Author Archives: sarahwongtakesjapan

About sarahwongtakesjapan

Hello, my name is Sarah Wong. I'm a Media Studies major and Art minor at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Though I attend Scripps College, I have decided to study abroad for a semester through the Temple University Japan program. I spend most of my spare time editing photos, making graphics, and drawing; partially for fun and partially because I hope it will prepare me for a career in graphic design. I love hanging out with my friends, eating Asian food, and watching cartoons (especially anime). I'm hoping to meet new friends, eat new kinds of food, and watch new television programs during my time in Japan! 行きましょう!(Let's go!)

My Time Abroad in Japan: A Reflection

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Some last shots of Japan

   On April 29, I took a plane from Narita International Airport back to my home in the United States. I remember staring out the plane window, watching the green fields, the tile roof houses, and the rice paddies growing smaller and smaller, with an unmistakeable feeling of sadness.

    My time in Japan was truly amazing. It was my second experience leaving the country, and my first experience living someplace outside of my home state of California. I had never experienced such a huge adventure; such a dramatic change in my way of life. I was amazed at how quickly I adjusted to the country, referring to my tiny Monthly Resi Stay apartment room as home and becoming familiar with all the shortcut streets that lead to the train station. When the time came to leave, I didn’t feel as though I was leaving a foreign country, I felt as though I was leaving a home.

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I’m going to miss this place and all the happiness I found here

    I remember taking very quickly to life in Japan, going through all the pre-described states of culture shock within a week and setting my sights on cultural integration within the first month. I knew I couldn’t completely integrate, but I still wanted to understand the people and places around me as much as possible. The tiny girl I met who called me onee-chan or older sister and liked screaming out of windows, the man who sold sportswear who laughed when I told him I watched Doraemon to learn Japanese. I wanted to learn more about them; I wanted to learn more about Japan.

    Strangely enough, the best memories I have in Japan the mundane ones. Memories of going to the park with my friends, grabbing a tasty beef bowl meal at my local automat, working on art projects at school, having an old lady hold my arm for support on a crowded train, or stumbling upon the odd temple while shopping for necessities. I have memories of sitting in on a happy couple’s wedding plans, cooking in my room with my friends, asking my art teachers to practice Japanese with me, and running through the rain to the karaoke bar on a Friday night. I loved those small, quiet moments of enjoyment in Japan, when I felt as though I was settling into my life abroad. I definitely had fun on touristy outings–going to museums or famous temples, but I was most content when I was able to relax and absorb my environment.

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I had some amazing food

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And saw some beautiful places

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It was really amazing!

     I’m going to miss many things about Japan now that I’m in America. I am surprised at how quickly all the things about Japan that amazed me–the trains that ran on time, the heated toilet seats, the ubiquitous vending machines–all became mundane to me after a month, and then became an easy convenience that I couldn’t believe I had lived without. Back home, I don’t understand why we can’t have a better reaching rail system and why every convenience store does not have a rack or ready-made rice balls. I even miss weird things, like how everyone in Tokyo seemed to like dressing up their dogs in little jackets or padded vests.

     Though I miss the many conveniences of Tokyo life, I think I will miss the friends I made most of all. People I met around the city or through mutual friends, my classmates and my teachers, I have a hard time thinking that I will never see them again. Everyone I met taught me so much and I wish I had more time to get to know all of them better. I hope I’ll be able to return again soon.

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Thank you for all the laughs and memories

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I hope I’ll see you again soon!

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Cherry Blossom Season in Retrospect

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Cherry blossom season in Japan is incredibly beautiful

    At the end of March and beginning of April, the cherry blossoms began to bloom, ushering in warmer weather and a festive attitude amongst the Japanese people. I was too preoccupied with school work to make any posts to the Temple Abroad blog–I needed to start several final projects simultaneously. However, I still want to share my experience of cherry blossom season in Japan.

    During cherry blossom season, delicate pink and white flowers bloom from the numerous cherry trees in Japan. The season ends when the flowers fall from the trees, to be replaced with budding green leaves. Tourists and native Japanese alike flock to parks and gardens to take pictures of the short-lived blooms, called sakura. Many people also set up picnics or parties to watch the cherry blossoms, called hanami.

    I was lucky enough to go on several hanami outings. Some were sponsored by Temple University, while others were personal trips I took with friends. However, cherry blossom trees are so common in Japan, every trip outside felt like a mini hanami session. Hanami trees lined major streets and were planted in every park. There was one directly outside the TUJ dorms and three directly behind main campus in Azabu.

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The cherry blossom trees in Hama Rikyu Gardens

    The first flower viewing I went to was a field trip for one of my art classes. We went to Hama Rikyu Gardens, a series of gardens belonging to the Japanese government which initially served as the grounds for a wealthy feudal lord. The garden was crowded with other hopeful flower viewers. One fully blooming cherry tree was quickly surrounded by twenty or so people, all trying to take a picture of its sakura. My friend and I joined in the chaos and took some nice photos, although it was difficult to work around the many other people crowding around.

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Picture of myself with cherry blossoms and several other people in the background

    Though I thoroughly enjoyed Hama Rikyu Gardens, my personal favorite hanami experience happened at night, near the end of the season. I was meeting up with a friend who went to a nearby school. We ate dinner together at a bar and then casually strolled through Ueno Park after evening fell. The cherry blossoms were difficult to see and impossible to take pictures of in the dark, but I could still see their flowering branches stretching overhead, covering our path in a flowery canopy. Strings of lanterns illuminated small patches of white blossoms and the numerous picnics taking place underneath. Business men and groups of friends laughed and cracked open bottles of alcohol. Polite signs asked picnic-goers to throw away their trash, and the atmosphere was fun and lighthearted. My friend and I walked past the rows of picnics and food stands, passing by a large lake. Through the cherry blossom branches we could make out the bright city lights from across the water. I thought the view might have looked better during the daytime but in the nighttime, a serene atmosphere settled over our surroundings.

    The sakura season ended after two weeks. I remember going to school during finals week and feeling a twinge of disappointment upon seeing the pink petals replaced by tiny green leaves. The cherry blossoms lasted such a short time, but I still have some excellent memories and photos from the experience.

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Day Trip to Yokohama

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The port city of Yokohama

This past week, Temple University was closed on Friday and Monday, giving students an extended four-day weekend. My friends and I used two of our four days off to travel Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan. Yokohama is only an hour and a half away from Tokyo and sits on the waterfront, a notable port city throughout Japan’s history.

My group of friends arrived in Yokohama on Sunday afternoon to explore Minato Mirai, a major business and shopping district in the city. We saw numerous ships docked in the harbor and the pale blue ocean stretching out towards the horizon. Minato Mirai wraps around a concave docking area, so we were able to see the ocean from several vantage points, as we strolled across oceanside bridges and over piers. Most notably, we climbed up Osanbashi pier, a large futuristic, metal and wooden structure with grand decks and outdoor staircases. We also visited the Red Brick Warehouses, historical buildings renovated as a high end shopping mall, theatre, and convention center.

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Evening falling on the Minato Mirai area

A huge tourist attraction in Minato Mirai is the Cupnoodles Museum, dedicated to invention and growth of the Cup Noodle instant ramen brand. We saw timelines of the company, learned of the resourcefulness of Cup Noodle’s company founder, and sampled noodles from around the world. We were even able to make our own Cup Noodle cups, complete with unique toppings and permanent marker decorations.

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Cupnoodle Museum’s instant ramen timeline

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The small theater where we were shown a film on the founding of Cupnoodle

We paid a visit to Cosmoworld, an amusement park in the center of the Minato Mirai area. During the day, the park seemed to contain only innocuous pastel-colored rides, but at night the park glowed with fluorescent electric energy. My friends and I made sure to ride the Cosmo Clock, a giant ferris wheel in the center of the park, with a giant digital clock at its center. The ferris wheel was so large, one rotation took fifteen minutes.  From the top of the Cosmo Clock, we could see the entire city, lit up. Cars looked like crawling ants and small clusters of lit up boats slowly made their way across the pitch black sea.

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The Cosmo Clock at Cosmoland

My favorite place in Yokohama was Chinatown, roughly a fifteen minute walk from Minato Mirai. As someone of Chinese descent, I felt both relief and nostalgia as I recognized the food and atmosphere present in Yokohama’s Chinatown. The tacky linoleum floors, the greasy pan-fried food, the gold-trimmed red signs in doorways promising luck and wealth all seemed familiar to me. My friends and I ate family-style–sharing the same meal from several large dishes–at a Chinese restaurant and then bought cha siu bao (steamed or baked pork buns) and jian dui (fried rice flour balls with sesame seeds on the outside and red bean paste on the inside) from streetside vendors. Red lanterns lighted our way as we shuffled our way through the hot, crowded city streets back to the metropolitan Japan that waited outside of Chinatown’s gilded entrance.

TUJ Campus Life

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When I tell other Temple students I’m taking four studio classes and a Japanese class, I always receive the same response. “Oh no, that’s so hard! Good luck! You’ll need it.”
Indeed, my four art classes take a significant amount of time. While most classes at Temple last an hour, studio classes last roughly three hours. I only have two classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays but I still need to be at school from 9am to 4pm.
Though studio art classes take a lot of time, I enjoy the in-class work, the casual atmosphere, and the interesting teachers I have. I’ve been able to experiment with mediums and subjects I never would have considered before. For instance, I never thought I could create a mask with chicken wire and paper mache. However, I’ve been able to make a decent cow-shaped mask worthy of hanging from the classroom wall.
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My Cow Mask Proudly Sits on the Wall

I’ve become accustomed to the long hours in class, but I’ve also adapted to the daily commute from the Temple dorms to campus. Everyday, I spend 100 minutes, traveling from my dorm in Takadanobaba to Temple campus in Azabu-Juban. The trip includes two subways, one transfer, and a lot of walking. I initially found the route extremely confusing but after two months it has become an easy and routine part of life.
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Waiting on the route to school

The Temple campus in Azabu-juban is a large black-tiled office building with 12 floors. Though the first five floors are part of Temple campus, the top seven floors hold offices for Japanese companies. Students often run into Japanese businessmen in the building, usually in the elevator.
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Temple University Japan Campus Building

The fact that our school is in an office building can be easily forgotten during lecture-based classes but becomes painfully apparent during art classes. The carpeted floors don’t mix well with clay and paint, and the rooms are often too narrow to store large canvases or sculptures. The offices for three of the art teachers are humorously jammed together in one small supply closet and not all of the art classrooms are on the same floor. The setup is strange but amusing.
Possibly my favorite aspect of Temple University is the collection of vending machines on the second floor. The machines serve a large variety of products, from hot chocolate, to energy drinks, to tiny cups of pudding. My personal favorite is the strawberry milk box, which tastes excellent midway through drawing class.

How I’m Spending My Food Budget

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Though my days as a study abroad student are largely dedicated to schoolwork, commuting, and learning about the country I’m living in, cooking and buying food is central to my daily life in Tokyo. Temple University in Japan has no meal plan and no facility for making students meals, so Temple students are required to find food for themselves. While some students are provided meals through homestay, the majority of students eat from the same, extremely cheap, restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Like my peers, I frequent the Lawson’s and Seven Eleven convenience stores that appear on every city block in Tokyo. Unlike those in the the United States, convenience stores in Japan are known to carry a variety of Japanese food, both healthy and unhealthy. Frozen Slurpees are replaced with nikuman, a steamed bun with meat filling. Cans of Coke are substituted with cartons of strawberry and matcha-flavored milk. I often go to my local convenience store to grab a pre-packaged lunch or a quick snack. My personal favorites are egg sushi trays and onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a small amounts of mayonnaise, fish, veggie, or egg in the middle. Food is sold at a reasonable price, usually between 100 to 500 yen, roughly 1 to 5 U.S. dollars.

The Seiyu supermarket a block away from my dorm is also a great source for inexpensive meals. Seiyu is literally the Japanese equivalent of Walmart, as both store chains owned by the Walmart Corporate Company. I have been able to find pre-packaged meals of slightly higher quality at Seiyu between 10,000 and 300 yen (10 to 3 U.S. dollars). I often use these meals for lunch or a last minute dinner.

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Last minute dinners from Seiyu are pretty satisfying

Japanese supermarkets hold daily sales on pre-packaged meals, so the store can restock on fresh meals for the next day. The sale at Seiyu starts at 9pm and goes until 11pm, so I often go by the market late to grab discounted meals. I’ve been able to find some very nice entrees, such as a full sushi tray or chicken karaage meal at discounted price.  

I also buy raw ingredients at Seiyu to cook back at the dorm. I eat dorm-cooked meals twice a week with my friends. The kitchenette in my dorm room is very small, so my friends often find themselves cutting vegetables on my desk and cooking rice on my floor. We eat dinner while sitting on my bed or at my desk, and I often find dishes people left in my room the next day.

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Cooking at home with friends is the best!

We have tried a combination of Japanese and Chinese recipes, and the Japanese recipes are much easier to cook in the dorm kitchen. Japanese dishes often involve boiling food and adding various sauces and spices for flavor, while Chinese recipes call for pan frying. I don’t want to buy another pot or pan, as I have no way of taking such a thing home. However, stir frying in one small cooking pot has proven difficult, and has occasionally ended with me scraping blackened bits of food from the bottom of my once-silver appliance.

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Chinese food can be a little tricky–but it’s pretty worthwhile

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.

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!

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

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