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

October 1, 2014

Kindred Souls: The People of Japan

Filed under: Exploring,Uncategorized,Yamanaka Lake — Tags: — geajapan @ 2:19 pm

By Andy Gause

I encountered some fascinating people during my stay in Tokyo and Kyoto. The three mentioned below are prime examples of the types of people I had the opportunity to befriend in Japan.
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Koenraad Hemelsoet - I met this scruffy-faced world traveler on the first night at the hotel. I was lounging on the porch, when he sat down to smoke a cigarette, drink Austrian beer, and read a French novella. I have never seen a more stereotypically ‘European’ man.
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Over the next two weeks, I learned that Koenraad is a trilingual globe-trotter on vacation from his programming job in Belgium. He has two Masters and one Philosophy PhD (this dissertation was on Nietzsche, whom he frequently quoted), but admits that he still doesn’t know what to do with his life, beyond exploring the globe that is.
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Most nights, we’d sit on the hotel porch reading and discuss the day’s events (usually the World Cup, remember he’s very European). One night, our conversation transitioned from ordinary small-talk into a heated discussion on the merits of nationalism and religion. We both shared similar world views, but with enough minor differences for a rousing debate. Next thing we know, it’s 3:30 in the morning and the hotel cashier is glaring at us like he wants us to leave, but can’t say anything. Koenraad was clearly a better debater, but he was gracious enough not to annihilate my opinions. Reasonable debate is a fine art, and all too rare to find. That nighttime conversation with Koenraad was an unique experience that I’ll treasure for quite a while.
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Junki Mizuno - Junki was one of the generous and friendly Meiji students we encountered on the trip. Whenever the persistent rain or vacation exhaustion got me down, Junki was there with his beaming grin, ready to lift my spirits. He was always willing to take us to the best spots in Tokyo. Like the other Meiji students, he spoke excellent English and was beyond patient with my limited Japanese skills. I know I’ll stay in touch with Junki, and would love the opportunity to one day return the kindness and be as great a host to him, as he was to our group.
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Junki and his constant grin

Junki and his constant grin


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Rina Otake - Rina was the Mother Hen of the trip. She made it her mission to see that everyone had a great time. At Yamanaka Lake, she was one of the Meiji students in charge of planning our activities. She could always be seen prepping the meals, setting up the calligraphy station, and generally doing whatever was necessary for the trip. She worked vigilantly to plan group trips to Disney Sea, the Tokyo equivalent of California Adventure and the Studio Ghibli Museum. However, what stood out more than Rina’s drive, was her giddy demeanor and bubbly personality. She genuinely enjoyed facilitating our adventures and this joy was visible throughout the trip.

I’m glad we had a group leader as pleasant, prepared, and gracious as Rina. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t go on to great things as a politician or business leader.

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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July 9, 2014

Yamanaka Lake Retreat

Filed under: Travel,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 2:42 pm

by Kelli Kosaka and Lisa Peng

This weekend we traveled to Yamanaka Lake at the base of Mt. Fuji with 19 students from our host school, Meiji University. This trip provided us with a great opportunity to bond with the Meiji students in a Japanese-style seminar house by the lake.

Group Photo at Yamanaka Seminar House

Group photo at Yamanaka Seminar House

The first day was a chance for us to get to know each other through icebreakers and time spent together on the bus ride and during dinner. We also lit hanabi (fireworks) to celebrate Janet’s birthday. She turned hatachi (twenty), the age at which you become an adult in Japan. Thus people value this day a lot here.

Hanabi

Enjoying Japanese fireworks (hanabi)

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June 28, 2013

And We Departed Happily Ever After

Filed under: Class,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 9:27 am

By Sally Fu

(This is Part 2 of a two-post series on our trip to the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House)

Day 3: The drizzling rain softly woke us from our slumber. Last night was a festive and insightful night at the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House. Not only did the USC students bond with the Meiji students through various activities such as Japanese calligraphy (shodou) and karaoke, but the past few days allowed for much cultural exchange, as we all stayed together in a Japanese-style retreat at the base of Mt. Fuji.

While the night was fun, the lack of a curfew ended up hindering many students from eating their breakfast. When I arrived at the cafeteria around eight or so, only a couple of students were there, which meant I could allow myself to devour more food. After eating, we all returned to our rooms to pack up our things. Even though the director of the Yamanaka Lake trip, Tom Power, had asked the students to simply fold the futons, my Meiji roommates also wiped off the table and sink in our room to restore it to the original condition in which we found it.

After breakfast and packing up, the Meiji and USC students joined together for a discussion session. The session involved topics such as improving cultural exchange and the differences between Japan and the U.S. The Professor divided us into groups, and our group discussed how much more efficient and conservative Japan is compared to other countries such as the U.S. One thing that really shocked me after coming to Japan is the way people always finish their food; they leave nothing behind on their plates. In the U.S., I’m used to taking my unfinished meals to go, but Japan does not really offer such a service, and so everyone usually finishes all of the food they ordered at that one sitting at the restaurant. Furthermore, navigating the intricate subway system not only provides a great opportunity to exercise, but it is also inexpensive and very efficient. Our group also discussed how people should step out of their comfort zone to allow for greater cultural exchange. The discussion also broke down common stereotypes held between the USC and Meiji students. For example, we found out the Japanese do not eat sushi or sashimi every day, and they discovered that Americans do not eat hamburgers every day, either.

Breakfast content of our second day at Yamanaka Lake!

Breakfast on our second day at Yamanaka Lake Seminar House!

Before departure, our instructors took many photographs as if we were magazine models. We tried various poses and locations, but the instructors were not alone in wanting to preserve such precious memories; I also hoped to obtain an eternal memory of this wonderful experience.

A small group photo with the Meiji Supporters' leader, Risa!

A small group photo with the Meiji supporters’ leader, Risa!

Another group photo with the Meiji girls.

Another group photo with the Meiji girls.

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Yamanaka Lake Retreat

Filed under: Class,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 9:22 am

By John Carlson

(This is Part 1 of a two-post series on our trip to the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House)

Days One & Two: As part of our exchange with the students here at Meiji University, the 14 USC students in Japan with Global East Asia traveled to Yamanaka Lake near Mount Fuji with 21 students from our host school, Meiji University.  Having gotten a chance to meet students in the prior week, our hope was to engage in cross-cultural communication, sharing our perspectives on Japanese culture and society and also opening discussion on trans-pacific exchange.

Meiji and USC Students at Yamanaka Lake

Meiji and USC Students at Yamanaka Lake

The first day of the trip was simply a chance for us to sit down with Meiji students and get to know them better, and the following day, the students from USC presented on various topics of interest in both Japan and the U.S. The topics came specifically from something that we had observed during our visit to Japan, including, but not limited to, advertising, LGBT rights, entertainment, transportation, and Japanese concepts of beauty/art (i.e., Wabi-Sabi). It was a great opportunity not only to share the perspective of an outsider observing Japanese society, but also a great chance to engage in a two-way discussion of societal values, issues, and challenges in moving forward.

Meiji students teaching the finer skills of Japanese Calligraphy

Meiji students teaching the finer skills of Japanese calligraphy

Of important note was the simple concept that in order to move forward, open discussion is needed on both sides. While for Americans this may come rather naturally, for Japanese people such open discussion often seems to be of greater difficulty. We spent a good amount of time discussing this concept, as well as what to do when open discussion becomes more prevalent. Following the presentations, we had a great time hanging out with the Meiji students while enjoying the mountain retreat. A lot of close bonds were formed among both students and faculty that will assuredly serve us well not only in our coming studies, but in our future as well. It was a great opportunity to share both in the classroom environment and on a more personal level.

Attendees of the 2013 GEA Yamanaka Retreat in the main seminar house

Attendees of the 2013 Meiji-USC Yamanaka Retreat in the main seminar house

Continued in Sally Fu’s post: http://dornsife-blogs.usc.edu/gea-japan/?p=537

June 13, 2012

Yamanaka Lake

Filed under: Travel,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 4:22 pm

By Amanda Vu and Tatiana Taylor

Last Friday morning began our trip to Yamanaka Lake, at the base of Mt. Fuji. Our straggled line of now semi-experienced foreigners marched through the streets with bags in tow, off on our first adventure outside of Tokyo. We arrived at Meiji University and clambered onto the bus; each USC student was asked to sit next to a Meiji student. At first, we awkwardly danced around each other as people often do when they when they are just getting to know one other. Despite the language barriers, we began to get to know our Meiji supporters and bonded with them over the toils of long bus rides, cute puppies at rest stops, and glimpses of Mt. Fuji. Before getting to our final destination, we made a brief stop to take a group photo and admire Yamanaka Lake, cold on that breezy day and surrounded by forests greener than any I have seen in California.

Our home for the weekend was the Meiji University Yamanaka Lake Seminar House, a gasshuku facility (gasshuku: a kind of school retreat for clubs, groups, and various school events) tucked into the trees, where we were to open our minds and focus on cross-cultural communication for the weekend. We spent our first night there playing ice-breaker games to get to know each other’s names (a bit more challenging than the usual ice breaker when the names sound foreign to you). Our hosts were kind enough to prepare a dinner they called “East Meets West,” serving hamburger, French fries, and crepes alongside salmon, taro, and miso soup. After dinner, most of the USC students dutifully scuttled off to complete our presentations for the next day. We were comforted to learn that procrastination is not a foreign concept to Japanese students either…

In our free time, we rode paddle boats on the lake! It was harder than it looked- my boat felt like a mountain bike on the highest speed!

We ended the night with a party of snacks and drinks. USC and Meiji students traded card and drinking games; Egyptian War for the Japanese version of Spoons, King’s Cup for “Go, Back, Jump.” In happy spirits by bed time, we retired to our traditional Japanese tatami rooms. Our Meiji friends taught us how to lay out our futons (“Shikibuton, then shiitsu (sheets), then kakebuton!”) complete with rice-filled pillows. Those of us brave enough “went native” and used the traditional communal bathhouses to wash up.

Saturday was largely dedicated to the PowerPoint presentations we USC students prepared for Meiji students to share with them our thoughts on those aspects of Japanese culture and society that most intrigue us. The topics presented included Japanese subcultures, food and dining, efficiency, social responsibility, collectivism, architecture, education, and politeness. Following each presentation, we opened the floor to questions and were able to hear the Meiji students’ comments and criticisms about our visions of Japan. It was riveting to learn the difference between each of these topics as they exist in Japan versus in America.

Saturday night was a treat for all of us, as we learned of a surprise fireworks gathering on the beach! Some Meiji students started blasting Katy Perry’s “Firework” on their phone and a huge group of us sang and laughed about the small commonalities between us as we walked to the lake shore to light the fireworks. The other amazing experience that night, aside from dancing, singing, and karaoke, was watching two Meiji students perform shodo, traditional Japanese calligraphy. Some of us stayed for hours following their skillful demonstration to learn and practice the art of shodo.

Meiji students taught us the art and skill of Japanese calligraphy.

The following day’s discussion with the Meiji students was about improving cross-cultural communication. We were first divided into several groups, each with both USC and Meiji students, and then discussed the topic in our individual groups. For both sides, this exercise proved to be a real illustration of the challenges of interacting with a new language in a new culture.

The final event of our trip had originally been planned as a trip up Mt. Fuji, and was a much anticipated event by everyone. Despite a light rain that morning, we were not deterred from our plans. However, there was yet another challenge awaiting us that day: the road up Mt. Fuji had been closed for a cycling event, preventing us from going any farther. In the end, even though we weren’t able to climb Mt. Fuji, we were content to simply see the summit on the first day, and also be able to spend the entire weekend so close to its presence in such a great environment.

The beautiful view of Fujisan on the way to Yamanaka Lake.