Cultural Observations and Japanese for Study Abroad Students

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This week, I’d like to start by sharing some direct cultural observations that I’ve been able to make, thanks to my Japanese for Study Abroad Students class at TUJ.

This week, my stay with Temple Japan has been filled with a lot of casual exploration of the area around our campus, in the Minato ward of Tokyo. My professor, Matsuhashi-sensei, informed of us the upcoming Tanabata Matsuri, or “Star Festival.” A very popular summer event, the Tanabata festival celebrates the legendary annual meeting of two lovers in the Milky Way galaxy. Matsuhashi-sensei advised us to look out for signs that a community was preparing to participate in the festival, set on July 7th. Soon enough, I found myself running into Tanabata decorations while on walks: large structures with streamers attached and wishes written on paper, tied to branches of bamboo. In class, we even practiced writing our own wishes in hiragana in case we attend the festival ourselves. With my graduation from college just around the corner, I decided on hoping for a good job (in hiragana: “いいしごとがもらえますように。”) Many areas of Japan celebrate Tanabata on the 7th of either July or August – both of which fall during my stay in Japan. With luck, I’ll be able to attend both occurrences of Tanabata festival and observe differences, if any.

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Tanabata Matsuri preparations outside a building in Azabu.

I found another practical application for my classroom knowledge when I came across a shrine on my walk towards Tokyo Tower one afternoon. A large ring made of grass hung in the entryway, and I quickly recognized it as an element of a Shinto ritual we briefly discussed. In the two months of June and December, worshippers perform a purification ceremony (ooharae) by passing through the ring, called chinowa. (“People purify themselves for the removal of kegare (bad spirit), impurity and misfortune,” Matsuhashi-sensei remarked about the tradition.) In seeing both this and the Tanabata festival preparations, it seems to me like these Japanese summer traditions share a common thread of looking towards the future – in making wishes, and in partaking in a type of rebirth.

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Taken in between TUJ and Tokyo Tower, this picture features chinowa at the entrance of a shrine.

As always, these observations on tradition were in tandem with an exploration of Tokyo’s modern side. I attended an event in Roppongi Hills, for a fellow TUJ student and friend’s internship. An expo for the car brand Rolls Royce, the event took place at the renowned Mori Hills complex – and, to this college student, was a pretty unique experience. After dropping in, a friend and I explored the area and quickly stumbled upon a pop-up exhibit in the middle of the mall. A creative marketing tactic, participants had to step up on a cloud-painted platform to tap on the handle of an umbrella, triggering a music note. “Light up the rainy season!” A nearby plaque proclaimed. Though a relaxed week in Tokyo in terms of big events, I found plenty of observations in the way of preparation of events, cultural and otherwise, to fill the sense of wonder I’ve kept ever since arriving.

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Fellow TUJ Student Jon participates in the pop-up exhibit at Mori Tower.

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About Ariel Kovlakas for Temple Japan

Hi there! My name is Ariel Kovlakas, and I’m a senior majoring in Communications (Media, Culture & Society) and minoring in Sociology. As a student at Fordham University's Manhattan campus, I’ve been grateful to live in a hub of opportunities and experiences that have never failed to expand my worldview. In a very real way, my time with TUJ will be a defining and final chapter in my undergrad career, as I’m heading out into the world directly after my abroad experience. And what a way to go – studying in Tokyo, Japan with Temple University. As (extremely) excited as I am, I’m even more grateful to participate and record my experience. I’ve always had a passion for Japan (its food, art, architecture, festivals, you name it). My hopes are that the more I explore Japan, the more I’ll be able to uncover about myself and what comes next.

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