerous temples, shrines, and important landmarks from Japanese history. Our itinerary for Kyoto included one palace, one museum, one park, three temples, and one general district. We had a lot of ground to cover in two days.

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We had to hit the road early to see everything in Kyoto.

The day started off with us boarding a bus in the wrong direction and making an unplanned visit to a temple along the incorrect bus route. Toji Temple was a quiet way to start the morning, with its carefully kept gardens and old wooden structures. The signs around its premises were written completely in Japanese, so we were unsure of the temple’s significance, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

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Checking out the gardens around Toji Temple with McKenna and Nikki.

We then paid a visit to Arashiyama park, where we were able to feed monkeys, visit shrines, and walk through the famed Arashiyama bamboo forest. Our visit to Arashiyama was fun, but overwhelming, as the park was very crowded and we struggled to find important landmarks without English signs or park maps guiding us. Still, we were able to see much of the natural and man-made beauty in Arashiyama, from the Tenryuji Temple lake to the charmingly old-style souvenir shops lining the streets.

After spending most of the afternoon in Arashiyama, we visited Ryoan-ji temple, which contained several shrines and a rock garden. The rock garden was actually inside a large Japanese-style house, so we were asked to take off our shoes and put on slippers before viewing the area.

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Viewing the simple, yet elegant rock garden at Ryoan-ji with McKenna, Nikki, and Ben

From Ryoan-ji, we raced to the Kinkaku-ji temple, a Zen temple which is covered in gold from the second floor up. We were concerned that we would not be able to visit the temple before closing time, at 6pm. However, we managed to get to the temple with time to spare. We took pictures, and explored some of the surrounding gardens.

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The famed Kinkaku-ji temple with gold covering its upper floors.

The next day, we headed to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and were able to tour the palace grounds with an English-speaking tour guide. The Imperial Palace grounds are massive and hold incredible amounts of history and tradition. Every gold-leafed parking structure and red-painted gate was a significant in the lives of early Japanese royalty.

From the Imperial Palace, we walked to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. The museum held particular significance to me, as my first exposure to Japanese culture was through Japanese comic books, or manga. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, as the place is filled with volumes upon volumes of published and copyrighted manga. However, visitors are allowed to touch and even flip through Japanese comics, some of which are over 30 years old.

We ate lunch in Gion District, an area historically known for geisha entertainment, and then headed over to the Fushimi Inari Temple.

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Walking up Inari mountain through the torii gates.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha is dedicated to the Shinto diety, Inari, the god of rice and agriculture. The temple is famous for its red torii gates which line the trail up Inari mountain. Though we were unable to hike the trail in its entirety, we still had a good time eating snacks, pointing out fox statues, and watching the Shinto religious rituals which are still performed at the temple.

From Fushimi Inari, my friends and I took the train straight to Osaka. Our two days in Kyoto were exhausting, but extremely enjoyable.

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What would an epic trip across Japan be like without a group picture?

 

 

 

 

My First Taste of Culture Shock

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I have quickly become preoccupied with schoolwork since classes have begun at Temple University. I’m taking four studio art classes and one Japanese class. The workload is large, but much of my time is taken up with buying basic amenities.

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I need to buy the ingredients for my meals from Japanese supermarkets. It’s a little difficult sometimes.

In Tokyo, I don’t know what or where the best places to buy shoes, clothes, trash bags, or stomach medicine are. What would be an easy trip to Target in America often becomes a wild adventure in Tokyo with overlooked subway entrances, wrong trains boarded, and cursing at the inefficiency of Google Maps. Sometimes the trip to buy something as simple as shoes becomes excessively frustrating. My friends and I attempted to go to the ABC market in Ikebukuro, so I could buy a pair of boots. We knew the store was near the train station so we walked the entire circumference of the station to no avail. We re-entered the train depot, walking from the north exit to the south exit and back again before realizing that the store was in a mall inside the station. The outing took an hour longer than we had planned, though I did manage to secure some nice-looking, well-made shoes.

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Well-earned shoes

Before I left for Japan, both my home institution and Temple University required that I sit through an orientation on culture shock. I was told that I would find many new and exciting things in Japan, but would also become deeply frustrated with the differences between my abroad site and my home country. There are apparently three stages to culture shock: honeymoon, irritation, and integration.

During my honeymoon phase, which lasted about three days, I was enthralled with my new location. However, the irritation phase quickly set in when I started school and household chores.

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I need to go out to my local Takadanobaba area to shop for groceries, clothes, toiletries, etc.

I didn’t understand the Japanese system for throwing away trash, I didn’t realize how expensive clothing would be, and I became excessively nervous at any interaction with a native Japanese speaker, whose face would quickly become puzzled when I couldn’t understand their fast-paced conversation. My irritation phase lasted about a week, and I’m not sure if I’ve weathered it fully yet. However, with every grocery store employee interaction, I become more at ease. I can now quickly guesstimate the costs of food items and clothes, and I’ve gone an entire week without stopping the line through the train ticket turnstile.

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My future is bright, much like this sunset

I am now (probably) working on my integration phase, a slow, uphill climb towards understanding and navigating Japanese society. I will continue to do my best at understanding and learning more about Japanese society and culture. がんばりましょう!(*^o^*)

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Friends definitely help the transition to a new country!

Outside Tokyo: Exploring New Places and Meeting New People

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     I found friends amongst the other students with surprising ease, making my first friend ten minutes into the study abroad student orientation. Within five days, I had found myself a small group of friends, who I enjoyed eating, adventuring, and conversing with. I consider myself a shy person, so I was surprised at how fast I became comfortable and friendly with my peers. I believe our collective culture-shocked struggling helped speed up the process, but I also think the fun trips my friends and I made before the school year started greatly contributed to our close relationships.

On Saturday, a large group of Temple University students decided to go on a day trip to Kotoku-in Temple and Enoshima Island. I decided to join the trip and spent the entire day getting to know the people I was traveling with, Ben, Krys, and Cailyn.

Our group took the JR train line to Shinagawa station and then boarded the Yokosuka train for Kamakura station. We arrived at Kamakura station within an hour and walked through the small town to the famous Kotoku-in Temple, containing a giant cast-iron Buddha. Unlike Tokyo, the streets in Kamakura were quiet and small. Gated houses lined the block instead of the high rise apartments of the city.

The Kotoku-in Temple grounds were neatly kept, with gravel and concrete grounds and low-hanging green trees barely rustling in the wind. We paid a 200 yen entrance fee and ceremonially washed our hands at temizuya pavilions with ice cold water in small wooden ladles.

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43 foot Buddha at Kotaku-in Temple

     The giant Buddha Kotoku-in is famous for sat in plain sight with a small cast iron ball for burning incense sitting at his feet. Nearby was a small stand where people could buy lucky charms, or omamori, to take home from the temple; or small packets of pink incense to burn at the temple. Many students took pictures with the Buddha or gave him a small bow. For an additional 100 yen, we could even walk inside of the Buddha and see his hollowed iron insides.

From Kamakura, our student exploration group took the 45-minute train ride to Enoshima station, and crossed a bridge across the ocean to Enoshima island. Enoshima Island was beautiful and cold, and sloped upwards dramatically. I quickly grew tired climbing up staircase after staircase, with the cold, salty, wind whipping my face. However, the shrines and views of ocean that met us when we got to the top of each staircase were incredible.

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Red shrine on Enoshima Island, reached after a long climb

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Hanging charms for sale at Enoshima Shrine

     My group also went through several underground caves on the island. The caves were less picturesque, but they contained many historical statues which were dedicated to the sea goddess from Buddhist mythology, Benzaiten, who is believed to have created Enoshima island herself, raising it out of the sea in a giant earthquake.

    After several hours, snow started falling on the island, blowing sideways in small white flakes. Ben, Krys, and I decided that we were not prepared for this change in weather and headed back to the mainland in our own small group.

After 13 hours of walking and adventuring in barely-above-freezing weather, I crawled into my dorm bed, exhausted and sore, but overjoyed at the exciting new experiences I had with my new friends. I look forward to having more adventures with them throughout the semester.

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Walking to Enoshima Island with other students

New Years in Nagano

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A few days after the end of my first semester at TUJ, after I’d caught up on what felt like two entire months of missed sleep, I was eating dinner with my roommate as it dawned on both of us that we now had almost a month and half before classes began again to spend in a foreign country, a daunting prospect when coupled with the realization that a good number of the friends we’d made had just returned to the United States and various other origin points, with us staying behind in Japan for another semester.

The break actually went faster than we expected, as both of us were able to get part time jobs, or arubaito in Japanese, teaching English at different international schools, in order to offset some of the cost of the coming semester. On top of working, however, the best part of the vacation was definitely our New Years.

We were determined to spend at least a little bit of the break exploring a different part of Japan than Tokyo, and so we planned out a trip over the New Year weekend up into the mountains around Nagano, planning to spend New Years day at the famous Zenkoji temple, and then the day after take the trek out to see the snow monkey hot springs at Jigokudani Monkey Park.

We arrived at Matsumoto station around seven pm on New Years eve, and quickly realized that, due to an error in our planning, we were still about twenty km from the inn we’d reserved for the weekend. Right before we settled in for a long cold hike through the dark farmland, we were able to hitch a ride with an incredibly friendly schoolteacher who was looking for an opportunity to practice his English.

Upon arriving at the inn, we were greeted by our host, who said that he was about to start making dinner, if we were interested, and that there was a couple staying there that night as well. We had a great time that night eating and hanging out with our host and fellow guests, watching the Japanese New Years special.

 

The next day we woke up and took the train into Nagano station, from which we headed straight to the temple at the top of the city. I’d known that it was traditional to go to a temple on New Years day in Japan, but nothing prepared me for the crowds. The line we waited in just to enter the temple grounds seemingly stretched for kilometers down the road.

The next day we woke up, said goodbye our host at the inn and headed into the mountains to find the monkeys. This was something I’d been looking forward to doing since I’d come to Japan, and spent the entire bus ride from Nagano to the trailhead alternating between trying to catch some much needed sleep and worrying about the guide pamphlet’s disclaimer that “there is no guarantee that the monkeys will be at the springs”.

Jigojudani, or “valley of hell, is named because of the boiling water and steam that seeps froth from cracks in the icy ground, giving the valley, already surrounded by steep cliffs and only accessible via a narrow icy hike through the mountains, a completely otherworldly feel. And that’s not even mentioning the monkeys. After we’d hiked for about an hour, we suddenly descended out of the dense forest into the valley, and my fears about not seeing the monkeys dissipated instantly. The monkeys were everywhere, and running around, doing monkey things, bathing in the numerous hot springs, and jumping up to grab food out of the hands of those who’d ignored the signs along the trail.

 

The Beginning of an Adventure

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The Beginning of an Adventure

 

   I arrived in Japan at 4:30 pm, with two suitcases, a backpack, and a raging headache. After stumbling my way through the baggage claim and customs, I managed to board the limousine bus, which took me on a 120-minute ride from Narita airport to the Tokyo Metropolitan Hotel. With my forehead pressed against the glass of the bus window, I caught my first glimpses of the city. Tokyo covers a vast area, with glittering skyscrapers and blinking neon signs. I loved how close the highway was to the city’s buildings; close enough that I could see the neat rows of desks and cubicles through brightly lit office building windows. We passed dark alleys and glowing intersections, shining canals and interconnected concrete overpasses. In my tired eyes, he city was a colossal beast with blinking advertisements and traffic lights at its heart.

   That night, I arrived at my dorm, Takadanobaba, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district at 8 pm. I was assigned to a drafty and starkly lit fourth floor dorm room, with white appliances and wooden furniture. Despite its small size, my room had a private bathroom, phone, television, microwave, stove, appliances, and back door with an overhanging balcony. I was surprised at the number of items that could fit in such a limited space as I unpacked my two suitcases and still found unused cabinets in the room.

    Over the next few days, the study abroad students, including myself, were herded around Tokyo, as we were taught where our dorm was in relation to our school and how we could travel from place to place within the city. Though I knew the practical information was important, I admittedly spent more time staring at my surroundings than noting the subway lines we were using. I even had to be pulled out of the way of oncoming motorbikes or traffic signs as I contemplated the differences between Japan and the United States instead of paying attention to my surroundings.

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On the way back from school

    I had never seen as many blinking advertisements as I had in Tokyo. The bright signs in American cities had always seemed like the work of large companies, displayed high in the air and out of reach. But in Tokyo, each storefront seemed to have a neon sign, beckoning from every angle.

    I had also never seen men or women in formal business attire riding bikes before. In Los Angeles, bicycles were considered recreational forms of transport. People rode them when they had leisure time, sometimes while wearing ridiculously bright, skin-tight suits. Yet here, the bike was treated as a serious vehicle for office workers. Men and women in full suits consistently biked down the sidewalk, seemingly unconcerned that bike seats might rub holes in cleanly pressed slacks.

    Thousands of small differences stood out to me as I mentally compared Tokyo with the American cities I was familiar with. The streets were cleaner and better kept. The sidewalks were occasionally paved with bricks. Vending machines and convenience stores appeared at every corner and children ran in the streets without fear or adult supervision. Trucks appeared in unusually bright colors and a surprising amount of people were wearing surgical masks. Everything seemed so new and subtly different, and the experience was both exciting and stress-inducing.

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Man made lake near our dorm

Final Post: A Reflection on Fall 2016

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The semester is over and it has been a great experience. I stayed in Japan for one more week after the end of finals to explore more of this great country. All the while, I reflected on this trip and how it has impacted my life.

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Itsukushima Shrine at high tide on Miyajima Island

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Sadako’s memorial standing tall

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Trying Kobe Steak and tempura from street vendors along Dotonbori

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Happy deers in Nara

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A little bit of gold in the darkness

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Twisting paths along Fushimi Inari Shrine’s senbon torii

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The godairiki stones from Sumiyoshi Taisha

While all of these experiences individually impacted me, I have to say that I was mostly changed by the people I met along the way on this journey. From the other study abroad students to the students from Kaetsu University to the residents I met on the streets of Itabashi City – everybody has changed me a little bit or helped me to grow.

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Thank you Kaetsu Univ. students – you taught me more Japanese than any class ever could

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Thanks, Azumi, for being a great friend from day 1

This semester was difficult, as being far away from home is always difficult, but it’s kind of like the lights I saw in Yoyogi Park. The full beauty of the lights cannot be appreciated without the darkness to accent it. I hope to return to appreciate its beauty again soon.

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Final’s Week; Final Critique

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I’ve posted a lot about my adventures, both academic and non-academic, on this blog. However, the main reason I am in Japan (as I have been reminded again and again) is to study. I’ve had a few weeks where my blog posts fell to the bottom of my priorities list in favor of school work and projects. One of the classes I took this semester was Introduction to Printmaking. Instead of a final exam, we have a final critique, in which we present and showcase the project we’ve been working on during the final weeks of classes.

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There was some last-minute printing going on right before critique

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Patrick adding the last touches to his piece before he puts it up for exhibition

 

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His final product – portraits of his friends

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Phyo is putting her pieces up for display

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Karis’s purple damask wallpaper. Each one was printed individually.

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Kenta and Atsushi posing with their final pieces

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Tom putting his piece up for exhibition

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Critiques have begun! Tom explains the concept behind his piece

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Alex points out some aspects of his prints during his critique

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Kaito utilized the sunlight streaming through the blinds to help illuminate his piece

Now that finals week is over, many students are relieved with the end of the semester. The overwhelming stress has dissipated in favor of excitement for the holiday season.

Thanksgiving

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How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in a country that doesn’t celebrate the “traditional American Thanksgiving”? Simply – by spending the day with friends exploring the culture of the country you’re in.

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The big Buddha statue with fall leaves at Tennoji Temple

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The main approach to Nezu Jinja

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The goshuin for Nezu Jinja

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An old merchant’s store turned into a pseudo-museum

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The daruma doll arrangement at Yushima Tenmangu’s fall festival

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The entirety of the temple’s grounds were covered in flowers

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Yushima Tenmangu is the temple of the scholars, so many students come here to pray for successful exams (which we did as well)

We couldn’t afford a real Thanksgiving turkey, so we celebrated by going to eat yakiniku, which is a restaurant style that brings you raw meat that you cook on your own at a little grill at your table. It was very good!

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All of the drinks were mango juice

And of course, what was a night in Tokyo without experiencing some of the fun activities with friends? This is purikura, a large Photo Booth that is notorious for creating the illusion of larger eyes and clearer skin. It was a lot of fun!

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A Thanksgiving miracle! It showed in Tokyo in November for the first time in 54 years. Well… it was more like sleet than snow, but for this Hawaii girl, anything that isn’t rain is spectacular. f1614010_tokyo_first-snow_tamlynkurata

Spirited Away (And then forced to come back)

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It’s that time of the year again – final project week(s). The last few weeks before final exams where every professor in every class asks for a 3,000 word essay and a 20 minute presentation. In the midst of all the paperwork and presentation slides, I have to take a break and step back from it all. And while I’m laying on the floor of my dormitory, covered in note books and loose-leaf handouts, I think back to the last bit of freedom I had: the four-day cultural holiday weekend. During that weekend, it is not uncommon for many of the Japanese students to go home to be with family, or for the study abroad students to travel to farther cities (or even to Korea!) to get away from the constant hustle and bustle of the city. As for me, I went down south to Suo-Oshima, an island in Yamaguchi-ken, to be with a friend from home who is in Japan with the JET program teaching English to middle and elementary school children.

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There are more cats than people on Nakasejima

The school I went to is on a very tiny island called Nakasejima. There are less than 100 people living on the island, and there are only 11 children (3rd – 8th grade) at the school. One of the classes only has one child in it.

Most of the island’s inhabitants have lives that revolve around the ocean, and fishing still a huge part of their lifestyle.

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Fishing vessel on glassy water (taken from the side of a speeding ferry boat)

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The whole area is spotted with tiny (seemingly uninhabited) islands

Then, the weekend came! Some of the JET teachers and I made the almost two hour trip from Suo-Oshima to Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime prefecture. When in Matsuyama, you must visit Matsuyama Castle. It is built on top of a mountain that rises 433 feet (or 132 m) above Matsuyama City and it’s a HIKE to get up there. But once you’re there, the view is absolutely spectacular and the castle is gorgeous amongst the Autumn leaves.

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Also on the grounds is an expansive garden. The garden has this bamboo monument to commemorate a coin found that signifies the tragic love story of a Russian prisoner and a young Japanese woman. The garden is incredibly popular for wedding or engagement photos, and many young couples come here looking for blessings on their relationship. The garden also doubles as a pretty expansive mikan (or tangerine) garden. Just don’t take any of the fruit or one of the garden workers will chase you down… not that I know from experience or anything.

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Matsuyama City as seen from one of the watch towers in Matsuyama Castle

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been spirited away from my city lifestyle and taken back to feudal Japan.

At the bottom of the mountain, there was a huge festival going on. Upon further inspection, we came to find out that it was the Japan prefecture character festival! Each prefecture in Japan has its own mascot or character, as do most of the government offices and public services (firefighters, police, post office, etc.). Many companies also have their own figure. You could take pictures with the mascots, partake in very cheap and delicious fair food, play games, and get free stickers and tissue packets.

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Oomapyon from Omachi City (Nagano Pref.)

Our last stop in Matsuyama was to the famous Dogo Onsen. Dogo Onsen is the oldest onsen still standing in Japan, and it is part of the inspiration for the onsen in Spirited Away.

Unlike other onsens, which are very expensive, Dogo Onsen is relatively cheap with the most expensive option being a little over 1500 yen. However, they do not provide towels or soap, shampoo, or conditioner. You can find these things in the shopping street right in front of the onsen for very cheap, though.

The experience was amazing. It really felt like I was in one of my favorite movies. Everybody was wearing yukata walking around this part of the city. Plus, there was a bon festival at night, so there were tons of performances and traditional music.

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But of course, all good things must come to an end, and the airplane that spirited me away from Tokyo had to bring me back. As I sit writing this post, I keep on looking at the paper to my left due in two hours that I should have started last night but put off until now and the presentation on my laptop that I have to give at 15:30. Oh well… ’tis the season, right?

Pumpkin Carving (A Late Halloween Post)

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With all of the excitement from the past few weeks, this post has been painfully pushed back to the point where it has become slightly irrelevant. That’s okay, though, because all of the students’ hard work should still be shared!

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Mickey and Minnie are ready to start pumpkin carving!

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Zach is working hard on his pumpkin

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Shannon and her scary pumpkin face

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Alyssa and her cat (which needed emergency tail surgery)

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First-time pumpkin carvers. Success!

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Marie posing with her kitty pumpkin

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Zach and Hannah’s final product: Death the Kidd from Soul Eater

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All of the pumpkins are lit and on display

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TUJ student body president Tiago casts his vote for the winning pumpkins

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The pumpkin carving winners! (with a rare photo of the photographer; photo credit: Marie Kabanga Temple U ’17)

It was a lot of fun, and a great way to celebrate Halloween in a country where it is a new holiday (Japan only recently started celebrating Halloween about 4 years ago). Looking forward to more enjoyable activities!