Day 7: Forests, Fashion Districts, and Farewells

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Hello everyone, sorry this one took so long to get out.  I’ve been home for about three days now, and the jet lag has just destroyed my sleep schedule and energy levels.

Anyway! Our final day in Japan was just as exciting and energy-filled as the others.  Our first stop was the Meiji-Jingu Shrine just outside the famous Harajuku district.  The shrine is surrounded by a massive forest, which makes it stand in contrast to the concrete jungle around it.  Upon entering the forest, almost all sounds of the city are drowned out by the numerous trees and the crunching of gravel beneath your feet.  The entire area was so serene and calming, it was hard to believe that the entire forest surrounding the shrine was completely man-made.

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At the center of the forest, the main shrine building stands in quiet splendor.  Its simple, yet elegant design brings an instant feeling of peace as visitors wash their hands and mouths to purify themselves before entering.  The inside is simple, yet beautiful.  There is an open courtyard, giving the area a huge sense of space.  The walls are lined with hundreds of letters written by young Japanese students, detailing their wishes for the new year.

The main shrine stands at the back of the grounds.  According to the Japanese, the soul of Emperor Meiji resides there, as the shrine and forest were built in his honor.

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After visiting the shrine, we were unleashed upon the Harajuku district right next door.  For those who don’t know, Harajuku is Tokyo’s renowned fashion district.  Brand-name cosmetics and clothing can be found here.  There are some particularly special brands or designer clothes that are hard to find, that can be bought here.  I bought some perfume for my mom, and she liked it a lot.

The main street is full of more mainstream brands, but the side streets are where the cool stuff can be found.  There was a store dedicated entirely to condoms.  It was so blatant, it was hilarious.  There was also an owl cafe.  As an owl fan from Hawaii, I would never have an opportunity to interact with owls, so I jumped at the chance while I could.  It was a guilty sort of pleasure, as I felt bad for the owls, being cooped up indoors.

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After Harajuku, it was time to say farewell to everyone, as we were bused to the airport.  This trip has been a real blessing to me, and I’m glad to know that if I had chosen a different career path last year, I never would have had this opportunity.

I met so many people, went to so many places, and learned so many things.  The week went by so quickly, and there were so many more things I wished I could see and do.  Hey, at least that gives me more than enough reasons to go back soon, right?

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As this small series of posts comes to a close, I find myself pondering.  How will I use these experiences to improve my life even more?  How can I share this feeling of wonder and joy with others?  How can I convince more people to go to Japan?  How do I get more people more interested in learning about this incredible country, it culture, and its people?  Well, I have a few ideas, but you’ll have to wait and see.  😉

But what will I possibly write after finishing this series of journal posts?  While I won’t be posting any amazing adventure posts for a while, I’ll finally be able to touch on other topics I’ve always wanted to write about.  Anime news, my opinions on current events in the otaku world, highlighting local otaku creators, etc.  There’s a plethora of other things for me to write about.  I just hope that you readers will be interested.

Lastly, I just wanted to thank all you readers for your support over the past week.  It has been a real pleasure to share my experiences with you, and I ask for your continued readership as I work to improve myself while on this internship.

Look forward to it!

Day 6: Finishing Up

It’s very late and I’m very tired, so this will be a short post.  Today was our last full day in Japan, and what a long day it was.  We woke up early to get on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.  The Nozomi line got us back in no time.

After arriving, we were hurried onto the bus and taken to the Prime Minister’s residence.  There, we made a courtesy call to to the Japanese Cabinet Secretary.  I was pretty nervous as there were TV cameras filming us, and we were in a high-security building.  As such, we were prohibited from taking pictures.

After the courtesy call, we were bused to another hall, where we met, once again, with Hideaki Yamaji, senior coordinator for the North American Affairs Division.  This time, we were the ones addressing him, as our group presented our action plans for disseminating out experiences and lessons learned from this trip once we return to our respective homes.  We all made a commitment to make efforts to increase interest in visiting and exchanging with Japan to our fellow students, and within our home communities.  This could be through Facebook, Instagram, and even blogs like this one!  Once again, we were not allowed to take pictures as this was an official government function.

After our presentations, we were released to explore Tokyo.  This time, we were released a good deal earlier so we could really go out and see the sights.

This was my chance to visit the Mecca of anime, Akihabara.  To get there, I had to learn how to use the train system.  Thankfully, our group of Akiba pilgrims had a guide.  Our friend Marvin has taken the trains to Akihabara a few times before, and he was more than willing to teach us how to use them and guide us.

The regular metro system was incredibly quick and efficient.  We boarded during the end of the workday rush hour, so I got to experience being packed into the crowded train car.

We arrived in Akihabara in about 15 minutes, and I was greeted with a sensory overload.  The city was lit up with signs displaying various anime and game series.  There were J-Pop and anime songs being blasted on speakers in front of multiple stores.  The arcades were boisterous and loud as players tried their hand at crane games.  It was everything I had imagined and more.

It’s one thing to see it in pictures, but I had to go there to really feel it.  We only had an hour and a half there, so I didn’t get to see much, but I definitely enjoyed myself.  I HAVE to come back now that I know where things are.  Hopefully that day will come soon.

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We’d have been lost if it wasn’t for Marvin!

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Even if the sky is dark, the city is still so bright!
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Had to react quickly to catch these Mario Kart-ers!
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The famous stairs featured in the idol anime, Love Live!  As a huge fan of the franchise, I was so happy to be able to run up these stairs just like in the anime.

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If I had more time, I would’ve entered the Owl cafe.

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I’m now back in the hotel, repacking my luggage and prepping for the flight home tomorrow.  I’ll miss the friends I made on this trip, but through the power of the internet, it won’t be hard to stay connected.

Day 5: Into the Woods

Today we said goodbye to the families that ran the minshuku Japanese-style inns.  We only knew them for a single night, but I felt so comfortable and welcome, as if I had been there for weeks.  We were treated to a Japanese breakfast in the morning, along with an impressive blanket of snow from the night before.  The landscape was absolutely gorgeous.

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The wife of the Yoshinoya Family Head.  Can you believe Obaa-san is 104 years old?
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Snowman!
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Yoshinoya no Ojii-san and Obaa-san.

Our experience with the landscape would only grow as we made our way from the minshuku, deep into the Kutsuki Forest.  The forest is filled with indigenous plants and animals, though most of them are hidden away until the spring comes.  We were brought to the visitors’ center in the middle of the woods, where we were split into 2 different groups.  One group would go out for a guided tour of the grounds, while the other would stay inside the center and make their own pairs of chopsticks.

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This tree was planted by the groundskeeper 30 years ago.
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Nina and I just had to make snow angels!

My group took the forest walk first.  The snow had piled up into a good 5-inch blanket, but that didn’t deter us from walking around.  Our guide showed us around the grounds, which used to be rice paddies before the forest reclaimed it.  The area is a popular area for campers during the warmer months.

On the other side of the grounds, an international garden of trees stood.  The groundskeeper said he goes to the city every year to find new trees to plant.  He has been working in the forest for more than 30 years!  Most of the trees on the grounds were planted by him.

After our walk, we returned to the visitors’ center and swapped places with the other group.  In the main hall, we were given sticks of Japanese Cypress to make our own chopsticks (o-hashi) out of.

Using a wooden apparatus, we shaved away at the sticks until our chopsticks formed.  After this, we sanded them until they were smooth, then wrote on them with soldering irons.

To finish the process, the sticks were covered in a coat of sesame oil to prevent moisture from getting soaked into the wood.  We’ll have to reapply oil to the wood every 2 weeks or so for maximum life expectancy.

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We got to keep the shavings too.  Apparently, the Japanese Cypress’ wood is good for its aroma as well.

After Kutsuki Forest, we bid farewell to the groundskeepers and staff, then hopped on the bus back to Kyoto.  There we’ll be prepping our presentations for the Japanese Ministry to share our findings and our action plans moving forward after the program ends and we return home.

Tomorrow is our last full day here.  Here’s to making the most of it!

Day 4: Making Manga and Memories

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Today’s adventure took our group to the famous Kyoto Manga Museum.  It was just a quick 5-minute walk from our hotel!  This museum houses the world’s largest collection of manga, dating all the way back to the ’60s, with some dating even further back.  Established in 2006, this museum was built in an old elementary school that had been closed down after the area around it slowly turned into a business district.

There, we got treated to a small lesson on how manga assistants work learning how to color in hair, draw motion lines, and add lines to evoke certain emotions from different panels.  As with the other museums, we were not allowed to take pictures of the museum in order to preserve the atmosphere and value of the museum.

I highly recommend that you try and take a trip here if you haven’t already.  There were so many more exhibits I wish I could have looked at longer, but we were on a tight schedule.

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After our visit to the Manga Museum, and lunch, our group packed up on the bus and began our two-and-a-half hour bus ride from Kyoto to Shiga prefecture.  Along the way, we took a brief rest stop at Shirahige Shrine, along the shore of Lake Biwa.  A short distance offshore, on of the shrines old gates stands in silent vigil as a testament to how large the shrine had once been.  The large red gate was a magnificent sight to behold, standing on top of the glassy surface of the lake.

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Proceeding from the shrine, we finally made it to our destination, a quiet little minshuku, or Japanese family-run inn.  Our group was divided among 3 different inns.  Our group went to the inn run by the Yoshinoya family.

I cannot begin to describe how great I feel in this place.  The atmosphere is just so relaxing and homey, all the way out here in the countryside.  We were treated to a very fulfilling meal of sukiyaki, followed by a calligraphy lesson from the family head.

After, our group of guys all broke the barriers big time as we shared the community bath.  It was most of our first time experiencing bathing with our peers, but we were all pretty cool about it as we talked about life, school, anime conventions, etc.

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Now we’re all relaxing as we continue soaking in the atmosphere.  The agenda for tomorrow is a trip into the nearby Kutsuki Forest, then preparing our presentations for when we return to Tokyo.  There, we’ll be presenting our findings, as well as our steps moving forward, to the Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Secretary.  What is our take on the “Beauty of Japan?”  What will we do to spread the knowledge of this beauty?  I’ll keep you posted.

By the way, it’s snowing here in Shiga, and I am absolutely ecstatic.  It’s my first time experiencing snowfall and actually getting to hold snow in my hand!  This trip has just been fantastic.

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Day 3: History and Culture

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We started the day with an early visit to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine on the Southern outskirts of Kyoto.  This shrine is famous for the thousands of red gates that line the path up to the summit of Mount Inari.  Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to make the entire trek to the top, but it definitely gives me a valid excuse to come back to Japan (as if I didn’t already have enough).

Words are a poor way to explain the beauty of this place (and I’m also pretty exhausted tonight), so here are some pictures of the parts of the trail I traveled.

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After our visit to Fushimi Inari, we packed up on the bus and traveled to the northern end of Kyoto.  Nestled at the base of Mount Hiei sits the campus of Kyoto Seika University, known for its concentration on the creative arts.  There, we were met by humanities professor Rebecca Jennison.

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She introduced us to some of the students of the university with whom we briefly exchanged interests and questions.  Our group was met by Natsuki Jiku, a foreign exchange student from China who is studying animation at the university.  She’s a big anime fan and instantly clicked with our group.  She’s a big fan of Love Live and is even part of the university’s school idol club!

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Natsuki is on the far right.

After we talked to the university students, Ken Rodgers, head of the International Education Office, gave a brief presentation about the history of the university and Kyoto itself.  The university was established in the 1960s, during a time of civil unrest among the nation’s students.  While protests were being held in Tokyo, the students in Kyoto instead established a new teaching system that would eventually become the university as it is today.  Their philosophy was to focus on international exchange and education, developing students’ interests and skills from the ground up, and keeping classes small to allow for more teacher/student interaction.

The university has many programs that deal with the creative media.  Some of the most popular and well-known ones are the manga and animation programs.  Many of the students graduate to become part of big-name anime studios, including local studio Kyoto Animation (KyoAni).

After his lecture, Prof. Rodgers gave us a quick tour of the campus.  The buildings were all designed by alumni architecture students and teachers.  Once again, it’s hard to explain the sight of these works of art, so I’ll use pictures to hopefully show you just how skillful and awe-inspiring this campus visit was to me.  All pictures are collections of student and alumni-produced works (yes, even the buildings!).

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Tomorrow, we’ll be visiting the Kyoto Manga Museum and then heading to Shiga Prefecture, where we’ll be staying in a traditional Japanese inn!  I heard that there’s a good chance there will be snow!  It’ll be my first time touching actual snow, so I’m definitely looking forward to it.  I hope you will as well!

Day 2: All About Anime

Today was a very exciting day!  We started off by visiting the famous Ghibli Museum, seen above, in Mitaka Forest.  Unfortunately, taking pictures inside the museum was prohibited, but we could take pictures of the outside.  The architecture and design of the whole place was very surreal.  The inside would bring the inner child of any Ghibli fan out.  There were corridors and secret stairwells that made you want to explore every nook and cranny of the building.  They were also showing Ghibli short films that you can only view at this museum.

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Ryusuke Hikawa, adjunct lecturer at Meiji University Graduate School and anime critic & writer

After visiting the Ghibli Museum, we traveled to Tokyo Tower.  There, we entered one of the buildings nearby where we received a lecture about anime and its impact on Japanese pop culture.  The lecturer, Ryusuke Hikawa, is a graduate of the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an adjunct lecturer at the Meiji University Graduate School.  He is an anime critic and writer who served as the judge for many anime/media-related awards like the Mainichi Film Awards, Tokyo Anime Award Festival, and Japan Media Arts Festival.

His lecture covered what he considered the four turning points in anime: Space Battleship Yamato, Evangelion/Ghost in the Shell, Spirited Away, and Your Name.  He started by talking about the history of television in Japan, and its role of shaping the youth after World War II.  Up until the 1970s, most animation was targeted toward very young children with shows like Astro Boy.  Those raised on these cartoons were dubbed “TV Children” by the Japanese, as they were growing up in an age when TV was more readily available in the home.

These children would soon grow into teenagers, and the stories of the programming they watched grew with them.  This resulted in titles like Space Battleship Yamato, Gundam, Evangelion, and Ghost in the Shell.  Instead of being character-based stories, these series took on more serious tones, explored deeper and philosophical themes, and pretty much reflected the collective mindset of the generation of directors and sociopolitical and economical views the Japanese had of their country.

Hayao Miyazaki took the good points of both the early character-based series and the deeper themes of the following years of anime, and he created his own brand of anime storytelling.  Through Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s films carry an appeal for multiple generations.  His films appeal to the child in everyone, while the frequent female protagonists and themes of self discovery and philosophy appeal to the youth.  The maturation of the characters over the course of the film appeals to the older generation, as he communicates his own personal feelings as a grandparent through his film.

However, most of these series were all for a generation that grew up in the analog age.  It would be directors like Makoto Shinkai that shape the future of anime.  Makoto Shinkai, unlike his predecessors, developed his anime in the digital age, which blurred the line between professional and amateur animators.  Shinkai’s works like the recent smash hit Your Name (Kimi no Nawa), were all independently directed and produced by him and his small team veteran animators and writers.

After the lecture, we headed to Kyoto via the Shinkansen.  We were lucky enough to be booked on the Nozomi, the fastest and most expensive of the Shinkansen lines.

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The Nozomi Line, the Shinkansen’s fastest route.

We were even able to catch a view of Mount Fuji!

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In Kyoto, some friends and I decided to go exploring the back streets and alleyways during our free time.  We found a Book-Off where I scored some sweet kuji prizes!

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Now I’m back here at the Kyoto Hearton Hotel.  Tomorrow, we’ll be visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine, as well as the Kyoto Seika University, home of the Manga Masters Degree Program.

Day 1: Foreign Affairs and Fine Dining

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Our guide to surviving the coming week.

Today was the first full day of the Kakehashi Project.  After a harrowing 15-hour journey, with little to no sleep, it was amazing that I could even function today.  Well, OK, maybe not that amazing, since there was just so much to see and learn.

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Just a little of our large, 25-person group.  We’re from all over the United States and Canada.  Lots of new friends!  Breakfast was amazing.
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Japan’s National Diet on our way to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

For the first half of our day, we were brought to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  There, we were briefed on what the Kakehashi Project is, as well as how we should conduct ourselves while staying in Japan.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures while inside the Ministry.

After the briefing, Hideaki Yamaji, senior coordinator for the North American Affairs Division, talked about the political history of Japan, from the end of World War II to the present day.  He explained the immediate post-war political climate of Japan in detail and explained how past events shaped Japan’s current political and foreign policies.

In summary, the Kakehashi Project is a part of Japan’s peace-promoting foreign policy, designed to build friendships between North America and Japan.  During our stay, we were asked to look closely and find the beauty of Japan and its culture.  We’ll be making a presentation of our findings at the end of the Project, as well as through our social media networks.

After the presentation and briefing, we were taken to Oto Oto, a restaurant in the Toranomon Business District, for lunch.

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Karaage chicken for lunch.  I’ve never had fried chicken like this.  It was crisp and light, yet filling.

After lunch, we were taken to Asakusa Temple, home of the famous Kaminari (Thunder) Gate.  There, we got a chance to explore and shop around.  I’ve always seen pictures of the famous giant lantern, but actually seeing it in person was amazing.  The entire temple was very beautiful to look at, and there were a lot of people visiting, offering prayers and wishes.

 

After exploring the temple area, my roommate, Cody, and I went off to explore the Asakusa shopping district.  There we saw numerous curio shops, clothing stores, and other stalls selling food and knickknacks.

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These shopping districts are like portals to different worlds!
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There was an owl cafe! I really wish I had more time, so I could have gone inside, but this little guy allowed me a picture of his good side.
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Don Quijote! This multi-leveled store is a far cry more than the ones we have in Hawaii!
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“Here in Japan, there are no terrorists, no Trump, no rifle … and no money (the economy has taken a downturn), but everyone here is happy, and that’s what makes this place so great”        ~Random Japanese Man, 2018

While at Asakusa, my roommate and I were approached by this gentleman (name withheld for his privacy), who asked us where were were from.  When we said we were from the U.S., he was very happy, since he used to study English in the U.S. after he retired from the Japanese Naval Forces.  He told us stories of his youth, and told us how he was so happy that foreigners like ourselves were interested in his home.  He likes foreigners due to his interactions with them while in the Navy, and wished us an enjoyable stay in Japan.  As I wrote earlier, the purpose of the Kakehashi Project is for us to find the beauty and good qualities of Japan, and I feel like I found all of that in this one conversation.

To end the day, we moved from Asakusa to Odaiba.  We crossed the famous Rainbow Bridge to get there.  We arrived at the Odaiba Aqua City shopping complex, where we would eat dinner at The Oven American Buffet.  I did not expect to be fed this well on a government-sponsored trip.

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So much food!

The final highlight of my day was getting to see the 1/1 scale Gundam Unicorn in person.  As a Gundam fan, I was just in awe of the sheer size and detail that went into creating the statue.  We were in Odaiba at night, so the Unicorn had transformed from its usual solid white form into its glowing red NTD form.

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I can now scratch this off the bucket list!  The Unicorn Gundam, in it’s entirety!  I was so happy I could see this!

Now I’m back here in the hotel writing this article before heading to bed.  I had thought we wouldn’t be able to do much today since the orientation took up so much time, but we got more than what I expected today, and I felt so blessed to be able to experience it!

Tomorrow, we’ll be heading out to the Ghibli Museum, then taking the Nozomi Bullet Train on the Shinkansen as we make our way to Kyoto, where we’ll be staying for a few days to experience more of the historical, as well as visit the Kyoto Seika University, home of the Manga Masters Degree program!  Look forward to it!