Farewell Meiji, goodbye Japan

By: Geyu Chen

On June 8th, it is the third time we check in to Sakura Hotel Jimboocho, or “home sweet home” as said by one of our members. Everything remains the same and familiar and everything is no longer fresh and interesting – the front desk with worldwide beer selection in the fridge, the umbrella stands crowded by those bought from convenience stores with a few coins by previous residents here. And now, after spending 2 weeks in Tokyo, Yamanaka, and Kansai area, it is time for us to leave. I feel anxious about the farewell dinner.

After a free day back from Kansai, on June 9th, we walked fast to the Liberty Tower of Meiji University. I was nearly running, without being guided by Google map which I needed on the first day of the meeting. The wrap-up session was held by Prof.Kurashige and Rio, which reminded me that our days here are not only a tour but a course, a research study as well. Then we took the elevator to the top floor and walked into the meeting room.

People were giving speeches, but my mind was blown away. I can’t believe the time went so fast that we are forced to say goodbye. Everything was flooding up onto my eyes. The good time we went to 鳥貴族 (torikizuku), a traditional Japanese tavern or bar where you can order drinks or teriyaki at a very low price but very decent quality, and for the first time introduced ourselves to each other; the good time after at karaoke; the exciting and refreshing time when all of Meiji and USC students were grouped up on the bus heading to Yamanaka, expecting the Fuji mountain shining its snow top cover under the gently bright sunshine. The nervous time on the second morning of 合宿 (がっしゅく Gasshyuku), when everyone was busy preparing presentations collaboratively. Time was flying so fast, not even allowing us to talk to every Meiji student. I still have so many stories to tell, and want to listen far more.

@ 鳥貴族 (torikizuku), group selfie

Tokyo is too big to explore every its station and corner, and time is too short to say goodbye.

Refocusing my mind back to the farewell meeting – it is nearly over. We did toast 乾杯 (kanpai) just like the first day that we been here for the opening ceremony. And we did the farewell ceremony gesture together with a “yo” shouting out again just like the last day we dismissed after the 合宿.

@ Meiji Liberty Tower meeting room, Yu is guiding us for the farewell clapping

@Meiji Liberty Tower, Farewell dinner

Meiji students were making memorial pamphlets for each of us with our most interesting picture on the cover and goodbye memos from every Meiji student inside. It was a most impressive gift received, eclipsed what we had prepared from the USC bookstore rashly. I would definitely choose a better one if time and go back again.

@ Farewell dinner, Ruby and Yu with his little pamphlet

Throughout these two weeks, we learned so much about these Japanese particular customs. Though without knowing the actual meaning of them, we at least learned how to respect and found a way to fit ourselves into the Japanese society. This is considered to be very important throughout our studying and researching trip oversea.

Thank you and goodbye Meiji friends, goodbye Jimboocho, and goodbye Japan. I will miss everything here tomorrow, and every happy face of each of you.

To Kyoto

By: Verdinand Ruelos
Tuesday June 6, 2017

To Kyoto

The day started early with a ride on the bullet train to Kyoto.  We finally were able to ride the famous bullet train, and it did not disappoint with its streamlined speed and comfort.  I was able to catch up on some sleep on the journey to Kyoto.  Upon arriving at Kyoto, we travelled to Kyoto University where we met with Yu Tokunaga, or Toku for short, our guide in Kyoto.  While Toku admitted to the dominance of the University of Tokyo in terms of academics, overall, he claimed that Kyoto is best because of its progressive and liberal thinking.  After seeing both Tokyo University and Kyoto University, in my opinion Kyoto just did not have the same distinction, it simply wasn’t as elite as Todai, that being said it did have its advantages in that it was more relaxed.

Next we went to a temple near Gion called Kiyomizu temple.  It was one of the most beautiful temples that I have seen and there were many tourists who were wearing traditional kimonos.  We ate street food like Matcha ice cream and tokoyaki and walked around many of the shops looking for omiyage for our families back home.  On the way back down the hill from the temple, I made friends with some locals from Osaka who were in Kyoto for holiday.  They were very nice and one of them is actually a dietician who works in a hospital, so she might be able to help me with my research on healthcare, since she works in a hospital.  We later went out to karaoke.

While all of this was lots of fun, the highlight of the day was eating at the Chinese restaurant, Tokaisaikan.  We also received a guest talk from one of the managers, and sons of the owner, Tsu Tsu Wu.  I remembered his name because of the anecdote he told about how at first it played as a disadvantage.  His name is blatantly Chinese, so when he introduced himself, people would automatically judge him as a foreigner.  But he figured out a way to turn this into an advantage because, people are more likely to remember his name, since it is not common.  I have run into similar situations, since my name is also very unique: Verdi.  Growing up, some people would make fun of it because it sounds funny, or it rhymes with birdie, or nerdy or dirty.  I never took it too seriously, but there were moments when I wished that I had a “normal’ name.  But now that I am a little older, I am grateful for my name.  It’s uniqueness is something that should be embraced.  People remember it, they have never met another Verdi, so the name is automatically associated with just me.  This is a special thing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Sure, I’ll never find a souvenir key-chain with my name on it, but I’d rather have a custom made one than have the same name as a million other people.

The food itself was superb, and the view was even better.  We ate out on the balcony on a beautiful summer day in Kyoto.  Gochisosama deshita!

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Trip to Hiroshima

By: Brenda

The day began with our arrival at Hiroshima. Immediately, I was overwhelmed because of the history that accompanies this city. Upon arriving in Hiroshima, we visited the peace museum. The museum was filled with old artifacts and photos about the United States and the War.

However, what was most shocking was the old torn up clothing and artifacts that demonstrated how terrible the bombing of Hiroshima was. Each artifact and piece of clothing had its own story. What nearly got me into tears were the stories of young school children dying in the arms of their parents. Many children didn’t even have the opportunity to return home to their parents after the bombing. Some parents only found the clothing of their children, or a name tag, and that is how they knew that their child was no more. In the United States, when studying about the bombing of Hiroshima, we usually just skim over the events and pride ourselves in ending the war. However, one does not really take into consideration all the innocent casualties that had to die in order to do so. I never really thought about the young children or families who died during the Hiroshima bombing. I had always seen the bombing of Hiroshima as a step towards ending the war. However, after visiting the Peace museum I realized it was an unnecessary act that caused the lives of so many innocent people. Thus, I was glad to see the Peace Park. In which there were statues dedicated to those who lost their lives during the bombing of Hiroshima. I was overjoyed to see that those who died on that fateful day are still being remembered.

Later during the day, we had the opportunity to take a ferry onto Miyajima Island. Although it was raining, the visit the island was still quite fun. The tide was low so we had the opportunity to take an up close picture with the historical gate located on the island. Miyajima island is known as deer island, and after spending some time with some deer I could see why. We had the opportunity to pet and take pictures with some of the local deer that were just standing around on the roads. After an hour of walking in the rain, Sam and I decided to go to a local cat café. Inside the café, there was a woman sitting with three cats on her lap. Immediately, Sam was jealous because we just couldn’t seem to attract any of the cats to come and play with us. Luckily, one of the cats came our way and we played with him for a couple minutes, until he dropped my hot chocolate. The rest of my time was spent cleaning the mess the cat had left. Overall, this was extremely fun and I managed to learn more about the bombing of Hiroshima. Which made me sympathize with the Japanese people and their call for Peace.

Lake Yamanaka Retreat

By Mika:
This weekend we headed to Lake Yamanaka for our retreat with the Meiji Students. Lake Yamanaka is one of the 5 lakes surrounding Mount Fuji and is known to be a tourist location for many Japanese natives and international visitors. We started Friday morning with a 3 hour bus ride to the retreat. Despite being a long bus ride, due to a nice lunch break at a rest stop, where we were able to have surprisingly delicious food at a very decent price (something we probably could never find in the US).

As we drove towards Lake Yamanaka, we were greeted with one of the most beautiful scenes of Mount Fuji. The whether was extremely nice and it made for a clear photo, something that Professor Power said never happens during this time of the season.Once we arrived, after unpacking and settling down, we had some time to explore the Meiji University owned lodging and our surroundings. We decided to play some tennis but after about 15 minutes of doing so, we were all tired and ready to get ice cream. After walking down the main street for about 20 minutes we decided to get some Shingen Mochi flavored Ice cream. I didn’t expect to like the flavor as much as I did but I loved it!

We walked back and worked on our research projects until dinner with our respective Meiji Students. We had a homey dinner prepared by the Meiji staff which consisted of a bunch of different side dishes, rice, soup, and chicken. It was delicious and was the perfect compliment to our new countryside surroundings.

We spent the rest of the night relaxing in the bath with the other Meiji students, enjoying a small drinking party with them where we got to know each other better in a less academic setting, and ended with a great night’s sleep in a traditional futon.

Saturday was a very hectic day. We started with another traditional Japanese breakfast and then our presentations were ready to begin. The first group consisted of my topic as well as Verdi’s topic. Then came Renee and Felix, followed by Rubi and Kayanne, and ended with Brenda and Sam. Each session ended with a short group discussion regarding the respective topics. This was interesting as the Meiji students weren’t as familiar with group discussions in their classes, however, they caught on and contributed a great deal to our discussion.

We had a few hours of free time before our dinner so we decided to go down to the lake. We walked down the dock and were greeted with really friendly Koi fish. We spent some time taking pictures and feeding the fish, however, a swan approached us and after having some bad experiences the previous day with the swan attacking some of our students we were really scared as the swan swam closer and closer towards us. The swan attacked us once again, biting a student’s shoe and then a phone was dropped into the lake! We were shocked and wanted to grab it immediately as the water wasn’t that deep, however, the swan was in our way and we couldn’t do anything until it moved away. We moved all the koi to the right by throwing the food far away from where the phone dropped and then Verdi went into the water trying to find the phone. Another student went to go get a shovel and then another man named Mr. Fujii came to help find the phone. After hours of searching we were able to find the phone. Yay! Verdi grabbed the phone and ran it up to the cabin where he immediately put it in rice.

Due to all of his help, we invited Mr. Fujii to join us for dinner and expressed our gratitude with a bottle of sake. We enjoyed our dinner again and the rest of the night included us writing our names in Japanese calligraphy, another comforting bed, and another fun drinking party where we celebrated a fun weekend.

Tokyo University and Midori Sushi 6/1

By: Sam
We started the day at Tokyo University. The campus was lovely with beautiful trees and old buildings. We ate at their cafeteria, which was not only cheaper, but miles ahead of EVK. We met with Professor Yaguchi for a fascinating talk on gender inequality and the college system in Tokyo. We learned that the college process for Japanese high school students is vastly different from the American process. Rather than spending their time trying to work hard to keep up their GPAs, round out their application with extra-curricular activities, cozy up to teachers to get stellar recommendations, and cram for SATs, SAT IIs, ACTs, and APs, to get into Tokyo University students take a single entrance exam. The top 3,000 scorers are accepted, and nothing else is considered. Of course, at Tokyo University, they would argue that this is the fairest system. But Professor Yaguchi has some complaints.

The first problem is that Tokyo University becomes practically inaccessible to international students. The entrance exam is based on the Japanese high school curriculum and if students have not taken this curriculum, it would be incredibly difficult. It would also require international students to fly to Japan which isn’t possible for many. Professor Yaguchi had to argue to the university to allow international students to be admitted in a more “American” holistic style of college admissions. There has been an attempt to attract more international students by hiring more international professors, and creating a B.A. program in English, but there is still push-back from the university in further globalizing the school.

The second big problem he has with the entrance exam and the admissions process at Tokyo University is the rampant gender inequality. Toyko University is about 82% male. The management team argues that there’s not really anything they can do as their entrance exam is (at least in theory) gender blind. Professor Yaguchi sees this as a weak excuse. Because not only are women not being accepted, but they’re not even applying. Of the tenured professors, only 5% are women. Even in fields dominated by women like pharmacy, most of the teachers are still male. Women might not feel welcome on a campus so dominated by men both in the student body and the faculty. There is also great stigma in Japanese society associated with women who attend Tokyo University. They’re seen as too smart and therefore undesirable. The social circles are made up of men from Tokyo University and women from other universities; Tokyo University women are explicitly banned. This issue has been brought up to the university as discrimination, but Tokyo University feels very strongly in not interfering with their students, particularly in their social lives. Compared to schools in the West and even schools in Asia, Tokyo University’s gender equality is starkly behind.

But Tokyo University is falling behind internationally. The main reason is has fallen in the rankings is its failure to integrate international students. Tokyo University, which regards itself as the best school in Japan, has begun to fall behind other schools in Asia. If the ranking systems decided to include gender equality as a factor, it would fall even sharper. But why is the university so reluctant to change? Tokyo University feels that it’s first in the nation and doesn’t need to adapt to globalization.

After the heady talk, we all certainly needed a big meal. We had an amazing, massive meal, at Midori sushi. Platter after platter of fresh delicious sushi came out. We were all absolutely stuffed and couldn’t even finish the incredible sushi – as badly as we wished there was more room in our stomach.

We ended the day with a quiet meeting with a few of our Meiji supporters and finished up our research presentations.

Visit to Joseon – May 31, 2017

By: Renee

Today we ate Korean barbecue in Japan. The eight of us met Rio in the cafe of Sakura Hotel— I wish I could say we were all on time, but unfortunately that was not the case. We still arrived at the restaurant with more than enough time to spare, though.

All-you-can-eat Korean barbecue!

We replaced our shoes with slippers and sat in two separate tables back to back. Since it was difficult to get in and out of the tables, the meal really was a task of teamwork, with people sitting on the outside helping others get food and drinks. We had an unofficial but intense competition on which table would eat more— I wish I could say my table won, but unfortunately I’m not sure if that was the case either. But I can safely say that all ten of us ended up full and satisfied.

Brenda was completely in her element at Koreatown. She really stepped up during Korean barbecue; she was helping Rio cook the meat and everything. After the meal, when we were walking around, she knew all of the songs that the restaurants and stores played and sang along in Korean. Watching her interact with Korean culture in Japan was super cool.

After that, we made our way to Joseon in the heat and humidity. Joseon is a North Korean school where many fourth-generation Korean-Japanese students go to strengthen their Korean culture. They learn the same subjects and follow the same standards as other Japanese schools, but also learn Korean history and Korean culture. We were warmly welcomed by the principal and other teachers, who took us on a tour of the school. All of the students were very studious and happy to see us. Then we had a Q&A session with a smaller group of students. Most of them mentioned that they wanted to attend a Korean university in Japan after high school. I found that very interesting, especially as an “ABC,” or American-born Chinese. I love the idea of a Chinese high school in America, where I could develop my connection to Chinese culture, and I would definitely want to attend one. But though I feel very Chinese, I also feel very American, and think that even if I did attend such a Chinese high school in America, that I would still want to attend an American university. But as there are no such schools in America, I can’t be sure.

Music class at Joseon!

We spent the late afternoon eating doughnuts and exploring Ikebukuro, then rushed back to Sakura Hotel to make our meeting with the Meiji students. We were tired but excited to spend time with our new friends. Since it was Kayanne’s birthday, Lon Sensei brought her a cake and we all sang to her. By this meeting we’d all grown more familiar with each other, so we had even more fun and were even more productive with our research.

Midway through the meeting, all of us decided to go out for ramen because none of us had had ramen in Japan yet. My team had either already eaten or had dinner waiting for them at home, so we ended up hanging out in a study lounge. Though I’m a little sad I missed out on the ramen, I’m more glad that I got to spend some time just relaxing with Nami, Tsukasa, and other Meiji students.

Well, Wednesday was another great day in Tokyo. I wake up every day and go to sleep every day ridiculously happy to be here, and we’re not even at the halfway point of this trip. I can’t wait to see what other adventures await (and hopefully the crepe cake is among them).

Meeting Meiji Students

By: Rubi

After a great weekend exploring Tokyo with the crew, we finally got to meet all of the Meiji students! Thanks to my wonderful West Coast jet lag, I woke up around 6:45am despite having gone to sleep only a few hours earlier around 1am, after karaoke. For some inexplicable reason, I thought it could be a good idea to run around the Imperial Palace despite my obvious dehydration. The loop happens to be a 5k and is filled with great scenery – and other runners. Unfortunately, I managed to get lost in Otemachi and the run took me almost an hour.

Nevertheless, I quickly got my things together to get downstairs on time and we walked to Meiji from the hotel. We were formally greeted by two Japanese hosts and a university professor. We got our packets with info about the campus, the students, and most importantly, instructions on how to connect to WiFi.

We moved to a bigger room with all the Meiji students. We exchanged excited greetings but were quickly quieted for welcoming speeches by some professors and the dean of the political sciences college. In fact, there was a finance professor educated at the “other” school in Los Angeles… I wasn’t sure whether to be enthusiastic or disappointed. Prof. Kurashige also gave a speech, which included an interesting love story between a Meiji student and USC student…I wonder who they were??? After a round of applause, it was a mad dash to the banquet as everyone was starving. A variety of Western and Japanese food was served, and my favorite was the salmon.

The Meiji students were so excited to meet us and everyone had a diverse background or hometown. Many of them studied abroad in the US before. After chatting and exchanging some jokes we did some icebreakers. Writing down things in common with people we had never met, let alone people that were from a different country, was very hard. In the end we came up with liking tonkotsu broth the best, cup over cone, dark chocolate over milk chocolate, and tea over coffee.

Afterwards, we went on a tour of Meiji and they showed us the bookstore (basically a konbini on steroids) and two restaurants: Marukamen, a well-known udon shop, and Echiopia, a curry shop. They told us that Jimbocho was famous for its many renditions of Indian curry. Some time around there, we also found an avocado cafe.

We decided to head back to the hotel after that – we were tired and sleep deprived. We were not far from the hotel, so it only took a few minutes to get back. After this, we realized we should probably get dinner. We asked the front desk for some recommendations, and were given three. We decided to go to the one that wasn’t “Kyushu” style since someone had apparently not liked that. On arrival, we thought that because everything was in English, it couldn’t have possible been good (assuming too much?). Thus, we decided to check Marukamen since the Udon shop was in walking distance. There was a line outside, but two minutes later we were forced to decide what to order and were thrust into the restaurant. Ordering was not difficult, but we didn’t realize we had to order everything at once. The waiter got mildly annoyed that we ordered a few drinks and tempura at the table. I had a feeling they wanted us to eat quickly and leave. Everything was out of this world and when we walked outside, a line of 20+ people had formed, no wonder.

Later on we met with our research groups. After exchanging some omiyage, we got right into it, and we all explained our presentations and topics. We interviewed them briefly and I was able to get some good info from Makoto, who was helping me out today. It was a fun evening, and somehow, yet again, we decided to eat. This time, 300 yen Doria. It’s similar to risotto, but more filling and cheesy. After saying goodbye to the Meiji students, we called it a night to prep for our free time the following day. Successful I would say.

First group visit

By: Felix

Today is the first day of our group visit and we all looked excited to officially begin our trip in Japan. At the metro station, we found a cream puff drink that looked super cool. Do they really put puff into a drink? Professor Kurashige didn’t hesitate a moment to get it, and realized it was just like cream soda, but without soda.

Our first destination was Edo-Tokyo Museum, a huge building among its neighborhood, with a bizarre shape. It also had an escalator that was really similar to one at Pompidou. The museum was about the history of the city of Tokyo from 17th century to late 20th century. Since it was a history museum, I assumed it would be boring, but it was not. There were many interactive parts that allow you to actually experience the city life in ancient Tokyo, like how to put out a fire. There were actual models of the house they live in, the sushi stands, and so many more. We learned that Tokyo was called Edo, and how the “shoguns” reigned Tokyo in prosperity for nearly 300 years.

In front of the Edo-Tokyo Museum

Because we had some extra time, we went to a garden on our way to lunch. It was hard to imagine that there could be gardens in the heart of Tokyo, and it was not like a park, but a traditional Japanese garden with all the decorations. It felt magical to be in there, as we were in the heart of a crowded, busy city, yet there was a peaceful hideout for people to slow down their pace for a little.

My photo of the day – Professor Kurashige and Verdi on a duel

We were supposed to try the food for sumo wrestlers near the sumo arena, but there was a match going on, so it was a little disappointing. However, we saw several sumo wrestlers out in the street and Verdi even approached one of them for pictures. We went to a nearby Japanese restaurant for lunch later, which has tempura, a little hotpot, and sashimi. It was really good, so I guess it was hard to tell if the sumo game was bad for us.

Our lunch

In the afternoon, we went to Akihabara. It was famous for its electronic goods, but now it was more about manga and maid cafes. Professor Kurashige invited us to go to a maid cafe, but most of us declined. According to Sam, the maid cafe was crazy, as the maids called him “master.” The rest of us spent the afternoon exploring the area. I went to a cat cafe. It was small, but there were nineteen cats. They were lovely, and we had a lot of fun playing with them. It is a heaven for cat lovers and I definitely recommend it.

The cat cafe

In the evening, we had dinner with some of the Meiji students. We also went to Karaoke with them, and had a lot of fun. The students were really nice, and I hope the collaboration with them will also be good.

Sayonara Meiji

By: Laurie Okamoto 

As I watched the sun set through the narrow slats of the polished window, a somber sense of loss overcame me. I looked around at the faces, which in the past few weeks have become so familiar and precious to me, and smiled. This was our last day with the Meiji students. I looked again at my classmates, both Meiji and USC alike, and realized that not only was this our last day with all of the Meiji students, but that we would likely never see most of them again. I felt the corners of my mouth quiver slightly as the realization that our course was rapidly coming to a close truly began to sink in.

A view of the sunset from the fourteenth floor in Meiji University.

A view of the sunset from the fourteenth floor in Meiji University.

However, this is not a post about how much I will miss the students or the instructors, or even Japan.

I woke up today to a warm stream of morning light filling our room at Sakura Hotel. Only eight a.m.. I rolled over into the softness of the comforter only to realize that I was unmistakably awake. I glanced across the room to see that my classmate and good friend Tiffany was already awake and getting ready for our day. With mild reluctance, I quickly got out of bed and changed. Today was the last day of our “food adventure” and we had until exactly three o’clock to take our last samples of the foods of Jimbocho. For Tiffany and I, this meant Moss burger and soba (buckwheat) noodles. Enjoying the morning calm, we wandered around the area floating from stationary store to stationary store, and convenience store to convenience store, snacking on rice balls and crackers as we moved along. Finally, after a satisfyingly delicious soba lunch, we returned to the hotel to prepare for our last official class meeting.

Lunch with Tiffany - hot soba noodles (buckwheat noodles) and a chicken and egg rice bowl.

Lunch with Tiffany – hot soba noodles (buckwheat noodles) and a chicken and egg rice bowl.

After changing into classroom appropriate clothing, we met with the rest of the class and began our last walk to Meiji University. I idly chatted with my classmates as we walked, slowly regretting the decision to wear pants as the sun bore down on our backs and hair, which were gradually becoming damp with the humidity and sweat. Upon reaching the university, we all sighed in relief from the reprieve of the sun. I watched as the numbers on the elevator lit one by one, showing our ascent to the fourteenth floor. It was our last class discussion. We spoke freely of our impressions of Japan and the U.S., and asked ourselves critically what it mean for a country to truly globalize. After the discussion, we once again entered the elevator and rode to the 23rd floor to meet our Meiji students for a farewell dinner.

With our hearts light and eager to see each other again, we ate and listened to our class speakers as they gave their mini-speeches. Having the opportunity to work with and meet these students has been a blessing, an amazing experience, and a privilege by all accounts. We smiled and laughed as the slide show of the Lake Yamanaka retreat photos played on a projector. I looked again at my classmates, Meiji and USC, and tasted a bitter sweetness knowing that we would soon part, and this class and its experiences will have been over in all but less than a day.

Our Meiji student speakers giving a last goodbye speech to the class.

Our Meiji student speakers giving a last goodbye speech to the class.

The USC-Meiji students and instructors at the last goodbye dinner/farewell party.

The USC-Meiji students and instructors at the last goodbye dinner/farewell party.

These past few weeks have become more than I could ever have hoped for from any single class. I used to think that people were simply using a common phrase when they described something as, “having changed their life.” But this has sincerely been a life-changing experience, and one which I will certainly never forget. I came into this class expecting that I would enjoy the coursework, learn and experience many things, and gain a better understanding of the importance of globalization from different cultural perspectives. However, what I got out of the class was so much more than mere academic understanding of cultural and societal differences. This course has given me not only a first hand experience of Japanese culture and Japanese people but it’s also given me lasting friendships with both USC and Meiji students.

Academically, I now have a better comprehension of the roles of stereotypes in cultural identity and cross-cultural perceptions. I have come to realize that no single culture or identity is any bit superior or more advanced relative to another, rather, they are unique and both have strong sense of cultural identity and pride. Far be it from us to judge that which we cannot understand, we should endeavor to dispel inaccurate stereotypes and think critically about what our perceptions of others can indicate about ourselves.

Goodbye Japan and Meiji. A view of the sunset from Narita Airport - waiting for our flight back to LA.

Goodbye Japan and Meiji. A view of the sunset from Narita Airport – waiting for our flight back to LA.

Off the Beaten Path in Kyoto

By: Vincent Bertoni

Because we started yesterday (our trip to Hiroshima) so early, I wanted to get a good rest and sleep late today. So, by the time I’d gotten up, everyone else had already checked out of their rooms and started exploring Kyoto. I heard from Matt, an alumni of the program, that there are plenty of bike rental shops around Kyoto station, so I decided to give my feet a rest and bike everywhere today. After paying for the one-day rental and stocking up on water, I used the simplified tourist maps to proceed to get completely lost only minutes after setting out. It’s not that the maps were wrong per-se, but they omitted some very important details (read: roads) that meant that if I ever got off of the map, it was nearly impossible to find my way back onto it. I ended up navigating using Google maps for the whole day, only consulting the map to make use of its extensive bicycle parking directory.

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Helpful rules for getting accustomed to riding in Kyoto; over the course of my day I watched locals break almost all of them.

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The first place I visited was Fushimi Inari-taisha (the shrine of one thousand torii). The entrance and main shrine were magnificent, but packed with people, making it hard to take in the calm majesty of the torii, each of which was donated to the temple as thanks for its donor’s business success.

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Too crowded to get a good picture

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Trying for the perfect picture against all odds.

As soon as I could, I took a side path that jutted off from the main avenue of people, leading to a secluded and almost abandoned trail up the East side of mount Inari. It didn’t have the titular torii of the main trail, but the calm quiet of the bamboo forests and intricately detailed shrines offered something else, a bit of peace from the bustle of the cities I’d been living in for the past two weeks. Almost every one of these was equipped with an unmanned store at the front (this being Japan, they weren’t worried about anyone stealing anything). At one, I think I may have arrived during the middle of a prayer or ceremony, based on the faint chanting and “do not enter” sign placed halfway along the walkway. Eventually, after many gratuitously expensive vending machines and quad-destroying switchbacks, my trail joined back with the trail of torii towards the summit. It seemed very few people were committed to reaching the top,  so it was just as empty as the backwoods trail had been. There weren’t any spectacular views (at least not from the summit), but the shrines (and accompanying gift shops) at the highest point were magnificent and worth the trip. On the way back down, I took the main trail and experienced the conventional Fushimi Inari-taisha experience, but backwards. Instead of gradually escaping the crowds and seeing the torii in their uninterrupted beauty, I progressed further into the crowds and aggressive shop owners as I traveled back down the mountain. Overall, I see this as an situation where I tried to avoid the well-beaten path, and got rewarded with some unique experiences for my troubles.

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At this shrine, all I found were sandals at the entrance, accompanied by the sound of pouring water, chanting, and singing coming from behind the “do not enter” sign.

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The most delicious tofu I’ve eaten in my entire life.

Back on my bike, I traveled to Yasaka shrine, where I ate at a restaurant that only serves one order, a course of the most delicious tofu I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Three different styles of tofu came together to form a complete flavor experience, complete with sweetness, savoriness, and richness, all from tofu! After that, I was planning on biking along the Philosopher’s Walk (a secluded riverside path lined with cherry trees), but I was waylaid by cats from a local cat cafe. They were way friendlier than I’d experienced from other cat-cafe cats (even when they’re on the clock!). By this point, I was already pushing it in terms of getting back to our hotel by the scheduled meeting time, so I wasn’t able to take any more pictures in my mad dash back to central Kyoto. In the end, between visiting shrines and other tourist hotspots, as well as biking through the streets and narrow alleys of Kyoto, I feel that I got a good mix of both the tourist and local experiences in Kyoto.

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Here we see the Vincent in his native habitat, struggling in vain to understand how selfies work.