Category Archives: Michael McCreary

Hanami in Ueno Koen

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The cherry blossoms have been blooming all over Tokyo for the past few weeks, and despite the supposed numbing effects of photo saturation one might assume would come with that, they really are quite breathtaking. Locations around my neighborhood that I’ve now been familiar with for months have transformed, quite literally overnight, into stop-and-take-note type views, pictures worthy of sending back home or putting up on instagram.

This season in Japan is called Hanami, and is often filled with feasts and parties held beneath the Sakura trees, celebrating the temporary beauty of the sakura, as they only last for a week or two, as well as the return of the nice weather. In many parts of Japan, the blossoms line up with the beginning of school or work vacation, timing which lends itself well to the festival like atmosphere.

Hanami parties at night are called Yozakura, and some of the larger parks in Tokyo, most famously Ueno Park, put up temporary paper lanterns for this purpose. Last Friday night we decided to head to Ueno and see for ourselves.

The park was insanely crowded, and in a way that was strange to see in Japan: kind of a mess. Not necessarily in a bad way, it just looked like there had been a massive, multi day party going on there, which of course, there had been. All of the spaces under the cherry trees were packed, covered in tarps and groups of friends, families, and coworkers, eating, drinking, listening to music, and celebrating. The trees themselves were gorgeous, and being offset against the grey, 8pm sky gave them a far more dramatic feel than they had during the day. We walked around the park for a bit, watching things unfold in the light of the paper lanterns, before deciding to stop by some of the food trucks and stand that had been set up near the temple for dinner.

We must have walked around looking at the food on sale, debating where to eat for about thirty minutes, at least for long enough to realize that some of the stands were starting to close, so we’d better decide fast. Settling on a massive portion of Takiyaki, or octopus inside of fried dough balls covered in fish flakes and different sauces, we sat down on a bench and people watched for the rest of the evening.Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 12.13.45 PMScreen Shot 2017-04-07 at 12.13.31 PMScreen Shot 2017-04-07 at 12.13.22 PM

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Enoshima

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I’m a little late with this post, but a few weeks ago, in order to properly celebrate the beautiful weather we had in Tokyo on the first day of spring, my roommate and I decided to get away from the noise of the city and instead spend the day around the noise of the tourist filled, yet strikingly beautiful island of Enoshima.

Enoshima is a small, rugged island about an hour by train south of Tokyo’s Shinagawa station, off the coast of the beach town of Fujisawa. An easy and incredibly popular day trip, the island is home to numerous small restaurants and bars, shops, ancient shrines, a massive cave (inside of which is the ancient-ist of all the ancient shrines), and best of all, in my opinion, some incredibly breathtaking views out over the Pacific Ocean.

From Enoshima station, the island is accessible by a crowded pedestrian bridge that takes you to the small, shop filled town at the base of the small mountain that covers most of it. From there we decided to take the central staircase up to the first shrine, from which, when you turned back to look out over the bridge, gave an impressive view of the town and the bay. The weather was impeccable, clear and cool, and while seemingly all of the Tokyo area had the same plans as us that day, we honestly couldn’t have picked a better day to go.

My favorite part of the day came when we climbed up to the very top of the island. From there, on the east side, we had an incredible, unobstructed view of the ocean, standing up on the edge of the cliffs that led down to the water. At the bottom of the cliffs, large, flat rocks jut out into the Pacific, making it look like the edge of the Earth, or the classic cover of Shel Silberstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. There was a steep staircase that led down from the top of the island to the rocks, which we climbed down to go walk around and stare out at the sea. The waves would crash against the rocks, throwing spray down the backs of all the families posing for pictures.

Eventually, we got hungry, but instead of trying the overpriced food on the island, we decided to walk into town to go to what looked like an incredible burger place we saw on the way from the station. The sun was starting to set, and with that the temperature started to drop, reminding us that, although it was the first day of spring, it was only just. As we walked over the bridge to the mainland at sunset, Enoshima began to look just like Hawaii, with the shadows of the palm trees on the coast being thrown out over the bay. Altogether, it was a very successful and refreshing trip outside of the city.

Spring is Here!

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The weather here in Tokyo has been insanely nice for the past couple of weeks. Although it’s technically still winter, the end of February and the beginning of March have been absolutely beautiful, in the mid to high sixties. In Japan, this means the blooming of the iconic Ume trees, or Japanese plum: the bright pink flowering trees that closely resemble the more famous Sakura, or cherry blossom, which blooms a few weeks later, in April.

Very close to where I’m living in Shinagawa, the Ume have been in full bloom in Rinshi no Mori Koen, something I discovered by accident while out for a run. The park was packed with people picnicking under the trees, taking pictures and spending time with their families. The park itself is gorgeous any day, full of winding trails and one of the most diverse collection of trees in Japan (it was formerly a government run arboretum), but the blooming trees really made it look picturesque, the kind of platonic ideal people think of when they think of Japan.

The other day, we had an undergraduate holiday in the middle of the week. After sleeping in, which was much needed, midterms are in full swing here, I decided to take my bike and head out to Setagaya to see the Todoroki Ravine, the only ravine within Tokyo, tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Todoroki. It took about an hour by bicycle to get to from my house, but it was a very easy and pleasant ride that basically stayed on the same major road the entire time, something which I was incredibly excited to see when I pulled up the directions on Google. Even after living here for (almost) two semesters, navigating unknown parts of the city on a bike is still very daunting.

The park is easy to miss; hidden from the street, you have to go down a steep flight of steps that lead down the side of the cliff to a path below. At the bottom of the ravine is a small river, and the path follows along, crossing here and there, leading to a waterfall capped with stone dragon heads and a small shop selling Japanese snacks and sweets at the end, all in the shadow of a large temple.

The ravine is gorgeous, filled with lush green trees and shrubs. Like many of these secluded green spots within the city, I have trouble remembering that I’m in the most populated metropolis on earth. These places definitely do not fit the image I had of Tokyo before I came over here, all hellishly crowded commuter trains and Blade Runner-esque neon cityscapes. Tokyo, of course, is full of those, but also so much more. I read recently in an article published by the Guardian that “Tokyo is a million different cities”, something that I’ve come to agree with wholeheartedly, and not just because of the way the different wards are incorporated. The city can feel like a world in and of itself.

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.

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.

 

Halloween!

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Growing up in the United States, back to the inevitable return to school in the begging of September, nothing quite defined autumn like Halloween. It permeated every aspect of life come October first, from the pumpkins that began to show up on the doorsteps of suburban homes, to the inescapable ads and Halloween themed merchandise, the holiday owned the season. However, coming to Japan, I had no idea what to expect, or even whether or not Halloween was even celebrated over here, as I knew that it was not nearly as big of a deal in other western countries as it is in the United States.

I learned that Halloween really took off here, somewhat out of nowhere, around five or six years ago. Since then, it’s become unstoppable, massive. The stores began to sell pumpkin and ghost themed goods about a month in advance, just like in the States.

As Halloween is relatively new here, most of the people who seem to celebrate it are young adults, people in their late teens, twenties and thirties. What was really interesting to me was that most of the people who celebrate Halloween did not grow up trick or treating, which was the pinnacle event of the season when I was younger. Even more, although Halloween seems to be gaining traction as a holiday, trick or treating still seems to be a pretty American custom; biking home from my internship on Halloween night I ran into a few groups of young children, but only about one or two. Instead, Halloween in Japan seems to be a Holiday where young adults have an excuse to dress up and go out for the night.

My roommate and I had heard from some of our Japanese friends that the place to be on the Saturday night before Halloween was Shibuya, something that was actually echoed by some of the teachers at my internship. So come Saturday night, without costumes or any idea what to expect, we jumped on the JR and headed out. When we got to Shibuya it was so crowded you couldn’t see the ground, which, given the crowds that normally flock to the area on a Saturday night, might not be saying much, but on this night the crowds were double what they usually are, and everybody was in costume, and the costumes we saw put the kind of lazy, pun-based get-up most America adults seem to wear to Halloween parties to shame. These were some of the most incredibly detailed and elaborate costumes I’ve ever seen, my personal favorite being two men operating a cardboard giraffe that towered five or six feet above the heads of everyone in the crowd.

Being broke study abroad students as we are, we didn’t actually go in anywhere; instead, we opted to spend the night walking around and people watching and just being generally awestruck by the scene unfolding in front of us.

 

Climbing Takao

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I finally got to see the mountains! About two months into my stay in Japan, my roommate and I at long last made the trek west, out past the endless boxy suburbs and into the mountains that exist beyond the special wards. We were headed to Mount Takao, called Takao San in Japanese, for a day of hiking and visiting the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that dot the mountainside.

We’d read about Takao San online; its well known for being a fairly easy hike, not the arduous all day or all night slog of Fuji, and for being a highly doable day trip from Tokyo. It only took us about an hour to get to Takasosanguchi station at the base of the mountain from Shinjuku Station.Hachioji seemed a world away from the frantic pace of Shinjuku we’d left behind. The base of the mountain was crowded with both hikers and small restaurants and shops, but the world seemed to move at a decidedly unhurried pace. 20161016_14001120161016_14220920161016_152851Hachioji and the entire region are still part of Tokyo prefecture.

The path up the mountain was steep, much steeper than we were initially ready for, but it was also, to our surprise, paved, with a van going up or down every once in a while. This, we found out upon our arrival at the top, was because along with various shrines and temples, Takao San is home to a few small restaurants, a beer garden, and a monkey park (!), and the path has to be paved in order to get food and supplies up the mountain. Even though it was a cool, rainy morning, we were sweating like crazy by the time we reached the first observation point, about halfway up. The view of the endless sprawl of the suburbs and the Tokyo skyscrapers off in the distance then proceeded to take our breath away, as if we weren’t already winded enough. The view in both directions, looking out towards the city and then turning around to see the mountains was incredible, and definitely worth the climb.

One of my favorite parts of Takao San was the monkey park. While we were pretty disappointed that the monkeys turned out to be in an enclosure, and not just running around wild (which, upon further thought makes total sense), it was still great to get up on the observation deck and take a break from hiking to watch one monkey’s endless war against a rope that hung from a pole. He would sit, sulking and glaring at the rope for a few minutes at a time, trying to think of another way to go about what he was doing, before giving up and deciding that he’d had it right every other time he’d tried. Then he would spring up, shrieking and yanking on the rope as hard as he could, trying his absolute best to pull it from the pole, before giving up once again and going back to his sulking. One unexpected bonus of our time at the monkey park was when I realized I understood when the Japanese guide was explaining how old the monkeys were. It’s slow and hard coming, but I’m definitely picking up a bit of Japanese.

 

Exploring Chiyoda

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Over the weekend my roommate and I decided to try and get out and see a part of Tokyo that we hadn’t been to you yet, so we biked from our house in Shinagawa to Chiyoda with the goal of seeing the Imperial Palace.

The bike ride was actually really easy; essentially all that we had to do was take the route we take to get to TUJ’s campus, and then continue down that road, up into and then past Roppongi. Or at least it looked that way on the map. What Google neglected to tell us was that this route seemed like it went out of its way to hit every massively steep hill in Tokyo, and after an hour of this, my legs were so sore that I almost fell over stepping off of the bike.

We finally made it to Chiyoda around three thirty in the afternoon. The size of the park where the palace is was astonishing; things in Tokyo tend to be much larger in real life then they look on the map. We tried to cross one of the bridges over the moat, but the gate was closed. We could just catch a glimpse of what looked like a tall, traditional Japanese style building over the wall. It turned out that we would need to go around to the other side of the park to the east gate to get in, but the park was closing in an hour, and we decided it wasn’t worth it.

Instead, we biked over to Hibya park, and to our surprise, found it the sight a large, international food festival: The Taste of Tokyo festival. This was so much fun, a ton of food stands offering different food and drink native to the nationality the stand was representing were scattered all over the park, and people were sprawled out with their families, eating and drinking and enjoying the fall weather. We eventually settled on getting Indian food, and I had a delicious Tandoori chicken sandwich, which I ate sitting in the grass watching a Japanese movie that was being projected on a big screen. All in all, though we didn’t get to see the palace, the day was a definite success.

The next afternoon I met up with a friend from one of my classes, and we actually went back to Chiyoda, to the other side of the park where I was the day before, to go to the National Gallery of Modern Art. The first thing that surprised me about this visit was the cost of admission. It was only about one hundred sixty yen for a student, which was incredible compared to American museums.

We started at the top floor and worked our way down through an incredible collection of both western and Japanese work. All of the labels and information plaques were in English as well as Japanese, which was life saving. Most of the exhibits were arranged by a certain overarching themes, such as life in the midst of war, the impact of industrialization, or nature and solitude. My personal favorite was an exhibit of modern Japanese art that all had to do with the moon and its relationship to and impact on the human mind.

Both of my trips over the weekend were a lot of fun, enabling me to see a part of the city that I haven’t been to before, and with the museum especially, allow me to experience a side of Japanese culture that I am not usually exposed to in my day to day life here.

Tokyo on a Budget

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Tokyo is expensive. I’ve been here for a little over a month now, and my wallet is constantly hemorrhaging in a way it never did in Philadelphia. Nothing, not my classes and internship, not the distance between where I am now and home, not the language and cultural divide between me and the city I now live in, nothing is more stressful to me right now than the increasingly diminutive number in my account balance emails.

To get around this, I’ve had to adapt to living in Japan on a budget. My roommate and I spent last Saturday searching our neighborhood, which includes a large enclosed, pedestrian only shopping street, sort of like an outdoor mall, for the cheapest groceries we could find. Surprisingly, the best place we could find for stocking up on essentials cheaply was the one hundred yen shop, which is basically the Japanese equivalent to the American dollar store. However, just like how Japanese convenience stores are light-years ahead of their American counterparts in terms of what is available, the hundred yen shops we’ve seen put their American counterparts to shame. We were able to stock up on a few meals worth of noodles, soy sauce, spices, and iced coffee for fewer than one thousand yen, basically equivalent to ten dollars.

To help with the cost of living here, and to try and further immerse and involve myself in my neighborhood and life in Tokyo in general, I found a part time job. When living in Japan on a student visa, you are eligible to work up to twenty-eight hours a week, as long as the work does not interfere with your studies, and it is not “immoral” work, which essentially means that you can’t work in bars or nightclubs. I was able to find a job as a preschool teacher at a local English language immersion preschool, about a five-minute bike ride from where I’m living, in Ebara. The school works with children ages three to around six years old, providing both afterschool care during the week, and full classes on Saturdays. Meant for children whose parents want them to learn English from an early age, the classes are entirely in English, and are basically what you’d expect form a preschool in America. We play games and read books, go over the days of the week and the months in the year, talk about feelings and make simple crafts. The only difference is since the entire class is learning English as a second, or in some cases, even a third, language. As one of the instructors, I have to over exaggerate the already exaggerated speech patterns, actions, and facial expressions of a standard preschool or daycare teacher who deals with young children.

I will be helping to teach the Saturday morning class, as my schedule this semester doesn’t give me much free time during the week, but I don’t start until after Halloween, in early November. However, I’ve had the opportunity to help out in a few classes already, as sort of an orientation, and I’ve been amazed at these incredibly young kid’s ability to comprehend and communicate in English, and am looking forward to starting work!

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The author teaching a class.