Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Crash Course to Living in Tokyo

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As the end of February approaches, I realize that I have been in Japan for nearly two months, and in that time span, I have adjusted to living in this formerly unknown world. That being said, it would be pretty awkward if I did not learn anything about how life works here. And so, here is a little peek of what living in Tokyo entails.

Health Insurance

Japan has a national health insurance for all residents and depending on how much your annual income was the year before, everyone is charged a different price. Because I had no existing income in Japan, I only have to pay the minimum amount which totals around $17 per month. Furthermore, thanks to this, should I have any accident and require an ambulance, I should have no reservations about calling for a ride because it is free! I repeat, it is free! I am sure most Americans are familiar with the high expense associated with ambulance rides. It is certainly a perk to living in Japan, but hopefully not one that I will utilize. I was recently billed, and in the envelope, it came with two slips that must be stamped to indicate payment.

Payments

How to do this? Well, I have extolled the numerous virtues of the convenience stores regarding its food variety before, but that is not the extent of it. You can also pay your insurance bill there, too! And because they are within a ten minute walking distance no matter where you are, it is mindbogglingly easy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a 7-11, Lawson’s, or Family Mart; they have you covered! On top of that, you can purchase tickets to various events or entertainment like to the Ghibli Museum, scan and print, and are equipped with ATM’s to withdraw cash.

While on the topic of cash, it is important to remember that Japan is a cash-based country so although large stores and chains will have credit card options, it’s best to have physical currency on you. The interesting thing about Japanese currency is that they have many coins that are used. More than just a wallet, one should get in the habit of having a coin purse! I think the coin that has the most usage is the 100¥ coin because it’s what is usually needed for vending machine, laundry machine, purikura, the 100¥ store, etc. You get the point. As a matter of fact, when I go shopping, I’ve noticed that coin purses and card holders are pretty prevalent, but actual wallets like the ones back in the states are less common.

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Some of the Japanese currency

Vending Machines

I mentioned vending machines earlier, and that’s another thing. Vending machines are everywhere. I mean, everywhere. It is inevitable that you will use it at some point, and the prices are reasonable unlike in the U.S. where a drink will cost you a $1.50. Many of the vending machines advertise being only 100¥ but with the current exchange rate, that is less than a dollar. For the most part, they are not much more expensive than that but if they are, they’re one of the fancier drinks. That’s the other thing. They have both hot and cold drinks and have an array of options from corn drinks to coffee to peach juice. You’re pretty much guaranteed something to suit your tastes. There are other vending machines too that are less prevalent. For example, they even offer “sin” goods like alcohol or cigarettes. One of my professors said that before they began to require an ID scan on the vending machines for those items, it used to be one of the errands that the children had to do for their parents, and she recalled being sent out to complete these chores.

Children in Public

Children here are surprisingly mature in handling themselves. I see elementary school kids riding the train by themselves sometimes, and on the streets, I’ll see kids no more than seven or eight walking by themselves. At 4:30PM every weekday, I’ll hear an announcement in town that is apparently a reminder for all children to go home for the day. According to the same professor, this time changes to about 6PM during the summer to account for the extended daylight. It’s kind of amazing to see this because I know back in the U.S., few parents in the city would feel comfortable having their child roaming the streets unaccompanied and actually expect the child to come back home on time.

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Breaking down Tokyo: Harajuku

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Walking down the congested crosswalk in front of the train station, an arch of blue snowflakes looms ahead, identifying the well-known street. Passing underneath it, as far as the eye can see, shops line the streets with splashes of pink and pastels and bubbly lettering and lace. A trio of girls chatters and giggles as they bypass you, their puffy short dresses, bows and frills, and laced up platforms reminiscent of Victorian clothing, making you sneak another glance as you try not to ogle.

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Adorable world clock

Store clerks, dressed in the attire representative of their workplace, linger by the entrances beckoning and calling out to passersby in an attempt to lure in customers. This is nothing like the business suits and casual wear you are accustomed to normally in Tokyo. But then you remember that Tokyo isn’t just a typical city, but rather, it is divided into wards and districts that have cultivated their own distinct identity. With its little niche, Harajuku is no different.

As you wander further down, the sweet smell of cream and sugar wafts toward you. Small crêperies are interspersed liberally among the clothing stores and purikura places, offering both sweet and savory crêpes. For the number of them all clustered in such close proximity, one would think that some would be unable to compete and go out of business, but considering the sheer amount of traffic of the street, it is unlikely.

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Strawberries and ice cream and brownie and 100% delicious

Perusing the storefronts, you notice a trend. Male clothing looks grungier with chains and black coloring. There is a darker, edgier feel with the graphic t-shirts and distressed jeans. It is also one of the few times in this highly homogenous country that there, you see a number of men with African origins as they promote their stores. On the other side, with female clothing, the variety is much greater. As much as there is normal attire, there are also shops that sell doll-like, Victorian-esque dresses like the ones that the girls you passed by earlier wore. However, there are also shops that sell tight, brightly colored, sequined, gaudy clothes that might make you exclaim, “What the heck?” as you gawk, wondering if anyone dares wear them in public before you reassess that thought. People in these parts seem to want to express themselves in the way they wear things. It feels as if this is the way that they set themselves apart from their peers when everyone else dresses similarly and are for the most part Japanese. At the same time, it also seems like Harajuku is a place where individuals who do not exactly fit the grain have somewhere that they do. Dare I call it an air of rebellion against the stiff homogeneity that exists elsewhere?

Parts of Harajuku are eclectic and vibrant, thrumming with youth and vigor. It pushes against the status quo with its graffitied walls and vending machines, which elsewhere are pristine and unmarred.

But as you continue wandering down paths aimlessly, you find yourself spat out in front of a busy street that intersects tall commercial buildings that scream Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and retro cafés nestled within brick walls in contrast to the steel and glass. It is a scene that can be pulled out of San Francisco or any of the big cities back in the U.S. It is jarring, and it is like stepping out of another world or dream to rejoin reality. And despite the appeal of chandeliers with their artificial lights and slick floors that reflect back at you, the mini-culture of the part of Harajuku you just left seems more genuine with a life of its own.

TUJ Kagura Ski/Snowboard Overnight Trip

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TUJ first overnight trip for Spring 2016. Students went to Kagura to snowboard and ski. 

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TUJ students and staff sharing snowboarding and skiing stories over dinner after a rewarding and exhausting day

 

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On Mitsumata Ropeway overlooking Kiyotsu River and the mountains

 

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A detailed shot of the Kiyotsu River Photo Credit: Michael Hanks

 

 

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Abigail Johnston arriving at Lodge Wada

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It only snowed once in Tokyo for six hours, so it was great to experience real snow. Photo Credit: Michael Hanks

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Can you believe TUJ students mastered these slopes?

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Claire Neal

 

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Caroline Kroknes after a great day of skiing

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Excited to have dinner

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A beautiful goodbye to all the fun!

 

 

 

 

Tokyo isn’t Japan…

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…although it seems like it has everything. I daresay that Tokyo is usually the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they consider Japan. But it is hardly representative of Japan as a whole. This long weekend, thanks to a couple days off from school, I had the pleasure of visiting Kyoto and Osaka, in the Kansai region. As much as they were similar to Tokyo, they offered something different than the capital.

Both cities, oddly enough, had more people willing to speak English than back in Tokyo, which was unexpected. Where we were staying in Kyoto, which was a quiet residential area, the people there were extraordinarily kind and helpful. Twice, we were physically guided by different women back to the place where we were staying, once they saw that we were not from the area and appeared lost. I’m not sure if this is an example of the close knit residential community or a characteristic of Kyoto more generally, but I was touched by their willingness to help out a stranger without being asked. Not to mention, the mother of the man we rented the house from performed a tea ceremony for us as a gift to welcome us.

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Tea ceremony conducted by our host’s mother in the tatami room of her home.

Kyoto gives off an almost nostalgic feeling with its greenery, running water, and stone paths. I think it is easier to feel Japan’s past in this city, and it is here that I have seen the most people dressed in traditional garb. It is gorgeous, and despite the number of tourists and local residents that crowd the streets, there’s a kind of tranquility that comes from the wide open spaces and separation from urban life. Yes, it involves a lot of hiking and walking, but the sights of Japan other than the expected hi-tech modernization is worth the effort.

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Arashiyama in Kyoto

As for Osaka, I only had a chance to see it for a day, but from what I saw, older historic sites weren’t as far removed from the high rise buildings and all the steel and glass as Kyoto. One of my friends compared Osaka Castle park to Central Park in New York in that it is like a refuge away from the big city life. The grounds were well-maintained and seemingly preserved in time, so I can imagine what it must have been like.

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The outer perimeter to Osaka Castle

I have heard that Osaka is the kitchen of Japan, and that is exemplified by Doutonbori Street which is literally lined with food. There are restaurants with every kind of Japanese food imaginable, and what I tried was delicious. Some establishments even overlook a waterfront. Somehow, Osaka feels more relaxed compared to Tokyo, where everyone rushes to and from places. I never really see long lines of people waiting to eat at a specific restaurant in Tokyo, whereas I saw that in Osaka. Even on the subway, I saw less people running down the steps in a flurry.

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Near Doutonbori

Visiting the Kansai region reminded me that Japan isn’t all about harried salary men hustling, flashing neon lights, and the balancing act of work-filled days and glitzy nights. Just like no state in the U.S. is the same, each part of Japan has its own uniqueness that adds to Japan’s make-up. As much as Japan is a modern country that races against time to continue innovate technology, it is also untouched as it protects the parts that comprise its history and gives it identity.

Kamakura II

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My favorite part of Kamakura was this lovely pond near the Temple. Gardens or the landscape are usually in juxtaposition with traditional Japanese architecture

 

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TUJ students and professor sitting on the bench viewing the lovely pond. Some trying to mediate while others in deep thought.

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Kya Kerner feeling the texture of the moss wall

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Capturing the moment

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It’s unusual for cherry blossoms to bloom early in February. They must have blossomed early because we are in Japan 🙂

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The great craft of making a perfect roof curve. Craft level in Japanese architecture is almost always very high. The beautiful brown color shows that it’s a new roof.

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Anatol Steck by the early blossom trees.

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Bad hair day?

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Professor Dr. Deanna MacDonald demonstrating the ritual of purification before entering Temples or Shrines

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Jazzmynn Hong’s favorite aspect of Japanese culture, the Zen Garden. There was a gold claw toy that she was “picking up.”

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Visited a traditional a restaurant serving traditional Buddhist food. Photo Credit: Jazzmynn Hong

 

 

 

Kamakura

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Kamakura is a great place to study the Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples. Luckily for the architecture students at TUJ, our professor, Dr. Deanna MacDonald, accompanied us and was an excellent “tour guide.” Other students discovered that our class was visiting Kamakura and joined us.

 

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Class Trip to Kamakura (photo credit:   )

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Anatol Steck

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Although it’s not traditional to take photos of the Buddha, I had to capture at least one photo.

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Sam Argyle

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Just. Beautiful.

 

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Opalia Meade and Alex Hadley

 

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Oh hey that’s me (photo credit: Lourdes Monje )

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Candid of Alex Hadley capturing Kya Kerner enjoying the nature. Double candid.

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Candid of Lynch Zhang praying

 

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Offerings to the Buddha

 

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There’s greenery everywhere in Kamakura.

Just another day in the life of…

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…a study abroad student. Which doesn’t seem all that fun when you consider that you are in another country to study. And then how can you have fun without going broke or spending a huge amount of time on some touristy tour. But please, allow me to correct that train of thought. At least in Tokyo, there is a veritable smorgasbord of fun things to do that you do not need to go out of your way for.

This might seem a bit anti-climatic, but I know I got a kick out of the purikura, photo-booth pictures. I am going to go out on a limb and say that they are popular here based on how crowded it was, especially with teens. Okay, so what? While they are basically just photos, right after you finish posing, you get to add and decorate the heck out of them with whatever stickers or outlandish things you want on the touchscreen. Because there is a timer usually, you have to get in all your fun decorations within the allotted time, which makes it almost like a game. I kid you not, it is oddly fun and addicting. For only ¥400, you can pick which set of photos you want, and I suggest going in a group because it makes the decorating part fun. At the same time, you get a glimpse of Japanese beauty standards, because purikura Photoshops your face automatically to enlarge your eyes and smooth and whiten your skin. I guess this is as beautiful as I get.

Purikura in Harujuku

Another great place to kill time is the arcade. For some reason, they always smell like cigarette smoke, but that could be attributed to all the grown men who play these games like their lives depend on it. I actually am not sure why there are so many of them, but the really competitive players will gather an audience. It is also a mostly male crowd just as the purikura attracted more females, but there’s definitely a greater absence of the opposite gender at the arcades. There is a huge selection of choices to play from, but your hand eye coordination better be good because they are haaaard! Or it could just be me.

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Emily playing the equivalent of DDR except with only hands

Now, this suggestion is definitely one that both genders in Tokyo participate in pretty equally. Karaoke! Can’t sing in Japanese like me? No problem! Many, if not all, karaoke places have English songs too so you can sing to your heart’s content. To save the most money, they are usually cheaper in the afternoons than evenings, but also, they are more expensive in places like Shinjuku since they have an active nightlife. They charge by either half hour or hour which makes it nice if you either want to stay for awhile or don’t want to stay long. It seems like drinking and singing is a popular pastime for larger groups, which is different in the U.S. in that there is the absence of the singing part. I wonder why karaoke isn’t as prevalent in the U.S. and if it has to do with Americans feeling more self-conscious about presenting in front of others.

I find that these small entertainments usually have patrons no matter the day, so I am curious to know if it is in part because of the stress and amount of work the average Japanese person has, and that these places are opportunities for them to decompress. Not only are they affordable, but they don’t require much time commitment which makes it ideal to loosen up just enough.

Let me paint you a picture…

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A cold clear day, and the sun shines brightly without its normal burn. A bit of residual frost clings to branches of bushes and trees, and condensation drips into and dampens the ground. And it is silent. Not an uncomfortable, awkward silence but an awed and reverent stillness.

The temple grounds are scattered with a few people. There is the occasional faint rattle of coins that clink their way down into the slatted box in offering, in the hopes that the prayer will be heard. Up ahead looms a giant Buddha that dominates the vision, perfectly polished and larger than life. A serene expression graces its features as if all is right with the world, as if no violence or tragedy rears its ugly head halfway across the globe. Oddly enough, its very presence is humbling.

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The Giant Buddha at Jourenji Temple

To the left is a traditional styled building and shallow pond that is framed by a low wooden fence. In the center of the water is what appears to be a small shrine, and the pond itself is bordered by rock outcroppings and sculpted trees that are at once somehow both natural and controlled. A couple of ducks peacefully paddle in the pond, unafraid of human presence. The water ripples with flashes of gold and red as the lithe bodies of koi slice through the surface. It is akin to being suspended in time, and you dare not raise your voice higher than a hushed whisper. Breathe it all in as its serenity settles in your bones and calms your heart.

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Koi pond at Jourenji Temple

To the right are a set of stairs that lead below to a row of small statues of wizened old men. Who are they? What do they represent? The paths are well maintained but worn by the many feet that have crossed these same stones. Surrounded by plants that have survived the winter, it is as though nature is barely restrained all around.

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Stone statues at the bottom of the stairs

Exiting from the back, the road is lined by people’s prayers and wishes in the form of wooden plaques that hang from the board as well as slips of white paper with fortunes that are tied to the strings on the wall so that they will come true. It is like being surrounded by hopes and dreams, and I wonder who these people are. If I have passed them in the streets, sat next to them on the train, and I cannot help but feel such nostalgia and yearning and curiosity all mixed together. It is altogether overwhelming that stepping onto the main street, I have to look over my shoulder for one last glance before returning to pedestrian life. Wow.

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The wishes and hopes written on wooden boards

I was lucky this semester to schedule my classes so that I don’t have classes a couple times a week. It allows me to visit places without having to deal with the rush and chaos that happens during the weekends, and thanks to that, I was able to absorb the beauty and peace of Jourenji Temple without interruption. One does not need to be Shinto in order to appreciate the landscape and architecture or the uplifting and spiritual atmosphere no matter how clichéd that sounds.

I think if possible, one should visit these little gems during weekdays, because it is easier to connect on a personal level. In the hustle and bustle of weekends, the impact is diminished, and that is a shame right there.

Museum Trips

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Museums in Tokyo have cheap admission rates and limited-time objects on display.

Tokyo National Museum

 

In Tokyo all the architecture treasured buildings are besides modern buildings tucked in the streets. Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples are in the city can be side by side with the grocery store, schools, residential buildings. The much larger scaled sacred buildings are more cherished and established as tourist attractions. However, the locals value these sacred places and visit to pray. Historical areas aren’t celebrated as much; therefore, there isn’t any english text to describe the history. The best places to learn about Japanese traditions, history, art, and architecture is to visit museums.

You can learn about the Japanese art and architecture by going to the museums.

The Museums are a huge hit in Tokyo because they have valued fragile pieces that can only be shown for a limited time and museums admission rates are very cheap. As a classroom, we have visited two museums so far; Tokyo National Museum and Nezu Museum.

Nezu Museum

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Saturday Class Trip to Nezu Museum

 

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Nezu Museum’s Garden