Japan: Commuting and Conversing

Marguerite Franklin is currently a 3rd year Japanese and biology major who studied at KCP International Japanese Language School in Tokyo this past summer. Though her time in Japan was short, she learned a lot and had a great experience, which you can read snippets of below!

Commuting in Tokyo

One thing I of course knew before going to Tokyo was the intensity of commutes on the trains. I have quite a few factors going against me: first, being a city, people rarely idle and are always on the move to their destinations. Secondly, Tokyo is an absolutely massive city. And finally, the station that I have to pass through is the busiest station in said city, seeing over a million people a day on average. With all of this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the cars of the trains get packed rather quickly. Even knowing all this, I was still unprepared for the complete absence of personal space that was shared with fellow commuters.

It was easy to become self-conscious on the train. No matter how much I may have tried, sometimes I would end up knocking into someone’s side or stepping on their shoes. I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb due to my own clumsiness and wondered whether it was possible to ever become acclimated to such an embarrassing predicament. Yet here I am, a week in and I already view my time on the train as a rather fascinating event that I no longer worry about. But what changed in my short time here?

I think I became a lot less nervous when I stepped back and reminded myself that all of the people around me are indeed strangers. I know nothing about them and they know nothing about me, whatever ideas about me that they may hold in their heads are unlikely to be conveyed to me. Observing others, I noticed people nearly falling from paying more attention to their phones than the train coming to a halt, people dropping their phones, and several other incidents where no one batted an eye. I realized how much I overestimated my own importance, it was a small reality check of sorts. Moving forward, I will remind myself that I will always be my greatest critic.

An Unexpected Conversation

As the weeks have passed, I have become so used to my commute to and from school that I unfortunately developed the tendency to somewhat zone out. I pass certain landmarks, such as the McDonald’s by the station entrance, or the Shinto shrine to keep myself on the proper course. However, I am otherwise more focused on the music playing on my phone. I guess you could say I have fallen into a state that has taken my surroundings for granite. Today, however, was different.

I pass the small lot that usually has stray cats, but this time there is no one around and I feel a bit more bold than usual. So I approach a black cat sheepishly, hoping that I would not end up with some scratches. I am pleasantly surprised not only when it meows and rubs against me, but another tabby cat joins us. As I enjoy my impromptu therapy session petting the cats, an older woman comes out commenting how cute they are. The introvert in me instinctively wants to excuse myself and prevent an extended conversation, but the more responsible side of my psyche reminds me that I have little time and want to make the most out of what I have left.

For the vast majority of our talk, I could properly understand what was being said. I will admit that there were times when I had to kind of nod along or just outright say “I don’t understand”, but the woman was very patient and kind. Before I knew it, we talked about common topics like where I am from, to more personal topics such as politics. Before I knew it, a whole hour had passed. Even though it put my whole schedule for doing homework off, I was grateful to be able to get an extended one-on-one practice with my conversational skills. I only have a little over a week left and I am still able to find new things to enjoy even during my regular routine; I’m definitely going to miss Japan, but I know I’ll be back soon.

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Japan: Weekend Homestay

Leah Corbett, a 4th year Japanese major, spent the spring semester studying on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Read about her homestay experience below, check our her own blog at https://leahandjapan.wordpress.com/, and watch her “daily snapshot” video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLN6dASZnU4.

This past weekend, I did a two-day, one-night homestay. I and another student from India, Gopi, stayed at the home of a woman, Takahashi-san, who works at Oberlin. I remember when I first signed up to do a homestay through Oberlin’s Office of International Programs, the vision that automatically came to my mind was staying with a nuclear family – I think that’s the typical vision – so I was a little surprised when I got the notification that I would be staying with one person. However, I think it brings up an important point, which is that not everyone lives in that style of household. I think it turned out to be an enjoyable experience for all three of us!

We met up on Saturday morning, and then went shopping for food. Gopi and I are both vegetarian, and Takahashi-san was very thoughtful in making sure we would have a good choice of food during our time with her. We even stopped by a Japanese sweets store and picked out something for each of us.

This is a flower made of sweet bean paste which I got at the sweets shop. It was almost too pretty to eat.

Once we got settled in at her place, Takahashi-san began preparing ingredients for making vegetable sushi rolls. Since I’ve been in Japan, I have not yet been able to eat any kind of sushi here because veggie rolls aren’t a normal thing that is sold here, like they sometimes are in the U.S., so I was excited to be able to eat some and experiment with fillings. She cut the nori (seaweed) into smaller sections so we could make lots of individual rolls with different ingredients.

If you look closely, there are two tiny dollops of wasabi in this roll. I was scared of trying any more than that.

Later that day, we went to a piano performance, which Gopi had been invited to. It was rainy and we had to take the train a little ways to get there, but it was relaxing and a nice evening excursion for us.

The next day for a midday snack, Gopi showed us how to make chapati, a type of flatbread from India. We ate it along with a mango pickle which she brought with her to Japan.

All in all, it was a cool experience because there was cultural exchange going more than one way, with us eating both Japanese and Indian food during our time there. It was an enriching experience which especially demonstrated just how important food is in the varying cultures in the world. I’m glad I decided to try out a homestay!

Japan: The Halfway Point

It may be the middle of summer in Cville, but Leah Corbett, a rising 4th year Japanese major, is still finishing up her 3rd year spring semester studying on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Read her thoughts from halfway through her semester below, check our her own blog at https://leahandjapan.wordpress.com/, and watch her “daily snapshot” video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLN6dASZnU4.

 

I am almost halfway through my semester in Japan already! Looking back, I’m realizing how far I’ve come since I first arrived here. There was a lot of adjustment, though I didn’t notice it at the time. There were a lot of smaller things that I had to get used to.

For instance, the cars driving on the left side of the road was hard to get used to, and I still sometimes get momentarily turned around by it. Crossing the road without walk signals took extra thinking at first, because I had to double check that the coast was clear. Or, when a car stopped to let me cross, I would nod and wave at the front left seat of the car as I always do, but then realize afterwards that I had accidentally thanked the person in the passenger seat for stopping for me instead of the driver.

Another thing is that Japan is very environmentally conscious, which I think it great! But the annoying thing about it is that there are rarely hand towels or dryers in the bathrooms, so I have to shake out my hands and wipe them on my jeans or shirt. Some students carry hand towels with them for this reason, though I decided that’s not absolutely necessary for me.

For a while after I arrived, I felt very self-conscious when walking around in public. Since Japan is a homogeneous society, I felt like I stick out a lot. One of my first days here, a friendly Japanese man said “hello” to me in English when I walked by, which made me think even more about how not-Japanese I look. The longer I’m here, though, the more I realize it’s not a big deal to Japanese people, especially since there are a lot of foreign students around campus and in Fuchinobe, which is where the international dorms are.

Before I went abroad, I saw a graph on several occasions explaining the cultural adjustment timeline/curve. Right after you first arrive, there’s a honeymoon phase where you’re so excited about everything. Then at some point later the graph drops, which is when various frustrations start to take hold and the initial excitement wears off; the graph goes back up once you’ve more fully adjusted to the environment. There may be more than one drop in the curve.

(Here’s a simple example of the cultural adjustment curve. And yes, I made this in MS Paint.)

I think that right now, I’m in one of those valleys. Midterm season is upon me, and because I and my friends have been so busy I haven’t take much time to go sightsee or hang out much lately outside of school days (though I do have some plans for the upcoming weekend). Life is starting to feel more normal and my weekly schedule is fairly regular, but my subconscious is telling me I should still feel constant excitement and that I’m supposed to have an amazing day every day. When going abroad for an extended period of time, though, I’m realizing that’s not a realistic expectation. Yes, overall I’ve had a good time so far, but it’s okay to have mediocre days, and those don’t take away from the experience as a whole.

Once midterms have died down and once I settle even more into life here, I know my feelings will once again change. I thought that adjustment would happen for a while and then it would be static, but it’s more ongoing than I had previously thought, and I’m curious to see how I will react during my remaining time here.

The Sevier Cough

Blaise Sevier is a 2nd year who studied abroad last semester on exchange at Hitotsubashi University  in Japan. She and three other UVA students ran a blog about their experience, See her original post at https://runningjapan.squarespace.com/wheels-up-dc/2017/10/31/the-sevier-cough-blaise

I’ve been sick with the “Sevier Cough.” It’s not just any cough, but a family hack where my whole chest vibrates with force and I find myself gasping for breath.

Dramatic? Yes. Harmful? No.

The “Sevier Cough” is a family plague that hits my sisters and I right around when the leaves change and the air gets a bit cooler – my mom says it’s a seasonal asthma and always sends us to school.

Here in Japan – my cough has become a somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. On the metro, in the grocery store, walking to class, I find myself getting over a coughing fit, clearing my throat and receiving the death stare from my fellow Hitotsubashi peers, grocery-goers, and metro riders. It don’t blame them. It’s gross!

But it’s a cough that I have and can’t quite control.

For the past few weeks, I have maintained this blasé attitude about my cough. I pushed passed the smirks, glares, and uncomfortable metro shifts. I was just sick, they were just hypercritical – and I didn’t want to wear a…. mask.

 

 My inital reaction to wearing a mask

Masks in Japan are one of the most common accessory for any woman, man, grandmother, grandfather, and/or child to wear. It is a white cloth that covers the nose and mouth and prevents germs from spreading. It’s practical and considerate when you are crammed on the metro with hundreds of people every day. But until now, I didn’t think *I* needed to wear a mask.

The thought struck me when I was in my Global Network class and we were talking about the effects of colonialism. We discussed several examples on how European settlers rarely conformed to native practices – even if the practice, ideology, method was practical, was for the betterment of the people, or just made sense.

Take for example the Calvinists that landed on the Hawaiian Island in 1893. I learned that they refused to change the way that they dressed. Instead of adapting their wardrobe to a subtropical climate, the Calvinists continued to wear often thick, long cotton pants and dresses.

Gosh, that sounds hot.

Although this is an ingenuous example, it demonstrates settlers’ reluctance to conform to the practical norms of the region. Why wouldn’t they just throw on some linen?

But before I move forward, I want to make a few things clear 1). I am not comparing the Japanese culture to the native people in Hawaii rather, I am comparing my thoughtless act of not wearing a mask in public (which is practical and thoughtful thing to do in busy public spaces) to the settlers’ dismissal of Hawaiian’s traditions and norms.

I was wrong about not wearing a mask in public. What gives me the right to expose other people to my germs, when they are taking precautions to not get me sick. If my fellow community members are considerate – why do I think that I have the privilege to not wear the mask and not be?

 

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I think the answer lies in the fact that I wasn’t being self-critical – I wasn’t acknowledging that I was part of the community and that I was somehow different because I was a “gaijin” or non-Japanese and could get away with breaking social norms.

It’s a crutch that I think many individuals abroad rely on – and something I want to recognize and change.

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Preparing for Takeoff

Leah Corbett is a 3rd year student studying Japanese. This semester she will be on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Check out her thoughts on starting her semester below!

 

I am less than a week away from my departure date to Japan for a full semester abroad. It would be an understatement to say that I’m nervous. I have never been out of the country before, or travelled anywhere near this far away, let alone by myself. I’ve wanted to study in Japan for years, but it was always a far-off dream. That dream got a little closer when I finally finished my application, but I had to wait. I was ecstatic when I received my acceptance letter! After I took the necessary steps such as ordering plane tickets, I then had to wait some more. I’ve been waiting for so long, and now I’m almost done doing so. While I’m pretty much ready in terms of knowing what to pack and what I need to do, I’m realizing I’m not mentally prepared.

I thought I was mentally prepared for most of my time waiting. One summer as a high school student, I attended a three-week-long Japanese language academy, which was the first time I’d been away from family for an extended period of time, so I was naturally nervous beforehand. It turned out to be an amazing experience! The next summer, I went to a week-long program at NASA Langley Research Center, and I had nowhere near as many nerves going into that. When I left for my first year of college, I felt like those experiences had helped me prepare for it, which they did. I adjusted to college life fairly quickly and have enjoyed it, so I figured a trip abroad wouldn’t be too nerve-wracking.

But here’s the catch (which I didn’t think about until very recently): I’ve lived in Virginia my entire life, and all of those times I’ve been away from home, I was still in Virginia. My home is a 40-minute drive away from UVA. That’s way closer than a lot of my classmates are from. While I’ve been on my own at college, I’ve always had my family nearby as a safety net, and I’m not going to have that in Japan.

In a way, I feel like I’m back where I started when I was preparing for that language academy five years ago. I can still use what I learned from that experience, which is knowing that being nervous is normal, and that it in no way means I won’t have a great time. I’ve wanted to do this for so long, and being a Japanese language and literature major, I know it will enrich my knowledge of the culture beyond what I can learn in a classroom. Having so many friends and family rooting for me helps me to realize my potential and try to be as proud of myself as they are of me, which pushes me forward.

Tokyo, Japan

Rachel White is a 3rd year studying Foreign Affairs at Waseda University in Tokyo for the 2017-2018 school year. Check out some photos from her first semester below!
Lake near Mt. Fuji2
Mt. Fuji can be seen from this lake in Shizuoka Prefecture. Mt. Fuji is Japan’s tallest volcano and symbolizes Japan. Because my exchange university is in Tokyo, natural scenery like this is not very common. Also, I thought it was interesting that some people live on that island because they would have to commute by boat to get groceries.
Fried Oysters at Hiroshima
Fried Oysters at Hiroshima: Hiroshima is known for having fresh oysters around fall, so this is a common dish sold there.
International Exchange Halloween Party
International Exchange Halloween Party: I joined an international exchange group at Waseda, and was able to meet a lot of other exchange students and Japanese students. The international exchange group is connected to other universities as well, so I am able to meet people from other parts of Tokyo. Halloween was not a common holiday celebrated in Japan, but has recently become very popular.
Torii Shrine at Miyajima
Tori Shrine: This is the most notable landmark at Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima. During high-tide, water covers the bottom of the pillars. However, during low-tide people are able to walk up to the shrine.
Red Spider Lily field in Saitama (1)
Red Spider Lily: This flower was once believed to be a flower sent from the heavens, and is a very popular plant during the fall.
View from Odaiba
This is a view of part of Tokyo from Odaiba. Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo and is a very popular tourist spot. This area will host the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, so they are currently constructing more buildings in preparation.
Odango at Mt. Takao
Odango at Mt. Takao. Odango is a traditional Japanese food, and can be served either sweet or salty. The one picture on the left is mochi with a layer of soy sauce type sauce that is grilled. The one on the right has a layer of “azuki” or “red bean.”
tokyo station
In 1914, Tokyo Station was built and was known for its red-brick
appearance. It became damaged in WWII, and recently was renovated back to what it looked like in 1914. Many Japanese businessmen use this station because of the various company buildings surrounding the station.
Mitama Festival
Mitama Festival is one of Japan’s biggest Obon festivals, and it celebrates the lives of the dead. The festival is held at Yasukuni Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine that commemorates those who fought for Japan. However, it is controversial in the Asia-Pacific region because it also commemorates class A war criminals. Mitama Festival: Although the festival is located in a controversial location, the festival attracts tourists because of the 30,000 lanterns on display. There are also traditional Japanese performances.

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Chandler Collins is a 2nd Year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is attending the UVA Exchange: Hitotsubashi University program this semester.

We took an early morning bus to Mt. Fuji’s Yoshida-Subaru 5th Station, a small simulacrum of a Japanese city perched 2,000m into the clouds, where we began the 7-hour ascent to the summit. Since Mt. Fuji is a volcano, there is no foliage at the summit to block the harsh sub-freezing winds from sapping our body’s heat. We huddled together on the rocky ground and waited as the sun rose through the clouds and over Kawaguchiko, the small town below Fuji-san. In this image, Keelyn McCabe braces against the cold wind and attempts to steady our UVA (pronounced Baa-ji-ni-ya in my broken Japanese) flag against the sub-freezing winds. An old Japanese adage rings true, “Only a fool goes to Japan and doesn’t climb Mt. Fuji. An even bigger fool climbs it twice.”
Pictured is my completed “Mt. Fuji Stick,” a 2 ft. long wooden stick which climbers get branded at each mountain hut along the ascent up the mountain. Each hut has a unique brand, marking the name of the mountain hut/station.
After the sun rose, we began the 1500m descent over a 6km trail dusted with volcanic ash which bored its way into our clothing and gnaw on our feet with each new step. In this image, we’d yet to descend through the clouds. [L to R: Gabriel Aguto, Blaise Sevier, Keelyn McCabe]

 

Additionally, Collin has created a travel video to recap his adventures, you can find one for Mt. Fuji here (https://youtu.be/Co2nKR_b7GA)