Friday, August 16, 2013

Sayonara, Nihon

This is my final blog post, readers.

Four and a half months. Only. Just. Barely enough time to satisfy my taste for adventure in Tokyo and beyond. For some, studying abroad is a time for stepping outside of oneself, meeting new people, speaking another language, experiencing a different culture, and getting lost for the purpose of finding one's way. For me, all of these reasons led me to branch out of my Americanized bubble and travel to a place that tested me in every way.


I look back to my first few weeks in Japan. A timid, twenty-year-old in one of the busiest cities in the world. Navigating with my brushed-up Japanese, I discovered how exhausted one feels after finding their way one step, or one word, at a time. I had never been in a situation where the first brain-puzzler was not how to get from point A to point B but how to formulate the question itself in Japanese. I became ignorant of time in order to give my mind as much room to figure out a Kanji or a train station attendant's guidance. Time, though, gradually earned its place back in my life. After a month, I had already found my way among Japanese society. Thank you to the taxi driver who drove me all around the city on my first day in Tokyo. He listened to my broken Japanese and helped me track down my apartment successfully. Thank you to all the strangers who kindly directed me towards my numerous destinations. Thank you to my roommates who put up with my "calling the police" scare and other fiascos. Thank you to my friends who love me for me and my super McKenna-isms.


From the beginning, I knew that I was entering a high-stress situation. The fifty-paged manual and the lunch-hour presentation on study abroad emphasized the words "culture shock" to the point that I was overly prepared. Still, stress and I don't get along, so I immediately began to explore possible running routes around my neighborhood upon arrival. Running has always served as my "me time," so to speak. In Japan, it connected me to the culture and its people. Through a runner's eyes, the world sharpens while at the same time it blurs together. Nature--the falling petals of cherry blossoms, the splash of rain puddles, the pigment of painted butterflies, the hum of cicadas--sharpened. The people--the businessmen and women in heavy stride, the shopkeepers shouting "welcome," the uniform-clad school girls giggling--blurred. The role of runner allowed me to escape the role of obvious outsider. I caught glimpses of stares but only glimpses. Not until I met other runners on the same path did I regain visibility, true visibility. Head nods and smiles. Acceptance.


On my last day in Japan, my mom and I spent the afternoon in Yokohama. I saved my favorite place near Tokyo for last. While just an ordinary day for most, this day meant returning soon to my old friend, the States, and leaving my new friend, Japan, behind. I chose Yokohama for it was here that I first ventured outside of Tokyo, and it was here that I first witnessed a part of Japan that reminded me of home. Yokohama's bay view mirrors that of San Francisco. Children and families picnic and play games in Yamashita Park with the Yokohama Bay Bridge standing in the background and complementing the beauty of the scenery. The bluish, gray water laps against the rocks. White jellyfish and flying fish appear. It is here where I spread some of my dad's ashes. It is because of him that I felt confident in taking this trip abroad. It is because of him that I found my way among Tokyo's turmoil. My dad taught me how to get lost and find your way again. So many of our family trips were spent wondering where he was. I now realize that he was out finding stories to share. So am I.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mama's in the Uchi

Greetings from the States, readers!

Yes, I'm back! 家に帰りました! I flew into SD's airport last Thursday around noon, fighting off jet lag while relishing the cool coastal breeze foreign to Japan's summer heat. Though southern California has warmly received me, Tokyo and the rest of Japan still beckons.

To recap on my final days abroad, here's a photo timeline of my adventures playing tour guide for my guest: the madre.

7/30 Day 1: Tokyo
7月30日 一日:東京

Mom asked me if she should wear tennis shoes on our first day. I told her sandals would suffice. After our nine hour day out and about, she never wore sandals for the rest of the trip. 
Sorry, Mom. すみません、母。

Imperial Palace 皇居

Gray Sky & Green Gardens

Aoyama Flower Market Tea House

Sipping the day's special: mango tea マンゴ茶

Harajuku 原宿

Strange prints & Western influence 

7/31 Day 2: Hiroshima & Miyajima
7月31日 二日:広島と宮島

My mom has wanted to go here ever since she first learned about Hiroshima. After stepping off the street car, silence set in as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial 広島平和記念碑 sat before us. The Atomic Bomb Dome 原爆ドーム exists as the only surviving building from that tragic day. It serves as a tribute for the victims. It stands. We remember.

Atomic Bomb Dome 原爆ドーム

Children's Peace Monument

Cranes for Sadako Sasaki

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Miyajima 宮島

On the ferry

                   Deer sighting

Miyajima Torii (through lantern)
宮島鳥居 (ランタンで見える)


                  Floating Torii

8/1 Day 3: Osaka
8月1日 三日:大阪

For many, Osaka Castle 大阪城 is considered the most famous castle in Japan. Besides its history, the castle is a hot tourist spot due to the fact that there is little else to see or do in Osaka. My mom and I enjoyed viewing the city's heights from the castle's top, watching the skyscrapers of new and temples of old blend together.

Osaka Castle

Hitachi "Tower Reaching Heaven"
Umeda Sky Building
Tanabata Decor

8/2 Day 4: Kyoto & Nara Tour
8月2日 四日:京都と奈良ツアー

Although I had journeyed to such famous landmarks as the Golden Pavilion 金閣寺 in Kyoto and the Buddhist temple 東大寺 in Nara, I felt a renewed appreciation for these historical sites from my older, and hopefully wiser, college-student perspective. I felt a wave of gratitude brush over me for sharing these special places with my history-buff mom, who always wanted to see what Shelby and I had seen and experienced.

Our tour guide (with electric green loofah)
Nightingale floor of Nijo Castle
Shogun's Garden (rocks symbolized power) 
将軍の庭 (岩の意味は象徴)

Mom and me at Golden Pavilion
Emperor's Garden (less rocks, more nature: place of peace)
天皇の庭 (岩が少なくて、たくさん自然がある:平和の所)
Deer in Nara
Japanese lanterns

8/3 Day 5: Kyoto
8月3日 五日:京都

Every time I perused my friends' photos of Kyoto, I always envied their Thousand Torii 伏見稲荷大社 snapshots. It became my goal to witness the beauty of the renowned shrine with the reddish orange painted Shinto gates threading the mountainside like pieces of a scattered snake's skin. My mom and I survived the hike up and found the view of Kyoto well worth the trek.

Shabu Shabu   
Praying man at Thousand Torii

Torii pathway
 Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Man-drawn carriage ride

8/4-8/8 Days 6-10: Tokyo, Hakone, & Yokohama
8月4日から8月8日 六日から十日:東京や箱根や横浜

While the historic relics of Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka capture the heart of Japan, the city lights of Tokyo speak to my inner self, which brings me to my feet each morning and says, "You're alive. Go out into the world and find reasons to smile." Fashionable mothers bike with their child safely strapped in the seat behind them; their conversation bounces forward and behind. Businessmen, dabbing the sweat that dapples their forehead, chuckle with one another in the packed train car. My mom grins as I translate an ad or engage the taxi driver in a recount of our ten-day tour of Japan. This is another place I can call home.

 Sky Hop Bus
 Tokyo Skytree (tallest building in Japan)
東京スカイツリー (日本で一番高いビル)
View from Tokyo Tower
Mount Fuji from Hakone
Chinatown, Yokohama
Yotsuya Sanchome (my neighborhood)
四谷三丁目 (私の近所)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Take Me Away, Toyama

Thank you for your patience, readers.

I've been busy as a bee, or perhaps more appropriately a cicada セミ to say the least. With finals, a trip to Toyama, and a tour of Japan with the madre 母, I've had little time to write let alone breathe. I'm taking a moment now, though, to pause and reflect. Japan has taught me the importance of setting aside time for rest in order to appreciate the often exciting but exhausting days of studying abroad.

This is the first of my closing posts, a trilogy if you will.

Part I: Take Me Away, Toyama.

After my first final of the semester, I packed up a few belongings and my study essentials--my precious Japanese textbook and Kanji flash cards--and set out for a "sweet escape" to Toyama 富山. Putting my Japanese to use, I navigated around the ticket counters and found my reserved seat after some assistance from a kind Japanese businessman. We boarded the train together and before parting he presented me with a Chinese fan 扇子 souvenir, the key to surviving Japan's sticky summer humidity.

Once aboard my first bullet train 新幹線 from Tokyo, I began pacing myself through the four chapters composing my Japanese final that awaited my return. Between memorizing vocabulary and drawing Kanji characters in the air, I chanced to take in the change of scenery 景色--from Tokyo's bustling boulevards with suited figures flying into their workplace to stretches of rice fields with only the bobbing straw hats of farmers showing signs of humanity.

After passing mountains blanketed with evergreen trees and roaming rivers that splashed into the sapphire sea, I arrived in Toyama. I tiptoed into the hotel's public bathhouse pleased to find an empty, hot-tub-sized basin ready to receive me. Readers, it had been some time since I had been able to enjoy a luxury such as a bath. My roommates and I had braved our "sketchy" shower complete with a rocking bathtub that shifted whenever you climbed into its depths. The hotel's bath thus served as a rare spa-like experience that my-tuckered-out self savored.

The next morning I greeted my high school sensei in the lobby for a Japanese breakfast buffet. Finished with our feast, we headed over to the local high school where I surprised my dear high school friends, Laura Breidenthal and Emily Nathan. Following my brief introduction to the rest of the high school group, I joined Laura and her host sister, Azumi, in the back of the tour bus as we headed to the Ainokua village in Gokayama 五箇山. Against the back splash of the azure sky and vibrant, verdant green of the rice fields and surrounding trees, the traditional huts looked as if they had popped out of a storybook.

Once inside, our group learned about how these farmhouses were made to withstand snow with their thatched roofs that mirrored hands in prayer. During wartime, the village stored gunpowder and weapons and even housed their prisoners in this isolated part of Japan. Saving the most impressive feature for last, Sensei explained how no nails were used in building these huts. Instead, the Japanese tied pieces of rope in an intricate fashion to hold the structures together.

Leaving the praying rooftops behind, we hopped on the bus and got off at a picnic site where we had a Yakisoba やきそば barbecue overlooking the picturesque countryside. Slurping the tasty noodles, a sound of politeness in Japan, Emily and I caught up with one other and enjoyed practicing our Japanese with our new Toyama friends.

With our stomachs satisfied, I rejoined Laura and Azumi for some funny pictures, posing in front of the gorgeous garden 庭 at the picnic site's entrance. As we began the return trip back to the high school, Laura, Azumi, and I relaxed in the air conditioning エアコン, sharing Japanese words, miscommunications, and highlights of our trips.

At the end of our time together, I asked Laura if she was thinking of returning here some day. She admitted, "Before this trip, I wasn't sure," and then continued, "Now that I've had this experience, though, I'm definitely coming back." I told her I had felt the same way when I first ventured to 日本 with Sensei and our class. We, birthday twins think alike. We both realized that learning about Japan barely scratched the surface of this gem. Only through living here, even for a short while, can we understand and appreciate this culture that is so unlike ours. A culture of patience, acceptance, and expectations.

And of course, the added bonus of our favorite snack, Daifuku Mochi 大福餅 (sticky rice balls (mochi 餅) filled with red bean paste (anko 餡子)).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tokyo "Trevor Time" & Tanabata Take Two

Hello, readers.

This is the first post of July, which means I have less than a month to savor the rest of my time here.

To start off the hottest month in Japan, my friends and I spent last weekend amid a rainbow of colors: we sat among a sea of orange and black rooting for the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome 東京ドーム and we strolled under swaying Tanabata 七夕祭りstreamers of fuchsia, magenta, emerald, and sapphire that lined Kappabashi Street かっぱ橋通り.

Tokyo "Trevor Time"

As some of you may know, my sister also travelled to Kyoto with Sensei and her Japanese class in high school. Shelby had the opportunity to spend a week with a host family where she spent most of her time under the wing of her host sister, Yuka. During my sophomore year, Yuka came to stay with us for a couple of weeks and experienced several wonders of San Diego. She saw a variety of animals at the San Diego Zoo; she hopped on the carousel in Seaport Village; she boogie boarded for the first time at Carlsbad State Beach; she felt the soaking spray of Shamu at Sea World; and she even embraced her inner child at "The Happiest Place on Earth."

What was her favorite tourist attraction 観光名所?
You'll never guess.
"Trevor Time" during a Padres baseball game!

When I came to Tokyo, I knew I needed to witness a Japanese baseball 野球 game for myself to see why Yuka had placed this sport above everything else.

Last Saturday night my Giants-fan friend, Takao たかお, guided James, Erika, and I to our first Japanese baseball game. Entering the giant, igloo-shaped building, my eyes beheld a full, indoor stadium with three-fourths of the spectators cloaked in their devotee, Tang orange and black jerseys. Taking our seats, we donned our own Giants jerseys (courtesy of Takao who had four spare ones to lend us) and let our ears become attuned to the ambiguous Japanese chants of our fellow Giants-clad fans.

From our high seats, we could make out not one but four Giants rabbit うさぎ mascots, mocking the introduction of the night's opposition: the Yokohama BayStars ベイスターズ. Takao pointed out the Yokohama enthusiasts who sat on the other side of the stadium. Dressed in their best blue and white garb, they roared their own cheers with three people waving enormous, heavy-looking 重そう flags. I asked Takao if he knew the BayStars cheer and he explained that each team has their own. Due to this, although he's been to quite a few games against the BayStars, Takao admitted he only recognized the melody. I told him that in America everyone sings the same song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and then we insert our own team's name. He responded with "Oh, is that so?"『ああ、そうか』.

After the BayStars' introduction, it was the Giants' turn. Cheerleaders with gold pom-poms emerged, dancing and cartwheeling to lead the crowd in welcoming the home team. Our flag bearers appeared in the stands as well waving their equally heavy flags of highlighter orange.

As we took in the rest of the ambiance, I noticed the vendors scaling the steep stairs and sweating profusely as they reached our seats. Getting a workout in their "super cute" 『ちょうかわいい』outfits, these girls heaved their drink and snack carriers with customer-first smiles and high-pitched thank yous ありがとうございます. Yet another example to follow from the Japanese.

Turning my attention back to the field, I realized the game had already started! With no national anthem to signal the start, I had missed the first few minutes of the initial inning. Luckily, though, the excitement was just beginning. The first two innings flew by with impressive plays by both teams. At the end of the second inning, the scoreboard read: 2-2.

During the next four or five innings, the scoreboard remained unchanged. However, far from being bored we were captivated by the game with so-close hits and a shifting reaction from the spectators--from pleased to dismayed to concerned to relieved (two players, one from each team, received a blow to the head from the ball, dropped to the ground, and took awhile to get back on their feet).

Despite my attempts to sing in harmony "Let's Go Giants" (to a different beat than in America) and clap in unison with the other fans, I was not able to assimilate as well as I had hoped. It was a spectacular night, though, with the BayStars (the underdogs) barely beating the Giants (the reigning champions) in the end with a final score of 4-3.

Tanabata Take Two

I had my eyes on the calendar for some time as the festival of Tanabata, July 7, approached. When I first came to Japan as a sophomore, my Japanese classmates and I were able to experience the festival in borrowed summer yukatas. It was raining that day and thankfully a kind Japanese woman stopped in her tracks to help me fix my yukata and avoid having it drag in the plethora of puddles.

After telling my friend, Erika, my desire to seek out a Tanabata festival site in Tokyo, she immediately began researching places nearby. Stumbling upon Shitamachi 下町, Erika assured me this would be a great place to go, especially to participate in the celebration at night.

When we arrived at Shitamachi, we followed an elderly man dressed in the traditional yukata and sandals. He served as our tour guide and led us to our destination successfully. With Tokyo Skytree スカイツリー in the background, an array of brightly colored booths greeted our gaze while delicious smells occupied our noses.

Once Erika and I got our baked potato fix, we joined James in entering a nearby shrine illuminated with traditional lanterns painted with one of the seasonal flowers: the petunia. With a line of people waiting to enter the shrine, we assumed this must be a place where we could write our Tanabata wishes, 願い. To our surprise, this elaborate shrine wasn't part of the festival. After chatting with some local shop clerks, we were directed to the Tanabata Festival held only a few blocks away at Kappabashi Street.

Taking the long way there, we finally arrived at the nearly deserted street. No matter. The Tanabata decorations 飾りstill wavered in the wind, hanging on the power lines above. Catching the street lamps' light, the tasseled head of the streamers appeared to dance in the growing-darker dusk. Stopping to admire the various paper shapes overhead, we could make out Skytree in the distance with its electric blue and purple lights blinking at the night sky.

On our way back to Shitamachi, the three of us paused to write down our 願い on scraps of paper and tie them to a nearby bamboo tree.

As I knotted mine next to a few stragglers at the top of one branch, I felt myself connecting to the writers of these wishes.

Though far from my physical home, I feel a sense of home in a spiritual way here. Like my Japanese counterparts, I wish. I hope. I reach. We all have dreams, and the act of tying our wishes onto the same tree links us together. Unifies us. In harmony. I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything.