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.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 21 (Karaoke and Photo booths)

Yesterday after school Haruka and I met with Nana and Kana (classmates) and sang karaoke for five hours! Karaoke in Japan is much more popular than in the U.S., because instead of buying your own machine and using it at your house, you are able to rent a soundproof room for the night and have a great time for cheap! It's very simple - to choose either Japanese or English songs we typed in either the artist or song into a little computer. The Japanese style room (sitting on the floor) consisted of a table, karaoke machine, screen and two microphones. The evening was hilariously funny and exemplified the Japanese culture even more.

Another popular activity for high schoolers is to take pictures in photo booths. The booth is much larger than the ones in America, being able to hold about ten people. Any way after we were done taking the pictures, the girls edited the photos. They made our eyes bigger, dyed our hair, choose different backgrounds, wrote messages, etc. When the pictures printed out one of the six shots was sent to each person's phone for them to save.

A fashion trend I've noticed is that everyone has huge cell phone charms! They range from beads to stuffed animals to plastic beer bottles! It cracks me up when I see a high school guy on the train pull out his cell phone and a Hello Kitty charm is hanging off of it. Priceless.

Speaking of that I'm really going to miss watching people on trains - my favorite is someone fighting off sleep. It's entertaining to watch them slip in and out of consciousness, and their head sway back and forth. Many people do fall asleep successfully but I have no idea how they don't miss their stop. Unlike NYC the trains are always on time and are clean. They can be extremely packed, like on my first day to school the train was so filled it was almost painful. At stops people were literally pushing their way into the train. Since then it hasn't been that crazy, but if there is one thing I've learned in Japan it's this: you never know what could happen next.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 19

Today was the 4th of July, and instead of watching fireworks my area's YFU coordinators took the students and their families from the Kanagawa Prefecture to the Saijoji temple and Soshu Odawara castle.
We were told to dress casually for hiking up to the temple, but little did I know Japanese hiking and American hiking are totally different. I realized the first week that image is everything here - from food to gifts to clothes - so when I showed up in a CF t-shirt and athletic shorts I was surprised to be the only one. Japanese consider "hiking" to be walking up stone steps to the temple - 300 to be exact. Not exactly Mt. Fugi material....
This particular temple is unlike any other in the fact that it is completely submerged in the wilderness, which gives it a rustic and earthy feel. Another extremely extravagant and beautiful shrine furnished with incense, a cleansing station and an ema shrine (wall of wooden plaques with prayers on them).
We ate lunch and then headed to Odawara castle for some Japanese history! When entering visitors must to go through three gates to finally get to the castle, but when you finally do make it there it's awe-inspiring! The castle was built by the Omori family (coincidentally my host family's last name!) in the early 16th century, and now holds samurai culture such as armor, swords, drawings and ancient documents. It's pretty much like a public park, mini zoo and museum with an awesome view of the seaside.
Quick recap of Friday night dinner with my host grandparents!
Haruka and I went to eat with my host grandparents at a traditional style restaurant in Tokyo Friday night. The rice was cooked in a traditional "okama" which scorches the outside of the rice. They bought us both little frog charms which are called "kaeru" to return home safely. There are just so many aspects of the Japanese culture that I don't even know about yet! It seems like I try something new almost everyday. Part of the culture I've noticed for example is that on all the trains and buses that there is a specific area of seating designated for the elderly only. Even in the language there is different words to use when talking to adults that shows a higher level of respect. Also at a restaurant we ate at a small, medium or large order was all the same price. Why wouldn't everyone get the large then? Because the set price is a sign of customer service, and the customer in return only orders what they think they can eat. As crazy as it sounds it's that simple. Speaking of restaurants I was surprised to see that food chains like McD's and KFC have different "Asianized" menus. It's not any healthier by any means, it just applies more to the Asian pallet. For example instead of mac 'n cheese and mashed potatoes the menu offers gratin, which is like a casserole.
Well that was my weekend.... Happy forth of July everyone back home! Save me a firework or two:)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Day 16

This morning it shocked me how hot it was - just waiting for the bus for five minutes and I had sweat literally rolling down my face! Soon a thunderstorm will come though, and cool things off for a couple of hours, and then when the heat kicks back up the humidity will be insane. It has been a struggle with my hair almost everyday:) Some days though it's like living in California - there's a wonderful breeze and the sun is shining bright.

Today I tried swimming class and loved it! I was kind of timid to try it at first because Haruka warned me the pool was disgusting - it turned out to be as clean as any other public pool. We spend the entire class playing water polo, which was extremely entertaining.

I've noticed a few things different about Japanese high school. For beginners there is hardly any gossip. Of coarse I don't understand Japanese, so I wouldn't be able to understand it anyway, but I asked Haruka and she said it's minimal. Also when the bell rings for the end of class the students don't bolt towards the door like we do. Most of the time though we stay in the same class and the teachers move. Even at the end of the day they wait until the teacher is done, pack up their things and then chat for a little while. Instead of three minutes between classes they have ten, and even if they are late there are no consequences.

The kids at school have finally started to warm up to me. Before if I would ask a question they would start giggling hysterically and ask me to repeat it again until they could give me a one word answer that I couldn't even understand. Now more people are starting to ask me questions about Ohio and my hobbies, and it's so nice to explain things like the forth of July and the day after Thanksgiving. The girls are amazed when I tell them people a few have even been injured and even trampled to death when stores open! Everything is either expensive or made cheaply here - I haven't some across any good bargains or sales yet.

Something different about school is that when we arrive we have to change our shoes. It is an ancient Japanese custom, and it applies for the gymnasium and home bathroom as well. Something else different about school is that they have the sports handball, badminton, kendo, jyudo, karate, dance team and ping pong. They are all so hard core... and they practice the same sport five days a week, all year round. See here you have to pick one sport your freshman year and stick with it - no changing or doubling.

My schedule for the week is pretty easy:
Mon: Japanese History, study hall, Eng. Writing, Eng. Reading, lunch and Jap. History
Tues: Eng. Composition, study hall, PE, homeroom, lunch and Jap. History at the end of the day
Wed: Japanese, Eng. Reading, PE, lunch, Calligraphy and English
Thurs: Eng. Grammer, PE, lunch, Japanese, Eng. Reading and sougou (which I still don't understand what that class really is. Everyone just talks and sometimes a student goes to the front and speaks but that's about it.)
Fri (the worst): Eng., Eng. Writing, Eng. Reading, lunch, Eng. Reading, Eng. Writing and Classics.

Yesterday was my first day of Calligraphy class, and it was surprisingly difficult! It's writing Chinese characters, but it's artistic as well. You have to wait in certain places and put pressure on different spots for the ink to bleed just right. I learned some basics like tree, river, and mountain. When I told the teacher I wanted to learn how to write my name a bunch of the students began figuring it out in the Chinese characters, and at the end of class I had at least five interpretations of my name from from different students.

The English teachers love me. I've recited passages, have been repeated after and have defined countless random words. Yesterday while reading I didn't know what the word "mariner" meant, and I had to ask the teacher. I looked it up later and it's just another name for sailor. I really looked like an idiot though - it was like forth grade reading. During the other classes I just read my summer English homework which they can't believe I have. When I told them the class has to read 21 books they almost had a heart attack right there. Teachers here don't even expect their students to be awake during their class, let alone reading a 300 page book about mythology over their break. In Japan instead of a three month summer break there is a month break beginning in mid-July and another in January.

I recently began attending basketball practices, and the girls are absolutely the nicest people I've ever met. I was immediately welcomed as part of the team, and they are even helping me with my Japanese! They don't mind that I'm slow and uncoordinated either, they're very understanding and not judgmental. I guess I can't understand what they're saying half the time though, but they're always really nice when they speak English! And for example today during the treacherous 3 km run (a little less than 2 miles) in the blazing sun one of them stayed back with me even though we were five minutes later than everyone else. They don't ignore me and always smile as well. Sometimes though I don't think they understand what I'm saying, but they've become really good fakers. I guess I have too. When I don't know what they're saying and feel it would be awkward to stop the conversation and ask, I just smile and shake you head a little - it always does the trick.

I don't think I can write enough about how different the food is. I've never really been a Chinese or Asian food lover, but now either I've adapted extremely well or the food is becoming more Americanized. Sometimes I think it's a little bit of both - we've had dishes similar to ones at home, but other times I've defiantly taken a leap of faith. Unfortunately in Japan though if you do not finish your meal or don't like something it's taken offensively. The only thing I've drawn the line on was salmon eggs and octopus - I had it the second day I was here and after the fifth or sixth bite I saw the suction cups and I couldn't push myself any further. The traditional Japanese desserts aren't my favorite, but the sweet ones are absolutely out of this world! Like the other day I had what's called melon bread, which is like a hybrid between a chocolate chip cookie and a loaf of bread. The only reason it has the name melon is because it looks like a watermelon. Most of the time too bread is filled with pudding, whipped cream, chocolate or this delicious unidentifiable cream stuff. I'm excited to bring back the recipes and try them at home.

Some nights Haruka and I help Kasumi with dinner, but a lot of things are instant or just need a packet of seasonings added. We frequently clean and the rinse the dishes (don't tell mom!) because along with a broken oven, we do not own a dishwasher. No dryer either - everything is hung dry on the balcony. That's another reason it stinks when it rains - we have to worry or rush outside to grab the clothes. In that case we have to scrunch them all into the bathroom and turn on a heater. Everyday Kasumi washes, hangs, folds and lays our clothes on our bed. Everyday.
That's about all I've got to update on.... until next time!