Summer Festivals in Japan

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For all of Japan’s reputation for being a nation of hard workers, it’s also fair to remember that there seems to be a national dedication to the phrase “work hard, play hard.” There are hundreds of festivals ranging from small street fairs to huge multi-day affairs. Matsuri, the term for Japanese festivals, happen year-round, but one of the best times for experiencing them is in the summer.

Mitama Matsuri

Study abroad in the summer might be the best way for someone to quickly get a crash-course in Japanese festival culture. From May to August, there are dozens of small festivals and several major ones. Possibly most notable of the festivals over the summer is Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival. Tanabata, meaning “Evening of the Seventh,” takes place on July 7th.

The festival celebrates the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi, two deities who are lovers separated by a river that can only meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Despite the specific date, the actual festival lasts longer, with festivities extending through the month of July. One of the popular traditions is celebrating the holiday by writing wishes on small pieces of paper and tying them to bamboo trees.

Another prominent festival is Mitama Matsuri, one of the largest Obon festivals in Tokyo. Obon is a Buddhist tradition to honor the spirits of ancestors. In more practical terms, this means the festivals are times for people to return to important ancestral places. This particular one takes places at the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. I was fortunate enough to go and visit on a day when they were also holding a lanter-floating event in the nearby park, which borders the Imperial Palace East Gardens. Even before the sun went down, the riverbank was crowded with tourists and locals sporting yukatas, a casual summer version of the traditional kimono, which is common dress for festivals.

Festival performers in Shinjuku

Festival performers in Shinjuku

With the semester ending soon, I was fortunate to be able to go out with a bang, so to speak. The last weekend in July is a popular time for festivals, and I managed to go to both the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri and the Sumida River Fireworks festival.

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri, held in in one of the biggest commercial centers in Tokyo, is a musical festival where huge areas of the street are blocked off for dancers, drummers, and performers. The festival originally comes from Okinawa and is renowned for its flamboyant, costumed performers and the energy of the taiko drummers.

A huge crowd gathers to watch the fireworks between buildings along the Sumida River

A huge crowd gathers to watch the fireworks between buildings along the Sumida River

The same day is the Sumida River Fireworks festival, one of the largest of the summer fireworks festivals in Japan. The riverfront around Asakusa becomes jam-packed with tourists and spectators for the event, some coming for the fireworks and others coming for the festival at Sensoji, a nearby Buddhist temple. Since the streets were too packed to really get a good look at the fireworks, we opted to go to the temple, but even there, among food stalls and festival-goers, it was possible to see the amazing display.

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Stalls and festival-goers beneath Senso-ji

Japan is known for it’s festivals, and I’m delighted to have been able to experience a number of them even in the short time I am here.

Living In Japan, Part II

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The TUJ cafeteria: where I eat, study, hang out with friends, and buy an unhealthy amount of vending machine coffee.

Being A Student Abroad

Of course, being a student in Japan isn’t just a big vacation. It’s also a time to experience new cultures and values, and continue getting an education. One of the hardest things, I’ve found, is trying to balance work and play, so to speak. It’s a little tricky to get myself in the mindset of doing schoolwork, especially at 8 p.m. on Sunday night after a weekend exploring the city or going on a field trip. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that I still have papers to write, tests to study for, and worksheets to finish.

One method I’ve found to deal with this is to do homework immediately. Staying at TUJ after class to do work in the study lounge or computer labs helps, since it means I can spend the evening shopping or go out with friends and not have to worry about being back in time to churn out an essay for the next morning. Even on Fridays, I’ll often stay after class and try to finish everything up so I don’t have to worry about it over the weekend (this is especially important if there’s an overnight trip planned, which will take up all but Sunday night).

Fortunately, TUJ is a fairly small school, especially in the summer. If I do need help with something, there’s usually someone in one of my classes hanging around as well, which makes things a bit easier.

The Weather

Just recently, monsoon season began in Japan. After a few days of getting soaked on the way to school, I’ve just started bringing an umbrella. It doesn’t matter if the forecast is clear, or if the skies are blue and cloudless when I get up, there is still a chance that the rain will come. The citizens of Tokyo may be the most rain-prepared people I have ever seen. As soon as the first drops of rain appear, the city collectively dons its umbrellas and rain jackets.

The Pace of Life

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It probably takes a long time to adjust to the sheer number of people that live in Tokyo, since crowds like this are just a part of daily life.

Probably the biggest adjustment to make to living in Japan is the pace of life. While I was still recovering from jet lag from the trip over, I would often get up early, sometimes around 4 a.m. Even then, if I looked out the window, I could see businessmen headed to work and students headed to school. In Japan, people are constantly moving.

One little annoyance with that, though, is that despite how orderly everything is, there don’t seem to be clear rules on sidewalks. On escalators, one side is reserved for standing and the other for walking. There’s never jaywalking across intersections. Yet on sidewalks, there is no specific lane for a direction. Walking through a crowded tourist area or trying to make it to class through clumps of businessmen can be quite the ordeal, with a lot of attention needed just to avoid running into people.

A more unexpected difficulty is the lack of benches! Except for public parks, there is almost nowhere to just sit outside. Then I started to realize something. It explained why so many places are so clean and efficient. There’s no idling or hanging out. After picking up dinner at a to-go sushi place, I realized that the options were to either eat there or bring it home to eat. Public benches and tables were something I took for granted, but now realize how much I rely on them.

Living In Japan, Part I

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With only a few weeks left to go till the summer session wraps up, it seems like a good time to take a look at some of the quirks and adjustments that come with living abroad for a summer. While it’s hard (and likely impossible) to come up with all of the differences and difficulties, I tried to come up with some of the more interesting and prominent ones. Let’s start with the basics: getting around, and getting food.

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A normal day at Hiyoshi Station (after most of the crowd had already boarded the train!)

The Trains

This one’s fairly obvious. The network of trains in Japan is nothing short of phenomenal. Dozens of lines, carrying what seems like millions of people, at all hours of the day. It’s also incredibly intimidating. My first experience was taking the train from the airport to my dorm, and even that was overwhelming. Fortunately, the public transit system seems built for people who don’t know exactly where they’re going, which helps when navigating the labyrinths of platforms and stations. It’s probably even more startling coming from Philadelphia, where the train system in the city is more or less limited to two major lines. If you’re even in Japan, I highly recommend the app “JapanTravel.” It comes with a map of the rail lines, and lets you input a starting station and destination, and it tells you which trains to take, what transfers, and even how much it will cost.

Of course, the trains are also often packed, in particular express trains and rush hour. From about seven to nine in the morning and any time after six at night, the question isn’t if you’ll get a seat, it’s if you will fit in the car. It’s not uncommon for commuters to exit the car when the train stops, then cram themselves back in before the train departs again just for a bit of space. Fortunately (and amazingly), the trains are very quiet, orderly, and ALWAYS on time.

The Food

A frankly ridiculous amount of soba, for less than 400¥!

A frankly ridiculous amount of soba, for less than 400¥!

This was something I wasn’t expecting. When planning to go out to eat, I’ve learned to start looking before you actually want to eat, because it often takes some time to find a place, particularly if you’re looking for somewhere foreigner-friendly. Many restaurants do have English menus, and if not, the universal language of “pointing at the thing you want and saying please” works just fine; but sometimes the menus are complicated, and you can often end up with food you hadn’t planned on ordering (like accidentally biting into some raw tentacles from something – yuck!).

It’s also a little surprising that their isn’t a huge amount of variety. Side streets may be crammed with restaurants, but they’re often all very similar. I can’t count the number of ramen shops, curry shops, and soba shops I’ve been to. Though many restaurants are fairly samey, I still have yet to eat a meal I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. Even for those with more Western tastes, there are still options (even barring the bizarre popularity of KFC and Denny’s). One highlight that I found was a burrito place in Harajuku, which was described by my friends as “Japanese Chipotle.”

The food can also vary in price wildly. I regularly pay no more than 600¥ for lunch, or about $5, but this is for lunches from convenience stores (which are, amazingly, full meals rather than the junk food you find in American stores). At some restaurants, though, I’ve paid upwards of $30 for a meal! Fortunately, though, it seems to average out at about 1000¥, or about $8. And, as expected, the more you pay the higher quality you get!

Shizuoka Green Tea Farm

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Shizuoka Green Tea Farm

Shizuoka Green Tea Farm

TUJ students picking their own green tea leaves

TUJ students picking their own green tea leaves

TUJ students learning how to make green tea

TUJ students learning how to make green tea

TUJ students compiled their leaves and had a chance to cook them as instructed

TUJ students compiled their leaves and had a chance to cook them as instructed

TUJ student rolling green tea leaves while the instructor finishes cooking the rest of the leaves.

TUJ student kneading green tea leaves while the instructor finishes cooking the rest of the leaves.

TUJ student kneading the green tea leaves after they were finished cooking

TUJ student kneading the green tea leaves after they were finished cooking

The farm had a beautiful Japanese tea garden

The farm included a beautiful Japanese tea garden

Mt. Fuji seen from the farm's Japanese tea garden.

Mt. Fuji seen from the farm’s Japanese tea garden

The tea garden included lots of beautiful scenery.

The tea garden included lots of beautiful scenery.

More beautiful scenery from the tea garden

More beautiful scenery from the tea garden

Pathway in the tea garden.

Pathway in the tea garden.

Overnight Trip To Shizuoka

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Horai Bridg

The first overnight school trip was a journey to Shizuoka, a prefecture along the coast of Japan. Unfortunately, the trip really didn’t start off on the best foot. After boarding another early morning bus, prepared for another several hours driving through the countryside, we learned that there was a change of plans. Due to rain and safety concerns, two of the activities, hiking the bottom of Mt. Fuji and visiting Shiogo Suspension Bridge, needed to be cancelled. Instead, we were informed, we were going to be visiting a few other destinations, including an aquarium and the Horai Bridge, the world’s longest wooden bridge.

While certainly not as glamorous as climbing on Mt. Fuji, it still turned out to be a pretty great day. Personally, I love aquariums and thought the bridge was actually pretty cool. It took about half an hour to go from one end to the other and back again. It also made for some pretty nice pictures!

Kawane Onsen Hotel

Kawane Onsen Hotel

Fortunately, once we arrived at Kawane Onsen Hotel, the rest of the trip went perfectly as planned. The TUJ students were pretty much let loose on the hotel once we checked in, which gave me time to explore the nearby riverbed, enjoy a relaxing bath at the onsen, and hang out on the roof-level observation deck before heading in for a buffet dinner! After dinner (the highlights of which included a chocolate fountain and freshly made diced steak), we tried renting a room for karaoke, but the price was a little steep at 1000 yen for the room for an hour, and 100 yen a song. So instead, we enjoyed the cool night air on the observation deck.

Picking green tea leaves

Picking green tea leaves

The next day, we all loaded back up into the bus and headed to the first destination, a green tea farm called The Tea Museum. There we learned about the process of making green tea firsthand. We picked our own leaves, and brought them in for preparation. We learned how to properly cook and dry the leaves and turn them into green tea itself. After making tea, we also got to walk through the museum’s beautiful Japanese gardens, which offered some great views of Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area. Upon leaving, we were given both pre-made tea and bags of green tea leaves to bring home and make ourselves.

The gardens at the Tea Museum

The gardens at the Tea Museum

After a quick lunch at a rest stop, we arrived at Nihondaira, a scenic seaside area in Shizuoka. There we took a ropeway across to Mt. Kuno Toshogu Shrine, which is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirit of of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last of the feudal governments in Japan. The shrine is located at the top of Mt. Kuno, accessible by either the ropeway that we took, or a stone staircase with more than a thousand steps cut into the mountainside.

The shrine, like all of the previous shrines I have visited, was peaceful and beautiful. After climbing up through the stairs and courtyards to the top, the only way forward was down. We weren’t lucky enough to be able to take the ropeway both ways, so to get down we had to descend the giant, imposing staircase. The climb down was a little tricky, as the stairs were worn away in some places, but it offered some beautiful views of the town below and the ocean in the distance. Once at the bottom, we got back on the bus and headed back through rain and traffic to get to Tokyo. Even despite the rocky start, it turned out to be a pretty excellent weekend.

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One of the trolleys that crossed the Mt. Kuno ropeway

A Day In The Water: Rafting and Onsens

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Nagatoro Outdoor Center’s scenic front area.

After a lengthy bus ride beginning at seven in the morning, a bus full of TUJ students arrived at Nagatoro Outdoor Center. After a quick briefing, we all scattered to change and get ready for the trip. The center offered rentals for a variety of gear, including wetsuits (which they recommended, saying a number of times how cold the water would be), waterproof jackets, water shoes, straps to keep glasses on, and the mandatory helmets and life jackets. Personally, I only opted for glasses straps: it was a hot day, and I figured that the water would be cold and refreshing.

After getting ready, the first thing we did was drag the boats down to the river. Each group of six rafters helped lug a heavy rubber boat down a narrow forest trail which ended up at the shore. To “acclimate” us to the water, our guides had us wade out into the water, stand in a circle, then just splash each other with the river water. That’s about the time I started regretting just wearing my t-shirt and shorts under the safety gear.

The actual safety briefing (aka “Learn how to whitewater raft in five minutes”) was, disconcerting, mostly about what to do when you fall into the water. Not “if,” when. And with that assurance, we set off down the river.

The actual journey was beautiful. It was a scenic ride past jagged rocks, stony beaches, and waterfalls cascading out of the forest. Periodically along the way, our guide had us jump out and swim in the river. It was freezing cold, but the current made actually swimming pretty fun and easy. At the halfway point, we all pulled our boats off to the side and made makeshift diving board out of them.

Really there was only one instance where the safety training was necessary. My group was in the lead boat, and several of us hopped out to swim. After a few minutes, our guide said to get back in the boats and said something about upcoming rapids, which prompted a panicked, struggled to swim back upstream and climb into the boat. We all made it back in, but it was a nice little adrenaline rush.

After making it to the stopping point, we all loaded up into a bus filled with plastic-covered seats and headed back to the outdoor center for a lunch of yakiniku.

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For obvious reasons, I couldn’t take pictures in the baths, but even the hallways were nice.

After the morning’s strenuous activities, everyone was ready for the next activity: a trip to a Japanese onsen, a hot spring bath. Usually described as a uniquely Japanese experience, I was interested in seeing what it was like. And it really was the sort of experience you could never have in America.

After changing in a locker room, you go out into the public bath, donning nothing but a towel (if that). There, you wash off in a designated shower area in preparation for entering the baths. The onsen we went to had three primary parts: an indoor bath, an outdoor bath, and a sauna. I mostly spent time in the outdoor bath, since it was along the river and had a nice breeze. Really, there are few experiences as unique as hanging out with a bunch of naked Japanese men in a hot spring bath along a river.

I briefly tried the indoor bath, which in my opinion wasn’t as nice. I also took one step inside the sauna, and then immediately backed out after nearly drowning in the 100% humidity and billion-degree heat. Fortunately, afterwards I was able to take a cold shower and have some ice cream.

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On the way home we made a quick pit stop at The Hundred Caves of Yoshimi, a cluster of ancient grave-sites.

Traditional Arts Workshop II: Calligraphy and Kimonos

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TUJ students watch the demonstration closely before beginning their own work.

TUJ students watch Ms. Akagi, the main instructor of the Traditional Arts Workshop, demonstrate an exercise that helps to practice proper form and technique.

Host demonstrating an exercise that helps to practice proper form and technique for calligraphy.

Ms. Akagi teaching a basic exercise of writing three lines with proper brush technique.

TUJ male students during their lesson of calligraphy.

TUJ male students during their lesson of calligraphy.

TUJ student diligently practicing before attempting to write his own character (kanji).

TUJ student diligently practicing before attempting to write his own character (kanji).

Ms. Akagi kindly helped students write their own characters (kanji).

Ms. Akagi kindly helped students write their own characters (kanji).

Female TUJ student writing out her character (kanji).

Female TUJ student writing out her character (kanji).

The completed calligraphy works of TUJ students were hung on the wall for display.

The completed calligraphy works of TUJ students were hung on the wall for display.

TUJ female students dressed in beautiful yukatas, which is a casual summer kimono typically worn during summer festivals by young girls.

TUJ female students dressed in beautiful yukatas, which is a casual summer kimono typically worn during summer festivals by young girls.

TUJ students dressed in their yukatas.

TUJ students dressed in their yukatas.

Handmade kimono button/pins in various designs were given to TUJ students as a gift.

Handmade kimono button/pins in various designs were given to TUJ students as a gift.

Group photo of TUJ students at the Traditional Arts workshop, wearing their yukatas and pins.

Group photo of TUJ students at the Traditional Arts workshop, wearing their yukatas and pins.