Monthly Archives: February 2014

Art History Field Trip: The Setagaya Art Museum

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Being an Art History major, I’m really excited to find out that TUJ’s classes incorporate many field trips into the curriculum. This week my professor brought us to the Setagaya Art Museum to view an exhibit on the avant-garde Japanese art group Jikken Kobo. Since no photos were allowed in the museum, here are a collection of pictures from our pleasant walk to the museum.

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Another plus to the field trip was the opportunity to view a new Tokyo neighborhood. Setagaya was lovely on this cloudy day.

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The walk to the museum from the train station offered countless views of the area, including this walkway above the highway. These can be seen all over Tokyo. They’re a great use of design to impact the flow of pedestrians.

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These passages also offer great views of the sprawling city streets from above.

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The layout of Tokyo is always unexpected, offering surprises at every corner.

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Even with the massive urban development, there is an attention to nature, especially in the numerous parks around the city. The Setagaya Museum is located in Kinuta Family Park, which was filled with families enjoying the area.

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After a 20 minute walk through Setagaya, we approached the museum. The building was surrounded with beautiful sculptures.

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While this is hardly representative of the exhibit itself, the photo in the sign offers a hint at the collection of works by Jikken Kobo, which included photos, sculptures, paintings, drawings, film, music, and significant historical documents of the group’s exhibitions during the mid-20th century.

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Adding to our enjoyment, our professor decided to bring along his infant to see the art as well. Adorable!

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Snow-kyo Weekend

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Tokyo received a large snowfall this past Saturday, with as much as 19 inches of snow in certain areas. This is a rare occurrence for the city, as it was the city’s largest snowstorm in over a decade. The unusual event gave rise to a sense of festiveness, despite most businesses and eateries remaining open throughout the storm. I eagerly braved the cold and ventured through Tsunashima, a scenic neighborhood one station behind Hiyoshi (where the men’s dorm resides). Below I will share the observations I made and the rare winter scenes I managed to capture.

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A wintery scene outside of the Hiyoshi Men’s Dorm

Young and old alike ventured outdoors to experience the winter weather. Local employees could be found outside shoveling out their storefronts, including businessmen in suits and women in short skirts and high heels. While passing through local rural neighborhoods, I saw a surprising number of senior citizens outside shoveling their driveways and sidewalks. While areas of northern Japan, such as Hokkaido, receive substantially larger amounts of snow, Tokyo’s snowfall is infrequent and in low quantities. This fact, in conjunction with the nation’s aging population, may have given way to less cautionary behavior outdoors. More than once, unfortunately, I witnessed an older person slip and fall while shoveling a doorstep, venturing up a hill or digging out a stuck vehicle.

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Most businesses remained open despite the weather

The sudden snow limited transportation in a variety of ways. Cars appeared the worst off, with a  large number of vehicles stuck on small, neighborhood streets and even on larger highways. Many rural backroads are very narrow, with steep hills and sharp corners that only worsened driving conditions. Buses remained in service, but at greatly reduced speeds.

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I witnessed somebody sliding down this street

Trains kept up and running too, but at a reduced service, as the electronic station signs indicated. Most appeared to be operating at approximately half their normal capacity. Even at this reduced schedule, however, trains arrived regularly enough that transportation by rail remained viable.

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A snow-covered Shinto shrine in Tsunashima

Another observation I made was the abundance of snowmen on Japanese streets. Snowmen in Japan vary slightly from those commonly seen in the US, with just two lumps, as opposed to three. In addition to seeing snowmen on residential properties, I also found a number of them in parks, on city sidewalks and even outside storefronts. Some included carrot noses and twig arms, and almost all came with an engraved face. On two occasions I saw playful adult women rolling up snowballs for snowmen.

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This was the largest snowman I found, built anonymously outside of a hair salon. The employees were pleasantly surprised when they ventured outside.

As the snowfall continued later into the afternoon, the wind grew much heavier, to the point where walking home became difficult. Nearly all Japanese carried umbrellas throughout the duration of the storm, despite the fierce winds. On rainy or snowy days, stores often offer bags to stowaway wet umbrellas.

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If you look closely, you can literally see how strong the wind is blowing the falling snow

With the temperature back up to the 50’s and 60’s the following morning, the snow did not last for very long. However, as I conclude this entry, Tokyo is presently experiencing yet another winter storm, not even a week after the first. Conditions appear worse this time around, however, as the storm coincides with the Friday rush hour home. One of the main train lines from Hiyoshi Station is down completely until further notice.

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If this persist, perhaps Tokyo snow may cease to be a rare occurrence.

Eating Our Way through Tokyo: Okonomiyaki

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Another day, another amazing meal. This time we tried Okonomiyaki, a savory “pancake” dish that is cooked at the table on a flat griddle.

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The bowl that contained a combination of cabbage, egg, and tiny little shrimp was mixed together to create a yummy batter. Then, the mix was poured and cooked right there!

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There is an incredible amount of variety in toppings and Okonomiyaki types. I was very impressed with the skills of the waiter! The staff was very friendly and forgiving of our broken Japanese.

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He even let us flip the pancakes.

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Or, at least, we attempted to. Usually there is a point where the expert has to step in to make the results as delicious as possible.

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This one was especially delicious. It is yakisoba, i.e. fried soba noodles covered in batter and egg!

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Each flip was very exciting; it smelled incredible and we were starving after a long day of walking around.

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I was amazed at these minuscule shrimp, they were delicious!

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And the final result: incredible okonomiyaki drizzled in sweet, savory sauce and delicious mayonnaise. I am definitely trying to repeat this meal sometime soon.

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It’s perfect for group outings, a true Japanese family-style meal.

Ueno Park and Odaiba

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For nearly a month now, my afternoons and weekends have been dedicated to exploring my areas of interest throughout the city. I will share two particularly scenic parts of Tokyo that I visited last weekend.

On Saturday I visited Ueno Park, taking the Yamenote Line to the massive Ueno Station. One of many station exits led directly to the park, and in minutes I found myself overlooking urban sprawl. Set in the middle of the city, areas of the park are fairly high up, allowing for a bird’s eye view of Ueno. The park is full of wide paths, making it accessible for joggers, bikers, or children playing. However, calling this space a “park” may be an understatement. The area is also home to art and historical museums, restaurants, children’s rides, and even a zoo.

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The Ueno Zoo was my favorite destination of the day, and admission was a mere 600 yen. The main exhibit was the playfully lazy giant panda, although the zoo also housed a birdhouse, arctic animals, penguins, and everything you would expect to find at a large zoo. Ueno Park was so large that I will need at least another full day to experience everything it has to offer.

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Excited children continuously shouted “Panda-san” (Mr. Panda)

The other area I had the pleasure of visiting this weekend was Odaiba. A good portion of Odaiba’s entertainment center is accessible through high walkways that connect different buildings together, allowing for optimal mobility without the need to cross any busy highways.

One of Odaiba’s main attractions is the Fuji Television building, a twenty-five story complex with several floors set aside for shopping, family activities, and program memorabilia. One floor allows visitors to watch certain television sets from above during filming. While visiting the studio was free, a 500 yen ticket was needed to access an elevator to the 25th floor observatory.

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A ground view of the spherical observatory

The iconic observatory, modeled in the shape of a sphere, offers a visually stunning panoramic view of Odaiba.

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Observatory view of Tokyo Bay

I may have missed the beach and shoreline entirely had I not seen them from the observatory.

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Observatory view of the shore and picnic areas

In addition to the view, the observatory offered another surprise, as it was decorated to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the massively popular anime One Piece, which is broadcast by Fuji TV. Life-size figures, episode screenings and merchandise filled the observatory (not to mention a One Piece-themed restaurant, found on the 7th floor).

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The scene from inside the observatory, decorated to celebrate the 15th season of “One Piece”

Despite being such a crowded, built-up city, Odaiba is very scenic near the bay, where a manmade beach and ferry service attract quite a number of visitors on a sunny day. A long, grassy, tree-lined walkway lines the bay, along with picnic tables, benchers and piers.

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The scenic walkway along the shore

A nearby mall offers a variety of popular stores, including Toys R Us, a Disney Store, restaurants, clothing chains and souvenir shops. At night, colorful lights illuminated the elevated walkways and stairwells. The Fuji Television building then proceeded to display a gigantic moving light show on the side of the building, with flashing colors set to accompanying music.

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The stairs leading up to the 7th floor of Fuji TV light up and change colors after dark

Tokyo is packed with free or inexpensive attractions and scenery to take in, and I’ll surely be returning to both of these hotspots. In the meantime, I will be searching for more exciting areas to share.

Exploring Tokyo: Shimokitazawa

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To continue our adventures through Tokyo, we visit one of the city’s hippest fashion-forward neighborhoods. Shimokitazawa has plenty of music venues, vintage clothing stores, and quaint food joints to make it one of the more popular areas for students and laid-back young crowds.

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Most known for its used clothing stores, Shimokitazawa has dozens of little worlds to find great, cheap clothes and oddities.

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The streets are lined with bins of discounted clothes; everything in this was only 100 yen (about $1)!

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One of the more popular used clothing stores is Don Don Down on Wednesday (www.dondondown.com/), offering very cool re-used finds from Tokyo’s closets.

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An exciting difference from the high prices of other shopping neighborhoods, these stores are great for the wallet, especially the stores that offer every item for 990 yen or less!

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Shimokitazawa is not just a hub of great used clothing, but also for those who are looking for interesting trinkets for their collections. For example, these vintage pins are from across Europe and America.

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With the impressive amount of second-hand stores, there’s something for everyone.

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It was nice to have a change of scene from the sometimes overwhelming atmosphere of the bustling city center of Tokyo. Of course, we had to stop to get some sweets.

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The Japanese love their delicious pastries and confections, and waffles are no exception.

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We ordered a green tea waffle, complete with delicious green tea ice cream. The waffle itself was unexpectedly crunchy, a very pleasant surprise!

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My fellow TUJ semester abroad friends Erica and Carolyn were excited to say the least.

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As for me, a crepe from the street was precisely what my sweet tooth wanted.

Exploring Tokyo: Roppongi

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So begins our adventures into the complex city of Tokyo! We start with Roppongi, a famous and active area of Tokyo that is most well known for its nightlife. Since it is fairly close to the TUJ campus, a few friends and I decided to take the walk to see the neighborhood.

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Roppongi is a corporate wonderland, loaded with entertainment venues and restaurants.

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The neighborhood is a playground, with countless stores. The most incredible location was a pet store that housed some of the most adorable little baby puppies and kittens I’ve ever seen!

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It was another day of beautiful weather, clear and cool.

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My favorite scene was the temporary display of Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman” (1999), a huge, beautiful sculpture of a spider that loomed over the shopping center.

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A sudden shift from our contemplative mood, we entered the infamous discount store “Don Quijote” (ドン・キホーテ). It is 7 floors of cheap, random items; an absolute madhouse of retail.

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After giggling up and down the many floors of the strange store, we left the building and wandered a bit more, finding a lovely view of the Tokyo Tower.

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Night fell and the true life of Roppongi was revealed, neon and bustling.

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We stopped in a restaurant for a quick snack before heading home.

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We found the Tokyo Tower once again, this time through a very different composition. It is a beautiful sight either way.

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Riding the Rails

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The general map of Tokyo’s rail and subway system may initially appear complex and intimidating to those unfamiliar. Fortunately, the system is very efficient, and regular riding will result in quick mastery. Each colored line on the map represents a different train line, with each line named after a prominent station on that line, such as Ginza Station on the Ginza Line. The basic deconstructive layout of the rail system is, in theory, represented similarly in most railways, including the London Underground and the large directional signs found at Septa stations.

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A key route is the Yamanote Line, represented on the diagram by a thin, dotted gray line encircling Tokyo. This handy line covers a number of prominent stations, including Shibuya and Ueno, making navigation to some of the city’s most prominent stops that much easier. Therefore, trains on the Yamanote Line are generally far more crowded than those on other lines, particularly during rush hour, when bodies are often crammed together in an unpleasant yet somehow successful fashion. Fortunately, all Yamanote Line trains arrive at any given station every four minutes, eliminating the need to worry about wait times or rushing. For this reason, signs instructing commuters specifically not to run are common (among other warnings, many of which caution against falling onto the tracks).

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The closest station on the Yamanote Line to Temple’s Campus is Meguro Station, just two stops away from Shirokane-Takanawa Station, the station most students use to reach the campus. In other words, in just about a half hour following classes, you could be in Shibuya, Shinjuku or Harajuku.

Reloadable Pasmo or Suica cards allow for fast movement through stations. Just a brief swipe through the gate will automatically deduct yen from your card, based on how far you traveled. Students can purchase a special pass by visiting a designated office at certain stations and presenting their student ID. The fares for traveling within Tokyo are generally cheaper than public transportation offered in Philadelphia.

Many stations have multiple platforms, particularly stations on the Yamanote line. For instance, Shinjuku Station, one of the largest stations in Tokyo, has a platform for the Yamanote trains, and then separate platforms for various local lines. Bigger stations like Shibuya offer various amenities, from small bookstores to full restaurants. Even smaller stations will have newsstands and vending machines. Some even include amenities right on the platform.

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Aside from a group of noisy school kids, passengers typically remain silent throughout the ride, with many engrossed in books or thick manga magazines. During peak hours, and throughout most of the day on busier lines such as the Yamanote, the seats fill up fast, leaving a good portion of passengers standing. While riders remain polite, upon arrival at their destination they will push and shove their way to the exit with little regard for anyone else. And for good reason, as most trains remain at the station for barely twenty seconds before closing their doors and taking off once more.

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The trains cover a large distance in a relatively short time. A course on Tokyo I took last Fall continuously emphasized a general theme of mobility. Now in Tokyo myself, I finally fully understand how mobile I can be.

Chinese New Year in Yokohama Chinatown

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To bring in the Year of the Horse, we headed down to Asia’s largest Chinatown (outside of China, of course): Yokohama, Japan.

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Yokohama is riddled with dark side streets lined with great restaurants, constantly surprising us at every turn.

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While we missed the majority of the traditional dragon dances, we caught a glimpse at the end. The dance is performed outside of stores and restaurants in hopes of bringing luck for the community.

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Chinatown was hypnotizing with endless color and decoration everywhere we looked. It was beautiful and bright, especially after sundown.

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After strolling for a while and smelling the amazing aromas wafting out of the countless restaurants, we began to get hungry.

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There was an overwhelming amount of choices, most notably was this display of shark-fin soup!

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We settled for dumplings instead of mysterious sharkmeat. There was a massive steamer outside of this restaurant that we just couldn’t pass up.

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After stuffing ourselves with dumplings, we had to satisfy the sweet tooth. Street food is plentiful, especially for jin deui:  a fried Chinese pastry made of rice flour, usually filled with sweet bean paste.

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The pastry is covered in sesame seeds for a pleasant crunchiness. It’s delicious when it’s fresh and warm!

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Out of all of our experiences during the Chinese New Year, just the slow exploration of the area was the most exciting. Fortune telling was a popular venue in the neighborhood.

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And just when we thought we had gotten used to Yokohama, we suddenly were audience to an impressive car show!  A happy new year indeed.