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All Good Things…

15 Aug

It’s my last weekend in Japan, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Parts of me are so divided on the issue, it’s been almost impossible to get a real consensus and a good grasp on my thoughts.  There seem to be just as many feelings on the issue of my departure as there were on my arrival. It’s a little exhausting to even beginning wading through the mess, and I shudder at the very thought of even trying. Nonetheless, I’ve been attempting to give it my best shot.

I guess a part of me is sad.  I have absolutely loved every second (or almost) of the time I’ve been here. I’ve experienced so much and seen so many things and places I never thought I’d ever get to experience.  I’ve seen traditional theater (Noh and Kabuki), ridden the train at rush hour, visited the rural mountain regions, and danced down the streets of Shinujku and Akihabara.  In moments where this feeling is strongest, I don’t want to leave.  There are so many more places I would like to go and so many more adventures to take in!

Another part of me is ready.  It’s been a month full of both frustration and triumph. I have conquered so many fears: crowded areas, big cities, trains, airplanes, and things completely out of my comfort zone (such as the onsen). In these moments, homesickness was at its worst, and it’s hard not to be frustrated with everything: my aching feet, my class load, crowds, and dietary issues that have left me sick for the past three days. This part of me is ready to go home- back to being surrounded by my family and friends and ready to share tales of my amazing adventure.

In between these two opposing feelings is a sea of grey. I find myself most often in this area, wading through the pleasantly murky depths.  The waters here have a capacity to be turbulent, given the constant sea of emotion, but it also has the capacity to be calm. Everywhere I look, there is a possibility and an opportunity: it’s up to me to take certain paths and to determine how I view them (positively or negatively).

I have grown so much in the past month: I’ve become stronger and more confident. Most importantly, I made it known to myself and others around me that seizing your dreams is possible, as long as you’re willing to work for it.  This adventure has made me think that anything is possible- nothing is too farfetched, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort. It is this newfound belief and change that has inspired me to continue reaching for the limitless expanse of dreamy sky beyond. But I wasn’t alone during this process: my amazing friends and family have been incredibly supportive, and I thank them immensely for it.

In particular, my older sister, Angela, has been an irreplaceable asset to me and this journey. She was there from the beginning, rooting for me and helping me along the way, not only financially when times got rough, but emotionally during all phases of this project. She’s been the person I’ve been able to call on, and no matter the situation or time of day or night, she has been there for me. I can’t thank her enough. It has been with her incredible support and help that I have been able to make this journey.

As my time in Japan finally dwindles and comes to an end, I am assured that this will not be the last time I set foot into this amazing place.

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Transforming the Ordinary

8 Aug

This weekend we had a long(ish) holiday from classes. I never realized how much I treasured my weekends until they were cut in half!  So, like the crazy person I am, I squished everything I could in two action-packed days that wore me completely out. One of those immensely fun activities was going to Studio Katsura, a specialty photo studio in Harajuku- with my friend and fellow CIEE participant, Amber. Once there, we got to choose from a wide variety of costumes- geiko, maiko, ouran, samurai, etc. I chose to be dressed as a maiko, or apprentice geiko, while Amber decided to be transformed into a samurai.  In a word, it was this: AMAZING!

The members of Studio Katsura are immensely welcoming and charming. Don’t think you have to be a fluent Japanese speaker to truly appreciate the experience, either. Amber and I used a wide variety of simply words, sentence fragments, and gestures. Also, a couple of the members speak English, or enough to get their point or directions across.

We arrived at the studio around three in the afternoon, were given soft cotton robes and ushered into a dressing room. Once we were properly dressed, we entered the main studio to begin the process. For me, this involved washing my face several times and pinning my hair up and under a cap. Afterwards, I was ushered to a comfortable chair to have my makeup applied.

I won’t bore you with the minute details, but I will say that although it took about an hour, it didn’t feel like it took that long. They started with a wax base on my face, neck, and shoulders, which felt odd, but not terribly so. After that, came an intensive makeup session that included a thick layer of white paint. After it was done, you could hardly recognize me!

After makeup, I was ushered to a soft tatami mat in the center of the room and dressed. First came the initial obi (belt) to keep my cotton robe in place, followed by padding, another obi, more padding, and so on. After about two layers that got increasingly tighter (but not unbearable), I was helped into a surprisingly heavy silk kimono. It was gorgeous, and that alone made me feel like royalty. I don’t think I’d ever been so close to something so exquisite before.

Once the kimono was in place, another obi was tied to keep it from going out-of-place, some more padding, and another obi in rich red silk. Several decorative ropes and sashes were also added. By the time I was finished being dressed, I was squeezed so tightly that it felt, for a moment, that I could hardly breathe! It didn’t hurt, but it surprised me at how snug everything was. I joked and said that “for once in my life, I would have perfect posture!” It was absolutely impossible to slouch!

Finally, the finishing touch: the wig. Once it was in place, I was almost afraid to move my head too much, lest it fall off. It, too, was surprisingly heavy. But finally, a little over an hour later, my transformation was complete! I truly looked unrecognizable. When I posted these pictures on Facebook that evening, my own mother didn’t recognize me until she looked several times.

This experience was absolutely amazing. I felt like a princess the entire time.  I loved absolutely everything about the experience the studio, the people, the props, and even the makeup. When we were taking photos, I felt like I was modeling for a magazine. I didn’t even mind that I was carrying significantly more weight than I was used to, with the clothes being so heavy. There was also so much laughter shared between all that were there.  I would recommend this experience to anyone and everyone who visits the Tokyo area. It’s an experience of a lifetime, and an amazing memory & souvenir to bring back home!

Shaking it Up

4 Aug

The biggest question I seem to be getting lately is simply: what’s life like in Japan? More specifically, I’m getting questions such as: what’s different? What’s the same? How’s the food? The weather? And what about those earthquakes (plural, at this point)?

In general, it’s kind of hard to answer those questions. Not for lack of information, but because I’m simply being bombarded with so much all the time. I’m here for such a short time and it seems that I’m cramming everything I can into every waking second (and some things while I’m asleep, but I’ll explain that in a minute). For today, I’d like to answer the most predominant question in wake of my earthquake statuses on Facebook: how are you dealing with the earthquakes?

First off, let it be known that my hometown in Indiana does not get earthquakes. Tornadoes, blizzards, and occasionally ice storms that send the whole town into a panic, yes- but never earthquakes. In the wake of the disaster at Sendai on March 11th, I have to say that I was a little bit nervous about the state of the tectonic activity in Japan, and my family was even more so concerned. Nonetheless, I arrived on July 22nd, prepared as well as I could be for something I had never experienced. I had read my guidebook’s advice on such things, read countless articles about safety online, and thumbed through a pamphlet on the plane. I was seemingly set.  I knew exactly what to do!

And then on Tuesday at four o’clock in the morning, I was woken up by the most alarming and peculiar of situations: My bed was moving! Half asleep, I struggled to come up with an explanation.  Had my trip to Japan been a wonderful dream and was I instead asleep on the boat we used to camp on in my childhood? Were my friends playing a practical joke on me? By the time I had turned on the lamp beside my bed and fumbled for my glasses, I had woken up enough to think clearly enough to realize what was happening.  It was an earthquake!

Oh no! What should I do? Was I safe in bed? The flashlight was all the way across the room- should I go for it? Better yet, should I stay in bed or dive under the desk? Was this as severe an earthquake as to warrant propping open the door or diving for the emergency exits?! What would Shannon (our program director) do?!

By the time I had gotten awake enough to panic, the shaking had stopped. I deflated instantly and had a good chuckle at my sorry state. I was half out of bed and slightly dizzy with motion sickness from all the shaking and the slightly breathless with alarm.  I must have looked absolutely ridiculous, especially considering it was such a minor quake that a couple of my classmates slept through it. Thank goodness I didn’t run screaming for the stairs!

I tried not to feel bad about freezing and forgetting all my preparations. After all, hadn’t the same thing happened when I faced down my first severe storm and tornado? Hadn’t I panicked then, too? It goes to show, I guess, that no matter what preparations you make, sometimes it’s just not enough. You need concrete experience to know what to expect. Just like back home, where experience had taught me when it was advisable to seek shelter and when it was just a normal storm, I had to experience this earthquake, too, to be properly prepared for next time.  Which, of course, happened the next night, although not as badly, and I was much calmer.

For those like me who want to come to Japan, don’t let the earthquakes dissuade you. They’re just like any other type of “different” natural occurrence you have in your hometown, be they tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, or something else entirely. Be prepared for them, as Japan is one of the most tectonically active places on the planet.  But don’t feel bad if you freeze up. It happens to everybody, and if you regard it as a learning experience, it actually isn’t all that bad!

However, coming from a place where the ground does not randomly move, I have to say that the subsequent shakes we’ve had are still a little strange, but not in a bad way: a feeling I’ve been experience a lot on my travels throughout this amazing and beautiful country.

A Spiritual Encounter

3 Aug

Today we had the opportunity to visit Meiji Shrine,  a Shinto Shrine that was founded about 100 years ago in the name of the late Emperor Meiji whose spirit has been enshrined there. The experience was mesmerizing and unforgettable.  It will undoubtedly be one of my fondest memories of Japan, and something I will treasure for a lifetime.

We entered the shrine by walking a long and winding gravel pathway.  Birdsong and the loud cries of cicadas echoed around us as we made our way through several large, wooden torii gates. Moss encroached here and there upon the walkway, and we saw several stone lanterns dotting the sides of the path at frequent intervals, ready to alight and cut through the darkened shroud of tree cover. It was hard not to feel relaxed and at peace as we meandered through those ample and winding forest pathways.  It was as if you could reach out and touch the very spirits that are said to frolic in the forest around us.

As we made our way to the last of the large toriii that stood at attention at the entrance to the shrine, we were directed to purify ourselves at a nearby basin of fresh spring water.  As we ambled up its stone steps and poured the cool water over each of our hands and sipped it to moisten and purify our mouths, a further sense of calm and serenity seemed to descend upon me.  The water seemed refreshing and rejuvenating, the best water I had had in some time.

After purification, we were directed to the main shrine building, told to take off our shoes, and were ensconced inside its prayer room. There we sat on soft tatami mats and trained our eyes to the large, raised dais full of Shinto regalia and instruments. For the next hour, we watched, mesmerized and silent, as several priests, shrine maidens, and the head priest conducted a traditional prayer service for the kami (deities) enshrined at Meiji.

Words can’t describe the feelings that echoed across the room as peace and serenity, but most importantly, reverence descended upon us. We were silent as we watched the almost intimate moment play out inside the shrine.  The things that transpired were of the utmost elegance and beauty.  They were executed with perfect attention to detail and with such sincerity it was simply breathtaking.  What took place inside that shrine was so encompassing and spectacular that even now, hours later, I am left in awe and wonder.

This entire program thus far has been much the same, in perhaps a lesser degree. There have been so many things I have done that I never thought I would get the opportunity to do or experience; places I have never through I’d be able to actually see in person.  It feels a little like a fairytale or some wonderful dream.  There have been bumps and misunderstandings, but they seem to have only enriched the experience further and made experiences like my visit to the Meiji Shrine that much better. I feel changed not only by this particular moment, but by the entirety of this experience so far.

I feel as though a changed person stepped out of the shrine today: Changed for the better in some places, and enhanced in others. I can’t wait to see how many more changes I will undergo during this amazing/incredible/wonderful journey.

Old and New

1 Aug

Today, I caught my first glimpse of Mount Fuji as we were exiting Tokyo on our way to the distant hot spring resort in Takayama. It was so amazing and breathtaking.  Words can’t properly describe just how beautiful it was.  It emerged from the mists in the distance, visible and clear for everyone to see as we exited the metal and concrete jungle that is Tokyo. For a moment, the bus went quiet in awe as we took in its majesty. The striking dichotomy between urban Tokyo and the unrestricted forests and mountaintops was so clear and triumphant and I couldn’t help but think that yes, this is what Japan is all about.

I have only been here a day and a half, but already I feel as though I’m being treated to little glimpses of this uniquely Japanese mentality and experience. Within this tiny island nation, people from all walks of life seem blended together in a stew further enriched by the differences we all share with each other. I’ve heard French and German as well as Japanese spoken around me and everything seems to always be moving. It’s hard not to feel a little shell-shocked by it all.

Those things that are immobile seem to be as ancient as time itself. Sturdy Japanese pine trees reach up to the sky on either side of the road to Takayama and are equally majestic and breathtaking. Alongside these trees, the road stretches lazily on and I am hard pressed to find the seems that glue the two worlds, modern and ancient together. I’m sure once I get to Tokyo it will be much the same; the gentle merging of old and new.

I hope that at the end of this program others will also be able to see in me this same seamless blending of old and new.  The old me that left the United States just a few days ago, and the new me that will hopefully emerge from Japan changed for the better. Already, I feel this evolution taking root, and I can’t wait to see where it will take me.

Hopping into the Hot Springs

1 Aug

If you had asked me a few weeks or even a few days ago whether I’d be willing to bathe naked with a bunch of vacationing Japanese and some of my fellow classmates in an onsen (Japanese hot spring), I would have looked at you, laughed hysterically, and said “NO!”. Funny, how things and people and attitudes change sometimes with no forethought or very quickly.

On our way to Takayama, when our tour guide was explaining the concept of onsen and the complicated etiquette that goes with them, I was one of the few who gave a vehement “NO WAY!” when asked if I would take advantage of this possibly once in a lifetime chance to take a dip in one of the most beautiful and prestigious onsen. In fact, I was almost in tears at the very thought of it!

But as soon as we were given a tour and got to see the hotel and the onsen for ourselves, my mind was immediately changed.  The area was so supremely gorgeous surrounded by mountains on either side and rolling countryside. It was quiet and peaceful like stepping into a dream. The onsen itself was crafted in much the same way very natural and peaceful or, as the Japanese say “yuumei mitai”. The steam billowed up like soft, invisible fluffy clouds and imbued a sweet and relaxing moisture into everything it touched. The room was lit by the most natural light possible, and the sound of waterfalls filled the interior.

Separated by a glass wall, was the outdoor open-air springs. It, too, was ethereal in quality, with rough stones lining the edges as walls that looked like the craggy mountainside surrounding the hotel and city. Greenery tumbled down in folds and rivulets from planters, and clung to the walls. There were sweet-smelling flowers as well as a bubbling waterfall and statuary. A wood partition separated the men’s onsen from the women’s, and looked to be made of dried bamboo.

Stepping into those waters was like stepping into liquid Nirvana. Heat seemed to seep into my very bones, relaxing me to my core. Leaning against the marble sides and gazing up at the nighttime sky and scenery was amazing, words cannot properly describe it. The moment you stepped into those waters and sat down, you could forget all the things that might have held you back, such as shyness and modesty. There was no being naked.  There was just a pure sense of being.

It is one of the most amazing and breathtaking experiences I have ever had, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Had I not forgone my initial shyness and modesty, I know I would have regretted never stepping foot inside that remarkable and peaceful onsen. That night, as I lay on my futon, I slipped into one of the most restful and relaxed sleeps that I have had in years. As an insomniac, that’s definitely saying something.

From Midwest to Metropolis

29 Jun

As the summer in Indiana continues to get hotter and becomes peppered throughout with more and more stormy weather, I find myself staring at the world’s ugliest suitcase (a flowery pattern that would be more at home in the 60’s, in case you were wondering), and trying hard to stay calm. As of today, I have exactly 30 more days left in small-town Indiana: 30 days, 5 hours, and 20 minutes to be exact. But, hey, who’s counting, right?

It seems like such a huge amount of time for some, but for me, it seems like too little. After all, wasn’t it just yesterday one of my best friend dragged me to the study abroad fair? An eye-blink ago I could have sworn I was still filling out paperwork! And now, I’m on the cusp of actually getting on a plane and leaving the billowing cornfields and flat plains of Indiana long behind me- and I’m terrified. In the past five years, I’ve never been farther than Maryland, at best. Soon, I’ll be thousands of miles away- not only out of the state, but out of the country.

As excited as I am, it’s hard not to be scared.  Years, months, even weeks ago, I never would have thought myself capable of even attempting to go so far from what I know. I’m from a low-income family, a first generation college student, and a triple major- what on earth possessed me to even think about something this big? The answer: my friends and family (even as cheesy as that is, it’s the truth).  I wouldn’t be here without them- they pushed, prodded, and in some cases, dragged me kicking and screaming when I was ready to throw in the towel and just quit. So, as I lay here, trying to sleep and  freaking out as I stare at that same ugly suitcase that has been propped up by the closet for the last two weeks or so (okay, the past month!) I have only one thing to say to them: Thank you.

Also, it’s totally all your guys’ fault that I can’t sleep because of the butterflies.

After all, without these pushy, amazing, frustrating, wonderful people in my life, I wouldn’t be about to cash in on a lifetime of dreaming and finally, finally make it to Japan.