As Fulbright ETAs in Taiwan, there is only one time during the year when we can leave the country and that is during the Chinese New Year holiday. It’s our ‘winter vacation’: a three-week break from the end of January until the beginning of February. Some people choose to go back to the US while others use the time to travel around Asia. Three other ETAs and I had been planning a trip to Japan in the months leading up to the break and we were eagerly anticipating our adventure outside of Taiwan.
However, before we could leave we had one more thing to attend: the Fulbright Midyear Conference. This was a four day event hosted at the Great Root Forestry Resort, a spa and hot springs resort in New Taipei City. This event was an opportunity to get to know the other sites and hear more about what other ETAs are doing around Taiwan. At the end of the day, I was really grateful to have the opportunity to work in Hualien. I think we are lucky to have a smaller group of ETAs and as a result we are a close-knit group (both geographically and socially). We are also lucky to have a good coordinator and a beautiful location.
There were several teacher sharing sessions and I got some great ideas for my own classes as a result. We were also able to hear from the scholars at the conference about their research in Taiwan which was very eye opening. At the end of the conference, Fulbright had a speaker who had retired from working in the foreign service come to talk to us about the tumultuous relationship between Taiwan and China. We all left the conference feeling a little more uneasy than we had been before about Taiwan and China’s political relationship. Overall it was a rewarding experience and a chance to catch up with ETAs from other sites that we hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving.
First stop… Japan 1/23!
Sarah, James, Jenna and I had a flight to Tokyo immediately after the conference that brought us into Tokyo at 6:00 am the next day. After an awkward conversation at the ticket counter during which I found out my bag was overweight and tried to put on as many articles of clothing as possible in the airport to lower my baggage weight, we were off. Unfortunately because we were all seated in the emergency row our chairs did not decline so we had a pretty sleepless night to start our trip. Nevertheless we were as enthusiastic as ever when we arrived and quickly got to business trying to find our way to Hostel DEN. I must say… perhaps the most frustrating thing about Tokyo is that the subway system is privatized and as a result there are many different intersecting lines that require different types of tickets to ride. Furthermore, although two different privately owned lines are going from the same station, you sometimes have to walk all the way out of the station and enter through a new gate to transfer lines. We were so confused when we first arrived but by some stroke of luck we ended up on the right train headed to our hostel and got off at the correct stop.
Hostel DEN in Ginza is an amazing place to stay and I would recommend it to any traveler. There is a kitchen, lounge, and reading space on the first floor. Each bed is comfortable and has its own curtain, the staff speak English fluently, and the entire hostel is quite neat and clean. However, the most fantastic part about this place is that each bed comes with an UNLIMITED DATA mobile device that guests are allowed to take out into the city and use for maps and online guides. Unfortunately because we did not know this, James and I both got SIM cards and Sarah got a wireless wifi router for the time we were in Japan.
We started out the day with raman because what better option for our first meal? Then, I headed off to the Imperial Palace to walk around the gardens. It was a beautiful day and I happened to stumble right into a free English tour and got a very detailed explanation of the history of the palace from a very sweet older man. The garden and park are open to the public, but the current emperor resides in a private section of the imperial palace. The actual building burned down several times throughout Japanese history and has been rebuilt, or in some areas not rebuilt. Unfortunately it wasn’t Japanese Cherry Blossom blooming season, but there were still several beautiful flowerbeds.
After I quick nap, I made my way to Akihabara, the “electronic district of Tokyo” with the rest of the crew. Although I know little about manga, anime, and Japanese video games I was nonetheless enthralled by the insane SEGA buildings filled with floors of video games and vending machines. There were people (primarily men) who looked like they had been at those machines for hours and didn’t flinch for a second when we walked by. We walked through stores selling anime figurines and past several maid cafes. It was unlike anywhere I had ever been and I was pretty overwhelmed.
Shinjuku and Yuta’s home 1/24
The next day we slept in a bit to catch up from our travel. We decided to head to Shinjuku and explore the city for a bit before heading to Yuta’s house which was much farther outside of the city. Shinjuku is a big commercial shopping area and it was quite crowded when we arrived. As we were walking down the streets, we came across two young girls that were being followed by a flock of men. They were holding posters and immediately came up to me. Although they spoke to me in English I had no idea what they said and awkwardly said “What?” The flock of people began to surround me. I panicked and looked at James, Sarah and Jenna for help. They all ignored my pleading eyes. The girls then asked me if I wanted to join them on their walk to which I said, “Uhhh no thanks!” Sadly they walked away back into the crowd and their followers looked at me disdainfully. I turned to James and asked him what had just happened, to which he replied, “Those were probably idols! Why didn’t you say you liked fan music and take a picture with them?!” I had no idea what idols are, but it turns out that they are young women (and sometimes men) that are viewed by society as flawless, innocent, and angelic individuals. They sing and dance, and are idolized by Japanese people for their appearance and lifestyle. Young girls often aspire to be like idols, but the consequences of an idol making a mistake and breaking their angelic facade are high so they are forced to lead very constrained lives. And…. unfortunately I missed my opportunity to worship one.
I had enough of the Shinjuku area quickly so we headed to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The garden is a traditional style Japanese garden and has beautifully shaped trees and small ponds and bridges. However we didn’t stay for long because it was already time to head to Yuta’s home for a traditional family style Japanese dinner. We met up with five other ETAs and some TEFL advisers there and prepared the meal. The dinner was delicious and was accompanied by sake which made it an even more joyous celebration of Fulbright family. After a fun night of games and chatting we headed back to our hostel in Ginza for the night.
Mori museum and Odiba 1/25
Before we left for Japan, we had found and researched an exhibit through the Mori Art Museum called teamlab Borderless. We got our tickets before we got to Tokyo so they didn’t sell out and we were excited to see the interactive digital exhibit. It was definitely the most surreal museum experience I have ever had. Once we entered the building, we were immediately brought into a room with flowers covering the floor, walls, and ceiling. The flowers grew where we walked and slowly shifted when we moved past them. In another room we found ourselves surrounded by stars in space, and in another we watched a storm of lights from inside of a room covered in LED lights. We drew fish and watched them swim by on the wall as part of the exhibit. The most incredible exhibit in my opinion was a completely mirrored room with hanging lanterns that changed color over time. The mirrors made the display feel endless and I felt as if I was floating in space. The pictures hardly do the museum justice.
The next adventure of the day was a tour around the Odiba area one of the main waterfront sections of Tokyo. We saw the life-sized Unicorn Gundam Statue, an anime character, and toured through the Diver City mall. I went to Hello Kitty World and got an adorable shirt. We finished off the night in Harajuku, a colorful street that is near Shinjuku and home to many animal cafes, crazy outfits, and sweet desserts. I got a massive cheese corn dog and best of all, I got to visit the cat cafe and cuddle with many cats. Overall, an awesome and adventure filled day.
1/26 Temples and Shrines and Kitties oh my!
Although we had done plenty of exploring in Tokyo already, one thing that Sarah, Jenna, and I felt we had neglected were the various shrines and temples throughout the city. We decided to devote Saturday to exploring these religious sites with our first stop being the Meiji Shrine near Shinjuku. Unfortunately most of the shrine was under construction so we didn’t get to see it, but we did get a poem fortune! It was around brunch time when we arrived so we stopped at Flippers for pancakes and HOLY COW they were some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had in my entire life. We even arrived at the perfect time to avoid the crowds.
The next stop was the Gotokuji Shrine a little ways outside of the city, famous for many small cat figurines. This temple might have been the birthplace of the cat figurine which brings good luck and fortune to whomever places it but this is just one story. The temple is quite old. The last stop of the day was the largest and most famous temple that I visited in all of Japan. It is called the Sensoji Temple and apparently was completed in 645, making it one of the oldest if not the oldest temple in all of Japan. Despite the fact that we went right as the temple building was about to close, it was still incredibly crowded. And quite cold. Needless to stay we didn’t stay for too long. We grabbed some dinner and went to a bar after, where we met two other foreigners who were living full time in Japan. Apparently I accidentally ruined one of the guys pick up girls strategies when I told him that he dropped his wallet. In Japan according to him, if you are interested in a girl you leave your money and cash just SITTING on the floor of a bar and hope that she tells you it accidentally slipped out of your pocket. He was trying to catch the attention of a cute Japanese girl behind us but alas I messed up his plan.
1/27 Imperial Palace Runs, History, and Shibuya
I decided to go for a morning run around the Imperial Palace because of the beautiful weather. Apparently in Tokyo, this is the place to run. It was a zoo! I almost got tramped many times. At one point I was entirely convinced that I had accidentally crashed a 5k race because there were people holding up signs with the mileage and cheering people on, but it turns out that they just do that every day! After a satisfying run, I headed to the history Edo Tokyo Museum with Jenna and Sarah to learn about the history of Tokyo and Kyoto, a place we would all be visiting sometime in the near future. We learned about the many fires that destroyed Tokyo throughout the years and the how the capital city moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. We also learned some of the devastating effects of the World War II bombing in Tokyo and how the city had to be completely rebuilt. Japan has a history filled with hardship, innovation, and creativity. It was really fascinating to learn about.
After the museum, we headed to Shibuya to see the famous crossing and grab some dinner. Although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I was shocked by the number of people pouring across this one street in every direction. We ran into an incredibly flustered foreigner from America who told us he had made a plan to meet his friends at the Shibuya crossing… what a horrible mistake. We tried our best to help him, hopefully he made it! After dinner we grabbed some beers in the area and met up with the wallet dropped friend who showed us around a few of his favorite places in the city.
1/28 Mt. Takao and the Last Night
I decided to take my own day to explore Mt. Takao, a small hike about an hour outside of the city. I was hoping to catch some views of Mt. Fuji and to be honest, I was itching to get out of the city. The weather was beautiful and along the way I was often greeted with a friendly hello and wave. When I reached the top, I was surprised to find vending machines everywhere just like the rest of Japan! There was a stunning view of Fuji as well. I was so excited I made several people take photos of me in front of the mountain.
I made it back to Tokyo earlier than expected and decided to wander around the Ginza area for a bit. I explored the KitKat store and got some unique flavors, and found some cheap coffee samples. After a bit, I met up with the rest of the crew in Roppongi. Both of these places are very ritzy but we enjoyed looked at the cool architecture and the views of the Tokyo tower from the city. We headed back to the hostel for a chill last night to reflect on our Tokyo adventure. It had been a whirlwind of traveling and miraculously we got on the correct subway every time (except the one time everyone put me in charge of navigating). Tokyo is overwhelming, impeccably clean, high tech, and an amazing place to visit. It was time to say goodbye for the next chapter of the journey… skiing in Yuzawa and meeting my Dad for the Chinese New Year!