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Last week, we were for­tu­nate enough to wit­ness a Japan­ese pub­lic hol­i­day [no school!] cel­e­brat­ing elder­ly peo­ple; to com­mem­o­rate this day we decid­ed to go and see the Fuji Five Lakes! We man­aged to recruit nine eager JLSPers and set off ear­ly on Sun­day morn­ing for the bus to Fuji from Shin­juku. We had a few ‘com­pe­tent’ Japan­ese speak­ers with us so I felt safe in know­ing that we would be able to ask for help from the locals, if required. I sat next to Phoebe who pro­claimed with­in the first five min­utes: ‘I’m feel­ing real­ly ill!’ and ‘I’m going to go to sleep, so I prob­a­bly won’t talk!’; I knew I was in for a fun bus jour­ney! To her cred­it, she only slept for half of the jour­ney and had the decen­cy to not sneeze in my direc­tion so I guess things could have been worse 🙂 We passed the Fuji High­lands theme park on the way there, and in hind­sight that prob­a­bly would have made for a much more inter­est­ing hol­i­day…

If only…

Due to the traf­fic, we arrived at Lake Kawaguchiko about 2 hours lat­er than we thought we would. The lake was extreme­ly scenic and was filled with swan boats akin to those found in Ueno park. There were also var­i­ous lux­u­ry boats and water sports tak­ing place. How­ev­er, some of us had our hearts set on swim­ming and so we set off to find more suit­able place, Lake Saiko. The map claimed that it was 12KM away and we had a seri­ous debate on whether or not it would be a good idea to walk there [I vot­ed NO!]. We man­aged to fig­ure out the local bus sys­tem and took one along some moun­tain­ous paths towards Lake Saiko. We found an open spot near the lake and set­up our camp for the day.

Kawaguchiko Crew!

We were in a rather awk­ward posi­tion on the lake, right in between some­one who was fish­ing and a pile of old wood­en boats. ‘Swim­ming’ became bor­ing sur­pris­ing­ly quick­ly [cold water did not help!] and so we had to think of anoth­er way to spend our time. Although there were 3 oth­er lakes that we had not yet seen, I doubt­ed my lev­el of inter­est in them and so I decid­ed my time would be bet­ter spent lying on the shore of Lake Saiko, work­ing on my tan. I was joined by the Finns and we waved the oth­ers good­bye after sug­gest­ing a vague ren­dezvous time [‘meet lat­er, in town’]. We had sol­i­dar­i­ty in our dis­like of ‘doing stuff’ and we were per­fect­ly hap­py to just relax on our lit­tle ‘beach’ and watch the sun slow­ly set in the dis­tance.

Beach life.

Our bliss­ful exis­tence was inter­rupt­ed by an alarm­ing phone call from the oth­ers, who now found them­selves ‘in the mid­dle of nowhere’ and with no way to get back in time for check in at the hos­tel. It was up me and the Finns to make it to there in time and save the day! At the time, we had no idea where we were, where we want­ed to go, and how we were going to get there; the odds were heav­i­ly stacked against us suc­ceed­ing! There was no sim­ple to way to get back to town from our cur­rent posi­tion, so we decid­ed to take the easy [and expen­sive] option and call for a taxi. We stum­bled into a near­by hotel and I man­aged to ges­ture for them to call a taxi for us back to Lake Kawaguchiko [much hard­er than it sounds!]. The taxi cost the prince­ly sum of 3,700 JPY but it was a small price to pay to ensure that we had some­where to stay that night. We then took a train from the town towards the hos­tel and used all of our com­bined cun­ning to locate it. Upon enter­ing, we had to take off our shoes and wear com­mu­nal slip­pers. We assured the hotel clerk that our friends were going to arrive lat­er and she us into the room after sign­ing a few doc­u­ments.

When the oth­ers arrived, we asked the hos­tel own­er [an Amer­i­can guy by the name of ‘Michael’] to rec­om­mend some places to eat, and he walked us to his friends place for some real tra­di­tion­al cui­sine. He seemed like a real­ly nice and gen­uine guy so we trust­ed every­thing he said. How­ev­er, the food and drinks at the restau­rant were rather expen­sive, and the par­tic­u­lar dish I had [fried octo­pus] did not go down well at all. The oth­ers shared my thoughts! Com­pared to oth­er places I had been to in Japan, this did not rank high­ly on the list. Per­haps we just aren’t used to eat­ing ‘real’ Japan­ese food? The more like­ly con­clu­sion that most of us had come to was that we had been set­up by the hos­tel own­er! We head­ed to the 7/11 after­wards to sup­ple­ment our diet with ice cream and then went back home for a well-earned rest.

I will now quick­ly sum­marise the few days fol­low­ing the Fuji Five Lakes trip. I am mas­sive­ly behind in terms of real time so I think it’s bet­ter for me to catch up now or else I will quick­ly lose enthu­si­asm for blog­ging — not good! If you want to hear about any­thing in more detail, feel free to ask.

- Sec­ond day at Five Lakes; vis­it­ing some shrines and parks; saw lots of spi­ders

Stairs, tem­ples, moun­tains.

- Lucy’s birth­day; karaoke and drink­ing in Shibuya; lots to live up to for my birth­day!
— Trip to Life Sav­ing Cen­ter; earth­quake and typhoon sim­u­la­tion; chance to use a fire extin­guish­er

Sim­u­la­tion of a 7.0 mag­ni­tude earth­quake!

- Shabu Shabu in Shin­juku with some Japan­ese vol­un­teers; dip­ping meat in raw egg; karaoke trip #3

Post shabu-shabu karaoke.

- Yoyo­gi Park with Kaisa-chan; some kind of Indi­an fes­ti­val near­by; ate a don­er kebab

Yoyo­gi Park!

- Aki­habara, Elec­tric Town; tech heav­en; sur­pris­ing­ly expen­sive

A wild Pikachu has appeared!

- Aiki­do at the uni­ver­si­ty club with Tom and Phoebe; real­ly fun to try, peo­ple very friend­ly and patient; may con­tin­ue reg­u­lar­ly!

Meet Matsu-chan!

On Sat­ur­day, we went to the Nedu Jin­ga Shrine Annu­al Fes­ti­val with a few of the JLSP vol­un­teers we had met dur­ing the week. It was held in the late after­noon and was just the thing we need­ed to help recov­er from the wel­com­ing par­ty the night before. The set­up of the fes­ti­val remind­ed me of a tra­di­tion­al coun­ty fair and it had a warm and friend­ly feel to it. It is inter­est­ing to be able to find things like this in the mid­dle of Tokyo, a dis­tinct con­trast from the high-tech met­ro­pol­i­tan dis­tricts of Shin­juku and Shibuya!

A stall sell­ing choco­late cov­ered bananas on a stick.

We got anoth­er chance to see Sumo wrestling at the fes­ti­val; despite only involv­ing some of the local ama­teurs (as opposed to the ‘super­stars’ we saw last week), it was still high­ly enter­tain­ing and I was able to get a much bet­ter view with­out pay­ing an extor­tion­ate price. The wrestlers were slim­mer and moved faster, the fights last­ed longer, and best of all, I didn’t have to endure 6 hours of it in a row! I rec­om­mend see­ing ama­teur Sumo over one of the big tour­na­ments if you just want a taste of it.

Going in for the kill.

The main event of the day how­ev­er, was yet to come… Towards the end of the after­noon I was grow­ing tired and my inter­est in the fes­ti­val was grad­u­al­ly wan­ing. But then I spot­ted some­thing in the dis­tance that imme­di­ate­ly grabbed my atten­tion and awok­en my sens­es; I knew in my heart that I was not going home today with­out it. There was a stall that offered the chance to win a [real!] tur­tle if you could fish three of them out of the small pond using a net made of rice paper. Only in Japan!
Here is a video of my suc­cess­ful attempt [I promise to edit it and add cool music lat­er!]:

You had to be quick to catch the tur­tles before the rice paper dis­solved. I failed my first attempt but gave it anoth­er go and was reward­ed with a tur­tle of my own to take home! I named it Mat­suri, or Mat­su-chan for short, and it now lives in a plas­tic con­tain­er on my desk. It has been a week so far and I’m hap­py to report Mat­su-chan is alive and well, hap­pi­ly eat­ing the tur­tle pel­lets I bought from the super­mar­ket!

Meet Mat­su-chan!

Category: JLSP | Tags: , , , ,

It is, isn’t it?

This is the rough trans­la­tion of the infa­mous Japan­ese filler-phrase, “so desu ne?”; it has the amaz­ing­ly abil­i­ty of mak­ing who­ev­er you are talk­ing to think you actu­al­ly under­stand them! As much as we like to think so, things aren’t so dif­fer­ent else­where — sim­ply agree­ing with peo­ple can get you pret­ty far; in many cir­cum­stances it is the best approach! I have been get­ting quite a lot of mileage out of it today with good results, in con­junc­tion with the nods. Good vari­a­tions include “so… so…” and “ah, hai!”. Per­haps Japan­ese will be eas­i­er than I thought! Today we had the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny and we were all required to give a quick intro­duc­tion of our­selves in Japan­ese, in front of about 50 [Japan­ese] peo­ple. Luck­i­ly, we had two hours of class before­hand to pre­pare and we all man­aged to mem­o­rise a short speech. We were even giv­en advice on the cor­rect angle at which we should bow! I am pleased to report that my “speech” went smooth­ly and I was able to use what I learnt sev­er­al times through­out the day as I met oth­er Japan­ese peo­ple!

The class­room in which we are taught Japan­ese. The tables were lat­er re-arranged into a cir­cle so we could face each oth­er!

We were also taught the first 15 hira­gana char­ac­ters, and have a test to look for­ward to tomor­row. I already had a pass­ing famil­iar­i­ty with them from my own attempts at learn­ing so with this refresh, I think the test will go smooth­ly. The teacher for the Japan­ese class was very enthu­si­as­tic and def­i­nite­ly what we need when learn­ing a new sub­ject. We played a game to prac­tice the intro­duc­tions which involved clap­ping to a rhythm and mak­ing hand sig­nals — it felt like being in pri­ma­ry school again! Attend­ing lec­tures in Cam­bridge is almost an entire­ly pas­sive expe­ri­ence; it has made me for­get how effec­tive class par­tic­i­pa­tion and engage­ment can be! I have also watched some lec­tures from the MIT OCW and they seem head and shoul­ders above that of Cam­bridge [supervisions/tutorials should NOT be the answer to bad lec­tures!].

This evening, Phoebe cooked an oishii meal for me and Kaisa. I donat­ed my pans to her since I wasn’t plan­ning on doing sig­nif­i­cant amounts of cook­ing [I can hap­pi­ly live off oni­giri!], while she seemed more enthu­si­as­tic about it. Most of the raw ingre­di­ents in the super­mar­ket are only labelled in Kan­ji and so tri­al-and-error is required to find things you actu­al­ly want. We pur­chased some mys­tery meat which lat­er turned out to be beef, and cooked it with some fresh udon noo­dles [ridicu­lous­ly cheap in Japan!]. In con­trast, fresh fruit such as apples cost about 3x as much as it does in the UK! I’m not sure which fruits are pop­u­lar in Japan but I am sure they would be more rea­son­ably priced.

For some rea­son, we thought it would be a good idea to go for a run after din­ner [pos­si­bly my idea] and we so donned appro­pri­ate run­ning attire and set off from our apart­ment. We ran across town and tried to take a cir­cu­lar track so that we would even­tu­al­ly return home. We received quite a few stares but put a good effort in and must’ve com­plet­ed about 2–3 miles. Not bad for a first attempt! Kaisa some­how still had ener­gy left so she ran around some more whilst Phoebe and I just flopped on the floor in our apart­ment. I think I will sleep well tonight!

Total Eclipse

We were intro­duced to some Japan­ese vol­un­teers today and giv­en a chance to talk to them about their lives in Tokyo. A lot of them felt that Tokyo was too over­crowd­ed and busy, and that they would pre­fer to live in a more qui­eter town. This is not an opin­ion I share! They were all extreme­ly nice and I look for­ward to spend­ing more time with them — I’ve been spend­ing a lot of time with Euro­peans, and whilst I very much enjoy their com­pa­ny, I have to remind myself that I am here to learn more about Japan and about Japan­ese peo­ple. Can I have it both ways? ‘Not speak­ing Japan­ese’ is a minor set­back that I am try­ing to over­come… One of the Finns decid­ed to wear a t-shirt with an inter­est­ing slo­gan on it [‘Eng­land can go to hell’]; after a few min­utes of protests and com­plaints from the very vocal Brits he promised nev­er to wear it again 🙂 Why he had such a t-shirt in his wardrobe is still a mys­tery!

Can’t we all just get along?

One of the vol­un­teers I met plays in a band and is due to play live tomor­row — she invit­ed us all along to sup­port! If it doesn’t clash with class­es, I think I would love to come and watch. She showed me the songs on her iPod and I was sur­prised at how much west­ern music she lis­tened to — she even knew some brit­pop bands which I didn’t expect to have any expo­sure out­side of the UK! She also lives close to our accom­mo­da­tion and works part-time in a near­by con­ve­nience store, so we may see her around quite often.

Enjoy­ing dessert with the vol­un­teers.

In the evening we decid­ed to go for some karaoke! The first offi­cial day of class­es starts tomor­row, so we didn’t want to stay out too late. We decid­ed to go to a place in Shi­mo­takai­do that we had seen ear­li­er today. Since we were there for the first time, we need­ed to reg­is­ter and we were pre­sent­ed with an extreme­ly con­fus­ing appli­ca­tion form. Luck­i­ly, the Ger­man girl, Nina, was able to speak Japan­ese well and com­plete the process on our behalf. They decid­ed to use my phone num­ber since it was the only phone that actu­al­ly worked in Japan; I look for­ward to answer­ing mar­ket­ing calls from some hyper­ac­tive Japan­ese! [moshi, moshi!]

The machines had a choice between Japan­ese, Chi­nese, or Kore­an lan­guage for the menu sys­tem, which is indeed like try­ing to decide between a slap in the face or a kick in the shin! We even­tu­al­ly fig­ured out how to use it and began to bel­low out some karaoke clas­sics [after an ini­tial tense peri­od!]. I was hap­py to see every­one get involved, par­tic­u­lar­ly since many had not been to karaoke before. The two hours went by real­ly quick­ly, and we end­ed with a par­tic­u­lar­ly enthu­si­as­tic ren­di­tion of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. The karaoke cost us about 1200 JPY each, which also includ­ed unlim­it­ed soft drinks [alco­hol was extra]; amaz­ing val­ue! I sus­pect karaoke will become our reg­u­lar enter­tain­ment 🙂 Only Phoebe brought along a cam­era so check her blog for some [high­ly embar­rass­ing] pic­tures.

Category: JLSP | Tags: , ,

Learning for the sake of learning

We were final­ly able to meet every­one on our course, just in time for the ori­en­ta­tion at the uni­ver­si­ty. We were able to expe­ri­ence first hand, the hor­rors of over­crowd­ing on the Tokyo sub­way dur­ing the morn­ing rush hour — an expe­ri­ence we will now have to endure every sin­gle day! The jour­ney from Shi­mo­takai­do to Ichi­gaya takes about 45–60 min­utes. The nov­el­ty fac­tor meant that we were still rea­son­ably cheer­ful, but I sus­pect that the jokes about ‘get­ting close to each oth­er’ will soon wear thin as time goes on. Like sumo wrestling, there is only so much that we can take. The sub­way trains are well air-con­di­tioned and very clean, so it is gen­er­al­ly quite a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence (minus the over­crowd­ing).

When we arrived at the uni­ver­si­ty, we were giv­en a talk by one of the course coor­di­na­tors about the hous­ing con­tract and gen­er­al rules and reg­u­la­tions. She alter­nat­ed between Eng­lish and Japan­ese and I tried my best to look like I could under­stand the gist of both (with well-timed nods!). We filled in a bunch of forms and ques­tion­naires about our lev­el of Japan­ese pro­fi­cien­cy and the cours­es that we would like to take. The dif­fer­ent class­es [class A to class E] rough­ly fol­low the dif­fer­ent lev­els of the inter­na­tion­al Japan­ese Lan­guage Pro­fi­cien­cy Test. For­tu­nate­ly, we were told that those who had not stud­ied Japan­ese before did not need to attempt the lis­ten­ing and writ­ing place­ment tests and were only required for an inter­view. It seems like most of Cam­bridge as well as the Finns will be in the beginner’s class (class A), which is good since we have been hang­ing out togeth­er a lot any­way. [“A is for awe­some!”]

The coor­di­na­tor remarked about how the pro­gramme was quite strict, but only 60% atten­dance of the class­es is required. This seems to me to be a very lax fig­ure — I could effec­tive­ly skip class for an entire month and still pass! There are also a ridicu­lous amount of pub­lic hol­i­days [almost one day per week] where we don’t have class­es, and so I don’t except there to be too much pres­sure. Since I have already grad­u­at­ed, the trans­fer cred­its are incon­se­quen­tial to me and I am effec­tive­ly learn­ing Japan­ese only for the sake of learn­ing Japan­ese. This rep­re­sents a refresh­ing change to my time at Cam­bridge where I felt pres­sured to try and max­imise exam per­for­mance at the sake of learn­ing about things I was inter­est­ed in.

We got a first taste of the Nihon cafe­te­ria and I found the food to be very good qual­i­ty and gen­er­ous in por­tion size. For about 600 JPY we were able to get a set meal of miso soup, sal­ad, rice, and fried pork cut­let. We bought the com­muter pass that allows us to trav­el freely between Shi­mo­takai­do and Ichi­gaya, and it cost about a whop­ping 30,000 JPY (just over £230) for three months. To con­trast, a one-month ‘zone 1 only’ trav­el­card in Lon­don costs £99.10 and so the com­muter pass in Tokyo is rel­a­tive­ly good val­ue. How­ev­er, it only pro­vides free trav­el for one par­tic­u­lar route and so we will still need to pay for tick­ets when we go out­side it.

The Finns received a sig­nif­i­cant mon­e­tary grant from the uni­ver­si­ty and so we decid­ed to go back to Hara­juku to spend some of their mon­ey and kit out in Tokyo fash­ion! The Brits were unfor­tu­nate­ly feel­ing a bit poor after pay­ing for the com­muter pass, but I was still able to find some cool flip-flops and invest in a 100-yen umbrel­la. Today was the first day it rained in Tokyo since we arrived, and I per­haps even pre­fer it to the sun­shine. The air was much cool­er and the streets were less busy — a touch of Lon­don nos­tal­gia per­haps? I thought I wouldn’t miss the UK at all (par­tic­u­lar­ly the weath­er) but it seems there is still a soft spot for it in me some­where…

Category: JLSP | Tags: , , , , ,

The Ultimate Endurance Sport

We met out­side our accom­mo­da­tion at the scar­i­ly ear­ly hour of 7.30AM; Phoebe and I had looked into the ongo­ing Sumo Grand Tour­na­ment in Tokyo and man­aged to con­vince a bunch of the guys and girls to come along and watch. Some of us from Cam­bridge were joined by the ever-eager Finns and we set off towards the Sumo dis­trict of Ryo­goku. The tour­na­ment lasts for about 2 weeks and since each indi­vid­ual bout only lasts mere sec­onds, you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see many, many fights in just one day. Gen­er­al admis­sion [unre­served] tick­ets were the cheap­est and were only on sale on the par­tic­u­lar day of the event — first come, first served! We were wor­ried they would sell out and so we arranged it so that we would arrive just as the box office opened (8.30AM). This turned out to be a pre­ma­ture cau­tion since it didn’t seem to sell out until much lat­er!

The junior wrestlers were giv­en bouts ear­ly on, whilst the high­er ranked wrestlers came on lat­er. We decid­ed to go to the near­by Edo-Tokyo Muse­um to kill some time so that we didn’t get burnt out by watch­ing so much sumo. The muse­um was fair­ly inter­est­ing and had many relics from the Edo-peri­od of Japan. It also had a sec­tion on Japan dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. We spent 2–3 hours soak­ing in the cul­ture there, whilst simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hyp­ing up the sumo that we were about to see [“OMG sumo is gonna be awe­some!”].

We stopped by in a near­by con­ve­nience store to get some drinks and snacks. Phoebe and Kaisa both went for tuna-mayo Oni­giri [filled rice ball wrapped in sea­weed] and I was sur­prised to see such con­trast­ing reac­tions!



When we entered the are­na at just after mid­day, we felt smug in think­ing that since we had man­aged to spend three hours else­where we would be able to endure the rest of the fights that day. Although we bought seats in the very back row of the are­na [‘nose­bleed sec­tion’], most of the oth­er seats were emp­ty and so we seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to move clos­er until some­one would come to claim their seat.

A fight between two junior wrestlers. Note the emp­ty sta­di­um!

We spent an hour watch­ing some junior ranked wrestlers before going off the eat in the under­ground hall. They were serv­ing chankon­abe [tra­di­tion­al ‘Sumo Stew’] for only 250 JPY and so we hap­pi­ly paid the token sum to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to try food that real sumo wrestlers ate on a reg­u­lar basis [as a side note, we were in McDon­alds ear­li­er that day and saw a wrestler wolf­ing down a Big Mac meal!]. The stew was extreme­ly tast­ing and fill­ing, although I couldn’t imag­ine it con­tain­ing very many calo­ries in com­par­i­son to the meals avail­able in mod­ern cui­sine (i.e. junk food!).

The stew went down well with Antti!

We returned to the are­na in our appro­pri­ate seats and watched the rest of the show. THIS IS WHERE TIME SLOWED DOWN. There was still over 5 hours of fights left. There were only about 30 sec­onds between each fight and so I soon grew tired of the repet­i­tive­ness and cer­e­mo­ni­al chant­i­ng. Most of the sta­di­um was still emp­ty and we can now under­stand why! Although sumo is cer­tain­ly very inter­est­ing to wit­ness, it los­es its charm when you see over 100 bouts in a row! I even man­aged to take a quick nap on the back row whilst the ‘action’ was going on. Each match was extreme­ly sim­i­lar to the next, and I couldn’t even tell the dif­fer­ence between the appear­ance of most of the wrestlers [“fat guy” and “fat­ter guy” were the most com­mon nick­names].

A more senior fight with a full sta­di­um.

We impa­tient­ly wait­ed for the end of the day where we would be able to wit­ness the fight of the Yokozu­na [sumo cham­pi­on!]. The cer­e­mo­ni­al danc­ing and chant­i­ng become par­tic­u­lar­ly more elab­o­rate and it helped to build the sus­pense. The crowd even began to cheer the names of the wrestlers and it felt like some­thing excit­ing was going to hap­pen. By this point our con­ver­sa­tion had drift­ed to ran­dom Finnish swear words but we main­tained our enthu­si­asm for the Yokozu­na. The sta­di­um at this point was almost com­plete­ly full and for a sec­ond, just a sec­ond, I tru­ly believed my endur­ing efforts would be reward­ed. So how did the final, epic bat­tle turn out? One of the wrestlers lost his foot­ing and fell to his knees with­in the first two sec­onds. Match over.

Do as they do

We spent most of yes­ter­day evening in a local Iza­kaya near­by our accom­mo­da­tion in Shi­mo­takai­do. We met the rest of the Finns and so only the Swedes remained to be seen (rumoured to arrived on Mon­day!). One of the guys from Cam­bridge, Tom, had lived in Japan before and was able to speak Japan­ese con­fi­dent­ly enough to order what­ev­er we want­ed. Japan­ese peo­ple are usu­al­ly extreme­ly sur­prised at his lev­el of flu­en­cy and always have a mas­sive grin whilst they are talk­ing to him! We found out one of the bar staff actu­al­ly attend­ed Nihon Uni­ver­si­ty and so she was par­tic­u­lar­ly hap­py to see us. We are due to meet a few vol­un­teers from the uni­ver­si­ty on Tues­day, and also take our place­ment test(!) at the same time — it will cer­tain­ly remind me that I’m not here just for tourism!

Bor­rowed image from Kaisa’s blog!

We decid­ed to go to Shibuya and Hara­juku today to check out the sights. The Finns hadn’t been to Japan before and so we showed them the things we liked about it when we last vis­it­ed [Hara­juku girls!]. We are using Suica cards to get around Tokyo, which is pret­ty much the same as an Oys­ter card in Lon­don but you can also use it to pay for oth­er things such as drinks in vend­ing machines. I have no doubt that this is a pre­cur­sor to how things will be in the UK in a few years — I am liv­ing in the future! The staff at train sta­tions all speak pass­able Eng­lish and the sta­tion boards are in Roma­ji, so it is gen­er­al­ly quite easy to get around for tourists. I’m quite sur­prised at how easy it is to get by in Tokyo with­out speak­ing a sin­gle word of Japan­ese; sim­ple hand ges­tures and speak­ing Eng­lish in a Japan­ese accent usu­al­ly gives the desired result!

The weath­er was extreme­ly hot and it made it dif­fi­cult to ful­ly enjoy strolling in Tokyo’s fash­ion dis­trict. For­tu­nate­ly, we were giv­en free paper fans (in the shape of a Google Places/Maps mark­er) and lat­er we were also giv­en free wet tow­els. Usu­al­ly the free stuff hand­ed out on the street in the UK is next to use­less, but in Tokyo they are a wel­come sight! We saw clothes stores to acco­mo­date every Japan­ese teen sub-cul­ture and some to suit West­ern styles also; price-wise they are not sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than Lon­don.

There weren’t many peo­ple dressed up around Hara­juku, but those that were there received plen­ty of atten­tion.

Phoebe makes friends with the locals.

This was also the only place where we saw more for­eign­ers than native Japan­ese peo­ple! Indeed, we man­aged to find an English/American/European/‘White’ girl dressed up as a maid and par­tak­ing in the same cer­e­mo­ni­al pos­ing as a typ­i­cal Hara­juku girl. Although I enjoyed my time there last year, it was very much a super­fi­cial impres­sion and I wasn’t able gain any depth of appre­ci­a­tion at all. To get a real glimpse into Japan­ese cul­ture I would have to look far beyond just the streets of Hara­juku… We quick­ly made our way towards the Mei­ji Shrine, which I had also vis­it­ed last year.

Cen­tre court of the Mei­ji Shrine.

There are small wells/fountains on the side which allow peo­ple to wash their hands and also drink the water, if they wish. I used to feel some­what uncom­fort­able tak­ing part in this tra­di­tion­al Shin­to hand wash­ing since I (obvi­ous­ly) didn’t share any of the asso­ci­at­ed beliefs. Now I’m choos­ing to approach it with a more open per­spec­tive, do as they do [in Tokyo], and per­haps I will be able to learn some­thing from the expe­ri­ence. What do I have to lose? One of the lec­ture series as part of the JLSP course is called “The Japan­ese Mind” and this is def­i­nite­ly some­thing I am look­ing for­ward to! As a side note, I realise I don’t have pho­tos for a lot of the things I’m talk­ing about, so I apol­o­gise in advance and promise to get bet­ter at this in the future!

Category: JLSP | Tags: , , ,

In the beginning

After a long sum­mer of anx­ious wait­ing, I’ve final­ly arrived in Tokyo and am glad to be able to begin this blog! I arrived yes­ter­day evening after a long flight from LHR via Istan­bul. I flew with one of my friends from Cam­bridge and we man­aged to pass the time by talk­ing about all the awe­some things we were going to do in Tokyo! (Karaoke, karaoke, karaoke…) My friend had sev­er­al “unfor­tu­nate inci­dents” through­out but I won’t embar­rass her and will let you read about it in her own blog! She doesn’t eat fish (and by exten­sion, most types of sushi) but I think I will try to fix that by the end of the course… I’m not a fan of Turk­ish Air­ways — both of our flights were delayed by about an hour each, most of the films were not in Eng­lish, and I was only able to eat the food in the inter­est of not starv­ing. (If I ever rec­om­mend Turk­ish Air­ways to you, it means I secret­ly hate you.)

We were met at Nari­ta Air­port in Tokyo by this young Japan­ese woman hold­ing a sign with our names on. In hind­sight, this would have been an amaz­ing pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ty but I think I just too over­whelmed to remem­ber to take one. She helped us pur­chase tick­ets for the Nari­ta Express to Shin­juku and even sat with us in Star­bucks for a while. We found out she just works at the air­port and didn’t know any­thing about our course — she was extreme­ly sur­prised to hear that I couldn’t speak Japan­ese at all! Con­verse­ly her Eng­lish was amaz­ing and appar­ent­ly she had only been study­ing it for three years. She man­aged to have a con­ver­sa­tion about nail pol­ish and shoes with my friend and so I guess some things are just uni­ver­sal!

When we got to Shin­juku sta­tion, we met a woman from Nihon Uni­ver­si­ty and she took a cab with us to our accom­mo­da­tion in Shi­mo­tokai­do. She gave us a brief tour and explained how to use the var­i­ous gadgets/machines that we were giv­en. Most impor­tant­ly, she explained the air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem with­out which I’d prob­a­bly melt. There is a par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pli­cat­ed garbage col­lec­tion sys­tem — we have to sep­a­rate our stuff into burn­able, unburn­able, and recy­clable objects and each type is col­lect­ed on a dif­fer­ent day each week. The ‘col­lec­tion point’ out­side our house is the same for all of them and so it will prob­a­bly be very easy to get mixed up! We are stay­ing in ensuite rooms (with an indi­vid­ual kitchen in each), and so this is much nicer than any room I stayed in/saw at Cam­bridge (or at home, for that mat­ter). I will prob­a­bly take full pho­tos of the room in a lat­er post.

We were giv­en a quick tour of the area around our accom­mo­da­tion and we were left to our own devices. Even though the train sta­tion is only 10 min­utes away, we man­aged to get lost on our way back and only found our way home by try­ing sev­er­al ran­dom routes. (My friend is in fact a Geog­ra­phy grad­u­ate, but claims they didn’t teach any­thing about actu­al nav­i­ga­tion!) We ate in a near­by restaurant/cafe, which was prob­a­bly strange­ly serv­ing food close Chi­nese cui­sine rather than Japan­ese, but I was glad to final­ly have a prop­er meal. It only cost 650 yen (~5 GBP) for sev­er­al dish­es and so was rel­a­tive­ly good val­ue for mon­ey.

I’ve just realised it will take me a ridicu­lous­ly long amount of time if I keep writ­ing in this much detail, so I’m going to start skim­ming! When we got home we met anoth­er girl on our course who had just arrived. We also met some Ger­man stu­dents who were liv­ing above us and who had been there a bit longer. One of them had been there since Jan­u­ary and so he offered to give us all (anoth­er) quick tour. He point­ed out var­i­ous ‘essen­tials’ such as where to find cheap food and drink, and where to run to if you ever ‘get attacked or raped’ [his words!].

We got back home and met some more stu­dents. We drank tea in the room of one of the guys from Cam­bridge, and briefly intro­duced our­selves. Most of us seem have to been to Japan before, but again, can hard­ly speak a word of Japan­ese… There are 15 of us on the course in total, and 6 of us from Cam­bridge (dom­i­nat­ing force!). We are going to be split up into class­es accord­ing to Japan­ese lev­el, but it seems most of us will be in the begin­ners class! One of the Cam­bridge guys had lived in Japan for a year and so we will prob­a­bly be turn­ing to him for on-the-spot trans­la­tions (until he gets annoyed!).

Today we walked around Asakusa and Ueno, and I man­aged to see the Sen­so­ji tem­ple once again. This time it had less con­struc­tion around it and so was cer­tain­ly a more pleas­ant sight! When we were in the mar­ket, I caught this Japan­ese girl unabashed­ly star­ing at us with her mouth open whilst we were talk­ing. I say ‘caught’, but she didn’t actu­al­ly stop when I looked at her and gave her a sar­cas­tic smile. She came up to us and asked about where we were from, and what we were doing in Tokyo. She had ridicu­lous amounts of enthu­si­asm when talk­ing and seemed to be impressed at every word we were say­ing! We were an extreme­ly diverse group (in terms of race) and so it was prob­a­bly a strange sight for her to see. Her boyfriend beck­oned her to leave us alone, and we gave her a bow on depart­ing.

We rent­ed cycle-boats and row­ing boats and went on the small lake in Ueno. This was prob­a­bly the first time I tried row­ing, and I def­i­nite­ly lacked the grace and skill that I usu­al­ly see asso­ci­at­ed with boat­ies in Cam­bridge. We bumped into a few oth­er boats sev­er­al times but luck­i­ly ‘sor­ry’ is one of the few words I know in Japan­ese! We walked around Tokyo Uni­ver­si­ty after­wards because one of the girls had attend­ed a short course there, and the archi­tec­ture remind­ed me of a tra­di­tion­al Roman town (noth­ing like oth­er build­ings in Tokyo!). My cam­era ran out of bat­ter­ies half-way through today and so I didn’t man­age to get as many pho­tos as I want­ed. No-one else brought a cam­era and so they prob­a­bly couldn’t have had a worse ‘des­ig­nat­ed pho­tog­ra­ph­er’… It’s about 9PM now and I have a quick moment to rest in my room, but I think we will prob­a­bly go out again soon. I promise to post pic­tures when I can! Stay tuned for the next post.