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I’m currently interning at Oxford right now and I have a better camera too! It won’t be updated as frequently but the pictures will be a lot nicer :D 

A Year Later: General Advice and Tips from a Tsuru Alum

ひさしぶり!So Chandler and I finally decided to update our blogs with all the useful information that we forgot to mention initially. For people who are going abroad this fall or are even thinking about Tsuru, feel free to ask me any questions you might have in the comments section. 

Why go to Tsuru?

Tsuru seemed like an intimidating choice at first because it was in the middle of nowhere and barely anybody outside of that area knows about the school. When I initially told my Japanese friends I was going there they were surprised because it’s not a typical study abroad destination like ICU in Tokyo and Doshisha in Kyoto. However, I think that was the best part about this place! The 9 of us were the only American exchange students there along with a few from Korea and China. Because there were so few of us, we got taken care of really well by the staff who were always willing to help us whenever anything went wrong. The small school environment made it really easy to make friends and meet people because everyone seemed to know everyone. The classes were also super small because we were broken up into A and B level classes of 4-5 people each depending on ability. We also got to participate in town events and become part of the community that we lived in.

Being in the countryside also made everything much more affordable than it would’ve been if we lived in Tokyo. A bowl of ramen cost around 400 yen and my grocery bill came out to around 2500 ($25) a week. The only thing that was pricey was the train line that we lived on so going to Fuji was about $10 round trip and Tokyo was about $35 roundtrip if you didn’t take the express car.  Luckily we made a lot of friends and had host parents who would drive us around to see all the main attractions. 

Tsuru was really the best because it not only helped all of us get really good at Japanese, but it helped us make close connections with the teachers, staff, students, and community members as well. There’s also an internship program at a local elementary school if you’re planning on applying for JET as well. 

Travel Logistics

I think we got accepted through UCEAP around mid-late February and started our visa process in March. It wasn’t until June until we got our documents but they always come on time so don’t worry too much about it. I booked my flight in May after school ended through JTB which is a Japanese travel agency. They have a small student discount as well. At the time of booking, Delta offered 2 free bags so I went with them but about a month after I booked they stopped that offer so I would recommend an airline like Korean or Malaysian that allows for 2 free bags. Also I would would recommend booking round trip because I made the mistake of making two separate flights and it came out really expensive. 

If you’re confident traveling around by yourself I would suggest booking up to a week earlier than the program starts to enjoy what Japan has to offer in the summer. Don’t book earlier because the papers required for your visa might not come in on time but once you get them, the Japanese consulate is great at keeping everything to schedule. I spent a few days with friends and traveled around Tokyo and Yokohama in the days before the program started. 

Even if you’re not confident traveling alone, book at least a week after the program ends. I had reasons that I needed to come home early but I would’ve stayed much longer if I could’ve. The school doesn’t kick you out of housing until around December 24th and you’re allowed to stay there for about $20 a night. Definitely use that time to travel with your friends even if it’s only a day trip to Hokkaido! The office staff is glad to help with any travel logistics and issues you might have. 

From the airport take the NEX train and get a suica card. I think you need to reserve seats for the NEX train so make sure you do that. It takes you straight into Tokyo and from there take the Chuo line to get to the hotel. 


What to Bring with You

I was sure to choose an airline with 2 free bags so I packed each about 3/4 of the way full with both winter and summer clothes. It’s in the 100’s and humid when you get there and it’ll be almost snowing when you leave so make sure you have every type of clothing (without bringing too much of course). Also don’t for get to bring omiyage or gifts for your host family, tutors, and staff. It’s a big thing in Japan to give gifts and you don’t want to be that one guy who forgot to bring stuff for his host family. 

Make sure you come with bags that are half empty (after omiyage) because you will want to bring so much stuff back with you. One of us brought back a 175 lb suitcase and somehow didn’t get charged extra for it. Some people weren’t as lucky and got charged extra.

Another thing I’d suggest bringing is American toothpaste because the Japanese one is pretty weak but all other toiletries and what not are good (and sometimes better) to buy there. Also bring at least a month’s worth of cash with you. Japan is a super safe country so don’t worry about getting robbed. It took us almost a month to make a bank account so we could wire money to it, and many people were strapped for cash within the first few weeks after buying phones and what not. Not all Japanese ATM machines accept American debit cards. Only the one at the post office worked for most people. 

What to do in Tsuru

When you first get there on the bus, there’s a feeling of ‘omg there’s nothing here what did I get myself into’. However if you’re willing to explore and walk around a lot, there’s a lot of cool hidden things scattered around the town. My favorite during the summer was going to the river behind the Yamuramachi train station. The water is freezing because it comes from Fuji but it’s the best thing on a super hot summer day. The takoyaki stand nearby is pretty good too and we became friends with the owner. I also liked following the walking maps posted around town and this led to some pretty cool discoveries like hidden waterfalls, temples, and shrines and were scattered along the river. A fun place to explore is the area towards the Higashikatsura station which is totally walkable from the apartments. There are so many neat little shrines in that area. 

Foodwise, the ramen shop across the street from the entrance of campus is run by this super sweet couple who always gave us discounts. I still have cravings for their miso ramen and I get really sad that I can’t find anything close to it in Berkeley. Everyone will also tell you about an udon store called Ishii which is in a little shopping center nearby school. It’s super cheap handmade udon and so delicious. You have to write your order down on a slip of paper and give it to the counter. I also crave this often. The school cafeteria is pretty good as well and really cheap. As far as groceries, I preferred Okajima over Ogino for selection but Ogino was definitely more convenient. There’s also a place about 10-15 min south of the apartments called Genki and their food is so cheap it seems somewhat sketchy. 

If you want to take the train or convince a friend to drive you, there’s the Fuji Q Highland theme park which is like the Japanese Six Flags. The area around it too has a really nice hotel, shopping areas, and restaurants as well. There’s also Kawaguchiko where there’s a fireworks festival in the summer and has some of the best views of Mt. Fuji. I was lucky enough to have a host family and friends that took me all around that area. 

If you’re into hiking you can read my post on Fuji. We also climbed Mitsutoge which is a mountain closer to Tsuru and attempted hiking behind the school but ended up failing and trailblazing up the mountain. Tsuru is just an awesome place to see nature in general. The mountains turn red in the fall and it was the one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. 

Also Tokyo isn’t too far away so we went there pretty often. I’m sure some other guide can tell you more about what there is to do in Tokyo but I really liked going to places like Odaiba and random cafes I read about on the internet. If you scroll through my posts you’ll see I did a lot of really random things there. I’ve been a few times before so I didn’t have much interest in the big touristy spots. 

Make the most out of every day. Five months seems like a long time at first but it’s really not. Enjoy the adventure!

Fuji a Year Later

Fuji a Year Later

One of the most visited pages on my site is the one I did of Fuji and looking back on it a year later I don’t think my post gave it justice. As the climbing season opens up once again, here’s my full Fuji account and I hope it gives some laughs as well as prepares those who are ready to take the challenge.

We started off on our two day expedition of Mt. Fuji last evening and came back this afternoon. The original idea was to start climbing by 6 and be able to see sunrise at the summit before the hoards of Japanese tour groups rushed in. This was not as easy as we expected it to be. For a list of what I packed see Day 16. Spoiler alert: it was not enough.

We took the bus to the 5th station from Fujisan Station and waited for an hour to acclimate. This is also the last place where there is a free bathroom and where things are still somewhat affordable. I highly recommend using the bathroom and stocking up on 100 yen coins while you’re at it because you need to pay around 300 yen to use the bathrooms on the mountain which are not conventional toilets because of the need to save water. Also stock up on as much food, water, and oxygen (if you tend to get altitude sickness) as you think you’ll need because everything on the mountain is expensive and it’s going to be a really really long night.

The hike starts at the opposite end of the station from the entrance near the horses. We started around 6:30 at night to give us enough time to see sunrise (6hrs is the average time it takes to climb with no rests). It’s pretty smooth sailing for the average person from the 5th-6th stations with a lot of it being flat and with a nice downward slope. At this point, I was pretty confident and didn’t understand why people said this was so hard. There was lots of excited photo taking, laughing, and talking story. I quickly learned why only a fool climbs it twice once I got to the 6th station.

From the 6th station onwards the only way to go is up. And it’s not like a nice steady incline, it’s like a bunch of gravelly switchbacks that make you slide down an inch for every step you take. It’s like walking up a super steep and slippery hill that doesn’t end. The first rest huts that marked the 7th station were a wonderful sight to see, but when you look at the map, you’re reminded that there’s a long long ways to go.
After the 7th station things start to get rocky. The gravel turns into rocks and I partially bear crawled up this portion because my group decided to take the fastest and steepest route to bypass all the tour groups who were trekking up the mountain in packs. There were grandmas and grandpas in those groups too. I really hope that I’ll be as cool as them when I’m their age. There’s basically no respite from the steepness. It just gets steeper, or so it seemed that way. There are actually two 8th stations and this is also where most of the overnight huts are where most people spend a few hours sleeping before sunrise. But alas we are cheap and stupid so we decided to attempt sleeping outside.

When we got to the second 8th station around 9:00 we were stopped by a man who said to wait there because the top was much colder and that nothing was open for business at the summit until 3:30 AM. So the three of us waited for the remaining six to catch up. During this period of time we tried to sleep but it was way too cold and miserable. I guess it was warmer than the top but I was too cold to even care. We met a 75 year old man who said that he’d been climbing Fuji every year since he was 20 (the age I was at the time). He gave me newspaper because he said it would keep me warm if I put in in my jacket (I think it helped?) and told us about how he climbed in the snow a few times too. After 3 hours of waiting one person showed up. We waited a little bit longer to give him some rest time then decided to head to the summit at around 12:30 when we started to see the little lights coming up the mountain.

The last push to the top warmed us up but seemed to take forever. It was more of the same rocky climbing and even though it said there was only a few hundred meters left it seemed to take forever. The 9th station is just a shrine-like thing and not a rest house so don’t depend on it for much of a rest spot. The end is a few hundred meters after that when you see a big white torii (gate). There are a bunch of smaller ones as you approach the top but the big one means that the trek is finally over.

We got to the top around 1:30 and there was nobody there so we grabbed a spot on a bench to secure good viewing for the sunrise. Then the cold set in. It was around 2 degrees Celsius (approximately 35 F) and we were not prepared. If you saw my packing list, two pairs of leggings, a fleece, and a windbreaker were nowhere near sufficient for the cold we experienced. We were lucky it wasn’t raining though because my friend who climbed it a few weeks back said he had to huddle in the bathroom all night just to stay decently warm. Around 3:30 the huts at the top open but most open only to tour groups. I was with a Japanese friend so we pretended to be part of one of those groups just to get some warmth. We got to sit down for a few minutes and left right as they started counting people. Later we went to another hut and I bought a 400 yen can of corn soup. It was the best decision ever and I basically sat in the hut using it as my own personal warmer for a good 45 minutes. You can even buy beer and sake up there if you’re in the mood to get drunk all the way up at 3770 meters. There’s even a post office, souvenir shop, and set of vending machines up there too.

The sun rose around 4:30 and it was the most beautiful sight after a very very long night of climbing. We couldn’t have picked a better day to go though because there was no rain and Fuji was clear from fog. The only thing that could’ve been better was that we weren’t able to see the sunrise clearly. After getting to the top, you can hike around the caldera too but we were way to exhausted to make the trek to the very very top. The other group was much slower than us and made us wait at the top freezing until 6:00. Not all of them made it either so be forewarned if you’re not a very good hiker or have medical issues. You don’t want to spend the entire night hiking to not make it at the end.

The road down is a dusty dirt path similar to the one from the 6th-7th station. I basically slid down the entire way dragging my feet so I didn’t topple down the mountain and fall. It’s basically a series of switchbacks and go down the entire mountain and make sure you read the signs because you don’t want to end up in Shizuoka if you started climbing from Yamanashi. Once you reach the 6th station, the paths meet again and you can ride one of those horses back to the 5th station for some really expensive fee. Remember that downward slope I mentioned at the beginning? Now you have to go back up it to get to 5th station. It took us about 3 hours to slide down the mountain with minimal rest and we made it back to 5th station in once piece. We ended up waiting a few more hours for the rest of the group to catch up because some of them had decided to fall asleep on the trail coming back down. There’s a shop selling Fuji shaped melon pan in one of the stores at 5th station. Remember to ask for the HOT ones because we got cold ones and they were so disappointing T__T.

If I were to do this again (which I don’t think I will) I would bring wayy more clothes, start a bit later, bring an emergency blanket, and purchase a walking stick because I ended up bear crawling half my way up the mountain and sliding down it.

Other than those set backs, the view was awesome and it’s truly something you should see once in your life. Looking back on this experience almost a year later, I think it’s one of those things that my friends and I will always talk about even though it sucked so much in the process. It may seem difficult at the time but trust me it was worth all the memories and the laughs that resulted from this two day long trek.

One Second Video

Here’s a collection of one second clips taken everyday throughout my five months in Japan. I first did a one second video project with my internship at KYA this past summer and I decided to continue it on the trip. Five months of sights and sounds are condensed into three minutes. Enjoy!

Thank you to everyone who has made this past semester so memorable! I miss you all!!

Day 140: アロハ Japan!

Day 140: アロハ Japan!

I came home from Japan on Tuesday 12/17. We got breakfast in Sapporo station and flew back around noon. Luckily for me nothing was delayed or canceled because I would’ve missed my flight. My friends and I went to Shibuya for one last lunch together at a kaitenzushi place. It wasn’t as cheap as Kappa Sushi in Fuji Yoshida but it was still much cheaper and more delicious than the kaitenzushi places in the US.

After we walked around to get some last minute omiyage and while my friends left for their next destinations, I took the train to Tokyo station to catch the NEX train to Narita (around 3000Y due to reserved seats). There, I found all the Kit Kats including the green tea ones. My bags were also already at the airpot and waiting to be picked up. I flew back on Korean Air and luckily got my two bags for free. The carryon security also thoroughly searched my bag for my dangerous hanko😛

I made it back to Oahu around 9AM and gained a whlole day back. Fyi I’ve been eating nothing but Japanese food for the past few days.

Thank you to everyone who’s come on my Japan journey through reading my blog. I hope it was entertaining and educational. I hope I’ll be able to come back again someday as a JET teacher but until then it’s back to Berkeley. Sometime later I’ll post a guide for students coming to Tsuru so if anyone has things they want to know feel free to comment! Until then またね〜

Day 139: Sapporo

Day 139: Sapporo

Thanks to Maeda-san we actually made it to Hokkaido!! ありがとうございました!!We took one of the first flights out of Haneda at 6:55 AM and made it to the city center around ten. It was snowing lightly when we arrived but it was obvious that it snowed a lot the night before. After dropping our bags off at the hotel we went to the fish market and got kaisen dons. The uni was the sweetest, creamiest uni I’d ever had in my life. It was SO delicious.

After we went shopping around the city for omiyage and found the same clothes store I got my sophomore banquet dress five years ago. We also played around in the snow in the central park. We came to Hokkaido mainly for snow but it apparently started snowing in Tsuru right after I got home. T__T

After we went to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory and got sundaes. Mines had coffee jelly i it, so good!! There’s also a toy museum full of really creepy old toys.

From there, we went back to Sapporo Station to do more shopping and visit the Poke’mon center. I didn’t buy anything but there were Poke’mon hanafuda cards that I kind of wanted. There was also purikura on the same floor so we dragged the guys to take pictures with us.

We dropped off our purchases at the hotel and went to a ramen restaurant in Ramen Yokocho (ramen alley) recommended by my tutor. I got spicy miso ramen, so good! From Susukino, we walked back up to Odori Park to go see the Sapporo winter illuminations. A few blocks of the park were covered in lights and it was so pretty!.

Day 138: Bye Tsuru!

Day 138: Bye Tsuru!

This Sunday was my last day in the inaka. Since some of us were going to Hokkaido on Monday first thing in the morning, we needed to stay over in Tokyo the night before in order to make our plane.

I actually forgot my knee brace at the rock climbing gym in Fuji Yoshida last week so I went on the train before they opened to get it. I felt so stupid for forgetting it, but I was able to get one last awesome picture of Fuji.

My room was already packed up so I went out to lunch with some of the tutors and the remaining UC students. We went to say goodbye to our friend at the ramen shop and I got my last discounted miso ramen.

We got back to our apartments and ended up missing the train we wanted to catch. Luckily, one of our friends drove us to Otsuki so we could catch our train and mentioned that he was planning to come visit us in America!

We took the train all the way into Tokyo and stayed over in a hostel in the Asakusa part of the city. It was my first time staying in a hostel but luckily we got our own private room. It kind of reminded me of my freshman year dorm room…

In Asakusa, we had soba for dinner, walked around a bit, and headed to the Tokyo Sky Tree shopping center. There were some illuminations there as well as Christmas themed food stalls. On our way back we got super lost and had to go to the Koban for help like how they taught us at orientation. We eventually did find our way back and walked on the banks of the Sumida River.

Day 137: Packing and Good Byes

Day 137: Packing and Good Byes

I haven’t had time until now to finish my blog so apologies for the late posts. This picture was the last group picture that had everyone in it. My friends had polaroids so we all have a copy. You can’t really see peoples’ faces because the sun was too bright but I really like it! The building in the back is the apartment building that we lived in. After pictures, we said goodbye to two of the UC students as our JET friends drove them to Otsuki Station.

After I had nothing left to do but pack so I somehow fit all my belongings that I didn’t want to leave behind into my two suitcases. I have no idea how anyone could travel here for five months with only one suitcase but some people apparently did. Luckily I was able to stuff everything away. My tutor helped me to tetris all the furniture into the closet under my bed and left me with a bare room. The Takkyubin came to pick up my bags a little later. It was a big relief to know I didn’t have to carry two fifty pound bags everywhere from there. At first I thought that I packed a lot but my friend’s bag weighed somewhere around 85lbs! I somehow slid by at the airport without paying extra for weight.

That evening, our JET friends wanted to hang out one last time with us so we went to the Italian restaurant that we had our other JET info session at. I had my favorite mentaiko pasta one last time D:

Since there was a meteor shower scheduled for 10 that night, they took us to their favorite coffee shop on the other side of the river called Natural Rhythm. It was probably the most hipster coffee shop you’ve ever seen. It was built by the river but only open past 8PM for some reason. The decorations were eclectic and there was a goat sleeping outside. I got the chai (600Y) and the guy grounded up each of the spices by hand in a tiny motar and pestle and boiled the tea right in front of us. It was finished off with a whipped cream that tasted more like warm ice cream. Best chai ever!

After that we picked up my tutor and went to go see the meteor shower. The JET guys took us to the secluded part of town they live in and drove up a hill. We stood on an unused road looking towards Tokyo and watched stars fall. Needless to say it was an awesome last night in Tsuru.

Day 136: Final Speeches and Farewell Party

Day 136: Final Speeches and Farewell Party

Friday was our last day of classes and the official end of the program. It started off with a grammar final that was basically a copy of the homework. For our last class we had politics and it was probably the weirdest most terrible class ever. The teacher took our essays and read them out loud in front of the class then graded them on the spot. Ugh…

Anyway we had our final speech after that where we talked about our experiences at Tsuru and what we learned over the past five months. This semester was really too short. I usually am super excited to go home after a semester at Cal but this time I’m dreading it. I would totally study abroad again if I could graduate in four years but that seems impossible.

After was the farewell party where I said goodbye to my host family ): We all had to give short speeches thanking everyone and our host families talked about us too. After the tutors played a slideshow they made for us comprising of pictures from the past five months. They also gave us boards signed by all the tutors and teachers. I’m so glad I had such an awesome tutor and host family! I’ll definitely be back to see them again.

That evening we had a final nomikai with all the friends we’ve made over the past few months. It was a great last memory with everyone all together for one last time.

I think the difference between here and Cal is that everyone is so much more friendly. At Berkeley, everyone’s too busy studying to hang out and moment’s notice, but here we had spontaneous parties, random outings, and hang out with everyone in the lounge everyday. I guess that’s what I thought college would be more like when I first started. I’m so glad that I’ve was able to have this experience and make such close friends. It’ll be really sad when I get back to Cal but hopefully I can become a Cal Partner and be the one planning outings and everything. However, studying will probably take up most of my time x__x

Day 135: ESS Farewell Party

Day 135: ESS Farewell Party

The English speaking club that I’ve been going to for the past few months threw us a going away party. This past week has been so sad it’s ridiculous D: It’s so easy to form close lasting relationships with friends here. The UC students all sat at different tables but all conversations were in Japanese this time. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to go more. ESS was the one circle I joined and I’m glad I did.

We played a bunch of games and talked story. One of the games was BINGO where we played for cake! Besides the party I think I spent most of this day preparing for our final speech and tests and what not. Not very exciting haha.