Life List Item #14: Visit Universal Studios

When I added this item to my list I had no idea it would involve Japan. As things would turn out it did. My friend Mari and I took an amazing trip to Universal Studios Japan, in Osaka, where I had the time of my life.

After the three hour train ride from Kanazawa to Osaka we were getting off the in Universal City. After purchasing the ticket we began taking in the surroundings. I should say I  took in the surroundings as a first time visitor, for Mari she has seen this all before. I was beaming with joy. My surroundings make me feel as if I was back home! All the street signs were recognizable and even the American mail box got a squeal out of me.

Each area of Universal is set up to look like a different U.S. city. As we traversed through the different areas I got to see Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, Amity Island, Jurassic Park, and of course the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As this attraction is the most popular it requires a timed entry ticket, so our first priority was to head to the ticket machine to get one. It didn't cost any extra, it is just a way to bring people into this area at a staggered rate.

We rode for Forbidden Journey 3D ride which took us through the world of Harry Potter from the Great Hall to the Quidditch Pitch and through the Forbidden Forest feeling as if we were riding on a broomstick just feet behind Harry and Ron. We felt fire as a dragon breathed in our faces and felt as if we were going to crash when our broom took a nosedive to catch the golden snitch. Before we boarded the ride the line took us through different parts of the castle where we got to see Dumbledore's Office, the Gryffindor Common Room, and the talking paintings. These were absolutely amazing because they looked so real. They were speaking Japanese, so I didn't know what they were saying!

Being in each tiny city is like actually being in the real place. Everything down to the trash receptacles, the street signs, and the smallest details bring you into a pocket of a world so far away. The music playing in each area helps to create the surrounding experience, like you are really there.

The whole day could not have been better.  The weather was mild,  the company was great, and all the sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings did not disappoint. I loved absolutely every second of my experience at Universal Studios Japan.

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Nara Deer Park

One of the places on my Japan travel list was the city of Nara, known for it's famous Deer Park. I recently got to visit and experience the over 1,000 wild Sika deer that roam the park.  I found out that in  the Shinto religion these deer are considered to be messengers of the gods. 

The deer inhabit in this 1,200 acre park, doing their thing, and waiting to be fed crackers by tourists. The deer are extremely friendly, but can get a little aggressive when they know you have crackers to feed them, many of them tugging at your coat or nuzzling their head into your side. None that I could see had large racks of antlers and the few male deer that I witnessed had their antlers sawed off. Safe for the visitors, but of course not natural for the deer. These deer were smaller and a bit more stout than the whitetail deer native to my state of Michigan. 

Deery want a cracker?
Do you have a message for me?
A second reason I was eager to visit Nara Park is because it is the site of Todai-ji, spectacular Buddhist temple complex. The Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world and it houses a 50-foot bronze Buddha statue, the largest bronze Buddha in the world. (That's a lot of superlatives to hit!) When I learned of it's presence there, I knew I wanted to see it in person.

Coming from a person who adores Buddhist art, seeing something like this in person is an incredibly moving experience. As I was approaching the entrance I was becoming more and more excited and when I finally beheld the site, I had my breath taken away. Pictures are a poor representation of what it is like to experience this being's presence in person. 

Another surprise experience was getting to see the statues of Agyo and Ungyo at the entrance of the temple. You may remember my post about this a while ago. The statues I had pictured in that post were in fact the very ones that guard Todai-ji! When I was approaching and realizing that I was going to get to see these statues in person I got butterflies in my stomach. They did not photograph well, but maybe you can get some idea of their size.

Being in the presence of these two figures was a similar but heightened reaction that I had before when seeing similar figures like these. I don't think I scare easily, but these two send a chill down your spine like being alone in a dark forest. Though they are stationary, their expressive movement makes you feel like they are going to jump down and engulf you at any moment. I wanted to look at them, and stand between them, and experience the sheer power they radiated. Though it's frightening their craftsmanship undoubtedly leaves the viewer in awe. These guardians of the temple surely do their job at warding off evil.

While traversing the park their are numerous other temples and shrines to visit. Please enjoy a few more pictures from my trip to Nara Deer Park.

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New Year in Japan

In Japan New Year is celebrated quite differently than in the United States. It's by and large a family holiday, one that you spend time getting together with family members, eating special foods, and visiting a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Fireworks, ball drops, and late night drinking aren't common features of a Japanese New Years Eve, but the real action happens during the day on January 1st. 

Like I said it is customary to visit a shrine or temple on New Years Day with family. This is called hatsumode, or first shrine visit of the year. I was excited to take off on an adventure to take part in this tradition. There are numerous shrines all around you at any given time, so people pick a shrine to visit based on proximity or popularity. I chose to visit one of the most well known shrines in Kanazawa, Oyama Shrine. I knew it would be packed, but I was excited for a lively outing. 

Being a lovely day, I walked the mile and half to the landmark, enjoying fresh 2017 air and sunshine. When I arrived to the shrine, I surveyed the area, wrapped my head around what was going on, and stood around like a fly on the wall for a little bit. I knew it would be busy, but when I saw the line to enter the shrine I decided I would not wait in it. Then I though, wait, what else do I have to do? It's a beautiful day and this is all part of the experience!  So, I changed my mind and joined the football field length line. My prediction was the the line would take at least an hour to progress, but in reality it was more like 20 minutes. I took in the sights and sounds as I awaited my turn, with many others, to step up to the alter of the shrine, toss in my coin and make my first prayer or wish of the year. This involved two bows and two claps toward the alter after tossing in your coin of any value as an offering. 

I walked around the grounds of the shrine for nearly an hour longer, surveying all the festival style food vendors, which I was greatly looking forward to. Food vendors in Japan are a lot of fun and it's a great way for a foreigner like me to experience foods for a reasonable price. One staple that can always be found is taiyaki, which is a sweet treat made from waffle batter filled with sweetened red bean paste in the shape of a fish. I almost never turn one down when I find it! I enjoyed the warm, gooeyness of this treat. Next I selected a savory crepe-type concoction. I wasn't 100% sure what was contained in this, but I throughout enjoyed it. I could have continued eating, but my two selections provided an adequate lunch.

There were several small trinkets to be bought at this shrine in honor of the New Year. You can get a small paper fortune or one of the numerous small lucky charms meant to bring you luck in the new year. But, I had my eye on only one thing. A hamaya or arrow that I had known about for a while and was eager to get. I thought it would be an interesting souvenir to bring home. I ended up learning that it is mean to protect it's owner from evil. While I'm not superstitious, I rather just like the look of it. I also learned you area meant to bring it back the following year so it can be burned and you can get a new one the following year. 

I won't be burning mine as it is likely the only one I will ever own! 

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Christmas in Japan

Being away from family during the holidays is one of the not so great parts of living a life abroad. What's worse, I tend to keep choosing countries that don't observe many of the same holidays I am used to. Being a Buddhist country, one would think Japan doesn't carve out Christmas as a special day, though that's not entirely true. Christmas is celebrated in Japan, just a little bit differently. 

In the many weeks leading up to Christmas decorations began popping up in every store I would visit. From the stores' stereo systems came Christmas music, mostly in English. I even saw store cashiers wearing Santa hats. Conveniently packed gifts sets of different food items could be bought in grocery stores. Santa, snowman, and reindeer themed sweets could be bought at bakeries. Christmas is huge here, but not in a religious or spiritual way, not even in a family kind of way. The commercial value of Christmas has permeated it's way through this culture over the past 30 years. 

The biggest difference between a Japanese Christmas and a Western one is who you celebrate with. Christmas in Japan is seen more as a romantic holiday than one you celebrate with your family. In that way it's more similar to Valentine's Day and couples tend to have a nice dinner out on Christmas Eve and exchange gifts. Friends also get together for parties and such. Young children can receive gifts from their parents. 

Due to a marketing campaign in the 1970s, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve is oddly a huge tradition here. Many people make reservations and have a sit down dinner in KFC restaurants, or place orders for their fried chicken in advance. 

During the couple of weeks before Christmas is surely was all around me. In my 10th grade classes we had a special Christmas lesson where the students had to answer Christmas trivia, sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and use some Christmas vocabulary. 

I took part in a gift exchange with the English club at the end of the Christmas party. With the $5 limit I brought a small jar of peanut butter as my gift, wanting to share something American that I enjoy so well. 

A couple of my Japanese partner teachers arranged for the students to surprise me with Christmas cards. Their personal messages wishing me well and showing their admiration definitely helped me to feel loved this holiday season. 

I woke up Christmas morning to talk with my parents over Skype and to open up the gifts that we had sent to each other. Many generous friends and family members back home sent me wonderful things that ensured me I wasn't forgotten. It was nice to receive some foods with labels I can actually read! 

On Christmas Day I was lucky to receive an invitation from one of my colleagues to spend the day with her. Miss Niwa is in her 50s and single so the two of us were a pair. Not wanting to spend Christmas alone, we spent it in each other's company. 

We started with lunch at a quaint French restaurant, followed by going to a movie theater to see Rogue One, the newest Star Wars film. When I told her about a Japanese soup I had been wanting to make she invited me to her apartment to make it that evening. We stopped at the grocery store after the movie to gather the supplies. We ended the night with a couple of beers and delicious warm soup.

It was nice to relate to her and share many of our travel stories. We have gotten together outside of school before, once for dinner and once to take a yoga class. She shared with me more about her travels to 20 different counties and we discussed the year she spent living in Canada.  

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Simple Accomplishments

I don't want to be fluent in Japanese. I just don't care to be. I find much smaller accomplishments much more satisfying.

I have been learning/practicing Japanese with a teacher friend once a week over lunch. Oddly enough she is a Japanese teacher, but anyone who has ever taught a foreign language knows teaching to native speakers and teaching to foreigners is completely different.

She said she had never broken down her language quite as much as she does with me. We were working on some simple sentence structures. Kinds you find in baby books. After some work we finally hammered out the structure "that noun is adjective".
Finally I said "That cat is black."
Ano wa kuroi neko desu.

Yay!!! We both cheered like I had just gotten the million dollar question correct! I felt special that she shared my happiness in this tiny, yet incredible accomplishment. That simple moment of fun and excitement invigorated me to keep learning. Even if it is just to have moments like that with my friend Kanna.

I had a similar personal celebratory moment recently when I had to produce my hotel room number in Japanese to get my key from the front desk. I rehearsed in my mind the number 613 and when it came time to deliver, I nailed it. I walked away congratulating myself.

When you move to another culture and everything around you is different, thus more difficult, these tiny accomplishments mean the world. Who ever thought saying the words "the cat is black" or "613" would make you feel wonderful about yourself? These kinds of events just don't happen in "regular" life. It was something that I craved and missed before moving abroad again.

I've come a long way in four months in Japan. Whereas I used to get lost in my own neighborhood, I am now able to take buses with ease knowing when and where to get on and off. These small advancements happen when you aren't looking, all those things that seemed straight up impossible become things of ease. 

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