Visiting Nikko

During our one long weekend of the semester, I went on a trip to Nikko, a small town surrounded by nature about 2 hours from Tokyo. I went with 2 of my friends from the program and my friend Claire, who was visiting from Whitman!

The town of Nikko is beautiful. Everywhere is surrounded by lush green mountains, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s also way cooler, temperature-wise, than Tokyo in the hot summer. Close to Nikko is a big lake called Chuzenji, which is where we went our first day there!

Right next to the lake is a big mountain called Mount Nantai. Summer is downtime season for Nikko, so the whole place was pretty deserted of tourists. It didn’t help that the weather was also not too good, with mist periodically spilling down across the lake and obscuring everything. But honestly, it just added to the mood of the area!

There is also a big waterfall called Kegon falls. When we first got to Chuzenji, we planned on going there, but it was completely invisible in the mist! Luckily the mist tends to clear out quickly so we just waited until dissolved and then ran to the waterfall.

As you can see, we barely made it before the next round of mist came rolling in! The waterfall is gigantic and beautiful though. It was truly a sight to behold. After seeing that, we took a bus back to our hotel. Because Chuzenji is at an elevation, the bus has to go down over 20 switchback roads. Needless to say, don’t eat anything right before you get on the bus back!

The next day we first went to a ropeway that gave a panoramic view of Kegon Falls. And wow, the view was spectacular.

Center is Kegon falls, and behind it is Lake Chuzenji. To the right is Mount Nantai.

Then we went on a hike in an area called Senjougahara. It’s a bunch of marshland and was about 3 miles roundtrip. None of us were in very good shape, but luckily the hike was pretty easy and almost completely flat. We passed a lot of elementary school students on fieldtrips doing the hike as well!

On our last day we finally went to what Nikko is most famous for: its world heritage site, an area with many ancient shrines and temples, including Toshogu shrine, which was built to honor the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. In fact, he personally chose Nikko to be the place his shrine was built before he died! The shrine complex is very beautiful and has many different famous sights, such as the “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkey carvings.

Overall I would highly recommend Nikko to anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. It’s pretty easy to get to and a beautiful area, even if the weather isn’t good!

My Golden Week Adventure

Hi! I’m back with another post, and this one will be about what I did during Golden Week, which was actually fairly long ago, haha.

Golden Week is a (usually) week long Japanese holiday. However, this year it was actually 10 days as additional days were added for the sake of the new emperor ascending the throne. Almost everyone has the period off of school or work. The period has multiple national holidays, such as various past emperor’s birthdays and Children’s day. And fun fact, it actually starts on my birthday (April 29th)!

My host family graciously took me on a 3-day, 2-night trip to the Mie prefecture. The trip was to celebrate my host mom’s mom turning 77, a lucky age. The group was me, my host family, and 10 other of their family members. Mie is in the Kansai region of Japan and south of Tokyo. It’s a 3 hour trip from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Mie is most famous as the site of Ise Shrine, the shrine of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the most holy shrine in Japan. It is a coastal region and there are many tiny islands in the area as well.

I had never even heard of Mie, as it does tend to be more popular among Japanese natives than tourists, but I was very excited to go. We boarded the Shinkansen in the morning and rode it for 2 hours to the city of Nagoya.

We passed Mount Fuji while riding the shinkansen, and, as usual, the top was obscured by clouds, but it was still beautiful!

Once we got to Nagoya we went to an unagi (freshwater eel) restaurant. While it may sound weird, unagi is actually quite delicious. In my opinion it tastes a bit like really soft chicken. I also tried unagi kimo (liver) which was… interesting.

My meal of unagi!

After that we went to Nagoya castle. Unfortunately most castles in Japan are reconstructions, mainly due to major damage sustained from bombing during World War II, and Nagoya castle is no exception. However, it was still really cool to see it!

All of us in front of Nagoya Castle.

We got back on a train and rode the rest of the way to Mie, specifically the area of Shima. Shima is a much more rural area on the coast, surrounded by many tiny islands. We stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. It was my first time staying in a ryokan, and it was super fun! All the rooms have tatami mats and you sleep on futons. Most ryokans also have an onsen (hot spring shared bath).

I’m not going to lie, I was nervous about the onsen because, well, everyone is naked. It’s separated by gender of course, but I was worried people would stare at me because I’m a foreigner and in this part of the country there are very few foreigners. Also, the idea of getting naked with your host family doesn’t sound particularly appealing, at least not to me!

We first changed into yukata, a light summer kimono, and then headed down. The ryokan provides you with towels and small plastic bags to carry your keys down to the bath. Once you get to the onsen, you put your shoes in a small locker and then go to a larger locker to store your yukata and personal belongings in. Then you go to an area with many showers and shower as per usual. The showers are almost never separated by any barriers.

My host sister, her cousin, and me in yukata at the ryokan

Once you’re clean, you get into the bath of your choice. Depending on the place, there may be one or multiple kinds of baths. At this ryokan, there was an indoor bath and an outdoor bath (also called a rotenburo). The outdoor bath was beautiful. It overlooked the ocean and it was so nice to feel the cool air while soaking in the warm water.

And surprisingly, it was a lot less weird than I thought it’d be! There’s something kind of empowering about being in a room full of naked women not giving a damn about being naked. Very few of the women seemed self-conscious and there were people of all shapes and sizes. It almost felt natural to just be naked. I loved it! I highly recommend the experience.


Life in Tokyo

So…. it’s been almost 2 months since I’ve arrived in Tokyo (I can’t believe it’s been that long!!). If I wasn’t blogging dutifully, then what the heck was I doing?

A lot of stuff!! I’ve visited Kamakura, Yokohama, Nagoya, Ise, and of course many different areas of Tokyo. I’ve made traditional Japanese paper, seen a Sumo match, eaten shark, and gone to an onsen. My Japanese has already improved so much it’s insane.

But when I first stepped off the plane, I was terrified. And in the moments before I met my host family, I was ready to run right out of the building and all the way back to America. I remember I could barely eat dinner that night, I was so nervous. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, and it would take me a while to record it all here, so I’m just gonna talk about the highlights.

For my first blog post, I’m going to cover some stuff like home life, school life, and major cultural differences.

As I mentioned above, I was really nervous to meet my host family. On my program you can opt for a dorm or a homestay but I immediately decided on a homestay, because what better way to be immersed in a culture? But that’s not to say it’s not scary. I mean, you’re essentially living in a stranger’s house, you don’t know any of the cultural norms, or how anything works, and you can only kind of communicate with them.

But my host family is AMAZING. I have a host mom, dad, and younger sister (15). They’ve welcomed me so warmly and have done so much for me already. They’re completely understanding of my mediocre Japanese abilities and help me all the time.

My host mom, me, and my host sister on my first night in Japan

Living with a host family has allowed me to improve at speaking Japanese very quickly and has also let me see what daily life is like in Japan. It’s crazy how so many things are different here. For example, toilets are separate from the bathroom. You sit down when you shower. People rarely drink water (tea is key here!). Yet even with all these differences, there is still a lot that is similar, even though I’m halfway around the world from home.

As for school, well, it’s pretty similar to Whitman, besides the fact that most of the classes are way bigger here. I attend Sophia University which is a Jesuit school here in Tokyo. Most of the students are Japanese, but there is an English division of the school, which is what I take classes in (besides my Japanese class).

One big difference from American colleges though is how club activities are run here. The hardcore, serious clubs are called clubs and the more relaxed clubs are called circles. You must pay an entry fee in order to join any of the clubs/circles, and some also have a monthly fee. Clubs expect mandatory attendance unless you have a class, while circles usually do not. And you must join clubs/circles during Freshmen week here, which is the first week on the Spring semester.

Needless to say, it’s a little intimidating, especially for someone only attending class here for a semester. I went to the club fair and it was madness. There’s so many cool clubs/circles and I would’ve loved to join many but alas… it’s EXPENSIVE! Most entry fees are at least $30 and for sports clubs, it’s usually over $100! But it is the best way to meet Japanese students here, and there are quite a few clubs dedicated to helping foreign students make Japanese friends.

Another big thing here is the trains. They are super convenient and clean, but many have heard of the notorious “rush hour” and let me tell you it’s just as bad as you see in youtube videos. Yes, train attendants DO help squeeze as many people into a train by pushing them in. A lesson I quickly learned was to make absolutely sure you have something to hold onto when the train starts moving. At first I thought I’d gotten the hang of not needing to hold onto anything (as many people don’t) but one day the train stopped especially abruptly and the next thing I knew I was falling to the ground. In my panic I grabbed the arm of the poor man next to me and used him to stand back up. Needless to say, I was mortified and lesson learned!

So those are some of my general thoughts on Tokyo so far. I have a lot more to write about so stay tuned for more (next time with way more pictures!). Thanks for reading! ありがとうございます!