Category Archives: Ariel Kovlakas

Final Thoughts on Final Days, Live from Narita Airport

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Today at around noon in Tokyo, Japan, I took the last final exam of my foreseeable college career. It was a bit strange getting sentimental as I wrote about American international relations in East Asia, but I did nonetheless. This week has been full of paper-writing and test-taking, but I’ve still been keenly aware of the little time I have left to be with my friends and TUJ peers – and be in this program in general. So, in between studying, I’ve crammed outings for sightseeing and quality time, including trips to war museums by Yasukuni Shrine, Ueno markets, and a long-awaited return trip to Ikebukuro’s Sky Circus.

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Next to this koi pond at Yasukuni Shrine was a vending machine selling boxes of fish food for ¥100 apiece. I happily took part.

For those who have been following along, I’ve been meaning to come back to Ikebukuro ever since my last visit to Sky Circus. The first time, I took advantage of almost all the interactive observatory had to offer, excluding one thing: a window with a transcription reading, “Let’s meet here at night, because something happens in this window.” I finally made the trip back, but not until my very last night in Tokyo, planned last-minute. The mystery window turned out to be a compatibility tester, which two of our friends tried out in good nature. It was then that we realized that Sky Circus is a popular location for young couples on dates. It was an interesting little observation on local life that wouldn’t have been possible with a little context and a second look.

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Matt and Seamus, to their delight, find their compatibility rating to be 99%.

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A shot of Richel in my favorite room in Sky Circus: one made completely of mirrors that shifts scenes of different seasons.

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Friends feeling sentimental on their last night together in Ikebukuro. (Credit: Seamus Kirby)

Today also marks my last day as a Temple student in the Kanagawa dorms. With two close friends I’ve made on this trip, fellow students Richel and Seamus, I have a trip to Osaka, Kyoto and Gifu planned. Directly after my last final, I headed to a bridge and park area off the stop before Musashi-Kosugi, called Shin-Maruko. Each day to and from class, I’ve watched this bridge go by. Much like with my return to Sky Circus, I’ve been telling myself I’d visit, but had no concrete plans. A last-minute, final group get-together – almost the entire Summer Study Abroad group living at the dorms – is what eventually got me there. As TUJ student Greg said in a small speech, this trip has brought together people from very different places and very different backgrounds – and very fast. For a group of people who I’ve only known for two months, saying goodbye was heartbreaking. We, unfortunately, had to rush to the dorms to move out and make it to the airport. In the end, we may have lingered just a bit too long trying to delay our sad farewells, and missed our 8:25 PM flight. Terminal 3 of Narita Airport is where I sit now, awaiting the next soonest at 9:45 AM. Of anywhere, however, I’m glad that it’s this incredible city of Tokyo that I’ve become stranded in.

What’s next, after Japan? I return home, hopefully soon to find a place and career back in New York. I’m still not entirely sure what that entails. If my time in Tokyo has shown me anything, it’s that it is okay observing and discovering as you go. This city is fluid, containing both traditional and modern, peace and robustness. Appreciating and applying this is its own precious skill I feel I’ve acquired, thanks to my time with this wonderful city, my wonderful friends, and TUJ.

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From the Dorms to Fuji and Back

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Even a Sunday can be eventful while abroad with TUJ. My week began with exploration of an area that is very old to Tokyo, but very new to me. Asakusa is one of the city’s oldest districts, and was the site of my final outing with part of my Practical Japanese class and our professor, Matsuhashi-sensei. A few of us treated her to brunch at a small okonomiyaki joint. We then explored the area, stopping by Sensō-ji, a well-known and longstanding temple built in the 7th century. Although Asakusa is a large tourist attraction of Tokyo, and thus we were caught in large crowds most of the time, I felt fortunate to experience it with my professor, who could provide some background and answer questions.

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The owner of the restaurant took our photo after our okonamiyaki, shared on a hot plate. From left to right, back to front: Greg, Matsuhashi-sensei, Kevin, Rob, myself, and Ruchi.

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We unexpectedly pet an owl while exploring the streets of Asakusa after brunch.

Not less than a day ago, three study abroad friends and I took on summiting Mt. Fuji. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit how nervous I was about whether or not I could manage. But with the help of my friend’s good planning, the advice of the OSS office, and several boxes of Calorie Mate (a popular energy bar/meal replacer in Japan), we completed the journey.

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The Wednesday morning sun rose around 4:40 AM on the summit of Mt. Fuji.

We woke up early in the morning to make our way to Mt. Fuji’s 5th Station from the Shinjuku bus terminal. By the time we prepared ourselves for climbing by eating a sizable lunch, it was already around 3:00 PM. As physically taxing as it was, the lesser-taken Subashiri Trail was very tranquil, and one of the only places that I can remember ever experiencing complete quiet. We arranged to stay briefly at a hut at the 7th station, 3,000 meters above ground level. Taking our time to rest and have some fun, we were a couple of hours later to our respite site than we planned to be, which only made our warm meal and bed even more satisfying. We made sure to be up by 12:30 AM sharp to avoid the same situation and make the sunrise at the summit, the main event of the trip. Many pictures, huddles for warmth, and warm bowls of ramen later, we began a difficult descent. At 10:00 AM, we finally arrived back at the 5th station and were immediately greeted by travel guides and shopkeepers who were eager to help us on our way home. Thanks to them, we made it back to the TUJ dorms early and without too much trouble. Especially after what has probably been the most taxing physical event of my life, it was more than I could ask for.

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A worker at the 6th station hut brands a stamp into my party’s walking sticks.

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I ordered a simple miso ramen at the summit.

Yesterday’s helpful community on Mt. Fuji has not been an isolated experience. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the noticeable friendliness of construction workers and shop owners on Mt. Ashigara. Over last weekend as well, I witnessed such greatness in the community where I live. Just around the corner from the school’s Musashi-Kosugi dorms in Kanagawa, there is a daycare where students can often see children at play while on their daily commute. Participating in some type of mini summer festival, the kids of the preschool marched down the block on Saturday afternoon, carrying mascot-themed mikoshi and chanting exclamations. Along with their parents and teachers, the kids immediately waved to us when they spotted us from our window. I was charmed by this exchange, and felt grateful to momentarily be a piece of the subtle liveliness that is the residential neighborhood of the Musashi-Kosugi area. Though I move out in a matter of days, a part of me will certainly remain.

 

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I managed a picture of the children’s festival parade from the window as the Musashi-Kosugi community waved at us.

Week 8 & Authentic Experiences

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In week 8, I am starting to make more preparations not only for impending TUJ finals, but for my post-program travel. Preparing for the organized chaos of undergrad finals feels like clockwork now, making it all the more surreal that this time around, I’m finishing for good – and doing so in Tokyo, Japan. My first ever summer semester is also my last. It has felt understandably short, but even more so considering how packed with adventure it has been.

This week was no exception to that statement. On Friday, I took the advice of local residents and brought five other TUJ students to Nihonbashi for Tokyo’s Art Aquarium. Featuring thousands of goldfish in artistic tanks, I was beyond thrilled to experience it. Taking place from mid-July to late September, Art Aquarium tickets can only be bought by way of 7-11 ticket machines. Learning to use this technology, in itself, has been an interesting cultural adjustment over the course of my time at TUJ. 7-11 and Lawson ticket machines were a daunting task back in June. This month, though I feel like my actual comprehension of the Japanese display has improved only slightly, I felt a lot more confident in my ability to work my way through, especially with the help of native speakers, than before. Though still constantly aware of my foreignness, I am not as embarrassed of asking for help – a necessary step to learning while abroad.

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Even iPhone 6 quality couldn’t help but pick up the vibrancy of the Art Aquarium exhibits.

In addition, I took an impromptu trip to the old city of Kamakura and island of Enoshima in celebration of the long weekend. There, I encountered shrines, temples, and landmarks familiar to tourists in Japan. I took note of how comfortable I’ve become traveling with my friends, fellow TUJ students, even with our varying, low degrees of Japanese comprehension. There is a sense of being collectively pushed outside our comfort zone – a weird sense of security, but specifically in encouraging each other forward.

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Kamakura is famous for this giant Buddha statue at Kotoku-in Temple.

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With a shrine cat in Enoshima. Picture credit: Colin Reineberg

Last post, I mentioned meeting native Japanese students, some of which made plans to give us the “authentic Japanese student” experience. Shuhei and Tohru brought us to Spocha, a complex that offers sports, arcade games, and karaoke for a flat rate, in Odaiba. I was amazed by the huge range of, and even variety within, the activities offered there. One gem included a simple Japanese arcade game, in which you had to carry out certain traditional tasks and manners, such as bowing at the right angle and practicing handing off your business card (an important and common practice in Japanese professional life). Our own Spocha group was accordingly varied in terms of nationalities and included American, Japanese and French students. At one point in our afternoon, one Japanese and one American student, who could communicate very limitedly in one another’s respective first language, realized that they could both speak fluent Spanish. Through their second languages, these students could connect with much more ease than before. We came for an “authentic Japanese uni experience,” but I also felt that what I observed was an authentic and unique experience in its own right. Overall, my time in Tokyo seems to be following this same path.

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An endearing Spocha arcade game, in which the practice of trading business cards became suddenly very intense.

 

 

 

 

 

Field Trips, Excursions, and the Versatility of Japan

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With certainty, the physical and emotional highlight of this week was TUJ’s hiking excursion on Mt. Ashigara. Located about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo, we parked outside of Saijoji Temple around 9:00 AM and began our climb. Lasting at least seven hours, the hike was more difficult than many of us anticipated. Our large group of around 35 people inevitably ended up at different paces, and a smaller group of friends and I traveled together for the most part. We regrouped again at the summit to rest, eat our bento lunches, and enjoy the spoils of our work.

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A snapshot from the summit of Mt. Ashigara.

After reaching the summit, we spent at least an hour of our walk back (I would say our walk down, but this was a path replete with both inclines and declines) surrounded by bamboo on both sides. Our path was quiet, partially overgrown, and felt never-ending at times. The “quiet” I describe here is only in contrast to the human noise of the city. There were times that the sound of cicadas, birds and crickets were overpowering, which felt surprising for midday. Stopping to take a break, I noted how this was the most likely the first and last time I would experience this otherworldly quality while in Japan, and perhaps anywhere.

Once again, towards the very end of the excursion, we all stopped at a small shack with a seating area, fresh water, and last but not least, some extremely hospitable hosts. Without asking, the owner brought out three rounds of traditional Japanese treats, including yakitori, for no charge. This payoff was almost as good as the post-hike Kowakien onsen in Hakone. With numerous outdoor pools, it was by far the most beautiful onsen I’d been to in Japan. Soreness aside, our day-long hiking excursion was well worth it – and a welcome test-run for my endurance, as a trip to Fuji awaits me in just a couple of weeks.

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Students rest while the owner of the mountain shop doles out a refreshing snack.

Just a day after, I visited the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama for a Practical Japanese field trip. I was surprised with the amount of content in the exhibits; I learned much about Cup Noodles inventor Momofuku Ando, including the fact that he created his last innovation, instant ramen for astronauts, at the stunning age of 95. Moreover, I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know native Japanese students. Tohru, a full-time TUJ student, was my partner in making ramen from scratch, an exclusive activity offered by the museum. I’ve even made plans with Shuhei, a non-Temple student, who plans to take myself and some other abroad students to Spocha over the weekend. An amusement center that boasts arcade games and sports for a flat fee, Shuhei tells us that Spocha is a quintessential pastime for Japanese university students.

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Shuhei, Seamus, and I at the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama.

Just yesterday, I had another tour, this time at NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōka), Japan’s national broadcaster, where Professor Jefferson of my History of Journalism course is a long-term employee and announcer. Having gotten a chance to see a couple different newsrooms in the United States, I was immediately excited to observe NHK’s. Not surprisingly, much of it was the same – the close quarters of the writer and researcher rooms, the abundance of technology, and busy atmosphere. At the same time, I sensed a much more global perspective than anything I’m familiar with on mainstream American broadcasts. Just waiting for our tour to start, I watched a weathercast for cities across Africa and Latin America – in addition to a sumo wrestling match projected on a large screen beside it.

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Security was understandably tight at NHK, and these passes were procured at least ten days in advance to our visit.

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A live broadcast was playing as we entered this room, filled with focus and energy.

NHK seemed especially versatile to me, much like Tokyo itself. As I approach my finals and my last month in Japan, I’m finding more ways every day in which this proves true.

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.

On Cycling through Tokyo

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

Kabuki & Art, Difference & Similarity

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

Tradition and Modernity: Festival Observations and More

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On First Adventures, Studies, and Vulnerability

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It feels fitting to start this week’s reflection the same way I’ve started my abroad experience: vulnerably. Even in Tokyo, Japan, where I’ve found that most people will quickly accommodate non-native speakers, I feel hyper-aware of every misstep I make, and every time I’m unable to reply to a cashier or waiter’s simple question. Even generally, I feel a little bit clumsier, constantly fumbling with my Yen coins or weaving through the rush-hour crowd more awkwardly than usual. It almost feels as if my body is reflecting my verbal incoordination – which doesn’t seem all that unbelievable. For an American who has seldom left the States, and never on her own, this first chapter of my stay feels a lot like rediscovering the senses. Despite all this, I’ve found that little has slowed down the adventure. It’s amazing to consider how, just within the past week, the most incredible experiences have occurred while in this most vulnerable state.

Just within the first few days, a group of friends and I visited Shibuya a couple different times. On late Thursday afternoon, it was a trip to Tokyu Hands (AKA one of Japan’s largest department stores, AKA a world of treasures), Shibuya 109, and general exploration. On Friday night, it was the site of my first experience with Japanese karaoke, as I sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” from a room overlooking a busy Shibuya street.

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I snapped this image from Shibuya Crossing, as I walked it for the very first time.

Saturday was an unofficial TUJ excursion to Jōgashima Island, where I first experienced Japan outside of its capital city. I watched the sun set over Mt. Fuji, took breathtaking ocean photographs, pet some friendly cats, and had seafood tempura udon at a small, local establishment.

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Jōgashima had a winding path high above the rocks that we followed for hundred of meters.

On Sunday, I attempted my first solo trip to a local supermarket, over a small highway and through some quiet residential neighborhoods by the Musashi-Kosugi dorms. With some anxiety-inducing effort (trying to talk to locals on my own for the first time), I succeeded in buying a stamp to mail my first letter home, and some other goods.

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I encountered much fewer English signs navigating the more residential area around Musashi-Kosugi by myself.

However, among all these new, outside experiences, the first few days at school have felt significantly more familiar. As a Western university, Temple’s courses and classrooms closely resemble the style of those at home. Yet, of course, I never forget where I am. Many of my new peers at Temple Japan are native to the country, or otherwise not from the United States. During an orientation welcome party, I met some new students who had never left Japan before. One explained that one of her main reasons for attending an American-style university was to further improve her English. Sitting in my Development & Globalization class today, pouring over a heavy and lyrical Galeano reading, I thought about how this would all seem impossible to most American students – to jump headfirst into a foreign classroom setting, with all its expectations and difficulties, learning language while also comprehending material.

Inspired and affirmed by this effort from my peers, I hope I can do the same in all my courses, language and otherwise, as I pick up steam in my exciting new environment.