Saturday, May 22, 2010


Nagahama Street Scene
So on Saturday, our class took a trip to Nagahama, only 10 minutes away by train. We specifically went to see the figure museum.
Kaiyodo Figure Museum
The figure museum was just like it sounds- the Kaiyodo companies figures on display. I was a little surprised to find 3 figures I have at home being displayed at the museum! I have a tiny tanuki figure, as well as 2 revoltech transformers. I don't have a whole lot of toys so it's interesting to note that the ones I do have are from Japan.
After the figure museum, we accidentally happened upon a music box store. Filled. With. Ghibli. Merchandise.
I sort of stopped in my tracks for a moment and gibbered and pointed. I didn't really expect to come across a place with so much Ghibli merch. So much cute all in one tiny space! Needless to say, we spent some time there and left with a few things. I bought some handkerchiefs (useful for tying up lunches/bento) an eye pillow (can heat or freeze) shaped like o-totoro, and a gift for a friend.
Nahahama Street Scene
We then explored the streets of Nagahama, particularly the Otemon St. shopping district. The street is packed with shops and restaurants. The shops were selling glass items, a specialty of the area, kimono and other traditional clothing supplies, and of course tons of souvenirs and pretty things. We blew through some money. A little. Maybe. We got lost trying to use the map (TWICE) trying to find other destinations, particularly a temple and shrine. But we eventually found one of them.
Nagahama Shrine
Of course at some point we were incredibly hungry. We had a very difficult time finding someplace with vegan food. We were ready to give up and eat snack crackers a vendor was selling, when our professor appeared and pointed us to a restaurant with zaru soba. We were very grateful.
Zaru Soba
Zaru soba is definitely our fall-back food. There is likely bonito (fish) in the tsuyu dipping sauce, but compared to the meat and eggs in all the other dishes.. it's enough. And the restaurant was really nice; the soba was delicious.
It was an adventure, for sure. Lots of exploring, trying to communicate, shopping, and dashing to the train station to go home. We had a good time in Nagahama.

Now, we're off to our host families. If we don't have internet access there, we won't be updating until we get home, but I think we have enough content to keep making blog posts for quite some time, so keep checking back!

Hikone Castle

Due to the huge snafu with our flight at the start of the trip, the walk to Hikone Castle, scheduled for the first full day spent in Japan, was canceled. As the days passed by and no plans to visit the castle as a class were announced, I was afraid that we wouldn't get the chance to see it (well, other than seeing the castle from the classroom window). Yesterday (Friday), Steph, myself, and five other classmates decided to go to Hikone Castle after class was adjourned for the day.

We took the 3:15 shuttle bus (free for JCMU students) downtown to the train station and we were pleased to find that the castle was a rather short walk from there. On the way, we stopped to pay our respects and take photographs at a small Shinto shrine.

Shinto Shrine

The admission fee to the castle grounds was 600 yen per person -- definitely worth it. I think it's stationed at the highest point in the city, which, well, makes complete sense. Hikonyan, the official mascot of Hikone Castle and Hikone as a whole, was there to greet us.


We climbed many stairs during the course of the visit... the least-scary were the stone ones outside, and the most terrifying were the very steep steps inside the castle (it was a lot like climbing a ladder, really).


The castle was most impressive, and nothing at all like European castles. The outside had minimal ornamentation -- except for on the roof, of course -- and the inside was mostly wood and very simple. I liked it quite a bit.

Hikone Castle

The view from the castle was amazing: the city of Hikone, surrounded by very-green mountains, and of course, Lake Biwa. The birds of prey (hawks? Eagles?) that we've seen circling around town were soaring by, screeching.

View From Hikone Castle

We regrouped and made it back to the bus stop for the last shuttle of the night. In all, it was a good afternoon trip, and I'm glad we finally managed to visit Hikone Castle!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Closer Look at Roofs

I pride myself with knowing a good deal about Western, and particularly American, architecture. However, the architecture here in Japan is often completely different, and I'm seeing things I've never encountered before! It's all very new and fascinating.

Perhaps what I find most beautiful and interesting, architecturally, are the roofs. They are very different from what we're used to seeing in the American Midwest.


Tile roofs, much like this roof at Horyu-ji in Nara, are ubiquitous. Newer tiles seem to be made from metal, but many are ceramic. In addition, it's not just the temples and castles that have roofs such as this: houses and train stations even have tiled roofs, and so does JCMU. I've grown very fond of them.

Roof Tiles

There are many different types of ornamentation on these roofs, as seen here on these tiles at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto.


Most impressive to me, however, are the shingles at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto: this graceful roof is made from tree bark.

Never before have I spent so much time looking at roofs. They're not all that interesting in America, but here, they are sometimes the most-ornamented part of a building.

Roof Detail

Kyoto 京都

Kyoto Station

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Enjoying

Medicine Cabinet
I knew coming to Japan was going to be a big challenge, but I wasn't going to let my problems get in the way. But sure enough, it hasn't been easy. I had vertigo for days after the plane ride, and during the worst of it, my I.Cystitis flared up, too. For the last few days, I've finally been feeling great, and then yesterday I started noticing I felt like my allergies were getting to me. I think it's the pollen.

So when we all went downtown, we found a pharmacy. I successfully managed to procure an antihistamine (kohistamin in Japanese) thanks to the helpful staff. It's called COOL UP and comes in chewable minty tablets sort of like Alavert. It's helped, but I still have a painful post-nasal drip and the medication makes me drowsy. I also learned today that umeboshi (pickled plum) which we bought and put into onigiri (rice balls) causes my IC to flare up. Ouch. I can now take "Prelief" before eating umeboshi, since I know better now, but it's too late to fix my earlier mistake.

I do wish I could just be healthy and enjoy every moment of being here, but sometimes I end up stuck inside for a long time, and there's just no way around it. I think tonight, we'll enjoy cooking some Japanese food and study Nihongo. Going for a long trip isn't an option tonight.

We have certainly had fun shopping. We found some very cute things at a department store yesterday, but it's a surprise because some of them are gifts :) we also were able to get more ingredients so we can cook. We were happy when our professor, Mits, showed us where the tonyu, or soymilk was in the store. They had many flavors, so we stocked up. (Lawson's only has regular and banana, I think.) Tonight, we're making a miso soup with silken tofu and shimeiji mushrooms.

Kibun Tonyu

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Day Off

On the way back home from Nara, it was decided that Sunday would be a free day -- a day for study, but mostly, a day to let our feet recover from all that walking around. We were very thankful for this change of plans, as our syllabus originally had us going to Kyoto on Sunday.

Steph and I slept in until 8:30! It felt very good to get lots of extra sleep. We attempted to do laundry and had a heck of a time trying to decipher the washing machines. Eventually, I think we succeeded, and afterward we both air-dried and machine-dried our clothes. Since machine-drying isn't very common here and is energy-using, you must pay for it at JCMU. The center also has a clothes-drying room, which was really interesting to use. Basically, there are bars across the windows, allowing the outside air to come freely into the space, and dry the hanging clothes faster.

At around one-ish, we left with a group of classmates, walking to the strip mall and supermarket. It was a beautiful day outside and very warm... upon finally reaching the supermarket, we found it was very much like the Japanese version of a Walmart... only busier and filled with things we couldn't read! With some difficulty, we found most of the food we needed.

It's interesting to note that rice -- which we bought -- comes in 5-lb bags at the smallest and is also very expensive. It was the most pricey thing we bought! On the other hand, certain Japanese foods and ingredients, which we are accustomed to paying a good deal for in the U.S., are often relatively inexpensive. Fruits, too, such as apples, are also quite pricey.

Loaded with groceries and hungry, we spotted a taiyaki dealer outside the supermarket!


At one-hundred yen apiece, we grabbed four, and gobbled them down on a bench outside.

Steph and I know almost no conversational Japanese, but between asking the cashier if the store took Visa and telling the taiyaki vendor we wanted four azuki bean taiyaki cakes, we managed alright. There was a whole lot of broken Japanese, broken English, and hand gestures going on, that's for sure.

We took a relaxing walk home along Lake Biwa, and got to JCMU at last! Here's a picture of our haul from the supermarket:

Shopping Haul!

That night, the class got together and made kitsune udon for everyone to eat. Steph and I made onigiri with the rice, nori, and furikake that we purchased. It was a tasty dinner! As the class ate and laughed, Oba-Sensei detailed how he was in a few episodes of Power Rangers... or something. It was quite the night.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Nara's Sacred, Sassy, and Spoiled Deer

Nara is famous for its sacred shika (deer) -- and this fact is apparent as soon as you step foot off the train. Shika adorn everything in the city, from posters to buses to Fujifilm advertisements. There's even a new mascot for Nara, marking the ancient city's 1300-year anniversary: Sento-kun, a Buddha-type figure with antlers on his head. The shika are everywhere and are so abundant that deer crossing signs -- the ones we're quite used to seeing in Michigan -- are posted right in the city.

The shika found in Nara are sika deer, a relative of the elk. They're considerably smaller, though, and are even a bit smaller than white-tailed deer. The shika we saw were in various stages of shedding their winter coats, and most of the bucks had bulbous, velvet-covered antlers.

Sleepy Shika

Scattered throughout Todai-ji and the park area were vendors selling shika senbai, or deer crackers. The shika will bow their heads when presented with food... then gobble it up!

Steph Feeds the Shika

Ever since we heard about this study abroad course, I was hoping that seeing the deer at Nara would be part of the itinerary. Yesterday was quite amazing, and having the chance to feed, pet, and be harassed by the sacred shika was definitely one of the highlights of the day. Enough commentary from me, though, and here are just a few parting shots of these lovely animals:

Shika Knows Where to Be

Shika Grooming

Shika Amongst Japanese Students

Shika Glance

Nara is Amazing

So yesterday (May 15) we went to Nara. We left at 7:30am and took a walk past homes, rice fields, and businesses, several miles to the train station.

We've been in a lot of train stations. They always have kiosks and some places to grab a bite to eat. We've had many tickets (kippu) pass through our hands.

Train Station Kiosk

Our first stop in Nara was Horyu-ji. Before entering temples or shrines, you purify yourself by washing your hands and mouth. We just washed our hands, and it seemed like that's what most people were doing. Here's Hannah and Allison doing this.


Horyu-ji is made up of several structures, including (to name a few) the kondo, pagoda, main hall, and yumedono. Beautiful place. It was very crowded and there were many groups of students being led through. Amusingly, many of the students were excited to see our group- especially the tall blondes in the group. Sometimes, they tried out their English on us too.
Here's a little bit of Horyu-ji


Next, we ate lunch at a noodle place, and then we took a bus to Todai-ji. In a word, Todai-ji is amazing. It's the largest wooden structure in the world, possibly only rivaled by the Superior Dome. However, the Dome has NOTHING on this beautiful place. Certainly there is no 49' Buddha inside the Dome. The structure is just overwhelmingly gigantic as you walk up to it. Inside, the statues loom above you. Unfortunately, my pictures from inside were rather poor because it's quite dim inside. But you can understand some scale by looking at the people.


People lit incense before going inside. We did too. Our classmate Matthew (or part of him anyway) is in this photo as he lights incense. It smelled lovely.


There were other sculptures inside, too. It was really amazing to see all of this after having taken Japanese art history at NMU. Some of these art pieces are from a very, very long time ago and have survived in respectable condition. The craftsmanship is remarkable, and the survival of the works (including architecture) is a testament to that. Also inside the building, a gift shop with many, many Buddha and deer souvenirs. Jorie was excited, to say the least. I picked up a bunch of small gifts for friends at home, and some beautiful handkerchiefs.

The day was kind of a blur because we were moving around so much, but I forgot to mention the deer of Nara. As soon as we arrived at Todaiji, we saw the deer. They're everywhere. They're considered sacred, so they're allowed to do whatever they want! Again, Jorie was veeery excited, which is why she's making a separate post just about this deer business. So I'll just say that we all enjoyed feeding the deer Shika Senbei, or deer crackers. Here's one waiting smartly by the senbei kiosk.

Shika Senbei

It was a very amazing day indeed. We walked a LOT though, and, after taking several (EXTREMELY crowded) trains home, we had to walk the several miles back to JCMU. In the dark. At some point, one of our classmates fell ill and we had to get her a ride back. We were all very concerned but she was okay, thankfully. Most of us opted to walk back after that (rather than get a ride in the car)- Jorie and I wanted to hear the kaeru (frogs) and mushi (insects) at night. We did. The rice paddies are everywhere, so the frogs are also everywhere. They sounded a lot like peepers, with other kinds of frogs joining in too. Instead of ribbit, frogs in Japan say kerokero or gerogero. We also saw stars (hoshi) in the sky, and lovely reflections on the rice paddies. We loved it, but we were also walking on very sore feet. We stopped at the Lawson's convenience store, and then went back to the apartment. Jorie bought a beer, drank it, and then quickly fell asleep.

Hard-Earned beer

Friday, May 14, 2010

Shrines and Sushi

Today, we were given a crash course in early Japanese art history. Stephanie had already taken Oba-Sensei's Japanese Art History course a few years ago, but I hadn't, so a lot of the information was very new and interesting to me. Class got out at three, and soon after, Steph, myself, and several of our classmates took a walk down the road to find a local Shinto shrine. It had gotten very sunny and considerably warmer, and the walk was short and pleasant.

As we were told during class today, every Japanese town and village has at least one Shinto shrine, just like how every American town and village has at least one church. The shrine we visited today was pretty small, though we didn't walk past the torii, as there was no purification water with which to wash our hands and mouths. Still, the shrine, at least what we could see of it, was very beautiful.


The shrine led into a beautiful forest, made both of evergreens and bamboo. It had a very pleasant, fragrant smell.

Lantern and Bamboo

After taking far too many photographs -- both artistic and tacky tourist shots -- we crossed the very busy road, to Lake Biwa. There was a large rock protruding from the water, circled in a rope with shide, designating the rock sacred to Shinto. As we learned in class today, the gods and goddesses of the Shinto religion inhabit specific objects in nature, such as certain rocks and trees.

Sacred Rock

We soon found that the beach was full of all sorts of wondrous objects: amidst the flotsam washed up near the water was beach glass of many different shapes and colors.

Japanese Beach Glass

After poking around on the beach for far too long, we headed back to JCMU. At 5:00, the class was driven into Hikone, where we were treated to dinner at a sushi restaurant! Not just any sushi restaurant -- this was a place where the sushi spins by on a conveyor belt! I didn't even know places like this existed in real life. Anyway, it was extremely tasty and very fun, and there were plenty of vegan options for Steph and me.

Umeboshi and Cucumber Sushi

Bamboo Shoot Sushi

The first sushi pictured is made of picked plums (umeboshi) and cucumber, and the second sushi is the especially-tasty bamboo shoot sushi!

And what would be a complete day without the purchase of a choice few cute charms?


The figure with antlers is the new mascot for Nara -- which is where we are headed to tomorrow, by the way. The dinosaur is "Tea-Rex" (he holds a cup of tea and his spikes are tea leaves) and the omamori both depict Hikonyan, the samurai-cat mascot of Hikone Castle.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Byoki- sick. That's how I've felt ever since traveling. Today, I spent most of the day in bed, but later I was taken to a local clinic. On the drive there, I got my first real glimpse of the area (we arrived in the dark- side note: it gets dark here around 7pm and gets light around 5am!). It's beautiful. I was feeling really awful but I was overwhelmed to the point of tearing up.
The clinic seemed very nice. The doctor was kind and he gave me two medicines to take. I took one of them shortly after arriving back at our apartment at JCMU, and I felt better quickly. I'm very grateful!I'm really hoping to recover soon, as this has set me back majorly. I can't go out and explore much, and we haven't even gone to the grocery store yet. I can't get better living on convenience center food, right?Since I felt better, when Jorie came back from class, we went outside for a walk. I'd seen a shrine on our way back from the clinic that I wanted to show to Jorie, but we never did find it. I'm thinking maybe it was in the opposite direction, now. However, we had a wonderful walk and it felt good to get outside. We were both in awe the entire time- the lake, the houses, the plants and birds... everything is amazing and new. The way the houses and the trees are together seems very harmonious. It's difficult to explain, but I'll try.
There's agriculture even in areas with houses and businesses. It makes sense and it's beautiful. The yards were small but contained gardens and trees. The grass is allowed to grow tall and blows gracefully in the wind. We came across a small patch of take (bamboo) forest, amongst many other plants, and it smelled so amazing. We gasped when we heard the wind blowing the bamboo around. We saw buzzards and crows and tiny birds, as well as unfamiliar insects and spiders. Being in Japan is kind of like being a kid again. Can't read sometimes, don't know the name of anything, and always in wonder.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Day 1

So Jorie detailed the travel adventure from which I am still recovering. We’ve done a bunch of other things on our first day here at JCMU, so I’m going to talk about that. Before I do, I have to mention that it’s beautiful around here! I feel so disoriented- I usually know all the plants and animals around me in Michigan, but here, I don’t know any of them.

Planes and Trains

Hello! It's currently 7:30 PM here in Hikone, Japan, and the sky is quite dark. The past few days have been incredible... both in good ways and in bad ways. Our adventure started at 9 AM in Marquette on Sunday, May 9. Our friends Rachel and A.J., who are watching our pets for the next two weeks, dropped us off at Sawyer Airport outside of Marquette. Most of our classmates -- at least those who were taking this flight -- were already there, waiting. The plane was set to leave at 11:30 AM, that is, until we were notified of a one-hour delay. That one-hour delay soon turned into a two-hour delay, which ultimately became a three-hour delay. The reason? Something was wrong with the plane, and a different plane had to be sent up from Detroit.

Meanwhile, we were told that our 3:30 PM flight from Detroit to Narita would be held until we arrived.

We finally left Marquette around 2:30 PM, riding a rather-small plane, the Saab 340B. It was Steph's first time on a plane, and for a first plane ride, it was quite rough, especially on the take-off and, an hour later, the landing. Still, we weren't at a very high altitude, and it was pretty neat to see Michigan from above. We flew over Escanaba, Traverse City, and Saginaw, and before we landed at the Detroit Airport, we could see the skyscrapers of the city.

Michigan From Above

Friday, May 7, 2010

Safe Returns

We're leaving in about 42 hours! This week has flown by. We've spent a good amount of time studying Nihongo, particularly hiragana and sentence structure, as well as packing and finding last-minute items. My carry-on bag has my IC seat cushion, my mp3 player and headphones, a moleskine sketchbook and small lined notebook, pens, pencils, a bag of medications (by the way, the pyridium? FAIL!), camera, extra batteries, emergency numbers, passport, Japanese phrase book, hand sanitizer, and earplugs. LET'S DO THIS!
...oh, I'm also slipping in this little guy: a safe returns kaeru (frog). My friend Molly sent this to me awhile back. He usually rides in my car, but now he will be going with us to Japan for good luck. Well, here's hoping we can keep blogging once we're there!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


We depart in less than four days... which is extremely exciting and just a bit scary at the same time! Needless to say, Steph and I have been packing like crazy, and making sure we've got everything that we need for the trip. Among some of the things we're bringing are -

- our Ciroflex twin-lens reflex cameras
- vitamins!
- thin towels (as we've learned that most laundry is air-dried)
- gifts for our host families (yummy things made in Michigan)
- definitely not our kitties Catkin and Hazelnut, though they look very interested:

Until we do leave, Steph and I will be doing some intense studying of Japanese. At this point, I've learned most of the katakana characters, but I'm still very much learning hiragana. Also important is to memorize certain key phrases! The 13-hour flight will also be useful for learning some last-minute Japanese...