As I write this, I mark TWO months of living in Ageo, Japan. What!? It seems like just yesterday I was getting on a plane to come here... for the second time (refer to Blaine Kinne's page for an excellent account of this)! I've been to so many new places, met so many new people, and there's altogether too much to ever fit into words.
For starters, I've climbed a mountain, navigated a subway labyrinth, been interviewed on Tokyo's largest TV network, ridden rollercoasters in the shadow of Mt. Fuji and eaten octopus stew for breakfast. I've visited ancient Buddhist temples, run a 200m dash, baked a carrot cake, fractured a thumb and napped in a hammock. I've had my leg hair petted on numerous occasions, made friends from every inhabited continent, and discovered the joys of both Japanese toilets and convenience store foods (note: the two are not related). Oh, and started learning how to speak a different language! That's perhaps the most exciting part of all.
At a loss to choose any particular event, I've decided to instead to describe my daily life here. This only scratches the surface, but hopefully it gives a little picture of what it's all like!
My average day here goes a little something like this:
Wake up at 7:30, and throw on my school uniform from where I left it the day before. Groggy, head to a breakfast of many little assorted plates. These might include sauteed veggies like cabbage and bean sprouts, some scrambled eggs, a few little mini hot dogs, a left-over from the previous night, a main dish (today's was a fish filet), some fruit, and of course the obligatory bowls of white rice and miso soup. Sometimes I look up with a “huh? Why are there so many plates right now?” But really that reflects the Japanese attitude towards food: rather than massive portions of two or three dishes, a variety of small portions is the norm.
Next, get ready and head out on my bike to school. If I'm late and rushing(typically the case), I can make it in about 5 minutes. The gate closes everyday at exactly 8:25am,which has led to some interesting scenarios in the event of showing up at 8:26! I park it in my class's designated section of the enormous bike bay, one of several around campus. The first bell rings at 8:30, at which point I've climbed the stairs to the fourth and top floor, taking my seat in classroom 2-3, seat 41. I sit in the very back left corner by the window, and on the clearest days can see Mt. Fuji!
Unlike the United States, each classroom is specific to the students inside it, not the teacher. Every period, a new teacher cycles through the classroom for 50 minutes. Also, each day of the week has a unique schedule of classes, as opposed to the uniform schedule of Florida. My classes include Japanese , Japanese History, Ethics, Health, Math, two English classes, and several others. I do have a homeroom teacher (who conveniently teaches English), but I only see him at the very beginning and end of each school day, or when he teaches our class. It should also be noted that at the beginning and end of each period, everyone rises for a collective bow of respect. This bewildered me at first, but I now find it completely normal.
My participation varies by class: some teachers make efforts to struggle out a few words in English, but much of the time I'm left to my own devices. Classes like world history are convenient, because often times the material is review for me. Written in Katakana, one of the three Japanese alphabets, foreign names are spelled entirely phonetically. Trying to read this usually results in the following: “Ko...Konsuta.. sutanti.. nopuru... Konsutantinopuru... OHH, Constantinople!!” Rinse/repeat for anything of Western origin. Most of the time, I self study Japanese during class, and occasionally go to the library during lessons over-my-head like Japanese Classics (ya know, casual stuff from around the year 1000).
Lunch is eaten in the classroom, in peculiarly gender segregated clusters. None of this is enforced, but Japanese students and boys in particular tend to be a little bit shy towards the opposite sex. On days I buy lunch, I eat in the lunchroom, and randomly choose a lucky(?) group to plop down next to. These conversations, especially with the senior students, are always the most fun! Outside of the classroom setting, they tend to open up a bit more and ask fun, semi-extremely-inappropriate questions. Nice!
After lunch follows a few more classes and then the school day wraps up and continues onto “Bukatsu,” which essentially translates to “activity club.” With a wide variety of sports, music, and arts clubs available, I naturally decided to spite my nonathletic nature and choose Judo! Developed in Japan, Judo combines traditional martial arts techniques with wrestling. The sport is centered around throwing your opponent to the straw mat floor and pinning him/her for twenty seconds. Because of this, we practice various means of grappling, twisting, and forcing a partner to the ground. Beginning each practice with a deathly array of flippy-somersaulty-handstandy warmups, I was pretty pathetic the first few weeks. I'm still the worst by far, but can now (sort of) walk on my hands for a few steps! So that's exciting! Judo is tough, but rewarding, and the small atmosphere of the seven member club ensures that I receive one on one attention, and that I have plenty of opportunities for talking with kids my own age.
From there, it's a five minute ride home and I'm greeted at the door by one of my best friends here. No, it's not a human, it's a little toy poodle. As one avowed against small dogs back home, I must admit that I've been somewhat swayed.. As it turns out, little dogs and even poodles can be amazing. Monica is probably the most human-like animal I've ever met, with incredibly expressive eyes and a passion for bananas.
The house is usually empty except for my host mom and I. Honestly, I'm fine with this! She has undoubtedly been the largest influence on my exchange thus far. Kind, patient, thoughtful, she never begrudges a question or hesitates to help. My host mom absolutely provides my most consistent amount of language practice. While both daughters are semi-proficient in English, she is largely not. This is a good thing! Sometimes she can't hold back a chuckle when explaining something to me and receiving naught but a blank stare in return. This occurs in in the opposite direction too, so I know what she's experiencing! Rather than get frustrated over the language barrier, we talk and laugh all day long. Smartphones are a godsend for accessible communication: exchange students before the modern era, I don't know how y'all did it..
Despite being shooed off a few times, I try to help out around the house as much as I can. This usually means setting and cleaning the table around meals, but when I get the opportunity I try to cook as much as possible. Everything is so delicious! I want to retain as much as I can for cooking back home in the States.
After dinner, often just us two, the others start to trickle in after long days at school/part-time jobs/full-time jobs. The family room is just that: the room in which the entire family convenes every night, whether it be to watch TV, talk, do things independently, or some of everything. Used to spending a lot of time in my room back home, I actually enjoy the change. Even if everybody is engrossed and working in their own world, we're all together.
Inevitably, the train of bathing starts, and I'm generally given the first slot. Normally this wouldn't be much of anything, but in a Japanese home I've come to realize the politeness of the gesture. The Japanese don't shower and exit, like I was accustomed to. Rather, they shower and clean completely, then take a bath in what's known as an “ofuro.” The catch? The piping hot water is only filled once a day: with a clean body from the shower, there's no need to cycle new water in. In a family of five, this means that the last person is entering water soaked in by the four before them. Now, that concept may seem gross, but after going last several times it ceases to phase you. In fact, the ofuro may be my favorite part of every day. Traditionally, this was practiced to raise internal body temperature before sleep during the winter. The ineffective insulation of the time meant that if you went to sleep cold, you might wake up hypothermic, sick, or maybe not at all. In modern times that's not much of an issue, but it does mean that a peaceful, nightly soak in hot tub temperature waters: no complaints!
From there follows a bit more studying and lounging, and then back down my corridor, through my sliding doors, and into my room. Pitch black at night, the lamp in the center of the ceiling has a hanging cord to turn on. I may or may not compete with myself to grab the cord on my first try... You gotta do what you gotta do to stay amused, sometimes. Getting in my slightly short bed, it's time to sleep, and then back up again at 7:30.
The above is essentially my daily life here. And if it seems prone to monotony after a while, don't be fooled. Every day, amid the rhythm and routine of daily life, special little moments hide and bear reflection. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes sad, or ironic or painfully awkward or just plain fascinating. Not a day goes by without moments that leave me in awe that I am actually here, 7100 miles away from the house I've lived in for 17 years. And what's more, moments that stand testament to just how flexible and malleable the human mind is. Far more quickly than I ever expected, little quirks and habits form, old ones fall off, and my head is upside down with language.
Rather than simply talking about them, I'll share some of the highlights from an ongoing list on my phone:
Meeting my “grandmother” for the first time and having an instant connection despite the vast language barrier. The 75+ year old woman decides I look like a Cowboy movie star, dubs me “John Wayne,” complete with firing finger-gun signs... I love her!
That one time on the first day of school where 1000 students were standing completely silent in ranks about to sing the school song and my phone went off... Yeahh..
Spending the best dollar of my life to have a homeless man buy me the correct train ticket and send me on my way home.
Trading tongue twisters in respective languages with family over dinner, then teaching everyone how to play blackjack and poker. They'd never played before! We bet with little hard candies (I won!).
Semi-intentionally getting lost on a solo bike-ride through the countryside in the rain, then using a map and compass to find my way to my destination. Savoring the feeling of competency from approaching strangers for directions, understanding and following said directions, and eventually turning back onto my street.
Shaking myself out of a doze to realize that I had just absentmindedly folded a paper crane, while listening to a lecture about Chinese Buddhism, in Japanese. Sometimes it just hits you.
Pouring sacred water on my deceased Grandfather's grave on the Autumnal equinox, and burning incense and praying before his picture and shrine. Learning that his brother was KIA in the Pacific Theater of WWII... Then having a conversation this week with my host mom about the conflict, and how its memory remains to this day.
Discussed the merits of peace and understanding, and how part of the reason I'm here this year is to change foreign perception of Americans. We are loving, too. She said as much for Japanese people as well: every country has plenty to atone for, but the only thing to do is move forward and try to understand each other.
Oh yeah, and that one time I thought the ashtray was a teapot.
That's just the smallest handful of all the moments that connect each day. Every moment I get here is one to observe, reflect, and internalize. Not to mention have a ton of fun in the process! There's been no shortage of that.
Being the first, this journal has been mostly descriptive, but there's too much to talk about. Going forward I'll aim for once a month, and talk about some of the (innumerous) differences of life in Japan. Want to send a warm thank you to everyone back home who have supported me thus far and made everything possible!
Truly, I won't ever forget this year.
Till next time, take care,
See my bio and photos : http://www.ryeflorida.org/2014-15-parker-japan