Week 8: Not Farewell, But Thank You

I told myself I wouldn’t cry on my last day at Technos.

All throughout the week, I was packing little by little, all while purchasing more omiyage souvenirs to cram into my single red suitcase. All throughout the week, teachers were reminding their classes to say goodbye before Rachel and Devesh’s last day. And all throughout the week, we were celebrating our time in Japan with dinners with the students and teachers. (Sidenote: Aubrey, one of the year-long TAs, makes such awesome spring rolls that I think it only took us and a handful of second-year students to devour at least 50 of them.)

All the while, I felt okay about leaving. By then, my wallet was looking a little too empty, while my brain was crammed with experiences and memories that I had yet to fully sort through and appreciate. Tokyo life is a blast, but it’s even better when you have people to share it with, and all those people were waiting for me back home.

True to Japanese hospitality, we received several wonderful send-offs during the week. Vietnamese dinner at Aubrey’s with the second-years, Okinawan dinner with the English department, and a huge sushi lunch with the college’s director and other administrators. But for me, the most touching goodbye was the pile of snacks and handwritten notes waiting on my desk Friday morning. Reading through the notes from all the students, even ones I had spoken to just once, really touched my heart. I feel so privileged to have briefly participated in the lives of these incredibly funny, engaged, self-motivated, and hard-working young people who were, above all, capable of such courageous and unreserved kindness to complete strangers. I could come back to Japan a hundred more times, but I already know that having them around made my two months in Tokyo an experience that can’t be replicated, and for that, I will always be grateful.

After an afternoon of hugs and goodbyes, I went down to Odaiba to check out teamlab Borderless, a digital art museum that’s, well, borderless. Colorful flowers, animals, and other displays flow from the walls, ceilings, and floors in order to immerse visitors in a world of light. Visitors also were encouraged to manipulate the artwork in different ways; one of my favorite exhibits allowed you to draw a small animal or plant on a special paper, have it scanned, and then watch it appear on the floor in front of you. There were plenty of hidden rooms to discover, including my favorite room filled with hanging lanterns that felt straight out of the movie Tangled:

Before leaving Odaiba, I made sure to stop by some famous landmarks, such as the Rainbow Wheel, the Rainbow Bridge, and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. I also found this really cool Takoyaki Museum, where you can try takoyaki (cooked balls filled with octopus) from different regions of Japan. The whole bay area is very sleek and modern, and a really cute place for couples to stroll along the harbor!

For Saturday, my last full day in Tokyo, I knew that I had to go back to Asakusa, my favorite city, wearing the yukata I had been too shy and self-conscious to wear the first time around. I definitely drew some looks on the train, but it turned out to be really fun! People were surprised that I had learned how to tie the cloth belt obi by myself, some old Japanese ladies helped fix some of the places where my yukata had bunched up, and I learned how to use a decorative hair stick (kanzashi) to tie my hair into a classic yukata bun.

What made my return to Asakusa special was the opportunity to act like a semi-knowledgeable tour guide for my friend Tatum, who was still getting acclimated to life in Tokyo. As we sat together in a ramen restaurant, listening to the roaring, slightly drunk laughter around us, I tried to give her what little sage wisdom I had about how to make those precious few weeks in Tokyo worthwhile.

Amidst my ramblings, I think my biggest message was to be kind to yourself and not give up hope. The first two weeks or so are honestly draining, because everything feels like a defeat. Riding a train, greeting a new co-worker, buying food, and a hundred other day-to-day tasks that are supposed to come naturally are suddenly mini-tests in Japanese culture. The constant feeling of incompetence can get frustrating quickly.

But with those defeats, there are just as many triumphs. While I certainly didn’t become an expert in navigating Tokyo during my time there, I did gain a great deal of confidence. A large part of that was due to practice and exposure, but also making peace with being a foreigner. While in Asakusa with Tatum, I accidentally led her into the wrong restaurant, something which would have left me flustered a month ago, but instead I smiled, apologized to the server, walked out, and just shrugged it off. I’m not a particularly confident person, but in Tokyo, there’s simply not enough time to spend worrying about mistakes. That realization in itself was perhaps my biggest triumph.

The more time you spend in Tokyo, the more you realize that there’s not enough time to discover all the many unique and wonderful places it has to offer. In spite of that, I don’t regret a single place I visited; in fact, that’s what makes me excited to pass the torch to the other Freeman Asia interns in Tokyo. Tokyo is so vast that everyone’s version of it is different: I fell head-over-heels in love with my Tokyo, but I’m also excited to hear about the version of Tokyo that my friends and classmates will discover.

However, for all that I learned and experienced in Tokyo, it ironically taught me an even greater deal about what I love about America. I’m glad that I came back in time for the Fourth of July, because before this journey, I’ve never considered myself a particularly patriotic person. It’s easy to lament America’s faults and failings, as we should, but I also learned just how deeply America has shaped me. Traveling to a country where most students never learned to express their own thoughts in argumentative writing made me feel gratitude for an education system that, for all its shortcomings, still aims to foster creativity and independent thinking from an early age. If I weren’t born in America, I would be a very different person; of that I am certain. I’ve felt many more tiny bursts of gratitude from coming back to America with fresh eyes, because for all wanderlust that my time in Tokyo has sparked, I think that America will always be my home.

So yes, I did in fact end up crying as I left Japan, but not from what I was losing, but from how much I had gained. For all the thanks that Devesh and I received from everyone at Technos, I feel like what I gave was just a tiny fraction of what I received. It sounds too good to be true when I tell people that I was paid to live in Tokyo to be an English major nerd and make new friends, but that’s exactly what happened. I wish that everyone could have the opportunity to participate in such a rich cultural exchange, because it made my travel exponentially more meaningful. I visited some incredible cultural landmarks during my stay, but my memories of watching Disney movies with students during lunch, singing karaoke, and laughing about weird English grammar rules are on par with memories of standing before some of the oldest shrines and temples in the world.

Before I left, I used to joke with my friends that Japan was some mystical fairytale land, that I would show up at the airport and find myself on a green screen movie set. With all Internet headlines about its weird mascots, niche establishments, and over-the-top reality shows, it’s hard to believe that such a place actually exists. But I am so grateful that my time in Tokyo wasn’t only filled with bizarre experiences but with many wonderful people, too.

I know that I can never properly express my appreciation, so all I can hope to do is pay it forward. In maybe ten years or so, I hope that I can be a host mom for students from Japan, so that I can share my country with the same energy that the Japanese people shared theirs. I also know that somehow, one way or another, I want to find myself back in Japan, so instead of saying sayonara, I want to say arigatou to everyone who helped make my first time in Japan an experience I’ll never forget!


Week 7: Welcomes and Farewells

As I sit down to write this, for the first time, I feel left without words.

How do I describe the elation, the anxiety, the tears, the sheer emotional rush of this week?

In a week where every day deserves its own blog, where do I even start?

Maybe a story will help.

A foreign girl is sprinting through the suburban streets of Saitama like she’s trying to chase the cars on the freeway beside her. She looks down at her phone before skidding to a stop and turning in front of a Shell (the first gas station she’s seen in Japan). She’s more than an hour late to a dinner date with a friend, but even though Google Maps proclaims that she’s arrived at her destination, neither friend nor restaurant are to be found. She swipes open a new app and sends off a series of texts, but the phone dies within minutes.

Glancing around in search of an outlet, she notices a small bar/restaurant across the street and heads towards it, trying to keep her composure together.

“Please help me,” she asks the two patrons in Japanese when she walks in the door, not knowing what else to say.

The woman gets up from her table and rushes to get the owner in the back room, who looks worried at this strange foreign girl who’s trying not to have a breakdown in the middle of his restaurant.

“Cellphone…” She nervously trails off and gestures to the cellphone in one hand and the charger in the other.

The owner nods in understanding and lets her sit down at a table next to an outlet. Meanwhile, the other patron sitting at the bar counter turns around and gives her a reassuring smile. He asks if she’s Filipina, to which she replies that her mom is from the Philippines. He then asks where she’s from, and the girl tries her best to carry on a conversation with the little Japanese she knows.

“Your Japanese is great!” the woman tells her. The man adds that she’s so “Kirei? Bijin?” He looks to the other two for help before exclaiming, “Beautiful!” With her runny nose and puffy red eyes, it doesn’t feel like an accurate description, but she appreciates their kind words all the same.

The owner comes out with a can of soda, similar to Sprite, which she gratefully sips while waiting for her phone to charge. Once she feels confident that she has enough battery to get her back to the station, she gets up and approaches the owner.

“Um… how much…?” she begins, holding the empty soda can.

The owner smiles and waves aside her question, while the male patron says in English, “Don’t worry! We’re friends!”

The simple kindness in that statement moves her to tears again, and she bows to the owner, repeating “arigatou gozaimashita” over and over until she’s well out the door.

Given the general industriousness of the Japanese people and their collectivist society, I think it’s easy to assume that making friends with foreigners is a difficult task. And while there are many cultural barriers to overcome, the power of Japan’s welcoming spirit is overwhelming, as is the readiness to form close, personal bonds with people.

It’s why I can’t be mad at some of the Technos students who chose to stay out until the wee hours of the morning singing karaoke or drinking at an izakaya with the International Week visitors. As both faculty and student representatives remarked during their speeches at the farewell party on Friday, the college welcomed the visitors wholeheartedly, despite being little more than strangers. With the number of students who cried as they hugged the visiting students for the last time, you wouldn’t believe that just two weeks ago, they barely knew each other’s names. So much of this year’s International Week was restructured so that the visitors would spend more time getting to know the Technos students through class visits, games, scavenger hunts throughout Tokyo, and other activities, and judging by the number of hugs, pictures, and exchanged social media tags, those efforts were a resounding success.

While I didn’t get as much quality time with the visitors as the students did, I was lucky enough to go with some of them on a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka City. Known best for animated films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and other titles by acclaimed visionary Hayao Miyazaki, the studio has a museum that is just as imaginative as its films. Pictures aren’t allowed inside the museum itself, so I can only describe the cozy pastel colors, the stain-glass windows dedicated to beloved Ghibli characters, the spiral staircases that make you feel like you’re on the cusp of discovering a magical world, the homely exhibition rooms crammed with paraphernalia in order to replicate an animator’s workspace, and all the little details that went into such a lovingly-designed tribute to Studio Ghibli.

While not an animator myself, I was dazzled by the walls plastered with storyboards and character designs that highlight the effort and attention to detail that goes into just seconds of film. Before the days of digital coloring, animators needed to meticulously label the specific colors of each character and setting, taking into account whether the scene was in bright or dim lighting, and then sort through hundreds of labelled paint jars just to get the correct shade!

I also loved how on a bookshelf next to an animator’s desk, there were reference guides on nearly every subject imaginable, from crystal patterns to airplane motors, so that the animator can capture the details as accurately as possible. I can only imagine how humbling it must be for someone to dedicate so much research to details that may only be on screen for a few seconds, and it really helped me further appreciate the work that animators do.

While at the Ghibli Museum, I also had the pleasure of chatting with Professor Emeritus Brian Rogers from Pembroke College, whose research in psychology concerns depth perception, illusion, and other matters pertaining to optics. In addition to his insights on the various exhibits, I also gained some reassuring advice about life at Pembroke and an open invitation to ask any questions in the months leading up to my arrival.

This week also brought the opportunity to learn new things from students. On Thursday, two Technos students came to my house and showed me how to make okonomiyaki, a pancake made from eggs, a special flour, cabbage, and meat, with various sauces on top. It was super fun to make, and we ended up cooking way too much, so we all ended up with plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day. 🙂

This week, I felt so grateful for the welcome that I have received here, and now, I was finally given the opportunity to welcome someone else to Japan. This weekend, I visited the Imperial Palace, the Ueno Zoo, and a hedgehog cafe in Akihabara, but by far my favorite part of my weekend was my Sunday afternoon exploring Shimo-Kitazawa with my friend Tatum, who started her Freeman Asia internship in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Shimo-Kitazawa is this fascinating little hipster neighborhood, with tons of coffee shops and vintage clothing stores, all with a completely unique vibe. Every place we went reflected so many different places and eras, from a coffee shop with American records from the 50s on its walls and a Beatles shrine in the corner, to a thrift store with a laughably bizarre assortment of limp stuffed animals, crochet coat hangers, and a chandelier with glass pegs all hanging from the ceiling. It was so delightful to wander around the stores, then sit down for dinner to swap stories and first impressions of Tokyo. As my time in Japan dwindles, I know there are more hidden gems like Shimo-Kitazawa that I won’t have the chance to visit, but I’m so grateful for the places I have been, the people I’ve met there, and all the wonderful memories I’ve made.

I could keep rambling about my insane weekend, but I think I’ll cut it off here for now and just leave some bonus photos down below. Stay tuned for my final blog from Japan, coming next week!

Week 6: International Week Begins!

Monday morning’s deluge of rain didn’t dampen the spirits of Technos students lined up with umbrellas and ponchos to greet the International Week visitors, who had landed in Japan the night before. Student cameramen bustled around to prepare for when the student and faculty representatives from Technos’ ten sister schools in America, England, and Australia would make their entrance. There was a rush of applause as their faces appeared on the jumbo television in the central plaza, and one-by-one, each group was introduced and led through a hallway of students, who cheered and high-fived the visitors.

Afterwards, the visitors and Technos students were gathered in the cafeteria for the welcoming party, complete with sushi platters, an inflatable pool of water-balloon yoyos, and a student-drawn mural featuring, among other things, a Japanese monkey. (I asked, but the other Technos students didn’t seem to have an explanation, either.) Professor Emeritus Brian Rogers from Pembroke College gave an opening speech, and afterwards the students were encouraged to relax and mingle. Many of the Technos students were nervous about interacting with the visitors, which was understandable; I was scared to talk to the newcomers, and I’m a native English speaker. Still, they seemed to get along well, and even though they were jetlagged, the visitors were still eager to interact with the Technos students.

The next day, the visitors received a crash course in Japanese, then took an in-depth tour of the school. Technos is a vocational school, so they were able to sit in on classes for flight attendants, wedding planners, hotel staff, and other similar careers. Meanwhile, the students were busy making final preparations for various presentations and activities with the International Week visitors.

As I mentioned before, Devesh and I were most involved in the Sister School Fair, during which the Technos students would get the chance to share something about Japanese culture, like major festivals or famous actors, and the visitors in turn would talk about their schools. The fair was a new addition this year, so everyone was a bit nervous about how it would go. When the time came for the fair, each of the groups sat together at a table with flags, photographs, and other memorabilia from their school, and the pre-assigned groups of Technos students sat across with little scripts and, in some cases, some Japanese foods to share with the visitors.

Like some kind of speed-dating event, the students talked with three groups for twenty minutes each, and as Devesh and I walked around to see if anyone needed help, I was pleasantly surprised at how engaged both the visitors and the Technos students were. Admittedly, I was worried that the students with greater English proficiency would overshadow the others, but very rarely did I see a Technos student sitting quietly on the side. This was also thanks to the visitors, who were patient, friendly, and adept at speaking on a level appropriate to their English ability. The professor from my university said that the language barrier wasn’t much of an issue at all, which was a relief.

Besides the Sister School Fair, the Technos students also gave presentations around the theme “roots.” I only got the chance to watch the second-year English Career students’ presentation about rice farming as the roots of Japanese society, which all the English teachers agreed went very well. The presentation featured a skit involving “rice fairies,” so the night before, a student and I went to Daiso (the nicer equivalent of a Dollar Tree) to pick up cheap supplies for me to make a last-minute set of fairy wings. I love making costumes for anime conventions back home, so I was more than happy to stay up sewing!

Despite all the hard work that went into the first week of International Week, there was still time outside of school to have fun with some of the Technos students. On Tuesday night, we went to a nearby restaurant with traditional tatami rooms and lots of Japanese-style dishes, including hot pots where you cook and eat your food over a flame.

Then on Thursday, we went out for karaoke, which was honestly a blast. You go into a private, sound-proof room with microphones and TV displays, and there’s a tablet with thousands of songs to choose from in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. The place we went offered free ice cream and drink refills, and there were no time restrictions. (Apparently, as long as they’re out by 5 AM, it’s okay for some people to sleep the night there!) We were also allowed to bring meals and snacks from a nearby grocery store. And it was all for just 300 yen per person! Never go karaoke-ing with a Japanese person, though, because they’ll blow you out of the water. Seriously, I feel like I have an average voice, but when we got to some Disney songs, it was like actually listening to some Disney princesses. Still, we had a great time singing and dancing, and five hours passed like it was nothing. Definitely something to try with your friends while you’re in Japan!

On Saturday, the rain from Monday came back with a vengeance, so I opted to spend my afternoon indoors at Tokyo Station, which is basically a labyrinthine city all to itself. Its major attractions include Tokyo Character Street, a line of shops dedicated to different Japanese anime franchises; Okashii Land, which sells unique Japanese sweets in different flavors; and Ramen Street, which features eight popular ramen restaurants to try. Again, this all inside the station, not to mention the adjoining multi-story shopping mall, the slew of convenience stores, and… oh, yeah, the actual trains. I don’t have a lot of pictures, since I don’t want to spoil any souvenirs I may have possibly purchased there, but I had lots of fun just wandering around and admiring all the exclusive items for sale.

Wow, I actually churned this one out in a timely manner! That’s all for now; see you next week!

Week 5: A Snail on a Bullet Train

Time feels so distorted here. I live fourteen hours in the future, but I feel like time is slipping through my fingers. Everyone here is scrambling, racing towards International Week, and with it our departure from Technos. At our Monday meeting, Selena mentioned our farewell party for the first time, and it took me aback for a moment. It’s not as though I feel I have wasted my time in Japan, per say, or that I would necessarily ask for more, but it took me by surprise. In just a month’s time, I have found myself on an internal rollercoaster, riding from elation to anxiety to awe to loneliness and finally to a sense of contentment. I am, to some extent, a different person than the one who stood in the boarding line at O’Hare Airport, and only now am I settling down enough to feel the extent of that change catching up with me.

I think a bullet train is an apropos mental image of this. On Saturday, I boarded a Shinkansen, one of the many high-speed bullet trains that connect Japan’s major cities, and initially, I didn’t feel like we were going that fast. Only after we had picked up speed after a few stops near Tokyo did I see a vast sea of brown and pastel-colored rooftops beneath cloud-obscured mountains whiz past my window. Yet the Shinkansen itself is remarkably smooth, gliding along the specially-built rails in a way that passengers can’t physically feel the high speeds. Time feels like it’s moving same as usual, but only when you step back and look around do you realize how fast you’re truly going.

How ironic then, that the place I was riding the Shinkansen to encouraged quite the opposite. Near Odawara City, Kaisei Town was holding its annual Ajisai Festival, an event were the main attraction is rows and rows of beautifully blooming hydrangeas. Festival goers are encouraged to “be like snails,” taking their time roaming the hydrangea-lined footpaths against the backdrop of expansive rice paddy fields and distant mountains. This was the last weekend of the festival, so some of the bushes were a little wilted from the summer heat, but others, particularly the blue hydrangeas, were stunning.

Of course, there were other things to do at the festival besides seeing the flowers. There were food stalls, little flea market tents, and tables selling souvenirs of the festival’s very cute mascot Ajisai-chan, as well as a main pavilion that held various performances. As I made my way to the pavilion, I followed the sound of thunderous drumming that turned out to be a singular drummer, playing with so much strength and frenzy that at one point his drumstick went flying off stage, but then he just picked up a spare stick and kept going like a boss. Other performances had that particular brand of Japanese quirkiness, such as when the Ajisai-chan mascot was joined by someone dressed as the man from Pen Pineapple Apple Pen, an image that I’m sure will stay with me for decades.

However, there was one act that I just couldn’t sit through, which involved a group of baby and adult Japanese macaques. Now, I work at a zoo during my summers, so I’m not wholly opposed to animals as a form of entertainment. However, there was something unsettling about seeing these creatures, dressed up in flashy clothes and held by trainers with leashes, being prompted to perform dangerous tricks despite visible signs of fear and discomfort. I asked some students at Technos about it, and they said they didn’t like those shows, either, but no one at the festival seemed particularly perturbed by it. I certainly don’t mean to shame the animal trainers or the festival planners; after all, America has its fair share of animal mistreatment, especially in the meat industry. I simply mention this as the first time a cultural difference in Japan has caused me distress.

Of course, the concept behind the festival as a whole was a huge cultural departure. I mean, can you imagine a situation in which thousands of Americans would congregate at a large event simply to admire some flowers? And yet that’s exactly what I found myself doing, as I sat down on one of the secluded benches between two hydrangea shrubs, and listened to nothing but the murmur of people and a tiny brook lined with pails for people to water the flowers.

Admittedly, I used to be a lot better at sitting still and enjoying nature before college turned me into somewhat of a workaholic. But I think that this experience came at just the right time for me, at a point where the future is something that weighs heavily on my mind. Sitting and munching on some taiyaki and kakigori (flavored ice shavings) gave me the chance for some much-needed calm and self-reflection, which I think is part of the appeal of festivals like these.

After the festival, I spent the rest of my time at Odawara Castle, which served as the stronghold of the powerful Odawara Hojo clan during Japan’s Warring States Period. The castle, which is visible above the treetops even as you exit Odawara Station, is surrounded by breathtaking gardens, where I ran into a live taiko performance by a group of high-school students. The students brought such a high-energy performance, as they chanted a rousing kakegoe chorus of “sore sore sore!” while they danced and played; much to my amazement, one of the girls who led the group never stopped smiling, even as she was sweating and short of breath.

The inside of the castle has been renovated into a museum which contains relics from the Warring States Period, including swords and armor from the Odawara Hojo clan. While pictures weren’t allowed inside the castle, I was able to capture the view from the top balcony just before heading home before the evening rain.

That’s all for now; see you guys next week.

Week 4: Sounds of the City

So, I’ve dedicated much of this blog to describing how Tokyo looks, but have neglected to mention how it sounds. Part of that is due to the surprising lack of sound, which is easy to take for granted. While it’s construction season here, the workers take care to create as little noise as possible. Instead of honking horns and screeching train whistles, there are the quick chimes of bike bells, and trains glide to a halt as the speakers play little jingles that are unique to each station. Even the garbage trucks have music that sounds more appropriate for an ice cream truck. Some sounds are delightfully charming, like the music box version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that plays from a nearby building at 5 o’clock, while other sounds, such as comical voice recordings in the grocery store that promote various foods to customers, take a little getting used to.

This week, much of my days at Technos were filled with the muffled sounds of students taking their first oral exams of the school year. That, combined with the fact that the visiting students for Technos International Week will be arriving soon, means that things are a bit more hectic in the SkillUp Room. International Week, in which foreign students participate in a two-week cultural exchange, is largely student-led, so more and more students are coming in to practice holding conversations with foreigners and to review their presentations on various aspects of Japanese culture.

The theme of this year’s International Week is “roots,” namely, the roots of Japanese culture. So in that spirit, let me take you through two of the most famous, historical temples in Tokyo and their surrounding areas, in order to better understand how centuries-old places and customs have persisted into the 21st century.

Part 1: Shibuya and the Meji SHrine

Remember Harajuku and Takeshita-dori from last week? Well, right across from Harajuku Station and all the over-the-top wackiness that comes with it, there lies Meji Shrine, a Shinto shrine built in honor of Emperor Meji and Empress Shōken, who were revered as deities according to religious customs at the time. While many Japanese people are not actively religious, most still participate in the practices of Shintoism, Japan’s traditional religion. Shintoism is built around the worship of kami, which can be translated as gods or divine energy that is present throughout the natural world. These kami can be worshipped at small, private shrines at home or at larger shrines such as the Meji Shrine.

The outermost torii gates at Meji Shrine

Shinto shrines are easily identifiable by torii gates, which separate the sacred shrine grounds from the surrounding area. When entering, people are expected to bow and walk by the left or right pillars, for the middle path is reserved for the kami.

Meji Shrine has a series of outer gardens and courtyards, marked by more gates, that encompass the shrine itself. Once here, there are several things to do. As I talked about in my first blog about the Kanda Festival, the biggest thing is to pray to the gods by making an offering before the shrine. First, however, people are expected to purify themselves at a nearby fountain, using ladles to ritually wash their hands and mouths.

In addition to praying at the shrine directly, people can also write their intentions on onegaigoto (lit. “things wished for”), include a small monetary offering, and place it in an offertory box. Another option is to write them on ema (lit. “picture-horses”), which are displayed on racks near the front of the shrine. Though most people give monetary offerings, it is possible to offer up food to the kami as well. At Meji Shrine, for instance, there is a display of sake barrels, which sake brewers offer up each year.

People can also purchase omamori amulets for good luck and protection for a wide range of occasions, from good exam scores to safe childbirths. As I was walking away from the shrine, I saw a group of high school students holding omamori, as well as a young woman in kimono who was carrying a newborn baby to be blessed. I think it’s important to remember that as tourist-y as these big shrines can be, with dozens of tour guides leading flocks of camera-wielding foreigners, they’re a part of day-to-day life for many Japanese people. Religious or otherwise, I think the ability to momentarily depart from modern-day Tokyo and surround yourself with nature and quiet prayers of people from all over the world is a spiritual experience all on its own.

Commercial Break: Kawaii Monster Cafe

Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the secluded peacefulness of Meji Shrine and Yoyogi Park surrounding it, the shrine is actually located in Shibuya, one of the most popular areas of Tokyo. From the famous Tokyo crosswalk (“the Scramble”) you see in pictures to the trendy mega-shopping mall Shibuya 109, the crowdedness can be both exhilarating and overwhelming depending on your preference.

However, my favorite place during my afternoon exploration of Shibuya was the Kawaii Monster Cafe near Harajuku. Everything about it is an outrageous explosion of colors, lights, and techno music that combine to create an almost sinisterly cute carnival atmosphere. Its menu is just as bizarre, with experimental flavors and very liberal usage of food dye. I can definitely see it being a sensory overload for some people, and I was prepared for it to not live up to the online hype, but I had an absolute blast being there, especially when the “monster” staff started performing on a giant revolving birthday cake in the center of the room.

Part 2: Asakusa

The next day, I journeyed to Asakusa, home to the breath-taking Senso-ji Temple. Easily recognizable by the iconic red lantern hanging from Kikimorin Gate, Senso-ji is Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple. While the basic process of passing through the gates, ritually purifying oneself, and offering prayers to the gods are the same as Shinto shrines like Meji Shrine, Shinto shrines can be recognized by their distinctively-shaped torii gates, while Buddist temples will often feature incense burners, statues of the Buddha, and other icons within the temple itself.

Still, just as with Meji Shrine, Senso-ji a major site of historical and religious significance, drawing thousands of Japanese and foreign visitors daily. Asakusa as a whole struck me as surprisingly foreigner-friendly. From the moment I got off the train, there were people who handed me an English map of Asakusa and helped guide me towards the exit for Senso-ji Temple.

More than any other part of Japan I’ve visited thus far, Asakusa is devoted to preserving Japanese history and culture, and it’s readily apparent from the moment you exit the station. Along the streets, there are young men in traditional dress offering rickshaw rides, in which two drivers pull a small hooded carriage, around Asakusa’s major landmarks. There are also many kimono rental stores for people to wear around Asakusa, as well as traditional-style restaurants that also cater to foreigners.

For people who aren’t sure where to start in Asakusa, there’s a very helpful cultural center right outside the train station, which offers maps and guidebooks, as well as cafes, charging stations, and an observation deck with a view of Tokyo Skytree. When I went there, I was lucky enough to come on a day when they were offering a free nihon buyo dance lesson for visitors, and I immediately signed up.

After a quick explanation of the class, everyone was quickly dressed in yukata, a summertime version of kimono, and given maiogi fans. As was explained to us, nihon buyo relies heavily on imagination, and the fan is a vital prop in this. I felt like a kid at a magic show as our instructor unveiled the clever meanings behind different fan movements. Flutter the fan vertically? Rain droplets. Slower and more horizontally? Falling cherry blossom petals. The fan can also be used to act out opening a door, pouring sake, rowing a boat, and many other actions to tell the story of a particular dance. We learned a simple sakura dance intended for 8-year-old girls (much to the amusement of some of the adult men in the class), similar to a dance that I performed last semester as part of IWU’s Japanese club. During the dance, I kept fumbling with how to properly open and close my maiogi, but it was still lots of fun to try and then watch some professional dancers.

After that, I spent some time exploring Nakamise-dori, the main street leading to Senso-ji Temple, which is packed with stalls selling omiyage (souvenirs) and street food. I think my two favorite foods I tried there were suama, a squishy jello-like candy, and some fish-shaped taiyaki bread filled with sweet bean paste.


After paying my respects at the temple, some afternoon rain cut my trip a little short, which is a shame because I think Asakusa has been one of my favorite places in Tokyo so far. I know that some people try to avoid it because the tourists makes the historic atmosphere feel disingenuous, though. Can you really be immersed in ancient Japanese culture when there are selfie-stick brandishing visitors and a McDonalds just around the corner? Well, I think that tourism is just a way that culture persists in the 21st century, and I think it’s great that Japan wants to welcome other people by sharing some of that culture. Sure, some of it can get lost in the tacky postcards and keychains, but Asakusa’s tourism also gives people the chance to marvel at these majestic buildings and reflect on the religious devotion that compelled people to erect them.

I was raised Catholic, and while non-believers can peek inside churches and cathedrals, they are typically barred from the sacraments and other important ceremonies. The fact that anyone, regardless of faith, can fully participate in prayer at these shrines and temples, and come away feeling some degree of awe and wonder, is pretty unique. Walking through those towering gates and gaping at the elaborate architecture made me feel smaller than I ever have in my life, and I was surprised by how humbling the experience was. In an age of people feeling divided, these places of worship still welcome everyone, so I think it’s only fitting that their cities do, too.

Week 3: Ganbaru (Doing Your Best)

Part 1: Staying afloat

Ame (雨) = rain

“Ah, another beautiful day,” you say to yourself as you bask in the late afternoon sunshine on your way home from work. Brushing against a hedge of blooming white flowers, you pull out your cellphone to check the weather report.

“Hmm… it’s going to rain tomorrow, but other than that, things look just fine.” You tuck your phone back into your purse and check that your black collapsible umbrella is still securely in place. Earlier that week you picked it up from the 100 yen store nearby, and you’re pleased that you prepared for tomorrow’s rain.

Tomorrow brings a deluge.

You feel like you’ve been thrown into a hurricane as strong winds and large rain droplets accost you on the way to the train station. You bow your head and firmly grip your umbrella like a makeshift shield, but a violent gust turns it inside out. Your legs shiver in your now-soaked dress pants, and by the time you show up at work, it looks like you had no umbrella at all.

Welcome to rainy season in Japan.

Gaijin (外人) = foreigner, literally “outside (外) person (人)”

So yeah, Japan isn’t always the idyllic paradise I make it sound like sometimes. In fact, I feel like a lot of my prior knowledge of Japan is like that umbrella: you only feel well-equipped until it comes time to use it. Sure, I studied a little Japanese and used to watch a lot of anime, but knowing a handful of Japanese catchphrases doesn’t really translate into understanding how to use a Japanese computer at work. Responding to a cashier’s questions turns into more of a guessing game than a test of comprehension, and Google Images becomes essential to buying most bottled products, from cooking oil to laundry detergent. A lot of the time, it feels like I know nothing about Japan at all.

I don’t think it’s even the actual mistakes that cause anxiety; it’s the ever-present nagging worry about making a mistake, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. It’s the tension as you assess each oncoming biker and pedestrian in order to decide how to best stay out of their way. It’s the self-consciousness as you talk with your friends on the phone in the lounge and worry that you’re speaking too loudly. It’s the embarrassment of taking a big bite of a pastry and wondering if you’re fulfilling the image that all Americans are gluttons.

I could keep listing more insecurities that, while inconsequential in isolation, can snowball into social anxiety, or at least some social apprehension. There’s no guide to any of this, so the only real solution is to carry on with the acute awareness that you are not in sync with everyone else. Tokyo may be the most populated city on Earth, but as a gaijin, an outsider, it’s easy to feel that you are profoundly and intangibly separate from nearly everyone else.

Naturally, that’s where Starbucks comes in.

Japan has many American food chains, including a Starbucks in Higashi-Koganei Station, where I am, incidentally, writing this blog post. I wasn’t too keen on checking it out at first; even in America, I rarely go to Starbucks. However, one day my supervisor asked me how I was adjusting, and I mentioned that I still felt lonely sometimes, so she recommended that I check out someplace new instead of going for long runs like I usually do after work.

And it really helped, to my surprise. Sure, ordering food is a bit rough, but at least I understand how a Starbucks works. I can find a small table, order a panini, put in some headphones, and do my work just like everyone else. I’m sure my supervisor meant I should explore some unique Japanese side shops, but I also think that when you’re abroad, it’s okay to try to find a place with a familiar vibe that reminds you of home.

Part 2: Making New friends

It’s not just places, but also people that can help you adjust to a new country. Since coming to Technos, I’ve downloaded Line, a popular social media app in Japan, and I keep adding students to my friends list. Since many of the second-year students spend a lot of time at SkillUp, I’ve gotten to know them well; a group of us even went out to eat at a restaurant with delicious karaage (fried chicken) and other types of meat.

The English programs at Technos are just two years long, but many students are highly encouraged to take a “sandwich year” abroad, either as an internship or a study abroad in an English-speaking country. Thus, it’s a very exciting time to get to know these students as they either prepare to go abroad or come back with stories about their travels. For many of the first-year students in particular, International Week serves as helpful exposure to foreigners and to life in other countries.

Devesh and I are helping groups of students prepare for the Sister School Fair, where Technos students will get the chance to sit down one-on-one with the visiting students and share something about Japanese culture. Most Japanese students aren’t used to talking about themselves and their experiences though, so helping the students develop their own thoughts is a big part of our job. During the practice sessions, we help them brainstorm conversation topics, write questions to ask the visiting students, and encourage them to explore what aspects of Japanese culture they are most passionate about.

Part 3: Harajuku, the Capital of cute

For me, “kawaii culture” is my favorite part of Japan, and there’s no other place more renown for cuteness than Harajuku, and the famous Takeshita Street. The whole place is a celebration of over-the-top sweetness, from the bright pink shop windows to the eye-catching, pastel, Victorian doll-style dresses that many patrons wear. Kawaii culture, while aggressively feminine, isn’t restricted to just women, and it encourages everyone to boldly express who they are. When I made it to the Takeshita Street archway, I broke into a smile for several minutes, just because of the positive energy that fills that space.

When I was planning my day in Harajuku, there was so much I was going to explore, from Yoyogi Park to the infamous Kawaii Monster Cafe. However, I wound up just exploring Takeshita-dori and the nearby streets for hours on end, listening to young women waving around huge signs and cheerfully screaming advertisements at the top of their lungs.

In addition to cutesy Japanese fashion, Harajuku is famous for its crepes, which you can find at pretty much any corner of Takeshita-dori. They’re super quick to make, they come in a staggering number of flavors, and they’re the perfect snack to keep your energy high as you browse around. I also found a shop that sells cotton candy that was nearly the side of my head, in addition to some adorable cake pops.

Of course, I wasn’t going to leave Harajuku without some cute clothes and accessories. Color is very important in Japanese fashion, as I’ve noticed from female students who will often come to school in long skirts of different colors with a contrasting blouse. I also love the classy heels that everyone wears in their day-to-day looks; it’s definitely a step-up from American jeans and graphic T-shirts. Most outfits don’t feature very loud colors or patterns, except for some tiny floral prints, but most people look very tidy and put together (unlike me, who tends to just throw on the first thing I see in my closet).

So I had a lot of fun shopping around and getting my hands on some stylish clothes I had been eyeing for a while. Trying on clothes was a bit confusing at first, because as I mentioned before, Japan is very detail-oriented. You have to take off your shoes before entering the changing room, and once you’re inside, there are disposable mesh face covers for taking shirts on and off so they don’t get stained. Another tip about buying clothes in Japan is that they typically come in one size, F for feminine and M for masculine. Back in the States, I have a hard time finding clothes I like in my size, so having whole stores that catered to my body type was really convenient, but I can imagine that others may face challenges when buying clothes to match their body type.

However, despite the challenges I’ve described in this entry, I’m still incredibly thrilled to be in Japan, and it’s scary how quickly I’m approaching the half-way point of my time here. Stay tuned for Week 4, coming soon!

Week 2: Hajimemashite (It’s Nice to Meet You!)

Part 1: making a first impression

Jikoshoukai (自己紹介) = a self-introduction speech, typically to a large group of peers/co-workers

Monday morning rolls around, and you find yourself standing in the middle of a busy cluster of cubicles, filled with Japanese professors shuffling around as they prepare for the department-wide meeting. You tug self-consciously at your black dress pants, which you’re not used to wearing, and watch as everyone rises from their desks to face the professor in front as he reads the weekly announcements. You catch your name as someone ushers you to the front; with a small bow, you launch into the spiel you’ve been reciting in your head for the past ten minutes.

“Hajimemashite. Namae wa Mikaashi Reecheru desu…”

You’ve speak for less than a minute, but the room applauds like you’ve just read aloud a piece of award-winning poetry. Though you’ve made many grammatical errors, the professors kindly commend you on your Japanese proficiency. This praise isn’t limited to Technos, either: a simple “arigatou gozimasu” at the grocery store or a “hajimemashite” when meeting a new group of people will win you accolades. Meanwhile, some students who have been working for years to improve their English will feel nervous or embarrassed at the prospect of conversing with a native speaker.

That’s why everyday when I walk into the SkillUp Room at Technos, I am already impressed with the bravery it takes so many students, especially those just beginning their English studies, to approach my desk and ask for help. Getting to know individual students has been such a joy, whether we wind up discussing an upcoming job interview, sharing our favorite anime series, or laughing about English and Japanese slang words. It’s such a blessing that my job, in essence, is to be my awkward American self, make new friends, and share the language that I love so much.

Part 2: A day in the life

Kawaii (かわいい) = cute / lovable

Now that I’ve spent more than a week in Japan, I’ve started to find a routine that works for me. Every morning, I get out of bed, get ready, check my messages from back home, and then walk about 15 minutes to the train station. Unlike the Metra trains back home, which typically run at least 10 minutes behind schedule, the trains here are very fast and very timely, so I never worry about being late.

The morning view from Higashi-Koganei Station

Here, I will note just how safe, easy, and convenient Japanese public transportation is. In America, I think there’s a certain level of stigma around taking trains and buses; however, driving in Japan is often downright impractical because of the many narrow side streets that force bulky vans to crawl along at a snails pace. To get around Japan quickly, bicycles and motorbikes are more often the way to go; some of the bikes are even decked out with car seats to carry small children.

You can also see tiny schoolchildren, usually wearing bright red or orange caps, taking the train by themselves, which you wouldn’t expect to see in a big metropolis. While you won’t find me personally wandering backalleys alone in the dead of night or anything like that, Tokyo is regarded as a very safe city to live in. People here don’t fret too much if things get left behind in a public area, because they trust that other people will be responsible enough to return them. It’s a big attitude shift for someone from Chicago, but it’s helped me feel more at ease as I squish next to complete strangers on crowded trains during rush hour.

The train systems (yes, that’s plural) in Tokyo are incredibly intricate and overwhelming for newcomers, so I’m very lucky that I live just one stop away from Technos College. I get out at Musashi-Koganei Station, where I typically get a quick pastry from a bakery inside the station. I have yet to find a bakery where the bread wasn’t incredibly soft, sweet, and reasonably priced, so take time to enjoy some Japanese bread if you get the chance!

There’s a bus right outside the station that stops right outside Technos, but if the weather’s nice (which it has been nearly every single day since I arrived), I like to walk to the school so that I can listen to an audiobook, admire the scenery… and burn some calories from all the Japanese food I’ve been eating.

At SkillUp, we’re having the students identify each English teacher’s baby photo. Can you guess which one is me?

Once I arrive at Technos and receive any assignments for the day, I start chatting with the students in the SkillUp Room. I spent the first few days at Technos introducing myself to the students, and due to my long hair, softer voice, and overall younger demeanor, I was (and still am) typically met with a surprised chorus of “kawaii!” from the girls, and some guys, too. Being half-Asian, I didn’t expect to stand out too much in Japan, but it’s been such a relief to have that kind of positive reaction from the students.

Outside of SkillUp, I’ve also been assigned to help with a few writing classes, which has been such a fascinating experience. Although many Japanese students take some kind of English class throughout elementary and high school, writing isn’t typically emphasized, so for many of them, Technos is the first place where they’ve been challenged to express and organize complex ideas in English. Writing’s something that I’ve loved since I was nine or ten years old, and as I prepare to spend my junior year cranking out essay after essay at Oxford University, I feel a strange kind of nostalgia at breaking down the fundamentals of writing to students who are writing their very first poems and paragraphs in English.

A view of Koganei City on my way to Technos

After school, I can take the bus back to the station, but I typically prefer to walk home and take in the sights of the city. Walking around in Tokyo feels like you’re constantly unraveling a mystery, as you traverse busy roads, hilly footpaths, cobblestone-paved bridges, and paved biking paths with a tangled mess of shrubs and grassy weeds along the sides. The city is very compact, and as a result, there are all sorts of nooks and crannies to discover. For instance, one of the professors showed us this little hole-in-the-wall café with an equally small meat shop next to it. But as you go deeper, you discover that it’s also a flower shop and a local vegetable market, and it even sells ceramics and souvenirs, too.

That’s the kind of seemingly mismatched, quirky unexpectedness which pervades this town. On my way home, I can walk down a block of stationary shops and hair salons, turn a corner, and find myself observing a group of boys practicing Japanese archery in a backyard, just down the road from a shrine that’s centuries-old.

I love how no two houses are the same, either; they can come in all sorts of pastel shades and unique structures. Again, Japan has an extensive history compared to America, and you feel that in the parts of houses that are borrowed from different eras. You can have shingled roofs adjacent to modern glass walls, and a house with a gate made of sleek black bars can have a neighbor down the block with a gate made entirely from bamboo. What I suppose I’m trying to say is, you’ll never get bored during a walk through Tokyo.

On my way home, I typically stop at one of the many, many convenience stores throughout the city to pick up dinner. Unlike the oftentimes sketchy, dingy stores next to gas stations, however, convenience stores in Japan actually have quality food at reasonable prices. A pre-packaged meal of pasta, rice and chicken, or onigiri (triangular rice sandwiches) is an easy way to eat in Japan on a budget.

Of course, there are much more exciting places to eat than that… 🙂

Part 3: Kichijoji

Neko (猫) = cat

If you’re unfamiliar with Japan’s animal café phenomenon, let me be the first to introduce you. Whether it’s dogs, cats, birds, or reptiles, Japan’s sure to have a special café where you can eat your food in the company of any animal that tugs at your heartstrings. As a cat devotee, I chose to spend my Saturday morning at the first cat café I could find, Temari no Ouchi. This place had a really soothing, woodland fairy-type atmosphere, and unlike many cafes that have certain time restrictions, this place encourages patrons to relax and spend as much time as they’d like with the cats. You can kneel on your woven mat by your table and wait for cats to pass by, or you can walk around and find them lounging on ledges, under tables, or in little toy tunnels or houses. I could describe this place in more detail, but I think some pictures will do:

After nearly two hours of adequately acquainting myself with all the cats, I decided it was time to explore the rest of Kichijoji City. I spent some time wandering around the stores near the station, including UNIQLO, which is like if Sears were to rise from the ashes into a 7-story department complex containing all the affordable, essential wardrobe pieces you could ever wear in your life. I also spent some time exploring some smaller boutiques, too, and I noticed that while Japan is typically seen as a very ethnically homogenous country, they like to borrow from other countries. Within the span of two blocks, I saw a store selling Middle-Eastern clothes, an Italian café, a French bakery, and even an American-style buffet.

Once I had my fill of window shopping, I headed towards Inokashira Park. Like Koganei Park, this place was much larger than your average American park, and is filled with things to see and do: shrines, a zoo, an aquarium, a dog park, several cafes, and even a Studio Ghibli-themed museum that’s so popular that you can only by tickets on the tenth of each month online or at a special store.

However, one of my favorite things about the park was taking a swan boat ride on the river. It took me a few minutes to get the hang of peddling and avoiding collisions, but once I got my bearings, I was able to take in the beautiful nature all around me, momentarily forgetting that I was still in the largest urban setting on the planet. River boat rides like these are especially famous during cherry blossom season, so please check it out if you’re in Japan during that time!

It started drizzling during the late afternoon, so I decided to head back to Kichijoji Station. However, I was amazed to find that the inside of the station is massive, with a bakery, a legit grocery store, and a mile-long stretch of shops that puts any outlet mall strip to shame. I will bet that there are people who travel to Kichijoji and never leave the station; I think it took me about an hour to actually board my train because I kept getting distracted. So with a light heart and a bag of cinnamon rolls I was too weak to pass up, I boarded the train and ended my first solo excursion in Japan. It was a little intimidating, for sure, and my brain definitely short-circuited a few times when talking to the shopkeepers in Japanese, but I’m proud of myself for managing on my own and letting myself explore!

Sorry for the delay in posting this; I’ve been a bit under the weather for the past few days. I promise that Week 3 will be coming very soon!

Week One: Turning 20 in Tokyo

Part 1: Arrival

Nihon (日本) = Japan, the origin (本) of the sun (日)

You open your eyes, and all is dark and quiet on board flight 102 of Asiana Airlines. Well, until a crying baby behind you has something to say about that. With sleep decidedly out of reach, you slide open your window and see nothing more than dark clouds hiding an even darker Pacific Ocean below. Between the International Date Line and the number of times you’ve nodded off without once seeing the sun, your grasp of time is shaky. An end to the journey is certain, but when?

So, fast forward a few hours, hop on a new plane from Seoul, and feel the insistent rumbling of the plane bring you back to consciousness. You glance out the window, the morning sun now fully risen, and watch as a new country – and the next 7 weeks of your life – comes racing toward you.

For people in medieval Asia, Japan was the most eastern part of the known world, hence the country’s etymology. However, Japan is the origin of much more, known for everything from sushi to sudoku, pachinko to Pokemon. Like many teens in the West, my first introduction to Japan came from anime cartoons and manga comics; soon, I could be found tracing hiragana and katakana characters in the middle of class. A few other words, like kimono or sushi, have become well-known for most Americans; however, I hope this blog can add to your Japanese vocabulary as you and I gain a deeper cultural understanding of Japan over the next seven weeks.

Part 2: Moving In

Hana (花) = flower

Within five minutes of disembarking the plane at Narita Airport, the attentiveness to detail in Japan is evident. During the screening process, my fellow intern Devesh and I were sent back twice to fill out forms detailing our purpose for staying, our local contact information, and the items we were bringing into the country. Similarly, when we met with the manager of the sharehouses where we would be staying, we were asked to review a lengthy housing contract that would put the iTunes Terms of Agreement to shame. Scattered throughout the communal spaces are reminders about when to use the washing machines, how to dry the shower mats, how to sort garbage in special bags for burnables, non-burnables, plastic cups, paper… you get the idea.

However, that isn’t to say that those rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Rather, a shared understanding of the rules and expectations allows Japan to run like a well-oiled machine. Trains are timely, the roads are well-kept, and it took days before I could spot a single scrap of litter on the streets. As I walked to the train station the other day, I noticed a sign near a construction site that said “please cooperate” with the builders, and I think that captures the collectivist spirit of Japan quite nicely. People don’t adhere to the rules out of fear of law enforcement; they listen because deviating from the rules would hinder the flow of larger community, and by extension, hinder themselves.

And yes, there is a certain flow to this city, one that I am still trying to navigate. Koganei-shi, a suburban-esque area of Tokyo where I live, consists of bridges, narrow alleyways, cobblestone sidewalks, and unnamed side streets that have confounded Google Maps. Walking in Chicago can’t compare to a city that predates grid layouts. And squeezed within those narrow streets and sidewalks are pedestrians, legions of commuting bikers, lines of schoolchildren, compact cars, and buses that all intuitively know how to share the same road. My own commute takes me outbound from downtown Tokyo, so each morning and evening feels like swimming upstream, a solitary foreigner in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

However, the sheer number of people isn’t the only remarkable aspect of Tokyo and Koganei. I’ve included several pictures of flowers because you can’t help but notice their abundance. The town is filled with flowerpots, hedges, and flowering vines of all varieties anywhere you go; I’ve even seen them bursting through ventilation shafts. Koganei’s very symbol is a sakura flower, which adorns everything from bridges to manhole covers. It’s emblematic of the serenity that pervades this town, and so despite the stress of a long journey and my own uncertainties in a brand-new country, I was able to fall asleep and mentally prepare for my first full day in Tokyo.

Part 3: First Day of School

Hatachi (二十歳) = twenty (二十) years old (歳)

My first day of work as an English TA at Technos College was also my 20th birthday, the age of adulthood in Japan. Coming of Age Day, celebrated on the second Monday of each January, is a day of ceremonies and parties to congratulate those who turned 20 in the past year or who will be turning 20 in the coming months. While my 20th birthday wasn’t met with the traditional reception of family and friends, I was warmly received by the kind and welcoming professors and long-term TAs at Technos who showed us around the college, introduced us to students, and helped us get our bearings. (Special shout-out to Selena, an IWU alum, who picked us up at our sharehouses and showed us how to use public transportation!)

Our main headquaters at Technos is the SkillUp Room, an open area for students to study, mingle, and practice their English with the TAs. Conversing with the students was an absolute delight, as we chatted about studying abroad, exchanged funny hand gestures, and shared our favorite Disney movies. I told Technos students about sororities and American college life, and they in turn shared their experiences from their home countries. It was a whirlwind of introductions, and I think I accidentally made more than a few students late by making 15-minute conversations turn into 40.

Soon enough, though, it was time to leave for the evening. Selena and Aaron, an English professor at Technos, were kind enough to take me and Devesh out for dinner. As the birthday girl, I chose a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where I was able to try natto (fermented bean) sushi, tofu, and a variety of seafood. Even Devesh, who isn’t the biggest fan of seafood, found something he enjoyed!

Part 4: Koganei, Kanda, and Akihabara

(Or, I Really Should Have Thought to Bring Walking Shoes)

Matsuri (祭り) = festival

During dinner, Devesh and I had made plans to visit Mikoshi Matsuri in Kanda, one of the biggest festivals in Japan, on Saturday afternoon, but before then, I chose to embark on a solo exploration of Koganei Park near my house. The morning couldn’t have been more picturesque, as people filled the bike trails, playgrounds, barbecue campgrounds, tree groves, and huge green fields.

Koganei Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo, is also home to an open-air architectural museum, which honestly hadn’t piqued my interest when Aaron had mentioned it to me. But walking through that museum was like taking a stroll through time, as houses from the early 20th century soon gave way to a reconstruction of a 19th century town square, and even a farmhouse from 1603.

Kodakara-yu, a reconstructed public bath from 1929

But Japan is an ancient country, and its history and customs stem back even further. After meeting up with Taka, a Japanese exchange student who came to IWU during our sophomore year, the three of us headed for Kanda Myojin Shrine. With all the drumming in the streets, it wasn’t hard to miss. The hill leading up to the shrine was lined with street vendors selling everything from plastic masks to delicious strawberry crepes. Inside the gates of the shine, throngs of people waited to pray to the gods, purchase protective amulets, take pictures, or just cool off under mist sprinklers.

First, Taka led us to the large line in the center of the courtyard, where people were waiting with their prayers. Taka showed the steps: throw a small coin (typically a golden 5-yen coin) into an offertory box, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more while telling the gods your prayer.

From there, we went to get our fortunes (omikuji) for the coming year, which involved shaking a cylindrical box of numbered sticks and selecting a stick whose number corresponded with our fortune. Devesh managed to get “big luck” (大吉), but as someone who ended an incredibly lucky sophomore year with the chance to visit the country of her dreams, I was perfectly content with the regular luck category.

After purchasing some amulets for protection and good fortune, we joined the crowds in cheering on the mikoshi, a miniature shrine in which a Shinto deity resides, as it was carried into the courtyard by a team of men and women carrying it on their shoulders using wooden planks. Taka’s father actually helps organize the mikoshi parades which happen throughout the area, and when we met up with him, Taka and Devesh wound up carrying it through the streets of Akihabara.

As I trailed behind the parade, I felt especially moved at the sight of shrines being proudly held aloft alongside skyscrapers. Akihabara is a huge commercial district, the heart of all things anime and otaku (fans of anime culture, typically Westerners). There are claustrophobic pigeon-hole stores overflowing with merchandise, and flashy billboards are everywhere you look. And I’m not hating on consumerism; we did plenty of window shopping after the festival. But, for a moment, there was a pause. Cars stopped. Heads turned. People paid attention.

And maybe I’m just waxing poetics; maybe all the mikoshi did was make people perk up their heads for a moment before returning to their everyday lives. But with all the baubles and trinkets that tirelessly fight for our attention, people took a moment to acknowledge something older, something that wasn’t trying to scream in their faces.

Maybe a moment’s enough.

Thanks for reading; see you next week. 🙂