Bryar: Day Trip to Shimokita

When you’re an exchange student in a city like Tokyo it seems like the number of things to do and see are endless. However, once you’ve been to Shibuya, Harajuku and Akihabara multiple times each and checked out other major recommended tourist spots, it takes a little more imagination to find new places to spend a day in. Often these places are little known by the tourist blogs, and It’ll be your Japanese or other exchange student friends who show you the gems that Tokyo has to offer.

Shimokitazawa is Tokyo’s hub of everything vintage, bohemian and/or second-hand, along with a collection of quirky coffee shops. You won’t see many tourist faces here, but it’s still a bustling and lively district popular among the youth of Tokyo. I spent a day here recently with a couple of university friends, and this is what we discovered:

The Food

We started the day off with a late-morning coffee (well, my friends did) at one of the small coffee shops tucked away on the narrow streets. The coffee was served vintage-style in a jar and was, according to my friend, exquisite.

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As we meandered around the streets afterwards we passed a corner store that had multiple layers of customers queueing up outside its doors; the aforementioned friend (and guide) explained to us that it’s a pancake shop, and that he line can sometimes reach up to two hours long (!!). I asked who on earth would wait that long for pancakes, but he said that he’d tried them and apparently they merited the wait.

We took a break mid-afternoon for some lunch; we found a quaint little Italian restaurant that felt (to someone who has admittedly never been to Italy) like stepping right into the real deal – the pizza was delicious, and surprisingly affordable seeing as it came with a salad and drink.

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We ended our day trip with some home-made gelato from a store that had pastel pink walls and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling but still somehow managed to feel vintage. How?

The Shopping

Shimokitazawa is packed full of little stores selling everything that someone riding the bohemian trend could ever wish for. Clothes, accessories, knick knacks – even the stores themselves give a boho vibe with the uneven wooden floors and artistically peeling wall paint.

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This district is also a haven for those who love everything second-hand. Everything from little upcycled boutiques, to entire warehouses with rack upon rack of second hand clothes. We could have been lost these places for the entire day.

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The day that we visited Shimokitazawa, it also featured a small market of hand-made goods set up near the exit off the station. An array of different kinds of jewellery, trinkets, leatherwork and even jackets for handbag dogs were on sale; it made for a lively and up-beat atmosphere and complimented the overall vibe of the district.

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If you ever find yourself in Tokyo as an exchange student or a tourist, I would definitely recommend taking a day out of your schedule to visit this treasure trove and discover everything that it has to offer!

 

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Food, glorious food: Bryar

Food, food, glorious food!

Now, I don’t claim to be a foodie myself (can’t cook for my life either) so I’m not an authority – but believe me when I say that Japanese food is seriously amazing. Maybe because it’s so different to most food you can find in New Zealand, yet still similar enough to be familiar. I think the only thing I look forward to and savour in NZ as much as the food here, is probably a burger from Burger Fuel (I told you, I have pretty simple tastes). So, this blog post is going to be dedicated to convincing you of the same thing! Here we go…

First off, here’s some examples.

It would take me forever to list off all of the Japanese dishes that I love, so I’ll settle for describing a few. Firstly, tonkatsu. Literally ‘pork cutlet’, deep fried in bread crumbs with sweet sauce, rice and salad. It’s simple, but the combination of the tender pork and the crunchy bread crumb is perfection itself. Udon, soba, and ramen…all are noodle dishes of different types, can be eaten hot or cold, and can be made with an infinite array of soups, meats, toppings and seasonings. Sukiyaki is a Japanese classic; beef slices, vegetables and basically anything you like slow cooked in a hot pot at your table. Once it’s cooked, take a slice of beef and dip it in raw egg (my mouth is watering just imagining it).

You can get a feed for next to nothing.

There’s a lot of crazy expensive restaurants in Tokyo, but they’re pretty well balanced out by the number of places you can get a meal for really cheap. Take Yoshinoya for example; a chain restaurant that can be found pretty much anywhere, specialising in gyudon (beef bowl). You can get a medium sized bowl for 380yen (that’s just under five bucks), and don’t go thinking that price indicates quality – this might be one of my favourite dishes of all time.

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And it’s super convenient.

With a convenience store, row of vending machines or fast food chain around almost every corner, one thing Japan could never be accused of is being inconvenient. You never have to worry about getting thirsty when you’re out and about, because I can (almost) guarantee you that no matter where you are, there will be at least one vending machine in sight offering everything from water to iced coffee and occasionally ice cream on a cone. Convenience stores (of which there are a lot) are also your best friend when you’re heading home after your 7pm lecture and really can’t be bothered trying to scrounge something up. A vast array of pre-made meals are on offer, which the person behind the counter will kindly offer to heat up for you, and a complimentary plastic fork is even included in the deal.

The snacks and desserts are to die for.

Last but not least, let’s quickly talk about Japanese desserts and snacks. If you’re a fan of delicate cakes, pastries and cute sweet treats then Japan is the place for you. I personally am in love with the ice creams here, especially yukimi-daifuku; a little ball of vanilla ice cream wrapped in a thin layer of soft mochi (rice cake). I could eat them every day and I don’t think I would ever get sick of them.

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There’s only one let down…

And that’s natto – fermented soy beans. It’s brown, it’s sticky, it smells strange and, well, it’s fermented. Japanese people love it, but I’m yet to meet a foreigner who will say the same. I’m thinking it’s like vegemite or marmite in New Zealand; if you grow up with it then you probably love it, but if you think about it it does taste a little weird. Needless to say, I won’t be converting any time soon.

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That’s all for today guys! I hope you’re not too hungry now (I definitely am).

Until next time, happy food-ing!

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Accommodation Awards: Bryar

What’s this folks? It seems we have a late entry! Nominated by Miss B. C. Renshaw, AZALEA HOUSE in Tokyo, Japan for the Accommodation Award “Most Deceptive Outward Appearance”! (Applause all around).

Alright, now that I’ve pretended to be a game show announcer, let me explain to you why I think that my dormitory would hands-down win this (somewhat questionable) award.

The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has never been more appropriate. My dormitory in Japan looks from the outside, and I’ll say it bluntly, like an abandoned prison block. It’s got the whole works – flickering fluorescent lights, barbed wire to prevent access to the roof, water stains down the walls, security cameras watching our every move, and that general prison-y appearance. Here’s a little collage I made for your viewing pleasure;

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This couldn’t be more of a contrast to the cosy, clean interior of my dorm room itself. This place is fully carpeted and equipped with its own air conditioning unit, kitchenette, bathroom, and a sliding door leading to a small private balcony, featuring a bug screen for the summer time. Thanks to administration and the room’s previous tenant my place is also fully furnished; bed, desk, chair, bookshelf, wardrobe and even a full-length mirror were already in place when I arrived. The bathroom boasts a toilet, sink and mirror, shower (with amazing water pressure) and bath, and the kitchen is fully functional with electric element (which works surprisingly well), sink, cupboards, and a refrigerator.

My room has become my sanctuary since arriving in Japan; it’s a place I can relax and feel at home, somewhere study in peace, a place I can return to at the end of every day that is familiar and comfortable. I’ve made my room feel more like home by personalising it; I put up a couple of posters on the walls, bought a scent diffuser, put down mats on the floor, and decided on designated places for things to go.

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Two different views of my cozy room

The drawbacks, aside from the slightly dodgy initial impression (which we can look past because we don’t judge based on appearance), are few and far between. This place isn’t your cheapest option, although most are more expensive there are a few which are cheaper. On top of this, utility fees and washing/drying expenses are not included in monthly rent. There is around a 45-minute commute into Sophia university, and seeing as we’re on the north-western outskirts of Tokyo, getting into the central city will take around the same amount of time. Dormitory rules are also quite strict regarding having guests over, and especially having guests sleep over, but these rules are quite typical to Japan and you’ll pay a lot more to stay in a share-house with more freedom. In saying this, there were dormitories that I looked into that were far stricter, to the point of segregating female and male living areas by the use of locked doors and key-cards, and Azalea house is nowhere near as controlled.

These drawbacks however are far outweighed by the overall advantages of living in Azalea House. The surrounding neighbourhood is quiet and safe, with a kindergarten and primary school just down the road. The main street of the district (Heiwadai) is within easy walking distance, and offers multiple supermarkets, convenience stores, a post office, fast food, the local station and more. Although the train ride into Tokyo proper can take the better part of an hour, Shibuya and Harajuku (pop-culture centrals) are on the same line as Heiwadai, so it’s a simple direct commute. Azalea House might be home to 80 young university exchange students from around the world, but I’m often surprised by the fact that I can hear hardly anything from the rooms either side of me. Ahh, peace and quiet! Last but not least, if you’re new to living by yourself in Tokyo then the lady who works in the office on the ground floor during the day is an absolute angel and will help you with everything from paying your bills, to directing you to around the neighbourhood, to alerting you when the care packages from your mother stuffed full of chocolate arrive on the doorstep.

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The view from the balcony, down into the little zen garden of the next-door-neighbour, in my room on the fourth floor

This is my first time living by myself at all let alone in a foreign country. So far I’m absolutely loving it. I’m learning how to better manage my time, how to stick to a routine, and I’m finding that I’m really enjoying the independence of having to cook and clean for myself and pay my own bills. My situation is by no means a definitive view into student accommodation in Japan, and is very independent compared other options like share-houses and dormitories with communal facilities. I think that’s one of the things I love most about it, but if you’re a very social person then something like this might not be quite to your taste. If you’re considering coming to Japan on a student exchange then I encourage you to check out all your options, and find one that suits you best!

Jya, mata! See ya!

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My O-Week Experience: Bryar

Hi all!

Firstly, let me apologise for the delay on this post; I arrived in Japan on the 23rd of March but have only just made it through my orientation and first week of university classes. I say that like it was a real trial, but the truth is that these last couple of weeks have set me up for an awesome year ahead!

The semester here in Japan starts in April (spring), and I was only able to move into my dormitory on the 1st. For the week-or-so between arriving and moving in I stayed with a friend from my high school exchange, who also helped me to buy everything I needed to kit out my dorm room. I also used this time to settle back into Japanese life, adjust myself to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and shake the rust off my Japanese.

Having lived here before, the culture shock isn’t so much of an issue for me this time around, but anyone who is planning to make the move from New Zealand to Japan for the first time should be prepared for a few things;

  1. Japanese society is quite strict when it comes to how you are expected to act – respect your elders, be modest about your achievements, always give your all in everything you do.
  2. There are 1,001 unspoken rules for conducting yourself in public. Always stand to the left of an escalator in Toyko, but on the right in Osaka. Walk on the left side of the pathway, always give your seat to an elderly person, never eat while walking, and don’t be that loud obnoxious foreigner on the train.
  3. If you’re not Asian, you’ll stick out. Maybe not so much in the central city, but as soon as you get into the suburbs or less-touristy places, you’ll get stares. Depending on what kind of person you are you’ll either love it or hate it, but either way you’ll grow used to it eventually.
  4. On the positive side, there are convenience stores and/or vending machines around almost every corner, and the trains and busses are very rarely ever late (cough Auckland Transport). Also, the toilet seats are heated which is a godsend in winter.

 

Meiji Shrine in Tokyo with a recently arrived high school exchange student

It’s supposed to be spring, but you can see from the above photo that there’s still a chill in the air (understatement of the year – it snowed around the time this photo was taken). But in saying that, I sit here writing this in a t-shirt with my balcony door flung wide open, so in a matter of three weeks the temperature has gone from NZ winter to NZ summer.

My actual Sophia University orientation was quite a small affair. Two meetings were held for new exchange students over two days, during which we were given a tour of the (typically small) campus, shown how to enrol for classes and given a placement test to determine which Japanese stream we would be entered into. An international student welcome dinner was held in the cafeteria a couple of nights before classes started, which was basically an all-you-can-eat-buffet combined with a meet-and-greet.

A shot of the street leading to Sophia University, lined with spring cherry blossoms

The great thing about being a foreign exchange student in Japan (or, I’m sure, in any country) is that the feeling of being in the same boat tends to throw people together, and makes it very easy to find friends. I met an American girl on the first day of orientation who happens to live on the same train line as me, and we’ve done almost everything together since. And if my university orientation was slightly lacking, I can’t say that I haven’t been very effectively introduced to Japanese drinking culture. My host mum gravely informs me that Japanese university students are wild, uncontrollable alcoholics, and I nod my head and attempt to look concerned. Just like any country around the world, Japanese university students love to socialise and have fun, and the Japanese izakaya makes that all the more possible!

The izakaya is essentially a Japanese bar, usually decked out with traditional furnishings and a warm atmosphere. The staff are friendly and jovial, and if you’re early enough you might be in time for nomihoudai – “open bar” – pay a fixed amount and drink as much as you like for a certain time period. The food in these places is more like finger-food than actual meals, and it all adds to the fun, relaxed, social mood.

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“Welcome to Japan from New Zealand! Please have a great time here!” A gift from the lovely Nee-san who served us at an izakaya

That basically sums up my few weeks of settling in here, please look forward to my submission to the accommodation awards, coming very soon! If you want to know anything else about what I’ve been up to, how I’m finding living here in Tokyo, more pro-tips about cultural differences in Japan, or any other thing you can think of, flick me an email! I’d love to hear from you guys.

Mata ne! Bye for now!

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Japan

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The University of Auckland students have the opportunity to study at one of eleven partner universities in Japan: Akita International University, Fukoka Women’s University, Hiroshima University, Hokkaido University, Keio University (incl. Law), Kyoto University, Sophia University, Tohoku University, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, University of Tokyo, Waseda University.

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Let’s hear what our students have to say!

“Tokyo is a mix of new and old; they have kept many traditional aspects of their culture and old buildings while transforming their city into a high-tech mecca. This makes the city that much more exciting and there is something for everyone. As the majority of the population cannot speak English, it can be difficult for those with no background in their language. However, the people are very accommodating and always willing to help.” – Jennifer Park, Keio University

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“Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan, and while there were several busy areas, I felt a tranquil air that seemed different from other cities like Tokyo. While riding on my bicycle around town I could see various temples tucked around regular houses and shops, while famous tourist destinations like Arashiyama and Ginkakuji were a simple bus or train ride away from the center of the city. I had plenty of opportunities to visit many wonderful places. My exchange took place during the autumn/winter seasons, and certainly it was colder than Auckland! But the changes in scenery, from the fire-red maple trees in autumn to snow in winter, were beautiful in their own right.” – Ariani Vania, Kyoto University

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On orientation:

“Orientation began as soon as we arrived so there was no time to feel lonely or homesick, and we very quickly made friends with other HUSA students. The best part of studying at Hiroshima University was without a doubt the people I was there with. We all met during orientation and got to know each other very quickly. The only danger with making so many friends from the HUSA program is the temptation to speak only in English all the time! But there are plenty of other ways to meet Japanese people and practice speaking Japanese; there are lots of Japanese students who want to meet foreign students, so you will find it easy to make Japanese friends if you make a small effort. There are also various clubs and programs through which you can meet students or arrange language exchanges.” – Anna Mace, Hokkaido University

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“Just after the orientation, I had already found out how amazing and exciting my life in Japan was going to be. Campus locates at center of the city with Tokyo Tower coming into view. As its long history, Keio has a few old buildings as well as newly constructed ones surrounded by many greens. The combination of these gave a great environment to study in.” – Conny Hsu, Keio University

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“On the day that I arrived, my host university had sent a student representative to guide me from the airport to my dormitory. I soon met a bunch of other exchange students, and with the two weeks of holiday we had before school started, went exploring together around Tokyo. The first thing that surprised me the most was how packed the trains were around peak hour, as the train was filled with people to the point where none of us could move (or barely breathe). As we entered downtown Tokyo I was immediately captivated by the tall buildings, flashing signs, giant and busy crosswalks and the never-ending list of places to visit and things to see and do. Overall, I was excited about getting to know Tokyo more. The streets were clean, the people were extremely friendly, and the food was some of the best I have had in my entire life.” – Bobby Chan, Sophia University

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On housing:

“I stayed in one of the Keio’s dormitory, where both Japanese students and exchange students lived in so people can meet others from different backgrounds. The single room of the dormitory equipped plenty of facilities, which gave a comfortable and convenient place to live. The dormitory managers were very friendly and helpful. I seriously wanted to live there forever!” – Conny Hsu, Keio University

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On courses:

“Besides these fun adventures outside the class, Keio offers a comprehensive range of courses with a focus on Japanese aspect taught in English as well as Japanese language courses. I chose a combination of both, and I found it really helped develop my knowledge about Japan and Japanese proficiency. There were a lot of student clubs to join and meet local students, and there were always some clubs you have never heard about. One of my goals was to learn Japanese culture so I joined the Tea Ceremony club. I was completely new to Tea Ceremony but the teacher and other members were very kind to teach me and explain the reasons behind each step. I appreciated the spirit of customer service, which is fully expressed in Tea Ceremony.”   – Conny Hsu, Keio University

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“The HUSA courses (classes made just for HUSA exchange students) were enjoyable and I learnt a lot, but for students looking for more depth, other non-HUSA courses may be more suitable. You have the option of taking classes with regular Japanese students, some of which are taught in English and some in Japanese, and you can choose to take a mixture of these courses as well as HUSA courses.” – Anna Mace, Hokkaido University

On the lifestyle:

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“My favourite place on campus would be the student cafeteria! That is one of the reason why I think Japanese student life is wonderful. The food there was cheap, yummy and healthy! Outside the campus, several shops restaurants are there to explore. There are two stations nearby the campus with four different subway lines you can access to. That basically can take you to all the major places in heart of Tokyo, which is also the heart of Japan I would say. I usually hung out with friends after class as the train takes you everywhere until very late at night. That was why I always ended up being out late, having heaps of fun.”- Conny Hsu, Keio University

“For me, the best part about Tokyo was their great attention to detail. This makes their food delicious and always of high quality. It is also extremely clean, possibly one of the cleanest places in the world. The cost of living is comparably cheaper than Auckland, especially because the university dorms are subsidized for students and the diverse range of food available that can fit every budget.” – Jennifer Park, Keio University

“Hiroshima University is in the countryside in a town called Saijo, about an hour from Hiroshima city by public transport. I stayed in student dormitories, which were arranged for me by the HUSA staff and were very cheap compared to Auckland! One difficulty I had was the lack of ovens – Japanese kitchens rarely have the typical big oven we have here, so going 5 months without roast dinners and baking was quite a challenge!” – Anna Mace, Hokkaido University

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“Japanese people are generally extremely orderly and love to queue up flawlessly for everything from famous ramen shops to public transport. It is amazingly simple to get around Tokyo by public transport, and rarely is there any delay except for snow-related anarchy which makes sense in a city where it rarely snows. People are polite to a fault and generally very friendly. Tokyo citizens both interested in and welcoming of foreign people despite language barriers. Compared to New Zealand, food is amazingly affordable as well as being of a generally much higher standard- absolutely exceptional! The city is extremely clean, almost rubbish free and has an amazing recycling system in place. Also, Tokyo never sleeps but feels very safe.” – Lisa Tate, Sophia University

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“I found Tokyo to be an extremely easy place to live. The public transport is amazing, everything is very convenient and on time, food and drink is cheap, and my rent at the dorms was also very cheap, contrary to normal Tokyo prices.” – Erin O’Flaherty, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

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On travel:

“Some highlights of the exchange were, of course, travel. I managed to travel quite a lot, not only within Japan but also to some other South-East Asian countries, where I got to encounter some totally different places. But one of my highlights which I feel is unique to me was working as an actor and model in Japan. I have been acting since I was a child and being a professional actor is something I am currently working towards. I decided I wanted to do all I could to pursue that while I was in Tokyo. I joined a talent agency for foreigners and I had two jobs while there. The first was modeling for a catalogue shoot, and the second was filming a promotional video for the city of Shinjo in Yamagata prefecture. That experience was possibly my number one highlight. I got to go to a beautiful town in the middle of the Japanese countryside and eat delicious food while doing a job that I love. I had some really unique experiences interacting with the locals and being part of a Japanese short film. I also joined the drama club at TUFS in my second semester. I was extremely nervous about acting in Japanese, but the other club members were very kind and supportive. They helped me to perfect my Japanese and I was able to play the main character in a short play entirely in Japanese.” – Erin O’Flaherty, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

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Top Tips:

  • Of course, amazing food is a highlight. Students recommend trying Uji Matcha and Yatsuhashi, which are Kyoto specialties.
  • Push yourself outside your comfort zone
  • Travel to different parts of Japan
  • Take part in a Japanese language course