Friday, December 29, 2006

The Greatest Feeling

What is the greatest feeling in the world? I don't exactly know, so I can't really answer that philosophical question. But if it were my opinion. It would be the feeling I have right now at this very moment. Today was not the greatest day of my life. Nor will I look back 30 years from now and remember the moment by moment, second by second scale of things. You may ask why won't I remember such a day if it has left me feeling so wonderful. The best answer I can give is that I should have been feeling this feeling for 7 years now. 7 long years in which I let this new feeling stay in the dark. 7 years in which I let the world get to me. I let gossip, pain, and other petty bull shit hurt me. And then when it was time to pick myself up, I let self-pity take control. But that's over with. Today I went to the mall with a very close friend. An enormous language barrier and cultural difference blocked our way. And yet it seemed like it didn't matter. She, like all of my friends here in Japan, likes me for me. A happy beautiful girl who truly does bring fun to her friends. But that's not nearly what gave me this feeling. Somewhere between the laughing, talking about boys, getting our pictures taken, I happened to look in the mirror. I saw the same chubby freckled face blue eyes brunnette that I had been staring at for 16 years. And yet for the first time ever I was willing to admit, I was gorgeous. That fact of the matter is that I'm never going to be a model, be skinney enough to wear the latest fads, beautiful enough to make boys swoon over me. And yet, it doesn't matter. Because I can accept who I am, something most people can't. And that, that is the greatest feeling in the world. When you can look at yourself with no regrets, no feelings of annoyance, and just smile.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Race Is On

When you ask people what they think of Americans, you usually get some interesting answers. For 4 lovely Tosajoshi Ichinensee girls named Aimi, Shoko, Tomoko, and Mosa, the answer would have been, Americans are fast eaters. But that would have been back in September, when their fascinating (and gorgeous) Exchange student lunch mate ate like a typical American, at typical Nascar speeds. But 4 months have taken a toll on me, I'm afraid. I now eat like a average Japanese girl. My tiny bento takes me about half and hour to finish. Now during lunch time, Aimi takes first place, followed by Mosa. I come in at a steady third place. Dinner every night at my current host family, the Oono's, is another story. My host cousin Eri takes nearly a century to get past the rice bowl, while my host brother Yohei eats like an American. He's done in 5 minutes. Sometimes when I watch him eat I remember the good old days, when I didn't need to take a breath before the next bite, when after chewing I didn't have to put down my chop sticks and pretend to understand the current conversation. That got me thinking. I wondered if I still had it in me, to eat like I used to. And thus at dinner I made my plan. I was going to beat Yohei and reclaim my place as an American, and not just an exchange student pretending to be Japanese. Oh yes. Dinner was at a Curry restaurant, yummy. I got Roast Pork and Rice covered with Curry, while Yohei got Chicken and Rice covered in Curry and a salad. More food. I had this race in the bag. Haha. And when the waitor came back to serve us, we began. The whistle was blown, the checkered flag waved in the distance, the referree throwing the ball into the air. We were off. I suffered some minor set backs. First my severe illness of Neko Jitae, or cat tongue, burned. Basically the illness compromises of an inability to eat or drink hot foods. Japanese people find it unnatural with the amount of hot tea they drink. And I'm made aware of this often. My next pit stop came in the form of spicey Curry. My throat burned with spice. And yet I refused to allow these set backs to let me lose this battle. But I don't think I can prolong this with details of the epic race... so yeah, I lost. It was close, but my lose was painful. My dignity! But as I'm sitting here now typing this, my throat and tongue are burning from the hot food, nursing a wicked stomacheache, and feeling full as a Goog (thank you Althea!) I have come to realize and accept something. Tommorrow my bento will be eaten at a nice slow Japanese pace. I might not finish till 2007, but hey what the heck. My sanity is just about gone anyway.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Deck The Halls With Boughs of Sushi

They say Christmas is supposed to be the hardest part of an exchange student's year abroad. At my Orientation for Rotary Youth Exchange, the leaders all warned the students that Christmas was going to be tough no matter where you went. Whether you celebrated a big Christan holiday with host families in Spain, a Rotary sponsored even for poor French children to enjoy Christmas in France, or in an Asian country where Christmas isn't even celebrated. Because Christmas is about family and spending time with the ones you love. And as an exchange student, we are probably on the other side of the world from the ones we love. We were told it is natural to get homesick, and that we shouldn't worry about it in the least. That being said, I did not have an ounce of homesickness of the Christmas of 2006. I almost feel bad saying that I didn't miss home at all, but I don't want to lie. The thing I don't understand is why I didn't miss home. After all, this Christmas was very frosty, and I'm not even talking about the weather.
Currently, I live with my second host family, the Oono's. I know that my host mom and her son, Yohei, and niece, Eri like me alot. But I really don't know whether my host father does or not. He seems very cold and distant from everyone in the family. But since it was coming on Christmas, I figured that everyone would be in good spirits. Christmas is Christmas, no matter what. As usual, though I was very wrong.
In America, Christmas in my family starts in late November. Usually a little after Thanksgiving, my Mom and Dad head up into the attic and bring down the brilliantly fake Christmas tree. It is quite big, and even though it is as fake as Jolly Old Saint Nicolas, it is still gorgeous, especially when my Mom burns some pine tree candles and lets the aroma if true Christmas trees drift throughout the house. Barely five minutes fater it is set up, my sister and I are fighting to throw on the ornaments. After we are finished, Mom always has to redo about 50 ornaments, because Shannon and I always put the balls in the front. Even the really ugly ones. It seems like every year, I put Jerry Garcia's ornament in the front of the tree, but by Christmas, I always make a note that it is placed out of visible sight. But our family Christmas ornaments are beautiful and plentiful. And even though Shannon and I are terrible at picking spots, the tree always looks amazing when it is finished.
In Mid-November, a few days after I arrived in the Oono house, Mari-chan went into her own attic and brought down the Christmas tree. I was so eager to get it painted with the greens and reds of ornaments, that I was shocked when Mari-chan stopped to tell me something before taking her tree out of the box. She began with why she bought the tree. When her son, Yohei was little and his school asked all the parents to partake in bringing Santa Clause to the young children. Mari-chan, annoyed, went out and bought the tree for Yohei's Santa Clause Christmas. Then she told me that the following year, Yohei stopped believing in Santa Clause, and thus the tree was kept into the attic for all this time. But she brought it down for me, because she had read that Americans are very much into celebrating Christmas. I watched in eagerness as she pulled out a few sticks from the box, and then placed the box away. She began playing with the sticks and fiddling them to fit into a stand. Annoyed, I asked her what she was doing, and where the tree was. She looked at me like I was insane, then replied, 'this is the tree.' Now seriously, this stick was not a Christmas tree. This stick was not even really a stick, but more a metal attempt to make a pole with little green pine needles. I wondered if maybe she was trying to reenact the scene from Charlie Brown Christmas, in which I was to make fun of the tree. Then Woodstock and Snoopy would come and turn it into the cutest little thing ever. But as I looked at her face, I knew she was not kidding. When Eri and I finsihed decorating the Christmas tree, or whatever you want to refer to the thing, I was delighted to see that it had shaped up alot. It still wasn't a Christmas Tree, or even a Charlie Brown Tree, but it had potential in it's own strange little way.
When Christmas finally arrived in Kochi, I had begun to accept that would be very very different than the ones I had celebrated in America. The Japanese have no spiritual or religious basis for Christmas. While in the west there is a slight pretense towards a celebration of the birth of Christ, and years of tradition of families gathering, here in Japan the holiday is completely imported, and largely market driven. My Christmas experience here started with music. Early December, every store was heard playing Christmas music. English-language Christmas music. And not just Bing Crosby roasting mistletoe in an open sleigh, but in the cheap Sunday market strange Vegetable stands, I heard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This was the touchstone moment; after which the even more peppy versions of songs that meant family and tradition that I heard as I was shopping for rice balls in over-lit convenience stores fit readily into my holiday. But don't be fooled by this, music does not mean the actual thing. Like when they play the Chariots of Fire music on the news. I come running out of the bathroom in hopes of watching a good movie for a change, only to find a segment on a Veterinarian claiming to have discovered the reincarnated form of Ebisu, the Happy god, in the body of a Bulldog. The point is that Japan can fool anyone with it's use of classical music.
But the first indicator that Christmas in Japan was not going to be an American Christmas was on the Friday before the the weekend, at my final Koto practice before Winter vacation. Chiake Yamanaka, the leader of the Koto club, asked me to be in the club room at 9 AM on the morning of December 25, 2007. I thought she was obviously joking around with me, but her serious face gave no indicator of a joke. Thus far, I have come to every Saturday school day, and not complained about it, and done everything anyone has ever asked me to do here in Japan, even if it was against my own personal views. But coming to school, even if it was only for club practice, on Christmas was pushing it. I would be breaking the laws of the American government, which gives Christmas Day holiday to all employees regardless of religion. Chiake was really disappointed and questioned my reasons for not coming. I was truthful with her, "It's Christmas." She looked and me, trying to break me down, replied, "So? In Japan, Christmas is not a special holiday." You are right about that one.
The population of Japan, about 125 million people, has a large percentage of Christians or a Christian heritage. Well large compared to other Asian nations. 1/2 of 1% of the Japanese population is estimated to be Christian, with the majority of Japanese being tolerant of all faiths: Buddhism, Christianity, Shinto, etc. A good way to view the Japanese religion is of the following: In Japan, 8 millions of gods are said to live. Everything has its god, i.e, furnace has god of furnace, toilet has god of toilet. They are going well each other nevertheless of occasional quarrels. And they are so generous to permit some other gods to join as their friends. Thus, the Japanese added Buddha as one of their gods, when Buddhism was imported into Japan. Next came Jesus Christ, and his festivities.
December 25th is not a national holiday in Japan, although December 23rd, which is the birth date of the present emperor, is. But in Japan, those who do celebrate Christmas, do so on the night before, Christmas Eve. My host family, not unlike the rest of Japan, celebrated Christmas in a very Japanese manner.
In recent years, thanks to the marketing prowess of the folks at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Christmas Chicken Dinner has become quite popular. Many Japanese even make reservations for their "Christmas Chicken" ahead of time. People line up at their outlets to pick up their orders. As a result of KFC's brilliant advertising campaign, most Japanese now believe that Westerners celebrate Christmas with a chicken dinner instead of the more common ham or turkey. So on December 24th, when my host Mom asked me what type of Chicken my family would be eating back in America, I looked at her like she was crazy. I told her the truth, Chicken is rarely eaten for Christmas. Instead families eat Ham and Turkey. My family was probably going to sinking their teeth into a giant bird of Turkey the next day. I don't really think she believed me, which means the advertisers of KFC are doing a job well-done in Japan.
Just before dinner, I was typing up a new entry for my website, and smelling a curiously delicious odor. Then my host mom called me and Yohei down for dinner. It would only be 3 of us, because Eri had returned to her family for Winter vacation, and Oono Otosan doesn't like to spend time with his family if he can help it. Downstairs, Yohei and I took some pictures in front of the tree, which had suddenly sprouted some Christmas presents with my name on them. Mari-Chan urged me to open them before we began eating, but I laughed it off. We always wait to open presents on Christmas morning. At the table, I was amazed to see huge Chicken Teriyaki legs on our plates. Yohei was on his second bone, by the time I took my first bite. I was too amazed to eat at a normal pace. I know that it was only Christmas Eve, but I was aware that Christmas Day is not even really a holiday. SO that Christmas Eve is the true celebratory event. KFC on Christmas Eve is just one of those things that people joke about for years. Dinner was rather quiet, actually. I had nothing to say, and neither did anyone else. Looking back, and I'm surprised that I didn't think about home the whole time. I knew my family was not celebrating Christmas Ever till tomorrow morning (in time differences.) And I also knew that they were going to celebrate it with some neighbors and friends, while I was sitting at a quiet table with a Christmas tree the size of a Petunia, eating Colonel Sander's finest meat. Good lord. Immediately after we were finished the meal, the true piece of Christmas food was served. In Japan, Christmas cake is a frosted sponge cake with strawberries, chocolates or seasonal fruit. Cake shops throughout Japan always try to sell all their Christmas cakes before Christmas eve. Any cakes left after Christmas are seen to be very old or out of date. Women over 25 years old used to be said 'unsold Xmas cake.' It's a bit bad joke, though. However, nowadays, the average age for marriage has changed, getting older and older, and it is history. Still, leave it to the Japanese to insult woman and Christmas cake all at once. The cake actually wasn't very good at all. Mari-chan said that because the bake shop was the most popular in the city, Christmas cakes were made too quick to give any good taste. After dinner, I excused myself and headed for the tub. Immediately afterwards, I went to bed. Christmas was sucking for me.
When I woke the next morning, I sort of wished I went to Koto club. The house was empty, because Yohei had a baseball tournament. I was left in the big house on Christmas morning all alone. The way I formed that last sentence, sounds like it was a horrible way to spend Christmas. But actually I was quite happy. First I got dressed and went for a long run throughout the country side. It was a Monday morning, and traffic was bad. People were going to work, kids going to their clubs, and life was not stopping at all for a holiday so dear to mot Americans. When I got home, I opened my presents. I got a stuffed animal Neko Bus, from the Japanese anime, Totoro, and some other Totoro stationary. I also got a ceramic New Years set with the 12 animals, which was to be laid out around New Years. The tree, I noticed had actually disappeared from sight. Mari-chan later told me that she wanted to put it away as it was no longer really Christmas.
The Christmas miracle was not in the form of world peace, holiday romance, or anything life that. It was in that I didn't get homesick. To be honest, Christmas was not a very special day for me. I'm not complaining because, in theory, I celebrated the way the Japanese celebrate the holiday.
On Christmas Day for dinner, I sat around the table with Mari-chan, Yohei, and even Oono Otosan. While the family talked about Yohei's baseball tournament, I tried very hard to suppress a painful laughter gathering in my stomach. While the Garner's back in America celebrated their Christmas dinner with mounds of gravy-smothered Turkey, piles of Baked Potatoes, Potato Salad, Sweet Yams, Cream Cheese Covered Celery (don't ask) followed by luscious Cheesecake, Chocolate covered strawberries, Candy-canes, and sugar cookies, I, on the other side of the world, was eating Sushi. This is definitely the way it is supposed to be.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Meeting My Third Host Family

I've been in my current family, the Oono's, for a whole month now. Crazy how time is flying by, isn't it?

On December 18 at 6:30, I got in the car with Otosan and Okasan Oono. It was so cold and I was wearing my uniform, like usual. We went to a Kochi hotel about 20 minutes from the house. I'd never been there before. I walked upstairs and was greeted by Matsumoto-san and 2 lovely people, my next host parents. He sat me at the middle of the table, across from the Oono's and my next family. Soon Otosan Masaki, who was placed right next to me, arrived for the dinner and we began the discussion.

Firstly the adults talked about my likes and dislikes, my life, and all about my exchange. They were trying to give my new family a little taste of what I am like. I got to speak. "What's you favorite food?"

"Meat and Okonomiacki."

Matsumoto-san is under the false impression I have actually lost weight. haha. If he only knew... But then something about me must have changed in the past 4 months. Earlier in this week my Otosan Oono mentioned how grown up I look as opposed to how I looked when I first met her. Hmm.. just a thought.

Sakioka arrived later and gave me my upcoming schedule as well as showed everyone a picture of me he always carried of me in this wallet. The worst part is that it is literally the worst picture I have ever taken. haha. My next host mom, like my current host mom, was shocked when they all told her I don't like to eat breakfast. Next me and my current host mom had everyone cracking up when we told them how I am able to get internet in my room. (By hacking into someone from the surrounding area's wireless.) Otosan Masaki nearly choked from laughter and proceeded to call me a variety of names from "computer nerd" to "hacker."

Then they talked about me and my activities, sometimes as if I was not sitting in the room listening to them and participating in the conversation with them. I hate when this happens as I am paraded around like a Show Pig on display. Matsumoto-san also gave the new family the URL to my "incredible" website. They continued to talk about me and my exchange. My Japanese is terrible coversationally, but my comprehension is decent. The conversation was mostly praise. As for my next family; host mom and host dad live about 30 minutes by bike from Tosajoshi, my high school. But I may end up taking the bus to and from school. It hasn't been decided but I think I would prefer to take a bike.

The Osaki's have 4 kids, 3 cats, and also live with an Obachan and Ojichan (grandparents). 8 people plus me and 3 cats. Pretty awesome right? The kids range from the oldest a middle school Sanensee (9th grader) to the youngest as an elementary school inchinensee (1st grader.) They are also a very busy family. One daughter is an amazing synchronized swimmer, one child plays piano, and the two others also have busy schedules. None of the kids goes to Tosajoshi, so I'll probably be riding my bike or taking the bus everyday by myself. That's about the most I got about my next host family. But in 2 months I'll be able to tell you a lot more.

Anyway, the dinner was served and the adults continued to talk. Otosan Masaki brought up my mother and Nana's upcoming visit to Japan. The plan was to visit Tokyo for 4 days, Hiroshima for 1 day, and Kochi for 4 days. But the Rotarians strongly suggested we change Tokyo to Kyoto, and even offered to help pay for it, which I respectfully declined. Rotary has done so much for me. I couldn't ask them to do anymore. But Kyoto is apparently gorgeous with the Sakura, or cherry blossom at their peak. As for my Rotary events, I am pretty much done with the exception of Okayama in February and then Saying Goodbye in July. Unfortunately this also means no more traveling for me except until my Mom and Nana come visit. Everyone seemed very excited about meeting my parents.

After dinner was finished, we all got coffee. Masaki otosan "Well she's an adult now..." Apparently, this whole drinking-coffee thing is still a problem for my adopted Japanese father. Pretty soon it was time to head back home. I shook hands with my next Otosan. I find it so funny when Japanese people shake hands. It's not part of Japanese custom but they try very hard to impress foreigners. Usually though they do it the wrong way. But I always admire when they try anyway. After that I bowed to them. A little change of customs. I think I'm finally getting this bowing thing down pacted. Maybe. With my current host family, we drove out to the area of my next family. Though we couldn't find the house, we did see my next Otosan's enormous company. Back at home, me and my host mom had a drawing contest. We both agreed that art is not exactly our specialty. I went to bed feeling pretty loved.

Meeting My Third Host Family

I've been in my current family, the Oono's, for a whole month now. Crazy how time is flying by. Anyways December 18 at 6:30 I got in the car with Otosan and Okasan Oono. It was so cold and I was wearing my uniform like usual. We went to this hotel about 20 minutes from my home. I'd never been there before. I walked upstairs and was greeted by Matsumoto-san and 2 lovely people, my next host parents. He sat me at the middle of the table, across from the Oono's and my next family. Soon Otosan Masaki, who was placed right next to me, arrived for the dinner and we began the discussion. Firstly the adults talked about my likes and dislikes, my life, and all about my exchange. They were trying to give my new family a little taste of what I am like. I got to speak. "What's you favorite food?" "Meat and Okonomiacki" haha. Matsumoto-san is under the false impression I actually lost weight. haha. If he only knew... But then something about me must have changed in the past 4 months. Earlier in this week my Otosan Oono mentioned how grown up I look as opposed to how I looked when I got her. Hmm.. just a thought. Sakioka arrived later and gave me my upcoming schedule as well as showed everyone a picture of me he always carried of me in this wallet. The worst part os that it is literally the worst picture I have ever taken. haha. My next host mom, like my current host mom, was shocked when they all told her I don't like to eat breakfast. Next me and my current host mom had everyone cracking up when we told them how I am able to get internet in my room. (By hacking into someone from the surronding area's wireless.) haha. Otosan Masaki nearly choked from laughter. Then they talked about me and my activities. About how I originally did Track but now am a member of the Koto, Tea Ceremony, and Traditional Japanese dance club. Matsumoto-san also gave the new family the URL to my "incredible" website. They continued to talk about me and my exchange. My Japanese is terrible because I understood very little of what was being said. But from what I did get. The conversation was mostly praise. As for my next family; host mom and host dad live about 30 minutes by bike from Tosajoshi, my high school. But I may end up taking the bus to and from school. It hasn't been decided but I think I would prefer to take a bike. Anyway, they have 4 kids, 3 cats, and also live with an obachan and ojichan (grandparents). 8 people plus me and 3 cats. Pretty awesome right? The kids range from the oldest a middle school Sanensee (9th grader) to the youngest a elementary school inchinensee (1st grader.) They are also a very busy family. One daughter is an amazing syncronized swimmer, one child plays piano, and the two others also have busy schedules. None of the kids goes to Tosajoshi, so I'll probably be riding my bike or taking the bus everyday by myself. That's about the most I got about my next host family. But in 2 months I'll be able to tell you a lot more. Anyway, the dinner was served and the adults continued to talk. Otosan Masaki brought up my mother and Nana's upcoming visit to Japan. The plan was to visit Tokyo for 4 days, Hiroshima for 1 day, and Kochi for 4 days. But the Rotarians strongly suggested we change Tokyo to Kyoto, and even offered to help pay for it, which I respectfully declined. Rotary has done so much for me. I couldn't ask them to do anymore. But Kyoto is apparently gorgeous with the Sakura, or cherry blossom at their peak. As for my Rotary events, I am pretty much done with the exception of Okayama in Febuary and then Saying Goodbye in July. Unfortunately this also means no more traveling for me except until my Mom and Nana come visit. Everyone seemed very excited about meeting my parents. After dinner was finished, we all got coffee. Masaki otosan "Well she's an adult now..." (see KURASHIKI for explanation.) Pretty soon it was time to head back home. I shook hands with my next Otosan. I find it so funny when Japanese people shake hands. It's not part of Japanese custom but they try very hard to impress foreigners. Usually though they do it the wrong way. But I always admire when they try anyway. After that I bowed to them. A little change of customs. I think I'm finally getting this bowing thing down pacted. Maybe. With my current host family, we drove out to the area of my next family. Though we couldn't find the house, we did see my next Otosan's enormous company. Back at home, me and my host mom had a drawing contest.. haha. We both agreed that art is not exactly our specialty. I went to bed feeling pretty loved.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

From Ordinary to Extraordinary

The 16th marked a pretty big milestone in my life as a Japanese student.

 I completed an entire term in the Japanese school year. September 1 thru December 16, everyday from Monday thru Saturday, saw me at Tosajoshi High School in the heart of Kochi. When I woke up on the morning of the 16th, I didn't exactly have anything special planned. I was happy because not only was it the last day of the term, it was the start of my 3 week long Winter Break. I got ready and sat on the couch and waited for my host cousin Eri to get ready. Eri was running late, so when we finally got to our bikes, she agreed to let me take the lead. It's a bit of a struggle when the other one of us takes the lead. I take my bike and basically rocket to school in like 12 minutes, stopping only at traffic lights (sometimes...) While Eri goes slow and steady. It's kind of like the tortoise and the hare. But for how different Eri and I are, I really enjoy living with her. It's never boring.

Anyway, I took the lead and got us to school in the nick of time. Eri probably had a minor heartattack on the way to school from the speed I was going. Poor girl... haha. I climbed the 3 floors to my classroom and settled in the nice warm room with my classmates. I then texted Shiho, sitting right in front of me. I always yell at her when she goes on her cell phone during class. So I typed her a message. "Shiho is very bad. Good Morning! Julie." When she got it she cracked up and smacked my arm. The day started and we were assigned to end of term cleaning. Of course my class got the lovely toilet cleaning duty. Lovely, right? Especially since Japanese toilets are those filthy little squatters. But Me, Shiho, and Megumi got lucky. We only had to clean the mirrors and the sinks. So for the next half and hour I scrubbed those sinks till the squealed. Then we headed back to the classroom to get ready for the Closing Ceremony. Me, Shiho, and Kaori headed down to the gym, which was already overflowing with nearly 2,000 screaming Tosajoshi girls.

God I love this place.

I remember being told I was going to an All Girls school and groaning in agony. Now I look around and feel so grateful because I seriously have the best school. It's kind of like a giant never ending sleepever with these girls. We settled with our class sections. Yano homeroom was in the middle of the gym. I was just one girl in uniform among thousands. And soon the principal's speech was underway. I couldn't understand a word so I opted to annoy the crap out of Shiho. After the long speech we headed back to homeroom for the last 20 minutes of class. I was waiting with my suprise for my classmates. I had made my 43 classmates and 1 teacher Christmas gifts. Okay-sure, Christmas is really small and insignificant here. But it's not in America and thus I want to spread a little of that tradition. The present was my American homemade pins with 2 Jolly Rancher candies and a hand written note in Japanese. Thus with 10 minutes left in class, Yano-sensei called me up. I jumped on to the podium and yelled MERRY CHRISTMAS! Then I told them in America friends exchange gifts on Christmas. Then I began passing on the little envelopes with the gifts inside. To everyone I gave a a present I said Merry Christmas, and was returned with Arigatou! Aimi looked at me with shock that I had pulled this off. I had only told one person about what I was doing, Shiho, and she had kept the secret. When the gift giving for my classmates was finished, Santa Julie had one more gift for Yani-sensei. He was so happy and kept saying "This must have taken you a long time." I didn't want to tell him that it took me longer than what he thought. I was just so happy and am pretty sure everyone else was as well. Aimi did a count of 3 thing when everyone said Thank You. I confirmed the line "It's better to give than to receive" After school ended I went to the library to finish my Japanese comic reading.

Then at 12, I met Kitazoe-sensei and Arakawa-sensei for lunch. We went to my favorite place, Hakobe, and made Okonomiacki. I'm finally getting the hang of the flipping thing. I gave each of my teachers a Christmas card, which they enjoyed. Christmas cards are non-existant here, instead the send New Years Cards. After we lunch we went for coffee and toast. Then I was heading home to my host family. Back at home, Eri was packing up to head back home. Sadly enough, I probably wouldn't see her till after Christmas. So I gave her present today. It was that Christmas tree hat, which I'm pretty positive that she absolutely loved. In fact she put it on almost immediately and wore it as she waved goodbye. I had the pleasure of meeting Chika, a 5 year old little boy with American Japanese parents. Thus he is a half. His English was great and his Japanese was even better. We went to a food store, and he and I played tag throughout the entire store. It was great for me because I haven't been around little kids since the summer. I haven't lost my touch... haha. Afterwards we got some cake and went back home to eat it. Chika and I ate quickly, then he fell asleep pretty quickly. I went upstairs and got ready for Sae Hirosue's music concert.

At 6:30, Hirosue-sensei, Yurie, and Yuki picked me from outside the Oono's house. We headed to Kochi Museum and waited for Sae-mama to play. She played with her teachers and was incredible. I don't remember the name of the instrument but it was very cool. I also liked watching Koto players. Especially now that I have started playing the Koto. After the concert, I went out to dinner with the Hirosue family. We basically went to the nicest and most expensive Steak restaurants in Kochi. I asked Yurie to speak to me in Japanese, but she essentially refused. So I spent the entire meal in English. It was certainly delicious, although a bit too expensive for my taste. Back in Hirosue-sensei's Rolls Royce, Yurie and I rocked out to the Beatles until we pulled up back in front of my house. My host mom greeted me back and I gave Yurie and hug goodbye. Up in my room a package had come, and I tore it open. A bunch of gifts for my families and a huge box of Retro Candy for me for Christmas. Okay so I wasn't supposed to open it till Christmas but the package was already open anyway. And thus my day, which had every intention of being ordinary turned into extraordinary day. Kind of like my exchange so far.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Weirdness

I loved the Masakis.

They were a great and fun family.

But it's true that I didn't love them at first. In fact I remember in those few days in the beginning, questioning how I was going to make it a year. I had a really horrible first few days in Japan. Every morning, I would wake covered in sweat and thinking about the home I had left behind. It wasn't homesickness, but more like the constant wondering if I made the right choice to get on that airplane bound for Japan. But things changed, I got a more grip of the language (actually I learned how to fool people into thinking I could understand, when I really had no idea whatsoever.) After school started, I began to feel truly apart of the Masaki household. And by the time I left, Otosan was telling people he had 2 daughters, Naoko and Julie. Moving was so hard, and I most certainly wouldn't have done it if it wasn't in the rules of Rotary.

So I was onto my 2nd and current family.

Currently I'm living with the Oono's. I have Mari-chan, my host mom, whom I absolutely adore. She is really a sweet woman and she has made me feel more welcome here than anyone in this entire country. Plus she has made me part of the family when she asks me to help her cook, which I always agree to. Her little English skills, and my little Japanese skills make for wonderful conversations. Then there is my host cousin, Eri, who lives with her aunt's family so she can attend a better school than the one in her town. Eri is probably the most bizarre kid I have ever had the opportunity to meet. She is just entirely too slow. Eating dinner takes her nearly 3 times as long as me, 10 times as long a Yohei. Also riding a bike in the morning with her and allowing her to ride ahead is always a risk when it comes to lateness. She's also incredibly shy, but once you get to know her, she's somewhat kind in her own sort of weird way. At school, she only has one friend, and it's hard for her to see me when I can carely speak the language and am surrounded by hundreds of friends. Nonetheless, I'm slowly taking a great liking to the bizarre little girl, even if she is beyond weird. Even Yohei and I are... well, associating, which is all I'm going to get with a Japanese host brother. We have the "goodo nighto" joke which always causes a smile at night. But he is really busy so we will probably not get super close.

But my host father... I just don't know. He's strange beyond Eri's wildest imagination. It's just he works a lot ... I think. But he as his wife don't have any relationship besides occasionally sitting at the same table and her cleaning up after him. I mean they don't sleep in the same room, or even on the same floor. They never really even talk...ever. Actually, that's not true. When he wants a beer his dinner plate taken away, or something along those lines, he'll call for Mari-chan to do it. He calls her "Oy,' which is awful. Translated into English it means something like, "Hey you!" [If I ever get married, god forbid, and my spouse does not use 'Julie' when addressing me, there will be hell to pay.]

I don't want to compare host fathers, because I know that everyone is different and unique in their own way, but the way he treats his wife is repulsive. Masaki Otosan would never do anything like that. Oono Otosan is usually never at the table for dinner, but when he is, its awkward. I don't like when he eats with us. I know it seems like I'm contradicting myself, in complaining that he doesn't spend time with his family. But what I mean is that when he does spend time with them, it seems forced and unwilling. Now don't get me wrong, he seems like such a nice man. In his own way, I guess. But well, it's weird. Mari-chan noticed my discomfort around him. She told me that he was from a family of all boys and doesn't know how to talk to girls. I suppose that it was supposed to make sense, but it doesn't at all.

It's just a little bit weird in this house. I hope I'm not sounding whiney or ungrateful. But for the first time in Japan, I am beginning to feel really uncomfortable.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Kurashiki With the Masaki's




I swear he can't help himself.


My first (and amazing) host family, the Masaki's took me to Kurashiki, Okayama. Ten bucks says that you have never heard of Kurashiki. I certainly hadn't until the 9th when I did a little research on the place. And wow- what an awesome place!

At 10am, Otosan Masaki picked me up and we headed back to the Masaki apartment. We met up with
Naoko always looks fashionable. Not me though.
Okasan and went for brunch at the same place we went on my last day with them. It's funny because every time I order a coffee around my Otosan he cracks up and says "16! An adult now!" I guess ordering a coffee makes me an adult.

Anyways after breakfast we rushed to Kochi Eki (station). I've been to a few stations before, including Tokyo Station (one word: amazing) and Okayama. But Kochi Eki is a bit of a joke in that respect. It's about the size of a my classroom at Tosajoshi... well not that small but SMALL when comparing other stations. We boarded the train bound for Okayama Station, located in the Okayama-ken on Eastern Honshu. The train ride in a 2 and 1/2 ride through 85 tunnels of Shikoku's unspoiled green mountains. It also makes for a very bumpy ride. The worst aspect though is the toilets. They are traditional Japanese squat toilets located on the train that is doing more bumps a speed ramp. Well I can't say that was enjoyable having to squat and pee on a bumpy train. Since I had drunk orange juice, a coffee, and a full water bottle before the ride, there was no way to avoid using
Love this family!
the toilet and thus, no way to avoid splashing myself and nearly dampening my pants. Too much information?

At Okayama we arrived and met with Naoko, who had taken the nice non bumpy Shinkhansen to Okayama. Lucky girl. We got a locker and put my books that I was supposed to use for studying inside. We then jumped on another train, only about 10 minutes bound for Southern Okayama and Kurashiki. On the train I caught up with Naoko and told the Masaki's all about my lovely new family. Naoko told me that when she was a Ninensee in Middle School her Shugakkouryokoo had been to Kurishiki. When we arrived at the station we quickly got out and walked on the main road. We also did some Gaijin spotting. Otosan found this really fat gaijin that sounded British. Ew... I wasn't exactly sure where we were going, But then... oh my god!

A Seven Eleven! Most foreigners abroad joke that Japan is filled to the brim with 7/11 convenience
stores, which is true. Ecept that the chain has not quite crossed the Inland sea and taken over Shikoku. So seeing a 7/11 is seeing a wee piece of home! Japan is truly destroying my American 'normality' mindset. First gaijin spotting, then I nearly have a conniption over a convenience store. I can't imagine what it is going to be like back in the states seeing a Mexican or one of those enormous RV's everyone drives.

I might not make it home alive.

Anyway as we walked along the street, we turned right into what appeared to be the movie set from Memoirs of a Gaijin. So it wasn't actually the movie set, but it was Bikan Historical Quarter, an area of traditional homes, storehouses and canals that date back to the Edo period. It truly was like walking back in time to old-style Japan when Samurai were still around, houses very traditionally built, and canals lined with willow trees. Plus a Japanese wedding was taking place in the back scene, so many people were dressed in Kimono. It was magical. The canal was filled with fish, some were pretty huge. (prompting Otosan to yell
"JAWS" and me to hum the dreaded music.) Still we walked along the Quarter taking in all the sights and sounds, as well as posing for a bunch of pictures. We did some shopping, including visiting the Hello Kitty store. I'm turning into a Japanese girl because everything was "Kawaii" We also visited a Christmas store, where I got a pang of yearning for home. Christmas is so small and nearly insignificant. At least there's next year.

After some more strolling around Bikan, Otosan brought us into a traditional Restaurants and bought us all Blueberry Tarte Cake. I actually had to eat fast... something I'm not used to doing since living with my current host cousin Eri for a nearly month. I also got another coffee and recieved another "16! An adult now!" haha. Leaving the restaurant, we headed back to the station and then thru to the Kurashiki Tivoli Park. Perhaps you have heard of Tivoli Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, the famously old amusement park that survived World War II and has a special place in a Danish person's heart. Well like most things, the Japanese wanted a little stake in it. Thus Kurashiki built Tivoli Gardens smack dab in the middle of the city in 1998. The park is very traditionally Danish though, which rides displaying the Danish flags. The park is a small kiddy park, that is gorgeous is
spring and summer because of the many flowers. In the winter time, night time makes the park glow with Christmas lights. We arrived at the park at around 4.

First we rode the Ferris Wheel, which was very very slow. But it was nice to look out at Kurashiki surronding area in the day time. To scare Otosan and Naoko, I tried to swing the cart. It was pretty funny. We made our way down and next to the Jet Coaster. The Coaster was significantly small but nonetheless very fun. I sat with Naoko behind Otosan and Okasan. Naoko and Otosan are big chicken. So as the chain pulled us up, Naoko shuddered in fear. Then when we were realeased from the chain pull, I laughed my butt off as Naoko screamed her head off. The ride quickly ended and we then headed for the Log Flume. Okay yes it is December, nearly freezing weather, we are all bundled up in Sweatshirts and jackets and are still cold, but we still went on the Log Flume. Thank god for that. I sat in the front with Naoko behind me, followed by Okasan and Otosan. From the first drop Naoko was screaming "Tsumetai" (cold!) referring the brief sprays we were receiving. Then we were taken into a dark cave and we all screamed as the final major drop approached.

As you can see from the Ride photo, I screamed my head off. Off the ride, Otosan nearly wet himself looking at the picture. Next we moved into the Teacups, where we got majorly dizzy. Then on to dinner. In a amusement park were all the restaurants serve Danish food, Otosan managed to find the one Japanese restaurant. I got Tempura. After we went Omiyagi shopping, the Masaki's bought my current host family a chocolate cake. Surely enough night had fallen and the Tivoli Gardens was glowing with Christmas lights. Blue trees lined one area, while red and green lights lite another. In the middle of the park a huge blue and red tree was the main center piece. It was beautiful and it reminded me a lot of what American families do at Christmas time. We took one last ride on the Ferris Wheel and then hurried back to the station. The train back to Okayama Main was a crazy. We would have only 2 minutes to switch trains. Otosan had to get in the front of the train and sprint to the lockers to get our stuff.

We rushed to the next train and just as the conductor blew the whistle, Otosan reappeared running for his life. The JR Trains was bright pink and had Anpanman Characters all over it, but I couldn't admire it. We were in a great rush! I didn't even get to say a goodbye to Naoko, but I did text message it. "I Miss You!" which I got a reply "I Love Julie!" The train ride home was me attempting to study while sending about 40 text messages to Yurie, Kaho, and Naoko. Back in Kochi, the Masaki family dropped me off the Oono's. Then me, Mari-chan, Eri, and Yohei ate some of the Omiyagi chocolate cake. 

Friday, December 01, 2006

Just Having A Slump

This exchange is truly wonderful... not a day goes by where I actually regret coming here. I have never been homesick, and don't plan on it. I love it here and I love my life here so much. But at the moment I'm having a major slump. Major.

I'm never busy. Sure I have some clubs and I started running on my own again. But my friends are always freaking busy and never have any time to hang out. I'm not anywhere near homesick but I just want to go somewhere and hear "JULIE" with the emphasis on the L. And I want to go to the movies and eat popcorn and cookie dough with my friends, and then I want to fall asleep on my downstairs couch on the shoulder of my best friends who is already asleep from the moment the movie started. I want to get an all-A report card again and brag to my little sister, who just won a Chinese speaking competition that I wasn't able to see. I want to hang out on a Friday night, not "Asobu" in the arcade after school. Though right now I'd be content to do even that... but it seems like everyone is too busy to do anything. I want to look around and not stand out for just 5 minutes. I want to blend in with the crowd and not feel like a circus freak at every moment. 5 minutes would be all I needed. I want to look around and see more blue eyes and brown, red, and gold hair and not all black hair and brown eyes. I want to stop being squealed at with that wretched word "Kawaii." I want to be sarcastic and have someone understand. I want to make fun of people and have it make sense. I want to laugh and not be laughed at it. I want people to stop trying to pluck my arm hairs. And now I feel like a whiney brat for complaining about this. Like I said everyone likes me and has put so much faith into my exchange. But all I want to do is be alone, because no one can ever do anything! Never. I hate going to an over-achiever school. I hate living with a host family, where my host father acts as though he hates everyone but himself. (I miss the Masaki's!)

And then I get this email from Althea, my best friend here in Japan, who is the Australian exchange student in Imabari....
"Anyway, its all water under the bridge now, and you're doing such great things in Kochi that everyone's image of exchange students has probably been fixed back to a better one by now, I reckon!
But I don't think you realize how lucky you are, Jules. You've been blessed with this wonderfully adaptable, resilient personality - you always look on the bright side, you're not scared to try new things (except maybe karaoke, and look where that got you! You should try veronica and Zahra's karaoke bar - ha ha. just kidding), any problems you have you deal with logically and effectively... and you were flexible and positive enough to be able to turn the disappointment of getting Japan over Austria into this huge adventure - the time of your life! 
Not everyone can do that, you know. It took me a long, long time.
So just do your thing, have a great time, and try not to worry too much about what's happened before you. coz this is YOUR year!"

And now I feel even worse.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movie Night

I love movies.

That's the utter obvious truth.

I can remember being just a little girl, telling people proudly that I thought Disney was for babies. Yet, every time my sister would pop on her favorite Princess movie, it would be me to watch the whole thing. As she had/has the attention span of a gnat, and I was always interested in whatever was on the television.

I love movies, but not nearly as much as my host father, Masaki Otosan. Though, he is better known
The resemblance is uncanny.
as Captain Jack Sparrow. In my first email from him, I asked him what I should call him, as it is one of the Rotary Youth Exchange Cardinal rules to ask your host families what to call them. Much of the time, they will just have you call them by their first names.

But the Japanese culture is much more different.

In the rule package I received from Japan, one of the rules is that I am supposed to call them Otosan and Okasan, Father and Mother, respectively. Now I as much as I was initially uncomfortable with doing this, I suspected that the host families would be even more uncomfortable with me calling them this. I am not their kid, after all. When my parents were hosting Ale from Argentina, they asked her to call them Steve and Jackie. Not, Mom and Dad. It made more sense to everyone.

Not quite as much of a resemblance. But
Captain Jack will let it slide.
Yet again, I was wrong in assuming something about the Japanese culture. (I know, I know, this is unsurprising considering my recent track record in making terrible cultural assumptions.) I emailed my first host father, Kenichi Masaki, and asked him what he would prefer to be called. From my words, I think he interpreted that I would be uncomfortable calling him Otosan, though he told me to call him that. He then added that he loved American movies, and if I would prefer, I would be allowed to call him Captain Jack Sparrow. I was so relieved to have a host father who seemed to have a sense of humor, and it made my family very comfortable knowing that this man seemed like an easy going guy. Plus, I had some idea of what to get him as a host family present. In the reply email, I told him that my favorite movie was Star Wars. In his next email, he addressed the letter as 'Dear Princess Leia..."

Nearly, a week after I landed in Japan, I was sitting at the dinner table at the Masaki's quite bored. My computer, which had been used as a home theater in my room during down time, decided that it would no longer play movies. I had brought with me about 15 of my favorite movies along to Japan for these kinda of situations. I discovered within hours that they would not work on Japanese DVD players due to some sort of DVD sourcing problems or something to that extent. Still, I wanted to do something, and that's when I discovered the Masaki family movie library. I found myself watching my first American movie, spoken in all Japanese, with English subtitles.

To no one's surprise the move we first played was Pirates of the Caribbean 1.

It was quite an experience for me, because I did not realize how strange it is to see non-Japanese people speaking fluent Japanese. In America, this sort of thing never crosses our mind. We all kind if assume that everyone can speak English, black, white, Chinese, Zimbabwean, Pakistani, or Russian. But being in Japan for only a week has given me this image that it's just plain weird to see someone none-Japanese speaking the language. And that's exactly what Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were doing.

Over the course of 3 months in which I lived with this family, we watched a lot of movies. It even became a bit of a tradition after while. It seemed like every Saturday night, after Track practice and dinner, I would park out in Captain Jack and Mrs. Masaki's room in front of the brand new big screen TV (only purchased because Captain Jack wanted to start a tradition of Movie Night.) They ended up getting Digital Cable, with many special movie channels. That's when the tradition came into practice. The family knew how much I loved Star Wars, and one Saturday evening I got a call to
The fact that this image exists means that the world is great.
hurry up and meet the family in the TV room. The original Star Wars was on one of the Movie channels. We watched the entire thing through, in English with Japanese subtitles. The family cracked up each time I quoted Luke and Obi-wan. Around the part when they first reach the Death Star, Mrs. Masaki went into the kitchen and brought out cups of Cookie's and Cream Haagen Daaz Ice Cream, and we cheered as the Death Star was blown to smithereens. It was the most fun I had all week.

And it came as no surprise to me that when the 5th episode came on the following week, we all watched it together. After 6 weeks, and 6 episodes of Star Wars, I began to wonder if our tradition would continue. It was a lot of fun, for all of us. And in the next week, I was disappointed when no one called for me to come see what was on. I walked by the room various times, listening to see what was on. I even heard a familiar line, "Don't you shoot that green sh*t at me!" I burst through the door, yelling, "I love this movie! Independence Day!" Captain Jack nearly jumped 3 feet in the air, but when we met eyes, I knew why the door had been closed. He was laying in his underwear, looking like he had walked right off the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch magazine for old Japanese woman.

All he needed was a rose in his mouth, and we could have him into a Valentines Day. I would have apologized profusely, but I noticed he didn't seem to mind. "Oh you like this movie? I'm sorry we should have called you in." I took my seat on the couch, glued my eyes to the television, and pinched my thigh so hard as to not burst into a roaring laughter. When it was over, I excused myself and ran into my room, where I nearly wet my pants at what I had seen.

The next week, Cookie's and Cream Haagan Daaz in hand, we watched Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And the week after that, we went to the movies and saw the Lake House, which we all agreed was really quite awful. It's weird to think that American movies could have helped to bond me even closer to this wonderful family. But they did.

And around this time, our time was beginning to come to a close.

On the second to last Saturday Movie Night, Masaki Okasan had to attend a wake. Captain Jack and I were on our own. Now normally this would probably scare a Japanese man to be alone with a 15 year old American girl, but Captain Jack isn't exactly normal. He's a badass pirate, with basically no badass skills. He called up his friend, Saiyuri, and together we all went for Okonomiacki at Hakobe. Saiyuri speaks fluent English, and she translated for Captain Jack, that he was going to miss me more than I can imagine when I move to the next family. I told her the feeling was mutual. When we were all finished, Saiyuri returned home, while Captain Jack and I headed into the TV room for Movie Night. He rented the Disney Pixar flick, Cars. I wonder what 50 year old man of any nationality would admit to watching a Disney movie. We both laughed and cried and enjoyed it though. And when it was over, we agreed it was one of the best Disney films in a few years.

The final movie night took place on a Friday night, November 17th, the night of my birthday. Captain Jack had really wanted me to watch his favorite musical, even though I had no interest in it. Finally, I gave in, and we popped in Moulin Rouge. I was not disappointed. The movie was wonderful. The story was sentimental and hilarious at the same time. And even though I enjoyed every moment of it, I couldn't help but feel sad that it was our last movie night. And when it ended, everyone was quiet. It truly was over, not just the movie, but the whole tradition.

I left the Masaki's apartment on the 19th of November. They still have Movie night, every so often, because they have a great television and set-up for it. But I've been told it just isn't the same.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Just Taking A Simple Chance

I'm having the greatest year of my life, but that's not to say every day is perfect. Today was just one of those days. Those days that nothing seems to go right no matter what you do. First on my way to school it started pouring while I was on my bike and only halfway to school. In school it seemed as though all of my classmates deliberately spoke in the fastest and most difficult Japanese possible. They also seemed to spent today reminiscing over the past 3 years spent together, none of which included the cute gaijin. I guess I just forgot what it feels to occasionally be lonely at school. When the long day ended I hopped on my bike and rode home. Whenever I feel a little down, running always makes me feel better. I know it's weird but it's just a nice hobby I've picked up. The problem is that I haven't run in a long time. Track ended in the beginning of November, and with birthdays, moving into a new family, long bike rides to and from school, I haven't found much time to go running. But I needed to run and thus, I got on my shoes and left. My host mom wanted me to take my cell phone because she was sure I would get lost... I was sure I would get lost too. My new house isn't in the middle of the city, like my last one was. But I told her that I would be fine, mostly because I didn't want to lug around my cell phone. I ran out to the busy main avenue, where I had to stop at like 15 red lights. Cars honked and drove past me, and I couldn't really get into the running rhythm. But I followed the road until I reached the main highway. And there I had a moment. I was standing on a crumbing old corner with the option of turning back into Kochi City or taking the mysterious road on the right. I've seen the trail back into Kochi City, but I'd never seen the road. But what is the worst that could happen? Er.. well I could get incredibly lost and have my host family get really worried about me or I can find something that I would never usually stumble across. And thus, I took the chance, and I turned right on a dusty barren road, that looked as though it hadn't been driven on in many many years. It paralled alongside the main River, which at it's best was disgustingly brown and smelly. The bright sun had broken thru the rain clouds from the morning as I ran along the muddy puddle filled road. Not a car in sight. Not a house in the distance. Just me and my running. Looking out upon the river, which seemed to grow clearer and cleaner as I ran along, dozens of ducks and birds swam gracefully in the brown water. Occasionally a fish would spring into the air and disturb the calmness of the birds. As I followed the road to the riverback I noticed huge packs of little crabs that fled as I drew nearer. Turtles also rested calmly on the muddy banks. In the distance smoke from a burning rice paddy rose slowly on the mountains. In front of me in the distance I was being towered by lush green unspoiled mountains. To my right was the murky river, slowly inching it's way towards the ocean, and full of blissful life. To my left was what seemed like miles and miles of rice paddies, some burning while others just waiting to be picked. And behind me was home- Kochi City. For the first time in the past four months I could reach out my arms and not touch anything. I was alone on a silent muddy road in the middle of nowhere Japan, with a destination unknown. Never have I felt so free. I was close enough to civilization to run back to it, but far enough to be only surronded by sights and sounds of nature. Still I followed the road, feeling so peaceful and happy. The sun began to fall behind clouds, but I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Soon enough the moon appeared and I began to grow weary over whether I ought to turn back or keep going. I listened to my heart and kept going. Luckily the river grew browner, the animals less common, rice paddies smaller, and sure enough Kochi City loomed in the distance. Back into the city, I found my way back home. There I was met by my host father who smiled and waved and host mother who also greeted me back warmly. I couldn't believe the clock when it said that I had been running for nearly 2 hours! For someone who hasn't run in awhile, that's incredibly good. I don't think I've ever run that long. The point is that for how bad the day started of as, it turned out to be very peaceful in it's ending hours. I was introduced to a whole new area of Kochi City that I may have overlooked if I had not taken a simple chance.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Baseball--- Yakyu

I woke up nice and early and went to my host brothers baseball game. What an interesting experience...

Yohei, my 14 year old host brother, attends the best middle school in Kochi and plays baseball for the school team. He is a Chu Ninensee, or by American standards, an 8th grader. Usually he is the starting pitcher, but today he played first base.

Anyways it was freezing and rainy and it wasn't exactly a place I wanted to be. My host mom, MAri-chan, and I sat down on the icy bench sometime during the second inning of a seven inning game. But after only a few minutes, I was very glad I came. An American joke is the crazy Soccer Mom, here it's the crazy Baseball mom.

I was sitting there cold and nearly numb and then suddenly a crack of a bat and a herd of ravaging screaming mothers stands up screams "GANBARE!" (do you best!) But it wasn't just for hits, or catches, is was also for balls, strikes, steals, bauks, you name it and these woman cheered for it. And when the ref made a bad call... well I don't want to remember that incident.

In Japanese baseball, the strategy is to get a man on base... then bunt. They bunt with no outs, one out, two outs, runners on first, second, third, the bases loaded, it doesn't matter. The pitcher bunts, the power hitter bunts, the leadoff hitter bunts, they might as well call it Buntball and just be done with it. The funny thing is, the Japanese almost sort of think that they invented baseball. Normally I'd say they didn't but Japanese baseball is so different than American baseball, that they sort of did invent a new game.

The thing I like about Japanese baseball is that is has heart. When you look back onto American baseball in early years when it truly was the American pastime, when little boys only dreamed of playing the major leagues, most importantly the players played for the love of the game not just money like today. That's Japanese baseball for you... plus a few crazy mothers.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Last Day with the Masaki's

Okay so I know this is called Last Day but I think it best to start on the night before I left...

My last photo with this crazy-ass family, whom I absolutely adore.
After my incredibly amazing Sweet 16 party, I find myself on the verge of tears as I pack all of my new gifts in a Bag for the move.

It's time.

The move from the Masaki family to the Oono family.

Naoko sits alongside of me putting things my disorganized belongs into tattered bags. She keeps me from crying, but the sentiment of overwhelming sadness is still there eating me up inside. Before finishing up the packing, Otosan comes into the room to announce we would be heading to see a movie, The Devil Wears Prada, in a few hours. I want to be all packed by then, so I hurry to throw things into my bags. I've been her for 3 months and as I look around at my 6 full heavy bags, I can't help but wonder how much I'm going to have after 12 months.

The thought makes me cringe. I realize just how much I love it here in Japan.

Looking around at everything makes me so sad. I've only been here for 3 months, but they have been
I have no description for this photo other than
Captain Jack is a goofball.
full of happy and joyful memories.

I start to cry.
I can't help it.

Right before we leave for the movie theater I give Naoko and Okasan their presents from my parents. Naoko opens hers and instantly loves it. It's a pink and white framed picture of she and I at the airport on my first day in Japan. It says, "Big Sister, Little Sister." She makes an excellent point when she points out that although she may be the older sister, I am much bigger than she is.

I can't help but laugh.

Okasan opens her present, a framed picture of me and Naoko at the pool. It's really a gorgeous picture, of the 2 of us. Both wide-eyed girls with dreams and beautiful smiles. My parents also write a note, "Favorite picture of our two daughters..." It takes Okasan a while to translate it. But she absolutely loves it and she puts the frame into her room. Then I hand her a note. This note I have been working on all week at school. It's written in the neatest and best Japanese I could possibly do. My original note was very me... terrible Japanese, a million star drawings, and a few smileys. I showed it to Shiho and Aimi at school and they conferred that it wasn't very good. So they proofread, fixed my kanji characters, and made me write a much neater note. I still used my same words, though. Apparently they were good enough. The note said something like, (translated from Japanese):

Dear Okasan and Otosan,

Now I want to thank you. I have been here for 3 months. They have been exciting and great. We have many jokes. (Lists all of good jokes.) I am very happy but sad to leave. Please come visit me in America, you will enjoy! I will miss you very very much. I still here for 9 more months. I will visit. Again thank you!

Your Gaijin, Jurie Gaana.
By the time, Okasan was finished reading the note, she has burst into tears and is hugging me and telling me how much she will miss me. I am fighting tooth and nail to not cry, and am in luck when Otosan returns to urge us to get going. We go to the cinema one last time, to see the movie.

Afterwards, we go to the Super Market and then return home. Back at home, I take one last shower at the Masakis. Then I decide to spend my last night with my host family. It's pretty late, but that's okay. I ask Otosan if he likes the frame and he admits he loves it.

"The picture is great, two girls with fat cheeks."

That's exactly how he says it. Ridiculous pirate. Two Anpanman. The picture is on their cabinet in their room.

We talk about the past 3 months and all of our jokes... Outskare Katsukare, GIDGET, 525,600 minutes, Competitive, procrastinate, Osoi eater, Captain Jack Sparrow... things only we can understand. We as in the Masaki family and me, who shared 3 fun months, August to November. I got to have a great family, Otosan, Okasan, and an older sister, Naoko. They got to have a wonderful American daughter and a younger sister. The thing is, even though, I will no longer live with them, that doesn't have to change. I know that, they know that. But it's still sad that I'm leaving tommorrow. I then teach the Masaki's one of my favorite old games, Bubble Gum Bubble Gum In A Dish, How Many Pieces Do You Wish? They love it! It's pretty funny when Otosan loses and Naoko wins. We also do some crazy hand games, which only Otosan can master. Naoko goes into the tub, and I am left with Otosan and Okasan. We talk about the party. I ask them what they thought about my friends, and they agree my friends were great and very polite. Naoko had said earlier that she was so suprised to see I had so many friends and that I was obviously very close to all the girls at the party. Otosan also assured me that the Ono family was great and very excited to have me and so far I had done well. Done well? After last years exchange students, Rotarians were extremely hesitant to host. Otosan admitted that he wouldn't have hosted if Sakioka-san hadn't pressured him. But now, many people are volunteering to do it. I already have my third host family picked out. They live rather far from the school, I will be the oldest kid and get this... there are 4 children! The oldest girl will be an exchange student next year. As of now, they are building my room in the house. That's an example of how I have done well, Otosan says.

I'm getting really tired as it is very late. But before I go to bed I make them promise they will come to visit me in America. I tell otosan I will take him to see Rent (one of our jokes.) They tell me Oyasumi Nasai for the last time. I head to bed and fall asleep... the last time in the Masaki house. When I awake the next morning, I just lay in bed for a while, drifting in and out of sleep.

At 10; 30 I finally decide to leave the room. Otosan decdes we should all go out for brunch. At breakfast Okasan and Otosan order Coffee, Naoko orders tea, they ask if I want water. "Can I have Coffee?" Otousan thinks about this, "Okay, you're 16 now, I guess you can." You'd think I was asking him for alcohol or something... The girls all order Cheese Toast and Otosan order something else. We kind of sit there and talk about Kochi and how it never snows.

When we get served, Otosan and Okasan eat quickly, and me and Naoko eat slowly. When I am
finally done, I can't help but tell Otosan, "Osoi Eater." (Another of our jokes.) Back at the house, we take a whole family photo. My camera timer comes in great use as we sit on the deck and smile. Then Ojisan takes a picture of just the Masaki's and me. Back inside, it's time to load everything into the car. It takes Ojisan and Otosan both to carry just one of enormous heavy bags... poor guys. It's raining really heavy by this time, but Okasan takes my Camera chip to get pictures from the party. When she returns, she also has a bag of chestnuts. The most difficult little beast in the world. It's time to go... Obachan stands on the sidewalk waving to me. I'm crying so hard now I can't even hide it. Okasan is fighting not to cry. Naoko is too, but she is losing. The ride is quiet, but when we get there, I've dried my eyes. I don't want my new family to think I don't want to go to them. That all I want to do is stay with the Masakis, because that is not the case. We unload the car and the Masakis are invited in for tea. Okasan speaks to my new Okasan about me. Naoko looks around at the house and consistantly whispers "sugoi" which means Great. To break a mere awkwardness, I decide to speak. My new host brother is wearing a Red Sox Jacket. I call him on it and everyone laughs. This is going to work out. Its time for the Masaki's to go. Naoko is really crying now as I stand on the sidewalk and wave.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

My Super Sweet Sixteen: Day II

Classy. With a side of awesome.
In theory, it was still November 17th in America so Part II of celebrations was justified. At least, in my mind. ((Since technically, I was born 16 years ago on the 18th in Japan because of time zones and the fact that I was born in America. But do we need to get that technical? Nah.))

When I got to school that Saturday morning, I was able to hang out with my friends for a few classes.
They dressed me up for my birthday.
It was great because everyone was really excited about my upcoming birthday dash. I kept thanking my classmates for their beautiful gift from yesterday, but they all just brushed it off as no like it was no big thing.

But it was big deal to me.

After school, my friends stayed behind to eat lunch and I hurried home to get ready for my party. Soon we left for the Shin Hankyu Hotel, which is also the classiest (and most expensive!) hotel in Kochi City. Once we arrived at the hotel, I was whisked away from my host family into a back room, where a lovely Kimono-clad women stripped me out of my clothes and put my a fancy Kimono. Obachan, Okasan, and Naoko were in the room with me getting ready, and essentially cooing the entire time at their little white girl getting Japan-ed up.

It takes a long time to put on a kimono, but luckily the Kimono lady had patience, which I suppose is the main requirement for Kimono dressers. Anyway, I was given the choice between several of her Kimono to wear. I picked
Learning how NOT to breathe.
out a beautiful blue Kimono with traditional flowers on it. The teacher then set about the task of squeezing me to death into the Kimono. For the hour and a half that I wore it, I'm not sure that I got much of chance to breath.

Still in the dressing room, Okasan, Obachan, Naoko, and Me took a ton of pictures. They then put my hair half up and half down. And to be perfectly honest, I looked absolutely gorgeous. Yep, I am not even going to beat around the bush on this one. I looked amazing, despite the fact that I was a white girl in a Japanese Kimono.

Next, I had to wear those stupid traditional flip flops, and truthfully, I'm just surprised my ankle is not
Friends from class!
broken right now. Hey -- I may be wearing a drop-dead gorgeous outfit, but I am still the same clumsy fool that has never been able to wear heels for fear of death!

In the elevator down to the party room, Yurie gave me an amazing tiara to wear as a present. The whole tiara get-up really threw out the authentic Japanese outfit, but I'm still an American girl. And most American girls on their Sweet 16 wear tiaras, as ridiculous and narcissistic as that is.

When I walked into the party room, all of my friends cheered for me KAWAII! and had me take millions of pictures. As usual, I was supposed to do a speech in Japanese, but I forgot to prepare one so I did a speech in English about the fact that Sweet 16 is a little bigger than normal birthdays because everyone seems so interested in that fact.
And I thanked everyone for coming. Yurie translated everything and added that I attended her 17th Birthday Party in America and how special I was. (Did I mention how much I hate attention?)

Afterwards, the banquet chef rolled out my ginormous cake. And by ginormous... I seriously mean that the thing was bigger than a typical wedding cake. I think it might have been a wedding cake, also. But it was covered in fruit and white chocolate bestowing "Sweet Sixteen Julie!"

All of my friends came to where I was standing and we took a bunch of pictures. Yurie told them all
that I loved hugs. So a bunch of Japanese girls went outside their cultural comfort zones to give me hugs. Aimi was the only one who wouldn't give me a hug, but I told her I would get her to crack, and give me a hug by the end of the night. I told her by the end of the party I would get her to crack and give me a hug, she told me fat chance and we laughed up.

They placed Sixteen Candles around my cake and lit them. Then everyone sang the wonderful birthday song for me. I was so happy and excited I couldn't accurately describe it. I was surrounded by 20 of my best friends, all giving me hugs, my loving host family, my kind new family, and a few Rotary counselors. Then the chef gave me a sword... okay a giant knife... and had my cut my cake. I sliced in and everyone cheered.. it was truly wonderful.

Dear lord, I am pampered.
It was time to sit down and eat after that. I sat at the head of the party with Yurie and my left and Masako on my right. Masako brought her Ipod and played terrible Rap music... just like American sweet sixteen parties. Waitors came around and gave everyone huge plates covered in sweets. Then bowls of Ice Cream. Then pieces of cake. The meal was my wonderful Birthday Cake, Vanilla Ice Cream, various Fruit, Crepe, Choclate and Vanilla Cookies, Pudding Bread, mini Parfaits, whipped cream sugar fruit, and Almond Crackers. My plate alone could have fed an army. Everyone ate just a little bit of what was served.

But me- heck -- I ate everything!

It's my birthday and I can do whatever I want!

After the meal, I went around and took pictures of the tables and joked with my friends. I wanted to
So. Much. Cake.
be the best hostess I could be. It was really emotional to walk around and speak all the guests. I generally hate being in the spot light, even if it my birthday. But everyone was so kind and wonderful that I could not help but remark to Yurie that I've never been so happy at a party before -- and the best part was that it was my own party.

My own Super Sweet Sixteen!

After that I sat with Naoko and Obachan for a little while. Then I went to speak with my new family. They seem really great, and though I'm incredibly sad about leaving the Masaki's, I know I am going to do great with the Ono family. Because I want to make it work. And looking around, and seeing how many great friends have, the wonderful relationship with my first family, and the fact that Rotary is spending a huge amount of money on a fabulous party for me, all of these are products of me wanting to make it work. It being this year, my exchange.

New host Dad and Captain Jack.
That's just how life in Japan is for me. Exchange is what you make it. I'm having the best year of my life. So I think I'm doing a pretty good job. At least, I hope so.

After a little while I decided to change back into my school uniform and it was back to a thousand more pictures. Yurie had the idea to get everyone who got me a present come up and take a picture with me holding the present. I kind of burst into tears of joy again.

I don't know why but I was feeling just so loved. More hugs and tears and pictures covered the next 15 minutes. And then like the saying goes, "All good things must come to an end..." Matsumoto-san, my counselor, said it was time for the party to finish.

As all of my friends were leaving, they all gave me more hugs. Even Aimi gave me a hug. I'm pretty
Photos with presents!
sure everyone had as good of a time as I did. I overheard my friends saying that it turned into a good party. And I agree 100%. I just had the best Sweet 16 party.

Otosan, Naoko, and Me waited in the lobby for Sakioka-sensei to give me his present. 3 Harry Potter books, which Otosan cracked up about and told Sakioka-san I had already read them. After 3 months, he knows what I've read.. pretty crazy right? Back at home, me and Naoko opened my presents. I don't want to sound spoiled rotten but the happiness from my party was turned into sadness. This is because everything I opened I had to quickly pack away. In a pendulum swing of emotions, I went from being the happiest girl in all of Kochi, Japan, to the saddest. I did not want to leave the Masaki's tomorrow. With my never-ending birthday celebration, I had delayed facing the inevitable: I was moving to a new family. And even though I though the new family would be great, I could not bear to think about parting with the Masaki's. Simply put, I love them.

I love my big sis!
As for the presents that I opened and then quickly packed away... well random is a bit of an understatement.

But that's the Japanese for you. Not that I don't love everything I got with all my heart. My track friends bought me a great scarf, Shiho baked me a cake, Nanae bought me a plastic Christmas tree, Masako got me a Totoro stuffed animal and towel. I also got Cookies, chocolate, and Anpanman Doll, pajamas, a mirror, a mini Star Lab, a pencil case, Miss Bunny Frame, sunshine Mug, Christmas candles, and a handmade stuffed dog. I'm sure I forgot some other stuff... and I'm sorry for that.

When everything was all packed away, the fun decided not to end. Otosan took up all to the movie theaters to see "The Devil Wears Prada" which is a great film... I went to bed that night thinking that these past two days may have just been the most fun days I ever had... But I was also dreading tomorrow.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

My Super Sweet Sixteen: Day I

Birthday girl.

This morning, as my alarm clock blared to life alerting me about the impending day, I woke up and felt like the typical 15 year-old girl exchange student to Japan. Because, obviously, that's a typical
My crafty friends made a pretty card for me.
feeling that many people experience in their lifetimes. Ha.

But, of course, today was never meant to be just ordinary day for me. It was my 16th birthday, after all!

And in America, that's a pretty a special day.

Sweet Sixteen.

Since I have always been extremely young for my school grade in America, most of my friends had already celebrated their Sweet 16 birthday with big elaborate parties. I have attended parties at banquet halls with catered food and DJ's and ball gowns and elaborate decorations. As for me, I had never planned on having a big party for my 16th, as I generally abhor any attention that being "the birthday girl" would bring. Plus, I have known for some time that I would celebrating the "Sweet 16" as an exchange student in come foreign
Even if it my birthday, I still got to clean toilets for cleaning
duty at school. How exciting!
country, which probably did not share the same odd traditions of elaborate parties like in America. Mostly, though, I am not really a big partier.

But, of course, Japan is Japan, which generally means I have limited to no say in my fate here. My host family and Rotary had plans for my birthday, which they did not feel I should be consulted about. So my plans for a nice quiet passing of another year were thrown out the window.

On the morning of the 17th, I quickly got dressed in my navy winter school uniform. Before I headed to school, I received "HAPPY BIRTHDAYS" from my host parents, much to my surprise and delight. Not that I expected them to forget, but it was still comforting to know they remembered and that I wouldn't be reliving the beloved movie, "16 Candles" with a slight Japanese twist. After my daily morning walk through the Obiyamachi shopping arcade, I arrived at school. My friends and classmates all cheered for me and wished me a happy day. But that was it. Then they kind
The girls in my class got me this
present... my first Yukata!
of went back to normal and forgot about my birthday. Not to sound disappointed, but they had all been talking about it for weeks.

Sometime during the day, Yurie came in my classroom, and screamed "HAPPY SWEET SIXTEEN!!" After that random, but not wholly unexpected, outburst from my overly-Americanized friend, I had to spend most of the day explaining the significance of a "Sweet 16" to my teachers. The day kind of drifted by slowly, at lunch I ate with Shiho and Kaori and we joked about how Shiho is so young. She won't turn 16 till February 20th. I'm pretty sure she is the last 15 year old in our year at school.

So technically that still makes me one of the younger girls in our grade. This is one thing I have in common at both Tosajoshi and Verona High School: being a wee baby in terms of age!

Finally, last period of the day came and I anxiously waited until the end of class. Then halfway through, Yano-sensei suprised me, he stopped teaching and announced to everyone it was my birthday. It seemed like everyone knew, and I realized why they all virtually stopped talking about it earlier in the day.

They had been planning this...

That evening, my host family had a small party for me, as well.
Naoko even returned from college to partake in the festivities.
Yano-sensei then called me up to stand in front of my 43 other class mates as they sang to me in English. It was the most off-key terrible version of a wonderful song, and yet I stood up there looking at 43 girls laughing and cheering for me. After the song, Yano-sensei announced they had all pooled some money to buy me a gift. I thought that was the most surprising part of the day... I was dead wrong. The present was the nicest most beautiful gift I could have ever even imagined. I slowly opened the package, causing my classmates to stir and urge me to go faster... and... then... "Oh my god!" I said as I pulled out my present. My 43 classmates bought me a beautiful Japanese Yukata, or summer kimono, and 2 handmade hair clips. I mouthed a few "thank you" but I could not help but feel so touched by the generosity and thoughtfulness of my class mates, that I burst into tears.

In retrospect, I feel a little bad that I couldn't thank them more.

It meant that much to me.

Life as an exchange student has taught me that when you get surprises, hold onto the moment, try to feel and remember it as best as you can. Looking out at my friends, tears streaming down my face, that is something I know I'll remember. Then my teacher, Yano-sensei, whom I really enjoy having as a teacher, handed me another package. He had bought me a really cool lamp "for studying" and an pretty picture frame. I wanted to say to everyone "You don't know how much this means to me. You've just given me an amazing birthday and I can't thank you enough. I love you all so much and I'm so thankful I have been given an opportunity to be in the same class with you all." But my Japanese skills are a bit on the poor side so they all had to settle for "Thank you..." with a few tears and sniffles.

I asked Yano-sensei if I could give them hugs and he replied, "No, Japanese people hate hugging." I
Making Takoyaki with the Masaki family!
burst out laughing because I wanted to say, "You don't say? I never would have guessed," in my sarcastic voice.

Standing in the front of the room and looking out at 43 of my classmates laughing and smiling at me, I felt like the happiest 16 year old alive. I may not look or act like the majority of these girls. But I fit in here. I have the best friends here, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

After class ended, I fulfilled my school duty of cleaning and headed home. At home, the Masakis greeted me with more "Happy Birthdays!" There was also a package from home waiting for me. Inside were some little gifts from home, which included clothes, a bracelet, and Verona news, More things to add to my wonderful day. I decided to take a little rest.

My beloved big sis comes home!
Later on for birthday dinner we made my favorite meal, Okonomiyaki with a side of Takoyaki! I don't think I have ever eaten so much food in my life. It was so much fun to make the dinner with my host father as he clowned around. Making Okonomiyaki is easy, but Takoyaki is a bit more difficult. You basically fill little ball platters with mix and raw octopus and let it cook. Then you have to flip it it so it turns into a good ball. Otosan is a Takoyaki fiend, as for me, for my first time, I didn't do to bad.

After dinner we decided to wait until midnight for Naoko to return to eat my cake. In the mean time, I took a Japanese-style bath and then we all wathced Moulin Rouge, because my host family is basically the coolest.

At midnight I went with Otosan to pick up Naoko at Kochi station. I got a big hug and a Happy
Fruit on a cake. A Winning Birthday combination.
Birthday. We caught up on the ride back home, remembering when we last lived together at the apartment. And back at home my family sang happy birthday to me and gave me a nice chocolate cake. The cake was so cute, chocolate and covered in fruit bestowing "Happy Birthday Jurie" in Japanese.

It was really wonderful! For presents I received some underarmor winter clothes for my uniform, a Totoro-themed towel, and a stuffed animal. (I really am becoming a Japanese girl.) My Obachan bought me a beautiful traditional fan. Tired, we all went to bed.

I fell asleep feeling like the luckiest girl alive. And yet, the festivities had only just begun!