Impressions of Tokyo: Day 11 & 12

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Saturday! Hooray! We took a trip down to Yokohama, a city famous for multiple things—one of which is their Cup Noodle Museum! We decorated our very own cup noodle containers and customized the toppings and broth. Three walls of a room stacked high with packaging throughout the years gave us a visual representation of instant noodle’s overwhelming history. The museum was quite informative, with a fun video showing how exactly inventor Momofuku Ando landed on the idea of cup noodles. This spot overall is a moving tribute to the go-to “fast food” commodity for everybody, from broke college students to brave disaster responders. There was also an indoors noodles bazaar designed like a night market where you could try a small bowl of noodles from different countries at their respective booths.

Next we walked to the nearby Red Brick Warehouse—a historical complex that is filled with boutiques and restaurants. An outdoors food festival neighbored the warehouse. Afterwards, we took a stroll to Nippon Maru, a training ship for cadets that logged 45.4 times around the earth (1,830,000 kilometers in total). On our way there we observed families enjoying the seaside, girls in kimonos and paddle boarders effortlessly maintaining their balance. In the water next to the ship, we saw live jellyfish drifting like white roses in the water.

The Ramen Museum was next! This was less of a museum and more of an eatery, with two floors packed with ramen spots and decorated in a way that transported us back 50 years. Two particularly flexible performers entertained a crowd with their jokes, magic tricks, and gymnastics as we ducked into a restaurant on the first floor and ordered our small bowls of ramen. The atmosphere was lovely—the painted ceiling gave us the impression of dusk falling, and nightlife awakening. Afterwards, we made our way to Shibuya and ended our night with classic barbecue.

On Day 12, my last full day in Tokyo, we headed to Koenji in the early afternoon—a row of shops filled with secondhand retro and vintage clothing. We saw discontinued Converse shoes, hippie button-ups with bright patterns, and Snoopy and Mickey Mouse merchandise from the archives. One of our highlights was an adorable pet shop with puppies that cost upwards of $1,500 USD (and that was on the low end). We then trekked to a donut and dessert shop selling the cutest delicacies.

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We headed to Ikebukuro next. To me it seemed like a version of Akihabara, but rather than young male gamers who just got off of work, Ikebukuro was filled with girls in anime-style dress, carrying bags of trading pins. At a shaved ice dessert spot, we tried possibly the most bitter matcha powder ever (my friend described it as Chinese medicine—the strong aftertaste lingers for far too long). We headed to a shop called Animate, the biggest anime store, and simply took in the frenzy of mostly girls and some guys browsing a million pieces of merchandise.

At a 10-story Round One, we watched people fail at giant claw machines and dance out their hearts. We also tried our hand at some games ourselves, including a hit-the-button game as well as Mahjong Fight Club. One difference with the Round Ones in US (besides the sheer immensity of the building) was the existence of an entire floor with elaborate, high-tech gambling stations. Nearly every seat at the push-the-coin-off-the-edge machines was taken. One game (100yen, about 90 cents USD) at any one of these machines lasted us nearly 5-10 minutes. You could spend hours here in this neon gaming center straight from the future.

Next, we stumbled upon a rabbit cafe. To our surprise and delight, our entrance ticket also included snuggling with two feisty otters. They slid along the floor and let us give them belly rubs as they munched away on their backs. The rabbits were sweet and nibbled pellets out of our hands. Whoever says you can’t buy happiness is clearly wrong.

 

For dinner, we decided on a restaurant that specialized in Unagi, or charcoaled eel. The smokiness paired with the softness of the meat provided a very unique tasting experience I’ve never quite encountered before. We stopped at Bake Cheese Tart station in Shinjuku to pick up matcha tarts and cheese tarts before heading to Golden Gai, Tokyo’s most famous nightlife area. Composed of rows of bars that were basically the size of a closet, Golden Gai offered a fascinating look at nightlife in the olden days—not much has changed.

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I’ll never forget sitting in a side street in Shibuya, eating the incredibly creamy matcha tart, enjoying music from a violinist across from us. I watched people pass by: a couple attempting to do a little Irish jig, friends supporting (drunk) friends, girls laughing with each other. Everyone was completely absorbed in the moment and enjoying life in the now. Including us.

ありがとうございます, 東京.

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Impressions of Tokyo: Day 9 & 10

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The best way to travel, I think, is to divide what you want to do into 3 categories: food, fun, and shopping. Food includes meals and desserts; fun includes museums, interesting streets, monuments, cultural experiences; shopping means hardcore shopping. I’ve been exploring Tokyo in half-day portions, as my classes begin in the afternoon. My best days (read: most productive) days are when I limit my amount of must-see places. If I hit those, then I’m satisfied, and everything else is a bonus. For my shorter half-days, I’ve done something like: 1 fun, 2 foods ( 1 meal & 1 dessert) or 1 fun, 1 shopping. The reason is that shopping takes longer (and it’s terribly stressful to shop under time constraints). This doesn’t mean that I don’t eat on my shopping days; it just means that I grab a quick meal wherever I’m at and continue bleeding out my wallet.

On Day 9, I planned 1 fun, 1 meal and 1 dessert (I had to get back to campus by 2:55pm). The thing about Tokyo is that this is not an early-riser city—many places are closed early morning. I decided to go to Mori Art Museum around opening time for my 1 fun.

The museum is located on the 52 & 53rd floors of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. For the price of admission (with a discount for students) you not only get to enter a cool, chic exhibit (which changes quite often if I’m not wrong) but also get amazing views of the city. (For anyone who’s currently in Tokyo—the next exhibit features the 50th anniversary of the Shonen Jump, the legendary manga magazine that kept anime spirit alive throughout the years. Check it out from July 17-September 30!)

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The exhibit itself was about Japanese architecture. It inspired me to view architecture as an art—the process demands so much thought about the way we live as human beings. Architects also take into account how the building will interact with the landscape, turn spaces into places, and incorporate themes of nature and nature itself as part of its foundation. For example, architects consider where the sun rises and sets, where the wind blows, and even how their work will reflect in bodies of water.

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I had previously looked up two eat spots within walking distance from the museum. It was tricky to find the first food spot (it was located in the subway station, among a row of equally good-lookin’ restaurants). My hard work was 100% worth it when I finally found Butagumi Shokudo, a restaurant that specializes in Tonkatsu (fried cuts of pork). The first bite, and the meat melted in my mouth, paired perfectly with the crispy exterior. The fried coating did not separate from the meat, making every bite delightful. One of the coolest parts of the restaurant was that the chefs cooked right in front of us, massaging the meat in flour and dipping the Tonkatsu into the oil. Just like my visit to the Tsukemen noodles restaurant, I had avoided the lines in the nick of time—as I exited, a line had formed.

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I was very full from lunch, so I walked around the area, watching workers set up for what looked like an outdoors festival and concert near TV Asahi’s headquarters. There were many high-end shops in the area—if that’s your thing, Roppongi Hills (which already sounds quite bougie in name) might be up your alley. Or should I say, lengthy driveway, or whatever is the rich people version of alley.

Next food stop: Yelo. Again, it took me a bit of looking around before I finally located this shop famous for its Kakigori, or shaved ice. I went for the matcha bowl. The flavor permeated the entire bowl, not just the exterior. It was the perfect balance of sweetness and yet, lightness—one person can finish a bowl by himself or herself, without ever slowing down or feeling sick. (I believe that is the policy in the store anyway—every person must order a bowl). Trust me—though it looks big, it’ll disappear very quickly.

 

I was already very satisfied with hitting my 3 spots, so discovering a tiny garden in the middle of the building complexes as well as various Doraemons stationed around the area (including a giant one looking off into the distance) was cherry on top.

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The next day, I planned 2 fun spots. I decided to visit a spot I’ve seen great reviews about: Happo-En is a lovely garden-haven which was such a wonderful respite from the city. Best of all, it is free! Maintained by the Happo-En hotel which is a popular destination for weddings and ceremonies, the perfectly curated garden features a resting area on the rocks, plenty of koi fish, a wedding chapel and a tea house. Listening to the sound of nature, sitting under a wooden-thatched house, I did my work. It’s really quite small, but so wonderfully maintained that I could be perfectly content spending eternity next to the koi fish, dragonflies, lizards and butterflies.IMG_7841

My second Fun was an impulsive decision made the night before to visit teamLab’s Planets exhibition (it was a wise move to buy tickets beforehand—this is a very popular exhibit). From my understanding teamLab is a group of artists and scientists dedicated to marrying their two disciplines in show-stopping displays around the world. I had previously stumbled upon a teamLab exhibition in Singapore, which was phenomenal—finding their headquarters in Tokyo was a pleasant surprise, and at the same time not surprising at all. Tokyo seems to be at the forefront of art and technology.

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There was a bit of a wait, but we got lucky with only half an hour (some wait for more than an hour). Upon entering, we were asked to take off our shoes—and not just because we were entering an Asian museum. We walked down dimly lit hallways and stepped into a river flowing down a steep passageway hill. The water licked our ankles, a refreshing respite from the oppressive heat outside. We walked across different textures of carpet meant to symbolize soil, mud, and grass and entered a room that was covered in a brown sheet, which moved like clouds or soft earth beneath our feet. When we lost our balance and collapsed, it enveloped us, laughter and all.

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We then entered a room of infinity crystals—LED lights synchronized to give the viewer a feeling of moving through space. I had seen a similar instillation in Singapore, but this one was bigger and felt bigger thanks to the floor which was also a mirror. The colorful stars not only fell from the sky but shot upwards from the ground, as if we were the ones pulled by gravity into an abyss.

We stepped into knee-high water next. The room was dazzling—all illumination came from the water, where colorful koi fish swam around our feet. We splashed with them, chased after them, and laughed as upon touch they turned into sunflowers and beams of light in the water. The digital projection combined with the interactive element of water thrust us into the most unforgettable experience as we turned into kids playing in a magical pond, shrouded by midnight.

The next room symbolized air as we ducked under giant balloons that changed color in sync with each other. Some of the balloons were not attached to the walls or the ceiling—as a result sometimes we were trapped between balloons as overzealous kids went wild.

And finally, the last room captured the word Vertigo. We entered a planetarium with a mirror for a ground, and flowers for stars. Falling rose petals sunflowers blown out of proportion moved across the ceiling. Combined with the mirror-floor it felt as if we were in perpetual movement, from both our vantage points lying on the ground and sitting up.

As for class, our one week session had officially finished with group presentations and essays. I’ve given a lot of thought to what Japan should do to smooth its relations with China and Korea, in its treatment of war history. We discussed multiple options, some of which have been taken in the past: apologies, financial compensation, denial, silence. In my eyes, apologies can be empty if there is no understanding of what the apology is for. Perhaps the first step of bridging the divide is to acknowledge and educate the younger generations about the past. This would open up a reciprocity in youth, our future diplomats and leaders, to then listen to other sides of the situation. Only then are they fully equipped to engage. Though Japan is still far from reaching Germany’s level of openness and reparation for its war crimes (see: a possible move for mandated field trips to concentration camps), knowledge is the first and most important step. This is how we grow empathy, this is how we leave the world better than it was before.

Thank you, University of Tokyo.

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Impressions of Tokyo: Day 7 & 8

IMG_4756Food has been one of my top priorities here in Tokyo. After all, some of the world’s most celebrated cuisine originated from Japan: ramen, sushi, matcha-flavored everything, and so much more. In my Internet-diving for must-try spots around the city, I came across the most phenomenal map here! Compiled by Biancissimo, it’s a map of the best ramen, matcha/dessert, & food spots in the city!

So, on Day 7, we decided to check out Tsukemen Gonokami Seisakusho. Located in a nondescript alleyway facing away from the main streets, Gonokami could seat up to less than fifteen people only. I had heard lines could get very long, even on weekday mornings. Luckily, when we arrived about an hour past its 11am opening, we could go straight in. I ordered a miso shrimp broth and died of happiness. The broth was rich with flavor and I could tell the noodles were made with such love and attention to detail. The portion size was huge even though I ordered a Small. 10/10 recommend.

When we exited, there was a line already starting to form. If you go, make sure you beat the rush hours of traditional dining times!

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There was another place I had been wanting to try called Bake Cheese Tart, which has over 40 shops in Japan and has recently expanded to San Francisco as well. The one I went to was hidden at the Shinjuku station. Have you ever looked out a plane window and wondered what it would feel like to have the soft, puffy clouds embrace you? That’s what eating this cheese tart was like. The inside is not overwhelmingly sweet, which pairs well with the cookie crust. The cheese is so refreshingly light and melt-in-your-mouth. Must-try, if you’re ever in Japan or San Fran.

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Another food adventure: Ameyoko Shopping Street right next to the Ueno Station. Literally everything you can think of is sold here, both by street vendors and large department stores. I loved the myriad of street food stores, including a famous restaurant called Niku no Ohyama which does both take out and sit down. I opted for fried ground meat and onion, which was the right amounts juicy and crunchy. And it was only 200 yen!

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In Shinjuku I walked past the famous Robot Restaurant on my way to another spot I was so excited about: the Samurai Museum. Thanks to my obsession with the Rurouni Kenshin manga and live-action adaptations featuring the world’s greatest manslayer who vows to no longer kill, this place fascinated me. It’s a small museum, but because there are guided tours running frequently throughout the day, you feel you’re really getting the most out of your experience with an informative, humorous guide. Not only did we learn about samurais, we also got to watch a master in action, who had trained at samurai school for 12 years. We also got to channel the spirit of the samurai ourselves.

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He was moving so fast that the rest of my photos were a blur.

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Traditional Samurai wear.

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This is what the ladies wore, if they were royalty or if it was for a wedding. It was heavy material, and get this–they’d wear it in the SUMMER. Every day I already return to my hotel room soaked in sweat, and I’m wearing just a T-shirt and shorts…

On day 8, I went to the ever-controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors those who have died while serving Japan from 1868 onwards, including 1,068 war criminals. While the shrine is privately owned, previous prime ministers’ visits have sparked protests, viewed by the Chinese as acts that validate and commemorate Japan war atrocities. The war dead are regarded as divinities. When I visited, people were setting up for the upcoming Mitama Festival (July 13-16) to celebrate their souls.

I had actually visited the day before, but I decided to return for what I read was the most controversial part of the grounds: the Yushukan Museum, which, like the shrine, is also privately owned. Our group project was to determine both Chinese and Japanese perspectives over Japan’s war atrocities. Here are some of the things I discovered: The museum had extremely nationalistic tones

  • Leading up to the exhibit on the Nanjing Massacre, explanations of wartime events displayed a victim mentality:
      • “Prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere in China”
      • “Battle of Shanghai was triggered by the Chinese side”
  • In the “Nanking Campaign” section, there was not a single mention of massacre or crimes against Chinese
  • Throughout the exhibit, Japanese soldiers are described as:
    • “well-disciplined, brave soldiers”
    • “enduring hardships”
    • “military prowess & strict discipline excelled”
    • “bravery & tactical brilliance”
    • In case of Boxer Revolution, the Japanese were “respected and applauded by the residents of Beijing in contrast to the western powers’ soldiers, who looted wherever they went”
  • There wa no mention of Comfort Women, but rather, many poignant letters from Japanese soldiers to their wives/mothers as if to reaffirm Japanese devotion to women and erase their horrific past
  • There was no acknowledgement that Japan acted as an aggressor in the Pacific War, and no seeming regret for initiating said aggression:
    • “Once the desire for independence had been kindled under Japanese occupation, it did not fade away, even though Japan was ultimately defeated.” The exhibit positioned Japan as responsible for the independence of India, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia & the Philippines.

I looked into the Chinese and Japanese responses to the controversy. The Chinese are understandably enraged, in both political circles and among the common people. China filed an official protest and demanded an apology. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang declared Chinese government is “firmly opposed to Japanese politicians’ wrong practices,” urging “Japan to face squarely and deeply reflect on its history of aggression and win back the trust of its Asian neighbours and the international community.” Chinese people took to the streets across the world as well to protest various Prime Minister visits.

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Hong Kong protestors.

The Japanese side is more complex. Japanese officials have shown reluctance to apologize. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi who visits regularly said, “The way we commemorate [the dead] shouldn’t turn into a diplomatic issue.” Prime Minister Abe also suggested he would not issue a direct apology to Japan’s former victims: “I uphold the basic thinking behind past war apologies, which means there isn’t a need to reiterate them.”

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As shown by the poll above, the number of Japanese who believe Japan has sufficiently apologized has grown steadily throughout the years. Yet, there is evidence of remorse among citizens: leading up to Abe’s speech, 42% of Japanese believed that an apology should be included; a group that represents the war dead’s families are urging Yasukuni Shrine to remove the names of 14 convicted criminals.

In class, we discussed Japanese societal norms (trying to determine why populism is not a thing here) as well as the many aspects of the frail yet resilient China-Japan relationship. It’s certainly a prickly area to navigate for both countries; with high stakes on both sides, this is a relationship the United States should no doubt keep an eye on as we move forward.

Impressions of Tokyo: Days 5 & 6

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The Iriya Asagao Matsuri (Morning Glory Festival) takes place on two sides of a street in Iriya. One side was jam packed with food vendors and the other, flower vendors. Pots of morning glories lined the sidewalk as visitors flocked to the festival, celebrating the arrival of summer. Monks at the shrine blessed the flowers and struck metal against metal over them. I watched as the sparks flew over a plastic blue flower I bought.

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Soon after, I headed to Harajuku. It was immediately apparent the moment I stepped off the train that this was an entirely different world. The buildings were strikingly pink. Cute fonts lined store fronts, and cute Japanese girls my age decked out in their store’s clothing stood at each store entrance, declaring sales and inviting visitors in. The streets were flooded with people, from local Japanese to tourists. I caught glimpses of a couple girls decked out in typical Harajuku mismatched, vibrant color styles, but most of the visiting women were in normal-wear—that is, exceptionally cute or classy normal-wear.

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Needless to say, my wallet bled that day as I browsed cute, relatively cheap clothing, stationary, and souvenirs. Harajuku had everything—from grunge to steampunk to cosplay to kawaii to schoolgirl to anime-themed to Lolita. Some stores had lines so long for the changing rooms that I had to write my name on a list as if we were at a restaurant. There were endless stores to explore and sweet shops to try. Harajuku is famous for its sweet crepes—these stores were situated literally every couple of blocks.

Harajuku is also very well known for its selection of cafes—yes, the eating type, but also the animal type. To clarify: animal cafes don’t serve food—they are simply sanctuaries where you can interact with various animals. We visited a hedgehog cafe in which all the hedgehogs there were on sale. We slipped on our leather gloves and picked up the prickly creatures. Some were extremely active, squiggling in our hands, while others luxuriously stretched themselves across my fingers and fell asleep. Can someone please start a petition for California to make hedgehogs legal again?

We decided on an Owl Cafe next. I have loved the idea of owls since I was a kid—cute, wide-eyed creatures who could turn their heads almost 360 degrees—but I never dreamed I would actually be able to pet one or hold one on my arm. It was surreal, staring into their round big eyes. Some of them had very judgy expressions, but for the most part they were very nice to me and did not nibble my fingers. I even got to witness a pair of barn owls falling asleep. The cafe also had a couple of falcons as well (warning: falcons are HEAVY).

From Harajuku we walked to Shibuya to witness the famous crossing—an intersection of multiple streets where crowds of people journey from one side to the other. From our vantage point in a two-story Starbucks, it was mesmerizing to watch people stream towards each other without bumping or shoving. Shibuya crossing looked like a complex puzzle, with all the people-pieces fitting perfectly together.

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The next day, we began our morning with a delightful trip to a Snoopy Museum, dedicated to the progression of Chalres M. Schulz’ beloved comics throughout the years. Did you know that in Schulz’s original design, Charlie Brown looks like he has a lemon-head, and Snoopy looks like a regular dog? The museum chronicled the different friendships within the series and ended with a gift shop selling the cutest merchandise. I left with an increased respect for comic strip artists, in awe at how much truth they can capture within 4 simple boxes and a couple lines of dialogue. They must be the best people-watchers and eavesdroppers to gain renewed inspiration for a strip every day.

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After we went shopping at Shibuya 109, an 8-story tower filled with women’s clothing and accessory stores, we headed to class at the University of Tokyo. Our first class, an intro to Japanese politics, opened with a video of Hashimoto Mouse, a quintessential Japanese character. He is extremely polite and hospitable to the American journalist mouse who is visiting. There is an aura of mystery surrounding his customs and his culture, but it is an overall positive representation of the Japanese.

We contrasted this video to Mickey Rooney’s jarring and offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The character is rude and stupid at the same time. Along with the exaggerated accent and yellow face, Mr. Yunioshi represents another more sinister view of the Japanese.

In our second class, we examined how Japan is actively trying to change that ugly perception of her citizens. “Soft power” is a term defined by Joseph Nye that unlike hard power, does not involve a show of force or coercion to achieve the country’s goals. Rather, soft power  consists of culture, political values at home and abroad, and foreign politics. Soft power can also be paired with hard power—for example, Japan’s military aid to the Philippines for disaster recovery purposes—to increase positive international relations.

This week, as I’ve been exploring Tokyo, I can’t help but identify the strength of Japan’s soft power everywhere. The initiatives of “Cool Japan” through public-private partnerships are evident in Tokyo and the world’s obsession with Japanese animation, fashion, and food. The video that announced Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics is emblematic of the “Cool Japan” factors the country hopes the world finds attractive. Young girls obsessed with Harajuku fashion were appointed Kawaii Ambassadors. Doraemon was appointed Japan’s first official anime ambassador. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs founded an International MANGA Award to promote understanding between cultures.

Tokyo is chock full of this unique culture. Kawaii characters are on the subways and on your desserts; anime and manga themed stores are multiple stories high; frilly dresses and schoolgirl skirts are snatched off the shelves at the speed of a bullet train. For now, there’s no harm that some of this culture is government funded (that’s why it’s called soft power), but I can’t help but sense a danger (however far off) that creative art can turn into propaganda. Some manga artists share this concern as well, hoping the government backs off from their work. However, at least in the present, I don’t think Doraemon poses that big of a threat to other countries—I doubt that this “blue fatty,” as a Chinese newspaper put it, will be running the country any time soon.

Impressions of Tokyo: Day 3 & 4

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In Spirited Away, a giant monster of dirt, mud, and slush enters the bathhouse. Chihiro is the only one who dares approach this pile of stink and gets to work right away, turning on the giant water faucet and dousing the creature. Then, she finds a handle curiously sticking out from the monster’s side. Chihiro and the rest of the bathhouse staff tug on it and out comes a bicycle—and other trash: metal pipes, pots and pans, litter you would find in the ocean. Turns out, the slush monster is actually the River God—the scene is a powerful visualization of the harm we cause our environment.

On our cultural excursion, we drove up to Nikko, a city north of Tokyo, rich in nature and World Heritage sites. I understand why Hayao Miyazaki was so convicted by the beauty of Japan to insert environmental themes into nearly every one of his movies. Here, the clouds obscure tall trees, surrounding us with mystery as we’re wrapped in droplets of water. We walked through the Toshogu shrine, where the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate was buried. We entered sacred places barefoot, the gold steps leading up to the main shrine freezing to the touch. I wondered what it would have looked like to see all the small snow huts lit up with candles.

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There’s a story behind each of the famous animals at the shrine—a cat, 3 monkeys, and a dragon. My favorite is the sleeping cat: he is much smaller than I imagined, positioned above a doorway. His eyes are serenely closed. There are two interpretations: it is sleeping because there will always be lasting peace in Japan, or it is sleeping but ready to pounce on trouble-makers should the peace be disturbed.

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Charms are sold at every corner of the shrine: good luck, good studies, no traffic, successful childbirth—the list goes on and on. Some are small bells without a hole, so your wish doesn’t fall out. On wooden planks decorated with painting sof the Crying Dragon, people write their wishes and hang them on boards. One of them says, “I want to marry Emma Watson” in Japanese.

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Mist and fog partly shrouded our view of the Kegon waterfall, but we could feel the thundering of the water and the presence of the falls cutting through the surrounding greenery regardless. There was a box full of love fortunes wrapped in cute paper; my friends inserted a coin and take one. Fortunately, it’s good luck: something about expecting too much in a relationship, yet having everything you need right in front of you (and how black is your best color, and socks are your thing). Overall, a good fortune.

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For dinner,  a couple of us wandered the alleyways near our hotel. We found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant selling soba; we ordered at a vending machine and took our seats inside a room that could hold up to 8 people. The soba was delicious—this was clearly a spot meant for locals, and that’s what made it so good.

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On Day 4, we hit Tsukiji market: the most famous fish market in Japan and one of the world’s largest markets. Though it was crowded, no one bumped into or shoved each other. There were street vendor stalls everywhere in the tiniest alleyways. Lines stretched for sweet tamago (an egg-like dessert), skewers of seafood, raw oysters as big as my hand, crab brain, mochi, soft serve, and shaved ice. We ate at a tiny restaurant serving sashimi and sushi, the freshest of the freshest. We also walked the perimeter of what’s known as the Inner Circle, where a giant auction is held every morning at 2am for the day’s catch. Here was where restaurants would pick up their seafood from trusted vendors, and bid for fish the length of a person.

We took a stroll to the nearby Hamarikyu Gardens, a juxtaposition of green against a smattering of skyscrapers. Surrounded by a moat, the Gardens were established as the Tokugawa’s place of relaxation. There were preserved trenches for the popular tradition of duck-hunting as well as rebuilt teahouses around and in the middle of the lake. We stumbled upon a functioning teahouse that gave us an authentic tea-tasting experience: we sat on the floor, barefeet; the green tea came with a steamed red bean bun; we were given instructions on tea etiquitte. After enjoying my tea by the lakeside, I wrote a wish on a colorful piece of paper and tied it to a tree—it was the day of Tanabata, the Star Festival, where people decorate trees with their deepest hopes and wishes.

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We traveled to Nihonbashi next, is a business & commercial district of Chūō, Tokyo, Japan. Among high-end shopping areas and expensive eating centers, we stumbled upon the Tokyo Pokemon Center on the fifth floor of a shopping center and spent an hour browsing the endless merchandise. We bought tickets to the Art Aquarium, a traveling psychedelic exhibition that aims to summon the bougie aspects of life in the Edo period by showcasing collections of goldfish (kingyo in Japanese; they were a luxury commodity). Neon lights illuminated hundreds of tanks filled with thousands of red, yellow, orange, gold, and white speckled fish of different sizes. Tiny fish swam against projections of cherry blossoms and forests. The instillation is used as a club venue at night, allowing visitors to truly party with the fishes.

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Nearby, we walked a street lit with lanterns decorated with goldfish and a fireworks screen projection on the ground. We explored a mysterious wind chime forest the size of half a city block. Our night ended with yakitori dinner & buying fancy snacks: sweet potato sticks, cheese tarts, and lemon tarts. In Akihabara, a group of Mario Kart racers decked out as different characters raced along the streets in their go-karts. Tokyo is a world full of surprises—I am grateful this city allows us to stumble upon hidden gems and unforgettable experiences.

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Impressions of Tokyo: Day 1 & 2

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*I am participating in one of International Alliance of Research Universities’ Global Summer Programs at University of Tokyo for a week called Japan in Today’s World! This was made possible by the FUTI Scholarship Committee.*

Did I say that I could never live in a city? Well, I lied.

I’ve always loved the idea of being a “city girl”—I thought growing up in an Asian suburb of Southern California 40 miles from Downtown LA definitely meant I was destined for a life among bright lights and skyscrapers. My visits to New York City and Boston proved me wrong; choosing Yale was further proof that I was a suburbs girl, through and through.

But… Tokyo? Tokyo changes everything. Here, I am a “small town girl livin’ in a lonely world” no longer.

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First impressions always help. Going through immigration and customs at the airport was a cinch. I was already impressed by the myriad of buttons they have next to every toilet (of which I pressed none, because I’m a scaredy-cat). Getting what they call an IC card—like a debit card for almost all routes of transportation in Tokyo—was easy, and finding the right subway to the hotel presented no problem at all.

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The subways are extraordinarily clean and efficient, and the people are extraordinarily polite and kind. In the space of one subway ride between two stops, I witnessed a stranger offer a mother and her kid a seat, and another offer to trade seats with the mother so they could sit together. Though many people I encountered did not speak much English, we communicated through smiles and head-bows and pointing, which seemed to work just as well.

After I got to the hotel and checked into my extremely small room (the bed is next to the window and a step away from my desk, which is a step away from the bathroom which is a step away from the door), I decided to explore the nearby Tokyo Dome City. The attractions—ranging from a haunted experience to a water log ride to a fully-fledged roller coaster—were just steps from a collection of clothing stores and casual restaurants. I could go window shopping for days here—window shopping at restaurants, that is. The plastic displays of food are simply mesmerizing. At an arcade nearby, I lost money at a collection of dazzling claw machines and then cheered myself up with some of the best takoyaki I have ever eaten.

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I took a train to Akihabara next, notorious for its popularity among gamers. Seven story buildings decorated with HD screens and murals of blown-up anime characters lined the streets. It was getting dark, and hordes of Japanese men dressed in the exact same thing (white button down, black slacks, black dress shoes, and a black messenger bag) crossed the sidewalk and entered the buildings. Inside, they sat in front of screens and pushed buttons, which must be such a refreshing break from the work they do all day. (Excuse my sarcasm—though I’m not a gamer I thoroughly enjoyed watching experienced gamers excel at their art, completely locked onto their screens. I also enjoy seeing people lose way too much money on claw machines).

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The game machines were top of the line and innovative—certain games that have been popular in Japan for a while are only starting to catch on in the US. The top level of a Sega building was reserved for Virtual Reality games. There were horse-ride games available, as well as group games in which participants wearing a VR headset held fake guns and moved blindly around the room, hands flapping in fear of bumping into a wall in real life.

On Day 2, I caught a train to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, a giant complex that houses miniature replicas of towns and life-sized replicas of buildings during the Edo period. I’d touch my audio guide to signposts around the museum and immediately hear a recording of a tour guide in my ear. Schoolchildren studied the exhibitions with intensity, scribbling down notes on what looked like an academic scavenger hunt. There were a few foreigners here and there, but most of the visitors were Japanese, including large groups of older men and women. I personally hold a fascination with this period, as samurais rose to the top of the ranks during this time.

 

IMG_1364.JPGIMG_2185.JPGIMG_8780.JPGIMG_0045.JPGIn the afternoon, I met up with another student in the Global Summer Program (GSP) at Nakamise, a shopping street in Asakusa that leads up to Sensoji Temple. We wandered the street stock-filled with vendors selling both cheap and expensive trinkets, as well as street food. At the temple, in front of a wall of drawers, people shook tin cans until a stick with a number engraved on it fell out. They would open the corresponding cabinet and take a piece of paper that held their fortune. There was a rack for bad fortunes—people would knot their bad fortunes around metal rods and go back for another fortune. Tourists and locals—many who were adorned in kimonos and getas—also drank from fountains and lit incense candles around the shrine.

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We decided on a ramen place for lunch. We punched in and paid for our orders on a vending machine outside and took our corresponding tickets inside where they made our meals. We ate freshly made Taiyaki (which was just the right amount of crunchy on the outside and steaming hot and sweet on the inside) and matcha soft serve at the side of the street—there is apparently a law that forbids visitors from walking and eating along the main street, perhaps for cleanliness reasons.

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In the evening, GSP conducted the official course guidance and campus tours for incoming students. At our welcome dinner, I chatted with the director of our program and learned that the University of Tokyo students are composed of 80% men and 20% women. Furthermore, the 20% women are looked down upon for attending such a prestigious higher education institute as it decreases their marriage prospects. University men are not looking for university women—the housewife mentality is very much alive in Tokyo. Movements like #metoo are not prevalent in Japan. Even basic strides towards gender equality are met with harsh criticism from a society that values “fairness”—recently, Japanese men staged a protest in a women-only train car, arguing that it wasn’t fair to have a women-only and not a men-only car.

While there are some female faculty and students who champion gender equality, much of Japanese society does not even recognize the many problems with its patriarchal hierarchy. “Continue to think about this during your stay,” said our director. No doubt I will. Every society—no matter how shiny and clean and civilized—still has room to grow, even Tokyo.

 

Impressions of Venice

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My first thought upon arriving at Venice via water taxi was that calling an Uber must be a headache here.

Venetians’ two options of getting around are by boat, or by foot. More often than not, it’s the latter. To school, to work, to eat. Picture this, said our tour guide: it is pouring. The water levels have risen. Venice is flooding. But life goes on. Lawyers in business attire and exuberant school children alike put on their yellow rain boots and continue their lives, sloshing around in flooded coffee shops and classrooms.

They’re fierce, these local Venetians. We witnessed a shouting match between a gondola driver and a disgruntled young lady when our group was accelerated to the front of the line, thanks to our reservation. Laws are enforced, down to the no-sitting-on-bridges rule. Major crime (excluding pickpocketing) does not exist here—there is literally nowhere to run. Yet, these narrow streets smacked of a different type of danger: at every corner there seemed to be a man half heartedly yelling, “Attenzione,” pushing a cart with wooden planks or steel beams sticking out in every direction.

I felt like such a tourist when we took our gondola ride—but at least, a tourist living her best life. We weren’t on the love boat with the musicians singing their hearts out, but their music echoed off the walls nonetheless as we cruised through hidden mazes. I felt a sweeping sense of reverence for this tradition steeped in centuries of history. It was a different kind of religious that I felt walking into St. Mark’s Basilica. I was close to tears, looking up at ceilings covered in gold and paintings of Biblical stories I had heard over and over since I was born.

The same level of artistry was present on the island of Murano–just on a different scale. A glassblower stretched red hot glass like it was taffy into a horse standing on its hind legs in under two minutes. What we didn’t see was the decades of training the artist had gone through to reach this level of mastery. We left Murano with the tiniest glass beads strung on an invisible line wrapped around our wrists.

Burano, another island off the coast of Venice, was an Instagrammer’s paradise—colorful walls painted by fishermen so they could identify their house from a distance as they pulled into the shore. We could see the unfazed locals sitting in their houses, front door wide open to invite the sea breeze in. Their laundry unabashedly hung on wires outside. We ate at a seafood restaurant where the walls were covered with local artists’ paintings of the color haven, and shelves were lined with all kinds of glass artifacts. It was the loveliest respite from the tourist chaos in Venice. The colors made me happy. The seafood was cooked to perfection. Life moved at a leisurely pace. What more could a girl want?

 

 

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Impressions of Nice, France

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I celebrated my 19th birthday in Nice, France. Perhaps that is why this seaside resort town unexpectedly grew on me. It was so easy to love the cotton candy colored sunsets, stretches of deep blue sea, pebbled beaches. A place like that enhanced the love I was receiving from family and friends—I could see love, pulsing and palpable, in the views that made me feel so small and yet interconnected with the world.

We walked along the promenade lined with blue chairs facing the ocean, with the express purpose of watching the waves roll in, the families sprawled on blankets, or topless women (if that’s your vibe). It was easy to believe that love was in the air, as we hypothesized that a young man with a tourist bicycle carriage was in love with the young woman playing trombone on the sidewalk. Still, we didn’t let our guards down completely—we kept our eyes peeled for pickpockets, and couldn’t quite determine if a tall man in ripped jeans nodding to a woman on a bench were just friends, or tag team thieves.

Old Town was a maze of colorful buildings, rows of restaurants with outdoor seating (including aggressive waiters waving you over with their menus), and flea markets selling antiques and jewelry. We ate macarons as we walked through the checkered square, past children splashing in a water fountain playground. We ate at a restaurant that served giant slices of pizza and gazed at the rows of tables that lined the pedestrianized roads, lit by elegant street lamps, framed by Italian-influenced buildings.

We drove on the Grand Corniche, a series of roads that went up the mountainside, offering views I thought were only possible from helicopters. We were so high up that the mountainside towns became micro-climates: one minute, the skies were a clear blue and we could see all the way down to the ocean 472 meters below; the next, a fog appeared and all we could see was a wall of white. After we ate lunch at a family-owned bistro, the fog cleared. Next to the bistro, there was an elementary school with a playground field that looked out at the mountains down to the shore in the distance. The boats were tiny. The buildings popped with their red tiled roofs. The children played as children do, but some pressed their faces to the fence and looked out at the vista. As we left, I wondered what it must be like to look at that view every day, wondered if they would ever stop feeling so small in their awe.

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Impressions of Lake Geneva

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The first thing we saw driving into Geneva was a young man on a low bridge over the Rhône, shirtless, ready to jump, grinning at his similarly shirtless friends on the Bank. We held our breaths, hoping the red light would last just a bit longer. It did—we got to see him clumsily dive headfirst into the river. He popped out of the water, swept under the bridge by the current. Laughing, triumphant, like his friends watching from the side.

Later as we drove along the mountainside above lakes and under kilometer-long tunnels, a paraglider casually soared by, drifting gently with the wind. My father spotted a hot air balloon perusing the mountains, rocky outlines topped with some streaks of snow. On the Switzerland shore we were informed that all the white triangles—hundreds upon hundreds of sailboats on the lake—were to sail around Geneva at precisely 10am. On a shore in France a young boy went swimming without his clothes, splashing with his dog.

Geneva felt like adventure. We ate ham and cheese and drank wine produced in the green vineyards that framed the water (1). We gaped at the biggest shelf in a supermarket in Switzerland, dedicated to chocolate, no less (2). We ate ridiculously expensive but ridiculously good food (3). We window shopped the finest watches in the world. We took a steam boat across the lake to Yvoire, France and walked beside windows full of flower boxes and ducked into boutiques owned by people living upstairs. We took photos with both our iPhones and our minds, hoping this picturesque dream would forever sear into our memories.

We took our last breaths of the crisp mountain air and boarded the bus.

 

 

  1. This was at Cave Champ de Clos, a family-run business passed down through the generations since the 15th century.
  2. The Swiss, on average, eat about a bar of chocolate a day. We stumbled upon an expensive local favorite called Laderach. This chocolate is so flavorful. 10/10 recommend.
  3. According to the ECA’s 2018 Cost of Living Survey, Geneva ranks as the third most expensive city in the world. That said, we ate at a pretty decent price for Geneva at a wonderful little restaurant called Milan. Read my review on TripAdvisor: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g188057-d1045004-Reviews-Milan-Geneva.html

 

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Impressions of Paris

This is a city of contradictions. A city too small to hold more than 2000 years of artistry, history, personality. A city bursting at the seams. Every corner, a crack. Every roundabout, an accident—inevitable, thanks to aggressive drivers and sparse street lines and absent stop signs (1). A city where roads are made for mule riders (2), not tour buses that barely scrape through Louvre palace walls. A city where one river bank prizes time and the other, money (3). Where people sit outside cafes until nightfall—the veil does not come down here until 10pm (4). They face towards the streets, live theater at its finest, watching the world whirl by (5). You can people watch for as long as you want if you pay the fee of extra Euros (6) and personal space (7). A bonjour can melt the ice, but prices and politeness depend on your French fluency (8). This is a city of perspective. Winding, cobbled paths. Medieval twists and turns. Eclectic international food, electric university students. Strain your neck to glimpse side streets that curve into homes housed in century-old buildings or stretch into the horizon, a landmark silhouetting the sunset. An avenue of rubies and diamonds (9). Headlights from dusk to dawn. Cream puffs and crepes and macaroons and creme brûlée: subtle, rewarding flavor. Shots of espresso, swishes of wine, puffs of tobacco: no one and everyone is an addict. This is a city of lovers and possibilities. And thieves. Watch for street scams. Stay light on your feet, light as the steel tower in the distance (10). Pickpockets look just like you and me. In this city of danger, everyone is treated as a criminal (11)—and in this there is an unexpected semblance of equality. This is a city that worships a man who commissioned one too many art pieces depicting his self-coronation (12). This is a city of every man for himself. Yet when both tourists and locals alike look up at the skyline of obelisks and arcs and towers that speak of power and romance and lineage, for a moment we are no longer strangers, just a city of people in awe.

 

 

1. An accident occurs at the Arc de Triophe roundabout every 12 minutes. It is chaos. Oh, an in all of Paris there is only 1 stop sign.

2. There are not many of these tiny alleyways left. The ones that are were once considered actual roads, because it could fit a man traveling with his mule—and that was all they needed for transportation back then.

3. Left Bank of the Seine: artistic and intellectual haven. Right Bank: wealth and business. Why can’t one have both? Asking for an artist friend.

4. The farther north you go, the longer the days of sun.

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Courtesy of The Digital Iris.

Note how all the seats are facing the street. It’s not just the solo customers people-watching—duos will often opt to sit on the same side as well.

6. You can pay 5x more for the same cup of coffee if you sit down in a cafe. Space is sparse.

7. I was enjoying my cup of coffee when suddenly a waiter came up to me, spoke at me in frenzied French and tried to move my chair while I was still sitting in it. It was to make space for a big group next to us.

8. French is mandated in workplaces, commercial areas, and schools.

9. Car lights down Champs de Elysees.

10. The Eiffel Tower, made out of steel, weighs 7300 tons. Yet because of the way the weight is distributed, it exerts the same amount of pressure on the ground as a man sitting in a chair.

11. My bags were scanned and patted down entering regular stores. Finely dressed security men with black earpieces watched me browse coffee machines from a floor above.

12. Napoleon of course. The French love him.

 

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