USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

August 13, 2014

Helpful Directions?

Filed under: Exploring,Tokyo,Travel — geajapan @ 3:55 pm

By Ryan Bobell

Getting around Tokyo was surprisingly easy.

I don’t mean to say that the public transportation, road infrastructure, and city planning were well designed, although they clearly were, and the excellent quality of Tokyo’s infrastructure was one of the most impressive things about my stay in Tokyo. As an English-speaking person with zero experience outside the United States, Tokyo was shockingly easy to navigate because of the extreme prevalence of English throughout the city.

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The use of English on restaurants, store signs, road markers, and throughout the metro system was so abundant that it appeared as though English was nearly as common as Japanese throughout the city. This made exploring Tokyo safely and effectively a very simple matter. In fact, I would say that my experience using the Tokyo public transportation system was much easier and efficient than my experiences with that of my own hometown, Los Angeles.

Having such easy access to English road, metro line, and city district names really helped when traveling around Tokyo. While using the system, I often found myself wondering why English-language signs were so common in a nearly homogeneous Japanese population. I imagine, and light research backs my theory, that part of the common English usage is that the Japanese government is trying to proactively encourage foreign travelers and businesspersons to visit Japan. This, especially coupled with the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and a variety of multilingual signs and services, will be increasingly helpful to foreign tourism.

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The only problem with having so much English in Tokyo (and it really is a problem) is that it often makes it harder to become fully immersed in the Japanese language. Whether a foreign visitor is wanting to jump into Japanese for fun, as a challenge, or to improve their speaking skills, the fact is that when there is so much English around they will inevitably use it as a crutch. I know that without so many signs in my native language I would have had to delve deeper into practical Japanese and further develop my conversational skills when asking for assistance or directions. Ultimately it becomes a debate of convenience versus immersion, and chances are that convenience will win out simply because the positives of an increase in foreign travelers and business are so important to the Japanese economy.

I will, however, concede that when I became (mildly) lost in Shibuya one day, the English-language signs and directions really did save my day.

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August 8, 2014

Calligraphy Challenges

Filed under: Class,Culture,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 3:16 pm

by Natasha Cirisano 

Japanese calligraphy in four words: Harder. Than. It. Looks. On our first Saturday at the Yamanaka Lake retreat, the Meiji students set up a calligraphy lesson for us to learn to write our names. I’m a design major, so I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult… but I was wrong. Three characters might seem easy at first, but the calligraphy really showed me the care and importance that goes into every stroke of Japanese writing. In Japanese language class, we learned how to write the alphabet with an emphasis on the stroke direction and stroke order of each letter. At first I thought this was just a tedious, extra element to memorize, but when we did calligraphy I saw how these ideas really stemmed from the way the ink medium worked when these letters were written with a brush back in the old days. The direction and order of the strokes are crucial to create the particular weight and balance the letter needs, and passing the brush across the paper in the wrong direction makes the letter much harder to draw because it is against the flow of the ink.

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An ink-brush set-up from around the late 1800s at the Japanese Migration Museum. Our brushes were much thicker than the one pictured here, but I was surprised by the way that I could still achieve a very fine line by rolling the bristles into a point.

Compared to Western calligraphy, which also depends heavily on the direction and order of the strokes, the Japanese version is much more about showing motion even though the letters are static forms. While I usually picture monks hunched over parchment paper with quill pens painstakingly shaping every letter, Japanese calligraphy is more like a dance between concentration and spontaneity. I felt like the letters were people doing ballet or maybe even martial arts – one stroke, an arm jabbing to the right, the next, a leg kicking up and then coming down again. The art is mental as much as it is physical, and I had to train my muscle memory as much as my mind to make it beautiful. For example, to be successful, I had to get used to holding the brush upright at a 90-degree angle from the paper, which feels awkward at first, but provides a lot more control over the thickness and thinness of the strokes. Kenta, my teacher, kept correcting me when I fell back into holding the brush like a normal pencil! Next, the composition was the mental part; I had to pay attention to the angle of the strokes or else everything would look awkward and out of balance. It’s funny, because even though I could not read the characters, I could tell when a stroke “felt” wrong. Good design is a universal language. It seems that even people who come from two different sides of the world can “sense” compositional oddities and imbalances, even if one person (me!) first sees the characters as abstract art rather than as instruments of ideological and symbolic meaning.

My first egregious calligraphy attempt. A clearly off-kilter first character with inaccurate stroke angles. (Circle 1: Space needs to be wider. Circle 2: Giant blob that shouldn't be there. Circle 3: Downward stroke needs to be much longer.)

My first egregious calligraphy attempt. A clearly off-kilter first character with inaccurate stroke angles. (Circle 1: Space needs to be wider. Circle 2: Giant blob that shouldn’t be there. Circle 3: Downward stroke needs to be much longer.)

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August 7, 2014

Tsukiji Fish Market

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 2:45 pm

By Stephanie Liang

Tsukiji Fish Market has the best sushi. Period. I visited the market around noon after deciding not to brave the usual 3am tuna auction, or the subsequent 6am lineup for freshly caught sushi. Besides, I don’t think my palette is refined enough to taste the difference between sashimi caught an hour ago and that caught 6 hours ago.

The first thing we saw when we entered the market was a giant tuna sitting out in front of a restaurant. It was by far the largest fish I had ever laid eyes on. As we walked through the market, various vendors offering fresh seafood bombarded us with sales and special prices.

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We decided to wander around the market some more before sitting down for lunch. There were many food stands selling various items, such as Himalayan salt, almonds, dried seaweed, dried fish, and even sushi-shaped candy. It was a great place to buy souvenirs. We also found a store selling various cooking supplies.

Unsure about which restaurant to visit, we simply chose the restaurant with the longest line. Originally we had wanted to try Sushi Dai, but it was unfortunately closed on Sundays. We waited approximately 45 minutes for what would be the freshest, most delicious sushi I’ve ever tasted in my life. After being seated at the counter, the chef immediately greeted us and recommended a some menu options.

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August 5, 2014

1, 2, 3 Strikes You’re Out: A Japanese Baseball Experience

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:19 am

by Benjamin Surbrook

Near the beginning of our trip to Japan, one of the Meiji students asked our group if any of us wanted to go to a baseball game. Of course I immediately said yes as I had heard from many friends that Japanese baseball games were extremely exciting and entertaining because the fans are so into the games.

Entrance to the Tokyo Dome

Entrance to Tokyo Dome

So, on Sunday, July 6th, Kenta, one of the Meiji student supporters, took a group of us to a game at the famous Tokyo Dome. Because there is so much to do there, we actually arrived about two hours before the game started. Upon arriving, we immediately went on the roller coaster right next to Tokyo Dome (fun fact: it goes 130 kilometers/hour!).

A poster of some players

Poster of some Yomiuri Giants players

After that, because we still had some time before the start of the game, we decided to go to the batting cages. As someone who hasn’t played baseball in 13 years, I will admit this was a bit of a challenge, but it was still a lot of fun (even if the elementary aged children could hit more balls than I could).

David at the batting cages

David at the batting cages

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July 30, 2014

Rainy Season and Hydrangea

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 4:38 pm

by Lisa Peng

梅雨と紫陽花

We arrived in Japan in mid-June, right in the middle of the rainy season. This rainy season is called tsuyu (梅雨, “plum rain”) in Japan, and it is a very unique climate in East Asia. From late May to July, Japan transforms gradually from spring to summer. The humidity increases, and rain showers become more and more unpredictable.

For those of us from Southern California, the tsuyu season could be considered unbearable, even though it was not too hot in terms of temperature. Because of the high humidity, it was really stuffy and felt like we were in a steam room or sauna. The sweat stays on your skin, never evaporating, and it becomes really sticky. I also learned a Japanese term that is specific for this kind of weather: mushiatsui (蒸し暑い, “steaming hot”). The unpredictable rain also tricked a lot of us. There was one day when at least half of us arrived at class wet, because it had not looked like it was going to rain when we had departed from the hotel, and many of us did not even think about bringing an umbrella. From this perspective, I would say that I really dislike tsuyu weather.

However, when it comes to visiting temples and shrines, tsuyu season is definitely the best time to go. After a rain, the air becomes fresher, and dust has been washed away by the rainwater. It feels like the entire place becomes purified and ready for us to visit.

Torii and Noh Theater in Miyajima Shrine in the rain

Torii gate and noh theater at Itsukushima Shrine in the rain

Nara after the rain

Nara after the rain

USC students and Meiji students at Hachimangou in Kamakura

USC students and Meiji students at Hachimanguu in Kamakura during a light rain

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July 29, 2014

Exploring Asakusa

Filed under: Class,Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 1:22 pm

by Sarah Anne Nakamura

During our first week in Japan we had the opportunity to visit Asakusa, where we went to our first Buddhist temple called Sensou-ji. This was one of the most fascinating places we visited during our program because the area was divided into two main areas: the temple and a small market called Nakamise-Dori.

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Before walking to the temple, we made our way through the Nakamise-Dori market, which I calculated to have about 90 stores. Some of the stores had omiyage (souvenirs), shoes, clothes, bags, and unique sweets. I had the chance to taste fresh ningyou-yaki, which is a traditional Japanese cake that is often molded into a Japanese design. The name literally means “fried doll,” which is exactly what we got. I had a bird design, but other students got flowers and lanterns. We could see the ningyou-yaki being made right in front of us with a machine that did everything: pour the batter, bake the cakes, and then individually wrap each one. It was one of the best sweets I had the pleasure of trying in Japan.

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The amazing ningyou-yaki machine

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Ningyou-yaki, bird version

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July 25, 2014

Staying Fit in Tokyo

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:58 am

by Kent Oya

Being the gym rat that I am meant that one of my first priorities after arriving in Japan was to find a good gym. Upon searching among many online travel forums, I found that the general attitude was “good luck finding a decent one.” Memberships are expensive, machines are preferred instead of free weights, and there’s some unique gym etiquette.

I knew I was going to eat a lot during my stay (and yes… yes, I did), so I continued my search for fitness and stumbled upon my perfect gym: the Chiyoda Sports Center.

Only one stop away from Sakura Hotel!

Only one stop away from Sakura Hotel!

One of Japan’s best kept secrets is the abundance of workout opportunities available to the public. Each ward, or ku (区), operates public sports centers that offer various sports, arts, and cultural activities. Therefore, one can learn kendo, play soccer, go swimming, practice golf swings, and much more. And here is the best part: these services are offered at a fraction of what private companies charge. For example, Chiyoda Sports Center offers all these services for a measly 500 yen per day (300 yen for ward residents).

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Pay for your ticket here.

I immediately broke many rules of etiquette during my first time at the gym. First, I was stopped from entering the room because I had worn my outdoor shoes, so I had to go back downstairs and rent a pair of clean running shoes.

Bring another pair of shoes to change into!

Bring another pair of shoes to change into!

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July 24, 2014

Japanese Sports Culture

Filed under: Culture — geajapan @ 1:10 pm

by Andy Gause

Sports and the way a country reacts to them, particularly in defeat, speaks volumes about a culture. We had the marvelous fortune to travel in Japan while the country was in the grips of World Cup fever. The dark “Blue Samurai” World Cup uniforms were ubiquitous in Tokyo, and pictures of the photogenic football superstar Keisuke Honda plastered everything from sodas to shampoo and baby food. As part of a limited time deal, McDonald’s formed their buns in the shape of a soccer ball. I have not yet ordered a McDonald’s burger to discover if the poster’s promise matches the final product, as I’ve been too busy eating more uniquely Japanese cuisine. Despite the general excitement surrounding the games, the Japanese team failed to live up to expectations, losing two games and tying the other. In total, the team only scored two goals in their three matches. However, there was no resentment among the fans. Following their first loss, the television was flooded with footage of young fans swarming the Tokyo streets. I asked Chad, our teaching assistant, if they were rioting, but he told me that, in fact, the youth were showing their support for the team. Even after losing 2-1 to the Ivory Coast, a team they were projected to beat, the country was immensely proud of its team. I can’t imagine young people in America or Europe running into the streets to demonstrate their support following a disappointing loss. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to view any of the games with the Japanese. The tremendous time difference between Brazil and Tokyo resulted in 4am, 7am, and 8am start times, which were either too early or conflicted with bus travel. I was able to watch the USA games, but was not joined by any fellow countrymen or students from the trip.

An ad for shaving cream featuring Japanese Global Cup Star Honda.

An ad for shaving cream featuring Japanese World Cup star Honda

None of the Meiji students I spoke with are die-hard football fans (they also couldn’t justify waking up at 4am to watch a football game), but in general they seem to care more than the USC students. In Japan, baseball is king, even more so than football. Every Japanese student I’ve spoken with knows the stats of Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish, former Japanese players now pitching in the MLB. It’s not uncommon to see a young man in a New York Yankees or Detroit Tigers uniform. I’ve even seen a jersey for my team, the Oakland Athletics, which is surprising considering Oakland is such a small city. I’m shocked at the lack of Japanese baseball merchandise. Maybe it’s because I don’t recognize their team logos, but it seems that American teams are more popular, at least in terms of merchandising. I’ve also found out that badminton and rugby are much more popular here in Japan than in the US. This makes sense considering Japan’s proximity to Australia and China. During our weekend trip to Yamanaka Lake, we played tennis, basketball, and ping pong with the Meiji students. As Nixon proved in the 70′s, there’s nothing quite like ping pong to melt cultural differences and bring people together. The Meiji students were great sports and never show-boated or talked trash. Their politeness in defeat and victory is quite endearing when compared to America’s macho, braggart sports culture.

July 23, 2014

DisneySea

Filed under: Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:25 am

by Charlsie Hoffman

I had one goal I would not budge on when planning my trip to Japan: go to DisneySea. I set the precedent back in Los Angeles when I first met my Global East Asia classmates: “Hi, my name is Charlsie, and I am most excited to go to DisneySea in Japan.” The Meiji University students received very much the same introduction upon our first meeting. Luckily, from both the Meiji and USC students, I received positive feedback in the form of excited gasps, giggles, and a few high-pitched squeals. Together, we scheduled a full day for DisneySea, and thus Operation Storm Disney was set into motion. In the days before our visit, I shopped around Harajuku to find a cute Japanese-inspired outfit, as I felt more free and inspired to explore my fashion sense here than in the United States.

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When the day finally arrived, I rallied the troops and we started our long train ride to DisneySea.  Much like the monorail at the Disneyland Resort in California, DisneySea has its own train equipped with Mickey-shaped windows to transport us from the public station. Inside, instrumental versions of Disney songs played, and we all willingly sang along. At last, the train stopped and we were finally at our destination.

In front of Mermaid Lagoon

In front of Mermaid Lagoon

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July 22, 2014

Going to the Arcade

Filed under: Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 10:32 am

by David Collier

On our first full day in Japan, all the students went with Chad to Akihabara. While the main purpose of the trip was to visit Yodobashi, we also visited a Don Quijote store. Inside Don Quijote, we experienced our first arcade center in Japan. Some of us sat down to play Street Fighter, and at one point Andy played it against one of the locals. However, this guy had obviously played the game a lot and knew all of the combination moves and special skills. We could only stay in the arcade for a short time, and we didn’t get to play most of the games there, but I have since had several opportunities to go to other arcades.

The Taiko Drum Game

Taiko drum game

All of the arcades that I’ve visited have had the same games, so you don’t need to go to a specific arcade to play a particular game. For example, every arcade has Taiko drum games, Gundam games, Street Fighter games, as well as an abundance of crane games. The word taiko refers to Japanese drums, and the game is comparable to Guitar Hero in the US. Though I haven’t played this game yet, I’ve watched other USC students play it, and even though it was their first attempt at the game, all of them played admirably. I have also noticed that even though there are more crane games here than in the US, they are not any easier to beat.

Andy racing Junki (A Meiji student) at Mario Cart

Andy racing Junki (a Meiji student) at Mario Kart

The game I’ve played the most is a rhythm game where there is a grid of 16 squares that light up, and you have to push them with precise timing as they light up. A song is playing at the same time, and the buttons light up in time with the music. Hitting combos (multiple squares) in a row is very satisfying, and the fast paced songs ensure there is no lack of combos.

A Rhythm game being played by Lisa and Sarah

A rhythm game being played by Lisa and Sarah

It is disappointing that arcades are falling away in America because they are so much fun to go to with friends, as we saw here in Japan.

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