dim-sum and dragons

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Homogeneity is often associated with Japanese society, rightly so with ethnic Japanese making up 99% of the population and the cultural tendency to embrace collectivism rather than individuality. However, just as more and more youth strive to stand out rather than fit in, that non-native 1% works to make their adopted land comfortable for them instead of forcing themselves to assimilate. You will find many foreign dining establishments manned by people of that extraction, many of them halal, and hear any number of tongues mixing in with Japanese, their speakers sometimes switching between the two. In terms of representation (not accommodation, that’s entirely different), English speakers are a minority, dwarfed by Chinese, Korean, and many others. A classmate even told me that housing agencies frequently place members of the same ethnicity in the same area of Tokyo, generalizing and sticking all foreigners together the secondary method followed by dropping them off in all-Japanese neighborhoods. This classmate was surprised when she arrived in her first apartment to a slew of welcome notes written in Chinese and a stand on the corner selling dumplings she termed “the only decent ones in this entire country.” Of course tensions between natives, permanent residents, and tourists (especially tourists), but exchange generally has more pros than cons. See: Crepes from France! Curry from India! K-pop from Korea that in turn spawned J-pop while remaining popular itself! And many more imports I’ve enjoyed thus far. One example the outside making a place for itself inside Japan permanently is Yokohama Chinatown.

I was lucky enough to be able to make the trip out to Chinatown, in the far reaches of Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Kanagawa but still accessible by the same metro line I commute on, during the Lunar New Year celebrations. Torrents of people traversed a network of shop-lined, lantern-strung streets, with the occasional taxi struggling to cut through.

DSCN4396A street view.
DSCN4418Caroline at the gates.

Off the main drag was where the real spectacle occurred. Having survived many a parade in my day (baton twirling, no, not the cool kind with fire), I have to give major kudos to the pre-teens at the heart of the procession. Commemorating the New Year and welcoming good fortune in Chinatown involves lots of drumming and firecrackers to accompany the movements of a massive dragon puppet. The dragon puppet and its posse make their way up and down every commercial street, entering every business for at least ten minutes as tray-bearing waiters and harried shoppers swerve to avoid it.

A less active dragon overhead.

The dragon is manned in shifts, each pilot emerging just as sweaty as the last and shivering in the cold air. After three or four stops, the drumming was too much and it was time to move on.

Dinner was of course dim-sum and we lucked out in terms of cultural exposure in that the staff at the restaurant we ended up in spoke Chinese. (As well as Japanese and English; feel inadequate? I do.)

Close up and the big picture, minus dessert.

Our multi-course meal involved congee (a savory rice pudding), various dumplings, nikuman, eggroll, and a gelatinous raspberry concoction for dinner. The soy sauce was truly amazing, the richest I’ve experienced.

We lapped the main street a few more time, taking in a few alleys as well. The dragon procession was still in full swing when we finally left, right after I made a new friend!

DSCN4467The pose was his idea.

A nice break from the usual! I’ll definitely be heading back when it’s a little warmer and a little less deafening.

 

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Week 5 – Sumo Tournament

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Preparations for the Tournament

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Lunch with Hannah and Sarah while Awaiting the Start of the Tournament

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Presentation of the Sumo Wrestlers

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Chanting Prior to the Match

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Sumo Wrestlers Prepare

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Sumo Match Begins

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Study Abroad Students on the Edges of their Seats

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The Tournament Continues

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Study Abroad Students Eagerly Await the Next Matches

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Sweeping Between Matches

traditional tokyo

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This past weekend was a long one, with an undergraduate holiday on Friday and Monday off for National Foundation Day. Many of my classmates took trips, both school sponsored and independently, to the mountains for a few days of skiing and sightseeing. Between spending the last week stressed about my lack of a debit card and my general scatterbrained state, I failed to realize this break even existed until Wednesday of last week.

Rather than scramble to find a bus ticket to and capsule hotel in Gifu or Nagano, I decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to get off the beaten path. I’d done Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, Asakusa, and a few smaller areas, most more than once, but I wanted something a little calmer, a little less geared towards consumers.

Turning to Google, more specifically the always helpful Tokyo Cheapo (although it is a little irritating to be standing in line at ” _______ ramen/tempura/sushi” behind twenty other foreigners and hear the site cited as directing them to the present location), I found my destination within minutes: Yanesen.

A portmanteau of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi, three interconnecting neighborhoods north of Ueno, Yanesen most closely resembles old Tokyo in terms of architecture and cultural life. Shitamachi, which literally means “under city” or lower city, is the style which characterizes Yanesen, and is opposite Yamanote, “mountain hands,” as a socio-geographic designation. The terms date back to the Tokugawa era, when the affluent, samurai class lived in the hills, hence “mountain hands,” while the artisans and merchants lived in the physically “lower” area, the marshland. DSCN4121The secular Yanaka cemetery, which takes up nearly all of 7-chome and is a quick walk up stairs from the Nippori station.

Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street, serves the center of all activity for the three neighborhoods, but it’s nothing close to Nakamise or even the alleys that surround my train stop in Kawasaki.

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Stalls manned by a single vendor lined either side of the street, with no one calling out to potential customers or beckoning with flyers. Croquets and skewers of yakitori were cooked on demand at some of these stalls, for only a few hundred yen a pop. Menchi-katsu, a fried meat cutlet, is particularly relevant to the area as it was originated at one shop and then adopted by another shop directly across the street. For the sake of this post, I obviously partook in such delicacies, and feel that my inability to document this serves as a testament to their merit. (Look forward to a post about me developing gout and/or diabetes somewhere down the line!)

Walking about twenty minutes away from Yanaka Ginza, down Sendagi 2-chome, will bring you to the Nezu shrine.

One entrance, parallel to a drug store and Subway-wannabe sandwich shop.
DSCN4153The big picture, the honden or main hall.
DSCN4169Detailed molding.
DSCN4188Torii! Just when I was starting to envy my friends in Kyoto for their pictures of the Fushimi Inari shrine!
DSCN4202Passing through arch after arch can get a little disorienting.

Built in 1705, Nezu predates the already antiquated architecture of surrounding Yanesen. It brought a smirk to my face to see so many people jogging, dog walking, and self-sticking in such a serene enclosure. I’m sure the sight of my bleach blonde head elicited a similar response from others, especially considering I had only counted half a dozen foreign faces throughout the whole of Yanesen. Interestingly, the few locals I interacted with responded to my garbled Japanese with perfect, barely accented English.

I’m sure even more anachronisms will be apparent after a second visit but for now I’m glad to have devoted a chunk of my sprawling weekend to going (somewhat) back in time.

IMG_1880If you go out alone and don’t take a mirror picture, was it really worth going out at all?

down and out in tokyo

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When people talk about Tokyo, expense is a recurring theme. You hear about $6 cups of coffee, two-year minimum leases, and the absence of tipping as that has already been factored into the cost.

However, this is not as black and white as many outsiders think it to be, and in many cases the excellent service (as a hardened barista, this is especially astounding to me) compensates for any overages. And the city itself, with temples, shrines, markets, observatories, and plenty of opportunities for comfortable people watching, will keep you entertained for a few hundred yen, if that, a day.

Due to a debit card snafu, I found myself living on only a few hundred yen a day for the last week. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (though I did walk through several parks since they were free) but it wasn’t half bad. And, as I’m privileged enough to have a place to sleep and Netflix to entertain me in off hours, I never once came close to breaking TUJ policy and seeking out employment in a hostess club.

Tuesday through Friday, my lack of funds was not an issue. Classes kept me occupied for most of the day, I had stocked up on rice/eggs/cabbage previously so my only task was reconciling with eating rice/eggs/cabbage twice a day, and the conbinis on every corner provide a slew of tasty, semi-healthy options for snacks.

Okay, aside from the salad, not very healthy. Remember, I was in crisis. Expect more about conbini later on.

My cell phone bill was due but with my old card out of business, I ended up having to borrow some money to pay in person. The company was very understanding and I ended up only having to pay half, which left me with more wiggle room.

The weekend could have been bleak with so little in my pockets and so much free time ahead of me, but I lucked out. Saturday was setsubun, the day before the first day of spring which calls for mamemaki, literally ‘soy bean scattering,’ to ward off evil spirits.  My aforementioned benefactor (thanks, Caroline!) and I set out for Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, about an hour and a half away with most of the trip covered by our commuter passes, to get in on the action. Let me tell you, it sure beat spring cleaning!

The temple grounds and surrounding areas were bustling, vendors beckoning passersby with bright signs, kimono-clad locals roaming amongst those of us bundled up in parkas, and rickshaws coasting the calmer side streets.

Cleansing smoke in a packed crowd.
DSCN4013Koi enthusiastically waiting for spring.
DSCN3881Nishi-sando arcade.
DSCN3947True window shopping on Nakamise street as performed by Caroline.

I ended up splurging on food but with three days of thriftiness and a few hours of walking behind me, it was well earned.

Ramen and matcha gelato; egg included, b.y.o. pasty hand.

We made several laps of Sensoji, capturing pictures from every angle and stage of lighting. A sudden drop in the temperature and a rise in actual Buddhists present, steadily replacing tourists, indicated that it was time to leave.

With  1,000yen left and no clue when my card would come, our Sunday plans were even more low-key. Our commuter passes give us access to thirteen different stops at no cost so we set out to explore a few of them. Our neighborhood, a transportation hub, is mainly apartment buildings, housing young couples with small children and sometimes a grandparent, all desensitized to foreigners. A few stops ahead, at Tamagawa, this was not the case. Houses with gates and gardens surround an empty station and a lush park, couples were usually childless, fretting over small dogs rather than strollers. The next stop made, at Senzoku, had considerably less green space and more traffic than I’ve seen so far. We spent a little time exploring the sprawling streets, also lined with more houses than apartments, few people in sight, before proceeding onward. Fudomae, our final detour, was the most familiar with lots of English signage and fewer stares. After ambling around a shrine that was particularly popular with stray cats, it was time to head home.

In order: a shrine at Tamagawa, “Engrish” at Senzoku, and a camera-shy cat at a shrine at Fudomae. All credits to Caroline.

Aside from my cell phone bill, I managed to make it a week on just over 2,000yen/$20 dollars. And with no harm done to my mind, body or Instagram feed. The moral of the story is that for a supposedly expensive city, Tokyo can be pretty cheap…for a college kid, with no real responsibilities.

TUJ Spirit Day and exploring Tokyo

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Shinjuku: Exploring with Shinya B’s photography class

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Shinjuku: View of a Street

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Meguro: Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

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Ebisu: Tokyo Skyline

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Shinjuku: Walking through an alley

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Shinjuku: Camera Shopping with Shinya B’s Photo Class

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Shinjuku: View of an Intersection

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Shinjuku: Shinjuku Station

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TUJ Campus: Students on Spirit Day

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TUJ Campus: Faculty enjoying Spirit Day

Week 2: Snow in Tokyo!!!

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Week 2: Snow in Tokyo!!!
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Minato-ku: Snow in Tokyo, 7-11 View

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Minato-ku: Umbrellas out!

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TUJ Campus: Venturing out into the snow

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Minato-ku: Snow in Tokyo, Street View

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Minato-ku: SA Students experience snow between classes

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Minato-ku: Snow in Tokyo, Ramen Restaurant View

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Minato-ku: Waiting to cross the street

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Nakahara-ku: Snow Day + No class = Snowball Fight with Danae!

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Nakahara-ku: Snowmen

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Nakahara-ku: Classes back in session; commuting amongst remnants of snow

snow-kyo

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On Monday of this week, Tokyo experienced the heaviest snowfall seen in four years and I had the fortune (not necessarily good or bad, but just fortune) of being in the middle of it.

As the weekend was sunny, mid-fifties, I had a hard time believing in the predictions of my weather app and the tittering of classmates (both local and visiting like me) that snow was on the horizon. Coming from the northeast, I consider myself something of a savant when it comes to snow: I can think of countless times where I’ve called a school delay, beat the grocery store rush, and pulled my sled out of the cellar hours before the first flakes even fell. Though snow is a non-issue down south, I was confident my instincts hadn’t been dulled by my two storm-free years.

So, Sunday night, I went to bed with my window cracked as always and a cotton dress hanging up for the next day…only to wake up to pinpricks of icy rain plunging in through the crack in my window. Switching the dress for a thick sweater, I was still unconvinced that full-blown snow would be touching down on the already hectic streets of Tokyo. Not unconvinced enough that I left my umbrella in the dorm, which I was grateful for later on.

The first true snowflakes started around 1 p.m., and although everyone was composed for the most part, the atmosphere in class had definitely shifted. Eyes darted between the windows on one side of the room and the clock on the other. I’m sure some were already dreading their commute, but the palpable excitement outranked any murmurs of unease. The stairways were especially packed (expect to see that phrase or a similar one a few more times, tight spaces and crowds are as inherent to a snowstorm in Tokyo as the white stuff itself) as students rushed outside to take pictures. Again, being a northerner, this wasn’t particularly noteworthy, so I took this diversion as an opportunity to beat the line at 7-11. No regrets.

Snow was the furthest thing from my mind for the rest of the day, anguish over the lack of pastries in stock at 7-11 demanding my full attention. Oh, and I guess my studies were holding my focus, too. Regardless, when I walked out of Azabu Hall after my last lecture, it was time to admit defeat: yes, it had indeed, truly, beautifully, tangibly, snowed. As I stomped my way to the metro station, I was awed by the magnificence surrounding me. White coated rooftops and awnings, an ebbing sea of opened umbrellas, all of the bright lights reflected in the slick streets: walking through snow-covered Tokyo can really make a person feel small.

IMG_1638Right outside of Musashi-Kosugi Station.
IMG_1644A usually busy side street, cleared by snow. Also, as a side note, why are umbrellas only used for rain back in the states? C’mon, people, let’s make this a trend.

But don’t worry, being crammed into a train you had to fight to even board, with countless shoulders and elbows pressing into you, and the realization that your closest neighbors can likely smell lunch on your breath just as well as you can, will make you feel big again in no time. And finally getting off of said train is an experience unto itself; marriage, childbirth, sky-diving, all pale in comparison to the elation of exiting an overcrowded train. The trek home, through greying slush and still-falling snow, felt like a victory lap after that train ride.

Back in my dorm, cotton dress hanging with a smugness you would not think fabric could exude, I took just enough time to warm up before venturing out to take pictures for posterity.

DSCN3813A fellow northerner casually regards snow.
DSCN3824Ankle-deep snow and more coming down directly outside the dorm.

Though almost all of the snow was melted by noon Tuesday, my observations will stick with me. It’s easy to focus on differences when living abroad, in a country like Japan, but finding reassurance in similarity is a much better decision in the long run. I don’t think I’ve felt as comfortable since arriving in Tokyo as I did watching Japanese people at the station super market stock up on eggs and other staples the way people do with bread and milk back home.

-Nora

Touching down in Tokyo

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Touching down in Tokyo

In my Special Topics Japanese literature course on Natsume Soseki, my professor never failed to remind my classmates and me that we are members of the elite, privileged in our pursuit of a higher education. As I awaited my early morning departure to Narita International Airport, her words finally began to sink in. Most of us graduate without realizing how lucky we are to have been able to attend college and better ourselves through communicating with brilliant minds – not all of them close to home. I enrolled in TUJ’s study abroad program with the goal of understanding what it means to be Japanese by living in Tokyo.

This was not the first time I’ve packed the contents of my life into luggage and relocated to a new city. At 23, I’ve traveled and lived in more places than most of my friends, but I was still just as nervous about flying as I was at 19 when I stepped onto my first plane to Montreal. It was a gutsy move: not only had I never left home, but I had never been outside of the country. Looking back, I’m grateful that the challenges of living in Montreal prepared me for life in Tokyo, the city I have always dreamed of visiting.

Picturing myself trying authentic ramen, visiting the Rikugien Gardens from “Norwegian Wood”, seeing Tokyo Tower, and visiting other famed cultural attractions helped me through the 15 hour journey. I reminded myself to keep my expectations realistic, too. Having once studied abroad, I expected my first week in Tokyo might be difficult – how could it not? From the moment I passed through Customs, I knew that I would have to step up my Japanese. GPS and Google Translate have been my closest companion this first week! A major plus: I’ve already discovered that the best part about living in Japan as a gaijin (foreigner) is how eager many Japanese are to help you practice your language skills.

Living in the Takadanobaba dorm is the best of both worlds: lovely residential buildings and the Kanda river are just ten minutes away from dozens of restaurants, boutiques, and bars. The area is known for its population of students who attend Waseda University, and the neighborhood’s lively nightlife and colorful storefronts reflect its youthful population. (Note: the absence of sidewalks definitely takes some getting used to.)

 

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Kanda River, just one minute from the Taka dorm.

Taking a morning train for the first time on the Tozai line was an interesting albeit slightly claustrophobic experience. Our cheerful student guide, Yuri, led us TUJ’s main campus, a sleek office building ten minutes from Azabu-Juban Station. TUJ’s campus may be on the small side, but it has an incredibly diverse student body. I’m grateful that going to school in a tiny corner of Minato gives me an even greater opportunity to exchange ideas about life, literature, and social issues with Japanese students. Without a doubt, there’s a strong sense of community on campus. Many of us are at least 6,000 miles away from home, and seeing familiar faces in our classrooms and hallways is an added layer of comfort.

 

For those of you who are curious about studying in a non-English speaking country, but too afraid to make the leap: don’t hold yourself back! I’ve experienced plenty of ups and downs my first week in Tokyo, but the challenges have been a worthwhile learning experience. Traveling and studying in a foreign country is a unique way to reevaulate our paradigms and understand ourselves on a deeper level. I already foresee that my experiences exploring Tokyo and studying at TUJ will open my eyes to cultural and social issues that will shape me as both a writer and a humanitarian.

settling in & settling up

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Contrary to my previous post, it was not ‘sayonara, America’ on the 8th and ‘konnichiwa, Japan’ on the 9th. My departure was unfortunately delayed by a full twenty-four hours due to failures on the part of the U.S. Postal Service, and my perennially procrastinating self, which kept my passport/visa from arriving until late on the 8th. After all of that stress, spending half a day cramped in an airplane was no issue. My flight went smoothly, I caught up on all the movies I’d missed in my last two years in the wilderness, and managed not to sleep more than twenty minutes, which apparently helps with avoiding jetlag.

Luckily, there was another TUJ student on my flight and in my same dorm so we were able to take the same shinkansen (super fast train) together and then split from our station to the dorm. Arriving so late meant missing some parts of the orientation but we were caught up in no time by dorm staff on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, starting with a student worker escort to main campus who gave a full run-down of the train rules and routes.

8483E774-6149-4EF5-A8A3-58B5697F5473My morning commute at its calmest.

Thursday afternoon brought placement tests for those of us with language experience and visits to the ward office to establish residency for those without. I was in the former group, smaller in size and collectively shaking with stress. We established camaraderie while waiting for the test to begin, joking around and offering cheesy pneumonic devices for remembering vocabulary. I was by far the worst offender on this front: kusuri, the word for pharmacy, is easy because it sounds like cough syrup, while zo, elephant, live in zoos, and sara, plate, can be saran-wrapped, etc, etc. Then it was into the test, heads held high, and out of the test with eyes glued to the floor. Heading back to the dorm, things were definitely fraught but a stop at Mr. Donut and then to buy pillows at a nearby department store offered a reprieve from the gloom. Dinner that night also provided a pick me up, although my picture does it no justice.

E6570897-0603-484A-92B9-BCF87E30B364Fellow TUJ students with their new pillows (and doughnuts).
6DD89F76-889C-4823-B0F4-65DFD45D7533Thursday’s dinner, panda coin purse not included.

Friday meant a ward office visit for my group, followed by a few hours of free time that I spent exploring our neighborhood in search of cheap coffee, and then hopping on the train to find Tokyo Tower with a friend from the day before. We decided to eschew GPS and simply follow it in the sky with our eyes, keeping track mentally of each turn we took as well as every hole-in-the-wall coffee shop for future excursions, mutual caffeine addiction binding us together. Once we arrived, it was a bit of a struggle to find the ticket booth for the observation deck and we ended up going to the third floor only to come back down. Tickets were only 900 yen, a much better deal than most U.S. lookouts offer, and especially affordable knowing we had a free dinner coming at the welcome party that night. Mt. Fuji was not visible as we had been told it would be, but it was still an impressive view.

35742668-267B-4723-8D64-C9FC844E71DBView from Tokyo Tower.

After we had snapped a few dozen pictures from every angle, it was time to head back to campus for academic advisory meetings. Since I have no more language requirements for graduation from my home institution, I ended up dropping my pre-scheduled language classes for an art history class titled ‘East Meets West,’ with a field trip component, and ‘Introduction to East Asia: China,’ which should be interesting as I know very little about China. All in all, the past few days have been a great introduction to this city and I can’t wait to get into the swing of things when classes start.

-Nora