Alex - Outbound to Japan

皆様、こんにちは!お久しぶりですね?

Hello everyone, it's been a while, hasn't it?

Although the New Year has come and passed, it's hard to believe that it's already Valentine's Day, 2016. It seemed like it was just a few months ago that I came to Japan, but my exchange is already about halfway over.

Considering the time period from Christmas from to the end of the New Year Festivities is traditionally the most important and festive time of year in the US, I thought it would be a good opportunity to note how the holidays in the US and Japan (including today's very own Valentine's Day) differ.

While in America, Christmas Day is considered to be quite likely the single most important family day of the year (and not just for Christians), in Japan, it's a day for couples as opposed to family. People often take their significant other out for dates at luxurious restaurants (with reservations weeks in advance), go together to a resort for the weekend, and the like. It's not uncommon for most family members to eat separately from the rest of the family with their partner. Moreover: turkey isn't really available in Japan. They eat KFC on Christmas Eve instead (apparently it was a trend started by foreigners living in Japan wanting to substitute for turkey).

Instead of Christmas, which is a relatively new holiday in Japan, the more important day of the years-end time period is the New Year, or お正月. Japanese people clean out their houses (similar to spring cleaning, in a way), relatives all gather and have reunions, friends and family party, and many visit shrines and pray for good fortune for the next year. Many people also perform what is known as 餅つき (mochi-tsuki), or "making the rice cake", which is traditionally done around the year-end, and is a ritual which both ties the community together and lets one eat a deliciously-prepared rice cake. Essentially, a large amount of rice is put in a holder, and two men then hit the rice with a large hammer and knead the rice for consistency (about 100 times in total).

After the start of the new year, people will often first greet people they have not seen since the last year with あけましておめでとうございます, or "Happy New Year!" Traditionally, Japanese people also have two weeks after the start of the new year to go to a shrine for good luck.

After the New Year, people get back into the regular routine of things until the next major holiday. Valentine's Day, while a day associated with love, is not quite the same here in the Land of the Rising Sun as back home. To begin with, only women give chocolates (usually to men, yes, but often to their friends as well). The favor is returned a month later on White Day, when men give back (a noticeably larger quantity of) chocolate to those who gave them the sweets. Couples may often go on special dates, but it's not required nor necessarily expected, and the gift-giving of chocolate is the main part of the holiday.

Aside from Japanese holidays, I've been enjoying myself quite greatly in my everyday life here. School life is easy-going and fun in general, but I particularly look forward to the after-school club activities.

Every week, on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I attend 書道部, or Japanese Calligraphy Club. Although clubs exist in the US, they rarely hold the cultural or social significance that they do here -- kids often feel school is worthwhile because they get to attend club. To illustrate this, let me make a comparison: In America, every student (and almost every teacher) had to leave the school grounds by four PM, virtually no exceptions. Here in Japan, that limit is often 7 or 8 PM, and most students do, in fact, stay until the latest possible time.

At first, being at school for such a comparatively extremely long period of time was very off-putting for me, and thus I rarely attended any club. However, I slowly began to realize that this wasn't just necessarily an example of Japanese 頑張り過ぎ(trying too hard, to the detriment of the actor), but that, unlike in the US, people in Japan made their real school friends and felt most themselves within the context of these activities. These activities, to them, weren't really just an extension of school, but a great use of the little free time they had. I realized that if I was ever to really integrate myself into Japanese school culture, I also had to more regularly attend club and for a few days a week, be at school for over 11 hours.

For American students (and European ones too, apparently), it sounds quite difficult, but for calligraphy at least (I can't speak for the sports clubs, which are particularly intense and practice every day), club is quite relaxing and a good way to de-stress and disconnect from the rest of the day. Japanese calligraphy is intricately connected with the Buddhist tradition of Zen in Japan, and often emphasizes "emptying one's mind to let the words write themselves". Although I'm still quite the beginner at the millennia-long practice, I'd like to continue practicing and learning even after my return to the US.

For the time being, I'll continue improving my skills and friendships at school here in Japan, and enjoying every day with the knowledge that I truly am lucky to be able to have this incredible experience -- and with the slightly melancholy realization that I only have a few months left in the best year of my life so far.

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