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Gap Year Abroad

92 posts categorized "Japan"


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 Japan is a country of contrast. The prime example of the old versus the new. Just being able to walk the streets, explore, and always end up somewhere gave me a whole new perspective on the Japanese lifestyle. Every Sunday, my friend Evan and I would go for walks across Tokyo. Starting in some corner of the city, usually Akihabara (close to our school), we would walk for hours, stopping along the way for family restaurant matcha lattes and ice cream and relying on road signs as our only directions. We would eventually end up in Shinjuku, or Shibuya, or Ikebukuro, massive tourist spots miles from where we had started, but along the way had traveled through areas that no tourist would discover and no guidebook would include because they were just everyday, normal, unexciting Japan. Homes, businesses, and restaurants frequented by citizens of Tokyo that no tourist had enough time to reach. And oddly enough, I found these little areas the most exciting of all. Discovering old, residential Japan smack in the middle of glitzy, modern, expanding Japan became my favorite activity. 


 When I would run in the morning down the thin shopping streets in my area, I noticed the people and the stores, already busy at 8:00. I watched school kids race by on their bikes, riding alongside a friend or two. I saw salarymen and women pouring out of the neighborhood subway station. Buildings, like Asics and other brands, had massive glass towers. Cement high rise condominiums stood next door to tiny neighborhood fish markets on the first floor of traditional Japanese houses. Moms waving their elementary schoolers off down the street. People walking small dogs. The same man every morning standing outside of a small car wash and auto repair shop, waiting for people to stop by. 


The contrast of Japan during the night is impossible to describe. In the space of five minutes, you can walk from a blindingly lit area full of billboards, massive stores, and throngs of people, and suddenly make a sharp turn into a tiny alley, dimly lit and achingly quiet. The air is always full with the smell of the trees and wind and the perfume of every woman who rushes by you. More so than during the day, people out at night are more relaxed and let their guard down. Someone’s shoulder might bump into you as you pass. They take a little longer to whirl around and exclaim “Sumimasen (excuse me)!”, or sometimes they won’t even notice at all. Once you get off the main roads, you can walk through utterly silent streets and notice every little thing. A light flickers. A leaf drops. The air is never stagnant at night- it always moves and flows.

 Not my favorite memory of Japan, but the memory that stuck with me most, was when I was walking back from a friend’s house, about three miles from mine. It was probably almost 8:00 at night. The air was still warm but a little misty- it was supposed to start to rain later on. Despite that and the fact that the sun was just about set, people were still out, carrying grocery bags and closing up their storefronts on the thin shopping streets in the area. Around the bridge over a small park crossing a big intersection, the area, however, was mainly deserted, except for an old woman pushing a cart on her way home. 

 I kept walking past buses, cars stopped at red lights, libraries with all the lights still on, and dim streetlights. A tiny restaurant somehow caught my eye. Red cloth hung over the sliding glass doors so common for neighborhood restaurants in Japan, with red lanterns gently swinging in the nighttime breeze. The space inside was only large enough for four stools at a counter, with the cooking space behind it. Through the dim indoor light, I could make out the figure of a salaryman in his customary dark suit, hunched over a bowl of ramen so close his nose was nearly hitting the broth, slurping up noodles with chopsticks. Behind the tiny counter, facing the customer, the chef stood with his back against the wall and arms crossed casually, a bandana tied around his salt and pepper hair. He said something quick to the salaryman, who promptly put down his chopsticks to reply before turning his attention back to the bowl. He lifted it to his mouth to drink every last bit of the broth. The chef tilted back his head and laughed before reaching for another bowl to begin to wash. That image stuck with me. It hit me with some wave of nostalgia and loneliness, calm and content. I don’t know how else to describe it. It gave me the deepest feeling of just “This is Japan” I had gotten in my entire six months. 

 In March, I went with my first host family to visit my host grandparents in the suburbs of Nagasaki. My host mom Mayumi and I spent the first day sightseeing, but the second day I took the best picture of my six months of Japan, at least to me. My host grandparents had treated us to a beautiful kaiseki lunch of at least 6 different courses of flawlessly arranged plates of food. Fresh Nagasaki sashimi, crispy shrimp and vegetable tempura, chawanmushi (a kind of savory egg custard with seafood and vegetables, delicately steamed in a small cup- incredibly difficult to make correctly), stir fried beef, steamed fish, rice, miso soup, and more. The food was amazing, but the view- that was the best part of the whole meal. I had seen Nagasaki harbor the day before, and all I had seen were shipping factories and freight boats pulling out of the busy waters. But on top of the mountain, seated on cushions around a low table in our private hut at the restaurant overlooking the harbor, I saw an entirely different side. 


 Nagasaki is built into the mountains. The large cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Osaka, are built on flat plains of land on the island. But Japan is a mountainous country, and the rest of the cities are built into and around the mountains, winding and twisting and going up so far you can’t see the whole city. I looked down from the top of the mountain we were on directly to the ocean below and saw nothing but azure and green. The water was that perfect shade of green blue that kids always paint in pictures. Tiny islands that looked as green as rain forests dotted the bay as far as I could see. Every once in a while, I would spot a flash of white on top of the waves that my host grandparents informed me was a pearl fishing float. The scene was so simple yet the colors so bold that I just stopped and stared out the floor to ceiling glass windows. A picture can’t capture all the colors I saw that day. 

 Even as Japan, and especially Tokyo, moved at such a frantic pace, everyone there knew how to slow down and relax. I could find little pockets for myself everywhere I went- at school, with my host family, on the street exploring new places, everywhere. Being in Japan taught me how to find a space and make it my own by learning about it and adapting. 

 I’ve been home for about three weeks, and life has already fallen back into its old routine pace. I run every morning, I go to work, I babysit, I see my friends. But I haven’t been able to give up some aspects of life in Japan. I take a bento box of lunch to work with me, with little portions of each dish separated. I eat out of little bowls and plates at home. I scour my local grocery store for tofu and dashi stock. I convince my little sister each night to go for a 3 mile walk with me after dinner. 

 I can’t thank my two wonderful host families enough. They made sure I always had somewhere comforting to come home to every day. I was always excited at the end of the day to be home and play with my host siblings, learn what was for dinner that night, talk about school, and hear about what eight year old Eri had eaten for lunch (lunch was always her favorite part of the school day) or what fifteen year old Takeshi had done at baseball practice, or, with my first host family, play trains with five year old Daichi. At night, we would sit with the sliding doors to the balcony overlooking the river open and eat dark chocolate squares, chocolate covered almonds, and bowls of fruit whole I worked on my Japanese homework, Takeshi scrolled on the computer, Eri practiced math or looked over my shoulder to help with my homework, and Akiko (the mom) got ready to serve dinner to Naoki (the dad) as soon as he came home from work. I miss that calm pace of life at night, where after a hectic day everything would just come to a halt. I could sit on a reclining chair, speak in my broken Japanese, and watch the night go by. Hopefully I’ve changed enough over the course of the past six months so that I won’t forget how peaceful and relaxed slowing down made me feel. 


 So what’s up next?

 College, where I will try to figure out exactly how to combine all my interests into a career. Hopefully graduate school, where I will hone my interests. And then, life. I can live anywhere in the world, uproot myself and find a house and job and just go. I can pick any career in the world I want. Right now is the most hopeful time of my life- I have the whole world open to me, and all I need to do is reach out and grab it. 


 To my family, who let me live in Japan for six months, thank you. I know you were worried about me and you have no idea how happy it made me to know you trusted me and thought I was responsible enough to complete this trip on my own. Thank you for all the support you gave to me the past eighteen years.

 To the friends I met in Japan, you know who you are. And I love you for every time you picked me up when I fell, dusted me off, and told me to be myself because you loved me for just who I was. 

 To the CIEE staff in Tokyo (and in America!), taking the subway early mornings on Thursdays might not have been the most fun experience, but I came to not exactly enjoy, but appreciate the magnitude of Tokyo at rush hour. In addition, thank you for planning all those awesome excursions and trips- I had a lot of fun and you have no idea how happy some of those trips made me. 

 Japan, I can’t thank you enough. You gave me some of the best friends I’ve ever made, made me more comfortable in my own skin, and taught me how to live on my own. I now can tell myself, whenever things get hard, “Genevieve. You lived on your own across the world for six entire months. And you don’t think you can handle this situation right now?” 

 Before Japan, I always had a problem with connecting “school Genevieve” to “friend Genevieve” to “work Genevieve” to my personal favorite, “family Genevieve”. But in Japan, I realized something. There’s only one Genevieve, and that’s “me Genevieve”. And “me Genevieve” might not be perfect, but that’s okay. Because there’s nothing that I say or do who can change the type of person I am at heart. And that person, underneath all the layers, is someone I can truly be proud of. 

 Thank you, Japan. I miss you and I hope we will be reunited someday.

A Little about Language

I never really thought about speech. As nearly everyone around me in my hometown, my native language was, of course, English. I never thought about the speed of my conversations or the way words would just fall out of my mouth before I even realized what I wanted to say. Conversational placeholders, different grammar patterns- in your native language, they come so naturally that you don’t even stop to notice what’s happening. 

When I first arrived in Japan and met people in my class who were fluent in English but not native speakers, I was amazed when they told me they often couldn’t keep up with the speed of my conversations when I spoke to other native English speakers. They were able to speak at a normal conversational pace perfectly but had trouble blending words together rapidly like Americans do when they’re excited. 

 Then, listening to my host families slowing down their Japanese conversations for my benefit so I could understand a little more of what they were saying, I understood. The pace of native speakers in any language is completely different than that of those who pick up the language later in life. Being a native speaker means hearing the language constantly and picking up all the tiny idiosyncrasies that make each language completely different. Switching from halted conversations in Japanese where I created my own placeholders in conversations when I was trying to figure out what to say, or when I copied patterns I had heard my host family say, to conversations with my native English-speaking friends where I didn’t have to think, just speak because my mouth already knew exactly what to do, surprised me every time I noticed the contrast.

 My first three months in Japan, I didn’t pick up too much Japanese- I was too concerned with learning basic phrases and surviving day to day conversations. The next three months was when everything really took off, and I started to notice and use phrases I had heard repeated around me. Things started to stick in my brain, and my tongue moved faster in grammar patterns and sentence connectors I had been practicing over and over again, making my conversations a little smoother. My Japanese will probably never reach the native level of fluency, but that is my goal someday. I want to someday be able to speak Japanese without thinking about what I need to say, and instead just have words fall out of my mouth. I can’t think of a better way for me to have practiced getting to that level than living in Japan.  :)



Remembering Japan 思い出

A look back on life overseas.

I’ve been awhile away from Japan now, and Tokyo has turned into a faraway place, my life there left but a memory. The tall towers turned into houses and trees, the busy streets replaced by parks and gardens. I must admit, coming home from the Airport, it was breathtaking. The countryside, fresh from a rain with the sunshine of a Spring day breaking through, everything seemed more colorful, more alive than I had remembered. It was almost like the same feeling I had first coming to Japan, seeing Tokyo and the awe and excitement of it all, I could hardly wait to get started.


Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, at Kyoto.

The most valuable thing my time in Japan gave me was a change of perpective. Eighteen years I had lived in a small town, going to school during the week, relaxing during the weekend, repeating the same process over and over again, year in and year out. I had no idea what life could be like, the magic that each day held if only you could reach out and grasp for it. Going to Japan showed me a glimpse of another life, one that was so very different from what I had known, yet was still my own. Everyday was like a waking dream, a fairy tale born from my wildest imagination. It felt like another world, ripe for exploring.


Koyasan, a mountaintop temple village.

In Japan, I was always happiest when I was lost. Whether I was wandering the streets of Chiba or hiking through the mountains of Kyoto, my favorite moments were those looking around, and realizing I didn’t know anything around me. Each moment was filled with wonder, every day bringing a new adventure. It’s easy to have a plan, to know where you’re going and what’s to come. But sometimes we’re so focused on that path, we’re blind to everything around us. The world is one of endless opportunity and excitement, of discovery waiting to be found. But you have to be willing to look.


Chinatown district in Yokohama.

Do want you want to do,
Explore what your interests are,
Be open minded and honest,
And have an adventure!

Thanks to my family, for always supporting me.
Thanks to my Japanese family, who welcomed me like their own.
Thanks to all my friends, who I couldn’t have done it without.
Thanks to Aidan, Ethan, and Hon, for making me who I am.
Thanks to Jared, for getting me to follow my dreams.
Thanks to Gwen, for convincing me it was possible.
Thanks to Alicia, who first introduced me to the Japanese.
Thanks to Ahmad, for pushing me to do my best.

Thanks for reading.


The beauty of Japan.


Sketchbook 21: Nyhavn

From here, where am I going?

Well for starters, I'm going to Copenhagen and Berlin for a couple of weeks to visit my boyfriend and to study the architecture before classes start at Cornell. I've already learned some basic Danish, like:

"Mit navn er Katie og jeg er nitten år. Jeg kommer fra Amerika. Glad for at møde dig"

(My name is Katie and I'm nineteen year's old. I come from America. Nice to meet you), 

"Jeg kan lide at tegner bygninger fordi jeg vil være arkitekt",

(I like drawing buildings because I want to be an architect).

"Jeg vil lære arkitektur på Cornell Universitet"

(I will study architecture at Cornell University)

My boyfriend's been teaching me and so far, I have to say it's pretty easy to absorb.


After that, it's time to get busy and go to Cornell for architecture school. I plan on visiting Japan again sometime in the future, maybe for the 2020 Olympics! I'm sure I will find a way to incorporate my knowledge of Japanese into my job as well. If anything, this gap year taught me that being open to change is a good thing.



The End

They say all good things must come to an end, and my stay in Japan certainly did, with tears and promises to see each other again.




So how did I change in these past nine months? I guess you could say I lost 15 kilo, lost a boyfriend, gained a new one, cut my hair, and learned to speak Japanese but that's only the tip of the iceberg as Dr. J would say.

IMG_1166 What really happened was I gained confidence and inner strength in myself, as well as patience and respect for a new culture and new living situations. And of course my Japanese improved a whole lot as well.

So did a gap year change my life? Yes. But not in the way I thought it would. I'm more secure in myself and my identity than I was before.


It took getting away from the loud, craziness of America and some serious alone time to figure some things out, but I'm better off now than I was at the beginning of the year.

I learned how to take care of myself, pay bills, manage budgets, balance schoolwork and friends and traveling, as well as find a little time for myself. If anything, this year was invaluable for that.

But the biggest thing I'm thankful for was the chance to meet so many different amazing people from different parts of the world, and for the chance to gain two new amazing families in Japan.






I'm thankful to my friends at Intercult and CIEE who made this experience amazing. I wish them the best of luck with their studies as well.




I have so many amazing memories and experiences here.











And while I'm back home in the grand old USA...


The sheer inpredictability of Tokyo will always beckon to me. It's a place I've called home for the past nine months, and I think I will always find home in it.


I end this post with my final video message. My Japanese has improved by leaps and bounds, thanks in part to my ever-patient host family and my encouraging friends. I'm so grateful to all the amazing people I met there, and I hope to see them again in the future.



Sketchbook 19+20: Kimono

My host mother gave me some souvenirs handmade from different obi, so I drew the patterns. Also, at the Kyoto Kimono Fashion show, I drew my favorite kimono from the show and demonstrated the tied obi from behind.



Sketchbook 18: Kyoto Trip

These are sketches from photos I took at Kyoto and Nara. I drew Kinkakuji and Toudaiji.


Sketchbook 17: Shrine

My host family took me to the shrine that their family has gone to  for generations. It was in the countryside and about a three hour drive from Matsudo, Chiba.


While we were there, the family prayed and had talismans blessed for the new year. It was a very interesting experience!

Sketchbook 16: Manga

These drawings were for my gap year presentation on manga, or Japanese comic books. Here, comics aren't just for kids. In the train, salary men read them and middle schoolers trade magazines of them. There are many different genres, and at most bookstores, an entire level is usually dedicated to just manga. You can also usually rent manga from video rental shops. 


I made a mock cover and character list using CIEE students as characters, using watercolor and ink. Normally the coloring process is either digital or colored with copic markers, but I don't have my design computer with me, nor do I have the money for copic markers.



I also made a timeline, mimicking the styles of famous mangakas from different time periods to show the progression in drawings over time.


Finally, I had a diagram detailing the supplies it takes to draw manga, as well as the process. First a rough draft in pencil, then clean pencil lines, then an inked draft, and then applied screentones for shading. Since I don't have access to screentones again due to the prices (and I usually just add them digitally anyway), I used pencil to mimick the effect.






CIEE took a day trip to Nara on May 26th. This is a picture of Toudai-ji, the temple I've most wanted to see here in Japan. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and contains a statue of a large, golden buddha. There is also a hole in one of the large pillars, and I watched, amused, as schoolchildren squeezed through, posing for a photo. It's a tradition at the shrine, and it is believed that after coming out of the hole in the pillar, the child will be blesssed with wisdom from Buddha.

Sika deer, like at Itsukushima Jinja, rome the complex, sometimes looking a little lost.


The deer are sacred and tame enough to be petted, but also will become agressive if they think you are holding food. It was said that the gods rode into Kasuga Shrine on the back of a deer, and little ornaments and souvenirs are carved from their antlers.


At Kasuga Shrine, there was a traditional wedding. The bride's hood is called a wataboshi, and serve to hide the bride's horns of jealousy, selfishness and ego that the Japanese believed would emerge during the ceremony, and symbolizes the new wife's obedience to her new husband.

After lunch, petting deers and browsing for souvenirs, unfortunately it was time to ride the shinkansen back to Tokyo. They say that Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan, but Nara is indeed the spiritual heart of Japan.

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