Monthly Archives: January 2017

Outside Tokyo: Exploring New Places and Meeting New People

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     I found friends amongst the other students with surprising ease, making my first friend ten minutes into the study abroad student orientation. Within five days, I had found myself a small group of friends, who I enjoyed eating, adventuring, and conversing with. I consider myself a shy person, so I was surprised at how fast I became comfortable and friendly with my peers. I believe our collective culture-shocked struggling helped speed up the process, but I also think the fun trips my friends and I made before the school year started greatly contributed to our close relationships.

On Saturday, a large group of Temple University students decided to go on a day trip to Kotoku-in Temple and Enoshima Island. I decided to join the trip and spent the entire day getting to know the people I was traveling with, Ben, Krys, and Cailyn.

Our group took the JR train line to Shinagawa station and then boarded the Yokosuka train for Kamakura station. We arrived at Kamakura station within an hour and walked through the small town to the famous Kotoku-in Temple, containing a giant cast-iron Buddha. Unlike Tokyo, the streets in Kamakura were quiet and small. Gated houses lined the block instead of the high rise apartments of the city.

The Kotoku-in Temple grounds were neatly kept, with gravel and concrete grounds and low-hanging green trees barely rustling in the wind. We paid a 200 yen entrance fee and ceremonially washed our hands at temizuya pavilions with ice cold water in small wooden ladles.

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43 foot Buddha at Kotaku-in Temple

     The giant Buddha Kotoku-in is famous for sat in plain sight with a small cast iron ball for burning incense sitting at his feet. Nearby was a small stand where people could buy lucky charms, or omamori, to take home from the temple; or small packets of pink incense to burn at the temple. Many students took pictures with the Buddha or gave him a small bow. For an additional 100 yen, we could even walk inside of the Buddha and see his hollowed iron insides.

From Kamakura, our student exploration group took the 45-minute train ride to Enoshima station, and crossed a bridge across the ocean to Enoshima island. Enoshima Island was beautiful and cold, and sloped upwards dramatically. I quickly grew tired climbing up staircase after staircase, with the cold, salty, wind whipping my face. However, the shrines and views of ocean that met us when we got to the top of each staircase were incredible.

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Red shrine on Enoshima Island, reached after a long climb

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Hanging charms for sale at Enoshima Shrine

     My group also went through several underground caves on the island. The caves were less picturesque, but they contained many historical statues which were dedicated to the sea goddess from Buddhist mythology, Benzaiten, who is believed to have created Enoshima island herself, raising it out of the sea in a giant earthquake.

    After several hours, snow started falling on the island, blowing sideways in small white flakes. Ben, Krys, and I decided that we were not prepared for this change in weather and headed back to the mainland in our own small group.

After 13 hours of walking and adventuring in barely-above-freezing weather, I crawled into my dorm bed, exhausted and sore, but overjoyed at the exciting new experiences I had with my new friends. I look forward to having more adventures with them throughout the semester.

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Walking to Enoshima Island with other students

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New Years in Nagano

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A few days after the end of my first semester at TUJ, after I’d caught up on what felt like two entire months of missed sleep, I was eating dinner with my roommate as it dawned on both of us that we now had almost a month and half before classes began again to spend in a foreign country, a daunting prospect when coupled with the realization that a good number of the friends we’d made had just returned to the United States and various other origin points, with us staying behind in Japan for another semester.

The break actually went faster than we expected, as both of us were able to get part time jobs, or arubaito in Japanese, teaching English at different international schools, in order to offset some of the cost of the coming semester. On top of working, however, the best part of the vacation was definitely our New Years.

We were determined to spend at least a little bit of the break exploring a different part of Japan than Tokyo, and so we planned out a trip over the New Year weekend up into the mountains around Nagano, planning to spend New Years day at the famous Zenkoji temple, and then the day after take the trek out to see the snow monkey hot springs at Jigokudani Monkey Park.

We arrived at Matsumoto station around seven pm on New Years eve, and quickly realized that, due to an error in our planning, we were still about twenty km from the inn we’d reserved for the weekend. Right before we settled in for a long cold hike through the dark farmland, we were able to hitch a ride with an incredibly friendly schoolteacher who was looking for an opportunity to practice his English.

Upon arriving at the inn, we were greeted by our host, who said that he was about to start making dinner, if we were interested, and that there was a couple staying there that night as well. We had a great time that night eating and hanging out with our host and fellow guests, watching the Japanese New Years special.

 

The next day we woke up and took the train into Nagano station, from which we headed straight to the temple at the top of the city. I’d known that it was traditional to go to a temple on New Years day in Japan, but nothing prepared me for the crowds. The line we waited in just to enter the temple grounds seemingly stretched for kilometers down the road.

The next day we woke up, said goodbye our host at the inn and headed into the mountains to find the monkeys. This was something I’d been looking forward to doing since I’d come to Japan, and spent the entire bus ride from Nagano to the trailhead alternating between trying to catch some much needed sleep and worrying about the guide pamphlet’s disclaimer that “there is no guarantee that the monkeys will be at the springs”.

Jigojudani, or “valley of hell, is named because of the boiling water and steam that seeps froth from cracks in the icy ground, giving the valley, already surrounded by steep cliffs and only accessible via a narrow icy hike through the mountains, a completely otherworldly feel. And that’s not even mentioning the monkeys. After we’d hiked for about an hour, we suddenly descended out of the dense forest into the valley, and my fears about not seeing the monkeys dissipated instantly. The monkeys were everywhere, and running around, doing monkey things, bathing in the numerous hot springs, and jumping up to grab food out of the hands of those who’d ignored the signs along the trail.

 

The Beginning of an Adventure

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The Beginning of an Adventure

 

   I arrived in Japan at 4:30 pm, with two suitcases, a backpack, and a raging headache. After stumbling my way through the baggage claim and customs, I managed to board the limousine bus, which took me on a 120-minute ride from Narita airport to the Tokyo Metropolitan Hotel. With my forehead pressed against the glass of the bus window, I caught my first glimpses of the city. Tokyo covers a vast area, with glittering skyscrapers and blinking neon signs. I loved how close the highway was to the city’s buildings; close enough that I could see the neat rows of desks and cubicles through brightly lit office building windows. We passed dark alleys and glowing intersections, shining canals and interconnected concrete overpasses. In my tired eyes, he city was a colossal beast with blinking advertisements and traffic lights at its heart.

   That night, I arrived at my dorm, Takadanobaba, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district at 8 pm. I was assigned to a drafty and starkly lit fourth floor dorm room, with white appliances and wooden furniture. Despite its small size, my room had a private bathroom, phone, television, microwave, stove, appliances, and back door with an overhanging balcony. I was surprised at the number of items that could fit in such a limited space as I unpacked my two suitcases and still found unused cabinets in the room.

    Over the next few days, the study abroad students, including myself, were herded around Tokyo, as we were taught where our dorm was in relation to our school and how we could travel from place to place within the city. Though I knew the practical information was important, I admittedly spent more time staring at my surroundings than noting the subway lines we were using. I even had to be pulled out of the way of oncoming motorbikes or traffic signs as I contemplated the differences between Japan and the United States instead of paying attention to my surroundings.

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On the way back from school

    I had never seen as many blinking advertisements as I had in Tokyo. The bright signs in American cities had always seemed like the work of large companies, displayed high in the air and out of reach. But in Tokyo, each storefront seemed to have a neon sign, beckoning from every angle.

    I had also never seen men or women in formal business attire riding bikes before. In Los Angeles, bicycles were considered recreational forms of transport. People rode them when they had leisure time, sometimes while wearing ridiculously bright, skin-tight suits. Yet here, the bike was treated as a serious vehicle for office workers. Men and women in full suits consistently biked down the sidewalk, seemingly unconcerned that bike seats might rub holes in cleanly pressed slacks.

    Thousands of small differences stood out to me as I mentally compared Tokyo with the American cities I was familiar with. The streets were cleaner and better kept. The sidewalks were occasionally paved with bricks. Vending machines and convenience stores appeared at every corner and children ran in the streets without fear or adult supervision. Trucks appeared in unusually bright colors and a surprising amount of people were wearing surgical masks. Everything seemed so new and subtly different, and the experience was both exciting and stress-inducing.

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Man made lake near our dorm