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!
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.
Matsumoto Castle (Photo by Shannon Quinn)