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Gap Year Abroad

15 posts from March 2014


Sketchbook 13: Trains


I use the train system almost every day. It's reliable, and faster than driving in most cases. I can remember waiting four hours for my amtrak train in the USA and not knowing why it was delayed. Turns out it was delayed due to track maitenance. Here if the trains are delayed even five minutes, they hand out passes to people and profusely apologize.

The JR trains gets ocassionally delayed due to maitenance, passenger injuries, wind, snow, and rain. As a whole though, much more reliable than the system in the USA. I use the PATCO to commute to Philly, and there's only a paper time-table hanging on the wall of the station. Usually, trains come every twenty minutes. Sometimes every forty minutes, even at a busy time of day, despite the paper timetable telling otherwise. Comparably, the Jouban Line that I take to get into Tokyo comes once every twenty minutes in the afternoon, and once every five during rush hour in the morning.

Everyone here uses the trains. It's definitely something I'll miss going back to America. You're never truly lost in Tokyo because as long as you can find a train station, you can find your way home.

Kamakura Day Trip

Today Mayumi, Daichi, and I went on a day trip to Kamakura, a resort city on the ocean under an hour from Tokyo. It’s famous for its multitude of shrines and giant Buddha statue that attract tourists from all over Japan (and the world). 

We took the Yokosuka line from Tokyo, and ended up at Kamakura station. Immediately exiting the station, we found ourselves on a shopping street aptly named Kommachi Dori (Small Town Street). The street was bustling! I was amazed at the number of people out and about, but, then again, it was a Friday on spring vacation with gorgeous weather. The street had everything from restaurants to omiyage (souvenir) and toy stores.  IMG_0843

Ice cream stores were also incredibly prevalent, featuring Japanese flavors like sweet potato and matcha (green tea).

IMG_0845Making our way down the street, we stopped by a mame store (dried soybeans) that sold both flavored dried beans/nuts and some sort of rice cracker I had never seen before- small balls of rice cracker with a shelled peanut in the middle of each. They were delicious! A ton of people were in the store, just sampling the hundred or so different variations of nuts and rice crackers. My personal favorites were the apple flavored rice crackers, the brown sugar soybeans, and the yogurt covered coffee beans. Delicious!

 We then moved to the end of the street, where one of the most famous shrines (Kamakura Hachimangu) in Kamakura sits.  IMG_0859


The sakura trees in the shrine complex were just beginning to bloom!

 After our picnic lunch on the pond within Kamakura Hachimangu, we walked back to Kamakura station to catch the tram out to the ocean, in the outskirts of the city. The tram was all above ground, so we could watch Kamakura (which felt much more like a small seaside town than a city) pass by.


Being next to the ocean really felt like being home. The smell of the ocean and the color of the sand were incredibly familiar. Alongside the street across from the beach were many colorful restaurants with balconies overlooking the water.  IMG_0890
The beach itself was far below the street level- you had to climb a massive set of sandy stairs to get there. We found seaweed on the beach and joked that we would eat it with our dinner.


 We also stopped by a grocery store with an incredible variety of cheap, colorful vegetables out front.


Mayumi and my favorite was the massive daikon for only $1.50 apiece! (my hand is in the picture to give a reference size). 


 Once we got back to Kommachi dori, Mayumi and Daichi ate crepes with chocolate and cream cheese while I ate a cone of sweet potato ice cream- so good! When it was still light out, we headed back to Tokyo, tired and content. It was still warm enough out that the walk back from the station felt almost like a summer night. All in all, a great spring break day.


Sketchbook 12: Spring Flowers

When March comes around, so does allergy season. Thousands and thousands of Sakura and Ume trees begin to blossom, creating that iconic Japanese image of spring.


A popular pastime in spring is Hanami, or flower viewing. Families dress up in kimono, bring bento and sake, and drink beneath the cherry trees at the park. It's a tradition well-steeped in time, all the way back from the Nara period, around 710. Ukiyo-e often depict it.


Hana no En, from the Tale of Genji

A popular spot for Hanami is Ueno Park. Though the trees have yet to blossom fully, I'm hoping I'll get to experience this tradition soon!

Sketchbook 11: Ceramic Designs

I recently went to the Imperial Palace Gardens with both CIEE and later with my host mother. When I went with my host mother, we visited the Sannomaru Museum, which holds a collection of ceramic ware passed down through Prince Arisugawa's family.


I absolutely fell in love with the flowers, delicately painted on each piece, and I drew several highlights of the design from a bowl.

Kyo-yaki, or Kyoto-styled ware originates from the 17th century, dating back to two important artisans: Ninsei Nonomura and Kenzan Ogata. Ninsei-style embodies "kire-sabi", or refined beauty, while Kenzan-style features elegant brushwork and referances to literature and paintings.

Overall, Kyo-yaki features overglaze enamel pigments, and are signed by the artists.


(photo from here)

The ceramic set featured at Sannomaru was created by Kenzan Denshichi, and there is a set for each season. They were created in the late 19th century, during the Meiji period.


Night at the Shinjuku Park Hyatt (Lost in Translation Hotel)

Tokyo is filled with never-ending noises and beeps, sounds of babies crying and people talking. The air is full, heavy with people and the things that fall from their mouths. Kotoba. Words.


In this bustling environment, surprisingly, it's so easy to feel alone. Suspended between silence on the trains and the chaos on the streets. Avoiding the eyes of strangers and hearing snippets of conversation where you don't belong. Seeing families, people, wondering what their life is like. Are they shopping? Are they visiting? What do they call home?

Hanging several hundred feet over the bustle in a hotel room, seeing cars looking like toys and people barely visible, there was an odd sense of serenity. Peace. Thousands of people. All with a place to be and somewhere to go. Forward.


If you've ever seen Lost in Translation, maybe you'll understand what I mean. That gap between cultures, the inability to communicate fully in a strange place. That sense of being surrounded and yet feeling so alone.

I went to the New York Bar. A jazz band was playing and the lead singer had pretty good english. I ordered something with grapefruit, I can't remember, and looked out at the view.



Then I went back to my room and had a bubble bath. My father was already asleep. But I stayed up a little while longer, watching the lights glow from SkyTree.

So quiet.

So peaceful.

So busy.


Sketchbook 10: Osaka Cityscape

Drawn from observation. This was the view from my room in the St. Regis Hotel.


Sketchbook 9: Clothes Part 1


It's spring which means graduation is in the air in Japan! Unlike American schools, with the spring season comes a new year. Lately I've been seeing girls dressed in these special kimonos, called Hakama, on the trains. Usually men wear hakama, but girls wear them for graduation ceremonies, traditional sports (archery, kendo),  and shrine maidens wear them as well.

My New Host Family

"Sakana-min?" I say, squinting my eyes at a restaurant sign labeled 魚民 as my host brother drives by.

"Uou-tami," he corrects gently. "But you read it!"


My host family is so much more than a family to me. And they certainly are my family, make no mistake. Okaasan is always cooking amazing dinners for me, even making onion soup from scratch a few days ago after I mentioned it being one of my favorite meals.  On my birthday, she made an incredible meal, complete with a delicious strawberry shortcake. And karage from scratch!


My host father and I like to watch Enka together after dinner. And my host sister and host brother and I watch American movies together, snacking and laughing.

But my host family members are also my teachers. Encouraging, honest, and very patient, they correct my language and help me with my homework, explaining grammar and helping me read the kanji on the night news.

"Hikari ga ochita!" I said, concerned as the pet dog slipped on the ground, his legs collapsing underneath him. He's overweight, and is currently on a doggy-diet of vegetables and low-calorie kibbles.


"Koronda," corrected Okaasan. "Ochita is like a leaf falling. People and animals korobu. Or subeta."

I look up suberu in the dictionary. To glide, to slide, to slip.

"Ahhhh, naruhodo." I see.

My host family speaks very meager English, the result of a motely patchworked education system that relies more on reading and writing than pronunciation and speaking. For example, my host brother understands and teaches what I consider complex grammar patterns and words. But he finds conversation, listening and English pronunciation very challenging, preferring instead to have it written down.

So rather than writing it down, I say it in Japanese. Sometimes I say it wrong. Sometimes I mess up. But that's ok, because my host family will correct me and teach me the right way to say it or read it. And I'll remember it, and try again so that next time I can say it better.

Japanese Poetry! 和

Going beyond words alone.


Last year, as I began to think about one day visiting Japan, I visited my school’s library. I wanted to do some research on the history of Japan, to learn more about their culture and heritage. While browsing through the aisles of books, I came across a book of Japanese poetry. I had never been a huge fan of poetry, and I knew little about the Japanese style. Yet still, I opened the book, and flipped through the pages, coming to rest at an arbitrary passage.

The mists rise over
The still pools at Asuka.
Memory does not
Pass away so easily.

Something about that poem affected me in a way I can’t quite describe. I reread it again, and again, pondering its meaning and why I felt such an attachment to it. I felt like I was drawn into the poem, experiencing another world from another time. I closed the book, and presented it to the librarian at the counter.

“Doing some research?” she asked.
I shook my head. “For fun” I said. Her eyes boggled.

Japanese poetry, like so much of their culture is outwardly simple, yet truly has meaning of great depth hidden within the poem. I feel this is best illustrated through the words of Fujiwara Teika, a Heian period master poet (11th-12th century).

When the floating bridge
Of the dream of a spring night
Was snapped, I woke:
In the sky a bank of clouds
Was drawing away from the peak

Red_Fuji_southern_wind_clear_morning (1)

This poem demonstrates the three inherent themes of Japanese Poetry, namely:

Wabi — The Japanese preference for things in their natural, unaltered states; of having the quality of harmony, tranquility, balance

Sabi — The fleeting nature of beauty, the transience of all things

Yugen — An sense of mystery and depth, as articulated by the Buddhist priest Shun’e, “unseen world that hovers in the atmosphere of a poem”

Let me first point out the reference in the first line to the Tale of Genji, alluding to the the final chapter titled “Floating Bridge of Dreams”, conjuring up images of a brilliant world of romance, love, and beauty. In the first line, he has already established a sense of delight and wonder, yugen at work. Yet the illusion is soon shattered, “the dream… snapped”, bringing an abrupt end to this magnificent world, illustrating the transience of sabi. His last two lines are merely objective, describing the view to which he wakes. His description the scene, quiet and naturalistic, is a perfect exemplification of Japanese wabi. Altogether, he weaves a masterful tale of emotions from a single moment.

Japanese poetry as we know of it began with the 8th century with the writing of Man’youshuu, Japan’s first recorded anthology, consisting of a collection of some 4,500 poems. Made up long-form poems (chouka) and short-form wakas (31 syllable poems consisting of lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables), the latter making up the majority of the collection. Because of the tendency of Japanese language to lack in varieties of sound and rhythm, the Japanese found it difficult to write long-form poetry. Thus, they concentrated on developing waka, using imagery alone to elicit emotional responses from the audience. For the next 500 years, waka reigned supreme in Japanese poetry. One of the finest Japanese poets, Saigyo, a buddhist monk with a warrior background, demonstrated a mastery of the form.

In a tree standing
Beside a desolate field,
The voice of a dove
Calling to its companions -
Lonely, terrible evening.

A great deal of effort was put into creating and perfecting waka poetry, and thus it saw great popularity in Courtier life, some dedicating their entire lives to the art form. By the 13th century, however, the waka form had been exhausted, taken over by rigid rules of composition and restrictions to its creative potential. The courtiers of the Heian period severely limited the range of poetic topics and moods under which poetry could be composed, and thus in the following Muromachi period, linked verse (renga) took over as the reigning form of Japanese poetry. Two or more people alternately or consecutively composing 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable wakas and stringing them together, the renga brought on a new era of Japanese poetry. In one of the most famous examples of renga verse, three poets gathered at a temple to compose an epic piece. An excerpt:

“The Three Poets of Minase”

Far away the water flows
Past the plum-scented village
In the river breeze
The willow trees are clustered.
Spring is appearing.

Renga created a unique call and response form to poetry, and allowed for creative poem construction. Here, Shouhaku mentions a “plum-scented village”, which Souchou immediately adapts into his next verse, speaking of the coming of spring. This dynamic added a whole new take on Japanese poetry, and became the dominate form of poetry for hundreds of years.

Renga also stimulated social intercourse, extending beyond the poetry recitations and competitions of courtier life. During the Japan’s medieval age, renga found popularity among people of all classes, including peasants, tradesman, and samurai, who would get together, bathe, drink tea and sake, and compose poetry. While not much of it was very good, it brought together people in a way that paralleled the emerging social developments of the times. It was one of the first times, other than the theater art of Noh (through their development of the dengaku and sarugaku form), that the lower classes had any significant influence on the development of Japanese art.

But by the sixteenth century, renga had suffered the same fate as waka by becoming burdened with rigid stylistic and topical conventions. It was Bashou, who adopted the medium of haiku, who truly brought Japanese poetry to its apex. Straightforward to compose, yet deceptive in its simplicity, there is a profoundness to Haikus that cannot be expressed in mere words. Bashou, who found much inspiration in Zen Buddhism and his mystical views on life and nature, wrote this poem.

An ancient pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water.

Here, he compares the eternal nature of the ancient pond with the fleeting image of the frog’s jump, juxtaposing them without subjective comment, and the meeting of the two is left to the reader to derive any meaning they feel from the poem.

I have come to love Japanese poetry, as in this world there are many things that cannot be conveyed in mere words. By simply describing a scene, a moment in time, Japanese poets can relate entire worlds through three simple lines. It is truly art form, pure and simple.

Good Times in Japan! 冒険

A weekend abroad.


To many people, myself included, a weekend is a break, a time to relax after the end of a long week. When you’re abroad, however, a weekend becomes so much more. It’s a gift, a golden opportunity to do whatever you want, to go anywhere you feel like. It’s a world of opportunity, the chance to experience everything that being in a foreign country has to offer. Here’s what one weekend in Tokyo looks like.

Japanese tradtional ceremony.

This weekend, I was meeting an old friend of mine, a Japanese foreign exchange student that came to my town years ago. They happened to be coming to the city during my stay, and we planned to spend a couple days seeing the sights around Tokyo. With much to do, Saturday morning I got up at 7:00, and was out the door at 8:00. After riding the subway into the city, I made it to Tokyo Station, the central hub of the transportation network in Japan. Serving over 3,000 trains every day, and home to an extensive underground shopping mall, Tokyo Station is the beating heart of the city.

The dome of Tokyo Station, inspired by the architecture of Amsterdam Station

From here we left for Western Tokyo, where we began the day at Meiji Jingu, Tokyo’s premiere Shinto shrine. Built in the honor of Emperor Meiji and his role in the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, the shrine commemorates the lives and accomplishments of the royal couple. Even during Japan’s cold winters, the 175-acre shrine was filled with green trees and life, and although only a few minutes away from the station, was a peaceful getaway from the busy city. The air was cool, the sky clear, and the faraway sound of birds chirping drifted through the woods as we walked through the park.

The entrance to Meiji JinguOnly minutes away from the busy streets of Tokyo.The main shrine grounds.

After taking a tour of the shrine and the Meiji Treasure Museum, we left left the park and headed to the nearby Harajuku, the center of youth culture in Tokyo. Wild styles and flashy outfits abound along Takeshita-dori, the main street of the district. Costume shops, fashion boutiques, and all manner of hip and trendy clothing stores lined the long street, and I felt almost claustrophobic amongst the bright colors and dazzling regalia.

The archway above Takeshita-doriPink is the flavor of choice here.

We then dropped by Oyasono Temple, a Buddhist temple built in a modern Japanese aesthetic, and stopped for a quick snack, ducking into one of Harajuku’s many sweets shops. I ordered some Maccha ice cream, a favorite of many Tokyoites. Consisting of green tea powder mixed into ice cream, biting into a cone tasted just like a sip of Maccha tea, and served great as a refreshing treat.

It really did taste just like green tea.

From there, we headed to Mitaka, to visit one of Tokyo’s most famous attractions, the Ghibli Museum. Honoring the works of the animation team Studio Ghibli, the museum features exhibits demonstrating the inspirational, creative, and technical process of animation. Once I entered, I couldn’t help but feel like a kid again as I was captivated by the delightful and enchanting exhibits on display. Studio Ghibli is known for transporting you into other worlds with their movies, and this was no exception. The same amount of love and care that goes into each and every one of their works went into the museum, and we spent hours amongst the many floors and galleries, never wanting to leave. But the day grew dark, and it was time for the adventure to come to an end.

A life size model of one of Studio Ghibli’s many characters
The next day, we met at Ueno, a district in northern Tokyo. Known for its large park and many skyscrapers, the name is comprised of two kanji, 上野, meaning upward field. We first visited the Ueno Zoo, featuring the rare Giant Panda on display, as well as the Tokyo National Museum. Housing some of Japan’s most treasured cultural relics, over 17,000 years of rich Japanese history lies within the Museum. From the earthen pottery ware of the early Joumon period, to the masterwork katanas of Japan’s medieval era, the museum offered a diverse and beautiful collection of works from throughout Japan’s long history.
Ukiyo-e (wooden block prints) on displayEverybody loves Zou-sanThe Skytree from further away.

After spending the better part of the day exploring Ueno Park, we headed off to Oshiage, to see Tokyo from another angle. The Tokyo Skytree, which I had seen from below but never ventured inside, was our next destination. After exploring the mall for a couple hours beneath the tower, we headed up, to see Tokyo from on high. Reaching 634 meters above the city, the Tokyo Skytree offers an uncompromised 360 degree view of the city. By the time we reached the observation deck, night had fallen. As we looked out, I could hardly believe my eyes. Tokyo laid out before us, filled with the same flashing lights and tall buildings I had seen so many times before, but now looked so small.

Type caption for image (optional)

From such of lofty height, I could finally see the massive expanse of the Tokyo for my own eyes, which truly stretched on as far as I could see. Yet from my perspective, it all seemed so insignificant, the city reduced to skyscrapers, billboards, and the faint lights of cars driving on highways. It felt strangely familiar. I found myself looking out to the sea, towards my home. I’d been here for two months, and California seemed so far away. As I looked back down towards the city, I realized that I was looking at Tokyo the same way I looked at my town back home; as a part of my life. Somewhere along the way, Tokyo had gone from a strange, foreign place, to something that felt, well, normal. Like it was home.

The weekend was over. It was time for another day. For us, all a weekend is just two days of free time. The true gift it gives us is a change of perspective, to let us live our lives in a different, more exciting way, if only for 48 hours. I wonder if I can live my life with that perspective every day, to look at the world as if every day was filled with promise.

Shibuya Crossing at Tokyo.


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