Sunday, April 13, 2014

Navigating Nihon

On March 24th I began my almost 20-hour journey to Hikone-shi and the University of Shiga Prefecture. The couple of weeks prior to my departure had been hazy with everything being finalized, what seemed like, all-at-once. Evening courses were completed, visa obtained, and the flights-booked. The 3 flights went well, and any uneasiness I had was dissipated by the kindness of several strangers along the way. About 17-hours in I found myself in Osaka during the evening, where I was to meet with and be escorted to my apartment by a student from the University. I will take this moment to say there is a certain type of relief brought-on by the site of seeing one's name in big, bold print when they exit into the arrival lobby of an airport. This is when I met Julio, a fellow exchange student from California State University, Monterey Bay. While on our way out of Osaka I distinctly remember the gorgeous cityscape and booming night activity. I have never been surrounded by so many people who weren't congregating for a common event like a concert or ball game. Together, Julio and I made our way to Hikone Station first by monorail, and then by the JR (Japanese Railway). He made sure I understood how to properly read the railway maps and purchase a ticket for the right destination. With his help, and the generosity of Yamakawa-san and Iwama-san (two of the amazing staff members at USP which helped make this trip happen for me) I was able to safely settle into my apartment, soon collapsing onto my wonderful futon (bed).

Drug Yutaka
Meena is a fellow classmate of mine from Columbia College studying abroad at USP this semester. She is originally from Singapore, so this is her second study abroad experience. Our first two weeks were spent with orientation, placement testing, city hall registration, and an abundant amount of shopping. We are now pretty familiar with the immediate area and have come to know little intricacies like the Heiwado in Viva City having a wider selection of produce than the one on Bell Road. There is a dollar store called the 100 Yen Shop which has been a solid go-to place for a majority of the items which now occupy my apartment. Lastly, less than a block away is my favorite little drug store called Drug Yutaka. It carries pretty much anything one would need for day-to-day living. Meena and I have become regulars there, and the prospect of obtaining a point card is quickly becoming favorable.

Photo of Administration Building (spire, left) and Library (dome, right)
School began this past week. This being said, class sign-up is April 8th-16th. The way registration works here is very interesting. For starters, classes are typically 90-minutes and 1-day a week. During the registration period, students are welcome to sit-in on a class before they register. Classes are usually 2-credit hours and most students I know are taking around 10 classes. Me, you ask? I am only taking 6: Beginning Japanese I-III, Medieval Japanese History, Discussion and Debate, and Environmental Science in Japan. The latter three are taught in English.
Moat surrounding USP

Local park
Hikone is a beautiful city, with a population size similar to Columbia's. It is considered to be rural by many. Apart from traveling to school and various grocery stores, I have been to a few local parks, a western-style restaurant named Coco's, a shopping mall called Viva City, and perhaps the biggest attraction in all of Shiga Prefecture, Hikone Castle. In fact, yesterday was spent with my new friends Ryuhei and Daiki going to Viva City, where they helped me shop for some gym shoes. Sad to say, my decision was made easy when there was only one pair between two stores which came in my size. Next, we went to the arcade section and took Purikura. Imagine a high-tech and fully customizable photo booth. Daiki had to depart for work soon after, but Ryuhei and I stayed behind and played an intense game of air hockey and attempted to master some of the grab-claw machines.

On my walk to school

Hikone Castle

The weather was beautiful, and after some discussion we decided it would be a good day to go and visit Hikone Castle. Now THIS is what I came to see. Hikone Castle is officially one of Japan's National Treasures and was completed around 1607. If you measure the birth of the U.S. by the signing of the Declaration of Independence, then this castle is almost 170 years older than the United States. The massive architectural elements and shear sturdiness of the building are almost overwhelming. I have never been inside anything more unyielding. And as it turns out, interior castle stairs are no small matter. I am 1.9 meters-tall (sorry, it's a habit now) and these stairs are challenging for someone of my height to climb. What a tiny price to pay for the view of the city and Lake Biwa which waits at the top. On the castle grounds I was able to enjoy some genuine Japanese "junk food" as Ryuhei put it. Anko flavored taiyaki is a simple yet delicious red-bean flavored treat and a personal recommendation of mine. Takoyaki is equally fantastic and conceptually would be related to the chili-cheese hot dog in the United States. It is a round snack consisting of a wheat-flour batter, octopus, green onion, ginger, some special takoyaki sauce, optional mayonnaise and a few other ingredients I was unable to determine. I will definitely be ordering this one again. (Click the links to see examples.)
Ceiling structure at the very top.  Can't tell you how massive those beams really are

And how could I forget the sakura! They started blooming about a week after I arrived and will only be around for about another week or two. I have been sure to have a couple of o-hanami, where I eat outside underneath the sakura and admire their beauty. In Japanese, hana means flower, -mi is a conjugation of miru which is to see or to look, and o- is used as an honorific and is a polite way to refer to certain nouns, phrases, and actions.
Beautiful walk home from school

Strolling around campus
Greetings from USP

Wow--all of these astonishing sights and I haven't even made it out of the prefecture yet!  Thank you for reading! Until next time,
6 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:

    Awesome post Michael! Glad to see you're having fun. Make sure you experience as much of ALL THE THINGS as you can while you're there! Miss you!

    -David Forck

  2. Thank you, Michael, for sharing your experiences. While I miss seeing you on campus, I know you are representing us well, learning as much as possible, and embarking on an amazing and unforgettable journey.


  3. Kim Coke Says:

    Michael, so excited to read of your adventures!!!! Miss you, K

  4. Michael, I am so excited for you and all of your adventures to come! I hope you have a blast over there, and I know you will do amazing. I can't wait to read about your journey! Enjoy every minute of it! We all miss you and can't wait to see your smiling face in person again! :)


  5. Brian Kessel Says:

    Hi Michael,
    Sounds like your experience is off to an amazing start! Thanks for sharing your great descriptions and photos. They really make your trip come alive for us back at CC!

    Dr. Kessel

  6. Tery Donelson Says:


    Congratulations on the start of a very exciting adventure. The beauty of studying abroad is the education you find outside the classroom. You seem to be doing very well with the "get out and see the country" passion that is an absolute must for any visitor to a new country. I look forward to future posts.

    Enjoy you time,


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