Monthly Archives: November 2014

Mt Koya and Nara, Part 2:

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The futons (a traditional Japanese bedding, it’s kind of like a really thick sleeping bag) that Rengejoin Temple provided us was surprisingly comfortable (but then again, after a night sleeping on a bus, the group could probably sleep anywhere!). And at 6:20 AM as promised, we were woken up to attend otsutome (Morning Prayer) as requested by the monks of the temple. After breakfast, we would head to Okunoin, the largest a cemetery and sacred area in Japan with over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas!

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, the thought of visiting a cemetery sounded rather depressing, and not quite what I would consider a tourist attraction. While funerals are still depressing, it seems as though Japan follows a more “circle of life” belief.

For instance, along the path in okunoin, we saw many Gorinto (five tier Stupa).

For instance, along the path in okunoin, we saw many Gorinto (five tier Stupa).

Our guide explained to our group that the shapes of the five tiers represents the five elements taught in Buddhism. The cube at the bottom represents earth, the sphere represents water, the pyramid presents fire, the hemisphere represents wind, and finally, the jewel shape at the top represents void. Japanese Buddhists believe that when we die, our bodies are not destroyed, but rather our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental forms.

In addition, we also saw many little statues wearing bibs. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I ask our guide, who explained that they were statues of お地蔵さん (Ojizo-san), who is believed to watch over and protect children in the afterlife.

The bibs are placed by parents who have lost children, with prayers that Ojizo-san would watch over and protect them as a surrogate parent.

The bibs are placed by parents who have lost children, with prayers that Ojizo-san would watch over and protect them as a surrogate parent.

We then stopped by a well to check on our life expectancy.

Apparently, if you don’t see your reflection in this well, you will die within 3 years.

Apparently, if you don’t see your reflection in this well, you will die within 3 years.

Then we entered the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the place where Kobo Daishi is said to remain in eternal meditation.

It is said that Kobo Daishi entered his eternal meditation in 835. Twice a day, monks ritually offer meals to Kobo Daishi at the mausoleum as seen in this picture.

It is said that Kobo Daishi entered his eternal meditation in 835. Twice a day, monks ritually offer meals to Kobo Daishi at the mausoleum as seen in this picture.

This was actually the first museum I’ve ever been to where we were allowed, and encouraged to touch stuff, so I was quite thrilled. There were thousands of lanterns and miniature statues of monks. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed in the museum. At first, I always thought this was an annoying rule since so many famous places in Japan did not allow photographs, but recently I’ve been embracing it. There is something nice about occasionally disconnecting myself from technology to truly appreciate the moment in front of me, instead of trying to share it with friends via pictures consistently.

On our way out, we tested our strength and connection with Future Buddha! In this little stand, there is a heavy rock, which is said to be as heavy as our sins. Those who are able to lift this rock, and bring it to the second level, will apparently be closer to the Future Buddha, and will be welcomed to his paradise.

Joshua's face of victory as he completes the challenge!

Joshua’s face of victory as he completes the challenge!

I suppose the idea is that if you are a hard worker, it would probably show in your arm strength. Personally, I’m not very superstitious, but it was interesting to hear about superstitions of other cultures.

As we visit more historic sites and hear more about Japan’s culture, superstitions, and religion in person, I realize that our there is so much about Japan that is simply omitted from textbooks. The more I explore Japan, the more I realize how little I know about the country! And the more excited I become to learn more about it!

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Food? Is There Food? I Want Food!

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Warning: Do not read this post on an empty stomach. You will get hungry. I repeat! YOU WILL GET HUNGRY!

Have you grabbed a quick bite to eat? Yes? Good. Then allow me to continue.

I realize that I’ve been in Japan for the past 3 months and have yet to write about the one thing that I encounter every day, food. Since I have been in Japan, I’ve noticed some major similarities and differences between Japan cuisine and American cuisine. So, let’s dig in, shall we? いただきます!(which means “I will humbly receive” and is said before eating a meal).

Tomomi made such wonderful Endomae Nigirizushi and I loved every bite!

Tomomi made such wonderful Endomae Nigirizushi and I loved every bite!

She even made a mixed berry tart for dessert. It looks so perfect, I don't want to ruin it.

She even made a mixed berry tart for dessert. It looks so perfect, I don’t want to ruin it.

There’s one thing that I’ve always admired about Japanese cuisine, and that is the amount of dedication that goes into each dish. From preparation to presentation, even making something as small as a sushi makes me love the cuisine every time I eat. For example, my friend, Tomomi was kind enough to invite me into her home for dinner and I was amazed at what she prepared. Tomomi is 25 years old and in addition to salad, dim sum, and yakitori, one of the dishes she made was called 江戸前握or “Edomae nigiri zushi,” which looks similar to what I see in the grocery stores here, but it tasted so much better. Maybe it was because it was eaten shortly after made, nevertheless, I thank her so much for the food and the work she put into making it. ごちそうさまでした!(which means “Thank you for the meal” thus is said after eating.)

Hamburger Steak with spaghetti, shrimp tempura, potato salad, salad, and rice. A little taste of Italy, courtesy f Japan.

Hamburger Steak with spaghetti, shrimp tempura, potato salad, salad, and rice. A little taste of Italy, courtesy f Japan.

Even in Japan, there are restaurants that serve their take on foreign cuisine. For instance, I went to Fresca in Akihabara and was treated to Hamburger Steak (ハンバーグ), which came with salad, potato salad, spaghetti, shrimp tempura, and of course, rice. There’s a popular restaurant by TUJ that specializes in kebabs and a Chinese restaurant next to the nearby 7-Eleven. There are also Mexican, Indian, and Korean restaurants all over Tokyo. Just like in the US, Japan manages to incorporate the tastes of different countries without customers having to travel there.

Thanks to cream yaki, I now know that fishes can fly!

Thanks to cream yaki, I now know that fishes can fly!

Filled with golden cream, so warm during the winter.

Filled with golden cream, so warm during the winter.

Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe

いちごチーズケーキ (Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe)

SA student, Christina, couldn't help but get one as well :)

SA student, Christina, couldn’t help but get one as well 🙂

No meal is complete without a little dessert. I’ve come to like cream yaki since being here and winter has deepened this liking. During cold nights, on my way home, I sometimes buy a cream yaki from my favorite vendor. It’s so warm and fluffy that it hits the spot. Speaking of fluffy desserts, while in the US, I tend to favor a nice, thick slice of strawberry cheesecake or a rich double fudge brownie, Japan takes a more light and airy approach to their desserts. For instance, two other students and I went to Harajuku and we bought crepes. As soon as I saw a strawberry cheesecake crepe, I thought “Oooooh, I can have thick cheesecake in a crepe? Yes please!.” To my surprise, the “cheesecake” had the consistency of flan rather than the cheesecake I knew, but it was still good. Crepes, tarts, cream yaki, Japanese desserts have the same amount work put into them as meals and they look just as perfect so you don’t want to eat them, but eat them you must! Nom nom nom…

All this talk of food makes me want to get in the kitchen, go crazy, and make everything I possibly can!

Mt Koya and Nara Trip, Part 1

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All of us had certain expectations of what Japan might look like before we actually arrived here. I personally envisioned Japan solely as a modern society since I rarely heard anything about traditional Japan. I thought that it was similar to the way Americans don’t talk or really relate to the culture of cowboys or the “Wild West.” However, in Japan, their modern society and traditional society co-exist and complement each other in a very fascinating way. With that said, the trip to Mt Koya and Nara was intended to show students that didn’t get the chance to step outside of Tokyo before, a more traditional side Japan.

I was certain that it would be difficult to get any sleep at all on our long 7 hour bus ride; after all, our journey began right on Halloween night. However, after our guides told us that we would be woke up around 6:40 AM, everyone quickly went to sleep. We arrived at Yoshino Park around 7:00 AM and took a morning walk before meeting with our guides.

We were greeted by the Nio Guardians, and lots of rain!!

We were greeted by the Nio Guardians, and lots of rain!!

Within the entrance of Daimon, were the Nio guardians. Our guide explained to us that, according to Japanese folktales, these guardians traveled with Buddha as bodyguards. Buddhism is normally known for its pacifist traditions; however, the stories of the Nio guardians often justify the use of force to protect cherished values and beliefs against evil.

Agyou is the guardian with an open mouth, wielding a vajra, and is known as a symbol of overt violence.

Agyou is the guardian with an open mouth, wielding a vajra, and is known as a symbol of overt violence.

Ungyou is the guardian with closed mouth, normally barehanded (sometimes with a sword), and is known as a symbol of latent strength.

Ungyou is the guardian with closed mouth, normally barehanded (sometimes with a sword), and is known as a symbol of latent strength.

Our first stop was Konpon Daito, shrine that houses a three-dimensional mandala along with a large statue of Buddha Mahavairochana.

Unfortunately, it was still closed when we arrived, so we only got to see the exterior.

Next, we also explored Miedo. Kobo Daishi (the founder of Shingon Buddhism) used this place for meditation. Kobo Dashi wanted to establish a monastery deep in the mountains, far from worldly distractions, where monks could practice and pray for the peace and welfare of the people. Miedo contains lots of portraits of Kobo Daishi, painted during his lifetime by his disciple. Unfortunately, pictures of the portraits were not allowed in this building.

After a long day with lots of walking, we arrived at Rengejoin Temple where we would meditate with monks and stay the night.

Rengejoin Temple was a very different experience from your typical overnight stay at a hotel!

Rengejoin Temple was a very different experience from your typical overnight stay at a hotel!

While the meditation room was crowded and cramped, it was very relaxing. I attempted to sit seiza style since I notice most of the locals were sitting that way, but after ten minutes I was already at my limit. I wish I could have taken pictures to share a bit of the experience, but I figured it wouldn’t be appropriate to do that while everyone was meditating.

Then, it was finally time for dinner, where we got to experience 精進料理 (Buddhist Vegetarian Cuisine)! In Buddhism, eating any sentient life is wrong, therefore monks live on a vegetarian diet. As a meat-eating-fanatic, I admit to being a bit disappointed when I heard that our meal would not have any. But after I began eating, I was pleasantly surprised! The food was quite delicious! Each dish was based on the concepts of five flavors, five cooking methods, and five colors (it seems that five is a lucky number in Japan!).

There is always a grilled dish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish, and a soup dish!

There is always a grilled dish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish, and a soup dish!

After our meal, everyone returned to their rooms, and chatted with friends while under a こたつ (a table with a blanket over it and a heater underneath). I’ve seen them before, but always thought that it was overrated. However, after experiencing its warmth, I definitely want to have one in the future!

Our rooms at Rengejoin Temple.

Our rooms at Rengejoin Temple.

Holiday Season With a New Kind of Family

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Holiday season is already here and for the semester study abroad students, like myself, Halloween and Thanksgiving are the only two holidays we will experience away from our families back home. That being said, I think it’s more difficult for those staying for an academic year or longer. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, etc. are all days one usually spends with their family or significant other, but what if they’re over 6000 miles away? How do you cope with such a dilemma?

I asked some TUJ students, ranging from semester study abroad to Japanese Admission about how they feel being away from home during the holidays and their celebration plans.

Students, Shanice, Jennifer, and Jordan have become a TUJ family and cherish their time together.

Students, Shanice, Jennifer, and Jordan have become a TUJ family and cherish their time together.

“For Thanksgiving, I’ll be celebrating it with fellow Americans for dinner. It’ll be like a family dinner, but without my actual family.”—Shanice (Semester Study Abroad)

“I am a little sad about not being able to spend time with my family during Thanksgiving. But when I am at college in the US, I usually can’t go home for Thanksgiving anyway because it costs too much to go from San Francisco to Georgia. So it’s not that bad. I can’t wait to see them for Christmas though. I’m so excited!”—Jordan (Semester Study Abroad)

“Christmas is going to be a little tough for me. I miss the smell of the fresh Christmas tree in my living room and the sweat and tears I put into decorating it. I still miss my family but I’ve decided to do a home stay during winter break so in a sense I will gain another family. As for celebrating, there’s plenty of activities to do during the holidays. I went out for Halloween and got to carve a pumpkin at TUJ the Wednesday before that. I’m also going to a Thanksgiving dinner party later this month. I’m still participating in the holiday traditions I’m familiar with. I’m not just sitting around watching the days go by. What good does that do?”—Jennifer (Academic Year Study Abroad)

Jennifer reminds us that even in Japan, Jack Skellington is always ready for Halloween and Christmas.

Jennifer carved this to reminds us that even in Japan, Jack Skellington is always ready for Halloween and Christmas.

Now, you may be wondering, “But what about you, Tiara? What do you plan to do for the holidays?” As for myself, the thought had crossed my mind to Skype with my family for Thanksgiving. By Skype with them I mean for them to have a laptop on the table, where I would theoretically be sitting, and that would be just as good. I wouldn’t be able eat a nice helping of my mother’s delicious lasagna or have a slice of my sister’s delectable pumpkin pie but it’s the thought that counts. But at the end of the day, I side with Shanice and believe that surrounding myself with a solid group of friends while here has proven to have given me a second family away from home. Thanksgiving is two weeks away and about 12 students (Jennifer, Shanice, and myself included) plan to attend a student-organized Thanksgiving dinner that Friday. We may be away from our own families, but it doesn’t mean we can’t spend this time with the families we’ve created at TUJ.

Traditional Arts Workshop

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The hustle and bustle of modern Japan is quite easy to adjust to after living in it for a couple weeks, especially if you live in urbanized areas such as Tokyo or Osaka. But traditional Japan is a completely different experience. Upon arriving in Japan, I knew that I wanted to experience the whole spectrum of Japan, which is why I signed up for my internship, home-stay, and Japanese classes, as well as nearly all the school trips. Amongst the school trips was the Traditional Arts Workshop, which was a trip I definitely looked forward to attending. The location was designated to be at a local resident’s house.

Upon our arrival, our host introduced herself and her two friends and explained the Japanese phrase “ichigoichie” (一期一会) to our group. The phrase “ichigoichie” is a Japanese idiom literally translates to “one time, one meeting,” but is also often translated as “one chance in a lifetime,” or “for this time only,” to describe the cultural concept to treasure and cherish any gathering they partake in, because particular gatherings will never be replicated in the future, and thus, each moment is a once in a lifetime experience. Anyway, our host expressed her excitement to have the opportunity to meet us all, and asked us to join her in a prayer so that she could wish that our future is bright, and our stay in Japan is fruitful.

Afterwards, she demonstrated Ikebana (生け花), a traditional art of Japanese flower arrangement. Unlike the US, where the vase is very crowed and the type of flower used conveys a meaning, Ikebana values asymmetric arrangements where the vase shape, water in the vase, as well as areas intentionally left empty are all part of the art form. The focus is driven away from the specific types of flowers used, and more on how each different kind of flower contributes to the overall beauty of its arrangement.

One of the Ikebana our host made to commemorate our chance to meet each other!

One of the Ikebana our host made to commemorate our chance to meet each other!

Then our host entertained us by playing the Koto (箏), a traditional Japanese string instrument about 6 feet long that has 13 strings. She even allowed us to try it out!

Joshua gives the Koto a try.

Joshua gives the Koto a try.

The women were then directed to a different room to get changed into kimono while the men did calligraphy. When the women were done, the men got to wear Hakama (traditional Japanese clothing worn by samurai and courtiers during the Edo period) while the women did calligraphy.

I think this was their first time preparing something for the guys to wear. I’m definitely glad they did it

I think this was their first time preparing something for the guys to wear. I’m definitely glad they did it.

My Hakama looks very cool from the front!!

My Hakama looks very cool from the front!!

Not so much from the back or side (most of the strings were tied in the back)

Not so much from the back or side (most of the strings were tied in the back)

Everyone definitely was excited to “dress up” in traditional Japanese clothes.

Everyone definitely was excited to “dress up” in traditional Japanese clothes.

Afterwards, we experienced a Japanese Tea Ceremony. We were instructed that when we were served, bows are exchanged to express gratitude. In Japan, candy and other sweets are eaten first, before tea is served. When the tea is served, we must use both hands to hold it and rotate the cup slightly twice before drinking from it.

Remember to exchange bows at a Tea Ceremony!

Remember to exchange bows at a Tea Ceremony!

If any of these activities sounds fun to you, I definitely recommend going to this workshop!
This past weekend was the Mt Koya & Nara school field trip! So in my next few posts, I’ll go into more details about the adventures we had! Since it was a three day trip, I definitely have a lot of stories to share. Please look forward to it!

5 Weeks Left, 5 Things Missed, 5 Lessons Learned

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Since study abroad students have only five more weeks left in Japan I decided to commemorate my remaining time with a few lists. To be specific, two top-five lists. Although I’m sure these lists can go on and on until the cows come home, for the sake of time (and sanity), I’ll keep them to my top five. Ready? はじめましょう!(Let’s start!)

Top Five Things I Will Miss About Japan (no particular order)

1) Punctual Trains

2) The Convenience Stores

3) Seeing Japanese Artists in Concert

4) The Food

5) The People

1) No need to worry about being late or fear that the train will be late. Unlike in the US, if the platform board says the next train will arrive at 2:23, at 2:23 the train is there. I won’t miss the chaos of morning rush hour, but I will miss such punctuality.

2) I’ll miss my friend, the conbini. I’ll miss being able to pay my bills at Lawson and being able to get concert tickets at the Loppi machine.

3) Speaking of concerts, as a person who loves Japanese music, I’ll miss being able to see my favorite artists in concert in their own country. Miyavi, Shiina Ringo, BACK-ON, etc. These are artists I would’ve never been able to see if I didn’t come to Japan and I’m beyond ecstatic that I had the opportunity.

4) I’ll definitely miss the food. I cook Japanese food for my family in the US, but there’s something special about eating Japanese food in Japan. Even something as simple as ramen has a different taste in Japan.

5) And of course, I’ll miss the Japanese people. I’ll miss their politeness. I’ll miss Naito-san, who would give me a free cream yaki when I pass his どらやきshop. I’ll miss the children I pass on my way to school. At first they would just stare and point, but I would bow and greet them with おはようございます (good morning) and continue walking. For the past month now, they greet me back, saying おはようございます and my mood is instantly lifted.

I always look forward to seeing Nagito's smiling face.

I always look forward to seeing Naito-san’s smiling face.

He knows my face so well that he saves a cream yaki just for me!

He knows my face so well that he saves a cream yaki just for me!

Top Five Lessons I Have Learned in Japan

1) Have An Open Mind

2) Experience All Parts of the Culture

3) Make Friends

4) Try to Overcome Language Barriers

5) Take Risks

1) I think it’s the most important because it opens the door to everything else. Before coming to Japan, I had to be mentally prepared. Japan is not my home country and as such, I had to have an open mind and be prepared to adapt.

2) I sought out all aspects of Japanese culture, not just what is popular. Not only did I go to Akihabara and Shinjuku to partake in the anime and fashion of Japan, but I also went to Osaka and Kyoto to visit the temples and got a first-hand look at the more traditional side of this wonderful country.

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My friend and I went to Maica in Kyoto and she was transformed into a Maiko!

Even though it was raining that day, you have to appreciate the beauty of Japanese shrines and temples.

Even though it was raining that day, I love the beauty of Japanese shrines and temples.

3) I can’t stress how important making friends is when you’re abroad. Whether they’re 日本人か外国人 (Japanese people or foreigners), the friends I have made in Japan are a big reason why I didn’t spend every day in my room.

If I stayed inside, I would have never met these lovely ladies.

If I stayed inside, I would’ve never met these lovely ladies.

She always provides me with a little fellow-foreigner comfort and I love her for it.

She always provides me with a little fellow-foreigner comfort and I love her for it.

4) A language barrier should not prevent anyone from enjoying Japan. I took the opportunity and used Japanese as much as I could and met a lot of great people because of it.

5) To make the most of my time in Japan, I pushed myself to do things that I wouldn’t have the courage to do back home. Through taking risks I learned that I can reap the benefits and this newly found courage I like having.

Looking back on these things, I realize something….

FIVE WEEKS ISN’T ENOUGH! I’M NOT READY TO LEAVE JAPAN YET!

(Time to find my TARDIS)