I am not Afraid of Getting Lost! For I am Learning to Navigate Japan

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This past weekend, I made the decision to get out of my comfort zone. One could argue that I had done that by leaving for a country where I don’t even know the language. I would say that it’s not enough. The problem was that living at one of the school’s dorms became a crutch. Being at the dorms allowed for me to have a bit of America, even in Japan. I made friends with other American students studying abroad and we could flock together. Safety in numbers and all that jazz. We moved in groups because doing things on our own in a foreign country was scary. This kind of group comfort was fine for the first few days, when I was still trying to gain my footing. Two weeks in though and I decided enough was enough. I didn’t want to continue to be dependent on my friends. I wanted to spread out my wings and fly on my own.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my friends are weak for staying in groups or anything like that. Nor am I saying that I was tired of my friends. My thoughts were more along the lines that I came to Japan in hopes of gaining more confidence in myself. However, I have not really done anything that forced me to be uncomfortable or lost. In order to fix that I decided that Sunday I was going to go to Asakusa on my own. I planned to take a look at the Drum Museum and the Sensō-ji Temple. Also, I hoped to gain more confidence in navigating the train system.

Rather than going through a timeline of my trip, I’m going to state a few things I did learn:

The best way to learn a train system is to navigate it yourself. I did not by any means become a Japanese trains expert by the end of Sunday but I was now able to read the train maps with more confidence and pinpoint when the express trains were coming versus the locals. Going along a new route forced me to pay more attention to what was happening with the lines and platforms. This in turn forced me to pick up more tips on how to navigate the trains.

Getting lost can be more fun than it sounds. When I got to Asakusa, I had intended to head to the Drum Museum first. I ended up getting lost trying to get there. That was okay because I ended up finding one of the shopping streets instead. I wandered among these streets for a good hour, turning this way and that, never really knowing where I was. Until I somehow ended up at the Sensō-ji Temple. Go figure. I did not end up going to the Drum Temple but that’s fine. Instead I got to see all these cool shops and food stalls, which I had not been my initial intention.

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Sensō-ji Temple

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you don’t know the language, like me, this can be hard. Not because you are afraid to ask per se, but more like you literally cannot because you don’t know the words. This is where gesturing really comes in handy. On two separate occasions, I had to ask for help during my trip. Both times, using hands and nodding managed to get my message across just fine.

 

All in all, I got back to my dorm alive. I survived the trip and grew as a person as a result. Now I’m not afraid to travel on my own in the future. Whether this translates to more solo trips during my stay here or gives me confidence to travel abroad on my own after graduation, we’ll just have to see.

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Week Two in Tokyo!

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At a hole-in-the-wall Korean bbq restaurant in Shibuya…where we tried raw horsemeat! (Photo credits to waiter)

The outside of a restaurant in Shinjuku, many storefronts are adorned with bright lights and decorations.

The infamous Shibuya crossing in the early morning…

vs. Shibuya crossing all lit up at night.

Pan-fried and boiled gyoza! At many restaurants you order from an ipad, which can be seen in the far left.

The decorative inside of a restaurant in Shinjuku.

A view of Musashi-Kosugi on a cloudy day.

A street in Azabu, not far from TUJ’s campus!

Léann, Morgan, and Sunako in Shinjuku.

Coming from Philly where it is supposedly “always sunny,” most days here have been overcast, along with very humid!

The Moment You Doubt, You Cease Forever to be Able to do it

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Being in Japan while barely knowing any Japanese is either very impressive or very stupid. I’ve been lucky to not have too many mishaps. The problem that I felt I faced when it came to talking to others was that I had no confidence. I knew next to no Japanese and this made me feel unqualified to talk to Japanese people. So I just didn’t.

This pattern shifted during the beginning of this week. I was sitting in the common area of my floor. My room sometimes felt way too cramped, so I liked to come to the area and spread out. I also secretly hoped to start a conversation with one of the Japanese girls on the hall. After all, what’s the point of coming all the way to Japan if you don’t bother having a conversation with a Japanese person? No dice so far but Monday was when my luck changed. A girl had come back to the hall with a bunch of Japanese treats. She called my attention and pointed to the box. I got that she was offering one to me. Not one to turn away from free food, I looked and asked, “What, I mean, nan desu ka?” Thus began our first true conversation. She struggled to explain what the treats were in English, but with the help of her phone she was able to explain what each one contained. With my practically non-existent Japanese and simplified English, I managed to ask her about the school she attended. The conversation developed rapidly when she asked me if I liked any Japanese music and I told her of my all time fave: Bump of Chicken. Turns out the band is way more popular in Japan than America and she loved them. Before I knew it, we were trading favorite songs. For anything we didn’t know how to communicate, we Googled and showed it to the other. What this experience taught me was that language is not a barrier to friendship. That and Googling is universal. All joking aside, I had to learn to embrace the awkwardness of not having an easy-flowing conversation with someone. There were moments when neither one of us knew what the other was trying to say and we just had to give up on that point altogether. I was never completely sure if she got what I was actually saying and vice versa. Be reassured in knowing that it’s not one-sided. The girl I was talking to also felt the awkwardness but she kept trying. To be honest, that’s what kept me going, knowing she wanted this conversation as much as I did. Now that I’ve experienced the awkwardness of being in a conversation that is not 100% English, I feel more confident in my ability to talk to the Japanese people surrounding me.

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One of the Japanese girls on the hall and I enjoying Japanese sweets

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Chicago anymore…

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A few days have passed since I’ve landed. I could go on for pages about all that has happened the moment my plane left US soil. That would take more time to read then you’re probably willing to spend. Instead, I will share some thoughts on the Japanese people I’ve met since landing.

Upon landing in Japan, I followed the directions that Temple had provided to get through customs and then to exchange my currency. I wasn’t sure what to think at first. The airport staff for the most part knew basic English but most of what was said to me was in Japanese. Everyone was friendly enough and that put me somewhat at ease. However, not being able to communicate properly is a scary situation. I didn’t know what was being said to me most of the time and I wasn’t sure if I was following directions correctly. When I went to exchange money, I handed over $500 but I didn’t exactly know if what I got back was accurate (it probably was but the problem is I had no ability at the time to make sure). People spoke slower and with more gestures for my sake and I appreciated that courtesy. It also made me feel a little stupid. Here there were people who knew some English and the most Japanese I knew was how to say hello, excuse me, and thank you.

When it came to buying the train ticket, I was a bit lost. I didn’t know if where I was buying the ticket was the correct place. The lady I was talking to seemed to think so. I ended up getting a ticket for a train that was leaving in an hour. Getting this far without any general mishap made me super happy and proud of myself. Right before I was about to walk to the elevator to get downstairs, the lady at the ticket counter came running after me. I was worried that I had messed up but it turns out that she wanted to let me know that she made a mistake and that there was an earlier train. If I wanted to, she could switch the tickets, free of charge. I was very surprised. She did not have to come after me and do this because it’s not like it would have made much of a difference if I had ended up waiting a bit more. She went out of her way for me and that moment was when I truly felt welcome into the country.

Maybe it was an action that was reflective of solely the lady and not Japan as a whole, but it showed me that there are people out there who are willing to go the extra mile to accommodate my ignorance. Not to say that I plan on taking advantage of that. I do plan on learning Japanese and work on improving my communication. However, coming to a new country where almost nothing is familiar, knowing that people are willing to work extra hard to make sure you are comfortable is a huge weight off the shoulders.

My first glimpses of Tokyo!

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The view from my window at the Musashi-Kosugi Dorm in Kawasaki.

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A view of the walk from the dorm to the train station, Musashi-Kosugi.

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Azubu-Hall at TUJ!

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A rare shot of an empty train, and the view from a train ride back to the dorm.

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The freshest sushi I have ever eaten!

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Eating lunch at a restaurant in Ginza with Léann and Morgan.

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Léann and Morgan in Ginza.

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Aaron posing in front of a cool mural in Ginza.

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Aaron and Sunako at Tokyo’s Oktoberfest in Hibuya. (Not quite as large or crazy as Germany’s Oktoberfest of course!)

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A Temple I stumbled upon not far from the TUJ campus.

Oh, The Places I’ll Go

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Twenty years old and feeling like a teen in a country-mandated “adult’s” body. I’m Anitta, an Indian American English major (weird combo, I agree), and I just have no clue. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Finding out that I got into the Temple University Study Abroad program in Japan was not the end of my process. There were plenty of forms to submit and manuals to read afterwards. Most of them were simple enough. Submitting the housing deposit was not difficult to figure out. Clicking “finished reading” on the various “must read” forms on the application website was satisfying. I felt like I was accomplishing so much with each checkmark. But it’s a deception. Boxes like “Japan’s COE” came with so many forms to fill out and so much information to gather. There were plenty of deadlines to keep track of, like when course requests were due (a date that almost snuck past me). The program emphasizes the need for a person to do this on their own in order to exercise independence. I do not disagree with this thought. As a child of two immigrants from rural South India, I have plenty of experience wrestling with numbers and struggling to wrangle signatures for the FAFSA and CSS profile on my own. But doing the Study Abroad forms on my own allowed the reality that I would be on my own in a foreign country, where I don’t know the language, sink in. And that was scary.

People would ask me about my fall semester and I would tell them about Tokyo. Their faces would light up and the inevitable question: “Are you excited?” I knew what they wanted to hear: “Of course I am!” What they did not know was that deep inside the fear was overtaking the excitement. I know what I will do: study up on Japanese culture; learn as much conversational Japanese as possible over the summer; and make sure I know all the characters related to transportation, airports, directions, and money. The steps I will take to minimize the fear will help but the fear will not completely disappear. I know this because this is what happened before I left for a college that was located 12 hours away by car. I believe it is fine to let the fear be your primary emotion. I am going to a whole other country; why should I not be scared? It doesn’t make me any less excited; I may be scared now but a month into the program and my feelings will probably change. Maybe I won’t find friends instantly, but I’m sure there’s someone in Tokyo; and if not, that’s fine because I have friends back home. Maybe I don’t know the language that well. A month in, I’m sure I’ll be able to make do because I am not the only person who has gone to a foreign country without a good grasp of the language. Others have done fine and so will I. Maybe I’ll get lost. Well, that’s not so different than when I’m back home, so that just means it’s time to whip out the phone like I always do. Change will always be scary for me. Nevertheless, I will never stop taking the next step because where I am right now is not where I want to stop.

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Packed and almost ready to go!

Mad Dash to the Finish Line

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Lawson runs, catching the next express train, stepping outside my dorm room into a kitchen full of friends- words cannot describe how much I will truly miss everything this program and country have given me these past few months. Especially the everyday scenes in Tokyo, like people riding their bikes to and from train stations, or the wildly various fashion styles found throughout the city. I am going to miss having a stunning view of bustling Shibuya and quiet residential neighbourhoods in Azabu on my daily commute. But most of all, I am going to miss all the people I have met on this trip. From my wonderful professor (Mr. Ian Lynam), to all the friends I made in my classes, and of course everyone who lived at the dorms with me, the people I have met have made as much an impact on me as my studies and travels here.

Three friends seen riding on their bike while on my way to the station.

Views of Tokyo from a building near my internship office in Ebisu.

A crepe I bought on Takeshita Street during my weekly visit to Harajuku.

People lining up for the next train at Shibuya Station.

My friend, Kazuki, a native of Japan, on our lunch together!

Views of Odaiba from the train.

One of the many local festivals that happen throughout Tokyo. This one was right outside the station I get off at for my internship!

 

This past week was the official last week for the study abroad program. Personally, I was busy until the very last minute with school, my internship, and trying to squeeze in as much time with everyone! It was really weird making plans with people and coming to the realization that it would be the last time (at least for a while) until we would see each other again. It was a strange mix of feeling excited to hang out in Tokyo, and reminiscent because it was the end.

Matt, Seamus, Colin, Ariel, and I at our last “family dinner” together. [Photo Credit: The Waitress]

A very colorful room of interactive art at the Sky Circus in Ikebukuro.

Ariel in her favorite room at Sky Circus.

Ariel and I enjoying a light display inside a room covered in mirrors.

Hinako, Ruchi, Kelsang (birthday girl!), myself, and Hina! [Photo Credit: Rob Weiss]

Greg giving his speech surrounded by Erik, Kevin, and Shaani.

Phil, Shaani, Kevin, and myself!

The whole family together at the end! [Photo Credit: Super nice locals!]

As luxurious as this trip was, it was not an easy one, but it was most definitely worth every penny and struggle it took to get here. I am truly grateful for Temple University for allowing me this opportunity. They say study abroad is a once in a life time experience, and I am here to reassure you that statement rings true.

Final Thoughts on Final Days, Live from Narita Airport

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Today at around noon in Tokyo, Japan, I took the last final exam of my foreseeable college career. It was a bit strange getting sentimental as I wrote about American international relations in East Asia, but I did nonetheless. This week has been full of paper-writing and test-taking, but I’ve still been keenly aware of the little time I have left to be with my friends and TUJ peers – and be in this program in general. So, in between studying, I’ve crammed outings for sightseeing and quality time, including trips to war museums by Yasukuni Shrine, Ueno markets, and a long-awaited return trip to Ikebukuro’s Sky Circus.

 

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Next to this koi pond at Yasukuni Shrine was a vending machine selling boxes of fish food for ¥100 apiece. I happily took part.

For those have been following along, I’ve been meaning to come back to Ikebukuro ever since my last visit to Sky Circus. The first time, I took advantage of almost all the interactive observatory had to offer, excluding one thing: a window with a transcription reading, “Let’s meet here at night, because something happens in this window.” I finally made the trip back, but not until my very last night in Tokyo, planned last-minute. The mystery window turned out to be a compatibility tester, which two of our friends tried out in good nature. It was then that we realized that Sky Circus is a popular location for young couples on dates. It was an interesting little observation on local life that wouldn’t have been possible with a little context and a second look.

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Matt and Seamus, to their delight, find their compatibility rating to be 99%.

 

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A shot of Richel in my favorite room in Sky Circus: one made completely of mirrors that shifts scenes of different seasons.

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Friends feeling sentimental on their last night together in Ikebukuro. (Credit: Seamus Kirby)

 

 

Today also marks my last day as a Temple student in the Kanagawa dorms. With two close friends I’ve made on this trip, fellow students Richel and Seamus, I have a trip to Osaka, Kyoto and Gifu planned. Directly after my last final, I headed to a bridge and park area off the stop before Musashi-Kosugi, called Shin-Maruko. Each day to and from class, I’ve watched this bridge go by. Much like with my return to Sky Circus, I’ve been telling myself I’d visit, but had no concrete plans. A last-minute, final group get-together – almost the entire Summer Study Abroad group living at the dorms – is what eventually got me there. As TUJ student Greg said in a small speech, this trip has brought together people from very different places and very different backgrounds – and very fast. For a group of people who I’ve only known for two months, saying goodbye was heartbreaking. We, unfortunately, had to rush to the dorms to move out and make it to the airport. In the end, we may have lingered just a bit too long trying to delay our sad farewells, and missed our 8:25 PM flight. Terminal 3 of Narita Airport is where I sit now, awaiting the next soonest at 9:45 AM. Of anywhere, however, I’m glad that it’s this incredible city of Tokyo that I’ve become stranded in.

What’s next, after Japan? I return home, hopefully soon to find a place and career back in New York. I’m still not entirely sure what that entails. If my time in Tokyo has shown me anything, it’s that it is okay observing and discovering as you go. This city is fluid, containing both traditional and modern, peace and robustness. Appreciating and applying this is its own precious skill I feel I’ve acquired, thanks to my time with this wonderful city, my wonderful friends, and TUJ.

Summiting Mt. Fuji

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This past Tuesday into Wednesday, my friends and I climbed Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan.

We first arrived on Mt. Fuji at the 5th station of the Subashiri trail, where we were greeted with two small stores, a restaurant and a place to sit and eat. Everyone there was very welcoming, and as we walked towards the stores a lady handed us a small cup of hot soup, which was totally free! My friends and I hung out here for a bit, to get acclimated to the high altitude we were at. We grabbed a bite to eat and looked around the shops.

After an hour or so, we began our ascent with high energy and high hopes!

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Seamus, Ariel, and Matt at the start of our hike

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Starting altitude!

The beginning of the hike was very green; not what I pictured a volcano to look like. The temperature wasn’t too hot, but it was extremely humid. It was probably the most humid climate I have ever experienced.

Within the first hour or so of our hike, it began to downpour! We scrambled to get our ponchos out of our bags and to put them on. The end result can be seen below.

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Seamus, Ariel, and Matt in their ponchos

After all our struggle to try and get our ponchos on, the rain only lasted for about 5 minutes.

From there, we continued to hike up the mountain, taking breaks every now and then.

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6th Station on the Subashiri Trail

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Almost at the 7th station

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Views up the mountain when the clouds cleared away

Our very helpful and kind friend at TUJ OSS (Temple University Japan Office of Student Services), Nahomi, advised that we should reserve a stay at a hut along Fuji, and boy, am I thankful we did. Nahomi had warned us that some climbers experience altitude sickness, which is basically feeling dizzy/nauseous because of the extremely high altitudes. Of course, I was the one to succumb to this sickness, so my way up the mountain was rather painful. When we had finally reached our hut, I was so grateful for a roof over my head, a hot meal, and warm bed to lay down in. My head was spinning and lying down for a few hours helped me settle down.

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Ariel, Matt, and Seamus eating a hot meal at our hut

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Two very tired bloggers [Photo credit: Seamus Kirby]

We stayed at the hut for a total of maybe 4 hours and then continued our climb to the summit! We left the hut at about 12:30am and it was an estimated 3 hours until the summit, where we would watch the sun rise over the clouds.

When I told friends and co-workers that I was going to climb Fuji, many people told me that I should definitely buy a hiking stick. Hiking sticks are sold at the 5th station, where you start, and come branded with about 3 stamps. As you go up the mountain, you get a new branding at every station you reach, until you finally get to the summit. The catch is that you have to pay for each branding along the way, so it can be a little pricey. However, I think that the hiking stick really helped me along my ascent, and definitely during my descent along the mountain. Plus, now I have a really awesome souvenir!

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Getting my hiking stick branded!

The last 2 hours before the summit were so slow! At this point, most of the trails have merged and so there’s just hundreds of hikers queueing on the trail slowly making their way to the summit. Be that as it may, when we finally reached the top, the view was amazing. Not to mention, the satisfaction of being able to say I had reached the summit of Mt. Fuji.

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Seamus, Matt, Ariel, and myself at the summit for sunrise! [Photo credits: fellow hiker]

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Above the clouds on the summit of Mt. Fuji.

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Me showing off my “Fujidas” shirt on the top of the mountain! [Photo credit: Matt Hazell]

Would I do it again? Maybe. However, I’m very thankful for the experience. Climbing that mountain took a lot of strength and mental endurance I didn’t think I had. But, now I can use “I’ve been to the top of Mt. Fuji!” as my new ice breaker.

From the Dorms to Fuji and Back

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Even a Sunday can be eventful while abroad with TUJ. My week began with exploration of an area that is very old to Tokyo, but very new to me. Asakusa is one of the city’s oldest districts, and was the site of my final outing with part of my Practical Japanese class and our professor, Matsuhashi-sensei. A few of us treated her to brunch at a small okonomiyaki joint. We then explored the area, stopping by Sensō-ji, a well-known and longstanding temple built in the 7th century. Although Asakusa is a large tourist attraction of Tokyo, and thus we were caught in large crowds most of the time, I felt fortunate to experience it with my professor, who could provide some background and answer questions.

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The owner of the restaurant took our photo after our okonamiyaki, shared on a hot plate. From left to right, back to front: Greg, Matsuhashi-sensei, Kevin, Rob, myself, and Ruchi.

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We unexpectedly pet an owl while exploring the streets of Asakusa after brunch.

Not less than a day ago, three study abroad friends and I took on summiting Mt. Fuji. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit how nervous I was about whether or not I could manage. But with the help of my friend’s good planning, the advice of the OSS office, and several boxes of Calorie Mate (a popular energy bar/meal replacer in Japan), we completed the journey.

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The Wednesday morning sun rose around 4:40 AM on the summit of Mt. Fuji.

We woke up early in the morning to make our way to Mt. Fuji’s 5th Station from the Shinjuku bus terminal. By the time we prepared ourselves for climbing by eating a sizable lunch, it was already around 3:00 PM. As physically taxing as it was, the lesser-taken Subashiri Trail was very tranquil, and one of the only places that I can remember ever experiencing complete quiet. We arranged to stay briefly at a hut at the 7th station, 3,000 meters above ground level. Taking our time to rest and have some fun, we were a couple of hours later to our respite site than we planned to be, which only made our warm meal and bed even more satisfying. We made sure to be up by 12:30 AM sharp to avoid the same situation and make the sunrise at the summit, the main event of the trip. Many pictures, huddles for warmth, and warm bowls of ramen later, we began a difficult descent. At 10:00 AM, we finally arrived back at the 5th station and were immediately greeted by travel guides and shopkeepers who were eager to help us on our way home. Thanks to them, we made it back to the TUJ dorms early and without too much trouble. Especially after what has probably been the most taxing physical event of my life, it was more than I could ask for.

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A worker at the 6th station hut brands a stamp into my party’s walking sticks.

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I ordered a simple miso ramen at the summit.

Yesterday’s helpful community on Mt. Fuji has not been an isolated experience. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the noticeable friendliness of construction workers and shop owners on Mt. Ashigara. Over last weekend as well, I witnessed such greatness in the community where I live. Just around the corner from the school’s Musashi-Kosugi dorms in Kanagawa, there is a daycare where students can often see children at play while on their daily commute. Participating in some type of mini summer festival, the kids of the preschool marched down the block on Saturday afternoon, carrying mascot-themed mikoshi and chanting exclamations. Along with their parents and teachers, the kids immediately waved to us when they spotted us from our window. I was charmed by this exchange, and felt grateful to momentarily be a piece of the subtle liveliness that is the residential neighborhood of the Musashi-Kosugi area. Though I move out in a matter of days, a part of me will certainly remain.

 

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I managed a picture of the children’s festival parade from the window as the Musashi-Kosugi community waved at us.