While spending the first few days of my summer studying in Tokyo at orientations was helpful and informative, it didn’t exactly give me a huge sense of being in Japan. Fortunately, we got to stretch our legs and get outside on the first big student activity: a hike on Mount Takao.
During the lengthy train ride (about an hour from Shinjuku, which was in turn 45 minutes from the dorm), we passed through more rural areas of Japan. Fields and small villages passed by, changing the scenery greatly from the dense urban sprawl, where both the men’s dorm and TUJ are located. We soon reached the end of the line: a small cluster of tourist attractions at the foot of a forested mountain. This was our destination: Mount Takao. The 1,965 foot tall behemoth is closely associated with tengu from Japanese folklore, and is home to a Buddhist temple. We didn’t get to see any of it, though, until we made the trek all the way up to the top.
Fortunately, while difficult, it was anything but a chore. Despite the hot day, it was still a gorgeous walk through the forest. It also didn’t hurt that we took a trolley up the first part of the mountain, making the trek considerably shorter. Even so, we hiked up and down a winding trail, up wooden sets of stairs, and across a suspension bridge. The mountain trail eventually gave way to the mountain top. Many hikes give way to gorgeous views, but this took it one step farther: beautiful views, and food! The top of the mountain held some small shops and vendors, and in the distance we could even see Mount Fuji!
After a quick lunch (and a brief stop for ice cream and some photographs), we began to head back down the mountain. While the hike was wonderful, the real meat of the trip was in the return. Rather than coming down through the forest trails the way we went up, we instead took a slight detour, down through Takaosan Yakuōin Yūkiji, a Buddhist temple built into the slope. Here I got my first taste of the storied and colorful culture and history of Japan: we passed through shrines and temples older than the United States, and saw beautifully carved statues and monuments.
It wasn’t all just ancient history, though. We saw both native Japanese hikers visiting the shrines and participating in worship rituals, and also had the privilege of seeing Buddhist monks marching in a procession through the temple. It was a good reminder that even though the temples on the mountain were thousands of years old, they were still actively used and maintained for both history and day-to-day culture. The temple was believed to have been originally built in the year 744, during the Nara period. In the intervening time, the temple has been used as an important place of worship, and that continues even to this day.
After passing through shrines and temples the whole way down the mountain, we boarded a chairlift and returned to the train.
My first glimpse of Japan was a view of the damp, drizzly countryside, seen from the window of a slightly incorrect train car. It was a sight to behold, though, coming at the tail end of two days of traveling (the time zone shifts make me unsure how long it actually was, but it did involve at least twenty hours of flying and at least eighteen hours of layovers). I had stumbled off the plane, purchased a train ticket using what little Japanese skills I had accrued before my departure, and found myself sitting on an express train headed for the Hiyoshi men’s dorm.
It wasn’t until an attendant asked for my ticket I realized I was in the wrong car, and one that would detach and head in the opposite direction, but disregarding that small hitch, I made it to my new home without much of an issue. Here I met the other Temple Japan study abroad students that I would be living with, and I met the “RA” of sorts, Aki, who immediately greeted me with “Jason-san,” and got me set up in my room.
Aki is an extremely kind man who seems to have a mysterious reputation. According to rumor, he was a body-builder-turned-Buddhist, but all I know for sure is that he immediately gave me a taste of the Japanese hospitality and politeness that was talked about a lot beforehand. After getting my room set up, I immediately got a shower and went to bed, exhausted from my traveling.
The next day started sooner than I had expected, with transportation to school starting at 8:30 the following morning. My fellow students and I, after being herded through the Tokyo subway system, spent the day in orientation presentations, meeting other students, advisers, and faculty. The presentation that was met with the most excitement was the discussion of the programs and excursions provided throughout the summer semester.
After eating a lunch of Domino’s Pizza (what an interesting welcome to Japan, right?), we wrapped up the orientation for the day with a few more presentations. We learned about some of the more serious topics, from staying safe in Tokyo to navigating the efficient but complex public transportation system. We also heard probably a dozen stories about Roppongi, the notorious tourist district nearby the campus, which (depending on who you ask), you should either avoid at all costs or visit to have a good time. After wrapping up, we headed back to the Hiyoshi dorm, where the guys in the program all went out for a nice, authentic Japanese dinner at a local restaurant:
Wait, what? A whole day into in Tokyo and the only food I’d eaten is pizza and fish and chips? Okay, enough of this transition period. I needed to get some real Japanese food. Fortunately, the next day, we went out for a walk in the neighborhoods and shopping areas around Hiyoshi station and got some actual authentic Japanese food. For a hefty sum of ¥2000, we each got a seat at a Yakiniku restaurant, where for two hours we got to eat as much food as we could stomach, all cooked to our own taste on small grills at each table. Two hours later and full to bursting, we went for a walk around the area to work off some of the delicious food. Now this felt like a welcome to Japan.
Packing up all of my cumbersome suitcases and stuffing souvenirs into over-sized carry-ons opened up a bubble of time for me to reflect on the four months I spent studying abroad — my first adventure overseas. Living, laughing, and learning in Japan made up the busiest few months of my life; I was constantly scuttling about, getting on and off subway trains as I went to classes and taught some of my own with the superstar instructors at a Japanese high school. My faux leather planner was full of circled dates for extra activities and potential meet-ups with friends and family. The short, dirty blonde hair you see to the left framed the face of a girl whose brain previously swarmed with plans of trips and visits to cool destinations in Tokyo, many of which, of course, never happened. All students who get the opportunity to study abroad go through this, I’m sure of it. Our schedules quickly become packed, and the places and events that hovered at the bottom of our wishlists turn into adventures unrealized. I had several of these stragglers that didn’t make it into my study abroad scrapbook, but even with all that was on my plate, I was able to make the most of my time in Japan, my second home.
The experiences I have had in Japan blessed me with amazing new opportunities and helped to build a stronger me. The brave young woman who boarded a plane bound for Japan in January was very different from the braver and bolder one who stepped off a plane in New York, late April. I never expected to learn more about my self and my soul, but I did along the streets of Tokyo on my morning walks to class. I didn’t anticipate meeting inspiring new people and making new friends, but it happened in a Japanese high school in Kanagawa. There is so much I owe to those who made it possible for me to study overseas, but at least I was able to give a little back through my internship.
Because these experiences helped me grow and I became attached to life in Japan, leaving it was an event akin to leaving behind a beloved stuffed animal in a hotel as a little kid. I was sad, frustrated, and a little over-dramatic, but I knew that it wouldn’t be my last time there; if the map of my future plans uncurls its paper edges the way I hope it will, I’ll be stepping the streets of Japan again soon. I also knew that I’d become the “back in Japan” kid for many years after my return to the States, but I’m more than happy to be that kid. I did my family proud by realizing my dream of visiting Japan, but more than that, I did myself proud, and that is what we should all seek to do.
I hope that the students who read these blogs and dream of studying and exploring in a new places, get the chance to do so. Make the most of your college years while you still can, and plan to travel! ♥
There are big differences between the “food culture” of the East and the West, and while there are countless similarities, there are still plenty of unique foods, places to eat, and ways of eating that are fun to discover about both areas. Studying abroad in Japan after living all my years in America, I have enjoyed experiencing excitement and surprise as I uncovered some of the similarities and differences of the two types of food cultures I am now familiar with.
A few of those who will study abroad in Japan after living in the States might be a little disappointed with the disappearances of the kinds of foods they’re used to (cheap peanut butter, for instance, is difficult to find in Japan’s grocery stores, and cereal is also not as big a part of breakfast in Japan so the choices are limited) and the introduction of new foods that take center stage at different meal times. These phenomena take some getting used to, but most of what you’ll eat are things you like because, although restaurants don’t serve typical “American food,” you can still shop for most of your favorites at the markets.
To give you a preview of what you can expect traveling to Japan (from an American’s point of view), I thought I’d introduce you to some of my most frequented food spots and most tasted treats. I have many favorite traditional Japanese places, but these are some of the good eats you may not have heard of!
The first place you should know about if you miss rich, beautifully baked bagels, is Maruichi Bagel (マルイチベーグル) which is right near TUJ and the Shirokane Takanawa Station stop (near the park there). It’s an inconspicuous little shop with a white interior and friendly and sweet staff that get so excited to see customers come in to buy their amazing bagels. Another TUJ student frequents the shop so much that the staff learned his favorite order right away and tried to save a cinnamon raisin bagel for him at the end of his long day of classes! We went in together as the semester came to a close and I mustered up the courage to explain in Japanese that we were heading back to America in a few days, and that it would be our last bagel before we left. They were so sad to see us go! Definitely make a Maruichi bagel your morning breakfast before you finish your walk to TUJ!
Eggs ‘n Things
One of the top restaurants on your list of places to stuff your face should be Eggs ‘n Things, an extremely popular “all day breakfast” Hawaii-based gem that has several locations in Japan (including Harajuku–convenient if you spend the rest of your day there shopping!). They do feature seafood dinner options, but they are known for their ridiculously enormous pancake and whipped cream set that is available all day and night. Get to these restaurants early though, there’s a wait for their delicious wares!
Missing American or Italian-style spaghetti? Check out Spajiro (すぱじろう) which has eight locations in Japan, including one open for the (very) late night owls of Roppongi (think karaoke!). They have delicious giant bowls of spaghetti in so many styles, and the sizes are all the same price (small, medium, large and for the big eater, extra large). It’s on the cheaper side of the really filling American-sized portion restaurants–even the small size is big enough for those who feel like they are ready to eat a horse! There’s a location in the Azabu-Juban area, which is a ten minute or so walk from TUJ’s Shirokane Takanawa. I’ve been here so many times after wasting time struggling to find dinner spots near TUJ. I usually always find myself trekking the walk to Azabu-Juban to bask in the warm, saucy red glow of a big bowl of Spagiro’s spaghetti.
And for dessert…
St. Marc Cafe (サンマルクカフェ), known for its signiture and original “Chococro” pastry, is an amazing spot for coffee, pastries, and ice cream dishes and there are several of them that will seem to pop out of the woodwork in the spots around Tokyo and Yokohama that you’ll frequent. There are also tons of crepe shops in shopping centers, and two rival shops in Harajuku that serve up some of the best crepes you’ll ever taste. Have fun discovering your own favorite foods in Japan while studying abroad! Just remember to watch how much you dish out on ramen, udon, pancakes, spaghetti, desserts and more! Don’t forget to buy groceries!