Weeks 2 and 3: Inner Peace, the Big City, and the Final Chapter

 

     This post will conclude my Japan travel abroad experience… and I couldn’t think of a better way to begin in than with SAMURAI! We had the pleasure of learning about bushido and the ancient art of the samurai at this unique experiential event. The three people on the left were trained in several traditional Japanese samurai routines, as well as martial arts and the use of the katana sword. Our team picked out our outfits, and were given lessons from these masters on how to use the sword. It was such a fun experience for the team and I, and a nice break from the fast-paced adventuring we had been doing.

      Next up is Yokohama and the Cup Noodle Museum. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this leg of the trip, as it didn’t seem possible to create an entire museum based off of the cup noodle. Wow, I was wrong!

     The entrance to the building was massive – painted in stark white with bold wooden floors. It looked like the entrance to a world-renowned art museum. The building itself was full of interesting exhibits, including a large room that enclosed all of the packaging of the cup noodle and how it evolved over the years. This particular food was and is an incredibly important part of the history of the Japanese economy, and their pride in its creation shined bright in this facility. After we walked the museum, we had the chance to create our own cup noodle – from scratch! The room had a charming “Willy Wonka” feel with its bright stripes and quick-moving employees. We each got to make our own package of ramen and enjoy it at the end. I think it was the most delicious cup ramen I’ll ever have!

 

     Mount Inari was a mystical place that I hold dear to my heart. The orange torii gates take you gracefully from the bottom to the top of the mountain, each one inscribed with the name of the person or business who purchased it. These gates are believed to serve as a gateway between the earthly and the sacred, or spiritual.

     As we climbed the mountain, countless shrines appeared on either side that were dedicated to the fox. They were surrounded in fox statues, small torii gates, and shrines in front of which you could pray or offer money. Each one had a magical peace about it that I cannot describe but which I could recreate. Some had gentle waterfalls hidden inside, surrounded by moist greenery that grew wildly on the surrounding rocks.

      The picture to the right is me at the top of the mountain. Go Bulls!

   

     Kyoto Sangyo University welcomed our group of 20 students into their English class. It was a group of all girls who possessed amazing English skills and were eager to share stories and thoughts about Japanese culture, as well as ask questions. We had the privilege of learning more about origami, calligraphy, and a few topics of their choosing during their class period.

     After we were finished, 4 of the girls offered to take our group to dinner (which was no easy feat given that we were 20 rowdy Americans!). They took us to one of their favorite restaurants and introduced us to some of the delicious local cuisine that Kyoto had to offer.

     True to the American way, our group naturally offered to pay for their meals in exchange for them treating us to such a wonderful cultural experience. At first, they seemed confused and even commented that our sensei told them not to accept this offer. I could tell almost instantly that they seemed uncomfortable with such a gesture. When we try again, one of the Japanese girls stood up with their money in hand and said, “When you are in Japan, you do it the Japanese way.”

     It was a very interesting observation. Although Japan is a society of gift-giving, this type of gesture involving money was not welcome. We learned this the hard way, but I was actually grateful that she adhered to her cultural norms and taught us what was right.

  

     The final destination…. Tokyo! We spent most of our time in this city, as it was the largest and often the most desired destination of the American group in Japan. However, I have to say that I immediately missed the quiet gardens and peaceful mountains of the countryside when we entered Tokyo. It is bustling, loud, and challenging to navigate – kind of like New York City! The people as well have a different attitude, especially towards Americans. Given that Tokyo is overrun with tourists, I have to imagine that they get a little bit more annoyed with us than a smalltown city would.

     Tokyo is home to 47 unique neighborhoods, each with their own charm and notoriety. Some of my favorite were Ikebukuro, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Ikebukuro was home to much of the “geek culture” in Japan, including anime and comic fans. Although I’m not that big into anime or manga, I love comic books and cute “kawaii” things of which there were a massive abundance. Harajuku is one of the teen fashion hubs in Tokyo, overrun with small, boutique shops that are sure to shock and bend the rules of fashion. Lastly, Shinjuku is one of the only gay-friendly areas in Japan. Coming from USF and Tampa where we make an effort to love and support the LGBTQ community, it was a little surprising to see how it simply did not exist in most of Japan. And if it was there, it was hidden or something to be ashamed of. I was thrilled to see that at least somewhere in Japan, even if it just this small part of Tokyo for now, is openly supporting the gay community and giving them a place to call home.

     In conclusion, Japan was an adventure that constantly leaves me speechless and missing every moment. I learned how to navigate a new country and communicate with body language alone; I learned to be patient and grateful for the people around me who made the trip such a life-changing event; I learned not to be wasteful (mottainai) and appreciate everything we are given. The Japanese culture is full of grace, kindness, and honor that I hope to carry with me forever and impart to everyone I meet. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone who made this possible – the donors, the faculty, and everyone who collaborated with us in Japan to make us feel welcome. You are in my heart always.

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