Farewell For Now

As I’m writing this, I’m also preparing for the new school year at Notre Dame. I’ve had a week to flip my cultural switch and settle back in to my American habits. In that week, I had time to relax, unwind, and think about everything that happened during my six weeks of study. I learned a lot in class, but the most valuable things I took away from my experience weren’t linguistic in nature.

At the time I really didn’t realize just how challenging and sometimes uncomfortable it was to live in a country where practically no one speaks your native tongue. I didn’t realize how nearly overwhelming all of the kanji and new customs and attempted conversations were until I came back home. Being able to speak English again was a breath of fresh air. In comparison to having to navigate all of the new experiences in Tokyo, simple things like small talk and asking strangers questions in English seemed so much easier. I felt more assured, as silly as that might sound.

That said, I definitely picked up some funny quirks in my six weeks that have stuck with me a week later. I still bow a little bit when introducing myself or thanking someone. I drift to the left when walking anywhere rather than sticking to the right. Just little mundane things like that. My favorite quirk is how I mix up English writing and Japanese writing sometimes. Katakana and hiragana are both phonetic scripts, and they both have symbols for “to.” The Japanese “to,” however, it more like “toe.” Regardless, I got into a habit of writing quickly and writing the hiragana “to,” then the katakana “to,” and then finally writing in English. And it’s still happening.

All this rambling is to say that I really think this experience will stick with me academically and personally for the rest of my life. It seems strange to say it, but I think those six weeks are a part of me now. It wasn’t just fun, it was formative, and I think what I took away will help me shape my future. Grandiose proclamations aside, I am truly grateful for my time in Tokyo, and I can’t wait to go back.

Farewell, for now. We will meet again.

America vs Japan: Food


Now let’s talk food. There are four major differences between American food and Japanese food: content, price, size, and flavor.


This one is pretty straight forward. American and Japanese food are obviously different. The dishes vary, but the common ingredients vary as well. It’s not at all uncommon in Japan to eat a vegetarian (not vegan) meal. Rice is what you typically fill up on, and meat typically acts as more of a side dish or accent flavor. In the good ol’ US of A meat is usually the main attraction and everything else is an accessory to it.

On top of that, there’s a difference in what meats are common. I think it’s fair to say that America gives you a wealth of meat options at varying prices. You can fairly easily find anything from chicken to buffalo if you look hard enough. In Japan, this doesn’t apply. Chicken is common in Tokyo as well, but possibly even more common is pork. Pork seemed to be the go to meat in my experience. Beef, an American staple, was woefully uncommon in comparison. The texture and quality of beef was, in my opinion, quite a bit different from what we Yanks are used to.

Another major difference is the price and prevalence of vegetables. In most restaurants in America you can pick up a (seemingly) healthy salad alongside your main dishes. However, that convention doesn’t exist in Japan mainly because vegetables are comparatively expensive. Meat and fish tend to run at cheaper prices for what you get.

Finally, dairy products are also pretty rare. Cheese doesn’t really have a place in Japanese cooking, and even the smallest pack of cubes in the grocery store is comparatively expensive. You’d be hard pressed to find a carton of milk, and more processed items like yogurt simply don’t seem to exist.


You may have noticed that I kept using the word “comparatively” in the last section. That’s because on the whole, Japanese food is much less expensive than American food. You can get fairly large meals for cheap by our standards. If you’re spending around ten dollars on a single meal, you’re in a pricier restaurant.

Gyoza, rice, and a salad cost me about six US dollars

Honestly, this point was my absolute favorite part of living in Japan for a bit. Anything from breads to a full meal were very affordable. However, this only applies to Japanese cooking. If you want Western foods like hamburgers or pizza the price goes up. Also, strangely enough, drinks were fairly pricey. Even something as simple as a fountain drink poured into a paper cup. To add insult to injury, you can’t get refills for free, so that was a bit of a bummer.


A medium pizza from Domino’s. Yes. A medium. And no. My hand isn’t freakishly large.

Before I got to Tokyo, I expected all the serving sizes to be considerably smaller. This is somewhat true in that Western food portions are significantly smaller than what we’re used to, but when you buy Japanese cuisine you can typically get a hefty amount of food. Hamburgers, pizza, fries, etc are doled out in minimal amounts. In fact, it’s rare to find more than two size options for our typical side snacks. The restaurants like to call them medium and large, but in my opinion they’re actually small and medium.

That said, drinks are always a lot smaller. Even the largest of sizes I’ve seen have been smaller than a regular sized fountain drink from Whataburger. Did I mention there are no refills? Because there aren’t.

My last meal in Japan consisted of ramen, gyoza, and a coke all for around eight dollars


A blueberry float from First Kitchen

You never realize how much sugar Americans use until you take a step back. That’s the first big difference I would point out between common flavors in American and Japanese cooking. The two styles share a love of salty and savory flavoring, but Japanese cooking usually doesn’t infuse as much sugar into sweets. I was often left feeling that the desserts I bought were almost bland. Even whipped cream from Starbucks has next to no sugar in it. I also noticed that sweets tend to be fluffier or lighter in flavor compared to their American counterparts.

America vs Japan: Transportation and Fashion

Originally, I planned to write a single post regarding all the differences I’ve noticed between living in Tokyo and living in America; however, that post became rather long, so I decided to split it into two parts. If you read the title, you have probably already deduced that I’ll be talking about transportation as well as fashion and beauty standards in this post. There is a lot to talk about in regards to those two topics, but I’ll avoid rambling on too long about all the minor nuances I’ve experienced and hit on the major points.


There are two big ideas I want to talk about regarding transportation in Tokyo: Public Transportation and Private Transportation

Public Transport

A map of the JR train lines in Tokyo. This is easy to read, right?

I can’t speak for all of America, but back in Houston, Texas, public transportation really isn’t an amenity we value. There is no subway. The train system is so limited it’s basically useless unless you’re in the center of the city. Bus routes are also fairly limited in comparison to other cities. Essentially, if you want to get around Houston, you need a car. That is the primary mode of transportation. Tokyo’s public transportation system, however, is incredibly complex, efficient, and affordable. I’ve touched on this a bit in my first post, but now I plan to go a little more into detail.

Cars and trucks passing through Shibuya crossing

Roads in Tokyo aren’t just large, glorified sidewalks, though in certain areas they’re certainly treated that way. You can navigate Tokyo by car or taxi, but you would be in the extreme minority. The train lines are more widely used and, in my opinion, affordable. In many cases, it’s also much faster to navigate the city by train, and finding parking in the narrow, cramped side streets of Tokyo is a bit of a challenge even when you do get to where you’re going. To put things into context, I’ll give an example based on my travels in Tokyo. My friends and I decided to visit Asakusa on the day of a fireworks festival. Traveling from the station nearest to ICU to Asakusa station costs 560 yen (about five dollars) for a 52 minute train ride. It would take 55 minutes to and hour and 40 minutes by car. More often than not, google maps won’t even bother recommending the car routes and will direct you straight to the train and subway lines.

Another interesting difference is that in America, we build what we want in our cities and then adjust the transportation systems to get there. However, in Tokyo the major shopping areas and services tend to gather and build themselves up around already established train stations.

Private Transport

No, not everyone gets a Kart and Mario costume

As you distance yourself from central Tokyo and the more populated areas cars and accessible streets become more common. The first big point regarding road travel is that in Japan you drive on the left side of the road and cars are built accordingly. This isn’t all too remarkable. You adjust fairly quickly to the difference, though I didn’t have to drive during my stay. What’s more interesting, in my opinion, is how narrow the roads are and how the vehicles are built in response.

Mitaka City. Notice the wide crosswalks and how far back the cars have to stop.

Because of the limited space available in the Tokyo area, everything is cramped together for the most part. Side roads tend to only accommodate a single car, and in less populated areas the main roads are two lanes. Two, very narrow lanes. When stopping at intersections, the space between the intersection itself and where cars stop is significantly larger than what is standard in America. This is due to the fact that the turns on the roads are very sharp. Watching buses navigate the narrow pathways is pretty impressive.

A delivery car for 7 eleven

In order to navigate the aforementioned narrow streets Japanese cars are more compact than American models, and many of them are box shaped. A large SUV or truck wouldn’t be able to handle the sharp turns and would more than likely end up scraping against cars on the other side of the road. As for the box shapes, I’m really not sure what the reason is behind that. Seems to be a popular design choice, but the box cars don’t really perform significantly better than the rounder counterparts. Motorcycles are a tad more common further from central Tokyo than they are in the US, but cars are the primary mode of transportation on the roads.

That said, road travel is the least common way to get around. You’ll typically see more folks getting around on bicycles or on foot if their destination isn’t too far from home. From what I’ve seen, a good, reliable bike is a better investment than a car.

Fashion and Beauty

There are three big differences I noticed in regards to beauty standards between Japan and America: dental cosmetics, what’s attractive, and general fashion.

Dental Cosmetics

There is actually a surgery to make your teeth crooked called yaeba. Women get this “semi-vampire” look as a fashion statement.

I’m not entirely sure that’s the right phrase for the topic at hand, but I what I wanted to briefly talk about is the importance of corrective procedures like braces. In Japan having white teeth is more important than having straight teeth. This is a sort of minor difference in the grand scheme of things, but I found it really interesting when my teacher explained it in class. Especially because getting braces is almost a right of passage in America. It’s really common to see boys and girls alike with crooked teeth. Some younger Japanese women actually consider some crooked teeth cute. Again, it’s a very small thing, but it’s different enough to be interesting.

What’s Attractive

For this section I can only really comment about women’s beauty standards, because that was all I paid attention to. That said, there are very noticeable differences between what is considered an ideal woman in Japan and America. I would say that we Americans value three things: breasts, curves, and butts. Most of our clothes are tight fitting or low cut to accent these features. The hour glass figure is what we aspire to. Girls often lament over the size of their chest or glutes. However, in Japan this is not at all the case. I would say that if there is any feature that is idealized in Japan it is probably a woman’s legs. Girls don’t show nearly as much skin in Japan, but wearing shorts or skirts that flash some leg is completely acceptable.

On top of that, the ideal silhouette is inherently different. I mentioned before that Americans aspire to the hourglass silhouette. However, in my opinion, Japanese fashion doesn’t accent any silhouette at all. Clothes are generally baggy and formless. Japanese women are thinner than most American women, their breasts are significantly smaller, and they don’t really have posteriors to write home about. Sorry if I’m being rude or crude, but these are my honest opinions. I think this difference in body types is what leads to the emphasis on legs and the lack of form fitting clothing.

General Fashion

Most people probably think this is common attire around Tokyo

I think that whenever someone says “Tokyo fashion” you instantly think of the more colorful and abstract fashion common among young people in Harajuku. Or maybe they think of something that’s bold but a bit a tad more mundane like the picture to the right. However, this really isn’t the case. It’s true that a few younger women wear outfits like this regularly, but most women don’t. Tokyo fashion ended up being much more subdued than I anticipated.

The biggest difference between expectation and reality is that bright colors aren’t at all common in Tokyo fashion. You’re much more likely to see even young girls sporting pastels rather than neon colors. White, cream, and pastels were the most common colors I saw. This is distinct from American fashion for two reasons. One being that we tend to favor bolder shades like jewel tones and the occasional neon, but we also use vibrant prints. In America you’d be hard pressed to find someone wearing a t-shirt with no design on it. There’s usually some wording, a picture, or a pattern somewhere on the shirt that catches the eye. In Japan, solid prints are the go to style. Mundane Tokyo fashion seems to use color blocking to spice up an outfit rather than using zany and interesting prints. Case in point: Uniqlo.

A dress I bought at Uniqlo. The design is unusually busy by Uniqlo standards.

Uniqlo is easily the most common clothing store I’ve run across in Tokyo. I have not been to a single section of the city where a Uniqlo wasn’t within walking distance from the station. You really can’t escape them, to be honest. When I first walked into a Uniqlo, I was very excited to see what common Japanese fashion would be, but my first impressions were somewhat poor. By American standards Uniqlo is, quite honestly, drab, dowdy, and uninspired. Solid prints as far as the eye can see. Very few shorts, but oodles of full length, business-like pants.

I could keep describing more minor differences, but the coloring and lack of prints are the most immediately noticeable differences. If I kept on going, this post would become much too long of a read, so I’ll cut it off here.

Next Time

The next post will be part two of America vs Japan where I’ll talk about food and mundane parts of everyday life. Until next time!

ICU Cultural Activities

And we’re back with another (hopefully) informative blog post! As promised, I’ll be discussing three experiences with traditional Japanese culture. I visited a Zen Buddhist temple and learned a little bit of calligraphy thanks to the hard work of the ICU staff. Afterwards, I had the chance to buy myself a yukata and put it on for a festival in Asakusa. All three experiences were very enlightening in their own way, though the third had its difficulties. Without further ado, let’s get right into it.

Sakae Miayama Temple

The entrance to Sakae Miyama Temple

My first cultural excursion was a trip to Sakae Miyama Konanin to learn about Zen Buddhism.

When we entered we were met with temple staff (one of which was an ICU alumnus) and the head priest who currently oversees the temple as the 29th member of the temple’s lineage of priests. My first impression of him in his ceremonial robes was, of course, that he was about as traditionally Japanese as a person could be. He was exactly what you would expect a Buddhist priest to look like from the rounded spectacles on his face down to his sandals. All of the staff members spoke primarily Japanese, but the ICU alumnus and our guide, Asaoka-sensei, translated nearly all of the information given to us.

A glimpse of the ornate decorations in the main ceremonial chamber

The monks of the temple where kind enough to offer more than a simple tour of the temple. They also introduced us to Zen philosophy, history, ceremonial traditions, meditation techniques, and etiquette. We were essentially treated to a crash course for Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately due to temporal distance and losing my informational booklet on the train, I’ve forgotten the finer points of our history lesson. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to recount what I learned before getting into the more practical experience.

My general take away from our lesson on Zen philosophy was mindfulness, efficiency, and unity. In the sect of Zen Buddhism the temple adhered to (whose name I have forgotten entirely) many aspects of one’s daily life are regimented in order to be as efficient as possible without indulging in excess or wastefulness. The methods that one uses for daily life also imbue a sense of connection and equality with those around them. This was most easily demonstrated to us through Zen dining etiquette.

A humble vegetarian meal served to us at the temple

There are well defined and rather strict rules regarding how to eat in the temple. In the picture above you can see a spoon, a pair of chopsticks, a cloth, a stick, and bowls of varying sizes. All of these items with the exception of the plate of fruit and bowl underneath it come in a compact package. The bowls come stacked together with the utensils and cloths wrapped on top in a specific manner. You unwrap things in a certain order. You set your table in a certain order. You put everything in a certain place. Each item has an express, single purpose. Once you have finished eating, you put things back in a certain order. All of this is to ensure efficiency. The method we were taught is intended to be the most streamlined way to eat that wastes no time, effort, or food.

On top of these strict set of rules is behavioral etiquette. Whenever you eat you have to be sure to avoid pointing your utensils away from yourself. Always bring your food inward. There is no speaking during meal time. Other monks of the temple will pass by and bring each food item in pots and buckets and dispense them to you. Rather than verbally telling them to stop, there are certain hand gestures you can use. Whenever the servers arrive or leave, you both bow to one another. Each of these points is meant to teach you to be mindful of yourself and to respect those around you. You are all equal in sharing a meal, an essential part of life itself. No one is above the other, and the self should be diminished in favor of honoring and maintaining a harmonious collective.

Pretty heavy stuff for dinner, I know. It sounds a lot better coming from a Buddhist priest speaking Japanese.


A pillar at the entrance of the temple

Dining etiquette was what we spent the most time on for the reasons I mentioned above. It was an efficient way to teach us fundamental facets of Zen Buddhism. Of course, we also meditated. We were taught the proper posture, but there was much less time spent on teaching meditation techniques. I enjoyed the silent, serene atmosphere set by wonderful incense and an opening chant. I honestly just daydreamed the entire time, so there isn’t much to say about this part of the experience.

After dinner and meditation, we ended the session with a casual tea ceremony. One of my favorite parts of this experience was the head priest. He was a very approachable and funny 70 year old man who didn’t look a day over 50. You could tell that he enjoyed teaching his philosophy to inquisitive foreigners, and he did his best to use simple Japanese and even English at times. He was adamant about etiquette without being too austere in correcting mistakes. I enjoyed having him as our teacher for the evening.


Tools for calligraphy practice

Calligraphy is a Japanese art that was adopted from China centuries ago. In modern Japan it is a cultural practice only used on special occasions such as New Years greetings and signing into a wedding ceremony. It’s an art not many people are adept at, but all Japanese students who attend middle school have at least a few classes in calligraphy. Most Japanese people don’t study calligraphy beyond that, but others choose to continue studying while some become so adept that they make a living from it.

Our quick introduction to calligraphy didn’t give anyone enough experience to call themselves masters, but it was fun nonetheless. I always thought calligraphy of any type was incredible but probably not too difficult to pick up. I was so very wrong. Calligraphy really is an art. It’s easy for me to write legibly in Japanese. It’s not even all that hard to have good looking handwriting. However, there are rules to calligraphy. The brush was surprisingly difficult to handle, and producing the shapes you want was much harder with ink that I anticipated.

A picture detailing the various strokes in Japanese writing

Calligraphy in Japanese and Chinese demands a few things: symmetry, proper proportions, and recognizable strokes. Everyone has their own style, to some extent, but certain techniques have to be mastered by all who have set their minds to learning the art. These techniques aren’t too hard to accomplish with a pen and paper, but it becomes far more nuanced and difficult to accomplish with a brush.

My classmates and I practiced the basic strokes and then chose a single kanji (a written symbol with its own meaning) to write on our own. During this process the previously mentioned Asaoka-sensei, a nearly professional-grade calligrapher, was teaching us. Before I attempted to draw my chosen kanji, I asked Asaoka-sensei to draw me a model.

The template kanji created by my teacher

I chose the kanji depicted on the right “kuro,” meaning black. I rather like the look of kuro, but I chose it because I figured the straight lines would be easier to write. I was right for the most part, but the edges of the lines are what were difficult to reproduce. You can see that Asaoka-sensei’s work is tapered with rounded ends. The strokes are also very smooth. My attempt was… Less elegant in comparison.


My attempt at calligraphy on traditional rice paper

So if we were to critique my work, the first noticeable problem is with symmetry. The kanji isn’t in the center of the paper. The proportions of box at the top of the symbol are a bit off as they should be more tapered. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you all the critical scrutiny. All this is to say that calligraphy is something that is mastered through mindfulness and practice. If given more time and the resources, I would love to continue learning in whatever free time I could muster.

Wearing a Yukata

A short, simplified tutorial on how to put on a yukata

A yukata is a simpler, summertime kimono typically made of more breathable cloth. In modern Japan yukata are worn to summer festivals and other special occasions. Though yukata have less layers than kimono, they still have multiple pieces to them. There is the yukata itself which is the robe-like dress, strings to tie things in place, a decorative sash laid over the strings called an obi, and, typically, traditional shoes called geta. I managed to find my yukata and obi for a very reasonable price, but my feet are a bit too large to fit into geta. Large footed foreigners beware.

Yukata and accessories
The back of the ensemble. The bow came pre-made

Disappointing shoe sizes aside, putting on my yukata went quite well. I managed to do so on my own, and I think it turned out quite well. The sandals I brought with me looked good enough with the ensemble, and I found out that it’s fairly common for Japanese men and women to were western sandals to festivals.

My friends and I attempted to go to a fireworks festival in Asakusa while in our yukata. Unfortunately, it rained. Heavily. And because the festival is so very popular, it was incredibly crowded. I don’t think I can accurately put into words exactly how crowded it was. Saying that people were packed together like sardines doesn’t do the situation justice. Saying that something around a million people were gathered in a single section of the city doesn’t do the situation justice. Saying that there were police officers directing pedestrian traffic and taping off certain paths while occasionally pushing people into place doesn’t do the situation justice. It was…  A lot to handle in an outfit that restricts your movement a fair amount.

I could lament further, but I think you all get the point. While the festival was a bust, wearing a yukata for the day was actually really fun. The fabric is very breathable, so even though I had an outfit on underneath I never got too hot. It also dries very quickly, which was wonderful consolation prize after we escaped Asakusa. Despite it’s someone restrictive nature and the unfortunate circumstances that occurred while I was wearing it, I became so enamored with my yukata that I have felt the urge to buy myself another ever since. If I had space in my luggage, I would definitely have picked up another. They’re simply beautiful.

Next Time

Each cultural experience was honestly amazing to me. I know this post drags on a bit since I rambled on about each one, but I think that simply reflects how exciting each moment was. I hope my enthusiasm came across in my description of each event.

But enough about that. On to the next thing. I plan to use my next two posts to give some impressions I’ve developed about Tokyo as time has gone on. The topics will be a bit scattered, so I can’t really think of a good way to summarize them at the moment. Still, look forward to the next rambling post I come up with.