An orange flower near an old wall in Kyoto

Orange flower near Japanese architecture

Here’s to getting sidetracked.

Three of my friends at a crosswalk, wearing adventuring gear

To taking friends somewhere new.

A tree and a giant Japanese gate

To wandering around a city so rich you can’t escape the history.

Rolling green tea fields outside Uji

To rolling fields of tea nestled among forested mountains.

Ancient Japanese building at golden time

To having too much to see.

This was a good weekend.

The sun shining behind a Japanese rooftop and trees

A view of the inside of Kyoto Station

Tonight, after eating dinner in my hotel room, Sam and I went out to explore the area around our hotel.

During this first week’s orientation period, we’re staying in the Kyoto Tower Hotel, a large and impressive hotel beneath the Kyoto Tower. On Friday night, after getting our bearings in Kyoto, all 31 of us AKP students will meet our host families and travel with them to their homes, beginning the next big step of this adventure. In the meantime, though, we have off-and-on moments of downtime, so Sam and I sought to use ours to get slightly lost and see a bit of the city.

View from inside Kyoto StationFirst, we crossed the street and went to Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is truly an example of the sort of building I would not expect to find anywhere in America. To begin with, it’s huge. The building is about 11 stories tall, and spans probably the equivalent of at least three American city blocks. What’s more, it demonstrates the same indoor/outdoor blurring that I’ve seen in Tokyo (and certain parts of Los Angeles). There’s definitely an entryway, but it’s not a set of doors. There are stairs and escalators that lead all the way up and down the 11 stories, but it’s at least partially open-air; if it rained, there are definitely areas where you would get wet. There are areas that are fully enclosed–every floor has a shopping/restaurant deck, for instance, that is enclosed with four walls, a ceiling, and a floor, but the station’s main plaza, as it were, is partially exposed to the elements.

As my hotel roommate and I found out a couple days ago when we went looking for breakfast, Kyoto Station’s outdoor escalators go up quite a way. Sam and I counted six separate escalators, punctuated by at least nominal flat sections, that stretched up to the 11th story of the complex. At the top of the complex was a garden called the “Happy Terrace” and a great view of Kyoto, which I intended to show Sam, but when our final escalator deposited us at the Happy Terrace, we were more than a little surprised to discover that Kyoto Station was a very popular place to take a date. There were couples holding hands and kissing everywhere we looked.

Now, I had my own preconceptions of public displays of affection in Japanese culture–namely, that Japanese, as a rule, tended not to make them–so I was more than a little shocked to see such outward displays. As we explored the station more, we ran into more couples all over. By the end of the night, I was really questioning what I thought I knew about that part of Japanese culture.

As I told Sam, though, although I could probably have made it through life without witnessing so many people macking in public, it was really a profound cultural experience to witness so many couples at the 駅 (eki — “station”). Not because snogging’s a profound act, and not even because it challenged my preconceptions as described above, but simply because, after seeing so many couples, I recognized that I had seen where some–apparently many–young people in Kyoto liked to take their dates. At home, I know a handful of places that are nice enough or unique enough that people might go there on a date. Tonight, I found a similar place in Japan.

I might not be explaining it well. It was a strange feeling of recognition that dawned on me and instantly made the experience more meaningful. As weird as it seems, I think that seeing so many couples enjoying their time at the ? was really one of the most culturally important experiences I’ve had yet.Panorama of the Kyoto Station JR lines at night

Red paper lanterns outside a shrineAfter exploring Kyoto Station some more, Sam and I then took the long way back to our hotel. We passed rows and rows of covered bike parking–almost all of which were full–and a pedestrian tunnel with a ceiling so low that I almost scraped my head on the unusual stalactite-like formations that appeared to be forming from the concrete. We were meandering through a little residential neighborhood with a tight, winding street, passing the houses and businesses, when out of nowhere, I looked to my left and saw a Shinto shrine, its paper lanterns glowing an assuring crimson.

I had read about how Kyoto is a peculiar blend of old and new, but it didn’t hit me until I saw that shrine, a tiny monument to tranquility beset on either side by urban buildings. I didn’t take many pictures because I wasn’t sure if it was allowed (it is), but I’m sure I’ll return there or to another such shrine in the future.

There is so much to see here.

A bowl of Japanese ramen

Bowl of shio ramen

After landing and settling into our hotel, Sam, my friends Eric and Jack and I went looking for dinner. Beneath this part of Kyoto, there’s an extensive underground mall that connects with the subway station, and also has exits leading to the lower floors of nearby hotels and pachinko parlors. Within this mall there are numerous clothing stores, but we finally found the restaurants.

Of course, all of the menu items were in Japanese.

There are, as you probably know, three character sets in Japanese. There’s hiragana, which could be considered the “basic” alphabet; there’s katakana, which is primarily used for spelling loanwords; and there’s kanji, the adapted Chinese characters that are used almost everywhere. If you can write hiragana and katakana, you can be understood by anyone who can read Japanese, but knowledge of kanji is really the mark of the sophistication of your Japanese knowledge. Kanji are used everywhere.

So when it came time to look in the display cases of the restaurants and try to figure out what we wanted to eat, we were faced with a dilemma. Most of the restaurants only had their items listed in kanji, which we could not read fluently. And while we could have spoken to the waitstaff, asked what was what, and decided based on that, it was our first night in an entirely different country at the end of a very long day, and we wanted to avoid as much hassle as was possible. Our dining decision was as much determined by what looked good as it was by the presence of a sign saying “English menu available” in the display case.

I knew before leaving home that we’d have to order food in Japanese when we arrived, so I copied some relevant notes out of my textbook so I could study on the plane ride. Naturally, despite the ten hours spent over the Pacific, I didn’t study them once, so when it came time to order and interact with the restaurant staff, I was as much a bumbling 外人 (gaijin — “foreign person”) as any tourist could be. As the meal went on, we noticed that the restaurant staff was seating incoming guests in the corner opposite us–probably because, without realizing it, we had been fulfilling the “loud Americans” stereotype. Oops.

When it was all said and done, though, we got ourselves fed on ramen–the real stuff, not the ten-cent kind you get at Safeway–and explored the Kyoto Station underground a little. We made embarrassing Japanese mistakes, were awkwardly loud, and had “The Star-Spangled Banner” hummed at us (possibly sarcastically) as we made our way back to the surface.

As first adventures go, it could have been far worse.

I’m writing this post in the air. According to the LCD screen above my tray table, we’ve passed the Bering Sea and are somewhere above the Pacific. The screen also says that it’s 5:29pm–or, at least, that it is in Seattle, a relativism that my computer and I are more than happy to accept as true for a few hours longer.

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A letter from the Associated Kyoto Program congratulating me on my acceptance to the program.

We were almost done with our house meeting this evening when the phone rang. It was Takemoto-sensei, my Japanese professor from last year and the director of the Associated Kyoto Program. Apparently, he wanted to show Kagaya-sensei, a visiting professor and next year’s resident director for AKP, the Tek. Given that the program decisions were supposed to be going out either today or tomorrow, everyone was a little on edge.

Things got more suspicious when Liz, the only non-Tek applicant to AKP from Whitman this year, showed up at our door. We invited her in and began chatting, but it escaped nobody that all five Whitman applicants were currently gathered in the living room, and two AKP representatives were en route.

There was a knock on the door. Takemoto-sensei, Kagaya-sensei, and Seanacey, the program administrator from Whitman, all entered the house, and took seats in the living room. We all stood up when they entered, partially out of nerves, and partially out of some strange, half-extinct practice of etiquette that seemed desperately important at the time. We remained standing until a very perplexed Takemoto-sensei politely but firmly requested that we sit.

First, ever the salesman, he led us in a group “thank you” to Kagaya-sensei for flying out and interviewing us. She had a difficult time organizing her flight over the weekend–her home college, Williams, had ten inches of snow when she left, so we were fortunate she was able to make it at all. We all obediently and humbly thanked her, bowing while trying to contain our anxiety.

Then: “I have something for you.”

He stood, and like an out-of-season Santa Claus, reached into his backpack. Out came cardboard boxes–prepaid mailers with our last names handwritten on the sides. “Mehoke.” “Wharton.” Kagaya-sensei slowly passed four out–

–and then a pause. Takemoto, his eyes gleaming, turned to Sara. “Oh, Portesan-san…” he started.

Heads swiveled to look. Was this the bad news? Were we a divided group– four lucky admitted students sharing a room with one who didn’t make the cut? Or did these four boxes contain the gentle, reconciliatory declination letters? The tension muted us quickly, and even the previously uncontainable nervous jitters fell still.

Then he pulled the fifth box from his backpack and handed it to her.

“These are all for you,” he said. “I suppose, in true American fashion, you can open them now…

On the couch, we exchanged glances. Was this some sort of trick? Trying to get us to broach Japanese rules of etiquette? It seemed entirely possible at the time–then again, Takemoto could have told us our acceptance depended upon our ability to compose spontaneous English haiku about small appliance stores, and we probably would have taken it at face value. Slowly, our hands crept to the edges of the boxes, and began to tear them open–some of us more clumsily and brutishly than others.

Inside, a shiny packet of Pocky adorned with a sticker encouraging us to “Stick with the AKP!”

A package of Pocky with a celebratory labelAnd a bundle of forms, bound with red string.

A bundle of formsThis is it. The months of preparation, the interview, the sine wave of excitement and terror about the prospect of living and studying abroad for a year… it all came down to the words in this packet of paper. This determined the shape of not only my next year, but in fact the rest of my undergraduate experience, and potentially the few years afterward. Those first few words would indicate whether I was going to have the experience of a lifetime.

Another photo of the letter, centered on the word "Congratulations!"A few gasps around the room, then a boisterous cheer, followed by expressions of profuse gratitude. “Sensei… doumo arigatou gozaimashita!” I reached over and high-fived Sam. People were hugging.

Everyone got in.

Nobody was spared from the excitement. Our RA and our native speaker immediately began making plans to visit Kyoto during spring break next year. We began listing the people we knew that we would be able to visit when abroad. All of the stress and worries of the past few days, weeks, and months, evaporated.

We did it.

We’re going to Japan.

Returning to Japan
A portrait of me holding a folding fan to my face
God, I’m a dork.

I went to Japan four years ago or so. This probably isn’t news if you know me– I bring it up once in a while, and it was a big deal to me when it happened. That said, in the four years since returning, I haven’t really written a ton about it, nor have I put any of my pictures from the trip anywhere except my hard drive. I kept an audio journal while I was abroad, and at one point I was working on digitizing and transcribing it, but that’s also fallen through the cracks. I have a bag of memorabilia at home that I saved with the intention of eventually scrapbooking it, a project that has been neglected as well.

This is not in any way to say that my trip was not worth it. Far to the contrary, my trip to Japan was my first significant trip abroad, and it opened my eyes to an entirely different cultural perspective than the one I grew up with. I stayed with Japanese families, met Japanese people, talked with and learned from Japanese students, explored the community of Hirado and learned– a little bit– what it was like to be a total foreigner in an unfamiliar country. I think my trip was significant enough that it inspired me to continue learning Japanese, and it’s part of the reason that I hope to return next year, and am considering teaching English there after graduation through the JET Programme. It was undeniably a worthwhile trip.

But it was, in the grand scheme of things, a taste. It whet my appetite, but now I’m looking at spending an entire year in Kyoto starting this fall (provided the program accepts me).

And I can’t wait. Continue reading