Saying goodbye is an inevitable part of every exchange experience, and while it is something I do not like, there is no running away from it. I came to Japan this time around with the hopes of learning much more about Japan, but what I left with was more than that. Thinking back, I never anticipated making such good friends from around the world in just ten months.
I often asked the AIKOM students when we started talking and when we became friends, and no one could come up with a good answer. In fact, it’s almost funny to look back at everything and see how everything worked out. From random dinner nights to going to classes together to studying in the AIKOM office, we grew so close to the point where we just have to look at each other to know what the other is thinking. The number of inside jokes that only this group could understand grew so quickly, most people have no idea why we are laughing so much all the time. It’s the college experience, but being in another country and sharing our experiences in our different Englishes made it even more amazing.
As for my Japanese friends, they came from the most random of places. Though most were from Toudai, I became good friends with many outside the university. Intrigued by the gap between the two “Japan’s” I have experienced, we spent hours in restaurants and cafes discussing Japanese culture and politics as well as topics deemed taboo. Naturally, my broken Japanese found its way into the conversations and that gave way to a million more topics and a million more inside jokes that I would rather forget.
I think the hardest thing when saying goodbye is thanking someone. It isn’t until I stepped back that I realized how much the AIKOM students and my Japanese friends made this year much more than “Japan.” And because of that, I told many of my friends that a mere “thank you” doesn’t suffice especially when it sounds so tekitou (not earnest).
Some students held goodbye parties at izakaya, but I decided to divide my “goodbye parties” between the final two months. Though some were bigger than the others, the structure was the same as when we first met: let’s go out to eat somewhere together!
One of my last days was spent in Kamakura and Enoshima with my Amika, my AIKOM tutor. Aside from being known as a center of Nichiren Buddhism, Kamakura is home to many famous shrines and temples. Walking through Kamakura and making new friends along the way was the perfect way to end my year in Japan.
Amika and I reflected on the year and moved on to about Amika’s upcoming year at the University of Washington. It is still hard for me to wrap my head around how long I have been in Japan, but I am more than excited for Amika to share her stories about Washington and “American” culture.
The time we spent together was incredible. From opening bank accounts to getting train passes to shopping for classes, everything happened so fast. I found myself in Japanese linguistics classes that were either the right level or too hard due to academic jargon. Our spontaneous dinner parties and horror movie nights made our lives grow closer and closer while increasing the number of “Jinglish” words and phrases. I became so used to life in Tokyo, it was hard for me to imagine not using public transportation on a daily basis.
I often wrote that this year was much more than Japan. I came into the program wanting to learn about Japan’s place in the world and its relation with other countries and I can say without fail that I accomplished that goal. Despite being much better at the language than I was four years ago, I ran into many challenges I did not expect. But by turning each challenge into a learning opportunity, I pushed through the year and grew up in more ways than I had anticipated. Aside from the AIKOM program, I got to see my favorite band perform five (!) times, spend New Year’s with my host family, reunite with old friends, and learn how to speed read in Japanese. I became very involved with the LGBT community in Tokyo. Aside from the lifelong friends I made during the volunteer events, it was here that I learned about current social issues that Japan faces along with the lack of media coverage and discussion on these topics. The year ended before I realized it, but my group of friends now extends to Tokyo, Paris, Prague, and many other places that I have yet to visit.
Before leaving Japan, the AIKOM students would always talk about when and where our lives would cross again. We talk about our future plans: some have a clear idea of what they want to do and others left even more confused. Students everywhere in their 20′s are expected to know what they’re doing after graduating, but the reality is that most don’t and it is okay to be scared, to be confused.
And while the AIKOM program did have its shortcomings this year, I know that the program can only improve from this year onward. AIKOM 18 introduced me to a different side of Japan: a Japan that is struggling to define its uniqueness while internationalizing. I became more independent as I sought out volunteer opportunities and learned more about myself because of this.
Watching the sunset at Enoshima and reflecting on all that happened during the year, I couldn’t help but smile knowing that I just spent an incredible year in Tokyo and will have many friends and a dear host family waiting for me when I come back.
[A Four Year Reunion]
Four years ago, I was living abroad with a host family in Toyohashi, Japan thanks to Youth for Understanding and the Mitsui USA scholarship. I spent my mornings attending classes with my host sister and found myself in a stuffy university gym until 10 PM at marching band.
Being a part of marching band was my first time observing the kohai-senpai relationship, but better yet, I got a chance to experience how it is to be a part of the hierarchy. The club was renowned for being the most rigorous and difficult at the high school. Practices were long and grueling. Seeing girls collapse from heat exhaustion was a common sight and sent a message to all that these girls had to work harder. It’s no wonder nearly all the girls quit once the new school year came around.
Without a doubt, living with a host family, being 17, and getting to participate in marching band shaped my first study abroad experience. Aside from getting involved with the community, I learned about the inner workings of Japanese society and through testing times, made some of the best friends anyone could ever ask for.
I woke up to an email from Aya-sensei, one of the band’s coaches, and received an invitation to watch their Tokyo performance. It was a last minute decision and the 40 degree weather wasn’t helping at all. I had planned to reunite with everyone during New Year’s but found out that they went to Tokyo while I came to Toyohashi.
Hikosaka-sensei met me at the entrance of the stadium and spent five minutes briefing me on the current state of the club: it had grown from 30 members to about 80 in just a few years. We spent the time catching up and talking about how quickly four years go by. It is still hard for me to imagine how long I have been in Japan. When parting with the team, I couldn’t help but think about where and when our lives would cross again, but I will always know that Toyohashi will be my second home and there will be people waiting for me when I go back.
[The Completion Ceremony]
Second semester flew by faster than anyone imagined. We headed to KOMCEE for our completion ceremony but took some photos beforehand. This would be our last night as a group as the first AIKOM student left for home two days later.
We celebrated with our Japanese friends and professors. It is strange how everything seems to creep up on you once the end is near–parties, events, concerts, you name it. Even though the year was coming to an end, it was anything but sad. We were too busy preoccupied with talks of our futures and where we could meet for reunions. What I love the most is that the other AIKOM students have become so close to me that we can call each other family. Going to class and fighting for seats in the cafeteria together became so normalized, some of us wonder how we even lived our lives without each other before coming here.
[An Exchange Party]
Every year, the Heiwa Nakajiima Foundation holds a party at their office for all 50 scholarship recipients. With more and more to say each report, I was more than excited to catch up with everyone at foundation and make new friends.
Getting to Roppongi this time around was much easier and goes to show how much I’ve become so accustomed to life in Tokyo. No longer was I asking for help on the trains or entering the ARK Mori building with a nervous “I have no idea what I’m doing” smile. This was one of the few moments in July that made me realize just how long I’ve been in Japan.
We began the party with a casual meet-and-greet followed by a speech from the current president of the foundation. The Heiwa Nakajima Foundation operates under the notion of peace (hence, heiwa) and works hard to promote global exchange between Japan and many countries around the world. The president began his speech by describing the current dilemma Japan is facing: where does Japan fit in an internationalizing world and why we have a young generation that isn’t willing to go abroad and learn more about the world? He mentioned that he loved Japan for being peaceful, but perhaps it is too peaceful that no one thinks twice about what is happening around him. The solution, of course, is not revolution; rather, by sending students abroad and bringing them in, our preconceived notions about our home countries and Japan change. Everyone at the foundation believes that something this simple can bring about peace and understanding around the world, and I fully agree with them.
Studying abroad for so long taught me so many things. Aside from catching up with the everyone (and the amazing food!), meeting the other scholarship recipients was probably the best part of the day. The conversations between the scholarship recipients was all in Japanese and while sharing our year-long experiences, we learned more about the countries and cultures we grew up in and how this shaped our view on our experiences here. Although some of our conversations tended to learn towards the serious side, we did have time to share some of our more embarrassing or awkward stories. This sounds like the typical college experience–meet once and let’s be friends forever!!–but I think it is exactly these meetings and AIKOM that truly shaped my year abroad. I came here to learn about Japan but was leaving with so much more, and thanks to the foundation, I left the room knowing that I have friends from Serbia all the way to Kyrgyzstan.
I had the time to revisit my first essay to the Heiwa Nakajima Foundation and read the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. From the first luncheon to the last exchange party, I can say that I reached all of my goals and had quite a few hurdles to leap over. I still cannot grasp how long I have been in here and how comfortable I became with daily life. This year was not possible at all if not for the foundation and I cannot thank them enough. It will be these memories and friendships that will stick to me for the rest of my life and continue to influence me even after I return home.
[The Kii Peninsula]
Our first and last AIKOM excursion was to the Kii Peninsula. The peninsula is found in the Wakayama Prefecture and is famous for Koya-san, Shingon Buddhism, and the number of temples one can find the region. After days of bothering Kimi-sensei, I finally received permission to participate on the first two days of the trip before heading back to Tokyo. The program and the university arranged a charter bus for us and the trip included an overnight stay at a temple and onsen resort.
Our first stop was Meoto Iwa in Ise. The rocks are famous because they symbolize the bond between husband and wife. In Japanese mythology, it is here that we see the birth of kami and Izanami and Izanagi embody this union. Kami is usually translated as god but the Shinto definition of the term is more encompassing in that kami are everywhere — in the trees, wind, sea, rocks, and so on. Kami are not invincible; in fact, kami are vulnerable to human emotions such as anger and sadness. Because of these emotions, natural disasters such as earthquakes and landslides take place. Japanese mythology still plays a big part in Japanese society especially in the sphere of pop culture, so visiting Meoto Iwa was a unique opportunity to see the birthplace of kami.
Besides walls covered in ema, the shrine was decorated with frog statues and ornaments.
The day’s trip was filled with mythology more than anything. Amaterasu Omikami, one of the major deities in Japanese mythology, is said to be enshrined in Ise Shrine. Aside from the deity’s importance in Japanese mythology as the great harmonizer, it is said that the Japanese race descended from Amaterasu.
Upon exiting Ise Shrine, we took a break from all the history we’ve been exposed to in Oharai Machi. Oharai Machi is a good kilometer of traditional shops and restaurants–some serving visitors and those on pilgrimages for centuries. Passing through the busy streets, we met shop keepers who were eager to tell us about the history of the area and what the area’s famous food was. Interestingly enough, the street’s signature dish Ise udon include noodles that are much thicker than the regular udon we have in Tokyo. After an unexpected downpour and a little bit of souvenir shopping, we all took a much needed break in a restaurant and enjoyed our udon while watching other visitors huddle under shops to keep out of the rain.
Our first night was spent in a temple on Mt. Koya, and Kūkai is one of the most famous figures that comes to mind when talking about Mt. Koya. My Intro to Asian Religions class at Michigan included a section on Kūkai and Esoteric Buddhism and was probably one of the more difficult Buddhisms I had to understand. But despite this difficulty, I was more than excited to be surrounded by the school of thought and observe its similarities and differences from Buddhist temples we find in Tokyo.
We were greeted by the monks at the front gate and put our bags down. Upon returning to the dining area, we we greeted with rows of monk food–all vegetarian with a variety of tofu and unlimited rice. We took our time enjoying our meal and talking about what happened during the trip. Not surprisingly, Kimi-sensei spent his time telling the monks to give me megamori each time I asked for a new bowl of rice.
The next morning was spent going through Japan’s largest cemetery. Stretching nearly __ kilometers and covered in fresh green moss, the area is a must-visit for anyone going to Mt. Koya. The cemetery is filled with Japanese history. The graves of famous military commanders, religious leaders, and government figures can be found if one looks close enough. We met a series of company owned gravestones near the end of our tour with a special box for meishi (business cards). Rumor has it that one will receive a thank you letter from the company if he puts his business card in.
A temple lies at one end of the cemetery and it is said that Kukai lies here in eternal meditation. Head monks dressed in orange robes can be seen carrying food every day to the temple to feed their teacher.
My trip ended at Kongobuji Temple–the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. Here, we enjoyed tea and special senbei (rice crackers) in a large room and had our photo taken with, the mascot of the temple, Koya-kun. And so it was here that I parted ways with the AIKOM students and Kimi-sensei and made my way back to Tokyo. Before getting on the train, I stopped in Osaka to grab some takoyaki and thought about my experience for the past two days and all I had learned.
Besides learning and seeing the history of Buddhism in Japan, what I thought of the most on my trip back to Tokyo was how religion plays a role in Japanese society. If Esoteric Buddhism is so unique to Japan or if Mt. Koya is that important to visit, then how does this affect Japanese society and their current affairs? My involvement with the LGBT community in Tokyo this year taught me how little of a role religion plays in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Japan as opposed to the United States. But if it isn’t religion that pushes certain bills to be passed, then what is the motivating force for Japan? What influence does spirituality have in present day Japan? I left Mt. Koya with many more questions, but they were good questions especially for dinner with my Japanese friends. Getting the opportunity to see how smaller temples interact with the public, their hospitality, and daily life allowed me to see the “original” use of the temples–something I would not get to see at larger more popular temples. Traveling to the Kii Peninsula and Mt. Koya was an amazing experience when it comes to comparative religion and showed me yet another “Japan” that I have to take into account when thinking about the society.
With the cicadas outside crying and the end of tsuyu, festival and firework season has started in Japan. For many AIKOM students, buying yukata was the highlight of the summer. Shopping for yukata in Tokyo is not an easy task; if anything, it becomes much more difficult due to the variety of yukata available. Just when you thought you were done shopping the store around the corner states that its geta are much cheaper and of better quality.
Both yukata and kimono are efficient pieces of clothing that have become part of Japanese traditional wear. By efficient, I mean that almost anyone can look good in a kimono or yukata. The loose fabric wraps around the owner and is adjustable all the time, so anyone regardless of height or shape can pull off a good kimono or yukata look. Yukata designs range from traditional to “modern.” It’s not raer to find yukata decorated completely with cats. The problem most AIKOM students ran into was finding out what was in and what was popular among college students.
Buying my own yukata for the first time was a good experience. The shopkeepers were more than happy to give advice on which yukata suited you better and what the young people were buying.
One of our friends called her grandmother along with a kimono professional to the Mitaka dorms to help us put on our yukata. We learned how to walk properly in our clothes, and it is harder than it looks. A typical 10-minute walk to the bus stop took at least 15-20 minutes.
All together, it took about four hours to get everyone dressed and ready for the event. While we were watching everyone else put on their yukata, we wrote messages to the two thanking them for their time.
With everyone dressed and ready, we headed for Tokyo Bay to get on a cruise boat. Although it sounds like a bad idea, the cruise boat offering a two-hour all-you-can-drink course is actually a hotspot for nanpa (flirting). University students come the boat with their circles and hold end-of-the-semester parties here because it is cheap, the drinks are good, and there is no clean-up afterwards. Some of us went exploring and found lounges waiting to occupied. Having lived in Tokyo for almost a year, finding free places to just hang out and talk is hard, so we took advantage of the space and talked the night away. And so boat ride ended as soon as it began, and we ended the night taking purikura in our yukata back in Kichijoji.
The AIKOM students who took the JLPT earlier in the day rushed back to the dorms to make it to the AIKOM goodbye party.
The night started off with a lot of food and games thrown by the Mitaka tutors. We gave our thank you performance and speech and then left outside to play with fireworks.
[Eating with AIKOM: Hawaiian Food]
Japan has a strange fascination with Hawaii. From stationery sets to baby goods, one can always be sure that a Hawaiian themed set exists somewhere.
One of the AIKOM students happens to come from Hawaii and we would often talk about the representation of Hawaii in both America and Japan. Our conversations added another layer on top of “what makes America American?” which is why I love (and laugh at) the awkward pause and glances the Americans give each other before answering a question in class.
So for two of our dinner nights we tried loco moco — a traditional Hawaiian dish. White rice topped with fried egg and hamburg steak is all it takes to fill one up. I have yet to try authentic loco moco but am looking forward to that day (I’m not sure if I can handle the American sized portions yet)!
Kawagoe is often referred to as Little Edo and was the next destination of Boccellari-sensei’s excursions. The city’s Toki no Kane (Bell of Time) and love for traditional Japanese sweets and confectionery sets it apart from the Tokyo everyone thinks of.
At first glance, Kawagoe seemed like any regular city in Tokyo. It had strip malls , but upon arriving at the temples, we started to see a change in scenery. Now after going to temple after temple throughout the year it’s easy to say that every temple is the same and to fall asleep at each explanation. For most of us, however, the most exciting parts of the trip was going to all of these temples and listening to the stories behind them.
Our walk brought us to the Buddhist Temple Kita-in. Rows and rows of statues representing the disciples of the Buddha are found in one corner of the temple. All together, there are 540 statues and they are called the 500 rakan (Japanese term for those who have reached nirvana). No two statues look the same and facial expressions range from uncontrollable laughter to crouching in loneliness. In recognition of the Chinese Zodiac system, there are statues representing each animal and if one finds his statue, it is said he gets good luck for the year.
Different from most temples, Kita-in boasts a lot of rooms and walking space. It gives off the feeling that not much has changed since the Edo Period. Moving outside to the main street, we ran into lines of traditional Japanese confectionery shops all offering different types of Japanese snacks.
Traveling to new places means new flavors and potato was clearly the theme most shops stuck to in Kawagoe. After a long walk around the city, most of us headed towards the ice cream shops. Murasaki Imo, purple potato, is one of the area’s most popular flavors. All the shops specialized in different sweets and some of the more adventurous AIKOM bought cotton candy bread larger than french bread one would find in the States. Most of us questioned the taste of the bread but it was a good way to satisfy our sweet tooth before heading off to another izakaya with Sensei and his students.
[Asakusa Eight Months Later]
With our AIKOM welcoming trip to Asakusa and Ueno cancelled and never rescheduled, Boccellari-sensei took us on a trip in June to Asakusa and a tour of the Yoshiwara district–the pleasure quarters of Tokyo.
Most of us have already gone to Asakusa on our own, but what made this trip different was that Meiji University students would be joining us. It was a chance to not only catch up with Sensei, but also to make new friends and hear about their college life.
Any excursion with Boccellari-sensei means arriving early in the morning and lots of walking. It’s been nearly eight months since we’ve arrived and I’ve come to the conclusion that the 18 in AIKOM means the extra 18 minutes we have to get to the meeting spot. Once we spot a very happy Boccellari-sensei at the station, we were told about the day’s plan and how we’d ride a boat to Asakusa and then take our tour. It has been a while since the AIKOM students all got together to go somewhere, so it was the perfect time to catch up with them and make new friends.
I always learn a lot from Boccellari-sensei’s excursions. He always adds little tidbits that seem so Boccellari-senseiらしい whether it be things that no one would ever write about or dirty jokes from the Meiji Period (I mean, I’m pretty sure none of us were expecting to visit the shrine for sex that day).
As always, we ended the trip with a long dinner at an izakaya. What I love the most about Boccellari-sensei is that he always tries to make us eat something new without telling us what it is. Before it was baby squid and pig tongue, so all of us were wondering what it would be this time around. Upon receiving what seemed like yakitori, we took one bite, gave each other a look, and said, “This isn’t yakitori….” While frantically grabbing our dictionaries and pushing in the katakana, we found out we were eating chicken brains, hearts, and intestines among other things. Chicken…but not really chicken–at least the one we’re used to. It was better than I expected though! I think I’ll take chicken organs over grasshoppers in Shibuya any day.
The trip to Asakusa eight months later was much better than anything we could have asked for. We had good company and a lot of really good conversations with the Japanese students and workers. Another memorable night that ended all too quickly.