Finally, for the last part of our trip, Nara! If you haven’t read the previous two parts of the Mt Koya and Nara trip, here are the links!
Nara was probably the most anticipated part of the school trip for many students. Nara is known for its abundance of deer, especially in Nara Park. According to legend, Takemikazuchi (considered the Japanese god of thunder and swords) arrived in Nara on a white deer to protect the newly built capital of Heijou-kyou. Since then, deer have been regarded as sacred messengers of the gods who protect the city. The park is home to hundreds of deer.
The deer at Nara Park are tame, so if you bow to the deer, they will bow back!
Most of the group brought Shikasenbei, a snack to feed to the deer. A couple of us tried taking pictures with the deer!
Slightly north of Nara Park is Todaiji Temple, considered one of the world’s most powerful temples. The temple is still used today as a headquarter for teaching Buddhism. It houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.
Inside we found a line forming near a pillar. No one is certain why or how the hole in the pillar was formed, but we were told by locals it was a superstition that if you could get through the hole, you can stay healthy and be blessed with enlightenment in your next life.
Finally, when it was time to call it a night, we stayed at a youth hostel. Compared to the rest of the trip, it wasn’t anything fancy—I guess the futon isn’t for everyone, but it certainly beats sleeping on the bus.
After breakfast, we went to a mikan field to get some mikans! I was kind of confused about why this was on our itinerary, since our trip was supposed to be about Zen and seeing the more traditional side of Japan. It was fun regardless, and it was a great to give to my host family!
Our last destination was to an onsen before returning back to Tokyo. There isn’t much of a difference between an onsen and a hot bath, besides the fact that onsens are bathing facilities located around hot springs. They both follow similar rules of courtesy: absolutely no clothes or towels, shower first, before entering the onsen or bath, and then shower again before putting your clothes back on. The awkwardness of being naked had already faded away for most of the group.
I think everyone that went on this trip had a great time and it was exactly the kind of break we needed before our final weeks of school! It’s still really hard to believe that in a couple days, I’ll be returning home and my adventure in Japan will be over (or will it?!). I really do miss my family and friends back at home, but at the same time, Japan has been such a wonderful experience for me that I don’t think I ever completely exit the “honeymoon phase”!
The futons (a traditional Japanese bedding, it’s kind of like a really thick sleeping bag) that Rengejoin Temple provided us was surprisingly comfortable (but then again, after a night sleeping on a bus, the group could probably sleep anywhere!). And at 6:20 AM as promised, we were woken up to attend otsutome (Morning Prayer) as requested by the monks of the temple. After breakfast, we would head to Okunoin, the largest a cemetery and sacred area in Japan with over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas!
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, the thought of visiting a cemetery sounded rather depressing, and not quite what I would consider a tourist attraction. While funerals are still depressing, it seems as though Japan follows a more “circle of life” belief.
Our guide explained to our group that the shapes of the five tiers represents the five elements taught in Buddhism. The cube at the bottom represents earth, the sphere represents water, the pyramid presents fire, the hemisphere represents wind, and finally, the jewel shape at the top represents void. Japanese Buddhists believe that when we die, our bodies are not destroyed, but rather our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental forms.
In addition, we also saw many little statues wearing bibs. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I ask our guide, who explained that they were statues of お地蔵さん (Ojizo-san), who is believed to watch over and protect children in the afterlife.
We then stopped by a well to check on our life expectancy.
Then we entered the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the place where Kobo Daishi is said to remain in eternal meditation.
This was actually the first museum I’ve ever been to where we were allowed, and encouraged to touch stuff, so I was quite thrilled. There were thousands of lanterns and miniature statues of monks. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed in the museum. At first, I always thought this was an annoying rule since so many famous places in Japan did not allow photographs, but recently I’ve been embracing it. There is something nice about occasionally disconnecting myself from technology to truly appreciate the moment in front of me, instead of trying to share it with friends via pictures consistently.
On our way out, we tested our strength and connection with Future Buddha! In this little stand, there is a heavy rock, which is said to be as heavy as our sins. Those who are able to lift this rock, and bring it to the second level, will apparently be closer to the Future Buddha, and will be welcomed to his paradise.
I suppose the idea is that if you are a hard worker, it would probably show in your arm strength. Personally, I’m not very superstitious, but it was interesting to hear about superstitions of other cultures.
As we visit more historic sites and hear more about Japan’s culture, superstitions, and religion in person, I realize that our there is so much about Japan that is simply omitted from textbooks. The more I explore Japan, the more I realize how little I know about the country! And the more excited I become to learn more about it!
August 26th was the day that began everything. I arrived in Japan at Narita Airport and was officially on Japanese soil. My heart was ecstatic, but unfortunately, my body was exhausted from the 13 1/2 hour nonstop flight it had just been through. Nevertheless, I had finally made it to my destination. I was in Japan.
After making my way to the Kitazono Women’s Dorm and getting a good night’s rest (or a much needed coma really), I realized I had to overcome another obstacle: Temple University Japan Campus Study Abroad Orientation. (Insert intimidating thunder and lightning here.) Dun Dun DUUUUUUN!
Various TUJ staff members gave presentations throughout the orientation, including Dr. Kyle Cleveland, the Study Abroad Coordinator, Jonathan Wu, the Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Wataru Nishida, the Chief Information Officer and through the wonders of technology (aka the Iphone), Mariko Nagai, the Study Abroad Academic Coordinator. After each speaker approached the front to give their words of wisdom to the group of curious (and let’s not forget jetlagged) new arrivals, one question was asked: “How many of you are from the main campus?” (It was asked seven times to be exact and yes, I counted!) Apart from this little icebreaker, the information that was provided was extremely helpful. They covered topics such as the procedure to add, drop, or withdraw from a course and the different timeframes allotted for each, emergency and crisis procedures (have to be prepared from those earthquakes and typhoons after all), different student government and semester activities, and getting settled in Japan.
The two-day orientation was filled with humor, useful information, the Japanese Language Placement Test (for those registered for a Japanese course level higher than Japanese Elements I) and good pizza (thank you Japanese Dominos), but at the end of it all we were left with memorable comments such as:
“Your experience is largely dependent on what you make of it.” -Dr. Kyle Cleveland
“Take a risk and experience anew. If you want to go to an onsen, take off all of your clothes and go to an onsen. There are so many things waiting for you, but you have to experience them.” -Wataru Nishida
Reflecting back on it now, they made perfect sense. Think about it for a minute. We all made the decision to take the initiative and fill out the application to study abroad. We all applied for the Japanese Certificate of Eligibility and student visas. We all bought our plane tickets, boarded our planes and are now in Japan! Now there are two options for what can happen and they are both dependent on the individual. It can be the most wonderful experience in a person’s life if they can have an open mind, allow themselves to relinquish the control they are so used to having, and delve into a world they are unfamiliar with or it can be an utterly miserable one, where each day becomes torture to get through until the day they board the flight back home. I don’t know about you but personally, I’ll take door number one, please and thank you. So I say make an effort to learn the language, explore the country that you are in, and let yourself really experience it because let’s be honest; no one else is going to live your life for you so why not take that leap and make the most out of it?
Taking the night bus to Mie (approximately 400 miles away from Tokyo), those attending this TUJ trip awoke in the morning to find a lovely beach!
Even though it was around 5:30AM, the sun and sea was refreshing and energizing (not to say we all didn’t nap after getting back on the coach).
After a bit of driving, we arrived at our first hiking site. It was a short trek up the mountain, very enjoyable for an early morning walk.
The trees were absolutely incredible, rising far above us but still allowing sun to dance around.
We discovered that the cedars were sacred objects themselves, most over 800 years old!
As we went further on, we found many other people making the pilgrimage up to the shrine at the peak. White is a traditional color to wear when making this pilgrimage.
The weather was perfect for hiking with a cool breeze and warm sun all day.
The peak offered a beautiful view of the valley, with cherry blossoms blooming and blue mountains fading into the horizon.
There were a surprising amount of people at the peak’s temple! Everyone was thankful to have completed the numerous amount of stairs leading up.
Each temple offers a stream of fresh water accompanied with a series of bamboo ladles to cleanse the hands and the spirit. There is a particular ritual of scooping and rinsing the mouth, which left me feeling cool and refreshed.
On evenings when I have more assignments to complete, I find myself staying closer to home, as opposed to venturing farther out into Tokyo. This works quite well, fortunately, as Yokohama is just a short train ride away from Hiyoshi. Express trains depart frequently, allowing for even faster service to one of the area’s busiest cities.
Yokohama is a major city of Japan, located under Tokyo on a map. Hiyoshi is actually in Yokohama, not Tokyo. The bustling city can be reached by taking the Toyoko Line, among others, to Yokohama Station. A number of large shopping destinations can be found in Yokohama, most notably the Vivre building, which houses a number of clothing chains as well as a Book-Off. Other popular locations include a mall inside of Yokohama Station, a street full of Pachinko Parlors, and tons of dining options.
The image most frequently associated with Yokohama however is Minato Mirai (formally Minato Mirai 21), a popular tourist attraction near Tokyo Bay, just two stops away from Yokohama station. Minato Mirai station connects to multiple shopping destinations, including “Queen’s Palace,” a massive indoor mall with gigantic ceilings and a unique interior.
Another notable mall near Minato Mirai is World Porters, a 7+ story building with floors dedicated to clothing, souvenirs, eateries, entertainment, home furnishings, portrait photography and even a spa. My favorite level was the fifth, where “Yokohama Broadway,” a New York-themed hallway lined with makeshift storefronts, led to upscale restaurants and a movie theater.
Claw and game machines in Tokyo come packed with a variety of unique offerings, including action figures and large stuffed toys. A line of game machines at “Yokohama Broadway,” however, offered luxury items, like expensive desserts, as prizes.
Possibly the most iconic part of Minato Mirai, however, is Cosmo World, a small amusement park that stretches around the manmade island. Just across the street from Minato Mirai Station are several smaller rides and a series of claw machines and arcade games for children. The park extends into the bay, accessible by crossing a large highway connecting Cosmo World. Here sits the massive ferris wheel “Cosmo Clock,” which can be seen all throughout Minato Mirai and is commonly definitive of Yokohama in photographs, advertisements and guidebooks. The name denotes the large digital clock in the center of the attraction.
Situated on this half of the park are other several rides, including a log flume and a roller coaster that spirals into an underwater tunnel. A multi-floor arcade, carnival games, food options and tables with chairs atop a wooden deck overlooking the water top off this small but entertaining park. While a ride on the log flume cost over 500 yen, entry to Cosmo World is free, making it a fun place for spectators to visit.
Also worth mentioning is the very end of the line, Motomachi-Chukagai Station, where a large localized Chinatown offers unique restaurants and shopping.
One warm Friday I hit Yokohama, Minato Mirai and Motomachi-Chukagai all in one evening. With a multitude of popular destinations in or around Tokyo to choose from, my time in Japan has been anything but boring.
One of the closest wilderness excursions to Tokyo while still remaining in the greater metropolis, Mt. Takao offers a beautiful set of hiking trails along with several shrines and temples.
After an hour train ride from the busiest station in Tokyo (not to mention the entire planet – Shinjuku station), we were suddenly surrounded with beautiful foliage and traditional Shinto and Buddhist pieces.
There are several shrines and temples throughout the mountain, each uniquely beautiful in its location.
Each statue was thoughtfully given a hat and cloak for the colder months.
The peak of Mt. Takao is 599m above sea level, which took us around an hour and a half to hike to. It was quite the trek but the scenery was absolutely gorgeous and the view from the top was breathtaking.
The sun was just beginning to set as we reached the top. It was a great moment.
The peak not only offered a look at the skyline of Tokyo (as you can see in the photo above this one), but also a view of a gorgeous mountain range that faded into the distance.
Taking a well-earned rest after our hike up the mountain, we ate some fruit and enjoyed the crisp weather.
Suddenly a friend appeared!
The mysterious cat decided to join us for our evening snack, although he was decidedly not interested in the mangoes.
Amazingly enough, another little creature ventured out as well: a tanuki! Also known as the “Japanese Raccoon Dog,” the tanuki is a beloved figure in Japanese culture with a well-established presence in folklore and legends. It is also absolutely adorable and friendly!
As we began our descent, we spotted the mysterious outline of one of Japan’s most beloved site: Mt. Fuji.
An upscale neighborhood with a relaxing atmosphere and a wide array of luxury shops and residencies, Daikanyama is one of Tokyo’s trendiest areas.
Daikanyama displays some excellent examples of Japanese design, not just in the gorgeous products sold in the stores but also in the famous architecture.
Home to Maki Fumihiko’s Hillside Terrace complex, this area is an example of the successful concepts of Metabolist urban planning theories of “group form.” In this notion, architectural design is used to provide an all-inclusive series of buildings that enhance the surrounding area.
TUJ’s architecture students were thrilled to explore the neighborhood.
Each building is more beautiful than the next, especially on a day with such gorgeous weather.
As we strolled on the lovely spring day, we stumbled upon a trendy street-wear store that also happened to make an amazing cappuccino! Not only that, but the back of the commercial space opened into a great wood patio.
We were in heaven. The atmosphere of Daikanyama is relaxing and warm; it’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon of happy walking.
The view was a treat, and it was a perfect place to rest our legs.
Daikanyama oozes chicness, making it one of the best places to experience the trendy and luxurious culture of Tokyo without any stuffiness.
Street art and stickers dot each corner and sign, providing a satisfying juxtaposition with the bourgeois neighborhood. It is a perfect blend of street culture and high style.
Finally, the main event: the evening of the Kamakura Festival in Nikko. Night fell in a blue haze over the mountains, which was beautiful to watch from our room as we relaxed.
We enjoyed tea and cookies on the amazing kotatsu, which is a small table over a light futon and heat source. It was so comfortable on the straw tatami mats!
And then…our magnificent dinner appeared. It was a meal fit for kings, including udon noodles, tuna sashimi, amazing miso soup, smoked fish, pickled radishes, and tempura vegetables. It was lovely sitting on the floor to eat, but most of us couldn’t hold the traditional Japanese position of sitting on the shins for too long, so we crossed our legs. It was very relaxing!
The karaoke machine was a hit!
After dinner, it was time for the festival. There were hundreds of small snow igloos containing candles, it was a magical sight. This snow festival takes place in several locations around Japan during the winter. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, “this 400 year old festival is said to have its origins in the traditional event of returning New Year decorations to the gods by burning them, and also in the custom of children chasing away birds damaging crops. Inside the kamakura, an altar is set up to honor the water gods and to pray for plenty of clear water, while sake and rice cakes are offered to the gods.” (http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/festival/kamakurasnow.html)
Offerings of money were stuck right into the walls of the larger igloos.
The atmosphere was surreal with the carefully designed lighting of each igloo. Even the trees were lit!
Even the vending machines were held in the igloos! I was thankful for the opportunity to warm my hands with a hot coffee can.
We had a lot of fun exploring each igloo, since every one contained something different. This one had a small sitting area inside, including a tatami mat!
The most beautiful sight, however, was the array of candles in the main festival area. It was a spiritual experience to watch the flames glow across the landscape and eventually flicker out as snow melted into the candle holder. After being in the snow for several hours, we were definitely in the mood for the hot springs. Our trip to Nikko was a once in a lifetime sort of adventure.
For those interested in studying abroad, I thought that it might be a good idea to give you some tips on how to pack for your exciting trip overseas. If you’ve traveled abroad extensively, or if you’ve studied abroad before, maybe this post won’t be so useful, but if it’s your first time keep reading!
Obviously you need to bring clothing. You want to pack somewhat lightly, but you also want to pack what you need. In my case I packed three types of clothing: the clothes that I tend to wear again and again, the clothes that I haven’t worn in a long time, and clothing that is easy to mix and match and pair with other things. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you. I chose clothing that I tend to wear again and again because I knew that I would wear it a lot while overseas. I reached all the way into the back of my closet and dusted off some clothing that I haven’t worn in ages so that when the time comes to leave Japan, I can simply throw those articles away, thus leaving extra room in my bags for the things that I’m bringing back. And I made sure to pack clothing that goes with just about anything so that, even though I only packed a few pieces, I wouldn’t feel like I was wearing the same thing again and again.
Of course Japan has shopping as well, so you can always pack super light and buy a new wardrobe while you’re out here! And clothing prices vary. There are high-end boutiques which can be quite expensive, ‘foreign brands’ such as H&M and Forever 21, and even thrift shops, so how much you spend on clothing all depends on you!
But. . . . .shopping may be more difficult for some than others. Specifically if you are rather tall or if you are plus sized. In my case I’m very tall, so pants and long sleeved shirts were out of the question. (Although somehow I was able to find a pair of harem pants that fit!) To my surprise, maxi dresses and over-sized clothing are popular right now in Japan, so I was able to stock up on some dresses, skirts, jackets, hoodies and sweaters. If you’re a taller or bigger person, I suggest shopping at American stores, or looking for clothes labeled one size or free size (they tend to fit everyone). Also, if you are a lady or gentleman with big feet. . . . .forget about it. Women’s shoes stop at 8 and men’s shoes stop at around 10 (I believe). So stock up on shoes! I brought sneakers, flats, boots, flip-flops, slippers, and heels. Just a little something for every occasion. I also suggest that you brings a pair of hiking shoes in case you plan to climb Mt Fuji like I did (the shoes get ruined by the terrain, for the record) and rain boots for the rainy season. I also suggest that you bring clothing that is easy to transition from one season to another, or clothing that can be layered.
You may also wish to bring your own toiletries. For towels and toilet paper, you can find that here pretty cheaply, but if you prefer to have a specific brand of toothpaste, bring it with you. And while your at it, throw in some deodorant, if you want to stick with the roll-on kind. The only DO that I’ve found out here is the spray on kind, and it’s just not to my liking. And ladies (guys. . now is the time to look away) bring your feminine products. You may have issues finding certain products because this society is a ‘one size fits all’ type of place, so there isn’t much variety in the ladies department.
(Guys, you can come back now)
Umbrellas, notebooks, paper, and cleaning supplies can be found at the hyaku yen ($1 store) out here so no need to weight down your bag with that extra stuff, and Japan has some good makeup as well, so ladies, maybe bring some eyeliner and mascara to start, the rest you can find out here cheaply!
I wrote about this on the ‘Dealing with Distance’ post, but bring some of your favorite snacks, the kind that you cannot live without! Japan has some pretty tasty snacks, but sometimes it just doesn’t do it! And if you have any specific hair, body wash, or lotions that you simply cannot live without, bring them along for the ride as well!
Another thing that I did (which may seem kind of weird) is I brought all of my holey socks, and bought some cheap underwear from Walmart. Why you ask? So that when my time in Japan comes to an end I can throw them out, creating even more space in my bag for all of the goodies that I’m bringing back!!!
OK, now you should be ready for your trip!! I can’t really think of anything else, so I hope that this was helpful! Until next time!!