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

Hakone Trip Part 1: Temples and Hot Springs

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The Office of Student Services (OSS) hosted a one-day trip to Hakone, located approximately 50 miles outside of Tokyo. The area is known for its picturesque landscapes (especially in the Fall), hot springs, temples, and mountains.

The first stop on the trip was to Daiyuzan Saijo-ji, an expansive area filled with many different temples under the Daiyuzan Saijo-ji name.

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Over 1,000 steps to the top to reach a secluded shrine

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Halfway up and Forrest isn’t even breaking a sweat

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A large statue of Kannon in the sunlight

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Madison rings the bell before prayer at one of the many temples

After exploring the temple grounds, we hopped back on the bus for our second destination: Tenseien Hotel and Onsen.

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This is one of those onsen hotels that give out yukata (cotton kimono) to wear around the premises. The trip fees included an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet serving both Japanese and Western food. The restaurant within the hotel overlooked the scenic ponds, waterfall, and mountain on the hotel grounds. The yukata come in very limited sizes (especially for those who are over 6′), but they can be easily adjusted.

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Forrest and Joe posing in their yukata

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Madison and Abigail are monks meditating under the waterfall

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Now they are just standing underneath it

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There were many koi filling the hotel’s 4 koi ponds

We made one more stop before heading back to Tokyo, but it was so surreal that it deserved its own post. Check out part 2!

Asakusa

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MID-TERMS ARE OVER!

To celebrate, a few friends and I decided to taste the more “touristy” side of Japan. This is Asakusa, known for its plethora of winding shopping streets, temples and shrines, rickshaw runners, and street food stands.

It was a clear and sunny day, which was a welcome surprise after the past few days of constant dark clouds. The main entrance to Asakusa is called Kaminarimon, and it’s a red gate with a huge red lantern (which is what the temple is famous for). From the gate, Tokyo Sky Tree was visible, towering over the rest of the buildings. f16901_tokyo_tokyo-sky-tree_tamlynkurata

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Kaminarimon

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The main shopping street between Kaminarimon and Senso-ji Temple

As depicted in the picture above, the street is incredibly crowded. I said Asakusa was touristy, right? The majority of the people walking the street are tourists, so many of the vendors speak English (for those of you who want to explore but know very little of the language, this is a perfect place to start). The shops sell a large variety of goods from toys and games to keychains and coin purses to full kimono and yukata sets.

One of the activities you should look into if you plan on going to a temple or shrine is omikuji (御神籤). These are sheets of paper with your fortune written on them, which you are given by shaking a box of sticks and the stick that appears corresponds to the drawer with your fortune card in it. They range from great curse (the worst) to great blessing (the best). If you get a bad fortune, don’t panic! There are places to tie your bad fortune to so you don’t take the bad luck with you. Sahara and Marie took a few tries, but a good fortune finally appeared.

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Finally got a good fortune!

 

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Senso-ji Temple

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Another religious activity you might be interested in deals with the huge smoking pot in front of the main approach to the temple. It’s filled with incense sticks that you can purchase for about 100yen each. The resulting smoke is supposed to bless you if you waft it towards you. Want to become smarter? Waft the smoke towards your head. Want to become richer? Waft the smoke towards your wallet.

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Incense Pot

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The line of people waiting to pray (the third and final huge red lantern)

If you’re really dedicated to visiting a lot of shrines and temples, you may want to look into obtaining a shuincho (朱印帳)to collect goshuin (御朱印). Goshuin are like stamps that you can collect from almost every temple or shrine in Japan. They are handwritten by a monk or a kannushi, and have the temple/shrine’s seal, name, and date. Each one is very special. Senso-ji offers two goshuin, but most places only offer one.

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Goshuin from Senso-ji

After praying at the temple, we walked around the shopping side streets a little bit. Asakusa has one shop in particular that is known for its large melon pan filled with ice cream. They also offer a spot to dress up and take photos with plastic versions of the bread.

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Melon pan!

 

Exploring Chiyoda

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Over the weekend my roommate and I decided to try and get out and see a part of Tokyo that we hadn’t been to you yet, so we biked from our house in Shinagawa to Chiyoda with the goal of seeing the Imperial Palace.

The bike ride was actually really easy; essentially all that we had to do was take the route we take to get to TUJ’s campus, and then continue down that road, up into and then past Roppongi. Or at least it looked that way on the map. What Google neglected to tell us was that this route seemed like it went out of its way to hit every massively steep hill in Tokyo, and after an hour of this, my legs were so sore that I almost fell over stepping off of the bike.

We finally made it to Chiyoda around three thirty in the afternoon. The size of the park where the palace is was astonishing; things in Tokyo tend to be much larger in real life then they look on the map. We tried to cross one of the bridges over the moat, but the gate was closed. We could just catch a glimpse of what looked like a tall, traditional Japanese style building over the wall. It turned out that we would need to go around to the other side of the park to the east gate to get in, but the park was closing in an hour, and we decided it wasn’t worth it.

Instead, we biked over to Hibya park, and to our surprise, found it the sight a large, international food festival: The Taste of Tokyo festival. This was so much fun, a ton of food stands offering different food and drink native to the nationality the stand was representing were scattered all over the park, and people were sprawled out with their families, eating and drinking and enjoying the fall weather. We eventually settled on getting Indian food, and I had a delicious Tandoori chicken sandwich, which I ate sitting in the grass watching a Japanese movie that was being projected on a big screen. All in all, though we didn’t get to see the palace, the day was a definite success.

The next afternoon I met up with a friend from one of my classes, and we actually went back to Chiyoda, to the other side of the park where I was the day before, to go to the National Gallery of Modern Art. The first thing that surprised me about this visit was the cost of admission. It was only about one hundred sixty yen for a student, which was incredible compared to American museums.

We started at the top floor and worked our way down through an incredible collection of both western and Japanese work. All of the labels and information plaques were in English as well as Japanese, which was life saving. Most of the exhibits were arranged by a certain overarching themes, such as life in the midst of war, the impact of industrialization, or nature and solitude. My personal favorite was an exhibit of modern Japanese art that all had to do with the moon and its relationship to and impact on the human mind.

Both of my trips over the weekend were a lot of fun, enabling me to see a part of the city that I haven’t been to before, and with the museum especially, allow me to experience a side of Japanese culture that I am not usually exposed to in my day to day life here.

Becoming Musical Prodigies (Sort Of)

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I mean, I’ve been playing piano since I was three. Does that count?

 

This Monday was Sports/Health Day in Japan. Instead of studying for Midterms (which we all should have been), we decided to take a day trip out to Yokohama to watch a traditional music concert. Azumi’s grandmother has been playing koto since she was a little girl, and the other SA girls were really excited to see and hear a bit of tradition in a modern setting.

With Autumn in full-swing (the temperatures have dropped from mid-90 F with 100% humidity to mid/low-60 F with 50% humidity), some of the summer foods like cold soba and somen have begun to disappear and are being replaced with “warmer” dishes. One of my favorites is nabe (a pot filled with meat and vegetables simmering in a pot). This particular restaurant served 鴨 (かも, duck). f16801_tokyo_kamo-nabe_tamlynkurata

Upon arriving at the venue for the concert, there was a large exhibition table set up for shakuhachi. It looks like a clarinet, but the mouth piece is very similar to a flute. They were offering free shakuhachi made out of PVC pipe to those who could master the instrument in three simple steps. Want to know how? Follow along: f16802_tokyo_shakuhachi-table_tamlynkurata

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Step 1: Play the plastic bottle

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Step 2: Make a sound on a shortened form of the instrument

 

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Step 3: Make a sound on the full instrument

Only Azumi and I were able to successfully make sounds, so we are now the proud owners of our own shakuhachi.

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Demonstration by a long-time shakuhachi player

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Show time! This is the curtain

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Mrs. Nishizawa and her group performed 嵯峨の歌

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The performance was amazing!

Mrs. Nishizawa invited us backstage to meet the other performers and stand next to a koto (which is over 6 ft tall).

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While I definitely should have been studying today for my midterm, this was a much-needed break from the crowded streets of Tokyo with its large billboards and business suits. Sometimes we need to take a step back and breathe.

 

Rainy Days and Shrine Visits

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Not all learning is done within a classroom.

That’s the philosophy that many students have at Temple University Japan. When the city is your classroom, there is no limit to what you can learn. Keeping that in mind, a few of the study abroad students and one bridge program student braved the rains to learn about the religious culture (namely, visiting a few shrines).

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Takeshita-dori in Harajuku was even more crowded than usual with umbrellas

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Azumi performs harae, ritual water cleansing, before entering the shrine gate

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Sahara follows suit

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Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine), a very popular shrine for visitors, weddings, and the devout to come and pray.

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Ruby and Azumi take a picture together in front of the shrine

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This is ema, which can be purchased at the shrine. You buy the wooden plaque and write your hopes and dreams on it. I hope Richard’s wish comes true!

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Nearby is Togo Shrine, which is a much smaller shrine dedicated to Marshal-Admiral Togo Heihachiro. His flag is presented all over the shrine grounds.

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“Does it look okay?” Azumi, Marie, and Sahara check the pictures they took at the shrine

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Jumped on a train to Atago to visit Atago Shrine and its famous, steep rock steps (very dangerous on a rainy day, so be careful!)

Since Atago Shrine is on a hill high above the city, it was the designated “fire-watching” spot when large fires were common. Thus, the shrine is dedicated to the shinto fire god, Ho-musubi.

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Atago Shrine’s expansive koi pond

With mid-terms coming up in the next weeks, all of the students at TUJ are feeling the pressure, so this little getaway was a great stress-reliever. Good luck with exams, friends!

Tokyo on a Budget

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Tokyo is expensive. I’ve been here for a little over a month now, and my wallet is constantly hemorrhaging in a way it never did in Philadelphia. Nothing, not my classes and internship, not the distance between where I am now and home, not the language and cultural divide between me and the city I now live in, nothing is more stressful to me right now than the increasingly diminutive number in my account balance emails.

To get around this, I’ve had to adapt to living in Japan on a budget. My roommate and I spent last Saturday searching our neighborhood, which includes a large enclosed, pedestrian only shopping street, sort of like an outdoor mall, for the cheapest groceries we could find. Surprisingly, the best place we could find for stocking up on essentials cheaply was the one hundred yen shop, which is basically the Japanese equivalent to the American dollar store. However, just like how Japanese convenience stores are light-years ahead of their American counterparts in terms of what is available, the hundred yen shops we’ve seen put their American counterparts to shame. We were able to stock up on a few meals worth of noodles, soy sauce, spices, and iced coffee for fewer than one thousand yen, basically equivalent to ten dollars.

To help with the cost of living here, and to try and further immerse and involve myself in my neighborhood and life in Tokyo in general, I found a part time job. When living in Japan on a student visa, you are eligible to work up to twenty-eight hours a week, as long as the work does not interfere with your studies, and it is not “immoral” work, which essentially means that you can’t work in bars or nightclubs. I was able to find a job as a preschool teacher at a local English language immersion preschool, about a five-minute bike ride from where I’m living, in Ebara. The school works with children ages three to around six years old, providing both afterschool care during the week, and full classes on Saturdays. Meant for children whose parents want them to learn English from an early age, the classes are entirely in English, and are basically what you’d expect form a preschool in America. We play games and read books, go over the days of the week and the months in the year, talk about feelings and make simple crafts. The only difference is since the entire class is learning English as a second, or in some cases, even a third, language. As one of the instructors, I have to over exaggerate the already exaggerated speech patterns, actions, and facial expressions of a standard preschool or daycare teacher who deals with young children.

I will be helping to teach the Saturday morning class, as my schedule this semester doesn’t give me much free time during the week, but I don’t start until after Halloween, in early November. However, I’ve had the opportunity to help out in a few classes already, as sort of an orientation, and I’ve been amazed at these incredibly young kid’s ability to comprehend and communicate in English, and am looking forward to starting work!

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The author teaching a class.