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.