Let me paint you a picture…

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A cold clear day, and the sun shines brightly without its normal burn. A bit of residual frost clings to branches of bushes and trees, and condensation drips into and dampens the ground. And it is silent. Not an uncomfortable, awkward silence but an awed and reverent stillness.

The temple grounds are scattered with a few people. There is the occasional faint rattle of coins that clink their way down into the slatted box in offering, in the hopes that the prayer will be heard. Up ahead looms a giant Buddha that dominates the vision, perfectly polished and larger than life. A serene expression graces its features as if all is right with the world, as if no violence or tragedy rears its ugly head halfway across the globe. Oddly enough, its very presence is humbling.

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The Giant Buddha at Jourenji Temple

To the left is a traditional styled building and shallow pond that is framed by a low wooden fence. In the center of the water is what appears to be a small shrine, and the pond itself is bordered by rock outcroppings and sculpted trees that are at once somehow both natural and controlled. A couple of ducks peacefully paddle in the pond, unafraid of human presence. The water ripples with flashes of gold and red as the lithe bodies of koi slice through the surface. It is akin to being suspended in time, and you dare not raise your voice higher than a hushed whisper. Breathe it all in as its serenity settles in your bones and calms your heart.

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Koi pond at Jourenji Temple

To the right are a set of stairs that lead below to a row of small statues of wizened old men. Who are they? What do they represent? The paths are well maintained but worn by the many feet that have crossed these same stones. Surrounded by plants that have survived the winter, it is as though nature is barely restrained all around.

Miniature gods

Stone statues at the bottom of the stairs

Exiting from the back, the road is lined by people’s prayers and wishes in the form of wooden plaques that hang from the board as well as slips of white paper with fortunes that are tied to the strings on the wall so that they will come true. It is like being surrounded by hopes and dreams, and I wonder who these people are. If I have passed them in the streets, sat next to them on the train, and I cannot help but feel such nostalgia and yearning and curiosity all mixed together. It is altogether overwhelming that stepping onto the main street, I have to look over my shoulder for one last glance before returning to pedestrian life. Wow.

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The wishes and hopes written on wooden boards

I was lucky this semester to schedule my classes so that I don’t have classes a couple times a week. It allows me to visit places without having to deal with the rush and chaos that happens during the weekends, and thanks to that, I was able to absorb the beauty and peace of Jourenji Temple without interruption. One does not need to be Shinto in order to appreciate the landscape and architecture or the uplifting and spiritual atmosphere no matter how clichéd that sounds.

I think if possible, one should visit these little gems during weekdays, because it is easier to connect on a personal level. In the hustle and bustle of weekends, the impact is diminished, and that is a shame right there.

Museum Trips

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Museums in Tokyo have cheap admission rates and limited-time objects on display.

Tokyo National Museum

 

In Tokyo all the architecture treasured buildings are besides modern buildings tucked in the streets. Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples are in the city can be side by side with the grocery store, schools, residential buildings. The much larger scaled sacred buildings are more cherished and established as tourist attractions. However, the locals value these sacred places and visit to pray. Historical areas aren’t celebrated as much; therefore, there isn’t any english text to describe the history. The best places to learn about Japanese traditions, history, art, and architecture is to visit museums.

You can learn about the Japanese art and architecture by going to the museums.

The Museums are a huge hit in Tokyo because they have valued fragile pieces that can only be shown for a limited time and museums admission rates are very cheap. As a classroom, we have visited two museums so far; Tokyo National Museum and Nezu Museum.

Nezu Museum

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Saturday Class Trip to Nezu Museum

 

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Nezu Museum’s Garden

 

 

Food, Glorious Food…

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Food is a magnificent thing. It has the ability to unify people because let’s be real, everyone is happier with a full and satisfied stomach. And contrary to what people may think, food is not as expensive as people may think it is in Tokyo. At least, not if you look in the right places.

I am probably a little biased since I really like Japanese food, so I have yet to find something that I outright disliked. However, having talked to others, I think the general consensus is that the food here is pretty great. And did I mention, extremely convenient? And I mean that in literal terms too, because normally people wrinkle their noses at the thought of convenience store food. I mean, who in the U.S. would claim that convenience store food is yummy, much less purchase seafood dishes there? But the konbini (convenience store) food is actually a full meal, and they offer a variety of options from sandwiches to curry to even sushi. Not only are they tasty and legit, but they’re cheaply priced at around ¥500 (about $4.00 USD).

Because I am the type of girl who is always looking for great deals, I have figured out that the supermarkets in Japan also sell these pre-made meals. It just so happens that these meals are discounted after a certain time, meaning that those prepped during lunch are marked down at around 2-3P.M. and the ones for dinner are discounted at around 9P.M. In fact, I have taken to shopping late night because of the lowered price on not just the packaged meals, but even on fresh produce and meats and the bakery. Go Japan for making it easy and affordable for busy people!

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The pre-made meals at LIFE supermarket

I don’t know if it is because people in Japan lead fast-paced busy lives, but everything here seems to revolve around efficiency. There is no shame in buying these already cooked meals because everyone else is doing it, too. One of the best things I have discovered is microwavable rice–as in it is already cooked and in an air-sealed packaged, and I wish they had this back home. At the same time, I admit that I question what goes into making rice able to last without going bad or losing its texture, but because I cannot read the packaging’s list of ingredients, I am going to remain in blissful ignorance.

Also, while on the topic of supermarkets, shopping here is unlike that in the U.S. People seem to shop for only enough to last a max of a couple of days. I think this is a combination of wanting to eat fresh, but also the most a person can carry back home or fit in their fridge, since everyone shops locally and everything is closely compacted together. As a result, they do not have shopping carts but instead have shopping baskets, which you can stack on a mini metal wheeled frame of that of a real shopping cart if you so please. Also, cashiers only offer, at most, 2 plastic bags, and you are to carry your basket to one of the counters on the side to bag your items yourself. I think this is in part why you don’t need to wait in line for that long–fewer items and self-bagging.

I rest my case. The Japanese are masters at efficiency.

“You can’t understand a city without…”

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“Using its public transportation system.” Or so said an author off a Pinterest post. But it does ring with a certain truth. I think I have picked up on more cultural nuances on just observing the transportation here in Tokyo.

Take bicycles for example. They are the equivalent to cars in the U.S. and a large portion of the population ride one. They even have registration and should you be caught with a bike that does not belong to you, woe unto you. However, it is understandable that with such a large population, small streets, and reliable subway/train system cars are less efficient.

Bikes

A small section of the bike parking at the LIFE supermarket.

From the cars that I have seen and even the trucks (And speaking of cars, Japan is one of those countries that drive on the left side. Just a tip to avoid accidents), vehicles are all tiny compared to the U.S. Back in America, it isn’t uncommon to see 16-wheelers and large SUVs, but in Tokyo, the cars are about the size of smart cars and the trucks aren’t that big either–about the size of a small pick-up. Considering Japan is an island with a fairly large population, they have become adept at conserving space as there really isn’t room for expansion.

In regards to Japan’s public transportation, it is truly remarkable–highly efficient and reliable. With the number of people who cram in during rush hour, there is a sort of unspoken etiquette in which there is near silence while riding and no eating. When it comes to boarding, people part to the side to let passengers disembark and there is minimal, if any, pushing or shoving. But there’s an exception. Tokyo is well equipped to handle most natural crises, but when it comes to snow, which doesn’t happen particularly often, public transportation gets hit hard as I found out firsthand. My morning trek to the station was slippery and full of slush and snow. In the snowy areas of the U.S., this would already have been shoveled out and salted which goes to show how often it snows in Tokyo.

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The view from my balcony. It snowed the night before and rained the rest of the day.

As for the actual train ride, I have never been squished that much before, but other than the extremely long wait for the train, the actual ride wasn’t particularly unpleasant. The train, always clean with good ventilation (I’m always amazed at the cleanliness because back home, public transportation is really gross), may have been jam packed with zero wiggle room, but everyone bore with it quietly. It seems really odd to bring it up, but I can’t help but also appreciate that it didn’t smell off, because in the U.S. the trains and the stations always smelled unpleasant. Despite being smothered with other bodies (I’m not particularly tall), nothing smelled bad. I’m not too sure if this has to do with the diet or if people here have particularly good hygiene, but I had a moment where I obsessed over it.

To reiterate how considerate people here are, even riding the escalator involves manners. If you aren’t in a hurry, you are to stand on the left side, leaving room on the right for people in a hurry to run up. And there is a line to wait should there be a lot of people. I’ve seen this done in China, too, so this might not be exclusive to Japan, but it is still way more courteous than the organized chaos found in the U.S.

Honestly, I wish that the public transportation system in the U.S. was as nice as this since it would make my college life so much easier. I don’t have a car at my home campus, and it feels like a chore to endure every time I take the bus or train. But with how dependent we are on personal vehicles and our vast highway system, I don’t think that will change any time soon. Not to mention, the U.S. is a large country so I suppose it would not necessarily be as applicable as is in Japan.

IN TOKYO!

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The view from Chome street, a three minute walk to TUJ!

Tokyo is an amazing and inspiring city and I am spiraling in the honeymoon phase with it.

Here is a short list of cultural difference that I have experienced:

Culture The people are extremely polite. It’s in the culture that they “keep the peace.” People care about the quality of life; not just for the individual person, but the overall quality of life for the community.

Public transit Riding the escalators to the public transit, people that are not rushing walk on the left side, opening the entire right side for people running to catch their trains. The trains are always on time or -/+3 minutes late (not counting unusual delays.)

Garbage The garbage is divided into burnables (food, clothes, paper), non burnables (plastic), and recycled cardboard, cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles.

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Gresham Smith and Lourdes Monje excited for the first day of TUJ orientation.

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I had to get one, too! Photo credit: Lourdes Monje

I lucked out by not experiencing culture shock (so far!). I absorb and retain everything I am learning about the people and the culture.

Welcome Party

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Gresham Smith, Anatol Steck, and Lourdes Monje socializing at TUJ Welcome Party.

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Fumitaka Takiurs enjoying the brownie at TUJ Welcome Party.

Food It can be cheaper to dine out instead of buying groceries. 7/11 is a great option for cheap, healthy, and fresh food. There are convenient stores and vending machines at almost on every street.

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Grocery stores have 40% sale on lunch boxes an hour before the stores closing time.

Architecture The Japanese architecture have a system of “scrap and rebuild” as a means to purify the space. Depending on each case, houses are demolished around every 20 years for a new generation. It’s considered “weird/uncustomary” to have an old house that another family has lived in. Temples and Shrines are also demolished to purify the space.

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Why can’t our Starbucks have two stories of bookshelves?

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Lourdes Monje capturing the moment of Liangchi Zhang (Lynch) and his favorite architect Tadao Ando. Jazzmynn besides Lynch enjoying the moment.

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Lynch Zhang, Jazzmen Hong, Najah Yasin (me), Lourdes Monje in Roppongi Hills after buying textbooks at the grand Starbucks. Photo Credit: Gresham Smith

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While buying school supplies in Tokyu Hands, Lourdes Monje spotted the cute animal-shaped pen section. Uh-oh!

 

A journey of a thousand miles…

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…begins with a single step. Or over 5000 miles with a single plane ride. Regardless, it has been a whirlwind of madness in only a couple of days. Although I have been abroad before, it is the first time that I have gone by myself, and to top that off, I don’t speak the language at all! I understand that for some people, this sort of uncertainty is frightening and might dissuade them from studying abroad, but don’t let it stop you! There is so much to be seen and there are so many different people that you will encounter.

Prior to leaving the U.S., I was all gung-ho and enthused about just the concept of being in Japan, but it wasn’t until during my flight there, that I was realized the magnitude of being in a foreign country for a whole semester. All the concerns and anxiety I had conveniently bubbled up inside and intermingled with my excitement, which, in all honesty, felt like a whole lot of nausea. However, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to an extremely cheerful pair named Enzo and Michelle who were on their way to Indonesia to give humanitarian aid on behalf of their church. Hearing their enthusiasm and positiveness about their own trip despite also being unfamiliar with the country soothed my own concerns. Towards the conclusion of our flight, I was surprised and warmed when they asked if they could pray for me as I embarked on my journey. Although I lay claim to no particular religious affiliation, I was touched that they would extend their thoughts to me. It reminded me that this was part of the reason I chose to leave the comfort and safety of home. I had been looking forward to meeting strangers and forging tenuous threads of relationships in the hopes of making new friends and fond acquaintances, and unwittingly, it happened on a plane of all places. Most people, for the most part, ignore their stranger seatmate in favor of solitude, and I admit guiltily that I normally would do the same. Somehow, that wasn’t the case this time, and I would like to think of it as an omen of good things to come. Regardless, in a world that grows ever so more interconnected, I hope that maybe our paths will cross again, but until then, they remain a happy memory.

Upon arrival in Tokyo in the late afternoon, I confess to be unimpressed with everything, but that can be chalked up to exhaustion and jet lag. The day after, was an entirely other story. The walk between Kitazono Women’s Dorm and the subway station was lined with stores and restaurants with people hurrying to their respective locations and bikes weaving past pedestrians as vehicles squeezed their way through narrow roads. It was a charming mix of modern and traditional with the adorable lanterns and blinking signs to entice shoppers. I think that even after four months are up, I will still be enamored with the streets of Tokyo.

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Walking back from the station as evening approaches.

As a longer term visitor, we had to register ourselves at the local ward office which comprised of another load of paperwork and a great deal of wait time. Luckily for me and a couple of other girls that I met, the minutes flew by because we met a cute old Japanese man who gave us little origami Santas and then asked if we wanted to learn origami, an offer that we promptly accepted.

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These are a few that he folded, but he also folded a two colored crane and shirt with collar and created a toy gun out of chopsticks.

Of course, we didn’t understand him, and he probably knew we didn’t but he kindly continued to interact with us, using gestures and pausing every so often to check if we were following his neat folds of the colorful square pieces of paper. Not to mention, one of the employees there was accompanying him and assisted in translating some of what he said. According to her, he was 92 years old and would come into ward office every day or so (It might have been every week but I can’t remember unfortunately) to give her origami. When I asked him if I could get a picture of him, he agreed and even adjusted his hat for the camera, which I thought was the cutest thing ever.

Ward Office

He asked if I wanted to be in the photo with him so of course I agreed!

My impression so far is that people here are incredibly polite and disciplined. Everything runs smoothly like well-oiled cogs in machinery, because everyone cooperates with each other which is very different from the chaos back in the States. I think it is probably a great example of how Japan is a collectivist culture, focused on what is best for everyone versus the U.S. which is highly individualistic and focused on what is best to further oneself. The longer I stay here, the more I appreciate the way of life in Japan.

Spring 2016, here I come!

 

Concluding Thoughts

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Well……… this is a little bittersweet because it’s already the last post! This fall semester really has flown by, and honestly it has been a whirlwind of emotion. Everything that the Temple’s study abroad program coordinators talk about in the beginning are true — culture shock, elation, budget, etc. There are so many things that I think have changed many of the students here over the course of just a few months… but I’ll start with some of the little everyday things:

  • You’ll start referring to temperature with Celsius instead of Fahrenheit
  • You’ll get used to sharing the sidewalks with bell-less bicycles.
    • (One way to avoid crashing into them is that you just have to walk ahead with a very focused stare!! As long as you’re not trying to get out of their way, it will be a smooth passing.)
  • You’ll carry an umbrella because the weather can be moody.
  • Almost everyone uses LINE, and you probably will too. You’ll also probably get addicted to the cute sticker packs on there.
  • The conbini (convenience store) food is actually pretty tasty… even junk food here is not that poisonous to your bodies.
  • BUG SPRAY IS YOUR BEST FRIEND IN THE SUMMER!!!
  • A lot of people wear the same thing… but you will probably pick up that trend because let’s face it, Japan is super fashionable

These are only some of the things that I can think of, but I’m sure there are more. I am absolutely positive you will have mini identity crises along the way and struggles to reconcile cultural differences, BUT these are all necessary to ultimately understand Japanese culture on higher levels. If you’re living on-campus, you should definitely try to meet people outside of the college circle. While it’s also nice to grow together with other people who are feeling and experiencing the same things as you, you can also learn more from putting yourself out there (and chances are, the Japanese people would love to meet you too since they, too, are interested in American culture)!

For me, it was really, really helpful to meet some of the older folk in Tokyo. Specifically, Glenn and Mari from the Japanime internship (offered through Temple’s credit internship program!) because they explained many things to me and were so hospitable!! (If you’re interested in the Publishing Industry and looking into internships, I highly recommend Japanime because you will learn a lot about the process of bookmaking and about cultural differences and Japan in general if you just want to talk!)

Even your teachers here would be good people to talk to, since they’ve lived here for a long time. It always puts things into perspective to see how someone who has come before you has adapted and loves the country they’re in.

Concluding Thoughts

Glenn & Mari from Japanime!

Personally, I have learned so much this semester. I can’t tell if my world got bigger or feels smaller, now that I have spent some time in another country… but I am so thankful for all the things I have experienced and all the people I have met while being here!! Truly the end of a year that I will not forget.