Friday, December 9, 2011

Changing Impressions

Mt. Hiei
It's already been over three months since I've landed in Japan! It still feels like I'm getting used to living here, though. My college in America isn't terribly far from home, so the longest I've gone without going home before was probably only a little over one month, yet it still feels like I just got off the plane last week.

Heian Shrine
Like I have said in my first post, this isn't my first time in Japan, but it is my first time living here for longer than a month, being so close to the city, and living with a host family, which are all factors that have shaped my time here so far. Being able to go on adventures to Kyoto and Osaka whenever I want have helped me to become a little more adventurous, especially when I try to go find new places like I did when I visited the Heian Shrine. Also, if I wasn't living with my host family, I wonder if I would feel more disconnected to living in Japan. As it is at Kansai Gaidai, I feel like we live in our own little foreigner bubble, which I don't necessarily consider a bad thing, but it is nice to have both a foreigner bubble and a Japanese family bubble.

Kansai Gaidai Halloween Contest
Another one of the impressions I've had over the past few months is that Japan seems to be a country of extreme conveniences and inconveniences. Everything you could need (super markets, hospitals, etc.) are hardly ever out of walking/biking distance or are reachable by bus, and going from Kyoto to Osaka is just a matter of hopping a few trains. At the same time, nearly everything closes by 8, if you're out past midnight you're probably going to miss your train home, and grocery shopping needs to be done nearly daily (my family goes to the store just once a week in America). Living here has been a mix of conveniences and inconveniences, which I suppose reflects how I've been adapting to living here, since I can't have my American conveniences and Japanese conveniences all at the same time.

I'm going to be staying here over the winter break as well as next semester, so I hope I'll be able to continue having new experiences throughout the time I have left here at Kansai Gaidai and in Japan.

The single branch of colored leaves in a still-green tree, Tōfukuji.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tōfukuji Kōyō

Given that it's now 紅葉 kōyō/momiji (maple leaf) season, going out to get a glimpse of the beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows is probably one of the main activities going on around Kansai Gaidai, especially because we are so close to Kyoto and Nara, two of the prime 紅葉狩り momijigari, or autumn leave hunting, locations in Japan. Some of the most popular sites in Kyoto include Arashiyama and Kiyomizu Temple, and I decided this past weekend to go to Tōfukuji, another location famous for its leaf-viewing.

However, although I was at Tōfukuji mainly to see the momiji, that does not mean I wasn't interested in everything else the temple had to offer.  For one thing, the famous Tsutenkyo Bridge gives an amazing view over a valley of beautiful trees, most of which were nearing their prime autumn colors.  In addition, and unrelated to the momiji, are the temple's rock gardens, which are some of the few places where you could go to just sit and relax away from the bustle of tourists there to see the autumn leaves. Specifically, I visited the gardens near the Kaisando Hall, where there is a contrasting rock garden and pond garden surrounding the area (and not a single red leaf in sight in this area--the majority trees here were pine trees).

One thing I noted when I was there, though, was that the vast majority of tourists were there more for the momiji than for the temple itself: this particular rock garden was in a slightly separate part of the temple past the bridge, without any sign indicating that the path lead to a rock garden, not a momiji-viewing sight. As a result, most people lined up to enter this part of the temple without knowing where it lead, and about a third of the people in line, after getting so far and realizing that there were no momiji, would turn around and leave. Like the commentary from the Japanese couple standing behind me in line, going out to momijigari shouldn't be just solely about the momiji: it's about being with friends, going out to view nature and go sightseeing, not just for the leaves themselves. In other words, skipping out on the temple's rock garden just because there weren't any autumn leaves there would omit part of the experience of Tōfukuji itself, in my opinion.

In addition, some of the trees at Tōfukuji weren't fully red (or were only just starting to show signs of turning red), which was also sad to see, as they weren't gaining any attention from tourists just because they didn't stand out as much as the other trees. Granted, one of the main points of momijigari is to see the momiji, but the other beautiful trees in the area certainly didn't take away from the scenery of the momiji, in my opinion. That being said, I did see many, many tourists sitting with their loved ones and simply looking at all of the trees--not there just to look for a few minutes, snap a few photos, and leave when they've had their fill, but to really enjoy the view while spending time with their friends and family. In addition, I got handed a flyer for a momiji festival, which also shows just how popular autumn leave viewing is in Japan and how much influence it has away from just literally looking at the trees themselves. Similarly, like the sakura treats you can buy during hanami season, momiji treats also abound at every popular momijigari location, which is another way of tying food with Japanese culture.

Coming from Pennsylvania, where there are countless trees changing colors in the fall and an abundance of natural scenery, I wasn't really expecting to be incredibly awed, but the entire atmosphere--the tranquilness of the temple, wondering down narrow Japanese streets to get to the temple, breathing in the fresh fall air after being cooped up in classrooms all week--really made this an experience that could never be received anywhere but Japan.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Japan's Family Food

Kiritanbo-nabe, the entire family's pot.
One key component of any culture is its food, but how that food is eaten and who that food is eaten with is also important. From what I've seen and experienced with my host family, if Japan society-wise is often group-oriented, then Japan cuisine-wise is often family-oriented, not just as a feature of who it is eaten with but how it is eaten. Yakiniku, sukiyaki, nabeall of these are more commonly eaten as a family (or a group of friends). While other foods like ramen, donburi, and others are often bought for oneself, the more family-based foods are unique in that they are shared with the family, not just something to eat by yourself, thereby making you include yourself within the family (or group of friends) through eating.

My own dish from the kiritanbo-nabe.
With my host family, I've been able to have some Japanese food that, while I could get at a restaurant, loses some of its touch when its not eaten at home with a family. Just yesterday we had nabe, specifically kiritanbo-nabe.  For those who have never had any sort of nabe ryori, it is basically a hot pot (literally, 鍋 nabe refers to the pot the food is served in) in which a various mix of vegetables, meat, and practically anything imaginable depending on the dish is boiled together, and everyone takes what they want from the nabe with a smaller dish of their own. In doing so, the nabe becomes both the center piece for the meal as well as a center for the family or conversation, as everyone shares instead of staying isolated with their own personal bowl of rice or noodles. In addition, while kiritanbo-nabe is a specialty of Akita Prefecture and neither of my host parents are from Akita, the reason we had it was because one of their previous host students currently works in Akita and had suggested we try it, which also includes a sort of family-factor in our meal choice.

Not just at home but at restaurants as well, sharing seems very common. At a restaurant, for example, it's common to buy a large mix of items and try them all with your friends. (One of the most popular places for this around Kansai Gaidai is probably Torikizoku, where food is relatively cheap, allowing you to focus on being with your friends and enjoying the experience without having to really worry about the price!) Even the Italian restaurant near my host family's house is family orientedthe last time we went, we bought several types of pasta, pizzas, and salads and shared them all, partially so we could figure out what tasted best, partially because we were there as a family and so we thought it would be best to share. In contrast, at an Italian restaurant in America, for example, I think the more common thing to do even if you're with your family is to buy one meal for yourself, and if you share, it's not much more than a bite or two, whereas in Japan, the whole meal, regardless of whether it's Italian, Japanese, or any specific kind of food, is often based around sharing, which makes it more family-like. Granted, I am generalizing and there most likely are people who share whole meals in such restaurants in America, but in general from my own experiences, I think that it seems much more common in Japan.

Meat for the yakiniku
My host family's yakiniku
Another food eaten often as a family (perhaps most famously) is sukiyaki, which, as it is a type of nabe ryori, food is shared from a collective dish. Currently my host family is waiting for one of their previous host students to visit so we can all go together to their favorite sukiyaki restaurant like one large, extended family, in a way. In addition, I recently had yakiniku with my host parent's parents (my host grandparents?), which was also very family-oriented, as even though we were cooking our own meat, the fact that we did so collectively over the same grill made it another sharing experience.

Both meals at a restaurant in Japan as well as at home are often very family-oriented, although I have to admit I prefer eating at home to eating at a restaurant. It's one thing to eat a nice meal as a family at a restaurant, but to have yakiniku with your family after having been warming up under a kotatsu makes the experience much more memorable.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Towers of Japan

I recently went to the Umeda Sky Building, which is one of Osaka's most famous landmarks as well as one of its tallest buildings. I had gone to Tokyo Tower once last year, so besides getting to see an amazing view of Osaka from the observation area of this 170-meter tall building, I hadn't really thought too much about the Sky Building itself until I was in the gift shop. There they sold souvenirs for the Sky Building, but they also sold collectables with a "20 Towers" theme--for not just the Umeda Sky Building, but for all of towers located throughout Japan. Although I went to Tokyo Tower last year as a tourist thing to do, it wasn't until I happened to see these souvenirs that I realized how little I knew about the different towers around Japan. I didn't even know just how many famous ones there were, from the Sapporo TV Tower to Osaka's Tsūtenkaku, which made me look into some of the towers' history.

One thing I found interesting about Japan's 20 Towers is that the Sky Building seems to be one of the few non-towers of the group, as it is more of a building containing various company's offices (such as one of Mazda's offices) than an actual communications tower like Tokyo Tower, Beppu Tower, and many of the others are. Instead, the Sky Building's unique structure is actually composed of two separate skyscrapers connected at the top by its so-called "floating garden" observatory (空中庭園展望台 / kūchū teien tenbōdai) (although I wonder if its structure is what gives it the prestige of being included with the other towers).

The observatory offers an amazing view of Osaka from all angles, and just like the Tokyo Tower, the Sky Building's observatory is a prime spot for tourists (as well as for couples in its special romantic seating area). When I was at the building there was a large group of tourists from Germany and other countries there to see the view, well outnumbering the amount of Japanese tourists during the time I was there, at least. One thing that made the Sky Building different from the Tokyo Tower, however, was that the Floating Garden is outside rather than being like Tokyo Tower's enclosed observation decks, which gave it a more special, closer feeling to the city rather than being separated from the view by a window. Similar to the Tokyo Tower, however, is that at the base of both are shopping areas and more spots for tourists, although the Sky Building boasts a special Showa-themed "Takimi Lane of Restaurants."

While there are currently twenty famous towers considered representatives of Japan, there will soon be a new addition to Japan's family of towers: the Tokyo Sky Tree, which should be open early next year, although it is currently at its full height of around 600 meters (for comparison, Tokyo Tower is only 333 meters tall). In addition, the Sky Tree holds the record of being the largest tower in the world as well as the second largest structure in the world. Like the Tokyo Tower's purpose as a communications tower, the Sky Tree will serve primarily as a broadcasting tower for radio and digital television, but its height will give it much better reception as the increasing number of skyscrapers around Tokyo Tower are interfering with its signals.

Even the escalator ride down
provided a unique view.
While America has its own high-rising towers and buildings such as the Empire State Building, with its various portrayals in dramas and anime, the Tokyo Tower is iconically Tokyo (and I always think of the Tsūtenkaku when I hear Kanjani8's Sukiyanen, Osaka), which makes me wonder if the Sky Tree will soon overtake Tokyo Tower's fame, or if it will become the icon for not only Tokyo, but for all of Japan.

Sources & Links

Umeda Sky Building / Floating Garden (Official English Site)
Tokyo Tower (Official English Site)
Tokyo Sky Tree (Official English Site)
All-Japan Tower Association [20 Towers]

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jingū Marutamachi


Jingū Marutamachi is located right before the last stop on the Keihan line in the Kyoto direction, Demachiyanagi. Although the station is comparatively not very small (and the local, sub-express, and express trains all stop there), there is really not much within the station itself, not even a food stand or convenience store. After exiting the gate after arriving at Jingū Marutamachi, the main thing that catches your attention is the signs for the various historical sites in the area. Although there are many historical sites in this area, I chose to focus on the station's namesake, the Heian Shrine (Heian Jingū).

Park across from the shrine.
Jingū Marutamachi is the closest stop on the Keihan line to the Heian Shrine, but to get there, you have to walk along the station's other namesake, Marutamachi Street, first. After walking around fifteen minutes in the direction of the shrine, I found several other areas of importance in the area. Most of the road has the usual restaurants, cafes, and shops (although this one in particular caught my eye, as I know of another Blue Parrot back near my school in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) as well as the city hall for the area. In addition, one of Kyoto University's dormitories is located less than five minutes from the station's exit, so the area immediately around the station seems to be home to some college students as well.
Closer to the shrine are more tourist-oriented shops and food stands, but the whole area itself struck me as more residential (or at least, less crowded) than Kiyomizu Temple or some of the other well-known temples and shrines in Kyoto. Directly across from the shrine entrance is a small park, which seems more catered to the people who live in the area rather than tourists as well. While I was at the park, there was a large group of Japanese college students playing tag around the park while mothers and daughters ate lunch together while sitting on the benches under the trees.  There was also a young girl learning to ride a bike with her father and brother, which once again reinforced the idea that the area is not so much for tourists as it is for those who actually live in the vicinity of the shrine. In addition, right near this park is the largest torii in Japan, which sits over the street across from the shrine itself.

Part of the Heian Shrine's gardens.
The Heian Shrine itself is quite large, and its large expanse of white gravel contrasts greatly with the bright red architecture of the shrine. In addition to the shrine itself are the shrine's gardens, which all focus around a large pond within the gardens. One woman I spoke to in the shrine suggested that I come back again later in the fall as well as in the spring to really see a better variance in the plant life in the gardens--when I was there there was only one tree with a hint of orange, so a return trip certainly is necessary!

A final note about the shrine is that it is the site of the Jidai Matsuri, which actually happens tomorrow!

Finally, right next to the station exit itself is a bridge, beneath which seems to be a popular hang out spot for couples, friends, and just those who want to ride their bikes along the river. While Jingū Marutamachi is quite a distance from Hirakata, the various shrines and museums right near this station certainly make it an area worth visiting.

Marutamachi Bridge.

View from Marutamachi Bridge.

Friday, October 7, 2011

portrait of a japanese person

Like a lot of the foreign students at Kansai Gaidai, I've met a lot of Japanese students in the CIE lounge ever since I first came to the campus.  The problem is that because we keep meeting so many people, it's hard to have conversations with other people besides short, simple small talk unless you can find a common interest.  That being said, I have made a lot of Japanese friends with similar interests as me who I've had the chance to meet up with outside of Kansai Gaidai, one of those people being my friend Asuka.

I first met Asuka when she and her friend, Ayaka, started up a conversation with me and my friends from my home university, Gettysburg College.  When we said we went to school in Pennsylvania, they didn't seem to know a whole lot about the area, but when we mentioned that we went to Gettysburg College, it turned out that they both were friends with a guy named Gus, who had graduated from Gettysburg College this past spring.  Not only did we know him, but one of my friends and I had recently been in the same Japanese history class as him!  It was such a coincidence that we all happened to know someone from my home university, even though we had met at different times and in different places.  Having this in common really helped to bring us together--to think, if we hadn't mentioned our university then, we might not have ever realized this!

Asuka is a third-year student at Kansai Gaidai, and she studied abroad at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, so her English is already really good--we can all gossip and have girl talk together without much of a language barrier! Asuka is always smiling and laughing and can always lift our moods when we talk with her after our classes.

Since we first met, Asuka, my friends, and I have hung out around campus and have had lunch together several times, but we've also met outside of Kansai Gaidai as well.  For instance, last Friday we all went to Hirakata Station for dinner and karaoke to celebrate the fact that it was finally Friday. (Asuka is also amazing at karaoke!! She put us all to shame with her amazing voice!)

Even though I've met a lot of people since I came to Kansai Gaidai, Asuka is one person who I've really had a chance to get to know better, and I hope we will be able to get to know each other even more during my time abroad here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Neighborhood Nagao

 My neighborhood for the next year in Japan is in Nagao, a part of Hirakata City.  My first impressions of Japan were of the conveniences of its railways and buses, and as luck would have it I am located not even a five minutes' walk from Nagao Station.  Unlike the Hirakata City Station or the Kuzuha Station, which I have visited often in the past few weeks, Nagao Station is much smaller and does not have nearly as many shopping centers that the larger stations have.  Even still, having a train station so close by makes any traveling I do outside of Hirakata very convenient!

Nagao Station (seen from my host family's 10th floor apartment)
However, my neighborhood is not just the train station.  I live in an apartment building, which in contrast to living in a house gives me a greater chance of speaking with my neighbors, since I share elevator rides with them daily.  My host brother's friends also sometimes drop by our apartment to play, which has also given me a fun chance to interact with my neighbors.

One thing that has been a huge help in getting to know the area is the fact that my host mother was raised here and knows much more about the area than I could ever learn a guidebook (although I doubt there is any mention of Nagao in any Japan guidebook…).  For example, last week my host mother and I went to a small, tanuki-themed restaurant located on a street off of the main road leading to the train station, a place I don't think I would have gone to had I been exploring the area myself.  In fact, my host mother said that she has been coming to this restaurant since she was a little girl, which adds so much more meaning to visiting the restaurant besides its incredibly delicious chahan!

In contrast to the large, modern apartment I live in are the numerous temples and shrines in the area.  Right next door to the apartment building is a small temple, and a bit further down the street is a larger, more secluded temple filled with statues, from actual Buddhist-related statues you would expect to see at a temple to statues of Astro Boy and Pikachu.  One thing that I loved about this temple is that despite the fact that it is right next to the station, it is still isolated from the city.  In fact, although I passed many people on the street before entering the temple, I did not encounter a single other person in the temple, something I didn't expect in my busy corner of Nagao.

I still have more exploring to do around Nagao, since I have been spending quite a lot of time at the other stations around Kansai Gaidai, but hopefully with the help of my host family I'll be able to learn more about my neighborhood, my home for the next year.


Friday, September 16, 2011

impressions of japan

This is actually my second time in Japan; my first time was last year, when I studied at a language school in Aichi prefecture for a month in the summer. However, this is the first time I've been in the Kansai area (or even a more urbanized area) for more than a day trip, and while many things are the same as they were where I was last time, enough things are different that I'm still being surprised by some parts of everyday life in Japan.

Since this isn't my first time in Japan, I can't quite say what made the very first impression on me here since I probably take it for granted now, but, in any case, there have been some things that have been different since my last visit that have certainly made this year much more different than the last. Last year I lived close enough to my school's campus that I walked to class every day. I only rode the train a few times to go to Nagoya, and I never really had to deal with public transportation besides that.  However, this year, since I'm doing a homestay in an area that's a bit too far away from campus to walk or bike, I've been taking the bus to school everyday.

I'm from rural Pennsylvania, so public transportation is pretty much nonexistent where I live, and riding the bus at all is an experience in it of itself. I did notice how every bus is on time, give or take a minute or so in some cases, although I'm still not fully used to how exactly the schedule works yet. I've never had to deal with buses before, so it's a relief to know that I won't be late to class just because a bus arrived late. I also live on campus at my school in the United States, so it's also strange that I have to travel at all just to go to classes.  At the same time, it's been a great opportunity to see a little bit more of Japan outside of our secluded campus, even if it is just speeding through the area to get where I need to go.

Besides going to school, since I have a bus pass, I've been taking advantage of it to go to Hirakata Station whenever I can. Again, since I'm from a small town in Pennsylvania that doesn't even have a mall for miles, to me it's really neat to see how progressively urban Hirakata becomes as you go from Kansai Gaidai's campus to the station. Having malls, karaoke, and a ton of restaurants accessible all from the station area (and not even in as large an area as Namba or Shibuya) is just a convenience that probably didn't even catch the attention of the exchange students who are from larger cities, but to me it left an impression.

Maybe this isn't an experience completely limited to Japan, but I certainly think a life that revolves around train stations and public transportation is something quite relevant to living in Japan and is something that is going to help shape my way of living here.