Monday, October 30, 2006

My Okinawan Weekend and Halloween

Exchange students take Okinawa.
I just got back from our only Rotary sponsored all-exchange student trip to Okinawa!

I can't even begin to tell you how much fun I had. It was amazing. I realize that this entry is going to be really long, probably a little boring from all the details. And for this I apologize, but I don't want to forget anything about the weekend that I learned so much about myself, my friends, and my life in Japan.

October 28

When my alarm clock went off I did my morning routine, threw my backpack over my shoulder and
was off. One of the Rotary club president, Uemura-san, picked me up and we drove the hour and a half to Takamatsu in the Kagawa prefecture. There we met Mary Beth, Althea, Okuda-san, and Sen-san, the entire party headed towards Japan's southern islands.

I bid farewell to Uemura-san and jumped in the truck with the others. The trip had officially begun... the drive to Takamatsu airport was relatively short and filled with poking fun of the Japanese culture. We were not necessarily making fun of Japanese culture, but merely pointing out the things that bother us. Like how girls pick their arm hair in class. The thing is that I can't talk about this kind of stuff with anyone else here as I do not want to offend my Japanese families and friends. There is also the slight problem of the people at home not understanding my complaints and meanderings at all. "Girls, pick their arm hair in class? Wait, what? I don't understand? Huh?" ((I honestly do not blame anyone for not understanding this odd little quirk, but it does, indeed, exist!!)) Fortunately, my fellow exchange students, Althea and Mary Beth (Mem) were able to relate and share a few of their own war stories.

Shuri Castle. The walk up hill makes peasant actually bow
on the trek. 
At the Takamatsu airport, we parked and unloaded the truck. We also met up with our tour guide, who gave us Bento lunches for the flight. Before we got on the plane, we all wanted to get some chocolate. One thing about Japanese people is that they have a way with English. My chocolate was called "Crunky," Mem's was affectionately labelled "Fran," while Althea's  was called "Asse."

 Crunky, Fran, and Ass. One heck of a combination.

On the airplane we all read and talked and laughed about Crunky, Ass, and Fran. When we landed in Naha Airport, we walked out to meet our on sight Tour Guide. Instead, we spotted a Starbucks and jumped in line before we even asked the chaperones it is was okay. I was in heaven with my Vanilla Mocha. Seeing as there were 3 exchange students, 2 chaperones, 2 tour guides, and a driver, I figured we would have gotten a snug little van. Instead we got a huge coach bus all to ourselves (later renamed the Squirt Bus for interesting reasons.) The ride was only about 20 minutes but we saw much of the Southern portion of the Island. And I'll be the first to admit that I was so surprised at how build up it really was. Not to say it wasn't beautiful, with hibiscuses and palm trees lining the streets.

Our first stop was Shuri Castle Park. The castle building was Ryuukyuan (Okinawan) with heavy
INside the castle.
influences from Japanese and Chinese Cultures. More than 450 years of cultural relations with China, Japan, and other Southeast Asian nations produced a culture or unique and artistic heritage that made up the Kingdom of Ryuukyuu. Though the castle was truly amazing, it took me a while to realize it wasn't the original but a new version. The original was destroyed in the Battle for Okinawa, and only a small rock wall exists from its structure. The castle had 5 or 6 gates, which got pretty annoying quickly. We also had an encounter with our first Okinawan Shishi, which is like this cross between a dog or a lion. It's really this scary looking ugly creature thing that is supposed to protect the family from bad spirits. They are placed outside the gate, and we climbed on them and pretended to ride them. For the final gate we had to climb a stairway that was built so that you had to continually bow as you walked up. I thought that was pretty brilliant for the king.

The castle was nothing like Japanese-style castles and you could see that Okinawan culture is/ was extremely different than contemporary/ ancient Japanese mainstream culture. Another thing we noticed is that there were a lot of foreigners around, which we assumed was the direct result of the American base. Oddly enough, Mem, Althea, and I found ourselves in a reverse situation from what we are used to: we were the ones staring at all the white people.

We really are turning Japanese.

At our crazy fancy hotel!
Back on the bus our on-sight tour guide, a very peppy happy smiling lady in yellow, sang us some traditional Okinawan songs and showed us how to use the the Okinawan Clacker instrument. It was great, even though I think those clackers are a headaches worst nightmare. The hotel was an hour away and we drove over a highway and through the American Military Base. I've heard some things about the relationship between the base and Okinawans. So I asked the on-sight guide. She smiled and pointed out that the Japanese flag and the American flag waving side by side over the main base. She also said that the base employs over 8,000 Japanese people. It seemed like a good enough sanitized answer for me.

We arrived at the Busena Terrace Resort, and were instantly amazed. I did not know what to expect,
We got a little enthusiastic about the hotel.
but certainly nothing like this. The nicest and probably most expensive resort on Okinawa was ours for the next 2 nights. The resort was even a host to the G8 summit in 2000. We sat out in the front looking out onto the ocean and drank lemon juice as we waited for our room. The room was a nice spacious area with a veranda and 3 beds for us exchange students.

After we got settled we took our cameras to the beach. The resort is right on this amazing beach, complete with plenty of beach and summertime activities. We were just in time to see the sunset and stick our feet in the surf. The water was a little chilly, but the scenery was amazing. We were surrounded by green hills over the water, palm trees, thousands of hibiscuses, crystal clear water, and a great sunset. We climbed the life guard chair and looked out. I love standing beside the ocean because no matter where you are in the world, this body of water connects you to everything and you feel so small standing beside something so big.

Sunset over OKinawa.
Eventually we headed to the La Tida Restaurant Buffet and met up with Okuda-san, Sen-san, and the Tour Guide for a French buffet. Well, Japanese French buffet. When we walked in the waiters were setting up a huge Jack-o-Lantern. They don't celebrate Halloween here, but the American base has some serious influence on the local culture and celebrated holidays. It was pretty cool to see the pumpkin, but even cooler to see Althea's reaction. They don't have Halloween in Australia, so she was pretty amazed. We even took some pictures. At dinner we ordered Mango juices and made a plate of food. When we sat down we had some deep conversations. I'll admit its really nice to be able to have an intellectual conversation without having to use gestures or explain what every other word means. We sat the 3 of us on a deck overlooking the ocean with candle light and a slight breeze... it was great.

Not only to do I get to learn all about Japan but I also get to learn a little bit about Australia. And
Halloween on Okinawa.
Althea and I both agreed that Steve Irwins death was very sad. One cool thing is that I have actually been to her home city before; Townsville, Australia. In 2004, I traveled with the Student Amabassador program there and slept at the Aquarium in the Townsville. And I've even started picking up Aussie words like Togs for bathing suit and others. After a while we got dessert, vanilla ice cream with strawberry and chocolate topping, strawberry cake, and vanilla mousse. We ate happily, although Mary Beth and I were dreading the next event.

Actually dreading is probably an understatement.

My first go at Karaoke. People wished they were deaf.
So after the adults were finished, we all headed to the other side of the resort for Karaoke. I figured we would be in a Bar and having to stand up in front of everyone to sing something.

Boy, was I wrong.

After begging and pleading not to do it, we were whisked into a tiny room with a tv, given 2 microphones, and some books with songs. The chaperones went first and sang Frank Sinatra and some other oldies. Then, they left us for the bar. Althea went next, and we quickly realized why she liked Karaoke so much. Her voice is amazing! I envied her nonchalant attitude towards singing in front of other people. But the mic made its way to me and I've learned here that life is too short not to have a little fun. My first song was a duet with Althea and it was AWESOME. No, not my voice, but its great fun. Eventually we even got Mary Beth to sing. Kiss Me, Sk8r Boi, Toxic, Mmm Bop, All The Small Things, Butterfly, and a hundred other pop songs filled the room as we laughed and sang (or attempted to.) Some songs made us get up and dance around the room while singing. Some made us just sit there and watch the Japanese attempt at a music video for the song. We turned off the lights and danced and laughed and sang. I really couldn't accurately describe how much fun it was.

The Japanese are brilliant for coming up with something so great. We spent a little over 2 hours singing and eventually we needed water because our voices were getting destroyed. When we were forced to head back, me and Mary Beth, who originally dreaded Karaoke, could not stop raving about it. The whole walk back was spent talking about what a great time and how someone should have clued us into the fact that Japanese karaoke is awesome. It was that great, if you can believe it. Okuda-san and Sen-san were pretty drunk when we met up with them. And they didn't like the idea of heading back yet. So we asked them if we could break into the mini-fridge and drink the beer and they happily agreed. Our tour guide even pretended to not hear our plans. But alas, back in the room, we took showers and got into bed. By the time I was out of the shower, Mem and Althea were asleep.

October 29

The alarm clock rang at 6, because we had planned on heading for a swim in the pool. But we all just rolled back over and slept till 7. We were so tired from the previous night and when I spoke I realized that my voice was pretty dead. Nonetheless we got ready slowly, seemingly taking our time doing everything. Then we went to the La Tida buffet for breakfast. We had to return because me and Mem
Everyone is super ill. You just can't tell in this photo.
forgot our meal cards. Eventually we had sat down and then got to the buffet table. Seeing as I don't eat breakfast because it makes me sick here, I tried very hard to chose a light selection. Mostly pan. My favorite was the Chococro, a small piece of toast, oozing with melted Chocolate. Absolutely delicious. The 3 of us even packed some for the ride. Other than that we all pretty much got different things. And the reason I tell you all these seemingly minute details is because we all ended up getting really sick.

After breakfast we met up with the chaperones and the tour guide and got onto our private coach bus. Then we had an hour drive to Churaumi Suizokukan, or Okinawa Aquarium. It was a very unenjoyable and painful ride. I sat in the front seat wondering how I was going to make it the Aquarium without dying. The peppy on-sight tour guide sang and played instruments and I wanted to scream at her to shut up. It was horrible. Mem turned to me at some point and I explained that I felt like crap probably because I wasn't used to eating breakfast. I was convinced I was the only one who felt the I did.

Althea and I at the aquarium.
Post-apocalyptic bathroom sprint.
Boy was I wrong.

As soon as the bus pulled up it became a race between the 3 exchange students to the bathroom. Excuse my profanity... but relief! And when I walked out, still feeling a little stomach-upset, I saw the faces of Althea and Mem. They wore the same relieving expression I wore. You know you have good friends when you can just talk about that kind of stuff without embarrassment.

We trudged onto the aquarium, taking various pictures at certain landmarks. It was so much fun as we laughed at how disgusting we are and tried to figure out what we ate. In the aquarium, we were amazed at the beautiful fish displays. The last time I went to an aquarium, oddly enough, I was in Althea's city of Townsville. Goes to show how small the world is, right?

Eventually, our stomachs called for Round 2, prompting a mad dash through the aquarium. The final exhibit inside, the whale shark tank, was absolutely incredible. Around this point, though, our tour guide, informed Okuda-san and Sen-san why we kept having to stop. And it was absolutely horrible because every time we looked at them, they waved and smiled. I kept trying to be embarrassed but, honestly, I do so many stupid things on a daily basis dealing with cultural communication and a language barrier, that my destructive bowels were simply just a "just another day in paradise" form of weird things that happen to me in Japan.

After brief Omiyagi shopping, we went to the Porpoise tank for the show. Like 3 loud giggling
Looking a little pale, there, white girls. You feeling, okay?
Japanese girls, we exchange students enjoyed the show. Except every time we looked at Okuda-san and Sen-san they smiled and waved us at us, and I secretly hoped they would get sick too. And sure enough after some more Omiyagi shopping, Okuda-san disappeared and came back with a relieved expression.

Now can you guess who was smiling and waving?

Unfortunately we had to depart the aquarium, though we could have spent all day there. After a 40 minute drive, in which I even participated in the peppy tour guides songs, we arrived at Ryuukyuumura. It's basically a traditional Okinawan village, before Japan owned it when it was its own country. We first went to a restaurant where we served Taco Rice, but then it was taken away before we could eat it. Instead we were supposed to get a traditional Okinawan dish, so we had to wait. Okinawan food is very different from Japanese food, and I was eager to try something new. We waited it out by watching a famous Okinawa dance show and then taking a few photos with the dancers. When we returned, our lunch was set. Okinawan Soba, much more different than Japanese Soba, but tasty nonetheless. Tacigomi Rice, which is really really good even though I've had it many times before. And Goya, Ham, and Egg dish. Goya is a really foul salty tasting vegetable, but isn't too bad when cooked. So we feasted, not realizing just how hungry we really were.

Painting our own little Shi Shi's.
After lunch, we went into the Ryuukyuu village for some exploring of ancient Okinawa. We toured some of the old building and structures. Eventually we ended up in the art room with our own little Shi Shi's. We were to paint them any way we wanted!

Althea and Mary Beth did a good job, but I totally emasculated mine and turned it into a wimpy little thing with perfect teeth. haha. After we were finished, we quickly climbed a small hill to see a 3D show. In old times Okinawans used to have matches between mongooses and snakes to see who would win. Afterwards, as we were heading out, the employees gave us a brown powder and some water. The brown powder, made from the inside of snake skin is supposedly good for hang overs. So that's when I ate ground-up snake intestines or whatever it was. It was pretty tasty in a weird way. And the funny thing is that that wasn't nearly as interesting as was yet to be eaten.

We continued touring the village, until we went back to the bus. The drive was pretty quick to Manzamou, which is a large cliff looking out over the ocean. We saw a famous rock structure that supposedly looks like a elephant trunk sucking water from the ocean. Then the wind picked up and
we practically got blown over fighting our way back to the bus. Back at the bus we had a 30 minute drive back to the resort, which was spent pretty quietly.

When we got back, the girls headed upstairs and got on our bathing suits and headed for some swimming. Althea and Mary Beth went on the waterslide. Then screamed at how cold it was. Grey Clouds moved in and it felt like a big storm was on its way to the Island. So we went into the huge indoor pool. I wasn't even embarrassed to be in my bikini. I'm changing so much. There are things here I do that I would never ever do at home.

Anyways we talked like we were old friends, laughing about Crunky, Ass, and Fran, choking about
Eating pig ears. True life.
our little incident at the aquarium, talking about our dreams. Althea is going to Medical School when she returns to Australia. And me and Mary Beth have no clue what to do. We also talked about our cultures. Australia teenagers drink and party a lot and are pretty relaxed, American teenagers rebel, but still generally cling to the Puritan roots. It's funny to think her people came from convicts and our people came from exiled Religious fanatics. I've spent barely 2 days with this Aussie and I already am picking up a bunch of words from her.

Eventually we decided to head back to the room for showers. I went first and then got dressed for dinner. With some time to kill, I sat out on the deck with Althea. The wind blew heavily and the grey clouds hovered over our heads. She was writing in her diary and asked what she was writing. She just said the important stuff that she doesn't want to forget, like the how we had to go to the bathroom so badly and yet still felt the beauty of the whale shark in the aquarium today. It's the little things like that I don't want to forget either. We shared some almonds and I read a book while she wrote. It was really wonderful. Then Mary Beth switched places with Althea and we talked about home and stuff.

After we were all dressed and ready, we made our way to the lobby to meet up with everyone for
More Karaoke.
dinner. Chinese food. Rather, Japanese Chinese food. It is very different than American Chinese food. The walk down to the restaurant was nice because the walk was lighted by large owl lamps. When we got to the restaurant, the 3 of us noticed that one meal costed $100 a person. There 6 of us, plus the cost of Sake. Probably about $750. Amazing. It was like a million courses, all which were incredibly tasty. The first and most interesting was Pig Ears, Pig Hooves, and Jellyfish platter. I didn't even think twice about eating it. It was all really tasty, especially the pig ears. They are this strangely salty meat that I enjoyed, even though I remembered that usually dogs eat them at home. Jellyfish wasn't bad either, even though I have a bit of a texture issue when it comes to gummy things. Pig Hoof was also okay. The next platters included, Crab with good sauce on it, Curry Beef, Pork Fried Rice, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I don't know the name of. Dessert was even great. Milk Jello, Green Tea Tarte, and this Sweet Yam Biscuit. Throughout the meal we spoke to the chaperones. I got a few compliments on my Japanese which really made me happy.

New Karaoke Queens.
When Althea and the chaperones speak I can usually understand the majority of it. But then I can't speak it to save my life. I know I keep saying that. But you have to understand I really am proud of myself for how much I understand, and frustrated that I can't speak. The single greatest part of the dinner was when the chaperones how many time we all needed to use the toilet and then laughed as all 5 of us held up the same amount of fingers. Besides being disgusted I was so happy to be around people that I could really have this conversation with. Then Althea asked if she could try some Sake. She is nearly 18, which is legal drinking age in Australia. So they thought it would be okay. But then we all got a try at it. I figure you can't go to Japan without trying some Sake. Mary Beth went first and practically spit it out. I went next. I sniffed it, thought well this is going to be gross, then took a big sip. It wasn't incredibly awful, not that it was very tasty either. But what stood out was that it was really warm, which I thought was pretty weird. Althea went next and finished it. She liked it.

So yes, Julie Garner tried Japanese alcohol called Sake.

After dinner, we all tried to figure out what to do with ourselves. Okuda-san and Sen-san were
Exchange students have way too much fun.
perfectly content to do what they did last night, find a bar stool and get incredibly drunk. Our tour guide wanted to do something fun. So Karaoke was suggested. And thus, the second night in a row was spent singing and dancing in our little room to Brittany Spears, Sugar Ray, Mandy Moore, Christina Aguilara, and many other bad pop artists. I always sing even though I secretly turn the microphone off. For this I got yelled at. I officially know that I chose bad songs. And yet again we had an amazing time. Shortly before the 2 hours was up, Okuda-san and Sen-san returned to the room to sing a little. Okuda-san did really well, but Sen-san, well eh... he tried. Not that I should be talking haha. It was pretty funny 2 watch 2 old drunk men singing Japanese Pop. Afterwards we all headed back to the hotel and slept absolutely wonderfully. We had quite an interesting day.
October 30 

We awoke at 7 to the alarm clock and slowly got ready. We had to pack everything as today we would be leaving Okinawa, sadly of course. At breakfast we tempted fate and went back to the restaurant from yesterday. At breakfast we talked about how much we really enjoy being here. It's interesting because not one of us really wanted to come to Japan as a first choice. Mem wanted to go to Italy,
I know, I know... the resemblance is stunning.
Althea wanted to go to Peru, and I wanted Austria. And yet here we are, having the best time of our short lives. I have a theory, that everyone that puts down Japan as a first choice does it because they think they know all about this place: Manga, Jpop, Anime, Samurais, ya know the whole stereotypical vision of Japan?

And yet those are the people that hate here and leave early.

Like the 3 of us, who came here with no expectations, no stereotypes, no assumptions. We are the kind of exchange student that does well here. After breakfast, we went back to the room for the last time and grabbed everything for the bus. We watched a little bit of Sesame Street first, because there is a great English channel. And who doesn't love Sesame Street?

We got on our big Coach bus for the last time and were greeted by the very peppy on-sight tour guide lady. But today I was feeling much better so I sang along with her and allowed her to do the clacker things without flashing her a dirty look. I even listened to much of her conversation and surpassed myself at being able to understand the good majority of it, probably because she kept saying "Steak." Though I have yet to figure out why she was talking about beef.

What's in those drinks, girls?
The bus ride was about an hour to our destination, Kokusai Street or International Street. There we had about 3 hours for Omiyagi shopping and eating. Our first stop was the bathroom because 2 OJ's and a coffee caught up with me pretty quick. Then we started down the busy street that was full of Omiyagi shopping. And I can finally say after a lesson or two from Althea that I am getting really good at Omiyagi Shopping.

In case you don't know what Omiyagi Shopping is I will repeat it again. It is the act of buying gifts. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. In America you buy your immediate friends small pens or little souvenirs from your destination. Here you buy your family members a food item that is popular at the destination, and your friends either candy or small key chains with Hello Kitty or something else from the destination. I bought for my host family these salty cracker things that taste like a sweet Oyster Cracker. In Okinawa the famous foods are there Donuts things, that take like Zeppoles without Grease and Sugar, Sweet Yam biscuits, sweet Oyster Crackers, Milk Cracker with okinawa written on them, Okinawan Crepe, and other small strange stuff. I picked up a bunch of candy for my friends. And I also bought myself a Hello Kitty Okinawa cell phone charm, since I collect them.

For lunch, we all agreed that we simply HAD to try the Japanese-American-Mexican fusion dish of
Taco Rice.
Taco Rice. The meal was great. Taco Rice is so good. It's something I want to make when I go home. Just thinking about it is making me hungry again... hehe. After we paid, we still had some more shopping to do and a little time to do it. We hit some more stores and then made our way back to the bus. Naha Airport was not far and the bus ride was kind of sad. Sen-san had left earlier so it was just the 3 of us, Okuda-san, and our Tour Guide.

As we got out of the bus for a final picture peppy looked at Althea, Me, and Mary Beth and said, "I your Okinawa friend." And we said "We are your American friends (Australian)" We took a picture and said goodbye. Inside the airport, they checked the bags in. I didn't though and thus regretted it when I carried 3 large bags in terminal. I even had to buy a large bag to carry everything in it. When will I ever learn? After some more
Our final photo!
shopping we got into the terminal, made a quick stop at Starbucks and then made our way onto the plane.

It was a quiet ride back, as we all drifted in and out of slumber. It was kind of sad when we landed in Takamatsu. As we piled into Okuda-sans car, our tour guide gave us some candy and declared she was really going to miss us. She even did something very un-Japanese and gave us a huge hug each. I was soooooo happy. I love hugs and miss them dearly. Then we got into the car and headed for a highway stop where Uemura-san would pick me up. The car ride was filled with Althea and Okuda-san's discussion on last years troublesome exchange students. I understood most of it. Especially the part when they said that Tosajoshi (my high school) would except 2 more girls next year because I have been so great. Being the perfect exchange student has paid off.

When we arrived it was so hard to say goodbye to Althea and Mem. I gave them huge hugs but I'll
Flight home.
admit I'm worried that we won't all get to see each other again as nothing is planned and Althea leaves in January. I guess we will just have to see. In the car with Uemura we talked a lot about Okinawa even though I couldn't understand most of what he said. I put on my iPod and rested for the hour ride back home to Kochi. And we drove through the mountains at nights. I arrived back home with a warm welcome. And I presented my Omiyagi, which was well received. Then I unpacked, ate dinner, got ready for school, and went to bed.

October 31--- Halloween. 

Here in Japan, Halloween is not celebrated. Must be that whole Juseo-Christian-Pagan crap that only Europeans propagated. Sure, the Japanese decorate for it, but no one has a clue what you do and stuff. I wanted to do a little something for my friends and so my mom sent over M and M minis. So I walked to school and gave a few out to my close friends early in the morning. First lesson was music, then English Reading. Boring.

Halfway through my Self Study class, Yurie and Masako came to meet me and we headed to the Kochi Royal Rotary meeting. The last of my 7 sponsors. Sakioka-san picked us up and was very curious about Okinawa. He keeps telling me that he has never been to either Hokkaido or Okinawa, and that I am very very lucky. I know, I tell him.

When we arrived we did our speeches almost immediately. I spent 1 minute in Japanese and 1 minute in English. I talked about my life in America and how much I like Japan. Sakioka-san translated and then beamed at me with pride over how good my speech was. Masako and Yurie went next. Then the Club president and I exchange banners and Sakioka-san takes a bunch of pictures. The man is a dentist but I think he was a photographer in his previous life. I really enjoy talking to him though, he's a bit crazy and fun.

Then we sat back down and ate. Soba and Sushi. The Sushi plate has this little pile of pink meat, which I assumed was ham. I picked it up and plopped it in my mouth and immediately start choking from disgust. I swallowed it whole and then felt embarrassed as everyone was staring at me. So I explained what happened and then everyone burst out laughing.

And I mean everyone.

Yurie smiled and turned to me, "Everyone thinks you are so cute." Okay, so choking on some nasty pink fish is cute? Hey, whatever. During the meal this old fat Rotarian burped loudly and me and Yurie and Masako started choking on Soba noodles in laughter. Afterwards I finished my meal, drank 2 coffees, and then Sakioka-san offered take us back early. But Yurie wanted to miss more class so we stayed and listened to a scholarship winner who studied in the UK. It was interesting enough and most of the Rotarians didn't even fall asleep! Finally the meeting ended and we waited for the Valet parkers to return the car. I took a big chance but I gave the Dentist some M&M's and said, "Happy Halloween!"

What people don't realize in this life is that little things like a small tube of M&M's can truly brighten someone else's day for the better. He was so happy and excited and claimed he would put the tube on display and thanked me. I was amazed at how happy a little thing like that would make someone. I also gave the M&M's to Masako and Yurie because they knew what I was talking about when I said, "Trick or Treat!" Back at school I had my private lesson with Matsuoka-san and I gave him some candy as well. He asked me to tell him about Halloween and I was glad to give him a Cultural explanation. It's funny to think of Halloween as a cultural thing, but it really is an all-American holiday. When the day ended I headed back to homeroom for check out and cleaning (toilets!) Track was cancelled, unfortunately so I still had a bunch more candy. The Ichinensee girls had extra classes luckily for me.

When I found the girls from the club that I had been planning on giving the candies to, I happily gave them tubes of Chocolate and they all were surprised and happy. I think if it was America I would have received a lot of hugs, but I received a lot of "thank you's" instead. I felt bad because I didn't have enough candy to give to everyone, but I was still so happy with everyones wonderful responses. I walked home and was then met up with my friends from the School trip. I gave them some M&M's and we exchanged cell phone emails and made promises to hang out in the near future. They even gave me this cute little yarn man for Halloween. I got home and yelled "Trick or Treat!" and gave the last of my candy to my host parents, making them excited as well.

After dinner, we had "Halloween cake." (Typical Japan fail.) Then I told them all about Okinawa. I think my host father wet himself when he I told him about our little incident at the aquarium. I'm went to bed now feeling overjoyed because I made a lot of people happy today, including myself.
Now I'm home when I should be in school with a massive headache, finishing typing this long entry.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Matsuyama District Conference

Althea and I.
Yeah I'm sitting here here typing on my own computer, which was finally sent back to me. I just realized that this computer had traveled more miles than most people in Japan. America-Japan-America-Japan.

This past weekend I went to Matsuyama for the District 2670 Rotary Conference. I have to admit that I managed to have an amazing time even if every situation I found myself in was... interesting. Just for some background Rotary is a wealthy club made up of prominent business owners in Japan (only men!) Rotary is also the organization that is sponsoring me to be on this yearlong exchange and I am
Exchange students do it better!
more than grateful. Rotary basically raises money and donates to a specific causes throughout the world. Their international cause to eradicate Polio, but local districts also have smaller philanthropies that they support. Each district varies, for example my home district in America does many local charities, including Camp Merryweather, while my host district in Japan builds wells in Bangladesh.

So Saturday morning I woke up early packed quickly and headed to the Kochi Convention Center for the bus. I was told I would be traveling with Sakioka-san, so I wasn't too worried. He is one of my main counselors and I have traveled with him before. He's a bit crazy actually. He is a dentist that loves to do magic tricks. He helps out at the American Naval base a lot, so his English is really good.

All pomp and circumstances in Japan.
When I arrived I was told Sakiokia would come later but that I would go on the bus with the Rotary Club of West Kochi. That was the more boring club meeting of the 7 that I had to attend... or so I thought.

We piled into the bus and headed out for the 2 and 1/2 ride to Matsuyama in the Ehime-ken. I got the front seat all to myself, but all the men sat in the back with "secret" alcohol laughing in their burly voices the whole ride there. Each and every one of them smoked and needed to use the bathroom more times than little girls on long car rides. So we stretched out our journey for smoking stops and bathroom visits.

It's a wonder we even made it Matsuyama.

But during our stops, the spoiling began. Everyone bought me a water bottle and kept asking me what
kind of snacks I wanted. Finally, we arrived in Matsuyama and had lunch at a Tempura place. I actually ate all the raw fish and tempura and the Rotarians were pretty impressed. Picture me surrounded by a bunch of old Japanese men who are drinking and smoking. And yet, I laughed so hard it was hard not to have a good time. I mean when the one guy who speaks pretty good English points to the most ancient looking fossil in the room and says, "You better watch out he goes for younger woman," how could you not crack up?

Back on the bus, the spoiling continued with some of the Rotarians giving me cakes and sweet bread that I stowed in my bag. When we got to the Convention Center, I met up with Mary Beth (from NY to Kagawa) and Althea (from Townsville, Australia to Ehime). We took 300 pictures for various groups and then scurried into the convention. They introduced everyone and then droned on and on about some stuff that we couldn't understand. But it didn't matter cause the 3 of us were sitting there discussing Japanese culture and feasting on my sweet bread and various cakes. Finally we quieted down and started reading. Everyone around us seemed to have fallen asleep.

Is it more rude to read or sleep?

During a brief break we met an Australian woman that was speaking at the meeting. She was an exchange student to Shikoku in 1996 and was pretty fluent in Japanese. It was interesting to talk to her. It seemed like our exchange paralleled a lot, both attending an all girl school, both on the track team, both having to be perfect because of last years mistakes. Back in the Convention they showed a movie of some Japanese Rotarians building the Bangladesh wells. We couldn't quite figure out why they were playing Christmas music. But that's the Japanese for you.

After what seemed like another 2 weeks, the meeting finally ended and we met up with our
The food is always impressive at these meetings.
counselors. In the lobby they had a famous Ehime show where little kids were standing on each other shoulders and parading around. It was pretty cool. (Rereading this, I have to wonder what people who do not experience the crazy that is Japan must think about my simple and straight-forward descriptions of incredibly weird stuff. It's just... Japan.) It was followed by a loud Japanese drum section and then dinner. Lots of raw fish... but to tell you the truth I have taken a bit of liking to sashimi as long it is covered in say sauce. I

Althea, Mary Beth, and Me covered our plates and pretty much pigged out. It was pretty tasty, what can I say? We were also the only 3 in the whole place not drinking beer. Not by choice entirely, and several drunk Rotarians tried to hand us beer. But being that I am 15 and can't stomach the thought of getting in trouble by Rotary... at a Rotary event... I respectfully declined each offer.

After a delicious dinner, we decided to do something very Matsuyama-like. First we hopped on the
Dogo Onsen!
Densha, which is like a trolley train that took us all thru Matsuyama. And then yours truly, Julie Garner made her third trip to the onsen. And if you haven't read my earlier onsen posts, well it's a public bath. Everyone is butt-naked and in the same bath. Usually it is a hot spring which is incredibly good for your health.

Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama is a famous onsen because it is the oldest onsen in all of Japan and housed many emperors of the past. It's also incredibly traditional, and thus stereotypical Japanese. We walked in thru a huge mall, got Yukatas, and then headed below to the onsen. Althea pretty much was naked within a minute and didn't act shy at all. It took Mary Beth some time to do it. As for me, I was still fully clothed when they were all naked. At least when you go to an onsen with Japanese people they can criticize you and you wouldn't be able to understand it (although my Japanese is good enough know that I probably could understand it for the most part.) But I was with English speakers, and understanding is not a problem in that language. Boy was it hard. Plus to top it off a group of Japanese teenagers were laughing at me while I sat there screaming about taking my pants off. Then when I was done, embarrassed and hiding behind a towel, they realized we were gaijin and stared.

As if this isn't awkward enough!

The onsen was really small but very old and hot. Althea was pretty much doing cart wheels while me and Mary Beth were snug tightly wrapped in our arms in the corner. We relaxed and enjoyed the springs, until we had to meet our counselors. We got dressed and headed upstairs for tea and then explored the Dogo Onsen museum. It was pretty cool to see the emperors throne and original onsen. Outside we met with the counselors in a bar and ordered Orange Juices.

Later we got back on the Densha and said goodnight at different hotels. At one point, I asked Althea, who speaks amazing Japanese (having studied for 8 years before coming and being here for 9 months already) when she felt conversational. She claimed she still didn't, but said that her 2nd month was all about frustration of what she couldn't say. She knew the basics but not the conversation stuff. I honestly think I am at that point now because I continually find myself frustrated when carrying on with tough conversations with my friends. At the hotel, Sakioka-san gave me my room key and I was off to my room. Sure I didn't really sleep though.

On Sunday, I woke up and quickly got dressed in my brightest clothes. I was in the mood for standing
out because I know the everyone would be in black and grey. I headed down for breakfast with Sakioka-san. We talked about how busy my October has been. He made a great point in saying that early October I saw Northern Japan and next week I get to see Southern Japan. He said he had never been to Hokkaido or Okinawa and that I was lucky to get to do so much traveling. I asked him what he thought about my Japanese and he said it was great.

After breakfast we met up with Althea and Mary Beth to some exploring. Sakioka returned to Kochi so I was the only exchange student without a babysitter, or uh... chaperone. Our first stop was Matsuyamajo, or Matsuyama Castle. To get on top of the hill you sit in this one man chair lift with no safety bar. It's pretty fun. Mary Beth's chaperone, Okuda-san, the Youth exchange chairman as well as our tour guide for next weeks Okinawa trip kept talking to Althea is Japanese. He then would rave about how well she knew the language, making me and Mary Beth a little shy. Then he surprisingly turned to me and asked me to read something that was in Kanji... very difficult Kanji. But I knew most of it and he started wowing me as well. He kept saying he was shocked that I could read that and was so impressed. Anyway the castle sat atop a hill in the middle of the city and looking out, well Matsuyama is probably the nicest city on Shikoku. And the great part about the place is that because
it is on Shikoku, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere, the city is clean and not so crowded like Osaka or Tokyo. We stayed looking out at the city for a long time.

Same as with Kochi, the city is surrounded by lush green unspoiled mountains. It seems like because Japan is covered in mountains that the very flat area they get are crowded with home and dwellings. And did you know there are 30,000 rivers and streams in Japan, and yet only 3 are undamned and still wild. We then headed to the castle museum. There we saw a bunch of old samurai uniforms. They are mad cool there is no doubt about that. And if you ever wondered where George Lucas got the idea for Darth Vader in Star Wars, well just look at some of these Samurai stuff. After we took the chairlift back down, the chaperones decided to head back to the hotel and give us some freetime. We first went Vintage shopping, and then gave into lunch.

At a little restaurant in Matsuyama we ordered Shrimp rice which was pretty good. Afterwards we got Starbucks. I was so happy so have something from home. But of course they didn't have my favorite drink so I settled for Vanilla Mocha instead. In the coffee shop we talked about how exciting Okinawa was going to be, until we realized we had run out of town. Back on the densha, we headed back to the convention center. Althea finally explained to me the whole Omiyagi thing (act of giving presents. In simplest terms, one should buy the family a food from the host city.) There we all said goodbye and gave each other hugs. And trust me hugging is really rare so you take it when you can.

The Kochi Rotary Club West was waiting for me on the bus and I was welcomed back cheerfully. 10
minutes in to the trip we made our first of many stops, where I was spoiled with Pockey and Tea. Later I was bought Ice Cream and various chocolate bars and my favorite type of gum. I faked sleeping at our last stop so they would stop buying stuff for me. When I arrived home, my host counselor picked my up. He explained to me that they were going to throw me a surprise party but since they talked about in front of me and I understood (yep... I can understand that kind of stuff.) They were no longer going to do it. Instead I could invite 20 of my school friends to this really fancy hotel for dinner on my birthday! Yeah! Though thinking about who those 20 will be is difficult. Sweet 16 baby! At home I discovered my computer had arrived. Then I watched a special on Star Wars with my host family, until we went out for Pizza for dinner. And I have come to the easily obvious conclusion the New Jersey has the world's greatest pizza, hands down, no questions asked.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Falling Hard For Japan

This morning, I woke up for school, threw on the uniform and headed out. How surprising, isn't it?

When I arrived, I realized that this week is testing for the poor students. The girls had their mid-term exams for each of their classes, and so the schedule was a little bit wonky.

Oh wait I have tests too. Oh damn.

Tomorrow, I'm getting tested on basic Japanese. Piece of cake. For 2 hours I had to sit with my classmates while they hovered over their tests fretfully filling in answers to succeed. Afterwards I had a private lesson with Kitazoe-sensei. Afterwards while the girls continued to take tests, I was sent home. I walked through Obiyamachi and bought some breakfast... this nasty tasting pumpkin flavored bread. I think I'm getting too confident now that I discovered I like raw fish.

Back at home, I took a little nap and read for a while. Then me and Okasan went out for lunch. Tasty pork and pumpkin soup. Back at home, I sat on my bed and read for 4 hours. I don't get a whole lot of free time so it was pretty nice to just have Me time. Then I tried to formulate who I was going to invite to my Sweet 16. If I was in America I know I would not be having this big bash, but it's kind of not in my control here. And I remembered why I hated having parties... it's near impossible to invite all of my friends without offending others. And I can't even explain to them my reasons for not inviting them. This is going to be extremely difficult. After dinner, I called my mom. Then I went o bed and didn't sleep really well.

The next day, the day of my supposed Japanese exam, the teacher decided not to show up. And I even studied! Not that I needed to... I know the material pretty well. Before school I was really hungry so I stopped for Papaya and Mango Yogurt. At school I watched my friends study there butts off frantically, while I looked over Japanese.

Today my friends had to take the English Grammar test. To be perfectly honest I think that English Grammar is much too hard for non-natives speakers. I mean there is no doubt that I learned this stuff in elementary school, and it is fairly easy for a native speaker. But for Japanese people who have the weirdest grammar rules in there language, it's just too hard. I think English speakers take the language for granted. My host father likes to argue with me about the sentence "My family is..." He claims there are multiple people in a family and that is should be are. It took me a while to realize what he was saying. And though he makes sense, family is one thing. They just don't really get singular and plural because the Japanese language doesn't have that. Okay sorry to bore you with that.

The day ended early and I went shopping in Obiyamachi. I really was looking for Christmas Cards, but well they don't have them out yet. I ended up buying another drink for the walk home. Back at home I got a package from the US of A. I opened it in the presence of my host grandmother. I pulled out an early birthday present, an orange down vest. Just to prove my Japanese is really not bad, I fully understood my host grandma say "That is the ugliest thing I have ever seen." HAHA. But all in all, it was a great package, 4 packs of orbit, A Hillbilly shirt (mascot from my high school) from Rose, and visit from Mom. Thanks rentz! So to conclude my long and descriptive peak into my life I just want to say for a blue eyed, brown haired, American girl I feel like I really fit in with this place.

Honestly, I love it here. And there is no place in the world I would rather be right now.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Just A Few Picture From This Weekend

What I've Been Up Too...

My gorgeous Tosajoshi friends.
So due to a complaint of not updating, which is true I guess, I suppose I ought to update the blog on
my recent happenings in sunny, beautiful Kochi!

Last week was a pretty typical week for me. When I got back from the trip I took 2 days to rest, which unfortunately didn't help. Last week I was plagued with a what I figured was a common cold but what my friends figured was Ebola. Japanese girls get a bit dramatic sometimes. My best friends Aimi and Shiho wanted me to wear one of those doctor masks. And it isn't as strange as it sounds because everyone who is sick here wears one. But I couldn't bring myself to do.

More about last week: Tuesday was my last day of Flower Arrangement.


When my counselor asked me if I wished to continue with learning the fine and delicate art o arranging flowers to be aesthetically pleasing, I got on one knee and begged him not to. So now I am in Tea Ceremony class with the middle school girls. Yes, I might a flare for the dramatic.

Thursday was a Rotary Meeting, in which I met my next host father. I think I'm going to get along
with him pretty well, as he seems nice enough. And during my speech to the club he took 100+ pictures to show his family. Yurie and Masako had to speak as well. Each had 10 minutes to talk about America and their year abroad. Yurie kind of trashed Americans for being fat, because she had one family who was, well, not very thin. And Masako, who attended school in San Francisco, had everyone laughing when she claimed she was the only legal student in the school.

They also talked about my upcoming birthday, and how they are planning a surprise party for me. Yes they said this all in front of me, because they haven't quite caught onto the fact that I can understand Japanese pretty well. Much better than previous exchange students. That night at dinner I finally asked my host father what I'd been wanting to ask for some time. "Why do we
Another Rotary meeting.
always eat in?" It wasn't directed offensively and he even laughed and said most Japanese people don't like eating out. Our conversation turned into my life in America where I told him my mom hardly ever cooks and we usually order out or go out... I thought he was going to pass out. Culture Shock.

Friday was awesome. There is no question about that. The school paid for everyone to go to Disney On Ice Finding Nemo! The ice rink, about the size of a high school hockey practice (after all this is Kochi) sat the entire Tosajoshi High and Middle School. But first we all had to get there. I was lucky in that they let me take the bus. But most of the girls had to ride bikes out thru the mountains for about 3 hours to the place.

The bus dropped us off 2 hours early so we got to play on a playground for the time. Nanae introduced me to all her band friends, and I got along with all of them. So for 2 hours we played tag, raced down slides, played spider on the swing, learned the marching band steps, shared breakfasts, and laughed till we cried. It was great, and I was almost disappointed when it was time to head in to watch the show. I sat with Aimi, Shiho, and Nanae as we watched the performance. It was in all Japanese and pretty impossible to understand actually. But it was still a lot of fun because I was too busy with my friends to even care. Japanese girls are kind of immature and when it comes to Disney, they practically go head over heels. Aimi once told me she wished she could marry Minnie Mouse. Um, okay?!?

So when Minnie and Mickey skated onto the ice I thought I would for sure go deaf from all the screams. Girls around me practically passed out when Mickey waved. It's actually a little bit concerning. After the performance, I headed back with Nanae and her friends to the playground. We ate lunch together and I was told that if I ever learned an instrument I would be more than accepted in the band.  Back at Tosajoshi, I headed home and clunked out into my bed for a nap.

Saturday; Typical Saturday at Tosajoshi. The night before I had emailed Yurie and asked her if she wanted to have lunch. I couldn't go to Track because I still didn't really have a voice and was having a hard time breathing. I didn't hear back from her until History class... when my phone rang during class. Luckily, Aimi heard it first and pounced on my bag to cover the noise.

Phew! That was close. Then she yelled at me for bringing a phone to school. Even though she brings one to school everyday...hmm. At lunch I met Yurie in the school dining room with her 3rd year Chorus Friends. These were the girls that Yurie had grown up but had left to come to America. It's kind of a big deal when a senior sits with someone beneath them (as I'm a first year and Yurie is a second year) But we ate and tried to break down the language barrier. I always complain about how busy I am but listening to these girls and I feel so happy to be free. All of them are in Cram school because University Entrance exams are approaching. It's tough for them and I can't even imagine. After lunch I walked back home. But I had to stop for a little dessert. Thank god for Strawberry Cheese Crepes...hehe.

Monday; An awesome day at school! To be a oddball, I'll admit I wake up and get excited to go to school. Sure it is boring and difficult and strange. But I love my friends and my teachers. After the first 2 periods of self study. My class got to do some cooking. I was put into the group of girls I hadn't really gotten to know in my class. But I was still happy. I quickly got along with them and helped cut lettuce for salad, and mix some strange dressing for the chicken. I never ever cook but I'll tell you, it's a pretty interesting feeling knowing what you are eating is from your own cooking. We had salad covered in cucumbers, tomatoes, and mushrooms, Chicken with this strange Curry type sauce, a dinner roll, and Coffee Jello. Afterwards during clean up, I sprayed one of my group members with the hose and started a water war. Sure it meant some trouble, but having fun is more important. The war carried over into lunch where we played a full out tag. All 44 of us in the class split up and screamed and ran throughout the floor. It was great, even though I always got tagged. I stand out, what can I say? Gym class later on was tennis rotation. I don't like tennis, but when you play with a group of girls who think the ball is going to bite them if they it. Well it get's interesting. I also taught Aimi and Shiho how to trip people. I know it sounds mean, but everyone laughs and then plans retaliation. After school and back at home I went for a bike ride. Kochi city is kind of gross but when you go out to the outskirts and look out from the main bridge at the mountains and the ocean. It's hard not to like this place.

Tuesday; Another Rotary meeting, but this time we sat in the front and were the honorary guests. I did another speech and totally messed it up. But the Rotarians didn't care because I burst into laughter as I was apoligizing. For lunch we were served raw squid, which is much better than it sounds. I even ate all of it. Back at school, my friends were mad that I didn't lunch with them. I explained to them about Rotary and my obligations. But they were still upset because they "missed" me. After school I bought a stranwberry fruit cup and had a little pick nick in the park. It was nice and comforting after what happened with my friends. I was more touched that they missed me than anything.
Wednesday; Not too much went on. I had lunch with Shiho and some of her old friends in the dining room. They asked so many questions about Halloween. I know it isn't a holiday here, but it ought to be. They seem enthused at the idea of knocking on some ones door and getting free candy. Not that I blame them... When I taught English to the middle schoolers, one little girl told me I was her best English teacher because I was soo nice. She reminded me so much of Shannon, at that moment (sucking up... just kidding Rose). After school I had some friends from the school trip over my house. We talked about what a good time it was and swapped pictures. After dinner, I decided to call Zoe because the 19th would be her birthday. Late,r I called Nana and Pop. Like I said not too much happened.

Thursday; I was a bit worried because I had another Rotary meeting today. I explained it to my friends and the were okay with it. Not that they had a choice. I figured it would be a boring meeting... but boy was I wrong. Me, Yurie, and Masako sat around enjoying a delicious lunch of Ham and Scallions, when it was time to sing the Rotary song. A woman in the front of the room directed the men in the back. She lead the crowd with her wanna be opera voice, that was so bad Me, Yurie, and Masako had to leave the room in laughter. I snorted tea, Yurie choked on an asparagus, and Masako bit her tongue. It was such a comedy. Then when it was our time to speak, I did alright, Masako did fine as well. When it was Yurie's turn, I told her to do well for the opera singing sausage. She couldn't do the speech after the one. She was laughing too hard, and the Rotarians didn't look too pleased. Back at school, Yurie refused to talk to me, but Masako secretly slapped my hand. At home, I'm sitting here typing waiting for tonights big show. My Japanese dance teacher gave me tickets for her dance recital. It should be interesting... Have a good one!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mysterious Iya Valley

A whole day just to myself... or so I thought.

I slept till 10 and then read a book for 2 hours straight, perfectly content to enjoy a free day curled in a nice book. Then my host father comes into my room and says we are leaving in 5 minutes for


Just another Sunday in the Masaki abode.

The ride was one hour into the middle of Shikoku. We headed over and around huge green mountains, that were slowly but surely changing into the brilliant colors of autumn. The ride was so curvy that I finally begged for mercy and fresh air and we stopped so I could relieve my car sickness.

When we got there (mind you I had no idea where we were going) I was surprised at the beauty of a crystal clean river flowing under a wooden bridge held by vines. A bit scary, no doubt. High above the shallow river, me and host family attempted to cross the bridge. The bridge was a huge suspension with large gaps (for falling into the river!). For me, it was easy and I even swung the bridge to scare my host parents. My host mom was freaking out while looking down and practically crawling across the bridge. My host dad was trying to act brave but when I started to swing it, he cried for help. I laughed so hard and vowed never to let hime live it down.

My host parents watched my as I jumped and swung around and officially declared that I am crazy.
They think I'm crazy, but also think I'm okay, too. 
So? That's old news... haha. Afterwards we watched a beautiful waterfall from the mountains and headed down to the riverside. My host father dropped his English dictionary in the river by mistake, and embarrassed about his fumble, he told me he wanted to see if it could swim. When we got back into the car, out next destination was an old Shinto Shrine on the top of a mountain. We arrived at the bottom of the mountain and took a gondola to the top.

Captain Jack is a scared pirate.
Looking out onto Shikoku, I wondered why this place hasn't been discovered for it's beauty. It really is absolutely breathtaking. At the top of the mountain we said some prayers for the ancestors and threw some coins and rang some gongs. Then I realized the main Shrine was situated on top of 300 steep steps. I consider myself to be in shape, and I had a hard time with the steps.
I do enjoy these spontaneous road trips!

So imagine my out-of-shape host father.

 Concerned for his well-being, I kept asking him if we should call for an ambulance. Always admiring a good joke, he thought I was being hilarious and laughed along with my sarcasm. I was not being funny.

When we reached the top I prayed and rang the gong of the ancestors. We then headed back and after
the gondola ride, were nicely settled in the car. My host father was still out of breath.

Back in Kochi, we went for my favorite dinner. OKONOMIACKI! The day had been perfect. But then we had Chocolate Cake for dessert. And then it was ever more perfect.

Monday, October 09, 2006


School excursion!
So yesterday I spent 5 hours typing essentially an entire book all about my past amazingly awesome week... and it deleted.

((Did I ever mention just how much I hate Japanese computers? Because I truly do.))

Last week, I went on the Tosajoshi Ninensee (High School 2nd Grade) Chugakkouryokoo, or school excursion! The trip was 4 days in Hokkaido, 1 day in Tokyo Disneyland, and 1 day traveling across Japan. It was probably one of the most fun weeks I have ever had.

At first all did was procrastinate packing for the trip. Honestly, I was not really wasn't looking
My new friends on the school trip.
forward to it since I knew no one going on the excursion. I am an Ichinensee, or first year at High School, and the people on the trip are all second years. Sure I know both Yurie and Masako, but they were in different homerooms. The homeroom that I would be tagging along with was led by Kitazoe-sensei, and I knew no one in that class. Another thing, all of these girl are 17, and I'm well -- ya know, 15 years-old. But I guess I should have remembered that the maturity level of Japanese girl is a bit strange to say the least.

When I voiced this concern to Kitazoe-sensei and she had some of the girls in her homeroom class kidnap for lunch and a small getting to know period. My group members for the trip: Muita, Tomoyo, Sara, and Haruka, were very sweet, eager, and overly excited to have me in their tiny excursion group. So I felt a little better about the trip after that.

Chugakkouryokoo is a really big and important thing in all Japanese high schoolers life. Everyone
Can you see me?
discusses their excursions and usually brags about who had a better trip and stuff. My host father occasionally brags that his was better than by host mothers. Mind you, it happened 30 years ago, who cares? I guess being able to participate in one is really a good way to experience the local school culture.

And I was lucky as my trip was paid for by Rotary.

Thus, on Sunday night I threw about 3 things into the world's smallest carry on bag turned suitcase. I mean I figured I only needed a few things because we would be in our school uniforms 24/7.


My alarm clock rang at 5:30 and I scurried to throw on my uniform and stuff. At 6, Yurie's mom came to pick me up from my host home. My host father also came along, much to everyones surprise.
The ride was awkwardly silent, as Yurie and I aren't currently on speaking terms.

At the airport, I had to wait another half an hour for my class to arrive. The grade was split in half on 2 airplanes, and Yurie's class left earlier.

When my class finally arrived, I met up Tomoyo, Sara, and Muita. Not one of us was awake. We trudged through airport security and baggage check and when we got on the plane we fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew I was in Tokyo.

In Haneda airport, we strolled a mile through the airport to out gate destination. With some free time, we bought a bunch of candy, and took some photos. Then we were on another plane heading to Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan. It is the Northern most part of the country
The famous view of Hakodate.
as well. It is covered in mountains and it very cold. Thus, not very populated. Our plane landed in Hakodate, the Southern most city in Hokkaido.

Kitazoe Homeroom piled into Bus 1 and led the way for all the buses on the trip. Our first stop was lunch, where we had Soba. All of the 2nd grade girls on the trip began to realize that Tosajoshi's residential gaijin was on the trip at this point, so I suddenly found myself under the Gaijin Microscope, being scrutinized and watched in awe. Just getting up to use the toilets sends tremors of rumors through the girls at my school. Always being watched and observed in something that I am mindful of, and often self-conscious about.

After lunch we went to the first Catholic convent on the island of Hokkaido. We were supposed to
The Catholic monastery we visited.
learn about the daily life of one of the nuns, but one should not seriously expect a group of schoolgirls to care. So it seemed everyone sat outside and bought ice cream. I ended up sharing a small ice cream with my 4 other group mates.

Our next destination was The Special Historical Remain- Goryokaku Fort. It was the first Western Style Fort after the Meiji Period. It is a now a giant star shaped park surronded my a star shaped moat. It was actually pretty interesting. My group took a bunch of pictures, mostly of classmates sticking there heads in old cannons rather than scenery of course. That is until the rain started falling and we all had to get on the bus a little early.
Goryakaku Fort.

Our final stop for the day was Hakodate Mountain, the most famous spot in
Hakodate. The 7 or 8 buses trekked up a steep and slippery mountain to give us one of the most beautiful views in all of Japan. Sitting on top of the mountain is lookout station, where one can peer out onto the city surrounded my water. When the city is veiled in the twilight, a myriad of illuminations are brightening below Mt.Hakodate.

Two bodies of seawaterhold the fan-shaped city between them as if they were embracing the dazzling lights in their arms. The view reminds you of a milky way floating in the ocean. We were lucky because we got to see the view just before the rain started to pour. But it was so cold and wet that it was bit hard to enjoy.

Afterwards we headed back into the city and onto the hotel. On the ride the class started singing this crazy childish song over and over. Kitazoe-sensei explained that on the second to last night the classes would preform a talent show. I wouldn't be participating because I didn't know the song and dance. But I pleaded with her to let me in and she agreed as long I learned the words. So on top of sightseeing, I studied my butt off the words to a really silly song called Pepper Gemu. At the hotel, I shared a room with Haruka, whom I took a disliking to immediately. After dinner, I went and hung out in my friends Shino and Manas room, where we ate candy and talked about previous exchange students. Sleep came pretty easy after that.


Dangerous business to let 6 girls and 1 sensei on a bike!
My favorite day of the trip began with being woken up a half an hour late, not by the sound of an alarm clock, but instead by the sound of my obnoxious roommates snores. I scurried to pack up everything, throw on my uniform, and throw back my hair into pigtails. And by some struck of luck I didn't miss breakfast.

After we packed up everything, I settled in the bus. 10 minutes later, we were dropped off at a park off the outskirts of Hakodate in Onuma. The name Onuma refers to the large number of swamps, wetlands and lakes at the base of the volcano. There are two major lakes with many islands. The combination of heavy rainfall and snow melt, along with the temperate climate, creates a paradise for birdlife and a wide range of vegetation. Basically Onuma is a large national park with mountains and swarps, marches, and beautiful rivers. The park we had stopped at was know for its incredible scenery, but my group had to interest in scenery. Instead we rented a 7 man bicycle and wreaked havoc upon the park. The bike had 7 individual big wheeler type things all attached to one another. Sara, Muita, Me, Tomoyo, Yurie,
Our hotel on night 2 is astoundingly gorgeous.
another girl, and Kitazoe-sensei flew through the park screaming and splashing in large puddles and soaking other people. We came so close to riding off a bridge that I was convinced Kitazoe-sensei would have a heart attack. It was so much fun and I laughed so much that my stomach hurt. Finally the bicycle renter had to wrestle the bike from us after many people complained about the danger. So then we decided to walk around, not realizing that we were already late. Sure enough when we arrived my group got in trouble for lateness. Oh well -- I didn't get in to trouble as no one yells at this cute little gaijin.

Back onto the bus, we had a 2 hour drive ahead of us and Sara woke me at 12:30, in time for lunch. Lunch consisted of a strange little Bento-box with rice covered in crab shavings. I thought I would have it but it turned out to be very very good.

Next stop was Showa Shinzan, one of Japan's youngest mountains. Accompanied by earthquakes, the
You can see the volcano in the background of the photo.
mountain suddenly rose from a flat wheat field to its current height of 290 meters between 1943 and 1945. Still venting sulfurous fumes today, Showa Shinzan stands directly next to Mount Usu, which bears responsibility for the new mountain's birth. If you can imagine the next stop would be to a fairly active volcano.  I admit I was about nervous looking up at the Sulfuric steam pouring out of this new mountain as we pulled into the viewing station. But I looked around at the other girls, all clueless and not caring just smiling for the pictures. I figure I may as well be like them so I forgot all about it.

The Volcano in the background of the photo.
By this point everyone on the trip NEEDED to get a picture with me or just of me. It gets pretty annoying when 5 screaming girls bow and beg for you to take a photo with them. Then when you do it for one girl you seem to have to do for 10,000 more girls. Finally, I snuck away from the line of girls and met up with my group for some shopping. The thing about souvenir shopping in Japan is that is really different and nothing to my liking. I like to buy presents suck as shirts or pens or teddy bears displaying the destination. Here the gifts are a food sweet that is popular at the destination. For example in Hokkaido you can buy Corn Chocolate, Crab Cookies, Milk and Lavender Candy, Melon kit Kats, Dried plums, Sapporo Famous Ramen, and so on. So I refused to buy anything while I watched my group members spend a lot of Yen of Crab Cookies. yuck.

Apple industry in Hokkaido!
We got back into the bus and headed for another of Hokkaido's famous industries: the Apple Farms. My class trekked out into a beautiful apple orchard and picked red delicious apples. After 500 pictures of me holding a damn apple, I finally got to eat it.

It tastes just like an apple. Who would have guessed?

Finally, at about 4 we headed to the Prince Hotel. It was an enormously elegant Onsen resort with a great view of the lake and one of Japan's most active volcanos, Mt. Usu, which recently erupted in 2000 and covered about 80% of Hokkaido in ash.

Ain't that just great?

My roommates for the evening would be everyone in my group. I expected the room to be just as elegant as the lobby. But I was wrong, instead it was a very traditional Japanese room, where everyone had to sleep on futons on the floor. I have never slept in a traditional Japanese setting before, so I was a little nervous. I could not imagine sleeping on the floor would be comfortable.

How wrong I was!

But the view of the lake was unmistakably amazing, and in the distance one could see the steam from Mt. Usu. We went down to the waterfront area, and I just sat there for a good long time staring out at the beautiful lake. I took my shoes and tried to walk out but the water was so incredibly cold that it didn't work out to well. Tomoyo, Sara, Muita, and me then played a Japanese version of Tag. And I got a little too competitive, so I was kicked out haha. We headed to dinner, which was a really fancy Seafood platter. Most of it was raw and really hate raw fish. But I at least tried everything.

After dinner, Muita, Tomoyo, and me headed to the hotels private onsen. Onsen are really popular here because they are natural hot springs from the various volcanoes of the area. My last Onsen adventure was not nearly as embarrassing as this one. My good American Judeo-Christian upbringing and Catholic guilt meant that I has a really hard time stripping down naked in front if my new friends. My body image issues flared as I kept telling myself I looked like a fat whale, which was definitely not the case. I am most certainly not the heaviest girl on the trip, but that should not have meant anything.

Still, I coaxed myself to go into the Onsen with a towel. And so while my friends swam and danced around in the water, I sat in the corner curled in a tight ball wrapped in a towel. Gradually I got used to it. But by then Tomoyo had tricked me into jumping into the pool with the water from the lake and I was so frozen it didn't matter that I was naked. I quickly dressed and then we headed back to the lake front. It was eerily dark, but suddenly fireworks went off in the distance. Like all Japanese firework shows, it was slow and kind of boring. ((It is little things like this that remind me just how American I really am. I expect a big over-the-top BOOM BOOOM BOOOOOM, instead of a the Japanese taste for a short interlude between each and every firework for more aesthetic and quiet enjoyment.))But the most entertaining thing is the squealing and excitement coming from the Japanese people. They practically wet themselves each and every time a new firework goes off. It was beautiful as the colors glinted off the lakes, and I found myself saddened when it was over.

Back in our hotel room, I was perfectly ready to curl up into my futon. Instead my group snuck out after room check and had a large sleepover with Shino, Mana, and 2 new girls Marina, and Matedo. We stayed up past 2 talking and laughing and eating. It was so much fun but we were constantly afraid to get caught by the teachers. Finally 8 girls, all with different shapes and sizes squeezed onto 4 small futons and attempted to sleep. Emphasize the word attempted.


8 girls in a small room waking up bright and early with about 20 minutes to get ready is a very interesting experience that all should have. We made it to breakfast a little late, but we did make it at least.

Todays first stop was a small park on the side of a mountain. We trudged into the forest, climbed over an ancient rickety old bridge, where a huge waterfall and various small rivers beamed at us. We were supposed to fill our water bottles, as this was the one of the cleanest water spots in all of Japan. Like usual, the girls seemed only interested in photos.

Afterwards back on the bus, I stayed awake to look out the fabulous Hokkaido scenery. Lush pine covered mountains and rivers scorched the landscape. Like Shikoku, most of the place was not covered in towns and instead still wild. So far, Hokkaido and Shikoku are my only real experiences with Japan and they have blown away all my preconceived notion of a land without any more space for habitats. I am astounded by how much room there really is in this place!

When we arrived in Otaru, we stopped for lunch at the seaport... raw fish and my delicious rice That's the problem with going on an all girl trip. Afterwards, we had about 3 hours to spend shopping and hanging out in the beautiful port city of Otaru. Otaru is a port town of about 145,000 people in western Hokkaido located on the northern tip of the Shiribeshi district of Hokkaido on the Sea of Japan side of the island, facing Ishikari-wan Bay. It's a beautiful fishing village surrounded on three sides by mountains, while the fourth faces Ishikari Bay. Otaru Canal is the symbol of this city.
Gorgeous Canal District in Otaru feels more like
France, than Japan.
covered in crab shavings. I had to go to the bathroom, so I waited a good half an hour for the girls room.
The gaslights and stone warehouses along the canal producing a beautiful night scape popular with young people and tourists. There are many cafes, museums, restaurants, and shops and the city is often noted for its famous glass work.

When we arrived my group first hit the Soft Cream shop. I had my first Milk flavored soft cream, sounds disgusting, right? But actually it isn't too bad. My group then managed to stumble into every glass store in the damn city. I'm pretty sure they had no intention of buying anything, especially at the prices. But it was rather annoying and boring. The only thing that I wanted to do was see the Otaru Canal. My host family has told me that it was the most beautiful thing in the city. So I begged and pleaded with Tomoyo, who had no intention of seeing it. But I got my way and we trampled through the old cobblestones streets. We were all glad I made us go see it. The canal was truly magnificent. Old Brick building were the back drop and old green lanterns shadowed the canal. I was more than happy to pose for some pictures with this as the backdrop. We even met some local boys and talked with them for a little bit. I was so happy because I could understand a lot of what they were saying. One of them even made all of my group members friendship leather bracelets. it was sweet, but we had to depart, as we managed to let time slip by again.

Dinner at Sapporo Beer Company
Back on the bus, we headed for Sapporo City. I'm not sure if it is possible to actually fall in love with a place after seeing it only once. But I think I have. The tour bus drove us through the chilly autumn swept city of Sapporo, stopping in front of the important sites for photos. We drove by the bright clock tower and the famous government house of Hokkaido.

People walked along the streets that seemed so old but not traditional in a Japanese sense. It's hard to explain but being in Hokkaido felt like being back in America, probably like Maine or Vermont. Everyone has this mountainous green countryish way about them here. I felt like Hokkaido was a totally different country than Japan. Our city tour had to end when we stopped for dinner at the Sapporo Beer Factory. In case you didn't know, Sapporo Beer is a VERY popular beer in Japan. But the Factory is realy just an enormous restaurant located in the heart of the city. The restaurant made to look like an old barn was very crowded and smelled funny. I shared a table with Shino, Sara, and Mana. The table had a large grill in the middle
of it. And on the side was a huge platter of rice balls, vegetables, and Gengiskan. Gengiskan is sheep meat, which is, as I was about to find out, very very good. We all threw on the food to the grill and cooked it with out chop sticks, while throwing napkins at each other. We had to wear this bib apron thingie that was eventually splattered with meat juice and vegetable from getting flicked at with food. We laughed so hard and got in so much trouble.

To make an already fun meal even better, the Ninensee members of the Track team came and found me. They were taking a group photo of the track team and seeing as I am a part of the team, I
My friends in the Track Club.
had to be in picture. We posed and screamed and laughed for thousands of pictures. I looked back to my table, where my friends were ushering me back for more food, and to the track team smiling and laughing at the camera and really felt like I fit in. Sure I don't look like anyone here, or speak the language, but I felt so overjoyed that these people really accepted me. I headed back to the table after the pictures for ice cream, and soon we were on our way back to the hotel. I was spending the room with Tomoyo, although sure enough, Muita and Sara broke the rules and slept in our room. Well tried to sleep is more like it.


We were actually on time for breakfast because we didn't exactly sleep. Kitazoe-sensei was pretty
impressed that we had actually made it in time. She asked me how I was coming along with remembering the words to Pepper Gemu, and I truthfully told her I knew the words by heart.

The bus took up the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympic Ski Jump, located on the top of a mountain overlooking the city. It was really cold and windy, but nothing seems to damper the spirits of these girls. We took a Grade photo in front of the enormous green ski jump and then watched some skiers practicing the jump. After we took some more photos of Sapporo from the mountain view. Next we headed about an hour out to the Sapporo Salmon museum, where we watched Salmon swimming in their own habitat. We also spent a whole hour waiting on line for the girls bathroom! Something weird happened though.

At one point my sarcasm and need to hear myself speak English got the best of me and I looked at
one of the fish and murmured "I ate your brother for breakfast." Someone cracked up behind me and I turned to see a real Gaijin! He asked me where I was from and I immediately answered Kochi. He looked confused so I explained, "I'm an exchange student in Kochi, Japan, but I'm from America."

Still shocked at myself for answering Kochi, I kind of drifted off pondering where home is for me right now. Is it Kochi, Japan or America? I like to think both right now, and that it depends on how the question is asked. Afterwards we had lunch- Hokkaido famous ramen. I guess I haven't really told you anything about my group, so I think I will. Tomoyo, Sara, and Muita are best friends in Kitazoe-sensei homeroom. Tomoyo is the leader and probably the easiest to get along with. She was very eager to tell everyone her group got the exchange student. I think she was probably the friendliest and the silliest, always finding ways to cause trouble. Muita did everything Tomoyo did, it became kind of annoying how much of a follower she was. Sara was very quiet and distant as first. I think though I liked her the best, because once she did open to me, she was the most like myself.

At first they were all pretty excited to have me in the group, but by the last day we were all tired of
They made me pretend to be the tour guide.
each other. At lunch we all talked about homesickness. Tomoyo, and thus Muita, had it really bad. They couldn't imagine why I wasn't missing home. I think they though I was kind of heartless, because I didn't really want to go back to Kochi all that bad. Tomoyo, at 17 years old, has never ever been on a plane before and never been away from home for more than a weekend. I feel bad for her, especially when I think about all that I have done. After lunch we headed to the Hokkaido Ainu Historical Village.

The Ainu are to Japan as the Native Americans are to America. The Japanese government forced them off the main land and sent them to Hokkaido. Gradually they took away most of there land. Today there are hardly any Ainu left because of intermarriage and stuff. Anyways the village is an restored town that has many different building and things from the late 19th century Japan. My group took 4 bajillion pictures in front of the old houses. Then they stole the tour guides outfit, hat, and flag and dressed me up as the tour guide. Everyone took a picture of that including the teachers, tour guides, and bus drivers. Then we rode the old horse and buggy trolley thing. We then played on the old fashioned playground and write Japanglish words in the ground. Afterwards we strolled through the streets, never once stopping to learn anything. When we got back on the bus, it dropped us off at the Hokkaido Island Museum, dedicated to all the history of Hokkaido. Well as you can imagine, spending time in a museum is not what most girls wanted to be doing. in fact most refused to go inside. My group went in but toured the museum really quickly. We were in and out of ancient history within 10 minutes.

When we made it to World War II, I expected for sure that someone would say something. Instead, it seemed like no one noticed or cared. My group members just walked on through and instead made fun of one of the uniforms of a woman worker. I however did take notice. I looked around at the posters displaying words like "Sign Up For The Emperor" with pictures of Japanese soldiers slaughtering American soldiers, war posters, ration cards, and other grim reminders. And then I looked around at my company. I was surrounded by hundreds of giggling noise making Japanese girls who didn't seem to notice or care.

How is that just 65 years ago there ancestors were sworn enemies of my ancestors?

And you know what, it doesn't matter. What is done is done, and I hate to admit that these girls have the right idea with laughing and giggling and just not worrying about it. The bus ride back was short, and we immediately headed to dinner. Afterwards I did some shopping, where I grudgingly purchased some damn cookies as a gift for my host family. Then we headed back to the dining room for the talent show. Each class performed some silly skit that managed to fall apart from the girls laughing uncontrollably. Kitazoe-sensei's class did a singing and dancing rendition of Pepper Gemu, in which I stood in the back and snapped my fingers and sang. Sure probably no one saw me, but at least I got to be included. We ended up winning second place. Back at the hotel room, I pleaded with my group for my own bed and sleep. But I didn't get my way. Finally at 2 in the morning I got up and marched out of the room where Tomoyo, Sara, and Muita laughed loudly. I ended sleeping with Shino and Mana on the floor. But at least I got some sleep.


 We were all up at 5 and ready by 7 as we drove to Sapporo Airport. The ride was kind of long so we played bingo, which I was determined to win. And I did luckily on the last minute. When we pulled up to the airport, a swarm of fighter jets were taking off the runaway pretty quickly and flying into the distance. it was really cool and everyone was amazed. I, of course, have not heard world news since August in America, so I was a little curious as to what it could mean. Japanese Airline security is kind of pathetic. I managed to get a water bottle in by mistake with no questions asked. Security takes a little less than 10 whole minutes.

On the plane, I read my Japanese Harry Potter, while sitting through the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. I had a window seat and I was excited to see Tokyo, but was informed that I wouldn't exactly get to see Tokyo. As Tokyo was experiencing a pretty nasty typhoon. The travel agency cut down our time in Disney simply because of how dangerous it was perceived to be.

And sure enough it was ice cold and pouring with rain and gusty wind. Still, nothing seems to dampen these girls spirits. The mere fact that we were going to DISNEYLAND was good enough for them. Then we stepped out of the bus and a heavy gust broke everyones umbrellas, and suddenly we all realized it was not going to be easy. We trudged thru the ticket gate and into the park, into a covered area. Most people went shopping, but my group decided to brave the rain and get to Space Mountain. Space Mountain is always great fun.

Looking at a map of Tokyo Disneyland is like looking at a map of a smaller Magic Kingdom, they share most of the same rides, themes, restaurants, and even plant displays. Japan does not celebrate Halloween, but Disneyland had been transformed into a Halloween kingdom. And it is pretty funny to watch Japanese people think they know the whole concept of Halloween. After Space Mountain, we got on Pooh's Honey Hunt. The only thing scarier than Pooh's voice, is Pooh's voice in Japanese. Then to Snow White's Adventure, and next to the Haunted Mansion. You think you have seen it all when your favorite Disney movie is played back at you in Japanese. After we had dinner, meat loaf. Who the heck eats Meat loaf in an amusement park? I still don't what my group was thinking. But I was too cold and tired and sick to care. The rain was really coming down now so we went on Space Mountain again. And again. To tell you the truth I got to missing my family a whole lot of Space Mountain. Not homesick, just wishing my parents and sister couldn't have been there. Finally my my group decided to head back. And I was so happy because like I said, I was tired, cold, sopping wet, and getting sick. But when we met with the whole group at the entrance, we were given another 2 hours. Kitazoe-sensei said that I could back to the bus with some of the others if I really wanted to, which I was very happy doing. But I looked at my group members, seemingly disappointed I didn't want to stay, and figured how many times am I ever going to be in Tokyo Disneyland? And if I ever come here again I guarantee it won't be icy weather in the middle of a typhoon. So I ditched the bus idea, put on a better smile, and tried to have fun. We took shelter in Pirates of the Caribbean, which is always a riot when your friends are shouting "Captain Jack Sparrow wa doko desu ka?" or "Where's Captain Jack Sparrow?"

Afterwards we bought a huge bucket of chocolate popcorn and feasted. Then some stupid American girl who looks an awful like myself brought up the idea of going on Splash Mountain. Yeah, who cares that is on the other side of the park and we would have to run, with our lack of time, in the pouring icy rain, just to get on a ride that would get us even wetter.

Well at least it was fun! We all laughed and screamed our heads off at the big drop. Then we sprinted back thru the park and got on the bus out of breath, frozen, wet down to our underwear, but at least happy. At the hotel, I shared a room with Sara. And after I pealed my sopping uniform off, I took the world's greatest warmest shower ever. I had to blow dry my leather shoes and all my other clothes to be ready for tomorrow, which was a bot annoying. Then I fell asleep before the sleepover crew could even come and prevent me.


We were up and out of the room early.

Breakfast was kind of combination of gloominess and excitement. Half the girls were excited to get home and rid of the homesickness, while the other half were sad to have the trip end. I was stuck in the middle. I had just had one awesome week and made so many new friends and experienced a very beautiful country. On the other hand, I was feeling really sick at this point and my group members were getting tired of me.

After breakfast, we headed to Tokyo Station where we sat in classroom formation until all the buses had arrived. We had some free time, so I trekked of to Starbucks, where I found they didn't have the drink I really wanted. At 10:30 we bounded thru the station to the Shinkhansen dock. The Shinkhansen is better know to us Americans as the bullet train. And sure enough that sucker can fly! 300 km each hour. And it doesn't really feel that fast until you look outside and see how quickly you are really passing everything. It was my first time so I was really excited when the train started. We passed thru Honshu and even got to see Fuji-san or Mt. Fuji is the distance. Some girls prayed to it but must just watched it in awe. As you might imagine, the mountain is very important to the Japanese. Most are expected to climb it at least once in there lifetime for religion and ancestral importance. Everything settled down after that and I read Harry Potter for the 4 hour train ride. We passed thru stations of Kyoto, Osaka, and finally on to the final destination of Okayama.

At Okayama we boarded a bus that would take us the 3 hours to Kochi. We passed over the inland sea and in to beautiful gree Shikoku, and soon to Kochi. The trip was over as we pulled into Tosajoshi. My group members all smiled and said goodbye, but I told them that in America we give hugs. So I hugged all 3 of them. They all seemed to awkward and out of place with hugs, but I didn't care. I walked thru Obiyamachi and was welcomed home, where i went to my room and crashed on my bed. And finally slept...