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21 posts from August 2011


Reflecting on our orientation week trip to Takayama and Matsumoto

Greetings! This is Shannon Quinn, Summer Program Director, posting on behalf of Kevin In, one of our summer program students. 

Shirakawa-go Gassho no Sato (Photo by Shannon Quinn)



A little bit about me. My name is Kevin In and I currently attend the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. I grew up in San Francisco, California, so for most of my life I have been confined to the west coast of the United States. This summer I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to Tokyo, Japan, for a summer study abroad session with the Council of International Educational Exchange, or more commonly abbreviated as CIEE.

I've been asked over and over again, “Why Japan?” I could write a dissertation essay on the reasons why I chose to study abroad in Japan, but I'll try and keep it short. The reason Japan attracted me is because I am fascinated by the fusion of Asian and Western traditions found in Japan. The modern-day culture of Japan is a conglomeration of Asian and Western ideals. It's very interesting to me for a country to have the ability to combine two seemingly contrasting traditions into an everyday lifestyle. So please follow me through my journey in Japan this summer, and I hope you enjoy what you read!

First Impressions

I arrived at Narita Airport and stumbled my way along (following the crowd) until I reached my terminal. The culture shock didn’t really hit me until I had to run my fingerprints into the camera with the customs people. The person I dealt with did not speak any English, and I could not speak Japanese, so we fuddled our way through the process through means of gesture.

I met up with CIEE program staff and we made our way to the Marroad International Hotel in Narita. Narita is approximately two hours away from Tokyo so it wasn’t exactly a big city, however, there is a mall called Aeon Mall that is a popular attraction. After I settled my luggage at the hotel, a few other members of the program and I made our way to the mall for our first adventure in Japan. There is definitely a difference between the malls of the United States and Aeon Mall. When we first entered the mall we saw a small Japanese jazz band playing a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that was broadcasted throughout the loud speakers of the mall. They played very well, and there was even a small audience clapping along with the tune.

It was sort of surprising to me that I stood out in the eyes of the Japanese people. Being from Arizona, people usually assume I am either Japanese, Chinese, or Korean without putting much thought into it. However, I could tell that the Japanese people knew I was a foreigner (but I guess walking with a group of Caucasian Americans helped) and greeted me with a look of amusement. Our group of students strolled around the stores and had a blast looking at all the different souvenirs and merchandise. There were a few stores that had an assortment of snacks and candies, ranging from dried squid to pickled fruits to cola-flavored gummy bears. My poor Japanese speaking skills did lead to a few obstacles when I inquired about some of the products.

On day two we began an eight hour bus journey from Narita to Takayama (which I am told translates to Tall Mountain). We were accompanied by an English speaking Japanese tour guide who explained many of the areas we drove by. Our bus first took us through downtown Tokyo (which was congested with traffic on a Saturday morning) and then through the rural areas of Japan. The countryside was AMAZING! I cannot emphasize the beauty of the mountain ranges and lakes enough. It was definitely a different world from the dry, brown desert land of Arizona. I have never seen so much green in my life. It was miles and miles of lush-green forests and rice fields. The drive went by so quickly because I could not get enough of the surrounding nature. There were a few areas along the way that had me worried however; in particular was the drive through the tiny cramped mountain tunnels. When one coach bus makes a corner turn, only to meet another coach going the other direction, it becomes a true display of driving skills (in one tunnel the distance between our bus and the opposing bus was mere inches apart!).

On our way to Takayama we were educated on the culture of onsen, which are Japanese hot springs. We were then told that our hotel at Takayama had onsens for us to try. Needless to say, we were all excited to relax in the hot springs and bathe away our stress. The regulations for onsen usage were also surprising. The idea is to keep the hot spring water as pure as possible, so a complete shower is required before entering the bath. Our group, split into males and females at this point, decided that the outdoor onsen would provide the most eye-opening experience. One particularly weird custom that I found interesting is the taboo that Japan has on tattoos. Tattoos are still commonly associated with the Japanese Mafia, Yakuza, so a few of our group members weren’t able to experience the onsen with us because of their tattoos.

 On day three we set off once again. However, before we left the boundaries of Takayama, we visited the Hida Takayama Matsuri-no-mori, which is a display of the parade floats of the Takayama’s autumn and spring festivals, housed in a bunker-like facility. The floats are kept in an underground cave due to their massive size, which I thought was quite cool. We also took a CIEE group photo (wearing traditional kimono and festival coasts) beside one of the floats.

After we left Takayama, we set course for Shirakawa-go Gassho no Sato village, which is an outdoor preservation museum of the village of Shirakawa in the mountains. This preservation project is fantastic! It’s really hard to describe in words, but it was as if we stepped into a time machine in the coach bus and traveled centuries back in time. The village consisted of about a dozen or so thatched-roof wooden farmhouses that belonged to approximately four or five families. It was incredible to step inside the small wooden houses to see the kitchen, dining area, and home-style shrines of these historic homes. The view of the mountain ranges and trees from the porches of the homes is one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life. What I would give for a backyard like that in Arizona!

We continued our excursion and moved onwards to Matsumoto City, arriving at our hotel around 7 pm. Our purpose in Matsumoto City was to visit Matsumoto Castle. The castle was built in the 16th century and is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan. There is a federal regulation in Matsumoto City that prohibits other buildings from being taller than Matsumoto Castle, which is only six stories tall. The inside of the castle featured displays of antique armory (though I think they may be replicas) used by defenders of the castle from attackers.

Matsumoto was the last stop of our three day excursion through rural Japan. I apologize if the details seem rushed, but there is just so much that occurred that I would end up writing a novel on the experience. I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’ve written.

-Kevin In

Matsumoto Castle (Photo by Shannon Quinn)

All Good Things....

     It’s my last weekend in Japan, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Parts of me are so divided on the issue, it’s been almost impossible to get a real consensus and a good grasp on my thoughts. There seem to be just as many feelings on the issue of my departure as there were on my arrival. It’s a little exhausting to even beginning wading through the mess, and I shudder at the very thought of even trying. Nonetheless, I’ve been attempting to give it my best shot.

      I guess a part of me is sad: I have absolutely loved every second (or almost) of the time I’ve been here. I’ve done so much and seen so many things and places I never thought I’d ever get to experience: I’ve seen traditional theater (Noh and Kabuki), ridden the train at rush hour, visited the rural mountain regions, and danced down the streets of Shinujku and Akihabara. In moments where this feeling is strongest, I don’t want to leave. There are so many more places I would like to go and so many more adventures to go on!

     Another part of me is ready: it’s been a month full of frustration and triumph. I have conquered so many fears: crowded areas, big cities, trains, airplanes, and things completely out of my comfort zone (such as the onsen). In these moments, homesickness is at its worst, and it’s hard not to be completely frustrated with everything: my aching feet, my class load, crowds, and dietary issues that have left me sick for the past three days. This part of me is ready to go home- back to being surrounded by my family and friends and ready to share tales of my amazing adventure.

      In between these two opposing feelings is a sea of grey. I find myself most often in this area, wading through the pleasantly murky depths. The waters here have a capacity to be turbulent, given the constant sea of emotion, but it also has the capacity to be calm. Everywhere I look, there is a possibility and an opportunity: it’s up to me to take certain paths and to determine how I view them (positively or negatively).

     I have changed so much in the past month: I’ve become stronger and more confident. Most importantly, I made it known to myself and others around me that seizing your dreams is possible, as long as you’re willing to work for it. This adventure has made me think that anything is possible- nothing is too farfetched, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort. It is this newfound belief and change that has inspired me to continue reaching for the limitless expanse of dreamy sky beyond. But I wasn’t alone during this process: my amazing friends and family have been incredibly supportive, and I thank them immensely for it.

     In particular, my older sister, Angela, has been an irreplaceable asset to me and this journey. She was there from the beginning, rooting for me and helping me along the way, not only financially when times got rough, but emotionally during all phases of this project. She’s been the person I’ve been able to call on, and no matter the situation or time of day or night, she has been there for me. I can’t thank her enough. It has been with her incredible support and help that I have been able to make this journey.

     As my time in Japan finally dwindles and comes to an end, I am assured that this will not be the last time I set foot into this amazing place.


Sayonara, Nihon

It's hard to believe that I'll be leaving Japan in four days.  It feels like I've been here for so long, but at the same time, it feels like the trip has gone so quickly.  I've seen many of the things that I absolutely had to see, spent more money than I probably should have, and had a fantastic time.

I feel very ambivalent about returning home.  It'll be good to see my family, boyfriend, and friends again, but I definitely prefer Tokyo to Minnesota.  It'll be hard to adjust to not being able to just hop on a train and go somewhere.  I pined for the city for weeks after I left London (haven't stopped, actually), and I suspect that it'll be the same with Tokyo.  And I'm not sure what awaits me back home.  Unlike most of the people in the CIEE program, this was the last experience of my college career.  Once I return from Japan, I'll have graduated from college.  I'd planned to look for jobs from here, but there wasn't much time to do much in the way of job hunting.  I did apply for a few, which I never heard back from.  It's hard not to feel like I have no future waiting for me when I come back.

Will I miss Japan?  Yes, absolutely.  But I'll also miss the sense of hiatus that I've had while I'm here, that this is a vacation--in spite of the schoolwork--where I don't need to worry about anything.  I'll miss the people I've met here, some of whom have become good friends.

But most of all, I'll miss knowing what comes next.

In the past four weeks, I haven't understood half of the conversations going on around me.  I've felt illiterate, tried to find things I couldn't find, and found quite a few things I wasn't intending to find.  I've gotten lost more times than I could count, when no one who knows me knew where I was.

I didn't ask people for directions, although it would probably have helped me practice my Japanese.  My strategy was this: Pick a direction.  Start walking.  If it doesn't seem right, pick a different one.  At some point, I would come across something that I could use to navigate--a map on the street, a building, a street sign.  And I got to where I was going every single time.  Most of the time, I found more interesting things on the way than I would have if I hadn't wandered off course.

On Friday morning, I'll wake up in Minnesota in my mother's house, with one week left on my student job and no prospects for what comes next.

Time to start walking.

Not all who wander are lost.

-Kendra Leigh Speedling

Farewell Tokyo

Farewell Tokyo I will miss you! I have had the time of my life in Tokyo I am very inspired by this experience to learn more about the international world. I discovered here what it is like to be a minority and what it is like to be foreign. Studying abroad has provided me confidence in myself I never had before. Tokyo is a massive and beautiful city much different from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I will miss the sights, the people and the smells. Some of my favorite activities here have been the bus tour provided by CIEE the first week, school and the festivals. Some of my favorite foods include okonomiyaki and yakitori..delicious! Most of all though I will miss the bond I have made with all the people who joined me on this experience. It is a heart warming experience to share the same chance and opportunity with everyone involved in the CIEE program. I wish us all luck in our future travels.


The End of An Era

Wow, it's sad to say but the end is near. By next Thursday, I will be leaving Japan and returning to America, college and real life. Doing study abroad in Japan has been such a great experience, and I truly am not ready for it to end.

I've visited these almost mythical areas of Japan - Harajuku, Shinjuku - in the big city of Tokyo, but I've also seen areas that are very traditional in style and form, such as Kamakura. And in areas such as Shiba, where Tokyo Tower is, it's been a mixture of both. I've entered Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, 9 story figurine shops, and entire areas dedicated to anime and manga. I've spent more money than I care to remember and I've enjoyed every minute of it.

I've tried all manners of Japanese cuisine, saw amazing shows (in Japanese) at Tokyo Disney Sea, and fell in love with the abundance of vending machines and cute commericals and billboards. I've seen a live kabuki play, traditional Japanese sit-down comedy known as rakugo, walked around an ancient castle, and slept in a traditional tatami-mat-and-onsen-styled hotel. Not to mention my new obsession with tuna mayo onigiri. Although, I will not miss the crowded Tokyo trains or small sidewalks, I will miss just about everything else, including the amazing people I met because of this program.

I do intend to someday return here, whether to teach or to conduct research (in psychology), or even for another visit. I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience and wish it and so much more onto everyone else who signs up for this program. But be warned: come prepared to spend A LOT of money, because you will enjoy yourself too much not to.


A fleeting goodbye: my last days in a great city

                Much to my dismay, this fantastic trip to the great country of Japan will soon come to an end. With roughly six days left before I depart, I will have managed to spend half of those days dealing with classes (most of which consists of homework and studying for my Japanese language course and finals). Out of the free time I have had, and the free time I will have after the program ends, I had the most amazing opportunity to explore the rich culture and unique activities that are in Japan. For one of my classes this morning, I was able to go visit one of the few Imperial shrines in Japan, Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to, and the permanent residence of, the war dead who fought on behalf of the Emperor. I also had an opportunity to visit another famous shrine, Meiji Shrine, earlier in my stay on this program.

                The one part of Yasukuni Shrine that was most magnificent was the war museum Yushukan. The museum contained a lot of artifacts collected from Japanese history, including swords, kamikaze planes, cannons, art pieces, and portrayed a lot of the history of World War II. For only 500 yen, I was able to circle through 19 full exhibitions and was amazed at each and every one. The shrine grounds also hold many monuments prominent to Japan like the monument of Justice Radha Binod Pal and the statue of Ōmura Masujirō.

                During my stay I have been able to enjoy various cuisines ranging from common Japanese specialties like ramen and curry, to American cuisine such as spaghetti. Earlier today I went to a fried rice/ramen/miso soup place that had some of the most amazing fried rice I have ever eaten. They served white rice in the middle of a hot stir fry pan, and cracked eggs around it, and you got to mix it up and cook it right at your table. I also ordered some gyōza and bean sprouts to add to my fried rice. It was absolutely delicious.

                Overall, I am very sad to leave, but have been extremely happy with everything I got to experience here in Japan. Everything from the intense language and religion survey classes, to the early morning commuting, it was an experience I will never forget. I hope to be able to do it again. For all of you who may have second thoughts about studying abroad, I would highly suggest you go ahead and take the opportunity, because it really is something special. Keep an open mind on your trip, and enjoy all that it has to offer!


A night at the theater

                For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to witness a Japanese form of art known as Kabuki. At first glance ,when I walked up to the Shimbashi Enbujo Theater, my first thoughts were, “Great, an average looking theater, which probably means an average performance.” Wow, was I ever wrong. I mean, granted I do know a little about kabuki from my college studies, but I suppose it is to be expected that like everything else in Japan, you can’t tell what’s inside a building by the outside. Yeah, that was kind of a judge a book by its cover metaphor… Anyhow, when I entered the inside of the theater, I was astonished. As in “jaw dropping to the floor astonished.” While I've had the chance to go inside a theater before, most of them were small one floor theaters, possibly with a few balconies. What waited inside this theater was three stories of classy and amazing seats, and the most beautiful stage I have ever seen. This quickly changed my opinion of the theater and I was even more interested to see the show.

                The play that was performed was called Akegarasu Koi No Manegoto (The Bird at Dawn and the Playacting of Love), followed by a small 10 minute dance performance called, Natsu: Tama Matsuri (The Obon Festival). Now I must say, hands down, I thoroughly enjoyed the play. There was a nice mixture of comedy, anger, seriousness, romance, and sorrow. Although I didn’t have a clue what was being said (there was an option to rent English translation headphones, but I didn’t want to spend the money), the actors portrayed all of their lines with such emotion, that it was easy to understand the basic concepts of the play (also my friends with the English audio filled me in on the dialogue during intermissions).

                I think the most enjoyable part of the play was the way it flowed and was presented using the given stage space. They used a very large round rotation area of the stage to seamlessly change between the scenes. I thought this was very creative, and made it more enjoyable because you were not distracted with scenes being set up (they were done behind the scenes). The play took place in the Edo period and went somewhere along the lines of: two samurai guys love a girl, one guy gets jealous, and he kills her. The killer tricks the other guy by using a doll, which the guy believes is the girl. Everyone sees this, and attempts to convince him of it and the guy ends up killing the killer (this is my understand, though I could be wrong on some details due to lack of feedback from my translator friends).

                All in all, I thought the whole play was simply amazing, even  though I couldn’t understand everything. It truly was an awesome experience, one worth doing again if the chance presents itself.


The Next Best Thing Since the Eiffel Tower

Tokyo Tower                 One of the subjects Tokyo is most notorious for is that big shiny peak that glows in the night sky. Of course I’m talking about Tokyo’s landmark, the Tokyo Tower. On one of the first weekends available to me between classes, I had the opportunity to scale the luxurious glowing landmark with a good friend of mine from school. It was a nice clear night and we were feeling venturous. On the way to the tower (it was a decent 10 minute walk from Hamamatsucho station) we first came across Zojo-ji temple, and we were able to walk through the grounds on the way to the tower.

                A little background about this temple (more can be found online, in guidebooks, etc.) is that it is the main temple of the Jodo Buddhist sect, and later became the family temple of the Tokugawa family. The front gates of the temple alone were huge, and a glorious, yet also scary, sight to behold. It kind of felt like one of those horror movies: an area that looks dark and scary, you know you should probably stick to the lit road, but your curiosity has the best of you and you decide against your better judgment to head on through. No need to worry, though, all was safe. A very nice night view of the tower can be seen from inside the temple gates.

Zojo-ji Temple                 Upon arriving to the tower, everything was lit up and there were many people roaming around (also, there was a very nice crepe stand at the base of the tower). An elevator takes you up to the main observatory decks and from there you have a view of the surrounding area. All in all (because let’s face it, spoilers aren’t nice) the tower, and the view, is a great romantic spot, in my opinion, as well as a great photography spot, day or night. I would suggest experiencing this landmark yourself if you get the chance, because it really is breathtaking.

That Thing Called Summer School

Most of the posts made to the blog have been about the amazing things we've all seen/done, mainly because there are so many cool things to do while here in Japan. However, another aspect of the CIEE program is that participants have to take classes for the duration of the program, and I feel like this deserves some illumination as well.

If you've looked at either the CIEE or Sophia University website, you know that each student has to sign up for two classes for the 4 weeks of the program. Classes run from 8:30am - 1pm and everyone is in class at the same time, which means everyone is also out of class at the same time. That the classes are early lends the rest of the day to further Tokyo exploration or Sophia University cultural events. (I've actually managed to do both on some days.)

So it doesn't take up much time, excluding the fact that there is homework to be done for most classes. However, I basically wanted to strees the importance of picking class you find interesting and that fit your overall plan for your Japan stay. For instance, if you would prefer exploring Japan than studying for class, I wouldn't recommend taking a language course. They move fast and require a good bit of studying to stay on top of it. Of course, some other participants may disagree with me, but this is also be dependent on the level of Japanese language knowledge each person enters the program with. On that note, I know Sophia's website recommends taking 2B with 1 or 2 semesters of Japanese, but I would say you actually need about 2 years of it. Just a suggestion from my experience.

Interest in the subject is also important because, despite where it is, class is still class. And class can be boring, whether that be because of the teacher or personal interest. I am currently taking Japanese 2B and Contemporary Japanese Society, and while I am interested in both subjects, I sometimes find Society boring because of the teaching style. However, I still learn and I'm not (always) bored simply because I do find the subject interesting.

This is not to discourage anyone from either of these classes or any others, but this is a part of the program and you have to attend these classes 6 days a week. It's better and easier if you actually like them, especially if you intend to receive credit for them at your home school.

Rakugo: Jokes and Innovation

006 Sophia University provides summer session students with many rare opportunities. These include things like kabuki, tea ceremony, ikebana and Noh theater. Of all the events I have attended so far, Rakugo has been by far the most entertaining. I laughed and laughed. It's like stand-up comedy back home, except it is a traditional Japanese sit-down comedy. While usually performed in Japanese, this time the performance was given in English, just for us. It was amazing. Even though the actor does not speak English, he memorized the entire script (his friend had translated it into English) by listening to the soundtrack on a tape. The actor's name was Aro Sanyutei, and he has many videos you can look up on YouTube. He told 50-year old traditional stories and skits, but put his own twist on them by incorporating music and intense physical action. He was very good at engaging the audience in this experience and even asked to take a group photo with us after his performance. The highlights of the night included very well-done sound effects, a parody of the Lion King theme song and incredible 360 (and even 720 degree!) turns from a seated position on his knees. By far the best night this week has been Rakugo. I highly recommend seeing it. This man is amazingly talented, innovative and funny!