Week 12- Tori no Ichi Festival

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Tori no Ichi is a famous outdoor market held on the Chinese day of the Rooster (Tori), where people buy decorated rakes to wish for happiness and good business in the upcoming year.

Some of the many rakes sold at the festival- Each year, one is supposed to return their previous rake and purchase a new, larger rake for the next year.

The rakes are very detailed and elaborate!

One of the many busy rows of rake vendors.

Morgan at the Rake Festival!

Some street food- a type of Chinese pancake that is stuffed with a gyoza-type filling.

More street food- chocolate covered mochi!

The festival was located at the Ootori Shrine in Asakusa, which is a shrine famous for its business prosperity.

The entrance to the Ootori Shrine, in which many people line up to pray.

After the festival we ate at Rokumonsen, an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake, meaning “grilled as you like,” and is made with cabbage, eggs, meats, and other various vegetables. The two pancakes on the left are okonomiyaki, and the pancake on the right is monjayaki, which is a thinner version. The chefs come to the table and cook it right in front of you, using short metal spatulas to chop all the ingredients up and form the pancakes into circles.

 

The finished Okonomiyaki- topped with okonomiyaki sauce (similar to barbecue sauce), mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and seaweed flakes.

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6 Steps to Buying and Bringing Back Souvenirs

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Roughly three weeks left and I still have not begun souvenir shopping. When traveling, souvenirs are a given. Everyone who hears you’re going to a foreign country wants something back, which may not be stressful for some, but when you’re on a budget and as indecisive as I am, souvenir shopping is horrible. Not only do I have to find something for everyone that will make them happy, but I also have to manage to bring it all back with me. The whole process is way too stressful. Here’s some steps I’ve used to simplify the whole debacle a bit.

Designate a suitcase for souvenirs.

Before you even begin traveling, you should designate a suitcase for all your souvenirs. Usually, this is the suitcase filled with things that you will end up using in Japan and can throw away (e.g. lotion, soap, old shoes, etc.). By knowing how much space you have, you can know how small you should keep your souvenirs.

Write up a list.

Write down all the people you’re going to buy for. This act will make the process seem much simpler. You will have a clear idea of how much you have to buy. If there are people you have to buy souvenirs for, but you’re not really close to them, you should buy bulk gifts for them (stuff that comes in sets, so you can give each person one thing from each set).

Ask.

Make things easier for yourself and ask people what they want. I’m a super indecisive shopper. I will spend hours walking down aisles, second-guessing what people want, until I finally put everything back and decide to try another store. The worst is when people say, “just get me whatever.” Just remember that these are people who love and care about you and that you can’t go too wrong in what you choose. Worst comes to worst, they’ll remember you’re a poor college student on a budget and that there was only so much you could buy.

Set up a budget.

Tell yourself how much money you are willing to spend. If you are on a tight budget like me, you will want to spend as little as possible. Overestimate how much you will spend (this way, when you go under budget, you’ll feel better about yourself).

Go to 100-yen shops.

This step is not a must in this list, but it’s helpful. Japan has 100-yen shops (you can look them up online) where you can buy souvenirs for cheap. They’re like the American dollar store. Meaning, not everything is actually 100 yen, but still cheap. In the end, most people want things that can only be found in Japan. Instead of spending money on ridiculously overpriced souvenirs at tourist destinations, you can buy something from a 100-yen shop that screams Japan but hurts your wallet less. I recommend small beauty products (less than 100 ml so that they can go in your carry on) or face masks. Cool mugs are my personal favorites (wrap them in plastic bags and carry them on your carry on, so that they don’t break). Tea and snacks if you really want to scream, “I was in Japan.” Cute charms and school supplies are a good go-to as well.

Don’t go overboard.

Pace yourself. After all, if you have trips outside of Tokyo, you’ll probably want to buy things for yourself. However, it’s not like you have unlimited space. Make sure you don’t buy too much and leave room for the souvenirs for other people.

 

Don’t let souvenir shopping get to you too much. Have fun checking out all the cute and useful things Japan has to offer.

A List of a Few Places to Visit in the Tokyo Area

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All the Places to Explore Will Make Saying Goodbye so Hard

Before leaving for Japan, I had so many people ask me what countries were I going to visit while studying abroad. I told them that I’d be too busy exploring Japan to be leaving it. The truth though was less glamorous. I did not have enough money to be going to a foreign country every weekend. Besides, I may be in Japan but I was still here as a student. Meaning, I still had schoolwork to be doing. In the end, I did not end up leaving the Tokyo area (except for one trip I’m currently planning and will do in two weeks). Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Tokyo area has so much to offer, that I feel like I need another two months to visit every part of it. Probably a whole year. What I have seen so far has been gorgeous and exiting.

Asakusa

Asakusa is where I went for my first solo trip in Japan. I had originally gone to see the Sensō-ji temple. The temple was a bit of a let-down. It was such a tourist attraction, with way too many people crowded in to enjoy the experience of being at a temple. The streets of shops, on the other hand, were great to wander through. They sold a great variety of souvenirs and Japanese sweets (wagashi). It’s also really hard to get lost because apparently every one of those shopping streets somehow lead you back to the Sensō-ji temple. Either that, or my sense of direction is just that bad.

Shinjuku

I’m not much of a night life person, so if that’s what you want to know about, sorry, can’t help you. I did go out to Shinjuku at night once. While our planned activities turned out to be a bust, the lights and hustle and bustle of the people at night were well worth the trip. I was mostly satisfied with the amazing street magician we ended up seeing.

On a separate trip, I went to Shinjuku to see the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. It costs 200 yen to enter but well worth the money. In fact, I feel like they are really underselling it because the views in that park are well worth 1000 yen, if not more.

Shibuya

Shibuya station is huge. There’s so much to see in Shibuya so if you’re ever in Tokyo, you will end up going there. My experiences involved shopping for the most part but from what I hear it’s where the clubbing happens.

Yokohama

My first trip to Yokohama, I ended up going to Yamashita Park and walking alongside Ōsanbashi Pier. The waterside view was stunning. My second trip, I explored Yokohama’s Chinatown with a friend. Japan’s Chinatown is very different that the Chinatowns I’ve visited. The Chinatown in Chicago is Americanized but many Chinese people visit Chinatown and shops are more catered to Chinese Americans. Japan’s Chinatown felt like it was catered toward the Japanese. That comparison made visiting Yokohama’s Chinatown interesting.

Ueno Park

Ueno Park is a gigantic park with a zoo and a ton of museums. You can do what I did and just wander or you can visit the zoo or one of the museums. A great tip for those wanted to save some cash: bring your own food. A easy way to spice up the trip is to give yourself a little picnic at these great scenic spots. Not a great cook? That’s fine, then just buy a meal at the conbini and bring it with you.

Shimokitazawa

A great place for thrift shopping. Harajuku Chicago is a great shop to use as a starting point. The area around it has a great many thrift stores. It was amazing how many cute outfits I was able to buy for cheap.

 

Ginza and Kamakura are on my list and I plan to go in the next few weeks (the former for kabuki and the latter for the shrines). If you’re like me and are already stretching your wallet by coming to Japan don’t fret so much about travel. As you can see, there’s still plenty to do right within Tokyo.

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The entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown

Week 10!

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A little piece of home in Tokyo!

The nighttime scene near Shinjuku.

“Piss Alley”- A famous street filled with small bars and eating spots

Water separating the city and the Kokyogaien National Park in Tokyo.

Sunset in Chiyoda.

Adam in front of a “kawaii” wall!

 

View from the North Observatory Tower in the Metropolitan Government building.

Another nighttime view over Tokyo. The tall, very bright building is the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building.

Adam in an area of Shinjuku.

The sun setting over the Imperial Palace.

Three Japanese Cultural Things Before Dinner

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What no one tells you about coming to Japan

11 weeks passed and I’m not sure if I’m used to Japan. I still don’t know much Japanese and I use more hand motions than words in my conversations with the Japanese girls on my hall. I can navigate the Metro fairly well, even without Google maps (not that I wouldn’t use Google maps, but if it stopped working I would be able to decipher the maps and ask people for help). I can confidently order food (with pointing) and I don’t feel so confused about what side of the road to be on. All these little things that were so jarring about Japan have become normal for me. I thought I should share all the little tidbits of Japan that I had wished someone had shared with me before I had arrived. These facts aren’t necessary to know beforehand and one could argue discovering these facts adds to the experience but I thought I might as well share them.

Conbini

I’m sure everyone’s heard about Japan having a convenience store at every corner. If not, you know now. What I did not know about these conbini is that they also sell lunches or bentos. I can buy a box of rice, chicken, and some pickled something for roughly $4.00. Conbini makes me wonder why America is not doing the same but that’s besides the point. Turns out, when you go up to pay for your bento cashiers will say a bunch of stuff at you. Knowing no Japanese like me, you assume they are saying something about the price. They are. If you don’t catch a word of what they are saying no worries, you can look at the register for the total. After, they will say something else. The first time this happened to me, I had no idea what was being said and my cashier did not gesture to clarify, so I just shook my head no. I found out later that they were asking me if I wanted them to microwave my bento, free of charge. Next time I went up, I nodded my head and got a hot meal to take back with me.

Bicycles and Walking

Japan is an island country and much smaller than America. Tokyo is a very crowded metropolitan area. Most people take the train to go anywhere. If you have the train, a car becomes rather useless in the city. Most people in Japan have a bike. Which I had expected to some extent. I was not expecting so many people to be riding their bikes on the sidewalks. Be warned folks. One of the greatest truths I’ve ever heard was that drivers don’t like pedestrians and pedestrians don’t like drivers, but both don’t like cyclists. Some days walking to and from school can feel harrowing from avoiding cyclists. While on the topic of walking, you should know that cars are on the left side and not on the right like in America. I would have expected that to translate when walking but I feel like there is no standard side to be on when walking. Just follow along with what everyone else is doing and maybe generally stay on the left to be safe.

Escalators

There are unspoken rules about escalators. I don’t know who came up with them and how every Japanese person learned them but they exist. The left side is for standing, the right side is for walking. Don’t do anything to mess that up because that’s just rude to those who’re trying to rush (I would know; I’ve been there). It’s amazing how neat Japanese people stand at the escalators. In America, people tend to clump in groups on the escalator and if it were to get crowded, I would expect jostling and pushing. Not in Japan. People stand in line here. I have to say this aspect of Japan I really enjoy because it’s nice not to have to fight to the front.

 

These are only three aspects of Japanese life that took me by surprise, but the list could go on. I hope you all have a chance to live in another country and find yourself stumbling through their normal as you try to find your own normal.

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Enjoying the spectacular sights of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Week 9- Time is Already Halfway Over?!

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Fall has finally arrived here in Tokyo!

The bustling metropolis neighborhood of Shinjuku.

Some adorable shaped macarons! French pastries are very common in Japan.

Mori garden in Roppongi.

Shinjuku- close to the train station.

The NTT Docomo Building, similar to the Empire State Building.

Many streets here often look as though they could be in an American city such as NYC!

Alexa and I in Golden Gai, a popular neighborhood of many small alleyways with hole-in-the-wall bars. (photo credits to Adam George)

The view from Tokyu Square- a large department and food complex close to the dorm.

There is almost a daily beautiful sunset over Tokyo.

Feeling Like You’re Standing Still (the Irony of Constant Movement)

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Now that my time in Japan is nearly half way over, I want to touch up on the various feelings that I’ve been experiencing and maybe some of what you may experience if you decide to study abroad.

A primary primary feeling that sneaks up on me, that still takes me by surprise is homesickness. Sure, scoff at that tidbit of information. Everyone and their mothers have been warned about the homesickness that you will experience when traveling abroad. I thought it would not affect me though. Not because I thought I was above it all but because, while I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, I go to school in North Carolina. I don’t come home during the semester. The first semester I was a little shaky but ever since, my feelings of homesickness have practically been nonexistent. I love my family but I’ll be honest, they drive me nuts sometimes. Being on campus with my friends, my college has become my second home. I guess that’s the problem with studying abroad. No matter how long you’re here, you know that it’s temporary. By the end of the semester or year, you will be going back to your country. All the friends you make while studying abroad, you won’t see for awhile. Some you may not even ever see again. The routines you’ve perfected for everyday life will all become obsolete the moment your plane touches down back home. You will probably never come back to lifestyle or people you became accustomed to while studying abroad. This fact makes it hard not to miss home. After all, relative permanence come with a sense of comfort and security, which we all crave. Too many times in a day, I wish for my mom’s catfish curry and rice, rather the same seaweed and Japanese rice that I get at the conbini. While I hang out and laugh with my friends, I can’t help but think longingly about how much I wish my friends from back home were here too. As I sit and try to gesture a conversation with my Japanese friends, I can’t help but wonder what’s the point if we’ll probably never see each other again.

I know, it’s all rather pessimistic. However, the homesickness does lead into the other major feeling that I’m experiencing right now: desperation. That’s the best word I could come up for the feeling really. All my thoughts on the temporality of being in Japan has made me realized, I’m only in Japan for another month or so! I currently am freaking out at this information because I feel like I have not done enough. This thought does bring up the question: what is enough? I don’t believe four months is enough time to explore all of Japan. I could go to all the tourist spots of Japan but that’s the point of touring a country. Studying abroad should be more than just seeing the sights. The point that I am trying to come to is that I need to embrace the fact that I’m not wasting my time in Japan. I have experienced more than a lot of the people I know have. I’m not saying I’m going to stop venturing out but I do have to remind myself to slow down and appreciate each place I decide to visit. Maybe I come back to Japan, maybe not. Either way, I’ll never be coming back as a inexperienced, confused student. I should enjoy this portion of my life for all it’s worth because I will never come back to this same feeling again.

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The traditional ryokan in Tochigi that I went to this weekend

Week 8!

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The 7/11 near the Musashi-Kosugi dorm. Open 24/7, either a 7/11, Lawson, or Family Mart can be found on almost every block, and they are so much better than American convenience stores!

Aaron on the walk to school with his milk tea!

Parker on a cloudy day in Kawasaki.

A daily view- the building to the left is the Musashi-Kosugi dorm.

The shared kitchen in the dorm- there is one on each floor!

The dorm threw us a Halloween Party- Morgan enjoying free food!

Coby after getting his face painted at the dorm Halloween party.

Just like convenience stores, there are vending machines all over as well. Most drinks cost around ¥100, which is around $1.

A close-up of a vending machine

Aaron studying in the student lounge at TUJ.

All the Japanese Lessons Jammed into A Hair Appointment Gone Wrong

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I’ve been needing a haircut for awhile now. It’s been nearly seven months since my last cut. Being in Japan, where would I go? The shops that are more accommodating to foreigners tend to be way more expensive, from what I could tell online. Thankfully, one of the girls on the hall just had a haircut and I decided to ask her where she got it done. She was very helpful and even helped me set up an appointment online.

Fast forward to Saturday, day of the appointment. Having never been there and being the nervous goose that I am, I left early. I got to the place a half an hour early. Only for them to tell me that I did not have an appointment. I could feel myself panicking because I knew I had an appointment but I had no effective means of communicating this information. Good thing I had the confirmation email on my phone. Only to have the lady show me that the place I had booked the appointment with was near Kawasaki station, not near Motosumiyoshi Station. I had not even known the place was a chain salon. Well, what else could I do? I was not about to pay the ¥2000 cancellation fee. I booked it to Kawasaki.

In my desperate dash to the station and realizing that I forgot my Passmo (a rechargeable train pass), I learned to not waste time searching through convoluted subway maps, where I barely know the kanji for places. Google maps gave me the train lines and station platform numbers but not the ticket prices (which are based on distance in Japan). Just politely ask someone: (place name) ikura desu ka? They’ll tell you the price (this is where it would be helpful to review numbers before going to Japan), you can buy the ticket and be on your merry way. More like rushed in my case. I still got to the beauty salon 20 minutes late. They still made time to get my hair done. The worst part is that I did not know enough Japanese to explain to them what happened. All I can hope is that they understood that I was truly sorry for what happened and that it was not intentional on my part.

The guy who cut my hair tried so hard to use the little English he knew to converse with me, which I appreciated. It was still a super awkward experience since neither of us truly understood the other. I recommend the best way is to show a picture of what you want the cut to look like and have a translator app ready, just in case. It all worked out fine, although the poor guy was clearly not used to curly Indian hair. He looked very confused at what my hair was doing after he had washed and combed it. I wish I could have told him that my hair always acted in this manner after combing it but that was more Japanese than I knew.

I learned to double check times as well as addresses when it comes making appointments in a foreign country. Also, forget the awkwardness and embarrassment of asking someone for directions, because when you can’t read kanji, wasting time looking it up on Google is just not worth it. I want to end this post with just my eternal gratitude to all the people I encountered on this frantic trek to the beauty salon and the people at the beauty salon for accommodating for this poor, confused gaijin.

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My friend and I at a Halloween party the very next day.

Week Seven in Tokyo!

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Nakamise Shopping Street in Asakusa, Tokyo. There are many outdoor vendors selling souvenirs and traditional Japanese foods, and the street leads to the Senso-ji Temple.

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple!

The main hall of the Senso-ji Temple.

Traditional Japanese decorations hung in Tokyo.

The 5-storied Pagoda at Senso-ji Temple. A Pagoda is where the ashes of Buddha are stored.

Some of the many unique Kit-Kat flavors sold here in Japan!

A canal I stumbled upon in the Higashi-Nihombashi neighborhood of Tokyo.

Harajuku’s Takeshita Street, which is a popular pedestrian street with lots of shops and street foods.

A cookie and ice cream shop in Harajuku!

A shop selling beautiful traditional Japanese hand fans!