Category Archives: Temple Japan

Let me paint you a picture…

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A cold clear day, and the sun shines brightly without its normal burn. A bit of residual frost clings to branches of bushes and trees, and condensation drips into and dampens the ground. And it is silent. Not an uncomfortable, awkward silence but an awed and reverent stillness.

The temple grounds are scattered with a few people. There is the occasional faint rattle of coins that clink their way down into the slatted box in offering, in the hopes that the prayer will be heard. Up ahead looms a giant Buddha that dominates the vision, perfectly polished and larger than life. A serene expression graces its features as if all is right with the world, as if no violence or tragedy rears its ugly head halfway across the globe. Oddly enough, its very presence is humbling.

Giant Buddha

The Giant Buddha at Jourenji Temple

To the left is a traditional styled building and shallow pond that is framed by a low wooden fence. In the center of the water is what appears to be a small shrine, and the pond itself is bordered by rock outcroppings and sculpted trees that are at once somehow both natural and controlled. A couple of ducks peacefully paddle in the pond, unafraid of human presence. The water ripples with flashes of gold and red as the lithe bodies of koi slice through the surface. It is akin to being suspended in time, and you dare not raise your voice higher than a hushed whisper. Breathe it all in as its serenity settles in your bones and calms your heart.

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Koi pond at Jourenji Temple

To the right are a set of stairs that lead below to a row of small statues of wizened old men. Who are they? What do they represent? The paths are well maintained but worn by the many feet that have crossed these same stones. Surrounded by plants that have survived the winter, it is as though nature is barely restrained all around.

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Stone statues at the bottom of the stairs

Exiting from the back, the road is lined by people’s prayers and wishes in the form of wooden plaques that hang from the board as well as slips of white paper with fortunes that are tied to the strings on the wall so that they will come true. It is like being surrounded by hopes and dreams, and I wonder who these people are. If I have passed them in the streets, sat next to them on the train, and I cannot help but feel such nostalgia and yearning and curiosity all mixed together. It is altogether overwhelming that stepping onto the main street, I have to look over my shoulder for one last glance before returning to pedestrian life. Wow.

Wishes

The wishes and hopes written on wooden boards

I was lucky this semester to schedule my classes so that I don’t have classes a couple times a week. It allows me to visit places without having to deal with the rush and chaos that happens during the weekends, and thanks to that, I was able to absorb the beauty and peace of Jourenji Temple without interruption. One does not need to be Shinto in order to appreciate the landscape and architecture or the uplifting and spiritual atmosphere no matter how clichéd that sounds.

I think if possible, one should visit these little gems during weekdays, because it is easier to connect on a personal level. In the hustle and bustle of weekends, the impact is diminished, and that is a shame right there.

Museum Trips

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Museums in Tokyo have cheap admission rates and limited-time objects on display.

Tokyo National Museum

 

In Tokyo all the architecture treasured buildings are besides modern buildings tucked in the streets. Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples are in the city can be side by side with the grocery store, schools, residential buildings. The much larger scaled sacred buildings are more cherished and established as tourist attractions. However, the locals value these sacred places and visit to pray. Historical areas aren’t celebrated as much; therefore, there isn’t any english text to describe the history. The best places to learn about Japanese traditions, history, art, and architecture is to visit museums.

You can learn about the Japanese art and architecture by going to the museums.

The Museums are a huge hit in Tokyo because they have valued fragile pieces that can only be shown for a limited time and museums admission rates are very cheap. As a classroom, we have visited two museums so far; Tokyo National Museum and Nezu Museum.

Nezu Museum

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Saturday Class Trip to Nezu Museum

 

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Nezu Museum’s Garden

 

 

Food, Glorious Food…

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Food is a magnificent thing. It has the ability to unify people because let’s be real, everyone is happier with a full and satisfied stomach. And contrary to what people may think, food is not as expensive as people may think it is in Tokyo. At least, not if you look in the right places.

I am probably a little biased since I really like Japanese food, so I have yet to find something that I outright disliked. However, having talked to others, I think the general consensus is that the food here is pretty great. And did I mention, extremely convenient? And I mean that in literal terms too, because normally people wrinkle their noses at the thought of convenience store food. I mean, who in the U.S. would claim that convenience store food is yummy, much less purchase seafood dishes there? But the konbini (convenience store) food is actually a full meal, and they offer a variety of options from sandwiches to curry to even sushi. Not only are they tasty and legit, but they’re cheaply priced at around ¥500 (about $4.00 USD).

Because I am the type of girl who is always looking for great deals, I have figured out that the supermarkets in Japan also sell these pre-made meals. It just so happens that these meals are discounted after a certain time, meaning that those prepped during lunch are marked down at around 2-3P.M. and the ones for dinner are discounted at around 9P.M. In fact, I have taken to shopping late night because of the lowered price on not just the packaged meals, but even on fresh produce and meats and the bakery. Go Japan for making it easy and affordable for busy people!

LIFE

The pre-made meals at LIFE supermarket

I don’t know if it is because people in Japan lead fast-paced busy lives, but everything here seems to revolve around efficiency. There is no shame in buying these already cooked meals because everyone else is doing it, too. One of the best things I have discovered is microwavable rice–as in it is already cooked and in an air-sealed packaged, and I wish they had this back home. At the same time, I admit that I question what goes into making rice able to last without going bad or losing its texture, but because I cannot read the packaging’s list of ingredients, I am going to remain in blissful ignorance.

Also, while on the topic of supermarkets, shopping here is unlike that in the U.S. People seem to shop for only enough to last a max of a couple of days. I think this is a combination of wanting to eat fresh, but also the most a person can carry back home or fit in their fridge, since everyone shops locally and everything is closely compacted together. As a result, they do not have shopping carts but instead have shopping baskets, which you can stack on a mini metal wheeled frame of that of a real shopping cart if you so please. Also, cashiers only offer, at most, 2 plastic bags, and you are to carry your basket to one of the counters on the side to bag your items yourself. I think this is in part why you don’t need to wait in line for that long–fewer items and self-bagging.

I rest my case. The Japanese are masters at efficiency.

“You can’t understand a city without…”

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“Using its public transportation system.” Or so said an author off a Pinterest post. But it does ring with a certain truth. I think I have picked up on more cultural nuances on just observing the transportation here in Tokyo.

Take bicycles for example. They are the equivalent to cars in the U.S. and a large portion of the population ride one. They even have registration and should you be caught with a bike that does not belong to you, woe unto you. However, it is understandable that with such a large population, small streets, and reliable subway/train system cars are less efficient.

Bikes

A small section of the bike parking at the LIFE supermarket.

From the cars that I have seen and even the trucks (And speaking of cars, Japan is one of those countries that drive on the left side. Just a tip to avoid accidents), vehicles are all tiny compared to the U.S. Back in America, it isn’t uncommon to see 16-wheelers and large SUVs, but in Tokyo, the cars are about the size of smart cars and the trucks aren’t that big either–about the size of a small pick-up. Considering Japan is an island with a fairly large population, they have become adept at conserving space as there really isn’t room for expansion.

In regards to Japan’s public transportation, it is truly remarkable–highly efficient and reliable. With the number of people who cram in during rush hour, there is a sort of unspoken etiquette in which there is near silence while riding and no eating. When it comes to boarding, people part to the side to let passengers disembark and there is minimal, if any, pushing or shoving. But there’s an exception. Tokyo is well equipped to handle most natural crises, but when it comes to snow, which doesn’t happen particularly often, public transportation gets hit hard as I found out firsthand. My morning trek to the station was slippery and full of slush and snow. In the snowy areas of the U.S., this would already have been shoveled out and salted which goes to show how often it snows in Tokyo.

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The view from my balcony. It snowed the night before and rained the rest of the day.

As for the actual train ride, I have never been squished that much before, but other than the extremely long wait for the train, the actual ride wasn’t particularly unpleasant. The train, always clean with good ventilation (I’m always amazed at the cleanliness because back home, public transportation is really gross), may have been jam packed with zero wiggle room, but everyone bore with it quietly. It seems really odd to bring it up, but I can’t help but also appreciate that it didn’t smell off, because in the U.S. the trains and the stations always smelled unpleasant. Despite being smothered with other bodies (I’m not particularly tall), nothing smelled bad. I’m not too sure if this has to do with the diet or if people here have particularly good hygiene, but I had a moment where I obsessed over it.

To reiterate how considerate people here are, even riding the escalator involves manners. If you aren’t in a hurry, you are to stand on the left side, leaving room on the right for people in a hurry to run up. And there is a line to wait should there be a lot of people. I’ve seen this done in China, too, so this might not be exclusive to Japan, but it is still way more courteous than the organized chaos found in the U.S.

Honestly, I wish that the public transportation system in the U.S. was as nice as this since it would make my college life so much easier. I don’t have a car at my home campus, and it feels like a chore to endure every time I take the bus or train. But with how dependent we are on personal vehicles and our vast highway system, I don’t think that will change any time soon. Not to mention, the U.S. is a large country so I suppose it would not necessarily be as applicable as is in Japan.

Concluding Thoughts

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Well……… this is a little bittersweet because it’s already the last post! This fall semester really has flown by, and honestly it has been a whirlwind of emotion. Everything that the Temple’s study abroad program coordinators talk about in the beginning are true — culture shock, elation, budget, etc. There are so many things that I think have changed many of the students here over the course of just a few months… but I’ll start with some of the little everyday things:

  • You’ll start referring to temperature with Celsius instead of Fahrenheit
  • You’ll get used to sharing the sidewalks with bell-less bicycles.
    • (One way to avoid crashing into them is that you just have to walk ahead with a very focused stare!! As long as you’re not trying to get out of their way, it will be a smooth passing.)
  • You’ll carry an umbrella because the weather can be moody.
  • Almost everyone uses LINE, and you probably will too. You’ll also probably get addicted to the cute sticker packs on there.
  • The conbini (convenience store) food is actually pretty tasty… even junk food here is not that poisonous to your bodies.
  • BUG SPRAY IS YOUR BEST FRIEND IN THE SUMMER!!!
  • A lot of people wear the same thing… but you will probably pick up that trend because let’s face it, Japan is super fashionable

These are only some of the things that I can think of, but I’m sure there are more. I am absolutely positive you will have mini identity crises along the way and struggles to reconcile cultural differences, BUT these are all necessary to ultimately understand Japanese culture on higher levels. If you’re living on-campus, you should definitely try to meet people outside of the college circle. While it’s also nice to grow together with other people who are feeling and experiencing the same things as you, you can also learn more from putting yourself out there (and chances are, the Japanese people would love to meet you too since they, too, are interested in American culture)!

For me, it was really, really helpful to meet some of the older folk in Tokyo. Specifically, Glenn and Mari from the Japanime internship (offered through Temple’s credit internship program!) because they explained many things to me and were so hospitable!! (If you’re interested in the Publishing Industry and looking into internships, I highly recommend Japanime because you will learn a lot about the process of bookmaking and about cultural differences and Japan in general if you just want to talk!)

Even your teachers here would be good people to talk to, since they’ve lived here for a long time. It always puts things into perspective to see how someone who has come before you has adapted and loves the country they’re in.

Concluding Thoughts

Glenn & Mari from Japanime!

Personally, I have learned so much this semester. I can’t tell if my world got bigger or feels smaller, now that I have spent some time in another country… but I am so thankful for all the things I have experienced and all the people I have met while being here!! Truly the end of a year that I will not forget.

Ameyoko or “Ameya Yokocho”

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Since I’m living with family in Japan, I get to know the area around my place a little more than other popular parts of the city like Shibuya or Harajuku. I live in Ueno, which is not quite suburban… but it’s not quite so bustling either. It feels like a very family-friendly area, as it has the Shinobazu Pond (a little pond where you can ride swan paddleboats on sunny days, or a traditional rowing boat if your arms are up for it) and the Ueno Zoo. But, one of my favorite parts are the alley street markets near Ueno Station — “Ameya Yokocho” or “Ameyoko” for short.

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One of many entrances to Ameyoko

It’s said to be called Ameyoko because it was named from the American black market after World War II, or ame (which means candy in Japanese) street/stores, and the soldiers would call it that for short. I’m not quite sure, as the stories all seem to differ, but interesting bits of history nonetheless!

There’s not so much candy anymore, but rather, this place has become known for its fresh fish and fruit. There are multiple alleys that seem to be grouped by type of merchandise, but this is a good spot to get affordable clothes, souvenirs, produce, and street food! There’s really so much to see and it’s so easy to shop.

This is a really good place to get gifts for your friends back home, as there are more traditional snacks like little fish strip crackers with sesame paste (this sounds weird to some, but it is so tasty!!) and more vendors that are family businesses. Personally, I would stay there for the entire day, just to get a sampling of all the different kinds of food offered here. A lot of it is fried, but I think that’s characteristic of street food, as you can walk around with your food on a stick or pick at small bits of karaage (fried chicken). But one thing for sure is that everything feels authentic and gritty (in the best way)!

Writing this post made me think that there are actually a lot of alley street markets in Japan. I guess part of it is due to their packed architecture, but this means that some streets become so specialized in what they’re offering… and I find this really interesting because the U.S. (especially the big hubs like New York and Los Angeles) seems to boast its diversity. But here, they are offering the same product, but with slight differences per store (and then you can compare traditional vs. modern takes on some foods).

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Monjayaki Street in Tsukishima

Above is a picture of the monjayaki (pan-fried vegetables and batter) street in Tsukishima, which is full of monjayaki restaurants — but each of them try to be unique by pairing it with a special ingredient or just having cool ways of cooking it. These subtle differences makes exploring these alley street markets all the more fun though!

A Day Trip to Kamakura

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Koto-kuin, “The Big Buddha”

Of the many day trips you can take from Tokyo, Kamakura is one of the easiest ones to access! If you make your way to Tokyo Station, you can take a quick peek at their “character street” (as they have a Ghibli store, Hello Kitty store, etc.) and then ride onto the Yokosuka Line straight to Kamakura Station. Or, if you want, you can head there earlier to get a headstart on some of the hiking trails. Either way, there’s a bunch to be seen and explored!

Even in the autumn/winter season, the days can be really nice. When I went, it was only about 15 degrees Celsius (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), so we didn’t have to go around lugging our heaviest jackets (Tokyo is actually not that cold yet — just some windier days). The grounds of Kamakura show the seasonal changes:

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Autumn leaves on the temple grounds

Close by is Yuigahara Beach, which is really refreshing to see when you’ve been in the city for so long!! Even though the back looks a little like an abandoned fishing town…

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Yuigahara Beach

The shoreline is really smooth and everyone really enjoys the open ocean air. Weirdly, it didn’t smell as salty as you’d imagine an ocean to normally smell like… the air felt very clean and brisk!

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The shoreline

After Yuigahara Beach, we walked back up to take a bus to Kamakura Station, and then walked through Komachi Street (another alley of street vendors and gift shops) to visit Hokokuji Temple.

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Many people have made many prayers and wishes here

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I’m not sure what these say, but they’re hanging on a bamboo grove, which is one of Hokokuji’s treasures

Seeing the gate, I think this is one of the biggest temples in Kamakura…

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The gate to Hokokuji Temple

This isn’t quite as mountainous as the pictures might make you think… I came here dressed as if I was going to go hardcore hiking/camping, but if you avoid the trails, it is really easy to stay on the concrete sidewalks. Still, there is much to be walked and you should be ready to walk up and down a lot of stairs at the temples and Komachi Street. But I guess this is good because (if you’re like me), you’ll constantly be snacking on all the delicious foods at Kamakura!

A few of the tastiest, most interesting snacks I sampled in Kamakura:
– Hokkaido purple potato soft serve ice cream
– Apple peanuts (which I really regret not buying…)
– Flattened octopus crackers
– Almond & chocolate pancake sandwich

To be honest, I think the stores that sell the peanuts and dried fruits are where it’s at. They have so many different kinds of flavors and everything tastes really fresh — definitely recommend buying some while you’re there!!