Monthly Archives: March 2016

Breaking down Tokyo: Asakusa

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It is a beautiful place, that still has a feel of another older period in Japan’s history lingering in its atmosphere. It might be the fake boughs of cherry blossoms that hang from the open air stalls or the architecture. Or it might be the women gorgeously attired and made-up in traditional kimono, some of which may be geisha. It is not too hard to imagine the Asakusa that was once the hub of entertainment, and the Japanese seem to be fond of the place. From the conversations that I have had with some of them, when they ask where I have been in Tokyo, they always bring up Asakusa. Having heard it mentioned so many times, I had to see for myself what the appeal was.

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On the way to the temple

I was lucky enough that a Japanese guy that I had become acquainted with offered to show me around. When we arrived, he directed me down a cobbled path lined with shops and food vendors where he would point out the ingredients and what was being made. He took me to Sensou-ji Temple which is the most well-known temple in the area, in part, because it is the oldest. I mentioned before in an earlier post about how bad luck fortunes being tied to string, and I actually got to do that. With a 100 yen donation, I shook a cylindrical capsule with a tiny slot for a single bamboo stick to fall out. After reading the number, I reinserted the stick, and then searched the drawers built into the wall for the corresponding number to withdraw one of the sheets of paper. Me being me, I unsurprisingly drew bad luck, while my friend pulled out normal luck. No big deal, but he explained to me further, that the reason why the slips of paper are tied and left behind is so that the bad luck will not follow the person back home.

Afterwards, we stopped by a fountain where he instructed me how to cleanse myself by reading the instructions posted. The reasoning behind that is before entering the actual temple to pray, one should be cleared of impurities. Wooden ladles ringed the fountain, and we poured water over one hand and then the other. Then we poured some water into one palm to rinse out our mouth. Finally the ladle was upended vertically, handle-side down before re-propped up on the edge. After the cleansing, I realized belatedly that Japanese often carry handkerchiefs on them, and for good reason. I had to borrow my companion’s hankie because my hands were still wet. Just a heads up, but paper towels are rare around here.

When we actually entered the temple, I tossed in a few coins in donation into the saisen, a coin box with a grate at the top, as there isn’t a specified amount expected, although I believe that if you really wanted your prayer to come true, you would donate more. Prayers in a Japanese Buddhist temple are different than the ones I do at home, as my family follows Chinese Buddhist traditions. In Japan, eyes are shut and the palms pressed together upright while you pray, which is different from what I am familiar with, which involves moving the pressed hands back and forth in a mimicry of bowing a few times or actual kneeling and bowing for more serious rituals.

I am really thankful to have had an actual experience in going through all the actions and etiquette, and I couldn’t have done it without my friend guiding me, so snaps to him for being a good sport about it, even though he doesn’t follow the customs.

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“Les poissons, les poissons…

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…how I love les poissons!” In case you didn’t catch that, that was my tribute to the The Little Mermaid, but honestly, I’m in whole-hearted agreement with that line. And Japan, being entirely surrounded by sea, has a history of fish and in general seafood, being incorporated into its diet.

That being the case, it is only reasonable that it is home to the largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji Fish Market. But the highlight of this magnificent place, is the auction which takes place in the wee hours of the morning. Only 120 people are able to go in, and in order to even register at this popular attraction, you would have to get there at 4:30AM to register. Unfortunately, due to the dorm’s closing hours, I was not able to go, but one of the other study abroad students decided to stay the night out for a chance to get in. Because of its popularity though, she wasn’t able to get in.

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Busy street vendors and stalls

Now, you might be wondering what the appeal is about a fish auction, but it’s a cultural experience. From what I have heard, the auction has its own dynamic. The fish being auctioned are giant tuna that are examined by professionals who grade them by quality of the flesh. It’s fast paced with the buyers automatically gauging quality based on the flesh exposed from the sliced off tail, and they have to get through numerous fish. They have their own special sign language that only veterans of this business know, so the auction is conducted with minimal sounds. Pretty cool if you ask me.

Everything in Tsukiji pretty much concludes at around 9AM which makes sense considering the value of freshness. Although I did not attend the auction, that didn’t stop me taking advantage of what Tsukiji had to offer. I showed up a little after 7AM, and there were still many active stalls that were selling seafood, dried or pickled foods, and various other goods like specialty knives. It was packed with people, and some food vendors had long lines of waiting people. Interestingly enough, there were only high tables in which people ate standing up. While in the indoor part of the market, I was able to try a free sample of some sort of fish, and since the skin was brown, it looked pretty unappetizing, but was amazingly tender and tasty. The only reasonable course of action to take after touring the place and looking at the different varieties of fish was to have sushi for breakfast! A bit unorthodox admittedly, but my friends and I wanted to have a taste of what freshest sushi could be like. Prices cost a little bit more than usual, but I suppose you pay for what you get. The sushi was good, but I am no connoisseur so I was not able to detect any particular differences. It still feels good to say that I was able to eat sushi from Tsukiji, and just as a recommendation, if you are going to eat sushi there, get the tuna because there are different levels of fatty tuna which is considered more of a delicacy. Besides, that’s also what’s being auctioned in Tsukiji!

Maybe one day I will have a chance to actually tour the warehouse during the auctions. I’m definitely adding it to life goals.

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Outside of where the auction is held

Breaking down Tokyo: Akihabara

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This is the stuff of dreams for all anime or manga fanatics. It is the epitome of every fanboy and fangirl’s dreams if they are self-proclaimed otakus, although keep in mind, that this word is not really a positive one here in Japan, so it would probably be best to avoid referring to oneself as such. But this ward is for every cliché you could possibly be searching for, at least all the ones that I had from reading manga. I mean, that was where I first got my impressions of Japanese culture before I began researching and reading up on the country.

To jump right into the most stand-out thing, there are maid cafes galore. It is certainly not really a thing elsewhere, at least not from where I am from, which makes it a novelty for someone like me. All it really is, is a cafe but all the waitresses are in maid outfits and are very cutesy. Of course, there are some special ones in which they are cat maids so they have cat ears and act like cats, but it’s basically the same concept. Now before concerns are raised–in the West, this type of cafe might be met with worries about the sexuality of it, but to clarify, there is nothing untoward and unprofessional about it. Everything about it is entirely proper and is no different from the service of a typical restaurant. Sure, there may be a greater ratio of males attendance, but honestly speaking, my friends and I would be frequent visitors if we were served by something we liked a lot…which is probably why there is also a Gundam cafe and AKB48 Cafe also in Akihabara. These cafes are specified towards certain interests, just like back in the U.S. people will attend conventions based on what they like. That means that these places are not cheap. Usually, there is a fee to just to enter, which sounds not worth it, but I guess it makes sense because it is payment for the experience. In a group discussion I had in class, the general consensus is that these cafes exist because they attract tourists who find these places as novelties and want to try it out, and also local people who wish to see a fantasy come to life.

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Just walking down the street and you’ll see this

While walking the streets, I noticed an older gentleman with a tote illustrated with adorable anime figures on it. Thinking about it, I have seen many people on the trains reading manga, and it really struck me that what I consider as something more unique back at home is actually really common here in Japan. Everywhere around me, there are signs of this aspect of Japanese culture embedded, like with the numerous arcade rooms that offer the chance at limited edition figurines of popular works or the electronic banners that advertise the release of a new animated video game. Akihabara is like at the intersection between hi-tech electronics and illustrated works with the number of places you can purchase the latest games animated by the country known for its advanced technology. It definitely feels like the digital age when you are there.

Shop, shop till you drop

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Or you know, until the next thing you know, you’re broke. But that is a scenario that I think most of us would like to avoid. Being in a whole other country, you want to buy souvenirs, clothes, etc. that you can bring back home to show off and say, “Hey, look where I’ve been! Here is the proof.” It doesn’t help that I am in Tokyo which is what people may consider a major fashion hub alongside cities like NYC, Paris, and London, and there are clothing boutiques all around.

Now if you have money to burn, maybe Ginza is right up your alley with its brand name luxury stores that will bring to mind Fifth Avenue in New York, but chances are that isn’t the case. For a more reasonable price, I took a look at Shibuya 109 with its nine floors packed with cosmetics, shoes, accessories, and clothing in every style from classy-chic to preppy-sports-y. However, like most department stores, it is not the cheapest option since these clothes are targeted towards those cultivating a specific sort of closet. There are bargains to be found of course, but the chances are not too likely that the nicer and more fashionable items are going to be discounted. Another alternative to the department store scene are the massive clothing stores found worldwide like H&M and Forever21, but if you’re in Japan, you might as well shop in their stores, right?

That being said, the cheapest option that is friendly on your wallet and also easy on the eyes is thrift-shopping! Now before anyone cringes at the thought of musty smelling items in a potentially dingy store, let it be known that I was not big on thrift shopping in the U.S. I can make an exception here. Clothes in the few thrift stores that I visited were for the most part in fantastic condition, and in some cases, never worn, although there is always that one rack where all the not so great stuff goes. Prices were also far more reasonable than back in the U.S. For example, one shop I went to on Wednesday, Don Don Down, has a ranking system of fruits and vegetables, each denoting a different price, the lowest being 100yen. I wound up finding a formal business blouse for only a 100 yen , which means I spent less than a dollar on it. No complaints there! Now, if you live by the girls’ dorm, there is a thrift store nearby where almost everything is under a 1000yen. The biggest catch, though, is finding one in your size.

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Unusual name and mascot but definitely worth it

In general though, clothes store are abundant in Tokyo, and the upkeep of them, whether in a fancy designer store or a thrift shop, is clean and orderly. Usually, when it rains, they have little baggies to slip over your umbrella so water doesn’t leak everywhere, and this applies to many places actually. Another thing clothing stores do to manage their standard of quality is that they provide what appears to be a linen baggy. I had no idea at first what it was for when the salesgirl gave it to me. I found out later that it was to put over your face so when people tried on clothes, they wouldn’t smear make-up all over the clothes. The more you know!

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I didn’t know what to do with it at the time so I ended up bringing it home

Breaking down Tokyo: Shinjuku

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When thinking about Tokyo, I think the general consensus is something to the equivalent of the stereotype for New York City with a glamorous nightlife filled with neon lights and an exciting atmosphere. Okay, basically parties and clubs and everything that entails. That or the massive Godzilla (which if you did not know already, is the icon for the use of nuclear power/weaponry) that rampages through Tokyo, destroying and wreaking havoc. It is also the Shinjuku’s mascot, and they have a statue of it which I plan to see on my next visit.

While the former is true to an extent, Shinjuku possesses a little more international culture in my opinion. For example, it houses a Korea-town of sorts called Okubo which has many Korean restaurants and even more stores selling K-pop merchandise. For all fans of K-pop a.k.a Korean pop music, this is a veritable paradise. I am going to hazard a guess that a majority of the goods are not originals and likely mass produced knock-offs from China based on the cheap prices that I saw.

I also think that I saw more restaurants serving food from other countries in Shinjuku. One of the ones that I am most impressed by is the Mexican restaurant specializing in California-styled burritos. As a Californian, that is a dream come true. But the most interesting part of it is that it is called “Rainbow Burritos,” which if you haven’t guessed yet, is very much supportive of the whole spectrum of sexuality. This fairly clear statement is a little bit surprising, since I have heard that one’s sexuality is not really mentioned in Japan, although it is generally accepted, however you identify yourself. Shinjuku actually has a thriving war known as Ni-chome in which its distinguishing factor is that it is know as Shinjuku’s gay town because the high percentage of gay bars concentrated there. They have their own sub-culture there, and being from the Bay Area (California), it reminds me a lot of San Francisco because of the strong LGBT community and the pride people have in it, which is great!

Another interesting thing about Shinjuku is the concept of host or hostess club, and although they are not limited to Shinjuku, there are many of them. Before anyone freaks out, all it really is, is where patrons pay to have conversation and entertainment and drinks. Under typical Western views, paying someone to talk to you is viewed negatively as a reflection of social ability, but I think this is kind of difference between American and Japanese culture. In the U.S., we are taught from the time we are young that independence is good and to be generally more aggressive and vocal when we want something. In fact, those who are perhaps more introverted and may have difficulty striking conversation are viewed more negatively when in reality, introverts possess excellent qualities that are overlooked. And as a result, there is a push for introverts to adapt an “extroverted” persona. From personal experience of being one of those introverts with a cultivated front, this is a refreshing difference. From what I have gathered in my time here, the Japanese dislike imposing themselves on others. People are generally less raucous, and many things are not said, but rather implied. As such, the presence of host and hostess clubs kind of makes sense, because then you are not imposing yourself on them if their job is to lift your spirits.

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Shinjuku at night

That being said, Shinjuku is pretty quirky in a good way, and I would definitely go back to keep exploring the sights. I hear there’s a garden cultivated in different styles like French or Japanese-styled!

Japanese Home Sweet Home

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So, this was probably a long time coming, but I realize that I never really talked about where I am living in Tokyo, and I know that personally that was one of the things I was most concerned about when deciding to study abroad. I remember concerns running through my head that were along the lines of, “What do I need to bring? What will they supply? How far is it from the school? Is it near places where I can buy things? What about laundry? I can’t live without internet!!”

Please, allow me to allay your fears. Should you choose to live in the women’s dorm (Kitazono), they supply all your linens and bedding, so you don’t need to worry about bringing sheets or a pillow, but if you would rather get your own, it is also within walking distance to the supermarket and 100 yen store which is on the way to the train station which takes you to school! Laundry only costs 200 yen per load, 100 for the washing machine and another 100 for the dryer. And obviously, the most important thing for people in this generation, yes there is internet! It is best to bring your own Ethernet cable because the wall sockets are a bit spaced out so your laptop might be too far in position to be hooked up to the Ethernet socket. The lobby downstairs also provides you with a wifi-router if you give a 1000 yen deposit which would be returned once the router is. From what I hear, the guys at the men’s dorm are even luckier because they also have TVs in their room and a microwave.

To get a better grasp of the layout and dynamics of living at the women’s dorm, imagine walking through the automated sliding glass doors. The staff in the lobby greet you with “Okaerinasai” in which the response is “Tadaima.” Welcome home and I’m home. You walk up to the board to flip your name printed on a plastic rectangle over to indicate you are home, first. Then you turn right, and walking down the hallway towards the elevators, packages for the residents are piled against the wall and mailboxes lined against both ends. Then, as you ride up to your floor and unlock your room, taking off your shoes in the equivalent of a genkan.

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Entryway to remove shoes

To one side are shelves to store things and a mini fridge while the other is a kitchenette complete with sink, hot plate, plates, and basic cooking and eating utensils. Further in, the wood floors shift to carpeting and right before the transition, on one side is your bathroom which is raised slightly. You find the sink is connected to the shower which is doubled up as a bath, too, and can adjust the temperature using the sink’s knobs and twisting the knob to redirect the water flow.

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Bathroom which is raised about 4 inches

As for the rest of the room, a desk and chair are pressed up against the double sliding glass doors that lead to the balcony, and the bed and shelves take up the expanse of one whole wall.

Taking in a preliminary sweep of everything, you grab your sorted trash: burnables, non-burnables, and plastic bottles with caps and plastic lining removed and head down stairs again. Flipping your name over once more to indicate your leaving, the staff calls out “Itterasshai.” Please go and come back. “Ittekimasu,” you’ll answer in return. I’ll go and come back.

You walk out towards an open smaller building with large waist-high dumpsters, dropping off the non-burnables in the aqua one, burnables in yellow, and the bottles, caps, and linings in their respective open-air small bins. That being finished, you head off towards the station, past the wide-open gates that perpetually become further closed as it inches towards the 11PM closing time.

I found Nemo in Tokyo

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Tokyo is filled with so many adventures. I visited Epson Aqua Park Shinagawa, sumo tournament organized by TUJ Student Activities, and exploring the city with my girls. Here are my adventures:

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I found Nemo. (Photo Credit: Ayame Kikuchi)

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Beautiful and stunning jellyfish (no pun intended)

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The delicate jellyfish tentacles that sting at contact.

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Playing with the jellyfish made me feel like I would be a great sea character in the movie, “Finding Nemo.” (Photo Credit: Ayama Kikuchi)

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In the “wonder tube.” I have no idea on the name of this sea animal.

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Take him down!

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Ari McEwing, Sam Argyle, and Nikko Gary at the Sumo Tournament

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Svetlana Lisok and Peter Chheu at the Sumo Tournament

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Jazzmynn Hong capturing the beauty in the city of Tokyo

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Lourdes Monje on JR train

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Is that matcha ice cream?

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It is matcha! Jazzmynn Hong