Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Big Wrap-up

It has been three weeks since I left Japan. It's taken me that long to get over my jet lag and back onto a regular sleep schedule. Now, 24 days later I can wrap up the trip, add some tips or opinions on what you should or shouldn't bring to Japan, and bring to a close a blog that, though sparse, will help serve as a memoir of a truly wonderful experience.

I did not have the proper time to give Kyoto a full review, so I intend to do so here. Kyoto was a truly special city, being the previous capital of Japan and steeped in popular history. The trip began quite early, at 5:30 in the morning when I woke up, preparing to be at the Shinkansen, bullet train, in Mishima by 6:30. Nakayama-san, my host mother, took me to Mishima station. Looking back, I was really lucky to have gotten her for my host mother. She gave me lunch for myself, Joe, and Frederick, two of my group-mates. We arrived in Kyoto at 9:15-30. The Shinkansen is interesting but I was busy reading and napping and talking to people, so I didn't spend much time looking out the window.. I was excited and there was much to see in Kyoto. From the train-station we took a chartered bus. On the way to our first site, Ryoanji temple, in the large mountainside visible in the distance, somehow the kanji 大 ("dai" or "Great, Big") was etched into the mountainside, either through burning or till-work, I can't be sure.

Ryoanji was a beautiful temple. We had to ascend quite a few feet to get to the temple proper but along the way were quite a number of sites, trees and foliage, plants, all well kept in their respective areas. There was a large pond, or lake, as well but the walk was filled with other sights and as well we had to help our friend Joe up the steps. When we reached the temple proper, removed our shoes as per norm, and entered the first thing we saw was a wall length, large, multi-sectioned screen of paper that was old, very old according to Frederick, who is well versed in Chinese history as far as I can tell. I stood for a few minutes, admiring the long history in the wooden floor and the wall-sized writing before moving on. The very next area was even more admirable. It was a Zen garden, well kept and combed. Nagase-sensei said that, at least for her, the purpose was to empty ones mind when looking at it. You can be the judge of that, but as for myself, I am inclined to agree with her. That is the same experience I had, looking at what seemed to be as uniform as the sea, as of being nowhere in particular. In a way the experience was moving, and in a way there was nothing to be moved, if anyone can make sense of that. There were other sights in Ryoanji temple, a vast tatami room that served as a reception or entertainment area, even a few grave-stones I saw on the way out but for Ryoanji, the most interesting sight was the Zen garden shown in the small photo on the right. We has to leave Ryoanji, however, because the bus we chartered ran only for a certain amount of time and we needed to go to a lot of places still. Our next stop was Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion.

The Golden Pavilion was a sight to see. It was pretty massive, as can be seen by the photograph below. Coincidentally, after that picture was taken, a security officer came and told us we couldn't photograph there, so we were lucky to even get a picture in. There were a few winding paths but we only stayed around half an hour at Kinkakuji before we had to depart. Our next experience was quite an experience indeed. Even though we also only stayed at this destination roughly half an hour or more, Sanjusangendo was a lasting impression. I purchased a framed kanji script: "Nichi nichi kore koujitsu" which translates to 'Every day is a good day.' We weren't allowed to pictures inside the temple, but there were 1000 golden statues of various faces of Buddha. There were also other artifacts. I burned an incense stick with a prayer for a deceased relative and moved on. I was awed by the entire room, and a few in our group were even brought to tears. Coincidentally the temple hosts an archery contest every January.. I hope to one day see or even enter it. I purchased a Kyoto T-Shirt that has Sanjusangendo on it. S'a great place to see. After finishing up at San-ju-san-gen-do, we headed to Chionin temple. Inside the main gate of Chionin are these large steps you may recognize from movies filmed in Japan, like The Last Samurai. Sufficed to say, they were both large and plentiful. In Chionin there were many separate shrines, some to Buddha, some Shinto shrines, and I had the fortune of listening to a pair of Buddhist monks reciting their mantras. We saw many other shrines this day as well, but as the day drew on, we began to wear and get tired. We'd found what food we could along the way, but once we had the opportunity, we ate lunch. We're only human, of course. I picked up a few shirts along the way, inexpensive but well worth their make. Finally, we had to give up the bus and make it on foot to the Kyoto station. We had roughly two hours, and the train-station wasn't so far away. During the walk we crossed a bridge, and both Fred and I went down to the water below; some people sat along the shore of the river the bridge crossed. We found a place to eat dinner, the seven or so of us that stuck together after the group dispersed, after we left our last temple location. It was a pleasant walk altogether, but as it was, we didn't get back to Mishima until 10:30PM or so. I miss Kyoto.

After Kyoto it was back to the regular routine of waking and walking and seeing the cap of Fujisan, of spending a great time eating breakfast with my host family, being energized by their personalities and food, of taking the time to study so I could volunteer for the next days Japanese lesson, and taking time to be with friends and meet new people. I met so many new people in Japan and in many ways I miss them. I will see two of them this August, for the entire month, and then they will head back to Japan but I hope to return to Japan in the future. Maybe I will be posted to Susono or Mishima when I'm fortunate enough to get into JET. It wasn't long before we'd be heading back for The United States of America, and I wasn't all too anxious to come back. Don't get me wrong, I just really enjoyed staying in Japan. The people I met and the family I stood with were really nice to me, and they showed me a lot of things, shared their culture with me. On top of that Japan has so many other wonders, especially Onsen and foot Onsen, the Onsen being a hot spring. I'll just give out a warning.. they are really hot. So just don't be too surprised when you dip your feet. Also, don't get me wrong: there were many things to do after Kyoto. I got to take a lesson in Koto, the long Japanese harp. I took to it quickly, if I do say so myself. I had the opportunity to ask someone to the movies, so some of us went and saw a movie called "Flowers" in complete Japanese. I was glad I could understand most of what was going on and a decent deal of what was being said, though I've still much to learn. I even did calligraphy, though like the Harp, I only had about an hours time before I had to go. I was trying to manage my week efficiently, and so some leeway had to be cut in favor of the precense of other people. It seemed that the end of the trip came too soon, and many of us, I am sure, feel too little time was spent in Japan but that just leaves room for a future visit.

And now an addendum:

The time that I was in Japan, the month of June, was supposed to be the rainy season, or in it, but to be honest it did not rain a lot. However when it did rain, it rained hard so make sure to bring an umbrella and a pair of crocs if you have them. Coincidentally, its still hot out after a rain and the water can feel good on the feet, rather than soaked in a now-wasted sock. Or just bring boots, either choice will do. Also, I recommend you bring a good amount of money. While the food is inexpensive, most of the tourist spots are expensive, merchandise-wise. And clothing, as in all places, is expensive. 7-11's in Japan also sell inexpensive foods, that are pretty good, but if you eat often, expect to spend a lot on food, especially because of how good it is. Japanese foods are all delicious, even Natou if you can stomach it. And there are a lot of places you can find good prices on merchandise, and so would want to buy a lot. I spent roughly a grand in total on everything. Karaoke and Izakaya are expensive, so I recommend only doing them a few times. Japan is quite a safe place to be, so long as it's a place like Mishima, or Susono. Tokyo is a little different, you should beware pickpockets. Also, bring tylenol gel-capsules! Because the medicine there is weak and they don't sell them anywhere but stores that I suppose have permits, so no 7-11 has any kind of pain medication, headache, cramp or otherwise. Finally, don't be afraid to ask questions. I'll leave you with a story:

My group-mate Susan and I were somewhat lost. Not so much lost as we couldn't read or understand how he signs worked for the trains, so we asked someone.. a random girl. And it turned out that, while we could get a little across, she too didn't really understand the train, but it so happened her cousin came up to her and spoke to her and to me a little. She could speak no english and understand very little of it but I managed. He was easier, he could understand and that was much better. They were junior-highschool students. Well, it so happened that, since Susan and I are on the same train-line, they accompanied both Susan and I to our respective stops, and then promptly turned around and took the next train back to Numazu station. Mind you it is 20 minutes to Susono from Numazu. I wish I could contact these two to say thanks, but maybe one day they will read this. I must thank all the people on this trip, even ones who just didn't seem to get along with a lot of us; I could take them all. Especially I want to thank Nagase-sensei and all the Japanese TAs who helped me gain another foot in understanding and speaking the Japanese language. Please, if you read the above advice, take it. And take care.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Long Time Coming and Going

So, the trip is nearing its end and I`ve had such difficulty posting this blog with full information, in part because my camera has no internet capability and in part because I have had little internet access. But I will do my best to fill you all in. I suppose I will start with Tokyo, the trip from last weekend.

We arrived on Friday, the 11th and boy was that a day. Our first task was to quickly acquire train passes, and then head to Odaiba, the city of couples. Understandably so, it had quite an amazing view both of the city and of the water, with many relaxing spots to view both. Odaiba, as I understand it, is actually a manmade island. After taking in the sights there, my companions and I, Laura, Fred, Sara and Myself, went to the nearby mall to do some shopping and some eating. Shortly after that we returned to our hotel in Tokyo proper. This was not the end of the night however, for we next went, as a group of 20, to Tokyo Tower, an amazing eiffel-like tower which offered a most beautiful view of Tokyo at night. I found myself wistful, looking at the beautiful city lights from 300+ ft up. After observing all that I could I visited the gift shop, roughly 10PM at this point, purchased a shirt, as I so love shirts, and then headed back to the hotel. Fred and I, room-mates, explored Tokyo at night for a little but headed back before 11:00 because.. well, let`s face it, the next day was far more interesting.

We began Saturday by taking a trip to Tsukiji fish market, a 400+ year old intricate system of fish shops, with an outer market for the common customer and an inner market for workers and priveleged shoppers, like stores and supermarkets. It was an amazing site to behold, in use since the Tokugawa era of the 1600`s. After going through a priveleged tour of the inner market by our guide Tom, we ate lunch just outside the market, a bountiful feast of tomatoes, tuna, clams, miso, and other such items. Tsukiji was a very interesting place and I wished we had more time to be there but the trip must move on, and so it did. Our next stop was Ginza, a shopping district. There is little to say about Ginza but I did visit an interesting paper shop where I retrieved some stationary. Next we went into the subway and from there we split into groups. Mine, consisting of Susan, Brian, James and myself, went to Akihabara. Despite what people think, it was a cool place. But before Akihabara we visitied Asakusa, a wonderful Meiji-era type street which had a full compliment of people and stalls to shop at where I picked up Jimbei and a Kimono. It also had a grand temple, which I was happy to visit and offer up prayer and thanks for this trip, as well as good wishes for the future.

Akihabara has great food, at really inexpensive prices. I had a full bowl of curry with Soba noodles for 300 yen. That is a full meal for roughly $3.15 US. But before we ate, we hired an adorable cosplaying tour-guide.. she was, in fact, a Rekishijou, History Girl, who was in Shinsengumi-wear. She was adorable and showed us this little known shrine to a fire god which she was embarrased to admit to worshipping but reluctantly did. Akihabara is also a great place for fandom and for affordable music and games and whatever an electronic person would want in Akihabara`s electronic town. After Akihabara, which was very lengthy, taking over four hours, we returned to the hotel and went to sleep. The next day was even better.

Shinjuku and Harajuku were the two places I visited Sunday, since we had to return to Mishima that day. Shinjuku was great. Fred and I split from the girls and found the way to Kabuki-cho, the red-light district of Tokyo. Aside from seeing some common people as you would see in NYC, I got the true feeling of the common Japanese day. Fred and I explored and we found a temple under construction, a shrine, and street vendor selling hand-drawn paintings which we HAD to purchase. If you don`t like to explore, don`t come to Japan but if you do.. you will find a whole new wonderful world. After Shinjuku Fred and I hit Harajuku, clothing central, and a great part of Tokyo.

I found wonderful shirts, of course I bought them, and a necklace accessory. But the most important and pertinent part of Harajuku was the discovery of the Meiji emperors shrine. That was a sight to behold and made the trip to Japan well worth it. After further eating, and meeting up with Laura and Sara, subsequently losing Laura, and more eating, we had to head back to the hotel in Tokyo proper. Sadly this was where the trip to Tokyo ended. The trip to Kyoto lay ahead on Wednesday, the 16th. We returned to Mishima on the 14th.

P.S. For anyone wondering on the food or what to bring along for such a trip, I will be making an addendum on returning to the states, so that you can grasp the full experience of what went on. For now, I will save describing Kyoto for the morning. As always, today was a full day of wonder and literal roller-coaster rides. Take care all!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Let`s play catch up!

Okay, so it is now Wednesday, June 9th and only now am I getting to add another entry into this blog. My time in Japan has kept me so busy, what with going to class in the morning and seeing the sights and meeting hundreds of new people, that I have had almost no time to do anything like this. Pictures will be posted soon enough but first I would like to explain my first week in Japan.

I am staying in Susono, a town outside of Mishima city where Japan University`s International Academics is located. It is a quaint little town with lots to explore. My host family, Nakayama, live in the midst of a rice paddy and so every morning I can see the rice growing before my eyes. On top of that, they are located very close to Mt. Fuji, which I get to see each morning on the walk to the train station. I have to take a train to get to the school, you see. But it is well worth the ten minutes it takes to roughly walk from home to the station. Also, Susono is located near Mt. Hakone and the famous Ashinoko lake. Each day I value the time I get to spend just appreciating the quaint town of Susono.

It hasn`t been all that, though. Schoolwork takes a little time and we are often going on trips, so there is little time on some days. Looking back on the first week in Japan I can say already that my life is quite full. So far in the first week I have gone to Mount Fuji with Frederick, a group-mate, which was quite the wonderous sight to see. If you ever do anything in life, climb mount Fuji. The mist alone is enough to warrant the trip. Since Nakayama family and Frederick`s family, the Nagatomo family, are close friends, we also went to Mount Hakone and Ashinoko lake together. Seeing all the sights I have seen in these three trips is enough to fill three pages, but there`s plenty more.

Japanese people are nice, very caring. They often go out of there way to help people, including those who cannot correctly read train schedules. So much that they accompanied my friend and I to our respective stations before turning around and going home. It is an interesting culture, to say the least. On top of that, I was invited to the Firefly Festival by one of the TAs and met probably 30 more people at that time. So to say the least it was hectic and I find myself now very tired but very aware of the enjoyment to be had. One of the most interesting aspects of Japan, however, is something called an Izakaya. It is basically a Japanese bar but it functions in a different way. Of course there is drinking and such but the table setups are phenomonal and one can get drunk off of just being in such a room of your friends. I have only gone twice but I find myself moving around a lot because we all talk together in different intervals.

There is plenty more to cover.. such as the Atami museam of art and the Police Station visit we took today but, that will be a conversation for my next post. As per responsibility I must return home to my host family who will provide me with dinner. They are great people and I am grateful to them for taking me in as they have. Until later, all of you take care out there. I will post pictures of this week as soon as I can.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pre-Program Jitters

Like Pre-operation jitters, I suppose, I am filled with a sense of excitement and nervousness at the same time. I am not afraid of what is to come, this trip to Japan will be one of the highest points in my life and will be a stepping stone to my future teaching goals. I have gone over several times whether I have all the necessary paperwork, copies of paperwork, passport, clothing, and other essentials that I might need through the first few nights in Japan. While I intend to buy some clothing there, I've brought a full weeks worth of wardrobe.. thankfully I will be able to wash clothes once a week at the least. Yet, I cannot help but feel a little apprehensive.

This should be natural of course. I am going to live with a new family, and I have never been in such an atmosphere. Still, I assume much of life will be spent as it is here, on Long Island NY; That is, filled with activities ranging from educational to recreational but all within the scope of an attainable goal, herein to study and assimilate into another culture. I will be taking a language course on Japanese at the intermediate level, and I will also be under a controlled reading environment where my professor will help me to develop a full thesis and a well thought out, and lengthy, paper based on what I learn. For this purpose I have decided to examine Ninjo Giri, that is the Japanese cultural and individual moralities and responsibilities and how each of them play into the others hands, coalescing into the modern Japanese person we might connect with today.

Above the nervousness and the anxiety, however, is the comforting fact that I am going to be staying with a family whose house is in the midst of a rice field. I certainly hope Nakayama-san and the rest of her family are as excited about that fact as I am.. it will certainly make for a great round of pictures and late-night appreciation of my environment. It gives me a certain feeling of awe and excitement that overcomes my jittery nature and lets me relax with the notion that at the very least, even if I don't like the food, or the people, or the culture and society, I already have a memory to connect with and look back on. For some this may seem difficult to understand, or silly, but for me.. it helps to balance out the worry that I might get lost traveling in a foreign land.

Though, if I had to be lost in a distant country, Japan would be that place. From what I hear, its people are generally very helpful and especially considerate. I leave tomorrow morning, Friday, at 11:30 AM and I couldn't be more psyched.