Japanese Mythology: Cosmogony

Japan’s oldest historical record, the Kojiki (古事記; Records of Ancient Matters, 712 CE), and the second oldest book of Japanese history, the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀; The Chronicles of Japan, 720 CE) are both full of Shinto (the polytheistic religion native to Japan) myths and legends. This includes cosmogony, or the creation story of the world and the universe. Some of the figures in the creation myth are rarely mentioned since the books were written, but some play important roles in other Japanese legends and Shintoism.

While Japanese people don’t believe this anymore, the creation story is a good place to start if you’re interested in Japanese mythology and how it impacts Japanese culture. I’m going to tell that story in (hopefully) plain language. The creation myth is a little different in the Kojiki compared to the Nihon Shoki, but most people go by the Kojiki version, so that’s what I’ll be using.


Like many creation myths around the world, the universe started as silent chaos. Within this chaos, particles and light started to move. Light floated up faster than the particles, so the light is above the universe. The lighter particles floated up to form the clouds of takamagahara (高天原, The Plain of High Heaven). The heavier particles couldn’t float up, so they formed a mass called Earth below heaven.

When heaven was formed, five deities, the kotoamatsukami (別天津神, The Separate Heavenly Gods) appeared. Three came into being before the last two and are known as the zouka-sanshin (造化三神, The Three Creation Gods). These five kami (神, god or deity) were hitorigami (独神, Lone God) because they appeared spontaneously (as opposed to a male-female pair, which most gods are said to come from), didn’t have a partner, and were essentially gender-less. After these kami emerged, they went into hiding.

The Zouka-sanshin
clockwise from the center: Amenominakanushi, Kamimusubi, Takamimusubi

From there emerged the kamiyo-nanayo (神世七代, The Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods). Two more hitorigami appeared, followed by five pairs of male-female kami. Also like many myths throughout the world, these pairs were husband and wife, but also brother and sister.

While there is an innumerable amout of kami now, the Japanese creation myth shows how the first 17, the 5 kotoamatsukami and the 12 kamiyo-nanayo, emerged. The last pair of the kamiyo-nanayo were Izanami (伊邪那美神, She-Who-Invites) and her brother Izanagi (伊邪那岐神, He-Who-Invites). Izanagi and Izanami are two of the most important kami and are said to be the parents of hundreds to millions of other kami.

Izanagi and Izanami were tasked by the elder kami with kuniumi (国産み, Birth of the Country). They went to ame-no-ukihashi (天浮橋, The Floating Bridge of Heaven) connected to Earth, which was still just a floating mass of water. They churned the Earth with a jeweled spear, and the water that dripped off the tip of the spear when it was lifted created the first island, Onogoro-Shima (it is not known where this island is today). Izanami and Izanagi then moved to the island and built a castle with a heavenly pillar on top of it; they circled the top of the pillar to get married, and created the ooyajima (大八洲, Eight Great Islands): Awaji Island, Shikoku, Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima Island, Sado Island, and Honshu. Other islands, like Hokkaido, and the rest of the world, were not mentioned as they were not yet known by the ancient Japanese.

Searching the Seas with the Tenkei by Kobayashi Eitaku
Izanagi and Izanami creating Japan

After kuniumi, the kamiumi (神産み, Birth of Gods) occurred. After creating the islands of Japan, Izanagi and Izanami birthed many kami, some male, some female, and some genderless. Giving birth to their last child, Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, Izanami was fatally injured. From her dying body some kami were born, and Izanagi’s tears while mourning her death birthed more kami. He then got so upset that he killed Kagutsuchi with a sword and cut him into 8 pieces, which created 8 volcanoes. Also from Kagutsuchi’s body 8 more kami were born, and his blood on the sword and surrounding rocks created another 8 kami.

According to Shinto mythology, there is a land of the dead called yomi (黄泉, literally “yellow spring”; the real meaning of yomi is unknown in Japanese, but the writing came from Daoism). Izanagi went to yomi to bring Izanami back, but found out that she had already eaten food in yomi, which makes it incredibly hard for one to leave. Izanami said that she will ask the gods of yomi if she could leave, but Izanagi would have to promise to not look at her, to which he agreed. She was taking a long time and Izanagi got worried, so he lit his comb from his hair to create some light in order to look for her. He eventually found her, but saw that her body was now a rotting corpse. He was scared, so he decided to abandon his wife and leave. Izanami was so embarrassed that her body bore eight thunder kami, and she commanded the yomotsu-shikome (黄泉丑女, female demons from yomi) to chase him.

While being chased, Izanagi threw his headress, which turned to grapes, and his comb, which turned into bamboo, making the shikome stop to eat. Izanami then sent yomi warriors and the 8 thunder kami after him, but Izanagi threw three peaches at them, so they ran away (peaches were thought to have evil-banishing magic at the time). At the slope that connects the land of the dead and the land of the living, Izanami and Izanagi met, and Izanagi lifted a huge rock and blocked the path (which is said to be in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture). Izanami yelled over the rock and said that if he leaves her she will kill 1,000 people every day, to which Izanagi replied by saying that he will ensure that 1,500 be born every day. That was the last time they saw each other, dissolving their marriage with Izanagi becoming the ruler of the living and Izanami becoming the ruler of the dead.

Izanagi and Izanami arguing through the rock

After leaving yomi, Izanagi decided to perform misogi (禊, a Shinto purification ritual) in a river to cleanse himself. Performing this ritual created 23 kami; the last step of the ritual created an additional 3 kami, known as the mihashira no uzu no mikoto (三貴子, Three Precious Children), the three most important kami in Shintoism. Amaterasu ( 天照大御神, roughly means ‘The Light of Heaven’), the female goddess of the sun, was born from the washing of Izanagi’s left eye. Tsukuyomi (月読命, roughly means ‘Reader of the Moon’), the gender-less deity of the night, was born from the washing of his right eye. Finally, Susano’o (須佐之男命, probably means ‘the man/male god from Susa’), the male god of the seas and storms, was born from the washing of his nose. This is why we wash our hands at the entrance of shrines and temples: to cleanse ourselves before entering a sacred place.


These myths explained how the universe and kami came to be, creating the basis for other Shinto stories and beliefs. The story of Izanagi and Izanami, along with stories about Amaterasu and Susano’o, are some of the most well known. I’m going to be writing about the Three Precious Children next, so stay tuned if you want to know more Japanese mythological stories!

What should I bring to JCMU?

While study abroad and traveling are incredibly exciting experiences, they come with a lot of stress. On top of worrying about flights and visas, you have to think about what to bring with you. “How am I supposed to fit everything I need in one or two suitcases?!” is a line of panic we all feel the day or two before departure.

The JCMU handbook gives some packing tips, but I’m going to go a little more in depth into what I would recommend you bring and what I think you should leave at home, based on my own experiences at JCMU.

Deodorant

The first thing you’ll hear when you look into packing for Japan is to bring your own deodorant/antiperspirant. It’s true! Unless you’re an incredibly lucky person born with a superpower that prevents you from sweating, bring your own deodorant.

Americans tend to use stick deodorant, while the majority of what you’ll find in Japan are roll on or spray type deodorants. And, according to… well, everyone I’ve ever talked to, they all assured me that Japanese deodorants don’t work as well. It’s safer to bring your own that you know works for you, especially if you’re going to Japan in the summer. In fact, if you are going in the summer, consider bringing extra! There’s no escaping the sweat during a Japanese summer.

Hair/Body Wash

For products like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and face wash, I tend to go by this rule: if there’s a brand you can’t live without, bring it; if not, buy it in Japan.

For example, I have really frizzy hair and use a particular anti-frizz shampoo, so I bring a full supply of shampoo and conditioner with me. However, in the US I tend to buy whatever body wash is on sale, so I pack a tiny travel size body wash and get more when I’m in Japan. I do the same for face wash and toothpaste; bring a little bit and buy more when I arrive. This really just comes down to personal preference, so only you will know what’s best for you.

Other Personal Care Products

If you have a period and use pads and/or tampons, I recommend packing enough for your whole trip. Pads in particular can take up quite a bit of space, but that space will be emptied up by the end of your trip. That’ll leave you with extra room for souvenirs! You can also buy pads in Japan if you’d prefer (and if you do, this guide to pads in Japan might be helpful for you), but tampons are a little harder to find.

As for items you can go a day or two without, like sunscreen, I wouldn’t pack any and just buy it when you arrive. Also, whether you pack it before leaving or buy it after arriving, I would suggest carrying hand sanitizer or hand soap in a travel container and a small towel. Most public bathrooms don’t have towels and some don’t even have soap.

Makeup

If you wear makeup, I would recommend bringing your favorites and leaving space for additions. I usually bring my most used mascara and eyeliner and buy blush and lipstick in Japan (mostly because it’s fun! Check out RatzillaCosme if you’re interested in Japanese cosmetics).

Japan has a very limited range of skin tones when it comes to makeup compared to the US, so it’s best to bring your own foundation as it might be hard to find one that matches.

Travel sized versions

Electronics

Japan uses the same type of outlet as the US does, but they only have the two-prong type. That means for most things like phone chargers you won’t need an adapter, but you will need one for things that require a third grounded prong like most laptop chargers. Japan (100 V, 50/60 Hz) runs at a different voltage and frequency than the US (120 V, 60 Hz), but you most likely won’t need a converter. Most chargers, like an iPhone charger, can accept any voltage/frequency.

The only things I ever needed to plug in were chargers and a hair dryer, and I personally never had any issues. If you’re unsure about an item, check the label. If it says something like “INPUT: 100-240V, 50/60 Hz”, it can be used in Japan.

A Japanese outlet

Shoes

I would also bring at least one pair of good, comfy shoes that can withstand longer days of walking. You’re most likely going to be moving around a lot in Japan. I ended up walking a hole into a pair of off-brand Converse I brought when I was in Japan for an academic year.

Depending on your shoe size, you might also have a hard time finding a new pair in Japan. Generally, it can hard to find sizes over U.S. men’s 9/women’s 11. I have pretty big feet for the average American woman, but I was lucky and found a replacement pair of shoes that fit me in the men’s section of Trial (a grocery store near JCMU). They definitely weren’t cute or comfortable and didn’t last me very long, though.

It would be best if your shoes are easy to slip on and off, or at least bring a pair that is. You’ll be taking them off entering the dorms, academic building, and some restaurants, izakaya, and old buildings you might go to.

Clothing

In general, Japanese sizes are smaller than those in the U.S., so I would definitely bring around 1-2 weeks’ worth of clothing that you know already fits you. You might still find clothes that fit in Japan though; I’m a bit chunkier than the average American woman and I found quite a few T-shirts that fit me fine.

Although not necessary, you may want to bring a swimsuit. You will be living on a lake and may want to take a dip at some point, especially if you’re there for the summer!

While unavoidable if you’re going to Japan in the winter, pack clothes and towels that dry quickly. Most everyone air drys their clothes, and it can take days to dry when it’s humid. There are clothes dryers at JCMU, but like other dryers I’ve used in Japan, they never quite reach completely dry, so I wouldn’t rely on them.

Towels & Bedding

Speaking of towels, I would pack one good absorbent towel, and buy another one (and a hand towel) once in Japan. For reasons mentioned above, towels in Japan are pretty thin, so, in my experience, don’t really feel like they’re absorbing any water. I use the towel I bring with me most days and use the one I buy in Japan when the other is in the wash or drying.

Fortunately, there’s one thing you definitely don’t have to bring unless you have allergies to certain materials: bedding. Your sheets and blankets are provided by JCMU, so you don’t have to worry about packing them!

Seasonal Items

One of the hardest things about packing clothes is knowing how to dress for the weather, and it really depends on what time of year you’ll be in Japan.

This can be especially difficult if you’ll be there in the winter, because bulky winter clothes takes up a lot of suitcase space. To save up space, I packed my coat but bought new gloves and a scarf in Japan when it started getting cold.

A friend and I after walking to a nearby konbini. I regretted not bringing a better coat!

On the other hand, if you’re going to Japan during the summer, you’ll be there for the rainy season. Make sure to bring good water resistant shoes, but I would buy an umbrella and rain poncho after arriving. If you’re on the heavier side, you might want to bring your own poncho, as bigger ones are harder to find in Japan. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t need a poncho, I don’t really wear them anyways,” think again: biking in the rain sucks without one.

School Supplies

I would pack a small notebook and pencil and buy anything else you’ll need after you arrive. There’s lots of stationery at the grocery stores and konbini near JCMU. Don’t worry about bringing any textbooks; they’re included in tuition and you’ll be given the books you need after class placement.

Gifts

Pack some gifts for your new friends in Japan! Small trinkets, like keychains from your hometown or home state make some of the best gifts. Then, use that space in your suitcase for gifts for your friends and family back home. Remember to be careful not to bring anything perishable or fragile, and don’t forget to buy a little something for yourself. You earned it!

Of course, don’t forget to bring your passport and money!

A Day by Yourself

You’re in Japan, great! You’re there for classes, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have time to travel. You might end up going in places in large groups, but some people don’t like the feeling of being in a parade of people. Maybe you want to enjoy the anonymity of being by yourself, or maybe you’re the only person who wants to go to Tokyo Disneyland. I know I did, and I had a great time doing it.

Traveling by yourself can be amazing, but it can be intimidating if you haven’t tried it before. Here are some tips from my own experience:

Kinkakuji – Kyoto

Make a Plan

This is true whether you are travelling by yourself or with friends, but when you go somewhere it’s a good idea to have a plan. The plan doesn’t need to be an explicit itinerary. No need to say “wake up at 8, eat at 8:30, go to the train at 9:00, museum from 9:35 to 11:15”. That being said, have an idea of what you want to do. Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, and other tourist destinations are huge, and its easy to get overwhelmed if you don’t have any ideas of what you’ll be doing.

I tended to have a vague outline of what I wanted to do. I paid extra attention to when I wanted to leave in the morning and how I was going to get to where I wanted to go. If it was an overnight trip, then I made sure I had a place to stay at. Afterwards though, I just had a list of places I wanted to see and used Google Maps to get me there.

On this note though, don’t feel too restricted by an itinerary. Sometimes, just wandering around and getting “lost” in a new area is the best way to explore your new surroundings! If you do this though, make sure you’re not actually lost – know where the train station is and how to get back to either JCMU or your lodging for the night.

I had pocket WiFi and was comfortable enough on public transportation not to worry about the smaller details of travel. You don’t need WiFi or data – using maps or planning your routes beforehand works just fine if you’re comfortable doing so. If you’re not comfortable traveling an unfamiliar area without WiFi/data, you can download maps in advance or find your way to a 7-11 to borrow their free WiFi.

Itsukushima Jinja – Miyajima, Hiroshima

Be Comfortable on a Train

The key to exploring Japan is to know your way around public transportation. You can get almost anywhere if you know how to work the trains and buses. Japan’s trains are some of the best in the world, but to the uninformed the system can be intimidating. A more detailed guide will follow, but for now just know that tickets can be bought at almost any station before you get to the platform. If you happen to buy the wrong ticket, it’s not a big deal; you can get the fare adjusted at the counter before exiting the station.

If there is one thing you need to know about trains, it would be that most stop running at night. Know when the shuuden (終電, last train) is. If you miss it you will not be coming home, and if you have class the next day you will have a rough time. You’ll need to find a place to stay, like an internet cafe, capsule hotel, or other less-than-comfortable places. Just know when the last train back home is, and be sure you’re on it.

If you don’t feel comfortable on the train, the entire trip can be stressful, so if it’s your first time, try bringing someone who knows how to work the trains with you to show you how it works.

Shirakawa-go – Gifu Prefecture

Be Safe

Maybe it’s trite, but really, the other two points were just other ways to make sure you’re safe while traveling. Going places by yourself is fun and exciting – I did it because I think there is something enticing about being in a big city or a small town where no one knows you and you have everything to yourself. But if you’re feeling uneasy at all, that fun quickly turns into misery. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Make sure a friend knows where you’re going and when you’re going to be back, and let them know if your plans change. If it’s a multi-day trip, let our Student Services Coordinator know what your itinerary is, how to best contact you during the trip, and where you will be staying – that way, they can reach you should something come up.

It goes without saying that you should minimize your personal risks as much as you can – all the more so if you’re traveling by yourself. If you start to feel like you might be in over your head, contact someone who can help you navigate it: a friend, someone who’s been in Japan for a long time, JCMU staff, and so on.

All of this might sound scary, but don’t fret: most trips end without any major bad hiccups, so don’t worry too much! Just make sure to stay safe and avoid doing things that you wouldn’t do back home.

Have fun!

There is something to be said about traveling alone. That said, don’t let this stop you from traveling with friends either. I’ve done both and each were fun in their own ways. It all depends on what you want to accomplish and what you think you’ll enjoy.

In short: be safe and have fun!

Foods of Shiga

Every place has a food that it’s known for. Michigan, for example, has Mackinac Island fudge, Traverse City cherries, and Upper Peninsula pasties. But what about Shiga?

Of course, sushi, ramen, and tempura come to mind when thinking of Japan, but each prefecture has its own meibutsu (名物; famous product, typically food). Thanks to the lake and its rich history, Shiga is full of tasty meibutsu for you to try next time you’re visiting!

Ōmi Beef

You’ve probably heard of Kōbe beef, the famously delicious beef from the Japanese Black Cattle in Hyōgo. But did you know it’s only one part of three famous Japanese beefs, all from the Kansai region? The 三大和牛 (sandai-wagyū; the three big beefs) also includes Matsusaka Beef (松阪牛; matsusaka-ushi) from Mie and Ōmi beef (近江ビーフ, ōmi-biifu) from Shiga!

Thinly sliced Ōmi-gyū
Thinly sliced Ōmi-gyū

Ōmi Province (近江国; ōmi no kuni), or just Ōmi, is the old name for Shiga Prefecture, and this is where the name of the beef originated. With over 400 years of history, it is said that Ōmi beef is the oldest of the three big beefs, and was presented as gifts to the daimyō and shōgun. Ōmi beef is known for its marbled fat that melts in your mouth without leaving an oily feeling. Restaurants all over Hikone and Shiga sell Ōmi beef, so be sure to try it at least once!

Funazushi

Narezushi (馴れ寿司) is the granddad of modern sushi, and looks nothing like what we call sushi today. Hundreds of years ago, narezushi was a great way to preserve fish and an important part of the diet of people who lived around Lake Biwa. The fish is preserved in salt then covered in rice and left to ferment for months or even years. People would typically throw out the rice and only eat the fish, but eventually people started eating the rice too, which gave way for nigiri-zushi we know and love today. Most people stopped eating narezushi long ago, but you can still find a type of narezushi, funazushi (鮒寿司), in one prefecture of Japan: Shiga.

Packaged funazushi found at the supermarket
Packaged funazushi found at the supermarket

Funazushi is typically made with nigoro-buna (煮頃鮒 / ニゴロブナ), a type of fish that can only be found in Lake Biwa. It’s certainly an acquired taste, even for people who’ve grown up in Shiga, because of its strong cheesy smell and creamy texture. However, people who like funazushi really like funazushi. It can be found everywhere in Shiga, from traditional restaurants to supermarkets. It is usually enjoyed with rice or ochazuke (お茶漬け; “submerged in tea”), a savory rice dish with tea poured over it, and it goes great with sake. If you have the opportunity and are feeling up to the challenge, try some funazushi while in Shiga!

Kamonabe

Thanks to the lake, fish dishes are very popular in Shiga. There are about 60 types of fish that can only be found in Lake Biwa (such as nigoro-buna and the Biwa salmon), with another 1000 types of fish living there too. You can find all kinds of fish dishes in Shiga, including sōmen (素麺; a type of thin wheat noodle) with grilled mackerel and eel hot pot. The lake is important for migrant birds from Russia in the winter, so dishes like kamonabe, hot pot (nabe) with duck (kamo) are common.

Bowl of Kamonabe
Bowl of Kamonabe

The duck is lean and slightly sweet compared to chicken. It’s illegal to hunt for birds near the lake, but legally made kamonabe is a nice way to warm up in the winter.

Champon-tei

There are plenty of other foods that Shiga is known for, like Omihachiman’s red konnyaku (赤こんにゃく), a bright red version of the (often grey) firm jelly found in various dishes, and Nagahama’s noppei-udon (のっぺいうどん), a noodle dish with very thick, almost syrupy soup. The list is endless! But of course, there are also restaurants that call Shiga home; one of the most famous is a ramen stop called Champon-tei (ちゃんぽん亭).

Champon-tei food
Champon-tei food

Champon-tei (stylized as CHANPONTEI) first opened up as a noodle restaurant in Hikone. As they grew in popularity, they began opening more restaurants in Hikone and the rest of Shiga. Hungry business men said that their ramen was the best, and, with that in mind, Champon-tei came up with their signature dish, Ōmi-champon (近江ちゃんぽん), known as “Shiga’s soul food”. Champon-tei’s ramen is unique; they cook the noodles in the soup broth (traditionally, the noodles are cooked separate and placed in the soup), and they recommend mixing some vinegar in the ramen after eating some for a refreshing new taste.

There are now Champon-tei restaurants in nearby prefectures outside of Shiga, and there’s even one in Hawaii! Luckily for JCMU students, there is a Champon-tei just down the street from campus, a little past 7-11. If you stop by for a quick and cheap bite, be sure to try their karaage (唐揚げ; fried chicken) too!


Food is a huge part of culture, so learning about (and tasting) what is eaten in Shiga will help you understand the locals even more. Enjoy your Shiga food adventures!

Festival Food Wars: Michigan vs Shiga

Takoyaki, funnel cake, and everything in between: fair food in Michigan and festival food in Shiga differ in quite a number of ways. But we want to definitively answer the entirely subjective question: which of these foods is the best?

To scientifically deduce the 100% completely accurate answer, we determined there was only one way to get this figured out: tournament!

[challonge url="https://challonge.com/jcmufestivalfoodwars" theme="2" show_final_results="1" width="100%" height="300px"]

For the bracket, we seeded 8 Michigan fair foods against each other on one side and 8 Shiga fair foods on the other side. The winner of each group will face off against each other in the championship battle to crown the undeniable caloric winner.

The tournament bracket [link to Challonge], along with match-up previews, will be updated as time goes on. Voting will take place both on this page and on our Facebook and Twitter pages. May the best food win!


Winner: Yakisoba

Festival Food Wars: Michigan vs Shiga
Winner: Yakisoba

Yakisoba has bested elephant ear to reign as the ultimate festival food! Thanks for helping us reach this scientifically definitive solution, and may celebratory yakisoba be in all of our futures~


(Winners in bold)

Grand Festival Food Finals

(2) Elephant ear vs (4) Yakisoba

Round 3

Michigan group

(1) Corn dog vs (2) Elephant ear

Shiga Group

(4) Yakisoba vs (6) Okonomiyaki

Round 2

Michigan group

(1) Corn dog vs (4) Cotton candy
(2) Elephant ear vs (6) Soft pretzel

Shiga Group

(1) Karaage vs (4) Yakisoba
(2) Taiyaki vs (6) Okonomiyaki

Round 1

Michigan group

(1) Corn dog vs (8) Hot dog
(2) Elephant ear vs (7) Funnel cake
(3) Kettle corn vs (6) Soft pretzel
(4) Cotton candy vs (5) Candy apple

Shiga Group

(1) Karaage vs (8) Yaki toumorokoshi
(2) Taiyaki vs (7) Yakitori
(3) Takoyaki vs (6) Okonomiyaki
(4) Yakisoba vs (5) Kakigoori

Fireworks in Shiga

The Fourth of July is right around the corner, which means everyone in the U.S. is preparing to see fireworks light up the night sky. But did you know that Japan is also known for its summer firework shows?

Rather than being a nationwide fireworks spectacular, hundreds of firework festivals take place throughout the summer and across Japan – including plenty of big ones in Shiga! These festivals typically begin in July and continue into late August. So if you want to see fireworks more than once or twice a year, Japan is the place for you!

Hiraku character firework

Japanese fireworks can be viewed from any angle and often include special fireworks that look like flowers, hearts, and even cartoon characters. These displays are best enjoyed with friends and delicious food, like grilled corn, shaved ice, and candy apples, from 屋台 (yatai, food stalls) found at every festival.

Firework festivals are generally free, but you need to show up early to find a good place to sit as they tend to get crowded. If you want to secure a good, comfortable seat for yourself and your friends, most firework festivals have chairs in a premium sitting area ranging anywhere from 2,000円 to 20,000円 (about $20~$200).

Firework festivals are especially beautiful in Shiga, with the fireworks reflecting off of Lake Biwa and the lake breeze staving off Japan’s summer heat. Be sure to check out one of the following firework shows if you have the chance!


びわ湖大花火大会
The Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

Fireworks in Otsu from the Michigan Boat

Date: August 8th, 2019 7:30PM

Location: Otsu Port (大津港; Ōtsu-kō)

Getting there: From Hikone Station, take the rapid service train (快速, kaisoku) to Otsu Station (~55 minutes, 970円). From there, walk down the hill to the lake (~15 minutes).

Otsu, the capital of Shiga, has the most famous fireworks display in all of the prefecture. It’s definitely worth the trip! If you really want to see how beautiful the fireworks can be, take a ride on the Michigan Boat to watch the show from within Lake Biwa.


長浜・北びわ湖大花火大会
Nagahama & Northern Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

JCMU Summer 2018 alum Rebecca Phoenix at the Nagahama Fireworks Festival

Date: August 5th, 2019 7:30PM

Location: Nagahama Port (長浜港; Nagahama-kō)

Getting there: From Hikone Station, take the train to Nagahama Station (~20 minutes, 240円). Walk to the lake from there (~10 minutes).

Nearby Nagahama also has its own fireworks festival and can be enjoyed from any spot on the lake in town. Be sure to prepare for the crowded trains after the festival, and bring a fan to fight the heat!


彦根・北びわ湖大花火大会
Hikone & Northern Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

Fireworks near JCMU

Date: August 26th, 2019 7:40PM

Location: Matsubara Beach (松原水泳場; Matsubara-suieijō)

Getting there: Matsubara Beach is just a 10 minute walk from JCMU!

If you want to experience the magic of a Japanese fireworks show without the travel, look outside your dorm window from the JCMU campus! While a smaller festival than the previously mentioned ones, there are still a lot of fireworks to see – including a Hikonyan one often!Yatai line the path along the beach, so be sure to take out some money at the nearby 7-11 to try some festival food.


Want to learn more? Visit the Shiga Tourism Board to read more about these events & other summer festivals happening in Shiga.

Understanding the Kansai Dialect

When I was first in Shiga, I could barely understand what people were saying. I thought it was just because I’d only taken a year of Japanese by this point, so I didn’t think much of it. This was certainly a factor, but my Japanese friends told me I was at a bit of a regional disadvantage, too: according to them, the Japanese students in the U.S. are taught is different from the Japanese spoken in Shiga and the rest of Kansai (southern-central region of mainland Japan).

Label on a package of sardines found in a supermarket in Kyoto. Reads いわしを食べなあかん! (iwashi o tabena akan!, “You must eat sardines!”)

Most foreigners are taught a variant of Japanese called 標準語 (hyōjungo), or ‘Standard Japanese’. Hyōjungo is based on a Tokyo-area dialect, much like how Standard American English is based on the Midwestern dialect. However, if you go to different parts of Japan, people will speak a slightly different language. The problem for students studying Japanese is that we aren’t usually exposed to any other types of Japanese, so when we travel to Japan it’s very likely we will run into words and grammatical patterns that we’ve never heard of.

Shiga Prefecture is located within the Kansai region of Japan, which has its own type of Japanese called 関西弁 (kansai-ben), or Kansai dialect. Kansai-ben is one of the most common and well understood dialects throughout Japan. This means that someone from Kansai and someone from Kanto can have a conversation in their respective dialects and understand each other fine, much like how someone from Michigan and someone from Alabama can understand each other even though they speak different types of American English.

We’re going to go through some basic parts of kansai-ben so that you have a higher chance of understanding the locals when you’re in Shiga. Keep in mind that these vary depending on where you are in Kansai, i.e. kansai-ben in Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Wakayama, etc. is slightly different.


Pronunciation

[Bold letters indicate pronounced or stressed sounds.]

The first thing you may notice about the dialect is that some sounds that are devoiced (i.e. unpronounced) in hyōjungo are pronounced in kansai-ben. For example, the u in です (desu) or します (shimasu) is devoiced in Standard Japanese, being pronounced like des and shimas. However, this u is voiced in Kansai. So, desu is actually pronounced like desu and shimasu like shimasu. You will often hear shopkeepers say arigatō gozaimasu!

Accent and pitch is also different in kansai-ben. In Tokyo, はし (hashi, chopsticks) has stress on the first syllable and is pronounced like hashi; kansai-ben is the reverse, where it is pronounced like hashi. To make things more difficult, hashi (bridge) is the exact opposite of hashi (chopsticks) in both dialects. Hashi (edge) in Tokyo is pronounced the same as hashi (bridge), so you can’t tell them apart, but hashi (edge) is pronounced differently from hashi (chopsticks) and hashi (bridge) in kansai-ben. Confused yet?

StandardKansai-ben
chopsticks
(hashi)

(hashi)
bridge
(hashi)

(hashi)
edge
(hashi)
はし
(hashi)

Some words that contain a short vowel are pronounced longer while those containing long vowels are pronounced shorter. For example, 目 (me, eye) might be pronounced めぇ (mee), and そう (sou) might be pronounced as just ほ (ho -why an h? Keep reading!). People from Kansai also sometimes roll their r sounds, which makes people outside of Kansai think of ヤクザ (yakuza)!

ICOCA train card featuring its platypus mascot

Fun fact: The rechargeable ICOCA card for the JR West rail (you can buy one at Hikone Station for 500¥!) is a pun in kansai-ben. Technically standing for IC Operating CArd, it’s pronounced the same way as 行こか (iko ka), which is how 行こうか (ikō ka, “Shall we go?”) is said in Kansai.

Grammar

The most common difference in grammar I’ve noticed in kansai-ben is the use of へん (hen) as a way to negate a verb. This happens because the s sound in some kansai-ben changed to h (e.g. さん [san] may be pronounced はん [han]). The s in ~ません (~masen) changed to h at some point, but this mostly happens for verbs in short form.

StandardKansai-ben
わからない
(wakaranai)
わからへん
(wakarahen)
いけない
(ikenai)
いけへん
(ikehen)
ありえない
(arienai)
ありえへん
(ariehen)

A similar pronunciation change happened with the copula (a connecting verb, basically ‘to be’) だ (da). In fact, many sentence final particles have a different Kansai version:

StandardKansai-ben
だ / だった
(da/datta)
や / やった
(ya/yatta)

(ne)

(na)

(yo)
で / わ*
(de/wa)
の / んだ
(no/nda)
ねん
(nen)

(ka)
かい
(kai)
もの
(mono)
もん
(mon)

[note: the kansai-ben わ (wa) is different from the ‘feminine’ わ (wa) most of us are taught]

Vocabulary

A sign near JCMU reads: おいでやす彦根市へ

In addition to pronunciation and grammar, kansai-ben has its own words and phrases for things. Keep in mind that some of these, especially greetings, are mostly used by older generations.

StandardKansai-ben
ダメ / いけない
(dame/ikenai)
あかん
(akan)
本当
(hontō)
ほんま
(honma)
違う
(chigau)
ちゃう
(chau)
面白い
(omoshiroi)
おもろい
(omoroi)
とても
(totemo)
めっちゃ*
(meccha)
バカ
(baka)
アホ**
(aho)
マック
(makku)
マクド
(makudo)
いい
(ii)
ええ
(ee)
じゃ
(ja)
ほな
(hona)
おはようございます
(ohayō gozaimasu)
おはようさん
(ohayō san)
おやすみなさい
(oyasumi nasai)
おやすみやす
(oyasumi yasu)
さようなら
(sayōnara)
さいなら
(sainara)
ありがとう
(arigatō)
おおきに
(ookini)
どうもありがとうございます
(doumo arigatō gozaimasu)
えらいおおきにすんません
(erai ōkini sunmasen)
いらっしゃいませ / ようこそ
(irasshaimase/yōkoso)
おいでやす
(oide yasu)

[note: If you want to check out more, visit this page of kansai-ben vocab!]

*Like lots of words from other dialects, めっちゃ (meccha) has spread throughout Japan and is used in many places outside of Kansai.

**Be careful using アホ (aho) and バカ (baka): it is said that using baka in Kansai sounds much more rude than aho and is less likely to seem like a joke. On the other hand, outside of Kansai aho is much more rude than baka. If you’re not sure which to use, it’s best not to say either.


Kansai-ben has a reputation of sounding rough, direct, and slurred, but people who speak it are also known for sounding lively, fun, and expressive. While the older generations use more kansai-ben, with the younger generation adopting some Standard/Tokyo dialect with a Kansai twist (sometimes called a neo-dialect), it’s important to learn about the local dialect of wherever you are in Japan in order to understand everyone on a deeper level.

There are plenty facets of kansai-ben that we haven’t covered here, including Kyoto-specific honorifics (yikes!), so keep your ears open when in Kansai! For now, let’s put everything we’ve went over together and check out some common phrases:

StandardKansai-benEnglish Meaning
本当だよ
(hontō da yo)
ほんまやで
(honma ya de)
it’s true!
本当に
(hontō ni)
ほんまに
(honma ni)
really
いいよ
(ii yo)
ええで
(ee de)
it’s good; okay
いいよ
(ii yo)
ええわ
(ee wa)
no thanks
いいね
(ii ne)
ええな
(ee na)
it’s good, right?
いいの
(ii no)
ええねん
(ee nen)
is it okay?
じゃまた
(ja mata)
ほなまた
(hona mata)
see ya
違うよ
(chigau yo)
ちゃうで
(chau de)
no!; isn’t it?
そうだ
(sō da)
ほや
(ho ya)
that is so
だめよ
(dame yo)
あかんで
(akan de)
don’t do that
もういいよ
(mō ii yo)
もうええわ
(mō ee wa)
that’s enough
[No equivalent]なんでやねん
(nande ya nen)
what the heck?!

You’re invited: 2019 JCMU Summer Picnic

DATE: July 19, 5:30pm-8pm
LOCATION: Potter Park Zoo (Eagle’s Landing Pavilion)
ADDRESS: 1301 S. Pennsylvania Ave, Lansing, MI 48912
EVENT COST: Free (zoo admission separate+optional)
PARKING: Free after 5pm

Calling all members of the JCMU community: you are invited to a special summer picnic BBQ!

All members of the JCMU community are encouraged to come. You are welcome to bring family and friends as well.

This will be a pot luck picnic. We will be grilling food for everybody and providing basic drinks, but we encourage you to bring a dish and/or drinks to pass along. Please pass this info along to other JCMU friends and encourage them to come! 🙂

We reserved the Eagle’s Landing Pavillion just outside of the Potter Park Zoo. If you want to go to the zoo before the picnic, we encourage you to do so. Just be aware that you will have to pay for both zoo admission and parking before 5pm.

Will you be there? Awesome! While not required, we would appreciate it if you could go to our Facebook event page for the picnic and click that you’ll be going. We look forward to seeing you and many other JCMU faces then~

Connecting with Japan through Coffee

In America, one of my favorite pastimes is drinking coffee with my dad. As my primary caretaker, my dad did his best to make sure we spent quality time together when he was free on the weekends. Starting in middle school we would go to Dunkin’ Donuts together after church on Sundays to drink coffee. It became a way for me to spend time with my mother, too; although we didn’t have much in common when I was younger, in high school I began to drink coffee with her and with other members of my family after meals. Coffee became central to my latinidad. Regardless of whose house I was staying at, regardless of the time, there was always a can of Cafe Bustelo within reach. Sharing a cup of coffee with my family meant spending time together to talk. The comforts of coffee reached me even within the confines of Kalamazoo College, as I work as a barista at an on-campus cafe. Through that job I was able to connect with students and their parents as well as teachers and other faculty members that I never would have been able to meet otherwise. Every cup of coffee I served reminded me of my time with my family, and I tried to serve everyone I met with the same care I would have received at home.

As soon as I came to Japan, I found myself faced with the problem of how to connect with my latinidad when no one else here identified with the same culture that I did. Central to this problem was where I would get my daily dose of caffeine. Of course the vending machines were available and I found myself using them more often than not because of the convenience of being able to exchange a single coin for a can of my vice of choice. However convenient, they could not compare to the handmade beverages I had become used to making and drinking myself at home. Before long I was venturing into Hikone and Japan at large to find better coffee. I began to frequent Micro Lady, the cafe that I found to be most similar to American-style cafes. It seems more often than not that ‘cafes’ in Japan are not places to get coffee, but to sit and enjoy cute and tasty meals. At many of these cafes, the coffee is mediocre, an afterthought alongside the presentation of the food. These cafes were referred to as きっさてん (kissaten) in my experience, while the truer coffee shops were called コーヒー屋 (koohiiya).

Visiting these various cafes and coffee roasteries made me think about what it was like to work in a cafe in Japan. Although the handbook advises people not to choose internships or activities they would have access to in America, I found that I wanted to work in a cafe more than I wanted to do anything else. Regardless of what the handbook says, I did not want to engage with Japanese culture in a way I viewed as intrusive. I thought that working in a cafe would be good because I could compare my experience working at a cafe in America to my experience working at cafes in Japan. I wanted to see if people connected over coffee in Japan like they did in America and how popular coffee really is in Japan.

In addition to being curious about the workings of a cafe abroad, a part of me has always hoped to run my own cafe one day. In America, I do not have the opportunity to talk and work with owners of independent cafes. My job on campus is run by a larger corporation, and cafe owners in the Kalamazoo and Chicago areas are just a little too intimidating for me to talk to. This is not to say that cafe owners in Japan are any less intimidating, but through the Kalamazoo College Integrative Cultural Project (ICRP) I saw a chance to work with independent cafe owners that I would not have in America.

I anticipated a few challenges going into my internships: most notably the language barrier. Although I have been studying Japanese since the start of high school, I often stop myself from speaking unless I know what I’m going to say sounds perfect. I often found myself refraining from conversation even in the classroom. I was also worried about my gender. I understand that not everyone will recognize my identity as a nonbinary person. Though there isn’t often a need for pronouns in Japanese, I was still worried that every time I was referred to I would be thought of as a girl/woman. It is a tiring experience to constantly be on edge about my identity and wondering what these people would think of me if they knew who I really am. All of these worries color the experiences that I will now describe in this ICRP.

In the beginning of January I began working at a roastery in Hikone named Shiga Coffee Corporation (SCC) and a cafe in Nagahama named ‘Takachiho’. SCC focuses primarily on selling coffee beans and offers a much larger variety of blends and beans to pick from than Takachiho. SCC provides around 33 different blends to choose from, while Takachiho has about 12. Both SCC and Takachiho purchased raw beans from an intermediate business in Japan, but I did not learn the name of the business.

I was only able to visit SCC three times and all three times were on Saturdays (their busiest day according to the owner). SCC is a small establishment located on Bell Road in Hikone. All of their equipment and product is located in the same narrow room, with their roasted beans kept separate from raw beans. Their roaster was located at the back of the room behind the cash register and checkout counter. Their grinder, scale, and vacuum sealer were all on the same small counter space. The first time I visited, they boasted proudly that everyone who worked there is a woman. They hoped that this would make me more comfortable working there – and it did, because in such a narrow space we often had to squeeze past each other to get what we needed.

SCC did not have a steady stream of customers but people came in frequently. Customers ranged from people in their twenties, to families, to elderly people. I served complimentary cups of coffee to customers as they looked over the blends available to choose from. If the customers came in with children, we would ask if it was ok to give them candy and act accordingly. I also helped the staff mix blends, bag blends, grind beans, and seal coffee for customers. I watched the roasting process but I did not have the opportunity to roast beans myself.

Most customers were confused by my presence in the cafe. They would ask my supervisors why I was there instead of them, often because they were unsure of whether or not I could speak Japanese. My reasons for wanting to observe how a cafe worked firsthand in Japan seemed to perplex a lot of people; many said they were unsure of why I was interested in opening my own cafe, or at least why I chose to observe one in Japan. Unfortunately my limited understanding of Japanese prevented me from having a full conversation with them where we could come to an understanding of each other’s perspectives. Regardless, they were all very encouraging.

Customers always seemed willing to have a little bit of conversation with the person behind the register before they ordered. They would sip their coffee and have small talk before saying which blend they wanted, how much they wanted in grams, and whether they wanted it as a whole bean or already ground. Then it was up to the other staff to bag and seal the blend. I was surprised at how infrequently the staff at SCC washed their hands. My first day there, they asked me to mix up a blend, and I was instructed to do it just with my bare hand and forearm. I washed and dried my hand and forearm prior to sticking it into the bin, but I was still a little uneasy at the idea of using my bare skin to mix it together. This was one of the hygienic standards that would have been taken much more seriously in America.

In addition to this, SCC was connected directly to the owner’s home by an open doorway. The cafe lead into a small office space, which then lead to the rest of the home. On occasion the owner’s dog would peak her head through the office’s doorway. Although the dog never appeared when customers were around, I was still surprised she was even allowed to come near where the beans were roasted and mixed. In America the presence of a house dog in an establishment that handles food would have been off putting to most customers.

In between customers, we would all drink coffee together. We kept our cups of coffee behind a small refrigerator in the corner of the room. I’m not sure if it was because I was a temporary person in their lives, but the staff at both SCC and Takachiho were very kind when it came to how I drank my coffee. Drinking coffee with my family in America, I feel like I can do anything to it and not be judged. But at work and among coffee connoisseurs in America, I often felt as though I was being judged for putting cream or sugar in my coffee. In my opinion, part of the pleasure of drinking coffee is being able to have it as sweet or creamy as I want on any particular day. They also asked me how I make coffee in America. I explained that at work, I mostly made lattes using an espresso machine and that I didn’t get to see the coffee roasting process firsthand. We all agreed that my job is a lot different from working at an independent coffee shop and is more like working at a chain like Starbucks. They asked if I knew how to make latte art and if I could send them pictures later.

Takachiho is a larger cafe than SCC with a separate room for their roaster. They have a serving space that is filled with tables for groups of two or more and a counter for individual customers. However, since Takachiho is so sparsely visited, they often let people sit wherever they want. Most of the shop’s regular customers are elderly individuals.

Takachiho focuses jointly on serving a few coffee-based beverages, some deserts, and roasting beans for their blends. The most popular dessert on Takachiho’s menu is their cheesecake. Yukako-san makes it from scratch in their home’s kitchen. Once again I was surprised at the relaxed nature of hygienic standards in Japan. When we made the cheesecake we made sure to wash our hands and used clean equipment, but it still surprises me that businesses can basically be run out of the home. I guess it is not so weird when you consider the amount of baked goods that are produced out of homes in any given country, but I still found it a little unsettling. Regardless, their cheesecake was delicious every time I had the chance to eat it.

Takachiho attracts mostly tourists or elderly people from the area who come for a cup of coffee, a slice of cheesecake, and some conversation. While I was taking Japanese language classes before having chosen my ICRP project, my teacher lead me to believe that I would need to use keigo (formal Japanese) the whole time I was at work. However, at Takachiho, I was teased more often than not for only understanding formal Japanese. It seemed the elderly people who came for conversation simply wanted to talk at a casual level, and didn’t enjoy being spoken to in keigo aside from the phrases いらしゃいませ (irasshaimase, “welcome”)、少々お待ちください (shoushou omachi kudasai, “please wait a moment”), and お待た制しました (omatase shimashita, “thank you for waiting”).

I learned a lot more of the normal everyday functions of owning a cafe at Takachiho. My first day, Akira-san and Yukako-san showed me all the beans they purchased to roast and all the blends they made from those beans. I had never thought about the things they asked me to observe: comparing the size and smell of the beans pre and post roast, and then after a few days listening to the sound of the beans in the roaster to know when they were ready. Before working in Japan I had never taken the time to consider the way the beans features changed pre- and post-roast. My love for coffee was connected to my family and less to the practice of how it was made.

Before working at Takachiho I was aware of the basic idea that freshly ground coffee beans make better coffee. At Takachiho the beans for every cup of coffee served were ground when the customer ordered. Every time I worked there, I shared a cup of coffee with Yukako-san; since I was so anxious all the time, it was her way of helping me relax. Where it felt pretentious to drink this kind of coffee in America, in Japan it felt more like sharing an intimate moment with someone; it felt like being with family again.

Whenever Yukako-san and I drank coffee, she asked me to make it. I thought I was familiar with how to make coffee by hand, but it seems that Takachiho had a very specific way of hand pouring coffee. The process is a bit a long, but the most notable difference is the way we pour the water into the grounds. Where I poured in large circles, making sure to wet all the grounds every time, Yukako-san and Akira-san asked that I pour in small circular motions in the center of the filter. Although I felt this would create a watered down flavor, I chose to trust them since I had been using pre-ground and pre-packaged coffees before working at Takachiho. I think using freshly roasted and ground beans made the flavor stronger, and pouring in a smaller area probably did little to dilute the flavor of the coffee.

I think because of our different pouring styles, they didn’t have me make coffee for customers as frequently as they wanted to. I think my air of confusion and anxiety about Japanese language also lead them to believe that I did not want to make coffee for customers, when that was what I wanted to do most. Most of the time when customers came in I served them water and took their order, rather than making their coffee. Although this was more nerve-racking, it allowed me better use of the language than just pouring coffee would have.

Like SCC, Takachiho was directly adjacent to Yukako-san and Akira-san’s home. Yukako-san’s mother also operated and lived behind a clothing store that was the building next door to Takachiho. I did not have the language skills to ask, but I wondered if they owned the buildings. I also wondered how they kept their business open with so few customers. Even if I did know how to ask, I do not think I would have. It seems like too invasive a question. Most of the time I talked to them about their customers to avoid getting into stuff that was too personal.

The customers at Takachiho also seemed very curious about me being there. Towards the end of my time at Takachiho, a disabled woman and her living assistant came in a couple times. Both times, the living assistant asked me to serve the woman her drinks. Both times, the living assistant took a picture of me helping them out. It felt a little awkward, but I was glad that they both seemed happy with the experience.

In between awkward customer interactions and roasting coffee beans there was a lot of free time. To make the days less monotonous, Yukako-san often took me outside of the cafe to help with Takachiho’s errands. We took trips to the bank and the post office where Yukako-san would ask me to handle the transaction (and where I would refuse, because I was not going to be responsible for a small business losing something important). There were occasions we went out just to have fun. I’m unsure what the event was for, but on one day we went to a local shrine where people threw mochi into an eager crowd from a raised platform. The group was made of lots of elderly people and I was afraid that I might be too rough if I really tried to catch the mochi. However I soon found myself pushed to the back of the crowd by their eagerness to catch the mochi for themselves. I did not catch any with myself, but while we were returning New Year’s decorations to the shrine another local business owner approached Yukako-san. After explaining that I was unable to catch any mochi, he kindly gave us two pieces that he had been able to grab. A few weeks later, the same man came in for a cup of coffee. I was happy to serve him; I felt like I had become part of the community in a noninvasive way.

This marked the beginning of a series of gifts from customers that I was surprised to receive. Another old man gave me several booklets of his art; they were not the originals, but even so, I felt that I did not deserve the free copies of his art. He asked me to take them to my school in Michigan to share them. He did drawings in pen of landmarks in Shiga, including a picture of Lake Biwa and JCMU beside it. Another old man gave me a bag of food and Pocari Sweat powder because we had a conversation wherein I told him that I had only strawberries and juice for dinner.

I found working at both coffee shops to be fulfilling and fun. My time at SCC and Takachiho allowed me to learn the perspective of a small business owner in Japan. Similar to American small businesses, the success of a small business in Japan relies on having a good reputation and a supportive community. Without a reliable community frequenting the establishments, SCC and Takachiho wouldn’t be successful. Realistically it’s hard to find such a supportive community in the U.S. – or at least in Chicago, where I see myself living in the future. Takachiho’s and SCC’s reliable customer base seemed too small to be able to support either of the businesses, which leads me to believe that it’s easier to keep small business going in Japan.

I hoped that the coffee shops I worked at would be central pillars of the communities they were situated in. Although they may not be missed by the whole community if they were gone, SCC and Takachiho provided spaces for the people in their communities to come and chat about their lives in a relaxed environment. At Takachiho, locals have the chance to stop by and check in with the couple at work there. At SCC, families grow while enjoying the quality product that SCC has to offer.

Takachiho and SCC helped me create the connections I was missing. I became a part of their communities in a way that I thought was both unobtrusive and helpful to the community. I intend to keep in contact with both shops and I hope that I can return one day better able to communicate with them. I have a better understanding of what it would take to open and run a cafe on my own, and it doesn’t seem like so vast a task anymore. Even if it’s hard, I know that the staff at SCC and Takachiho will be supporting me from afar.

Traveling on a Budget

Affording study abroad is hard enough, not to mention feeding yourself while you’re there and buying souvenirs for everyone back home. And what about traveling inside the country? You didn’t come all the way to Japan just to sit in JCMU’s lobby every day.

It can be difficult to set aside enough time and money to take the exciting trips you’ve always dreamed of. Once you get to Japan, you realize that Tokyo isn’t as close as it seems on a map. Don’t let that turn you into a homebody, though – it’s possible to travel Japan even as a student and even on a limited budget. Here’s how:

Choose your target wisely.

Obviously, the further away the place you want to go is, the more time and money it’s going to cost you. This may mean sacrificing a trip to Tokyo for a trip to Japan’s third largest city, Osaka, instead. Osaka’s a day trip away from JCMU, whereas Tokyo really needs a whole weekend.

You may find that the things you really want to do and see in that further away place are also available somewhere close by. Many cafes and shops in Tokyo have Osaka or Nagoya branches as well, and more places than just Tokyo can give you that big-city vibe. In the case of historical locations, Shiga and its surrounding area has Tokyo beat, even: there’re the temples & shrines of Kyoto, the ninja village of Koka, and Hikone Castle just minutes from JCMU’s campus.

The Osaka Gudetama cafe

Of course, each place is unique. There’s something about each boutique, bar, and shrine that makes it special and worth visiting. But balance your interest with the cost of travel. One trip to Hokkaido might cost as much as three trips to Kyoto, Nara, and Otsu. But if your heart’s set on Hokkaido, that’s okay! You might just have to come back to Japan again to see the rest… And that’s not so bad.

Consider all forms of transportation

All roads lead to Rome! Or Kumamoto, as the case may be. Japan has lots of options for public transportation, including trains, buses, and planes. Most of the time, you’ll have the choice of any of them to get where you’re going.

Shinkansen (bullet trains) are clearly the most exciting, as they’re rare in many other countries and will definitely get you there fast. But they’re expensive, too, and a plain might actually be the most affordable option. There are lots of domestic airlines in Japan that offer very cheap flights across the country, such as ANA, Peach, and Vanilla Air. Of course, the smaller and cheaper the airline gets, the less variety it offers. But depending on where you’re going, they might be a good choice. Do your research and ask a Japanese friend or JCMU Student Services Coordinator if you’re unsure if the company is legit.

Peach is one company that offers cheap domestic flights

Another popular option, especially for trips to Hiroshima and Tokyo, is a night bus. They leave in the evening and arrive in the morning, driving through the night and giving you a chance to sleep (or try to) on the way. It can also help you save on accommodations since you won’t have to book a hotel for that night.

Also consider regular trains, which are great for short-distance travel (like Osaka or Kyoto) and offer great views of the countryside. They’re also less expensive than faster options, but you have to decide whether time or money is more important.

Look beyond standard hotels

Hotels range in price from reasonable to ridiculous, and you can certainly find a nice place without paying too much. You can have a pleasant stay at a capsule hotel or hostel, and usually for much less.

Capsule hotels are infamous for being kind of gimmicky, with their futuristic appearance and compact size. They’re worth going to for the experience alone. But they can also be more affordable, and ensure that you have your own space that’s clean, quiet, and private (even if it’s only seven feet long). Some hotel booking sites have specific filters for capsules. It may not be pleasant to hang out in during the day, but the point of traveling is to see the place you’re visiting, anyway.

Hostels are also a reasonable option in Japan. Unlike in some countries, Japanese hostels are safe, clean, and usually pretty well organized. They can also be dirt cheap. Many hostels are less than ¥4000 a night, and occasionally they drop as low as ¥1000. The key is booking ahead of time and staying outside of the most popular areas. And who knows, you might discover a hidden treasure just off the beaten path. Still, do your research!

Just enough room!

And from the JCMU staff’s personal experience—think twice before trying to stay at an internet cafe.

Look for cheap attractions

Now that you’ve figured out how to get there and where to stay, what are you going to do there? Maybe there’s a specific place you know you want to visit, or maybe you like to take things as they come. Just do a little research—are you going to have to buy tickets ahead of time, or can you decide on a whim? Starting to plan to plan early can also help you make a budget.

That said, sometimes it’s more fun to travel without any plans or preconceived ideas. There are lots of things to experience wherever you go that don’t need prior planning, and even activities that it’s impossible to find out about beforehand. For example, that mom-and-pop ramen shop may not have an internet presence, but you’ll stumble into it and fall in love with the noodles. And there might be a local festival going on, or you’ll make a Japanese friend who wants to show you around.

It doesn’t cost a dime to wander the streets of Osaka

There are free attractions, too—Hikone Castle is free with a JCMU student ID card, and you can walk through places like the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto to see autumn leaves without paying a cent. And most hiking paths are open to everyone without a fee. Right around JCMU, there are lots of things to do within walking and biking distance, which means they’re quick and don’t require a train fare.

No matter where you’re going or how you get there, do your research, be safe, and have a good time! Keep an eye on your funds and you’ll be able to make your travel dreams come true. And remember, there’s always next time, because who can stand to go to Japan only once?