Lovely visit with lovely people

Early yesterday morning I said goodbye to the friends who came to visit me, and tomorrow morning I fly to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island, with my new host family. These are certainly busy times, and I’m glad to be seeing more of the country than just Tokyo.

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The 3 of us at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari shrine.
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Of course, we took loads of trains this trip, but this was the first time I had ended up in the first car!
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I like these streets in Tokyo that show small, old-fashioned houses nestled in among the more modern buildings.

I’m incredibly lucky that two of my best friends in the world were able to come visit me in Japan, all the way from NYC, while I’m on the Watson (as I was when my parents came to India for Christmas – though this is the end of visits for me!). I showed them around Tokyo for a few days, which was a blast since I’ve been here for a month now, and then we went to Kyoto with a half day trip to Osaka. We saw a ton and took literally thousands of photos and videos, so what I’m sharing now is only a quick summary of the highlights, but it’s something.

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On their first day in Tokyo, we walked into a retail store that had this robot helping people find the bathroom and access the store wifi. Though the robot was fun and eye-catching, we all found its help to be completely superfluous. What a great intro to the complexities of Japanese culture! (This is the ‘Pepper’ bot, by the way, and many different companies were using it for health applications at the expos I attended).
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Incense at the Senso-ji shrine of Asakusa, Tokyo.
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On this rainy day we visited Odaiba, a bizarrely artificial island of Tokyo devoted to companies, museums, a ferris wheel, and the like (I don’t think anyone can live there). For some reason they also have a replica of the Statue of Liberty!
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Pepper wasn’t the only robot we saw – this is a statue of the iconic robot from the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky at Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli museum.

Kyoto and Osaka were not as different from Tokyo as any of us were expecting. We were all picturing these non-Tokyo cities as far smaller and less urban than they were, and we expected Kyoto to be mostly old architecture, shrines, and populated by far more kimono-clad women. Well, Osaka is Japan’s 3rd-largest city and Kyoto its 7th-largest, so we had the wrong idea!

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Dragon moulding on a building in Kyoto.
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Kyoto’s Nijo castle at night.
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The Fushimi Inari shrine has to be Kyoto’s largest attraction. It’s packed with tourists and Japanese women in tradition dress, and it’s a huge complex of shrine buildings and the vermilion gates (torii) for which it is famous.
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Though it was hard to escape the throngs of people, the torii were truly beautiful. My favorite part was how the light filtered down through them. Made of wood, they seemed so fragile and so embedded in nature – though they appear to form a tunnel, walking through the torii still leaves you completely susceptible to the outdoor elements.
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We saw thousands of paper cranes next to a wall of these wooden wish tablets.

As for Osaka, we only spent an afternoon there, but we had dinner on the Dotonbori “food street” – and it was hilarious. This area of Osaka has packed pedestrian streets, huge funky illuminated signs, loads of casinos, and cigarette butts lining the sidewalk gutters (a very unusual sight in Tokyo and Kyoto, where smoking on the street is generally prohibited and the sidewalks are impeccably clean).

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Underneath Osaka’s Umeda Sky Building. The architect described this circular opening between as a ‘crater’ left by a UFO-style spaceship that once departed from the building. I liked that idea.
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My favorite sign in Dotonbori was this giant hanging blowfish.
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One of the casinos in Osaka.

It wasn’t until that evening in Dotonbori that I finally saw what I had imagined of Tokyo. My image of Japan was always two-faced: I would think of tradition, politeness, and organization, but also of bright lights, dark urban underbellies, and various futuristic sci-fi movies. More than Shinjuku or Akihabara in Tokyo – the typical ‘bright lights’ areas – Dotonbori in Osaka fit that latter idea.

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What I wanted to see most in Kyoto: the Arashiyama bamboo grove. Another packed-with-tourists attraction, but we managed to find more secluded spots in the neighborhood to get away from the crowds.
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Part of Arashiyama’s immense forest. I loved seeing this traditional boat on the water. Two men used long sticks of bamboo to steer it. Where did it come from?
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Is it just me, or does the dragon presiding over Kyoto’s Nishiki food market look…drunk?
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Maybe he’s modeled after this dragon, who presides over the purification fountain at a nearby shrine.
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My favorite person at Nishiki market: this elderly woman handing out samples at the sake shop. (My gleeful friend in the back is on his way to purchase the sake we tried!).

You may be wondering: what about that core part of the Watson, the project? I’ve been in Japan for over a month now and written only one project post, though there are a few meetings and events I haven’t written about. It’s tough to do my project with so much group travel, constantly moving around (that is, more than I already do solo on the Watson), and getting wrapped up in the family scheduling and “cultural immersion” that naturally accompanies homestay life. Luckily, I was able to have a project interview last week while my friends were here in Tokyo. Though I was bummed that the timing meant that I had to leave them for an afternoon, I was ultimately very glad to have a chance to interview someone (especially after 2 weeks of staying busy with my Japanese class rather than project) while giving my friends a chance to explore Tokyo themselves.

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While I’m thinking about my project and health attitudes, check out these stairs in the metro station. They clearly aim to motivate people to exercise by displaying how many calories you burn walking up each step. I’m not sure how motivating ‘0.1 calories’ is (apparently the whole flight adds up to 6 calories burned), or how many people would notice these faint engravings, but I thought it was fascinating! I’ve never seen anything like it.
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And in a similar vein of fascinating culture, this is “eyetape for men” at a cosmetics store (next to “eyebrow pencils for men”). As you may be able to tell from the photo, eyetape is a thin layer of tape that you’re supposed to put just above your eyelid to achieve the double-eyelid look of Western eyes. I’ve seen eyetape for women in a few stores and even women around Japan that have definitely altered their eyes with tape or perhaps even surgery. I have no idea why double eyelids are considered so attractive or why standards of beauty here are so based on Western looks, but it bothers me immensely.

In other news, I feel like I’ve been talking with a twinge of sadness lately – in Skype calls to my parents, letters to my friends, and certainly my last blog post – and I wanted to address that briefly. Of course, it was sad to say goodbye to my host family last week, and I think the reason that blog post came out in such a sad tone was because the difficulty of leaving them surprised me. Even now, I’m at my new homestay, typing in a house in the same neighborhood I left a week ago.

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We took the shinkansen (bullet train) between Kyoto and Tokyo. It travels at 160mph, probably due to its aerodynamic shape!

But overall, I think it’s just that I’m a bit tired. There’s been a lot going on, and in the past week and a half, I’ve finished Japanese class, traveled around with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, moved to a new homestay, and started packing for another weeklong trip. I had an amazing time last week, and I’ve been excited about Okinawa since I picked Japan as a project country, but it still gets tiring sometimes. It’s also a lot of traveling with people, and while I enjoy that immensely, I’ve gotten used to solo travel on the Watson, and I think there’s something very refreshing about it. Also, like I’ve mentioned, the solo nature of the Watson makes it sound like you won’t be saying goodbye to people, and as I’ve said, goodbyes are hard and exhausting – but I would always rather have the goodbyes along with everything else, the hellos and the being together, than no goodbyes at all.

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A hilariously Japanese menu.

I suppose what I’m saying is yes, the Watson is tiring, perhaps especially once it’s been going on for 8 months. But that’s okay, and that’s expected, and I love it. I’m so happy to be able to do these things, to have my best friends visit and to travel with a Japanese family (and it’ll be interesting to experience those juxtapositions). I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kyoto sunset.
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