Japan
Saitama

Here you’ll find travel reports about Saitama. Discover travel destinations in Japan of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.

12 travelers at this place:

  • Day1

    WE HAVE ARRIVED!!!

    June 21 in Japan

    Between flights, layovers, and driving I think we've been traveling for about 21 hours. I don't know how I haven't collapsed.

    We were driven from the airport to Saitama City Hall, where our host family picked us up. I knew I was staying with the assistant principal for one of the elementary schools I'm visiting, Iijima-sensei (in Japan they use suffixes the way we might use "Mr." or "Ms.", and "-sensei" is used for teachers, doctors, and some other professionals). I noticed on the schedule they sent me that it said his wife will be taking care of me and now I know why - he barely speaks any English! He picked my up by himself and I felt bad when I asked him in the car, in English, when his school gets out for the summer. I could tell he didn't understand the question so I used Google Translate to ask again in Japanese, but then he spent literally 5 minutes trying to remember the word for "July". Thank goodness I know a little Japanese and have a smartphone! His wife, Jun-san (-san is used for most adults, but her nickname is Jun-Jun) speaks much more English thankfully.

    Once we got to the house I of course wanted to go to bed, but instead we went out for sushi. Sushi > sleep so I couldn't complain too much. It was a conveyor belt sushi place, which are always fun. It was exactly what it sounds like - there is a conveyor belt wish sushi on it that goes around the restaurant past all of the tables and you just grab what you want. Some, like the one we went to, also have touch screens at every table so you can order a specific thing. When you are finished you are charged by the plate. The best part (and lets be real, it was all amazing) was dessert, which was Japanese shaved ice (kakigōri). Again, I didn't take a picture of mine but it was similar to the one posted here. American shaved ice can't compete; kakigōri is shaved much finer and often has sweet condensed milk on top along with syrup, giving it a much smoother texture. I promise this whole blog won't be about food (if only because I won't remember the name of everything I've eaten), but I had kakigōri once when I went to Australia and I've been craving it ever since!

    Anyway, once we got home I was finally able to take a shower/bath and go to bed (I'm not going to talk about Japanese shower rooms now but spoiler: I really like them). I don't remember the last time I feel asleep that fast! Hopefully this means I won't have trouble adjusting my body clock to Japan time.
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  • Day2

    Meeting the Mayor

    June 22 in Japan

    The main event for our first full day in Japan was meeting the mayor. Heather and I had to meet the gentleman who picked us up yesterday (I can't remember his name - sorry sir!) at the train station nearest city hall. To do that, I had to take the train with Jun-Jun. Apparently she lives near the biggest station in Saitama. It's practically a mini-shopping mall with a 4-5 floor department store in it and everything. We rode in a women-only train car, which are available in mornings and evenings. While a lot of people use their smartphones to read, no one talks on the phone on the train as it is considered very rude.

    From the station we had to walk about 10-15 minutes to City Hall. Now's as good a time as any to mention that the weather in Saitama is very similar to that in Richmond - the city is only 2° latitude further south - so it is very hot and humid out this time of year. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am rarely seen without a water bottle and sure enough I had one with me. However, I forgot to fill it up before I left the house so I was (metaphorically) DYING of thirst by the time we got to City Hall. I don't remember the last time I was that thirsty. In fact, I find I am more thirsty more often since I got to Japan; perhaps it is a combination of the food, weather, and perhaps different air quality. Maybe everyone in Japan feels this way and that is why there are drink machines EVERYWHERE.

    Somehow I survived without passing out, managed to fill up my water bottle, and was taken to the floor where we met our host families the previous night, which is where the school system offices are. I say offices, but really the only office is the superintendents and the rest of the staff sit at rows of desks facing each other. It's pretty cramped and crowded, but it does feel more collaborative I guess. We went into a large meeting room and met with the ALT coordinator, Keiko Tonegawa. ALTs are Assistant Language Teachers - teachers from other countries who help teach English. If I were to come back and spend a year or more in Japan that's what I would do.

    Since she has to work with English teachers who often don't speak Japanese, Keiko-san is fluent in English. She told us she spent about 3 years in San Francisco about 10 years ago. She told Heather and I about Japanese curriculum requirements, which are set by their national Board of Education. School districts who want to modify or add to the curriculum have to ask the BOE for permission. Saitama did this so that they could teach more hours of English, in classes they call "Global Studies". At the elementary level it's basically just conversational English, but maybe they learn more things in Junior High. A lot of areas around Tokyo are really putting a lot of time and resources into teaching English in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Saitama also has a unique class called Human Relations - which is usually taught as a few hours after each semester break from 3rd-7th grade to help fight bullying and teach the kids relationship skills. Even in Japan adults think the kids don't know how to talk to each other anymore!

    All in all the curriculum is actually quite complicated, because the number of required hours for each subject is different by grade - I can't imagine how complicated it is to build the school's schedule! Not only that, but 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders actually have fewer total hours, with 1st have the fewest and then gradually adding more until 4th grade, which means the kids may leave at different times every day. Then when the kids get to Junior High (which is 7th-9th grade here), they have slightly more hours. Kindergarten and pre-K aren't part of the school system here, but many children go to private Kindergartens. High school in Japan also isn't compulsory, and students have to pass an entrance exam to attend, but something like 98% go anyway (they can go to a remedial school for a year if they don't pass the entrance exams). I'm still trying to figure out how much control the BOE has over high school education.

    After our briefing on all things Saitama Schools-related, Keiko-san took us out to lunch. I let Heather pick because, as I mentioned previously, she doesn't like a lot of Japanese foods. She decided on a pasta and pizza place because she figured she wouldn't be having any "American-style" food for the rest of her time here. Apparently Italian food is SUPER popular in Japan, although obviously it is not the same as Italian food in America (or Italy for that matter). I opted for a cold vegetable pasta because it was so hot out, but I also tried Heather's pizza. Both were good and actually did taste like dishes you could probably find somewhere in the US. While we were out for lunch Keiko also took us back by the train station so we could buy passes, which are also good for the prefecture's buses. An interesting note about the train system is that you actually pay based on how far you need to go (calculated by which stations or bus stops you scan your card on as you enter and leave) - so you should check your route if you don't have much money left on your card or have to buy a single ticket. We also stopped at a 100 yen store to each get a small hand towel - a must for any person living or traveling in Japan because you're always wiping away sweat and most bathrooms don't have dryers or paper towels.

    After lunch we still had to wait a little longer to meet the mayor, so Keiko-san was nice enough to introduce us to the head of Special Education and her team, since she knew I was interested. With Keiko-san acting as our translator we had quite a long conversation. Based on what the woman (I can't remember her name either) said, Japanese and American special education have a lot in common. However, because of the language barrier I'm not sure how much of that is really true and how much is us not really understanding what the other was describing. I guess I'll have to see for myself.

    So finally it's time for our meeting with the mayor. We were actually meeting the mayor at the same time as a group of students from Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield (one of the counties outside Richmond). As part of the same Sister Cities Program that sent Heather and I, Saitama sends a group of high school students to Clover Hill every year in the spring and Clover Hill sends their own group in the summer; this year they happened to be coming the same time as us. Most of the 10 kids from our group were actually learning Japanese at their school, since I guess Chesterfield has the money for that (not that I'm bitter or anything). We got a chance to talk for about 15 minutes before the meeting and of course they were super excited and practicing how to introduce themselves. Their teacher chaperones this year had never been to Japan either so they were nervous.

    Anyway, either meeting the mayor is a big deal in Saitama, they just wanted to show off, or (mostly likely) Japan has formalities for everything, because the meeting was held in this huge conference room at a table about 20 feet long and had an MC and everything. There was no chit-chat and it was all scripted, right down to giving him and the superintendent the gifts we brought. Heather and I actually got small gifts in return - a cute pen with the Saitama mascot on it and a towel from the city's Bonsai Museum, yay! Many photos were taken and it was all over in maybe 30 minutes tops. All in all I said maybe five words to the mayor so saying that I "met" him feels like a stretch, but it was an experience that I'm very glad I got to have.

    After the meeting the superintendent invited Heather and I to her office to talk. It turns out she used to teach English and was very excited for a chance to use her conversation skills. She was very friendly and relaxed; we talked about American versus Japanese schools and I told her about what I had heard from the Special Education team. By the time we finished talking to her it was after 5:00 and time to use our new train passes to get back. I'm pleased to say I made it back without getting lost or, as far as I know, breaking any international laws! I'm also pretty sure I didn't embarrass myself, Richmond Public Schools, or America any more than usual over the course of the day, so double win!
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  • Day3

    I didn't know what to expect from my first weekend in Japan, but I must say I was surprised. The first reason is that I apparently didn't understand Jun-Jun at all when she told me what we were doing Saturday. I thought she said we were going to her "cycling" club, and I can't say I was looking forward to that given my general aversion to exercise. However, it turns out she was saying "hobby" club (don't ask me how I heard "cycling", I don't know either). Jun-Jun's hobby is foreign language and travel, which is why she can speak a good amount of English despite not having to use it for a job. Her and several other people (mostly other older women) meet at a community center type building on Saturdays and I guess just share experiences about foreign travel and sing foreign songs or something? Look, I said I learned SOME Japanese - I had no idea what was going on most of the type.

    What I did understand was that there was a young woman there who had spent 10 months in a home-stay and attending an American high school in Montana of all places. She talked about her experiences and read a paper she had written for her English class there about Affirmative Action. Since it was in English, this was about the only part of the who meeting I understood. It was really interesting, if more than a little awkward for me, to hear her perspective. Perhaps unsurprisingly she took the position against affirmative action, and cited data and anecdotes about how the policy can discriminate against Asians. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know a lot of the fine details about affirmative action, but when she asked me what I thought I tried my best to explain SOME of the reasoning behind the policy - mostly how there is a lot of child poverty in America and that African-Americans and Latinx people are often more strongly affected and how that can lead to worse performance on tests that determine college acceptance. Like I said, it was pretty awkward for me and I know I didn't have all the facts. The good news is that I'm pretty sure only the girl who studied abroad really had any idea what I said because I said a lot and it was all in English. After that the group started talking about various things in Japanese so I mostly just sat there and quietly ate snacks and hoping someone would tell me what they were saying. I did ask at one point in the conversation and apparently they were saying that young people in Japan aren't paying attention to what is going on in the world. While I kind of question the accuracy of that statement considering older people are genetically predisposed to complaining about "kids these days", I said that it felt like almost the opposite in America. After the 2016 election all the older people just seem to want to live in a bubble while the millennials are worried about the end of the world and global crises.

    Other than the young woman's paper (and the food), the one other nice thing about the hobby club was that Jun-Jun's daughter who lives in Saitama (she has two, but the other lives further away) came and brought her two little girls. One is three (Miko) and the other is one (Koto) and they are sooooooo cute. While everyone was talking I was mostly watching Miko draw on the whiteboard in the room and Koto stare at me because I guess I would look really weird to a Japanese baby.

    After the hobby club meeting we went to a convenience store to buy lunch - a very common occurrence in Japan. Japanese convenience stores sell a lot of read-to-eat foods like sandwiches, breads, and rice balls that are cheap, often somewhat healthy, and taste good. While Japan does have drive-thrus, I haven't really seen any and apparently they aren't as common here and there isn't enough space for them in the city anyway.

    The reason we got such a quick lunch was because we were heading to see a show. Jun-Jun goes to a hula class, and her teacher was going to be in a recital. A few people may think that having a hula class is a weird (I hear you making Pearl Harbor jokes) but in fact Hawaii is a very popular tourist destination and Japanese people make up about 17% of the state's population, not including those that are mixed-race. Now I've been to several dance recitals and most of the performers are usually small children, but this show was at least 75% older women! It is well known that Japan has an overwhelmingly large aging population and as I was watching the show I was able to appreciate what a great low-impact workout hula can be. Go for it ladies!

    We didn't stay for the whole show, which I was very grateful for. While I was enjoying it, I was also falling asleep during it. When we got home I took a much needed nap, then ate dinner and watched TV with Jun-Jun and Iijima-sensei until it seemed like a socially acceptable time to go back to sleep.
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  • Day126

    Teegärten und Feuerwerk

    August 4 in Japan

    Nach einem langen und erholsamen Schlaf stolpern wir zur Tokyo Station und bestaunen den wunderschönen Bahnhofseingang 'Marunouchi'. Nicht weit entfernt steht der Kaiserpalast, den man nur von außen erahnen darf, und der wirklich sehr schön angelegte Palastgarten. Wir haben es allerdings eillig, denn wir treffen uns mit Nami wieder am Bahnhof. 🏫
    Sie möchte uns ihren Lieblingspark 'Rikugien' zeigen. Dieser ist wirklich ein Traum der japanischen Gartenkunst. Das Highlight ist allerdings das kleine Café mit Blick auf den Teich. Dort trinken wir edlen Matcha-Tee mit Süßigkeiten aus Bohnenmuß. Der Park schließt, wie alle Parks und Schreine in Japan schon am Nachmittag. Als Hinweis wir sanft klassische Musik gespielt. 🎼
    Unser Masterplan für den Abend ist das Sommerfest mit einem imposanten 90 minütigen Feuerwerk. Aufgrund der massiven Besucherzahlen von über 1.000.000 Menschen braucht es viel Organisation und Geduld der Sicherheitsleute für Zuganfahrt, aber alle Besucher nehmen sich zusammen, wodurch es insgesamt flüssig voran geht. In Deutschland absolut undenkbar! Wir staunen nicht schlecht und sind überzeugt, dass wir einige von den lächerlich gigantischen Knallern zum ersten mal sehen. 🎆
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  • Day39

    Gohyaku Rekan

    September 5, 2015 in Japan

    540 פסלים של בודהה שנמצאים במקדש קיטה-אין.

    חלקם עצובים, חלקם מהורהרים, כועסים או ממורמרים, חלקם סתם מבסוטים ואחד מחטט באף.

    האגדה מספרת שאם הולכים לשם בלילה ונוגעים בכל הפסלים - רק אחד מהם יהיה חם.
    צריך לסמן אותו ולחזור בבוקר כדי להיווכח שהפסל החם הוא גם זה שהכי דומה לך.
    הייתי מנסה אבל אני לא ישנה פה...

  • Day39

    Sweet potato

    September 5, 2015 in Japan

    תפוח אדמה מתוק (אני לא רוצה להגדיר את זה כבטטה כי זו לא ממש בטטה) הוא המאכל המקומי פה.
    ניסיתי כל מיני וריאציות שלו. המשולש הוא אחד הדברים הטעימים שאכלתי ביפן.

  • Day39

    Kumano shrine

    September 5, 2015 in Japan

    בכניסה למקדש מורידים את הנעליים והולכים על אבנים, זה מן טיפול רפלקסולוגי. ההליכה על האבנים הייתה עבורי סבל מתמשך אבל באמת הרגשתי שזה עזר לרגליים אחר כך...

    לא בטוחה מה הקטע של הנחשים... בטח אלי המשהו.

You might also know this place by the following names:

Saitama-ken, Saitama, 埼玉県, 사이타마 현

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