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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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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.”

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!