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5 posts categorized "Kendra Speedling"


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


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


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 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


An Introduction to Japan

For me, it was the roads.

I've wanted to go to Japan for years, ever since I became interested in anime and manga.  I'd planned to study abroad from the time I entered college--one of my qualifications for picking a school was a good study abroad program--and I've been taking Japanese language classes since high school.  Japan was most definitely where I wanted to study abroad.  I'd structured my college schedule, restructured it when it became apparent that I was going to graduate a semester earlier than I'd planned, saved money, and took out far too many loans--and I was going to Japan.

The problem was, I didn't quite feel like I'd gone anywhere.

Traveling by airplane is always a disorienting experience.  For other forms of travel, you have reference points to tell you that you're moving.  In planes, there's nothing besides the clouds and the occasional scrap of some unfamiliar land below.  I arrived in Japan at 4 pm on a Friday night; my body was convinced that it was some ungodly hour of the morning on Thursday, and I had been desperately flipping through textbooks for the past few hours, attempting to remind myself of the kanji I'd forgotten during my year off from Japanese class.

In short, I was not in the best condition.

All I remember of my first evening in Japan was wandering around the Aeon Narita mall in a daze, with people who mercifully didn't seem to hate me on sight, trying to get it through my mind that I was in Japan.  The entire experience was very surreal.  I was surrounded by Japanese people, with Japanese words fluttering around me like so many small butterflies...and yet, the mall was a mall.  I might as well have been back home in Minnesota.  We stayed in a hotel by the Narita airport the first night.  I came back from the mall at 10 pm and collapsed onto the bed.  I've never fallen asleep so early in my life.

We left for Takayama the next morning, which involved a seven-hour bus ride.  Initially, I figured I could use the time to read, write, or study some more.  I'd forgotten that I seem to be incapable of doing anything on a bus ride besides staring out the window and thinking.

Japan.  I was in Japan.

The roads were narrow, winding through the mountains with sometimes terrifyingly short distances between the road and the sheer drop down.  They were the sort I'd seen in the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, and had always assumed he was exaggerating for dramatic effect.  Nope.  Those are the roads.  The twisty, mad, treacherous roads from Spirited Away and Ponyo actually existed.  I was on them.

And looking out at the mountains, I finally felt like I had reached Japan.

-Kendra Leigh Speedling