Julia, outbound to Japan

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I’m back again with the great news that there is indeed no word count limit on these journal posts. So now, without further ado, I will continue my fascinating takes on the latest and greatest trendy fads from Timbuktu-ken, Japan! 

As I’m sure you can infer from my previous journals, I am hosted in the least populated prefecture of Japan. Yes, out of the 47 prefectures, Tottori is #47 when listed by population. However, where it is absolutely, without a doubt, #1 on the list of “least exciting prefectures”! So I would say to not expect any heart-stopping tales of adventure from me, but, like I’ve said before, where I lack in exciting trips, I learned a great deal about myself, the Japanese, and human beings in general. I’d also like to point out how residing in or near an “exciting” place has plenty of cons; think of living near Disney world (traffic, tons of people, fireworks every night). In no way am I ungrateful to anyone who has played any parts in my exchange life, and I place no blame on Tottori itself (due to the fact that it’s an inanimate object and can’t help that it’s boring). As a matter of fact, I’m very grateful to Rotary for giving me this opportunity to experience a truly authentic Japanese lifestyle.
But okay, enough about that, and back to my recollections of life in Japan. I think I ended my last journal with Japanese music, so I suppose the next step would be to talk about the wonder that is Japanese television. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “Oh, don’t they only watch those silly anime cartoon shows?” First of all, no. Second of all, they watch the almost exact opposite. Most Japanese television that isn’t your average news/weather channel (of which there are many to choose from), is different “variety” shows, where a group of 6 to 8 old men talk amongst themselves about the average news/weather channels that you purposefully skipped over. To me, there is nothing quite as boring as TV in Japan. Yes, late at night, early in the morning, and on channels specified for children, there may be some anime or actually entertaining shows on, but never anything on during a convenient time, for example, say, when you get home from school, where you just finished listening to people talk for 7 hours. Actually, I have a specific memory from my first host family, where we were all in the living room during primetime, and they were actively engaged in watching a show about tea leaves. Not about cooking them, or harvesting them even, just about tea leaves, from what I could gather. And unless I am missing out on some sort of symbolism or whatnot, I could not understand why this program existed… But, what some people find interesting can be completely opposite than what others do. If I had to put an extreme label on my preferred entertainment viewing programs, it would have to be “big explosions and bigger explosions”; so it’s not that hard to see why I was less than impressed with Japanese TV.

On the topic of furniture, I feel I should also mention that a fair amount of Japanese people do not sleep on beds. A “futon” in Japan is a rectangular stuffed mat of various sizes and thicknesses, usually stored into a closet during the day and rolled out at nighttime (unless if you’re like me, who is too lazy to fit it back into the closet and opt to leave it and just shut your bedroom door instead). Two out of the seven host families I’ve had slept on futons, and some of them can be really quite nice and enjoyable, but I have had the unfortunate experience with futons that were too soft or not thick enough, which is the basic equivalent of sleeping directly on the floor. Not the best for people with a bad back (or bones in general, really). 

Ironically, the Japanese have invented one of the most comfortable and convenient pieces of furniture I’ve ever encountered; the “kotatsu” table. Generally small and rectangular in shape, the kotatsu table top is set upon several blankets, under which is a heater built into the table frame. Not only can you maneuver your way underneath it for a warm nap, but it also makes any sort of table top activity 100% more comfortable. Not allowed to eat on them though, unfortunately.

Another great thing about where I live are the “onsen” baths. These are very large public bathhouses, usually sourced from a natural hot spring in the area. I love going to onsens, and I know that it’s something that I’ll miss when I return to Florida, but I know plenty of foreigners who outright refuse to go to them. This is where ill stress on the “public” part of an onsen, as they are giant knee or thigh deep pools that everyone sits in together. Of course, almost all of them are segregated by gender, but they are usually at least 5 or so other people in the bath with you (and yes, we don’t bathe in our clothes here either). We hardly ever talk to amongst ourselves, and plenty of them are very elderly, so it’s not so uncomfortable after a while. This was really strange for me at first, but I came to genuinely appreciate the peaceful atmosphere.

I got a writer’s block trying to think of some other furniture, so now I think I’ll talk about transportation. City buses are extremely widespread here, and trains connect almost every major and minor cities together. This is all and well, but what really surprised me was how incredibly expensive transportation is in Japan. While riding local trains is relatively cheap, riding a bus will cost you your pinky finger. It cost around $8.00 for me to take an 11 minute bus ride to school every day. Every day.

Speaking of school, yes, I do have school on Saturdays. To be fair, its only a half day, but it still means waking up at 6:30am. We also have three separate pairs of school shoes, our outdoor shoes that we use while walking to school, our sandals, which are plastic slip ons that loosely resemble those Nike sandals that men usually wear with white knee high socks, and our indoor shoes, which are sneakers to be used only in the gymnasium. There are also “toilet” sandals, which are worn in an obvious place. Class sizes are usually around 40 students, who all stay in the same room with rotating teachers. When the bell rings for class to start, we all stand at attention, ask the teacher to, well, teach us, and bow, while at the ending bell, we repeat the same gestures but thank the teacher instead. It was a little hard to get used to at first, but it comes easy enough after a while. What I never got used to is bowing to and greeting every administrator whenever you see them outside of class. Frankly, there’s a lot of teachers and very few places to go in my school, so no matter when or where you are, you are expected to drop whatever you’re doing and formally address said teacher. This was really kind of annoying at first, especially because I almost always forgot and the teachers had to remind me again and again. However, the more elite athletes do things a little differently than the other students. Where we are supposed to say a formal greeting, they are supposed to formally greet teachers by standing at attention and shouting a shortened form of a formal hello. What they say ends up sounding a bit like a large dog’s bark, and makes me jump every time. Now as to why teachers want to be addressed this way is beyond my understanding, but it is the way it is, I guess. 

Making friends in my school has been, well, extremely difficult for me. It’s not that Japanese students are unfriendly or mean, they just won’t go out of their way to talk to you, especially if you have only a limited knowledge of their language. The English level in Japan is significantly lower than any other developed eastern Asian country, and it certainly shows when it comes to communicating. We actually have a very ironically named English “communication” class, where we listen to Google Translate-esc recordings and work out of a textbook. Again, “communication” class. Every single student that talked to me within my first two or three months of school only did so to practice their English, or to ask me to help them study or answer a homework question. Not that that’s a complaint of mine, I love having any reason to talk to my peers, it’s just not what I expected at all. Communicating with them in Japanese is incredibly difficult, because of their social hesitance, and my social anxiety of making a mistake. Here’s a few examples, just to name a few; the time when I was talking to a classmate and accidentally called him “disgusting”, much to his obvious dismay, and the time that a boy from a different class was introducing himself to me and I accidentally mixed up his nickname and the word for “garbage”, or the time when I mistook the word for “hate” as the word for “pretty” and ended up telling some acquaintances that I hated flowers.

Finding a decent icebreaker was difficult too, but I found that mixing up their names with other somewhat similar sounding English or Japanese words worked fairly well. Introductions where names went from “Mami” to “Mame” (“beans”), “Inage” to “Unagi” (“eel”), and “Kawano” to “Kawado” (Japanized version of “coward”), made for good memories and stories, especially after the fact. 

Just a little “F.Y.I.” for my readers, it takes me several days to write these journal entries, and since I started this one, my farewell party has passed. Saying goodbye to everyone was a lot harder than I thought it’d be. With less than a week left of my exchange, I have come to truly appreciate the relationships I forged here, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they were. I think the hardest part about returning to America is knowing that there’s a very real chance that I may never see some of these people again in this lifetime. Of course, I have made the decision to return, but as to how or when, I’ve no solid plan. Through all the ups and downs of my exchange, there have been a select few people who have stuck with me and have been by my side, and they will always be with me in my treasured memories. 

As much as I hate ending on a sad note, I need to get back to what little is left of my life here. I may write one more journal on the plane ride home, but I won’t make any promises. If I don’t, here’s my thanks to Rotary, my family, and everyone who helped make this life for me here a reality. And thank you, reader, for giving my whiny ramblings your attention and making it worth writing these journals, and I hope you got something out of reading them. Goodbye for now, and thank you again.