Spring is Here!

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The weather here in Tokyo has been insanely nice for the past couple of weeks. Although it’s technically still winter, the end of February and the beginning of March have been absolutely beautiful, in the mid to high sixties. In Japan, this means the blooming of the iconic Ume trees, or Japanese plum: the bright pink flowering trees that closely resemble the more famous Sakura, or cherry blossom, which blooms a few weeks later, in April.

Very close to where I’m living in Shinagawa, the Ume have been in full bloom in Rinshi no Mori Koen, something I discovered by accident while out for a run. The park was packed with people picnicking under the trees, taking pictures and spending time with their families. The park itself is gorgeous any day, full of winding trails and one of the most diverse collection of trees in Japan (it was formerly a government run arboretum), but the blooming trees really made it look picturesque, the kind of platonic ideal people think of when they think of Japan.

The other day, we had an undergraduate holiday in the middle of the week. After sleeping in, which was much needed, midterms are in full swing here, I decided to take my bike and head out to Setagaya to see the Todoroki Ravine, the only ravine within Tokyo, tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Todoroki. It took about an hour by bicycle to get to from my house, but it was a very easy and pleasant ride that basically stayed on the same major road the entire time, something which I was incredibly excited to see when I pulled up the directions on Google. Even after living here for (almost) two semesters, navigating unknown parts of the city on a bike is still very daunting.

The park is easy to miss; hidden from the street, you have to go down a steep flight of steps that lead down the side of the cliff to a path below. At the bottom of the ravine is a small river, and the path follows along, crossing here and there, leading to a waterfall capped with stone dragon heads and a small shop selling Japanese snacks and sweets at the end, all in the shadow of a large temple.

The ravine is gorgeous, filled with lush green trees and shrubs. Like many of these secluded green spots within the city, I have trouble remembering that I’m in the most populated metropolis on earth. These places definitely do not fit the image I had of Tokyo before I came over here, all hellishly crowded commuter trains and Blade Runner-esque neon cityscapes. Tokyo, of course, is full of those, but also so much more. I read recently in an article published by the Guardian that “Tokyo is a million different cities”, something that I’ve come to agree with wholeheartedly, and not just because of the way the different wards are incorporated. The city can feel like a world in and of itself.

How I’m Spending My Food Budget

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Though my days as a study abroad student are largely dedicated to schoolwork, commuting, and learning about the country I’m living in, cooking and buying food is central to my daily life in Tokyo. Temple University in Japan has no meal plan and no facility for making students meals, so Temple students are required to find food for themselves. While some students are provided meals through homestay, the majority of students eat from the same, extremely cheap, restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Like my peers, I frequent the Lawson’s and Seven Eleven convenience stores that appear on every city block in Tokyo. Unlike those in the the United States, convenience stores in Japan are known to carry a variety of Japanese food, both healthy and unhealthy. Frozen Slurpees are replaced with nikuman, a steamed bun with meat filling. Cans of Coke are substituted with cartons of strawberry and matcha-flavored milk. I often go to my local convenience store to grab a pre-packaged lunch or a quick snack. My personal favorites are egg sushi trays and onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a small amounts of mayonnaise, fish, veggie, or egg in the middle. Food is sold at a reasonable price, usually between 100 to 500 yen, roughly 1 to 5 U.S. dollars.

The Seiyu supermarket a block away from my dorm is also a great source for inexpensive meals. Seiyu is literally the Japanese equivalent of Walmart, as both store chains owned by the Walmart Corporate Company. I have been able to find pre-packaged meals of slightly higher quality at Seiyu between 10,000 and 300 yen (10 to 3 U.S. dollars). I often use these meals for lunch or a last minute dinner.

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Last minute dinners from Seiyu are pretty satisfying

Japanese supermarkets hold daily sales on pre-packaged meals, so the store can restock on fresh meals for the next day. The sale at Seiyu starts at 9pm and goes until 11pm, so I often go by the market late to grab discounted meals. I’ve been able to find some very nice entrees, such as a full sushi tray or chicken karaage meal at discounted price.  

I also buy raw ingredients at Seiyu to cook back at the dorm. I eat dorm-cooked meals twice a week with my friends. The kitchenette in my dorm room is very small, so my friends often find themselves cutting vegetables on my desk and cooking rice on my floor. We eat dinner while sitting on my bed or at my desk, and I often find dishes people left in my room the next day.

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Cooking at home with friends is the best!

We have tried a combination of Japanese and Chinese recipes, and the Japanese recipes are much easier to cook in the dorm kitchen. Japanese dishes often involve boiling food and adding various sauces and spices for flavor, while Chinese recipes call for pan frying. I don’t want to buy another pot or pan, as I have no way of taking such a thing home. However, stir frying in one small cooking pot has proven difficult, and has occasionally ended with me scraping blackened bits of food from the bottom of my once-silver appliance.

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Chinese food can be a little tricky–but it’s pretty worthwhile

Extreme Sight-Seeing in Osaka and Nara

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Crowded streets in Osaka

From Kyoto, my friends and I took a bus and then a train to Osaka. We arrived late in the evening and headed over to our modest Airbnb apartment.

For dinner, we went to a nearby restaurant and ate okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake with cabbage and meat. The okonomiyaki restaurant was my first experience with traditional Japanese-style dining. The floor was covered with woven tatami mats and guests were required to remove their shoes at the door. While eating, we sat on cushions instead of chairs, and the tables were much closer to the floor.

We spent most of the following day at the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka. Though the Japanese park was very similar to American versions of Universal, the park had additional attractions based off of Japanese media. For example, the park contained an Attack on Titan area complete with larger-than-life statues of various titans. McKenna invited her Japanese friends, Kei and Yudai to join us at Universal. I was able to practice Japanese with them and we played both Japanese and American time-passing games while waiting in line for rides.

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Everyone posing in front of the Titan statue at Universal

After leaving Universal, Kei and Yudai were kind enough to show us around Dotonbori, a street in Osaka, known for its hodgepodge of Japanese restaurants. Giant, animatronic statues mounted on restaurant fronts beckoned to us and the air was filled with the smells of fried meat, seafood, and smoke. We finally stopped in front of a restaurant with a statue of an irritated Japanese chef to eat kushikatsu, or deep fried food on skewers.

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One of the unique storefronts on Dotonbori

My friends and I ended the day by going to an onsen near our Airbnb apartment called Spa World. The onsen, or Japanese communal bathhouse, was just what we needed after a day of non-stop walking and sightseeing. I was initially embarrassed to bathe with others, but my nervousness slowly wore off as I napped in a hot spring pool with hot white steam rising around me.

We headed home the next day, but made a quick stop at Nara Park to visit shrines and feed deer. The Nara Park deer are the hallmark of the city, roaming the famed park freely and bowing to visitors. Park guests can buy crackers to feed the deer, though the deer are known to be somewhat aggressive when spotting a package of crackers.

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Feeding a deer at Nara

I ended my weekend deeply satisfied. I had seen and explored so much of Japan. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see so many beautiful, interesting places and have such fun experiences. I’m extremely grateful for this trip and the people I spent time with during my four-day weekend.

Second Semester Update

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Second semester, as it always does, is flying by. It feels like literally last week that classes started, and I near panicked the other day when I realized I only have two months left in Japan, and that my midterms are approaching fast. I’m not sure which bothered me more.

At this point living here feels so natural that I’m almost worried about the reverse culture shock of transitioning back to life in Philadelphia. Things that used to seem so daunting just a few months ago, like ordering in Japanese at a restaurant, or reading street signs while navigating Tokyo traffic on bicycle are now second nature to me. I’ve been working my part time job, have started to recognize some of the other locals in my neighborhood (and they definitely recognize me; my roommate and I are seemingly the only foreigners in our area of the city), and have even befriended and hung out with some of the guys who work at our local Konbini.

I am definitely glad that I decided to stay in Japan for the entire year, instead of a single semester. During my first semester it seemed daunting, and there were a few times when I had no idea what I was thinking, but it has been worth it, and I would very strongly advise any future study abroad students who can to do so. I especially see the benefit reflected in my Japanese, which, while still objectively awful (I speak, as David Sedaris described his own grasp of French, like an “evil baby”), has improved so much from the constant exposure. While the Japanese courses I’ve taken at TUJ have undeniably been a huge part of my improvement, the month off we had in the winter, where I was forced to essentially fend for myself and practice on my own did so much for my confidence with the language.

Being here for a year has also given me the luxury of being able to explore at my own pace, and not feel that tourist-like rush to see everything before my time is up (though that deadline is getting closer and closer, which I am painfully aware of).

Tokyo is so massive that there is no way for anybody to see all of it in a lifetime, let alone an academic year, but I really have been to some incredible places in and around the city over the past few months.

One of my absolute favorites, which I went to a week or two ago, was the Chinatown in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, the reason being the food, of course. My roommate and I went into a very tiny restaurant in an alley so narrow we could barely stand shoulder to shoulder, and ended up hanging out with a few old Japanese men all night. They kept buying us dumplings and beer, and I got to practice my Japanese, so the night was an undeniable success.

Kansai!

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A few weeks ago, undergraduate students at TUJ had a long weekend, as an undergrad holiday on a Friday came on the heels of a national day off on Thursday. Excited to make the most of our time away from the classroom, my friends and I decided to take the weekend and go down to the Kansai region of Japan, about an eight-hour bus ride south of Tokyo. We booked the overnight bus and met up at Tokyo station at eleven thirty, bags of clothes and McDonalds in hand.

It took all night to ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, and I don’t think I slept at all. I can’t sleep in cars or buses (or trains or planes for that matter) at the best of times, and the incredibly cramped seating arrangement just exasperated my insomnia. Not that I cared. It was actually a fairly enjoyable night spent watching the lights of the highway fly through the mountains, and then, best of all, seeing the sunrise as we pulled into Kyoto.

We got into Kyoto at around seven in the morning, and because we were all tired of sitting on the bus, we decided to walk the four miles from Kyoto Station to our Air BnB, right by Ginkakuji Temple. Walking through Kyoto that morning, the first thing I was struck by was how different the atmosphere was from Tokyo. There were no impenetrable crowds, even though it was a weekday morning at rush-hour, no tall buildings in every direction, creating the sense that one is in a glass and concrete canyon. Instead, the streets were wide and lined with trees, and the buildings were low and spaced out, and there were temples everywhere. I’d read that Kyoto was famous for its number of shrines and temples, but it still amazed me just how many I saw. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but there really did seem to be one on every block.

Once we dropped off our bags, our first stop was Ginkakuji. The temple is famous for the intricate gardens that overlook the city, and rightfully so. Next we headed to the old Imperial Palace, but by that point, around three in the afternoon, the overnight bus ride on which none of us got any sleep was starting to take its toll, and we spent most of the time at the temple stumbling around in a zombified daze.

The next night we took the train to Osaka. One of the friends I went with grew up there, so we spent the night being shown around Dotonbori, a crowded nightlife area known for being extravagantly lit up at night, as well as the canal that runs through it. Tokyo may seem crowded and wild at times, but in my experience so far in Japan, Osaka probably beats it any time.

The next day our group split, leaving my roommate and I to continue touring around Kansai, while some of our other friends headed back to Tokyo. We continued to walk around Kyoto for a little while, seeing the famous Gion district, but the highlight of that last day was getting out to Nara just as the sun set. We headed directly for the park from the station, but by the time we found it, it was dark. Not sure of what to expect next, we walked into the trees slowly, and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of deer, completely fearless, and almost indifferent to our presence.

Overall, it was a great trip, and a great way to see a different part of Japan.

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