The Land of the Rising Sun: Northside’s Japan Trip
by S. Aleksander Black
Northside’s students traveled to Japan for a cultural experience over Spring Break, visiting numerous renowned landmarks and sights across the country. Leaving on the morning of March 22, 24 students along with four chaperones embarked a long flight to Tokyo. The next day, the group landed in Tokyo’s Narita airport, only to transfer onto a flight to Osaka. One charter bus later, the adventure began.
The students checked into Utano Youth Hostel in Kyoto. Hostels provide cheap food and lodging for groups, along with other perks. “My favorite [thing] would have to be just hanging out with all the other people from NCP at the youth hostels,” said Earljoshua Penados, Adv. 905, a Japanese III student. “The ones we stayed at gave us so many opportunities to spread out and enjoy the amenities they offered, like the free breakfast, free dinner, and the ability to rent bikes to speed down the rural japanese streets of Kyoto.”
After a night’s rest to recover from the long flight, the group moved on to their first full day excursion - a trip to Nara and Fushimi. In Nara, the students toured some iconic destinations, such the deer park where you can hand-feed freely roaming deer, the Todaiji Temple and its giant Buddha image, and the Kasuga Taisha Shrine--a vibrant red shrine with beautiful design. Once the sightseeing was finished, the students headed back to Kyoto, stopping along the way at the Kyoto Fushimi Inari Shrine and its thousands of red gates.
The next day, Northside’s traveled further to Kyoto, seeing the Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple, the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple, Kiyomizu Temple, Nijō Castle, and Sanjusangendo Temple. “If I were to pick a one [favorite] spot,” said Penados, “It would have to be Kiyozumi temple. Kiyozumi temple is a temple that is situated on a side of a mountain, and views are absolutely stunning with the blossoming cherry trees everywhere and a vantage point where you can admire the warmness of a sunset. The shopping streets that led up to this temple were also great, because this was the first time I got to experience the bustling narrow shopping areas of Japan.”
On day three, the group visited the world-renowned Osaka castle: one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. It was built in 1583, under orders of daimyō and samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and was intended to be the center of a new government under the Toyotomi. It was modeled after the castle of Oda Nobunaga, another strong samurai leader in Japan. Both he and Hideyoshi are considered to be among the three significant unifiers of Japan, and are critical historical figures in Japan. The main tower is surrounded by massive walls, moats, turrets, and beautiful gardens. Osaka Castle Park is one of the most popular locations during the cherry blossom season. Tevin Yao, Adv. 909 and Japanese I student, said this was the best destination “because of its sheer scale and outstanding views. Sure, it was quite a bit of a walk to the top, but it was well worth it. If you do not want to go to the top, you could just walk around the castle grounds and enjoy the beautiful scenery of trees, lakes, and small islands.”
From there, the group moved onwards to shop at Dotonbori, a popular downtown section running along the Dotonbori-gawa Canal, famous for entertainment and nightlife. It is a location with stereotypical imagery of Japanese cities: massive luminescent signs that cover the sides of buildings. Moving on from Dotonbori, the students checked out the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan--one of the largest aquariums in the world. The largest tank contains a rare whale shark, manta rays, and large fish. The tank is 30 feet deep and holds whopping 5,400 cubic meters of water. Once the group was finished touring the aquarium, they once again returned to the youth hostel for the night.
Boarding the Nozomi bullet train from the Japanese Railroad Shinkansen line in the morning, the students arrived at Tokyo station just after noon. These trains travel at speeds ranging from 150 to 200 miles per hour, making the 382-mile-long trip only three to four hours. When there, the team transferred to a new youth hostel and began sightseeing in Tokyo. The locations they visited included the huge Sensoji Temple, the stall-based Nakamise Shopping Street, and the scenic Imperial Palace Plaza. However, it was all topped off with a visit to one of the most iconic areas in Japan: Akihabara. This place is considered to be an otaku cultural center and is well known for its stores that sell video games, anime, manga, and computer merchandise. Anime and manga influences are extremely noticeable in stores and cafes. “Here you can find a multitude of stores, ranging from restaurants to technology to figurines of your favorite anime,” said Yao. But he advises to be prudent with money in the district. “It is addicting [being able] to purchase everything you want.”
The next day, everyone visited the outer area of the Tsukiji fish market. The market is the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. The inner area has restricted access, because that is where all the purchasing takes place, but the outer part has many food stands, restaurants, and supply stores. “Unfortunately, on the day we went, the inside area with all the fish and sea animals on display was closed. Also, we only got 30 minutes to look around, so everyone wanted more time.” Sadly, this iconic market is being moved in fall of 2018 to the Toyosu waterfront area, so if you want to visit, a great time to do it is this summer.
The next stop was Shibuya, a ward of Tokyo which is home to the two busiest railway stations in the world, Northside’s students met the dog Hachiko in statue form. Penados was not content with the amount of time there, either. “At the Shibuya crossing, which is the world's biggest intersection with a shopping district to boot, we only got 15 minutes to look around. That is a laughable amount of time, in my opinion. I wish we could have had at least an hour to look around and shop.” From there, the travelers went to Harajuku, an area famous for fashion, saw the Tokyo Metropolitan Office, where there are massive observation decks, and were then met by their host families who they would be staying with a day later. The next day the schedule was more relaxed: a trip to the Ajinomoto Company food factory which was followed by checking out Oizumi High School.
On Friday, everyone left for Nikko. On the way, they stopped at the Tomihiro Art Museum for an hour to see some beautiful paintings. Nikko is an United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, and the location of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s tomb. Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan for over 200 years--from 1600 to 1868. He was posthumously enshrined at Nikko. He is the last of the three aforementioned “great unifiers of Japan,” along with Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Nikko is home to Nikkō Tōshō-gū, the shrine dedicated to Ieyasu, and has 42 structures considered to be part of the World Heritage site. The whole city where it is located is known for its beauty, especially in the fall. Several hours later, the group returned to Oizumi to head their own ways with their host families.
The next day was spent entirely with host families. “Another highlight was doing activities with my host family because they were such nice people and accepted me like I was their own family. One of the best moments with them was when we visited a nearby river to watch the Sakura blossoms in full bloom. It was a quite a surreal moment--everything around me was so beautiful,” said Penados. Ten days after they originally set off across the ocean, the students finally returned to the United States after a packed trip full of incredible destinations and experiences likely to never be forgotten.
The journey impacted all of the participating students. “I don't remember having a single negative experience while in Japan,” said Penados. “It is always good to come to Japan, or any other country you are visiting, with no expectations. It is always good to keep an open mind to better understand and absorb the culture.” Yao expressed similar thoughts. “If I did not cover it already, Japan is an amazing place. I do not know if it is just because I enjoyed a change of scenery after 17 years in Chicago, but even so, it was different in a good way. If you have any doubts about traveling to Japan, or anywhere for that matter, just throw it away. Going to new places can be refreshing and a huge learning experience. If you do not like where you went, do not go back, simple as that. I doubt Japan will have that effect, though.”
Upper level Japanese students have higher priority, but it is still not impossible for the first year students to go on the trip. “I was one of the two Japanese I students who attended the trip,” said Yao, giving special thanks to Park-Sensei. “I wanted to go because a lot of my friends were going and I knew it was going to be a trip to remember with these guys. Forging a memory with a bunch of my friends was the greatest reason to travel.” Even with minimal experience in the Japanese language, it is still possible to have an awesome trip. Most Japanese citizens have some knowledge of English because it is taught at school. According to Yao, the hardest part for him was communicating in Japanese, especially as a Japanese I student. “I usually stuck with fewer than ten words and one word answers.” Earl, however, believes the activity-packed schedule was the roughest part of the trip. “By the end of the day you'll absolutely have little energy left, so if you are planning on going somewhere after getting back to the hostel, or pulling an all nighter, that will be really hard. Most of the time I passed out by 10 p.m.”
However, the exhaustion and language barriers were little compared to the experiences gained. Both Penados and Yao expressed interest in traveling to Japan again in the future, and highly recommended the trip for other students. “If anything, going with friends will always make it easier and just more fun than by yourself.”