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07/29/2012

Waking up in Tokyo

Hello fellow blog readers! :3

Atashi wa Nidah Hussain desu. Douzo yoroshku! From the University of South Carolina, and as a Biomedical Engineering major, I hail from South Carolina, in the US of A; but i'm currently in Dochida, Nerima-ku, Tokyo.

I'm studying abroad with the CIEE Summer Japanese Studies Program in league with Sophia University. Why the big jump around the world, you ask? Not only does studying abroad look great on a resume, but it's one of the best ways to really get to know a country. The daily grind of student life takes away the sparkly facade put up before tourists, and allows you to meet real people and make real relationships that will last for the long run. Studying abroad broadens your horizons and opens your eyes to a different side of the world that we may not necessarily be exposed to far off in our corner of the western hemisphere. It teaches you to be more tolerant and aware of different opinions and views of similar things.

And all that is only the tip of the iceberg. I chose Japan in particular, however, because I happen to be in love with the culture. Japan holds my respect for many reasons, but one of the main fascinations I have with the country is how Japan has been able to maintain its old traditions while advancing into the future (being among the forefront of technology and science). In being able to preserve the old so well while also keeping up with the new, Japan has created a strong and unique identity for itself which cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. I see it as a lesson to myself, actually, to be able to maintain my identity as a first generation American, while also being exposed to the fantastic and new and different. As an engineer hoping to become a part of Engineers Without Borders, I intend to better understand the culture and approach to science of my fellow-engineers, to strengthen the globalized network through successful partnerships.

But all that heavy stuff aside, I'd like to introduce my first blog with something more fun. :D

CIEE began our program with a fast-paced tour d' Tokyo, guiding us through the more distant, mountainous regions of Tokyo-proper. Among our top hits were Takayama, Matsumoto, and Kichijoji. Below you'll find the highlights of each of these lovely places, ALL of which I encourage you to visit, at least once in this lifetime :)

Takayama

DSC07405
 This place was simply beautiful. The mist on the mountains was continuous, the temperature was mild with a constant cool breeze…nothing like hot HOT Tokyo city. For those who study landscapes, this place with be your muse. The road trip was at least 8 hours, but it was well worth it, and our wonderful guide kept us entertained the whole way with interesting facts and a Kanji quiz.

We made it to the Takayama Green Hotel in Nishino isshiki machi, Takayama-shi Gifu. It’s a ryo-kan, or traditional style Japanese inn. The rooms were tatami, so no shoes. We were all lent yukata unique to the green hotel, along with slippers to be worn inside the hotel—but NOT on the tatami.

The hotel itself is nestled in the mountains and offered a ‘hotaru’ tour (a boat to the nearby river where you could see fireflies at night) as well as hot springs and a spa and a foot bath.

The gift shop in the back sold local candies and sweets and sake, along with charms and a variety of adorable and cool souvenirs. Owls seemed to be a big theme there.

We were treated to a yakiniku style dinner with all the trimmings, like sashimi with various other seafood dishes, grape sake (though I don’t drink), tofu and miso soup, and delicious peach ice cream for dessert.

Things to see/do:

Yama2Onsen, or hot springs 

Yama2Asa-ichi, or morning market/city tour

Yama2Hida Takayama Matsuri no Mori, or the old government building the shogun ruled from in the area

Yama2Try the peach or macha (Japanese green tea) ice cream

Ideal souvenirs: Tenugui, or unique cotton towels about 90 cm long which can be used for anything; Saru-bobo charm or themed cookies (he is the local ‘baby monkey’ charm unique to ONLY the Hida region).

 

Our next stop on our fabulous tour was Shirakawa-go. This place is famous for its Gassho-zukuri (or ‘hands folded in prayer’) style houses.

 Shirakawago mill

These are samurai/feudal era-setting village houses, and are a treasure from out of Japanese history. The architecture is surprisingly engineered to ideally suit the lifestyle of the farmers/villagers that lived in them during their time.

Things to see/do:

Mura2The houses themselves

Mura2The suspension bridge near the entrance

Mura2The lookout point which has the most picturesque view 

Matsumoto

The following day we went to one of the main touristy sites in Tokyo: the Matsumoto castle.

DSC07870
 Feeding the gigantic koi in the moat around the castle was almost as entertaining as observing the castle itself. The grounds and trees around it are lovely and perfect to take a stroll in. In the castle itself, the stairs were incredibly steep, but the climb to the top was worth it. A tiny shrine to the god of weather is up there in the top-most tower, hidden in the ceiling. See if you can spot it on your way up ;p  A man with unsharpened katana (fake ones, mind you) was out there allowing us to take pictures with the samurai swords with the castle in the background. There was also a man dressed like a samurai who arrived later that day for photo ops.

Things to see/do:

Shiro2The castle itself

Shiro2A picture with either the katana, the samurai, or both! :D

Ideal souvenirs: the gift shop has a variety of wonderful and cute things you can get, themed for Matsumoto castle. Anything from key-chains to mini kabuto, or samurai helmets, with shiruken (ninja stars) and everything in between.

 

After the castle, we left Matsumoto city proper to see the Daio Wasabi Farm. Many people have found they either adore or dread this infamous vegetable, but very few have actually seen it in its natural state and observed how much trouble you really have to do through in order to cultivate the stuff.

DSC08012

Under these dark netted cloth sheets, bunches of wasabi grow, shielded from the sun. This plant is actually very sensitive to bright light, which is why it naturally grows in the thick dense foliage of the Japanese mountains. Because the regions of Takayama and Matsumoto are famous for the purity of their water, they are the ideal regions to grow rice for sake and wasabi, both of which need incredibly pure and clean water in order to thrive.

While we were at the farm, we had a taste of various wasabi dishes for lunch, and even—yes, dare I admit it—dessert! You can try it out for yourself too. Wasabi ice cream doesn’t taste nearly as weird or bad as it sounds. I promise ^,<

Things to see/do:

WasabikanjiThe wasabi fields themselves

WasabikanjiThe pure, clean river water

WasabikanjiTry that wasabi ice cream!

Ideal souvenirs: in that gift shop on site, they have wasabi flavored everything, so bringing back something strange and interesting is one thing but, and let’s all admit it; the fact that it’ll be wasabi flavored is the cherry on top.

 

Kichijoji

The last stop on our wondrous tour, and before class began and we had to get serious. Though we were now in city-Tokyo, there was a whole ‘nother set of awesome to discover. Mainly in part, the Ghibli Museum. Hayao Miyazaki, director of My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, The Secret of Arrietty, and MANY MORE absolutely AMAZING animated films has a museum dedicated to his works here in Kichijoji. I heavily recommend going.

Because of copyright laws, however, taking pictures in the museum itself is strictly forbidden. That goes for video, etc, as well. Therefore, all I may offer you is this adorable picture of me with my friend Liza at the main entrance:

 GHibliMuseum

Things to see/do:

Totoro2The museum, duh (and the hidden giant on the highest tower’s roof)

Totoro2The park around the museum is also a nature reserve

Ideal souvenirs: ANYTHING in the gift shop, because it’s awesome. But be warned, everything is insanely expensive there. However, it is the best place to get the merchandise, and if it’s a once in a lifetime thing, just budget about 7000 yen and go all out. You really can’t find the exact same things anywhere else. I’ve looked.

 

So, how’s that for a first time post? :)

Please continue to follow me through my adventure in Tokyo! I’m finally over my jet lag and I’ll be up to no good all the time, so stay posted to this blog for more on what I’ll explore here.

:3

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