京都と神戸

“Spent some nights in old Kyoto, sleeping on the matted ground.” –David Bowie, ‘Move On’

Confessions of an American exchange student in Japan:

  • Sometimes I go to the bathroom even when I don’t really need to because the toilet is the warmest place in the house
  • I am suspicious of other foreigners I see walking on the street, and often avoid them
  • I have considered buying a bicycle bell so I can ring it while walking to make ridiculously slow-moving people get out of my way by toying with their subconscious
  • I avoid looking at reflective surfaces, as it reminds me that I look different from everyone else
  • I have never tried so hard to conceal gagging on food as I have when I am served “vegetable jelly,” whole mushrooms, and chicken skin swimming in raw egg (all of which may or may not be combined)

Despite these minor hardships, every day I am becoming more accustomed to the Japanese lifestyle, culture, and language. In fact, even though I’ve had to give up things like central heating and air conditioning, grape jelly, transportation by car, and dinosaur fruit snacks, there are so many things that I don’t know how I’ll live without when I return to the United States. For example…once you use a washlet you can never go back. I was horrified when my friend and I went to go see a Takarazuka play last week and the toilet seats were normal! Wait, you mean, I have to manually flush this? The seat isn’t heated? How primitive!

School has been getting busier over the past few weeks, and I feel a bit guilty for locking myself in my room to do homework all the time…but perhaps it can’t be helped. Winter break starts next Saturday (Christmas Eve) and is two weeks long, ending just in time to have a week of exams before a longer break. Needless to say, my entire winter break will be taken up by studying, researching, and writing papers, hopefully with a bit of time for baking cookies (if I can figure out how to bake with the metric system and in an oven the size of a shoebox).

A grove of maple trees at Sekizan Zen'in.

Over the past month I have been to Kyoto three times (train fare adds up!), and it has been interesting to see the seasons progressively change with each time I have gone. One out of many things I have taken from Japan so far is a greater appreciation of not just nature in general, but how nature isn’t rigid and changes with the seasons. The Japanese widely consider things to be more beautiful if they do not last, such as the short blooming period of cherry blossoms in spring, or the turning color of maples in fall. Only days after they reach their peak of magnificence, the color fades and the leaves start to fall. But the beauty is not truly gone, because it lies in the fact that it only lasted for so long, and that it will come again next year. I find this encouraging, and in stark contrast to the Western image of beauty. I like to think of it as conforming and adapting to one’s surroundings, rather than manipulating those surroundings to suit one’s tastes.

Wakashi I made in Kyoto.

The first time I went to Kyoto I visited several shrines and temples, walked around the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and got to see a rare dance performance by maiko (kind of like apprentice geisha, but that’s not a completely accurate description). I also stopped by the place where noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, or The Tale of Genji. I even went to an art museum whose special exhibit was, ironically, a collection of Van Gogh paintings from the Washington National Gallery of Art. I’m halfway across the world and I…oh, never mind.

A week later I went with my Shintoism class, and we visited a couple of shrines. Interesting, but honestly, when you’ve seen a few shrines, you’ve seen most shrines. Don’t get me wrong; they’re very beautiful and each one is unique, but in a tourist group when I don’t have time to meditate on my thoughts on the shrine’s grounds, they become more of a photo op than anything else. However, the momiji, or “fall colors” were at their peak, and the vibrant colors of the scenery was truly a sight to behold.

The Ocean's 11 Takarazuka Revue poster.

Last Saturday I went to Kyoto yet again, this time with my Japanese culture class, where we went to a traditional Japanese sweets shop and learned how to make Japanese confections, or wakashi. They didn’t look very nice, but they certainly tasted good! Also, I found out that a Japanese stereotype of Americans is that they (not so surprisingly) love sweet things. The Japanese woman next to me asked if I liked sweets, and I answered yes. She then asked me what country I was from and when I said “America,” she responded, “Oh, yes, Americans love sweets.” …Perhaps there is some truth behind that, but really…? I also discovered during a slideshow presentation in my culture class that Japanese people view the average American lunch box as containing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and two bags of candy (which isn’t completely inaccurate, save perhaps the excessive Mike & Ike packages that were stuffed into the red, white, and blue lunch box in the image on the slide). But yes, I love sweet things, and I am an American. Reinforcing stereotypes? Perhaps. Going to do anything about this particular fact? Not likely.

So much has been going on lately that I don’t know how else to synthesize everything I’ve been up to! Last Sunday I went to go see the Kobe Luminarie with my friends, an enormous light display in memory of the devastating 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was more crowded than Disneyland on Christmas, but I’m glad I had the chance to see it. On Monday I went to go see my second Takarazuka Revue performance with my friend from Maryland, who hadn’t been yet. The Star Troupe put on a musical version of Ocean’s 11, which was absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t understand everything, but I definitely picked up more than I did the first time I went to see Takarazuka in September.

The plan for the next few weeks consists mostly of Christmas parties, karaoke, and, of course, studying. Hopefully I’ll be able to strike a nice balance, but knowing college, that probably won’t happen until I’m done with the semester. For now, I’m just taking one day at a time.

The entrance to the Kobe Luminarie. Just think of the electric bill...

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Ready Steady Go

“夢を描くよ、our hearts draw a dream.” –L’Arc~En~Ciel, ‘My Heart Draws a Dream’

Last night I experienced what was in all likelihood one of the most epic nights of my life. I was going to squeeze this into a post about redundant shrine visits in Kyoto, but after attending, I figured it deserved one of its own.

L'Arc~En~Ciel 20th Anniversary Tour

About a month ago some of my friends and I purchased tickets to L’Arc~En~Ciel’s 20th Anniversary concert tour at Osaka Dome (coincidentally, the band turns 20 the same year I do). L’Arc~En~Ciel is a Japanese band (with a French name, yes) who I have listened to since middle school. They are incredibly famous in Asia, and were actually one of the first bands I was ever really fond of, so it meant a lot to me to be able to go, especially considering that their shows are limited and they have not released an album since 2007.

Osaka Dome is a behemoth of a sports complex. Seating over 36,000 people, the show was completely sold out. The tickets available to us as non-fan club members were sold out in under 20 minutes. If it gives you any scale of the event, the concert we went to was the last show of the tour, and was broadcasted live to movie theaters across Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for a charge of about $50 per ticket. Even though our seats were in the back row of the balcony, we could still hear and see everything that was going on, and hey, we were there, so we weren’t complaining.

The Osaka Dome

At 5:02, two minutes past starting time, I really started to get anxious. And then, just as I was about to mention something about it to my friend, the lights cut out. And this might sound narrow-minded, and I may be reinforcing generational stereotypes, but I can say honestly that even after all the amazing things I’ve done in Japan so far, 36,000 glow sticks of different colors glowing in the pitch black darkness of Osaka Dome was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. No one was screaming, and the tension in the air was almost palpable. Then, on the screens and stage (the floor of which was a screen itself) appeared a scene of space, and the live orchestra, whose members were encased in moving glass boxes, began to play. Just as I thought the anticipation couldn’t get any worse, what sound cuts through the air but Hyde’s voice, singing with no backup, invisible from where I stood. The lights focused on him as he was lowered down from his position on the glass-encased orchestra, and continued to sing.

An exclusive shirt, a towel scarf, a glow stick, and a circular shopping bag were just a few things available for purchase (robbery) at the concert.

The next three hours were three hours of my life that I will never forget. Pyrotechnics, state of the art lighting and effects, endless chanting of the name “Hyde!” leading up to a hard rock number, the pleasantly surprising and upbeat “Hurry Xmas,” Ken reflecting on how Hyde is like a marshmallow…. From singing along with “My Heart Draws a Dream” to my friend from Maryland whacking me with her glow stick out of pure fangirl excitement, every moment is burned into my mind. …That’s not to say that I won’t buy the ridiculously overpriced concert DVD when it comes out later this month.

Roughly $100 of merchandise later (money well-spent!), we piled into the overcrowded subway, waves of adrenaline the only thing keeping us on our feet. I have a feeling that I will be thinking, talking, and singing about this for a long time. It will likely be a standout memory of my study abroad journey (which is saying a lot considering all the amazing things I have done already), and will most definitely be one I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Against All Odds

“真っ白な時は風にさらわれて、新しい季節を運ぶ” –L’Arc~En~Ciel, ‘Winter Fall’

The holidays are here, and needless to say, I’m missing America a bit. Christmas here is more of a “lovers” holiday than anything else, and presents usually aren’t exchanged. And obviously, there is no such thing as Thanksgiving in Japan. So when last week rolled around, I found myself thinking of how at this time of year I would be home on break, eating turkey and pie, procrastinating on my many term papers and projects. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. One of my friends had the awesome idea of having our own Thanksgiving, and got permission from her host mother (since she was going to be gone all day) to have it at her house. So, Wednesday being a national holiday, on Tuesday night, six of my exchange student friends (both American and Canadian; hey, they have Thanksgiving too, even if we were a month late!) and I headed to the train station: Thanksgiving or bust!

I almost felt like a real Japanese person!

Surprisingly enough, we actually managed to find a lot of Thanksgiving foods the week before, including a small turkey (Costco in Japan; who knew?), corn, potatoes, rolls, gravy, and pumpkin pie. Unfortunately we could not find stuffing for the life of us, but we made due. Of course, no Thanksgiving is complete without adult beverages, so we all stopped by the grocery store to pick some up. Japan has these amazing drinks called Chu-Hi, which are basically beer flavored like soda, and they come in all sorts of flavors. Grape, melon, apple, lime, grapefruit, lemon, peach…oh, how I will miss them. So I bought by first alcoholic beverages, and guess what–I wasn’t carded. I was a bit disappointed, but in Japan they’re pretty lax about the whole checking your ID thing. I guess a country has to be if it sells beer out of vending machines.

We had a crazy night playing Uno, building a chocolate house, and watching Labyrinth (YES I found the Japanese DVD!!) until about 4am. When everyone was too tired to stay awake, six of us piled into a tatami room on futons, which was roughly the size of a king-size bed. It was cozy to say the least, but I don’t think any of us cared at that point. No one woke up until nearly noon, at which time we had French toast muffins and fruit for “breakfast” before starting to cook our Thanksgiving dinner!

Our Thanksgiving dinner (as close as we could make it).

Both set up and clean up went smoothly with so many people working together, and honestly, it was probably the most “normal” (and by this I mean American) I have felt in a very long time. Even though we were so obviously in Japan, on the fifth story of a high rise apartment building looking over the cloudy skyline of Nishinomiya, there was something comforting about being able to say things without having to worry about being rude and not feeling like you are in the 0.6% minority demographic. No ethnocentricity intended, it’s honestly nice to have a break from being stared at on the street and being unable to communicate comfortably with those around you.

I suppose what I have to keep in mind is, even though I might miss home and all the fun I’m missing out on back in the United States during the holidays, I am truly experiencing a rare and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and a year worth of American holidays is a small price to pay for all of the incredible things I have done and have yet to do in Japan. I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving and is gearing up for Christmas and the New Year. My host mom put up our “Christmas tree” recently, which is about a foot high piece of plastic that sings Christmas carols. But it’s the spirit that counts! Here’s to a wonderful holiday season, no matter which country you’re celebrating in.

Don’t Stop Me Now

“Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball. Don’t stop me now, if you want to have a good time, just give me a call.” –Queen, “Don’t Stop Me Now”

After two months in Japan, I can safely say that there will be some things I will never do the same way when I return to the United States. Here are a few.

  • Driving is overrated. As I’ve ridden in a car once in the two months that I’ve been here, I’m not sure I could bring myself to drive everywhere as I used to. Four miles to the store? That’s nothing on a bike. Why not turn a dull shopping trip into an eventful outing?
  • I am fairly sure that I will feel guilty if I ever eat a meal without fruit or vegetables again. …Same goes for rice.
  • I’ll only prepare for myself what I can eat in one sitting, and will likely only buy food I will use within a week at the supermarket.
  • I will never understand why most people in the US leave the water running while they are taking showers. Such a waste!
  • On a similar note, I have no idea what possessed me to take showers in the morning. Why wake up at an ungodly hour only to be rudely awakened by a shower when you can go to bed clean, warm, and relaxed, and cut down your morning routine by at least half?

There are so many more things that I know will change when I return to the US in 9 months, and there will surely be more things I notice as I continue my study abroad here. Some will be temporary of course (sitting on the floor rather than the couch and bowing to everyone come to mind), but I think I’m starting to realize the depth of the impact that this journey will have and has already begun to have on me. It is certainly humbling if nothing else.

That's right, I survived Jaws.

Last week was my university’s cultural festival, meaning that, for those not involved, it was a five-day weekend! So I’m in Japan with nothing to do, and what is my first thought? Why, go to Universal Studios Japan, of course! And so I did, with two of my friends who are in my Japanese language classes. The park is in Osaka and is only about an hour’s train ride away, and a Friday off school was as good a time to go as any. I have never been to a Universal Studios in the United States, so it was a brand new experience for me. Well, I shouldn’t say brand new, considering there was a miniature replica of the San Francisco wharf area and the Embarcadero (oh, the irony). But Jaws (Disney’s Jungle Cruise on steroids) and Jurassic Park were both awesome, as were the roller coasters Hollywood Dream and Space Fantasy (a Japanized Space Mountain). I have to say that the Terminator 2 3D play stole the show as far as the theater-based rides went, and the atmosphere of the entire park was quite nice (partially because it wasn’t swarming with crowds as it usually is). I have to admit it was strange hearing Doc from Back to the Future speaking in Japanese, and what an entirely Japanese crew was doing in Amity Beach I have no idea, but I’m not complaining. I mean, why do Mulan and Hercules and Aladdin speak English? Yeah, I could go on forever. Might I mention that Universal Studios should definitely be re-dubbed “Spielbergland, featuring John Williams.” I swear the park is just his way of spitting in the eye of old Walt. But misgivings aside, overall it was a phenomenal experience and well worth the time and money spent to get there.

The guy would only take one picture, so I had to make it count.

Meanwhile, temperatures continue to drop, and as I have mentioned before, the vast majority of Japanese homes (including my own) have no central heating or air conditioning, nor do they have insulation. So as you can imagine, things are getting a bit uncomfortable, especially since I have no winter coat or sweatpants…. As I sit typing this at the dining room table, I am wearing two pairs of socks, and my feet are still like ice. And the hot showers would be nice if they weren’t so painful. However, my host mom recently put the kotatsu on my desk, which is more or less an electric blanket that drapes over the table and warms your legs while you sit. Yeah, definitely going to miss those.

The language barrier is still difficult to work around, but I am much better at listening and understanding people than I was two months ago. I still talk like a kindergardener, but I’m slowly starting to communicate more frequently in Japanese with those around me. I’m in the thick of midterms at the moment, but things should calm down by next week. Although, my weekends are already booked until Christmas with school field trips, plans with friends, and events with my host family. Also, my dad has informed me that he will be flying out to visit me in January for about a week in Tokyo, which I am super excited about! Gaijin in Tokyo Disneyland; can’t get much better than that!

Really? REALLY?!

日本に誕生日

“You say it’s your birthday, well it’s my birthday too, yeah.” –The Beatles, ‘Birthday’

Well crap, I’m 20. I would go on about how birthdays aren’t as exciting as they used to be, about how I’m getting old, etc., but hey, at least now I will no longer have “teenager” stereotypes imposed upon me, and I can drink legally (in Japan)! Not so bad if I do say so myself. I had a much better Halloween and birthday than I had expected, while having unique experiences that I will definitely only ever be able to experience here in Japan.

Before I delve into the details of Tuesday, allow me to discuss a bit about Halloween. For those wondering, yes, Japanese people do celebrate Halloween, albeit in ways slightly different from Americans. For one, it’s a tad difficult to go trick-or-treating in the concrete jungles that are Japanese cities, not to mention that Japanese notions of “privacy” and “personal space” constitute that if someone shows up at your house begging for candy, they’re either drunk or have negligent parents. Because of this, much to my dismay, there are neither pyramids of fun size chocolates at grocery stores, nor overpriced Halloween costume shops. However, I did celebrate Halloween, even though it may have differed from what I am accustomed to.

Me and a friend from Canada dressed up at school. I was Harry Potter, ohoho.

My friend, who actually happens to be a student at University of Maryland and lives in Rockville (small world, I know), invited a few other exchange students to her home on behalf of her host mother, as they were throwing a Halloween party and, apparently, going trick-or-treating (yeah, no way I was passing that up). Jumping on the chance to do something on Halloween while being able to practice speaking Japanese, we all headed over to her house after school. At least 20 people showed up, and at 8:00, we all headed out the door to go “trick-or-treating” which actually consisted of three adults positioned in different lobbies around the apartment complex with plastic bags filled with candy. It was slightly pitiful but endearing to watch the kids in vampire and pumpkin costumes shout “trick-or-treat!” to get their small bags of candy. I mentioned to my friends that I wondered how they would react if they came to the United States for Halloween….

After “trick-or-treating,” we all introduced ourselves (the native Japanese speakers in English and the native English speakers in Japanese), and had a dinner that came close to rivaling Thanksgiving, with everything from pumpkin soup to pastries. Following dinner, Katie’s host mom announced that is was time to play a game, and she looked at Katie to lead, who was in the process of taking out her homemade index card Apples to Apples game. Now, if any of you have ever played Apples to Apples, you know that it is a ridiculously fun game to play in groups and at parties, but you also know that in order to successfully understand the rules and to play the game, you must have a functioning knowledge of the English language. Well, with a room full of Japanese people, we had no such luxury. Even when translated, sometimes we were at a loss for how to explain. For example, “cold” in English can mean temperature or sickness or the way someone acts toward another, but in Japanese, the translation everyone knew for cold only meant temperature. It actually turned out alright in the end, although each round took about 10 minutes due to our attempts to translate in broken Japanese. Note to self: when introducing any kind of word game, translate everything into Japanese first.

So, after a crazy night of confusing word games and otherwise unidentifiable pumpkin-flavored foods, it was already my birthday. 20, or “hatachi” in Japanese, is considered one of the few landmark birthdays in Japan, as one is considered a legal adult when he or she turns 20. For those wondering, Japanese people celebrate birthdays in more or less the same fashion that Americans do: cake, presents, singing…. However, it’s rare that parties will be massive, presents will be expensive, and cakes will be larger than a few servings (due to one, the cost, and two, Japan’s collectivist mentality as opposed to America’s individualism). Still, birthdays are celebrated in more or less the same way.

It wasn't until AFTER she had meticulously gotten us all into position and taken the picture that my host mom realized that Akihiro wasn't wearing pants...

After a day at school and an afternoon of studying, my host mom came home and, American senses tingling, I smelled something. That’s right, she had brought home Domino’s pizza, and I was elated. “Americans like pizza, right?” she asked me in Japanese. I couldn’t help respond with an emotional “Yes!”, disregarding the fact that I was reinforcing cultural stereotypes. It was amazing, and (pathetically) tasted a hundred times better than Domino’s in the US. Which it rightfully should have, considering a small pizza in Japan is about $25 without delivery. Who ever thought that potato and spicy mustard pizza would be so amazing? Not Americans, that’s who.

After almost crying tears of joy all over my dinner, they brought out the most beautiful chocolate roll cake with fruit and sang “Happy Birthday” to me in English (which sounded more like “Happi Basudei”, but that made it all the better). I opened my presents: potato chips and gum from Akihiro (13-year-old boys will be 13-year-old boys), a pen and flash cards from Yuya, and a lovely notebook from my host mom. I went to sleep content, barely worried about my kanji (Chinese character) midterm I had the next morning. Without a doubt, it was one of the most unique birthdays I have ever and probably will ever have.

Also: for those of you wondering (because several people have asked), “Happy Birthday” in Japanese (at least a common variation, as there are different levels of politeness) is お誕生日おめでとう (otanjoubi omedetou).

I would also mention that I’ve heard that my grandpa is in the hospital (although I don’t know details), and knowing that he reads my blog, I want to say that you’re in my prayers and thoughts, and I hope you get better soon. I love you, Papa! お大事に!

When Will This Foolishness Cease?

“I often ask myself, when am I gonna learn? … If you carry on like me you’ll never make it.” -Maxïmo Park, ‘Now I’m All Over the Shop’

DISCLAIMER: This blog entry contains descriptions of public bathrooms and while not graphic in the least, it may be more than you wanted to know. But if you’re anything like me, now that you have been made aware of this fact, there’s no way you’re going to close that web browser.

Not foreigner friendly.

Living in Japan 101: Do not press the orange button.

One afternoon, after spending a few empty blocks studying with my classmates in the Global Lounge on campus, I decide that I need to go to the bathroom. Impatiently I waited for the Western-style toilet to be free in the cramped, tiled room, completely unwilling, no matter how badly I had to go, to use the Japanese-style hole in the ground. Now, if anyone knows Westernized Japanese toilets, he or she knows that they are complex inventions that perform functions beyond the wildest imaginations of Americans. You can’t call yourself civilized until you’ve used a Japanese toilet. Also, you can’t call yourself sane after you’ve attempted to find out what each of the many, many buttons on the side of the toilet do. And this is where I found myself.

So I use the bathroom like normal: slightly uncomfortable on the heated toilet seat, frustrated by the automatic flushing sound played by the speakers (yes, speakers), and startled by the sensitivity of the auto-flush feature. So I get up, and as I’m looking for the button to flush the toilet (since the auto-flush was seemingly whacked on this particular model), I think to myself, like any reasonable American would, “Ah, an orange button. I can’t read what it says, but hey, it’s large and neon colored, so it must do what I want it to.” Right? Wrong. Should have paid more attention in Kanji class.

I sensed that something was wrong the moment that I felt the button stick in the wall. It wasn’t a button. It was a switch.

The next part is a bit of a blur. Lights started flashing, a ridiculously loud alarm started blaring, and all I could think to do was scurry out of the stall, wash my hands as quickly as sanitarily possible, and get out. “Go! Just go! Now!” I rasped to my classmates through clenched teeth, pushing them through the swinging door. Ignoring their attempts at asking me what was wrong, I muttered the appropriate profanities and bolted straight for the staircase, looking as unsuspicious as possible (and not doing a very good job). It only took the words, “Wait, is that the fire alarm?” to send me bolting down the stairs at light speed.

Once a safe distance away from the bathroom (but still within earshot of the siren), I hastily explained the situation to my colleagues, who proceeded to devolve into fits of laughter against the hallway walls.

“That was the emergency button!”

“Yeah, I figured that much out! Shh, wait!” I whisper. The sound of footsteps from the hallway perpendicular to ours fills the building, and I motion to continue walking as if nothing has happened. The footsteps break into a run, and we turn to see a woman sprinting at full speed, first aid kit in hand, and muttering incoherent Japanese over a walkie-talkie. …Oops. Not a minute later we see another woman running from the opposite direction fitting a similar description, and we decide it’s probably best if we all just exit the building. Stupid foreigner indeed.

A week or so later, this led to the discussion of why there are emergency buttons in every stall of every public Japanese restroom. I asked my classmates this, completely dumbfounded as to what situation would lead to the rise of the apparently mandated installation of emergency buttons in every restroom. “Maybe if you’re on crutches and you fall?” There are handles on the walls! And it isn’t as if Japanese bathrooms don’t have handicap stalls. “Internal bleeding?” Go to a doctor! “A bidet gone wrong?” … Yep, that’s it.

Yet another mystery of Japanese culture that will perhaps never be solved or understood by my American mind.

A Day in the Life

‎”The best way to get to know a city is to count up how much change you have in your pocket and take the subway as far as that amount gets you.” -David Bowie on traveling in Japan

It has been one month since I have:

  • Ridden in a car
  • Ordered anything in English
  • Received a hug
  • Sat on a couch
  • Shaken hands
  • Eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich

It has been one month since I have come to Japan. In a way it feels like I just got here, but in another way it feels as if I’ve been here forever (of which I am constantly reminded otherwise every time I open my mouth). Overall it has been great, although the novelty of living in Japan has begun to wear off after four weeks of 40-minute commutes to and from school. The good news is, I think I’m finally starting to acclimate to life here, and I’m feeling more comfortable every day, with both the culture and the language.

Speaking is slow in coming, but I feel that my listening ability improves daily. Even my host mom (who is slow to compliment, especially for being Japanese), mentioned after our short conversation last night about Japanese regional dialects how my listening has improved since coming here. That was encouraging, but I still have a long way to go, especially before I can communicate comfortably as far as speaking is concerned. Someone remind me again why out of all languages I chose to learn Japanese?

As previously mentioned, languages classes are, to say the least, painful. I feel that I am very slow at picking up concepts compared to the rest of my class, but I can’t do anything but study my hardest. Besides language classes (which are conducted entirely in Japanese, with Japanese textbooks), students enrolled in my exchange program are also able to take elective courses conducted in English, which are focused on Japanese or East Asian studies. Aside from a fun, one-unit elective conducted in Japanese, my other four classes fit this criteria. Likely my most difficult course is “Sentence and Meaning in Japanese,” a linguistics course detailing the finer aspects of spoken and written Japanese. While interesting, I must admit that my knowledge of both linguistics and Japanese is lacking. Simply put, Japanese is hard enough to figure out when I am not analyzing specific particles and the psychological reasoning behind sentence structures. But alas, there’s nothing I can do but BS my way through try my hardest!

A couple of the more interesting courses I’m enrolled in include “Shintoism,” taught by a former professor at London University (British accent=automatic win), and “Politics and Government of Japan,” taught by a woman who has been a news anchor among other things in both Japan and Washington DC. Japanese Art is as dull as anyone could expect it to be, although we will take a field trip to Nara tomorrow, which I hope (despite the rain) will prove to be a worthy use of my Saturday.

I’m beginning to settle into this routine as the volume of schoolwork picks up, but fortunately I am not stressed out of my mind as I usually am, something I attribute to my decision to take significantly less units this semester. I miss everyone back home terribly. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, even though some of you are in Disneyland without me, again (Me hold grudges? Never!), and there are many times I wish I was back home and in my comfort zone. I had a bout of culture shock last night when my host mom handed me my laundry and her hand brushed mine, and I realized I hadn’t been touched (shoving and bumping aside) in over a month. I had a bit of a freak out moment. It was quite strange. On the other hand though, I know that this year will fly by and that I’ll be leaving Japan before I know it (and before I’m ready to leave)! I’m just aiming to enjoy this adventure while I can. …And, hopefully my GPA won’t be the sacrifice.

Dreaming of the Osaka Sun

“Tonight maybe we’re gonna run, dreaming of the Osaka Sun…But I have no doubt, one day the sun will come out.”-Coldplay, ‘Lovers in Japan’

On Saturday morning I disembarked from the peaceful Takarazuka and set off on an trek to the largest city in the Kansai region: Osaka. Undeniably rich in Japanese culture and bereft of the so-called “Westernization” of Tokyo, Osaka is said to have the best food and friendliest people in the country. Any correlation between the two remains unclear, though it seems likely after having experienced it firsthand. Having only a few locations in mind and very little idea about how to get to them, I boarded the east-bound train with two fellow exchange students, knowing that whatever happened, we were in for one hell of an adventure.

The Umeda Sky Building. Those structures crossing through the circle at the top? Those are escalators.

Our first stop was the thirteenth floor of the Daimaru Department Building, the location of Pokemon Center Osaka. Did you expect anything else from me? After drooling over all the merchandise that read “For sale in Japan only,” we made our purchases (a Pikachu plush!) and entered the steel jungle that made San Francisco look like a MacDonalds Playplace.

After asking a policeman for directions in Japanese (he gave me his map!), we worked our way through an underground tunnel to the 40+ story Umeda Sky Building, one of the more famous pieces of architecture in the Osaka area. More or less an office building, the Umeda Sky Building is made of two towers connected by their top two floors (41 and 42), and visitors have the option of paying ¥700 to ride the elevator to the viewing deck at the top. Of course we did, and we got an incredible view of the entire city as well as coffee at the cafe (my first “real” coffee since being in Japan; still not California!). Riding 40 stories in a glass elevator was incredible, but most definitely not for the fainthearted. Still, a sight worth seeing.

The Tempozan Ferris Wheel. 112.5 meters tall!

After what seemed like an eternity of navigating the labyrinth of the Osaka subway system (“It’s only forever, not long at all”), we found the Tempozan wharf area, which houses one of the world’s largest ferris wheels as well as the world-famous Osaka Aquarium Keiyukan. After literally flipping a ¥10 coin, our first stop was the aquarium, the home of the biggest tank in the world, which houses two whale sharks and a whole lot more. The crowds weren’t bad for a Saturday, and we saw the entire aquarium within a few hours. Ironically enough, there was even a “Monterey Bay” section….

For lunch we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that opened in 1910 and served a famous curry rice dish with raw egg. To debunk all rumors, I am living proof that raw eggs do not make you sick (if you eat them while they’re fresh, which many Americans don’t). The food was amazing, and we were all too full for dinner even after walking 9+ miles! Boarding the subway yet again, we went on a hunt for Dotonbori, the iconic Osakan street with larger-than-life neons and animatronic crabs and clowns. After navigating through a seedier part of town laden with “love hotels” (Japanese houses are small and have thin walls; figure it out), we ran across a sea of people walking in one direction. I had a hunch that we were onto something. So we followed the crowd, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the heart of Osaka nightlife, bombarded by takoyaki chefs and restaurant owners vying for customers, claiming that they had the best of whatever they were selling. None of us were hungry in the least, but hey, this is Osaka, so we decided to split an order of takoyaki from the stand with the longest line, and was it ever worth it! I found octopus to be surprisingly tasty, as well as a wonderful way to end our day-long excursion into the cultural heart of Kansai.

Overall it was quite an adventure, my cramped shoulder from my purse serving as proof even days later. I have now started my second full week of classes, and in Japanese language class alone we’re covering a chapter a day. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a limit to the capacity of the human brain…. I guess I’ll find out, and when I do, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Lines Evermore Unclear

“Oh crystal ball, crystal ball, save us all, tell me life is beautiful.” –Keane, ‘Crystal Ball’

Has it really been two weeks? I’m kind of in limbo right now, as even though my conscious mind is acclimating, my subconscious is still trying to figure out what in the world I am doing here. As far as communication goes, I’m getting there. Slowly. I haven’t had enough Japanese language classes to make significant progress (I actually haven’t started most of my classes yet due to holidays and the typhoon), but I pick things up on a daily basis (words I use often include “cool,” “maybe,” and “understood”). Tonight I even managed to tell my host mom that I played pachinko with my friends and that my dad owns a Japanese pachinko machine and fixes old pinball machines in our garage! Useful things to know, let me tell you (sarcasm). Besides the language, I am slowly learning how to conduct myself in society at places such as restaurants and stores, and though I ignore the occasional store clerk (I am so sorry lady who I think was trying to offer me a sample!), I am gradually learning the ins and outs of everyday life.

I had no school Friday as it was the autumnal equinox, and my host mom took me to see Takarazuka Revue! We hopped on bicycles, much to my dismay as I have not ridden a bicycle in about two years and the Japanese are not particularly keen on wearing helmets, and I followed her (without crashing!) to the Takarazuka Grand Theater a couple of miles away. As we stood in line we met a kind older woman who was in line to see the show as well, ecstatic that I, being a foreigner, would be so inclined to attend. “Is this your first time in Japan?” she asked me in Japanese. “Yes, it’s my first time,” I responded. She nodded and smiled a bit before saying, “I see, well, it’s very good that you want to see Takarazuka. Very good.”

The promotional poster for 仮面の男 and Royal Straight Flush!!

As we waited, I noticed a group of women (okay, there were no men) standing off to the side by a gate. When a voice in the group yelled, “Sit down!” and the entire group sat formally on their knees, I looked to my host mom and the woman next to us for direction. They laughed a little bit and my host mom whispered to me, “Those are Takarazuka club members.” The older woman piped in, “I think that’s a rule. Look!” And as I turned to watch, a well-dressed, androgynous-looking woman came walking up to the gates and entered a pin number into the keypad. As the gate opened, the entire group said at once, “おはようございます!” or “Good morning!” Ah yes, I remembered then, the Takarazuka fan girls have quite the reputation.

Turning to the ladies next to me I heard our new friend whisper, “I think Todoroki Yuu is supposed to be making an appearance.” All of a sudden I started sputtering incoherent Japanese phrases, only managing to garner strange looks before blurting, “Todoroki Yuu is my favorite!!” So ineloquent, but alas, aren’t all moments of crazed fandom? When both of the women next to me start jabbering excitedly, I knew I must have said something right. They talked to me for a while in Japanese that I couldn’t understand, and I just nodded repeatedly until they both grabbed my arms (quite unlike the Japanese) to spin me around.

“Waaah, look Amy-chan!” My host mom rasps, hitting me again. A car with tinted windows pulls up at the sidewalk not two feet from me. The cab door opens, a pale hand shielding the owner’s face from view. I know those hands. Filing my creeper status away for the moment (or forever), I hear my host mom squeal, my breath catching as out of the car steps none other than my ultimate girl crush–Totoroki Yuu! I hear murmurs and squeals from the fan club as she steps up to the keypad and enters the gate, my host mom pushing me forward so I can get a better look. As she walks across the courtyard and up the steps of the Grand Theater, the fan girls yell in unison, “いってらっしゃい!” (roughly: Have a nice day!), and the moment is over. This all happened before the actual show.

The entire production including intermission was about five hours long, as it consisted of two full shows: one a musical, in this case 仮面の男 or Man in the Iron Mask (literally “Masked Man”), and the sort of broadway-esque dance show Royal Straight Flush!! (why a native Japanese speaker would choose this title I have no idea). The acting, costumes, music, and stage design were all beautiful, and although I couldn’t understand most of the lines, I understood the story and the emotion behind the scenes. However, one of the few lines spoken in English by the Three Musketeers I latched onto, as it rang true in more than the context of the play, but in the context of Japanese society itself: “All for one and one for all!”

Before the show!

If there is one thing that I have taken from all of this so far–and something that will likely continue to stand out to me if it is prevalent this early on–is the collectivist mentality of Japan. We’ve all heard it before: Asian countries tend to be collectivistic, working for the greater good of everyone rather than for the individual. In other words, it probably couldn’t be farther from the idealistic “American Dream” of “making it on your own” and the like. The idea is not to stand out, not to put yourself on display. It’s difficult to explain if you’ve never experienced the difference. I feel like I’m in the way when I’m out in public. I feel the desire to hide, not so much because I look different, but because I am so obviously marching to the beat of a different drum. Surprisingly, it becomes worse when I am with others who are non-Japanese. At least partially, I know it’s the language barrier. But the fact that society goes so much deeper than language is really starting to hit home, and I know that I will have a much harder time learning how to live Japanese rather than speak Japanese. Economic similarities and work ethic aside, there might not be two cultures in the world that are more different at their core values than Japan and the United States.

So who is right? The answer is: neither. Both. There is no right or wrong answer, there are just different ways of doing things and different ways in which societies run themselves. Of course I am comfortable with the American value of individualism. I grew up in America, and there is no reason I shouldn’t be. Do I think that makes it better? From a neutral perspective, no. But of course there is a part of me that wishes to be catered to, to be praised. But one must be cautious in saying that these things are human nature. Yes, we are all humans, and humans share universalistic traits. One could say it is human nature to love, but the rules of who to love, when to love, and how to love change within different cultural contexts. What is love? One could say not showing physical affection to one’s children is a form of neglect, but hugs are incredibly rare in Japan, children being no exception. In my opinion, attributing an action to “human nature” is a god-awful excuse for writing off something that you don’t understand; an attempt to group all human beings into the same category to make oneself more comfortable in difficult situations. Something is American nature perhaps, but human nature? I’m not so sure. I suppose that’s why I’m here: to search for an answer, and in the case that there isn’t one, to accept and understand another society as it is, without comparing every detail against my own.

Feeling Good

“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.” –Muse, ‘Feeling Good’

I believe I can deem my first weekend in Japan (without jet lag) a success!

Me and Shoko on the train.

On Sunday I met my friend Shoko at a central train station and we went to Nishinomiya Gardens, the largest shopping center in the Kansai region. It was more like a small town than a mall, but eh, details. It has a full grocery store, department store, drug store, food court, movie theater, and dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of specialty shops. We shopped around for some school supplies, and I even ran into an acquaintance from my exchange program! What were the chances? Shoko and I caught up and had lunch at a little restaurant that specialized in rice omelets (I take back ever saying I disliked them), and after stopping by a bookstore, we parted ways at my station and promised to meet up again soon.

Monday was slightly different. It was a national holiday, so I brought my host brother Akihiro to an American football game about a half-hour train ride away. He walked quickly and didn’t seem to want to be associated with me, but I don’t really blame him. After all, what thirteen-year-old Japanese boy would want to be seen with a 変な外人 (strange foreigner) girl? He read his manga book on the train, but once we got to the stadium he seemed to loosen up a little bit. I managed  to ask in Japanese for tickets that had been reserved under my name, and we took a seat on the bleachers. After attempting to explain the meaning of “ironic” to him (アイロニック, or aironikku, apparently not a concept common in Japanese culture), we bought some sodas and braced ourselves for the bad weather the gloomy sky seemed to promise. Luckily it only drizzled, and the Asahi Challengers won 16-0. I have to admit, even though I’m not a fan of football, the game was immensely interesting, and differed from football in America more than I imagined it would. Each team’s cheerleaders were actively involved with the audience, and even with the teams when they made their entrances onto the field (and they were entrances all right, complete with bowing). Throughout the entire game the cheerleaders led the crowd in chants, which were all in English. Still, I was the only non-Japanese person there, so that should give you an idea about how dramatic the minority demographics are here. After the game I found Noriko, an acquaintance of mine who I met back in the United States through my kyūdō instructor, who plays women’s football for the Sacramento Sirens. She works as a coach for the Challengers during the off-season, and introduced me to one of her friends who has connections with women’s football teams in Japan. I’m starting to think I really should have just been a football player….

I don't consider myself a big football fan, but I can't argue that the backdrop scenery isn't nicer than any field in the US.

After the game, Akihiro took me into a video rental store (no Netflix in Japan yet). It was so interesting to see all the movies I love with different titles and alternate covers. For instance, Tangled is translated to “On Rapunzel’s Tower” in Japanese. We walked around the shops on the street for a while as he looked for a specific magazine, but we eventually gave up the search and made our way back to the station. We stopped by the shopping center near our house on the way back, and Akihiro showed me a music/DVD/game store, and we talked about what kinds of media we like and the prices of game systems in America versus Japan. It turns out that one of his favorite movies is Howl’s Moving Castle (one of my all-time favorites), and we’ve both played a lot of the same video games. I tried to win him a Nintendo 3DS out of a prize machine, but no such luck. It’s the thought that counts, right…? We also went to the bookstore next door where we talked about comics, and he showed me the series that are popular in Japan. Overall I think we bonded as much as we could have with my limited knowledge of Japanese. Today he even said “konnichiwa” to me when I came home (happy sobs)! I am so pathetic.

I find it strange that the more I get used to my host family, the more I want to speak in English. Has anyone else who has studied/is studying abroad experienced this? Perhaps it’s because as I become more able to communicate with them, I become more relaxed and revert back to what’s normal for me. I’m not sure.

So more recently, I just found out that there is a typhoon headed our way! I’ve never been in a typhoon/hurricane. When it hits it’s only supposed to be a category 1, but that’s still 74-95mph winds. So exciting! And if a storm warning is issued, classes will be cancelled. I don’t really want class to be cancelled, as I like going to school (today was my first day and it was great), and I really want to delve into learning the language. I know I’ll eat these words in a couple of weeks, but I’m just ready to start studying! Anyway, I promise to update soon with information on classes and such–if I survive!!