Golden Week: Okinawa and Osaka

Myliyah Hanna is a Japanese and English major who spent this past spring semester studying on exchange in Tokyo, Japan. Read about her spring break adventures!

Okinawa

Golden Week is a week of Japanese holidays, such as Showa Day or Children’s Day, that many people take off to vacation and travel. For us exchange students it meant a week off from class, my spring break. Golden Week is an opportunity to travel and therefore the prices of the shinkansen, Japan’s infamous bullet train, flights, and hotels are bumped up. Even though expensive, I asked myself when would be the next time I get a chance like this. And so, I booked a flight and an inn in Naha, Okinawa.

When I left for Okinawa, Tokyo was cool in the morning. The sun was bright and an early morning breeze swam through the city and across the shoulders of other people pulling suitcases alongside themselves. After a three-hour flight to Naha, I found myself overdressed. My leggings and t-shirt were too warm for Okinawan weather and I was paying the price via sweat. But the air near the airport smelled of the ocean and palm trees stood tall along the roads.

I decided to stay close to the airport since Okinawa doesn’t have trains. Besides a car, buses are the main form of transportation. In Naha, however, there’s a monorail that goes through the city. My inn was about ten minutes from one of the stations on the monorail. It was also about 20 minutes from one of the most popular tourist attractions in Okinawa, Kokusai Dori (Kokusai Street), a long road abundant with yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants and Okinawan souvenir shops where one could buy a jar of habushu, or Okinawan snake wine.

The owner of the inn was a talkative, friendly older man who referred to himself as “Master” and spoke in the third person. In the morning he was usually near the entrance of the inn stretching to prepare for a daily run. Sometimes I would come down and see him playing with a short-tailed cat that often frequented the inn. The kitten was a girl who he had wanted to name Kentarou, a traditionally masculine name, but had yet to name her because he couldn’t think of anything else he liked. “See, if I named her Kentarou,” he said, “she’d probably get scared by the name and run off.” Every night he was usually in the kitchen, watching television and inviting people to sit and drink with him. Amongst some of those conversations, I had come to know him in a way that I wasn’t expecting. He was open and honest about his life, his feminine personality, his open marriage and three girlfriends. He had probably told me too much for even American standards, but I undoubtedly appreciated his honesty.

“Master” was just one person in Okinawa that I encountered and made me feel like I belonged, almost as if Okinawa had been waiting for me. Although I wasn’t free from the prolonged staring, Okinawans were more willing to approach me and ask me questions than people in Tokyo. It was also the first time I received so much positive attention on my braids since my arrival. There is something to be definitely said for Okinawa’s excellent hosting skills. It was the first time in my exchange experience thus far that I wasn’t the odd man out. I wasn’t othered. I was welcomed and I cannot begin to explain how necessary that was for me.

This isn’t to say that people in Tokyo haven’t been kind and gracious either. I’ve run into many nice people who were patient with me as I tried to explain myself in nervous Japanese. I will say, however, that even though Tokyo is the most global in its visitors and stores, Okinawa’s mindset is far more international. There is no need to remind a foreigner how un-Japanese they are in their mannerisms or mother-tongue. Okinawa knew that, and it didn’t care.

Okinawa was laid-back, lacking some of the rigid social rules I discovered in Tokyo. I noticed this especially when it came to clothing. In Tokyo, certain styles of tops and dresses–off the shoulder tops, open back dresses, spaghetti straps–have a reputation for promiscuity. In Naha, however, these tops and dresses were abundant in Naha. Simply put, it was too warm in Okinawa to cover up. Tokyo is serious; Okinawa is a beach.

Two days before my flight departing from the island, I visited an interactive workshop that specialized in traditional Okinawan sango dyeing. The building was styled after traditional Japanese architecture and soft music played overhead. Upstairs was where I sat at a table and used coral and paint to create designs on a t-shirt. The entire workshop, which was about an hour, cost about 30 dollars but it was well worth my money. Later that day I also visited Shurijo Castle, a World Heritage site and one of Okinawa’s oldest historical monuments. The inside curved and weaved through numerous rooms that each held their purposes, such as the throne room for celebrations and a raised platform room where past kings conducted political business.

I didn’t know what to expect what when I landed at the airport. I imagined long rural roads, strangers distancing themselves from me. Okinawa surprised me, opened up a whole other side of Japanese identity I thought I would rarely see. The friendliness I experienced in Okinawa alone is reason enough for me to go back. I was reminded that Japan is not only Tokyo, the one place that seems to ring in our minds the loudest when we hear the country’s name. Okinawa reminded me that central Japan, the big cities, are not the end-all-be-all. It also reminded me about the pleasures of taking a break from crowded areas to breathe and stretch, feel the ocean on my toes and the sunshine on my skin.

Osaka

When I hear the name Osaka, I think of medieval Japan. I think of how important Osaka was as a trade post and a cultural hub where many of the great poets journeyed to. I think about its proximity to Kyoto, Nara, the once great capitals of Japan before it was decided that Tokyo would become the next, and final, capital.

Japanese literature classes can only teach but so much. I knew of Kansai-ben, or Kansai dialect, and of Osaka’s infamous okonomiyaki, which I can only describe as a vegetable and meat pancake. Other than that, Osaka remained a mystery to me. Japan is ultimately more than just Tokyo and I wanted to experience the Japan that wasn’t in Tokyo. After Okinawa, I returned to the airport and boarded a plane heading for the port city.

Admittedly, when I arrived in Osaka I was excited to have trains and subways to ride again. The airport stood atop an island about twenty minutes or so from Osaka itself. When I landed, the waters and sky were streaked with flecks of gold and purple, the windows of the stylish airport glittering with the sunset. It was rush hour but people were calm, taking their time to board the trains heading into the city. Osaka has its own loop line that circles the city, making stops at the most popular locations. The guesthouse I stayed at was on one of these stops, two minutes from the station.

My favorite part about Osaka is the fact that the city weaves its rivers into its architecture. Bridges are abundant, each with their own character and connecting different areas together. Atop the Umeda Sky Building is an observation deck. I went and ordered a parfait to enjoy the breathtaking view. Mountains stood tall along the horizon and I could see planes descending to land at the nearby airport. The outside observation deck had speakers playing the epitome of cafe music, with its soft guitar and drums. It was windy but the circular deck gave me one of the best views of Osaka. I could see the curves of the river and how they emptied into the sea; I could see clouds lifting off from the mountains.

It was at night, however, that Osaka’s young spirit opened itself up to me. Dotonbori is undoubtedly a tourist site, but the attention it attracted was nothing but positive. Everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. I indulged in the sights and smells of ramen and okonomiyaki. There was laughter and music and relaxation. As I walked through Dotonbori, crossing bridges over a glimmering river to the other sides of the area, I walked aimlessly and took in what Osaka gave to me. I had chosen a small izakaya to eat dinner at that night. I sat at the bar, where I watched the two chefs prepare the meals and joke with one another. I was the only foreigner in there at the time, but that didn’t stop anyone from asking me questions. Before I left they wished me luck in my studies, asked that I come back to the izakaya when I’m in Osaka again.

Although my time in Osaka was limited to a day, it’s easily one of the most memorable. I didn’t want to leave. The people were incredibly friendly and unbothered about my foreignness. If anything, it emboldened many to ask me about my studies, where I came from, my reasons for coming to Japan. The week of traveling reminded me about the importance of traveling in the first place. Of course seeing monuments and visiting famous areas is always an experience in itself, but certainly, the beauty of venturing oceans away from home is to interact with people and to learn their stories and their habits. Okinawa and Osaka presented to me the beauty of human curiosity and kindness, the kind that one can find only when they travel.

I returned to Tokyo via the shinkansen, or the bullet train. I was convinced by some friends who have been to Japan numerous times to ride it at least once while I’m here. From Osaka to Tokyo it was about two and a half hours, but the trip itself felt so much shorter than that. At one point Mount Fuji stood in the distance. I scrambled to take a picture, but the train curved and Fuji-san disappeared from my sight.

I wasn’t expecting Osaka to leave such a deep impression on me, but that’s what makes it so alluring. Osaka was young and carefree, wanting to take you everywhere and show you everything it could. Osaka showed off its mountains, its rivers like snakes emptying into the sea. Osaka’s nighttime dress was bold and kind, and when it saw me off to return to school I knew I had to visit again before I returned to America. Osaka still has so much to show me, and I eagerly await my second chance.

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Daily Life in Tokyo

Myliyah Hanna is currently studying abroad in Japan. Take a look at her most recent blog post!

The alarm goes off at 7:30 in the morning, a sharp vibration against my mattress loud enough to rumble me awake. I turn over onto my side, stare at the screen of my phone, and realize that I do, indeed, have to get up to get ready for class. But I set it on snooze for another fifteen minutes.

 

I don’t think we are as aware of it as we could be but, at some point, we fall into routines. We put our shirts on with one arm first before the other, then the pants, and then the socks. We pour the cereal into the bowl before the milk. We make sure to grab the keys before we head out for the day. I think a lot of these little rituals are inherent at this point in our lives, routines that are so deeply carved in our muscle memory that one step out of place would cause a twinge of confusion.

 

At the same time, I wonder if the routines practiced over in America would follow me here into Tokyo. Would I still wake up the same, walk at the same pace, execute the same social cues out in public like I did in America? I don’t ask these questions to have a clear cut answer; there is no yes or no. In a few days I will have been in Japan for a month, and while that lends itself to a decent amount of time to have a response to that question it still isn’t one that is directly answered.

 

Instead, I’ve come to understand it as doing as the Romans. In a new country and a new environment with its own history and patterns, I needed time to figure out how to comfortably move throughout Tokyo. There were days of awkward language exchange, where Japanese leapt off my tongue and drowned in a pool of miscommunication. There were days of mistakes and remaining a “typical foreigner” in the eyes of onlooking natives. But it is in those discomforts and in my own personal sense of being a foreigner here in Japan that I find myself developing more routines. Every day is a chance to practice speaking and continue to strengthen my language acquisition. Every day is a chance to learn a new rule or discover a new place and why it’s significant in Japan.

 

Unlike many of my friends, I have never traveled overseas until this semester. Realistically my family can’t afford overseas travel; scholarships and loans are how I’m surviving here. This is the first time I’m truly engaging with myself on an international scale, figuring out how I work amongst a country that is not mine and where the language is still so new to me. As daunting as it may sound, I’m thriving here. It is challenging to go across oceans and time zones and separate oneself from everything that is familiar to them. Humans are creatures of habit and putting oneself in another environment where one has to create new habits can be difficult, but thus far it’s been rewarding.

 

One of my favorite habits happens whenever I am leaving or entering the dorm. The lobby is stone tile. On the right wall is a glass window that the caretaker of our dorm can see through. Ahead are the mailboxes, and on the left side is a wooden step and more rows of little storage boxes. In Japan, most apartments and dorms have a standard genkan, or the entranceway. Much like at home where I took my shoes off at the front and then put them into the closet, I take off my shoes and step up into the dorm. For some, it might take some getting used to especially if taking off the shoes at home was never practiced. Doing this every day not only attests to the spotlessness of the dorm floors but of how these routines have blended together for me.

 

As a creature of habit, it is near impossible for us to escape a subconscious need for structure. And while that it is true, it doesn’t mean we are required to stay attached to any one habit for the rest of our lives. Perhaps that’s the beauty of traveling overseas and being able to break away from habits that can become so mundane after years of repetition.

 

Coming to Japan was a breath of fresh air. I put on a new pair of glasses, drank in the vivid sights and smells of this chain of islands. I figured out the best streets to take to get to the konbini or the supermarket. I figured out the route to my classes, which buildings they’re being housed. I figured out what time to eat dinner was best since the dining room would be full of friends and at a decent enough time to have dessert later. I figured out how to respond to cashiers at stores, how to hand them my cash or card.

 

It still remains, though, that the one habit I developed as soon as I got off the plane is the openness to being wrong. I certainly had that back home, but I had to develop a real understanding that I was going to make mistakes, like throwing paper in the noncombustible bin or fumbling over my Japanese and saying something strange. But in a way, reminding myself of that during this first (almost) month I have reminded myself to be patient. I don’t have the malleable mind of a small child anymore and I’m not a natural-born polyglot, but every day I have to push myself to find the courage to speak Japanese. And slowly, but surely, I’m improving.

 

Pre-departure blog Japan

Myliyah Hanna is currently studying abroad in Japan. Take a look at her pre-departure blog!

At eleven years old I had this dream of being in Japan, exploring the country, speaking Japanese and indulging in the culture. At eleven I was starry-eyed, pupils dilated with an unyielding love for a country I had neither been to nor knew of my existence. Perhaps Japan was my first love, though hardly romantic. Instead, the eleven-year-old me loved Japan because it was the opposite of everything that an American Black girl at my age was, according to the scrutinizing eyes of society, supposed to love, and at the time I reveled in its difference.

 

Eleven-year-old me still lingers in my aged heart, pressing her greedy fingertips against the valves and chambers to beg for indulgence in all things Japan. I cave in sometimes, end up spending an hour or three watching vloggers in Japan live their daily lives. Although the topics are not always interesting–how many videos about grocery shopping in a Japanese supermarket can you watch without exiting the tab?–I remain attentive and eager to see even the tiniest glimpse into Japan. I was looking through the peephole, falling further and further into a rabbit hole.

 

But the difference between eleven-year-old me and Myliyah now is the difference of time and the awareness of my place in the world. Children are beautiful, their naivety and innocence of the world a true reflection of just how important they are. Children are malleable and as easy as it is to mold a child it is easy to strip them of that warm gentle beauty. The difference of nine years and two and a half years of college is stark, unavoidable. My edges are sharpened, my senses heightened, but if one thing has remained it is my need for knowledge.

 

In a few weeks, I’ll be on a plane for nearly a day of travel to end up in Japan, where I’ll spend a few months studying and exploring. Even now I can hardly believe it. Kids that come from my demographic–working class, minority, from the inner city–don’t get much hope. You can’t do it because society says you can’t. My defiant nature wouldn’t let me be another example for the naysayers, and here I am years later: attending an excellent university, studying abroad with a few scholarships under my belt. I don’t want to use this as a chance to brag but rather as an opportunity to reveal that there is an entire vault of intelligent, bright kids and teenagers waiting for their chance but not always having access to the resources to get there. For that, I am blessed and privileged, and for them, I’ll dedicate this blog.

 

The closer I get to the date, the more I realize that I don’t have an international mindset. Per Japan’s travel policies, I have to have a visa to enter and stay in the country. I received the documents to obtain said visa in mid-February and decided to make a trip to the embassy on one my days off. It was located in a building on Park Avenue, in the heart of Midtown. I signed in, and a few minutes later a security guard led a few other people and myself into an elevator. On the 18th floor was the embassy. The walls were pastel green and orange with soft carpeting and announcements printed on bright, colorful paper; the feel of the room reminded me of a daycare. After walking through the metal detectors a gentleman pointed me to the visa window, which was right in front of a group of Japanese people watching television.

 

The woman greeted me and I explained myself to her. It was in the midst of our exchange that she asked if I had my passport, and I froze because I didn’t. I knew exactly where it was too–back at home in a file cabinet. She smiled and laughed some, told me that I could come back once I had my passport. I nodded and apologized, excused myself to the side to reorganize.

 

I suppose at any other time that I didn’t have my documents I would be highly annoyed with myself. What the hell, Myliyah? I would think. That time around I wasn’t. Instead, I thought, duh. Of course, I would need my passport for a visa into another country. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. It was in that thinking that I realized that my mind, my actions, my everything, was still so American. Nine-year-old Myliyah couldn’t begin to comprehend how I couldn’t just go to Japan and stay without putting in any kind of work or effort. Beyond learning the language, it’s necessary that I stretch my mindset to encompass both the perspectives of a young American woman and, soon, a young international woman.

 

To which I now ask myself the question: what does it mean to be international? Does it mean being able to speak another language, do as the Romans? Does it mean forgoing my American identity to usurp a bit of a Japanese one? Does it mean to live and interact in Japan as I have done so all my life in America?

 

I have no answers for these questions right now. But now with the visa in my passport, I will get on the plane and, perhaps in these next few months of travel, I will find answers to these questions. I won’t say that these will be definite and absolute and will be the same for every foreigner that studies abroad. Instead, these blogs will serve as a recording of my truths and how I will experience them in Japan.