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08/11/2012

The Happiest Place in Japan: Tokyo disneyland

This ticket is mine. All mine! 
The trip to Disneyland finally happened today!!!!  I hate to use a cliche, but it was definitely a magical experience! Initially I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to Disneyland or DisneySea, but after today I know I made the right decision. I'll just have to come back to visit Sea another time!

Inside Disney Station! 
The entire CIEE group met at school and took the train to Disney Station together. That was where we received our tickets and split into Team Land and Team Sea for our monorail destinations, and then split up into our groups for the day. The monorail was adorable, even the little hand rails hanging from the ceiling were mickey shaped!  The ride wasn't very long and we very quickly arrived at the gates. Of course we all ran in and started the awesomeness immediately. Our first mission was to pick up fast passes for Space Mountain. Even though we arrived decently early, it was so popular that our assigned return time was past 3pm! Since there was plenty of wait time, we moved on and went on our first ride: It's a Small World!  I took a video of a short portion of it; in case you're interested in hearing what it's like in Japanese.
We also were given a handy tip about nearby Splash Mountain. No matter how large your group is (at that point we were 7) always say you're a single rider. They let you go in the fast pass line and you turn an 80 minute wait time into an 8 minute wait time. You won't be sitting with your friends, but it's totally worth it for not having to wait in that awful line!

I'm such a card! Did end up eating
dinner inside here later.
We explored every one of the souvenir shops and eventually three of us bought various forms of head ornamentation. I say it that way because we went beyond the typical mickey ears (which EVERYBODY was wearing!) for something a little more unique. My personal choice was Stitch nom noming my head. I definitely tried on quite a few before choosing, but this one seemed the most me.

Once our fastpass time arrived, I took a quick picture of us rushing through the line at Space Mountain. I couldn't believe how fast we got through everywhere! I think Tokyo Disney has a better understanding of the phrase "maximum capacity" than the US counterparts. Though perhaps it could be because (fun fact) they aren't actually owned by the Disney Corporation. They pay for the right to everything so they can have different rules! For example, if as an adult you show up to Tokyo Disney in costume, nobody cares. If you pull that in the states you'll be kicked out faster than you can say "Security".
 Cinderella's castle not only served as the main focal point of the park, but also the main event stage for their Natsu Matsuri event shows. You have to participate in a lottery to get tickets to the seated area, so we only saw part of the afternoon show, but we definitely snagged tickets to the night time main event!
Disney food was also sort of different, and yet sort of the same. Instead of Mickey shaped ice creams, they had Mickey shaped fruit pops and frozen mango. And don't hate, it's so hot and humid that ice cream would probably make most people sick while conversely the fruit based items cool you down enjoyably. There were still ice creams available, just not on the carts. Even the lunches and dinners had their own Japan twists. My lunch at pizza port was definitely a slice of Mozzerella and Crab pizza. Now THAT is unique, yet delicious!
Even though we're way too old to ride most things there, we took a detour into ToonTown. We wanted to see the Mickey Mouse fountain!






Even though this park is smaller than the Disney in California, it was the perfect size for a one day adventure.

Just past 7 it was time to go watch 'Soryo Kobu The Final'. That's the name of part 2 of the big Natsu Matsuri show up on the main stage. At this point it was just me and Lauren. Our lottery spot secured us some pretty great seats, second block center. What we didn't realize was that this show gets you WET. Not just little sprinkles of water. I mean massive cannons spread throughout the castle and stage. At one point I was trying to film a part of the performance when the cannons went off, all you can see at the end of the video is the camera dropping as you hear me scream. It was kind of hilarious. The show was really fun! The characters danced and there was a lot of audience participation! Also the water cannons felt amazing in the heat.

After that show, we met up with Liza and Andrew near the front of the park. The four of us got a spot to watch the 'Tokyo Disney Electrical Parade'. It was about a 25 minute show which I filmed all of but am not able to upload here today due to internet constraints.  That was probably the best Disney parade I've ever seen. It was just so entertaining and fun!!

When all was said and done, we left the park smiling and feeling like little kids again. I took SO MANY PICTURES! This has been the best day of the entire trip! All in all, I think I'm going to have to come back to DisneyTokyo. Though my next trip may have to be to explore the park next door; DisneySea!

 

The Road To Midterms: Balancing School Life and Tokyo Fun

Many summer session classes have field trips; some optional, some required, some in class, some afterwards. During the first full week, my class to a field trip to tour the Tokyo Stock Exchange. 

Even though it was technically after school, we still had to end class early in order for everyone to arrive by the scheduled tour time. We were perfectly allowed to take pictures, but we weren't allowed to use flash so it was difficult to get many good images. I won't know for sure what all turned out until I look at the pictures larger on the computer, so for now check out my fancy schmancy visitor badge.
CIMG8985
We had a special private tour scheduled for the class, so this is something I never would have been able to see if I had simply been in Tokyo on my own. We learned quite a bit about how the stock market works in Japan, as well as how the TSE runs on a daily basis. It was very interesting and it was a fantastic opportunity brought to us by the campus. 
The next day, I hopped on a train after school, transfered at Kanda, and went back to Akihabara to do what I had been planning since June: go to MaiDreamin. MaiDreamin is a Maid Cafe in Akihabara with multiple chains of the cafe throughout Akiba. There's like 6 of them on this one street and they're all super successful. Why? Because they are AMAZING! This isn't like the 2 other Maid Cafe's I've been to before. This was by far the most spectacular service I have had anywhere in Japan.
When I walked in, I was given my own personal maid, Mariko, and my presence was announced to the entire shop (of course, everybody applauded. It's part of the ambiance). I was referred to for the entire time as either "Princess Jennifer" or "Master". Okay, a little creepy in English, but in Japanese it was adorable. Mariko asked me about where I was from and talked to me about lots of things. Another one of the maids came around when Mariko was busy and made sure I understood everything that was going on since it has been discussed that my primary language is English. They thought my Japanese was cute! My treats were a chocolate bear parfait named kuma-chan and a white peach tea.   2012-07-31_14-07-43_658
After I got my food, all the lights were turned off and exchanged for party lights for the "Live Show". It was so adorable, the maids danced and even sang a little! They got the audience involved, clapping and joining in on a part of the dance. We also got various colored glowsticks to play along with. The whole experience was just pure sugary fun! It costs a little more than others I have been to, but honestly the quality makes it 100% worth it and I would recommend MaiDreamin to anyone planning to go to a Maid Cafe. If you ever go to one with me, we'll definitely be going to one of their branches!

The next day after classes the Sophia Summer Office sponsored a trip to the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku. I had been here before, but this time was different because we had a presentation about the shrine from some of the priests, as well as we were able to watch an official ceremony. I wish I could've taken photos during the ceremony because it was quite beautiful, but photography is strictly forbidden in that particular part of the shrine. Luckily the outdoor areas were photographable, so I was able to get some shrine photos; just not of priests or preistesses because they ask you not to.
                                                                                     

Now an especially cool fact about the Meiji Shrine is it's location. You walk outside and are literally at Cosplay Bridge. Even with it being already pretty late in the evening (just past 5pm when all was said and done) we couldn't be in Harajuku without going back down Takeshita Dori for a little mini shopping trip. 


Our next summer session activity was going to Noh. Noh is a type of masked performance play. I was a little nervous about going because I'd heard a lot of poor reviews of the art form. Things like "It's really slow", "It's boring", and "I fell asleep". But of course I try to experience everything, and I had never seen a Noh play for myself, so I was up to try it. I was so pleasantly surprised! The first few minutes I was worried, it seemed to be starting out slow; but very quickly I was drawn in and the hour and a half performance felt as if it had taken only a few minutes. The minimalist nature of the staging makes the actors have to draw you in on their own, and the whole performance really does pull you into it. My only comment on Noh is that the masks are REALLY CREEPY. I mean just downright scary. The good news is that only main characters wear them, so it's okay. We saw "Aoi no Ue" which is basically an episode from The Tale of Genji. I have never read Genji, but it is very famous and after seeing this performance I may have to read it because I would love to hear the rest of the story. I really wish I could've filmed part of the show, or at least taken pictures. Sadly photos were not allowed once the show began. At least I was able to capture a few shots of the stage.
After the show we all went in search of food. The Noh theatre was in a haute fashion district, so there wasn't much to eat in that area. Luckily for us our train transfer was in Shibuya, so we just hopped over there and looked for somewhere to eat right in the center of all the action! Once we found our way out of the ginormous station and around to the proper side, we crossed the road at Shibuya Crossing and started to check out the back areas behind Shibuya 109. There's a lot of shopping in that area, but there's also a TON of food.
Corn soup: one of my favorites
We looked around and around trying to decide what sounded right for the night. Finally, I spotted a sign that said pancakes. Pancakes have been brought up for various reasons over the past few days so I saw the sign and thought immediately "This is the place!".
My awesome pancakes of delicousness
 I pointed it out to the group and we all took the elevator up to the 8th floor where the restaurant was located. As soon as we saw the big menu setup, everyone else decided it was definitely the place. Everything was as delicious as it was adorable! Also, since their pancakes are thicker, they were extremely filling and they incorporated dessert into the dinner experience. I haven was able to have some corn soup! It's one of those silly little foods that I love in Japan but hadn't found yet this year. It wasn't a big day for pictures, so basically all I've got is food pictures. I'm sure you don't mind, they're cute! 

 

08/09/2012

Before I Jump In, A bit about Me エヴリーン (Evelyn)

Blog-Me

Hajimemashite!  My name is Evelyn Cooke, a rising sophomore marketing major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  I am only 18 years old, which makes me the youngest in the CIEE group (luckily I have met one 17 year-old in the summer session at Sophia University that understands my struggle) so I have a pretty unique experience.  I live in Staten Island, New York so moving to Tokyo didn’t seem like it would be too much of a culture shock as I am accustomed to the hustle and bustle of big city life.  That's what I THOUGHT.

Blog-trip2

You may be thinking, wow a rising sophomore studying abroad already?  (or not lol)  So, I would like to start by explaining why I decided to buy a $1,700 plane ticket to go halfway across the world.

Personally:

            As the youngest child of mostly males, I learned early on to appreciate the entertainment choices of my brothers.  This led me to finding much appreciation for Japanese anime, games and toys.  Continuing this interest, I began to volunteer at an annual Japan Day event held at Central Park in Manhattan which introduced me to the real culture.  Here is where the dream of one day seeing this beautiful country first-hand was created. 

Professionally:

            During my first year at Howard, I decided to fulfill my language requirements by studying Japanese, (my older sister had taken Chinese and my inner child strayed away from wanting to be a “copy-cat” even though I admired her choice) It was during this class that a recruiter from a popular game company, Namco Bandai (responsible for things like Soul Caliber, Tekken and Pac-man for you gamers) came and told the class about summer marketing internships right here in Tokyo.  Unfortunately, to apply, you need to know more than how to count and introduce yourself in Japanese.  So, to prepare myself for applying in the near future, I decided that covering myself in the culture and language was the best solution.

Academically:

            While my school doesn’t make studying abroad very easy to do, in the long run, taking classes at Sophia University will help me to continue to learn Japanese.  I have come to realize that language courses I have taken move at a much slower pace than what I need to become comfortable with the language any time soon.  Taking not only language courses, but a business course as well will provide me with credits and everything I need to know to get around Tokyo at a basic level.

CIEE was the only choice for me!

I chose more specifically to come through the CIEE program because I had the option to stay with a Japanese family which would allow me to learn the structures and manners of the culture first-hand.  Also, this program seemed to be the freest in terms of allowing for time to explore and see whatever it is that interests me about Japan.

 

I am here to have fun, put aside my American ways, and enjoy all that this country has to offer.  I was nervous at first but to those interested out there that sound like me, hopefully my story will give you all you need/want to know.  

 

This is my first time blogging so I hope I don't put you to sleep, I will try not to ramble on about myself anymore lol

In case you were wondering:

List of other Namco Bandai games - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Namco_games

08/08/2012

Sado – Japanese Tea Ceremony

Hello, blog readers!

I have a double whammy I’d like to share with everyone. I recently got to experience a tea ceremony demonstration from my host mother and sister at home, then followed up with another one from Sophia University as an optional event. It’s the difference between the two that I’d like to share with you, sorta’ to see the two sides of the approaches to the same traditional event.

Let’s begin with the tea ceremony I experienced at home.

It was pretty straightforward. Okaasan showed me the different tools used to prepare the tea, such as the chasaji, or “mini spoon” made of bamboo used to scoop the tea, the chasen, or whisk you mix the powdered tea with, and the chawan, or tea bowl, which you drink the tea in.

Teaceremonybasics

Macha is the specific Japanese powdered green tea that has a slightly bitter tang. It’s delicious, really. So Okaasan took out her tea tools, but she let my Imoto-chan take the lead and show me how it’s done. I was informed that the tea ceremony is a class you take in Jr. High school, while my host sister Imoto-chan took me step-by-step through the motions.

Firstly, using the chasaji, only two scoops of macha are used to make roughly 1/3 of the chawan’s capacity in tea. You then pour hot water onto the macha, and use the chasen you vigorously mix the contents until it’s an even darker green. Then, you lift the bowl by placing it on your left palm and using your right hand to turn the bowl clockwise twice.

Okaasan explained that this is done to appreciate the design and pattern on the bowl, or the shape of the bowl (chawan) you are about to sip tea from. Then you drink while your hands are held the same way. After being dubbed nekko-jita by Okaasan for being unable to drink my macha that hot (and lolled at a little—don’t worry, I can eat spicy food which leaves my host family in awe, so I got a laugh, too) I was shown how to wipe the portion you sipped from and then rotate counterclockwise in the same method. It ended just as abruptly, and was pretty informal.

   While Okaasan had me at the dinner table with Imoto-chan, and a fascinated Otooto-kun watched along, the demonstration at school didn’t really involve me as much, nor did it get into the motions of the tea ceremony so much. Rather, it was all an explanation about the aesthetics of the tea ceremony and the psychology behind it. A faux tatami room was set up to add to the mood.

TeaCeremony (30)

We observed the making of the tea from scratch, using very traditional methods, all the while the movements of the oba-san making the were constrained and deliberate, all radiating discipline. We had an announcer giving us the play-by-play of what she was doing. I kept mentally comparing it to Okaasan’s pouring hot water out of a hot water heater, and the four of us just sitting and laughing around the table, (me attempting to drink super hot tea), to what I was watching now. Although the aesthetics that were explained to us said that this ceremony was supposed to be one of relaxed airs and easy communication between the teishu (host) and the kyaku (guests), it was a far cry from Okaasan’s kitchen table.

TeaCeremony (45)

We watched the wrap up with the guest thanking everything (not just the host, but the tea growers, the tea, the tea cup, the displayed wall scroll and the ikebana) and I didn’t get the same explanation for why to rotate the tea cup, to my surprise. Then the oba-san cleaned up everything on the spot in a very traditional way, and we all got to taste the macha they’d made behind the screen, along with a famous tea sweet called Momoyama from the Yamanashi Prefecture popular for such tiny cakes.

I liked this ceremony as well, but I feel like what we were shown was more of how it was done, old school. I guess the way Okaasan showed me would be more of the modern spin on a very, very old tradition. It still kept the idea and purpose behind the tea ceremony—to relax and enjoy one’s company and scenery—but it was done with less rigidity and more silliness.

TeaCeremony (80)

Those cakes were so darn cute! I learned that you eat the sweet before you drink the tea, to equalize the bitterness. And it didn’t hurt that an adorable little kid was shuffling about serving them on a tray. Kawaii desu ne?

TeaCeremony (76)

Thanks for dropping by, bloggers! Until my next omoshiroi event, Ja matta ne!

;3

 

 

08/07/2012

Tai-ko: the Great Drum

Bloggers! Long time no read :D

Let’s talk Taiko, traditional drums of Japan. This blog’s subject will surround one totally fantabulous instance: my visit to the Taiko Labs.

Anybody who’s interested in music, this is absolutely the place for you to visit. You don’t just have to be a drummer to check this out—heck, I’m only a violinist and this was Ah-May-Zing! It’s not only awesome music and a jaw-dropping demo, but you get to play a taiko drum and feel what the drummer does. This drum is pretty big, and pretty tough to hit. If you’re not careful, those bachi you play it with will recoil and pop you right back!

Like any other aspect of the Japanese culture, this requires a good bit of discipline. Honestly, not just anyone can be a Taiko drummer. And man, it really is an art form as much as exciting music.

The first sight I laid eyes on when entering the sound-proof studio was a small river of large taiko drums.

TaikoLab (4)

We had a nice instructor who took us through the motions of playing a simple pattern, then adding complications with having only half of us play, then half the room play one chorus while the other half played the second part, then switch off. We even had a moment where some of us drumming next to each other had to switch to each others’ drums between beats, then hurry and switch back. It was fantastic, and a ton of fun. I loved the energy that our instructor brought into the room, and the sound of the drum vibrating thorough everyone was exhilarating. It made you want to play and be a part of the fun. The shouts in particular added to the mood. We chanted “So-re, so-re, so-re!” periodically through playing, in time with the beat.

The closest possible thing to that kind of thrill that I’ve ever experienced is, like, being in the student section of a college football game, while your team is winning. It’s that kind of rush that keeps you all moving and shouting together. It actually brings a strong sense of unity, playing together like that.

Then our instructors came out to give a demonstration.

And basically, playtime was over.

TaikoLab (36)

Watching them perform left me speechless. I could only stay behind that camera of mine and stare. In particular, the man in the center of the above picture, Tanaka Masayoshi. He wrote two of the three songs performed. And seriously, this guy is unbelievable. If there’s anyone out there who truly loves what they do in life, and is as serious about it as they like it, it’s Masayoshi-san.

…Your entire world narrowing and to the skin of that drum face… How much of his life went into loving, understanding, and working with that instrument, though it’s just a drum?… The force with which they were beating those taiko left me with baited breath, waiting for when it would finally break… I thought of the meiji shrine and the large statues of fuujin, god of wind, and raijin, the god of thunder. The way that he played, making the room shake—I could feel the vibration through me, if that makes any sense. Kinda’ like standing next to a bass speaker and feeling vibrations hit you. That was incredible and powerful in a way that’s tough to describe. I do know one thing, though. The three of them out there?

Tonight, they were the gods of thunder.

:3

 

Sensoji Temple, Asakusa—Oldest Temple in Tokyo

Saikiin doudesu ka, blog readers?

I got to drop into Sensoji Temple on my escapade through Tokyo, and I’ve brought some of my experience to share with you. Hopefully you’ll benefit from it—maybe learn something or two? For starters, it's a temple, which means it's based around buddhism, not shintoism. Shinto has shrines. Buddhism has temples. Got it?

Good, on with the show.

Sensoji Temple (36)

The most famous feature of this temple is the trademark giant choji or joji (paper lantern), right inside the Kaminarimon gate and always a bright read, though the name on it may change depending on the sponsor who donated the lantern. Across from the main temple building is the ablution pavilion and a large (and I mean, large) basin filled with sand that has something curious smoking out of it. If you observe the locals who actually know what they’re doing, you’ll spy them wafting smoke onto themselves. This smoke is thought to cleanse your impurities and help you towards perfecting yourself.

Things to see/do:

TempleAttempt ablution (watch the locals who know what they’re doing)

TempleThe beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the main shrine building/architecture

TempleStroll through the many stalls/vendors

Ideal souvenirs: Charms from the shrine for good luck and money, and being more beautiful, etc. These are unique to this shrine, and range anywhere from 500 yen to 1000+ yen. Inside each of these is a little kami which will help you’re wish come true, allegedly (if you believe in this sorta’ thing), and you can find daruma dolls, joji, tenugui, maneki-neko, samurai swords (fake, people! They’re fakes!), sensu, uchiwa, fuurin, yukata and their other accessories, both for men and women—you name a traditional souvenir, they’ve got it here! It’s a one stop shop for those things that are classical and authentic to Japan which people will love back home.

   A major tip as you shop: you will need at least a good two hours here, and that’s if you’re a speed shopper. I recommend visiting all of the stalls, or at least as many as you can, before you make a purchase of anything. A lot of times, the stall across the way or even down a few feet will have what you want in a better selection, or more than 200 yen cheaper. It’s a good way to find what you want without paying a hiked price for it.

   It’s also very interesting to see how religion and capitalism mesh together here in Sensoji. You have the shrine and the holy stuff, then you have street vendors with their various wares. The people here are very nice too.

   On the way back out I got a better look at the two famous gods that protect the temple. One is fuujin, god of the wind, and the other is raijin, god of thunder (shown below, respectively):

Sensoji Temple (106)
Fuujin

Sensoji Temple (107)
Raijin

They’re pretty fierce looking statues, aren’t they?

Hope you get to visit this place. It’s flavored with old Japan, and definitely worth what it takes to get here and spend the day. I give it four stars! Until my next post, ja ne~ bloggers,

:3

Hanabi Matsuri--These aren't your Gramma's fireworks

HanabiMatsuri (53)
Genki datta, bloggers?!

   I'm here to share my experience at the Natsuo Hanabi Festival near Asakusa with my host family. This was some time in late July, which is, of course, the month made for fireworks :3

   Otoosan was there to pick me up after school activities were done, and then our Odyssey began. Between the two of us, my knowing little Japanese and he knowing about as much English, it was an interesting start through the busy streets.

   For starters, we stopped by a combini (convenience store) to stock up on drinks before we decided to tackle the train ride to the area around Asakusa and the Sumida river. My fellow blog readers, if there is even one bit of advice you garner from me, please let it be this ancient Japanese wisedom:

「Always buy drinks from Convienience Store」

  Because seriously, when we actually got there and the hawkers were on the street sides selling, they were charging pretty high just for water, never mind soda and alcohol--all of which you can get from your local combini (with better selection and more variety) for MUCH cheaper!

   But I digress. So we stocked up on drinks (I love the macha green tea they sell) and we dove through this THICK crowd of people all headed for a spot to watch fireworks. It was too easy to get lost in that sea of people on the street, then bottle-necking to the station, then being a thick crowd in the metro too, which seemed to carry over into the trains themselves.

   Think of sardines, neatly layered together in a small tin can...

Sardines_01

   ...Now give those sardines yukata and bags and brief cases, and give that tin can wheels while you set it on a track. There you have the Japanese Metro system at peak time. Otoosan was generous and stood in the way so that I had a seat and not some weird stranger looming over me, while he was in front. We tried to make small talk, and he told me an anecdote about my younger host sister, (whom I will call Imoto-chan) who used to be deathly afraid of fireworks and cried on her first Hanabi because of the loud sounds. We also discussed the finer points of footwear (geta vs zori) and how to properly wear yukata plus accessories; all in our part English, part Japanese, part some form of wordless/sign-language communication. It was actually a lot of fun.

   Once we reached our station (bear with me, getting there was really half the adventure) his back became my beacon as we literally squeezed through this oceanic mass of color and noise and cameras. The Omowari-san (police) were standing on small taiko-drum-tower like stands, calling out with mega phones and, even at one point, forming a human chain with linked arms to assure people weren't going to flatten them.

   Finally, after we got to the section of the Sumida river where my host family saved themselves the best view of the fireworks out of the barges from the river. We were up front and center, and I could even see the new Tokyo Sky Tree. Okaasan was there with my younger host bro, whom I'll call Otouto-kun. We ate bento Okaasan made for us while sitting on a picnic blanket right by the river.

It was fantastic! These fireworks were truely a spectacle. I mean, we think the 4th of July is cool in the states. Even Carowinds couldn't pull off something like this.

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I truly believe I wouldn’t have been able to experience Hanabi Matsuri the way I did, with as much fun and in such a unique and VIP location, had I not been with my host family. Because of them, I had one of the best nights of my stay in Tokyo so far. I got to experience the fireworks the way a Japanese family would, and this insider ticket made the night even more special for me. The langauge barrier didn't matter--awe is universal. We laughed and ooh-ed and aah-ed at the different displays, ate delicious bento (I now have a deep love of pickled plums) and snapped pictures of each other in turns.

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It was a night to remember. I couldn’t have done it any other way. If you’re ever in Japan in the summer, make SURE you go to Tokyo, and if you have any local family or friend you can tag along with, so much the better. Make certain you go see the fireworks during the Hanabi Matsuri festival!

Those fireworks are worth the experience. Of course, then it was back into the subways… 

Sardine2

Till next time, bloggers! Ja matta ne~

;3




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.

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 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.

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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

07/28/2012

The Tokyo Experience: How we spent our pre-class free days!

Day 5:
 Look right there. Do you see that?! Do you KNOW what that ticket is for?!?!?! Well, I'll tell you either way. That right there is a ticket to the Ghibli Museum. You know, that reservation only peek into the world of Miyazaki that ranges from difficult to reserve to absolutely impossible depending on the time of year. The place that only allows people to attend in 2 hour blocks due to the sheer volume of reservation requests they receive. Yup. That Ghibli Museum. And that, my friends, is where I started my day.

The Museum is only a 1.4km walk from the hotel through a cute shopping alley and a breathtaking park. Everyone met in the hotel lobby at 11:30am to begin the trip, since our ticket reservation began at 12 and nobody wanted to miss a minute. We walked through the shopping area and entered a large park by crossing a lake. As we waked across the bridge, we could see all of the fish. There was even a large water snake gliding through the water below! We passed the boat rentals (a potential activity for another day), the park zoo (yet again, something to check out), and through the parks forest path. Finally, we came to a road which we followed shortly before seeing what we had been looking for. A large gate reading 'Ghibli Museum'.

 Photos inside were strictly forbidden (as in there is literally a staff member in each room who ensures that your phone and camera remain in your bag) but certain outdoor areas were okay to photograph. The inside was absolutely amazing! It was exactly like stepping into the various worlds of Studio Ghibli. Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Nausica and the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea; you name it and it was there! Original sketches, explanations of the animation process, recreations of the room where the all the magic started, a short film theatre, and even a life sized CatBus were all included in the experience. Sadly the CatBus is exclusively for small children and the staff members think it's inappropriate to fight the kindergartners on fieldtrip for their place in line. Don't question whether or not I attempted, you may be disappointed in me when I answer. I have never been to a museum that was so much fun, or so crowded! The gift shop looked more like Walmart on Black Friday than a museum on a Monday. Wall to wall people fighting for expensive, but totally awesome, souvenirs. Good thing I had adequate Black Friday training to be prepared for the experience; I had important things to pick up! Outside in the Ghibli Cafe, they were filled to capacity, so since I couldn't get in I just grabbed a Japanese Pair Sherbet in the outdoor stand and watched all the fun around me. There was even a little girl dressed as Kiki, she was so adorable!!!

I wish I could've stayed all day, but eventually my reservation block came to an end and it was time to go back to the real world. Luckily, the real world comes with food.
8 of us walked back towards the hotel to the Kichijoji JR Station and hopped on a train to Shinjuku.

Once in Shinjuku, our first objective was to find some lunch. We walked around near the station for a bit before finding a small restaurant hidden from the main road. Between us we had all sorts of delicious foods from ramen to yakitori, all of which was thoroughly enjoyed.
With happy tummy's, we began to explore the shopping available in Shinjuku. Our first stop was an enormous Forever 21 with 4 levels of clothing! I found something I wanted, but let's just say I was having Gaijin problems. Such a shame too, for cuteness to be so wasted in not joining my clothing collection.After Forever 21, we went over to the 0101. Inside there were many shops throughout 8 floors, as well as a movie theatre on the opposite side of the building. We looked through what was playing, but today was not the day for movies. that will happen one day after class, but not today. The 0101 included a small Uniqlo (Personally, I'm looking forward to the 12 level one in Ginza). I tried on an adorable dress. The sales clerk in the dressing room started speaking English to me when he saw me, but when I responded in Japanese he went back to speaking Japanese. I was sad to have to give him back the dress, especially when I had to awkwardly explain that going up a size would not help my particular sizing problem (haha, Gaijin problems... at least my waist fitxD). I looked through all the stores on the several levels, I almost bought Japanese press-on manicure (you know like the fancy schmancy acrylics with bows and sparkles and 3D thingys glued to your nails, except for $20 instead of $200) but decided against it because, let's face it, I'd chip one in about 3 seconds.

0101 was followed by Takashimaya Time Square. In similar fashion it contained many small stores including Tiffany's,Hermes, and Gucci, Docle & Gabbanna. I'll admit I took a peek in Louis Vuitton to see if they still had my bag available, and of course I picked up some eyeliner in Tokyu Hands, but I was really only in that department store around 20 minutes before I crossed the 5th floor bridge over to the neighboring bookstore for some fun.

Eventually it was time to take the train back to Kichijoji. The station was crowded with people riding home from work, but we all packed into a train and made it safely back to our home station. Once there, our group split up between the grocery store and the hotel. I made a quick run toマクドナルド for a teriyaki burger and a fried apple pie. Don't judge me for my tacky American moment, everyone is entitled to one and mine was delicious. I couldn't resist taking a peek at the bookstore across the street I had spotted during dinner. Somehow that turned into 2 more magazines, bringing my total to 4. Not ashamed, I love me some Japanese magazines. 

 

Day 6:

In front of the main gate to Harajuku 

 Todays original plan was to spend the morning in Harajuku, the afternoon in Shibuya, and the early evening in karaoke. This plan changed, however, when Harajuku turned out to be far more fruitful than any of us had anticipated. What do I mean by that? Well, these are all of the stores I made purchases from in Harajuku: Paris Kid's, Daiso, Daichu, Margo, K-K Souther, Pet Paradise, Angelic Pretty, Innocent World, Tutu Anna, Amo's Style, Love Toxic, Bodyline, Wonder Rocket, Beam Chara, Momo, and 2 separate crepe shops. Considering I probably made a purchase at 1 in every 20 or 30 shops, you can figure it was an insanely long process even without doing the actual math of solving how many shops that implies my having searched through. 

I did purikura several times, twice with different groups of fellow CIEE students, and once with just myself (because let's be honest, those are totally just as fun). I would be posting those here, but you can only have them sent to Japanese phones. And no, my rental phone would not have made sense because getting them off of it would not have been possible. 

Some of you who know my particular Harajuku preferences may be noticing a key location missing from my purchase list. You may be thinking, "But Jenn, what about BABY THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT?" Let me tell you what happened there. I walked all the way through Takeshita Dori, down to the Laforet building where BABY is located on level B1.5 (yes, basement 1 and a half is a floor), walked into BTSSB and WAS COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY IGNORED.So I thought about it and concluded the following; "You know, it's totally fine. If they want to be rude, they just lost out on a $300 sale and it's entirely their problem." So I simply walked away and got some adorable day wear at Angelic Pretty just across the way. No hard feelings, but they'll have to wait until my next Tokyo trip for another chance. Perhaps I just became accustomed to the Osaka location. 

Everything new in bags 

Overall, the day was fabulous. I was able to enjoy a Strawberry Creme crepe for lunch, and a Strawberry Kiwi Creme crepe for an afternoon snack. We never made it to Shibuya, but we had a totally rocking time in Harajuku. I bought more clothes in 1 day than I have in the past year!

After all day in the hot and humid with essentially no air conditioning, we were all pretty exhausted upon returning to the hotel past 5pm.   We all collectively decided to relax until 7pm and then meet up for dinner. When 7pm came around, 6 of us headed out to find something delicious looking within walking distance. We found a place that was really similar to where we had lunch in Shinjuku yesterday. I went for the ramen today, always a pleasant choice. It as upon leaving this eating establishment that we found the shiny blue karaoke place. Don't ask me what it was called, but those were the colors on the sign. We headed back to the hotel with the intent to meet in the lobby at 10 for karaoke. 

Karaoke went well, it was super fun actually! We had a decently large group, a private room, and similar song tastes! We rented the room out for 2 hours, and they flew by so fast that none of us could believe it when we got our 10 minute warning! 

Tomorrow we go to Sophia University for a tour of the campus. After which we will make that trip to Shibuya (which will be far tamer than Harajuku for me. I only really plan to hit Liz Lisa). Once classes begin, there won't be much more in the way of epic shopping. In likely decending order of remaining shopping it's down to Shibuya, souvenirs, and Akihabara. Harajuku was always intended to be the biggie, and I'm happy with my new clothing. Now it's time to get down to business! (10 points if you automatically thought "to defeat the huns") 

 

Day 7:

Even though I am doing a ton of fun Tokyo type things, I am actually over here in Tokyo for the specific purpose of going to school. We all like to pretend it's for shopping, but it's definitely for going to school. Classes officially begin on Friday, but today (Wednesday. Aren't time differences trippy?) was the day that we finally were able to tour the 上智大学 チャンネル - Sophia University - campus. 
Everyone met in the lobby at 11:45 and split up into predesignated groups. Each group was assigned 1-3 current students who met us in the hotel lobby, took the train with us to Yotsuya (where the school is located), and gave us a comprehensive tour of Sophia University and the CIEE Study Center. They also answered various questions any student had over lunch in the Sophia University cafeteria. I had katsu and mango ice cream with apple juice. The campus is very pretty, and classes should be relatively simple to find. We don't have room numbers until tomorrow when we go to orientation, but we have already been told that most English language classes tend to be held in building 11. There is a large library, and two computer labs; however we did not enter either of those places because you need to swipe your student ID card and we will not have those until orientation either. 
It was super humid today,so to cool off we opted for an activity that would involve 2 great things: shopping and air conditioner. A large group of us met up at the North Gate of Sophia and took the train to the famous Shibuya for an afternoon of shopping at Shibuya 109! 


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I'll tell you from the beginning, I didn't go nearly as crazy as yesterdays Harajuku extravaganza. Although, I did buy a few things in this fabulous culmination of Tokyo fashion. 

You can find just about anything in this store, in any style: from sweet innocence to ghetto fab, to sexy hooker. This place caters to everybody and leaves nothing forgotten. 

I found an adorable pair of Japanese heels on sale that fit, so of course I had to make them mine. I also purchased a much needed pair of sunglasses, and a cute pair of shorts. My biggest purchase was the blue and white summer set special I purchased at LizLisaDoll/TraLaLa. It was both adorable and on sale to celebrate the season. I love LizLisa clothing, but they're definitely ones you have to find on sale or they can get very expensive very quickly. I was so happy that I was there during their summer sale!

 When I reached just below my allotted budget for the day, there was still around 40 minutes left before I was supposed to meet back up with the group at Hachi's statue. That may sound like a long time, but we actually had spent many hours shopping at this point. I didn't want to stay outside in the hot for that long, as you can guess from my earlier statements on the heat, so I hopped over to the Shibuya Starbucks. Their menu has evened out to be highly similar to ours, but I picked the first different item I noticed: a mango passion frappacino gel. You heard that right. Frappacino gel. They blend a sort of pudding type thing into the frappacino to give it a gel like consistency. It may sound strange, but it tasted quite delicious!  


At the end of the day after heading home, I surveyed the days purchases by laying them out on the bed. I am definitely pleased with todays finds. The bulk of my shopping is now complete and I'm on to only Akihabara and a few souvenirs/presents. I'm having a great time, my biggest challenge is dealing with that sick feeling I get when I'm overheating. Overall everything is going well though, and I'm super excited to start class in 2 days!

 

Day 8:

You can't make this up. It's really in my packet. 

First off, the serious business. This morning began with Sophia University Summer Orientation. We received our student ID cards, obtained class information along with their textbook lists, and heard valuable information about the school. For example, we now know the situations in which classes would be canceled for the day. Glad to know Godzilla is taken seriously, but only if his rampages interfears with the Yamanote train line!  For those of you who don't know, that's serious business because he would've destroyed the path to Harajuku, Shibuya, Ikebukoro, AND Akihabara. Like I said, serious business. 
We also found out where and how to sign up for the many activities Sophia University is making available to summer students. Tomorrow after class is the first activity: a tour of Tokyo including the State Guest House, Akasaka palace, the Supreme Court, the National Diet, the Imperial Palace, Akihabara, Kaminarimon and Sensouji, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. We'll have time to stop and explore several of those areas, hopefully I'll finally be able to get my hands on some post cards! 


Of course, I didn't spend all day in orientation. In fact it probably totaled just over an hour. The real action of the day was because it just so happens that a member of our CIEE group had his 21st birthday today. So how do you properly celebrate someones 21st birthday? I'll tell you how. You take them to Akihabara and let them pick a Maid Cafe! (Any of you who said "shots", shame on you!)
Lucky for us girls, he had done his research and knew which cafe he wanted to go to; the historically themed 'Mononopu'. We starting walking down the main road towards the elusive 5th floor cafe and were lucky to quickly run into one of their maids passing out advertisement fliers. She was more than happy to walk us to the hidden entrance, up the elevator, and into the world of Feudal Japan. Well... what feudal Japan would've been like if it was hyper adorable and had maid service. Everyone ordered a drink (ice milk, melon soda, and the like) and one of the many desserts. I mentioned to our maid that a member of our party was celebrating their birthday today and she was instantly excited. they have a special promotion where patrons receive free desserts on their birthday! And trust me, that's a pretty big deal when you're already paying 500yen per hour just to be there. When his special birthday dessert arrived, all of the maids came over and made a BIG DEAL out of the fact that a customer was having a birthday today. They even sang to him and got the entire cafe clapping and singing along. It was really fun for everybody, and I'm so glad I was able to be there to take part.

Now, contrary to what certain gaijin may tell you, there is far more to Akihabara than maid cafe's. After we finished the birthday celebration, we set off for some exploring. We planned to keep today short, so the main mission was to hit only priority places while scouting out other shops for future trips. the first stop on our adventure was 'Animate'. 8 floors and a basement full of Manga and Anime. A couple of us were hoping to find some Sailor Moon merchandise for a few of our friends, and this place usually has everything. I was able to pick up some cute clearfiles from Code Geass (one of my all time favorites) and Madoka (well, if you're reading this and it's for you, you probably know who you are) but oddly enough no Sailor Moon! We'll definintely have to go back and find it SOMEWHERE. They're releasing a new Sailor Moon series next summer, I know there has to be promotional merchandise in the works. Aside from that, this store really did have pretty much everything.
We explored a few book stores, costume shops, cell phone cover shops, and places I couldn't even begin to describe. Akihabara is basically an otaku's paradise. It has a little bit of everything. You just have to be careful, because it's essentially of the internet brought to real life. 

 Towards the end of the day, we even ran into an arcade to do purikura. They really make great memories, especially the fun we all have decorating the photos! I wish they had these kinds of photo machines in Arizona. They used to, but then gamestop managed to break theirs and now the closest one is in California :(
We left around 5pm to avoid the peak of rush hours. It was much less crowded than the past few days coming home around 7:30.

I used my time coming back early to make a run to Seiyu and grab a few necessities like flip flops, laundry detergent and a pencil case. My total haul for the day is pictured here. I didn't get much in Akiba today, but I thought you still might be interested in seeing todays take home.
And finally: The first day of school
So now comes the answer to that million dollar question you've all been waiting to hear about: How was the first day of class?
The day started super early, around 6:30am, to allow time for breakfast and the train ride. I arrived on campus at 8:20, easily found my classes, and was seated perfectly on time for the start of my Japanese Popular Culture class. This class is going to be awesome! We are discussing anime, manga, fashion, food, "cute", and advertisements. It's basically what I always do in Japan, except I get a grade at the end. Our main project is a presentation accompanying a final paper about a popular culture topic of our choice. I'm not sure yet, but so far I'm leaning towards Maid Cafes. Now my trips to Harajuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara can be considered legitimate studying! 
My second class of the day is Contemporary Japanese Economics. It's definitely different than my ASU econ classes, and it will be very interesting to see what all we learn in these few weeks!


After classes ended, all of the exchange students piled onto tour busses for a tour of Tokyo. We saw the State Guest House, Akasaka Palace, the Supreme Court, the National Diet, the Imperial Palace, and Akihabara before getting off the bus at Asakusa. There, I was able to have golden kiwi flavored ice cream, finally track down some post cards, and pick u a reasonably priced UV-blocking parasol/umbrella. After that, we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to see the view from the 45th floor lookout point. It was so beautiful!!! Even the bus ride was fun. Our tour guide Eriko from the beginning excursion was leading our bus. She made origami Samurai hats and even showed us a traditional festival dance!

The tour concluded at 6:30pm when we were dropped off back at the university. Most of us went back to the hotel via train. Rush hour is always interesting, it was SO CROWDED!



From the Beginning: The Journey from Narita to Tokyo

Hello! My name is Jenn and I am here in Tokyo attending Sophia University through CIEE's Summer Japanese Studies program. Before I tell you about everything that has been happening in the program, let me give you a little bit of background information on me. I am a soon to be junior in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University working towards my B. S. in Marketing, Certificate in International Business, and Minor in Dance.  I took 4 years of Japanese languages classes in high school and had my first trip to Japan in the summer of 2007. I studied abroad for an 8 week  summer program in Osaka, Japan during high school, and have been to tokyo but never for more than 4 days. Now that you know who I am, let's move on to what you really want to know... how has this trip been going?!

Day1

On the first day I arrived in Narita we were all trickling into the airport at different times. After getting through customs and picking up my rental phone, I easily found the CIEE staff members waiting in the airport. Shortly, several of us took a short bus ride to the hotel where we met up with the program coordinator to pick up itineraries and drop our stuff off in our hotel rooms. 


Since there were no planned activities for the night, many of us met downstairs to take the bus to AEON Mall for some dinner. We accidentally took a regular bus instead of the free shuttle and wound up turning a 5min trip to the mall into a 1 hour scenic tour of all the hotels in Narita! We did finally make it to the mall for a DELICIOUS tempura dinner. It was a great way for everyone to start getting to know each other. Somehow we managed to take the long route again on the way back to the hotel; but all that maters is that we wound up having a fantastic first night in Japan. 

Day 2
There is no way to describe the trip to Takayama without the words “epic journey” being involved.  We left our Narita hotel around 8:30 inside a nice coach bus. At first we weren’t sure all of us would fit, because there were SO many of us, and nobody had seen the entire group until basically that very moment. Even breakfast had been spread out over 2 hours,  successfully concealing the groups actual size.
So this bus ride… 8 HOURS! Yes, you read that correctly. 8 hours driving out of Narita, through Tokyo, through several towns and prefectures and FINALLY into Takayama.  We stopped a few times along the way, but trouble started around 2 hours in at our first stop. Everyone had gotten out of the bus for snacks and drinks, with the instructions to be back in 20 minutes. At the end of those 20 minutes, of course the bus left. Problem? 1 student never made it back to the bus. We had to drive about 20 minutes before we found a highway exit to turn around and pick him up! Luckily everything was okay, but this was definitely an unexpected kink in the days plans.
We drove on and on, stopping again but never leaving anyone behind again. The bus ride was a fun combination of talking with newly acquired friends, hearing fun facts from our tour guide, and hearing bits of important CIEE information from our tour director.
Even though 8 hours may seem like an eternity, the whole thing flew by in a massive blur of beautiful scenery. It seemed as if hardly any time had passed when we finally arrived at the Takayama Green Hotel.  This ryokan is fabulous! No wonder the royal family has stayed here. 

Everyone changed into the provided yukatas (well, okay, I changed into the one that I had brought) and proceeded to check out the hotel.  Our tour guide was familiar with the building and showed us all around. It was amazing to go see the Japanese garden outside, such beautiful Koi!

As is to be expected at a traditional Japanese hotel, dinner consisted of a variety of traditional Japanese dishes. Most of us have no idea what most of what we ate even was; all we know is that it was fabulously delicious andorth every bite. CIMG8323

Immediately after dinner I did what any tired traveler would do; I ordered a 40 minute shiatsu massage of course!  It was absolutely amazing, my muscles were finally able to relax after a super long airplane ride and bus trip.
The post-massage I made an even better decision: ONSEN TIME!!!! I cannot possibly describe how much I love the onsen. The hot water is the most relaxing place you could possibly be. Ever. Hands down. No arguments will even be glorified with a rebuttal.
By the time I had gotten back to the room the futons hadbeen layed out and it was time for a much needed nights rest.
Day 3
Today I definitely started out in the best possible way. "How is that?" you may ask. Well, immediately after waking up, one of my roommates and I re-tightened our yukatas and ran straight down to the onsen. Best. Decision. Ever.  We started out in the outdoor rock one, then moved on to the outdoor jacuzzi jet style one, and then to the indoor one. I have never started the day in a better mood. It was positively glorious and breakfast hadn't even started! On the way out of the onsens, I stopped by the tanabata tree in the lobby and made my wish. It's now tied up with the others to wait until it comes true :-)

Of course breakfast happened, then some room packing, and obviously some taking stuff down to the lobby-ing. Before leaving the hotel, my roommates and I all went to the outdoor footbath at the hotel entrance. None of us expected that it would be cold, but it was surprisingly refreshing. Next we left the hotel to check out the 'Asa-ichi" morning market. In all my trips to Japan, I had yet to have a fresh peach; today was the day I was determined to remedy that. THEY ARE SO FANTASTIC HERE AT THE MARKETS! The flavor is so light and refreshing, it almost literally makes your tastebuds dance. 
After exploring the markets for awhile, it came time to venture on towards our next destination: "Hida Takayama Matsuri no Mori". This was a museum holds enormous festival floats, with entertaining anamatronic shows to entertain visitors. It is also home to the worlds largest Taiko drum (which of course I beat senselessly). Here we were served a delicious traditional style lunch. 
The intention of our next stop was to explore a beautiful outdoor "museum" (more like preserved city, it's BEAUTIFUL). Unfortunately the weather had another idea. Just as we arrived it started pouring rain! We still had fun exploring, and even taking a few pictures, but the weather did reach a point where we all ran for cover and changed from exploring to just talking. Luckily that was still fun, so nobody was disapointed.
Eventually it was time to get back into the bus and begin the drive out of Takayama and into Matsumoto. This bus trip was much shorter than yesterdays, only an hour and a half (also in a beneficial direction because our drive back to Tokyo will be much shorter from here). This will be our last night with shared rooms, and once again I have been fortunate in being placed with a great roommate. This beginning of trip excursion has been a great way to get to know the entire group of students. As of now I have just returned from a late multi-course dinner. I lost count of how many, but everything was delicious and we ended with a nice peach sherbet and coffee.
Day 4
Todays first adventure was visiting Matsumoto Castle. This wasn't very far from our hotel we had just checked out of, so everything started pretty quickly. The Castles outward aesthetics reminded me quite a bit of Osaka Castle, but I knew this was far different from my general favorite as soon as I walked inside. Have you ever walked up stairs with a 60% incline? I have. going up isn't so bad. Going down you can't see the next stair below you and you feel like you will probably die. The view from the top was incredible, you just couldn't think about the fact that you were about to walk back down the 6 raging staircases of death. There is a large moat visible from the top floor of the castle. Between the outer gardens and the water feature, this castles views were superb. You could even take part in a tea ceremony out in the courtyard for a small fee.
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Next was an hour drive to the Daioh Wasabi Farm.  Many of the plants were covered to prevent scorching in the summer heat, but you could still see them in certain places and the rest of the farm contained beautiful scenery and a fantastic stream in the midst of which were many beautiful fish. At the top of the hill was an overlook of the farm, as well as a shop selling some very unconventional Wasabi infused foodstuffs and drinks. Quite a few CIEE students tried the Wasabi ice cream. I would have, but to be quite honest Wasabi isn't one of my favorite flavors. I opted to wait and pick up a blueberry ice cream on the ride to Tokyo.
The ride to Tokyo was around 4 1/2 hours. Not because we were THAT far from Tokyo so much as because we ran into the infamous Tokyo rush hour traffic. It really is crazy! Fortunately for you, I'm not going to sit here and complain about traffic. I'm going to focus on awesomeness. I am in the hotel I will be staying at for the remainder of the trip and it is both very nice AND in an extremely convenient location.  As soon as we arrived (around 5:30pm) we received our room keys, breakfast tickets, and Suica Card for the JR Trains. 
After settling in, I met up with several other girls in the lobby and we headed out to find something for dinner. After walking down the street for a little while to explore, we chose a small ramen shop. It was beyond delicious! Places like this are the reason I can't eat instant ramen anymore; I've been too spoiled by perfection of flavor.
We also visited a little grocery store that is literally across the street from our hotel (well... the street under the train station that's across from our hotel). I only bought a couple of drinks and some little grapes to put in my mini fridge. I need to settle in further before I determine what sorts of foods to really keep around. We were all so excited, you would think we had never seen food before!
Sorry this was a little lengthy, but I had to get you all caught up on the pre-Tokyo fun! The next entry might be a little long too, because I still have to catch you up on what's happened in Tokyo thus far. Trust me though, it's been so amazing; definitely worth reading all the way through it!