I live, I learn, I travel, I write.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The last few weeks and Tokyo

After Nara, I didn't do much travelling for a two reasons. The first being that I was trying to save my money for going to Tokyo the last four days of my trip. The second being it was VERY hot all day, every day. Generally, it was around 90-95 degrees, heat index of 105-110, and like upwards of 80% humidity. So yeah, walking around in crowded cities wasn't entirely appealing when it wasn't necessary.

Then the last two weeks hit. I had to write an essay entirely in Japanese, and then deliver a four-minute presentation on the topic about which my essay was written, also entirely in Japanese. It was really nerve-wrecking, but I managed, and got a high grade. Then the last week came, and it was crunch time for final exams. So I got through the first few days, took my exam, and got to relax. That night we all went to dinner at a kaiten-zushi restaurant (rotating sushi bar), and then headed back to JCMU to drink.

Friday was the closing ceremony, where I got to say bye to my teachers and get my final grade for the term. I received a really good grade, which was a definite relief.

After playing with Jackie's host family for what seemed like hours, Jackie and I hopped on the train bound for Shizuoka. Well, we took a train to Maibara, then Ogaki, then Toyohashi, then Hamamatsu, and THEN Shizuoka... but still, we got there. After staying the night in Mishima, we headed back to Shizuoka to meet Niki and Tisch. There, we saw a life-size GUNDAM. Even though I'm not really that into anime anymore, it was really impressive.

Then we headed to Tokyo. We got there a little late, so we dropped our stuff at the hotel, and went to Yoshinoya to grab some cheap donburi. Then we got further acquainted with our somewhat unusual sleeping arrangements...

...because we stayed in a capsule hotel! It was nice. I slept really well, and it wasn't really all that cramped or claustrophobic at all.

The next day, we headed to Otemachi so that I could use an ATM (there was a Citibank there, and my ATM card wouldn't work at anything except post office ATMs , or Citibank), and then went to the Imperial Palace area to be tourists. We ran into these college students that showed us around for free. They told us that they usually wait around for Americans or other English-speaking tourists to come, then they give them a free "tour" so that they can practice their English. It amazes me the lengths that foreigners go to to learn English, but Americans tend to speak English, and don't understand the value of learning a foreign language. It just gives me a little perspective.

But back to Tokyo. They showed us around. It was really a beautiful place, even if we didn't get to see the Palace.

Afterwards, we went to Akihabara. For those who don't know, Akihabara is a Japan nerd's heaven. I mean, we went to a GUNDAM CAFE. And that's just start of it.

There were six-story arcades, costume shops, etc. I bought a My Neighbor Totoro bento box. I like it.

After Akihabara, we headed back to Asakusa to switch to our new hotel, which was in Ueno. It was... a hotel. Nothing special, but definitely sleep-able. We all showered and called it a night early (ish).

The next day, which was our last day in Tokyo (and Japan really, for that matter), we started with lunch in Harajuku. We went to this place called Sweets Paradise, which was ridiculous. For 90 minutes, it was all-you-can-eat sweets and other odd things like curry and spaghetti. It was dangerous, but so, so good. After wanting to die, Tisch and I walked around Harajuku while Niki and Jackie freaked out about the four-story Forever 21 that they had found. We eventually found a random English-style pub and grabbed a beer, then found the girls again.

And then we made our way over to Roppongi to go to Tokyo Tower. I went to Tokyo Tower the last time I was in Japan, but I didn't remember it being as impressive as it was. I can't really put into words how cool it was to look out onto one of the biggest cities in the world.

Then we headed back to our hotel, showered and cleaned up, and headed out for karaoke. We got back to our hotel around 4 in the morning, and since Tisch and I had to leave Ueno around 7 to catch our shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, I decided to just... not go to sleep.

So we got to Tokyo station, hopped on a shinkansen, and arrived in Nagoya a few hours later. Then we took the Nagoya meisetsu (just another subway/train line) to the airport, and did the typical pre-flight business. Then we took our 12 hour flight back to Detroit, during which I only managed to sleep for about two hours.

It's weird being back.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nagahama, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara

So, I think I misjudged the amount of free time I would have while in Japan. I don't know why I didn't realize it, but fitting all of the things I wanted to do while in Japan on top of class and schoolwork proved to be nearly impossible in ten weeks. I will quickly recap my adventures in Japan right now...

June was my first month in Hikone. I didn't do much traveling aside from a brief (and failed) afternoon excursion to Otsu and Kyoto. I spent most of the month adjusting to the differences between Japan and the United States, exploring Hikone, and going to class/studying. I made some new friends, Japanese and American both. Oh, and drinking. There was some of that too.

July was slightly more eventful, though I don't mean to express that in a way that makes June seem like it was boring, because that wasn't the case at all. Back to July. I went to a few places, made some more new friends, and studied a lot. Let's see... At the beginning, there was the Tanabata Festival in Hikone at Shiga University. That was fun, even if it was a bit small. It was cool seeing everyone--both Japanese and foreigners--in traditional dress for the festival.

I went to Nagahama with Tisch, Jackie, Sang Yun, and Heather, and we met Kailey there (she was doing a homestay in Nagahama) the first weekend of the month. We hung around the festival there, did some shopping, and went to kaiten-zushi (a revolving sushi bar in which plates of sushi are distributed on a conveyor belt to the masses). There was some drama during that day as well, but I'll withhold that from a public setting.

I also went to Osaka with Niki, Sang Yun, and Tomoyo. Honestly, that might have been the most fun I had up to that point in Japan. Osaka is such a wonderful city. When people think of Japan, they tend to think of Tokyo and Okinawa... but Osaka doesn't get the credit it deserves. I can't judge Okinawa because I've never been, but I like Osaka a lot more than Tokyo. Anyway, we shopped around Namba,

went to Takatsuki for okonomiyaki,

went to a karaoke bar,

and got back to Hikone really late. It was so much fun! I wish I could have gotten back to Osaka one more time before I left JCMU.

I also went to Kyoto for the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival) with Jackie, Heather, Tamika, Masa, and Yohei. Well, we tried to go anyway. By the time we actually got to Kyoto, the festival had already ended. But we made do... we went to the River, walked around the shopping district, etc. It was SO hot outside, but it didn't even matter because the day was so fun.

The next day, I went to Nara with Tisch and Kailey. We ran into our friend Katie at the train station, so we convinced her to join us. It took us a while to get to Nara and meet with Jackie and her friend Yuri due to some unforeseen conflicts, but we made it! We went to Todaiji (a large temple in Nara), which is famous for the Daibutsu (the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world!).

We also just walked around the town, fed some deer (more on that shortly), and did some shopping. Once again, it was incredibly hot outside all day, but was a great day nonetheless. Okay, so, the deer. In Nara and Hiroshima, there are deer EVERYWHERE. And they just walk around freely, unafraid of people. If you have food in your hand, they aren't shy to just snatch it from you. It's so bizarre.

I feel like this is going to come in two parts. More later!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why I'm in Japan (the technical reasons)

I have been really bad about regularly writing in this blog. I haven't had much to talk about, though. I haven't done much of anything yet, which isn't necessarily a bad thing... I just haven't gotten around to it. But I wanted to update with something.

I logged onto Blogger today and checked my Dashboard, and I have my first follower who isn't someone I know in real life! I'm sure there are other people who might be wondering what it is exactly that I'm doing here, since I haven't really explained that yet.

So, I'm in Japan. I'm going to school. I'm having the time of my life while going to school in Japan. My school is called the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (alternatively, JCMU, ミシガン州立大学連合日本センター, or 日本ミシガンセンター), and what it is is a consortium institution in Hikone, Shiga, operated by Michigan State University. Most of the students that go to JCMU are from other colleges and universities in Michigan, with a few others who randomly find the program and decide to come.

Although other programs are offered, like Environmental Sciences and Hospitality & Tourism Management, the main draw at this school is the intensive language program.. which is why I came here. In the intensive program, students learn one academic year of Japanese language in one semester (or, in my case, 9 weeks). I tested into the second level, and am learning all of the Genki II textbook (again). I've already taken this class at Grand Valley before, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't any different. The class is conducted ENTIRELY in Japanese--no English is used, unless it's one word for unknown vocabulary. Additionally, the students are required to speak only in Japanese, which has proved to be a little difficult sometimes.

For me, speaking is the hardest part about learning and using Japanese. I met with my sensei last week and explained to her my frustrations with speaking, and she told me that I just need to practice more and more and eventually it will come more easily. She did, however, tell me that my vocabulary, kanji, and grammar knowledge was very good... so that made me feel a bit better.

To further explain the intensity of the program here, I'll share with you the schedule for this coming week in class.

Each day, and each hour of class, we do different things. In this particular week, we are covering the remainder of Lesson 17 (which we started last Thursday), all of Lesson 18, and the beginning of Lesson 19 on Friday. In doing this, we will also cover all of the relevant readings, workbook assignments, and supplemental materials that any of my teachers may assign.

Oh! I have three teachers (sensei). My primary sensei is Yoshida sensei, who is VERY nice and does a nice job at creating a comfortable yet challenging atmosphere in the classroom. I also have Aizawa sensei (also the language program director) Monday-Thursday, and he's just a really cool guy. His teaching style is very fast-paced, but it's not too overwhelming--it just makes you pay attention and keep focus. I also have Nakamitsu sensei on Monday and Wednesday-Friday, who is also very nice. She and Yoshida sensei have a similar teaching style.

As you might have seen in the pictures of my schedule, I have four hours of class on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and three hours on Tuesday and Friday. Sometimes it seems like it's dragging on forever, but usually it goes by pretty quickly.

So yeah, that's the academic life. Sorry if this was a bit choppy. I wrote it in different sessions.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A quick update

Osaka didn't happen this past weekend, we just didn't have enough time to plan for it. I went to Otsu and Kyoto on Tuesday, though... it was alright. We didn't do much of anything, but Heather and I just wanted to get out of Hikone for a few hours, and Niki had to go to Otsu to get submit her visa application. Kyoto is only a few more stops past Otsu, so we just decided to go a bit further. It was raining so we didn't go very far in Kyoto, but it was kind of nice to just walk around the train station there. It's HUGE. Here's a picture that my friend Lindsay took last time we were in Japan, in 2005:

So yeah, we were there for a few hours before we decided to head back (and to beat the rush hour on the trains here). I'm excited to go back and actually see Kyoto again. It's going to be so different navigating through the city by myself, and not with a tour guide.

On Saturday morning, some of the students from Shiga Daigaku came over to JCMU and taught us how to make Japanese-style curry. It was DELICIOUS. And easy! I'm excited to learn how to cook more Japanese food while I'm here. After the cooking event, I went to a festival at Shiga Prefectural University (different from Shiga University) with some of the other people in my program. It was pretty fun--there was a lot of cheap food and drinks, as well as little street fair-esque shop stands, and free live music. There was a Japanese ska band playing when we first got there! I wish we could have seen more of them, but they were finishing their set as we arrived.

Sorry that this isn't particularly interesting, but it's a busy day. I have a lot of things that I need to get done today, but I also wanted to post something, at least. Hopefully I'll pick up some extra time this week.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Classes, purikura, and the rainy season

So we started our first real week of classes here at 日本ミシガンセンター and, so far, it's been pretty okay. I know all of the material, grammar, content, etc., but my weakest point in the Japanese language (as it is for many people) is speech production. I am TERRIBLE at just producing speech and thinking of things to say on the fly, and I'm pretty sure that's why I'm repeating level two. Which, like I said, is fine. There's always things for me to re-learn, and I'm sure that I'll learn new things while I retake the course.

I haven't gotten the chance to do much sightseeing yet; there's a lot of work to do during the week, so it looks like most of my non-Hikone-area sightseeing will have to be strictly on the weekends. I think that this coming weekend, a few of us are going Osaka. I'm pretty excited for that--Osaka is HUGE and I'd love to see it again. I want to go to Kyoto a few times too... it's only about 30-40 minutes away by train, so that can easily be done in a day. One of the guys down the hall was also talking about going to Hiroshima, which I'm sure would be an incredible experience.

So one of our (myself and the people that I hang out with a lot here) favorite things to do when we go out and there's an arcade nearby is take purikura. Now, for those of you who do not know what purikura is... you are most certainly missing out. It's a photobooth, but not quite like the photobooths in the malls in the States. Instead, you step in the booth, pay for the machine, and pick different backgrounds in front of which you take the picture. Sometimes it's really fast, and sometimes it's a normal pace, but when you're done you select some of the pictures that you want to keep. After you're done taking the pictures, you go to a booth where you DRAW ON THEM BEFORE THEY PRINT. You can draw freehand, or put random little images all over them that come preset. Here's some examples of what I'm talking about if this explanation is less than satisfactory.

Sorry about the blurry ones, the pictures are really small when they print and I tried to take a picture of them but the resolution didn't turn out very well. The last one looks good because my friend Niki (top center in the last one) has a Japanese cell phone and the machine has an option to send the photos to your cell phone, and then she uploaded them to the internet from there. By the way, did I mention that these printed pictures are stickers? AWESOME.

Tuesday is supposed to mark the start of the rainy season in Japan. I don't know if this is a worldwide thing, but East Asia has a ridiculous rainy season where it basically just rains all day everyday for like 2 or 3 weeks. Okay, so the actual season is from mid June to mid July, and it doesn't rain EVERY DAY, but it rains a lot. I want to say that there are at least 2 weeks total that it's raining (though the days are not necessarily consecutive). I love it when it rains, but I have a feeling that this is going to lessen said love.

I'm beginning to feel like I don't need to write about my daily happenings (after all, that's what Twitter and Facebook are for) and I can just update about random cultural experiences that I'm having. I love it here. It's going to be a sad day when I fly back to the States.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hikone Castle!

Before I talk about my trip to Hikone Castle on Sunday, I'll recap my weekend. Friday night, we kind of stayed in the dorms, had some drinks, hung out, and just enjoyed each other's company a bit more. Pretty chill night--not particularly crazy or anything, just getting to know each other a little more.

Saturday I wanted to sleep in (I hadn't really gotten the chance to do so all week with classes, orientation, and jetlag), but it wasn't really all that successful. I think I managed to get to like 9am before I couldn't sleep anymore. I woke up, sat around for a while, studied a bit, and then wasted more time until we headed out for the party at Shiga Daigaku that we got invited to.

The party was definitely fun. I met a lot of local Japanese college students and chatted with them, got to see what their parties are like, etc. Afterward, everyone went out with them to do karaoke and drink more, but I wasn't really in the mood to get crazy so I opted to go back to JCMU, so I hung out with this guy Christian and we watched all the drunk people make their way back as the night went on. Then I hung out with two guys, Ahn and Tom, whose Japanese is better than mine and practiced/listened to them. It was nice.

Sunday, I went to Hikone Castle (彦根城) with Heather, Jackie, and Kailey. It was really, really beautiful and interesting... I'm gonna go ahead and let the pictures speak for themselves.

In the castle area there was also a garden and plum orchard, which were fantastic as well.