Monthly Archives: February 2017

Extreme Sight-Seeing in Osaka and Nara

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Crowded streets in Osaka

From Kyoto, my friends and I took a bus and then a train to Osaka. We arrived late in the evening and headed over to our modest Airbnb apartment.

For dinner, we went to a nearby restaurant and ate okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake with cabbage and meat. The okonomiyaki restaurant was my first experience with traditional Japanese-style dining. The floor was covered with woven tatami mats and guests were required to remove their shoes at the door. While eating, we sat on cushions instead of chairs, and the tables were much closer to the floor.

We spent most of the following day at the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka. Though the Japanese park was very similar to American versions of Universal, the park had additional attractions based off of Japanese media. For example, the park contained an Attack on Titan area complete with larger-than-life statues of various titans. McKenna invited her Japanese friends, Kei and Yudai to join us at Universal. I was able to practice Japanese with them and we played both Japanese and American time-passing games while waiting in line for rides.

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Everyone posing in front of the Titan statue at Universal

After leaving Universal, Kei and Yudai were kind enough to show us around Dotonbori, a street in Osaka, known for its hodgepodge of Japanese restaurants. Giant, animatronic statues mounted on restaurant fronts beckoned to us and the air was filled with the smells of fried meat, seafood, and smoke. We finally stopped in front of a restaurant with a statue of an irritated Japanese chef to eat kushikatsu, or deep fried food on skewers.

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One of the unique storefronts on Dotonbori

My friends and I ended the day by going to an onsen near our Airbnb apartment called Spa World. The onsen, or Japanese communal bathhouse, was just what we needed after a day of non-stop walking and sightseeing. I was initially embarrassed to bathe with others, but my nervousness slowly wore off as I napped in a hot spring pool with hot white steam rising around me.

We headed home the next day, but made a quick stop at Nara Park to visit shrines and feed deer. The Nara Park deer are the hallmark of the city, roaming the famed park freely and bowing to visitors. Park guests can buy crackers to feed the deer, though the deer are known to be somewhat aggressive when spotting a package of crackers.

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Feeding a deer at Nara

I ended my weekend deeply satisfied. I had seen and explored so much of Japan. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see so many beautiful, interesting places and have such fun experiences. I’m extremely grateful for this trip and the people I spent time with during my four-day weekend.

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Second Semester Update

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Second semester, as it always does, is flying by. It feels like literally last week that classes started, and I near panicked the other day when I realized I only have two months left in Japan, and that my midterms are approaching fast. I’m not sure which bothered me more.

At this point living here feels so natural that I’m almost worried about the reverse culture shock of transitioning back to life in Philadelphia. Things that used to seem so daunting just a few months ago, like ordering in Japanese at a restaurant, or reading street signs while navigating Tokyo traffic on bicycle are now second nature to me. I’ve been working my part time job, have started to recognize some of the other locals in my neighborhood (and they definitely recognize me; my roommate and I are seemingly the only foreigners in our area of the city), and have even befriended and hung out with some of the guys who work at our local Konbini.

I am definitely glad that I decided to stay in Japan for the entire year, instead of a single semester. During my first semester it seemed daunting, and there were a few times when I had no idea what I was thinking, but it has been worth it, and I would very strongly advise any future study abroad students who can to do so. I especially see the benefit reflected in my Japanese, which, while still objectively awful (I speak, as David Sedaris described his own grasp of French, like an “evil baby”), has improved so much from the constant exposure. While the Japanese courses I’ve taken at TUJ have undeniably been a huge part of my improvement, the month off we had in the winter, where I was forced to essentially fend for myself and practice on my own did so much for my confidence with the language.

Being here for a year has also given me the luxury of being able to explore at my own pace, and not feel that tourist-like rush to see everything before my time is up (though that deadline is getting closer and closer, which I am painfully aware of).

Tokyo is so massive that there is no way for anybody to see all of it in a lifetime, let alone an academic year, but I really have been to some incredible places in and around the city over the past few months.

One of my absolute favorites, which I went to a week or two ago, was the Chinatown in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, the reason being the food, of course. My roommate and I went into a very tiny restaurant in an alley so narrow we could barely stand shoulder to shoulder, and ended up hanging out with a few old Japanese men all night. They kept buying us dumplings and beer, and I got to practice my Japanese, so the night was an undeniable success.

Kansai!

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A few weeks ago, undergraduate students at TUJ had a long weekend, as an undergrad holiday on a Friday came on the heels of a national day off on Thursday. Excited to make the most of our time away from the classroom, my friends and I decided to take the weekend and go down to the Kansai region of Japan, about an eight-hour bus ride south of Tokyo. We booked the overnight bus and met up at Tokyo station at eleven thirty, bags of clothes and McDonalds in hand.

It took all night to ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, and I don’t think I slept at all. I can’t sleep in cars or buses (or trains or planes for that matter) at the best of times, and the incredibly cramped seating arrangement just exasperated my insomnia. Not that I cared. It was actually a fairly enjoyable night spent watching the lights of the highway fly through the mountains, and then, best of all, seeing the sunrise as we pulled into Kyoto.

We got into Kyoto at around seven in the morning, and because we were all tired of sitting on the bus, we decided to walk the four miles from Kyoto Station to our Air BnB, right by Ginkakuji Temple. Walking through Kyoto that morning, the first thing I was struck by was how different the atmosphere was from Tokyo. There were no impenetrable crowds, even though it was a weekday morning at rush-hour, no tall buildings in every direction, creating the sense that one is in a glass and concrete canyon. Instead, the streets were wide and lined with trees, and the buildings were low and spaced out, and there were temples everywhere. I’d read that Kyoto was famous for its number of shrines and temples, but it still amazed me just how many I saw. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but there really did seem to be one on every block.

Once we dropped off our bags, our first stop was Ginkakuji. The temple is famous for the intricate gardens that overlook the city, and rightfully so. Next we headed to the old Imperial Palace, but by that point, around three in the afternoon, the overnight bus ride on which none of us got any sleep was starting to take its toll, and we spent most of the time at the temple stumbling around in a zombified daze.

The next night we took the train to Osaka. One of the friends I went with grew up there, so we spent the night being shown around Dotonbori, a crowded nightlife area known for being extravagantly lit up at night, as well as the canal that runs through it. Tokyo may seem crowded and wild at times, but in my experience so far in Japan, Osaka probably beats it any time.

The next day our group split, leaving my roommate and I to continue touring around Kansai, while some of our other friends headed back to Tokyo. We continued to walk around Kyoto for a little while, seeing the famous Gion district, but the highlight of that last day was getting out to Nara just as the sun set. We headed directly for the park from the station, but by the time we found it, it was dark. Not sure of what to expect next, we walked into the trees slowly, and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of deer, completely fearless, and almost indifferent to our presence.

Overall, it was a great trip, and a great way to see a different part of Japan.

Extreme Sight-Seeing in Kyoto

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When Temple University Japan gave students a two-day undergraduate holiday, my friends and I took the opportunity to go on a weekend-long trip to Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. The experience was simultaneously exciting, frustrating, tiring, and incredibly fun. I feel extremely lucky to see and experience so much of Japan, and I know the memories of this trip will stay with me for a long time.

Our group left for Kyoto Friday night, boarding a Shinkansen bullet train. The Shinkansen runs at around 200 miles per hour and brought us to our destination within three hours. We arrived, in freezing snow and surrounded by closed storefronts, though the time was only 8pm. For roughly an hour, my group of friends and I attempted to find our Airbnb apartment room before realizing it was on the fourth floor of an apartment across the street.

We woke up early the next morning, bought bus passes, and attempted to squeeze the maximum number of Kyoto tourist attractions into a 9-hour time frame.

Kyoto is Japan’s most popular tourist destination, with numerous temples, shrines, and important landmarks from Japanese history. Our itinerary for Kyoto included one palace, one museum, one park, three temples, and one general district. We had a lot of ground to cover in two days.

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We had to hit the road early to see everything in Kyoto.

The day started off with us boarding a bus in the wrong direction and making an unplanned visit to a temple along the incorrect bus route. Toji Temple was a quiet way to start the morning, with its carefully kept gardens and old wooden structures. The signs around its premises were written completely in Japanese, so we were unsure of the temple’s significance, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

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Checking out the gardens around Toji Temple with McKenna and Nikki.

We then paid a visit to Arashiyama park, where we were able to feed monkeys, visit shrines, and walk through the famed Arashiyama bamboo forest. Our visit to Arashiyama was fun, but overwhelming, as the park was very crowded and we struggled to find important landmarks without English signs or park maps guiding us. Still, we were able to see much of the natural and man-made beauty in Arashiyama, from the Tenryuji Temple lake to the charmingly old-style souvenir shops lining the streets.

After spending most of the afternoon in Arashiyama, we visited Ryoan-ji temple, which contained several shrines and a rock garden. The rock garden was actually inside a large Japanese-style house, so we were asked to take off our shoes and put on slippers before viewing the area.

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Viewing the simple, yet elegant rock garden at Ryoan-ji with McKenna, Nikki, and Ben

From Ryoan-ji, we raced to the Kinkaku-ji temple, a Zen temple which is covered in gold from the second floor up. We were concerned that we would not be able to visit the temple before closing time, at 6pm. However, we managed to get to the temple with time to spare. We took pictures, and explored some of the surrounding gardens.

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The famed Kinkaku-ji temple with gold covering its upper floors.

The next day, we headed to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and were able to tour the palace grounds with an English-speaking tour guide. The Imperial Palace grounds are massive and hold incredible amounts of history and tradition. Every gold-leafed parking structure and red-painted gate was a significant in the lives of early Japanese royalty.

From the Imperial Palace, we walked to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. The museum held particular significance to me, as my first exposure to Japanese culture was through Japanese comic books, or manga. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, as the place is filled with volumes upon volumes of published and copyrighted manga. However, visitors are allowed to touch and even flip through Japanese comics, some of which are over 30 years old.

We ate lunch in Gion District, an area historically known for geisha entertainment, and then headed over to the Fushimi Inari Temple.

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Walking up Inari mountain through the torii gates.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha is dedicated to the Shinto diety, Inari, the god of rice and agriculture. The temple is famous for its red torii gates which line the trail up Inari mountain. Though we were unable to hike the trail in its entirety, we still had a good time eating snacks, pointing out fox statues, and watching the Shinto religious rituals which are still performed at the temple.

From Fushimi Inari, my friends and I took the train straight to Osaka. Our two days in Kyoto were exhausting, but extremely enjoyable.

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What would an epic trip across Japan be like without a group picture?

 

 

 

 

My First Taste of Culture Shock

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I have quickly become preoccupied with schoolwork since classes have begun at Temple University. I’m taking four studio art classes and one Japanese class. The workload is large, but much of my time is taken up with buying basic amenities.

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I need to buy the ingredients for my meals from Japanese supermarkets. It’s a little difficult sometimes.

In Tokyo, I don’t know what or where the best places to buy shoes, clothes, trash bags, or stomach medicine are. What would be an easy trip to Target in America often becomes a wild adventure in Tokyo with overlooked subway entrances, wrong trains boarded, and cursing at the inefficiency of Google Maps. Sometimes the trip to buy something as simple as shoes becomes excessively frustrating. My friends and I attempted to go to the ABC market in Ikebukuro, so I could buy a pair of boots. We knew the store was near the train station so we walked the entire circumference of the station to no avail. We re-entered the train depot, walking from the north exit to the south exit and back again before realizing that the store was in a mall inside the station. The outing took an hour longer than we had planned, though I did manage to secure some nice-looking, well-made shoes.

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Well-earned shoes

Before I left for Japan, both my home institution and Temple University required that I sit through an orientation on culture shock. I was told that I would find many new and exciting things in Japan, but would also become deeply frustrated with the differences between my abroad site and my home country. There are apparently three stages to culture shock: honeymoon, irritation, and integration.

During my honeymoon phase, which lasted about three days, I was enthralled with my new location. However, the irritation phase quickly set in when I started school and household chores.

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I need to go out to my local Takadanobaba area to shop for groceries, clothes, toiletries, etc.

I didn’t understand the Japanese system for throwing away trash, I didn’t realize how expensive clothing would be, and I became excessively nervous at any interaction with a native Japanese speaker, whose face would quickly become puzzled when I couldn’t understand their fast-paced conversation. My irritation phase lasted about a week, and I’m not sure if I’ve weathered it fully yet. However, with every grocery store employee interaction, I become more at ease. I can now quickly guesstimate the costs of food items and clothes, and I’ve gone an entire week without stopping the line through the train ticket turnstile.

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My future is bright, much like this sunset

I am now (probably) working on my integration phase, a slow, uphill climb towards understanding and navigating Japanese society. I will continue to do my best at understanding and learning more about Japanese society and culture. がんばりましょう!(*^o^*)

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Friends definitely help the transition to a new country!