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!

Halloween!

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Growing up in the United States, back to the inevitable return to school in the begging of September, nothing quite defined autumn like Halloween. It permeated every aspect of life come October first, from the pumpkins that began to show up on the doorsteps of suburban homes, to the inescapable ads and Halloween themed merchandise, the holiday owned the season. However, coming to Japan, I had no idea what to expect, or even whether or not Halloween was even celebrated over here, as I knew that it was not nearly as big of a deal in other western countries as it is in the United States.

I learned that Halloween really took off here, somewhat out of nowhere, around five or six years ago. Since then, it’s become unstoppable, massive. The stores began to sell pumpkin and ghost themed goods about a month in advance, just like in the States.

As Halloween is relatively new here, most of the people who seem to celebrate it are young adults, people in their late teens, twenties and thirties. What was really interesting to me was that most of the people who celebrate Halloween did not grow up trick or treating, which was the pinnacle event of the season when I was younger. Even more, although Halloween seems to be gaining traction as a holiday, trick or treating still seems to be a pretty American custom; biking home from my internship on Halloween night I ran into a few groups of young children, but only about one or two. Instead, Halloween in Japan seems to be a Holiday where young adults have an excuse to dress up and go out for the night.

My roommate and I had heard from some of our Japanese friends that the place to be on the Saturday night before Halloween was Shibuya, something that was actually echoed by some of the teachers at my internship. So come Saturday night, without costumes or any idea what to expect, we jumped on the JR and headed out. When we got to Shibuya it was so crowded you couldn’t see the ground, which, given the crowds that normally flock to the area on a Saturday night, might not be saying much, but on this night the crowds were double what they usually are, and everybody was in costume, and the costumes we saw put the kind of lazy, pun-based get-up most America adults seem to wear to Halloween parties to shame. These were some of the most incredibly detailed and elaborate costumes I’ve ever seen, my personal favorite being two men operating a cardboard giraffe that towered five or six feet above the heads of everyone in the crowd.

Being broke study abroad students as we are, we didn’t actually go in anywhere; instead, we opted to spend the night walking around and people watching and just being generally awestruck by the scene unfolding in front of us.

 

Climbing Takao

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I finally got to see the mountains! About two months into my stay in Japan, my roommate and I at long last made the trek west, out past the endless boxy suburbs and into the mountains that exist beyond the special wards. We were headed to Mount Takao, called Takao San in Japanese, for a day of hiking and visiting the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that dot the mountainside.

We’d read about Takao San online; its well known for being a fairly easy hike, not the arduous all day or all night slog of Fuji, and for being a highly doable day trip from Tokyo. It only took us about an hour to get to Takasosanguchi station at the base of the mountain from Shinjuku Station.Hachioji seemed a world away from the frantic pace of Shinjuku we’d left behind. The base of the mountain was crowded with both hikers and small restaurants and shops, but the world seemed to move at a decidedly unhurried pace. 20161016_14001120161016_14220920161016_152851Hachioji and the entire region are still part of Tokyo prefecture.

The path up the mountain was steep, much steeper than we were initially ready for, but it was also, to our surprise, paved, with a van going up or down every once in a while. This, we found out upon our arrival at the top, was because along with various shrines and temples, Takao San is home to a few small restaurants, a beer garden, and a monkey park (!), and the path has to be paved in order to get food and supplies up the mountain. Even though it was a cool, rainy morning, we were sweating like crazy by the time we reached the first observation point, about halfway up. The view of the endless sprawl of the suburbs and the Tokyo skyscrapers off in the distance then proceeded to take our breath away, as if we weren’t already winded enough. The view in both directions, looking out towards the city and then turning around to see the mountains was incredible, and definitely worth the climb.

One of my favorite parts of Takao San was the monkey park. While we were pretty disappointed that the monkeys turned out to be in an enclosure, and not just running around wild (which, upon further thought makes total sense), it was still great to get up on the observation deck and take a break from hiking to watch one monkey’s endless war against a rope that hung from a pole. He would sit, sulking and glaring at the rope for a few minutes at a time, trying to think of another way to go about what he was doing, before giving up and deciding that he’d had it right every other time he’d tried. Then he would spring up, shrieking and yanking on the rope as hard as he could, trying his absolute best to pull it from the pole, before giving up once again and going back to his sulking. One unexpected bonus of our time at the monkey park was when I realized I understood when the Japanese guide was explaining how old the monkeys were. It’s slow and hard coming, but I’m definitely picking up a bit of Japanese.

 

Hakone Trip Part 2: Mt. Komagatake

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Part 2! The final stop on the trip was to Mt. Komagatake, one of the many mountains that can be reached by cable-car in Hakone. f161101_tokyo_komagatake-gondala_tamlynkurata

They say you can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Before ascending, the clouds were quite heavy, so Forrest took the opportunity to try and create his own “Mt. Fuji selfie”. f161102_tokyo_getting-the-perfect-shot_tamlynkurata

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Fortunately, the clouds moved aside for a little bit so that Mt. Fuji was visible in the distance

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All smiles at the top!

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The clouds returned, giving the shrine at the top a mysterious vibe

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Forrest: “Hey, doesn’t this remind you of The Sound of Music? Except not European?”

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Posing on the rocks surrounding the shrine

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The sun began to set as our trip came to a close. When you’re in Tokyo, it’s easy to forget how colorful the sky can be. Actually, it’s easy to forget what the sky looks like since there are so many tall buildings and neon light displays. The whole trip brought the students back to nature a little bit as they unwound in the warmth of the onsen and took in the natural beauty of Hakone from atop the mountain. Japan is truly a wonderful place to be.

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Savoring the last few moments of sunshine