Alright, folks. I thought I’d break up my “English in Japan” posts with a travel story from the past. Okay, it’s not as grand as all that, but it’s specifically about sight-seeing in Japan. Enjoy!
My first international experience was in 2011 when I studied abroad in Japan. I studied in Nagoya from September until December, and I lived with a host family in a neighboring town, which, for privacy reasons, I won’t name. During my time there, I’m ashamed to say my shyness kept me from exploring my town or Nagoya well.
However, the program through which I studied abroad had three field trips throughout the semester, which we had to attend. Additionally, before traveling to Nagoya and meeting our host families or moving into our dorms, we attended an orientation in nearby Inuyama. I also traveled a little with my host family and with my Fieldwork class.
All in all and to varying extents, I experienced nine or ten cities and villages in Japan. Here is an outline of what I did, where I went, and places I didn’t get to see.
We had our orientation in Inuyama, and during some of our breaks, we explored the town in groups. I love telling this story because it still sends my insides squirming with happiness to this day.
Though we had regular Japanese classes during our time in Inuyama, the program coordinators also scheduled cultural classes for us. One was calligraphy, and we had a local calligrapher come in to teach us. She was probably in her fifties or sixties (I’m bad with ages), and she was as friendly as could be.
Well, one day after our lesson, three of us girls took to the town to find some lunch. We stopped at a restaurant and sat down. I puzzled over the menu, as I’m sure my classmates did as well. Not five minutes in, lo and behold! Who do we see? Our calligraphy teacher! She had come for lunch with someone else, but, when she saw us, she came over to our table and helped us order our food. I don’t recall any English in that conversation, and for the most part, we had choppy Japanese, but it all worked out. After helping us with our order, she told us to drop by her home later if we were still out. (That’s what someone told me. I didn’t follow the conversation well enough to know.)
We thanked her, enjoyed our meal, and waved to her as we left. We met up with more classmates and walked around the town, and, at some point, our group split up again. My group ended up—guess where?—at the calligraphy teacher’s home. She welcomed us in, and a conversation happened in Japanese that I again couldn’t keep up with. She brought calligraphy brushes, ink, and long thin pieces of wood to the table. One by one, the teacher wrote our names in kanji! She told us the meaning and why she chose that, and I wish I had understood enough to comprehend her explanation properly. It has something to do with indigo, in part, and all the teachers I showed when I taught in Japan said that the rendering she gave my name was beautiful.
Back to my description of Inuyama! I saw Inuyama castle, which was the first Japanese castle I ever visited. One night we ate dinner in boats and then, later that night, watched cormorant fishing. Cormorant fishing is a traditional way of fishing and, according to Wikipedia, it has existed in China and Japan since 960 A.D., or thereabouts. Who comes up with these ideas? I never could. If you get a chance to see cormorant fishing, do so. It’s interesting at worst and fascinating at best.
2: Homestay town
I explored this town little, only stopping by places I saw on my walk to and from the train station. I braved a nearby road (one I didn’t take to the station) because of a grocery store, and that was about as adventurous as I got.
One night we went to see fireworks in a nearby town,
which was apparently known for its pottery. I didn’t get to look around there much. My host dad and little host brother also took me hiking to a small nearby shrine. Exhausting but fun!
Fun fact: I stopped at a convenience store to get an ice cream cone on the way back home one day, and I ate it on the walk back…only to realize afterward that eating on the streets like that is a bit of a “no-no”. Oops.
I didn’t explore Nagoya very much. I took the trains in for class and out to go back home. Once or twice I went out to eat with my friends, and one time just before Christmas, a friend took me to a large mall (Aeon Mall Nagoya Dome Mae). I thought about visiting Nagoya castle, but I hadn’t been in Japan long and was too shy to sign up. I heard it was a good trip, so if you get over to Nagoya, definitely check that out.
4: Kanazawa trip
In Kanazawa, our group saw an older part of town and visited Kenroku-en (a garden). We also traveled to a temple, Eiheiji, in a nearby town. During the trip, we tried our hands at gold-sticking and at making wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets. It’s too bad I don’t like red bean paste, or I would have eaten my sweets instead of giving them away.
Kenroku-en is renowned for its beauty, and I found it to be as pretty as it was peaceful. From natural to manicured trees to assorted flowers, to creeks and fountains, if you enjoy nature or love photography, I recommend this garden.
Eiheiji was the first temple I recall visiting, and it was beautiful. I recall walking down a hallway towards another part of the building and seeing a small, enclosed garden. Its simple design was the highlight of my day, and it was all I could do to walk away from it.
5: Takayama & Shirakawa-go
I grouped these two together because we visited them on the same field trip. They are both in Gifu Prefecture. Takayama is a town that has a historic district dating back to the Edo period (1603–1867). I didn’t see this, but the Takayama Festival happens each spring and fall to celebrate the seasons. They have parades with floats and puppet shows, according to Wikipedia, and this festival dates back to mid-1600s or earlier.
Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a small village with traditional houses in the gasshō-zukuri style. It was amazing to see in the fall, but I heard that it’s gorgeous in the winter, too. I’m sure all four seasons flatter it. You absolutely must give these two locations a visit!
On our trip to Kyoto, we saw the famous Arashiyama bamboo grove. In pairs, we took rickshaws through the bamboo. The man who pulled our rickshaw was about our age. He loved soccer and running (hence the rickshaw-pulling), and his English was good enough that we could communicate effectively. Praise him. Definitely check out the bamboo grove, whether by foot or by rickshaw.
Our group also visited a famous temple, Kiyomizu-dera. It was large and had beautiful views at every turn. A great stop for photographers!
During dinner one night, we had a talk and demonstration from a geisha-in-training, called a maiko. She performed a dance with a small fan while her teacher sang and played a traditional instrument called a shamisen. Afterward, we could ask the women questions. Before you ask, their focus was on art, such as learning traditional dances and instruments, not on anything…more stereotypical of geisha.
Another stop on our trip was to Nijō Castle. Wikipedia explains its actual layout better than I can remember it. “The castle consists of two concentric rings of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of the Honmaru Palace, various support buildings and several gardens.” I found it to be one of the more beautiful castles we toured.
We also visited the famous Kinkakuji, a Buddhist temple covered in gold. While beautiful, in all honesty, I was underwhelmed. Perhaps it had been talked up a great deal, or maybe it appeared larger in photographs than what it actually is. Either way, I enjoyed looking at the building for a few minutes, but the surrounding landscape ultimately held my attention longer. Maybe that was just me. Maybe I was tired and ready to go home. Who knows? Pay Kinkakuji a visit for yourself and let me know if you agree or if you think it’s fabulous.
7: Fieldwork trips
For my Fieldwork class, we took a trip to Asuke to see a festival. I recall lots of huge floats towering above me, hearing tons of chanting, seeing some decorated guns of an older style I don’t know the name of, and buying food from stalls.
A smaller group of us went on another trip to see another festival, but we got rained out a few minutes after we arrived. So, instead, we ate at an izakaya and had to wait forever on the trains because of heavy rains. Still a fun time, though.
In each of these locations, you can find many more sights to see and activities to do than I’ve listed here. These are where I went (or almost went), and I recommend each of them. If you’ve been to these cities and towns, what did you do there? Let us know.