“Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better”

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From Samuel Beckett.

Tennis fans may know this quote as one of Stan Wawrinka’s tattoos (on his left forearm). The man can pick out some good quotes.

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[Oh hey Norby. Care to join me in one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken?]

It’s over a week since I’ve arrived and today marks exactly 1 week since I’ve starting the intensive language program offered at Tsuru University.

I knew they’d be difficult but…

Feeling Stupid

[Sometimes just being in class makes me feel like this]

Those who’ve been abroad to a country where the language is so drastically different than their own (which would be like… any language) and they’re only a beginner have felt this strange frustration. It’s similar to the feeling of having something at the tip of your tongue but about 100 times more annoying.

Wait too long and the conversation has already moved on without you. It’s still the very beginning of the program and I’m still being met with extreme patience (which I’m extremely grateful for). However, I know that if I don’t begin to make strides of improvement, I might be left behind in the language learning classroom too.

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It can be hard to say this as an honors student, but it’s okay to fail. Actually, something’s wrong if you don’t fail. One of the other girls in my program brilliantly said that if you keep succeeding at a 100% rate, you are not properly challenging yourself, thus not truly improving.

Japanese can be hard at first, and if you start learning as a young adult, it makes it 10 times more difficult.

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[Wha…]

One thing I’ve learned so far is to seek the failure. Seek that moment when you’re messed up because you’ve attempted to move up a level- one that’s higher than what you know and outside of your comfort zone.

I used to be the student who hated to make a mistake in front of others. When I wasn’t sure of my answer, I most likely wouldn’t say anything. Being here, in this fast-paced, intensive program, I’ve changed in that regard. Even if it’s been only a week, we’ve covered material that some classes only cover in half of a college semester. It’s been only a week, but from an academic standpoint, it’s been awhile.

It’s good to fail. To make a mistake. To show that you haven’t completely mastered the material. That moment of failure turns into the most effective learning moment you’ll ever have. And then the next time you’re asked to prove your knowledge…

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You’ll be better. You’ll have failed better.

Short post. Tomorrow is a national holiday, Foundation Day actually and we get the day off. Tonight, we celebrate the departure of last semester’s exchange students at Tsuru University and end the evening at karaoke with our fabulous tutors.

I better prep my flawless, beautiful singer voice.

There may or may not be video documentation of this.

Much love always,

J

Credit for the gif: here

This Marriage Between Old and New

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I love traveling to cities. I grew up in suburbia. Ventured out to the rural, no man’s land. Took day trips to the city. While some feel suffocated or become overwhelmed when encountering the city life, it revives me. I love the feeling of visiting a big city. Even one as foreign as Tokyo.

For one, the transportation is excellent. Despite the mind-boggling maps at first glance.

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[What the–]

It’s simple. You normally purchase a Suica (or Pasmo, apparently they can be used interchangeably) card (for the large lines only, the smaller ones require their own tickets) which you load on your desired fare and “adjust” your card total when you arrive at your destination. You swipe in to ride and you swipe out to exit. Pretty simple.

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There’s an odd obsession that some people have with trains. Some may have heard the term otaku, which can be (very) loosely translated to “nerd”. The true definition of otaku can literally be saved for another post on another day, but one thing for sure, there are number of different types of otaku. One, that seems to have become an “affectionate term“, is the densha otaku (densha being Japanese for train).

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[Jocelyn has become a densha otaku!]

These otaku love their trains. They’ve researched them to pieces, know them inside and out, and enjoy documenting their arrivals and departures. Some even make plans to attend a train’s “funeral“, or the last ride the train will have before it’s taken to the train graveyard. I’ve seen a few densha otaku braving the cold Yamanashi weather with their cameras. While some may roll their eyes at the thought of being so preoccupied with trains, Tofugu brings up an excellent point that these densha otaku are just appreciating the true wonder that is the Japanese train system. It’s complex, super efficient and probably beats out any other large city in how clean and beautiful they are (inside and out).

The ride to Tokyo (Harajuku) was wonderful. The first leg of the journey was traveling through the more rural parts surrounding Tokyo. The train was older, with the actual conductor announcing the current and future stops (instead of a prerecorded voice). Mountains were still surrounded us and occasionally you saw a graveyard snaking up the sides of one.

Switch to another train and all of a sudden you’re not in Kansas anymore. Large buildings replace the old houses. The train now has video screens at all of the doors. Switching between Japanese and English, it tell you what the next stop is, what side the doors will open, when you will arrive at the next stop, and what all following stops are for the rest of the trip. There’s (often times) one right next to it playing commercials.

It gets busier too. Granted, I wasn’t riding during rush hour times (going to work, returning from work); it was a Saturday though. Many were off of school or work and chose to enjoy the day in central Tokyo.

We got off at Harajuku, right before Shibuya (those might know Shibuya by the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who waited for his master even though he died before he could return home from work). It was busy, there were a lot of young people. Of course! Harajuku is one of the best shopping districts in Japan, if there weren’t young people flocking the streets, we’d have a problem.

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[Oh my gosh, so busy]

I didn’t buy anything. I think I was still in awe of it all. I was in friggin’ Harajuku. Like, the place Gwen Stefani sings about all the time. Didn’t she name her one of her clothing lines after this place?

You’d have a more girly-girl store right next to a dark, goth-like shop. Music coming from all corners. People with signs (and often times dressed in fashion you’d only expect in Harajuku), others calling out to the crowd to walk into their store. A few people trying to hand you flyers. Before I knew it, we were on the other side of Takeshita Street and looking at the more department store-type of shopping areas. We browsed, but nothing much more.

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Back allies are fun. Unless their dark and wet-looking. Then I don’t like them.

But the ones in Harajuku I do like.

Small little cafés line the streets, one on top of the other. We went to one with a theme of stationary. You sit down, order and then browse. I personally think all restaurants should be this way. It makes the wait for food so much better.

We even got to be kids again and draw on our placemats.

After eating and feeling reenergized (because Harajuku can tire you out at first glance) we shop-hopped. At one point waiting in line for about 30 minutes for a popular shop. While it was out of the ordinary to wait for a store, it might make some sense. Could it be because of the work ethic that the Japanese people have? Since it was Saturday, this was the only day many people could shop, making this place busy as heck? My friends kept telling me it was because it was a foreign store (it sold items from Copenhagen) and everyone loves going to places like that (the Garrett Popcorn store, the same as the one in Chicago, had a long line as well). It may seem odd at first glance, but it made things bit easier. No pushing, no trampling. No one dead. Maybe we can learn a thing or two about this system of waiting instead of nearly decapitating each other for material items.

Not too far from Harajuku station is the Meiji Shrine.

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[Holy moley, weird to see all of those trees so close to a city like that!]

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Established in 1920 a few years after the death of Emperor Meiji and his wife (Empress Shoken), people across Japan gathered a large number of trees, planted them in the surrounding area of the shrine and, behold! The Meiji Shrine came to be. [source]

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I wish I had the time (and energy) to research and write about Shinto (the ancient, Japanese religion) and what each part of shrines mean, but that would be like writing a dissertation. Maybe at the end of this program I’ll become a semi-pro, expert on Shinto shrines? Probably not, but hopefully I’ll learn as I go. But for now, I’ll just mention my observations.

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After passing under the tori gate and taking a few pictures of the kazaridaru, or sake offerings (see my Tumblr post here for some cool information on kazaridaru) we approached the main shrine area. Before entering, it’s customary to purify your hands and mouth with water.

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Now, I’ve heard about this before and was just a bit terrified. I knew there was a process but I didn’t remember how it went. Will I look like a silly foreigner (lies, I already did)? Will I upset someone?

Luckily, they had directions in English.

There was traditional Japanese wedding taking place that day! I didn’t get a good look at the main wedding party, but got a few glimpses of those glorious kimono we’ve all heard of before. Let me tell you, until you see a real one in person, you don’t understand how pretty they are.

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At the Meiji Shrine, my friends and I approached the offering hall to pray. Return of the nerves. I knew there was a process and there was something involving the throwing of money, but of course I didn’t remember.

Again, English directions.

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Here’s the deal, you throw 50 yen (the coin with a hole in the middle) into the large box-like structure with bars on the top, bow twice, say your prayer, clap twice and bow again. Not too complicated? I think I did it right. One of my friends of a picture of me doing it, I probably looked silly.

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On the way out, we passed people purchasing ema, or wooden tablet in which you write your wishes on. Click on ema above and you’ll be directed to my Tumblr and I’ll explain the significance of them at Japanese shrines.

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Right before we left, I made sure to purchase some charms, or omamori. Most of them help against ‘misfortunes’ and have different meanings depending on the one you purchase. We’ve got your basic good fortune (the red one I purchased for myself- I was told that it would cover me across the board), one for happiness (the yellow one in the photo) and others (for finding a partner, finding a job, passing classes/tests, having children/giving birth safely). I was told that they only last a year, so people often times return to shrines to purchase new ones. They make good key chain charms, backpack charms, etc. They also make excellent gifts.

The return home was tiring. So much seen, so much more ahead. Had good conversations with some old friends. Hope to do it again real soon.

As a parting note, I cannot seem to get over the fact of how much history is blended in within the metropolitan area of Tokyo. It makes Tokyo so much more amazing to me. On one side of the street you’ll have skyscrapers that seem to be miles high and on the opposite is a shrine, nearly 100 years old.

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You see it in the smaller towns too. Walking the streets of Tsuru-shi, you’ll pass by the popular convenience stores (konbini) and suddenly come across a tiny, old looking shrine, hidden in the trees. I don’t see much of that where I come from.

I loved Tokyo, can’t wait to go back. I do love my Tsuru-shi though. It’s already home.

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Much love always,

J

Train Map Photo: here

Meiji Shrine Overhead Photo: here

Moments under a kotatsu are best when shared with friends

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It’s winter in Japan as of right now.

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And while it’s certainly no polar vortex, it’s still cold. Going outside doesn’t involve getting dressed like you’re about to climb Mt. Everest, but for someone who has never been to Japan during the colder months (such as myself), it may be a slightly unpleasant surprise to find that central heating is not that popular. In fact, good luck trying to find a home that has it. Most homes use space heating methods that normally heat the most popular/populated room in the house.

In that case, that would be the main room/bedroom of this (my) apartment.

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After brief research, it seems to be that most Japanese homes, schools, buildings, etc. don’t have the insulated walls that many foreigners are used to and often times have windows with single-pane glass (source).

There are some exceptions of course. The more up north you go (up to Hokkaido), you’ll see that many homes and buildings have central heating (or are even required to have). Some bigger, department-like stores across Japan do have central heating (most likely to make patrons comfortable) as well as office buildings. Makes sense. I wouldn’t get squat done at work if I were cold.

The above source brought up some excellent points as to why space heating is the preferred method of heating. For one, it’s cheaper. It makes sense to only heat the rooms used the most instead of ALL of the rooms that might only be used occasionally or very rarely at all. You’re wasting money on heating the entirety of the home as opposed to the most popular rooms.

Unless you live in Hokkaido, you’re more likely to experience shorter winters in Japan, especially in the central Japan/Tokyo area (where I reside). Why even bother installing, up-keeping and ultimately paying for something you’ll use very rarely? I don’t think Japan will be experiencing an extended polar vortex anytime soon.

However, the best reason should be considered the sense of community– getting everyone together to spend time in one room of the home and enjoy each other’s company. It gives people an excuse to come over,

“You have your kotatsu on?! I’m coming over~!”

Bam. Instant quality time with loved ones created.

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A popular method of space heating is the use of kotatsu, low-to-the-ground tables with a blanket/futon draped over (making it look like a bed skirt). On the underside of the table is heater you turn on by simply plugging it into the wall. Grab some pillows if you’d like, scoot your bum underneath the blanket and you’re instantly in heaven.

I have no idea why these haven’t caught on in the US.

[Oh wait, we use central heating]

Among the odds and ends that came in my apartment, a small kotatsu was one of them. While I don’t have an extra futon or really warm, thick blankets, my princess fleece and pink sleeping bag get the job done.

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[Cinderella is watching you…]

It’s a beautiful thing; coming home from difficult language classes, in the snow/slush and turning that baby on and getting cozy with some homework. I actually can’t work for too long under my kotatsu or I’ll fall asleep (has happened, even with company in the room).

But really, as much as I enjoy my kotatsu by myself, I love sharing moments with friends under one.

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Being abroad for the first time is difficult, but sharing some good food and drinks with some excellent friends (new and old) is the perfect way to ease into the new atmosphere.

We did nearly everything together under the kotatsu. Rolled the sushi, warmed the sake (using the space heater a few feet away), told jokes, shared stories, and (for me at least) nearly fell asleep.

It didn’t matter when over 10 people were all in the same room together. We all fit. In fact, it made the room warmer. When our feet accidentally bumped against each other, no one was shocked or embarrassed (FOOTSIE!), it was expected. Some people left their feet hidden under the vast amounts of quilts and laid down for a snooze on the tatami mats. If someone had to leave the room, they made it quick because they wanted to return. Because it was warm? Maybe. But it was mostly like to return to the community of friends spending time together.

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It was a lovely experience. I had been in the country for no more than 48 hours and something inside told me that this place had already turned into a second home. This special type of community I thought I could only experience back home was right in front of me. I recommend to anyone visiting Japan to scrap up a few friends in the winter months and have a few drinks under a kotatsu.

Today, I celebrate my 1 week arrival… under a warm kotatsu. Thank you everyone for all of the well wishes! I promise to respond to emails properly soon.

Much love always,

J