Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Past in Present-day Japan (Crystal)

I am lucky to be attending a university only a train away from both Osaka and Kyoto. Kyoto especially is a stunningly historical city. One of the reasons it is so popular is because it is host to around two thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dating back hundreds of years. Although it is just as full of modern conveniences as any major Japanese city, there are references to traditional Japanese culture everywhere you look.

The Otowa Waterfall at Kiyomizu-dera
One of the most visibly obvious signs of this is the fact that you often see Japanese people wearing traditional clothes like kimonos. While traditional clothing are often worn at festivals, ceremonies, and other special occasions, it seems pretty rare to see people wearing kimonos, hakamas, and the like around the street – unless you’re in Kyoto. Though they don’t represent a majority, it’s common to see women and (fewer, but some) men sporting traditional clothing, especially around the temples. Kimono rental and dress-up services aren’t just for foreign tourists; most of the customers are Japanese (though probably still tourists, I would imagine). It’s a fun activity, paying to get dressed up and made up in traditional clothing before hitting the historical town and visiting shrines.

The fact that Japanese people still wear traditional clothing was a little surprising to me at first. In the US, we don’t really have a “traditional” dress that is still worn. One could look to early colonial settlers, but no one (to my knowledge) wears anything like that outside of reenactments and maybe the Amish. In Japan, however, the echoes of the past are still alive today. The kimono, which has remained more or less unchanged since the Edo period, still has a lasting presence today.

Japanese Women in Kimono at Kiyomizu-dera
Even the continued popularity of shrines and temples is a testament to Japan’s past. Even in my day-to-day life in Hirakata and the surrounding areas, I pass small shrines all the time, including on my walks to and from school every day.

From research I have done, both online and from talking to Japanese students, it seems to me that most Japanese people are not very religious, in that they don’t follow strict dogmas or even necessarily really believe in gods. However, shrines and temples are still very popular, and many people still go there to pray for numerous reasons (for anything from entrance exams to the souls of tragedy victims).

Clearly there is something about the shrines besides religion that attracts people. Maybe it can be explained by “spirituality”, but I think it also speaks to the importance of tradition and respect for the past. For one thing, many (though certainly not all) kami (gods/spirits) are said to be ancestors. Visiting a shrine can therefore be a way of honoring your family’s history. But even if ancestors aren’t on the mind of Japanese when they visit a shrine, it’s clear that they are following an ancient tradition that has been passed down for over a thousand years.

All in all, it’s fascinating to see this kind of historical presence so prevalent in Japan. I certainly haven’t seen anything like it where I’m from!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mapping My Route (Dylan)

Akita International University’s on a fairly small, compact campus; which isn’t at all unfamiliar to me, being a Beloit College student, but it does mean that I walk almost the exactly same route to each and every one of my classes.  This does provide for getting to know what that part of campus looks like throughout the day pretty well.

To be honest, there isn’t all that much of a notable difference.  Sure, there’s a few mildly interesting trends, but nothing to really follow up with some grand insights.  There are, however, some curiosities which can serve as jumping-off-points for other interesting commentaries on bits of AIU’s culture, so maybe I can get this post a more interesting comments section that I fear it itself will be.

Let’s start with the route I take.  To get to classes, I leave through one of the several front exits of the Komachi building complex (I don’t really have a pattern for which one; even eating in the cafeteria doesn’t change it), walk in front of most or part of the complex and past the Student Hall, and into a sort of courtyard from which every class building can be accessed.

My apologies for my drawing skills
The first half of this route is, in terms of daily trends, thoroughly uninteresting; there’s generally a scattering other students walking to this place or that, nobody really hanging around, and no real shift in this pattern throughout the day.  The couple of times I’ve walked this part at night it’s been different, but only on account of a distinct lack of people.  The last part of the walk, in the area between the classroom buildings, is generally a bit more interesting.  So long as classes are going on, this area’s always more crowded, both in terms of people walking through and with some people actually standing around talking or sitting at picnic tables.  On the other hand, when classes aren’t happening, this area can become remarkably empty, although the nearby library maintains some through traffic.

This being said, I’ve not really spent a lot of time in this area personally.  Although I do think it’s pretty on sunny days, I mostly just walk through it to get where I’m going.  I have only twice stopped and spent time there, both times because I was waiting for someone who needed to run into one building or another to “get something done quick.”  But so far as I can tell, that’s true for everybody; there’s no group or even person who I recognize as “that person who’s always around the courtyard at noon”.  I do prefer to take the outdoor route because it’s nice to spend some time outside (or because I didn’t realize that hallway connected to the classroom buildings), but that hasn’t really managed to translate into spending time in the area.  I guess there isn’t a whole lot to do most of the time, when there’s often places to be, which is unfortunate, because it’s really a nice place.

The courtyard, here mostly empty due to rain.
 There are a few observations about this area that I can offer as conversation starters.  Unfortunately, this area seems to offer a demonstration of the social divide between foreign and domestic students that exists on campus.  Strangely, this divide seems to be more noticeable but less actually distinct than the divide at Beloit College.  If ones looks around at this quasi-courtyard between classroom buildings, it seems as though there’s practically no interaction; it’s hard to spot examples of interaction between domestic and foreign students, and I think that if I was an outsider who just walk around campus every day I’d conclude that interaction must be minimal.  But I can say as a student that I have many Japanese friends, that I, and most of the other foreigners I know, do regularly hang out with domestic students, and that a large number of domestic students spend times with foreigners.  I’m not sure why it so distinctly doesn’t look like it to me, but that’s the gap I am, personally, finding.

I suppose I could've skipped all of this if I'd noticed this hallway sooner. Then again, I wouldn't have had a blog post if I did.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Daily Walk (Crystal)

For this blog post, I chose to create a map of my daily commute. As may be evident, neither art nor spatial reasoning is a specialty of mine. Remembering all the twists and bends on these streets is something I physically cannot do, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Unlike most of my peers, I have chosen to forego a bicycle, partly to save money, partly because I am terrified of getting hit by a car and/or hitting a pedestrian and/or running into inanimate objects. This means that I have to leave half an hour before class starts to get to school on time. At Beloit, I typically woke up fifteen minutes before class, took ten minutes to get ready, and was still on class on time, so this is a big change for me.

A garden
The first half of my journey to school takes me through a small residential street. One of the most striking things about it is how beautiful most of the houses are. Even the houses with less-than-stunning architecture are still adorned with well-cared-for (at least to my very non-expert eyes) potted plants. I’m not sure, but it looks like some of them may be herbs, which I would assume they use for cooking and not just decoration.

I also pass a shrine. I rarely see anyone in there, but I have noticed several older folks walking by who will pause and bow toward it when they pass. It looks like there is a park just beyond it, but I’ve never seen any children playing there. Maybe there would be some on weekends.

The shrine
 Another thing I notice is that there are several vending machines, even on this residential street. They only sell drinks, and I rarely see anyone using them, but they exist. I have to wonder who takes care of these machines. Have the companies decided that this street is a worthy investment? Have the owners of the houses paid to get vending machines on their property? Do they get a share of the profits? Are there many residential streets with vending machines, or is it just that this one sees a large number of international students?

There generally aren’t terribly many people walking around the neighborhood. Slightly more traffic (pedestrian, bike, motorbike, and the occasional car) in the morning and late afternoon, but never a whole lot. Most people are alone, but I see the occasional group of girls biking together, or a husband and wife returning from the store.

At roughly the halfway point, I cross the street and shortly arrive at the front gate of the school. I’ve reached campus! The rest of the trip is fairly unexceptional, though long. No one lives here, so all I pass is other students going to and coming from class.

It’s important when visiting new places to take a look at the small details. Consider why things are the way they are. What little differences you notice, what you have always taken for granted about your home. Some questions may arise that are difficult to just google, so it’s a perfect opportunity to make conversation with the locals.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Kimono Club (Janae)

Women dressed in kimono for a festival
I got my first kimono on a family splurge trip to Tokyo in high school.  I remember being fascinated by its silky texture and woven design that had seemed simple at first, but was actually so intricate once I looked more closely.  Once I got back to the U.S., though, I have to admit that it spent quite a while almost untouched, sealed in a plastic bag.   It wasn’t until college that I decided to tackle learning how to wear it. 

I quickly found out just how complicated the process was, and about all of the hidden-but-necessary little accessories I needed to find.  I’d only half way learned how to wear it by the time I started my study abroad program in Japan, so I was pretty excited to hear that the university had a kimono-wearing club.  I’ve been going to this club, and so far it’s been fairly relaxed and accepting.  The teachers can only speak Japanese, which can be a little intimidating.  By the second meeting my friend and I were the only foreigners left.  I haven’t gotten much chance to communicate with my Japanese club mates, but they’ve helped me out when they could.  The club president was kind enough to translate to me how the club fees worked.

Each meeting we first sit down in the proper way and bow to the teachers, and then everyone learns how to put on kimono with the help of two teachers, who luckily both have the patience of saints.  Once the meetings end, we bow again to the teachers.  Even if the teacher-student relationship seems pretty lax most of the time, showing respect at the beginning and end of each session is a must. 

One thing I’ve noticed as the teachers try to show me how to wear kimono is how regimented the club likes the whole process to be.  They have rules for every little step.  During the first meeting, I think my friend and I must have taken ten or fifteen minutes trying to learn from our teacher how to properly put our arms into our kimono.  

Wearing a kimono on the first day
We even fold the koshihimo (ties) that hold up the kimono in a very specific pattern.  This is kind of surprising to me, since the koshihimo are tucked away out of sight once everything is in place.  No one would be able to tell if they were wrinkled, so I thought we would just loosely wrap them up any-which-way once we were done with them, like I’d one with mine at home.  Instead we must carefully fold them into little pentagon shapes, which, while they look pretty cool, are a bit time consuming to make. 

I’m sure there are methods to most of this madness that are hard for me to see right now, but it is a little frustrating because at the beginning of meetings part of me always just wants to (gently) throw the kimono over my shoulders and get on with learning the rest of the process.  Everyone in the club has been very welcoming to me, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful, so I’ve been trying (and maybe succeeding?) to go with the flow as much as possible.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Orientation (Chris)

My dorm mates and I
(August 30, 2014) A lot has happened during my first week in Japan. I have met so many people and have seen many sites. This week was the orientation week for Kansai Gaidai University, so I had to wake up every day this week at 7:00 while being jet-lagged, and walking 20 minutes to the university.  Along my walk is a plant for the company Komatsu that constructs equipment for various things, mainly construction equipment.  The area across the street from Komatsu is residential. The walk is not difficult to make. I literally walk out the door and walk straight down the road until I reach the gates to the college. Most of the people, that I pass, are older people riding bicycles.

My dormitory for the semester
A view of Komatsu from the street

Most of my first week was spent on campus getting ready to take classes. But, on Friday, the international student body was divided up for orientation on the use of the train and bus system (which is surprisingly easy). A group of people and I spent the day in Kyoto. This was my first time in Kyoto. We went to Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and Kiyomizu Temple. At these two locations a group of people and I did a few of the normal things when visiting a shrine or a temple. We purified our hands and mouth, and wandered around the grounds. Inari-Taisha Shrine has many torii that create almost a hallway. Torii are traditional Shintō gates.  It was a really cool site. Kiyomizu Temple was such a pretty site.  We got there about 45 minutes before closing, so we did not get to see the entire temple, but we saw most of it. In the valley of Kiyomizu was a water purification place where you take a ladle and put it into these mini waterfalls to get water to purify oneself by drinking the water. After the temple closed for the day, we left to find a place to eat, but all of the nearby shops were already closed.  It was surprising to see how quickly a place becomes completely quiet. We were able to find a place to eat and made it back to the dorm.  That is a summary of my first week in Japan. On Monday, I officially start taking classes.  So, until next week. Sayonara.

Inari-taisha Shrine

Kiyomizu Temple

Water purification at Kiyomizu Temple

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why Japan? (Dylan)

As I’m setting out for Japan, I’m not really sure that I’m ready to go. In fact, I’m probably not. My Japanese isn't very good, for one thing. But for some reason, and I cannot seem to tell what, I’m not really nervous at all. I suppose some of it’s the prep work that goes into international travel – there really doesn't seem to be time to be nervous when there hardly seems to be time to pack everything. And it isn't like I haven’t tried to prepare in other ways; I've read everything and talked to everyone I could find about the little cultural things I should know, the quirks, small differences, and basic assumptions that can easily trip up even nigh-fluent speakers. I doubt that will actually be enough (or that, at least in the earlier parts of the trip, I’ll remember everything) to avoid a faux pas somewhere, but at least it should indicate that I’m trying, and lay groundwork for getting better with time and experience. 

The other reason I’m not sure I’m ready to go is that I’m not really sure why I’m going to Japan in particular. I mean, I have a small set of stock reasons and answers to give, because not being able to answer is awkward and sometimes an answer is more or less mandatory, but I can’t actually come up with a full answer, even to myself. I just sort of decided to take Japanese in the Center for Language Studies (since they didn't offer German, which was actually the language I was looking to study further at the time) as opposed to Russian (the other language I considered) for vague reasons that were probably connected to my level of exposure to their respective cultures and friends with familial ties to those countries (that latter point also supplies one of my stock answers), and once I’d done so I guess I sort of felt committed, especially when I transferred to Beloit.

This isn’t to imply that I’m doing this purely out of a sense of duty; I love Japan and the Japanese language (even if I’m bad at it and kanji are at times physically painful). But it is true, and so I feel it should be included in a self-reflection essay. It’s not an issue of whether or not I like Japan, it’s that I’m less sure of why I like Japan in particular or why I picked it out from the list of countries I am fascinated by and would love to study in.
But, here I go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

As I Set Out on This Journey (Paula/ポーラ)

"As I set out on this journey" seems like an ill-fitting phrase as I write on an airplane to Hong Kong.  During the entirety of my time over the summer and at home before the trip, I approached my exchange experience with a feeling of dread; dread I feel burning in my stomach even now as I sit somewhere outside of the terminal at O'Hare Int'l. I look out my window at the yellow and grey of lines on pavement. The last time I was on an airplane was my sophomore year of high school on my first trip to Japan.  I remember the feeling of excitement of being in a new place and the misery of being in a culture devoid of touch. I imagine I will have a more manageable kind of wonder this time around. Maybe I will have none at all. I remember being culture sick during my three-week stay and imagine the ache of being separated from home, culture, and family for five months. I remember the ear popping, stomach dropping, bladder testing, hungry, tiring plane flight to and from Japan, and I understand why people are afraid of flying.

Hong Kong Airport; boarding for Narita

God bless the TSA. They make it just hard enough to get on a plane that the idea getting off; changing your mind at the last minute and running back to the people who love you causes cognitive dissonance strong enough to keep me in my seat. I watch the trailer for "Divergent" on a tiny television set that strains my farsighted eyes and make small talk with the woman sitting next to me. She is going to China for a year. She makes me seem like a pansy, and assures me that they will have Mexican food in Japan, it just won't be any good. As the plane readies itself to take off, the summer air warms my feet. I have never been afraid of flying; I'm not afraid to be alone; and I won't get through this -- I will love it. I settle back into my seat as we take off, and after 20 minutes of watching the blue line move like an elegant and expensive toy, crawl like a caterpillar, and finally disappear, I feel a little closer to the Dauntless.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Possibilities (Janae)

As I set out on this journey, I feel that life is full of possibilities.  Right now unfortunately I can’t seem to stop focusing on the bad ones.  What if I forgot to pack something?  What if I miss a flight connection?  What if I have trouble using the ATMs?  What if my new roommate wants to cut out my spleen for a cult ritual?

I just know that something(s) bad has to happen and that I’m going to inevitably make mistakes and do stupid things no matter how much I might try not to.  Understanding this and accepting the challenges and learning from the mistakes when they come are part of growing as a human being, but recognizing that doesn’t always come easy.  I know too that it’s almost certain that I’ll want to return to the security of home when the culture-shock gets bad and I made a fool of myself for the unknownth time with some cultural blunder that got missed in my research.  But, I’m going to have to learn how to adapt to a new environment, even if at times it’s going to test what I’m made of.

A new road.
I also feel really wet behind the ears in an I-don’t-know-what-to-do-where-the-heck-am-I-going-how-does-everyone-else-look-so-much-like-they-know-what-they’re-doing-all-the-time kind of way.  I have the hope that this experience will get rid of some of that feeling, and that I can gain some more confidence in my abilities.  It’s a little ironic how doing something that makes you really uncomfortable, like studying abroad, by doing something could make you feel more comfortable in your own skin in the end.

Underneath the anxiety though, I am really excited for the good possibilities.  I’ve been interested in Japan for so long, and I’ve taken classes relating to Japanese language and culture, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to live and study in Akita for a semester.  I look forward to getting to try so many things that I’ve so far only read about, and to seeing how reality contrasts with my expectations. (Hopefully there won’t be too many unpleasant surprises.)  I’m sure I’ll get the chance to meet so many new people who will broaden my perspectives too.