Lauren Griffin, history major, is studying abroad in Japan during the 2017-2018 academic year. She is the recipient of a prestigious Boren Scholarship to learn Japanese in Japan.
I am halfway through my year of life abroad in Japan, and it has been an amazing experience. I am studying Japanese at Waseda University in Tokyo on a Boren Scholarship, an award given to students who have a desire to learn critical languages and have an interest in US national security issues. Awardees are allowed to choose their own university for study, so I chose to move to Tokyo and experience the loud, exciting, modern side of Japan. Tokyo is endlessly exciting, but some of my favorite places I have visited so far are outside of the bustling city, where one can get more in touch with the older, more historical aspects of Japan. One of my favorite parts of Japan is the contrast between the modern, high-tech life and the old heritage, and how the two seem to mix seamlessly.
Koedo (Little Edo), an area in Kawagoe is a trip into traditional Japan, as it has many of the original buildings from when Tokyo (Edo) was the capital of Japan. Kawagoe was an important trade center for Tokyo and was fortunate to survive through wars and fires that destroyed a lot of Tokyo’s older architecture and heritage. One of the most famous landmarks of Kawagoe is the KawagoeBell Tower, located in the merchant district. The sound of it ringing is said to be one of the “100 Best Sound Sceneries in Japan.” Kawagoe also has multiple famous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, but my favorite was Hikawa Shrine. At Hikawa Shrine, you can go fishing for omikuji, a paper fortune that is a common souvenir when visiting shrines and temples.
Japan has many castles, but they are nothing like the stone castles of Europe. I had a chance to visit Kanazawa Castle, parts of which have undergone restorations and been rebuilt. The castle once housed the Maeda family, with Lord Maeda Toshiie ruling the area as a powerful daimyo (powerful feudal ruler) under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Japan has hundreds of castles, but Kanazawa Castle had a unique charm to it, especially covered in a light snow. Located next to Kanazawa Castle is Kenrokuen Garden, one of the top three most beautiful gardens in all of Japan. Recently, I also visited Odawara Castle. I enjoyed this one even more than Kanazawa Castle. The views from the top of Odawara were stunning. Odawara Castle was the sight of the Battle of Odawara in 1590, one of the pivotal battles in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s quest to unify Japan under one rulership. After confronting fires, earthquakes, and deconstruction, Odawara Castle was recognized as a national historic monument and reconstructed into the castle one can see today. One of Japan’s most popular castles is Osaka Castle, right in the middle of the Japan’s second largest city. It was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1500’s and was the site of the famous Siege of Osaka in the 1600’s when Tokugawa Ieyasu attacked the site in his quest to create a new shogunate. Although crowded with tourists, Osaka Castle was covered with golden tigers, making it more ornate than the other castles I visited. I also had the chance to visit arguably Japan’s best and most famous castle, Himeji Castle. Himeji is also known as the White Heron Castle for its impressive white figure. It is one of the only castles in Japan to withstand war destruction and natural disasters. It is was the largest castle I have been to yet, and its size and simple beauty were impressive.
Even living in the modern, bustling city of Tokyo one can find some aspects of Japan’s fascinating history. In the center of the city lies the Buddhist temple Sengaku-ji, the gravesite of the famous 47 Ronin. The story of the 47 Ronin’s quest to avenge the dishonor their lord faced has been retold many times in Japanese novels, movies, and Western films and media. It began with the lord of the 47 samurai being sentenced to seppuku (ritual suicide). To defend their master’s honor, the 47 samurai turned ronin (rogue samurai) and sought out the man who had wronged their master. Afterwards, all 47 Ronin were also sentenced to seppuku for murder. Sengaku-ji houses the grave of their old master, and all 47 graves of the ronin. Just down the road, next to the modern ward office, stands an old tree where some of the Ronin had committed seppuku. The contrast between modern and traditional life in Tokyo, and Japan, is endlessly fascinating. By hopping on a quick train ride, Japan’s rich history came to life and I was able to be a part of a story I had heard many times.
I know the things I have seen and experienced in the past six months will be stories that I will tell for the rest of my life. There is an enormous difference between reading about events and places in textbooks, novels, or seeing photos and actually experiencing these places and seeing them for yourself. Living in Japan has given me knowledge of the language, the culture, and the people, which has further helped me contextualize and understand the deeply rich history of the country. Although I just feel like I have only scratched the surface in understanding this unique culture, my time in Japan has given me valuable insights that will help me in my future studies. As a plus, it is also a really, really fun experience.