2004-05 Outbound to Japan
Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Eastside High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida USA
Host: Kawaguchi Chuoh Rotary Club, District 2770, Saitama, Japan
August 27 Journal
Well, it's been a bit over a week since I arrived in the "Land of the Rising Sun." I always thought that title made Japan sound like a fantasy land one could know of only from legends. Japan actually was rather like that for me because I had only experienced it through books and traveler's tales. Now I'm here and I'll be able to know this mysterious place for myself once and for all. No book could have ever enabled me to know Japan like my own epic journey could.
After my flight, which wasn't as horrible as everyone told me it would be, arriving in Tokyo's Narita Airport I found my host sister, Terumi, and niece, Yuri, along with three other Rotarians. They greeted me with smiles and a colorful sign reading "Welcome! Morgan Boecher." We chose a dinner spot in the airport where, I, the guest of honor, had the privilege of choosing any meal on the menu. After making my selection and receiving my food I realized that a strange phenomenon had occurred. Everyone had ordered the exact same dish! About halfway through the meal I had to ask why, to which the response was given: "It's easier this way... In Japan we do things as a group." I had heard of the group-oriented Japanese, but I wouldn't have expected to this extent!
I was excited to get to ride a train home to Kawaguchi, as well as when I learned that I would be riding a train to school everyday. Train, bus and foot, actually. When we arrived at my new home I was quite tired and in need of a shower. When I was shown the bathroom and found a large tub, a stool, and a shower head beside it lower than my waist I almost thought I would be too tired for what seemed to be an immensely different system. The sit-down shower really wasn't much of a problem at all, and I was soon able to fall asleep in my new, comfy bed with a funny shaped pillow. I slept well.
Every meal here seems like a delicious feast. With each meal several different plates and bowls offer interesting new flavors for me. I love tasting Japanese food. To my great delight I discovered that the markets featured in large department stores have free samples at every counter from vegetables to desserts. Another amusing food encounter happened last night at a restaurant that featured a stove on every table top. All the food was served raw and one was expected to cook it themselves! Luckily Terumi is a good cook^_^. I'm glad I can enjoy frequent walks and bike rides around the city with Yuri to counter the calories.
The fact that outside in two countries could be so different is astounding. Especially coming from America, where everything is big and wide, to the small and compact country of Japan. I was so amazed the first time I realized the cute, little cars traveling on the narrow one-way, two-lane streets. Even buildings are smaller and more tightly packed. Some of the doorways I've seen would not work with the taller stature of the U.S. Japan is built for a different shape of people, different bodies, and different mindsets. I'm glad I fit.
Ja mata, ne!
September 18 Journal
Exactly one month has now passed since I've last had a poppy seed muffin from my Bageland in Florida. But what am I doing thinking about American food here in Japan??? They have spreadable milk and corn flavored gum. I most certainly came to the right country.
Life in Japan is beginning to feel more normal, but no less interesting. I'm really enjoying school, which also stands as most of my social life at the moment since midterm exams are next week. I made friends on my second day and I'm still meeting more and more affable people. I joined art club which meets after school everyday, but because it's rather casual, many people don't go all the time. I wake up around 6:30 and take a 30 minute bus ride to the train station, from which I take the train to Warabi (the smallest "city" in Japan where my high school is located) then I walk 25 minutes to school. I thoroughly enjoy every leg of the journey, though. I love being outside and exploring. And with the train system travel is so easy! Everyday I can explore a new city that's only minutes away from Kawaguchi (my hometown)! Tokyo is only 13 stops away, but I haven't been yet. My friends promise to take me after exams!
School has been nothing but busy busy busy since I arrived. First there was Bunkasai (school culture festival) to which there is no equivalent in the States. The entire school was transformed into an amusement park! They built a stage out of desks and covered it with a beautifully hand painted banner! There were performances, food stands, games, horror houses, all constructed by students. Everything was covered with color and thoroughly decorated. Needless to say, the two day festival was a blast.
The next week I obtained my class schedule. I love the Japanese school system! Everyday I have different classes and all at different times. Some days P.E., some days Calligraphy, some days Math... My favorite is English class, though. The teachers use me for pronunciation practice. In classes like Japanese history or Biology I still take notes from the board in Japanese, but most of the time I can't read the teachers' messy kanji. Also, students usually study alone, so I foresee a rough time for me in school. Actually, there's this ten page paper due in January that everyone is going to be working on after exams. I'm kind of looking forward to writing it. It would be wonderfully rewarding writing a coherent report written in Japanese. As well as researching in Japanese... oh well, it's a challenge!
I'm already used to writing tons of speeches in Japanese... my club meets every week and they expect a Japanese speech from me every time. Even at my 'welcome to Japan party' (which was so much fun... I sang and danced karaoke to the Beatles "Back in the USSR" with the Rotary president's son) they threw me up there with a microphone and expected a speech in Japanese right there on the spot! Luckily I survived alright... I'm so glad to have studied Japanese so much before coming. Everyone thinks I'm so smart! Speaking the language enables me to express more of my own character, I think. I can be more polite and charming because I'm not just sitting like a silent block of tofu.
I should also admit that I experienced some culture shock a few days ago. My host family, who seem to have the more traditionally Japanese mindsets, told me that sightseeing was bad and that I should just be studying. Yeah, they're a bit strict. My first curfew was 5pm. I spoke with my Rotary counselor a bit because I was a little worried that they wouldn't give me the full experience I've dreamed about for so long. They wouldn't let me go to a party with all of my classmates because it was too late, lasting from 7-9 pm. I was upset because I've heard that seeing my friends outside of school will be a rare occurrence. I've still never been able to hang out with any of my Japanese friends yet. The party would have been a perfect opportunity.
However, now I realize how much my family cares about my happiness. Even though they worry when I'm out or taking walks on the narrow streets with fast, tiny cars and no sidewalks, they let me do so. A lot of the times they say no first, but then later decide to let me go. I'm gaining more freedom! Today I went to Akabane, the city next to Kawaguchi all by myself! I spent the whole afternoon there and had a wonderful time exploring.
I wanted to know what it is to be a Japanese high school girl, and that is what my family is allowing me to do. I wanted to be shocked and I wanted the opposite environment of America, and that's what I got. I'm living my dream, through the good and the bad. I'm so lucky to be able to wake up in Japan every day.
October 15 Journal
Woo! After this weekend I'm at the two month mark! And it won't take long to get there since I have lots to keep me busy until then. Tomorrow I'm going to see a traditional Japanese play featuring slow dancing and actors speaking old Japanese (which even the natives find difficult to understand). Also on Sunday I'm going with my host father (Otoosan) to see a classical music concert, and my second 'Undokai,' which is like a bigger, more formal version of a school field day. Kids run and race and play funny games where large logs are transported around spacious fields. I can't wait until my high school's undokai in May! There are even more plans in the future... Kabuki theater, Tokyo's art museum in Ueno, picture taking excursions in Harajuku, Ski trips, Hiroshima and Kyoto Rotary trips!!!
School and food also make every day something to look forward to. I've made friends from art club and my homeroom class and I learn so much Japanese every day! I'm getting to the point where I can understand my Japanese notes and the teacher's lectures, to an extent, if I strain and am quick enough with my electric dictionary. Cell phones and Japanese video games have become my favorite mediums of study, though. Everyday I e-mail my friends via cell phone, typing on the tiny keypads in Japanese. Sometimes they like to practice their English on me too! Also, I borrowed a Gameboy Advance from a friend and purchased the Harvest Moon game. I play it at my desk at home where I can look up any kanji or grammar I don't understand. I'm satisfied with my language capabilities. I can feel myself growing closer to my family now that I can communicate comfortably and even joke with them! I'm happy to be learning this fascinating language as well. Speaking and writing Japanese stretches your mind in wonderful new directions, because you have to think backward from English to communicate. And then put that in a different character system. I can't wait to see how far I can go with the language before the end of my year.
As well as having great things to look forward to, I have already make great memories. I went winter clothes shopping in Harajuku, Tokyo with my host sister and niece. Basically, if you belong to any subculture... goth, prep, punk, freak... you'll find clothes of your taste in Harajuku. That Tokyo district is quite popular with the youth, and I'm always hearing about fellow classmates visiting on the weekends. I love Tokyo so dearly. And I love the fact that I'm 20 minutes away by train!! Trains are absolutely wonderful. Thanks to them, I've been able to see about 8 different cities already! By the way, my area (including Tokyo) is actually one HUGE city! Between 'cities' there is no forestry or rice paddies or nothingness... all city! So if I want to think of it that way, I'm living in a part of Tokyo!
Fortunately, I've also had the privilege of experiencing the country area as well. I went way out to the mountains once to visit distant (host) family and gather chestnuts. Also, last weekend I took a trip with my whole family (for the first time) to Nigata-ken where I visited my first Japanese shrine. The gigantic series of blazing red-orange buildings was a beautiful and unique scene before the green mountains. We entered the shrine and took off our shoes (not unusual when entering a building in Japan) and paid our respects before a golden staircase decorated with radiant ornaments and statuary. I was a little curious as to what we were going to do in a Jinja (shrine) all day, since the plan was indeed to spend the day. I soon learned that after paying over $200 you sit in a room and write on big red candles. Lots and lots of big, red candles. I think we filled about 6 boxes or so. Actually, I only got to write on 2... I spent the rest of the time exploring the Jinja ^_^. The custom is to write your wishes, or prayers, in kanji on the candles, and in November the hundreds of candles are taken up to a mountain by the priests or shrine maidens for Kami-sama (God).
Another very, very Japanese encounter was when a Rotarian took me to see a Noh play, which is a traditional drama featuring crazy costumes, crazy talking, crazy music and slow dancing. After the play everyone enjoyed a splendid dinner that must have consisted of over 8 courses of small, exquisite portions. There, I was also invited to learn the art of Tea Ceremony, but not until next year. (Don't worry, I made sure to thank the Rotarian with a nice, long, thank you note in Japanese, of course ^_~)
What a rich and wonderful culture this country has. There's a way to do EVERYTHING, even though nowadays not everyone still practices the traditional customs. Heh... luck for me my host father never forgot any of the mannerisms of the past... During our delicious home cooked dinners by my host mother (Okaasan), Otoosan is usually drilling me about the proper way to speak or eat my food or present a business card. The first time he explained to me how I should only try to learn keigo (the polite form of Japanese speech used for speaking humbly to those older than you or higher up on the social ladder) and not casual Japanese (used for speaking with friends and people you're close to) I was a little bewildered. I told him that I wanted to learn both so that I could enjoy as many aspects of the language (and culture) as I could. If some people can know several languages, I should be able to handle two forms of Japanese. He disagreed, though. I've learned not to argue with older people in Japan... it won't get you anywhere at all. After our light hearted dispute he stood me up and instructed me for about the 5th time how to introduce myself with my business card. He wasn't mean about it... just so serious and headright. Afterward I felt a little overwhelmed and cried a bit in my room. Certainly a culture shock episode. I hear my father's very strict even by Japanese standards. The next day I was feeling a little overwhelmed again, but I remember always being told that sharing your feelings instead of sulking alone in your room was much better. I remember hearing from my first Japanese Rotary orientation that although Japanese parents can be strict, they are also capable of showing great warmth if you let them. I went downstairs and asked if I could talk with everyone, my eyes running and red. They paid full attention when I explained about the culture shock I was experiencing... how strange it was to go from such a liberal family to a strict one... but I made it clear to them that they were doing nothing wrong, and that I expected myself to be the one to adapt. They understood. To make me feel better, Okaasan and my sister took me to a supermarket, one of my favorite places in Japan, where I bought my cartoned coffee drinks and taste-tested all the fantastic foods reliably waiting on their little toothpicks. I love that... I can sample a small bit of every kind of interesting Japanese food from sashimi to melon bread... for free too! I take advantage of free samples every time I visit a food market.
It was a relief for me to know that my family had that Japanese warmth. Living with my family is feeling more comfortable. Tonight I perceived Otoosan's lecture on 'how to push the food that you didn't eat from dinner into a neat little pile as a positive experience in learning a different culture. He still has that air of strictness about him, but I'm getting used to it.
Oooo! And I love the cool fall weather that's coming around! Feels like Christmas is on its way... even though it's Oshogatsu (New years holiday) instead! There's still a Christmas, but everyone still works and goes to school! I have school Christmas eve, actually, because Christmas is the first day of winter break. Another queer fact is that there is more hype about Halloween around here, but no Halloween! I'm looking forward to doing the holiday season in Japanese.
I think now I'm going to try again to figure out how to take a shower properly and then enjoy a nice, warm, Japanese bath. Oyasumi nasai!
November 27 Journal
Konnichiwa, minna! Genki desu ka?
Sorry I've been unable to update in a while. I've actually been having some problems with my host family and I had to change, so I've been a little preoccupied. I was supposed to spend the whole year with my first family, but they've been more than a little neglectful, I could say... Luckily my host Rotary Club is eager to understand and help me. Now I couldn't be happier with my situation, thanks to them. I'm living with a fantastic family who always converse with me and take me out every day. I've been learning so quickly, dragging my electric dictionary around and looking up every word I'm not familiar with. It's like a constant communication game. I also have two brothers, age 15 and 17, who take a sincere interest in me. Usually I hear that Japanese brothers and sisters aren't very close... girls and boys in Japan tend to separate themselves from each other... but my host brothers don't mind long conversations or spending time with me. Not to mention this family is rather well off ^_^. I know there are much better aspects, but I have to admit the elevator in our four story house is pretty nice... I already feel so close to this family. A feeling I never developed with my last. On my second day in this household I helped with the preparations of my welcome party. Okaasan (mom) gave me a beautiful Japanese apron and we cooked and cleaned and talked... after the feast she offered me her bed to rest in. Second day and I'm already invited into her bedroom! With my last family I never even saw every room in the house.
In other news, school is going well. My teachers are all nice and they do what they can to help me understand and include me in the lessons, but most of my attention is focused on learning Japanese. In December I'm going on a school trip with my class to Okinawa! I've been trying to learn what I can about Okinawa's history and culture, and I've come to find some rather interesting information. Okinawa wasn't always a part of Japan so it has its own unique culture that I'm eager to see. I wonder if I'll be able to understand the Japanese spoken there. Also, a week ago we had our school marathon. 21 kilometers around a lake!!! Running for 3 hours straight!!! But I actually wasn't allowed to participate. The teachers though I hadn't had enough practice since most of my PE classes were substituted for Japanese. I still enjoyed a leisurely walk around the lake and ate bread with all my classmates afterward.
The colder season is approaching (even though the climate here is warmer than Gainesville's right now, probably) and I'm afraid of catching a cold. Japanese people really make a big deal out of it! A month ago, I woke up one morning with a bit of a sore throat and my host family made me go immediately to the doctor's after school. There I received five prescription medications that I took twice a day for about a week. For a little sore throat!!! I asked some of my Japanese friends and teachers if this was normal, and they said that usually in Japan parents take sick kids right to the doctor if they feel anything less than healthy. How are they supposed to develop any antibodies if they're taking medicine all the time?? Also you never ever see so much as one yen lying in public spaces. I've seen more buttons on the ground than coins.
Japan can be the most heartwarming place at times. I went to a middle school yesterday and answered questions about America and played games with the curious students and at the end of it all they gave me presents. A bag full of origami that they made themselves and an adorable note thanking me for coming. They were all so cute! Also, one of my friend's mom bought me an unusual present that just melted all my innards. Pants!! She had never met me, but she bought me pants. And the creepiest thing is that they fit perfectly and they're the same color as a pair I brought from America. (0_0).
I've been getting used to life here, but the adventure is far from over. Not a day has been a waste here. Since I changed host families I feel more relaxed and free to enjoy Japan. I'm exactly where I hoped I would be when I was dreaming in America.
December 27 Journal
This month could quite likely be my best in Japan so far; and I have a lot to owe to my host family and Rotary Club.
Life is perfectly comfortable with the Itou family. They've given me an environment in which I can enjoy personal space when I need it, or lively company. I still don't know how many host families I'll end up with this year, but I wouldn't mind staying here if it came to it. Okaasan (Mom) is always taking me about shopping, or to the temple where we do calligraphy, or borrowing picture books from the library for me. Last week I had some good bonding time with my Otoosan (Dad) and brothers at a Matsuri (Festival) where beautifully intricate New Years decorations hung for sale around the steaming food stands and gaming booths. Dinner is a warm experience every night. Okaasan teaches me how to cook the Japanese dishes that differ every night. Nabe is one of my favorites. A large, simmering pot is set on the stove upon the dining table and everyone constantly adds or eats veggies and meats that are put into the pot. Eating from the same pot while talking and laughing creates a great sense of togetherness.
Aside from finding my niche, I've been doing some adventuring as well. I went on a Rotary trip with the other exchangers to Hiroshima, Himeji, Nara, and Kyoto in three days 0_o. Yes, we were busy, but I had some great experiences. We took a plane to Hiroshima first, where we visited the memorial park and museum dedicated to the U.S. bombings of World War II. The museum was a pretty intense place. The most striking thing I remember is seeing some bits of burnt skin from a little boy's fingers on display. The caption underneath retold a story of how he was so thirsty while burning that he sucked the puss from his fingers. There are some incredible pains the human race has made itself endure...
After that heavy eye-opener we traveled to Himeji and explored a beautiful, seven floored, white castle before heading to our hotel around 6pm. We had some time out after dinner, but curfew was 9:30. That's Japanese Rotary for ya ^_^.
In Nara and Kyoto we visited a number of breathtaking temples and stayed at a traditional Japanese hotel called a 'Ryokan.' The Japanese feast was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. The elongated tables were so full of plates and bowls containing delicious varieties of foods that we had trouble keeping everything on the surface. We even had Matsutake tea, consisting of Matsutake mushrooms that can go for $30 a piece. I must say, Rotary really treated us well.
Even the return home was a treat. We got to ride the famous Shinkansen (bullet train). On the train I was looking forward to dispersing my many souvenirs that I bought for my friends and family (a must-do if you want to fit in in Japan).
*Whew* now for the long part... my school trip to Okinawa (a Japanese island between Taiwan and Japan). The $1000 worth of it was graciously paid for by my Rotary Club. Doumo Arigatou Gozaimashita!!!
The four days spent with my classmates speaking Japanese the entire time greatly helped me reach a deeper understanding of the country I'm living in. We took a two and a half hour plane flight (during which I saw Mt. Fuji) to Okinawa's largest city, Naha. Our first stop was a rather touristy place with a cave Okinawa's famous for. I was with my group of friends with whom I usually eat lunch and go to art club with, but I had never seen them outside of school before. I thought that this trip would really bring us together.
The second day we were guided by an Okinawan University student to a series of locations to learn about Okinawa's rather tragic history. Our first stop was a cave which was used as a hospital under the battlefield. 200 high school girls, of my age and younger, were dispersed by the Japanese government to various caves to provide medical service to wounded soldiers.
The cave I stood in housed about 1000 patients who were taken care of by 5 girls, and was about the size of a large room. There, amid horrid conditions from disease, lack of appropriate waste facilities and means of proper instrument sterilization, men were going mad, being eaten by maggots, and getting amputated by candle light. And the 5 girls were so overwhelmed with work that they didn't even have time to sleep. I was standing in a place that used to be hell on earth.
Later we went to a museum dedicated to the 200 girls who served as nurses. I read translated diaries that the girls wrote. Their stories made me feel rather emotional. I can't imagine having to go through what they did. I felt a burning anger at one point. No innocent, living thing should have to experience what those girls did. I read a comment by a Japanese general who stated that he didn't feel any obligation to mourn the dead or thank the survivors because they had fulfilled the minimum of what was required of them - to give their lives up for Japan if it meant harming the enemy. War is disgusting.
Later that day we arrived at our beach side ryokan and had another extensive picture taking fest. The next day we spent in the countryside, learning how to farm sugar cane, beniimo (tasty, purple potato-like things) and ride horses. One of the ladies working on the farm happened to be American, and seemed enthusiastic to meet me, another of her breed. She indeed had that familiar American spirit, despite having lived in Okinawa for 13 years.
Talking with her was quite refreshing, as she seemed to have experienced similar culture shock to mine. During the trip I had gotten a bit homesick because I didn't feel I was bonding with my Japanese friends so nicely. I still carry my outspoken, direct American nature, so when trying to adapt I find myself acting. I'm an American pretending to be Japanese when I'm with my friends. Never have I said 'sorry' and 'thank you' to such excess. On the trip my friends treated me as though they were responsible for me, reprimanding me when I went somewhere like the bathroom without telling them first. I like to explore and absorb as much as I can, but the Japanese way of sticking with the group clashes with those wishes. I don't cause trouble and I follow along, but I'm suppressing the real me inside; which, in itself, is a very Japanese thing to do. While friends have been the cause for a little disappointment, I realize I can accept it, because this is the Japanese culture that I came here to learn. The American lady too had some hard times trying to keep her mouth shut.
The last day we spent gift shopping in a large tourist area called International Boulevard, and flew home. I let out a gasp when we flew over Tokyo, sparkling like hundreds of jewels in the night. It was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever witnessed. Up until landing I couldn't unglue my eyes from the window. The runway was lined with bright blue and green lights, and while Tokyo shone off on the horizon, rectangular, yellow signs with black arrows and numbers were scattered around the space. Nothing but the lights and signs could be seen. It felt as though if math were a place it would be here.
Even more spectacular, however, was taking the monorail afterward through Tokyo. I was flying above and between buildings that dazzled with signs and Christmas lights. Over the bay I flew. In the distance I saw the magnificent Tokyo Tower all lit up. So much effort by so many people was put into creating these spectacular colors and shapes before my eyes. This is truly an amazing world, and I'm so grateful that I've been drawn closer to its wonders through being able to live in Japan.
January 14 Journal
So, wanna know what a Japanese Christmas is like? Just about the same as every other day in Japan! Except for Oshogatsu (New Years). That's the big, special holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Throughout December I felt as though I was misled, because the department stores and even some of the houses were just about as decked out as an American town that time of year. Christmas trees, colored lights, advertisements and gifts... I actually put more effort in gift shopping than I was expected to, but I had fun all the same. On Christmas day there was actually a little extra celebrating. Japanese barbeque, karaoke, dinner with friends, and two fancy Christmas cakes! I enjoyed the easygoing atmosphere and didn't really suffer from homesickness. I did get a little nostalgic, thinking of Christmas with my family, but that feeling was more enjoyable than depressing.
This New Years I wasn't watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV. I didn't countdown to ten or set off fireworks. Instead of banging pots and pans I was banging a gong beside a bonfire at a temple. The morning of Oshogatsu I awoke to a feast of osechiryouri (special oshogatsu food). Everything was delightfully sweet and delicious. The osechiryouri was made to last for the first three days of the new year, where everyone enjoys not having to do anything. My host mother then led me into her kimono closet and picked from her extensive collection a casual, winter kimono for me to sport around town. Despite the fact that the kimono I wore was a more simple sort, putting the whole thing on took over an hour. The whole family (including our Chiwawa (japanese spelling!!... cuz I don't know the English...) named Shun-chan) piled into the mini-van and went to a number of shrines and temples to request a happy year.
This year I may have missed out on a mountain of Christmas presents, but I had the privilege of experiencing the otoshidama. Otoshidama is money received from relatives in a pretty little envelope. Usually kids can get hundreds of dollars, but I was satisfied with my humble $50. Nengajou was also another foreign treat for me. Every new years everyone sends (usually hundreds) of postcards to friends and family, wishing them a happy new year. I had fun sending and receiving cards to and from friends and Rotarians.
Another significant event for a Floridian who had never seen snow before: Ski trip with my host family!!! We drove 4 hours to a nice resort where I spent two days learning how to ski and relaxing in the outdoor hot springs (despite the snow flurry occurring at the time). I can't say I'm pro quite yet, since I spent about as much time rolling down hills as I did skiing down them, but now I have a little experience before my ski trip with Rotary in February.
Needless to say, winter break was quite successful and I'm also happy to be back at school... to an extent. It's still freaking cold walking 25 minutes to and from school everyday!! And those stupid, short school uniform skirts don't help much... Lucky I didn't get sent to the northern island Hokkaido. School uniforms are rather a bother, I don't mind saying. In the summer the boys have to endure the heat in their long pants, and in the winter the girls' exposed legs freeze. Our first day back there was an assembly in the cold, cold gym where the whole school had to stand for an hour wearing only their school uniforms (no winter coats) while we listened to long speeches. Sometimes in Japan the importance of doing what's 'proper' surpasses the importance of being comfortable. One major difference from the States, I've found.
I'm happy to say that I'm enjoying life in Japan as much as I enjoy life in America. There are bits missing here (the people and muffins that I like the most), but there are also bits of Japan that will be hard to live without when I return to the US. Too bad there isn't a Morgan country where all the nice bits of the world are condensed in one spot.
Mata ne! (^o^)/
February 16 Journal
As the mid-year mark looms above me I find my life in Japan becoming more full, happy and exciting. At the end of January I switched host families again and am now living happily with Miwa Shinoda's family. Miwa is the Japanese inbound living in Daytona Beach, Florida this year. So yes, I'm back in main Kawaguchi, one station away from my favorite place in the world, Tokyo.
The biggest excursion thus far for the month of February would have to be the Rotary ski trip to Nagano Prefecture. I did my best to make up for all the years I've lived without snow by sledding, eating, skiing, climbing, rolling, falling, and playing in the stuff. On this ski trip I believe I actually learned a thing or two about how to ski, so I had a rather good time making my way down the slopes. I also managed to become better friends with the other exchange students and Rotex members, who I rarely had a chance to speak with before. Perhaps one of the most notable occurrences on that trip, though, was my first whack at wasabi ice cream. It was spicy, disgusting, and completely worth almost missing the bus home for. An experience I shall fondly think back to as I remove the wasabi from every bit of sushi I eat in the future.
The next most memorable event in the past 14 days would be my day trip to Roppongi, Tokyo with a good friend of mine named Kazune from Warabi High School and her dad. I love Kazune and her family so much! I had Christmas dinner at their home (the second tallest apartment complex in Japan) and I had a wonderful time laughing and talking and being myself with those people. Anyway, so Sunday we went by car (which took 30 minutes) to the heart of Tokyo and visited Roppongi Hills, which is meant to be a shopping mall, museum, and an observatory, but the actual series of buildings looks more like a work of modern art. We ascended to the 53rd floor and admired the spectacle of Tokyo stretching on forever. I also enjoyed the modern art museum, featuring an exhibit on inflatable and detachable cities. After window shopping throughout the maze-like structures we went to a famous, fancy chocolatier (it being the day before Valentine's Day and all). There we drank the most delicious, creamiest hot chocolate I've ever tasted. The chocolaty mixture seemed to contain the goodness of six mugs of normal cocoa compressed into an espresso cup. Afterward I went chocolate shopping on my own in less extravagant areas in preparation for February 14th.
In theory, on the Japanese Valentine's Day girls are supposed to buy chocolate for boys that they like, and when White Day (March 14) rolls around, the guys return the favor with white chocolate. In actuality, girls are really the only active participants in the holiday as they exchange home made goods among each other. I must say the chocolate surplus in all the stores was a bit misleading for me, because I hardly received any chocolate at all. I was bombarded with cookies, cakes, and brownies which I (fortunately) was able to counter with a bag of chocolate I brought to school. I think I was the only girl who gave chocolate to a few boys I considered friends... but, whatever! Everyone seemed happy ^_^. I swear, during Valentine's season I couldn't be happier to be living near Tokyo. They take fancy chocolate seriously this time of year. My favorites were the chocolate chunks shaped like tools (light bulbs, wrenches, chains...) And even better was taste testing it all for free in the ritzy department stores!
During the drive home from Roppongi on the highways that ran in mid-air among tall buildings and flashy advertisements I felt such pure contentment. There was nowhere else in the world I would have wanted to be at that serene moment. Being this happy feels like it shouldn't be allowed, but it has to be healthy. No outside influences with dangerous consequences induce this amazing elation. How many people know a feeling like that? I love where I live and I love what this year is doing for me. I can't wait to see the rest of the world! Thank you, everyone.
March 19 Journal
While I've been traveling and adventuring to as many corners of Japan within my reach, I have also begun to feel like I understand the Japanese mind, which seems to contrast almost completely to the 13 characteristics that make Americans American. Except for punctuality. We both like being on time for the most part. (These characteristics were taught to us exchange students at a Rotary orientation before our year abroad).
1. Individuality - Individuality tends to be rather important to Americans, but in Japan people value group consciousness (shuudan ishiki) and spend a lot of effort to ensure the comfort of others. They do this by maintaining a polite or humble stature among other people. 'Deru kui wa utareru' or 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down' is an idea I've seen in practice many times. Staying quiet and following the 'senpai' (leader) is rather encouraged. While American teachers encourage students to be critical, ask questions and think for themselves, Japanese students who stay quiet in class and mimic the teacher are appreciated.
2. Control of environment - Well, Americans like to control their individual environments to suit themselves, but the Japanese tend to accept nature and live with it harmoniously. In Japan I've certainly had more exposure to the elements, having to walk at least twenty minutes to and from school a day. In America there are cars, central heating systems and air conditioners to keep our environment comfy. The Japanese have a very strong sense for the seasons, as shops change their decorations, different foods become available, and certain rituals are performed for fall, winter, spring and summer. I can say that Japan prefers its social environment more controlled than its natural one.
3. Change is good - That's what I've always believed! However, I've met a fair number of Japanese who see their country changing for the worse. Despite the fact that I see Tokyo more safe than Gainesville in many ways, many people I've met believe that Japan is becoming a very 'abunai tokoro' (dangerous place), what with the rapid influx of foreigners and their influence and all. There's no doubt Japan isn't what it was a few decades ago. Right now is a fascinating time to be an exchange student in this country.
4. Time is money - My philosophy of life includes being productive at all times (even indulgences are productive if they're taken in the right ratio of quantity to happiness… as long as you come out mentally and physically healthy in the end…). With me being an adventurer and all, I certainly value my time and take special care to plan my actions tactfully so as to gain the most from this experience. About what the Japanese think on the subject… well, I don't think I've learned enough to make any vague conclusions, but they seem to think time is pretty important. I heard somewhere that if faced with a deadline almost impossible to make, taking time beyond the deadline would be preferable to doing a shoddy job.
5. Equality and Egalitarianism - Now, dealing with a lower quantity of this stuff took (and is taking) quite a bit of adjusting. 'senpai' and 'kohai' (superior and inferior) roles play an active part in everyday Japanese life. At school (Teacher—student, 3rd year—2nd year students), at home (Parent—child), in public and in groups (Older people, men—younger people, women)… These relationships are defined by actions and language (Keigo has three forms: polite, humble, and honorary, which are used when speaking to people of outside groups… (or inside groups of a certain kind that aren't made up of close friends or relatives)… Man, this place is complex, ne? In truth, I like the idea of just being equal. It's a lot easier and you don't have to learn three other languages so as not to offend superiors… But I have to say I am grateful to be able to learn first hand such workings of this amazing culture.
6. Self-reliance and self-help - Nothing instills more confidence in me than when I say I can do it myself. And yet traditional Japanese philosophy professes that 'amae' or the dependence on others is a great virtue. Because I lack this amae mindset I've come across many instances where I felt as though I were being treated like a child. Also, when hosted by someone you are usually dependent on that person's ability to sense what you need. Otherwise it's rude to ask for extra tea or a different kind of snack. In America I would mostly take care of my own meals by myself, but in Japan breakfast, lunch and dinner is provided (deliciously) by my host mother.
7. Competition and free enterprise - Yeah, I guess Japan and America do have some things in common. Business, business, business…
8. Short-term future orientation - Well, you see, before World War II Japan was a very constant country apparently. There was a right way to live, and people lived that way depending on each other and taking care to uphold relationships (social obligation is called 'giri') in order to get through nature's seasons year after year. I suppose that way must have worked all right because Japan has been a country for over 2000 years. In these past decades Japan has changed more rapidly than it ever has in those 2000 years. America doesn't seem to hesitate to turn the resources into cash quick, and it's hard to tell Japan's future since it's westernizing so fast…
9. Action/work - Nothing I'm afraid of… apparently not Japan either, that is, if you emphasize the WORK part. My interpretation of being productive seems to differ greatly from that of Japan's. Basically, if you're not working you're not being productive. My classmates spend a good amount of their free time at school or studying. My host father works overtime nearly every night. The Japanese don't have an equivalent to 'good luck'… instead they say 'ganbatte' which means 'try your best.' At times I've felt this to be a little insensitive, say, if one has a headache from studying too much and a friend says 'try your best!' instead of 'take it easy' or 'don't work too hard, now.' In truth, 'ganbatte' is actually one of the nicest things you could say in such a situation in Japan.
10. Informality - This I tend to miss rather often. The Rotary meetings contrast greatly with that of the American ones I've attended. Keigo really does emphasize the level of formality present, putting everyone in their proper place on the social steps. That's not to say the Japanese can't be friendly with each other. Showing respect is just an extremely important part of living harmoniously with other Japanese, especially those of outside groups. However, even with my host families I haven't yet been fully permitted to act completely informal. I wonder if it's because I'm a foreigner… A foreigner can't really be Japanese no matter how well they speak the language. Maybe it's my host family… I'm switching families today, so I'll be able to learn more about different workings of Japanese households again. I have been able to feel my 'American' informality come out with friends and even their family members, though.
11. Directness, Honesty - In Japan there are terms called 'Honne' and 'Tatemae' which translate as private and public stances/feelings/thoughts. Honne is used mostly with close inside groups while Tatemae is used to hide one's true feelings in order to 'keep the peace' with the group. Directness is often considered as pushy or rude, so the Japanese have many expressions and words that convey ambiguity. Other Japanese are used to communicating with such ambiguity and guessing the true feelings hidden behind the polite mask of their companions, but for foreigners Honne and Tatemae can be quite confusing.
12. Practicality and efficiency - One fascinating difference between Japan and America is the amount of ritual in Japan, formed by the build-up of 2000 years of history. There are so many ceremonies and festivals and events that involve special behavior or actions. For example, Ohina Matsuri is a day to celebrate daughters, and gigantic red stairs of dolls are purchased for thousands of dollars to decorate the household. My host family's living room was small already, but after we set all of the dolls up, we could barely walk around for 3 weeks! These beautiful monstrosities are certainly expensive and impractical for common Japanese households, but they help make Japanese culture as rich as it is. Without those inefficient, impractical rituals I would have had a much less interesting time here.
13. Materialism - Long ago Japan was a country that enjoyed simplicity, taking what one needed to live comfortably. Today materialism is rapidly becoming more commonplace. I've heard that some are displeased as to how sacred ceremonies like flower arranging and serving tea is becoming ritualized practices of the rich. The meditation and meaning is seeping away from Japanese culture as the modern age emphasizes the importance of materialism. There's no doubt that Japan is westernizing, but there is still so much to this country that makes it so unique from anywhere else in the world. I'm so delighted that I can live in such an age in such a place.
Well, I'm sorry I couldn't elaborate more on these subjects (I probably could have gone on a few hundred more pages or so) but here is basically a bit of what I've learned so far. That's not to say that this is what I will think about Japan before I head home on that plane. Really, there is just too much to learn in one meager year. But this meager year has sparked so much enthusiasm in me to explore the world. There's so much that I've learned about my own culture as well, looking at it from across the world. The quest for knowledge is so much fun ^_^.
April 25 Journal
During the first week of this month my dad visited me in Japan and let me lead him rather aimlessly around three of Japan's largest and most famous cities- Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. I had been planning this week-long excursion for months. Practically on my own, I made all of the necessary reservations for hotels (we stayed at a different place...and kind of place... every night) and transportation (night buses to Osaka and Tokyo) for our travels. Since, of the two of us, I spoke the most Japanese, I was also designated to conduct our fate. Hah, by the end we both well learned what it means to put fate in my hands...
After meeting at Japan's International Airport on April 1st, we headed to our accommodations in Asakusa, Tokyo -- the infamous Japanese capsule hotel. We bought our room tickets ($30 apiece) at a vending machine and headed to our individual capsule bedrooms after a nice bath and sauna. The room was actually spacious enough to be quite comfortable, and each capsule was equipped with its own TV set and radio.
The next day we headed to my host family's house in Kawaguchi to unload unneeded luggage, played in Shibuya, Tokyo, and went to Shinjuku (still Tokyo) to catch our charter bus to Osaka. We arrived at Shinjuku Station around 7:00 pm (the departure time was 9:30 pm) and made sure we found the right bus spot before enjoying some authentic sea urchin, fish egg and fermented soybean sushi. We returned to the bus spot at 9 pm and asked several official people if we were in the right place. 9:25 rolled around and suspiciously, there was still no bus. At the last moment I asked a police man and he told me that the location I wanted was a 10-minute walk away. At that point a few gallons of adrenaline flooded through my body and I ran with all my might back to where my dad was apprehensively waiting. "Can you run???" I shouted toward him. We're not going to make it, I thought. I shouted "Wait! We need a taxi!" then jumped in the nearest cab and frenetically instructed the driver as to where he needed to go. Poor dad was at the mercy of a teenage girl moving quickly and frantically speaking Japanese. We made it to the bus terminal where I yelled at a departing bus to stop, then asked the driver `You going to Osaka??`... No, wrong bus. But there were still buses in the terminal! It was a few minutes after 9:30. The cab driver came at me with change and told me to give him a 10 dollar bill to pay him. My mind was on other matters so my body obliged. I ran into the terminal asking "Did the Osaka bus leave already??" The other buses destined for other places had all departed except for one. The bus staff tapped on the last bus before it pulled out and made arrangements for dad and I to meet our Osaka bus in Tokyo Disneyland after riding the last one. All our chances but one had run out, but we made it. We were so gracious.
Around 7:00 am we had arrived in Osaka on April 3rd, my birthday. Until hotel check in time at 3:00 we were weary, homeless vagabonds. We found refuge in a karaoke bar where we belted out nostalgic songs. There my dad found a new love - karaoke. We spent the rest of the day exploring, sleeping, and celebrating my newly acquired adulthood at an okonomiyaki restaurant.
After a couple days in Osaka we took a train on over to Kyoto and checked into a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. We were hoping to find some of the well renowned Japanese cherry blossoms, of which there are 3000 kinds. To our dismay, we had arrived a bit early. The temples and gardens we visited would have been twice as breathtaking as they were had the blossoms been out. However, we still fully enjoyed our time in Kyoto, going to a geisha dance performance, a tea ceremony and unique shops.
When we arrived back in Tokyo we spent our time visiting many of the city's distinct districts. At Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, we sampled some squid ink ice cream as well as other interesting varieties of sea life. We found the Ginza district boasting some of the world's most expensive land (I heard if you folded up a $100 bill as small as you could make it, it wouldn't be able to buy the space of Ginza land it took up). We were also lucky to experience a cherry blossom viewing festival in Ueno Park, one of the best spots in the country to see cherry blossoms at their best.
Another remarkable episode was the dinner party that my Rotary club had in honor of my dad. We had a fantastic feast at a Chinese restaurant then went with my counselor to the ritziest karaoke bar I'd ever been to! I could tell it was one of the best nights of my dad's life. He was so appreciative of everyone in my club and most of the people who encountered and helped us on our journey. I feel so lucky to have been able to share part of this precious experience with someone who understands how precious an experience Japan is.
Til next time, sayonara!
May 29 Journal
Well, I suppose everything's winding down, eh. The last day of my exchange is June 13. Unfortunately, I had to cut my year a bit short on account of my trip to Australia from June 17 to July 13. However, I've had such a full, exciting year that I won't be leaving this country less than completely satisfied. In truth, I'm looking forward to that day at the airport. With all of the characters from my exchange crying and hugging me. At moments like those it's so easy to feel love; Love for Japan and love from everyone else. My heart will be tearing apart in that terminal but my predominant emotion will be happiness. Being so happy you're sad, and so sad you're happy. It's what makes humans the life of the universe, emotion. I couldn't imagine a better way for my year to end.
I remember experiencing another exchange student's last day at the airport. Karen, my good friend from Australia who went to the same high school as me. I could see vivid torment through her tears before she glanced back at all of her friends for the last time. But I was so happy for her. She was perfect for Japan and she had a perfect year. I thought she had a perfect departure day too. Man, one really sighs a lot the last two weeks before the end of such an adventure...