Monthly Archives: October 2012

This is Halloween

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For a culture that likes to dress up Japan doesn’t really like to dress up. Wait… I think I did that wrong. Japan is a culture that practices the look of foreign holidays without practicing foreign holidays. What? Two contradictory sentences and I’m not even a paragraph in? Oh this article is off to a good start. Okay, some elaboration is required on this one. Ontakesan (the neighborhood my dorm is in) just had it’s big Halloween festival. Now, coming to this country I thought Japan really had a thing for Halloween; they met in high school, started dating, and then went steady for a while. Wait, no, that’s something else entirely. What I meant was Japan really seems like an environment where Halloween would be readily accepted. One is all about dressing up and ghosts and scaring people and generally acting strange, and the other is Halloween.

All kidding aside I really believed Halloween was a big thing over here. At least half the subcultures here are about dressing up, the streets are some of the safest in the world, and companies individually wrap every sweet from cookies to candies. And I was right, to an extent. Halloween is big in Japan, it just isn’t celebrated. Everything takes on a Halloween theme, just like in the States, but the kids don’t Trick or Treat, which is kind of the point these days. There are Halloween cakes, Halloween cookie tins, Halloween rice balls, Halloween pachinko machines, Halloween maid cafes, and you can bet your Halloween hat that all the figure makers push out Halloween themed merchandise.

But despite all of that Halloween, I’m told that nothing particularly special happens on October 31st in Japan. Well, in most places at least. Ontakesan is a little strange, since there is Trick-or-Treating here. I’m not entirely sure how it’s organized, but on the Saturday before Halloween the shops hand out candy to any kid that shows up. And boy do they show up. According to the organizer I spoke to last year saw somewhere in the vicinity of 700 kids and this year even more showed up.

I was on photography duty and what I saw surprised me, or rather what I didn’t see. The bulk of the costumes were of witches, ghosts, wizards, the usual G-rated fair. No zombies or anything gory, which was a bit or a surprise considering how laxer the Japanese rules are about violence than the American rules. But what was really surprising was the lack of kappa, oni, tengu, nurekabe, and other Japanese monsters. The Japanese have a really diverse folk lore full of monsters, especially ones that will play tricks on people who don’t give them offerings. Instead the vast majority of costumes I saw were imports from America, no different than the ones held in costume stores across the US. On one hand I can kind of see why it makes sense to use American costumes for an American event, but I still can’t shake this uneasy feeling that the Japanese are ignoring their own culture. I blame zealous liberal arts teachers for these feelings.

From what I’ve been told and read the same can be applied to Christmas; a holiday everyone decorates for but don’t celebrate. I don’t know how much that’s true though, I don’t live with any Japanese nor will I be here for holiday, so I can’t say for sure. But after seeing how Halloween is done, I wouldn’t be surprised if Christmas was treated the same.
I will say this, the Japanese are efficient with their Halloweens. I’ve never seen Trick-or-Treaters queue up before. Where I come from sugar addled kids generally move in frenetic, amorphous mobs. So kudos to the Japanese for keeping their children together in the face of unlimited sweets.

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Teaching English in Tokyo

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For about three weeks now I’ve been doing a sweet job helping Japanese high school students with their English.  It’s not exactly teaching, and it’s not tutoring.  It’s more like I go in for about half an hour and play games or just speak in English to different classes.  I got this job through one of my host sisters who attends this particular high school.  The program is called English Shower and there are many other young English speaking people working there.  I have the benefit of being a native English speaker, whereas many of the other helpers are from Europe somewhere.  But anyway, it pays really well, is for a short period of time, and is only one to two times per week.  The only bad things are the school doesn’t cover my train expenses, and on days when I have English Shower I have to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to get to the school by 7:55 and get into class by 8 am.  So that kind of blows.  An early train like that is also usually pretty cramped.  But after I do my job, I have a few hours free time to sit in a cafe and do homework or whatever before class, so there are some benefits to having to wake up so early…

There are also many benefits to doing the actual job.  Every time I go, I’m assigned a different class, years 1 through 6, which in American grades translates to 7th through 12th grade I think.  I’m not exactly sure, actually.  But the youngest kids I teach are 12 years old.  On a usual day, I wait in an empty classroom with the other English Shower people and student representatives from the class will come get me and take me to whatever class I have that day.  It’s really fun because they call me “Abi-sensei” (a title I don’t deserve at all but it makes me feel so cool).  When I get into the classroom, I usually just introduce myself briefly and then play a game with everyone.  When I first started doing this, I was so nervous.  I had never taught anything before, and some of the classes I had to teach had 40 kids.  It was so intimidating!  My smallest classes only have 6 students, though.  The night before my first class, I thought up a bunch of different games I could play with the students.  It was challenging because I had to take into consideration different levels of English skills ranging from 1st year through 6th year, and the size of the classes.  Some games only work with small classes.  I think generally good games to play are Pictionary or some type of guessing game.  I feel that something where they have to write or speak English is the best.

After my first three classes, I began to feel more comfortable.  The students at the school are really well behaved for the most part.  I hardly ever have to ask people to stop talking.  They also follow directions really well, which impresses me because I only give directions in English.  The most difficult part is how shy the students can be.  Sometimes they feel too shy to speak or write something on the board.  But I think most students are trying hard to participate.  For one game, I had students write three facts about themselves and then give the paper to me.  Then I read them aloud and we guessed who wrote them.  I got to learn a lot about different students that way and I found they had some really interesting hobbies or unique interests.  One guy just drew a rubix cube on the paper and gave it to me.  I was so confused, but it turned out he was a rubix cube master and just didn’t know how to write rubix cube in English.  After one of my classes, some of the girls came up to me and were really interested in my hair, fashion, piercings, etc.  Again, I felt really cool!  They were all so nice to me.  I’m really enjoying helping out at the school.  It’s a very unique experience and a lot of fun.  I recommend trying to help out at a school or do some English teaching if you go abroad to Japan.

Me with some students from the school

TUJ 30th Anniversary Festival

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Every since I arrived in Japan there was one event that kept cropping up, a red letter day that would pass during my three short months abroad: Temple University Japan’s 30th Anniversary Student Festival. Even though the event itself wasn’t until October, I kept seeing flyers for it all the way back in August. From orientation to the start of the semester to midterms there have been various flyers, announcements, and recruiting calls for the big brewhaha. So last week when I got my hands on the finalized schedule I immediately whipped out my pen and started making plans. Oh the plans. There was going to be a dance competition, a screening of student films, takaino drums preformed by a local school, games, food, and more. Even the opening ceremonies, an event I never attend for anything, promised gifts to anyone who shows up. I learned something about myself; the vague promise of some mystery gift is enough to get me up at 9 in the morning.

So come festival day I woke up, went back to sleep, woke up, passed out, came too, and dragged myself out of bed somehow ahead of schedule, and caught the train to Tamachi. The directions printed on the flyer turned out to be redundant since the flags advertising the festival were large enough to be seen from the main street. So with my trusty camera at the ready I went to the grounds of the school that was hosting the festival, eager to see what two months and the coordinated efforts of Temple Japan could produce. And the answer is… are you ready?…

Ta-dah!

A bunch of pumpkins, a handful of MacGyvered game stalls, a big bouncy thing, and some food trucks. In retrospect that sounds about right for two months work from TUJ students. Okay, I’m not being all that fair. What you see isn’t the entire festival. Here’s the rest.

Ta-dah! Again!

Okay, I’ll admit I’m being facetious about this. The whole thing was a lot smaller than I was expecting for the 30th anniversary of the old American university in Japan, but despite its modest size it was a lot of fun. The psychology club set up basic personality tests and other little party tricks head shrinkers pick up. There was free pumpkin carving, a costume photo booth, some kind of temporary tattoo thing that wasn’t open while I was there, and the gym had been converted into a temporary stage for the main events. Of the games there was ring toss, a shooting gallery using Nerf guns, a soccer challenge, rugby challenge, and this thing:

I have no idea what it is, other than fun. The host of the game (guy in orange shirt) would hoist a ball between the arch there and, at the sound of a buzzer, he would drop it and the player would have to run and try to catch it before it hit the ground. This goes from simple and trivial to delicious and silly when you take into account the fact that players are running on a bouncy house. It does make dramatic John-Woo style dives much less painful, but the inability to get solid footing makes even the most seasoned athlete adopt a looping gait.

Overall it reminded me a lot of the end of summer festival. Sure the bigger temples had all sorts of stalls and booths all over their neighborhoods, stretching out sometimes a kilometer away from the temple proper. But the little shrine in Ontakesan only had a handful of simple booths just inside the temple grounds. It was smaller sure, but it had a certain charm to it that the larger shrines lacked. That’s the impression I got from the TUJ festival; sure it was a lot smaller than the hype would lead people to believe, and other schools or Temple’s main campus probably could of put together a larger show, but there’s something charming plucky about the smaller events.

The many temples of Asakusa

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Last weekend, my housemate and I met up with a few of our friends do to some sight-seeing in Asakusa, an old district of Tokyo that is famous among tourists for its many temples.  It’s also well known for its large markets, and special rice crackers called senbei rice crackers (which I didn’t actually eat any of this time).  We met at a huge temple gate called Kaminarimon in front of the Sensoji temple.  Sensoji is the largest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, it’s gate marked by a larger-than-life lantern and a fair-sized crowd.  Kaminarimon means “Thunder Gate.”  Beyond that, leading up to the actual temple, are very long shopping rows of shops and food stands called the Nakamise shopping arcade.  This is the perfect spot for picking up souvenirs, as they have everything with a Japanese feel you could imagine, and anything your family and friends back home could possibly want from Tokyo.  It mostly has shops with trinkets, bags, clothes, and other goods, but scattered throughout are also stalls with trademark and traditional Japanese street foods and sweet snacks.  At the time we went, the sun was just setting and the lighting in the market felt magical, with glowing lanterns hanging in front of all the stalls that continued in a row as far as you could see.  The crowds had also started to dissipate since the shops would close soon.   We wandered lazily down the shopping arcade until we reached an open area with hundreds of white lanterns strung up in stacks.  We approached a huge incense bowl sitting in front of the ornate and beautifully lit temple.  It was quite a presentation.  The line to pray at this particular temple was so long that we decided not to wait.  Instead we wandered around the zen little gardens surrounding the huge building.  There were bonsai trees, small shrines, and a koi pond with a bridge over it.  It felt so peaceful.  On the bridge, a young Japanese girl was getting photographed in her kimono.  After wandering throughout this maze of greenery, we continued on past the temple, to a more urbanized section of Asakusa.  We were getting hungry and we walked through wide streets with restaurants lining both sides.  All of the tables were outside on the streets in front of the glowing restaurants and people were eating and talking cheerfully at their tables.  There were all types of food to choose from- ramen, okonomiyake, tamagoyaki, takoyaki- all pretty salty, fattening, and delicious.  A huge variety of all my favorite street foods. We chose a place with fried soba, fried chicken, and kimchi pancakes- one of my favorite Korean dishes.  We sat outside on the street and ordered a ton of dishes for everyone to share.  After we had our fill, we wanted some ice cream, so we went in search for some.  While we were wandering around, we saw Sky Tree- a famous, huge tower, similar to Tokyo Tower.  We decided that since we were so close, we might as well walk over to have a look.  Eventually we found some ice cream at 31 (which is what they called Baskin Robbins over here), and then made our way to Sky Tree.  It was a bit of a walk, but the magnificence of the tower made it worth it.  After taking a lot of pictures, we separated and took the train home.  I love taking the day to go sight-seeing!

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A Tour of Yokohama with My Class

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This semester, I’m taking a class at TUJ called Youth and Deviant Subcultures.  It’s an interesting class all about different youth subcultures in Japan, such as the kawaii culture, yakuza, hip-hop, jazz, and so on.  Last weekend our professor organized a class trip for us to go to Yokohama because there was a jazz festival happening.  I thought we were just going to watch different jazz bands perform, but it turned into a huge walking tour, and we got to see a ton of places.  I learned so much from the trip!

Yokohama is a different prefecture from Tokyo, but it isn’t that far by train.  It’s about an hour to an hour and a half away from where I live.  After meeting up with our group, we went to an Octoberfest that was going on and had some jazz bands playing.  It was a giant outdoor festival, very crowded and exciting.  After spending some time there, we walked to a customs museum and briefly looked through the items there.  The customs museum is where things that the Japanese customs people have taken from people trying to bring something to Japan that they aren’t allowed to bring.  I saw a giant clam there that was about the size of a microwave.  I was so confused as to why someone would want to bring this giant clam with them to Japan, but there were many, many strange things there.

After that we walked to a giant pier.  Yokohama is a port town that used to have a large US military base, so a lot of things there are in English.  Usually, there aren’t ships at this pier, as my professor told us, but on the day we went there were two giant Japanese battleships parked there.  My professor said that the Japanese military was trying to get people to rally behind Japanese military, because of the island dispute with China.  It was a strange sight to see the ships there, but we got to go inside them and look all around.  They were quite impressive.

Then we went over to Chinatown.  If I remember correctly, Yokohama has the largest Chinatown in Japan.  It was really cool, full of restaurants, bubble tea, and narrow alleys with lanterns hanging throughout them.  We got to look around a bit before meeting with the group again and heading on our way.  We walked through a very fancy part of Yokohama, as a lot of Yokohama is.  There was a very European looking street lined with high-end European shops.  There weren’t any American stores though.  My professor said this was because the area we were in was an area were many Europeans lived.  We made a sudden turn off the street and hiked up a giant hill through a neighborhood and back into some woods.  I was very confused, but then we came upon a clearing with a dojo-looking building with three walls at one end, a long green meadow, and targets at the other end.  It turned out to be a traditional archery club.  We silently watched a man practicing his archery for a bit.  The bow was bigger than any I’ve seen.  It looked about 8 feet tall, and very difficult to handle.  But he was very well-practicied.  Our professor said anyone could come take beginner lessons at this club, as well.

We continued our tour to an immigrant worker neighborhood- a very poor neighborhood that was run by yakuza (the Japanese mafia).  Our professor led us through the neighborhood and took us outside some of the Yakuza groups’ headquarters.  It was very interesting, but I think everyone was a little nervous.  We didn’t stay too long, and then we went to a Korean restaurant for dinner.  It was a very diverse day.

On our way back to the station, we walked by a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar, and our professor stopped to see if there was a jazz band playing there.  There wasn’t, but the people who ran the bar told us to come stay, because there were a few Japanese actors that were about to perform a short scene in the back of the tiny bar.  We went in to watch, and to our surprise we got to watch some pretty famous Japanese yakuza movie actors.  Afterwords, they came over to us just to thank us for watching.  They were very grateful that foreigners wanted to watch them, and we took lots of pictures with them.  It was a very exciting unplanned part of our tour!

The performance we watched in a tiny bar. Don’t worry! The guns are fake. Good actors, right?

Picking Grapes with My Host Family

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We had the day off last Monday, so our host mom (Okaasan) organized a trip for her, me, my housemate, and our two host sisters to go to Mt. Fuji.  Our host dad was in the US for a business trip, so we decided to have a ladies day.  We booked a tour with a company that picked us up at the train station, took us to several different events throughout the day, then dropped us back off at the station at night.  It was a big bus tour with mostly old couples.  My housemate and I were the only foreigners on the tour, not that it really mattered.  We had to get up pretty early in the morning to meet the bus, and then we were non-stop all day!

First we drove to a vineyard near the mountain.  I didn’t know that vineyards and wineries were popular in Japan, but I guess the area around Mt. Fuji is really good for growing grapes, so they make some nice wines there.  There was wine tasting and snacks, and a little shop.  Outside it was a beautiful day, and the scenery was lovely from the hill where the winery was.  When we finished there, the tour took us to the actual grape farm part.  There were tons of grapes everywhere, mostly hanging high above our heads in archways of vines.  The constructions made these type of grape rooms, with sunlight shining through the leaves.  We walked through the aisles of grapes until we came to a ‘grape room’ with a low ceiling.  The grapes growing from above were huge, bigger than any grapes I’ve seen.  We were allowed to cut down any grape bunches we wanted and eat as much as we could.  Everyone was trying to beat a record that was set by a previous touring family who ate seven bunches of grapes.  I don’t think anyone came close.  Our group could only eat two bunches collectively.  But they grapes were giant, so you couldn’t blame us.

After that the tour company gave us bento boxes to eat on the bus as we made our way to a giant flower farm.  At the farm we got to look around before getting back on the bus and heading up the actual mountain.  We went to the fifth level of Fuji.  Mt Fuji is divided into different levels, and you can drive a car up to level five.  After that you have to hike.  I want to hike Mt Fuji, but we weren’t there to do that.  Still, it was beautiful, especially with all the autumn trees and fog.  Some people were also riding horses on the trails, and a lot of families brought their dogs.  We met a particularly cute husky!  There were some shops where we stopped also, selling lots of Fuji specialty products.  We each received a little bell that was supposed to bring good look and make our lives longer.  But before we could get them, we had to get in line to pass by a man that was standing on a stool and hitting people with bell sticks and yelling something.  He would hit your back, your head, and your butt.  He hit the butt the hardest.  I was sore for a while.  But, it is supposed to drive out your evil spirits, so I guess I should be thankful?

Then we stopped at a shrine that was located on the mountain.  My family taught me how to make a prayer by bowing twice and clapping your hands after throwing some change into a box.  I also got my fortune, which my host sister translated for me.  There are about 6 different levels of luck I think, and I got second to worst.  But, my sister said not to worry, because luck goes in cycles.  Since my luck was low, it should be going up from there!  And actually, I had a very lucky week this week, even though it was full of midterms…

The last stop on our tour was a sushi dinner, all included.  We stopped at a big buffet place and just ate as much as we could.  I was so full that I konked out for the entire ride home.  I really enjoyed spending the time with my host family, and I’m thankful that they plan trips for us like that!

My housemate, me, and our sisters with a friendly husky on Mt. Fuji. My housemate blinked…

One Piece at a Time

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I now completely understand why Pokemon’s Gotta Catch ‘Em All worked so well in Japan, because these people are freaking obsessive about collection. Okay, using ‘these people’ was possibly racist and my anthropology professor would be terribly disappointed in me, but the sheer scope of the merchandising here is staggering. Really, harder to avoid collectables than not. I’m not kidding, they’re everywhere. Get a cup of coffee? A Michael Jackson pin is waiting for you in a cap over the lid. Bottle of tea? Ruroni Kenshin key chain attached to the bottle. Bottle of water? Oh there’s a tiny model airplane attached to it.

Free with coffee, not mail in, right on the lid

Now I’m a nerd, I’ve been to conventions, I’ve seen how much merchandise the Japanese produce for their various franchises. At least, I thought I knew. The sheer volume of these things, it’s apocalyptic. In ten years when American is drowning in fat and the UK can’t move two inches without a dozen cameras spotting them, the Japanese will be lost under a sea of tiny figures and rubber key chains. Heaven help us all if they somehow gain sentience. The Hello Kitty battalion alone would be enough to conquer half the continent (introducing the new Hello War Crime line).

Hello Ancient Curse

And they are everywhere. I mean sure, figures and other collectables are where you expect them to be; comic book stores, the looming anime towers of Akihabara, the internet. You know, all the places you expect to find strange men who quote episode and issue numbers and smell of unwashed loneliness. But it’s far more widespread than that. Above is just outside a museum (guess what the big attraction is). Book stores often have figures. Convince stores sell high end figures for big bucks. Heck, most convenience stores have promotions with big name series to sell unique merchandise. Artificial pop star and tech demo gone wild Hatsune Miku did Family Mark commercials to promote a new game and for the occasion they made figures that now go for well over $100. Heck, the 7/11 in Odaiba has 7/11 Gundams for sale. I’m not kidding, they’re real things.

The day we have all feared has arrived, the convenience stores have weaponized. Begun the convenience wars have.

What really staggers me is how many people buy these things. Back in the states figures and models like this are generally limited to the aforementioned unwashed lonely sect. But here in Japan everyone gets them. In the giant anime towers of Akihabara I’ve seen all types; little kids fresh from school, teenagers keeping up with the latest trends, young adults who are transitioning into the real world, middle aged salary-men, middle aged women, old people, and I swear I once saw a dog trying to convince it’s master to buy the figure in the window. Mind you my generation and younger (>30 years old) are the majority by far, but there are easily twice as many older shoppers here than in the States. It was really unexpected. As a nerd I kept telling myself that anime and manga was just a part of the Japanese culture and there was a lot more to Japan than those. And it’s true, there is a lot more to Japan than just anime and manga. But none of those other things are as in your face as the anime and manga bits. It’s the cultural equivalent to a vocal minority, it may not be the biggest part, but it’s certainly the part that tries hardest to get your attention.

Japanese Theme Parks: Fuji Q

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Recently, I went to a Japanese theme park for the first time in my life.  The park was called Fuji Q, and had all kinds of roller coasters and other rides, such as the swinging boat, rotating/swinging disc, etc.  You know the place.  Fuji Q was also known for having the best rides in Japan, including the famous Fujiyama coaster, which was in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most inversions, or instances in the ride where people get turned upside down (14 times).  We decided to ride that one first.

I went with my housemate, Betrice, and two other Japanese guys that didn’t speak English.  They were cool guys, though.  One of them was a little quiet, and very sweet and considerate.  The other was more of a rocker type, with a lock stuck through one of his ear lobes.  He told us he used to be a host at a Japanese host bar.  He was nice, too, and very funny.  We had met them recently on our trip to Mt. Fuji.  Somehow, through the language barrier, we all agreed to take a trip to Fuji Q.  Luckily these guys and Betrice all liked roller coasters, too.

When we got there, we had a choice of buying a day pass which would give us access to all rides, or an entrance ticket, which was a lot cheaper, but you have to pay for every ride individually.  I thought this was sort of a strange system for a theme park, where normally you just buy one ticket.  It was more like a carnival, where you pay for everything individually, I think.  But Fuji Q was not like a carnival at all.  It was quite large and well established.

Though the park is famous in Japan and has all the best rides, it doesn’t have that many rides.  It has three or four major roller coasters, and then several other large rides, but altogether it’s a lot fewer than what I would see in American theme parks.  There are a few children’s areas, as well.  One of them was Hamtaro themed and very adorable.  But all in all, the park was much smaller scale than what I was used to.  Because of this, the lines to everything were very long.

Back to the Fujiyama coaster.  The wait in line was about 1 hour and 45 minutes, which I thought was crazy, but worth it, since this wasn’t just any coaster.  Later, when we got back to our house, our host sister asked us how long we had to wait in line.  When we told her, she said, “That’s it?!  That’s so good!  Last time I went, I waited 4 hours.”  4 hours!!!  I think that is outrageous, but I guess that’s the way they do it here!  My advice is, if you go to a theme park, just buy the entrance ticket and ride tickets individually, because with such a long wait, chances are you won’t be able to go on enough rides to make the expensive ticket worth it.

I wasn’t upset about the wait, though, because Fujiyama did not disappoint.  I love roller coasters, but I NEVER want to go on that ride again!  It was terrifying.  I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t because all the air was sucked out of my lungs.  I also lost control of my blinking abilities.  As far as bonding goes, though, if you want to become friends with someone who speaks a different language than you, I recommend being scared/shocked out of your pants on a giant metal beast together.  We felt pretty close after sharing that experience.

Posing in front of the billboard outside the Fujiyama coaster

Fuji with Friends

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This past weekend, my housemate and I went to the Mt. Fuji area with a bunch of friends that we had never met before.  I knew one person from the group, the one who invited me.  I had met him about a year earlier in New York City when he was a study abroad student from Japan, but I had only spoken with him once in the park and not talked to him since then.  But, when he invited me to Mt. Fuji, I couldn’t say no!  So we ended up going with him and 15 other Japanese people.  Very interesting experience, since nobody spoke English, except for the guy who invited me, and my Japanese is not even at a conversational level.  But everyone was fun and laid back after we spent some time together, so it actually turned out awesome!

My friend, Uki, picked my housemate and I up at our nearest station on Saturday morning.  He was with one other friend, and after picking us up, we drove to another station to pick up a couple more people.  I sat in the passenger seat with Uki driving.  Then we joined a small caravan, with two other cars filled with people, and started our journey to Fuji.  We stopped along the way at a giant roadside stop with an enormous food court to have lunch and awkwardly attempt to make conversation with the people from the other cars.  One friend gave our car a couple of CDs to listen to on the way, since we couldn’t figure out the radio.  One of them was Backstreet Boys’ greatest hits.  So we put it in and set off once more.  To my surprise, Uki knew all the words to every song.  He sang them quietly while he drove and I stared in disbelief.  He proudly told me, “I went to their concert!”

After a drive of only a couple hours, we arrived at our first destination:  a cave.  The first cave we went to was an ice cave, and though it was hot outside, once you went underground and to the bottom of the cave, temperatures were below freezing and there were giant blocks of ice everywhere.  I’d never been in a cave before.  After that, we visited one other cave before driving to a small cottage where we were staying for the night.  The cottage was located in a small village of cottages where people stayed when they came to visit.  It was very comfortable and homey, and there was an onsen nearby.  After a big bbq outside our cottage that night, everyone went to the onsen for a bath.  But before we unrolled all the futons and settled in for the night, we took a walk to the lake shore to light sparklers and run around.  It was a beautiful night, and Mt. Fuji’s figure was outlined by the moonlight across the lake.  We walked back to our cottage and slept on our very comfortable futons, and drove home the next day.

On the way home it was dark outside, and the typhoon had come, so it was raining pretty hard.  I was asleep in the passenger seat, when all of a sudden I feel a splash of cold water on my face and hear a roaring wind.  I woke up shouting, and turned to Uki, who was laughing at me.  He said,”I wished you to feel typhoon, to get full experience.”

For a lot of the trip, I felt a little frustrated.  Of course people were talking to each other and laughing and having an awesome time, and I just wanted to be able to talk to them, too.  Normally I’m a very friendly and sociable person, but I don’t think my personality can show at all when I am unable to say anything to anyone.  A lot of times I could tell they wanted to talk to me, too.  We were enthusiastic to be friends, but we couldn’t communicate.  It was a very strange feeling.  But even with this barrier, I was able to make friends with some people and have a great time.  I was happy to be able to be with such a large group of awesome Japanese people!  They were all nice to my housemate and I, and we shared a lot of laughs.

Me and everyone on the trip, in front of the cottage area where we stayed

Art Museums in Japan

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I’m an art major, and part of the reason I wanted to come to Japan was to see all the wonderful museums and galleries, as well as get a feel for what inspires Japanese artists.  Though I’ve been in Tokyo for one month already, I haven’t been to all that many galleries.  But last weekend, on a very rainy Sunday, I got to go to the Yokohama Museum of Art with my Japanese friend.  I was going to see the last day of an exhibit by one of my favorite Japanese artists, Nara Yoshitomo.  For someone like me who loves Japan and loves art, this outing really couldn’t get any better.

Yokohama is a bit far from where I am staying- about an hour and a half by train.  But I thought it was worth it and I’d been wanting to go to Yokohama.  My commute to school every day is also an hour and a half by train, which I was really worried about.  But once I started doing it, I found the ride wasn’t bad at all.  In fact, I enjoy it.  It’s the perfect time to listen to music, read a book, or study.  If you get a seat, you hardly notice the long commute.  So I used the ride to Yokohama for some good quality conversation with my friend, trying to learn more about the culture of Japan.

As I said before, it was a very rainy day on the day we went.  It’s monsoon season because the season is changing, so it’s been raining frequently.  But I think rainy days are perfect for going to museums.  After we got some lunch at a Chinese restaurant that my friend picked out, we went up to the impressive building.  There were many people going to catch the last day of the exhibit, mostly Japanese people, although I did see many foreigners there as well.

Although I went to see the artwork, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I found it very interesting to be looking at work by a Japanese artist with Japanese viewers.  For one thing, in a room full of work, people walked around in a counter-clockwise way.  I was used to going clockwise around a room.  But besides that, I tried to see people’s reactions to the works.  I wanted to know if they liked the pieces.  To my dismay, I couldn’t tell anyone’s reactions or emotions at all.  They were totally straight-faced.  I mentioned this to my friend, and coincidentally, he had been doing the same thing as me- trying to gauge people’s reactions.  Though he was born and raised in Japan, he said he couldn’t tell anyone’s emotions either.  They looked straight-faced to him, too.  From the foreigners there, I could somewhat tell what they were thinking about the piece, or at least whether or not they liked it.  My friend and I both thought it was strange and we pondered it for a while.

I was really happy I got to go to the museum with this particular friend, because I’ve never talked about art from a “Japanese” perspective, by which I mean with a Japanese person from and in Japan.  It made me think about art a lot differently.  Actually, my friend was asking ME a lot of questions about what I thought about the art, and some very difficult questions as well, such as “Why do artists exist?”  This question is normally very difficult even when you’re speaking to someone who has the same first language as you, but trying to communicate these ideas across second languages was perhaps one of the most intellectually challenging things I’ve ever done.  If you go to a different country to study art, I think it’s essential to talk to someone from that country about art.  Personally, it really expanded my mind, and forced me to think of new ways to explain things.

Entrance piece for the Nara Yoshitomo exhibit at Yokohama Museum of Art