Konnichiwa! My name is Hannah, I'm 16 and a sophomore at Bartram Trial High School. I was born in Philadelphia, PA where I lived for 15 years until my family moved to Jacksonville. Some activities I like to do are rowing, acting, and playing guitar. I started rowing in 2005 and I have stuck with it ever since. I've been on two teams and competed in races (not always winning, but they were still fun!). I also like to act. Theatre is a great way to express yourself while having fun. I've participated in many shows and I love it very much. When I'm not rowing or in a play, I like to play guitar. I just started playing guitar this summer and I'm gradually getting better at it. The guitar is a great instrument and a lot of fun to play. It makes you feel like a rock star!!
I have to say, I never thought I'd be living in Japan!! I'm very excited to be an exchange student this year. I hope to gain knowledge, life experience, and meet people from around the world during my year in Japan. It will be a challenging year, but I say bring it on! :-D
August 23 Journal
WOW! I still can't believe I've been in Japan for over a week! I absolutely love this country. Stepping off the plane, I was pretty nervous because I had no idea what my host family looked like. But I heard a loud shout coming out of customs, "HANNAH!" It was Kyoko, Inbound from 05-06 in Jacksonville, with my host dad, Otosan, and Emi, my host sister, and another member of the Rotary Club. They had this big sign with rowers on it and huge smiles on their faces. I knew I was home. They were so welcoming the entire night and very patient with my Japanese. Which, on the first night seemed to have flown out of my head and into space somewhere. All I remember saying on the first night was, "hai" and "toire wa doko desu ka" (where is the bathroom). My first encounter with Japanese culture was probably in a public restroom. There were tons of buttons on the seat in Japanese and I had no idea what to press and what they did. The seat was heated too! Haha, I guess you can tell a lot about a country just by using the bathroom.
After the first night my Japanese returned and I started attempting to speak with my host sisters. They're all really nice. I have 3, and they are all older then me. Their names are Emi, Miki, and Mio. Emi, Miki, and I love to watch a television show in the morning called Hana Yori Dango. Most of it I don't quite understand, but by the end of the scene I get the general gist of it. Japanese TV is so entertaining. While Okasan, my host mom, and Otosan work during the day, I love to watch Japanese shows. That's not all I do though! Okasan and I have gone out most days to run errands and do the grocery shopping. The grocery store is sooo much fun. There's tons of food and lots of cool things I've never seen before. I brought my camera the first time and I went nuts. Okasan was laughing at me the entire time. There was this HUGE clam, and Campbell's chicken noodle soup in Japanese, and enormous bags of rice, and lots of fun candy, and fish, fish, and more fish. I was in heaven. I love Japanese food but the things that my host mom makes are so much better then any of the stuff I've eaten in restaurants. The other night I had shark! Every morning I have a bowl of miso soup, tea, fruit, some type of beans or other vegetable, and usually some kind of fish. It's perfect for my vegetarian diet. In my first week I've also learned to to make origami! Paper cranes are still a challenge to me but I can make a nifty little box and this cute blow up ball. My host father is very crafty and makes these tiny, beautiful, pretend sakura trees with my host mom as his job. They are used in a special festival in December with Hina Dolls. They have them all over the place and I love how they remind me I'm really in Japan.
The weather in Japan is a lot different from what I thought it would be. I read about how it's humid, but I always thought it couldn't be any worse than Jacksonville. BOY was I wrong! It is so hot here every day and very, very humid. Not all of the rooms are air conditioned in Japanese houses so one tries to stay in the rooms that are for most of the day. Luckily, I share a room with Emi and Miki that is air conditioned. I sleep on a futon on the floor, which is a lot more comfortable then it sounds. My mom would be proud of me- I take out and make my bed every night and in the morning I put it back in the closet. I hardly ever made my bed at home. Somehow it's just easier here to keep clean. Maybe that's because the entire house is immaculate from all the shoe changing you do everywhere. I have indoor shoes, and outdoor shoes for downstairs, and toilet shoes, and shower shoes, and outdoor shoes for upstairs, and probably another pair that I'm forgetting about right now. I'm starting to get used to that actually. But I do find it weird to have shower shoes. I don't exactly know which part if the shower/bath I'm supposed to wear them for. Japanese traditional baths are very confusing. First, you shower yourself outside of the bath with extremely hot water and do all your washing and shaving out there. Then, you sit in this big metal tub that is the actual bath. This was really awkward to do the first night or four. I'm getting used to that too now. I think becoming used to all these different customs is the best sign that I'm becoming more Japanese. I even feel more comfortable sitting on my zabuton on the floor than in a chair while writing this email! I absolutely love Japan and wouldn't trade this first week for any week of my life. Until later!
P.S.- coming out of the steaming hot water of the shower seems to turn me pink and the other night Miki called called me a Yudetako. boiled octopus *_^^_* the nickname's starting to stick.
October 15 Journal
So until now I've been in Japan for two months, and I've found that a LOT can happen in that short amount of time. I've been to several festivals, celebrated my birthday, and recently changed host families.
My favorite thing that I've participated in so far has been the Ohara Omatsuri, or Ohara festival. It was absolutely incredible! Every year the entire town participates in this festival. From what I understood of otosan's explanation, it was a Shinto festival celebrating the different gods in the Shinto religion. Ohara is a fishing town and so gods like a water god were especially recognized. The men all dress in the traditional style clothing and carry these enormous and very heavy shrines throughout the city all day. The town is divided in a color code system and depending on what color you are, you wear the white outfit with your color head towel and sash, and these special "running shoes" that are really boots with only 2 toes. My okasan is from Ohara, and so we were the pink team.
The best part of the entire day was that I wore the outfit with my two host sisters Emi and Miki and participated with everyone in Ohara. I didn't carry the shrines at all though. I think its a special honor reserved only for the men folk. I did however parade around the city with Miki and Emi. One of the most amazing things that the men do during the day, is throw these shrines up in the air in perfect unison and catch them before they crash to the ground. It was so amazing watching them do it, and it was really great because they did it all the time and I got the best picture of the ritual in action. It's the National Geographic Picture of the Year, no joke.
The festival lasted all day but the main highlights were at the ocean and at the school track. The parading of the shrines starts at the Shinto shrine and winds its way around the town to the ocean. At the beach the men and the shrines go into the water about chest deep. During this time there was a typhoon off the coast and so the waves were huge and the wind was really strong. I was stunned that the shrines didn't fall from everyone's hands in the pounding waves. All the teams do this at the same time. There were probably about 15 teams so the surf was packed with people. It was so amazing to watch.
After the ocean ritual they parade around town some more (probably to warm up and dry off a bit) and make their way to the high school by sunset. At the school there's a big race between the teams. Everyone runs as fast as they can while carrying the shrines at the school's dirt track for a long time. This is the main event of the festival so everyone's really pumped up and the adrenaline is flowing. Nightfall came and I thought that the festival was over, but they use lanterns to shed light on the field and direct (well, scream actually) the men in a circle. It was really beautiful to see the track all lit up with the lanterns. It was one of those things I realized I would probably never see outside of Japan.
Incredible...so after the race was done, we walked to the town center where a lot of booths were set up along the side, selling everything from food to pet goldfish to plastic gun toys. I felt like I had ended up on Dr. Seuss's Mulberry Street. The entire day seemed like something out of his imagination. But I have to admit, it was probably the best day of my entire life.
After the Ohara Omatsuri things quieted down a bit, and school was my main focus. My school is pretty prestigious so classes are difficult. I have gym, math, chemistry, English, English writing, music, home economics, and special Japanese classes with various Japanese English teachers of the school. I'm always busy which is great. exhausting, but great; I joined the Kyu Do club at my school and I really love it. As of now I'm only on the practice yumi (bow) or gumi yumi. It's really a giant rubberband. The friends I've made in Kyu Do are so much fun. We all joke around all the time and they love teaching me funny things in Japanese and practicing their English on me. I just read Evan's journal and it turns out he's in Kyu Do too. I think we should have a competition when we return to the states. He better watch out--I'm getting good ;-).
Things picked up again at the beginning of October when my birthday came. I had told a bunch of people about my birthday a while ago but I didn't expect anyone to remember. Well, it turns out the Japanese have very good memories. We celebrated my birthday by going to a festival in Saitama city. It was fantastic! The various cities of Saitama prefecture make floats that have these big dragons on them and parade the floats throughout the city at night. I got some great pictures but of course the memory is even better. I'll never forget my 17th birthday. Thank you to my family in the states that sent me emails and presents. And so much thanks to my friends at school here that sent me cute emails and gave me presents too. I felt really loved that day.
About a week after my birthday I began packing for my change into the next host family. I have six host families so there will be a lot of changing, but it's hard to imagine that the rest will be as difficult as the first time. I had become so attached to the Okada's and living with them was so natural for all of us. I really love them, they were more then I could ever wish for for my first host family in Japan. On the day I left, there were tears, and presents, and pictures--it reminded me of when I left Jacksonville in August. I have another family now that supports and loves me, and it's so good to know that I've made an imprint on their hearts. My next host family is very nice, but their house is completely different from my first house, which is making it hard to get used to. The Okada's house is much older and in a more Japanese style, and this house is very modern and more western in style. I have a table and chairs for meals now, a dog and a cat, a bathroom that could rival the Ritz's, and my own room. Last night I even watched High School Musical on the Disney Channel! In English!! That was disorienting. I think if I wasn't still sleeping on a futon I'd think I was back in the states! So things are different once again, and it's a whirlwind of introductions and questions, but of course I'm enjoying myself more then ever. I never want to leave Japan, I absolutely love this country. Every day never ceases to amaze me, and I'm so thankful to live each day here this year. There's no day but today.
December 28 Journal
minna, gomenasai! sashiburi desu, ne!?
Hey everyone, I'm sorry this journal is so overdue!!! It just goes to show what an amazing time I'm having, and how busy I am this holiday season. Since my last journal was October, (ouch) I'll try to remember everything that happened up until the present time.
In October I changed host families into the Kaida household and lived with them throughout November. The Kaida's are very sweet people and we enjoyed living with each other very much. One of the reasons I didn't have the chance to write a journal in November was because the Kaida's don't have a computer. I was using my school library's computer to catch up on emails, but as you might have guessed, that didn't leave much time for anything other than that. Sorry!
Living with the Kaida's was hard to get used to at first because their style of living was nearly the opposite of living with my first host family, the Okada's. I was sort of living with 2 families, but under one roof. It's kind of difficult to explain so I'll give the abbreviated version. I was technically living with the Kaida grandparents, although according to Rotary I was living with their son and his family, made up of his daughter and wife, Shiori chan (who's 6 years old) and Chie san. Everyday the younger Kaida's came over to dinner and socialized at the older Kaida's house, and we were a happy family of 6. The Kaida's are much more western, and have traveled to tons of great places all over the world. To name a few: Australia, New Zealand, America, England, Austria, Rome (there's more but I'll end that list with saying, "wow!"). They had a plasma flat screen television, I ate cereal and fruit most mornings for breakfast, and the bathroom was wired with automatic controls (It's a change, I'll say that). On one hand I was a bit lucky to live with this family because they are on the wealthier side of people I've encountered living in Japan (*^^*)V. However on the other hand, I felt like I was missing out on a big part of the experience of how I originally imagined this year would be like. I realize now that living with the Kaida's was a HUGE part of the experience of this year because it shed light on how different various families live in this country.
Living with the Kaida's did allow me to visit some terrific places, though. I went to the All Star Series baseball game between the NPB and the MLB. Japan vs. America; normally I don't get very excited when going to a baseball game, because I don't find baseball an extremely exciting sport, but the Japanese LOVE baseball so I was expecting to have a great time. I did of course!! Before entering Tokyo Dome where the game was held, we took a side trip to a small amusement park right next door. It had the BEST roller coaster ever, and Chie san and I have a funny picture to remind us. We then went to the game and watched Japan unfortunately lose to America. The game was entertaining because the Japanese fans were very into the game and shouted funny things in English to the American players. I was shocked at how many foreigners were at the game. It's funny how I don't consider myself like any of them anymore, haha. I must have looked funny to them because I was sitting with Chie san, and chatting away in Japanese to people we knew sitting nearby. At the end of the game an American man and I bumped into one another and when we apologized, I started speaking Japanese automatically instead of English. I didn't even realize that I wasn't speaking English until he gave me the funniest look, and I rethought what I said. oops :-)! Honestly was a bit proud of myself. I went to bed with a big grin on my face that night.
Another amazing place I went to with the Kaida's was Yokohama. Yokohama is an enormous industrial and factory area, because it's right on the bay where ships come in. However since it's near the ocean, many people go to Yokohama for vacation, and a lot of tourist attractions have developed in the area. We stayed at the Yokohama Grand Inter-Continental Hotel, where I slept in a bed for the first time since coming to Japan. We drove to Yokohama through Tokyo on the expressway, which I thoroughly enjoyed because I haven't had much of a chance to be in the downtown area. Tokyo is amazing and I can't wait to visit it some more. All there is is just buildings and skyscrapers and lights and stores, for as far as the eye can see. It's the most incredible sight, honestly, there's nothing like it. Tokyo's vastness makes the world look a little smaller then it actually is. But now back to Yokohama: we stayed in Yokohama for about 3 days on a long weekend. Since Shiori was in tow we spent most of our time at the Cosmo Amusement Park. It was very cute, and I won a little Stitch doll from one of those crane games that nobody can ever win. We also ate dinner at the tallest building in Japan. Over 70 stories!!! My ears popped the entire time while riding the elevator... The view was so great and I took lots and lots of pictures from what seemed like the top of the world.
But my favorite place that I went to with the Kaida's was the Urawa Red Diamonds game. The Urawa Reds are Urawa city's incredible, amazing, soccer team that I've recently become a fan of. Now as much as everyone assumes baseball is what the Japanese love, its soccer that they are obsessed with. And since I live in Urawa, the Urawa Reds are like Japanese demigods. The fans of the Urawa Reds are absolutely insane, which makes going to the games so much fun. That is, if you can scrap a ticket. Luckily, I had the opportunity to go!! The fans have cheers that don't stop the entire game, and HUGE flags that they wave when a goal is scored. There's always one section of the stadium set aside for the die-hard fans who don't stop for a minute to sit down or eat or even think about anything other then the game that's right in front of them. It's soooo much fun to watch and cheer along, and thankfully the Reds won. Actually I should mention that the Urawa Red Diamonds are now Japan's National Soccer League Champions for the 2006 year. A title which makes them heroes to everyone living in Urawa. It's like they won the World Cup! There are posters and flags and pictures absolutely everywhere around downtown Urawa, so everyone can feel the pride everyday. Way to go boys!!
Towards the end of my stay with the Kaida's I was presented with the most incredible opportunity of a lifetime: my school trip. My school is a prestigious school in my area, and so with permission of the Japanese government, our school takes a trip to China. Yes...
I WENT TO CHINA!!!!!!!!!!
This was a bonus beyond my wildest dreams. When I found out I was going, my reaction went something like this: "omghjghdsofhdiognrgngfvdufrbnszhgbfdhruhgfhbjkomgomgomg!!!!". I still can't get over it...I went to the most AMAZING places ever, and did things I never thought I would do in this lifetime. I, Hannah Kay Klein, have been to the Great Wall of China, toured the Forbidden City, have gone to palaces of Chinese Emperors, watched a Chinese acrobat show, ate real Chinese food, made delicious gyoza, rode in a rickshaw, and did it all in Japanese. Now how's that for a resume!?! Woohoo!! My favorite beyond favorite place was the Great Wall of China. Ever since I learned about the Chinese in 6th grade I've wanted to go to the Great Wall so badly. It's mind boggling that I actually went. The Great Wall of China is incredible. It's the most fantastical, enormous, I'm running out of adjectives, structure that I'vee ever seen in my entire life, and it was truly an honor to walk along. My pictures turned out amazing, and the stories are incredible. I can't wait to share them with everyone!
So at the beginning of December, I was a bit high on life....which was a good thing because I moved to my next host family, the Saito's. It might be a name you recognize if you're a "Rotary Regular" because it's 2006 Inbound from Japan, Akemi's family. Moving families is a tough business. I knew the Saito's from various meetings beforehand, but knowing people, and living with them are two different things. The Saito's (and most other families) are different from the Kaida's in many ways. Becoming used to families and then moving kind of jolts you around but I think it's good for me to see how different families in Japan tick. The beginning weeks were difficult because school exams were going on, and I was studying along with my classmates. I was a bit stressed out from moving around and exams, and I think everyone in the family got off on the wrong foot. I took a step back and realized that I should start everything all over again, so patching things up at home became my main goal. Things are great now, and all the leaks are fixed.
I'm actually on winter break for 2 weeks right now, and we've all been bustling around doing things before school starts back again in early January. My kyudo practices have come to a short halt, but Evan, who accepted my challenge (Oh, it's on...) needn't be happy about that because I'm training for a competition, or taikai, later in January. Gambatte, ne!! Congrats to Evan for passing his test, I think I'm taking the same one in mid January. I really love kyudo, so it's a shame that I have to take this break for a bit. However the activities that fill its place do make me smile quite a bit :-).
Today I returned from Nagano Ken where I learned to ski with a program called UCDI (short for You Can Do It) for the 3 days I was there. As my family and friends in America know, I don't do well on ice (try 2 broken bones, two different times). So I admit, I was a bit apprehensive beforehand. But I find that learning new things in Japanese helps me to understand what it is I'm doing much better...so now I can really ski!! I rode the lift and skied down a mountain 4 times so now I call myself a skier. Yay!!
As New Years is just around the corner (wow, I can't believe that), tomorrow I'm visiting a special temple with my family in hopes for a lucky and prosperous 2007 year. The Japanese New Year is a time for visiting temples and shrines in hopes that luck will come to everyone in the family in the new year. It's a time for reverence and celebrating with extended family. I really like living with Shinto families because the temples and shrines are beautiful, and very peaceful to visit. It will be interesting to experience the New Year Japanese style, so I'm excited! After New Years, the Saito's have planned an uber-amazing trip to MOUNT FUJI which I'm counting down the days till. I'm also praying for good weather--good weather means great pictures, bad weather means would-have-been-better pictures (no picture is bad). So I'm also really excited for that. Can't wait to tell you all about it!!!!
I hope everyone at home and abroad is planning to have a happy and safe New Year, and I can't wait to see what happens in the upcoming month! Ja, Matta ne!
p.s.-- I don't think I mentioned that I had my first dream in Japanese in mid November!! Since then, many have followed (^_^)v it's SO cool, haha!
January 28 Journal
Look at me writing a journal on time! Now I just have to remember what I did since the end of December....yada.
The 2007 New Year started off with a bang. Literally. On the Japanese New Year, the Japanese visit temples and sound huge bells to start off the new year. The Japanese New Year is one of the most important holiday's in the Japanese calendar. Preparations actually start a while before the actual new year. Families decorate the outside of their homes with a symbolic "wreath". It's made from dry rice stalks, pine branches, bamboo, decorative things like colored wire, nature-oriented figurines, and paper fans, a small fruit like an orange, and a tiny crane figurine. They also visit grave sites of their ancestors, and deceased family members. I went with my family to their family gravesite and lit incense, cleaned the graves, and gave flowers. They also pray there, but it is a personal thing to do, and I didn't want to intrude.
On new year's night, my family and I watched a music program, featuring all the popular bands as of now. I love, love, love Japanese music, and the artists are always SO entertaining. It was fun to watch, but it ended about 15 minutes before the stroke of midnight. My family wanted to watch a program that was showing the thousands of people at various temples across the country, ringing the bells and praying. Now, that's all very interesting of course, and was great to watch, but it was too calm for me. I always get excited during New Year's, and I wanted to bring a part of my traditions to this time as well. I was wondering what we could do, so I brought out new year's crackers that I had kept. A tradition of my own family is to open them at midnight and play with all the toys inside. I think the Saitos thought I had finally snapped, and had gone bonkers because I was jumping around all excited and giving everyone a personal minute by minute countdown until the new year.
The second the clock read 12:00 am I screamed, "WOOOO!! Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!!!!!" and handed out the crackers. They looked at me puzzled for a second, and then I told them how to open it. We all did it at the same time, and toys and gizmos of all sorts flew all over the room. We had a lot of fun trying to figure out how all the toys worked, and I made everyone wear the silly paper crowns for a picture. Their favorite thing however, were the corny jokes. They loved trying to figure out the meaning in Japanese and loved even more trying to figure out why they were funny. When my host dad figured out one of the jokes, he just shook his head and muttered, "Bunka, bunka, bunka", or "culture, culture, culture". But the joke was something about a cow and a clock, so I obviously understand his confusion.
We had a lot of fun that night, but I've found that the Saitos aren't people who stay up late. At 12:15 they said they were going up to bed; I was a little shocked because at 12:15 in America on New Year's people are still shouting "WOOO!!" However, they promised me a surprise New Year's breakfast and said I could stay up as late as I wanted.
Well the surprise New Year's breakfast was certainly a surprise. It was surprisingly disgusting. On New Year's Day, called Oshogatsu, Japanese families eat very traditional Japanese foods. Now, I LOVE Japanese cooking on a daily basis. And before Oshogatsu`s breakfast there were only 2 foods I wouldn't eat. However, at 7:00 am on New Year's day, my list gained a few pounds. Oshogatsu`s cooking has a special name because it is only found at this time of year. It's called Osechi ryori. Osechi ryori was created to lighten the load on the housewives because it's all pre-prepared food, and also because it keeps for a long time while everything in Japan is closed for a few days in the New Year. I'll touch more on this later. Right now I'll try to explain the foods I "ate", but hold on to your stomachs, ok.
The first is called kazunoko. It's herring fish eggs, but they're not loose like the kind you might be thinking of. They're tightly packed into a strip that sort of crunches in your mouth. Its taste is like a sour, salt-watery taste. It actually tastes like you're eating tiny eggs, and it all gets stuck in between your gums and teeth. yum.... Next is gomame. Gomame are small dried sardines, about the same size as your pinky finger, that are later sweetened by a sticky, sweet, brown sauce. They're served whole, with head and eyeballs and tail and fins and bones, and yes, you eat it whole. No picking out the parts you don't want to eat. The Japanese serve a lot of them at this time because they're apparently very high in calcium. I'll have milk, thank you:-). Next is kombumaki. Kombu is a food normally found all over Japan at any time of the year, but during Oshogatsu it's prepared differently. It's rolled into little cylinders and ours were stuffed with the gomame that I was talking about earlier, as well as spicy carrots. After picking out the the gomame I could take another look at it. Now, I don't want to completely and totally bash Osechi ryori, because the sweets are very good. My favorite is omochi. I love omochi. It's rice that is pounded into a delicious goopy mess, and can be cooked a million different ways. On Oshogatsu, my family made it over top of the stove. I guess you could say it was grilled. Anyway, the outside was a little crispy and the inside was all melty and sticky, and it was delicious. Lucky for me, eating omochi is another tradition of the japanese new year. Another sweet food that I liked was kuromame. Kuromame are black beans, but are soft and in a sweet, clear sauce. Those were very good and I ate way too much of them.
I should mention that the Japanese LOVE Osechi ryori, but realize that foreigners aren't used to it, and don't care very much for the foods. Believe me, I'm not alone. Actually, Outbound student to Japan, Dominique Ghirardi from 2005-2006 shared my point of view.
I said a little while back that Osechi ryori was created to lighten the load on housewives, and because the stores are closed at this time. The Japanese new year is a time for visiting family, so having foods that are easy to cook for the women frees up time to talk and drink. Because of the fact that everyone is visiting family or their hometowns for about 5 days, the nation pretty much shuts down for this period of time. Roads that are normally filled with honking cars and roaring motorbikes are empty and every store is closed. Every clothing store, every department building, every grocery store, every gift store, every shoe store, every pachinko parlor, every lounge or bar, everything is closed. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever witnessed. About the 5th or 6th of January however, people return to their jobs and daily lives, and the world starts spinning again. All I could do was shake my head and mutter, "Bunka, bunka, bunka" :-).
During Oshogatsu the Japanese also go to temples to pray for luck in the new year. I like going to the temples and shrines because they're so peaceful and relaxing. However on Oshogatsu, its the exact opposite. It's more like a festival ground than a place to pray. On one of the days of Oshogatsu, I went with the Saitos to a temple in Omiya. It's located in a large park, which can be rare in Omiya, and I was excited to go because it's a famous temple. The streets were filled with people walking to the temple, and when we got there, we got in the line. It was fun at first because the walkway was filled with vendors like at festivals. Whiffs of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, cotton candy, choco bananas, hotdogs, sukiyaki, yakisoba, and baked potatoes made me want to drop any dieting resolution I had ever made. Festival foods are probably awful for you, but they are just too darn delicious to pass up. I had my favorite, takoyaki. Pretty soon the vendors became less and less until all the people there were eventually convened into a large clearing. We waited a whole 4 hours there, moving only a few feet every couple minutes. My face kept getting stuck in people's fur trim winter coats, and was also stared at by a drooling baby boy for a total of at least an hour. We were all so tightly packed together that everyone gets really sore and grumpy, and then the pushing starts. That part was definitely not a fun experience, but eventually we made it to the temple. We said our prayers to the Shinto gods, bought a few new year's good luck trinkets, and entered a much faster line back to the vendor's area. I later saw clips off the TV that nearly all the shrines and temples were like this at this time. So it was a brilliant idea on our part to go to the big, famous one, right? In the next few days, I went to 3 different shrines, and had a much much more pleasant time, with the same foods and less cramping muscles.
After the New Year, I had the pleasure of going on a vacation with the Saitos to Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji is stunning, simply amazing. Although I have yet to see it in the spring with all the sakura blossoms, I think that Mount Fuji is most beautiful in winter with all the snow. The way the sun hits the white and brown, really takes your breath away. Especially in the morning, when the sun is rising. Something about watching the sun rise while at Mount Fuji made me think about a million things at once. It's the closest I've ever been to meditating, I think. I've come to the conclusion that the world spins as fast as it does so that people can watch the sun rise at Mount Fuji.
The Saitos reserved a room at a ryokan while staying at Mount Fuji, which is a traditional style Japanese hotel. It usually also has an onsen, or public bath. Inside the hotel, you don't wear your clothes, but the cotton yukatta, or summer kimono, that is provided for you. You also wear this yukatta to meals and when you sleep. Since it's cold in winter time you also receive a sweater-like item of clothing that resembles the top half of a kimono. Of course you don't wear outdoor shoes either, but slippers that are also provided for you. In fact, I barely had to lift a finger at the ryokan. Meals were provided for guests at the hotel, as well as tea and tea treats in the afternoon. Every evening, your futon is laid out for you by the time you return from dinner. I didn't bring pajamas because you sleep in the provided yukatta. They also give you fresh towels, toothbrushes, and toothpaste in the mornings after they put away your futon, change your sheets for you, and clean your room. All by the time you return from breakfast, that is. I once stayed in a Four Seasons Hotel in America, but honestly, the service was much better at the ryokan. And not once did I see the hotel staff doing this work. I still think it's the Mount Fuji Magic.
Also at the ryokan, I went to an onsen for the first time. When I first learned about the onsens in Japan, I got a little nervous because I'm not used to bathing with other people at all. At this onsen, there were separate bathing rooms and baths for the men and women. Sometimes they aren't separated, and men and women bathe together. The Japanese style of bathing is very different from other cultures of the world. You bathe outside the actual bath, (or in this case, a very hot pool) using a washcloth, a large, plastic bowl, and you sit on a stool. I do this every night, but in the privacy of my home and by myself. However, I ended up not really minding the other women being at the onsen. Most of them were much older then me anyway. At first I thought it was so surreal. I couldn't believe that I was with my host mom and 10+ other women, chatting away in Japanese with complete ease while rinsing out my hair. I felt like I had been doing it my whole life, and back in the locker room I even felt a little proud of myself. I liked the baths the best. Since you're outside of warm water for much of the time in Japanese style bathing, you get a little chilly. This explains the very hot water that the Japanese relax in after washing themselves outside of the bath first. It warms you up, and is very relaxing. At this onsen there were 3 different baths. One was just a pool of hot water, another was like a Jacuzzi and had jets, and the third was outside. My favorite bath ended up being the one outside. Don't worry, I won't practice this at home, Rotarians!! It was relaxing to look at the stars above your head and feel the chill of winter on your face, but at the same time, comforting to have the warm water and bath floor to sit on. You feel like you're drifting into the space above you, yet you're wearing a warm blanket and sitting in a rocking chair. It might be hard to understand what I'm describing if you've never experienced anything like it before, but I've tried my best to explain all.
After our incredible trip to Mount Fuji, I caught up on some homework that I had left for the last minute, and started up school again. After winter break in Japan, however, is testing for students. This lasts for about a week, and during this time clubs aren't practiced. After testing I started kyudo back up again, which I was happy about. I love kyudo!!
I also had the opportunity to wear a kimono one weekend. My final host family has a photography studio, and they offered around Christmas to have my picture taken while wearing one of their kimonos. Kimonos are so beautiful, and I've wanted to wear one ever since coming to Japan. The day I wore the kimono was a holiday called Seijinshiki. It's a coming of age holiday for guys and gals who are 20 years old. The girls wear kimonos and the guys wear nice suits, and everyone goes to temples and shrines and parties, and has a great time. This holiday is especially looked forward to by the girls, because technically the last time they wore a kimono was when they were small kids. It's like prom for them, I guess. I had told my friends that I would be wearing a kimono on seijinshiki, and they all were really jealous. My kimono was black, the most formal of kimono colors, and was decorated in a pattern with gold, red, yellow, and green. I had my hair and make-up done and borrowed the kimono for the day. I had my pictures taken which was fun, and then I went around to all my host families so far to take pictures. It's hard to wear a kimono!! It's very restricting, and you have to be very careful when you sit down, stand up, and eat or drink. The hardest part was riding in the car. You can't touch the back of the seat because of the obi (colorful belt) and the knot it has, but you have to be careful about the long sleeves and not to mess up your hair on the car ceiling. It's a little hard to breathe, and you obviously can't go to the bathroom, so you have to be careful about what you eat or drink. The sandals also hurt your feet really bad. However, as exhausting as it was, it was soooooo much fun to wear. I felt like a little Japanese girl with stars in her eyes and a big smile on her face as she was dressed up like a princess. I took tons of pictures because the kimono was so beautiful, and a special treat for me to wear. Especially on that particular day; I later showed my friends the pictures and they all said wearing a kimono really suits me, and that I looked beautiful. Wow, I should wear a kimono everyday! Fine by me!!!!!!
After my busy winter break, and first week of school, a bunch of Rotary events came up. There was a speech contest between the exchange students, where we had to talk about our experiences in Japan so far. It was only 3 minutes, so not a big speech of course, but fitting as much as I've done since coming here into a speech can't be done in 3 minutes. Everyone did great, though. Next was the IM meeting in Kawaguchi. Actually this was more like a festival then like a Rotary meeting. I made mochi, and later got interviewed by a TV crew about the day. It was really cool, but either I missed watching it, or they didn't end up using the clip because I never saw it. Still, it's a real confidence booster when you can be interviewed on the spot like that and not stumbles over your words like a silly idiot. Which I didn't of course :-).
Another Rotary event that hasn't happened yet, but is coming up is the Rotary ski trip. All the exchange students (except Oskar, the Swede who doesn't like snow) are going and it should be a lot of fun. As well as a lot of falling and laughing and pictures. I wasn't able to go on the Rotary trip to Kyoto before, so I don't really know everyone as well as they know each other yet. It'll happen though, shinpai shinai yo :-)
And speaking of trips, I believe the Florida inbounds are at Seacamp in Key West right now. Have fun everybody and enjoy the Keys!! Also as a side note to the future outbounds: Your sense of self changes while on this exchange. You find you can do things you never thought you could do at home. You learn how to be a new, and even better person than you are now, but not even realizing that you're doing it. You learn how to love in a new way, and you look at things from different eyes. Congratulations for being as lucky as you are, and have no regrets in the wonderful decision that you've made.
May 3 Journal
Oops, I think I’m a little bit late..... Luckily its because I’ve been having amazing, out of this world experiences in my beloved Japan. I might say out of this world, but in this period of time, Japan has become nothing but my world. It’s the only place I can picture myself in. Being with my friends, forgetting my English, going shopping in Tokyo, chatting under the sakura, representing my school in Kyudo competitions, reading Harry Potter and understanding some of the kanji ... It’s everything I’ve waited my whole life to find. There are no thanks great enough to give Rotary for what you’ve given me. Thank you Rotary, for making me a citizen of the world. You’ve helped to provide me with the confidence, knowledge, and love that I know now will last a lifetime. If there’s one thing I aspire to be, it’s a Rotarian; so that I can make this experience possible for other kids like me looking for a home in a country where they don’t belong.
As the last sunset is setting on my year here, I’ve been striving as hard as I can to live each minute like it was my last. Which in turn means I can’t fit everything I’ve done until now into this journal. The highlights are the fun parts to know about though, aren’t they?
Right, February: Valentines Day was a treat. And a treat, and a treat, and a treat. The tradition of Valentines Day in Japan is for the girls to give everyone they care about, even the slightest bit, a homemade, baked dessert. Even if it’s someone who just, I don’t know, sneezed. They’re just like, "Oh! Are you all right? Here, have a piece of my homemade, gourmet cheesecake that I baked this morning. And here’s a mattcha chocolate truffle because your sneeze was so cute." Not being sarcastic in the least, it took me until well into March to finish all the desserts I received from my friends on Valentines Day. It’s a verrrry different experience from American Valentines Day. Much more chocolatey and baked with love in every bite.
March: Having been living with my 4th host family, the Takenoyas, we became very close. I think of March as an extended holiday, thanks to the various trips I took with the Takenoyas. We went to Nikko, where we saw the famous monkeys that depict see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. We went to the Izu peninsula, with a beach like Hawaii, a landscape like Maine, and the most beautiful Hina doll display in all of Japan. March is a great time in Japan because of Hina Matsuri, or Girls Day. On Hina Matsuri, beautiful dolls dressed in old style kimonos are displayed as a wish for good fortune in marrying the girls when they get older. There’s a saying that if you don’t put the dolls away by the exact end of Hina matsuri, that it will become difficult for the girls to find husbands when they get older. We also went to Hakone, where we ate eggs with black shells, and Shimoda where Matthew Perry first sailed in on his Kurofune (black ships) to negotiate trade between the US and Japan. The pictures are incredible of all these places. I hope eventually you will see them.
April: The cherry blossoms, known as sakura in Japanese, are in full bloom, and the parties go non stop. A tradition of the time when sakura trees bloom is to have parties with family, friends, or co-workers under the cherry trees. A tradition known as Hana Mi, in Japanese. In English, it’s described as an outdoor zoo with sake and a few pretty, pink flowers. April was also the time when I took my Sho Dan test for Kyudo. Sho Dan is the first level of Kyudo, and could possibly relate to receiving different colored belts in Karate. Although Kyudo, unlike Karate, has only 10 levels, and the tests are much harder to pass. It took 2 months of studying a new, traditional form of Kyudo every week for me to pass this test. As well as describe the 8 stages of Kyudo, including body positions, mindset, and proper Kyudo etiquette. It was the most nerve-wrecking, intimidating and downright scary experience so far. More so then trying Nato for the first time--a slight joke :-) Evan, you get it. To my utter amazement and disbelief, I PASSED!! And could breathe calmly once I stopped the tears of happiness and relief. I even have a fancy little pin on my hakama to prove I’ve done it, which I look at fondly a little too much, perhaps.
The beginning of April was also my 'Tokyo month'. Most of the famous places I’d wanted to visit in Tokyo were done in a very busy, camera battery draining, 2 weeks. Harajuku with my friends, Ginza, Shinjuku, climbing Tokyo Tower, Fuji Television shopping center, Parks, Temples, it goes on and on. No matter how much you think you’ve experienced in Tokyo there’s always a maid walking into Snoopy Town with a girl dressed like Pikachu, or a store selling sushi shaped USB plugs next to the fancy, French creperie to remind you that you’re not finished yet. There is absolutely no place in the world like Tokyo, Japan. It’s my land of Oz.
Later April: A new school year started, which makes me a 3rd year student, called senpai in Japanese. I have a new class, and have made lots of new friends. I changed host families into the Toyoshimas, who run their own photography studio in their house. No really, it’s attached to the kitchen. And the living room is where okasan does hair and make up and dresses everyone in their kimonos beforehand. It’s a lot of fun. There’s always someone new in the house about to get married, graduate from college, just had a new baby, or a big birthday recently.
I’m the 10th exhange student they’ve hosted through Rotary, which is a change from being the first in two of my previous host families. I’ve become close with my host mom, who recently took me on a trip to the large fishing market known as Tsukiji in Tokyo. We ended up seeing no fish but the sushi we ate for lunch, because it was Sunday and we didn’t think twice about the chance that the market would be closed for their weekly break. Instead, we ended up walking around Ginza and seeing part of a Kabuki play at the famous Kabuki theater. I’ve become a fan after seeing Kabuki for the first time. There were earphones, translating in English unfortunately, so that foreigners could understand better. It actually helped a lot because the Japanese was all ancient Japanese and is difficult for even everyday Japanese people to understand. I actually ended up explaining the story to Okasan during tea because she barely understood. I thought that was pretty comical, actually.
May: the beginning of May is known as Golden Week, because of a string of holidays in one week. Most companies and businesses have off for 4 to 7 days, and it’s about the busiest travel season all year for families and popular attractions. I have off from school, but still continuing my Kyudo practices. Recently Kyudo has become especially busy. The new first year students have finished signing up for their clubs, and Kyudo club has more than doubled from the past 2 years. It’s terrific that there’s so much interest, but space will become an issue, I think. And I know I won’t be able to remember everyone’s name. There’s also been a lot of competitions lately. Last week I got to the second level of my tournament, but ended there, and at today’s Enteki tournament I hit the target, exceeding my expectations. Enteki is a different form of Kyudo, where the target is 63 meters away, instead of the normal 28 meters. Oh, did I mention I started learning Enteki about 2 days ago? Nope, don’t think I did.
Lately there’s been much planning going on between me and my family back in America. They’re coming to Japan in about 3 weeks, an exciting yet scary thought. We’ll be going to Kyoto and staying at Mount Fuji for part of the time. I’m excited for them to meet my host families, see my accomplishments first hand, go to Kyoto, and everything, but there’s a part of me that’s nervous. What of, I’m not quite sure yet. I’ll have to write about the Klein invasion in the Land of the Rising Sun later o(^_~)o *wink!!*.
The schedule is squared away, but I should talk more about Japanese. I SPEAK IT!!! It’s taken hard work, dedication, a lot of books, and people’s patience, but I’m at a level where I understand everything that’s said to me and can carry on a perfectly normal, everyday conversation with just about anybody. About just about everything. I love the feeling of being able to be proud of yourself everyday for just opening your mouth and talking. Speaking Japanese is so unbelievably natural. It’s become physically difficult for me to speak English. I either speak with a Japanese accent, talk louder than I should, over enunciate my pronunciation, speak too slowly, or forget an English word and just say the Japanese instead. I don’t know what to say to anybody anymore! My friends all say I’m more Japanese than I am American. There’s a popular English learning school called Nova in Japan, and my friend told me I should start going before I go back to the US so I can communicate normally. She was joking, I think, but it was really funny to hear her tell me that I need to find an English tutor.
But if there’s one thing that I’m most proud of, it’s forgetting my English. To me it’s visible proof of all my hard work dedicated to learning Japanese, and immersing myself in this culture. I must say everyday that I don’t want to return back to America, that I want to live in Japan forever and be Japanese. And I hear twice a day how my friends and family here don’t want me to go back to America, that they WANT me here, in Japan forever. It’s hard to relay what hearing that feels like. "Hannah, I don’t want you to go back to America. Please stay in Japan." It puts a smile on my face and breaks my heart at the same time. Every time I think about leaving, a big lump develops in my throat, and my eyes water up. It’s awful, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when I have to return home.