During the past week my program, IES Shanghai, held its annual “Spring Break” trip, and this year the chosen location was Tokyo, Japan. Before coming to Japan, I had no idea what to expect culturally (except for a bit of quirkiness and a LOT of sushi) or physically (in terms of land-features) and came in as a metaphorical blank slate. Looking back at all of the experiences I had in Japan has made me realize that Japan is an incredibly rich and unique place both culturally and physically. Japanese society is incredibly orderly, polite (they make Canadians look impolite!), and deeply rooted in a unique group-benefit collectivism which I have never before seen. Below you can find three vignettes of adventures I had during my trip which can give you a glimpse into the unique place which is the land of the rising sun: Japan.
On the fourth day of my trip, a few of my program-mates and I decided to take the relatively short train ride to Yokohama, Japan to catch a Japanese Major League Baseball game. I was incredibly stoked to see the game as I had been longing to attend a Western-style sporting event ever since I had arrived in Asia in late February. As a lifelong baseball fan (go Minnesota Twins!), the Yokohama BayStars Vs. Yomiuri Giants matchup piqued my interest and I was incredibly excited to see how the Japanese Major League compared to the American MLB. After attending the game I can say with the utmost confidence; Japanese baseball is a weird phenomenon in the way that it, in many regards, is simultaneously infinitely better and worse than American baseball.
Overall, the Japanese equivalent of the American MLB has players whose skill level resembles those on a AAA team in the United States (the level below the MLB) and the stadiums are dead-ringers for AAA stadiums (for a visual example Google search Principal Park in Des Moines); therefore, the level of play and facilities are easily outdone by the American Major League. However, despite its lack of world-class stadiums and ultra high-skill players, in my opinion, watching Japanese baseball actually presents a much more complete and fun experience than its American counterpart. The first reason I would prefer to go to a Japanese MLB game over an American MLB game is simple; the tickets are very cheap (at most $15 USD) and you can bring nearly anything (food, drinks, etc) into the stadium. Halfway through the game my friends and I became very hungry so we left the stadium, bought cheap Japanese street food and drinks outside, and were able to return to the stadium, food in hand, without any questions asked; a novel situation that would NEVER happen in America!
The next reason I really enjoy Japanese baseball stems from the fact that the fans were VERY excited to see Westerners cheering on their team and we were greeted with open arms. Upon arrival we were seated in the Yomiuri Giants section and excitedly cheered the team on (However, a Google search the next day revealed the Giants were roughly the Japanese equivalent of the New York Yankees. The aforementioned realization made me feel very conflicted about my allegiance to the Giants; in America I live and die with my small-market Minnesota teams). During the game our group of Westerners was circled by TV cameras every third inning or so, leading me to believe that we were on Japanese TV multiple times; something that would most definitely not happen at a crowded American MLB game.
My final reason for preferring the Japanese MLB represents the main difference between American and Japanese baseball; the fans’ collective enthusiasm! In America, generally speaking, baseball fans get excited and cheer only when there is a hit, a run is scored, or there is a pitching change. The rest of the game is mired in an awkward silence. In Japan, the situation is very dissimilar; at nearly every moment of the game either the home or away fans are doing an incredible cheer (led by the team-hired cheerleaders in the stands!), music is being played by the team-sponsored band in the stands, or simultaneous cheering breaks out! The best way I can describe the feel of the crowd is similar to what I would imagine a foreign soccer game being like; the atmosphere is electric for three straight hours! For example, when the Giants scored the only runs of the game (on a three-run home run) the fans around us cheered for about ten straight minutes and waved any Giants gear which they had brought to the game (which included pennants, hats, towels, thunder-sticks, etc). After having such a fun experience in Japan, I believe that it will be hard for me to get used to the relatively tame nature of the American MLB games!
Hakone Hot Springs Resort
The following day of my trip, the same program-mates I watched the baseball game with and I decided to take the long-ish train ride to the Japanese mountain resort town of Hakone in order to view Mt. Fuji and afterwards visit one of the town’s famous hot springs resorts. However, once we arrived in Hakone we were presented with heart-breaking news, due to the foggy weather, Mt. Fuji was not able to be seen from any of the normal viewing points. After quick discussion, we decided to make the best of the situation and ate lunch at a Western-style restaurant (I got a burger, which was definitely not something I expected to find in Japan!). Following lunch we took a bus to the spa-area of Hakone and ordered an unlimited-time spa experience for a mere $12 USD.
However there was a catch, Japanese spas (unlike spas in America) REQUIRE that you are completely naked during the time that you are in the spa; such information came as a surprise to our collective Western sensibilities. Since we really wanted to make the best of our trip we decided that, despite our confusion/discomfort regarding the nudity policy, we would still go to the spa. The aforementioned decision turned out to be one of the best ones we made during our entire Japan trip! The spa was one of the most amazing and relaxing experiences that I have ever had the pleasure to partake in. The spa had eight hot tubs of varying temperatures (two personal and six group tubs) all of which were located in the beautiful mountainside wilderness. My favorite tub was a long and rectangular granite bath at the edge of the resort which was entirely surrounded by trees and had a fantastic view overlooking the valley below.
Aside from the tubs, the resort also had a sauna, in which I had the physically hottest experience of my life so far. At approximately 4:30pm a Japanese man carrying a fan and large bucket of water called all of the spa attendees to the sauna (I had no idea what he was saying though). Inside of the sauna he spoke loudly in Japanese and began pouring water on the coals inside of the sauna, and as he did so the temperature began to rise quickly! As the temperature rose, the sadistic fan-man offered to fan 85°C air directly into each of the spa-goers faces (In an unrelated vein, I honestly wonder how the spa hires fan-men; what credentials make someone exceptionally qualified to torture people with hot air???). When my turn arrived I reluctantly accepted his offer and immediately felt the same feel that you have in your mouth when eating a spicy pepper; except that feel was extended to the entirety of my being! After twelve agonizing minutes I stumbled out of the sauna and felt extremely appreciative of the fresh and cool mountain air. Following the entirely of the spa experience, I felt light as a feather and if I didn’t have a care in the world; I would highly recommend going to a Japanese spa if you ever happen to be travelling through the land of the rising sun.
After experiencing the absolute relaxing bliss that was Hakone, my program-mates and I headed back to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo to experience one of the absolute hallmarks of Japanese cuisine, conveyor belt sushi. Having never previously experienced this type of restaurant I imagined the restaurant would comprise of a conveyor belt protruding from a walled back room in a semi-circle fashion on which unlabeled pieces of sushi travelled as if they were on one of Tokyo’s loop subway lines. However, I was slightly incorrect; upon entering the restaurant I was presented with a square conveyor belt, within which three men rapidly assembled, labeled, and placed sushi on according-cost plates (for example a white plate = 100 yen) and which hungry patrons sat in chairs around. Having only eaten the burger at Hakone that day, I planned on absolutely dominating the conveyor belt sushi by eating as much as possible.
And dominate I did…I channeled the spirit of the great Japanese eating legend, Takeru Kobayashi, and after the metaphorical dust had cleared I had eaten 31 (yes 31!) pieces of high-quality sushi which left me feeling as I if I had a 5lb child growing in my stomach and led me to waddle back to the subway station. However, despite the insane quantity of sushi I devoured it cost me approximately $9 USD (or a mere $0.3 USD per piece!), and therefore I am shocked that I have never seen this type of restaurant in America as it combines three things Americans deeply love about food; sushi, cheap cost, and massive quantity.
In closing my trip to Japan was an amazing experience which I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in. The above adventures constitute just a small sample of the life-changing experiences which I was able to enjoy during my Japan trip! However, after all is said and done it is nice to finally be back in my “home” in China.
Until next time…adventures await,
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<div>My Name is Adam Dalton and I am currently a junior at Grinnell College majoring in Economics and Chinese Studies. I am originally from Mason City, IA and will be studying abroad in Shanghai with IES Shanghai next semester. Aside from academics, my interests including playing guitar, enjoying the great outdoors and running (I am a member of Grinnell's T&F and XC teams). </div>