Category Archives: Tokyo

Arrival, Orientation, and Local Cuisine

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My first glimpse of Japan was a view of the damp, drizzly countryside, seen from the window of a slightly incorrect train car. It was a sight to behold, though, coming at the tail end of two days of traveling (the time zone shifts make me unsure how long it actually was, but it did involve at least twenty hours of flying and at least eighteen hours of layovers). I had stumbled off the plane, purchased a train ticket using what little Japanese skills I had accrued before my departure, and found myself sitting on an express train headed for the Hiyoshi men’s dorm.

The view from my dorm in Hiyoshi. In the distance you can see the train station and the tops of buildings in a nearby shopping area.

It wasn’t until an attendant asked for my ticket I realized I was in the wrong car, and one that would detach and head in the opposite direction, but disregarding that small hitch, I made it to my new home without much of an issue. Here I met the other Temple Japan study abroad students that I would be living with, and I met the “RA” of sorts, Aki, who immediately greeted me with “Jason-san,” and got me set up in my room.

Aki is an extremely kind man who seems to have a mysterious reputation. According to rumor, he was a body-builder-turned-Buddhist, but all I know for sure is that he immediately gave me a taste of the Japanese hospitality and politeness that was talked about a lot beforehand. After getting my room set up, I immediately got a shower and went to bed, exhausted from my traveling.

The next day started sooner than I had expected, with transportation to school starting at 8:30 the following morning. My fellow students and I, after being herded through the Tokyo subway system, spent the day in orientation presentations, meeting other students, advisers, and faculty. The presentation that was met with the most excitement was the discussion of the programs and excursions provided throughout the summer semester.

After eating a lunch of Domino’s Pizza (what an interesting welcome to Japan, right?), we wrapped up the orientation for the day with a few more presentations. We learned about some of the more serious topics, from staying safe in Tokyo to navigating the efficient but complex public transportation system. We also heard probably a dozen stories about Roppongi, the notorious tourist district nearby the campus, which (depending on who you ask), you should either avoid at all costs or visit to have a good time. After wrapping up, we headed back to the Hiyoshi dorm, where the guys in the program all went out for a nice, authentic Japanese dinner at a local restaurant:

Fish and chips from The Hub, an English-pub themed restaurant across from Hiyoshi station.

 

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Yakiniku, 焼肉, just means “grilled meat”, but generally refers to a specific style of dining: small, bite-sized meat cooked by hand over a small grill.

Wait, what? A whole day into in Tokyo and the only food I’d eaten is pizza and fish and chips? Okay, enough of this transition period. I needed to get some real Japanese food. Fortunately, the next day, we went out for a walk in the neighborhoods and shopping areas around Hiyoshi station and got some actual authentic Japanese food. For a hefty sum of ¥2000, we each got a seat at a Yakiniku restaurant, where for two hours we got to eat as much food as we could stomach, all cooked to our own taste on small grills at each table. Two hours later and full to bursting, we went for a walk around the area to work off some of the delicious food. Now this felt like a welcome to Japan.

On Leaving Japan, My Second Home

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My last selfie in Japan: me fresh from a night's stay at the 9hrs capsule hotel. I stayed here the night I arrived in Japan and I stayed here again on my way out.

My last selfie in Japan: me fresh from a night’s stay at the 9hrs. I stayed here the night I arrived in Japan and I stayed here again on my way out.

Packing up all of my cumbersome suitcases and stuffing souvenirs into over-sized carry-ons opened up a bubble of time for me to reflect on the four months I spent studying abroad — my first adventure overseas. Living, laughing, and learning in Japan made up the busiest few months of my life; I was constantly scuttling about, getting on and off subway trains as I went to classes and taught some of my own with the superstar instructors at a Japanese high school. My faux leather planner was full of circled dates for extra activities and potential meet-ups with friends and family. The short, dirty blonde hair you see to the left framed the face of a girl whose brain previously swarmed with plans of trips and visits to cool destinations in Tokyo, many of which, of course, never happened. All students who get the opportunity to study abroad go through this, I’m sure of it. Our schedules quickly become packed, and the places and events that hovered at the bottom of our wishlists turn into adventures unrealized. I had several of these stragglers that didn’t make it into my study abroad scrapbook, but even with all that was on my plate, I was able to make the most of my time in Japan, my second home.

The experiences I have had in Japan blessed me with amazing new opportunities and helped to build a stronger me. The brave young woman who boarded a plane bound for Japan in January was very different from the braver and bolder one who stepped off a plane in New York, late April. I never expected to learn more about my self and my soul, but I did along the streets of Tokyo on my morning walks to class. I didn’t anticipate meeting inspiring new people and making new friends, but it happened in a Japanese high school in Kanagawa. There is so much I owe to those who made it possible for me to study overseas, but at least I was able to give a little back through my internship.

My suitcases ready to roll around the airport and leave for America. (The other cart should say "Goodbye, Japan.") 😞

My suitcases ready to roll around the airport and leave for America. (The other cart should say “Goodbye, Japan.”) 😞

Because these experiences helped me grow and I became attached to life in Japan, leaving it was an event akin to leaving behind a beloved stuffed animal in a hotel as a little kid. I was sad, frustrated, and a little over-dramatic, but I knew that it wouldn’t be my last time there; if the map of my future plans uncurls its paper edges the way I hope it will, I’ll be stepping the streets of Japan again soon. I also knew that I’d become the “back in Japan” kid for many years after my return to the States, but I’m more than happy to be that kid. I did my family proud by realizing my dream of visiting Japan, but more than that, I did myself proud, and that is what we should all seek to do.

I hope that the students who read these blogs and dream of studying and exploring in a new places, get the chance to do so. Make the most of your college years while you still can, and plan to travel!

More Must-Visits in Japan: Release Your Inner Foodie

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There are big differences between the “food culture” of the East and the West, and while there are countless similarities, there are still plenty of unique foods, places to eat, and ways of eating that are fun to discover about both areas. Studying abroad in Japan after living all my years in America, I have enjoyed experiencing excitement and surprise as I uncovered some of the similarities and differences of the two types of food cultures I am now familiar with.

A few of those who will study abroad in Japan after living in the States might be a little disappointed with the disappearances of the kinds of foods they’re used to (cheap peanut butter, for instance, is difficult to find in Japan’s grocery stores, and cereal is also not as big a part of breakfast in Japan so the choices are limited) and the introduction of new foods that take center stage at different meal times. These phenomena take some getting used to, but most of what you’ll eat are things you like because, although restaurants don’t serve typical “American food,” you can still shop for most of your favorites at the markets.

To give you a preview of what you can expect traveling to Japan (from an American’s point of view), I thought I’d introduce you to some of my most frequented food spots and most tasted treats. I have many favorite traditional Japanese places, but these are some of the good eats you may not have heard of!


マルイチベーグル -- See how glorious this giant bagel looks! <3

マルイチベーグル — See how glorious this giant bagel looks!

 

Maruichi Bagel

The first place you should know about if you miss rich, beautifully baked bagels, is Maruichi Bagel (マルイチベーグル) which is right near TUJ and the Shirokane Takanawa Station stop (near the park there). It’s an inconspicuous little shop with a white interior and friendly and sweet staff that get so excited to see customers come in to buy their amazing bagels. Another TUJ student frequents the shop so much that the staff learned his favorite order right away and tried to save a cinnamon raisin bagel for him at the end of his long day of classes! We went in together as the semester came to a close and I mustered up the courage to explain in Japanese that we were heading back to America in a few days, and that it would be our last bagel before we left. They were so sad to see us go! Definitely make a Maruichi bagel your morning breakfast before you finish your walk to TUJ!

Pancakes bigger than your face topped (or put on the side) with a giant mound of whipped cream.

Pancakes bigger than your face topped (or put on the side) with a giant mound of smooth whipped cream.

 

Eggs ‘n Things

One of the top restaurants on your list of places to stuff your face should be Eggs ‘n Things, an extremely popular “all day breakfast” Hawaii-based gem that has several locations in Japan (including Harajuku–convenient if you spend the rest of your day there shopping!). They do feature seafood dinner options, but they are known for their ridiculously enormous pancake and whipped cream set that is available all day and night. Get to these restaurants early though, there’s a wait for their delicious wares!

Spagiro

Missing American or Italian-style spaghetti? Check out Spajiro (すぱじろう) which has eight locations in Japan, including one open for the (very) late night owls of Roppongi (think karaoke!). They have delicious giant bowls of spaghetti in so many styles, and the sizes are all the same price (small, medium, large and for the big eater, extra large). It’s on the cheaper side of the really filling American-sized portion restaurants–even the small size is big enough for those who feel like they are ready to eat a horse! There’s a location in the Azabu-Juban area, which is a ten minute or so walk from TUJ’s Shirokane Takanawa. I’ve been here so many times after wasting time struggling to find dinner spots near TUJ. I usually always find myself trekking the walk to Azabu-Juban to bask in the warm, saucy red glow of a big bowl of Spagiro’s spaghetti.

And for dessert…

St. Marc Cafe (サンマルクカフェ), known for its signiture and original “Chococro” pastry, is an amazing spot for coffee, pastries, and ice cream dishes and there are several of them that will seem to pop out of the woodwork in the spots around Tokyo and Yokohama that you’ll frequent. There are also tons of crepe shops in shopping centers, and two rival shops in Harajuku that serve up some of the best crepes you’ll ever taste. Have fun discovering your own favorite foods in Japan while studying abroad! Just remember to watch how much you dish out on ramen, udon, pancakes, spaghetti, desserts and more! Don’t forget to buy groceries!

Ice cream from St. Marc's and a beautiful pastry behind it!

Ice cream from St. Marc’s and a beautiful pastry behind it!

My favorite dish at Spagiro's (go mushrooms!!).

My favorite dish at Spagiro’s (go mushrooms!!).

Not the Same

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One of my final outings of the semester was visiting the Tsukiji Nippon Fish Port Market with Ashlee Mantione. While waiting for the market to open, we were able to watch the sunrise.

As I started packing for home, I kept thinking back to one of the songs that my favorite artist, Ben Folds, composed back in 2001. The song, “Not the Same,” is about how even the most mundane thing changes you. Although studying abroad is by no means “mundane” there’s a certain magic to it that wears off after the weeks of daily commutes begin blending together. And after a while (most of the time without your knowing) the country you’re studying in becomes an inseparable part of who you are. This made Japan feel more familiar, more ordinary—to the point where maybe my experiences became a bit mundane. Regardless, my overweight suitcases and unrealistic expectation for America to have as many vending machines as Japan has made it clear that I am not the same.

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Before I left Japan I was able to swing by the recently constructed Oizumi Anime Gate. This area, featuring life-size bronze statues of classic anime characters, is located outside of the Oizumi-Gakuen Station in Nerima. Lum the Invader Girl is one of my favorite characters; she’s also one the protagonists in Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura. Without reading Urusei Yatsura—which is jam-packed with Japanese-specific humor that I had to look up to understand—I would never have gained an interest in studying Japanese culture so I’ve got a lot to thank Lum for!

Over the course of my semester I learned that planning a trip weeks in advanced isn’t always necessary. Spontaneously deciding to find lunch somewhere other than the nearest seven-eleven on a weekday or foregoing an early start on homework to scope out more of Harajuku Friday evening is always a good choice. On the topic of going out, when I return to Japan in the future, I’ll remember to set aside a larger amount of money for food and transportation. While preparing to study abroad I had been more focused on all the souvenirs I might pick up rather than my grocery and train bills. Additionally, I’ll find the courage to bring larger suitcases or learn how to use the post office because I did not have enough room nor weight allowance for my luggage.

I’d also like to return to Japan with a larger vocabulary and grammatical understanding of Japanese. Temple University Japan’s language program was a great way for me to kick-start my language skills, but I was always hesitant and far too concerned with saying things correctly to really put them to use. What was even more difficult than being fearless with my Japanese was juggling my coursework and personal trips. I tend to be a slow worker so I spent a lot of time either completing assignments or trying to keep up with them after going out and exploring. It’s why I’d love to return to the country with a slightly lighter schedule and also why I stress the importance of knowing and acting upon your academic limits.

It’s not a surprise to me that so many of my friends and peers are returning to America knowing that Japan is still a part of their futures. Although it’s hard to identify, there’s something about Japan that constantly calls those who stay back. I’ve been lucky enough to experience even a sliver of Japan’s cultures and I look forward to the next time I’ll be able to stay.

The Last of the Big Trips

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Even looking up at it, Osaka Castle looked dazzling in the sunshine.

If there was ever a weekend when my infamous ability to push off big decisions came back to haunt me, it had to be this past weekend when a few friends and I finally made our way to Kyoto and Osaka. Many study abroad students at Temple University Japan make it a travel priority to see these two cities and I highly suggest, if you plan on studying abroad in Tokyo, doing the same. Tokyo has a lot to offer and since coming in January there hasn’t been a single day where I’ve run out of places to visit, but it’s also important to see more of Japan. My friends and I put off solidifying our plans until the middle of March and due to conflicting schedules, ended up booking a hotel during finals week. We made it to Kyoto very late Friday night and had less than twenty-four hours to dedicate to each city over the span of Saturday and Sunday. It’s not impossible to sit in on several theatrical performances then try out different restaurants in Osaka or pop your head into a handful of temples and shrines in Kyoto over the course of one weekend, but it is a bit of a challenge to balance out when everyone that you traveled with—including yourself— is sick. The best way to get the most out of traveling to Kyoto and Osaka (assuming you’re healthy) is to write, rely, and follow through on an itinerary.

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Here are some of the many, many torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine!

Even though we caught colds, the trip was exceedingly worthwhile. On Saturday, my friends and I spent our afternoon by Osaka castle, where we were able to buy snacks from food vendors and admire the scenery. Later that evening we ate dinner at Ipputo—a fairly priced and phenomenal ramen restaurant. There was a bit of a wait to get into Ipputo, but it wasn’t long and we were able to order our meals beforehand, speeding up the time between food preparation and consumption. On Sunday, we hit the road for Kyoto with the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, one of Japan’s Unesco World Heritage Sites, as our destination. The shrine is known for its 10,000 torii gates and the climb, accompanied by countless flights of stairs, to the top. There were a few ways to get to the top of the shrine and it was agreed that in order to return to the Kitazono women’s dorm before curfew we would take the shortcut. Two hours and a few rests later, we realized that we misread the map and took the scenic route up. Luckily, we corrected ourselves and took the shorter path down.

Including my weekend trip to Kyoto and Osaka, there were so many instances throughout the semester where my plans were pushed back, flawed, or didn’t end up happening for whatever reason. I think learning to enjoy them regardless has been one of the most beneficial parts of my stay in Japan. It’ s like when my friends I read one of the maps at Inari incorrectly and took the long way up, coughing all the while. It wasn’t easy that way and we definitely weren’t pleased to find out why our hike felt like it would never end, but we still managed to make it to the top.

AnimeJapan 2015

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A few weeks ago, my friends and I had the privilege of going to AnimeJapan, the largest convention in the world featuring Japanese animation from all studios and stations across Japan. It was hosted in Tokyo Big SIght, a convention center located in South Tokyo along the bay, making it very windy. Although the lines were very long, and the crowds were huge, it was definitely worth the ¥1600 to get in.

Upon arriving at the convention, we realized that there were so many people! In the exhibition halls, there were lots of television stations and animation studios showing off some behind the scenes of the work they do on their animations, and selling merchandise.

Upon arriving at the convention, we realized that there were so many people! In the exhibition halls, there were lots of television stations and animation studios showing off some behind the scenes of the work they do on their animations, and selling merchandise.

There was a large cosplay area where people could take photos of those dressed up. Here, they provided backdrops from specific shows, so that those characters could pose with it

There was a large cosplay area where people could take photos of those dressed up. Here, they provided backdrops from specific shows, so that those characters could pose with it

The area also extended outside, because there were so many people. You usually had to wait in line to take photos of the cosplayers, and they each had their own sign so that you could go to their social media pages.

The area also extended outside, because there were so many people. You usually had to wait in line to take photos of the cosplayers, and they each had their own sign so that you could go to their social media pages.

TUj student Naomi Polite is in awe of just how large the exhibition halls were, especially at the large screens above many booths screening promos for new anime.

TUJ student Naomi Polite is in awe of just how large the exhibition halls were, especially at the large screens above many booths screening promos for new anime.

This show, Love Live!, was very popular at the convention. Idol animes are currently all the rage, so it was common to see girls in similar uniforms in dance poses.

This show, Love Live!, was very popular at the convention. Idol animes are currently all the rage, so it was common to see girls in similar uniforms in dance poses.

TUJ Student Megan Smith is in awe at the display for the series Kyokai no Rinne which just premiered in Japan. As a fan, it was exciting to see new information on the show that wasn't available in the U.S. or even on many English websites.

TUJ Student Megan Smith is in awe at the display for the series Kyokai no Rinne which just premiered in Japan. As a fan, it was exciting to see new information on the show that wasn’t available in the U.S. or even on many English websites.

Many cosplayers at Anime Japan even took photos themselves. This cosplayer, dressed as the character Araragi from the Monogatari series was also taking photos of other cosplayers, while cosplaying himself.

Many cosplayers at Anime Japan even took photos themselves. This cosplayer, dressed as the character Araragi from the Monogatari series was also taking photos of other cosplayers, while cosplaying himself.

Here Temple Japan student Megan Smith poses with the outfit and prop for the titular character from the upcoming anime series Kyōkai no Rinne.

Here Temple Japan student Megan Smith poses with the outfit and prop for the titular character from the upcoming anime series Kyōkai no Rinne.

TUJ students Carlos Casademont and Megan Smith laughing over something but still having a good time enjoying Anime Japan and checking out all of the booths and merchandise.

TUJ students Carlos Casademont and Megan Smith laughing over something but still having a good time enjoying Anime Japan and checking out all of the booths and merchandise.

Many studios are a chance to promote their upcoming shows. This one, The Heroic Legend of Arslan, is an upcoming anime television show. This area was very busy because the manga version of the show was written by the famous author Arakawa Hiromi, known for creating the series Fullmetal Alchemist.

Many studios are a chance to promote their upcoming shows. This one, The Heroic Legend of Arslan, is an upcoming anime television show. This area was very busy because the manga version of the show was written by the famous author Arakawa Hiromi, known for creating the series Fullmetal Alchemist.

Cosplaying at Japanese conventions is incredibly different from ones in the U.S. At AnimeJapan, cosplayers were allowed to go anywhere in the convention, but this isn't always the case. In similar conventions in Japan, it is common that you cannot leave the cosplay area without completely changing first. In the U.S. there is no limit on where you are permitted to wear your cosplay.

Cosplaying at Japanese conventions is incredibly different from ones in the U.S. At AnimeJapan, cosplayers were allowed to go anywhere in the convention, but this isn’t always the case. In similar conventions in Japan, it is common that you cannot leave the cosplay area without completely changing first. In the U.S. there is no limit on where you are permitted to wear your cosplay.

Sadly, the convention only ran from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm each day it was open (which was only Saturday and Sunday). Conventions in the U.S. usually run 3 days, from Friday to Sunday, and open at times such as 9:00 am to 2:00 am.

Sadly, the convention only ran from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm each day it was open (which was only Saturday and Sunday). Conventions in the U.S. usually run 3 days, from Friday to Sunday, and open at times such as 9:00 am to 2:00 am.

AnimeJapan was a big new experience for me and I would love to have the opportunity to go to something similar in Japan again. Unfortunately, AnimeJapan is only once a year in the spring, but there are many other similar events in Tokyo and other places in the nearby areas for fans and even cosplayers to attend.

A Must-Visit in Japan: Sakura Spots

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IMG_20150402_204512Another one of my list-toppers, which should have a place on your travel checklist as well, is a good sakura spot: a beautiful place in Japan that showcases sakura when they appear in early spring. Sakura can be seen in many countries around the world, but in Japan they have an altogether different meaning for the nation’s people. Take time out in January to view the gorgeous blossoms if you visit the southern part of Japan, and in late March or early April if you’re near in the north near Tokyo. Bring a picnic blanket and some friends to check them out, or swing by a sakura spot alone after classes. Whatever the situation, be sure to give yourself some time to appreciate their brief presence — it’ll make for a relaxing break from the stress of your daily life, and some breathtaking photos!

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Sakura on a street in the girls’ dorm neighborhood (near Life grocery store!).

What are sakura?

桜 (さくら): Sakura is the Japanese term for cherry blossoms — the small beautiful light pink or white flowers that bloom on cherry trees for just a few weeks after winter, when the weather becomes warmer. Sakura refers to the Japanese cherry tree, which is pretty much just an ornamental tree, and doesn’t bear fruits.

 

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<3 Fallen sakura petals! <3

What do sakura mean for the Japanese?

Sakura are a significant part of Japanese culture, and have had an appearance in Japanese art and literature for centuries. They signify the transience of life — the short time humans have on this Earth to live and to love — because they bloom briefly and fall to the ground in a number of days. In this way, sakura are also associated with a Japanese term I learned of in a literature course here at TUJ, 物の哀れ (もののあわれ) mono no aware. The term describes the sad but reflective feeling that comes along with the transience of things on Earth and in life, but in Japan this idea, along with viewing sakura in the spring time, seems to signal a chance to take a “time-out” from life to appreciate the concept itself and your own life. It’s also a time to connect with nature, and in Japan sakura viewing is an important part of your spring.

What is hanami?

Hanami (花見/はなみ) is a word for the act of viewing sakura; hana (花) means “flower” (and was at one time used to mean only sakura, not necessarily all flowers), and mi (見/見る) means “eyes” or “to watch.” Hanami is the act of picnicking under sakura trees to view their blossoms with friends. Usually people find grassy spots that have many sakura trees around them to picnic under, and a lot of people turn out to celebrate the custom. One of the more popular and unexpected spots for sakura I passed by quite a few times was Arisugawa Memorial Park (有栖川宮記念公園), which is the park that beautifully encases Tokyo Metropolitan Library (東京都立図書館).

Groups of friends and families gathering in the park outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Library.

Groups of friends and families gathering in the park outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Library.

Be sure to check out some sakura if you study abroad in Tokyo – it’s worth your time! Take a walk in a park, stroll across a bridge, or pick a spot to have lunch with friends if the weather is nice! Have fun!

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