Japan


During orientation there will not be many Japanese students on campus because their semester starts at a different date. Some of the programs I think would be good to participate in is the Speaking Partner Program and the Experience Japan Programs that some of the students run. 

The Speaking Partner Program is especially good because this allows you to interact with and become friends with a Japanese person right off the bat. The person you will correspond with will most likely be an English Major and want to learn about the language and interact with a Gaijin (foreigner). They will show you things and help explain things to you, but overall just treat them like you would a friend back home. 

The Experience Japan Programs and set up by students of Kansai Gaidai and will focus on the travelling, traditons, and food of Japan. This is a good way to meet people and try new and or different things. I remember one of the first programs was a trip to Kyoto, and another was making and eating sushi. 

Besides these actual programs set up or organized by Kansai Gaidai there are some other things that I highly recommend doing. 

Explore the area. Whether it is by walking, bike or some other method of transportation just take some time to explore. I will be mentioning several places in subsequent posts, as well as how to get there and the like. 

After you have made some Japanese friends there are some things that you should have them help you out with, one of those things is to buy a bike. There are several used bike shops where you can buy one, and you should be able to get one for under 10000 yen (about 100 dollars), some much cheaper, regardless it is really handy to have a bike.

Another good thing to have a Japanese friend around for is to get your Alien Registration Card. If you are staying in Japan for longer than 90 days you are required to obtain an Alien Registration Card, this replaces having to carry your passport with you for the most part, and by law you must have your card with you at all times. To obtain your Alien Registration card you have to go to the Hirakata City Hall.

Before you go to the City Hall, there are some documents you have to present to them before you can get your card. When you were applying to Kansai Gaidai they had you provide a number of photographs of yourself, two of them should be given back to you when you get your orientation packet. You will need these two photos. If you don’t have them there is a photobooth directly under Hirakata-shi Station where you can get them done. Besides that you will need take your passport with you.

The easiest way to do that is to go to the Hirakata-shi train station, and walk to the Starbucks that is near the AMPM. Walk past the Starbucks on your left and a small park on your right the following building will be the City Hall. Walk into the door on your right (you’ll walk up a slightly inclined ramp), and walk into the building, you will walk down a hall and take a left. You will see a machine strait ahead a little further. You push a button on the machine that will give you a number and then wait for your number to be called (the button will have English below it denoting what it is for).  

After your number is called you walk past the machine and go to the left all the way down the set of desks, the last two or three are for obtaining your Alien Registration Card. There you will have to fill out the application for the card, this is where it is handy to have a Japanese friend with you because if you have any questions they can ask the attendant for you (not many spoke English when I was there). Bring your application packet because it has the address for the Seminar Houses and other information you may need to fill out the application. After filling out the application and getting approved you will be given a piece of paper that acts as a temporary Alien Registration Card, and be told when to come back for your actual card. 

Because this is already long and I have more that I will write I’ll end this post and call it Part 1, following will be Part 2 and there could be a Part 3 depending on how long the second part will be. So until then!

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When arriving at the Seminar House the staff (volunteer and otherwise) look up your name to make certain that you are an incoming student, where you will be housed for orientation, and so forth. When you check in you will have to show your passport for verification. When they are satisfied that you are who you say you are they give you an “Orientation Manual” and show you to your room.

This Orientation Packet has a wealth of information for you to take in. I will provide the short version here, by what I recommend.

  1. Make sure you read through the entire packet at least once, from there you can take what is necessary for you from it.
  2. Examine the “Orientation Schedule”. It will have all of the events that will be going on throughout the week that are hosted by Kansai Gaidai. Make sure to note when you are assigned to take the “Language Lab Orientation” and the “Japanese Placement Test”. Some events on the schedule that I recommend that you attend are:
    • The Banking Session; this will walk you through opening a Japanese Banking account through Sumitomo-Mitsui Bank. If you already have an international bank account (such as Citibank) this is not entirely necessary, but it is handy to have as Kansai Gaidai prefers to do business with this bank (such as crediting you with your housing deposits for instance).
       
    • If you are participating in the homestay program you should probably go to the Homestay Students’ Meeting, I assume they will give program specific information to you. In similar fashion, if you are going to be staying in a Seminar House for the semester you should attend the Seminar House Residents’ Meeting. You will be introduced to your Seminar House “Otoo-san” and “Okaa-san”, as well as your Resident Advisor and the other people that you will be living with for the rest of the semester. I recommend going to this to meet and talk with people, if you have already read the Orientation Manual then the information they provide will just be repetitive.
       
    • Student Loan Session and Payment of Fees; If you are taking out loans or need to make payments to the university while in Japan. This is mandatory if you have any money that is owed to Kansai Gaidai because they will not let you register for classes unless these are payed beforehand (common-sense).
       
    • Opening Ceremony and Welcome Luncheon; this is a nice ceremony and free food where you can meet people and explore the campus more.
       
    • Registration; Registering for classes is extremely important because you will go through a lengthly process where you will first get a number taken from a lottery of accepted students. You will then have to show up at the Center for International Education at Kansai Gaidai and stand in a line until it is your turn to register. When it is your turn you will have to show proof of payment for all fees (General Deposit, Liability Insurance Fee, Tuition, and Housing), proof of your insurance policy, signature on the Standards of Conduct Agreement and the Privacy Consent Form. After they are satisfied you will then present the courses that you wish to register for, because this is a “first come, first serve” kind of system having a favorable position in the registration lottery helps you get the courses you want. Because the maximum enrollment number for each course is 30 students, and there are over 400 international students, it pays not to be near the end of the line. NOTE: Make sure you have all of your insurance papers in order because this is what most students had problems with.
       
    • Besides these things the other events were not very necessary in my mind, however if there is something that looks interesting to go to, attend it. Otherwise I think your time would be best spent doing other things (of which I will recommend a few in a following post).
       
  3. Take out and post somewhere noticeable the Academic Calendar, because this tells you what the national holidays and when you have no classes, as well as deadlines, etc.
     
  4. Orientation Period Rules; During Orientation there are more strict rules that are put into effect that are lifted, or lessen, after the period comes to a close. 

  • There is a curfew of 10:00pm during the Orientation Period after which the outside gates are locked as well as the door into the Seminar House itself. If you come after the curfew you will have to ring the buzzer because you are not given a key to the outside gate or door until after you move into the Seminar House to begin the semester. This is especially annoying because this will wake Okaa-san and Otoo-san, more times that not hindering a less than favorable relationship between you and them.
     
  • During the Orientation Period there are no visitors allowed past the central lounge (for Seminar Houses I, II, and IV) or the lobby (Seminar House III). Also the visitors are not allowed to use any of the kitchen utensils, computer labs, or pretty much anything except the couch or common area. After orientation this is loosened up a bit, but they will check every now and then. 
     
  • No alcohol is allowed inside the dorms. There are plenty of bars and other places to drink around the area (in a later post I will mention a few of my favorites), just for harmony’s sake adhere to this rule. Also, this rule does not lift after the orientation period.
     
  • Quiet Hours at 10:00pm, you will get yelled at (in Japanese) if you are too loud after quiet hours begin. They say it is to harbor a good relationship with the neighbors. Seriously though, Japanese walls are not thick and sound travels farther than you think it would. Just try to be courteous, it goes a long way. This rule does not get lifted as well, although they will be a little more lenient with you.

Now that covers all of the official business I believe, so the next post will cover my personal “Orientation Dos and Don’ts,” until then!

August 27th 2007

Leaving early in the morning, I got on the shinkansen heading towards my university, Kansai Gaidai. I arrived in Kyoto and waited for the pickup from the university and met a few others that were scheduled for the same time. We waited around the exit, for a while and a person holding a “Welcome incoming Kansai Gaidai Students” helped us load our luggage into the bus that would be taking us to Hirakata City.

Arriving at the place where I would be living for almost 5 months, I was greeted by some student volunteers and we were ushered to respective dormitories we would be staying in for the week long orientation. All study abroad students would be staying in the dorms, or seminar houses as they called them, for the duration of the orientation regardless if they were home-stay or not, this way we would be able to meet each other, develop friendships, etc. 

It was almost 5pm when I arrived so I put my bags in my room and immediately wanted to take a shower, it was a few degrees cooler in Hirakata City than it was in Tokyo but it was still very hot and humid. This gives me the opportunity to describe the seminar houses a bit. 

At Kansai Gaidai there are four seminar houses. Seminar houses I, II, and IV are dormitory style while seminar house III ( the one I would be living in ) was apartment style. Dormitory style meant that there were many rooms per floor, and the bathroom and cooking facilities were shared. Apartment style meant that there were four suites per floor, in each suite there were four rooms housing two students each (unless a person got a single room). Also in each suite there were two sets of sinks, refrigerators and freezers for the kitchen/dining area, the bathroom area had four shower stalls, four sinks, and two toilets. There is also a living area with a tv, really large couch, and two tables. I will describe living in the seminar house in a later post, but that is the general layout of the seminar house’s living space.

For the duration of the orientation because there were so many students, the double rooms had three people sleeping in them, and the singles had two people. At the end of the week the home-stay students would move out. 

At first I didn’t meet any of my roommates or suite-mates, so I took the opportunity to walk around a bit. Also of note, at this point I only had one of my carry-on pieces of luggage because the others I had sent by Yamato Shipping and I couldn’t pick them up yet, so I did not have any towels yet. I went out in search of a place to buy towels so that I could shower. Here’s the area around the seminar houses ( image provided by Kansai Gaidai ):

After taking my shower  I went on a tour of the area hosted by the volunteers at around 7pm, it was a good way to get to know the area and meet some of my fellow study abroad students before classes started. We went to a couple of the supermarkets, the East Gate, the Katahoko bus stop, and the park shown on the image above. I had a good time walking and talking and met some cool people. Finally I made it back to seminar house III and met some of my suite-mates for the orientation period, and turned in for the night. 

In the next post I will write about the orientation itself; the rules and regulations, some of the activities, and my suggestions on what to do and what not to do, until then!!

In previous posts I mentioned that Ryan and I bought JR East passes and that they allowed us to ride on the shinkansen and other JR services. Allow me to expound further on that information.

In Japan the public transportation systems, of which the train and subway I have the most experience, is one of the best in the world. The times posted are when things arrive, depart, etc. without, barring for accidents and other mishaps, being late and are dependable and overall the best way to get around, in my opinion. The rail system in Japan is mainly owned by JR ( The Japan Rail Group ) and the bigger cities and other provinces have their own systems as well, most notably the Tokyo Metro and Toei Metro systems. JR runs the shinkansen and has trains running all over Japan. 

Available to the public are discounts for riding the trains, my favorite resource for this is the Japan-guide entry for Rail Passes. It includes discounts by region and has very good descriptions for all of them. 

On our trip Ryan and I acquired JR East Passes which allowed us unlimited travel on all JR lines ( including the shinkansen ) in the Kanto, Koshinetsu and Tohoku Regions. We used it mostly for the shinkansen but it did see some use for local travel as well. If we so wished, we could have used it for any bus systems that JR runs, but we didn’t use any of the local ( or long distance for that matter ) buses. That gives a good background on the JR Pass I think, now before I get to the actual “How to use” part of this I have to preface it just a bit more.

While in Tokyo we bought something called a Tokyo Free Kippu, which actually costs 1,580 yen, which allowed for unlimited travel on all subway lines, JR Trains, streetcars, and buses in Tokyo for one day. It is extremely handy for those who want to travel to many places in one day. You purchase this by going to the station attendant, the guy who sits in the box near the turnstiles for entry to the train and say “Tokyo furii kippu o kudasai” ( there’s your Japanese phrase for the day ^^ ). After it is purchased to use the ticket you show it to the station attendant of the station that you are getting off from, he hits the buzzer and you walk on through. No additional hassle, real easy and quick. Now here’s where the confusion set in.

Initially when we were going to use the JR East Pass we thought it would operate in the same fashion; show it to the station attendant, walk through, get on shinkansen, get off at ending station, show it to that station attendant, and that would be that. This method actually worked, although it is not supposed to and we found out when we went on one of the longer rides, luckily there was not any penalty for not knowing how to use a JR Pass, however, so that you do not have to go through that embarrassment, I will share my knowledge gained from making the mistake first hand.

How to use a JR Pass to purchase a shinkansen ticket ( The Right Way )

1. Have your JR Pass with you at all times, you do not want to lose it because you will not be able to get a replacement without buying a new one. Here is what your Rail Pass will look like:
JR East Pass

2. When arriving at the station look for the area where you would normally purchase a shinkansen ticket, the JR Rail Pass allows you to obtain the shinkansen ticket without having to spend any extra money for it, in other words it serves as your method of payment for the ticket itself.

3. When reaching the attendant tell him or her where you want to go: ” <destination> mahday” 

4. The attendant will tell you the times when the trains are leaving. Because the shinkansen goes long distances there may be only one going out every hour or something like that. If you don’t know Japanese very well here’s your best strategy: look confused, they will bring out a timetable and point to the times. Point to the time you want to leave, and they will ask you if you want a reserved or non-reserved ticket. Get a reserved ticket, this means that you will have your own seat, as opposed to non-reserved where the seats are first come first serve. If you didn’t have the Rail Pass the non-reserved is cheaper, but you’re not spending money so you might as well get the better placement.

5. A ticket will be printed and then handed to you, bow slightly and thank them. Your ticket will designate the time of departure, arrival, what car you will ride on, and what seat you have. Here’s an example:
Ticket

6. Take your ticket, go to the entrance to the tracks and insert it into the gate. Proceed to the place where your car is and wait for the train to arrive. During the train ride you may need to show your ticket to one of the attendants on the train as you are going towards your destination.

7. When you arrive, insert your ticket to exit the station. You will not get it back, don’t worry that’s normal.

Congratulation you now know the right way to use your JR Pass and you should be able to get around Japan on the shinkansen without too much of a problem.

August 26th 2007

We woke up around 8am and headed to Morioka station where we picked up some maps that the Tourist Information Center had of Kakunodate and took the train to our destination. We arrived nearly an hour later and started our walk around the old samurai town.

From the station if you head down the hill towards the actual city the collection of samurai era houses are on your right. Ryan and I mistakenly walked the long way around but we got to see a great view of the countryside that we would have otherwise not seen. There is a specific street that has the majority of the old buildings that the samurai used to live in. It was walking through a hole in time. The smells and the sites make you think of a time when everyone walked in their wooden sandals (geta) carrying packages of rice on their backs, with a sword at their belt.

You are able to walk around the outside of most of the houses and some you can go inside as well. There was one of the houses that had been converted into a museum of different armors and tools used back in the feudal era which you have to pay a small sum, but it is definitely worth it. We walked inside the Ishiguro House, which is said to be the oldest and the home of the highest class samurai family. On the English sign outside of the residence it says that a direct descendant of the samurai family gives the tour of the house, which is very large and certainly impressive. We spent around 3 or 4 hours walking through the town before we headed back to Morioka for the last leg of our journey.

We took the shinkansen from Morioka back to Ueno and made our way to take the Tsukuba Express to meet Lower in current place of residence. We arrived around 6pm, transferred our things to his apartment and then headed back into town to attend the Tsukuba Matsuri.

For the festival they had closed some of the main streets from traffic and had extremely elaborate floats running through the streets. It was exactly how you would picture a Japanese festival with people lifting a large wooden shrine on their shoulders, taiko drums playing loudly and people singing and chanting old songs. It was an amazing experience. We spent the night watching the festivities and walking through the small shops selling festival food (yakitori, takoyaki, some even selling hot dogs) and trinkets. It was a great time and if you ever get the chance to attend a summer matsuri, I highly recommend it!!

We settled in for the last night of our trip in Lower’s apartment readying ending Ryan’s last full day of Japan and my last day before travelling to Hirakata to attend university. In my next post I will tell you how to use the JR East Pass, and the shinkansen, because we found out in the latter half of our travels in Tohoku that at first we were doing it totally wrong, so until then!

August 25, 2007

We decided to relax this day on our trip, as our journey in Northern Japan was coming to a close soon. We woke up and put our bags by the front desk and just went for a walk around Hakodate. We had breakfast, ate some ice cream but didn’t do anything too exiting. Around noon we headed to the station to go back to Tohoku, and got on our train to Aomori.

We arrived at Aomori around 5pm and went to the tourist information center to see if they could reserve us a place to stay at Kakunodate, however they told us that something was going on in Kakunodate that night and all the hotels and ryokans were booked so we decided to go back to Morioka for another night at the Kumagai Ryokan.

Taking the shinkansen back to Morioka we arrived at Kumagai Ryokan without a problem, and since we didn’t try reimen the last time we were there, we ventured out to find a restaurant that served it. As I described before, reimen is cold noodles with kimchi, and to be honest it did not fit my fancy. I guess I just prefer hot noodles, I’m not exactly sure. I do recommend that you try reimen if you get the chance just to have the experience but don’t get your hopes up too high, and who knows it might fit your tastes!!

We spent the rest of the night, before heading to bed, walking around Morioka at night to places we had not already visited. We found a Mister Donut and had some coffee and donuts there, then enjoyed the sights of Morioka at night. As I said this was our rest day, unfortunately things did not go as planned, we were hoping to explore Kakunodate and stay there for the night, but at least we were not sleeping at a train station or some other place not as comfortable as Kumagai Ryokan.

Next time I will talk about the last full day of our trip, going to Kakunodate and finally to Tsukuba in Ibaraki-ken. Until then!!

Continuing from where I left off, we ventured to Mitsuishi Temple (Three Rocks Temple) the site of the devil’s (or demon’s) hand prints.  Another English information sign for you:

Mitsuishi (Three Rocks) and the Demon’s Hand Prints

According to legend, long ago, in this district, there lived a demon called Pasetsu which was always causing trouble. The inhabitants prayed to the god of Mitsuishi and then the god bound the demon to the three rocks. The demon swore he would torment the people no more and that he would never com to this district again. The god made the demon put a handprint on one of the three rocks as the sign of his promise and then let the demon go.
It is said that the handprint on the three rocks (Mitsuishi) are the origin of the name of Iwate Prefecture (which literally means “rock-hand”).

At the temple are three very large rocks (go figure) and the handprints are very interesting.

From Mitsuishi we walked back to Kumagai Ryokan and proceeded to the train station to start our trek to Hakodate. We rode the shinkansen to Aomori then we had to switch to a train to go through the Seikan Tunnel, which actually travels underwater beneath the Tsugaru Strait from Northern Honshu to the Hokkaido region. The trip took at least three to four hours total and we had to buy the ticket for the train that travelled from Aomori to Hakodate because the JR East pass does not cover that area.

Hakodate

By the time we reached Hakodate it was getting dark, so we went to the next and most expensive ryokan, Ichinomatsu Ryokan, and dropped off our bags. In Hakodate the easiest way to get around is by trolley (streetcar, or tram), so at the station we bought two 1day tickets because we figured it would cost us less in the end as we would be riding more than three times. The cost to ride the trolley a single time was around 200 yen and the cost of the all day ticket cost 600 yen.

After we dropped off our luggage we headed to Mt. Hakodate and took the ropeway to the observatory which offered a 360 degree view of the city. A round trip ticket on the ropeway cost 1160 yen but the view was worth it. After coming back down the mountain we went on the walking tour in a pamphlet we obtained at the tourist information center. What is really nice about Hakodate is that first; it is much cooler temperature-wise than any of the previous cities we had visited, and second; at night I expect it is a seasonal thing) they light significant sites of the city for the tourists to take pictures of them at night from 8pm to 10pm I believe. Walking around the city was very refreshing and the sites were beautiful, the pictures will be on the flickr shortly.

We hopped back on the trolley to go back to the ryokan and went to sleep. In the next post I will detail what we did on our day in Hakodate then going back to Northern Honshu for our final leg of our Tohoku trip, visiting Kakunodate, the city of samurai residences, until then!

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