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21 posts from August 2011


Trains, temples, and turtles: adventures in alliteration

Adventures in Kawagoe, actually, but that didn't start with an A.  ;-)

We don't have many free days in our schedule, since we have class for half the day, six days a week.  This past weekend, however, we got a Saturday off.  Hooray!  (It's sad when you celebrate not having school on a Saturday, similar to "Hooray, I have enough to eat for the next two days!" or "Hooray, the doctor says that squirrel flu season is shorter this year!")  So I wanted to make my free day count.

It was several hundred degrees outside, but I didn't want to let that stop me.  I'd been wanting to go to Kawagoe, a town about a half an hour outside of Tokyo, ever since that I'd heard it was called 'Little Edo' and had lots of historic buildings and temples.  (I have a mad love of history, only rivaled by my mad love of architecture.)

Of course, I had no idea where the historic district in Kawagoe was in relation to the train station, but I wasn't going to let that stop me either.  Operating on my two general principles of A) maps are for weaklings, and B) any direction you choose is automatically the right one, I decided to set out and see what I came across.

What I came across ended up being shrines.  Lots and lots of shrines.  These aren't the giant shrines that serve as tourist attractions.  They're small, out of the way, and fairly deserted.  I took pictures and tossed in a coin at each one I came across.  I felt like I was on a pilgrimage: The Pilgrim's Progress of Beautiful Buildings.  Fortunately for me and the citizens of Kawagoe, I made it to the Kurazakuri Zone, where all the old houses are, before I died of heatstroke.  I did end up picking up a map there, but I'll maintain that it was only because the nice tourist office lady offered it to me. 

The houses were lovely. 


And then there were the turtles.

On the way to the Kita-in Temple, I stumbled across another temple (which turned out to be the Naritasan Temple, although I didn't know that at the time).  It was pretty cool, but nothing out of the ordinary…until I found the turtles.

It was simply happenstance; I found a small path that wound around a small statue of Buddha and a shrine area.  I decided to walk around it to get a closer look at the statue.  There was a bridge and walkway over a small pool.  And when I looked down…there they were.  So many turtles.


I probably sat and watched those turtles for twenty minutes, just thinking.  About home, about Japan, about everything I've seen and done since I've been here.  Tokyo's not known for being a peaceful spot, but the Naritasan temple is definitely one of the most peaceful places I've ever been.

Alas, none of the turtles were ninjas.  On second thought, that might have been for the best.

^Probably could not fight him and win

-Kendra Leigh Speedling


Changing History, one Picture at a Time

After the first weekend of events, CIEE does not actually plan many more events for the entire group to participate in. There are some through Sophia Univeristy, but mainly people go off on their own and/or do the activites recommended by CIEE on their own time. This is basically true except for one time: Shannon, our program director, gave us 4 options of a group activity to participate in that CIEE would pay for. The options were either Tokyo Disney Sea, Samurai/Geisha photos, a baseball game, or the Roppongi Hills City View Observation Deck. Tokyo Disney Sea won (which turned out to be a much better time than I expected). However, myself and Amanda - who is also doing the blog - really wanted to do the geisha/samurai we did.

If you read Amanda's blog entry below you can read about her becoming a geisha, or rather, an apprentice geisha. I, on the other hand, decided to do something a bit different; I wanted to be a samurai. It actually took awhile for Amanda to convince me to go because I didn't think they would let me, as a female, dress up as a samurai, but I'm really glad I did decide to go.

We went to our appointment at Studio Katsura in Harajuku and were immediately shown in in typical Japanese etiquette and style. As you can imagine, it took much longer for Amanda to get dressed due to the abundance of make-up geishas wear - and the fact that samurais didn't wear any -so I was actually able to become a samurai and take some pictures before she was ready.




Really, the main reason I wanted to do the samurai role is because I love swords. Absolutely love them. So I couldn't just go and not take pics with their swords. Just as a note, the swords were real, just dulled.

It was really so much fun. The people in the studio were also super nice. They let us take silly pictures after the photographer had finished, basically trying on crazy-high shoes, or using a smoking pipe, fan, or purse however we wanted. The photographer for the shoot actually took a picture of me in the 7-inch high shoes on his own personal camera! I guess it is a bit funny to see a female samurai on tall geisha shoes. XD


But really, the people at Studio Katsura were so nice. We took pictures with them after and I recommend everyone who visits Japan goes to do this. Amanda and I had the best time.


Samurai Samurai2-2

Transforming the Ordinary

                This past weekend we had a long(ish) holiday from classes. I never realized how much I treasured my weekends until they were cut in half! So, like the crazy person I am, I squished everything I could in two action-packed days that wore me completely out. One of those immensely fun activities was going to Studio Katsura- a specialty photo studio in Harajuku- with my friend and fellow CIEE participant, Amber. Once there, we got to chose from a wide variety of costumes- geiko, maiko, ouran, samurai, etc. I chose to be dressed as a maiko, or apprentice geiko, while Amber decided to be transformed into a samurai.

In a word, it was this: AMAZING!

The members of Studio Katsura are immensely welcoming and charming. Don’t think you have to be a fluent Japanese speaker to truly appreciate the experience, either. Amber and I used a wide variety of simply words, sentence fragments, and gestures. Also, a couple of the members speak English, or enough to get their point or directions across.

We arrived at the studio around three in the afternoon, were given soft cotton robes and ushered into a dressing room. Once we were properly dressed, we entered the main studio to begin the process. For me, this involved washing my face several times and pinning my hair up and under a cap. Afterwards, I was ushered to a comfortable chair to have my makeup applied.DSC02752

I won’t bore you with the minute details, but I will say that although it took about an hour, it didn’t feel like it took that long. They started with a wax base on my face, neck, and shoulders, which felt odd, but not terribly so. After that, came an intensive makeup session that included a thick layer of white paint. After it was done, you could hardly recognize me!

After makeup, I was ushered to a soft tatami mat in the center of the room and dressed. First came the initial obi (belt) to keep my cotton robe in place, followed by padding, another obi, more padding, and so on. After about two layers that got increasingly tighter (but not unbearable), I was helped into a surprisingly heavy silk kimono. It was gorgeous, and that alone made me feel like royalty. I don’t think I’d ever been so close to something so exquisite before.

DSC02758 Once the kimono was in place, another obi was tied to keep it from going out of place, some more padding, and another obi in rich red silk. Several decorative ropes and sashes were also added. By the time I was finished being dressed, I was squeezed so tightly that it felt, for a moment, that I could hardly breathe! It didn’t hurt, but it surprised me at how snug everything was. I joked and said that “for once in my life, I would have perfect posture!” It was absolutely impossible to slouch!

Finally, the finishing touch: the wig. Once it was in place, I was almost afraid to move my head too much, lest it fall off. It, too, was surprisingly heavy. But finally, a little over an hour later, my transformation was complete! I truly looked unrecognizable. When I posted these pictures on Facebook that evening, my own mother didn’t recognize me until she looked several times.

This experience was absolutely amazing. I felt like a princess the entire time, and I would not have changed it for the world. I loved absolutely everything about the experience- the studio, the people, the props, and even the makeup. When we were taking photos, I felt like a princess modeling for a magazine. I didn’t even mind that I was carrying significantly more weight than I was used to- what with the clothes being so heavy. There was also so much laughter shared between all that were there- I would recommend this experience to anyone and everyone who visits the Tokyo area. It’s an experience of a lifetime, and an amazing memory and souvenir to bring back home! 



Dream A Dream and Make it Real

                 2 All I had ever done was dream of visiting a foreign land. For the longest time, I had my eyes on a country known as Japan, and for me, it was always ever thought of as a dream that if it was to ever be accomplished would be when I finally reached my 30’s, broke down, had a midlife crisis a  nd ran away to explore the world. Luckily enough I never actually had to wait for that time to come, for a little known program known as CIEE, helped me accomplish a taste of that dream much earlier on in my life, saving people like me from well…. taking drastic measures.

                As a little introduction, so you don’t wonder who this random person speaking on this blog is, my name is Andrew Henry. I come from a little place known as Cape Cod, Massachusetts yet now live in the somewhat big city of Rochester, NY. I am currently a 5th year dual major at Rochester Institute of Technology, studying Printing (the schools term is New Media Publishing) and Chemistry. My whole reasoning for taking part in this fantastic opportunity to come to Japan was the following:

  1. It’s my last year, and I wanted to do something with it that would be memorable.
  2. I’m working on a minor in Japanese Language and Culture, and what better way to learn then to go to the host country for studies.
  3. I get to fulfill a long awaited dream.

                I decided to choose japan because for a long time, that long awaited dream was admiration for both the language and the culture. The language to me was the most catchy and interesting, and the use of symbols for writing I thought was amazing. The Culture, especially what is depicted in historical japan, always held an intriguing beauty that I was never able to experience in the United States. And so here I am, living a dream thousands of miles away from my comfort zone, in another country that is backwards from any lifestyle I have ever kn1own, and I must say that it is the most amazing experience I have ever had (at least so far that is).

                In the few weeks that I have been here, I have exposed myself to so many knew things  including food choices, religious history, people, foreign policies, and have over all experience how it feels to be a part of a minority. In the weeks to come I look forward to sharing more of my  experiences as I visit landmarks, and see traditions of a rich culture unlike anything I have seen.


Things that have surprised me about Japan (and things that probably shouldn't have)

I considered myself fairly well informed about Japanese culture before I came to Japan.  I watched anime and read manga, attended Japanese cultural activities at my university, and had gotten a decent amount of cultural knowledge through language classes.  I figured that I wouldn't have too many problems with culture shock.

I was partially right.  I did know about some things to expect, such as the crowded Tokyo trains, capsule vending machines selling all sorts of things (some less savory than others), onsen, emphasis on politeness, crazy commercials...even so, some things took me by surprise.

1.  The ticket machines at many restaurants.  Instead of ordering your food from a person, you put coins into a machine and it gives you a ticket with your order printed on it, which you then give to the person behind the counter.  It's mostly in small noodle shops and food courts.  Somehow, this failed to come up in my years of being immersed in anime culture.  I think it's quite convenient, really, especially when there's a kanji character I don't know how to pronounce in the name of the dish I want.

2.  After being warned about the hot Tokyo hasn't actually been that bad.  In fact, from what I hear from people back home, it's better than Minnesota right now.

3.  Apparently, squirrels are a tourist attraction in the Japanese countryside.  I don't know what they see in them.  They're pure evil.  (The squirrels, that is, not the tourists.)

4.  The train station bathrooms don't have soap.  (I was prepared for the lack of towels, but not that.)

5.  Just how much kanji I've forgotten in my year off from Japanese class.

6.  Dear Japanese Domino's Pizza: What in the world is mayo-jaga pizza?  I might have to order it just so I can find out.

7.  People not only drive on the other side of the road, they walk that way, too.  (Except when the street is busy; then all bets are off.)

8.  In many public bathrooms, there's this thing that makes a loud rushing water noise as soon as you sit down on the toilet.  Seems to me that makes it more conspicuous, but...

9.  The rarity of trash cans.

10.  The corresponding level of litter---I haven't seen ANY.  There's a trash can every twenty feet in Minneapolis, and people still fling their garbage on the ground.

12.  The popularity of hip-hop clothes stores.

13.  The prevalence of 7-Eleven.  I'd never seen one back in the States, but they're everywhere in Japan.

14.  How often they play American music in Japanese stores and restaurants.  The most jarring was sitting in a ramen shop and hearing country music.

15.  The touch screen vending machines that flash up a little happy emoticon after you buy something from them.  Welcome to the future.  Thank you, Japan.  ^_^


The people in Harujuku are among the most fashionable that I have seen. They are like the punk icons of Japan. In Harujuku the strict demands of Japanese society fall to the ground and are swept underneath the rug. Here they are replaced with freedom and individuality. It is so amazing to see all of the maid costumes and individual outfits that represent the pop culture of Harujuku tutu Japan. I myself have been smitten by the tutu. I bought three an orange one a spider one and a black one with bows! I plan to bring this fad to the US although I doubt it will go over well! One of the more remarkable sites in Japan I have seen was a person and not a landmark. This old man stood at the gate of Harujuku 
with a home made hat..consisting of boards, various inatimate objects and a baby doll glued to his hat. This however was not the most extreme part of his outfit. There he stood with two live goldfish in fish bowls dangling from his ears. I highly recommend visiting Harujuku if you want a taste of the flavor of underground Japan.

Finally, Japan

Konnichiwa all you blog readers out there. My name is Amber Demery and I'm participating in CIEE's Japan 2011 summer study abroad session. Although we've all been here for about 2 weeks now, I'm just beginning my blog so I figure I'll introduce myself and my reasons for coming to Japan.

I am currently a senior at Howard University in Washington, DC; originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I'm a psychology major with a sort of double-minor in chemistry and administration of justice, also known as criminology. My language of study is, of course, Japanese.

Like most members of this summer group, I am a complete nerd, especially when it comes to things Japanese. From a young age I've been interested, and from an older age I've been obsessed with visiting. Having a study abroad experience in Japan was actually a goal I set for myself before I entered college. And since my school demands all students complete their last year of study in-house, I knew I had to get to Japan this summer or it might never happen.

Luckily, it did. And I'm here now experiecing student life and gaining a cultural experience unlike anything else.

Upon arrival, CIEE allowed us a very rare experience by taking us on a tour of cities in the Japanese countryside before settling us in Tokyo. We were able to experience an onsen, tatami mat flooring & futon sleeping, and learn the history of the towns we visited before we even experienced Tokyo. Not only did this allow us to make comparisons, but it was also enjoyable. It may have also saved us from committing the gaijin fallacy of assuming Tokyo is Japan. It is in Japan, but it's not all there is of Japan. Although, there is a lot to experience in Tokyo alone.

This blog will mainly focus on that: what I experience in Tokyo and the surrounding areas during my month abroad. Much of it will be good, but some of it may not be. Yet maybe it will encourage you to experience it for yourself. I will say this, even after being here for a couple of weeks, the good of this trip is still far outweighing the bad.

Ja, Mata Minnesota, Konnichiwa Tokyo!

Konnichiwa! My name is Whitley , but I go by Whit! I am a total otaku..which in japanese means nerd. B-)! I have been taking japanese for about 6 years total. Three years in high school back home in Minnes-O-ta and 3 years in college. I am extremely intrigued by the japanese culture because it is so vastly different from my own in the Western World. There really is no great right or wrong way to describe the fantastic learning oppurtunities that await anyone who is able to study abroad! In this blog I do not wish to give you any answers to the dos and donts in Japanese society, but I strive to give you the account of an average scared and somewhat prepared foreigner leaving home for the first time. I am a mere example of countless students who chose to study abroad and encourage you to read a variety of other blogs offered on this website and others.

    On a side note some of my personal passions and interests focus on the ideas of psychology and sociology and I wish to examine ideas such as how it feels to be part of the minority for the first time and societal conduct abroad.  Some commentaries may be serious, while others may be silly, but I hope all are influential and comparable to your own lives and experiences. Thanks for reading!


Shaking it Up

                The biggest question I seem to be getting lately is simply: what’s life like in Japan? More specifically, I’m getting questions such as: what’s different? What’s the same? How’s the food? The weather? And what about those earthquakes (plural, at this point)?

                In general, it’s kind of hard to answer those questions. Not for lack of information- but because I’m simply being bombarded with so much all the time. I’m here for such a short time and it seems that I’m cramming everything I can into every waking second (and some things while I’m asleep- but I’ll explain that in a minute). For today, I’d like to answer the most predominant question in wake of my earthquake statuses on Facebook: how are you dealing with the earthquakes?

                First off, let it be known that my hometown in Indiana does not get earthquakes. Tornadoes, blizzards, and occasionally ice storms that send the whole town into a panic, yes- but never earthquakes. In the wake of the disaster at Sendai on March 11th, I have to say that I was a little bit nervous about the state of the tectonic activity in Japan, and my family was even more so concerned. Nonetheless, I arrived on the 22nd, prepared as well as I could be for something I had never experienced. I had read my guidebook’s advice on such things, read countless articles about safety online, and thumbed through a pamphlet on the plane. I was set it seemed- I knew exactly what to do!

                And then on Tuesday at four o’clock in the morning, I was woken up by the most alarming and peculiar of situations: My bed was moving! Half asleep, I struggled to come up with an explanation: had my trip to Japan been a wonderful dream and was I instead asleep on the boat we used to camp on in my childhood? Were my friends playing a practical joke on me? By the time I had turned on the lamp beside my bed and fumbled for my glasses, I had woken up enough to think clearly enough to realize what was happening: It was an earthquake!

                Oh no! What should I do? Was I safe in bed? The flashlight was all the way across the room- should I go for it? Better yet, should I stay in bed or dive under the desk? Was this as severe an earthquake as to warrant propping open the door or diving for the emergency exits?! What would Shannon (our summer program director) do?!

                By the time I had gotten awake enough to panic- the shaking had stopped. I deflated instantly and had a good chuckle at my sorry state. I was half out of bed and slightly dizzy with motion sickness from all the shaking and the slightly breathless with alarm: I must have looked absolutely ridiculous- especially considering it was such a minor quake that a couple of my classmates slept through it. Thank goodness I didn’t run screaming for the stairs!

                I tried not to feel bad about freezing and forgetting all my preparations. After all, hadn’t the same thing happened when I faced down my first severe storm and tornado? Hadn’t I panicked then, too? It goes to show, I guess, that no matter what preparations you make, sometimes it’s just not enough- you need concrete experience to know what to expect. Just like back home, where experience had taught me when it was advisable to seek shelter and when it was just a normal storm, I had to experience this earthquake, too, to be properly prepared for next time.

                Which, of course, happened the next night, although not as badly, and I was much calmer.

                For those like me who want to come to Japan, don’t let the earthquakes dissuade you. They’re just like any other type of “different” natural occurrence you have in your hometown- be they tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, or something else entirely. Be prepared for them, as Japan is one of the most tectonically active places on the planet- but don’t feel bad if you freeze up. It happens to everybody, and if you regard it as a learning experience, it actually isn’t all that bad!

                However, coming from a place where the ground does not suddenly decide to randomly move, I have to say that the subsequent shakes we’ve had here in Tokyo are still a little strange- but not in a bad way: a feeling I’ve been experience a lot on my travels throughout this amazing and beautiful country.  


The Reluctant Gaijin

I'm not typically a conspicuous person.  I can be fairly talkative when I'm with people I know, but when I'm simply walking down the street alone, I'm not the sort of person that you would take notice of.  I value this ability to blend in, especially when I'm traveling.  I'm the sort of traveler that gets lost, picks a direction, and keeps on walking, no matter where I end up wandering.  It beats the indignity of pulling out a map in public and--horror of horrors--people realizing that I'm a tourist.

That doesn't work quite so well in Japan.

I'm certainly not going to be mistaken for a local; I don't look anything resembling Japanese.  But I still wanted to avoid being that tourist.  We've all seen that tourist.  The loud stereotypical American abroad, bumbling around the tourist spots, vexed that no one speaks English.  I've been taking Japanese since my sophomore year of high school.  I'm certainly not fluent, but I'd thought I could at least manage to carry on a conversation or understand what people in shops were saying to me.  I wanted to be the gaijin who could actually interact with people.

I'd neglected to take into account three things.  One was the stage fright, the brain freeze that seems to creep over me whenever I'm confronted with the prospect of actually talking with a native speaker of a language I'm learning.  Once that hits, I'm lucky if I can remember English, let alone grammatical structures I memorized for a test at some point.  The second was that I hadn't taken Japanese for a year, and the third was that I've always been disinclined to put effort into learning things.  And Japanese takes quite a bit of effort.  I've read that it takes around 1450 hours of Japanese language instruction to gain the same proficiency as taking 500 hours of French.

I keep reminding myself of that statistic as I have to ask people to repeat what they're saying, say it slower, or explain it in a different way.  Understanding grammatical structures and vocabulary in a textbook is one thing.  It's a whole different story when someone is firing them at you without even pausing for breath.  More than once, I've processed what someone said too late for a response, well after they've given up and assumed I didn't understand.

I feel conspicuous, partly because of my appearance, but mostly because I'm not used to being in situations where I don't understand what's going on.  Looking at street signs takes thought now.  Ordering food takes thought.  Listening to the people on the street who call out to entice you into their stores and restaurants takes thought.  And I feel like that tourist, the baka gaijin, bumbling around Tokyo without any idea what's going on.

I went out to get breakfast on Sunday.  I ordered a coffee and pastry with only a quick glance at the menu, answered whether I wanted my coffee hot or cold, told her I'd be eating in, exchanged words about the weather.  And I understood, without having to ask her to slow down or repeat something.  It was a small victory, but a gratifying one.

Mada ganbarimasu.

-Kendra Leigh Speedling