Dominique Ghirardi
2005-06 Outbound to Japan

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Takaoka West Rotary Club, District 2610, Japan

September 1 Journal

When I stepped off the plane from Tokyo, all I could think is what might await me. Though we spent the night in Tokyo, so many people spoke English to us, so I wondered just how far English had come in this rural area of Japan.

All I needed was the random woman who approached us, for no reason other than to say "Hi" loudly and awkwardly, and I had my answer. Since then, I've gotten nothing but the strangest English and awkward stares from complete strangers, just because I might be the first one of me they've ever seen. Wow, that sounds strange...

To make matters worse, people talk about you, including your host family, because they assume you don't understand. But that was where my other surprise lay. From the moment I walked into Haneda Airport, up to this moment now, I have understood the general idea of just about everything said to me. Every now and then, there will be a sentence with no words understood whatsoever, and my speech isn't as good, so others probably speak simpler Japanese because they assume I don't know any.

But still, that wasn't what I expected. Instead of fearing this foreign language, I am at ease, even if I don't understand. Since I arrived, I have made four speeches in Japanese, introducing myself. I found that it is easier to speak in public when you aren't quite sure of everything you're saying.

Now I am in for a huge challenge, though. I just moved into my first host family, which is pretty laid back. They have three sons, two of which live at home, Rei and Yo. They are older, Yo being only 3 days older than me, and Rei being 2 years older. The eldest son is a mystery to me. I was shocked by the parents, mainly because they want me to call them Yu-san (the father) and Yoshiko-san (the mother). Then again, even their children call them that. I find that so strange.

They own a McDonald's, and they do pretty good. Also, they own a dog, which I have never had before, and I am slowly learning what makes the dog bite or growl, usually the hard way... (I have only had cats, and they are not at all the same as far as warning signs go...oh well!) To make things even more difficult, the only one who speaks decent English is Rei, who went to Canada as an exchange student. So, I am definitely getting used to trying to speak in Japanese, and I find it frustrating that I can't express myself.

In fact, understanding, but not speaking so well is about the worst feeling in the world to me. I feel as though I am comatose; I can hear and understand so much, but I can't always let others know how I feel or what I need. Then again, that's just motivation to work harder on the language!

I also just started school today. The classes are a complete mystery to me, even P.E. is different from America. Also, they teach their English class in Japanese, which explains why everyone's English is so bad in my school. But that's okay, they all try their best and we have such simple and strange conversations. However, I have already made so many friends, and so I feel things will get better so long as I keep trying at the language.

As for daily life, I love Japan in so many ways... You can hear cicadas and crows all the time, and sometimes they get so loud that you can't hear others so well. And while everyone complains it's hot all the time, compared to Florida, it's perfect. Even better, it's so pedestrian oriented, and I have really gotten a chance to try out my sense of direction, as well as enjoying a new found independence. Growing up in Jacksonville, where everyone is so dependent on cars or specific busses, I have never before been able to just go somewhere if I need to, with my only limitation being my curfew or knowing the appropriate train time. I have already been able to do things with friends more so than ever before, just because I don't need anyone to get there.

I plan on joining many clubs, and my second host father, Kanamori-san, has even arranged for me to have lessons in odori, a Japanese fan dance. Right now, my only sorrow is that I don't blend in so well, but right now, that is to my advantage.

Ja matta ne! (see you later)

October 31 Journal

Konnichiwa! Sahiburi, ne?

That means 'It's been a long time...' and it really feels like it. True, these entries have been few and far between, but this one month felt like it took years.... But before I start on October, September ended with a festival!

At the very end of September we went up to the city of Shiminato to participate in the festival procession (more like the practice session, but it was still fun!). The parade is filled with nothing but tall wooden floats with dancers on top and people riding inside. Moved not by cars but by people, one of the people inside waves a baton enthusiastically and shouts encouragement mimicked by those pushing below. Everyone wears hapi, these thin overcoats held on by a sash and a bandana, and we were given one by the Rotary club of Shiminato. You can feel the whole crowd liven as dozens of people helped push....and we got to help! It was hard work, but at the end my friend Victoria, who's from New York, and I climbed up into the float, eagerly encouraged by the men within, and led the cheer!

Then at night, the actual event has a mysterious aura thrown in with the enthusiasm: lit by thousands upon thousands of lanterns, each float reaching almost the height of the small buildings, the dim lighting and old Shinto music makes you feel as though you're in another world entirely.... And I have to hand it to the drummers on top....they have to be brave... For the real procession, there are only boys pulling so it goes faster. There's also a Noh dancer inside with a white mask which adds to the atmosphere....I loved it.

As September eased into October, I began my odori lessons. I was thrilled to finally experience the beauty of this art which I had read so much about, and was not disappointed in the least. On my first lesson, I was given a purple fan, to match the kimono I bought, and then shown a picture of a geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) by my sensei. She told me that maiko were dancers, light and graceful, and all who do odori are maiko in spirit. It sounded so exotic and wonderful... Every week I go to my sensei's house and don my host sister's yukata (which Kanamori-san lent me) and though the lessons are all so specific, this just adds to the perfection and intricate nature of the dance. I'm currently working towards my performance in December ... at the Rotary Christmas party.

Dance wasn't all I started. Bored with chorus and finding myself with much free time, I decided to try volleyball. I'm terrible at volleyball, as I've never done it before just this summer, but I found that I enjoyed it and genuinely wanted to learn, and I was lucky in that they don't have a competitive team here, but a club in which people were more than willing to teach me. I was surprised at this, as it seems everyone had done this sport since elementary or middle school and was amazing at it, but I found over time that there were two important exceptions to this rule, Mai and Yuka. These girls just started and, while they aren't as bad as I am, they can't really play with the others at the same level. Mai, who's in my class, was thrilled to have someone to play with during gym, as the teacher is often hard on people like us, and though we have only barely scratched the surface, I'm sure we'll grow to be friends. Yuka, on the other hand, is almost my best Japanese friend. I basically gave her something to do at first, as she's even worse than Mai, and therefore can't play with the others at all, but this evolved into a great friendship in which language didn't matter. I can speak Japanese all right for someone who's only been here two months, but she couldn't speak English at all, and so every now and then we run into walls only just saved by the dictionary....but thanks to her, I've not only learned much more Japanese than I would have thought I would by playing sports; I also learned about Japanese people as well. I found that because she was separated from the others, she was troubled and was eager to find ways to connect with them. This helped me, because she showed me how I too could connect with them, which goes farther than the volleyball club. She wants to play better just as I want to adjust better and they seem to run parallel in a way.

As time went on in school, I found that because they don't let me take the tests (as I can't read enough kanji yet) studying is not a main priority. The classes I do participate in, that are actual academic classes, are mainly venues in which I can try to increase my vocabulary. As a result, because I go to a prestigious school which is very difficult, many of the friends I had made at first often find that they don't always have time for me if I want to talk to them. I understand this, but again, luckily, there are exceptions. I belong to a small group of friends that always include me in their conversation if they can, mainly because of one girl named Ha-chan (her name's really Hazuki, but that's what we call her). She just happened to sit behind me at first and, because of my habit of turning around in between classes for conversation, turned into someone who I can trust and ask for help. She's the one who introduced me to the volleyball club and she's one of two who actually will talk to me first for more than English help. The other girl, Mickey, who's real name is Mitsuki, has comforted me with her wildness and louder ways that remind me of my friends back home.

In fact, to be honest, while I did encounter much this month, my main problem was coming to grips with culture shock. I had clearly had a different vision of Japanese social life in my head and it was killing me for the longest time that I was mistaken. No one, not even the people in the easier schools, goes out, and the subjects of conversation never get as personal as they can between girls in America. Contact with the opposite sex is somewhat minimal, as most girls have girls for friends and boys are likewise. People are nice, but sometimes too nice, and much more quiet, with a whole different sense of humor. I longed for my friends and the louder lifestyle of high school back home, and came to a greater shock when I found that if I told someone this as confiding in them, such as my host mom or teacher, they'd only look at me as though I wanted them to solve my problem for me. It was nothing like what I was used to, and I had no idea that I had ever been so used to it!

To make things even more difficult, the stares and separate treatment was really getting to me. People would sit on the other side of the train seat (which is quite long) or walk on the other side of the street to avoid me. My own host brother stared at me for a while.. As I walked down roads, minding my own business, men and boys would call out to me in English, followed by laughter or sometimes my being followed.... I quickly learned which roads were better and when I could tell if someone was messing with me, but the fact that they were hurt me. It also hurt me when people tried to separate me because they seemed to miss the point that I wanted to belong.

But this wasn't to last forever, though it's probably what made this month feel like three. I was even sick for a while and even though I knew this was culture shock and tried to follow the guides I'd been given, nothing seemed to help. Then, one day, as I was living day by day for a while, I woke up and felt completely different. It was as though those feelings were a heavy blanket that had fallen off, and suddenly I could run again. It was probably no coincidence that this day was my most exciting of that month, in which I had an opportunity to do something no exchange student in this region had ever done before.

This happened about a week ago tomorrow, when I was asked to miss school and go to this famous temple in Takaoka's center with my second host mom (though I'm still with my first host family), dressed in kimono. All I knew was I was doing tea ceremony and the kimono was being provided for me. But when I entered the room to be dressed, after having my hair done in a way I haven't seen since my dad's wedding, I saw the kimono I was to wear and I felt like screaming and hugging my host mom: it was furisode. I had read about furisode, they're really formal and only for young, unmarried girls. Flashy and heavily decorated, though still stylish, with sleeves so long they reach your ankles, it was accompanied by an obi of equal golden beauty, which was long and elaborately marked. I beamed as they put it on me, and I felt suddenly closer to my second host mom as she told me it had been hers and that only one other exchange student had worn it, along with her daughter, and her. We then went to the temple, accompanied by many tea ceremony sensei, a violinist in a prom-like dress, and the Rotary governor of our district. When we arrived, I learned that we were doing a photo shoot for a popular nationwide women's magazine, which I had seen in both my houses. We all had many photos taken of ourselves, either posing as directed or while doing a modernized version of the tea ceremony, which was unlike anything I'd ever done in my club at school. I had the time of my life and had a chance to talk to many interesting people, all of which lived nearby, and I was amazed at how networking works here in Japan. You should definitely never refuse a friend or make an enemy, because whatever friend you make, you make friends with their friends and family too, and likewise for enemies. And you never know who the other person knows....

On Saturday I had a chance to paint glass dolls with a sensei. I've had many craft opportunities like this, as my host families keep setting them up for me. I recently finished ceramics, where I was taught on a potter's wheel for the first time and learned tricks from a man who seemed to have done this his whole life. I also was able to see a Noh drama, in which I could understand nothing but was entranced by the way the Shinto music and old Japanese note system, in tune with the disciplined, mysterious dances and costumes........I felt like I was back in the periods during which they were written, and it was definitely an experience.

Yesterday I went down to the prefecture of Gifu, which is covered in mountains. It was amazing to see the autumn colors dotted all along their tall tops and I think it was my first time actually seeing anything so....autumn. Strange as this sounds, 52 degrees Fahrenheit never felt so warm........ We also saw these amazing old houses of traditional style and thatched roof which are still being lived in and maintained up to this day. It's so unexpected to find people still living as they did hundreds of years ago today, adapting only in small ways, and still surviving just fine. It was a real treat compared to the constant change of today.

Next month is my last month with this host family, and we're going to Yokohama! I'll be sure to post at a more reasonable interval next time.

Matta ne!

December 14 Journal

Chotto sashiburri, ne?

It seems ever since November ended, we've had about one day without snow or rain.....but first let's get November out of the way.

November was fairly busy, and a huge improvement over the drama of October.  Culture shock has come and gone, for the most part, and while there were some issues with other exchange students, in the scheme of things that's the worst of my problems.

Sometime in the beginning of November, I was taken 'Nordic Walking' with a group of many foreigners and some Japanese.  'Nordic Walking' is a Finnish style of exercise in which you carry ski poles as you walk in such a way that it exercises your arms.  It wasn't hard and we did so on a nearby beach after first cleaning up the beach.  There were three Fins there, one of whom I already knew, but neither of them had ever been Nordic Walking so it was an experience for us all.  I have to say the best part of it all was that there were people form all over: Australia, Holland, Scotland, Finland, Germany, Canada, and America, and they were all in Japan for different reasons.  Their ages and backgrounds varied largely and talking with them not only gave me new friends but also helped me to see this whole experience through another perspective.  I'm also learning how to make friends that are much older than me by finding things in common, where before this was somewhat awkward.

One person who really made me think was the Scottish man.  He was always a wanderer, and had only recently settled down in Japan when he married a Japanese woman and had a daughter.  There was some particularly good advice he gave me which I won't forget:  'Every time you see a photograph of a place in a magazine or book, know that the photographer who took it studied that place in all angles, in all weather, in all different lightings, probably for a long time.  But no matter, sometimes, photographs just can't do a place justice.  You have to see it with your own eyes to truly understand.  When you travel, it's actually cheaper and much more worthwhile to stay longer as you don't have to rush to see what you want to see.  Rather, you can take your time and really enjoy the place for what it is.'

In the next weekend, I was asked to show my friend Victoria, an exchange student from New York who is currently living in Toyama, around Takaoka.  It made me realize just how different this experience is for everyone, just by what town you're in.  For her, the exchange is more social because there are many foreigners in her area her age and they often go to karaoke with Japanese, as opposed to Takaoka which is more culture oriented and has much fewer foreigners of all ages.  I'm starting to see why we all are having such a different time here.

On November 20th I went to an odori performance with my sensei and Victoria, who didn't originally want to come but was asked to anyhow.  It was what I had expected of an odori performance, but much more varied and brilliant.  It's amazing.....in odori, you can be who you want to be.  If you want to be a mysterious Noh actor back in the Heian period, go ahead.  If you want to be an exotic maiko performing in a tea house, it's all yours.  You are confined by neither era nor status, all you need do is learn the dance and don the costume.  Even Victoria, for whom the traditional arts are not a big interest, this was fascinating.

The next day, my host mother and father, Lucy (the Australian exchange student here), and I all set off for Yokohoma.  It was an experience.  On the way we could see Mt. Fuji in the distance, and because we were near, decided to stop in at the nearby cemetery to meet my host father's parents who had passed away.  I was told how, and I thought it was rather tragic as he was young at the time, but no one seemed to show even the slightest hint of awkwardness or thought at it.  We lit incense, took pictures, watered the plants on the grave (yeah, they have a little garden going there.....) and left without another thought, the whole time laughing and talking like we ere window shopping.  Interesting...  Oh yeah, and some things to note: in Japanese cemeteries, Christians, foreigners, and everyone else all have their own separate area.  I thought that was a bit strange.

When we arrived at our hotel in Yokohoma, which had a wonderful view of Yokohoma's famous ferris wheel, we met up with my oldest host brother Kei.  He was pretty different in person, but I liked him.  Kei really is an older brother; if you have a problem, he tries to help you with it and doesn't make his disappointment or anger known.  Having spent a year in Alaska, he understands the American sense of humor and it was fun joking with him.  We went to the Chinatown in Yokohoma, which is huge, and ate dinner there. 

The next day we set off for Tokyo via subway.  I have to say, it was my first time in a subway, and I prefer trains.  There's nothing to see in a subway....though I did find it interesting that the subway and train are one and the same, as it darts above and under the ground at select times.  I didn't even know we were in Tokyo until my host mom pointed out the Tokyo tower....I was shocked; there weren't that many people at all on the street....

We then went to Keio University, the best private university in Japan, where Kei was having his school festival.  Honestly, it was no different from a high school school festival, but it was interesting nonetheless.  I admire the man who can wear a Hello Kitty character suit and keep a straight face.....  There were weirder things too; men in Chinese dresses, people running at you in all directions trying to sell you on their booths' products, a man who could play the piano faster than anyone I've ever seen, just to name a few....  Not to mention they had an awesome hip-hop dance team; I was shocked.

After that we went to Herijukku!  I've always wanted to go there because I've heard it's like no where else fashion-wise....but upon arriving it seemed so normal I couldn't figure out what was wrong.......  Then we turned in this one street and it was like I was in another world.  The things I saw there and the people passing by could not possibly be boring in any setting, and only in this setting could anyone see them as normal....  It was pretty vivid. 

On the way back, I was reminded that I was in Tokyo, as the subway was so crowded that at every turn or jolt no one could move.  I wasn't really that uncomfortable, though, only when it creaked did I worry....

The next day we drove back home, on the way we ate at a hotel which was famous for John Lennon having patronized it.  We looked around in the cute little town surrounding it, apparently a popular tourist spot despite it's location in the middle of nowhere....  Upon returning, though, it was good to be back.

The next week was my last week with the Kawais, but no one was that sad.  For the longest time I thought I had done badly with these people because they didn't feel anything about my leaving, but I realized that that was not true the morning I left.  As my host mom was leaving for work, we said our goodbye, and as she left and I turned around to go finish packing, she came back saying something to herself which I could not understand but could at the same time as she briskly came up to me and hugged me for a while and then left so quickly it left me standing there wondering what just happened...  The Japanese don't hug.  I've gotten used to that, so I was somewhat shocked.

As we drove up to the Kanamoris' house, I remember doing the same thing the day I went to the Kawai family, only it was Mr. Kawai waiting there for me, not Mr. Kanamori, who is now my host dad.  It was the strangest thing because while we had a little snow before, it had melted and the surroundings now looked the same as they had in summer, with a little taste of fall mixed in.  It was the strangest deja vu, and while it felt like I'd lived with them for ages, as difficult times seem to last forever, it now felt like it had only been an overnight stay.

I am now in my new host family, the Kanamoris, who aren't really so new to me as they hosted me before for ten days.  Their children are grown and live in Tokyo, one is in college and the other works.  Misako, my host sister, is the younger and is the one in college.  We've met before but only for a bit; I stay in her room.  Her brother Yohei didn't even know I was in the house until Oka-san mentioned something I said on the phone the other day....  It was funny, actually.  Oka-san is a sweet woman who enjoys tea ceremony and the traditional arts, so we have something in common.  Oto-san has excellent English, and sometimes is a little too willing to speak it, owns a company passed down for generations, and plays golf.  I love living with them; because their house is near the station and in the center of the city, I have a lot of freedom here.  I also just found out that they were both exchange students, though older at the time and much more briefly, at one time so they have some kind of idea of it all.  They both study English in their spare time.

Recently I've felt so at home everywhere I go.  I finally feel accepted here and now things are really picking up.  In school I have many friends, and am even getting invited to do things now!  As far as volleyball goes, I notice that when talking to them, I'm saying things I would normally say or ask my friends back home now.  We even have inside jokes, something that I would never have expected in October or even November.  At home, both host parents have stopped using polite forms on me already, meaning that I'm one of them for now.  Oka-san and I went to see a movie last weekend and then to a culture festival.  They seem to have time to do things with me or if not, at the end of the day we always talk about what went on just like I would at home.  In many ways it's a lot like home, but in many ways it's very different.  I feel like I'm on one of the highs right now.  This is great!

And to top it off, I'm up to my hips in 46 inches or so of snow!  It's the powdery kind that you can do things with, and I find myself wanting to throw snowballs and make snowmen just because I never have before....  The best part is, if you wear the right clothes, it's not even cold!  In fact, it's sometimes warm!

Matta ne!

February 8 Journal

Konnichiwa!

It's February 8th and now everyone talks of the coming spring, though outside snow still trickles, every now and then breaking into what seems to be a miniature blizzard. The days are warmer, but still not what you'd call warm, and in most exchange students' hearts of Toyama prefecture lies the question of what the next half of this experience will bring. But first, let's catch up on the most busy two months or so I've ever had here, as well as probably the best for this reason.

I left off on December 14th, which was the Takaoka West Rotary Club's annual Christmas party and also my dance performance. It was a night to remember, if nothing else. That afternoon, I left school early to go have my hair done in the traditional style of a maiko, or trainee geisha. Everyone was shocked by my hair's length and that no extensions or additions would be needed. Afterwards, I was rushed back into the car and off to my sensei's house, where she dressed me in a beautiful blue furisode (long sleeved kimono) with red flowers along the hems. A brilliant red obi (sash) was draped around and tied to hang down long as a maiko's does, which sort of resembles a willow in a sense. It was so long; it went from the nape of my neck down to my knees!

We had a quick practice and headed off. As ready as we could be, we met Lucy behind the stage. Lucy was to do a trumpet solo and was nervously messing with the trumpet as my sensei tapped her closed fan into her hand several times in a dull panic, as she too had to perform. Oddly enough, I felt nothing, and when Lucy had finished and it was my turn to go, all I could think was it was such a shame that there would be no more practice, no more of this song, which I had fallen in love with and looked forward to every week. You see, I'd done this for about 12 weeks and at the time was uncertain about whether or not I would be able to learn another dance as no one was talking about it yet... The performance went without problem and my Japanese teacher even got it on camera! She put it on DVD later, which I'm so grateful for as now I have a record of the dance to show my family!

But it didn't stop there. After my sensei's dance and a short speech, the party actually begun. Dressed as a maiko, I must have given many of the people there a real nastukashii or nostalgic feel, because I believe I had my picture taken with just about everyone there, save Lucy... I loved it too, for while in that moment, in that guise, it was as though I became someone completely different and enjoyed every minute of it. As soon as I'd removed it all, upon returning home, it was as though I'd removed that 'self' as well. Kimono are not ordinary clothes and so I feel as though they have a sort of effect on you when you wear them, each type being different.

The next few weeks were nothing but extra classes in school, which were none of the classes I took, not to mention the days were cut in half. Therefore, even the studious of Takaoka High School students decided they should loosen up and have some fun! As a result, I saw more movies, went to the mall more, and hung out with friends more than I'd ever done so. That was how I thought Japan would be before I realized that just because it's convenient to go places does not mean that you have the time... Though I'd adjusted to the new way of life, I really enjoyed this short spurt of vigorous social activity, though my volleyball suffered for it....

It was planned that on the 22nd we would set off for Tokyo, so that we would be able to visit the emperor's palace when it opened the morning of his birthday. My host family had invited Lucy along as well as my friend Tori and her host family, which happen to be my host father's little sister and her family.....small world! However, as we hurried home that day from school, snow flurries were everywhere in a gentle blizzard. Just as we'd thought, our train was canceled and so we never got to see the emperor's palace. Lucy stayed the night and we caught the train the next day. We got there late, so not much in the way of sightseeing was done, though we did get to see Tokyo Tower all lit up at night.....it really is beautiful in a strange, industrial sort of way...

As it was Lucy's seventh or so time in Tokyo, she went off on her own as Tori, who had never been, and I shopped in Shibuya and Harajukku. It was such a different experience from before, I honestly think everything is depending on who you're with and when you go... That night we saw kabuki, or traditional-style Japanese theater at the Kabuki-za. It's pretty interesting; the actors are all male and the Japanese is old, so they sell audio guides in Japanese and English to help you understand what's going on. Though I listened in English, it was only really funny and interesting to me because I could understand Japanese....the jokes are much more simple, no matter what type of Japanese used. I truly loved it and if I got the chance. I'd go again for sure!

We returned Christmas day, though it took Lucy surprising me with a last-minute tiny gift she bought at the nearby convenience store for me to remember.... As we rode back on the train, we had to stand, as it was overbooked, but it wasn't a bad experience. I've noticed the things I once would have been angry about I can now tolerate if nothing can be done. Once we arrived home, we went out for Christmas dinner, which is a common practice, actually. Just think of it like this: the sort of things we do for Christmas, they do on New Year, and vice versa. Christmas is a time for friends and dates and eating out. Only if you have small children at home do you buy a tree or give gifts. I sort of think it's a bit sad about the gifts, but then again, the Japanese give small gifts so often, what difference does it make?

On the 27th and 28th, an overnight orientation was held in Kanazawa. It was fun; we got to see the Australians one last time before they left and we got to meet the new students going out next year! I have to say, it really feels odd being on the other side of things.....it also explains why the inbounds I met last year all seemed to have things going on.....because within a district is a tiny community of people who have immediate connections from the moment they meet. Some come from the same country or district or some just live in the same area... It was really fun, though; it was held at the Rennias, which is a 24 hour hotel complete with karaoke, bowling, a pool, and a hot spring! We stayed up till it was time to go to the morning session and were sure to include the new people as much as possible...

Then came New Year's Eve.... Misako, my host sister of whom I don't see much, as she lives in Tokyo, came home during this time and the house was bustling with tradition in just about everything. That evening we prepared the special meal for breakfast while my host mom did flower arrangements. Later on, a well known annual music program came on which lasted until midnight. I'm not usually the type who can watch TV, and the radio here is not very popular, so I was pretty behind in music, even to my exchange student friends... But while watching that program, Misako singing the songs she knew or liked and my host mom gossiping to me about each singer or group, I feel in love with so many songs that I'm now hooked on music shows here... In Japan, it's not just the music that's good, the whole presentation of each singer is so amazing and range from elegant furisode and sexy, slinky dresses unlike any you've ever seen to men dressed as cheerleaders and people bobbing around in sailor suits. It's definitely something to watch!

The next day we arose early and ate the special breakfast only oshogatsu, or New Year's can bring..... It was unlike anything I'd ever eaten and that was a good thing, because it was awful! Well, actually, I think it's safer to say that it was not to most of our tastes as there seems to be a natural understanding between the exchange students here about the 'New Year's diet', but it was an experience! Afterwards, I was dressed in the furisode that I'd bought and Misako in one of her kimono. It was so exciting! I always love to dress in kimono, especially furisode, it gives such a special feel to the day! While my host mom got Misako ready, I set off with my host dad to the nearby shrine in Kojo Park. When we reached the top of the hill it sat upon, my host dad dropped an offering into the designated area and called me over to ring the bell. As he was trying to get the perfect picture of it, I had to ring it almost fourteen times!

As soon as we returned, we were off to my host grandparents' house, my host dad's parents. There we went straight into the traditional section of the house which ultimately leads out to a teahouse. In one of the tatami-covered rooms, Misako and I took pictures both individually and together in front of the tokona alcove, an area where a scroll and flower arrangement are typically placed for guests to view. Afterwards, we headed back to the main section of the house, where we had a specially made lunch of the exact same thing we ate for breakfast.... But the fact that my host grandma made it all alone, while back at the house it took three of us to make it, was amazing, so we ate it without problem. When that finished, we ate sweets in the shape of dogs (though we couldn't really find the dog in them) accompanied by tea in honor of this year being the Year of the Dog. While leaving, my host grandma gave me a Christmas present, which was an embroidered bag from Vietnam, and an envelope that contained 3000 yen.....I was shocked! It was as though I was always a part of the family, the way grandparents in America send cards on holidays, and it made me feel most included.

Later on, we did something similar as we traveled to nearby Toyama for dinner with my other host grandparents, on my host mom's side, which own a kimono shop. Because of this profession, which my host uncle had followed in, most of the people there were dressed in kimono. It was quite interesting, as it was my first time meeting my host uncle, my host aunt, or my host cousins. This greeting the family is an important custom in Japan; oshougatsu is when people migrate back to their hometowns and families show their appreciation to those who have helped them in the past year. These sort of celebrations and reflections continued on for the next few days, showing their face in various traditions such as special food or extra errands or business. As the Japanese celebrate the first everything of the new year, it always seemed that no matter how far from New Year's the time grew, it never seemed to end.

But eventually Misako returned to Tokyo, where Yohei, my hardworking and ever busy host brother, was waiting, and the vacation took on the same face as it had before with lots of social interaction. My host aunt went to Hawaii with several other relatives on that side, which left Tori, my friend from New York, at my house for the rest of the vacation. We were given the rare opportunity to do an extra homestay for one night, which held three important things neither of us had really experienced to the full extent: they lived in a traditional-style house, they had small children, and they spoke absolutely no English.

We had seen traditional houses and we had had opportunities to interact with small Japanese children.....we'd also had more than our share of Englishless-ness in our exchange, but not living there. Though my first host family hardly spoke any English at all, the older host brother, Rei, had been to Canada and could be used as a reference when he was around. But this family had no Rei, which was a bit scary, especially for Tori who's reading far bypasses her speaking and usually uses me as a translator when it comes to listening....(though I've definitely been guilty of that to her with reading) But it went all right. The house was so beautiful and I could have lived there in a second. It was completely unadulterated, despite it's TVs and modern appliances, it still looked remarkably Japanese. It didn't even have a bath; that night I was treated to my first public bathing experience, which surprisingly is not that big of a deal. Women and men are separated, the little girl of the house saw it as a game, and I was with someone I knew so I wasn't alone in any of the awkwardness....though it's hard to be embarrassed when everyone else is naked too and looks just as awkward as you do.

As for the children, they had two; a boy of seven and a girl of nine. However, as Japanese children are not pushed to learn at an early age the way we are in America, and therefore don't enter school until six or seven, their maturity level was two years before their age. That didn't matter, though, and I had fun finding that I had at least a nine year old's Japanese and actually knew kanji they didn't, though they were in elementary school.... They loved us; the family often hosted high school students so everyone was used to strangers coming in and out, but never had they hosted foreigners. We soon realized this as they oohed and aahed over my scrapbook and the father was proud to say 'Hello, how are you?' and not at all fazed by the fact that his daughter knew far more fruits in English than he. I could have easily had them for a host family if given the chance...

Not long after getting back, Tori, Lucy, and I all went, courtesy of my host family, to Wakura onsen, a hot springs resort on the nearby Nodo Peninsula. It was Tori and my first time in a hot springs, but it wasn't bad at all! Because it's a hotel, you walk around in really cheap, thin, cotton yukata, or cotton kimono, with jackets to match. As in a public bath, men and women are separated and they have indoor and outdoor sections. Before entering you wash off, as it's not meant to be an actual bath, and get in, putting your towel on your head. No one stays indoors, as it's much too humid and miserable. The outdoor section was beautiful with the sea in full view.... And no worries when it comes to people seeing you, it's so steamy, you can't see anything!

We drove back the next day and in Amabarashi you could see the most brilliantly clear view of the far off mountains, snow capped and all... This sort of view is rare.....few ever see it, save postcards and such. It's also the only place in the world, as Lucy said, where the land curves around so much that you can look across the sea and see mountainous land. I don't really know if that's true or not, but I have to say.....it sure was a bad day to forget my camera!

The very next day school began with the opening ceremony, and Lucy's goodbye speech. Lucy had been here about eight months or so when I arrived, and things were never smooth between us as my arrival muddled with her exchange and her being in the same club, same school, and having had the same host families certainly set a strange premise for mine, but we did learn to tolerate each other and I think we became sort of friends in the end. And so, as she told me my Japanese was awesome with her goodbye, and I replied the same, I really wish I could have told her her speech was awesome and it was the best thing I understood all day. It was sad to see Lucy go........but it also meant that my exchange really started from here.

I'm definitely not saying these past five months didn't happen, because they certainly did, but it was hard to be seen as an individual when there were two of us all the time, despite how different we really were from one another. It became so that Lucy was seen as the big sister and I the little one, and that was fine....for then. But now I think people are beginning to see the real me, as I'm beginning to see the real me, as well as being completely at home where I am. I have to say, I've never had that before, not to this degree. I was always dependent on someone or longing to be somewhere else. I really miss my friends and family back home, don't get me wrong, but I really feel 'right' here.

This showed in my clubs too, as I eagerly tried volleyball again after a full two weeks of absence. Oddly enough, despite my absence, I improved more in that one practice than I had in the past month, and was able to do the things that I just couldn't get before. I guess if you leave something and come back to it, the solution is much more clear... Either way, I was ecstatic, as were the other players, and I was for once able to practice together with the team! I was still the worst player on the team, but now I was on the team!

And this is why the next day had to be the worst of luck.... You see, I've known about ice for a long time, but never really had a big problem with it. But literally the next morning, I drowsily walked to school for only about ten minutes before a sudden fall really woke me up....in enough time to dodge the truck coming my way and not looking like it wanted to stop.... I raced back home, as my elbow was in searing pain unlike any I'd ever experienced before. We went to the clinic and had it x-rayed, later had an MRI, and eventually wound up for a week with it in a sling, making me unable to type or do several other things...

That weekend was the nabe festival. Nabe is a steaming hot dish cooked in a pot during winter in order to keep warm. On this day, Takaoka's streets are filled with vendors of all kind, selling fried octopus or candied strawberries, little trinkets or used goods. The highlight of the festival is the huge pot of nabe they cook in the middle of it all. It's actually pretty delicious, though it doesn't look all that appetizing....

It just so happened that on the same day, the Tenjin-sama festival was held, in which many display the little deity statues of Tenjin-sama or the god of study in their homes. We walked around to several old houses in the city and viewed all the different types of Tenjin-sama, which you'd be surprised at how many there are! At the last one, I was introduced to a man who had been on TV to talk about the festival, who told me that in older times, a private school in Takaoka used to hang a scroll of that deity to motivate the students....he looked pretty strict with his metal fan to use on sleeping students!

The following Friday we had a Kangeiko, or early morning training tournament. For the past two weeks, my class had participated in various early morning training events that I missed out on because of my elbow. For these, you come to school by 6:30 and participate in a sport or activity, depending on your gender and year. The second year girls did dance, the first year girls basketball, while both second and first year boys had their choice of judo or kendo. On the day of the tournament, we were in awe of the intricate dances the second year girls were able to construct, amazed by the fact that my class came in second in the basketball tournament (when they can hardly play), and speechless at even the smallest boys' display of power in judo and kendo. There's nothing quite like it and I really wish I'd brought my camera....

Well, after a while my arm healed, only for more trouble to find me. You see, we were playing basketball in gym, doing passing practice. This has happened to almost everyone in my class at some time, but for me, it's just all to convenient that it happened the very school day my arm was healed and I was ready to got to volleyball......I smashed my finger. My middle finger, to make matters worse, and had to go to the clinic again for a splint to keep it on for a week, all the while feeling awkward as I held my umbrella with that hand... This also prevented me from typing, which explains the ridiculous length of this journal. I almost think I'm breaking the previous record here!

To make matters worse, my odori sensei's father passed away and, three days later, so did my Japanese teacher's mother! I went to the wake for the father of my odori sensei, which was interesting to say the least, but didn't see my Japanese teacher at all that week. This depressed me, as I was concerned about her, and not being able to write because of my finger made matters worse at that time...

When that finally healed, it was the day before setsubun. What's setsubun? On that day, my Japanese teacher showed me. I love my Japanese teacher, her lessons are always far from boring, probably due to the fact that she's just as easily distracted as I can be sometimes... Well, for this lesson, she decided to celebrate setsubun, or the old Japanese New Year, usually held on February 4th. The next day is said to be the first day of spring, which brings me back to the above observation that it still seems quite far from springtime.... On this day, the man of the household (or in this case, my Japanese teacher) dons an oni, or devil mask and the other members chase him, throwing soybeans and shouting 'oni wa soto! fukuwa uchi!', or ' Out with the devil, in with luck!' Afterwards you are to roast the beans, though ours were pre-roasted, and eat the number of your age. That way, you are to have no illness that year. I'm glad my Japanese teacher decided to do this with me, as my host family never thought about it and didn't prepare. This is common for families without small children to omit setsubun.

The next day my host family, Tori, and I all set out by express train to Kyoto. I was ecstatic! You see, going to Kyoto is something I've wanted for years, as it's the birthplace of Japanese culture itself. We were there by noon and saw the Golden Temple first. It's absolutely gorgeous with its golden leaf coated rooftop which glimmers in a perfect reflection in the water below. Next came the Nishin Textile Factory, known for it's kimono and traditional techniques. We were able to see a kimono show and the old way of making fabric before moving on.

We did various things in our spare time that day and I'm amazed at the variety of old and new Kyoto has to offer. It's also virtually impossible to get lost within it's square-like pattern of streets and simple naming system. The night began in a French restaurant in a very old Japanese house before walking in the geisha districts of Gion and Pontocho.

I've read a lot about geisha and find them fascinating. When I approached these streets, confusion struck me. Gion seems not to have lost any of the prestigious air about it, as it's the top geisha district and always has been. Pontocho, however, has given ways to bars and restaurants, a reality of changing times. In Gion, a rare sight was beheld to us as we saw an actual maiko hurry down the street in a hurry to get to her customers. She seemed not interested in us or tourist matters and rushed ahead with no difficulty at all, despite her forty pounds of kimono-wear and tall wooden shoes that would have sent most anyone flying forward without practice. We saw another quite like her as we walked towards Pontocho, only this one actually stared at us as Tori pulled out her camera....not what we would have expected from the gentile image a maiko usually presents. Unfortunately, I was unable to take pictures, though the next day we were able to get some of fake maiko....

The next day began with a tour of the old palace, which we were unable to enter for security reasons and so we continued up to a famous shrine. As going to the shrine was always seen as recreational, the street leading up to it is lined with old stores and tourist shops, restaurants and other little places of this kind. As we reached the huge wooden structure, toured it, and were heading back, Tori pointed out the vivid colors of the two maiko heading down the stairs and we could immediately see they were fake. They took their time with each step, timid in their shoes and posed for pictures as the approached the bottom. They were pretty, for sure, and had we not seen the two maiko the previous night, nothing would have told us that those two were merely regular women with a part time job unlike any other: to preserve Kyoto's traditional image.

We saw a few more temples and shrines, each beautiful in its own way before it was time to go. I have to say, I dearly love Kyoto and could so easily live there that I was saddened to board the train and return to Takaoka, still laden with snow and a cultural battle between old and new that never ceased no matter where you go. I'll always have a special place in my heart for Takaoka, though, because while it may not be as beautiful or well known as Kyoto, it's a sort of 'home' for me. Besides, in March, I'm to go to Kyoto with my odori-sensei! However, my father comes to visit in a little over a week, and therefore that's taken over my mind for now.....

This has been very long and I don't know how close I came to beating the record in length, but hopefully I'll be able to update regularly again....with no injuries involved!

Matta ne!

- Dominique