Major: Asian Studies
Hometown: Jacksonville, NC
Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in Japan
I have not yet been in Japan a full week, yet it feels like I've been here either forever, or just a few minutes. Excluding the last time I came to Japan, which was last summer for the Fifth International Conference for East Asian Calligraphy Education, held in Hiroshima, these last few days have included some of the most exciting and challenging experiences I can remember. Even living abroad in Ireland posed no challenge compared to the culture and language shock I went through here, these last few days.
The first few days of the program, from Thursday to Saturday, all participants in the UNC Tokyo Summer program participated in an orientation, held at a traditional Japanese honten. The food was exquisite traditional Japanese fare (much of which I did not recognize) and we were housed in tatami rooms with futon. The bath was traditional Japanese ofuro, posing the first major challenge for me: bathing in front of other women, which I have never done before. However, I know it is considered normal in many parts of the world, and managed to let my cultural inhibitions go and try it. It feels more like pampering myself than taking a bath, really. It was quite surreal, really, finding myself in the ofuro, talking to a middle-aged (looking Japanese woman) who only spoke Japanese, only to find out that this woman I thought must be in her late thirties or early forties is actually seventy years old. Must be the healthy cuisine, I suppose.
I also found it interesting that when me and my roommates (the other three girls on the program) watched television before breakfast, we found programs talking about the rise in the popularity of fast food chains, which, juxtaposed against the honten, was the thing that made us realize, "yes, we really are in Japan." Not just old Japan, with all its ancient tradition, and not just the new, fast paced Tokyoite life, but the real Japan.
During the orientation, I received a small amount of information about my homestay family, as well as a picture, and the realization that I was going to live with a family hit me all over again. I was terrified. Nervous. Anxious. But above all, excited. I couldn't have asked for a more ideal learning environment in my homestay. The two little girls (6 and 2 years old) are adorable, and create a continual learning environment, at least that's what I thought. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, I was able to meet Takano Izumi (the mother) and Yuzu, the oldest daughter, and my suspicions were confirmed. They are a wonderful family, easy to learn from and talk to, even though my Japanese isn't very good. Actually, I've only been here just over a full day, and my Japanese skills have improved immensely from where I was when I arrived. When I was studying Japanese in school, I completed the first four semesters, which supposedly covers most of the grammar, but being here and actually using Japanese all the time, its becoming much more natural for me, and I'm even picking up new words. Playing with the children is a wonderful way to learn, because they help me too, when I have questions, and they are willing playmates, very excited to have a new big sister (oneesan) and playmate.
My room was also a big surprise. It is very nice, nicer than I thought I could expect, and bigger too, considering I am in Tokyo. Yet, I am happy to see that I have a futon style sleeping area rather than a bed, which would feel too much like America.
I feel welcome here, which is a wonderful thing. My Japanese is improving, and I feel like I have a wonderful, welcoming family.
This entry has run a little long, for which I apologize. This is the first time I have had access to the internet since arriving in Japan. From here on out, I have wireless access here in my room, so updates should be regular.
Here I am, with one full week in Japan under my belt already. The last few days have been quite exciting, and more than a little exhausting. Not only am I getting into the rhythm of a school student, taking the trains and hanging out after school, but I'm also becoming a new family member, a friend, a role model for the kids... its all quite exhausting.
Yesterday we went on our first class trip to the Mingeikan and Shibuya. The Mingeikan was very interesting. We were fortunate enough to be able to see a special exhibition of Noboribata, and meet the collector, as well as get a special tour of the Yanagi house. The Noboribata were especially interesting to me, because they incorporated not only Japanese written characters and stories, but also ancient Chinese scripts and legends. I was very impressed to find out that the collector actually looked up all the characters on the banners, so that he would be able to read them. Many of the characters are very difficult to find, and he said that one of the symbols took an entire week's worth of searching at the National Library before he was able to find it.
This morning, however, I had another dose of the familiar. The whole family went with Yuzu to her first swimming lesson. She's only 5 years old, and was really nervous, just like any other small child would be. There were lots of little kids there, and they were all full of energy, just like they would be in the US.
After that, we went on another family outing: Asakusa. I certainly wasn't ready for what was waiting for me. It's an outdoor market, almost like a carnival, but I think it's open every day. The shops seem pretty permanent, at least. While waiting during Yuzu's swimming lesson, me and my host mom slipped out for about 20 minutes to check out the nearest department store, looking for summer yukata. I'll be going to a couple of festivals while I'm here, so I want to dress for the occasion. Anyway, the yukata at Saty, the department store, started at $100 each, so we had to move on. My host father heard that we were looking for yukata, and immediately knew where to look: Asakusa. And he was absolutely right. There were many, many kinds to choose from, with a huge price range. I was glad to be able to bring my host mom with me, so that she could tell me if I was getting a cheap tourist knock-off, and direct me towards the real thing. Together we managed to find some very cute ones, at only 1050 yen each (about $10), as well as some very cute geta (wooden shoes) and kinshaku (purse). I have yet to buy hair accessories, but I can always go back. I think our class is actually going to make a trip there at a later date. I learned a very important lesson today: the locals know what to do and where to go.
Yesterday we had a guest speaker come to our program to tell us about his business in Japan. It was really interesting because, to start with, the man was American. He came from California, and ended up in Japan as the President/CEO of a small company called Japanime. The things we learned about from him were really interesting, and it consolidated an idea that had been forming in my mind since I arrived in Japan and first switched on the television.
Manga University, a subsection of Japanime, is a small publishing branch concerned with the use of manga (cartoons, comics) as a means of education. His company published some of the famous "How to Draw Manga" series, as well as a series of Kana/Kanji de Manga, which uses comics to teach kids how to read and write Japanese. It seems like the Japanese people already caught onto the idea of using comics and cartoons as a means of education and instruction; since I've arrived, I've lost count of the number of cute cartoon strips and clips directing me about traffic violations, medicine, coffee, railways, candy and many other things. They are easy to understand: even if I can't read the printed words, the characters portray their message in a friendly and memorable way. What was really interesting is that I don't really remember seeing that at home. Or maybe that is just part of the general theme of "everything is cuter in Japan," which also seems to hold true in fields other than cartoons. Or maybe that's just Tokyo.
Yesterday was one of the most exhausting, exciting days I have experienced since arriving in Japan, and that is saying a lot, because nearly every day is full to the brim with new experiences, and I always end the day absolutely exhausted.
Anyway, yesterday was the Kamakura day tour. We all went as a class, and some of us were lucky enough to be able to bring our host families with us, if they wanted to come and weren't too busy. I was fortunate enough that my host mother was able to come on the Kamakura tour. The day started out really early, with everyone meeting in Tokyo station at 8:45, and then heading off to Kamakura as a group. I'll try to be brief, but its hard, as there is so much I want to write about. The first train trip with the whole group was a very odd feeling. Since the very first orientation where we met our host families, I have not been in a place with both my host family and my classmates at the same time. Somehow, something felt very strange. Since my host mom was with me, and she speaks very little English, and didn't know anyone else in the group, I made a point to spend most of my time with her, and speak in Japanese. It would have been very rude for me to act otherwise. But it seemed like my classmates didn't realize how they were acting, or didn't care or... maybe I've been imbued with a stronger sense of Japanese "right and wrong" or something. It felt very strange, nonetheless.
The first place we went to was a temple called Engakuji, and it was the place that I was to give my little explanation/presentation. I was a little disappointed, because Ishikawa-san distributed information about all the places we were visiting for the day when we met at Tokyo station, so there was very little I had to say that wasn't on the information sheet. The other students who were to present today were also quite disappointed. But anyway, it was fun. I'm very glad I brought my parasol, as it was so hot. Yes, I admit defeat, and adopted the Japanese style of using a parasol to protect you from the heat and sun. Engakuji was very interesting, and there were lots of beautiful flowers in bloom, so the place was really crowded, because this is prime flower viewing season.
The next place, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, was my favorite spot of the day. It is another temple, a larger and more important one, and if the grounds weren't nearly as impressive as Engakuji, the activities at Tsurugaoka more than made up for it. During the time we were touring the temple and grounds, we were lucky enough to see not just one, but two traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies. It was really beautiful, magical. My host mom was really excited, too, because it was the first time she had ever seen a traditional wedding, too. That kind of surprised me, but she said that fewer and fewer people are having traditional weddings nowadays, so I guess it makes sense.
After that, I had a lovely lunch with my host mom, which was another highlight of the day. We had broken off from the group to find a beautiful little cafe. It was really fun, and because I was speaking only Japanese, me and my host mom kept getting compliments on how good my Japanese was. It made me feel that my practice may be starting to show some results. After lunch we met up at Kamakura station and headed over to Daibutsu, the "Big Buddha" statue. There wasn't much to see there, except for the statue, of course, but it was fun, even though it was so hot. I got some good photos, and we all headed off as a group to Hase-dera, the last stop of the day.
Hase-dera must have been a close second to Tsurugaoka. The grounds were absolutely gorgeous, and there was even a wonderful view of the ocean! One important thing that I learned at Hase-dera is that I love dango. We had been walking around all day, and I wanted a little snack. Up on the ocean viewing area, there were some vendors. One of them was selling popsicles and dango. I really wanted a popsicle, because it was so hot, but the dango caught my eye. Dango is a mochi rice treat cooked in soy sauce. It sounded kind of weird, but I like mochi, so I decided to try, because I already know what popsicles taste like. It was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Within two minutes, I was back for another, to the merriment of the vendors and my host mother, wanting to buy some more.
It wasn't until we were already home that I realized that, even though I brought a parasol to take refuge under, I still managed to get a decent sunburn.
On Tuesday, the UNC group went together to a nearby elementary school, broke off and went to visit with separate classrooms for the remainder of the school day. I was assigned to a first grade classroom, and the children, of which there were about 30, were incredibly cute and interested in me, and a lot of them tried using the English phrases they knew with me. I didn't get to see them until lunch, because they were swimming for the first part of the day. Lunch was interesting, to say the least. It was a learning experience in itself, it was so different than at home. For one thing, everyone ate their lunch in the classroom, not in a cafeteria, and the students served each other, and they took turns doing that duty. Everyone was served the same lunch, which consisted of udon, edamame, ika (squid stuffed with rice) milk, and a slice of frozen pineapple. I wasn't able to eat very much of it, unfortunately, and must have been a bad example, and I had to watch the kids to figure out how to open the milk and get the pineapple out of it's wrapper. Actually, I didn't realize it was food, at first. I thought it was a cold pack to keep the milk cold. The kids were very fun to learn from, and were so enthusiastic to talk to me, help me, and learn from me. Once I finally got the pineapple out of the package, it was delicious.
After lunch, there was a short break when the kids were allowed to play outside for about 15 minutes. Even though it was so hot, they were incredibly energetic, and managed to get me to play games with them, and run around with them. Once we got back to the classroom, I helped the kids clean the room. Unlike in American schools, there is no janitor, so the children have to keep the room clean by themselves, and they clean it every day after lunch. The brooms were really small, so it kind of hurt my back, but they were so cute, running around with their brooms and hats and masks, cleaning the classroom.
After that, we had our math/English lesson, and they were practicing simple math problems, first in Japanese, then in English, and I would pronounce it for them as an example. After math, the kids all colored and cut out small introduction cards, and introduced themselves to me one by one, and I received a card from each of them as a souvenir. I made some origami with the teacher, and got an introduction card from her, and I wrote one to give to the class, which promptly ended up posted on the blackboard. They were all very impressed that I wrote in kanji, especially the teacher.
I'll have to admit, before breaking off into my assigned classroom, I was really nervous, and a little scared. I have two small children in my host family, two little girls, so I know from experience that small kids are really hard to keep up with, so I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to keep up at all, and be boring to the kids, but it was exactly the opposite ~ they were so eager to talk to me that they were patient when I didn't understand them. There was even a little "question and answer" session, where the teacher called on the kids and they would ask me questions, which I would then answer. They were mostly along the lines of "what's your favorite fruit/sport/drink/color?" so it wasn't that difficult, and it was fun interacting with them. At the end, they all sang together, and then the bell rang and I said farewell to them all as they left to go home. Some of them had become really attached to me, especially a couple of the little boys, and they wanted to follow me back to the office, where I was meeting the rest of our group before going home.
I really think that, despite all the differences between my childhood elementary school experience, and that of these kids, overall, it probably isn't that much different. Seeing the pride on the kids faces as they showed me the flowers they were growing, and showing me a trick on the monkey bars, I am struck yet again by how similar they are to what I was when I was their age.
On Friday, I experienced a Japanese tea ceremony for the first time in my life. It was quite different than I expected it to be, before studying the subject. On Thursday, during our culture class, we studied tea ceremony (sado) as a class, to prepare for the ceremony. We also had a mini-lesson on a story known as Urashimatarou, which reminded me of Rip Van Winkle, in some ways.
The story starts out with a fisherman, who comes across some kids being cruel to a small turtle. The man saves the turtle, takes it home and nurses it back to health, then sets it free back into the ocean the next day. Soon after, he is approached by a large turtle, with summons to the imperial palace under the ocean, Ryuuguujyou, because the turtle he saved was actually the princess Otohime, and the king wanted to thank Urashimatarou, the fisherman, personally. So Urashimatarou is taken into the sea and visits the palace under the sea, where he is treated very well, and enjoys himself for an undefined amount of time. Eventually, however, he wants to go back home. Otohime doesn't want him to leave, but she gives him a box and instructs him that he can return to the palace as long as he has that box, but he must never open it outside of the kingdom under the sea. Then Urashimatarou goes back home, and everything has changed. What felt to him like a few weeks was, in his land, a hundred years or more. Forgetting his instructions, he opens the box, and a puff of smoke comes out, hitting him with all the time that he missed, and he instantly becomes incredibly old, and then vanishes.
We learned that tea ceremonies have themes, and the theme for ours turned out to be a mix of Tanabata, the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi, the celestial couple who are only allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, and the story of Urashimatarou. The sweets served before the tea were from those stories, first tanabata, which was considered a "wet" sweet, then before the second cup, Urashimatarou, a dry sweet. My tanabata sweet was designed with a firefly and bamboo pictures. The bamboo symbolized the tanabata story in that today, the way to celebrate tanabata is for everyone to write their wish on a piece of paper, and attach it to bamboo, in the hopes that their wish will come true. I think the firefly comes from the story, where the light of the fireflies or stars allows Orihime and Hikoboshi to find one another. My dry sweet depicted the Urashimatarou story in three pieces. The part of the story my sweets depicted was when Urashimatarou first went into the ocean to meet Otohime. The candies were in the shape of a castle, water ripples, and coral, to depict the change of scenery into the ocean. The person before me had Urashimatarou, to introduce his character, and the person after me had Otohime, introducing her into the story in chronological order.
One thing that I have to mention is that our tea master is a descendant of the Tokugawa shogun, which totally blew my mind. How we managed to have a tea party with her, I don't know, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity. It was also interesting that we all had to climb into the tea house on our hands and knees through a tiny door, which came from way back when there were samurai. The tiny door required samurai and soldiers to remove their armor and weapons before coming in, making everyone equal for the duration of the tea party. We all received a unique souvenir from the tea party, as well: the tiny forks that we used to eat our sweets. I didn't bring my camera to that particular event, but I don't think I'll forget it anytime soon.
Surprisingly, I think I'm starting to really assimilate. And not just because of the fact that I sit on my heels on the floor and use chopsticks at every meal, but the small things that I've started doing without even noticing. Today I started looking inward and wondering how I've changed, and I've seen a lot of things that have changed in the short time I've been here.
The first thing that I really noticed was my umbrella usage has blended with the Japanese way. Not only is it an umbrella, but its also a parasol at the same time. And I've found myself using it to shield my skin from the sun, not even thinking about it. Also, I don't close up my umbrella every time I walk under covered walkways. Some people do, but many don't. I guess it's just too much trouble to do anything about it.
Another thing I've learned is the art of cramming myself into the train to try to get a good spot to stand, where I won't get knocked into. I know it's a strange thing to worry about, but the trains are so overcrowded here that its a skill everyone needs to acquire.
I've also found myself looking forward to a night at karaoke like I would look forward to a nice vacation. I've never done karaoke back at home, but I did it once here, and it is such a wonderful way to reduce stress, I can't understand why it's not a huge thing in the states. Life in Japan is stressful, if only because there are always so many people everywhere you go, wherever you try to walk, whenever you want to go to the bathroom, that it feels really wonderful to close yourself up in a room with a select few friends and make as much noise as you want and blow off some steam.
Obento is another piece of Japanese culture that I find myself longing to bring home. Obento is the Japanese word for "lunch box." However, while the two serve the same purpose, providing a portable lunch, the culture is entirely different. I bought a bento set with my mom just a few days ago at the 100 yen shop, because I've been so enamored by the lunches she makes for Yuzu. Its a matching set with the lunch box itself, the band to hold the lunch box closed, a bag to carry it in, chopsticks, and a chopsticks case, as well as an adorable set of sauce containers decorated with animals. In bento culture, appearance is a big factor in determining one's skill, and skill with obento is quite prestigious. I've seen magazines full of cute bento displays, all of which probably took a long time to prepare. I don't plan on going crazy with my obento when I go home, but I do intend to keep the spirit of it and create my cute little lunch.
People look at me strangely less and less as the days pass by. I don't think its because they are getting used to me; the chances that the same people see me every day in a crowded city are quite slim. I must look less and less like a lost foreigner; I feel more at home, and I'm more at ease getting around on my own. It's quite saddening to think the I've only got about two weeks left here. I certainly plan to make the most of the little time that I have left.