Kyoto Day Trip

SAM_0339

On 8/18 I woke up pretty early (for me) in my hostel in Osaka, 8:30am, and got ready for a scorching hot day in Kyoto! It cost me about 750 yen each way to get there and back again, but didn’t take terribly long, because the JR line has a special rapid train that gets you there in about 30 minutes.

              Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, however, the imperial palace not resides in Tokyo so Kyoto has faced a significant demotion. Many consider Kyoto to be Japan’s cultural capital. Relatively little bombing took place in this city during World War II, and it was spared as a target for the atomic bombs by an American general.

              I arrived at around 11am, without having eaten breakfast, and decided to save money by walking nearly everywhere. This was already a bad idea by itself on such a hot day. I had wanted to basically book it straight to a certain shrine that I had heard about from some friends, so I headed in that direction. My first impressions of Kyoto were not good at all. Near the main station is a huge mass of low quality housing and buildings, basically a slum. As I proceeded to get lost, I continued to see a lot of this. However, the people in these areas were very friendly and nice (as opposed to what I saw in Osaka).

SAM_0318

              After some backtracking, I wandered into a temple complex that had some really cool shrines, as well as some humongous wooden buildings. I’m not sure when these were built, but they were very old, and building them must have required a herculean effort. After wandering through here, I continued onward to my original destination, Fushimi-Inari shrine.

SAM_0344

              Fushimi-Inari is unique in a few ways. This shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. His messengers are foxes (kitsune), which explains the many hundreds of fox statues present. Additionally, this shrine has thousands of torii (gates) to walk through, and the visual effect is quite stunning. There are also hundreds of small shrines throughout the entire mountainside that houses this complex. At some point, I decided to take a “shortcut” that left me lost in a bamboo forest (worth it). The whole shrine was very beautiful, but a little hard to walk all the way through on such a hot day.

SAM_0361

SAM_0396

SAM_0416

 

              After getting un-lost from the bamboo forest, I mostly gave up on long-distance walking as I was getting pretty scorched and the back of my shirt was completely drenched. This sounded like a good time for a soak, so I headed to my next stop, the Funaoka Onsen! I took the train to a station that I thought was close to the destination, but it ended up being abother long hike. By the time that I was close, I had pretty bad chafing going on from my pants, and a headache from not eating (also some dehydration). So I stopped in at a convenience store for some quick snacks and water. Then I was ready for the baths.

              Funaoka Onsen is not really an onsen, as its waters are electrically heated rather than natural heat. It’s actually a sento (public bath facility). This particular sento is quite famous due to it’s age, beauty, and entrance policy. Everyone (that can afford the 420 yen entry fee) is allowed to partake. This includes Yakuza members (Japan’s organized crime group, similar to the mafia). In fact, on this visit I had the opportunity to bathe with two of them. They were easy to spot, with their large, spectacular tattoos, and the marks on their bodies (presumably from fights).

SAM_0436(The outside of the Funaoka Onsen)

              The Funaoka Onsen has quite the variety of baths. After showering and getting clean, you can hop back and forth into several different baths. Two of these were relatively normal hot water baths, one was tiled and the other was made of wood. Then there were the jet baths, with massaging water jets. The last fairly normal bath is located partially outside and is made of rocks. This sento, however, also had:

  • An ice cold, freezing, outside bath – which I quite liked for short periods of time
  • A boiling hot death bath – I could only stand to immerse my legs in this bath for about 30 seconds
  • A sauna – I didn’t use this
  • A medicine (kusuri) bath – not sure what was in this bath, but the water had a reddish tint and it was pleasant
  • An electrical current bath – I used this for a couple of minutes, and it was a strange experience. You are, quite literally, being electrocuted as you bathe. This seemed to be accomplished by rows of underwater electrical sockets

All in all, the sento was an experience I would highly recommend. I felt extremely relaxed afterward.

My final stop in Kyoto was in Gion, the old style district where the lucky few might catch glimpse of a geisha hurrying down the street between appointments. I was not so lucky, so I just wandered through a few more temples (and more GIANT wooden buildings) before heading back to Osaka, feeling very tired and quite burnt.

SAM_0458

Mt. Fuji Climb 8/10-8/11

Ever since planning my trip to Japan, I had wanted to climb Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji (富士山, Fujisan) is a recent addition as a world heritage site, as well as the national symbol of Japan.It’s on the back of the 1,000 yen notes and you’d be hard pressed to find a postcard shop that doesn’t sell Fujisan postcards. The mountain itself is 3,776 meters tall, and most of climbs (including mine) begin at the fifth station on the Yoshiba trail (Kawaguchiko), which is at 2,300 meters, cutting off roughly half of the climb. A few of my friends climbed from the very bottom, but that took them over 20 hours, and they were in very good shape and had good gear. Even starting from the 5th station, Fujisan is no joke. Roughly four people die on the mountain every year.

              My preparation was decidedly minimal. I opted to not buy hiking boots and went with tennis shoes from America. I also went with jeans, although I did buy a 105 yen pair of over pants in case of rain. For the top half, I wore a t-shirt as my base layer. My German friend left me a windbreaker and climbing socks when he returned home for the summer. Additionally, I bought a warm jacket at a used clothing store. To make up for my shoddy shoes, I bought some bandage type ankle wraps to wrap around my feet and ankles to simulate (somewhat) hiking boots. Additionally, I brought along several Calorie Mate snack foods, a few gel drinks, and 2 liters of sports drink. Finally, at the 5th station I bought a flashlight (as we would be climbing at night) and a roughly 5 foot tall wooden Fujisan climbing pole.

MinhKohei(My climbing companions)

              After last minute purchases and eating bland food at the 5th station, myself and my two friends began our climb at about 7pm. My companions were Minh, a Vietnamese guy from Canada and Kohei, A Japanese guy from… Japan. I knew Minh from school and Kohei mostly through Minh. Climbing from the 5th station to the 6th was like a typical mountain/forest hike. The ground was mostly dirt and it wasn’t terribly steep. At the first building of the 6th station we were handed a map, and we took a short break. The path from the 6th to the 7th station may be the most challenging part for some climbers. The dirt path quickly became a dusty slog with a ton of loose rocks that slide very easily. This portion was the most taxing on my legs, and Kohei tried to get us to rest at nearly every switchback (we ended up resting every 2-3). There are occasionally more huts in between stations, used to buy expensive snacks or to sleep overnight in sardine-like conditions. Also, at some of these huts you can get your climbing stick branded with a hot iron, for 200 yen each time as proof and commemoration of making it this far.

              Upon arrival at the 7th station, we got our sticks stamped and took a break for about 20 minutes. The air was becoming noticeably thinner, making the climb more challenging. However, we were rewarded with amazing views of the stars and of the Milky Way in the sky. During one of our breaks between the 7th and 8th station, we looked down and could see one of the towns at the bottom of the mountain was shooting off fireworks for a festival. The climb at this point became much more technically difficult, with large volcanic rocks dominating the landscape, frequently requiring the use of hands to scale.

              At about the 8th station, we got an extended break as I went in to use the restroom (also costs 200 yen to use), and waited 20 minutes for the lone stall to be vacated. After all that time, the man inside still had not left, so I just used the urinal at this stop. As I left, some concerned citizen was knocking on the door but not receiving an answer. I hope the gentleman inside was alright…

              The climb from the 8th station to the top felt like it would never end. The 8th station was at about 3,100 meters and after each long climbing section we were lucky if we had gone only 100 meters. Sometimes it was only 50 meters each section. Because we were climbing in season and on a weekend, there were queues for the rest of the climb, and the lines moved slowly. Looking below (behind) us, we could see a long trail of flashlights, headlights, and lanterns. It was at about this point that Minh and I lost Kohei, pushing ahead to be sure that we wouldn’t miss the sunrise.

              The rest of the climb felt especially never-ending. We passed the “original 8th station”, then the 8th and a half station. The climb from the 8th and a half station to the 9th felt longer than from the 6th-8th. Despite this, me and Minh only took one break during this point. Finally, at about 3:40am we reached the 9th station. We sat down there for about 10 minutes before panicking, thinking that we needed to hurry to the summit. After hiking another 2 minutes we realized… the 9th station is at the summit. We had succeeded!

              Myself and Minh found a place behind a large rock, facing where the sun would rise, and began to wait. I posted a Facebook status update (yes, we had internet at Japan’s highest point), and waited. My elation quickly began to die down, as the sun was taking forever to rise and, in the meantime, I was rapidly becoming quite cold since we had stopped moving. Finally, at about 5am, the sun began to rise at a rapid pace. The view was spectacular. Minh took photos while I took some video.

FujiTop(Minh’s amazing photo from the top)

              By the time the sun had fully risen, I realized that I had come down with altitude sickness. I had never felt so cold in my life, and my stomach was not doing well either. I hurried over to the restroom, where I had the privilege of waiting in a 20 person line and to pay 300 yen for the honor of not throwing up in public. While in line we saw Kohei and reunited before I entered the stall closest to the line of people waiting (some luck). It didn’t take long for me to throw up absolutely everything I had eaten, and most of what I had drank on the way up. This also caused me to get a splitting headache. After exiting the bathroom, Kohei graciously allowed me to use some of his canned oxygen and I wandered towards the benches to attempt to get an hour or so of sleep.

              I sent Minh to get my final stamps on my Fujisan stick, as well as to mail my postcards. By the time he got back, I was ready to get down the mountain. The three of us began heading toward the descending trail, but after about 30 steps, I kneeled down by some rocks and threw up some more. So much for my dignity. After this, I felt considerably better (but still not good).

              The descent was considerably faster, but consisted of only dust and loose rocks. To descend Fujisan, you basically take 3 or 4 steps and then slide down the hill for several feet. It’s very possible to run down, but your legs and knees will protest. We took very few breaks, and descended in only 3 hours. I just wanted to get off of that damn mountain at this point. After reaching the 5th station, we had to wait for over 3 painful hours in the scorching hot sun. Finally, we boarded the bus, and I probably slept for half of the 3 hour bus ride back to Shinjuku. Upon arriving in Shinjuku, Kohei managed to exit the bus and take 3 steps before his legs gave out. He had to take a taxi home, and go to work the next day.

              The aftermath: I had to take the train home to my dorm, and I was very glad to have my climbing stick with me. Otherwise I would have looked and smelled like the dirtiest foreigner who ever set foot in Japan. With the stick, everyone who you see understands what you just went through and refrains from judging. At my local station, I ate a hearty bowl of Matsuya, then returned to the dorm to wash off all my grime in the public bath. Then I slept. The next day I rewarded myself with a massage, and spent about 2,500 yen shipping my climbing stick home.

              Would I do it all again? Yes. However, I would do a few things differently:

  • Bring leg warmers or long johns – necessary at the top
  • Bring another jacket – only for the summit
  • Stay overnight at one of the huts to acclimate to the altitude, or at least bring canned oxygen
  • Drink water instead of sports drink
  • My shoes were okay – but hiking boots would have been more comfortable
  • Less sugar – my drinks for energy were nearly pure sugar – bad idea.

SunriseSelfie(Required Fujisan self shot photo)

The Good and the Bad in Glorious Nippon

I’ve been here in Japan for a while now; figure now’s as good a time as any to share some of my favorite things as well as my least favorite things. I’ll mostly ignore things that I’ve already touched on in the past (like expenses). People are people, and I don’t really find much terribly different between the US and Japan on an individual basis. I’ll probably be super surprised when I get back home, and find out that I’m actually wrong once I get to compare again, but for now, those are my thoughts. I can’t make judgments on the working related side of Japan, but for an exchange student I’d say that the good HEAVILY outweighs the bad.

Rika (2)Even(karaoke, serious business!)

The good:

  1. There are a LOT of good looking women here in Tokyo. I suppose it’s to be expected in a big city, as I noticed the same thing in New York City. It’s just especially easy to spot them here due to their fondness of showing off copious amounts of leg. Carrying on a decent conversation is hard, since my Japanese language skills are low, but the ones who are relatively confident in their English skills are super easy and fun to talk to.
  2. Flirting with said women at the pub after several drinks is fun. It’s really the only time that I’m not worried about how good or bad my Japanese language skills are, it’s just good fun. If my friend tells me: “Introduce yourself in Keigo!” (very formal speech) Then chances are that I will. It’s especially fun at my favorite pub which is located in the red light district of Kabuki-Cho. The beers are currently 70yen each, and it goes up by 10yen each month. (1 yen = approximately 1 cent). These are the nights that I use the most Japanese, and no English at all.
  3. Tokyo is lively and fun (until the last trains of the night). There is a lot to see and a pretty good amount of things to do. There are events and festivals nearly every weekend (including Oktoberfest… There have been two of those so far and it’s really not the right time of year)Karaoke
  4. The public transportation is really good the vast majority of the time. Delays are uncommon; the whole system works in harmony and is very effective at getting millions of people to their destination every day. Normal tickets are pretty expensive, but my commuter pass from my dorm to school costs me about $35 a month and that’s a 40 minute commute each way. Plus with my commuter pass I can stop at any station between the dorm and school without paying extra. Outside of Tokyo, it’s even more expensive, but the options are pretty nice. You can take a regular train, or a bullet train, or a bus, etc.
  5. The other exchange students are awesome. We have people from all over. A lot from America, a few from Germany, one from Ukraine, one from Poland,  a few from Australia, several from China/Korea/Thailand, etc. I’m most impressed by the ones from non-English speaking countries though. My friend Daniel is from Germany and he speaks German/English/Japanese. For tests in Japanese class he has to translate from Japanese to German and then to English, or the other way around depending on the question. While speaking with the American students he has to converse primarily in English. We’ve actually got him dreaming in English now. ‘Murrica! The Asian students impress me a lot as well. A good amount of students on exchange from other Asian countries know at least 3 languages at a very high level (their home country’s language, English, Japanese, and frequently Chinese as well).

Chat2(Japanese chat room event)

Burger(Avocado and Wasabi Burger from Wendys)

Karaoke2(More karaoke, with Akiko and Kat)

The bad:

  1. People walk REALLY slowly! The average walking speed here would never fly in New York City, or any other big city in America that I know of. I’ve been told that this might be because of the humidity. Once you start sweating, it’s hard to dry off. I’m rather dubious about this claim, because even standing still the humidity is pretty unbearable.
  2. Relating to the last point: The very second that a single drop of rain falls from the sky, up goes everyone’s umbrellas. This makes navigating through the slow walkers even more tricky. But again, the same reason was explained to me: Once you get wet, good luck getting dry again in the 90% humidity.RainCasa
  3. Relating to the last TWO points: The weather! Summer in Japan means rain, heat, and humidity all together in one lovely little package. I might as well start wearing my swimming trunks to school.
  4. Most of the aforementioned good looking girls are wearing ridiculously high heels. I’m already short enough, and this just makes me appear even shorter. I do enjoy when they wear high heels and yet are still shorter than I am though.
  5. The trains stop running at around 12:30am, which means I’ve pulled a few all-nighters in Tokyo. If they’d even run one or two trains an hour after 1am, it would be an improvement.
  6. Citizenship: It’s quite hard to become a citizen of Japan if you aren’t Japanese. Additionally, Japan doesn’t allow for dual-citizenship so I’d have to renounce my American citizenship if I moved here permanently. It’s a minor complaint I suppose, but not being able to vote, even if I lived here, bothers me.

The really bad:

  1. I’m getting REALLY sick of seeing this notice at the train station:

Delay

The red part on the bottom left means information from other train lines, and it usually indicates a delay of some sort. That isn’t what my problem is. The problem is the exact reason for the delay, which is often: jinshin jiko. A literal translation for jinshin jiko is “human accident”. In actuality, it usually means someone jumped in front of a train. I’m much less concerned about delays than I am with this needless loss of human life. It gets really disheartening seeing this message so often, frequently daily. Luckily, my train line seems to not be a very “popular” one in this respect, but my friend was on one that had someone jump in front of it. That story had a “happy” ending, as it was a local train already slowing down to stop at the station, so the train was able to stop on time, thankfully. Last year was the first year in over a decade that the number of suicides fell below 30,000. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a downward trend.

My Global Business teacher created a video about this subject, it’s called “Saving 10,000 – Winning a War on Suicide in Japan” and you can watch it in its entirety here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo0SHLxc2d0 (It’s in English)

Odawara/Hakone Day Trip

On Saturday, June 15th, Myself and 5 of my exchange student friends (Kellie, Matt, Anna, Daniel, and Cash) finally managed to escape the grasp of Tokyo and head out into the countryside/mountains. It was a long day, full of many new sights and experiences, and worth every penny!

OnsenDoor

 

This trip required me to wake up earlier than I ever had before since arriving in Japan… 6am! I groggily got up, shambled my way down to the public bath, where I got clean and shaved before getting dressed and meeting my friends at the dorm entrance. We then hopped on the train to Shinjuku to meet up with the girls so we could head out to Hakone. The previous day we had all bought our “Hakone Freepass”, which was definitely not free as we paid $50 each person. The Freepass covered all transportation out to Hakone and back, including trains, cable cars, rope cars, boats, and buses. Because of all that, it’s definitely worth the price. The train ride out to Odawara took about an hour and a half. The journey wasn’t terribly eventful, but after about halfway our group had nearly the whole train car to ourselves, which was a nice change of pace from normal.

TrainEmpty

 

At Odawara, we left the station and headed for Odawara Castle. The castle is in great shape and operates as basically a museum/gift shop. Photographs are not allowed inside the castle, so unfortunately I couldn’t take a picture of any of the weaponry or historical artifacts, but I could take pictures of the great view from the top floor of the castle. I particularly enjoyed how the floors were labeled. There was a first floor, a second floor, a third floor, a semi-fourth floor, and a fourth floor. The castle grounds also had a great flower garden area, as well as a place for festivals/events with musical guests (it also had some sad looking monkeys in a cage).

OdawaraCastle OdawaraView

 

After Odawara we hopped on another train and headed for Hakone. The railway up the mountain was interesting, as it made use of several switchbacks. I caught a few glimpses of the windy, curvy roads for cars/buses to make the ascent on, and it made me REALLY miss my motorcycle. That road would have been the most amazing motorcycle road of all time. After the railway, we next had to take a cable car up a very steep section of the mountain. This was a short ride of maybe 10 minutes, and we soon made it to the next part, the rope cars! The rope cars were amazing, and the view was spectacular. I would not recommend this method of travel for anyone afraid of heights, as we were quite a ways above the forest canopy. For anyone else I would definitely recommend it. After the first summit, we then glided over the sulfur vents region, which was beautiful in its own way after I realized that wasn’t a strip mining operation (which was my first thought upon seeing it).

Ropeway1

 

Ropeway2 Ropeway3

 

At the next station we got on our next rope car which would lead us over another forested mountain to our next destination, natural hot springs (温泉/onsen). Our温泉 was located at a resort that has rooms ranging from $150-300 per night per person. For this reason we skipped the overnight stay and simply went for our hot springs experience which only cost $16 a person. The girls and guys groups split up into our separate温泉 areas and we stripped naked, washed up at the showers, and then got in. The water felt amazing, and the experience was extremely relaxing, especially as I was sore from working out the night before. On a sunny day, we would have been able to see Mt. Fuji from our 温泉. Unfortunately, we had a cloudy day instead. There was a fun bit of awkwardness when I climbed out of the springs, and my friends were getting ready to get out, when the female employee showed up to get things set up for a meeting of some sort. She had trouble sliding the door open, and I felt like she might not have appreciated a fully nude American man helping her fix the door, so I just stood there waiting until she figured it out and then did what she had to do. She must have liked what she saw, because she came back in a few minutes later to do something else. After she left the 2nd time, I quickly went back out to the温泉 to snap a photo.

Onsen

 

After our relaxing soak in the hot springs, we reunited with the ladies and headed to our final rope car destination, Lake Ashinoko. Lake Ashinoko is a huge, blue, beautiful lake surrounded by forested mountains. Small boats are rentable from the harbor there, but we opted to use our Freepass again and take the pirate ship out to the other side. The journey was very relaxing and beautiful. On the side of the lake we could see temples, golf courses, traditional Japanese buildings, and a whole lot of trees. The small food stand inside the boat was interesting as well. You could buy Mt. Fuji beer, Mt. Fuji Kit-Kats (blueberry cheesecake flavored, very tasty!), other assorted Mt. Fuji ‘flavored’ items, and Ritz Crackers.

Pirates

 

After enjoying the short cruise, we headed into the small town (Moto-Hakone) at the far side of the lake to get a bite to eat. We opted for a traditional, family-run Udon/Soba/other noodle shop. Upon entering, the mother offered us a place in the standard seating section. We insisted on sitting on the tatami mats in traditional Japanese style instead. This was a decision I frequently regretted during the meal. The traditional way of sitting in this type of setting is called the seiza position. The rest of my friends and I are incapable of doing this for more than a few minutes. However, they can all comfortably sit in other positions, like cross-legged. I, on the other hand, wasn’t able to find *any* comfortable position and had to switch every minute or two. Not the easiest way to eat a meal.

Dinner1 Dinner2

 

After eating, we walked over to our final sightseeing destination of the day, Hakone Shrine. I’m not particularly religious, but the experience was still great. We took a roundabout path to enter the shrine, rather than the main entrance, which lead to us coming upon the main building of the shrine fairly suddenly without any warning. The fountains, statues, and architecture were really a sight to behold. Everything seemed to have symbolic and religious value, from the dragon fountains, to the gates and walkways. People frequently come to these temples to leave prayers or wishes on small wooden plaques in front of the temple. I particularly liked one that was pretty clearly written by a young child. I don’t know what this kid wished for, but I hope it works out. Before leaving the temple, we headed out to the lakeside gate, where we took a lot of pictures.

Fountain KidPrayer KellieTemple Tori

After visiting the temple we wandered around for a few hours in Moto-Hakone. We stopped by a convenience store and got some food and drinks. A stray cat came running over to us when we sat down by the lake. She wouldn’t let us pet her, but she did appreciate Kellie feeding her a bag full of potato chips. The fog was rolling in, and the town was pretty deserted, so we let our minds focus on horror movies and zombie stories while we waited for the last bus of the night to arrive. We got on the bus and most of our group fell asleep until we made it back to Odawara station. From there it was another long train ride back to Shinjuku. By the time we got back into Tokyo, we had to catch what was nearly the very last train of the night in order to make it back to Hiyoshi and our dorm. It was a long, full, interesting day.

Fin.  Casey

Fin

Budgeting for Tokyo

This is a topic that I’ve wanted to start writing about for awhile it because it is very important and I wish I had known more about this subject before coming.

SAM_0630(My dorm room, back when it was clean and I didn’t have a mini-fridge)

Tokyo is expensive. By most estimates, it’s the most expensive city in the world, and I can definitely see why. My tiny dorm room is costing me $700/month here, which is more than the entirety of what my very large apartment costs back in the US. Additionally, back home I had 1-2 roommates at all times to cut down that expense at least in half. Thankfully, we get internet and electricity included in the rent, and there is also a subsidy for being an exchange student at the dorm which means that I will be getting back somewhere around $65 a month (in a bulk payment in July).

(Side note- if you live in a dorm, outgoing students throw away perfectly good stuff, so go take a look in the garbage room. I got myself a mini-fridge, and some of the other exchange students have gotten TVs, computers, umbrellas, and a variety of other goodies. There is no dumpster, so it’s not *technically* dumpster diving, just in case you need an excuse to preserve your dignity. Avoid actually buying appliances at any cost, because you straight up cannot afford them)

Food is also expensive. At the dorm, the exchange students are lucky enough to get breakfast and dinner included in the rent. Regular students, on the other hand, have to pay for each of their meals. The better meals at the dorm run from about $4.50 to $6 each time. The main problem with the dorm cafeteria isn’t the quality of the food (I actually like it, but my fellow exchange students might give you a different review), it’s that the hours they serve breakfast are pretty terrible. Breakfast is served from 6:30am-8:45am which means that I almost always miss it. So far I have actually made it down at breakfast time a grand total of 3 days. One of those days was a Sunday, which is the day they don’t serve breakfast. The disappointment of that morning still stings. So in actuality I’ve only ate breakfast at Hiyoshi twice.

Additionally, restaurants and groceries are expensive. Most restaurants will run *at least* $6 for an ‘ok’ amount of food, and if you want anything to drink along with that, it will add on another $3 and the drink portions are especially tiny. Don’t despair, I have the solution! MA-TSU-YA! I eat at Matsuya pretty much any day that I don’t have a lunchtime session in the chat room. For 280円 (Currently around $2.80, the exchange rate rocks right now for being easy to calculate) you can get a big bowl of beef and rice, along with a small miso soup. The food is filling, tasty, and cheap. Plus, if you happen to be deathly afraid of trying to converse in Japanese, you don’t even have to talk to anyone. You get a ticket out of a machine that has the pictures and prices of everything on the menu, and then you go sit down and put the ticket in front of you. You’ll have your meal in less than a minute. いただきます!

SAM_0815(I freaking love Matsuya)

SmileSmile(This is the reason I love Matsuya)

As far as groceries go, forget about buying fruit. If you truly want to eat cheaply, your new diet is vegetables and eggs. Your “basics” back home might be hard to find or very expensive here. Dairy products like butter and milk are expensive; beer is ridiculously expensive, etc. Shop around, for most of your stuff you are better off heading to a supermarket, but you can find some things cheaper at convenience stores and other places. If you wander around the prepared food section at the supermarket with less than 30 minutes before closing time, you can get some decent markdowns as well, but it’s still too rich for my blood.

For miscellaneous goods: school, cleaning, cooking supplies, etc. head to one of the hyaku-en shops (hyaku is hundred, and ‘en’ is the actual way you say “yen” so it’s basically the dollar store). The quality is actually pretty good on most of the things they stock, so don’t be shy. Basically you’re looking for a place called Daiso or any store that prominently displays “100円” on the signage.

SAM_0820

SAM_0821(I KNOW you’re jealous of my sweet hyaku-en banana breads)

For random entertainment type stuff: Don Quijote (or ドン・キホーテ) has a wide variety of items for fairly good prices. “Book Off” is a second-hand goods store chain that has video games, books, music, movies, etc. “Hard Off” (no relation to ‘Hard On’) is a second-hand store for clothes and appliances and the only place besides Craig’s List that you might possibly consider breaking the “no buying appliances in Japan” rule for.

SAM_0819(Floor after floor of everything from man-thongs, to shoes, to sporting goods, to kitchen supplies)

SAM_0818

Hope this advice helps for anyone wanting to visit or move to Japan. I’m happy to revisit this subject in small doses as I continue to learn new tips and tricks! Perhaps at some point I’ll mention where you can find yourself some 40 yen beer, or as I like to call it: 25 beers for $10!

Life is… Normal

SAM_0781 [Fish ice cream and approximately 55 cents, because I'm rich!]

I’ve now gotten into some semblance of a routine as far as school and the rest of life goes. I have class starting at 11am most days, and going until either 4:30pm or 6:20pm. The classes tend to move back and forth from the extremes of “I’m falling asleep and need a coffee between every class because it’s so terribly boring” to “wow, am I really this stupid?! How do I not understand ANYTHING today” (the 2nd one is all of my Japanese classes). The classroom experience alone has managed to surgically remove some of my overconfidence, which is good (I guess?). There is some homework, but it’s not overwhelming and most of my time is still free, for better or worse. I participate in some of the social events at school, but otherwise my free time is taken up in much the same way as it was at home. Someone sends me a message or stops by my dorm room and asks if I want to go work out/go drinking/go explore and I either join them or occasionally just stay in and study. If no one seems to be taking initiative then I’ll do it myself, such as with my planned group trip to the park this Sunday to play football (AMERICAN FOOTBALL) and frisbee. Side note- Amazon.co.jp is amazing, I paid $3.50 in shipping for same day delivery of a football and a frisbee!

SAM_0802

I have generally enjoyed my sessions as a chat leader quite a bit, even in some situations that I was expecting to dread. Most chat sessions go really well, regardless of which ‘level’ I am helping. The levels are beginner, intermediate, and advanced. There is also a video chat session with the other Aoyama Gakuin campus as well as elementary school and junior high sessions. So far I’ve done 2 beginner sessions, 1 intermediate, 1 advanced, 1 video chat, and 1 elementary school session. The elementary school session was the one that most terrified me beforehand, but I actually ended up enjoying. The chat room coordinator walks the chat leaders over to the elementary school, and we each get assigned around 10 students. For the 40 minute session we play games and try to keep the students in English mode. For the first session we ended up playing hangman for a while, and the students were pretty good at guessing zebra and purple and a few others (they guessed purple based on the number of letters in the word, they didn’t actually guess any letters). Then they wanted a difficult one so I chose… TURQUOISE!  They got all of it except the Q and couldn’t figure it out, and then I had to find an object in the room that was turquoise so that they would believe that it actually is a color. After that we played a game where we spread a bunch of picture cards on the floor and I would call out the names of the objects on the cards and they tried to grab them the quickest. The time flew by and just as I was struggling to come up with a 3rd game, time ran out. Saved by the bell! But it was a lot of fun so I don’t dread the elementary school sessions anymore (and they scheduled me for more so I guess they thought I did alright too).

I haven’t been able to do as much exploring as I’ve wanted to, but here are some pictures from the large Meiji temple I went to:

SAM_0723 SAM_0724 SAM_0720

The temple and the giant park that it’s part of is definitely one of my favorite things that I have seen so far in Tokyo. While walking through the open fields of the park it was easy to forget you were in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world, although the skyscrapers on the other side of the trees do take a little bit away from the illusion. In the forested areas of the park you can’t see anything except forest and I was easily able to keep the illusion alive there.

SAM_0717[Vaguely aware that I'm in Tokyo at this point]

SAM_0719 [Yep, now I think I'm in the middle of nowhere]

I’ve done a lot of walking around but my picture taking has slowed down considerably since I originally came to Tokyo. I had a student in one of my chat sessions ask what surprised me most about the cultural differences I’ve experienced and I had a very hard time answering him. I think that I had just put myself in a very open frame of mind before I came and after I arrived, because nothing really surprises me at this point, or it’s such a minor surprise that I quickly forget after it happens. I’ve found that people are people everywhere you go, and I get along with most of them pretty well. Any cultural differences seem to be at a fairly inconsequential level.

SAM_0785 [The view from the roof of a Keio University building, towards 川崎市(Kawasaki City)]

Oh! and the building across from my dorm room has a creepy sun design on it with eyes that light up and then dim again in a continuous cycle as it starts to get dark. That was ‘fun’ the first time I noticed it.

SAM_0800[Yep, certainly not creepy at all, thanks building designer!]

Start of Classes and Random Thoughts

Karaoke

I’ve now been in Japan for about two and a half weeks. There’s been a lot of good experiences, a little bit of bad, and a lot of randomness.

SAM_0758

The first full week here included orientation after orientation, as well as a very large amount of paperwork. To everyone who complains about government bureaucracy in America, I have to say to try living as a foreigner in Japan. I lost track of how many forms I had to fill out in total, but as an example, some of the forms I had to fill out (and I’m still not done):

  • Foreigner registration card
  • Foreign resident registration
  • Health care
  • Commuter train pass
  • Bank account
  • Dormitory subsidy
  • About 8 more for the school specifically
  • Etc.

Oh, and all of these forms are in Japanese.

SAM_0698

After the massive amount of orientations/forms/testing, I was able to register for my classes. Some of them are required to be taken in Japanese, while others are available in English. What I decided on taking were:

  • International Economics
  • Intercultural Communication
  • International Communication
  • Globalization and Emerging Countries
  • Theory and Practice of Debate
  • Global Business
  • Japanese Culture and Society
  • Japanese Studies
  • Japanese Language A, B, C, and D.

This put me at a total of 6 classes in Japanese, and 6 classes in English. My schedule is subject to change as the first week of classes is a trial period which you can add or drop classes afterward. The class that I’m enjoying the most is actually Global Business. The class is on Saturdays and the teacher’s main job is actually as the Chief Economist for the European Union in Japan. His classes have been extremely interesting and it’s nice to be able to hear from an Irish guy for a nice change of pace in this country.

547428_161963007296781_647490781_n

The other exchange students at my dorm have been great and we all became friends very fast. The girls and guys have completely different dorms in different parts of the city so the girls have all become friends with each other and us guys have become friends with each other as well. We have five guys from America (Portland, Salem, Florida, and 2 from Seattle), one from Australia, one from Mexico, and one from Germany. There are other exchange students that don’t live in the dorms as well.

479871_240530846087435_1736698872_n

One of the more interesting details of Japanese school life is the intense competition of clubs and circles as they try to get students to join. Clubs take more of a time commitment and tend to be along the lines of sports or music, whereas circles are more casual and tend to fit into categories like cultural exchange or camping. I’ve joined one circle so far, and we will be having an all you can eat and all you can drink meetup this coming Friday

SAM_0704(A tiny fraction of the club recruitment on campus)

A few things that have surprised me about this country even after all my research:

You really do need to know Japanese to have a good time here, or at least have a friend who speaks Japanese and doesn’t mind hanging out with you almost every day. I had been told that in Tokyo nearly everyone speaks English to some degree. This may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they are going to use their knowledge. They may be too insecure to actually try using it, or they may simply not want to use it on their home turf. Whatever the reason, I have witnessed very very few Japanese people using English even when dealing with English speaking foreigners. In addition, menus for eating out use a lot of kanji, so even someone who can read Japanese at a very basic level (me!) frequently can’t read many of the menu items. There’s a lot of pointing at the pictures and saying “this, please”. All of the other exchange students have at least 2 more years of Japanese experience than me, and some have 5+ more years of experience, so sometimes while sitting in class I find myself thinking “wow, I am an idiot!” I will definitely have to study harder than everyone else for my Japanese classes.

Tokyo is EXPENSIVE. I know, I know, I should have expected this, with everyone telling me that Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world. The magnitude of how expensive everything is definitely surprised me though.  For starters, the portion sizing for nearly everything is super small. You might be paying the same price here for a coke as you would back in the US, but you’re only getting 1/3rd of the amount. Going out for beers is definitely expensive, with the exception of the wonderful place we found that had 40 yen beers (1 yen is about equal to 1 penny right now). However, even that place required a seating fee and a food order to be allowed to stay. Every activity you might want to do costs money. Appliances cost a LOT of money. Taking the train everywhere costs money. Fruit tends to be very expensive. I’ve resorted to cooking eggs a lot in the dorm, but butter is also expensive and I haven’t been able to find non-stick spray as of yet. Luckily breakfast and dinner are free for exchange students at the dorm, so I’m not completely broke already.

20130408_194203(buying a monkey… also very expensive)

To help broker the expenses of lunch, I got a (very) part time job on campus. I am a chat leader at the Aoyama Gakuin chat room. The chat room is a place where Japanese students can come to practice their English in small groups (there are also different chat sessions for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese practicing). For the first two weeks I have 5 chat sessions that I will be leading, four of which are for college/junior college students, and one of which is with elementary school kids. The session I had so far was immediately after orientation and I had a blast, so I’m looking forward to each of these sessions.

I’ve done some exploring around Tokyo as well. I’ll talk more about that next week, but here’s a picture to whet your appetites.

SAM_0722

Arrival and First Day Excitement in Japan

Leaving from home was harder than I expected. I really wished I had a few more days to get everything done and talk with my family and friends. I had one of my really good friends take me to the airport, and it was excruciatingly hard to say goodbye. After our goodbye my heart physically ached through the entirety of the security line and most of the way to San Francisco, and then it did so again every time I thought about it for the entirety of my final two flights. As a side note, San Francisco needs to plan their airport a little better; there should be no reason to force someone to go through security again on a connecting flight, particularly when their layover is less than 40 minutes. I had to really hustle and it wasn’t fun.

The flight into Narita was long, tiring, and boring. I hadn’t slept the night before my flights, and was hoping to sleep for quite a bit of the flight. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The only time I slept was after taking my sleep-aid when I already felt like I was ready to sleep, when the flight had about 9 hours left. I woke up thinking “we must be over halfway there”. However, the joke was on me, I had only slept for somewhere around 1-2 hours and were another hour or two away from being halfway there. I didn’t sleep again until about 10 that night, leaving me with very little sleep in a two day stretch.

SAM_0609

Upon arriving at the airport the process was pretty straight forward. We had filled out the customs declaration form and the disembarkation card while on the plane, so I just followed the line to the entry point and then went up to the counter, got my residence card, and went down to claim my baggage. After claiming my baggage I wandered out through the duty free line into the lobby and saw a lot of people waiting for their family and friends to arrive. As I walked out past the entrance, I was met by my friend Yumi who had been a foreign exchange student who homestayed with my grandma many years ago. She gave me a great big hug and then we got out of the way of everyone else. She then bought me coffee and got us both bus tickets to take us into Tokyo. On the bus I didn’t even do much looking around out the windows, I was too busy chatting with Yumi!

SAM_0606

We arrived near Shinagawa station at a hotel parking lot. We then walked over to Shinagawa station (which I quickly memorized the kanji name for), and holy crap it was busy. Even during a less busy time there was a huge crowd of people crossing the street. It felt like something out of Braveheart, with two huge battle lines rushing toward each other in the middle of the street. Yumi then went over to the ticket machine and bought us tickets to get to Kitashinagawa station and showed me how to use the ticket to enter the station and then exit at our stop. From there we walked to the Shinagawa Guest House where I would be staying the first night.

SAM_0619(this was actually from the second place I stayed, the Shizumasa Ryokan)

After stowing my bags we ventured out to find something to eat. I was very tired but was still excited and wanted to spend more time with Yumi while learning more things. After much debate, Yumi settled on eating at an izakaya on the 3rd floor of a building near Shinagawa station. The dining experience was quite interesting and Yumi spent way too much money on food for me. I tried to protest and pay for my own every time she paid for something, but it’s hard to do, she was very insistent. Maybe I’ll learn how to say: “I’m definitely paying and that’s that” in Japanese and solve that problem! Her help was amazing and I was really happy to see her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s stunningly beautiful too.

SAM_0626

Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me or take pictures for most of the day I arrived, so the pictures in this post are from the following day.

-Casey

Let’s go to Japan! / 日本にいきましょう!

Oh boy… T-minus 2 days before I leave for Japan.

mtfuji

I’m definitely nervous about finally leaving to start this 5 month long experience. Most of my nervousness revolves around my lack of knowledge about the language. I have taken two terms of Japanese in college as well as a limited amount of self-study. This all puts me at the level of *maybe* a five year old Japanese kid, cue the nervousness. Luckily my school in Japan, Aoyama Gakuin University (青山学院大学), is kind enough to include English instructions along with all Japanese instructions and will be providing me with a tutor who will be able to help me learn Japanese as well as register for classes and adjust to life in Japan. We’ll see how much that all helps, especially because my first two days include a stay at a hostel that apparently doesn’t have any English speakers at all… straight into the frying pan. The rest of my nervousness stems from just the basic concerns like making friends, not getting hopelessly lost in the largest urban/metro area in the world, money issues, etc.

Tokyo seriously, Tokyo is freaking gigantic

Part of the reason that I chose Japan was because the culture is very different from the United States. I’m definitely nowhere near an expert on Japanese culture, although I have done a large amount of research. Japan is much more of a homogenous society than the United States, with about 98.5% of the population being ethnically Japanese. I think that, partially due to this factor, the Japanese tend to be much more community driven and place less importance on individuality and “freedom”. For example, in the US, no one bats an eye when someone is having a fairly loud conversation on their phone while riding a bus. In Japan, having a phone conversation while on public transportation is considered rude and you’d be likely to get some stares. Asian cultures in general have been interesting to me for a long time, and getting to experience one for myself was an opportunity I couldn’t allow myself to pass up. There is so much history, and so many differences, in the region compared to what we have in the United States.

I’ve always been something of a chameleon and have been used to being able to at least somewhat fit in no matter what I’m doing. This experience is probably about to turn that whole thing on its head. Being in such a homogenous society as part of the “out group” is going to automatically mean that I’ll be treated differently and will be acting differently than I usually do. The life of a gaijin (foreigner) will be a very new experience that I’m simultaneously excited and scared shitless about, to be brutally blunt and honest.

-Casey