The Foreigner Trap

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China Town in Yokohama 

These past few weeks have been overwhelming in terms of making new friends. It’s always funny how a quiet evening drinking at a cafe can quickly turn into an adventurous night on the town and an invite to the family BBQ (true story). While I was trying to pretend like I can keep up in conversation, I was vaguely aware that the conversation switched over to foreigners living in Japan and interacting with foreigners. They expressed how they want to interact with more foreigners (I’m assuming they mean more Americans and Europeans), but find that communicating with the one’s here to be a little daunting.

The most common issue was of course the language barrier, which I can understand. You can’t really communicate with someone if there isn’t a common language. The second problem was just stereotypes trying to avoid the otakus (anime nerds) and all the ones with yellow fever. Which I can understand I wouldn’t want to talk with anyone who thought rap and hip hop was the only aspect of black culture. However there was a third issue they brought up that seemed to be kind of ridiculous; foreigners that aren’t interested in talking to Japanese people or at least not in Japanese.

I was at a lost for words. I mean why would you travel thousands of miles away from home to not speak a word of Japanese to an actual Japanese person? But then it hit me, I think the foreigners they’re talking about are stuck in a trap. Something I call the “Gaijin Trap”.

 

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Enoshima Island Temple

 

 

 

This happens when you live in another country for a while but you don’t really make I think a connection with the host culture. This disconnect could happen for a number of reasons maybe you didn’t really want to live abroad and you’re only here because of work. Maybe you don’t find the culture as interesting as you thought you would. I think everybody has fallen victim to it or at least has the potential to. I know I have when I first studied abroad in Osaka. My main group of friends from that time were other English speakers and I felt comfortable that way. I had fun of course but not experiencing things the way I should’ve been. Which didn’t really make me feel the most confident in my skills when I returned home.

So what can someone do to prevent this from happening? How can you break loose from the perpetual cycle? This isn’t a step by step guide on how to make authentic Japanese friends but simply just a little bit of food for thought. Maybe the problem is just simply being to self-involved. Self-involved meaning always waiting for someone else to make a move or assuming that you inherently don’t fit into whatever image you’re currently looking at. Looking back on my experience from before and my experience now. Some of the best times I’ve had come from me simply making the first moves and letting go of that initial fear of not being good enough.

I have to remind myself just because I look different on the outside, doesn’t entitle me to any sort of special treatment. Especially in a place like Japan where being different isn’t necessarily a good thing (personal experience). I’ll be the first to admit that I fell victim to this way of thinking before. Always thinking of myself as the “other” when in reality that really wasn’t the case. As much as I’m intimidated about starting conversations with Japanese people I’ve come to find out they’re just as intimidated by me. And even if they don’t plan to visit the U.S. anytime soon, most people find the casual culture exchange to be just as interesting.

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BBQ’s during Golden Week

 

What are your thoughts on the situation? Do you think the “Gaijin Trap” exists? I’d love to hear outside opinions.

 

Spring Time: New Beginnings and Endings

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Giant Buddha at Kotokuin Temple

 

Spring is hands down my favorite season. Maybe it’s just because I was born during this time of the year but, I always feel like this is the most perfect time. It’s not too hot, it’s not too cold. The flowers are blooming and everyone’s taking their cute little dogs out for walks.

In Japan, I feel like spring is an especially beautiful season. Like how New Year’s is seen as a time for new beginnings in America, spring time is seen as a fresh start here in Japan. Many of my students though were a little sadden by the end of the school year, are now excited to start the new school year fresh and forget all their worries from last year. For me it feels a little strange to say next year since school in America finishes in May/June. But living here I can see why it makes sense to see the spring time as a new beginning.

In the spring time we celebrate Girl’s Day

It feels like a new beginning and an end because, during this time the teachers transfer to different schools. No one knows exactly why but most teachers don’t teach at one school for more than 4/5 years. This time of the year, more than any other part of the year is pretty nostalgic for Japanese people. You’re losing your friends/ co-workers to other schools. Kids are finishing/ starting school, there’s a lot more that changes during this time besides the weather.

At my school, there were a few teachers I knew that were leaving to other schools or retiring. I have mixed emotions about it, I’m sad that they’re leaving of course but also, I’m sad because I feel like it wasn’t enough time. I feel as though I didn’t spend enough time getting to know people. Maybe it’s impossible to be on good terms with everyone but I feel as though I didn’t put in more effort connecting with as many people as I could.

I’m going to make that a part of my spring resolution, trying to reach out more to people. My resolution isn’t to become everyone’s friend, but simply put more effort into the relationships I’ve made. Making the first move, inviting people out, or asking to be a part of the group.

I have to laugh at myself a little because it sounds like a very Japanese thing to think of, trying to have more of a group mentality. But I guess that’s what happens when you live here for a while.

My lovely spring pink mood board

Kairakuen: The Plum Blossom Festival of Ibaraki

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きれいですね~

“Spring begins with plum blossoms in Mito,” all the pamphlets read. Just before the Sakura (cherry) blossoms start to bloom, the plum blossoms are well fully blossomed. Although Sakura blossoms are known as the symbolic flower of Japan, plum blossoms are still a sight worth seeing.

Kairakuen garden was built during the Edo period  and has been a well known spot since then for plum blossom viewing. This festival is held every year from February 20th to March 31st and is completely free. More than 3,000 trees fill the park and, the colors range from snow white to a very vibrant pink.

Some views of the park.

Getting there is about a two hour train rid from Tochigi prrefecture. There are three seperate sections for the park. The main area is where the trees and festival food is located. Here many people eat bentos (Japanese lunch boxes) on the grass and watch some traditional kimono dance performances. You can walk through the house of Nariaki Tokugawa to see an imperial emperor style home, visit the spring water park, and walk through the beautiful Tokiwa shrine.  The park is pretty big but I do recommend walking the full length just to get a good view of the entire area.

Tokiwa shrine

It’s not the most famous festival in the Kanto area but it’s been gaining a lot of notoraiity over the past couple of years. It’s free and on a beautiful day, it’s the perfect setting for a lovely park stroll.

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A lovely couple taking wedding pictures

Nakimushisan and Uncountable Monks: A Hidden trail of Nikko

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I was so tired here…

A well known area of Tochigi prefecture is Nikko (日光). Nikko, a city to the north of Tochigi prefecture, has been the center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worshipping. Every year thousands of visitors come to this realively rural city to enjoy the reminicents of ancient Japan. Nikko, being home to three big mountains in Japan is also a popular spot for hiking.

Some views of the mountain hike

 

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Trail map starting from the station

Meet Nakimushisan (鳴虫山), a small mountain in Nikko located just a ten minute walk away from the Tobu Nikko Station. I never hiked before so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the excursion. I fooled myself into thinking that it would be a light stroll. Maybe there would be some hills, and a few rough spots, nothing could’ve prepared me for this hike.

It was rough from the beginning, the path started out narrow and never widened at any point. Due to erosion and earthquakes, many of the man-made paths were torn apart. Despite how hard the trail was, this is still considered a 2-4 hour hike. After the treacherous climb the view from the top of the mountain was really nice. Up top, on a clear day you can see just about all of Nikko city and the point of Nantaisan.

Views from the top

The hike down was the hardest. The other end of the path was just rocks, so unstable in fact most of the path you had to use the ropes to get down safely. At the end of the path was the real beauty, the Kanmanga-fuchi Abyss.

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It’s a gorge in central Nikko that is easily accessible by bus or off the mountain trail. In the gorge is a long row of Buddhist monks that watch over travelers and the Nikko Botanical Garden. The monks lined up are called Bake-jizo which loosely means uncountable. It’s said it’s impossible to know how many monks are in the garden, each time you count them you’ll supposedly get a different number.

Very beautiful scenery

 

Even though my legs still hurt from the weekend, overall I would rate this as a positive experience. The hike was treacherous but the view at the end was well worth it.

Makabe Town: Stone Lanterns and Hina Dolls

Two weeks ago I had a cool opportunity to write for Japantravel.com. A company based in Japan, they pay foreigners to travel around Japan and write articles about their experience.  They covered my travel expenses and in return, I wrote a 500 word article about what I did and learned. I was nervous at first because, my work would be published for many people to see. Then, I became even more nervous when I realized that my tour guides couldn’t speak any English.

It was hard because, a lot of historical Japanese words are difficult to understand (somethings just don’t translate to English) and general vocabulary for stone making is a little difficult as well (I never thought I would learn the word for stone lantern or craftsmen). Nonetheless my guides were very nice to be sure I understood most of what they were saying. If you’d like to read my article you can find it here.

Reading this was actually a lot easier than you think.

Makabe Town is a small rural town located in Ibaraki prefecture. Even though it’s tiny it’s a pretty well known spot to visit in Japan. Makabe is most famous for it’s Makabe Stone (makabeishi) which is the stone used to create the lanterns and statues most commonly found at temples and shrines in Japan. I think it’s safe to say that most of the statues and lanterns at least in the kanto region originated from this small town. The beauty and aesthetic of these lanterns comes to life once the color starts fading and moss starts to grow. Makabe town takes a lot of pride in their stone sculptures. They’re incorporated in every aspect of the town.

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A small view of Makabe Town
Some Makabe stone statues. These can be found pretty much anywhere all over Japan.

This area is also well know for it’s buildings that have remained standing since the Edo period, earning Makabe the name of koedo (little edo).

Some photos of the house I visited

While I was visiting, the town had already set up their Hina dolls. Hina dolls are used to celebrate Hina matsuri, also “Girl’s Day”. It’s the day to celebrate good welfare for your daughters. People place them out for display in early February until the festival on March 3rd. It’s said once the festival is over you have to put the dolls away quickly or else your daughter won’t get married.  During this time residents set out their dolls displays and open up their homes to visitors to get a glimpse of little Edo. Many of the homes simply wanted to display their dolls creations but most residents were selling trinkets and goods reminiscent of Edo times.

 

I will admit, that I was a little put off when I received the topic for my assignment. Writing about rocks wasn’t super exciting, but this was a lot more fulfilling than I expected it to be. I know Makabe town would be a little difficult to explore without proper transportation but it’s definitely a place worth visiting. Who knows you might even learn something new.

Me, with my tour guides. They were so nice.

Learning to Love Winter: Ski Trip and Snow Monkeys

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Monkeying around

Winter is my least favorite season of all four. It gets dark early, it’s cold, chilly, and no matter how many layers I’m wearing I can’t seem to feel completely warm. I never really understood how people love the winter season so much but I think this year I found out.

 

 

 

Hakuba truly was a winter wonderland.

This winter I really came out of my shell both mentally and socially. I took my first ski trip up to Hakuba in Nagano, and it was everything and nothing like I expected it to be. Up the mountains I was expecting cold, harsh winds, with sharp chilly air, but surprisingly it wasn’t all that cold. I don’t know if it was the presence of friendly ALTs or the nice mountain hotspring baths but I barely felt a shiver go down my spine.

 

My friends and I up the mountain. Sorry for the blurry pictures.

This was my first time skiing ever and the experience was both satisfying and terrifying. Satisfying because, I tried something new and actually enjoyed it. Terrifying because I nearly broke my legs about three times (skiing is a lot harder than it looks). It probably would’ve been better if I had went on the bunny slopes first instead of doing the intermediate course but someone had pointed us in the wrong direction. I kept falling every two minutes and it took me maybe an hour to get down the hill. As much as I wanted to go again I was worn out and ended my ski adventures after one try. In hind sight I should’ve paid for the lessons but I’m better prepared for the next time I go.

My last day in Nagano was even better, mainly because I could cross something off my bucket list, visiting the Snow Monkey Park at the 地獄野猿公苑(Jigokudani Yaen Koen). It was such a perfect day, the sun was out and the view was breathtaking. It’s a shame you can only reach the area by car because getting into the mountain was 800¥.

It’s amazing to see how use to humans the monkeys are as well. You can walk right up to them and they won’t even flinch. Some people were even able to pet them ( I didn’t).

The famous snow monkeys of Japan

For about $300 I had a very memorable winter vacation. I traveled, tried something new, and made some new friends along the way.

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Truly Breathtaking
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Shout out to the car buddies for letting me join their adventures!