Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Daily Routine of My Life at KGU (Ruobing)

Enjoying a matcha parfait.

The second school cafeteria, ICC, plays an important role in my daily life. This is an exquisite and lovely Italian restaurant that provide lunch, dinner and variety of dessert. At the afternoon without any class, I would like to go to ICC for a afternoon tea and do some readings. After the tea time, my friends mostly finish their class, and we will gather here to have dinner together.

The way that ICC sells lunch is quite interesting, they use a vending machine. The lunch menu is simple, which include Pasta A&B:

Pizza A&B, Hamburger steak:

and lunch special:

The lunch special will change daily but rest of them will not change. After checked the menu, I will need to insert money then push the button which has been labelled by the name of food, and a lunch ticket comes out. I bring this ticket to the service table, and chef will serve me my meal and give me big smile at the same time.

I usually order hamburger steak with rice, because the steak is juicy and it is a perfect “mate” with steamed rice. If I still have time after lunch, I will order a macha and red bean parfait:

It only cost 500 yen but the satisfaction is doubled. If the weather is a little bit cold, the Darjeeling hot tea with a slice of strawberry cheese cake is also a good choice of providing a spoonful of happiness.

ICC is not only a place for eating, but also a place to observe the life of Japanese people. Japanese people in ICC are not as same as the people who you can see on the street. On the street, most of them are rushing forward with a serious face. But in ICC, I can see lots of young ladies laughing, or giggle or smiling. The time is getting slower in ICC and the air inside is even softer than outside. It is really interesting to see Japanese people to be so relax and sluggish. It obviously illustrates that Japanese people, who is known as being strict and hardworking all over the world, actually know how to enjoy the life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How it Feels to Finally Start Blooming While Simultaneously Challenging the Social Norms of a Foreign Country (Marvelous)

How does it feel to be a small part of something bigger, even when you’re on the other side of the world? I found myself asking this question more often than usual once I started attending the Diversity Club meetings on a regular basis.  For those who might be confused, the Diversity Club is really the LGBTQ Club at AIU, however because the school claimed that the latter is too political, the former name is used officially.

Size doesn't matter as long as you sell it.
Truthfully, I wasn’t ever active when it came to LGBT rights before coming to Japan, and perhaps that’s simply because there are so many battles being fought by the community that I felt very insignificant and useless. The primary struggle in Japan for non-heterosexual individuals is different from those in the United States. Whereas Americans are fighting for marriage equality, healthcare, and job security, the Japanese are fighting for visibility, a service I know that I can offer. Despite my glaring foreign qualities, the members of the club accepted me with open arms, as if I was one of their own, a feeling which I’ve rarely experienced. In fact, I’ve felt far more valued and appreciated in this club compared to the same club at Beloit, and recently I’ve been entertaining the thought that it’s because the people in Japan are aware of the similarities between the lack of visibility for LGBTQ peoples in Japan, and PoC-LGBTQ peoples in the United States, which I can’t say for many students attending Beloit.

The beautiful beginning of one of many gender boards.
Speaking of visibility, as more and more people participated in the gender board activity where they placed stickers where they identified on the board during the AIU festival, I noticed that there were many people who didn’t identify as heterosexual and their gender expression didn’t fit into the binary, yet very few people wanted to discuss the matter of visibility and equality. Yet, many people were willing to write encouraging and inspiring thoughts on the rainbow message board in our exhibition room.

The various messages of the rainbow.
So, while I wasn’t an active participant in the conversations during my time in the exhibition room, I did glean that perhaps most Japanese people prefer to ‘stay hidden’ and play the part that society wishes them to play, and in a country with a declining birthrate, they feel as though their desires are second to the nation’s needs as a whole?

Although I couldn’t play an active role in the exhibition room other than asking people to come inside so the Japanese members of the club could speak with them, I was able to be useful outside in the large festival crowds. Armed with height, a frohawk, a rainbow on my face, and a rainbow board promising discounts around my neck, I think I was able to bring visibility to the club and the message that we seek to spread, which is more than I think I could’ve done if I had remained in the United States.
These signs made me even more popular. Take my picture, Tokyo, I'm the next superstar.
How does it feel to be a small part of something bigger, even when you’re on the other side of the world? Marvelous.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Smile and be Genki! (Sasha)

For the welcome party at AIU, I was delighted to see a performance of the Soran Bushi, a Japanese folk dance that originated in Hokkaido. I had learned the dance before at the Center for Language Studies program, but that performance made me realize it was possible to learn more dances like the Soran Bushi while in Japan. When I asked about clubs that did folk dance, I was directed to Yatose, a club that has an interesting blend of Western and Eastern culture.
The first yatose group photo.
The Urajya Ondo is a fun dance/song that ends with a photo opportunity.”
Yatose is the Akita version of the Yosakoi, another type of Japanese folk dance. The songs used are different arrangements of traditional Japanese music that incorporate a mixture of traditional Japanese instruments like shamisen, flute, and drums and more modern instruments like electric guitars and synthesizer. People dance with wooden clappers called naruko and yell along with certain parts of the song. Two of the most reoccurring calls are “soran” and “dokkoisho,” which probably sounds familiar to people who know the Soran Bushi. Usually members wear a red jacket called a happi, but this year one of the international members designed a new uniform for us. We just got our new uniforms a couple of days ago, and they look amazing, although the sleeves can make dancing a bit tricky at times.
Design for the new yatose uniforms. Yes, we look like water benders!
At AIU, the members are a mix of Japanese and international students, but the practices are primarily conducted in English. Each practice starts off with a one-minute squat. The punishment for being late though is the dreaded two-minute squat, where everyone else just stands around and watches your additional minute of discomfort. All the members are serious about implementing it too. On Friday, when I have tennis club and yatose scheduled back-to-back, I make a point to leave tennis with plenty of time to spare so that I don’t have to do a two minute squat. Oh, I say two-minute squat, but it seems like the punishment time is longer for others. There is one member who is consistently late and has to do a four minute squat while another member videotapes him (ouch…). Even the captain of yatose has been threatened with a three-minute squat. Call it a playful way to tease other members.

I am happy to say that my interactions with members have extended beyond our practices. There are about thirteen members in total, so I have been able to get to know them all fairly well. At the beginning of the semester, knowing the Soran Bushi let me connect with the captain. When the song comes up on her Yatose playlist, we sometimes dance it together. Unfortunately, Yatose does not do Soran Bushi. There is another folk dance group that performs it instead (it’s a boys-only group though). Connecting with the Japanese members has let me learn more about Akita, like that special shuttle that I mentioned in my last post. During Silver Week we got a group of Yatose members together to go to Akita City, and I got to try out karaoke for the first time. The club also has a tradition of having an okonomiyaki party after performance.

At this point, we have already had our first performance, and as I am writing this blog post, we are getting ready our next one which will be for the AIU festival on October 11th and 12th. We will be performing the two dances we have learned so far, Yocchire and Iyasaka Akita. We also know a couple of fun dances/songs too, but we won’t perform them for AIU fest. The past week we have had practice almost every day. Before we start dancing, our captain always tells us to smile and be genki even if we mess up or forget the moves. Yatose is a very genki dance (energetic in a peppy sort of way), and people both inside and outside of the club have told me that my dancing is good and that I look like I am having fun while I dance, which I think are two of the best compliments I could receive. I really enjoy interacting with other people through dance, and am looking forward to our future performances.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Learning new Languages (in more ways than one) (Reid Knight)

When I decided to study abroad, I knew that I would want to join a club at my host institution. It can be difficult for me to branch out in social situations, so having a routine that allows me to get comfortable with a consistent group of people helps me feel more at home in new places. Unfortunately, I found out rather quickly that it can be difficult to access student-run clubs at Rikkyo as an exchange student. Much of the club information is out of date or entirely in Japanese, and although I am competent enough in Japanese to get by in everyday situations, certain clubs that I tried to correspond with over email about joining didn’t seem particularly welcoming to foreigners.
Eventually I decided to get over my anxieties and just show up at the club room of Tebukuro, the sign language club, during one of their meetings to see how I was received. As I consider Disability Studies to be my area of expertise and am always interested in learning more, I wanted to see how much Japanese Sign Language I could pick up while I was in Japan. The name Tebukuro is a play on words- the word by itself means glove in Japanese, but it can also be seen as being named for Te(), meaning hand, the first character in the Japanese word for sign language(手話 - shuwa), and the bukuro in Ikebukuro, where Rikkyo is located.

I arrived at the classroom where Tebukuro’s meetings are held feeling pretty anxious, and I think that reflected in how I was treated by the club members. As the only non-Japanese person in the room, I don’t think the members of Tebukuro knew exactly what to do with me, especially since I came in with no knowledge of sign language while the rest of the club had already spent considerable time learning. Everybody was cordial with me and tried to inform me about what they were doing (in this case, preparing a sign-language performance of a song for the upcoming St. Paul’s Festival), but I still very much felt like an outsider.

Over the next few meetings, I got a bit more comfortable with the routine of the club. As the meetings occur during lunch hour, the beginning of each meeting is spent eating lunch. Then, we either spend the rest of the time rehearsing for the Festival or studying a set of vocab words given to us, then using these words in sample sentences. A club representative always demonstrates how to perform the movements, then the rest of the club follows; sometimes, the club representative will randomly call on club members to demonstrate a sign.

An example of an everyday sign language demonstration at Tebukuro.
While at first it felt like I was treated as a guest, I am slowly beginning to feel like an actual “member” of the club. I’m now included in the conversations that occur while we eat lunch, even if I have to struggle a bit to keep up. The other day, I was called upon to demonstrate a sign; even though I had no idea how to do so, it still felt good that I was being included in this routine. I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I will be a part of the performance at the Festival, and although I doubt I will be able to master the song in time, I was grateful to feel that these club members cared that I was there. All in all, I see these developments as very good signs for my future with the club (and yes, that pun was intended).
A section of the lyrics for the Festival performance. The song is called "Sign" by Mr. Children. The spoken lyrics are above each line, while the equivalent words for each sign are below.
Even though I had to wade through some awkward moments to get to this point, I’m glad that I took the chance showing up for the club meeting that day. I now have a group of Japanese students who share an interest with me to eat lunch with almost every day, and all I had to do was step out of my comfort zone a little bit. Through this experience, I learned that being immersed in a different culture is guaranteed to be challenging sometimes, and those challenges may make you want to not engage with your surroundings. However, by not engaging, everything will become even more challenging. You have nothing to lose by putting yourself out there, so take advantage of the time you have abroad and try new things!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Media Connection (Sarah)

Over the past month, I have become a regular at a number of places near my university. Almost everyday or a number of times a week, I will go to the 7/11 that is across the street from the front gate of the school. When I have limited time to eat lunch I go and buy almost the same thing every time: an Indian curry meat bun, a fruit cup, and sometimes the occasional added bread (with any number of interesting fillings). However, I never got much of a reaction. Perhaps because it’s right in front of the university and nothing about the interaction is particularly interesting or memorable. I also became a regular at a ramen restaurant further away from the university that can only fit about eight people at once, but over time I’ve found that isn’t entirely unusual. The most reaction I got there was the first time I went. I was talking to the man who ran the restaurant, by himself, and his initial reaction was the usual ‘you speak Japanese so well’ reaction that I was used to getting when starting a conversation in Japanese. But after that, when I returned multiple times with other friends there was never much more of a reaction except perhaps that he assumed using Japanese was okay and didn’t try to use English. So maybe the lack of a reaction was a suggestion of familiarity?

However, overwhelmingly the most interesting thing I participate in as a regular is watching the same news channel at breakfast every morning and comedy shows at night. Every morning. My host mom will watch the news, so everyone (the two kids, me and sometimes my host dad) will watch it as well. As the days went by and I got more used to the routine and flow of the program, I found myself being included by my family in conversations about the news and being able to make comments on it myself. They would include me in comments and conversations. For example after the short cooking segment, Moco’s kitchen, where the cook tries his own food and says that it was delicious and everyone at home should try making it themselves, they would say “he always says that doesn’t he?” and then laugh as they imitated the cook’s favorite closing line. Or my host mom would talk with me more about a news story that just came out, sometimes explaining things I didn’t understand.

At night they would watch TV while eating dinner, but unfortunately for me my family members aren’t the biggest fans of dramas, so what we often watched were comedy/variety shows. And like the news, I found that over time I came to be included in more and more of the talk that went on while watching. And through watching variety shows, where famous singers and groups were often featured, my host family has come to learn my taste more and more. Since I’m often excited to see certain singers come out on shows my host mom or host dad (who likes music) will make an effort to put on the music station. And when there was a special program that was showing one of my favorite band’s (ONE OK ROCK) two most recent concerts, they recorded it on the TV for me so I could watch it when I had time. My host dad also offered to copy it onto a CD for me, so I could watch it on my computer too.

So, though I’ve become a regular at many places (conbini, restaurants, TSUTAYA…), I think regularly watching the same shows with my host family has been the most rewarding. It lets them learn more about me and it is a way that I can connect more with them.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Watching TV (Eliza)

Before I got to Japan I planned on becoming a regular at an okonomiyaki shop for this assignment.  I thought it would be perfect, since okonomiyaki is my favorite Japanese food.  After I arrived, however, I realized that it would be rude to my host family to eat out enough to become a regular.  My next idea was to become a regular at a bakery, and I started to work on that, but between homework, studying for quizzes and traveling to nearby places, I haven’t gone enough to be considered a regular.  The food is really good and I plan on returning many times.  By the time I leave Japan I probably will be a regular at the bakery.
Fruit tart from the bakery.
So, the only thing I have been doing regularly is watching Meitantei Conan every Saturday, or if I am not there when it airs my host parents record it for me and I watch it when I get back.  Not long after I first moved in, my host parents found out that I like Meitantei Conan and offered to let me watch it on their TV each week.  Since I never had the opportunity to watch Conan on TV before, I was quite excited, though a little nervous that I wouldn’t know what was happening sometimes.  Because of the time that Conan airs and the time my host family has dinner, one or both of my host parents are always in the kitchen while I’m watching it.  After the first time, my host mother was quite surprised that I had understood pretty much all of the episode.  I explained that was because it was from the manga, which I had already read.

Conan manga, though this is from earlier in the series.
Sometimes my host parents will watch a little with me while they wait for something to cook.  Every time they are surprised that I don’t get completely confused by what is happening, since Conan is a mystery series and uses a lot of technical terms sometimes.  A couple weeks after I moved in, the episode was an anime original, so it wasn’t one that I already knew.  Still, I understood most of it, which impressed them even more, since I didn’t know the plot beforehand.  There were words that I didn’t know, but I could still understand enough to watch the entire episode.  Watching Conan has become a part of the weekly routine here.  At this point they would be surprised if I didn’t want to watch it.  I’ve learned that I can understand more Japanese than I usually give myself credit for.  There are still many words and phrases that I get stuck on, but I comprehend more than I expected I could.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Scavenger Hunt (Jonah)

For my assignment this week, I was tasked with finding the former home and gardens of the founder of Mitsubishi.  I researched the history of the company and looked into which of the properties of previous owners had the most historical recognition.  Eventually I found my destination: the Kyu-Iwasaki-Tei Garden.

The estate was just off of one end of Ueno park, as as I walked to the entrance I noticed a walled barrier multiple blocks long around the property.  After walking up the long entrance pathway, the house came into view.

I was very surprised to see this type of architecture in Japan.
The house belonged to the Iwasaki family, and the construction of the house was commissioned by Hisaya Iwasaki, son of the original founder of the company.  The western style of the property was representative of the new interest in importing western styles during the Meiji Era.  Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside.

As I walked through the house, I looked at all the furniture and though “wow, some of the richest people in Japan lived here”.  But as I quickly found out, the western house was actually used primarily as a guest house!  The section where the Iwasaki family spent most of their time in was the Japanese style home.  While much smaller today, the Japanese section of the house was once massive and had many rooms, all with traditional tatami and sliding doors.  There was also a small tea house within this section.

A view of a small garden from the interior of the Japanese-style section.
After walking quickly through the Japanese house, you emerge onto the backyard and see just how large the property really is.  There is a sprawling lawn and view of both the house and gardens.  I took a quick walk through these gardens, which just for a second made me feel like I was outside Tokyo.

A very sharp contrast to the western-style residence.
The scale of the house and property was truly enormous for a private residence in Tokyo.  At this time the property has been declared a historical landmark.  However, I couldn’t help but feel that the majority of the property seemed to be a shell of its former self.  The garden for the most part was a wide and empty lawn, which many apartment buildings in view.  I would have loved to see the full gardens and Japanese property in its full glory, but was still grateful to see what was left.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Finding the "Red Brick Hall"

The Akarengakan
For the scavenger hunt, I decided to go find the “red brick hall,” also known as the Akarenga Kyodōkan or the Red Brick Folk Museum. It is located in downtown Akita near the Kawabata Entertainment area. The Akarengakan is a historical building dating back to 1912 and contains the Katsuhiro Takushi Memorial and the Sekiya Shiro Memorial with artwork from both craftsmen on display.

Finding the Akarengakan was not too difficult. On Sundays, Tuesdays, and holidays, there is a free shuttle that goes between Aeon Mall and Akita station, so Silver Week provided the perfect opportunity to go scavenger hunting. I will admit that I ran into a slight problem reading the photo of Google Maps I had on my cellphone. I ended up turning right instead of left and started wandering away from the downtown area. Also, one of the city maps I used was located so that it was just blatantly wrong.

“White Star: where the first map claimed I was. Note the red “You are here” sign. In reality, the Akarengakan was behind me, and I had already missed my turn…

Going into the search, I knew what the building looked like and what general area it was in. I was prepared to get lost and was not really concerned if I did. I had been downtown using the special shuttle before, so I had some previous landmarks, but I did not understand how they were located on a map. Maybe it was just the time I went (during Silver Week around noon), but the streets downtown and the Akarengakan itself were not really crowded. I found it interesting that simply walking off the main street made my surroundings instantly much quieter and the space around me feel wider. Surprisingly, the Akarengakan was located on one of these less busy streets. Again, it could have just been the time I went. It is located near the Kawabata Entertainment area, so there were a lot of restaurants in the area. Inside the museum though, there were photos of what the surrounding area used to look like.

The Akarengakan was designed by the local architect, Yamaguchi Naoki. The construction took three years and was completed in 1912. The Akarengakan served as the headquarters of Akita bank until 1969. The building was then reconstructed and converted into a folk museum in 1981. Two additional building were connected to the back of the original building. Despite the reconstruction, the Akarengakan still retains elements of its bank days. The main hall of the building left the teller booths intact, and some of the rooms I entered had vault doors.

The museum features work from two local artists, emphasis on the “local” part. Sekiya Shiro was a famous metalwork artist who was named the National Human Treasure. He mastered the fusion technique, hagiawase, and his work was recognized as Japan’s important Cultural Asset. There is a memorial room him featuring several pieces of his work, along with some metal working tools. The second featured artist is Katsuhira Tokushi, who is famous for both designing and making woodblock paintings. His work features many scenes of Akita life, such as the Kanto festival, rice harvesting, and snow scenes. His work is distinct and popular both nationally and internationally. The museum has a collection of his woodblock prints, templates, wooden dolls, and tools.  

The Akarengakan and the art featured inside were all made by people from Akita. Sekiya Shiro and Katsukira Tokushi were native to Akita. Both were acknowledged on a large scale and made advancements in their respective areas of expertise that influenced the generations to come. The subjects of the artwork are connected to Akita as well and portray the everyday life of the people who lived there. The Akarengakan is a folk museum. Great care was put into the foundation of the building so that it could withstand the test of time (and natural disasters) and keep on preserving Akita’s culture and crafts.