Freezing water and no bathing suits? Ahh, let’s jump in anyway.

Thinking back on my trip to Japan makes me pretty 懐かしい– nostalgic. I mean, we saw some amazing stuff. Mt. Fuji. Massive temples. Clothes-eating deer. The awesome giant Gundam statue in Odaiba, Tokyo.

One of my favorite days from that trip, however, was at a place I had never heard of. None of us knew this place before our trip. It was a little town in Hokkaido known as 小樽市 (Otaru-shi, or Otaru City) located by the sea. The city has been declining in population for several years, but is still popular as a tourist destination.

Nobody really knew what all this meant, but at this point in our trip, we had learned to just roll with it. People rarely knew what we were doing on our trip until the day before– our sensei, determined to take us as many places as possible, was constantly shifting and editing our itinerary.

In fact, I didn’t know we were going to Otaru until one day in Japanese class. The Japanese student I was practicing with told me,

post 135 image 1

It’s the sad truth. Knowingly or not, our group was going, and we hopped the train to Otaru. I spent the hour-long ride enjoying the train signs.

post 135 image 1

So, what is Otaru famous for? Well, it has a long history as a center of trade in Northern Japan. It was the site of Hokkaido’s first railroad line, even. You can still walk along the tracks today.

post 135 image 2

Otaru was a center for maritime trade as well. The city has preserved the canals that ships used to carry goods back and forth from the warehouses. Today, it makes for a nice stroll.

post 135 image 3

Otaru used to house a big bit of the Bank of Japan, but the building has since been converted to a museum detailing Japan’s financial history. Here, we got to see curiosities like old 1-yen bills.

post 135 image 4

As a port city, Otaru is also famous for its seafood! We went to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, as I’ve posted about beforeMy friend also nabbed some huge grilled prawns from a street vendor.

post 135 image 5

post 135 image 2

As a tourist town, Otaru has plenty of souvenir shops as well. We encountered glass shops…

post 135 image 6

post 135 image 3

…more glass shops…

post 135 image 8

post 135 image 4

…and even more glass shops.

post 135 image 7

post 135 image 5

post 135 image 6

Well, Otaru isn’t exactly like Cape Cod. I don’t think the Cape is famous for selling… music boxes?

post 135 image 9

post 135 image 7

After looking around the shops for a while, we took a ferry out to see the 鰊御殿 (Nishen Goten, aka the Herring Mansion.) For some reason, our sensei encouraged us to feed the seagulls on the boat ride there.

post 135 image 8

We discovered that admission to the Herring Mansion wasn’t free. So, we wandered along the shore for a while…

post 135 image 11

post 135 image 12

When someone suddenly decided:

post 135 image 9

None of us had bathing suits, of course. Also, Otaru is in Hokkaido. Aka Northern Japan. In other words: the ocean’s not going to be warm.

post 135 image 10

It would be more accurate to say that the ocean was freezing. Did I jump in? You bet I did. I almost chickened out, I admit.
post 135 image 11

Our sensei thought we were nuts.

post 135 image 12

The other Japanese people in the area also thought we were nuts.

post 135 image 13

post 135 image 10

post 135 image 13

Afterwards, we dried off, boarded the bus, and went home.

post 135 image 14

The day we spent in Otaru is one of my fondest memories from Japan. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the flashiest city with the most impressive sights. But it was a day spent with friends, food, and our sensei yelling at the peeping Japanese boys. What more do you need?

Advertisements

If I ever tried eating mucus, I imagine it’d be something like this.

One of the cooler things I got to experience in Japan was 回転寿司 (kaiten-zushi, also known as conveyor belt sushi). There is conveyor belt sushi in America (and, recently, Boston!) but I never had the chance to try it before.

Conveyor belt sushi is exactly what it sounds like: sushi on, well, a conveyor belt. Basically, the restaurant has a giant circular conveyor belt that is constantly moving. On the inside of the circle, sushi chefs are constantly making new maki and sashimi and placing their completed plates on the belt. Patrons sit on the outside, watching the plates go by and nabbing the ones that they want. It’s a strange combo between a fast-food and a sit-down restaurant.

post 113 image 2

You can get whatever and however many plates you’d like (each plate only had two pieces of sushi) but in the end, you will have to pay for them. At our restaurant, the plates were color-coded according to price like so:

post 113 image 1

So I had to be careful not to eat too much. And given the number of strange and enticing sushi rolling by, this was hard to do.

post 113 image 3

If you’re not careful, the cost can add up quickly! My group, comprised of only poor college kids, was cautious. We were pretty amazed by our fellow Japanese diners, though.

post 113 image 4

At the end of your meal, you call over one of the servers to tally up your plates. I’m not sure how this worked, but our servers has some awesome scanning device that did this automatically!

post 113 image 5

I admit that I’m not the bravest sushi eater. I’ll eat my raw salmon, my raw tuna, my eel and shrimp. But I’ve never found sea urchin or roe or squid to be particularly tasty. This time, however, I was feeling adventurous. I decided to grab this plate:

post 113 image 6

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, that’s natto– a popular and traditional Japanese food. It’s really just fermented soybeans. Looks harmless, right?

Now look at this picture of natto.

And this one.

And– uh, I don’t know what Google Images is trying to tell me, but you can look at this one too.

Explanation: There is none.

So now you somewhat have a sense of the texture of natto: half slimy, half sticky, viscous enough to form strings when it is mixed. I can’t really demonstrate natto’s flavor, but I can give you a description from Wikipedia: “nutty, savory, and slightly salty,” with a smell “somewhat akin to a pungent cheese.”

Japanese natives enjoy asking foreigners if they’re able to eat natto or not, since it has a very strong scent and flavor. It’s like a test. A test of… Japanese-ness. Natto is an acquired taste, they say, obtained only by the Japanese natives who grew up with it. Well, I was determined to take this test. As an exchange student, I had to try ALL the foods!post 113 image 7

That’s one taste I was never meant to acquire.

What sensei told us: “You’re going to be walking in a parade!” What she should have told us: “You’re going to be walking in a parade for 7 hours straight!”

There’s this festival that takes place in Sapporo every year celebrating the Hokkaido Shrine. One of the ten largest celebrations in Japan, it takes place in mid-June to welcome the summer. The Hokkaido Shrine Festival, as it is creatively named (also known as: the Sapporo Festival) features a parade with floats, music, and four mikoshi (portable shrines) that are marched around the city.

I believe the mythology is that four deities reside in the Hokkaido Shrine: Okunitama, the god of the land in Hokkaido, Onamuchi, the god of developing the land, Sukunahikona, the god of healing, and the soul of Emperor Meiji. According to legend, these four deities ride around Sapporo in the four parade mikoshi. That way, they get to view the city, see how their people are doing, and basically check in on how the world is doing.

It sounds like an interesting parade. Luckily for my group, it was taking place our last weekend in Japan. We would get to see it! Right?

Not exactly.

post 107 image 1

The sensei who led our trip was actually from Sapporo before moving to America. We discovered that she had all the connections. One of these connections was somehow getting the city to let we Americans march in the parade.

But not only were we marching in the parade…

We were:

  1. Pulling one of the floats.
  2. Wearing traditional Japanese yukata provided by the city.
  3. Going to not only be in the parade, but also be at the front of it, as the leading float in the whole shindig.

I still have no idea how our sensei pulled that one off, but she did. So, a few days before the parade, she took us to see the monster we were pulling…

post 107 image 2

post 107 image 3

And then, unbeknownst to us, the people in charge of the parade also had a yukata for us to try on. They just wanted to make sure it fit. Our sensei heard this—and immediately shouted,

post 107 image 4

So, once again, I found myself being forcibly dressed into Japanese clothing:

post 107 image 5

post 107 image 13

After fitting several kids in the yukata– and determining what sizes would be needed– we were ready. A couple days later, the morning of the parade arrived. We woke up at the wonderful hour of 5 in the morning and bused over to the preparation building, where not just I, but everybody got prepped to look like a true Nihonjin:

post 107 image 6

We discovered, to our great relief, that the float was actually pulled by a cart. We would only have to walk in front of it, symbolically carrying two ropes attached to the front.

post 107 image 7

And the parade began! We walked…

…and walked…

…and walked…

…and walked…

What our sensei hadn’t mentioned was that the parade was going to last, oh, like seven hours or so. And we were all wearing traditional Japanese geta sandals, which aren’t the comfiest.

post 107 image 8

At least the seven hours weren’t nonstop. We did have a lunch break in the afternoon, with free food!

post 107 image 9

And I– don’t hate me for this– cheated at the end. At the very front of the parade were three rickshaws for paraders to ride in. Our sensei, unable to walk for so many hours, had cozied up in one the whole time. That left two available for us. I’ve never ridden a rickshaw before. This was my chance!

post 107 image 10

The crowds that came out to see the parade were incredible! My gaijin group was especially ogled over.

post 107 image 11

Walking with your friends, getting treated to breakfast and a buffet lunch, getting to wear traditional yukata, and being gawked at by passerby? It was super fun. I still have no idea how our sensei managed to hook us up with this. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.

So, at the end of the parade, sore feet and hungry stomach regardless, I felt extremely lucky.

Even the bruises from my tightly-wrapped yukata couldn’t bring me down.

post 107 image 12

6 ways to make your study abroad more awesome

When I went abroad to Germany, I was pretty nervous. I would be living with a family I had never met before. I didn’t know anything about German culture. I was determined to make my trip a success, but still had some reservations.

post 106 image 1

Being an exchange student is not a competition, but some kids definitely do better than others. Every trip is different. Some students aren’t ready to go abroad. Some familes aren’t ready to host. The organization I went through, Youth for Understanding (YFU) tried to teach us how to make our travels successful. We went through a pre-departure orientation, an arrival orientation, and even an orientation at the end of our trip— let me just say I’ve had enough icebreakers to last a lifetime.

They offered some advice, which I offer to you now. Not all exchange students have the luxury of being over-orientated like I was, so they have nothing to dispel their worries.

So, I present…

post 106 image 2

…a list of 6 quick, messy tips!

1. Eat ALL the things!

Food is important! When you’re abroad, your host parents may cook for you, or buy food for you, or take you out to eat. If you don’t like a food, fine– but try it at least once. Your family wants to share their culture with you, and food is a huge part of that culture.

I met an Indian-American girl who became an extreme example of this when I went to Germany:

post 106 image 3

Not that I’m saying that anyone should give up vegetarianism, especially if it’s important to you. However, be ready to try new things! Go to your country with an open mind. Remember, you’re the odd man out here. You’re going to have to adapt to your new country, just as they have to adapt to you.

2. Expect nothing.

After I announced I was going to Germany, everyone had expectations for me.

post 106 image 4

Although I applied to go to Japan, I was sent to Germany instead. Though I was a little disappointed at the time, in retrospect it was a good thing. I’m obsessed with manga (surprise!) and I therefore had a very unrealistic view of what my Japan trip would be like.

post 106 image 5

This might sound pessimistic, but if you go in with overly high expectations, you may be disappointed. Not all students have the best experience. Before I went to Japan, my Japanese tutor who went on the same trip frequently told me,

post 106 image 6

And this isn’t a bad attitude, either. When you have no expectations– none at all– you can go in and appreciate every experience for what it is, instead of thinking about how much better it could be. I went to some amazing places in Germany, but I also spent a lot of time just hanging around my host family. Both ends of the spectrum, to me, were equally valuable.

3. Hang with the natives.

Exchange students tend to stick together, which makes sense. In a strange, new land, there’s a group of people who speak your language, know your background, and understand the way you think. Who are you going to gravitate towards?

post 106 image 7

Running around and looking at famous sites is fun and all, but it doesn’t immerse you in the culture. The best way to learn about your host country is to talk to people who know it the best– the people who have lived there their entire life. At the very least, try not to be a “guest” to your host family. Help around the house, hang out, and talk to them!

Talking to natives can be a bit difficult, though, which brings me to the next two points:

4. At least attempt to learn the language

and

5. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot.

My German host family speaks English, so I was able to speak with them fairly well. I tried hard to learn a bit of German, though. I even purchased a phrasebook before departure. One of the phrases I still remember:

post 106 image 8

I did became frustrated when I met people beyond my host family. Not many of my host family’s friends or relatives spoke much English.

post 106 image 9

I did a little better when I went to Japan, since I had a slight knowledge of the language. Still, that didn’t stop me from speaking terrible Nihonglish. Some of the stuff that came out of my mouth was preeeettttyyy dumb.

Like during my homestay in Japan. I spent my homestay with another American girl, who’ll I’ll call “K” for anonymity.

post 106 image 10

So go! You don’t have to sound as dumb as me, but don’t be afraid to speak the language. Even if you get it wrong, people will appreciate the effort. It’s better to communicate a little rather than not at all!

But as you’re off adventuring, and learning new things, and seeing new places, a feeling– one of the most unexpected, gut-wrenching feelings– one that can and has sent kids home and ruined exchanges– is going to hit you.

6. You’re going to get homesick.

I’ve never been abroad for a extended period of time, so I don’t have much experience with this. But I can attest to the stress that comes with going abroad. The climate is different. The food is different. The language is different, forcing you to concentrate all day, every day. A lot of students experience exhaustion their first few days abroad.

When it really gets bad, I hear, is about three or four months into your exchange. By then, the “honeymoon” period of your exchange has worn off. The novelty is gone. Yet three months is a very short time within which to make friends (at least for me, but I am friend-making-ly challenged) so many students find themselves suddenly craving the familiarity of home.

My best friend from high school hosted a girl from France for a year. Sure enough, a couple months into her exchange, my best friend confessed:

post 106 image 11

While you’re wrapped up calling home, though, you’re missing out on what’s going on around you. Time spent talking with your real family is time missed talking with your host family. YFU told us, many, many, times:

post 106 image 12

Because, more often than not, kids encounter this problem on their exchange. (They even told kids on short-term exchanges to leave their laptops behind, to avoid hiding behind a computer screen all day.)

When I went to Germany, I actually wasn’t expecting to get homesick. I was only there for six weeks. But sure, enough, when I Skyped my parents…

post 106 image 13

And then my friends…

post 106 image 14

Of course, I never got to the OMG-I’m-miserable-here-send-me-home-right-now point, but I did feel those pangs of homesickness. After you hit that low, though, your exchange slowly gets better and better until, by the end, you don’t want to go home anymore! And then you go home and get reverse culture shock, which is a whole other story.

I guess, in the end, all of these tips really boil down to one thing:

post 106 image 15

You can’t truly enjoy the country if you aren’t in the country. Not just physically there, but mentally there as well. Immerse yourself!

So, to all you prospective exchange students? Don’t be scared: go abroad! No two exchanges are alike– and some kids do have bad luck– but most kids have a blast abroad. (I did!) In the end, your experience is what you make of it. And the things you can learn from your experience… well, that’s a whole other post in itself.

Now go board a plane and spread your awesomeness elsewhere.

High schoolers! Don’t know where to start? I super-believe in studying abroad, so I’mma link to two organizations I know are legit:

Youth for Understanding (I used this one! If money’s an issue, there’s a ton of scholarships available, like the full-ride I got to Deutschland!)

AFS Intercultural Programs (A girl I knew used this one to go to Japan– they offer partial scholarships.)

In which I go all-out-full-on-nude (in front of strangers, no less)

Time for more Japan!

While my group was in Sapporo, we took a break from city life to go to… well, another city.

This city, known as 登別市 (Noboribetsu-shi, or Noboribetsu City) isn’t very big– the estimated population is around 50,000 or so. It is famous, though, in Hokkaido. First, it’s part of 支笏洞爺国立公園 (Shikotsu Touya Kokuritsu Kouen, aka Shikotsu-Tōya National Park) which is famous for its beautiful mountains and volcanic calderas. Second, volcanic activity means volcanic hot springs– and, accordingly, 温泉: onsen. 

The term onsen, as I understand it, literally translates to hot springs. It can also refer to the resorts and hotels built around those onsenJapan is a volcanically active country, so there are lots of spots for people to build these resorts– and they might as well, since onsen are popular in Japan.

And we were going to find out why.

Our amazing and awesome sensei scheduled us to stay at Noboribetsu for a night! In an onsen, of course. We were all pretty psyched– at this point, we had been taking classes, meeting with conversation partners, and running around Sapporo nonstop! Even in Japan, we were ready for a break.

However, before I go on, I should say this about onsen:

post 104 image 1

Oh. Okay. What are there, then?

post 104 image 2

Yup. The Japanese usually go to their hot springs totally in the nude, not unlike Germans and their saunas. We were all aware of this. How did this make us feel?

post 104 image 3

America is, for some reason, a nudefearing country, so none of us were used to, well, being naked in front of others. In addition, the Japanese are polite. Accordingly, we had a lot of bath house etiquette to learn before our excursion.

post 104 image 4

This, more or less, is the lesson we received from our sensei. Despite our nervousness, we were still excited! I mean, every single manga has at least one hot springs scene, right? And, out of 18 kids, I’m pretty sure only two or three kids weren’t into manga/anime… so… that was that.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before we got into any sort of onsen, we decided to tour the natural wonders of Noboribetsu’s volcanic landscape. More specifically, we took a hike around Jigoku-Dani, also known as

post 104 image 5

The valley is home to a number of volcanic lakes and streams, leading to stunning scenery like this:

post 104 image 6

And that steam is no joke! The water was scalding– too hot to the touch.

Though we didn’t get to bathe in the lakes, we did get to enjoy some of the naturally-heated water. Our group took a hike through the forest, where we encountered this:

post 104 image 7

And, naturally, we took the chance to enjoy it!

post 104 image 8

I could go on and on about our hotel, too. The traditional rooms with its sliding doors, low tables, and tatami mats. The luscious, Japanese-style futons. The open buffet with all-you-can-eat crab and miso soup and much, much more. Most importantly, there was an arcade in the basement with a giant Pikachu.

post 104 image 9

But instead, I’m going to skip to the best part: the onsen.

The onsen.

Was amazing. 

We went in there at night, which was no problem– the baths open early and close late. There were two separate baths, one for women, and one for men. There’s an indoor section, with a number of different pools set at varying temperatures. We ventured there first.

post 104 image 10

After puttering around there for a while, we noticed people were walking in from the outside. Meaning there was an outside. We decided to venture outside.

And it was…

post 104 image 11

Beautiful. 

post 104 image 12

Photography typically isn’t allowed in onsen, for obvious reasons. I’ll try to make do with description: the onsen was softly lit, surrounded by graceful trees and rocks. It was drizzling gently outside, a nice cool contrast to the steaming water. There were well-placed boulders sticking out of the pools, serving both as organic ornament and a place to lounge. And, before I forget: there was a water slide.

post 104 image 13

You know, words can’t do it justice. Instead, I’m going to put up some photos I found of our hotel. (Err, at least, I think we stayed here. The name of the onsen eludes me.)

post 104 image 14

Three hours later, we were still there. And then, after staying up late, some of us woke up early to go again before we had to leave the hotel. Because it was just so… relaxing! Or, as the Japanese would say, 気持ちいい! (Kimochii— feels good!)

post 104 image 15

I mean…

post 104 image 16

It’s like any new experience– it may be uncomfortable at first, but you can have a great time if you just put yourself out there!

Literally this time.

So that night, I cozied up in my (hotel-provided) yukata…

post 104 image 17

…and fell into one of the deepest, most satisfying sleeps I’ve ever had.

post 104 image 18

I’d do it again anyday.

Grade schoolers are better rice farmers than me

There’re so many things I did in Japan that I never blogged about. Time for a blast to the past!

One of my more interesting experience in Japan was when we visited an elementary school. We spent the morning and afternoon at a school in Sapporo to give the grade-schoolers a taste of, well, gaijin! We, in turn, would get a taste of the life of a 小学生. (shougakusei, elementary school student) We were to hang out with the students, teach them some English, and expose them to our American culture.

Though, to be honest…

I think I learned more than they did.

Our very first activity, for example, started out with something I’ve never seen in the US: planting rice. From what I’ve seen, it’s typical for Japanese elementary schools to keep their own rice paddies, which the students help plant, tend, and harvest. And they saved their planting day specifically for the day we visited!

post 102 image 1

Despite the fact that both my parents grew up in Vietnam– my dad on a rice farm, no less– I hadn’t even seen a rice paddy before I came to Japan. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Though my dad’s stories of mosquito bites and peeling leeches off his legs gave me a general idea.

Well, I didn’t see any leeches, but I sure wasn’t expecting the paddy to be so deep. 

post 102 image 2

I also wasn’t expecting it to be so difficult!

post 102 image 3

But it’s okay. I still thought it was fun.

post 102 image 4

After rice planting was lunch, where we experienced another slight cultural difference. You know how, in America, lunch ladies serve the kids? Well, in Japan, the kids take turn serving you. 

post 102 image 5

The lunch, as you’d expect, was completely different as well. Gone was the pizza and hot dogs and mozzarella sticks. Instead, we had a well-balanced meal of rice, seaweed, fish, vegetables, miso soup, and milk. Even the portion size was appropriate! Maybe a little too appropriate…

post 102 image 6

After lunch was, of course, recess. This was a throwback to elementary school– you know, kids playing tag, climbing the equipment, chasing and running and screaming. Though apparently frisbee isn’t a thing in Japan. One of our group members, an ardent Ultimate Frisbee player, demonstrated her skills. To the utter fascination of the kids.

post 102 image 7

Afterwards, my group was broken up into several classrooms. Each American kid was assigned to a table of 4 or 5 students. First, I was put in a group of 4th graders…

post 102 image 8

…and then, at the teacher’s urging, I taught them rock, paper, scissors.

post 102 image 9

After an hour of rock, paper scissors, including a highly competitive class-wide tournament, I was spirited away to another classroom of 5th graders. This time, there was no lesson. Instead, they were supposed to incorporate me into their, uh, “group” as they hung out in their free period.

First, they whupped my butt in a Japanese version of Old Maid…

post 102 image 10

Then they taught me how to make paper cranes.

post 102 image 11

I also tried to converse with them, which was difficult, since all the kids spoke really fast and used a lot of slang. I did manage to ask to see their English textbooks, though.

post 102 image 12

Japan is notorious for its substandard English programs. I got to see why. (not like America is that great at foreign languages, though)

Before we knew it, it was time to leave. My group exited the building to much fanfare. Several of the kids followed us to the exit, and kids would pop out of their classrooms to take a look at the interesting gaijin. We got a final look at one more cultural discrepancy:

post 102 image 13

The kids clean their own classrooms in Japan. Now that’s a reason not to stick gum under your desk.

And then we were free. The Japanese elementary school was different, for sure. Simply in cleaning their own classrooms and serving their own meals, there was a sense of greater discipline and responsibility. Japanese students eat lunch in the classroom.  None of the grade-schoolers were allowed to eat until everyone had been served. I didn’t get to sit in with a real lesson– but those little quirks already showed the difference between American and Japanese culture.

Yet the Japanese kids were just like American ones. They were blunt to a fault. (One of our students got called “hairy.” Another Japanese kid paused, pointed to our Chinese student, and said, “Made in China.”) They play the same games as us. They were hyperactive and crazy and loud just like American kids.

In the end, kids are just kids, right?

Even on the other side of the world.

post 102 image 14

In which I pay good money to sneeze for a half-hour

For more photos from my Japan trip, check out my tumblr!

It was our last night in Japan when I suddenly realized:

Japan is slightly notorious for its maid cafés, restaurants staffed by girls dressed in maid outfits. The girls supposedly act ridiculously cutesy, refer to their customers as “master” (ご主人さま, goshujin-sama) and speak in unspeakably high-pitched voices. The first maid cafés opened in Akihabara (the electronics district in Tokyo) and eventually spread to other cities. To this day, they remain popular among the Japanese otaku.

As a huge manga-loving geek myself, I was super curious. Almost excessively so. The absurdly packed schedule of our trip, though, hadn’t left any time to swing by a maid café– so on that final day, I suddenly decided,

At that particular moment, my group was in downtown Sapporo. I spotted a sign directly across the street:

So I set off with a friend to investigate the maid café. The billboard directed us down the street, into a shady alleyway, and up an equally shady staircase. We finally found the entrance (a door covered in a poster of a cherry tree, sporting a heart-shaped sign that read OPEN) only to figure out that it was certainly, positively, definitely

That wasn’t enough to discourage me, though. There had to be other cafés in Sapporo, right? Quickly, we set out again. But a mere block later I was distracted by another shiny sign:

cat café?! Here was a place I had never heard of until I came to Japan: a café where, for a fee, patrons can sit around a pet cats for a while. A couple of girls in our group had visited one in Tokyo and came back raving over the cute cats.

Did I want to see maid girls pretending to be cats, or actual cats? For a fee of ¥500 per half hour– and we were in a hurry– I favored the cats. Thus we ventured into the café…

The appearance of the café wasn’t all that impressive, actually. It was a carpeted room with a couple benches and cat furniture. The other girls had reported that the café they visited had tables, chairs, and even purchasable food to feed the cats. This Sapporo café was obviously a little less embellished. But it didn’t matter, because

CATS. ALL OVER THE ROOM. I believe this café had 11 cats or so. And you can imagine my reaction:

I suppose I was imagining that the cat café would be full of cuddly, happy cats who just want to be your friend. But I forgot that cats are just not like that. Cats are sassy. And as these cats were subjected to adoring customers, day after day after day, they definitely had more attitude than usual.

There was one cat, though, that totally stole my heart. After sizing me up for a minute or so…

…it decided that my lap was a comfy place to settle down.

There was just one problem, though: I’m actually allergic to cats. So the rest of my day was spent like this:

And it totally was.

Post-abroad blues for the softcore traveler

For more photos from my Japan trip, check out my tumblr!

I’ve blogged quite a bit about being in Japan—but I’ve neglected to mention what happens when you come home.

Granted, I’ve never been abroad for very long. Six weeks in Germany. Five in Japan. It’s not enough time to get over the “honeymoon” phase of being abroad, to really get integrated into the culture, to be a part of it. I can’t say, then, that I experienced true reverse culture shock—where you feel disoriented in your home country, where you have trouble reconnecting with your old friends, where suddenly it’s harder to live at home than abroad. Regardless, I had a bit of a jolt when I got back from Japan:

It felt a bit weird being back at home, where I wasn’t surrounded by my fellow exchange students 24/7 and we weren’t adventuring across Japan. Instead, I was back in the suburbs. Alone again. Parents out working, sister on co-op, all my friends with summer jobs. I dealt with the sudden change as any healthy college student would:

 This wouldn’t do. My mom informed me that it was sales season, so I decided to drive out to the mall.

Also a bad idea.

Perhaps a trip to the convenience store would help.

I actually got over the post-Japan blues pretty quickly, though. I was back with my family. I could see my friends. I missed the group of kids I had traveled with—but I knew that, once I got back to school, I would see them again.

I found it to be a little rougher when I returned from Germany. There, I had lived with the best host family. I had felt welcome there. By the end of six short weeks, I already felt, well, at home. I spent the first week back in the US doing this:

And, at this point, I was going through one of those great transitions in life: going to college. But instead of packing, getting ready, being on top of things, I was just kind of…

I had to attend my college orientation, where I spent the whole weekend going

My sister even called me out on it.

How did I get over it? Well, I suddenly found myself away from home and entrenched in my first year of college, in Boston. It was kind of like being shocked out of culture shock with another culture shock. And classes. And a great deal of homework.

So my journeys into “reverse culture shock” were minor, at best. I still want to return to Germany—and Japan—but I experienced no great surprises, no great upheavals. I still enjoy living in America; if anything, I can appreciate it more. Still, I was surprised at just how down I became after returning from such short trips overseas.

The best way to deal with the post-abroad blues? You just gotta look on the bright side, really! Which is something I’ve always had trouble with—but with all this blogging about Japan, it’s something I’ve got to do.

F#ck yeah, more Engrish

For more photos from my Japan trip, check out my tumblr!

I know I posted Engrish earlier— but those were only from what I found in Tokyo. I hadn’t even been to Kyoto and Sapporo. So, now that my trip is over, and my Engrish collection is complete, here goes! 

The best of the poorly translated English I found:

Please multiply the voice by a near staff when it is tried on:

Getting in an adult mood:

There were actually a bunch of various shirts containing the phrase “getting in an adult mood.” Is it, like, a thing?

No scribbling here:

Let’s quench insensibility and indifference to fire!

Do not use fire:

Just to reemphasize. No fire!

Love horse:

Love bear:

Because one wasn’t enough.

Mow: Back Style:

Two wasn’t enough either.

I will enjoy a leg fashion:

(Flash up your cool leg style!)

On Broadway:

Sit down with your legs spread out wide:

Along those lines, here’s another friendly PSA from Japan:

If it were anything but a cigarette, it would surely be crying:

There’s no shame in having a thing on your body, even though you may dream of excising it:

No need to dress like a bunny.

 Hully Potter’s Prorogue:

And my personal favorite:

Erectonic-piano:

Just what I wanted!

Just because y’all are so nice, I’m going to throw in a bonus image. There’s no Engrish on it, mind you– nor is there even English— but I thought it was worth a shout-out.

How to use a Western toilet:

Just for those who didn’t know.

Breathing is irrelevant in a Japanese kimono

More photos from my Japan trip can be viewed at my tumblr!

While we were in Sapporo, our sensei took us to an event where we were allowed to try on the traditional Japanese dress, the kimono. We could get also our hair styled, our makeup done—the whole nine yards, so to speak.

Now, I had always wanted to try on a Japanese kimono. I was even considering buying one in Japan. I had always admired how elegant and pretty they are.

This event changed my mind.

It’s not that the kimono weren’t gorgeous. It’s just that wearing them is complicated. First, I got my hair done—not by one of the younger stylists, but one who looked as though she was in her 50’s or so. And man, did she go at it.

It was all pins, clips, and a giant clump of something that she stuck in my hair. To give it volume, apparently. Basically I had no idea what she was doing.

After getting my hair twisted around for a half hour or so, I was ready to get dressed. Kimono, as we discovered, are very difficult to put on by yourself if you don’t know how. Instead, we all stood around and had ladies dress us. Some kids had two people dressing them at the same time. I, however, had only one:

There’s more to a kimono than just the pretty outer dress. There’s the additional hadajuban and koshimaki worn underneath. There’s the accessories. There’s the flip-flop friendly tabi socks with the geta sandals to match. The most complicated part, however, is the sash known as the obi. The obi can be tied in a variety of styles, varying in complexity and design.

The lady helping me happened to like me—I had managed to strike up a conversation in Japanese. She was obviously trying hard to make it look good.

In addition to the main belt, the obi, there’s about ten million smaller ties meant to help support the main one.

So after much effort and consternation, I was finally dressed. I approached my classmates…

Again indeed.

Apparently I was dressed very traditionally, though, evidenced by the fact that our 60-something sensei jumped me after I was done:

I was only able to wear the kimono for about 20 minutes, though—there were other gaijin waiting for their turn. Still, I managed to snap some photos!

Wearing the kimono was a ton of fun—but it was definitely more complicated than, say, a Vietnamese ao dai. Buying a kimono can also run you hundreds and hundreds of dollars, especially when you’re looking for a full set. Wedding kimonos can easily hit $10,000 or more. It’s possible to save money by buying used, but with the kimono, undergarments, geta, tabi… hell, I don’t have the luggage space for that.

Though as one who also brought home a ton of Engrish t-shirts, I have no room to talk.