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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.

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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.”