Fantastic Baby

“高く空中に オレは操縦士さ、初めてなら今から連れて行こうか 宇宙に” -BIGBANG, ‘Fantastic Baby’

To help myself cope with the fact that I will be leaving Japan in less than 12 hours, I have decided to compile an admittedly underwhelming list of things I will and will not miss about Japan. That, and I can’t sleep.

Things I will miss about Japan:

  • Constant politeness by store clerks and restaurant workers
  • No tipping!
  • Chain convenience stores that are clean and sell fresh, edible food for a reasonable price
  • Being able to step out of my front door and travel virtually anywhere in the country without a car
  • The overall feeling of safety and the level of trust among strangers
  • Availability of good art supplies, music, and comics
  • Attention paid to detail and the taking into account of every scenario for the convenience of the general public

Things I will not miss about Japan:

  • Constant staring and (mostly) unintentional racism
  • Smoking sections in nearly every restaurant
  • Overcrowded trains, streets, and shops
  • Overpriced movie tickets (along with everything else)
  • Having to dodge cicadas and killer hornets on the way home

So this is it. Tomorrow I will get on a plane and go home. Although the definition of “home” is not particularly clear to me anymore. I feel like this is my life, and it seems like a dream to remember when it wasn’t. And now all of a sudden I am being thrown back into my “other” life as if I never came here to begin with. Not that I’m not thrilled about seeing my friends and family; I am. But I think the hardest thing will be having to accept the fact that my life will never again be this. Looking back at my very first blog post, going back to the United States seems so unexciting and  anticlimactic. I am not venturing to a land uncharted, nor am I returning with a specific purpose. I am going back because, well, my time is up, and I have to–like legally actually have to–go. It’s hard to share my feelings, as I’m not quite sure of them myself. Perhaps I’ll elaborate more in a later post after I have adjusted better to life back in the States.

To be honest, reality hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m not sure when it will, or if it will be gradually or all at once. I don’t feel like I’m leaving. It’s more like I’m going home for summer break to see my family and friends. While my mind knows it’s not true, my heart is convinced that I’ll be back in the fall in time for classes to start up again with all of the wonderful friends I’ve met here. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks singing my heart out at karaoke, saying goodbyes, traveling to Tokyo and Disney Sea, and overall having the time of my life while at the same time not knowing how to handle saying goodbye to people I have become so close with over the past year. Just today on the train I was joking and laughing with my friend, who I may not see for quite some time. My other friend who was sitting on the opposite side of her said, “You realize that this is goodbye? Your stop is next.” And I looked at her and responded honestly, “What am I supposed to say? After all this time?”

Of course I then proceeded with a Doctor Who quote as I hopped off the train car and onto the crowded platform. Maybe I’m just bad at goodbyes. But making faces and doing k-pop dance moves as their train pulled away from the platform while receiving strange looks from the surrounding Japanese population is a pretty damn awesome goodbye if I do say so myself. Always better to end it laughing than crying, although I am sure the tears will come.

So where do I go from here? It seems that so much of my life has been building up to “going to Japan.” But it doesn’t mean I am “done” with Japan by any means. I have learned so much from this year-long experience, and will likely continue to do so after I return to America. I have been so fortunate to have been able to come here, to get a scholarship that has allowed me to experience innumerable things that I otherwise would not have been able to experience, to meet such wonderful people and to have made friends from all over the world, and to better understand a culture and a people through learning a foreign language. I could go on. And for all of you who have encouraged me and helped me get here, I cannot thank you enough.

See you stateside!

I spent my last week in Japan going to Pokemon Center Osaka and Tokyo and going to a Sailor Moon cafe. I haven’t changed a bit.

It’s No Game

“I really don’t understand the situation, but it’s no game.” -David Bowie, ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’

I realize the lateness of this post, but with finals and my trip to Tokyo and getting ready to leave Japan, I must confess that I have not had much time to update. But as promised, I will talk a bit about my Japanese baseball experience!

Earlier this month I went to a Hanshin Tigers game at Koshien Staduim in Nishinomiya. A friend of mine lives within walking distance of the stadium, so he got us tickets and accompanied me and another friend to a Friday evening game.

For those of you unaware, Japanese baseball, and in particular the fans, are viewed by most outsiders as…enthusiastic? Insane? If you think you know crazy sports fans, I implore you if you are ever in Japan to go to a baseball game. You have seen nothing. Every time the Hanshin Tigers win a game, it is tradition for fans to jump off of a famous bridge near Dotombori into the not-so-sanitary water flowing through the city of Osaka. Local officials have tried to prevent this behavior to no avail.

Balloons!

My experience at the game itself was loads of fun. We sat right in the thick of yellow and black jersey-wearing fans (myself included), and even though we were foreigners and didn’t know the ropes, we had some noisemakers and were welcomed by the masses. When up to bat, each player has his own unique theme song that everyone sings together, and the woman in front of us was kind enough to give us a sheet with the lyrics. During the seventh inning stretch, everyone blew up special balloons and released them at the same time, providing for an exciting (but admittedly phallic) experience. What really surprised me was that everyone was allowed to bring food and drinks into the stadium! And not only were we allowed to bring in our own beer, but they opened it and poured it into cups for us before we entered the stadium. I love it! Even though the Tigers lost by a point, the game was still exciting and unforgettable.

The rules of Japanese and American baseball are very similar for the most part, but I find the overall feeling at a Japanese baseball game to be very different from that of its American counterpart. There is a strong feeling of group unity, which is likely derived from and reinforced by Japanese collectivistic society. It felt like the act of being in the stands with all of the fans was more of an event than the game itself! I wish I had had more opportunities to go, but baseball will definitely be on my to-do list when I return to Japan in the future.

Time is Running Out

“Our time is running out, you can’t push it underground, you can’t stop it screaming out. How did it come to this?” -Muse, “Time is Running Out”

Today marks one month left in Japan. It is so hard to believe that I’ve been here for almost a year, as I remember leaving SFO like it was yesterday. On the other hand, it feels like I’ve been here for so much longer, and when I think about my life back home I feel a sense of detachment, almost as if it was simply a very vivid dream. I’m sure this life will feel like that soon enough.

Blog updates have been thinning out, I realize, but things have kind of normalized for me here, as I feel that I’ve adapted as much as I will to life in Japan. I am still in school and will not go on break until July 13, which is a bit inconvenient since everyone back home is on summer vacation, but it also means that I get to spend more time here. I plan on taking a trip to Tokyo with a couple of my friends after school lets out, and I will be back in the States on the 24th of July. I actually arrive in San Francisco 15 minutes before I depart from Osaka. What are things like in the Japanese future, you might ask? Maybe you’ll wish you hadn’t. Unfortunately I have no current plans to travel by way of TARDIS.

The train station outside of Universal Studios Japan after the second L’Arc~en~Ciel concert I went to. Yeah, my concept of personal space is gone.

Lately my life consists mostly of schoolwork and pushing through the last stretch of papers and final exams that will consume my life these next few weeks, but I still manage to go out with friends about once a week. I have discovered the miracle that are BBC dramas over the past few months, and needless to say if you’ve had any contact with me since March, I have become a shameless slave to all things Moffat and Cumberbatch. I was occupied for a while with a speech competition, in which I was regrettably chosen at random to write, memorize, and deliver a 5-minute speech in front of a lecture hall full of Japanese people. Being the introvert I am, I can guarantee you that it was not fun, but at least it’s over and I can say I did it.

At some point, and I’m not sure when, I started counting down instead of counting up. It was definitely past the halfway point, but my pattern of thinking gradually has changed from “I’ve been here for 6 months,” and “This is my first time eating okonomiyaki,” to “I only have 2 months left,” and “This is probably my last time going to Kyoto.” It’s not as much depressing as it is interesting to me. Of course there are things I will miss terribly about Japan (karaoke, drinking culture, public transportation), just as there are things I will most definitely not miss (squat toilets, “You’re so skillful at using chopsticks!,” killer Japanese hornets as big as your thumb that will literally kill you with two stings). The same goes for America of course, but I’m trying not to think about that just yet. For some reason I find myself more frustrated with missing the 4th of July than Christmas, perhaps because no one knows what US Independence Day is here. I can’t wait to see my family again, although I know it will be strange for a while, and I am going through clarinet withdrawal, which I plan to resolve as soon as possible upon my return.

Trying to keep a straight face for the camera at an izakaya (a type of Japanese bar) in Sannomiya, Kobe.

The fact that I’m leaving and not coming back anytime in the foreseeable future probably won’t hit me until I am on the plane headed home. Or perhaps even later. I’m guessing it will just feel like a vacation (one that I am ready for regardless) from my “real life” in Japan, and when it comes time to go back to school only a month after returning to America, I can guess that I will be in internal conflict with myself. Reverse culture shock is very real, and many people disregard it completely, only for it to later hurt them and those close to them. Think about it: when you go abroad, you learn to adapt to a different culture, and you are given leeway when it comes to mistakes and misunderstandings. But when you return home, all of a sudden you are expected to immediately reacclimatize to your own culture, even though you have been living in a different one for whatever length of time, and you are not given the same freedoms to make mistakes because “aren’t you an American?” It will be difficult, but at least I am aware of it and have prepared myself as much as possible. I will definitely blog more about this after my study abroad comes to a close, as it is just as much a growing experience as the time spent abroad itself, though often overlooked.

Stay tuned for Japanese baseball, Tokyo, and more as my study abroad comes to a (presently) rather stressful close!

School is boring. So I decided to spice it up a bit.

Cultural Exposure

“That is just the way it was, nothing could be better and nothing ever was. Oh, they say you can see your future, inside a glass of water, the riddles and the rhymes.” -Coldplay, ‘Glass of Water’

Most Americans I have talked with about the subject flinch at the mention of an onsen. A typical conversation for me goes something like this:

Me: “I’m planning to go to an onsen with my friends next weekend. I’m so excited!”

American: “Oh, really? That’s great…what’s an onsen?”

Me: “A hot spring, a Japanese public bath.”

American: “Wait, like where you take a bath with strangers?”

Me: “Um, yes, that would be the definition of a public bath…”

American: “…You’re allowed to wear a swimsuit, right?”

For all the modesty that I have encountered while living here (leggings with shorts, scarcity of open-toed shoes, no low-cut shirts, etc), the vast majority of Japanese people love to take vacations at onsen, public baths usually filled by means of a natural hot spring. Yes, it is taking a bath with strangers, and no, one may not wear a bathing suit. So naturally, being intrigued by this very Japanese phenomenon which I had yet to be a part of, I made reservations last March at an 800-year-old hot spring in Arima, a small town in the mountains of Kobe, for myself and two of my friends.

After taking a highway bus through the mountains and literally walking through a typhoon to get to our hotel, we checked in and got settled in our room. Many onsen are attached to a hotel with traditional Japanese rooms, and you can purchase a package deal, like we did, that includes dinner, breakfast, and the room. Seeing as the purpose of the trip was to use the bath itself, we didn’t delay after the woman from the front desk finished her explanation about the room.

Gathering our hotel-provided yukata (a type of informal kimono), we made our way to the top floor of the hotel and to the women’s bathing area, which housed an indoor and an outdoor bath, the latter of which was naturally infused with copper and had been in use for 800 years. There were baskets supplied for us to put our old clothes in, and small hand towels.

Once we had taken off our clothes we made our way to the bathing area, where there were individual “washing stations” along the walls with plastic stools to sit on (you don’t stand while taking a shower), shampoo, soap, and a removable nozzle and basin to rinse yourself with. As anyone familiar with Japanese culture knows, it is imperative that you wash yourself thoroughly before entering the bath.

After using the “shower”, we got into the large bath at the center of the room with everyone else, which was really just a couple of older women, since it was a weekday and wasn’t too crowded. Bringing your hand towel into the bath is acceptable as long as it does not touch the water (a mistake I made once even though I knew not to do it). I think this is partially for sanitary reasons, but also because the minerals in the water tend to stain the towels (this certainly happened with the copper and later iron baths). The bath was VERY hot, and I was grateful that I am used to taking hot showers, because the temperature of the water was about 42-44 degrees Celsius, which is about 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit. So we couldn’t stay in the bath itself for more than 30 minutes or so. It’s actually not recommended to use it more than 3 times a day due to risks such as dehydration and high blood pressure.

After trying both the indoor and outdoor baths, we went back to our room and waited for dinner to be served. At around 7, hotel staff came into our room and serves us a full traditional Japanese meal, complete with Kobe beef shabu-shabu (a variant of hot pot). There were several courses and overall it was outstanding, save the occasional raw something or other with a face. After dinner the staff cleaned up the table and laid out our futons.

We went to the baths again at night and repeated the process, this time the air a bit cooler since it was dark, and in the morning before breakfast I went again. And after checking out of our hotel and taking a walk around to a few different local sights, we went to another very popular onsen in town before heading home. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean in my life.

It was a great feeling, wearing a yukata, eating and sleeping on the ground, still warm from the hot spring. It’s unfortunate that many  are too shy or nervous to experience an onsen, since it is something so unique, not to mention a lot of fun. Was I uncomfortable getting undressed in front of my friends and strangers? It was different, to be sure, but uncomfortable? Not really. We did receive some stares, being foreigners, but mostly people kept to themselves. A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have stepped foot in one, but I realize that I had the opportunity to do what most people can’t or are unwilling to do. Would I go again? In a heartbeat, and I suggest it to anyone who comes to Japan (as long as you read up on the rules first!).

Because, as my friend put so eloquently as we were sitting in the outdoor bath looking up at the stars, “Nothing says friendship like group nudity.”

I’m Afraid of Americans

“I’m afraid of Americans, I’m afraid of the world. I’m afraid I can’t help it, I’m afraid I can’t.” -David Bowie, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’

ひさしぶり! It’s been a while! I have kept busy over my month long break during March, but I will attempt to catch you up with all I have been doing.

During March, I traveled by shinkansen to Hiroshima with my friend and my grandparents, who were visiting from Washington DC. I felt that since I am an advocate for international nuclear disarmament and have participated with organizations with this agenda, it was sort of like a pilgrimage to go to the site where the first atomic bomb was dropped. It was a surreal experience, and one that I will surely never forget.

The Genbaku Dome, one of the few buildings left standing from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

We left early in the morning to catch the first train from Kobe to Hiroshima. When we arrived a couple of hours later we took the street car to the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome), which is famous for being one of the only buildings left standing after the bombing, a miracle considering its proximity to the drop zone. I felt a mix of emotions while walking around the dome that had been frozen in time, and through the Peace Park with its many memorials, as a calm silence seemed to pervade the entire area like none I have ever experienced in Japan.

As I watched traffic pass over the bridge that had been targeted, I wondered if I should feel guilty. But as I saw the memorials that stood for hope and peace, I decided that all I can do is raise awareness about the horrors of nuclear warfare and hope that such an atrocity will never occur again. I don’t care what a country or government has done; no one deserves that. No one.

I will spare you the disturbing details of the museum we entered and its gut-wrenching exhibits. Even knowing everything I do about Japan, World War II, and the atomic bombing, there were things in the museum–pictures, artifacts, stories–that I do not believe the US government would ever release to its public. I won’t say it was a wake-up call for myself, as I was aware of the atrocities of nuclear warfare, but being there certainly brought it closer to home.

Origami paper cranes folded by people around the world to promote peace.

What I keep going back to, however, is the thought of a case in which the United States had been bombed instead of Japan. I doubt that Americans could forgive and move on so easily, considering how many people suffered and died. I mean, we’re still mourning over 9/11, and the Japanese have lifted their heads and pushed forward only a year after thousands were killed during the March 2011 disaster. I should say that I do not at all mean to completely victimize Japan when discussing this, as anyone who has studied history knows that Japan has dealt out its fair share of wartime atrocities as well. But what I really took from my visit to Hiroshima was how important looking at the bigger picture is, rather than focusing on a single tragedy and allowing it to consume a country (or lead it to war). I realize that my thoughts are controversial, but I stand by them. Peace will never be achieved if revenge is a motivator. Things such as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima should not be forgotten, but instead taken as a reminder of the lives that were lost and a reminder to nations that hold nuclear weapons of the power they hold.

Well, after that heavy and depressing interlude and a bite of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, we took the street car to the coast, where we hopped on a ferry to Miyajima island, home to Itsukushima Shrine and its iconic Shinto gateway that appears to float on the water during high tide. The island was full of deer similar to those in Nara who would just walk up to you and even let you pet them! We were there at low tide, so I got the opportunity to walk underneath the gate. Backed up against the mountains and lined by the coast, Itsukushima Shrine was beautiful, and the weather held up long enough for us to see most of the island before heading back to the station.

It was a long and emotional day, but well worth the distance and money it took to travel there. I highly suggest Hiroshima to any foreigner visiting Japan, as it is saturated in history and breathtaking scenery.

The large Shinto gate in front of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.

Winning Love By Daylight

“月の光に導かれ、何度も巡り会う。” -Moonlight Densetsu (Sailor Moon opening theme)

Yesterday I struck out with two of my friends to find the elusive “Sailor Moon cafe” in the Umeda district near Osaka, Japan. We came across it on the internet, and of course, being the huge Sailor Moon fan that I am, I decided then and there that I would find this cafe at all costs, rain or shine.

Original "Mercury" juice.

Well, it turned out to be rain, or more accurately snow-turned-rain, so after a frantic stop by a drugstore to pick up $2 umbrellas, we set out on our trek. Cafe Talisman ended up being about a 20 minute walk from Hankyu Umeda station, and using our questionable Japanese language and Google Maps skills, we found it after just a slight diversion. The cafe wasn’t in a touristy place at all, and was in fact in a much more residential area, where I wouldn’t expect to see many foreigners.

There were only two other women inside, and we were welcomed and escorted to a nice couch area off to the side. I spent most of the first ten minutes gawking at the adorable (but not gaudy) decorations and touches that had been added to the menu and the cafe to give it a relaxing yet classy atmosphere. I ordered an original “Mercury” juice, and my friends ordered “Healer” and “Jupiter” concoctions. “Mercury” is one of their more popular drinks, and it consisted of pineapple and blue soda flavors. It was the automatic choice for me as Sailor Mercury is my favorite Sailor Scout, and also the one I identify most with (due to her brainy attitude and also because she shares my name). We all ordered the pasta carbonara for lunch, which was surprisingly good and decently priced, and after reminiscing for nearly an hour about Sailor Moon, we ordered desserts and coffee.

I had the cafe’s “Lunatic Blend” (Luna is the name of Sailor Moon’s feline companion), and my friends got lattes. I ordered a strawberry parfait, and my friends got rare cheesecake and star-shaped banana chocolate pancakes. Everything we ordered was exceptionally good, which surprised me, because most themed cafes rely on their atmosphere more than the items they sell. Not that the atmosphere was at all lacking, with Sailor Moon music variations playing and figures strategically placed along shelves. I will definitely be making a return journey at some point during the duration of my time here in Japan.

If you are in Japan and would like to visit this cafe, here are some simplified (English) directions:

  • Take the east exit out of Hankyu Umeda station
  • Pass under the large highway overpass, and find the JR tracks that lead north/northeast
  • Follow the tracks on the right side for quite a ways until you pass a Circle K and a decently sized park
  • Cafe Talisman is just past the park on a corner, directly opposite the JR train tracks

The cafe also has a website and its own employee-run blog. Thank you for the wonderful experience!

This is Not America

“A little piece of you, a little peace in me will die, for this is not America.” -David Bowie, ‘This is not America’

You know you live in Japan when:

  • You measure the length of a conversation in cups of tea. (ex. “Yesterday I had a three cups of tea conversation with my friend.”)
  • You find yourself clapping your hands together before you eat, even when you’re alone.
  • You think that a concert DVD marked from $200 down to $160 is an amazing deal.
  • You find yourself saying “un” (a nasal m) and nodding excessively in English conversation.
  • You can’t read “YAKITORI” because it’s written in English and not as “焼き鳥”.
  • You can taste the difference between different kinds of white rice.

As much as I am loving Japan, there are a few things that have begun to irk me slightly. Most of these have to do with some of the inner workings of Japanese culture which, while intriguing, are frustrating beyond belief when one has to deal with them firsthand. The implied meanings of certain words that do not translate into English, as well as the tiered hierarchy that is present in every group, relationship, and conversation, are infuriating to me. I am aware that every language and culture has its own issues, but these in particular I find alienating and limiting.

Recently, I had a conversation with my host mother in which I used the word “恥ずかしい,” which directly translates as “embarrassed.” At least, that’s what I had been told. Unfortunately for me, the word holds the connotation of being “ashamed,” and it can never mean anything funny in Japanese. I had been using this word fairly regularly as I would in English. Only now do I realize what a horrible mistake I was making. The word, I have since been informed, has a negative connotation and is only used when one is discussing a bad situation. In English, while “embarrassed” can be used in this way, it often is also used in a lighthearted sense (as in, “Your English is very good.” “Oh look, her face is red; she must be embarrassed!”). As a native speaker I don’t think about these slight differentiations, but in a language such as Japanese whose roots have no ties to English, such a mistake can prove devastating.

Apparently, my host mother was so offended by my statement (which she thought was referring to her house, for reasons I do not understand) that she contacted the international student affairs office at my school. What makes all of this worse is that during our initial conversation, she showed no signs of resentment or discomfort, and went on smiling and talking as if everything was completely normal. This came up almost two weeks later. If you think you know passive aggressive as an American, you have obviously never been to Japan.

Needless to say, I am frustrated by the fact that I can no longer tell what is genuine and what is not in conversations and in relationships. I had a conversation about this misunderstanding with my host mom after she sent me an email in English. I explained to her the difference in the words and what I meant to really say, and I think we came to as much of an understanding as we’re ever going to. I find it absolutely incredible that I can be considered a perfectly polite and considerate person in America, and then come to Japan and be reported to the student affairs office because of one word I say. I am doing nothing consciously wrong and I make constant attempts to be polite and use the correct verb form according to my place in the social hierarchy (in Japanese the language changes completely depending on if the person you are talking to is “above” or “below” you). But I’m human. I make mistakes. But when I do, I wish that people would correct me immediately or ask for clarification rather than letting me believe I have formed a bond with them only to rip it away two weeks later.

If only life could be this easy.

日本の食べ物

“Time–he’s waiting in the wings, he speaks of senseless things. His script is you and me, boys.” -David Bowie, ‘Time’

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already spent over five months in Japan. In a way it feels like I’ve never lived anywhere else, but in others it feels like I’ve only just gotten here. I try not to think about going back to the United States, but it’s hard to ignore while watching so many people go home who stayed for only a semester. But anyway, in celebration of my halfway point in my term abroad, I’ve decided to dedicate this entry to some Japanese foods that are both well and less known in the United States. Since moving here, I have been introduced to so many foods that I had never heard of, and have even ended up growing fond of some that I did not used to like at all. This list is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve chosen a few of my favorites to highlight.

Sushi

Probably the most well-known of all Japanese foods, at least in the United States, sushi is indeed incredibly popular in Japan. However, many Americans might be surprised to hear that sushi is a food saved for special occasions and is rarely eaten. Sushi bars are of course very popular, and I personally love going out for kaitenzushi, or “conveyor belt sushi,” in which customers eat off plates that ride on a conveyor belt that wrap around the restaurant in-between the tables. There is no hassle of ordering or waiting. After sitting down, and you could quite realistically pick up the first plate you see and start eating. When you’re done, your plates are counted (usually about $1 each), you pay your bill, and go on your way. It’s a great experience to share with friends, and definitely something to try if you come to Japan.

A kaitenzushi conveyor belt.

Okonomiyaki

Probably my favorite Japanese food, okonokiyaki literally means “anything you like grilled.” It is sometimes called a Japanese pizza (an inaccurate description), but it is more like a cabbage pancake, made from a batter which can be cooked with meat, noodles, and even cheese or mochi rice cakes! Topped with mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, and bonito (fish flakes), okonomiyaki is an Osaka specialty and is something I will be making regularly when I return to the US!

Gyoza

Anyone who knows me well knows that gyoza takes a close second to okonomiyaki in the world of Japanese cuisine. They are actually not uncommon in the United States, although the Chinese variation is more common than its Japanese counterpart. These dumplings stuffed with pork and fried with soy sauce make a perfect compliment to ramen or fried rice.

Ramen

Most Americans have eaten instant or cup noodles, but you haven’t lived until you’ve had real Japanese ramen. Originating from China, ramen is made in-house, and each shop has their own special recipe. In Japan, it is considered polite to slurp one’s noodles, as it not only cools off the hot noodles, but it allows one to fully experience their aroma and flavor. It can actually be considered rude if you don’t slurp your ramen!

Nikuman

Also Chinese in origin, nikuman (meat buns) are a small, convenient food found in convenience stores across Japan. Usually stuffed with pork, nikuman are cheap and delicious! They come in a variety of different flavors including anman (sweet red bean paste), pizaman (pizza), and even chocolate! Their outer shell is thicker and more bready than the Chinese pork bun, and I think they taste best with hot mustard.

A special edition blue nikuman from Family Mart based off the Dragon Quest video game series.

Curry

Originating in India, curry has many different flavors and various means of preparation and presentation. Enjoyed by Japanese children, curry in Japan tends to be slightly more mild from what I’ve experienced, and is served over rice usually with beef, carrots, and potatoes. It’s a wonderful meal on a cold winter afternoon!

Takoyaki

One of the stranger foods to Americans would have to be Japanese takoyaki, or grilled octopus. Another Osaka specialty, these can be found at vendors along the streets of Namba and Dotonbori. Skilled chefs use metal sticks to rotate balls of batter and octopus to form spheres of mouth-scorching, heavenly goodness. Topped with worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito, takoyaki is a must if traveling to the Kansai region.

Chefs at a food stall in Osaka making takoyaki.

This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the amazing foods Japan has to offer, and this entry is likely part one of several. I have always been considered a picky eater in America, but after coming to Japan, I honestly think it’s because I’m not a fan of American food! The presentation and simplicity of Japanese food is appealing, and it is always presented in a way that shows the care taken in preparing it. Certainly, there are some foods in Japan that I wouldn’t eat again if it killed me, but so far I have not had a distinctly negative experience. Here’s to five more months of delicious 日本料理!

Be Magical

“人生は冒険だ、地図はないけれど、宝物探そう、信じて Compass of Your Heart.” -‘Compass of Your Heart’ (from Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage)

I apologize for the delay, but I have been incredibly busy these past few weeks. Since New Year’s, I have gone to Ise (home of the most important shrines in Japan), completed my first semester, and have gone to Tokyo, Tokyo Disneyland, and Tokyo Disney Sea to see my father who flew out with his friend from California. January has been insane, and today is actually the first day since finals that I have not had anything planned!

On Friday the 13th (yes it was), I went to school to take a Japanese final, turn in 2 term papers, and give a presentation before heading immediately for the shinkansen (also known as the bullet train) to Tokyo. The shinkansen is a high speed rail system that connects major areas and islands of Japan. What would be an 8 hour bus ride to Tokyo turned into a 2.5 hour trip. Needless to say, while convenient, it is incredibly expensive. But it was still a reasonable price to pay for the amazing experience that it was. It was very much like an airplane that used rails instead of wings.

Shibuya at night.

When I got to Tokyo it was nearly midnight, and I was exhausted. I made my way through the subway system (which many argue is the most complex and extensive in the world), and finally made it to Disneyland Resort on the outskirts of the city. I found my way to the hotel and met my dad before preparing to tour Tokyo the next day.

We spent the weekend touring the city, and even though it was impossible to see everything I wanted to see in just 2 days, I had mapped out some points of interest in advance. We first visited Yasukuni Shrine, which is known for its controversial veneration of the war dead that includes several class-A war criminals. The Prime Minister of Japan will not come near the shrine, out of fear that it will spark conflicts with South Korea and China. It was quite the experience being there after I had studied it in class, and the museum proved incredibly interesting in the way it worded its descriptions of historical events (for example, “The China Incident” rather than “The Sino-Japanese War”).

After visiting the famous Meiji Shrine and walking around Shinjuku, we came to Shibuya, which is home to the busiest intersection in the world. It was incredible watching the swarms of people dodge each other under the bright television screens and neon lights of the tall buildings lining the streets. We found a few neat izakaya, or Japanese bars, in the alleyways of Shibuya, which was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. We were the only foreigners there, and one owner even gave us a free round of drinks! I can’t even explain how idealistic this night was, bar-hopping in Shibuya, the heart of Tokyo. I would do it again any day, and it will certainly be a night that I will never forget.

Inside the Ghibli Museum.

The next day my father and I made our way to the Studio Ghibli Museum about 30 minutes outside of Tokyo. Hayao Miyazaki, who created Studio Ghibli, is one of the world’s most popular animators, and by far my favorite. He has made movies such as My Neighbor Totoro (an irreplaceable part of my childhood), Castle in the Sky, Princess MononokeKiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and the critically-acclaimed Spirited Away, which actually won an academy award for best animation. One can only acquire tickets to the museum a month in advance by using special kiosks found only in Japanese convenient stores. I consider myself so lucky to have been able to visit this museum, and it was unlike any I have been to.

The entire museum was constructed like a house, and was full of random passageways and staircases (sometimes that didn’t lead anywhere). The theme of the museum was for the explorer to find his or her own way, as there was no set path laid out to see the entire mansion. On the rooftop there was a garden made to resemble Laputa, complete with a giant robot! There was a room filled with a stuffed cat bus from Totoro which kids could play on, and there were scale replicas of the food stall from Spirited Away and Sophie’s hat shop from Howl’s Moving Castle. We even sneaked a few illegal photos by playing the foreigner card…hee hee. Cut me some slack, I usually follow rules to a T.

Later that day my father and I toured more of Tokyo and saw Sensouji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, and the Tokyo Sky Tree from a distance, which is the newly completed tallest free-standing tower in the world. After all of this, packed into just 2 days, we headed back to the hotel to gear up for Disneyland.

The Tokyo Sky Tree.

Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea are part of the same resort. It’s similar to the partnership between Disneyland and California Adventure. And like California Adventure, Disney Sea is one-of-a-kind. There is no park like it anywhere else in the world. Positioned on Tokyo Bay, Disney Sea is, well, a water themed park (but not a water park, mind you). There are various sections that have to do with both Disney and the sea, understandably enough. These included the American Waterfront, Arabian Coast (an Aladdin-themed area), Mermaid Lagoon (Little Mermaid), and Lost River Delta (Indiana Jones). While we were there, Disney Sea was also celebrating its 10th anniversary, so there were several special shows and events as well.

While the Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Raging Spirits roller coasters were loads of fun, my favorite ride had to be “Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage.” It was like an Arabian “It’s a Small World,” except ten times better. Completely remodeled in 2007 due to it’s dark mood and lack of appeal and marketability, the new Sindbad was created to display a positive message with the song “Compass of Your Heart,” composed by the award-winning Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tangled…). The animatronics were phenomenal, and the story line and characterizations were lovable (I even bought a stuffed animal of Sindbad’s tiger companion Chandu!).

Tokyo Disneyland (built in 1983) was similar to the park in California, although the rides were newer and the park a bit more spacious. Space Mountain was a bit of a disappointment after being on the renovated version in California, and Star Tours had yet to be updated. But one addition that I was impressed with was the “Pooh’s Hunny Hunt” ride. I went in thinking it would be the same ride as in Disneyland, but I was happy to be proven wrong! It used new technology that made you feel like you were in a storybook, and the overall technical and visual quality of the ride was stunning.

Overall my trip to Tokyo was long and exhausting, but an incredible experience. I’m glad I got to see family after over four months of being away from home, and I am so grateful that I got to experience not just Tokyo, but Disneyland and Disney Sea as well. I would go back any day if money allowed! But I still feel at home in Kansai, and was happy to get back. As my winter break continues through the end of January, my plans mostly consist of relaxing and spending time with friends.

The entrance to Pooh's Hunny Hunt.

New Year’s Day

“All is quiet on New Year’s Day, a world in white gets underway.” -U2, ‘New Year’s Day’

I have now officially made it through the holidays in Japan, and for as fun and exciting as it’s been, there have been equally as many hardships. Finals are only a week away, and with the six or so term papers I have to write and the five exams I need to prepare for, I admit that I haven’t had as much free time over the two-week winter break as I’d have liked to have had. That said, I have still had a great time, but in all honesty, I’m glad (for probably the first time in my life) that the holidays are over. It means I can stop thinking, “If I was at home right now, I would be ________,” and other such things that are wont to cause bouts of mild depression. At least now I can look to the future knowing that it’s a new year that is sure to be filled with wonderful experiences. And more college loans. And lengthy scholarship applications. And hopeless job searching. But moving on.

A few of the many wonderful Christmas presents I received.

We were visited by a British man (my host mom’s friend/boyfriend/lover/fiance/unknown) for about ten days that overlapped with Christmas, so at least I wasn’t the only one in the house who Christmas was important to. The Japanese don’t really celebrate Christmas, which is understandable considering Japan is not and never has been a primarily Christian nation, and it’s considered kind of a second Valentine’s Day when only lovers give each other presents and when families eat the traditional Christmas cake. So that was a bit strange, but I actually ended up having a much better time than I expected. First, on Christmas Eve I went to my friend’s house where we ironically had the most traditional Christmas dinner I’ve ever had. On Christmas I Skyped with my family in California all morning (their Christmas Eve) and we opened presents over webcam. I received some pretty nifty things including socks (which I actually needed, no joke), hand sanitizer (also needed), leggings and fleece pajamas (ditto), and Super Mario 3D Land for 3DS. Which I also needed, of course. It can’t be finals time without some worthy procrastination material.

So it’s needless to say what I was doing until dinner time when my host mom and…her uh…British man returned from a day in Kobe. We had an amazing dinner of butaman, gyoza, and sushi (three of my all-time favorites), with cream puffs for dessert. Then we all opened presents, and I was so pleasantly surprised by all of the lovely gifts I received! Chocolate, Pokemon-themed croissants, a notebook, a pen, and even some manga from my host brothers. One in particular caught my attention called Saint Young Men in which Jesus and Buddha are roommates while touring Japan on vacation from Heaven. Can’t get much better than that. I bought my host family a Japanese annotated version of The Hobbit, which I thought was appropriate after their claim that they had never read it after I excitedly showed them the newly-released movie trailer. I also got my host brothers a Muse album, which I thought was their style. I actually felt like I skimped out a bit on the gifts, but I hadn’t expected so much from people who aren’t supposed to celebrate Christmas! Either way, it was quite nice and I was less homesick than I expected to be.

After Christmas was a bit of a different story. I think I’m experiencing another bout of culture shock (yes, it actually lasts for more than a week or month after traveling), and it hasn’t been fun. I’ve had the most terrible time trying to explain to my host mom that I need to buy a shinkansen ticket to see my dad in Tokyo when he comes in less than two weeks, but I have had no luck and to say the least there was a bit of a misunderstanding between us that resulted in us both frustrated with each other. A few days later she texted me while we were both still in the house to be careful and turn off the lights more often, and the day after that she wrote me a letter about how she doesn’t feel I am thankful enough or express enough of my emotions. I must really be a freak if a Japanese person tells me I’m not emotional enough. So I wrote her a letter, confronted her, and read it aloud (saying how I never meant to offend her and that I’m not really in a bad mood and profusely apologizing) which was so difficult, but necessary. So we talked for a bit and I think we reached an understanding, but things are still a bit awkward. What’s strange is that I thought I was being too thankful…guess I had that wrong. I suppose that every other word out of my mouth is going to have to be “thank you very much.” Emotions are also expressed (I am now realizing) through one’s voice rather than one’s face and slight mannerisms. The constant thanking and apologizing is something about Japanese culture that I’m still not used to, but hopefully with time the awkwardness will pass.

We called it a draw....

New Year’s Eve was much more pleasant. New Year’s is the most important holiday in Japan (the equivalent to Christmas in the United States), and is an important time for families. Akihiro and I spent the evening playing chess and shogi (Japanese chess but significantly more confusing in my opinion), and at midnight we all watched temples across Japan ring giant bronze bells on the television (which actually continued into New Year’s Day, as I could hear the sound of bells all day). Quite a contrast from watching the ball drop in Times Square. And then, as I was just about to say goodnight and get in the shower, much to my surprise, my host mom runs upstairs yelling, “行こ、行こ!” (“Let’s go, let’s go!”). Rather disoriented, I put on my coat and shoes and followed them out the door at 12:30am to the local shrine, where everyone was out and about like it was the middle of the day. We waited in a long line to the shrine altar, and when we finally made it to the front, I threw in a coin, bowed, clapped my hands, and bowed again, too concerned with messing up the order of things to pay attention to what I was praying to the kami for. Afterwards we went over to a booth where priests were giving out free sake and mochi, and then stood for a while by a roaring bonfire before heading home. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget, and something that I will only be able to experience in Japan.

During New Year’s, or “Oshōgatsu,” all stores and businesses shut down for the first three days of the year. Families prepare food to last for those three days beforehand (which is a big deal, since Japanese people tend to buy their food fresh and cook it themselves every day). The food is very traditional, which I’m having a difficult time with considering that today we ate a large amount of vegetable jelly, herring eggs, and unidentifiable grayish potatoes (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew). Surviving the next few days will be a challenge, but at least I have a lot of time to write my papers and study, right? …Right?

Traditional New Year's food for lunch.

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