Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 40 (Packing Up)

My last full day in Japan. Tomorrow we all ship out and go back to our ordinary lives.
Kasumi, Haruka, Yuichi and I spent the weekend at our grandparent's cabin by Mt. Fugi. It was so refreshing to be out in the woods again and away from the city for a little while. We visited a couple of springs which produced the cleanest and coldest natural water I've ever seen. I also met Yuichi's family who were really friendly but didn't speak very much English. On our way back to Kawasaki the car battery died, so Kasumi, Haruka and I waited for three hours in a gas station entertaining ourselves. It was blast.
I have a couple of people I would like to thank for this opportunity to come here. First and foremost the Toshiba Company for financially making this happen. They are such a wonderful and caring company that I was so proud to represent.
Thank you Mom and Dad for giving me up for one summer, and raising me to where I could stand on my own two feet in another country. Thanks for all the support and trust too.
Thank you Omori family for taking me in this summer! You have changed my life and I am forever grateful! I've learned so many things here, not only about myself but about other people.
Lastly and most importantly I would like to thank God for leading me through this journey. I've learned that everything happens for a reason, and He is always there to guide you.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 36 (U.S. Embassy)

The YFU students from my prefecture today visited the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to host a question and answer session with Japanese students. All I had to do was get to Musashi-Mizonokuchi station by myself and change trains. There would be an adult waiting for me on the platform. The plan was so simple - Kasumi and I even went step by step yesterday to where I would get off and transfer! Of course I managed to get lost anyway. I was confused when Kasumi handed me a map of the bus and taxi pick up at Mizonokuchi last night. I didn't really understand what she was saying so I figured it was a new plan. It actually turned out to be a map of getting back home.
So there I was, late, standing in the middle of the bus pick up panicking. I finally gave in and called the YFU emergency line. The woman gave me the number of the woman I was supposed to meet and I ended up writing the number on my map with mascara. It's interesting how creative one can get when in a tight spot. Of course the woman didn't pick up her phone so I called Kasumi and she explained my mistake.
We weren't late to lunch though - we were actually early so I didn't mess everything up. After we ate lunch at some swanky hotel the entire group headed to the embassy. We were dispersed throughout the room and I sat and waited for people to arrive. Shy students of all ages trickled in and I noticed the Americans with blonde hair group's filled up faster. I was by myself with about fifteen people who did NOT want to talk. So I rambled on and on about how different the United States was - the food, transportation, people, and just everything that came to mind. I'm pretty sure they couldn't understand me so I tried to talk really loud and slowly. Apparently I was too loud because I was notified later that entire groups were staring at me. Like I couldn't embarrass myself anymore today.
An intern at the embassy showed a quick power point of Ten Things about American High School that were so true. Little things like picking your own classes, teachers moving from class to class, driving cars there, focus and sports and PROM! After that each American had a translator and I raved about prom and tried to explain how much homework we had and what you had to do to get into college.
At Tama High homework would be a joke. There are no research projects, discussions or presentations - only worksheet after worksheet. No variety at all. They also take one test to determine if they go to college. If they fail the test they have to study another entire year and take it again.
The biggest difference I've noticed about Japan is that instead of individuality, uniformity is encouraged. In America uniqueness and confidence are a good thing and here it just isn't as stressed. Maybe that's why 99% of the students at my school are totally shy.
We were able to tour the embassy and it re-inspired me to follow my dream of becoming a journalist. We explored rooms that announced press releases and held interview of Presidents since the 1970's. The guide encouraged us to become part of the embassy but I was turned off to living in a compound.
We were released to go back home around 2:30PM so a few friends and I decided to tour Tokyo with one of the guy's host brother. We explored Shibuya and Hioshi which are the major shopping and nightlife areas of Tokyo. Crepes are extremely popular here so I tried my first one at a roadside stand in Shibuya. It was deliciously filled with blueberries and cheesecake but there were so many to choose from! I am proud to say I made it back home all by myself without getting even a little bit lost. I think I've even gotten a little street smart. The first time a man stopped me on the subway, told me I was beautiful and asked for directions I actually listened to him until Haruka pulled me away. Now I don't even take a second look.
I realized today that many everyone has the same feeling about leaving and the best way we came to describing it was "empty".

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 35 (Last Day of School and summary of weekend)

Nobody likes to say goodbye. Unfortunately today I had said many because it was my last day at Tama High. It felt bittersweet to be leaving - I mean who doesn't like to end school? It was much more difficult to say goodbye to everyone than I thought it would be. I've only known them five weeks but their kindness and patience was genuine and I appreciated everything they have done for me. I actually made a speech in front of the entire third grade thanking them and the teachers for welcoming me and helping me with my Japanese. It was just hard to know that I'll never see any of them ever again. I guess this is what graduation feels like.

School ends tomorrow (I go to the U.S. Embassy) so my homeroom had a little snack party where they surprised me with two folding fans that they had written goodbye notes on. No one cried (thank goodness) but I still had this terrible indescribable feeling. During the party though I'm proud to say I stepped out of my comfort zone and talked to every single person in my homeroom. Immediately I wished I would've done this the first day instead of observing from the background. Usually I'm terrible with small talk, but it was so easy to strike up a conversation with everyone because I'm foreign and I can use that to my advantage:).

On a lighter subject yesterday Haruka and I visited Tokyo Disney Sea, which is like Disneyland but for big kids. The rides were NOTHING compared to Cedar Point but I loved how everything was themed. I've never been to Disney in the states, so I felt like a little kid taking my picture with Ariel for the first time. I defiantly recommend it if visiting Tokyo.

This weekend I was very busy at my grandparent's house in Tokyo. The big events were making soba noodles, watching sumo wrestling and trying on my first kimono. My grandparents have a traditional house so we slept on mats on the bamboo floor and ate rice and fish for breakfast. They absolutely LOVED showing me Japanese culture and explaining their history.

Overall Friday was the biggest day of my weekend. I visited the Toshiba Science Museum and met the Senior Executive Vice President of Toshiba, Mr. Masao Namiki at Toshiba Headquarters in Tokyo. I learned that Toshiba is so much more than just TVs and laptops - it's about creating new technology, conserving energy, inspiring young leaders and operating a eco- friendly company. The Science Museum we visited was kind of like Cosi but it was also centered around the history and evolving technology Toshiba is working on. We were guided by the Chief Specialist of the Social Contributions Group, Ms. Tokiko Soma. In addition I finally met the other scholarship winner, Michael from Canada. The bento for lunch that day was HUGE and I ended up trying squid and clams for the first time.

That was my weekend summed up. I can't believe I leave for home in six days. It baffles me that I've been looking forward to this trip since April and it's almost over! I'm excited to get home and prepare for my senior year though, so like I said, bittersweet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day 28 (Omatsuri Festival)

When traveling to another culture my number one recommendation is to go to a festival. You are able to experience the food, history and atmosphere of the culture in a fun and exciting way. Tonight my host family took me to the Omatsuri festival in Tokyo. The food was just like you would get at a county fair but Asianized: squid on a stick instead of steak, pancakes filled with pork instead of gyros and LIVE sea urchins in place of nachos.
What I loved most is how they incorporated their history by remembering the ones who died in WWII. Fifty foot walls hanging nearly 23,000 lanterns lit up the walkways. On every lantern was someones name who died in WWII and where they were from. In the center of the festival was a group dancing the traditional style line dance to a taiko drum. It was neat to see random people from the audience moving along with the motions, obviously knowing the dance very well. My host mom Kasumi said she was taught many of the dances as a child.
After the festival my family surprised me with a trip to Tokyo tower at night and it was ten times more beautiful. I thought I was standing under the Eiffel.
School tomorrow so I've gotta get some shut eye.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Day 27 (Japan Open - Air Folk House Museum & Taro Okamoto Museum of Art)

Yet another successful journey today by myself. But instead of a temple I navigated my way to Japan Open - Air Folk House Museum, a "living" museum in Mukougaoka-yuen. I have to admit it was very easy to find when I arrived at Mukougaoka Station: the museum is actually a huge park where 23 houses have been collected from across Japan and preserved. It was so interesting to see the different styles of architecture from different places and periods. Houses ranged from 100 to 300 years old and were still most of the original.
The second house I entered I noticed a lot of smoke and realized there were two women tending a fire and folding something. They invited me to join them, and informed me about what they were doing. In the center of each house is a fire pit and all of the houses are regularly fumigated to keep bugs and mold out of the thick straw roof. The two women were weaving origami dragonflies and grasshoppers from bamboo leaves. They handed them out to children as old-time toys. I thought it was ironic because everyone in my host family hates bugs.
Many of the buildings had the same interior; either it was a rustic stone floor farmhouse or a wealthy business home with woven straw floors.
At the end of the tour I had the opportunity to dye my own piece of cloth the Japanese traditional way! The dye was made from fermented indigo leaves so when the instructor opened the vat in the floor the whole room smelled to high heaven. I didn't mind though - I was so intrigued in the dying process. After soaking for three minutes the cloth must be spread out and exposed to air for the dye to change colors from green to blue, and then dipped again.
After the Folk House I headed to Taro Okamoto Museum of Art which was about a five minute hike into the forest. What made it intriguing was it seemed so out of place - it was a chic concrete art museum surrounded by forest. Okamoto was born in 1911 and died in '96 but his art is still modern in today's times. He had this intense fascination with the sun and made sculptures conveying feelings such as "pride" and "separation". It's kind of creepy though - there are statues of him throughout the exhibit so when you thought you were alone and turned around you were suddenly face to face with Taro himself. Instead of cameras the museum was equipped with people watching in chairs all day - how would you like that job?
I forgot to mention the other night we went to an "American" buffet and had a time limit of an hour and a half!
That was my busy day... I can't believe I only have two weeks left! I still have so much to do!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 26 (Baseball game)

Because of finals I didn't have to go to school yet again, so I was able to attend my high school's baseball team's first round in the tournament. The atmosphere was drastically different than that of an American game. For beginners no one yelled at the umpires. Even if a terrible call was made I never heard any booing or harsh yelling. Everything that was being said was encouraging words directed to our school's players only.

Another thing different was the sportsmanship. At the end of the game both teams gathered into lines and bowed to each other, the umpires and oddly the fans. They actually thanks us for coming to the game and cheering them on. We won a nail-biter 6-5, and even though it was intense both student sections remained respectful to one another. They chanted and cheered when their players were up to bat and they sat down when it was our turn to cheer. At the end the band played and we sang Tama High's alma mater and in response they saluted us.

It was raining most of the game so the baseball moms passed out plastic tarps and Japanese tea to the student section which was so nice! Everything here can be flavored as green tea: cookies, mints, chicken etc.

Tokyo and Kawasaki remind me so much of NYC. If you've ever been to NY you will never be able to forget the infestation of monster rats. Well here it's killer crows. They scare me they're so huge and they're really mean. I guess every city has it's pest.

Tonight's dinner is noodles smothered in squid ink - bon appetite!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 23 Quest to Daishi Temple

Everyone that knows me knows I'm terrible with directions. So traveling to Daishi Temple alone today was not only a challenge for me, but also a feat for all bad navigators.

School ends on the 22nd so finals began today, which meant that I had the day off. I set out for the Kawasaki Daishi Temple this morning hopeful that my lack of sense of direction would not alter my voyage too much.

I managed to successfully transfer trains, but once I arrived at Daishi station I had only planned to ask the station officers directions. I hadn't think about what I would do if they couldn't speak English. Therefore I stood nodding while the officers made hand movements and rambled in Japanese.

I thought I was successful finding the temple after ten minutes of walking in the direction the officers pointed me to, when I stumbled upon a park with a what I thought was the temple. In my prideful shining moment I asked a local woman if this was in fact Daishi temple, and she responded by telling me it was merely a miniature Chinese garden attached to the park. I had actually walked past the temple when I caught sight of the playground! When I did make it to the temple it was magnificent. I've noticed every temple has the same rituals (hand cleansing center, fortune telling station, incense, etc.) but they all have different styles. Asakusa was fast paced with many visitors, Saijoji was rustic and woodsy and Daishi was tranquil yet still modern. Daishi is located in the middle of residential living, and is centered around the Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi.

Since I had walked circles around the area and I had forgotten in which direction the train station was. While pondering my situation I noticed an older couple which looked lost as well. I pointed in the direction of the temple and asked if that was what they were looking for. They ended up helping me instead by taking me back to the train station. In my personal experiences Japanese people in general are more shy than Americans but if asked of something like directions, they are very thorough and are honestly concerned about your successful arrival.

Lesson learned today: if I can travel alone in Japan anyone can - it's all about using your resources and being smart. Nobody wants to end up like those girls on the movie Taken after all.