Thoughts on Japan
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I'm spending three months in Japan to work on my Major Qualifying Project, a graduation requirement of WPI. Now that I've been here for almost four weeks I can talk a bit about what Japan is like, and my experiences here.
How it's different
First, if anyone tells you Japan isn't like anime either they don't know what they're talking about or they watch the wrong kind of anime. Slice of life anime is generally pretty accurate to what Japan is really like, and has actually been pretty helpful in learning about some of the cultural differences between the United States and here.
In my completely subjective opinion, a lot of things are just better here. In general people are way nicer. At restaurants the waiters have gone out of their way to help my group even though none of us speak Japanese. Convenience store clerks and bus drivers are polite and friendly instead of looking like they want to die (though maybe that's just a Worcester thing).
The food is also great, as long as you like raw fish and fried stuff. My personal favorite so far has been katsudon, deep-fried pork and eggs on top of rice. Even the cafeteria at the university is great, far better than the food WPI serves.
Other favorites of mine include omelette rice and tonkotsu ramen.
However, not everything is better here than in the states. Almost nowhere accepts credit cards, even major stores, so you always need to carry cash and fiddle around with change. On buses you have to pay with exact change when you get off, which is also a pain. The trains are nice, but often expensive. For example, to get into Kyoto, the closest big city, from my campus it costs 640 yen one way. When you have to do that every week the costs start to add up.
Cool places I've been to
I've been here for almost a month and every weekend I've gone to a different interesting location with the rest of my group of students.
On our first weekend in the country we visited the Senbon Torii at Fushimi Inari. This is a famous shinto shrine on top of Mount Inari, but the real attraction is the thousands of torii gates lining the path to it.
It's a short hike to the top, but can be pretty crowded on weekends, so I'd recommend going on a less-busy day.
The next weekend, we went to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. A lot of the rides were surprisingly cool, and it was neat to see places like New York and San Francisco recreated as theme park attractions. This Universal Studios is also the last one to have Jaws: The Ride, which our professor was really excited about. They also had a "4D Theater Experience" called "Godzilla vs. Evangelion," which was exactly as cool as it sounds.
Since we were already in Osaka, the next day we went to Osaka Castle. It was amazing to see all the history of the area, and even the grounds were immaculately kept.
Finally, we also visited Shitennoji Temple, a famous ancient Buddhist temple.
Our professor took us to Denden Town, an area in Osaka that's basically a mini-Akihabara full of anime merchendise and arcades. It had a huge, two-floor store that sold nothing but Gundam figures, as well as tons of gacha machines and other money-wasters.
The next Monday my project group rented bikes in Kyoto and toured some of the famous sites of Japan's old capital. The old imperial palace's grounds are open to the public as a park now, but they're still maintained by the imperial household so it's a great place to see. There are also tons of shrines and temples in the city, of which we got to see a few. But my favorite site in Kyoto was the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji.
It's a great example of Zen design where the design of the buildings and landscape is used to accentuate the natural surroundings. The islands of the central pond are shaped like the main islands of Japan, and the main pavilion is completely covered in gold. It's a sight to behold and I strongly recommend anyone in Kyoto to visit.
Last weekend we went to to Nara park for a candle festival. Nara is famous for its giant Buddha statue and for its deer, which are very friendly and all over the place. If you have food they'll even bow to you to get some of it.
My time in Japan so far has been really fantastic, these are just a few of the places I've been to and things I've done. I'll definitely be posting more about my experiences here as I visit Tokyo and climb Mount Fuji in the coming weeks.