January 16, 2013
I have been in Japan and so far my exchange seems to be going fine. Getting off the plane I felt there was a different atmosphere here and at the time everything felt so foreign and different. I was excited for what was to come. I met my first host family after baggage claim and we greeted each other with some broken Japanese on my part, some English on their part and a series of awkward silences and smiles since neither of us could really communicate too well but we could still convey how excited we were. A while later I arrived at my host home which was a comparatively large house surrounded by narrow streets and other homes and buildings pressed against each other. Surprisingly my host home stood off on its own and didn't seem to be crammed against any other buildings. I had been exhausted from the long trip and decided to relax in my room for a while after I had become familiar with the house. Later that day my host family and I went over house rules and things like curfews and such over dinner. There was a week from the time I had arrived to Japan and the time school started for me and during that week I walked around streets and explored. It was really strange to see so many things so close together with the buildings built side by side and the narrow streets that would eventually lead to main roads. I guess this was partially due to being unfamiliar with cityscape and also the manner in which structures are built in Japan: as small and efficient as possible to have room for other things. Compact architecture aside there were other differences like what side of the road cars drove on and all the signs I wasn't able to read.
Near the end of that week my host dad and I biked to my high school so I would know where to go but I was a bit overwhelmed constantly looking in any direction and seeing something different. Needless to say I almost got lost on my way back on the first day of school. School life was alright and my classmates were all excited to see a new face. Everyone wears a uniform and even though I was expecting this it was still a strange sight for the first few days. I joined the kendo club and at first it didn't seem to be anything too extreme. A week or two after I had started school and the excitement of having an exchange student at the school had died down I had developed a routine. Go to school, go to kendo practice after, bike home and so on. Kendo practice had felt like it had become more excessive after about a month but I still went.
During some weekends my host family would take me sight seeing to a waterfall in the mountains 1 hour away or so. It was great and I loved getting to see more of the area especially outside of the city. I am still always amazed at the mountains every time I go by or through them. Seeing something so breathtaking and massive and knowing that there was none of that in Florida made we wonder what other things were hidden in the corners of the world that so many have yet to see.
At the time my Japanese was very basic and even still I struggle with it. This schism in communication did not negatively impact me as much as I thought it would have but it was and is very inconvenient. There were times when trying to comment about something that happened that day with my host family was more difficult than it should have been but this never seemed to bother either of us too much. At the end we would put our efforts to make each other understood.
In the second half of the fall, the rainy season had started and every day was getting just a bit colder and the sky was always dark and or pouring rain. At first this was somehow very disheartening for no reason other than it just appeared to be a gloomy day. I quickly got over this dip of emotion and after the dark skies and rainy bikes home didn't seem to bother me as much. So far aside from feeling a bit down due to stormy weather is the worst if felt on the exchange and I feel that its going pretty well.
Of course I will be constantly trying to improve my poor Japanese as my knowledge of the language seems to never be enough for any conversation that deviates from basics. If any part of this exchange isn't going smoothly its my Japanese which I will be working on.
July 17, 2013
It's been quite some time since my last journal entry. My last entry left off about right before winter started. While I had known that it would snow in Toyama, I had expected it to be colder and snowier than it was. Some people might say I was lucky but I felt a little disappointed since I almost never see snow. During the winter I stayed with my second host family that owned a slightly larger house in the suburbs of the city. They were a great family and had been members of Rotary for a long while. In their time they had hosted many exchange students varying in personalities and behaviors. I think their experience with so many students made my stay there a bit smoother. My second host family was a bit of an older couple but still very nice and very patient with me. When it started to snow the first night I was excited to see it and I was a little awestruck bye the first white sheet that had fallen. During my stay there I helped around shoveling snow off assorted places around the house and the like. I never really understood why people complained about snow so much since it sure beats having to mow your lawn on a hot summer day in Florida. The winter here really helped boost my cold tolerance and greatly decreased my heat tolerance. Man, people find winters in the north dull and grey but It was quite the opposite for me. I never minded the snow too much nor the grey skies. School uniform changed a bit during the winter as well, making male students wear a thick uncomfortable jacket/coat with a stiff collar that felt like it was always suffocating you. Before and during the winter, my Kendo club had begun a special practice for the winter time that involved waking up at 5 am and practicing in the dojo on a snowy morning. The dojo had minimal insulation and the floor was always icy cold. We had to practice barefooted regardless of the temperature and standing still for too long would give our feet freezer b urns. That was interesting to say the least and after a few impossible mornings getting up to such a brisk day was easier than I had expected. I never really liked it, but by the time spring rolled around, it had grown on me. I stayed with my second host family for about 2 months before changing to my third and my personal favorite.
My third host family was a nice couple who had a son away on exchange to Canada and an older daughter who was going to college in another city, and who would visit from time to time. They seemed to be the family that tried to involve me with everything all the time. They took me to many parks and different places around the city. They were very kind and always happy to spend time with me. By the time I switched to this family, the end of winter was nearing and even though I liked the snow, I was already getting a bit sick of the grey skies which after a while, turned out to be a bit depressing. Luckily this family was just what I needed to snap me out of that moody state and continue with my exchange as usual. As spring rolled by, spring break came around and the Rotary club there had organized a trip to some of the main and interesting cities in Japan. Together with the other exchange students in the area we went to Hiroshima, Osaka, and Nara. While staying in Hiroshima we took a ferry to Miyajima Island. The island was once considered sacred ground and it was a forbidden area for common citizens. At the island is a beautiful temple whose structure is based around the water that comes in and out with the tide. Incidentally it has a sort of "sister structure" relation with Mt. St. Michele in France because it too, has the rising and shrinking tide play a part in its aesthetics. I never would have guessed that I would someday visit both sites, since I visited Mt. St. Michele during my short exchange to France the previous year. During the second day at Hiroshima we visited the memorial peace park and museum. It was a very enlightening experience and it showed how terrible the effect of the atomic bomb was on the city and its residents. From Hiroshima we went to Nara where we went to see the Todaiji temple. The largest wooden building in the world which housed the largest Buddha statue in Japan. The immense size of the building and statue were absolutely breathtaking, especially considering the time in which these were built and the technology and man power they had back then. After Nara we traveled to Osaka to visit Universal Studios Japan. Having been to the park before in the US, I was rather surprised to see how much of the park was replicated to the minute detail. The only difference was perhaps some of the attraction placements within the park. The lines to said attractions were not as similar to those I had seen before, meaning they were a lot longer. Many rides had lines lasting up to 3 or 4 hours, which made it impossible for us to visit all of the attractions. At the end of the trip and after all the students including myself had returned to their respective host homes, I found that my Japanese had improved slightly, probably because of all the necessary speaking. As spring was becoming more apparent, all the Sakura trees around the city began to blossom giving the whole town a sort of new light. I would often go with my host mom and my host sister to visit parks or walk around the shopping areas. Also during the spring, my school year had ended, making me say goodbye to many of my classmates. The new year brought many new faces but a few of my old classmates still shared the same room. My third host family was very nice and also conveniently close to my school making it just a few minutes walk away. I think they were by far my favorite for the fact that I felt very involved with everything as well as them being remarkably kind and patient.
Within a month of spring break I changed host families to my fourth and last one. They were apparently somewhat of a celebrity because they were the owner of a sake producing company, which factory right across the street. The company specialized in making premium sake and this family was apparently quite wealthier. My stay there was different because the room I slept in was not part of the main house. Across the street, next to the factory, was a storage area/cellar like building for all the aging sake and spirits made. I stayed in a portion of the building upstairs which was well furnished. My "living room" was right above the sake storage area! I had my own bathroom and shower there as well. I spent most of my time in the main house with the rest of the family regardless of the nice area provided for me. This host home was the furthest I had from school, making the commute about an hour long and two train rides away. I had 3 host siblings in this home. One 17 y ear old brother, a 13 year old sister and an 11 year old younger brother. Aside from my younger host brother the other two seemed to always be busy, coming home late because of after school activities etc., so we never got the chance to really talk. Near the end of spring, my Kendo club and I went to a tournament in a neighboring city. Needless to say, I was no where near their skill level but my Kendo sensei put me in the tournament anyways. When my match was up I got very nervous and lost pretty soon, yet I'm glad I had the experience. I feel like it put the sport in a slightly different light and made me think to take it a little more seriously. From time to time some kids from my kendo team and I would go out for lunch during the weekends or loiter at a grocery store or shopping center and have fun. They were probably the closest group of friends I had in Japan. The end of my exchange was nearing and pretty soon I had only a month left in the country. In that last month my parents had decided to visit me and we traveled around Japan together. I showed my parents the sites in Toyama and a neighboring city, Kanazawa. While in Toyama we visited the nearby Tateyama mountain range, in which there was the longest waterfall in Japan, as well as roads with snow up to 15 meters high beside them. Even during the summer, the mountain peaks stayed white. When I left Toyama it felt a little strange knowing I would probably never return. The city was never particularly exciting and was commonly referred to as a "grey" city, but despite that I had grown accustomed to it and had made a few close friends here that I was definitely going to miss. On our trip, my family and I went to many different cities, some which I had previously visited on the Rotary trip during spring break. I re-visited Hiroshima with them, then we went to Kumamoto and then Himeji to see the city castles. After that we went to Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto. From there we traveled to Gotemba a small town at the base of Mt. Fuji. While we were hoping to see the beautiful volcano, the day seemed to be against us. It was raining on and off for the whole day and the clouds were constantly blocking out the sight of Mt. Fuji. Disappointed as we were, we saw parts of the mountain from time to time. Our trip ended with us spending four days in Tokyo. There, we saw the Tokyo Tower and the Sky tree. The first being a tower with similar structure to the Eiffel tower. The second being the tallest tower in Tokyo.
I think that my exchange over all, was very interesting despite being a bit dull at some points. I feel like I learned a lot not just about the culture and people, but about myself as well. I definitely feel more independent now than I did before the past ten months. The language was difficult, but when it really came down to it, I found I could always communicate what I needed to. Meeting all those people and living with the different host families was great and I think I've become more comfortable speaking to others in general now. This exchange was a rally great experience and overall I learned many new and interesting things. Thanks to Rotary who made it possible, this is definitely an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.