Monthly Archives: November 2013

Akita/Iwate Road Trip: Day One

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This past weekend (a four day weekend!) I attended the last long TUJ trip of the semester — the Iwate/Akita Road Trip. It was an amazing experience! The first day, we visited Chuson-ji Temple, Motsu-ji Temple, and then stayed in a wonderful Onsen Hotel for the very first night.

Chuson-ji is most noted for its gardens and beautiful scenery:

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The sun was shining bright when we got there, and in all the right places. It was so nice to experience something other than the city for the first time in a long time (for me at least). Thankfully, there was more nature to come!

Motsu-ji Temple was next on the itinerary:

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After a long day of travel and a night filled with card games and Onsens, it was time to leave the first hotel for our next destination– but not before I got some photographs of the area in the beautiful morning sun!

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There were so many beautiful spots to explore on the first day, and it was all worth it. Not only that, but it was my very first onsen experience as well as my first time eating a traditional Japanese dinner/breakfast. Little did I know there was so much more left to experience and enjoy. So stay tuned for day two of the trip!

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Halloween in Japan

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I’m sure that everyone is familiar with Halloween, but do you know how people get down in Japan? It is actually quite different than in North America. Now just as a disclaimer, I’m only speaking about what I know from what I’ve heard from people, and I know that everyone’s experience is different, so just bear with me, k?

So the celebration of Halloween in Japan is a fairly recent phenomenon. As you know, it is a western tradition, so from what I’ve been told, Halloween hasn’t really been that popular among Japanese people until about five to ten years ago. Crazy right? We had a Halloween party at my part-time job, and about 50% of the people who came didn’t dress up. That’s how new it is, people don’t dress up at a Halloween party. . . . . .sigh. But that’s alright, because afterwards, I got together with some friends, all dressed up, and we hit the town!!

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In the past two weeks we went to Shibuya, Yokohama, and Omotesando. Here, I’ll post some photos for your viewing pleasure.

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Once the sun sets, the ghouls, ghosts, and cos-players come out for a night of fun!! But unless you are making your own costume, since Halloween still isn’t really a big deal here, you may be confined to fewer options. For instance, I swear I saw about 89 Sailor Moons, 75 Luffys, 35 Colossal Titans, 24 Princess Jasmines, 1,000,000,000,000,000, cheetahs / bunnies / cats / nurses / cops /and doctors apiece. And each level of dress-up was different.

There was the guy who throws on a cape and calls himself a vampire, or the girl who puts on a headband with ears and she’s a cat, but for every lazy / last minute costume there was an amazing one to balance it out. There were a lot of Disney characters, anime characters, school girls, and celebrities ( Elvis, George Bush, Obama, and Michael Jackson all came out to play!)

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There was also a very interesting trend that I saw among a lot of the people out and about. It’s called the “Just Add Blood” syndrome. Basically, you can dress up however you like: as a bunny, sailor moon, princess Jasmine, Mario, but in order to finish the look you Must. Have. Blood. Or scratches, or bruises.

Of course there was the classic bloody doctor but there was also, bloody bride, bloody bunny, bloody Winnie the Pooh (I kid you not) bloody Hello Kitty, bloody Power Rangers, bloody  Jack Sparrow (who still looked really awesome) and the wonderful bloody Cup Noodle (I really regret not taking a photo of that when I had the chance.)

And everyone saw how awesome or creative everyone else’s costumes were, so people were standing in the middle of the street just taking photos. So imagine a giant mob of people throwing up piece signs, camera flashes coming from every which way, and every historical person, pop culture reference, Disney and anime character and a guy wearing cat ears in attendance. It was pretty crazy, but kind of fun too!

Another thing besides dressing up that I love about Halloween are the seasonal snacks and goodies. In all honesty, they should really be here all year round, but I guess they wouldn’t be as special if they were. Baskin Robins has some really amazing sundaes and Häagen-Daz has some tasty pumpkin and hazel nut flavors.

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A bakery near me is selling some amazing sweet potato pie, walnut taiyaki, and some pumpkin shaped and flavored goodies.

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Sorry if this is making you hungry, but I couldn’t help myself!! Welp!! That’s all for now, see you again next week!!

Temples Galore! ( Akita and Iwate )

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TUJ’s final organized trip of the semester was the road trip to the Akita and Iwate prefectures. Our group of around 50 loaded onto a bus starting TUJ at around 6:30 in the morning, most of us heading out from the dorms at around 5:15 AM to make the commute and catch the earliest train. The hours spent on the way up were mostly in silence, due to most of us opting to sleep rather than view the landscapes. Headphones and ipods galore – it wasn’t much of an exciting ride, with a few rest stops to tide us over so we could empty our bladders and refill our snack supply.

We spent the days on the road in plenty of different settings, but for now let’s just talk temples.

Traffic ended up keeping us a bit behind schedule, so we had to cut a few of our views short, spending only a little time at the Hiraizumi Cultural Center so we could get our bearing on the area. Afterwards, with some hot cocoa in hand, we made our way up to the first major stop on our tour of Northern Japan: Motsu-ji Temple, also known as the Motsu-ji Jodo Gardens. The temple was founded by the Jikaku Daishi Ennin in Year 3 of the Kasho Era (850). At the time there was also established the Shichido Garan (a seven-temple compound) and a 40 temple, 500-monastery compound was also eventually constructed for the successor to the grounds. Most of this has been lost to fire and only a few buildings remain, which include several small shrines, including one where the Yakushinyorai (a Buddha to cure all ills) is housed.

The grand feature of the area, though, is Oizumigaike Pond, that stretches out in the center and has not changed in over 800 years. Near the center there is an artificial mound known as tsukiyama and an arrangement of stones, that form the garden stream, called the yarimizu. The landscape is simply breathtaking, and when we arrived the time of day was perfect for viewing, the sun reflecting on the pond and the water crystal clear. We spent a good 30 minutes taking a lap around the pond, pausing at the shrines and a few of the natural marvels, such as a forked tree which may have had artifacts hung from it at one point. The area itself is very peaceful, and despite all the people there it was quiet and serene and relaxing compared to the hours spent jammed into a bus.

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Afterwards we made our way to the largest temple grounds in the area of Hiraizumi, the Chuson-ji Temple grounds. In the latter half of the 11th century there were two bitter wars fought in Oshu, the northeastern area of Japan. In the first fo those, Lord Kiyohara lost his father, wife and children during the conflicts. Instead of seeking revenge or hatred he instead turned to constructing the Chuson-ji Temple and offered a pledge to Buddha to console the spirits of the dead, whether friend or foe, human or animal. The main hall is called Hondo and is the center for the services and rituals of the temple and even open for members of the general public to practice Zen seated meditations and copy sutras. There is also the Sankozo, a museum to house over 3,000 treasures from the time of Oshu Fujiwara, among which are three massive seated buddhas.

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By far the most amazing building is the Konjikido, also known as the ‘Golden Hall’. It was completed in 1124 and the principal image of the hall is Amida (Buddha of infinite light). The entire inside of the building is cast in a bright, golden glow and the inlay is a work of iridescent shells, the Southeast Asian rosewood, and African ivory, representative of the trade network at the time. In the center there is a small daises, which houses the mummified heads of four generations of Fujiwara lords.

Outside of these temples the area is just as vibrant. Much of the land is against a rather deep chasm, which stretches a good distance across. There are small shrines dedicated to the symbols of the Chinese zodiac as well as structure near the entrance dressed in vibrant flowers. The slope downhill is rather harsh, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people took a little tumble over the years, but beyond that the area surrounding the temple is inviting and serene, just as the last.

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On the second day our group only made a small pause at a shrine but it was a marvel none the less. Our bus pulled up alongside a shrine known as The 10,000 Buddhas of Shinzan. The outside resembles any other shrine one would come across in the area, the familiar wooden structure and the box left out front for offerings, but the inside is a marvel. The walls of the temple are entirely constructed with thousands of small statues of Buddha, lined up against one another. Even the ceiling is filled with these, smiling down at you as well as watching over you. There is a small shrine in the back corner with a large, golden statue, some fresh flowers surrounding it which shows the shrine is still being taken care of, despite being a little out of the way and hidden.

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The final temple on our trip was the Takkoku no Iwaya Cave temple. The main hall is known as Bishamondo, built to give thanks to Bishamon, the god of war. It was built into the rock wall next to it, becoming a ‘cave temple’. There are 108 statues of the temple’s namesake installed inside and the temple was erected as a place to pray for peace in times of turmoil. The temple itself was burnt down in 1490 but immediately rebuilt, so the one that stands today isn’t the original, in fact it was rebuilt again after a fire in 1961 and many of the statues were lost. The stone wall near the temple features a carving of Buddha that legend says was carved by Minamoto no Yoshiie firing arrows at the sandstone cliff. The 16.5 meter high Buddha is one of the five largest in Japan and is more commonly known as the Northern Rock Buddha. It was originally a full figure of a seated Buddha but the lower part was destroyed during an earthquake in 1896.

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Several smaller halls dot the area as well, included one dedicated to Benten, a goddess said to protect people born in the year of the Snake and who promotes intelligence, happiness, and skillfulness. The pond in front of the hall is known as Gama no Ike, or Toad Pond, though now it seems to be mostly inhabited by rather large Koi fish eagerly awaiting a meal. There is also a hall for the god Fudo, who has a similar job as Benten, as he protects people born in the year of the Chicken (Also called Rooster) which happens to be my Chinese Zodiac sign, so I took a moment at the hall. While the area was a lot smaller than the previous temples, mostly due to fire and other disasters, the same feeling of serene calm slid through the grounds. Perhaps even more so, as there were less people in the area and our group was more or less left to ourselves.

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It was wonderful being able to see such ancient history up close and though there are trends to the designs and structures of these temples each one has a unique flavor and feeling to it. I’d love for a chance before the year ends to visit the temples of Kyoto as well, but for now the Akita and Iwate prefectures were enough to give me a taste of Japanese culture and history.

Before you leave. . . . .

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Hi everyone! So I’ve seen and done a lot since I’ve been here, and I have to say that I am so happy that I was at least somewhat prepared before coming here. Japan is, after all, a foreign country, so there a things that are different here than than in America. So I thought I’d share some tips with you guys, and things you should do and know before you come here, so that you’re not completely lost like a few of my friends were when they first arrived.

I think that the number one thing that one should do before coming here is learn the language. Now I’m not saying that you should be 100% fluent without even the slightest trace of an accent,  but at least know the basics before you get on that plane. Luckily for me, I studied Japanese for about four years, but a lot of people come over without even knowing how to say thank you! ( Which is arigatou gozaimasu (ありがとう ございます) for the record). I think that it is important to learn the language so that you can communicate effectively with the people around you. Pointing, grunting, and using body language will only get you so far.

Most of the people here speak minimal, or no English at all, so I think learning the language is very important. You can order food with confidence, have random conversations with strangers, and make new friends! You may come into contact with other foreigners here who also don’t speak English, so you can bond through the shared knowledge of Japanese!!

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Learning how to read at least hiragana and katakana (kanji is a whole ‘nother beast) will also be helpful to you as well. Although kanji is an integral part of learning Japanese, you can usually get by with just a knowledge of hiragana and katakana, and it’s not that hard to learn! If you studied for 30 minutes a day, everyday for two weeks you should be able to get the hang of it. Take a look a the menu I posted above. Although there is some kanji, most of it is in hiragana and katakana, so if you know how to read it, you can read the menu! Some places do have separate English menus, but since English is not the primary language, whatever restaurant you go to will most likely not have one. Also, you can purchase an electronic Japanese-English dictionary to help you figure out words you’re unfamiliar with. And of course there are apps for everything these days, so you can download a dictionary for free, or upload a kanji reader onto your phone.

Before you come to Japan….learn how to use chopsticks!!

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They may seem intimidating at first but it is crucial. All of the restaurants that I’ve been to ( with the exception of foreign restaurants and fast food joints) have only provided chopsticks, and occasionally a spoon. It’s not all that hard to do, but definitely practice before you leave!

Another things you should do it take a look at this:

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This is a map of the Japanese subway system…yeah. Once you get here it’s really not all that bad…so says the one who gets lost all the time. I’m not saying you should memorize this (even some of my Japanese friends get lost) but at least take a good, long look at it. I’m actually not even sure if this is helpful, but it might be a little less frightening and intimidating if you know what it looks like, and prepare yourself mentally..haha.

Learn some customs!! We have the internet so there are plenty of ways for you to learn basic customs. In Japan there are many customs, and as a foreigner most people will not expect you to know most of them, but there are a few that you should be familiar with:

  • Take your shoes off before entering a house. (sometimes this is true for restaurants and karaoke rooms)
  • Never stab your food with your chopsticks, or stick them into a bowl of rice
  • Bow when you greet someone, when you leave, when you apologize and when you are thanking someone (of course there are other instances when you should bow, but just know these basics)
  • Slurp your ramen noodles…really hard!! (That means it’s delicious)
  • Offer your seat on the subway to an elderly, injured, or pregnant person. (They also have designated seating)
  • Don’t j-walk
  • Stay on the left side of the escalator (unless you are in Osaka) the right side is for people who want to walk up
  • Don’t tip!! One of my favorites
  • Don’t speak loudly on the train, subway, bus, or in a cafe (you will get annoyed stares)
  • And finally…..always use your peace sign

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Let Them Eat Cake. . . .And Take Purikura! ! !

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Lately I’ve been finding myself in Harajuku a lot. . .If you haven’t heard of it before, it is a ward of the Shibuya prefecture where you will glimpse the good, the bad, and the just plain weird fashion of Japan. Basically it’s where all of the trendy people go; high school fashionistas, the fashion rebels, lolitas and so on. If you want to go to Harajuku, then don’t be afraid to dress up in your most eye-catching outfits, or you might feel a little under-dressed. Yes, even sleeping babies in strollers are mini fashionistas in Harajuku. I like to think of it as it as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu meets high school girl:

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Harajuku’s fashion is truly one of a kind, but as the title suggests, today we are going to talk about cake!

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If you love cake, and you love buffets, then this is the place for you!! It’s an all you can eat, cake buffet! Yes, you heard right!

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And it comes fully equipped with a chocolate fountain, so you can eat all the sweet things that your sweet tooth desires. . . .covered in chocolate!

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Now there is a bit of a catch; the price is about $15 dollars and you have a time limit of 90 minutes. While it may seem like a reasonable amount of time, if you’re chatting or catching up with friends it can fly by rather quickly. But it is well worth the price. If you love cake, then you will definitely love it here! There are original flavors, as well as seasonal, so around this time there are a lot of apple, pumpkin and nutty flavored sweets! But the goodness doesn’t stop there! You can also have ice cream, and a meal after your dessert! They have a variety of different kinds of pastas, curry, and toppings to create you own healthy salad. (You know, so you don’t feel so guilty about pigging out on all that cake and ice cream!!)

Overall the atmosphere was really relaxing. The seats were comfortable, and not all squished together like they are at a lot of Japanese cafes, there was light music playing in the background, and cake, cake everywhere!

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And once your time runs out, what better to do than Purikura? Purikura is a way to take selfies without shame, as they are very popular in Japan. Whether alone, or with a large group of friends, you can never go wrong! Purikuri (Print Club) is a large photo booth where you can take photos of yourself (face shots and full body) and decorate as you please.

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It’s definitely a lot of fun, because you can pose however you want, and when your finished you can enhance your photo. They have stickers you can add to your photo, you can draw and write on them, add makeup (blush, lipstick) and adjust the color. You can make your eyes bigger, your face smaller, and add hats, cat ears, and other cutesy accessories to fit your needs. Yes, it’s very cutesy, but also very fun, even guys try it out every now and then!

When you’ve overindulged on cuteness, and can take no more, there are shops where you can find posters, cards, photos, stickers, and calendars of you favorite J-pop/J-rock idols!

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If you like k-pop, they have a section for you as well.

Now of course, there is soo much more to Harajuku than just cake, Purikura and japanese idols, but that would require a much longer post. Hmm. . . .something to think about.

Well, that’s all for now, and hope you enjoyed!! Eat cake! ;P