Monthly Archives: June 2017

On Cycling through Tokyo


Half a week after my 8-hour bike ride through Tokyo, I’m still slightly sore and bruised. Cycling from around 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on last Saturday’s TUJ excursion was both a challenge and delight for me. With a TUJ representative, official tour guides, and some members of TUJ’s cycling club, myself and 14 other study abroad students mounted our rented Brompton bicycles (known for their small size and foldability) by school in the early morning. I was equal parts excited and anxious, having not ridden a bicycle in three years. Despite my reservations, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cycle through Tokyo’s backstreets.


Our first destination was Zenfukuji, where we stopped to briefly practice our cycling. In the foreground of this picture, just outside of the temple, is actually the first American embassy in Japan.

We had many destinations packed into our schedule, but the sights along the way were equally a part of the experience. For example, just minutes from leaving campus, we passed a temple that was the site of a very famous doctor from the Edo Period’s grave. After viewing the outside of Japan’s Supreme Court, the Imperial Palace, and other impressive sights in Chiyoda, we parked our bikes at Kanda Myojin Shrine and walked to Origami Kaikan, an origami museum just a short distance away. Though our visit was limited to about fifteen minutes, their exhibits were small and intimate, and an origami demonstration upstairs in the giftshop caught the attention of many visitors. After lunch at a soba noodle spot, our group visited several other sites sprinkled throughout the city, including Dentsu-in Temple, Higo-Hosokawa Garden, and Ueno Park.


I was shocked to find that this rainbow crane piece at Origami Kaikan is constructed of one continual sheet of paper.


A snapshot from Higo-Hosokawa Garden, one of the most scenic spots on our trip.

Tokyo University was a particularly striking destination for me. Full of distinguished and beautiful architecture, Tokyo University was explained to us to be “the Harvard of Japan.” As we stopped by a pond full of turtles and koi right on campus, I thought of the extraordinary lives of students here: surrounded by this expansive beauty, both natural and architectural, and with direct access to the experience of living in Tokyo. The many dualities of this city, which I’ve praised often in other blog posts, felt contained in their own microcosm here on Tokyo University’s campus.


The water in Shinobazu Pond in Ueno is almost completely hidden by these water lilies.

One constant throughout our trip was the presence of construction – and construction workers, who would watch and nod to every one of us as we passed on our bikes. Their friendliness, something you might not find as naturally in the United States, became an integral part of my ride. While construction everywhere indicates how the city is changing, this remained the same, no matter where we were along our 20-mile path. We weaved among marathoners in Chiyoda, pedestrians in Shinjuku, and traffic in Ueno, eventually ending back at TUJ (from which we limped home).

To quickly speak on the rest of my weekend, and the first half of my week, would have to include my case of laryngitis (no doubt a product of a slight cold, plus karaoke, plus a vigorous bike ride). My sick day on Sunday was a good excuse to stay in and focus on studying for midterms. Once again, I remain incredulous that I’ve already reached such a point in my studies here. My goal for the next five weeks is to remain in the moment with my studies, my friends, and this country.




Cycling Through Assimilation and Realization




Greg, Ariel, Matt, Seamus, Colin, and Ruchi outside Genki Sushi in Shibuya.

The weekend started off as it always does, heading out into Shibuya for a night out. This time my friends and I went to a sushi place called Genki sushi. At this restaurant, you order your food from an ipad and then the sushi gets delivered to you on a train! I found this place last year and I love coming back to it. Plus it’s super cheap!


Huge lily pond in Ueno Park!

This Saturday TUJ Activities had planned a biking trip across Tokyo. Over the course of the day, a group of 20 or so students biked all over Tokyo; starting at TUJ Azabu campus we biked to the Imperial Palace in Ginza, Kanda Myojin Shrine, Tokyo University, Hosokawa Park and more. At the end of it all, we were all super sweaty but had accomplished a 30km bike ride. I really enjoyed being able to ride on the streets of Tokyo. There are so many curvy and steep back roads that I had no idea existed. This excursion let me see yet another side of this huge city.


Ariel, Seamus, Ruchi, and Greg at Higo-Hokusawa Garden


Another view of Higo-Hokusawa garden


Seamus tying omikuji at Hatanomori Hachimangu

On Sunday the Tokyo Coffee Festival was being held in Shibuya. My friend Colin is a coffee addict so naturally when he heard about it we all had to go. At the festival, there were almost 50 different vendors offering their unique blend of coffee. The whole area smelled like heaven. There were even food trucks that sold vegan food and other cuisine unique from Japan. One particular food truck vendor selling burritos and tacos saw me jamming to his music outside his truck and offered me his business card and some lavender pictured below.


Polaroids and coffee at Tokyo Coffee Festival at Farmer’s Market UNU

Classes started up per usual on Monday. In my graphic design class, my fellow classmates and I got to design some typeset by hand with screen printed sheets. This method of typesetting is almost extinct, my professor told us that these sheets aren’t really made anymore and they’re hard to come by. As a graphic designer in this age, everything is digital, and I really came to appreciate the art more by doing it analog. I actually think it might be easier to come up with ideas when doing things by hand. I’ll be sure to take this lesson with me going ahead.


Typesetting by hand in class

My internship sent me to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa to take pictures for an article. Senso-ji is really beautiful but also really touristy. It was still a fun time to get to walk down Nakamise Dori  and see all the different shops that lined the street. The temple and surrounding grounds were also very beautiful.


Senso-ji Temple


Kokonoe Manju shop at Senso-ji Temple

Tuesday evening, my friends and I headed over to Tokyo Tower because it’s super close to Temple’s Azabu campus. We had a great time getting dinner in a gyoza shop down one of those small alleyways and then walking over to the tower. The experience at night was way better than coming in the day. The tower was lit up outside and all throughout the inside floors there was a spectacular light display with projections on one floor and Christmas lights on the other.


Tokyo Tower


Tokyo Tower is lit


Ariel looking down a glass pane in the floor


Seamus looking 300m down to the ground level

The longer I stay in this country, the more I’m becoming aware of how easy it is to adapt and assimilate into the culture. However, I am starting to notice slight culture differences. Japan is a very fast moving country that has become very forward-thinking over the years but there are still aspects that aren’t at the same level as they are in America. In my everyday life here, I’ll experience small instances of micro-aggressions, or sexism, more so than back home in New Jersey. As a foreigner in this country, working and studying under superiors, I have to find a balance between understanding the cultural difference and working towards a more equal and liberal Japan.

Work and Play


One of the many bridges leading into the Imperial Palace

This week I spent a lot of my time doing school work and internship work. However, I did still find time to go out and explore new areas of Tokyo I haven’t been to before. My friends and I ventured out to Ginza to go to the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo. Along the way, we stumbled upon the Imperial Palace! We didn’t even realize it until we had gotten inside and read some information panels.


View from outside the Palace

The views from inside and outside the palace were equally stunning. What amazes me the most is how something so traditionally Japanese looking stands amongst the tall skyscrapers of modern day Tokyo.


A rare candid shot of me outside the Imperial Palace. Photo Credit: Ariel Kovlakas

We spent some time walking through the palace grounds and the perimeter. While taking candid shots of all of my friends, one of them got this picture of me. Candid photos of me are rare since I’m usually the one behind the camera, so it was nice to see this one (I also sent this to my mom).


Discounted student tickets into the Modern Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo!

After exploring the Imperial Palace, our little group headed over to the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, which was about a 5 minute walk from the Imperial Palace. As Temple University Japan students, we got discounted tickets into the museum! It only cost 250 yen to get in! That is crazy cheap compared to the student discounted tickets in NYC (usually around $12).


Traditional Japanese art inside the museum


Ariel watching a Robert Smithson’s video

The museum had both traditional Japanese art and more contemporary art from all over the world. Artists like Jackson Pollack, Pablo Picasso, and Robert Smithson were featured in the collection. It was really interesting to see these artists, and many others, contextualized into Japanese culture. This visit actually really opened my eyes to how art is viewed and shared across the globe and how different cultures can influence or adapt art movements throughout history. I’m currently taking a Japanese graphic design art history course, and so this museum trip had a lot more impact on me because I had some background information going in. Thanks TUJ!


Small alleyway filled with tons of food!

My friends and I ended the week by visiting an area that was really close to the Temple University Campus. All throughout Japan, I keep finding these small networks of alleyways that are just lined with different restaurants and entertainment spots. This particular area had a lot of karaoke and yakitori places.


Seamus and Ariel inside Tiger Gyoza Restaurant

We decided on eating at a place called Tiger Gyoza Restaurant. This decision was made solely on the name of the place and the captivating wall art seen both inside and outside the restaurant. Seamus even got to put his Japanese Elements I knowledge to the test by ordering our food that night.


Yusuke and I with our newly won friend inside Shinjuku station. Photo Credit: Colin Reineberg

I ended this week by meeting up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen since high school, about 3 years ago. It’s so funny that I keep meeting up with old friends in Japan and not in my home country. I guess Japan just brings people together.

I met up with my friend Yusuke in Shinjuku. I introduced him to my friends from Temple and we all set out to get some dinner. Afterwards, we headed towards an arcade and tried our luck at the many crane games. With strategic moves and a lot of money spent, my friend Seamus won this big dog plushie and was so kind enough to let me keep it!


Colin, Yuki, and Shunske chat while doing homework in the lounge

After Shinjuku, we all headed back to the dorms and settled in the lounge where we could all get some work done. Hanging out and doing homework in the lounge has become routine now and it’s honestly one of my favorite parts about this experience. The dorms I live in include many students, both Temple and non-Temple, Japanese and non-Japanese. It’s always an interesting mix of people that hang out in the lounge and I meet and get to know so many people. Making friends with the native Japanese students is actually really easy because they’re all so friendly. Most are eager to practice the English they know with me and in return I get to practice my Japanese with them so it’s a win-win situation. It’s moments like these I know I’m going to miss the most. But, I shouldn’t dwell on that just yet, I still have a little over a month left here. Better make the most of it!


Kabuki & Art, Difference & Similarity


On Friday evening, I attended my first kabuki performance with my Practical Japanese classmates. During Discover Kabuki, a limited-time program offered at the National Theatre of Japan, a kabuki actor and an English-speaking TV personality walked us through the components of the traditional Japanese art before our show. Performed exclusively by men (although interestingly, it originated with women actors in roles for both men and women), kabuki incorporates elaborate makeup, costuming, and a dramatized style of acting. Both the on-stage movements and the dialogue were delivered very deliberately, with a great emphasis on sound effects (made with both a hidden orchestra and a simple wooden instrument called hyōshigi). This was certainly different than any theater-going experience I’ve had thus far. I felt very lucky to experience such a vital tradition with the help of an English audio guide, as well my language professor.


In this picture, a painted screen is descending over the kabuki set. The curtain behind it displays black, green, and orange – kabuki’s trademark colors.

Some of my best adventures have come from tagging along on my friends’ school or work assignments. This weekend’s adventure took place at Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art. For the very reasonable fee of ¥250 for college students (¥500 for full admission price), we traversed the museum’s four floors of paintings, photography, and other mediums by Japanese and non-Japanese artists alike. Aside from contemporary Japanese artists like Tsuguharu Foujita, MOMAT also had collections that featured famed Western artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. This didn’t come as much of  a surprise, considering that much of contemporary Japanese art, and contemporary Japan in general, is inspired by or viewed in proximity to the West (according both to my classes and a MOMAT plaque that I read). What I was surprised with, however, was the extreme quiet we found there, especially compared against a typical weekend at the MoMA in New York City. Yet, I noticed a similar pattern in museum layout and content that felt a lot like home.


This plaque hung at the entrance to the museum. Although photographs are allowed inside, I made a conscious effort not to focus too much on capturing the experience on my phone.


It was a beautiful day in Chiyoda, where we walked around as my photographer friends took shots. Here’s one of my own along the Imperial Palace’s East Garden.

Thus far, much of my blog has included my feelings on cultural differences and vulnerabilities, but I’ve also found some things to be universal, even aside from those found in art. Waiting on the platform for a JR train, I witnessed a toddler throwing a tantrum. I’ve also seen kids out cold across train seats or their parents’ laps. In these instances, I feel like I could have been in any country. You can always rely on children to feel and express emotions without restraint. Observing this has been amusing as it’s been interesting. Since arriving in Japan, the awareness of my difference has been the most striking thing, definitely the focus of my observations – and anxieties. As I spend more time studying and living in Tokyo, I feel this is giving way to awareness about similarities. I’d like to think that both are necessary to understand the place of my peers and myself as we study and explore.


Culture, Language, and This Week in Tokyo Adventures


Somehow, it has officially been over three weeks since my peers and I arrived in Japan – in case you needed any further proof that time is a fake concept. Joking aside, it is hard to believe that I’m soon to be a third of the way through my TUJ experience. From konbini ticket machine misadventures to early evening trips to beautiful districts like Ginza, I feel as fascinated with Tokyo as when I arrived, and only a bit less vulnerable. Yet, even with what feels like base knowledge of language and Japanese life, I am adapting fairly quickly – to my commute to and from school, sorting through Yen coins (for which, up to the equivalent of ¥500 exists!), and even interactions with local people.

In addition, my TUJ classes have guaranteed I’m never deprived of knowledge about my host country. In East Asia & the United States, I’ve been learning about Japan’s past and current international relationships. Surprisingly, I’ve also found my Practical Japanese for Study Abroad Students to be at least just as much about Japanese culture as it as about language. Though this was not what I was expecting from a “practical” course, our studies on cultural elements (such as amae, Shintoism and Buddhism, wabi-sabi, and the Japanese school system) have been just as rewarding. I also think, revisiting what “practical” can mean, learning the culture of a host country can be just as important as learning language.

I’ve been trying to apply my cumulative knowledge about both Japanese language and culture as I continue to explore the city, while alone and with friends. This week’s adventures haven’t included any formal trips, but have been enriching nonetheless. Last Sunday, I visited Ikebukuro for the first time with a friend. After successfully  communicating with waiters and ordering food at a café, I visited Sunshine City, an indoor complex that includes Sky Circus and a Pokémon Center that we stopped in. The former is an interactive observatory on the building’s 60th floor, complete with its own café and gift shop. Excluding additional VR experiences, the trip was relatively affordable, at the price of ¥900 for students. I hope to return soon with friends for a night visit – as the mysterious message below suggests.


The transcription reads: “Let’s meet here at night, because something happens in this window.”


Another image from Sky Circus in Sunshine City tower.  Many interactive features had common themes such as light, color, seasons, and weather.

Most recently, I visited Gotokuji Temple with a friend for a work assignment of hers (fellow Temple Japan blogger Richel!). Gotokuji Temple, located in Setagaya Ward, is also referred to as the “Cat Temple.” Hundreds of Japan’s famous cat figurines (maneki neko) were featured there. As our contact at the temple explained, visitors buy figurines to bring home and make a wish or prayer. If that desire comes true, you are meant to return to the temple and add your figurine to the altar.


Even the wet and dreary weather on the way to Gotokuji couldn’t stop me from snapping a picture of the peaceful streets of Setagaya Ward.

Grabbing lunch afterwards, we came across a small restaurant named “PIZZA & WINE.” The only patrons present, we thoroughly enjoyed a ¥800, full-sized pizza. We also quickly noticed how the restaurant was exclusively playing obscure Michael Jackson tunes, and that Dreamwork’s Puss in Boots was playing on a flat-screen television. It was a peculiarity in a traditional, small, and residential neighborhood that I found both humorous and representative of the unique and multifaceted nature of Tokyo. Overall, I was glad to have stopped to breathe, eat and observe in yet another fascinating area of the city.


We ordered a prosciutto & soft-boiled egg pizza before leaving the area around Gotokuji Temple –  and were not disappointed.


Settling In


As of now, I have been in Japan for over three weeks; and honestly I cannot believe how that is possible. It feels as though I have been here for only a few days and an eternity at the same time. Daily life has become comfortable enough where I know when to leave to catch the express train to school, yet hasn’t become routine because everyday I’m doing something I’ve never done before.

I’ve finally gotten used to my work and school schedule and I’m able to manage my time better now. Everything I’m learning in class is actually very interesting to me and I feel very secure in my choice of education here. My professor is not only a great teacher but also a really cool guy I can get to know and be friends with. He can even make art history, a relatively monotonous subject, very interesting and easy to digest.


Going over Graphic Design in Japan during the early 1900s in class.

This past week or so I’ve gotten pretty sick, but that hasn’t stopped me from going out and exploring this beautiful country! My weekends are packed full of adventures out with my new friends. This past Friday, my friends and I went to an okonomiyaki/monjayaki restaurant in Harajuku called Sakura Tei. At this restaurant, you order what you want and you get a bowl of raw ingredients you get to cook on the grill in front of you. Three of us ended up ordering the same thing so we decided to combine all of our ingredients and create one ultra-monjayaki. It was truly a work of art.


Colin and I with our ultra-monjayaki at Sakura Tei.

Over the weekend I met up with an old friend who lives here in Tokyo. We went to an aquarium in Shinagawa and got to see cute seals and dolphins as well many interesting fish.


The view from Shinagawa Aquarium.

The rest of my week consisted of class and work. My internship actually sent me out to Gotokuji temple so I could go take pictures of the place and take notes for an article I’ll have to write for the website. Gotokuji was a great experience because it took me away from the hustle and bustle of central Tokyo. I got to walk along narrow streets with the local residents; as far as I could tell, I was the only foreigner there. It was really peaceful and humbling to experience.


Walking around quiet residential streets outside downtown Tokyo.

Gotojuki Temple is famous for the maneki neko, or beckoning cats. The cats of the temple are said to bring good luck and fortune to those who pray and make offers. As I have been sick for over a week, I purchased a small cat statue with hopes of getting better soon. The man who sold me the cat told me I should take the cat home with me and if my wish comes true I should return to the temple and add my cat to the collection. Hopefully I’ll get to return soon!


All the different Ema at Gotokuji Temple.


Just a few of the many cat statues at Gotokuji.


Ariel standing in awe amongst all the cats!


Cats Cats Cats!


All the different sized cat statues you can purchase to make a prayer or wish on!


A small cemetery behind Gotokuji Temple.



Tradition and Modernity: Festival Observations and More


This week, I experienced getting lost in Tokyo. To expand, I not only got lost, but also roped my friends, six or seven other TUJ students, into a confusing, hour-long bus ride to Yokohama as well. Some may see Friday plans derailing in a foreign country as a necessary evil in order to learn a lesson, or even a rite of passage. At any rate, arriving two minutes until last admission, we spent thirty minutes in the Yokohama Sankeien Garden for the last night of their Firefly Evening matsuri. Exploring festivals, especially in the Japanese summer, has been explained to me as an essential part of my study abroad experience. And even amidst confusion, this was proven true. Last week, I wrote about the vulnerability in rediscovering the senses while living in a foreign country. This small festival seemed to engage many of them, such as the sight of hundreds of fireflies from our spot on a small bridge, and the distinguished sound of bullfrogs from elsewhere in the garden. In addition, the scene was well into the evening and thus too dark to capture on an iPhone camera – which, while maybe less than ideal for blogging purposes, forced us to be present in the moment.

The weekend, however, accomplished the same with a much greater opportunity for visuals. On an official TUJ excursion, I and about thirty other students took a school-chartered coach bus to the Niigata prefecture for the annual Battle of the Giant Kites. Around halfway, we stopped at Fukiware Falls – perhaps my most photographable location yet.


Our group only had about a half hour in total to walk around Fukiware Falls, but I had the feeling we could have spent all day.


Here’s a snapshot from Niigata’s kite museum, in which a local is binding rope for kite battles, a process that involves much care and spiritual blessing.

Much of our trip was also spent viewing the Japanese countryside. I was struck by its contrast with Tokyo itself, but perhaps the most interesting contrast was in a much more contained scenario – in a narrow Niigata street right before the kite festival began. Researching it afterwards, I learned that what I observed was called mikoshi shrine bearing. In Japanese Shinto tradition, many festivals involve the carrying of a portable palanquin, believed to contain divinity, from one spot to another. Many locals in conventional garb moved and chanted together as they carried the mikoshi, creating a grand image of tradition. Yet here we were, taking pictures of the scene with our smartphones, and directly above it all was an electronic stoplight, a reminder of where we really were in time and space. This was intriguing as it was amusing to examine, and just another aspect of discovery here in Japan.


Mikoshi shrine bearing in process – ever noticeable are the streetlights and signs among the traditional outfits and festivities.

The rest of this week has been full of further adjustments to school life at TUJ. I’ve found that most of my classes – Development & Globalization, East Asia & The United States, and even History of Journalism, share commonalities in subject matter between them. Though definitely distinct, I feel my studies linking together and making sense, much like the combination of tradition and modernity outside of class that I’ve already been able to experience. I look forward to future observations like these. Hopefully, they won’t necessarily involve getting lost in the process – but I welcome the challenge nonetheless.


Inside TUJ activites

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My friend, Colin and I decided to try out the Purikura booths in Harajuku.


TUJ Student Activities put together an overnight trip to Niigata. On our way there we stopped at Fukiware falls where we got to explore a beautiful natural landscape.


The trip also included a lunch at a traditional restaurant. We had to take off our shoes before entering and we sat on the floor. Our meal was soba and tempura! Super delicious.


The next stop on the trip was at Okutadami Dam, where we got to ride a cruise along the water. We were surrounded by tall mountains on all sides.


After a long day of travel we finally arrived at the hotel. Every hotel room had futon beds that were actually really comfortable. All of the students also got to enjoy the onsen at the hotel which was really nice after sitting in a bus for hours.


The next day we visited the kite museum where we learned all about the tradition of the festival. This was great because it helped us enjoy the actual festival.


The museum also had a wind tunnel simulation where students got to fly their very own kites. Pictures here are Chris and Seamus.


During the festival, there were men and women participating in a shrine carrying tradition. The crowd had a lot of energy that made us visitors very excited.


During the battle of the giant kites, we watched a several teams sent their kites into the sky. Teams would walk pass us with their giant kites and miles of rope getting ready to take off.


After the trip we all returned to classes. My friends and I decided to take a mid-week trip to Shinjuku where we blew off some steam at an arcade in Shinjuku.