My study abroad program CIEE follows the Japanese school year. This means that we exchange students entered the university at the same time as the freshmen did, which also meant that we were able to share in their orientation week activities, including their club fair, and that I continued to feel a bit like I was a freshman again myself.
Joining a club in Japan is a much stricter affair than back in the States. Clubs are divided into two groups—bukatsudō (部活動) and circles (サークル). Both demand an attendance commitment to the group and often hold multiple meetings per week, with the bukatsudō being more stringent than the circles. Keeping this in mind, I dove into the jam-packed campus on the first day of the job fair. I immediately had flyers foisted upon me from all directions, and as I barely discerned the club representatives’ pitches over the din of shouted advertisements in both Japanese and English, I decided to base my decision off of the initial newcomers’ meetings.
By the day of the club fair, my program’s two-week-long orientation had finally come to a close, with the grand finale being a group trip to the historic city of Kamakura, the birthplace of samurai, located about an hour-and-a-half south of Tokyo. Groups of seven abroad students were assigned local tour guides, who led us along a predetermined route. My group’s guide, an older lady who spoke in halting English, had an enthusiastic yet grandmotherly attitude, and walked with a limp from a recent injury as she took us to a raised unpaved pathway in the center of the city. Apparently we had just missed the area at its most beautiful, when all of the trees lining the side of the path were covered in sakura blossoms.
We passed under the large red gate for purification, a torii, and were on our way. As we progressed, the path narrowed—an ancient defensive mechanism against belligerent forces. My group shuffled into single file, slowing down for our guide.
At the end of the pathway, we crossed the road before coming to three stone bridges. The curved center bridge was historically reserved solely for the shogun, while all other passerby had to use the flat ones at the bridge’s left and right. After traversing a wide pathway lined with booths selling various fruit-based sweets, we arrived at a large Shintō shrine. The shrine had a great stone stairway with 100 steps; our guide waved us ahead to join with another group, as her ankle held her back from partaking in this particular section of the tour.
At lunchtime, our groups reconvened at a restaurant near the train station, where preordered meals awaited us. After the meal, we were released for a short shopping break. Having just eaten, I was still not dissuaded from sampling some of the local specialties, such as a sweet purple potato ice cream and a croquette of the same flavor. While weaving through the crowd in the shopping district in a rush to catch up with my group, I noticed that many students wore middle school uniforms. It seemed like Kamakura was a popular location for not only foreign tourists, but also for school outings.
From the main train station, we took a local train line to an area of Kamakura closer to the seashore. Here, we wound through backroads, crisscrossing the railroad tracks and making our way through a residential area that felt peaceful compared to the background noise-filled Tokyo. We arrived at Kotokuin Temple, within which we saw a tremendously large Buddha statue built in the 1200s and measuring nearly 44 feet high. Tourists were all around, using typical camera tricks to pretend that they held the giant Buddha between their fingers or within the palm of their hand (at my guide’s urging, I had her take one of me, as well). For a 10 yen fee, we were allowed to walk inside the hollow statue. After just a few seconds climbing a dark stairway, we were on the inside, which was brightly lit from the sunshine coming through two squares of the giant Buddha’s back propped open to serve as windows.
Our next stop—the Hase-dera Buddhist temple—was but a short walk away. Home to a giant wooden statue and a beautiful view of the Kamakura Bay, the temple also featured a quite somber area filled with small statues that my guide explained were placed there for the protection of children who died prematurely.
The tour ended at the train station, where it had begun. My group thanked our guide, who urged us to return on Sunday for a festival that would display Edo-Period-style mounted archery and other such historical delights. We had free reign to stay or return to Tokyo as we pleased, so I opted to linger a while with two friends. We struck up a conversation with a fellow manning a small taiyaki stand selling miniature versions of the sweet fish-shaped, pancake-like, filling-stuffed treats. The traditional filling is sweet red bean paste, but the stand had a much greater variety, of which we purchased a sampling.
Although I am a Japanese major, the department’s focus on literature rather than culture meant that I had yet to take a single class on Japanese history. I appreciated the chance to have this experience in person rather than from a textbook, and hope to seek out more places to explore, perhaps on unguided wandering with friends or even on solo ventures.