By Malia Griggs
hile in Japan this past May, I purchased a blue tote bag from a convenience store. On the tote were printed various icons and the text: “STORAGE-CASE. Service Life. You are freer than whether to use with what kind of use.” These words make no sense, I know, but my trip to Japan was rather like the ‘Engrish’ on this bag: disjointed, amusing and illogically logical. I was fortunate enough to visit Japan for twelve days with Capstone’s Maymester Study Abroad program. Prior to the trip, I spent a year in an intro-level Japanese class. Don’t let the word “intro” fool you – Japanese is not an easy language to pick up. Save basic American words that translate painlessly (“party” is paatii, “cake” is keeki), Japanese sounds and looks nothing like English. There are three alphabets. The kanji alphabet is comprised of over six thousand characters, all of which resemble those calligraphic tattoos people get which embody abstract emotions like love and happiness. What follows is a city-by-city account of my trip. o c t oI’llb eonly r 08 30 garnet&black
highlight a few things, as I’m sure you don’t want a detailed description of every temple and shrine I visited. Temples and shrines in Japan are as widespread as churches in the South and Starbucks in the North. Every day brought a new one with elaborately carved statues, rolling gardens and a sense of profound calm. The Japanese have a great respect for their ancestors, and while they are not overtly religious, this reverence and spiritual composure pervades their cultural mindset. I am one-fourth Japanese (Okinawan, more specifically). I thought this trip would be a good way to practice my Japanese, but also to pay respect to my own ancestors. So, ikimashoo. Let’s go!
After a thirteen-hour flight from Detroit to Osaka, our tour guide Jason and his assistant Yuka met us. Jason is technically a white guy from middle America, but the toll of six years in Japan made him look bona fide Asian. We took a train to the Super Hotel in Kyoto where the rooms
were very small and cute (like everything in Japan). They came complete with pajama sets, bathroom slippers, and mini trashcans labeled “filth putting.” Because Japan is such a tiny country with a large population, most of its objects are miniaturized to save space. The Japanese love when things are kawaii (cute), which makes the small size easier to accept. The cuteness factor translates into everything – miniature cars, fruity soft drinks, tiny erasers. You name it, it’s cute: boys; vending machines. You can find vending machines everywhere – ones that sell beer, cater to weird fetishes, and even some that prepare full meals. We stayed in Kyoto three nights. May is field trip month in Japan, so everywhere we traveled we saw hundreds of yellow-capped school children. They liked to scream “Fonzie!” and “America!” at us, and many wanted interviews for their English classes. Sanjusan Gindo is a long hallway of wooden Buddha statues, each with forty-two hands. There, I bought a temple book, which is a blank book
you take with you from temple to temple. For a small fee, a calligrapher or monk inscribes the name of the temple you’re visiting and the date. The goal is to visit as many temples and fill as many books as possible. The more stamps you receive, the closer you are to heaven. Throughout my trip, I learned many ways to grow closer to heaven. At Todaiji Temple, which houses the largest Buddha in Japan, you could squirm through a hole near the bottom of a column that is supposedly the size of the Buddha’s nostril. If you fit through, you are guaranteed a trip to heaven. By the end of my trip, I had earned many roundtrips to heaven (I say round-trips because there’s no way I’d be a permanent resident).
In contrast with the sparkle of Kyoto, Hiroshima seemed industrial and dry. I tried my first Japanese breakfast: rice, raw egg, seaweed and fish. No sissy Frosted Flakes here. The Japanese diet consists mainly of fish and rice. At one time, rice was currency in Japan, so it is impolite not to eat all your rice. Besides stressing health, Japan is also clean, green and crime-free. I saw almost no trashcans during my trip, but not a speck of litter. Japan is green in color – trees and flowers everywhere – and green environmentally. Everyone bikes and there are recycling bins on all the city streets. Japan is extremely safe. You can leave your purse in the middle of a train station and no one will touch it. You can walk in an unlit playground and not fear being mugged. This kind of safety was startling, so different from home, where I ask friends to walk me to my dorm at night. We visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum, the epicenter where the atomic bomb was dropped, and the skeletal remains of the only
building from the city before the bombing. The museum’s displays were draining, full of clothing scraps and skin from children who died from exposure to radiation. This dismal day was balanced with a trip to Miyajima Island, where we saw the floating vermilion torii gate near Itsukushima Shrine. The weather was disgusting, and Jason had us climb a mountain in pouring rain, but something about that downfall was cleansing to the spirit. When we finally reached the outlook point at the top, we could see the floating gate at the bottom of the island far away. I fell down the observation tower stairs into a pile of mud, but was rewarded with a hot bowl of udon noodles afterwards. Oishii. On the last day we visited Kansai University, where USC has established a study abroad exchange program. Kansai is roughly the same size as USC, but its campus is more contained. None of this twenty-five minute uphill deal between Swearingen and the BA building. We ate lunch with students and were greeted with stares from a packed cafeteria while we struggled to weigh our food on a scale in order to pay for it. We learned local dialect and listened to students play music.
Who said Paris was the city of lights? That person has clearly never been to Tokyo. Japan’s capital city is a sensory overload. It’s this sprawling conglomeration of flashing lights, technological wonders, love hotels where you can rent theme rooms by the hour, Japanese Beatles imitation bands and swarms of sarariiman (salarymen) in their tailored suits lining up in the sub stations for the morning rush hour. Like those of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, my experiences in Tokyo left me feeling a little lost in translation. I bought a coffee mug from a
Tokyo Starbucks. Upon purchase, the cashier explained to me that I received a free cup of coffee with the mug. I accepted the offer, but asked him to leave room for cream. He sprayed me a dollop of whipped cream. When I requested a bag to carry the mug in after use, he promptly placed the steaming cup into a paper bag and handed it to me. We shopped in Kamakura, a district outside of Tokyo, where the largest outdoor Buddha in Japan is located. We made a quick stop by Roppongi Hills, the most expensive mall I’ve ever shopped in (or window-shopped, rather), where I saw a seethrough tank top priced at $1,500. What a steal! In Akihibara, the electronics district, we browsed the hundreds of phones, all complete with live streaming TVs. Harajuku (see Gwen Stefani), the district famed for its outlandish street fashion, was crowded with Japanese hipsters and pinkhaired girls clothed in Lolita baby doll dresses and toting parasols. One night, my roommate Evelyn and I headed to Shibuya, another fashion and nightlife capital. We tried to find a club, but ended up wandering the streets listlessly, swept up in the current of far trendier people our age headed in vague directions down dark alleys and into karaoke bars. A trio of obviously not Japanese guys hailed us down with calls of “Hey, America!” One of the guys wore a cap with the number 803 on it. We asked where they were from and he said, “Columbia, South Carolina.” I thought he was kidding until he said, “I lived off Garner’s Ferry Road and went to A.C. Flora High School.” It’s strange - you spend twelve days charting ground across a world of tea ceremonies and temples, assorted paths to heaven and heated toilet seats and yet something always reminds you of what you’ve left behind.
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This is an article I wrote for Garnet & Black in 2008. It was my first time writing for them!