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Gap Year Abroad

10 posts categorized "Richard Farman"

07/17/2014

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.

http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/the-road-less-traveled-dhs-grads-reflect-on-gap-years/

03/17/2014

Japanese Poetry! 和

Going beyond words alone.

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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

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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.
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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”

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

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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.

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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.

 

03/11/2014

Glimpsing Japan! 旅行

Seeing another side of the country.

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Considering all I had seen and done so far, it was hard to believe I had never actually set foot outside Tokyo. There’s so many different areas and districts within the city, twenty three different wards each with their own unique flavors, from the man-made resort island of Odaiba, to the towering metropolitan district of Shinjuku. Tokyo, with its immense size, massive population, and modern efficiency, is a marvel to behold, and it’s incredible being part of it. It’s a machine, cold and hard on the outside, but with so many moving, living, breathing parts to it underneath. Tokyo is an example to the rest of the world, a triumph of human engineering and ingenuity.

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But sometimes it’s nice to get away from the big city, at least for awhile. For our CIEE class, we had the chance to visit Hakone, a resort town located southwest of Tokyo known for its main attraction, onsen, or hot springs. Drawing tourists from across Japan and the world, Hakone is the perfect break from the hustle and bustle of daily life in Tokyo. It was time for a vacation.
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We set out from Shinjuku in a the Romancecar, a train with wide windows and a prime view of the Japanese countryside. For the first time, I saw life in Japan outside of the city, with countless rice fields, rural towns, and small villas that zipped by with barely a glimpse. It reminded me how much out there was in Japan for me to see, for everything I had experienced so much more yet to explore. I almost felt sad, knowing all the things I would never get a chance to do, all the places I would never see. A month had already past since I had come here, and I hadn’t even broken the surface of Japan. Time seemed so short here, so precious, and ever fleeting from my grasp. It made me want to enjoy every opportunity I received that much more.

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Soon enough we arrived in Hakone, where we quickly set out to tour the surrounding area. We boarded the Tozan Railway, an old cable car line that leads through a scenic route up the mountains. Once we had reached the top, we loaded up onto the ropeway, a gondola that would take us even further up the mountains. As we came up over the ridge, Mt. Fuji appeared, and you could almost hear the collective jaw-drop. For much of Japan’s history, Fuji-san was treated as divine ground, and just so, for its majestic beauty is breathtaking. The clouds had just parted, and we were treated with a perfectly clear view of the mountain, in all its glory. Japan really is a magnificent place.

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Our eyes finally left the mountain as we arrived at our destination, Owakudani, the sulfur mines of Japan. Steam billowed out of the ground, and the unmistakable scent of sulfur hovered in the air. While quite a sight, Owakudani is famous for more than its sulfurous gases; kurotamago, or black eggs, are a Owakudani specialty renowned all over Japan. Eggs turned black after being cooked in the sulfur rivers, they are said to have healing powers, and add up to seven years to one’s lifespan. Whether or not that’s true, it was a pretty good tasting hardboiled egg.

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From there, the ropeway brought us down to Lake Ashinoko, where we boarded an oddly out of place pirate ship to take a ride across the lake. We passed by Hakone Shrine, a Shinto place of worship with a lakeside Tori gate standing vigil over the waters. When we landed across the lake, we took a route through a remnant of Tokaido road, a foot-highway built in Edo-era Japan for Daimyo and their retinue to pass from Kyoto to Tokyo. The history enthusiast in me loved it, and I found myself entranced by a photograph display portraying the area we walked upon as it was hundreds of years ago. Knowing you’re walking the same ground as so many historical figures did centuries ago is always something special.

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That night, as we returned to our ryokan, we were treated to traditionalkaiseki dinner, with course after course of Japanese dishes, most of which I never had the chance to taste before. Everything was immaculately prepared and delicious, Afterwards, we donned our Yukata (thin Japanese robes), and got ready for the onsen. After cleansing ourselves in the showers, we eargerly sank into the hot spring. Instantly, the stress and tension of a day’s travelling melted away as the heat seeped into every pore. Everything slows in an onsen, it gives you time to think, to relax, to enjoy yourself. I liked it so much, I woke up early the next morning to visit the onsen again, but this time dipping into the outdoor bath. The cool mountain air, the hot bath, and the sound of running water from the nearby river all combined into an almost spiritual relaxation. I never wanted to leave.

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But our itinerary had other plans, and so we took off once again, heading to the Hakone Open Air Art Museum, a gigantic park filled with exhibits and sculptures. The mountain mists clouded the gardens that day, and art would appear from out of the haze as we walked through, works from the likes of Rodan, Picasso, and Moore. I can’t think of a better way to view art; the natural backdrop providing an organic and interesting perspective on pieces that otherwise would have sat within the hallways of private galleries.

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Our next stop showed a more traditional side of Hakone, where we visited a Yosegi woodmaker, a style of mosaic woodmaking made famous in Hakone. We participated in a workshop where we were allowed to make coasters in a similar method to how they make their more intricate works, arranging and gluing pieces of wood to create geometric patterns. At the end, we were allowed to take home our creations.

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When we finished and had trekked back to the station, we decided it was about time to head to Tokyo. All of us were wiped after a busy couple days, and as much more as we wanted to see and do in Hakone, we were ready to go home. In the end, it’s what was best for us, and the promise of an adventure would always await for another day, another time. We took theshinkansen home, the bullet train speeding us back to Tokyo at mind blowing speeds. I returned to a white Chiba, the winter weather settling in with a blanket of snow. I was greeted by a snowball fight with my host kids, and we played til my hands went numb. It was good to be back.

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02/14/2014

Japan Attractions! 凄い

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After two weeks of hard work, I was ready for a long weekend to spend touring the city. Located just a short distance from my language school, Akihabara was my next destination, a distinctly Japanese experience that is a spectacle to witness. They don’t call it the “Electric Town” for nothing. Originating as a black market for radio parts after World War II, Akihabara has grown into a mecca for all things electronic, a center of technology in Japan. If it beeps or boops, you can find it here.

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I exited the station and immediately encountered the most notable of landmarks in Akihabara: The Yodabashi Camera building, an enormous mega store overflowing with every electronic device imaginable. On each floor of the building stretch rows upon rows of televisions, microwaves, washing machines, and pretty much anything else you could possibly need or want. I have not yet dared to enter this beast for fear of getting lost forever amongst its endless aisles.

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I was starving, so I stopped by the first restaurant I saw. Eating food in Japan is altogether a different affair than in any other part of the world, and it begins with the search for a restaurant. Finding a place to eat has never been easier, thanks to the fact that nearly all restaurants post pictures of their menu items outside for patrons to glimpse. Often, they’ll also showcase meticulously created plastic food models of their main dishes, which look almost as delicious as the actual food. From there, it’s as simple as entering the restaurant and putting money into a vending machine, then punching the button of the item you want and handing the ticket to your server. A minute or two later, and you’ve got your meal. Nearly every restaurant here is top-class, and you can expect a delicious (and surprisingly cheap) meal wherever you go.

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After a filling meal of tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork), I wandered through the main plaza and off onto the main street of Akihabara. There, a strange world opened up before me, flagged by bright colors, flashing signs, and loud noises that immediately overwhelmed the senses. Walking down the sidewalk, I was buffeted on all sides by salesmen hawking their wares, girls in maid outfits inviting passersby into their cafes, and an array of shops cluttered with all kinds of electronics and merchandise.

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It was a unique mesh of technology of technology and geek culture, one that attracted thousands of shoppers every day. From the giant stores dedicating towards selling anime and manga to otaku, to the smaller stalls offering transistors, capacitors, resistors, and other electronic components for hobbyists, there’s something for everyone here. I stopped by by a Sofmap, a chain store with four locations in Akihabara alone, each offering a different variety of products. I gazed with reverence at all the gizmos and gadgets and resisted the urge to spend all my money right then and there. When I finally tore myself away, it was just about time to head home. After all, tomorrow my family and I would be spending the day in Asakusa.

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We set out early in the morning, the five of us. Asakusa is an entertainment district with a traditional Japanese atmosphere located in an old part of Tokyo, and a favorite destination for my host family. They were quite eager to take me when they heard I had not yet been, and together we boarded a train towards the city.

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We began the day by visiting a world renowned tempura restaurant, Daikokuya, specializing only in the serving of all things tempura. I ordered the deluxe bowl, the Tendon-Jou, fried goby and prawn served over rice. I can say this much; it was the best tempura I ever have, or ever will, eat.

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Strolling through the market of Asakusa, you can find plenty of shops geared towards selling souvenirs to travelling families and foreigners, as well as a host of traditional Japanese wares and domestic supplies. Although crowded, the market is much more low key than other areas in Tokyo, and allows you to leisurely spend your time browsing.

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At the end of the of the marketplace is the Buddhist Temple Sensou-ji, where my family took me through the rituals of a temple visit. We first stopped by to get our fortunes, which turned out to be quite a process. First, you drop 100 yen in a slot as an offering, and then shake a silver cylinder until a small wooden stick falls out a hole at the bottom. You then read the number on the stick, and find the corresponding numbered drawer. Pull it out and grab the slip of paper inside, and there’s your fortune. I got a regular fortune, which promised me good luck on my trip, whereas Kazuma-san received a best fortune, which he tauntingly waved in my face.

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Afterwards we stopped by a small fountain ringed by ladles, where we poured over our hands to purify ourselves before entering the temple. After waiting our turn, we stepped up to an offering box and tossed in a coin, clapped twice and bowed, and the ritual was over. It was interesting observing the spiritual nature of the Japanese, and their respect for their cultural heritage. Here in Japan the idea of kami and gods is more folk tale than anything else, yet they still maintain a sense of spirituality rooted in their tradition.

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I was then ushered to a collection of small food stands outside the temple, where we walked up and down sampling various foodstuffs. Bags of french fries that would put America’s to shame, hot rice pudding that brought warmth on a cold day, and a personal favorite, small pieces of fruit encased in a hard jelly served on a stick. Slightly lemony in flavor with a fresh strawberry in the middle, it was a real treat!

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As the day began to come to a close, we decided to walk over to the Tokyo Skytree, the second largest tower in the world, and an incredible sight to behold. It was an impressive sight from far away as it towered over the rest of the city, but up close its height is truly unfathomable. I actually had to lie on the ground to get a full picture of it.
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As we admired it from ground level, the tower suddenly lit up, and the plaza around us came alive with thousands of stringed lights. It was a perfect way to end a long day, and a great experience to share with my host family. That night, I told them how much fun I had, and thanked them for bringing me along. They promised me it was just the beginning.

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Life and Learning Japan! 日乗

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A day in the life of Japan.

The first week had been a wild ride, and the past week was even more active, though not quite in the same way. For the first time since I had graduated my senior year, I was heading back to school.

IMG_1569My first impression of the school.

As part of my education here, I would be attending the Intercultural Institute of Japan, a language school dedicated towards teaching foreigners how to speak Japanese. Situated within the southern bounds of Akihabara, the entrance lies just around the corner of an alley off a side street. Interestingly, most streets in Japan are unnamed, and the addresses of buildings are based on their age rather than their location, which can make finding your way through big cities a headache. However, passerby are more than willing to provide directions to those in need, and GPS always comes in handy. Thankfully it was easy enough to find, a large sign hanging high over the entrance.

IMG_1575The entrance to the school.

Our first day we were welcomed by an opening ceremony, where we were greeted by our teachers and staff, who described exactly what to expect in our time at the language school. The school would be divided into twelve levels, each taught according to our level of comprehension. Classes would be held Monday through Friday from 1:25 to 5:15, and be divided between three sections of study, comprised of speaking, writing, and learning Kanji. After a quick written test and oral exam, we left to prepare for our first day of class. The next day, we arrived and settled into our respective classrooms. My class was a colorful mix of people from all over the world, including students from Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, India, Taiwan, and more. For someone who had never spent much time outside of my hometown, it’s an incredible experience being able to interact with such a diverse gathering of individuals, and a blast getting to know each other, bridging both language and cultural barriers.

IMG_1586Two of my new friends.

Soon class began, and from the get-go was taught entirely in Japanese. Thankfully I had learned some Japanese before I came, but the entirety of it was self-taught, and I had never actually talked with anyone in Japanese before. But I caught on quickly, and I was soon able to follow the fast pace of the class with relative ease. Before I knew it, a week had passed quickly by as I found myself sliding back into the daily routine of going to school. My day begins every morning by waking up at 7:00 to eat breakfast with my family before the kids take off for school and my parents leave for work. I then spend the next couple hours reading and writing, going over photos and videos, chatting with friends, or just taking in some Japanese TV until it’s time to leave. At 11:00, I leave from my house, and take a stroll to my home station, Kita-Kogane, where I wait for a train to take me along the JR Joban Line to Kita-Senju. There, I run up a few flights of stairs and make a transfer to the Tsukuba Express Line, where it’s a quick hop to my final station, Shin-Okachimachi. From there it’s long walk along a shopping arcade to the school. The commute is a lengthy one, taking me about an hour to an hour and a half depending on the day.

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Where my journey begins.

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And where it ends.

The trip, while quite a journey, quickly became routine, and left me able to appreciate wide variety of sights and sounds between my destinations. It helps that Japanese public transportation is remarkably simple and convenient to use, and widely regarded for its efficiency. Signs in English are posted everywhere, and train routes and directions are clearly lined out throughout every station. Since I commute to the same place every day, I was given a Suica pass, a plastic card that allows me to pass through a certain route an unlimited amount of times for a monthly fee. It’s as simple as swiping along a sensor as I pass through the turnstiles. If I want to travel anywhere else, all I have to do is add money to it at a fare adjustment kiosk, and the trip fee is automatically deducted based on where I go. I can even use it as a form of payment at convenience stores, supermarkets, and department stores; it’s amazing how far once card can take me. In Japan, it’s never a problem getting to where I need to go.

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Everything I need for the day

At the end of the day, I always look forward to returning home. Talking about my day with Takayo-san, joking with Kazuma-san, and playing with the kids, it’s the few hours with my host family that helps me recover from the rigors of daily life, and makes me look forward to tomorrow. I value every moment I spend here in Japan, but I will always treasure the time with family.
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Next time on my blog; food and fun in Japan!

01/24/2014

Experiencing Japan! 楽しい

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Infinite Possiblities, Endless Fun.

Having finally completed orientation and meeting my host family, it was officially time for the fun to begin. Although I was already having a blast simply walking through the streets of Tokyo, I somehow had avoided going to any actual attractions or landmarks in Tokyo. The weekend had come though, and ow that we had some free time on our hands, we launched into a whirlwind of activity that took us all over the city.

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There's a lot of walking involved in Tokyo.

We began by having our lunch at Kissho, a small restaurant tucked away in the middle of central Tokyo. As we walked in we were greeted by hostesses wearing traditional Japanese garb. They took our coats and led us to a private room, where we were seated at a long wooden table. As they poured us tea, we decided between one of two entrees; grilled salmon, and a white fish that was described to me as an “acquired taste”. I opted for the salmon.

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The entrance to the restaurant.

The meal was stunning to the eyes and irresistible to the tongue. The lunch was comprised of salmon served alongside black beans, lotus flower root, miso soup, a rice pudding, and a whole smattering of other offerings that I did not recognize. One particular dish, a slimy green sludge in a tiny bowl, tasted much better than it appeared. Everything was beyond delicious, and I quickly cleared my plate.

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The tastiest picture I've ever taken.

From there, we wasted no time and took the subway to a Boisakan, or Life Safety Learning Center. On paper, it didn’t sound like much, but what we experienced was like an Exploratorium for natural disaster. The place was filled with all kinds of hands on exhibits and demonstrations, and after watching a precautionary video about the March 2011 disaster (hint- don’t mess with Mother Nature), we began our safety training. What we experienced was way more exciting and informative than I ever could have imagined. At school, our safety drills consist of someone yelling “Fire!” or “Earthquake!”, and us lounging beneath our desks or filing slowly out in single file. Here, we were first taken to a platform with a model kitchen set up where we sat down, pretending to have an evening meal. Suddenly, an alarm sounded, and the room began to shake with the intensity of a 9.0 magnitude Earthquake. It was like a terrifying version of a thrill ride, and we bounced around underneath the table as we clung to the legs for our dear life. Next, we were given fire extinguishers, and on the instructor’s order, scrambled to put out a simulated fire they had set up on a big screen. We were then guided into a fake-smoke filled maze, where we had to navigate through to an exit. Upon finding our way out, we were informed that we had died, as we had not stayed close enough to the ground. That was rough, but I learned a lot and had a ton of fun!

IMG_0706The lobby of the Boisakan.

Our last stop for the day was Shibuya, a shopping district known for its trendy shops and huge department stores. It’s the busiest part of Tokyo, and a huge attraction for tourists and locals alike. I walked into a department stores thinking I’d look around for a bit, and upon exiting realized I had been in there for two hours. Time sure flies when you’re having fun, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface of one of Tokyo’s many exciting districts. I vowed to spend a full day there the next time I had the chance, but for now, it was time to go home, have a good meal and watch a movie with my host family.
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So much to do, so little time.

The next day was just as exciting. I started by attending a sports club with my host family, a multi-level recreational facility with swimming pools, batting cages, multiple gyms, and pretty much everything else you could imagine. We signed up for an hour long tennis class, and I had a blast playing with a whole bunch of Japanese folks as we circled around playing games and quick matches. Having played on my High School tennis team, I received quite a bit of admiration, even from the instructor, who complimented my form.

Afterwards, our CIEE group took a trip to Ryogoku to see the celebrated January Sumo tournament, which we were lucky enough to obtain tickets for. Sumo is quite the spectacle in Japan, and for good reason. For anyone who doesn’t know much about the sport, Sumo is a fast paced, highly technical form of wrestling that takes place within a small ring (dohyou). The rules are simple; the match begins when both players tap the ground, and ends when one is either pushed out of the ring or forced to the ground. Matches last anywhere from three seconds to three minutes, and are judged by a referee (gyouji).

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With one move, it's over.

There is a very strict hierarchy in Sumo, both in the competitors and the gyouji. Sumo wrestlers spend their entire lives training in special Sumo stables (heya), refining their technique and growing their strength. The top ranked Sumo are known as Yokozune, and are leagues above even the next highest rank. Watching a Sumo match is very special, because you are watching a lifetime of dedication and discipline leaping into action as the two competitors clash.

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Two top ranked Sumo prepare to fight.

Even today, Sumo is deeply rooted in tradition. Before each match, the names of the competitors are read aloud by announcer (yobidashi), and as they enter the arena, preform several posturing gestures, such as raising their legs high in the air and stomping down, in order to scare away evil spirits and intimidate their opponent. They then throw salt into the ring before entering, in order to purify it. Then, as they take their place at the center of the ring, they stare each other down and try to psych each other out, occasionally preforming the entire ritual again up to three or four times. The intensity of the wrestlers and the excitement of the crowd was palpable, even from the stands higher up where we sat.

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Performing pre-match rituals.
 

The crowd loved this match, shame it cuts off right before the end.

I only wish I could have followed Sumo more closely before, for as much I as enjoyed it, I knew I could only appreciate about half as much as those who were longtime fans of the sport. It’s a completely unforgettable experience that I’m glad I had the opportunity to witness, and something I never guessed I would enjoy as much as I did before I came to Japan. I can’t wait to see what other opportunities await in store during my stay here.

01/17/2014

Japan Impressions! 華族

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The Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship

First impressions are always important. They are the standard by which you are measured, and can make or break many a relationship. My first impression of Japan was great, a new and exciting place filled with rich historical traditions and unique cultural values, a country like none other. But what would Japan’s first impression be of me? As the time came to finally meet my host family, I agonized over this question. They brought us to the CIEE study center, where our host families awaited inside.

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On our way to the study center.

I paced back and forth outside in the hallway, practicing my introduction over and over again, making sure I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. I would be spending three months with this family, and I didn’t want to leave any negative impact on our relationship. Finally, the doors opened, and they gestured us in. Heart pounding, unsure of what to expect, I walked in.

I looked around the room, scanning the sea of faces in front of me. My eyes met with a young looking man, accompanied by two children. I approached him cautiously.

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Where we first met our host families.

“Richard?” He called out tentatively. I nodded. “Kazuma desu,” he said, and gestured at the kids “kore wa Misuzu to Shyunya. Hajimemashite!” He reached out and shook my hand. I mumbled something incomprehensible in return, and together we sat down. I glanced over at the two kids sitting next to us. They looked at me with big, inquisitive eyes. I smiled weakly and tried my best not to panic. The host family coordinator began speaking to the families in Japanese, and I drifted off into a sort of daze. I was incredibly nervous, but even more so happy I had met my host family. I began to smile genuinely, and as the last bits of information were given out, it was time to leave. We walked out, the four of us, and as the kids ran around playing, I spoke with Kazuma-san. “Watashi wa koufun desu” (I am excited). He smiled at me and slapped me reassuringly on the back. “Tanoshinde” (it will be fun).

The drive home was quiet, Kazuma-san’s eyes peeled to the road, the kids slumped over each other asleep in the back seat. I gazed out the window as we drove down a series of endless highways, and for the first time I realized the truly massive scale of the city. Coming from a small town, Tokyo seemed to stretch on forever, an endless ocean of soaring buildings and flashing lights. It shook me a little, and for the first time I began to feel the pangs of homesickness creeping over me. Japan was a big, strange, unfamiliar place. But it was a long drive, and I had time to think about where I had come from, and where I was going.

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Tokyo by evening.

It was all completely foreign to me, but I wasn’t here to marvel at the differences in our societies. I was here to learn, to understand how the Japanese live and think, to better know a people who are the same yet so very different from us. I wanted to appreciate life here as any Japanese person would, to be a part of their culture. I decided to leave everything behind, all my hopes and fears, desires and inhibitions, everything I knew, and learn how to live life again. I checked the map. It wasn’t much further to our destination. I was ready.

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The Nakadai household.

We arrived late in the evening. My host family lived in Chiba, a suburb located Southeast of Tokyo. It was just as packed and dense as the city, but calmer, more friendly. We pulled off the highway, navigating through a couple side streets till at last, we arrived. The mom, Takayo-san, was waiting at the door as we piled out of the car, and immediately gave me one of the most earnest and warm greetings I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving. They took my bags and ushered me into the house. I took one step through the door, and I was home.

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My room!

They gave me a tour of the house that was, continuing the trend I’ve seen so far, small but comfortable. The first floor consisted of a kitchen and living area, plus a small side room and bathroom. Upstairs housed three bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the kids, and one for me. Mine was perfect. A cozy looking bed and small desk occupied one half of the room, and a door at the other end slide open to reveal a closet. The room was stocked with various travel guides and books about Japan, as well as a supply of basic amenities. She demonstrated how to use the heater and air conditioner, and then left me to unpack. Once finished, I headed downstairs to find an enchanting aroma.

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The entryway of the house.

Dinner that night was a hot stew filled with pork, tofu, noodles, and a wide assortment of vegetables. It was my first time having home Japanese cooking, and it was absolutely delicious. As we ate, I described to them in a mix of Japanese and English all about my home. I told them about California, my family, my hobbies and interests, and showed photos and videos of my American life. They looked on with reverence, and would exclaim animatedly at everything they saw. After dinner, we gathered around the living room and talked until it was time for bed. I could hardly believe how amazing my host family had turned out to be.

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The Nakadai family (from left to right)
Kazuma Anezaki, Takayo, Misuzu, and Syunya

For us humans, perhaps our most basic and primal fear is that of the unknown. It’s why we’re afraid of the dark, resistant to change, apprehensive of the future. That’s why family is so important. They serve as a constant, a beacon of light to cling to when you’re not sure of where you are or where you’re going. Now that I’ve met my host-family, I’m no longer afraid of what’s to come. I know they’re there, ready and willing to help and support me, just like my family back home. I only hope I can repay in kind the compassion they’ve shown me.

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Next time on my blog; Fun in Japan!

Exploring Japan! 始めまして

IMG_0667Getting to know Tokyo

At Narita Airport, I met the director of the program, Dr. Jensen, as well as two of my classmates. Though I was nervous, I immediately knew we would get along. On the bus ride to our hotel, We talked about where we had come from, and all the things we were looking forward to doing. I was happy to learn that everyone shared the same passion for studying abroad that I did.

IMG_0575The buses were fast, efficient, and on-time; a stark contrast to American public transportation

Arriving late at night, we grabbed food from a nearby convenience store (which are very different in Japan from America, serving ready-to-go lunchbox bentos that are heated up for you before eating) and collapsed into our respective rooms. The accommodations were small but comfortable, serving as a business hotel for travelling salarymen. After a long night of sleep and a hearty breakfast buffet, we ventured out into Tokyo for the first time.

IMG_0712Evening in Tokyo.

From the glimpses I had snatched of Tokyo at night time, filled with bright lights and flashy colors, the day provided an entirely different perspective. Muted greys and dark browns lined the street, the hard, urban sprawl of company buildings and hotels occasionally broken by small shops and restaurants. This was Chiyoda-Ku, the inner city of Tokyo, a historic district home to a mix of the old and new.

IMG_0774The streets are long, winding, and narrow, a valley flanked by tall buildings and traced by wires.

IMG_0775aTokyo rises high above ground level.

It was there we came upon Sophia University, where the CIEE study center was located. Having just celebrated its 100th anniversary, Sophia is housed within the outer moats of the Imperial Palace, a very prestigious location. Indeed, the university was visited by the Emperor himself as part of its centennial celebration. Its towering buildings hosted over 10,000 students, and is widely regarded for its research and exchange programs.

IMG_0617Sophia University is a small campus, but extends both upwards and downwards.

And thus orientation began. It was a whirlwind of information, but all made manageable by the ever-helpful staff dedicated towards assisting the students. We learned everything about life in Japan, and received our very own commuter passes, cell phones, and survival guides. What had seemed so daunting before soon became familiar, and all my worries vanished as I became accustomed to moving through Japan as a local. Finally, I could sit back and enjoy the ride.

IMG_0630A lot of things to take in for a short amount of time.

That night, we ate at a traditional Japanese restaurant serving Okonomiyaki, a type of savory Japanese pancake filled with a variety of meat and vegetables. The ingredients are served raw, first mixed together and then cooked with oil on a grill. It was delicious, and a fantastic introduction into the world of Japanese food.

IMG_0750Cooked to perfection.

And with that, my time here in Japan officially began. Life here is disorienting, convoluted, confusing, and yet I can’t wait to explore it. There’s a lot to be found here.

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Next time on my blog; Ready, Set, Japan!

Ohayou Japan! 行きましょう

1509951_10201239108244779_648725618_nA Journey to the Land of the Rising Sun

Going to Japan, I didn't really know what to expect. Studying abroad for three months in such a foreign place seemed daunting, to say the least. Now that I’m here, I wouldn't have it any other way. Everything here is completely new and exciting, I feel like a kid in a candy store wherever I go. It’s a whole new world.

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Waiting for the plane.

Considering how stress I built up in the weeks leading up to my departure, the flight to Japan was rather relaxing. I spent so much time reading books and studying the language, I hardly even thought about the trip itself. Even as we flew over the Pacific, I almost forgot we would be landing in Japan. It felt surreal in the best possible way.

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My ride to Japan.

Exiting out of a plane and into another country is always a fresh experience. There’s a certain scent to the air, a feeling that you get when you first step out, that’s always different and unique. Honestly, for me, it smelled a little like fish. I knew I was in for a real treat.

 I shouldn't have expected anything less

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The Narita Airport terminal.

The airport terminal was busy, travellers running to and fro, porters bustling back and forth, a hive of activity. And yet, everything still felt the more or less the same, just slightly different. I thought that perhaps the Japanese were more similar to us than I thought. I realized soon enough that wasn't exactly the case.

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Not bad for after a ten hour flight.

And so began my journey. I hope I can convey some sense of the absolute wonder I feel as I embark on an adventure that I never would have thought I’d have the chance to take. It’s an inexpressible feeling, a unique quality of life that I couldn't be more happy to be experiencing. There’s so many people who helped me get to where I am today, so many friends and family to thank, I feel like the best way I can repay them is by making the most out of what I have been given. I will savor every moment.
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Next time on my blog; Ready, Set, Japan!

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