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    FEBRUARY 16, 2006
 
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Temple Times and International Programs present:
Overseas Adventures: Spring 2006

taylor
Taylor Benjamin-Britton

Taylor Benjamin-Britton

Major: Political Studies and Asain Studies

International Program: Temple Japan

May 8, 2006 It's hard to put my finger on what my time in Japan has done for me and for my future. I know that before I left I was a quiet little box-in. I had a hard time making friends because I didn't have the time to learn how, and I was so worried about my future that I spent all my time on working toward it without preparing myself for it.

When I arrived, I found myself in the midst of a lot of people in the same situation of unfamiliar territory and unfamiliar people. We really had no choice but to make friends and get one another around this strange new country. I was living with a new family who was learning to be around me, just as much as I was learning to be around them. I was in an environment I'd never had any experience in.

Somewhere in my adaptation to all this, I changed a lot. I learned to talk to people, to do things for myself or to rely on others when I needed to, and, really, to live. I may not be ready for the world yet, but, because of Japan, I'm certainly on my way.

Visit Blogabroad.com at www.littleladyluck.mindsay.com to read Taylor's entire blog from India

April 24, 2006 I won a grant through my university and a kind donor to work and study for a few weeks in India, all expenses paid, of course. Ten students and I have come with our professor to work at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India.

MSSRF works in the over-600,000 villages of this country to create self-help groups, and village knowledge and resource centers; set up scholarships; aid in rebuilding tsunami-damaged villages; and so on. It’s a leader in development, and it’s constantly innovating. We’re here to learn the ropes of development work, particularly those of us who will be going into that field (myself included). MSSRF has put us up, fed us and taught us a lot already. We have spent a lot of time just talking to villagers about the groups they have formed and the side jobs they have taken up to help pay for their children’s education.

I have had so many amazing experiences just talking with and doing traditional work and crafts with the natives of India. For me, it’s just been a reaffirmation of my goals and dreams, which college life and world events have jaded. I’m certain now that my life’s work lies here in the field, making smiles and rebuilding dreams. I can see it in the smiles of the children around me. I am no longer afraid.

Everyday Life

While it doesn’t at first seem like it should be interesting, for the first few weeks I was in Japan I was just amazed by every little thing. Japanese stoplights are exciting (they’re horizontal!). Ultra-advanced cell phones are exciting (although they’re behind on the mp3 player trend). Coin-operated bike racks are exciting. Hot drinks in vending machines are exciting. Everything is exciting! It wasn’t bad enough that I took pictures of every little thing, fortunately, but I’ve known people to go down that road.

Anyway, I’ve since calmed down and settled into a routine. Since I live in the suburbs, I get the feeling that I’m actually getting the everyday life experience (as opposed to the kids living in Roppongi, which is basically Tokyo’s foreigner party district).

My day starts at around 6:30 every morning. I have to get up that early in order to have enough time to do my thing, eat breakfast and catch an 8-something train. I get in a good 20 minutes of children’s TV programming over a traditional breakfast (a bowl of hot rice with a raw egg cracked over it and some soy sauce, hopefully with miso soup on the side) before I have to run. On that note, milk here is actually half-and-half, if you’ve ever had it. Please try some over your breakfast where possible.

I walk about 20 minutes to the train station because the bus is a hassle and costs money. On my way, I pass a lot of neatly uniformed high school students and business people who seem to have never seen a foreigner in their lives. There, I meet up with a friend for an hour-and-a-half commute. We only get to sit if we don’t get on the express train, so our choice is generally made by how much homework and how much sleep we managed to get the night before.

The local train is nice, but I recommend riding the express just once or twice. They actually pay people to push everyone into the train, so the doors can close; there is no breathing room, and people will begin to hate you for your large backpack. Stopping at each station is a lot of fun, especially when everyone falls over onto everyone else. Girls, however, should watch whom they stand next to. Butt-grabbing is not above your average salaryman. Your defense is to have your camera-equipped cell phone out because they will be afraid of your taking their picture in the act. Also, if you are being stared at by anyone, do not act uncomfortable. Stare back. The person will stop almost immediately. Works like a charm.

We debark in Tokyo for another 20-minute hike through suburbia. On escalators. You will find that in most places, a set of stairs will be accompanied by an escalator — often there won’t even be stairs. In Japan, people drive on the left side of the street, walk on the left side of the sidewalk and stand on the left side of the elevator. Do not stand on the right if you don’t want to make people very, very angry and huffy with you.

And then, we finally arrive at school a little after 10. Packages from home are a godsend, so frequent mail-checking is a staple of the day. After mail call, we spend a morning in Japanese or Japanese culture, depending on the day, where every little detail of Japan is drilled into our heads for an hour or so. As for lunch, while we thought at first it would be fun to eat “real” ramen all the time, we have since learned that it is expensive and almost impossible to finish a bowl of. We hit the conbini (convenience store) for cheap lunch boxes. Japanese food, if you are not eating crap all the time, is really good for you. From just eating the usual diet, I’ve lost about 10 pounds, and my case would be considered average.

If it’s Wednesday, we hit yoga after that for an hour. I highly recommend yoga; it works wonders for balance, concentration and tightening your big American behind. If not, we hang out in the caf’, where the Americans and Japanese mix it up for whacky mealtime adventures. If we’re feeling adventurous, we sneak off for a field trip to Tokyo Tower or shopping in Shibuya or Akihabara. Last week, we went to Ginza, where we accidentally found ourselves in the Eastern Grounds of the Imperial Palace. Of course, we couldn’t go in — the emperor doesn’t like kids on his lawn — but we photographed the surrounding area plenty.

In the afternoons, I have a class on Japanese comics—I won’t lie; it’s a buffer course, and we watch cartoons—and a special course on non-governmental organizations that I had to go through screening to get into. This course is actually run on a grant, and it’s sending us all to work at a foundation in India for a few weeks at the end of the semester, all expenses paid. I’m only taking four classes, but I do not recommend any more, and I do not recommend any hard classes. You want to have fun abroad. If it’s down to a weekend trip or an A+ paper over an A-, you’ll choose the trip nine times out of 10, I guarantee.

After classes, we have a variety of activities to choose from. If it’s a Wednesday, we go spend a few hours at the hot springs. If it’s a Friday, we head to archery club. Any one of a number of shopping districts is a short ride away. In addition, the school keeps us busy with varied cultural activities. If we’re tired, it’s straight home (two hours approximately) to a hot mama-made dinner and a few hours of crazy Japanese television.

I get most of my Japanese practice during this time, chatting with my mother, playing with the kids and just watching the telly. After about nine cups of tea, I head upstairs to lie on my futon and work/play on the Internet before bed. You will learn to live by your futon — Japanese homes are not heated.

This is also the time for e-mails, calling home and writing posts, and it’s about 8 a.m. your time, 10 p.m. my time, on the same day. I think this might be the most disorienting thing of them all. You will also feel the loneliest for home around this time. But whatever you do, no matter how lonely you get or how bad your day was, you never go home in that culture-shock moment. You ride it out. It is not that bad. Believe me, I know somebody who did, and they will probably always regret it. If you’ve actually made it abroad, you definitely have the willpower to make it in your new home. Chin up. It’s gonna be good.

The Bathhouse, or How to Become Comfortable With Your Body in Five Minutes Flat

MARCH 27, 2006: I’ve mentioned before that Japan was the most seismically active country in the world — well, it’s got volcanoes too, Mt. Fuji being one (although it hasn’t erupted in several hundred years). Most volcanic activity manifests itself in the form of natural hot springs. The historic Japanese onsen is a hot spring used as a public bath, sometimes with a traditional inn built around it.

Today, while the old-school onsen hasn’t gone out of fashion, the idea has been made a lot more accessible. The water is imported from springs all across the country to onsen “centers,” which at first glance look like fitness clubs, with juice machines and a snack bar, massage beds and chairs, and TVs waiting in the lobby. In keeping with tradition, you leave your shoes at the door. However, on the other side of that door is a surprise.

A bunch of naked old ladies. I should clarify that the sexes each have their own sides of the onsen to bathe in, but that being said, your privacy ends there. In that locker room, you drop those drawers, no matter who’s looking _ no ifs, ands or buts. You better hope you’re with a good friend because there will be secrets afterward.

From the locker room, you go to the showers, which are not showers per se. You sit on a stool in front of a vanity, in a long line of open vanities with no walls between them, and soap up, then pour a bucket of hot water over your head to rinse off. This is the way people do it at home before hopping in the tub, generally. Oh, and never, ever enter the baths without having washed. I won’t go into the details.

After you’re clean, you can jump in. At a good-sized place, you will find not one kind of hot spring water, but 10. Some will be outdoors, some will have massage jets and some will smell like cedar or sulphur. I recommend trying them all, despite the little kids and grandmas who will inescapably stare at the foreigners. The particular one we went to had a grapefruit-scented sauna, which of course, you come out of smelling like citrus. There’s also a set of water jets in a closet to one side, which you can sit under to get a back and shoulder massage. I should warn you that if you’re not used to it, you may feel dizzy after being in the tubs for an hour, as I did. The heat will do wonders for a cold, but your body temperature will also begin to rise eventually, and if your experience is anything like mine, you need to get out as soon as you feel lightheaded. You can faint.

And that’s about how it works. In the lockers they provide all the gear you need to become lovely again, as well.

It’s uncommon, but co-ed baths do exist. I wouldn’t recommend going to one just to look at girls (or boys), as much as I wouldn’t recommend a nude beach. For every cute girl you see, you’re going to see about 30 floppy grandmas. You go to relax, and you will. When you walk out of there, you’re going to want a nap because every muscle in your body is going to be in a state of repose. I recommend the massage beds when you come out, followed by that nap.

Til next time.

Born To Be Part of the World

MARCH 13, 2006: I spent the weekend at Hakone in Kanagawa-ken, several hours outside the city and surrounded on all sides by gorgeous mountains, re-discovering Japan. While I feel that much of this country has already been absorbed into the urban jungle, out here in the forests and the mountains you can really feel that “this is Japan.” You won’t see a McDonald’s; you’ll be lucky to meet someone who understands English. If Tokyo is the mind of Japan, the countryside is its heart.

About 15 of us had piled into that tiny bus, little knowing that we were stepping into an experience that would link us all forever. On the way out of Tokyo, I talked with some of them more than I had all semester. Now, they’ve become people that I want to keep in touch with from here on out. Dane Cook on the radio and our feet up on the windows, we struck out.

We arrived early enough to explore the hotel, but instead we opted to disperse on the deck and play a makeshift game of hackey sack with a crumpled up baggie over light conversation. Our check-in wasn’t until three, so we paraded down to a local soba shop for some homemade soba noodles and tofu, which were, by the way, absolutely delicious. I’ve been eating the local food, but everywhere has its own specialties. You’ll find that there’s always something new to try — but you have to be more adventurous than some of our group members were. Those of us who finished early checked out the nearby bakery for some of the best bread I have ever tasted.

statue

After lunch, we took another bus ride up into the mountains — which reminded me a little of home, but were bigger mountains than the ones in my native Pennsylvania — to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum. It was excellent. It’s mainly a statue garden with a lot of modern art, including a tower made of stained glass, which you can climb for one of the best views of the weekend, and a Picasso gallery. It was a place where we could really let loose and have fun, honestly, and we ran around like kids and played in the foot baths.

 

From the museum, we altered our plans slightly and ventured higher, to the source of a lot of hot springs in the area. It smelled strongly of sulfur, and the steam was literally rising up out of the ground everywhere. There was a stream running down the mountain face that was still hot as hell. Up here, you could see even more. Mount Fuji was visible in the distance, much closer than I’m used to. It was so imposing and majestic, I don’t have words. My friends, however, do. As the tour guide was pointing out the side of the bus explaining that he’s been on this trip eight times and only seen it once, he informs us that it’s not visible today. But I’m determined, and I scan the sky furiously. My heart starts pounding when I find the perfect white outline in the sky, looking almost like a part of the clouds — but I know it’s not. I know better. I shout, “No way! There it is, right there!” And all as one, everyone on the bus stands in their seat and exclaims, “Holy sh*t!” Man, was that priceless. We climb the mountain face to the source to try some of the infamous eggs that are boiled right in the spring until the shells turn black. They’re good luck. If you eat one, you’re supposed to live seven years longer. We all had more than we should have, but they were tasty buggers. We just sat up on the mountain face talking and eating for a while, before heading back to the inn.

The inn we stayed at was not your average hotel. It’s called a ryokan, which is a traditional inn at which the rooms are built like old-fashioned Japanese rooms, with tatami [straw mats], low tables, sliding paper doors and futons. Additionally, the women working there wear kimonos and lay out the room nicely for you — and will serve dinner for you in your room if you like. The lower levels of the inn have onsen [natural hot springs, where the Japanese go to get away and relax] on them, separate for men and women. It was a really nice place. The school had reserved a banquet hall for us, and so after checking into our rooms, we hit the hot springs once before getting to the feast.

And when I say feast, I mean it literally. This thing was at least seven courses, with both traditional courses and pizza. Since the room was equipped with a karaoke machine and some mics, somewhere in the later courses we got up and sang. We were down there for hours, dancing and singing and running around like we hadn’t in years. I laughed, I cried. I love those guys. I’d do it all again, despite the bruises I sport for some nasty tumbles. As Jon would say, I “ate tatami” a good few times.

As the night wore on, we split up to go for a beer and snackies run down to the only 7-11 in town (7-11 in Japan is owned by a Japanese company, and it’s HUGE). So myself, both of the Rachels, and Keiichiro “Mike Davis” Nakamura hiked down there. It probably took us a half an hour to get down the mountain, but it was an adventure. People actually come out here to race their cars, so we were passed by a lot of these guys, and some were waiting around at the convenience store. Mike told me later he was pretending not to know Japanese because those kinds of guys can be dangerous. The hike back up was arduous, but I really felt like I was starting to get to know these people by then. We stopped at a small shrine along the way and made an offering in the darkness, which was quite surreal for me, and I will never forget it.

Back at the hotel, I flopped in the grass for a half-nap while we waited for the rest of the group to return to the meeting point. We split again to bathe a little drunk; while I am not recommending getting drunk, I would like to say that a beer before a hot spring bath is extremely relaxing and conducive to full enjoyment of the spring. We met up again in our bathrobes at the end of the night just to talk, though I ended up falling asleep where I was sitting, before sneaking off to bed.

We all woke a little bit icky, but not seriously so. No one got out of hand. I was up and about by 7:30, so I went down for a morning bath before breakfast — which was delicious. Afterward, a few of the girls and I went off on a little secret expedition into the woods. We followed a stone trail along the mountainside, before losing it. On a whim, we decided to climb a set of stairs leading down into the valley and actually ended up happening upon a Zen Buddhist temple built into the side of the mountain. The lady who greeted us spoke some English with us before she discovered our Japanese, explaining that the temple had been founded by women, and telling us about its history and sister temples. She ended up inviting us for tea, although we had to politely decline due to time constraints. Continuing down the stairs, we ended up in a garden behind the restaurant we had eaten at the day before. Still ready for more adventure, we scaled the river bank and jumped around on the rocks a little before heading back. As if by magic, the bus happens to be coming by our way to pick up our group from the inn, and the driver gives us our own private lift back up the mountain.

swords

All together, we checked out and headed for Odawara castle, which had been destroyed at the end of the feudal period, but has since been rebuilt. It was a beautiful replica, and the plum blossoms were open, so I took about a million pictures. The area was very touristy, however, with a zoo and gimmicky shops. In fact, several of us took full advantage of this, and went by the costume booth to be dressed as samurai. I had more fun being the only girl samurai in Japan that day than with anything else. Man, the armor was heavy. I got in a little trouble for play-fighting with the dull sword, but the other tourists got a huge kick out of me and took a ton of pictures. We explored the castle and grounds before heading back to the bus for lunch.

From Odawara, we drove back up into the mountains for one last stop. The forest looked ancient, and there were shrines and temples everywhere. It had started to rain lightly as we drove, very poetically, through the old trees. I was singing the Mononoke-hime theme softly as we went. We finally made it to a place called Daiyuuzan, which I had never heard of, but that was the largest and most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen. Much of the area was Buddhist, with pagodas and temples, but there were Shinto gods here as well. I didn’t realize why we had come here until later, though. We began to climb the stairs gradually, each level taking us to a new set of buildings. But then I found myself at the bottom of a very large staircase with an offering box at the bottom, protected by two deities. This confused me at first, but I ran up the stairs like a dumb person. At the top, I was only greeted by more stairs. And more, and more. And then a stretch of stairs that ran, perhaps, the length of a football field. My legs ached so badly I wanted to cry. I was struggling along that final stretch, but, at long last, I reached the top to find one last, tiny shrine waiting for me. Grateful for the end of toil, I made an offering and rang the bell. It had been 350 stairs. My legs still ached, and, man, was I grateful for the rain.

I climbed down a different way from the others, exploring the complex a little more. I didn’t want to leave, but, alas, all good things do end. The ride home was long but peaceful, as we all fell asleep over each other to the pattering of the rain. I always get sad when these experiences have to end, but in my heart I treasure the time that I was there and the people I was with. It’s moments like the ones we shared in silence as the bus brought us home that make me wish I could be here with everyone forever. To everyone, thank you so, so much.

FEB. 27, 2006: One goes abroad in part to learn about the everyday life of people in another place, and this is something that, in fact, one cannot properly do when living in a dorm with other foreigners -- especially other foreigners from the same country.

You will spend all your time with them, and you will use nothing but your first language. If you really want to learn the language in your new country, and if at all humanly possible, get a homestay!

If you choose to go this route, you will be matched with a family with which you will share your meals, living quarters and activities. You become "one of the kids," and will be immersed in the culture.

Immersion is the best way -- dare I say the only way -- to really learn a foreign language with effect. You just can't escape speaking it. From the moment you wake, having overslept and needing to explain to your host mother that you need to wrap up your breakfast, to adorable goodnights with 5-year-olds, you will have to learn (if you don't know already) how to communicate.

Because I'm at an American university, and my classes are in English, the only way for me to really learn Japanese is by speaking with my family daily.

For instance, right now I am watching the Olympics on television with my host mother and her close friend, and at intervals explaining the basics of snowboarding.

I live with the Narita family in an average, middle-class Tokyo suburb. My host mother is Megumi, who is home during the day. She's in her mid-30s, but she's still in a college student mode of fun and great to hang out with.

Her husband, Shigeru, is head chef at a local restaurant, but he's always at work, so I don't see him often -- per usual for Japanese families. The two little girls are named Misuzu and Mayuko, and they're energetic as all else. Child-speak is certainly a challenge to understand, but we have fun.

Megumi ensures that I never miss a chance to do some activity on a free day. That last picture is my family and several other host families' joint attempt at traditional paper-making. I'm really lucky because my host mother is friends with another host mother in my town, and I was able to make friends with a host student living nearby.

My daily commute is almost two hours (I assure you that this is quite normal for people who work or study in Tokyo), and so it's great to have someone to ride the train and get lost with.

But as nice as having friends is, it's definitely thanks to my family that my speaking has improved over the past weeks. I find myself able to find the words I need, words that I had forgotten when I was learning in the states, quickly enough to hold a respectable conversation.

This is something I have never been able to do, in either Japanese or German before it. I can understand way more. Class will teach you new vocabulary and new grammatical structure, but not nearly as quickly or thoroughly as daily contact with the language. I repeat, get a homestay! There's nothing else like it if you really want to learn.

FEB. 13, 2006: Where to begin? I've been in Japan for a month now, but while that doesn't sound like very long, I've seen and done so much that my memories of my first days here seem quite distant.

I wrote these words not long after I arrived:

Why did I come here, of all places, when I could have spent the spring in Rome or Paris, getting tan and meeting attractive Europeans? And by that I don't mean that there aren't a number of tan, attractive men here.

I've always wanted to come to Japan. My elementary school was sister schools with a Japanese one; I knew the Japanese word for "hello" in the first grade. I've had this intense fascination with exotic places and cultures since I was a kid, which I never really grew out of, and Japan was the pièce de resistance. Samurai and castles, kimono, legends, Shinto shrines--all of these really captured my imagination. Japan, in my mind, was this great adventure to be had.

And it is! It's the most advanced country in the world, and yet they'll build a massive skyscraper around a tiny shrine with the greatest care. All the romance of the past ages is preserved in tiny bubbles interspersed throughout Japan. Exploring the urban jungle, you will stumble across shrines you didn't even know existed. I fell in love with Japan not just for the glittery cities, but for the history as well. There really is no equivalent feeling of unbroken history in America, as you might find here. Yet Japan continues to move forward. It knows where it's coming from, but you can still find adventure. I know, because I already have.

taylor

But it isn't just adventure anymore. It's also a need that I have, you see, to find out how the rest of the world sees America, and sees me, as an American. I want to understand exactly what image we, as Americans, have put out, so I can figure out why so many people hate us and work toward fixing that. I'm not just an adventurer. I want to change the world. What better place to start from than here?

I'm still struggling to figure out my purpose in life, but I know that just by being here and seeing things through a different perspective has already opened my eyes. I have become better able to understand and communicate with both myself and the people around me. I have a ways to go, but I'm on my way. Until next time.

Taylor

International Programs | Overseas Adventures: Spring 2006

 

 


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