Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Eigo Class

There is something I really can't figure out about Japan. Okay, so really there is a lot of things I can't figure out about about this place. But this is something that really bothers me? Not only do all foreigners have the inability to understand this, but when asking the Japanese, they too, seem to be at loss for words. What is the point of the Japanese educations's English class? How is it possibly going to be useful in life? And before you jump down my throat with answers, I would like to explain.
In the first week of my Japanese school experience, I went around and asked each and everyone of my friends what the most difficult subject was. Therefore, I could drop it in order to take a Self Study period. As if well rehearsed, each and every one of the girls responded simuntaniously, "English!"Now, I suspected that they were just joking around. I mean honestly, why would I drop a subject which I learned to have a firm grip on at the tender age of 4. But from the moment my first English Grammar class began, that very week, I knew exactly what the girls had meant in their suggestion. The students, not only in my school but in every school across the nation connected to the Japanese Ministry of Education, are expected to know Gerunds, misplaced modifiers, and many other cruel grammatical pleasures that would make my 8th grade English teacher rejoice. English Reading, I found to be significantly easier, but as I peered at my classmates blank stares, I realized that it wasn't easy for Japanese students.
My first wrongful expectation took place shirtly after that. Since English Grammar and Reading is taught, surely there would be a class on the most important aspect of learning a foreign language, Speech/ Listening. I was proven wrong, yet again. And it got me thinking. To be frank, I always hated foreign language class at school. I took Spanish for 4 long years and French for 2. I hated it because I have terrible pronounciation of all the Romance languages, not becuase the classes were boring. In fact, the classes were great! In French, we combined our language studies with studies about France. We also got to make speeches in French about anything we wanted to practice our reading and pronounciation skills. In Spanish, we tried foods from different nations, read books and watched movies in Spanish, essentially making lots of interactions while learning a new language.
But now I'm in Japan, where the following example occurs on a daily basis.
Me: "Good Morning! How are you? You look cold! Did you ride your bike or walk to school? Also, what is today's date?"
Japanese Friend: "ええと。。。わかりません。” (I don't understand)
Me: *Writes down everything I had previously said in English and hands paper to the girl.*
Friend: “ああ。。。わかります” (proceeds to answer in Japanese.)
The point is, that they can in fact understand English, but now in a way that is useful as a foreign language. And this may suprise you but in Japan, they do, in fact, speak, read, and write in Japanese. So back to the original question. How are they ever going to use this? Such a high emphasis is placed on learning English as the second language. But why? When they run into the occasional opportuniy to use English, a piece of paper and pencil will not always be available.
To be fair, English teachers try to speak the language when they have some time. But the teachers, much like their students, have a real hard time with English pronounciation. This is because much of the Roman alphabet is non existant in the Japanese alphabets. Students imitate the teachers- mistakes and all in the same manner. Maybe they purposedly planned not to have an English speaking class, after all, there is almost no teacher-student interaction. Students never raise their hands to ask questions or in my specialty, debate a point of view for fear of wasting time and interrupting the lesson. But that's another story.
But their is another reason that the system really troubles me. University entrance exams place HUGE sections of their exams of English grammar and reading. Studying the two subjects, though often useless towards the future, is essential to pass the exam and be received at any University in Japan. After that the subjects, most likely providing no benefots toward to student, is simply forgotten. That's why most adults can't remember the material and why a country that forces EVERYONE to learn English has so few truly proficient speakers.
When I speak English with teachers, formers exchange students, or just to throw off my friends, girls of all ages gather around to listen. Then they all remark about how they would like nothing more than to be able to understand what I am saying. I'd like nothing more than fr them to be able to understand, too. After all in English speaking you don't have to decide what 'there' is the correct one to use. Now that's something that in my 12 years of English proficientby I have yet to master. Maybe I should pay more attention in English Grammar class.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

We're Not Alone

One of the most obvious things about Japan is that the vast majority of the people, are in fact Japanese. And now that I have enriched you with that fascinating and somewhat startling piece of knowledge, I'd like you to picture you something. I know I have used this example many time before, but I feel illustrates the life of a Non-Asian in Japan. Picture yourself sitting in a small classroom with 45 people. 45 heads of thick jet black hair that always extends medium lengthened. 45 pairs of chocolate eyes staring and learning from the board. And 45 people who have only ever been to one country, have knowledge of one culture thoroughly, and speak one language proficiently. That's not to say that everyone looks alike or acts in the same manner, because trust me, book covers never reveal little twists and subplots. But for me, someone who hails from the world's most diverse nation, the monotony of Japan is often troubling.
Fortunately I am not alone, and never will be in this struggle. There are people currently here in Japan at this place and time doing essentially the same thing I am- savoring an incredible culture while all the while broadening my personal horizons. Meeting with these "others" as given me the kind of education no school anywhere in the world can even scratch the surface on.
To start, I live in the middle of nowhere, Japan. To be exact, Kochi City, of the Kochi-ken on Shikoku Island, East Asia. There aren't many of us, and by us I mean gaijin, or foreigners. But there are a few that I see and am acquainted with. Perhaps my closest fellow gaijin is Mrs. Paula Fabian, fellow English teacher in the Tosajoshi middle school. She was born in Ohio, America, grew up in South Africa, and is a former exchange student to France. She has been in Japan for 20 long years, and thus she is familiar with all of Japan's highs and lows. She has mastered the life of a foreigner, and she offers me her worldy knowledge whenever I am in need. Another Tosajoshi teacher is American-born Mr. Craig Delaney, who currently calls Japan his home. But I couldn't possibly forgot Mr. Rajii, the Indian who owns a lovely little restaurant, in Hirome Marketplace. There is also a British woman that works in a Cram School in the main shopping area. I have visited her on many accounts and have always been welcomed with a warm greeting whenever I am in dire need of English.
And then I look at the entire country of Japan. In Kagawa, my fellow accent bearing New Yorker buddy, Mary Elizabeth, is always there to share a joke with when the time is needed. We first met and landed in Japan together and have history of hilarious events. And though my Australian love has returned to her mother ship, Althea, was always there when I was having a slump and needed someone to talk to. But there are others. So many more that I couldn't name them all. People I meet when walking through the streets. We find each other because it's impossible not to notice something that stands out already. Would we be friends had we passed each other on the street in our own countries? Probably not. But life in Japan does things to normal everyday people, like makes them open their eyes and bow down to curiosity.
Here in Japan, I am pleased to say, that despite politics, history, and culture, every single one of us gaijins, gets along in one way or another. And in the process we help each other out and teach other the true meaning of "when the going gets touch, the touch get going." On a cold autumn day, I yearned for nothing but true 100% Orange Juice, Mrs. Fabian bought me a large bottle the following day, I gave an Australian a piece of my favorite American Orbit gum, which she undoubtedly enjoyed, and I could never forget the generous donations of Mr. Raji of hefty portions of Curry and Potatoes on a cold winter day. Sure this may seem like silly little occurences to you, but they most certainly aren't. They are the people of the world helping one another.
What have all of these people and events taught me? Well obvious things life the majority of Australians don't actually ride kangaroos to school, and not all Indians are vegetarians. But more importanly, that when times are downright rough, culture shock is troubling, and sanity is being questioned- that we all pull together- no matter where we come from or what we think.
And while we all enjoy Japan for different reasons and at different times, we basically learn that to make the best of this country with far more hardships than the places we first called home. And you know what? We do it at far greater odds than Japanese people tend to give us credit for? Those very hardships are what bring us all together. Through these struggles, we've formed friendships that may very well last a lifetime.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Language All It's Own

On a horribly humid and typhoon drenched August afternoon, I learned a very significant lesson and gained an enhanced view of the Japanese people as a whole. I had been wonderin restlessly through an unfamiliar and rather strange city, unable to read anything, go any place of familiarity, or meet anyone I knew. I was also suffering from a really bad case of intense culture shock. Suddenly to make things even more dreary, the sky opened up and emptyed buckets of water onto the sizzling city of Kochi, Japan. I stood on a curb in the middle of the city, waiting for the crosswalk to change into blue. Even more differences to add to the shock! The lights is blue, not green! Anyway, my clothes were becoming drenched, when suddenly the rain ceased. Well the cloud above my head did at least. I shifted around to discover a middle-aged Japanese woman leaning over close and holding her maroon umbrella over me head. When the blue lights suddenly flashed, we walked in dry silence for a few blocks until I reached my destination. When I turned to thank her, she was already heading back to the point where we started out. In essence she walked about 4 or 5 blocks out of her way to make sure that I stayed dry until I reached my final destination. I called out thank you- "arigatou!"- which was a relief because that was probably the only word I knew at that point in my exchange. She just turned around and smiled.
The lesson I learned, probably the one of the greatest in life's many mysterious is that of kindness. There is no doubt in my mind that this simple act of kindness in sharing an umbrella with a stranger is part of Japanese culture- often emphasizing that of politeness. And yet this kind of thing is not generally part of my culture. To my it is simply put, a random act of kindness. And kindness is truly a language of its own that crosses ethnic boundaries and tears down language barriers. You don't need to understand Japanese to understand when a Japanese person is opening their hearts.
Another one of these times was when upon my first and probably only meeting with my second host father's parents. The meeting, for want of a better word, was an earlier clebration for the Japanese New Year. Otoosan Oono, my second host father's mother is a gregarious, loud, and extremely curious woman that kindly questioned on my activities at schools and my interests in Japanese culture. When she discovered my interest in the art of Japanese Traditional Tea Ceremony, she scurried off. When she returned she was tightly clutching a bright orange parcel. She handed it to me and I discivered it to be a hand-woven orange container that held a small paper fan, and 2 traditional napkins. All the items needed to performs a traditional Tea Ceremony properly. She clasped my hands shut and explained to me that she had made the parcel nearly 30 ago when she was young and able to participate in a ceremony. The parcel is very important to her and that it holds more memories then she could tell. But that she wanted me to have it more than anything else. And thus, I received a present that truly made me feel special. There is only one explanation for this, kindness.
As the days, weeks, and months rolled by, I began to loss count of all the kind things that these wonderful have done for me. My luggage trunk is full to the brim of little gifts frm all across Japan, my tummy sugnificantly heavier from all the food I've been asked to sample, and my life a little more enriched with the knowledge that kindness still exists in this world. Sure there are often language problems- but the way I see it is that good intentions, wherever and whenever they may be, never need to be supported by mere words. Only the heart.
And boy is kindness contagious! I've applied what I learned so far and brightened a few peoples day myself. A crying little girl who I met on the street, is now the proud owner of a Mickey Mouse Disneyworld pin. Everyone in my entire class received Christmas gifts. But you know what else? A few weeks ago, during a rain strom, I sheilded a group of little kids who were soaking wet and then walked with them to make sure they stayed dry on their way to school. It was just the proper thing to do.

Strangest Country

Often when I write emails or talk to people back home, I refer to Japan as the "strangest country." I don't get much of a reaction to this statement, which is perfecty understandable. I don't think anyone I talk to has ever been brought up in the West and then lived in Japan for a significant amount of time. Thus no one will understand that statement. But since I will probably for the rest of my life, refer to Japan as the "strangest country" I want to give you a few of the many paradoxes that shadow life in Japan.
The idea to write this seemingly editorial came on a cold December afternoon at lunch time. I was sitting with at the dinner table, chopsticks in hand, trying my very hardest to successfully get tiny slippery noodles from the ramen bowl in to my mouth. The task was not going well. Behind me the television blared, though I was focused on enclosing the tiny noodles into the chop sticks. Then I heard something that caught my interest, and I immediately wanted to watch what was on the television. I picked up my Ramen bowl, and standing up, walked into the living area. I'd seen my host family members do similiar things so I wasn't at all worried about being rude. Watching the television, I swooped into the bowl and scooped at some noodles and began eating, still standing. Apparently this action HORRIFIED my host family, who promptly yelled for me to sit down immediately. Back at the table, my host mother explained to me just how impolite standing while eating really is. She also made a note that eating in public was nearly just as bad.
And then... well it all made sense.
During my first 3 months while living with the Masaki's I would often buy a snack on the way from home from school. Then I would eat it on the walk thru the Obiyamachi mall/arcade. Now if your observant, you'll see that that is essentially a double whammy. People would stare at me, with pursed lips, and horrified eyes. I just assumed it was the classic Gaijin stare. Oh well, I made a cultural faux pas. It was not the first, and certainly not the last.
You are probably wondering, why is that strange? Well, although it is incredibly unacceptable to stand while eating in public, there are things that are perfectly acceptable. And by 'things' I really mean to say some of the most disgusting stuff ever. It's not uncommon for Japanese men to take a nice little bathroom break and relieve themselves on the walls of buildings, ponds on parks, or other public places. Public displays of drunkeness are frowned upon, but not unacceptable. But my personal pet peeve, is that men it's acceptable and highly practiced for men to just cock up spit wad and fling it out. These social acceptances make me, and probably ever other foreigner for that matter, constantly baffled at the way things are. This country is truly fascinating and beyong words difficult to understand.
If you have read some of my other experiences, you are fully aware what an onsen is. An onsen is a natural, mineral rich hot spring where Japanese go to soak away their aches and pains or just to get away and relax. Bathing at onsen is a centuries old tradition in Japan that shows no sign of abating, in fact, it is probably more popular than ever. Oh yeah and since it technically is considered a bath, one is completely naked and bathing with a various amount of people. Usually Onsen are strictly one sex, woman or men. But there are quite a few in existance that contain mixed bathing. Japanese people claim to be shy, reserved, and modest people. Yet I can fully attest to when it comes to onsen, the Japanese don't mind whipping off their clothes for bath time.
The Japanese government is very concerned about 'promiscuity' within the country. In fact, it is the only 'modernized' country in the world that has firmly declared birth control to be 100% illegal. Only 4% of Japanese woman have ever used the pill and it was done illegally. And yet, abortion are legal as well as almost all other contraceptives. Japan is, though highly under reported, much more promiscuis than what appears on the surface. As shown with the major business that are the ever popular 'Love Hotels.' And yet, "fallen" woman can rarely find someone that will marry them. And this leads to divorced woman. Woman are the ones blamed when a marriage fails, because it is the womans job to make everything work. Thus divorced woman are often disowned from families. And then finding a suitable living arrangement is near impossible. Land lords will rarely rent out to divorced people.
Despite all this, the Japanese are generally reserved people. It is against customs to speak when not spoken to, voice an opinion, or confront an issue. Yet it is culturally okay to steam shovel into the train and fight and tooth and nail for a seat.
Personally, I think the Japanese education system is the greatest paradox of all. I have many thoughts concerning the system, but for now I will only talk about one in particular. Mere months after a baby is born, mothers enroll their children kindergarten and lately, pre-kindergartens that make promises are preparing the children for university. Think about it. A toddler school promising parents that they can insure success for the 5 year old to get into a good University. After years of hard work, when students make it to University, what do they do? Virtually nothing. Going to a better university just means a better job opportunity, even if you barely passed your major. Employers don't care about skill, the care about their future employees coming from a prestigious school. Put it like this. Mike went to Harvard, while John went to Montclair State. Mike nearly failed out, has an empty resume, and just doesn't seem interested at all. John graduated with all honors, has a resum e that makes Ghandi look like he sat on his butt, and shows an immense interest in working with the company. Oh the obvious choice is Mike. After all Mike went to Harvard!
In 2006, Japan was the 14th richest country in the world. And guess what? The Japanese deserve it. They work more than any other people in the world. Plus the are kind, smart, and traditional. Yet, they have horrific living conditions. I don't mean sleeping on the floor to be horrific. What I do mean is that families in homes and apartments with no heating in the cruel fierce winters and no air in the scroching muggy summers. Homes are usually improperly built and rarely insulated. The typical salaryman works over 12 a day, eats, sleeps, and then wakes up and does it again. Even the lowest paid workers must pay the exorbinant prices that are here in Japan.
The Japanese businessmen are perfectly content to work more and make less than their western counterparts. After all, they feel, Japanese are less adequate than Westerners. But then when you compare Japan to the rest of Asia. Well there really is no comparison, according to the usual Japanese person. Thus bigotry against Chinese, Koreans, and other other Asian counterparts is just the 'norm' here. According to most Japanese people, the country could do much better without them.
These are just a few of the hundreds of crazy little paradoxes I run into on a daily basis. I hope I don't give you the impression of being an uptight American who won't adapt to these standards. Because if you think that, then you are truly wrong. I have adapted, I have accepted many of these simple little paradoxes. But sometimes things just stand out and bother me enough to write them down. Am I crazy? Probably. Is this country a little strange? Definitely.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Nihon Buyou and Me

So January 28th, 2007 marked a pretty interesting event in the course of my life. I had my first ever dance recital. This being said, I did ACTUALLY dance. As you may or may not know I am a member of the Tosajoshi Traditional Dance club. It wasn't my choice exactly to the club exactly, but after last sunday I am very glad to be a part of the club. The club meets ever Thursday from 3:40 to 5:00 in the front building, 4th floor, Calligraphy room. At sometime after the bell rings, after school cleaning and whatever else may be going on, the 6 members (5 now because Yuhko just graduated) head up to the room, usually at different times. In the room we set up by pushing the felt desks out of the way to form a mini stage. Then we all reach into the cabinet for our Yukatas. This is because every practice is like that of a recital, meaning we are dressed from head to toe in Traditional Japanese clothing. It takes a good long time to get the thing on. My Yukata is borrowed from the teacher. It is black with variously pale colored flowers. The Obi, or belt/sash type thing that holds everything together is bright pink with dragonflies. As I put on the Yukata, the 5 other member drift in and set up as well. The members are the club are all very nice. There is Yuhko, who just graduated, and always helps me put on my Yukata because I really can't do it without looking like a dunderhead, Yurie, last year's exchange student in New Jersey, Mana, my friend from the school exursion of whom I shared a bed with (and ended up on the floor), and Marina and Ayako, next's years exchange students to America. Basically Tosajoshi's entire involvement with Youth exchange are members of the club, this is because Rotary wants it's ambassadors to learn a traditional art to perfrom in front of host Rotary clubs. Anyway, sometime between all these arrivals, the lovely teacher strolls in donning her beautiful Yukata and scary face that clearly says 'mess with me and I you will pay.' Yukimi-Sensei, is probably one of my favorite teachers that I have had to encounter here in Japan. She is a famous professional dancer, who often takes her performances to the most famous stages of Kyoto. In Kochi, she is a local celebrity, probably because, although she does most of her shows all over the country, she calls Kochi her home and often returns. Another of her activities is that of a teacher, a highly expensive well sought out teacher of the old dancing. But she is an alumni of the renowned Tosajoshi All Girl School, and feels it her obligation to teach a few select students her trade. The teacher is quite mean looking, there is no point in trying to hide that little fact about her. However she is the warmest, most generous, and kind woman you willl ever encounter, if you can push aside the evil glares. And she absolutely adores her exchange student learner. Always giving me extra help, placing me in the middle, altering routines when I am incapable of performing the action (which happens quite often mind you.) When Yukimi-sensei walks thru the sliding door she greets us all warmly and then usually pushes Yuhko aside to help me with my Yukata, always muttering that I am going to have to learn to do this eventually. Which is true, but I personally think she likes putting on my Yukata. Afterwards she makes a few announcements and then ushers into the make shift stage where we practice. For the past few months, we have been practicing the song Sakura Sakura, which is the very traditional Japanese song that you will hear when you walk into a wanna-be Japanese restaurant. I have honestly been practicing very hard, even bringing the tape home to perfect it. And it has payed off. A few weeks ago, Yukime-sensei charged through the sliding doors like she was in the Running of the Bull Festival in Spain, her grin, as chilling as it was, was oddly making us all inquisitive. It was then that she announced her Kochi esteemed Dance recital and the fact that the Tosajoshi girls would have an act amongst all her other students. For the records, most of these students, we later learned, had been doing her lessons for years and were past the amateur level. And for those of you, who know me well enough, know that I have never danced in private let alone on a stage in front of old Japanese ladies, asthetics of the art of dancing, professional dancers, and basically just a whole bunch of people. I am truly about as coordinated as a someone with Parkinsons trying to draw the Horizon. It's true- I had nearly completed my training of Sakura Sakura, but still thinking about doing it in front of people! I thought of a million perfectly acceptable excuses on how to get out of the dance. But everytime I went to use them, I saw Yukimi-sensei's grin and how proud of me she was becoming. I couldn't bring myself to let her down. And that brings me to January 28, 2007. My alarm clock rung at exactly the time it was perscribed to. Damn. That would have been a god excuse to get out of this whole mess. I quickly scurried around the room for some clothes, camera, wallet, and makeup, threw it all in a bag and then hurried to get to the school. I was to meet up with Yuhko and Mana at 9:30, where we would walk to the Kochi Grand Hotel. After a quick breakfast, I met the girls and started the quick walk to the hotel. And when we arrived, a group of old ladies recognized us. "AH! There is the gaijin! She IS as cute as Yukimi-sensei claims! Look at those cheeks! What a cutie!" If I was in a country where the people are sane, or at least not so enthusiastic, I would probably be embarrassed beyond my wits. But this sort of thing happens everyday. So I smiled and introduced myself and allowed the ladies to haul Yuhko, Mana, and myself thru a hotel and into a medium sized, Tatemi covered floor, with Japanese Kimono items strewn all around. The dressing room. The ladies broke up into 3 groups for on of us girls (there was a fight over who would get to dress up the foreigner.) I recall hearing Mana remark that she felt so unloved. My group, 3 midget like old woman with pale grey hair, all dressed in pink and purple Yukatas, pointed to my Western style outfit and gestured for me to take it off. And so I did. And the next thing I knew, I was being wrapped in the underlayer of the Kimono. It takes at least 30 minutes to get a Kimono on, and mind you, that's pushing the minimum. And these 3o minutes are incredibly unfun for the thing being dressed up. After a few layers of under garments, the woman started the task of teaching me to forget what breathing feels like. They pulled another layer on me, so tight, I began to think that they wanted revenge for World War II. At one point, and all jokes aside, I really couldn't breathe. Thus with no breath I was unable to tell them to stop pulling, even though I wouldn't have been able to say that in Japanese anyway. I kind of just jumped around and attempted sign langauge, which merited a few more *cute* remarks until someone realized I was turning blue. I began to pity the Japanese woman of the olden days, wondering how they learned the secrets to not breathing for days at a time. The answer dawned on me rather quickly, though. As one lady led me into another room with a mirror, I saw myself donning a beautiful purple rainbow flowered Kimono. For how incredibly painful the process of putting the sucker on was, I seemed to forget about it instantly and instead got lost in the beauty of the Kimono. The Kimono, is one just one of those cultural things that holds the secrets and the mysterious of an entire peole all within a few stiches and patterns. It's impossible to really explain it until you see yourself in a new way, being clothed in a miracle. A miracle of new enlightenment. After the mirror encounter, I met up with Mana, sporting a black with tan sunflower Kimono, and Yuhko, bearing a black with pink Sakura Kimono. No point in denying that we looked stunning. The concert was about to start, but I insisted on one final practice. So with out new paper fans attached into the Obi, we trodded upstairs for one final practice. My stomach was uneasy and mind raced over what would hapen if I messed up. The dance was different, Yurie, Ayaka, and Marina had testing and couldn't attend till later. Plus another girl was assisting us in our dance. There was no chance of me backing out, and even if there was, the memory of Yukimi-sensei's face full of utmost pride when I finally completed a perfect number of Sakura Sakura, was etched into my mind. And though I was almost too nervous to get through the practice, I was surronded by Mana and Yuhko, 2 friends who had cheered for me, practiced with me, helped me out, and were just all around good friends who I couldn't let down. When our practice was done we headed downstairs and were as usual greeted warmly from Yukimi-sensei who had just arrived. She took one look at me and called me pure and utterly beautiful. Soon the first dance had begun. The performer, a 5 year-old little boy, was incredible! He twisted and flung his paper fans high into the hair and caused Yukimi-sensei to brag to one of the old ladies who had dressed Mana in Kimono. When he was finished, Yukimi-sensei, pulled aside Yuhko, Me, Mana, and the recently added performer to wish us good luck. She gave me an extra warm smile. With the curtian closed, we tiptoed on stage and hid behind a large prop. The curtain opened and I heard myself moan. Yuhko whispered from in front of me a final "Ganbatte!" (Hang in there, Good Luck medley) The song began and I found myself following Yuhko onto the open stage. The spot lights blared on the 4 dancers as we made our fans float through the air. Many spectators watched only only one of the dancers- the one who was not Japanese but performing a traditional dance to Japanese beloved music- and not doing to bad at all. To say I was perfect, would be a complete an utter lie. There were a few times when Mana and Yuhko's fans went rights, and Julie's fan went left. There was a point when I totally forgot to kneel down, allowing myself to be the only dancer standing. But other than these few minor and perfectly acceptable mistakes, I had done really really well. And when I peered over to where Yukimi-sensei was hovering, a smile with almost no hint of scariness appeared she waved, which I translated to be a double thumbs up. I did it. The song ended quickly and we scurried off stage. Mana and I joined the crowd t watch Yuhko give her final performance as a Tosajoshi student. And she was perfect. I clapped and cheered the loudest for her and she turned bright crimson as the curtain closed. Yukimi-sensei congratulated us and took some pictures with us until she had to scamper off for her next performer. The 3 Tosajoshi students headed upstairs for a brief lunch of sushi rice and waited for Yurie, Marina, and Ayaka to join us. Then we would be dancing to Sakura Sakura again with the whole club, minus Mana because she had to leave to take an English test at school. Yurie arrived first, followed by Marina and Ayaka. My good friend and teacher, Kitazoe-sensei arrived afterwards and forced us all to take dozens of pictures. After Yurie, Marina, and Ayaka ate a quick Sushi Rice lunch. They headed downstairs to be placed into Kimono. Yuhko and I watched as Marina and Ayaka went through the excruciating annoyance of learning not to breath. But in the end, they too, looked gorgeous. Before we went back on stage, Yurie's mother, Sae Hirosue arrived and took my camera for some nice shots of the performance. Yukimi-sensei scuttled back into the room to inform us to be ready. I was all set with my new confidence resting gently in my heart. Ayaka and Marina, on the other hand, we freaking out. When the curtain was pulled we tip toed back on stage. Yuhko and I said, synchronized and as if perfectly planned, "Ganbatte!" at Marina and Ayaka as the fretted predictably. And the song began. This time, I wasn't nervous but relaxed but probably the most important thing was I was not scared of messing up but scared of not enjoying myself. I smiled and even chuckled through the whole dance. I probably messed up a bit more than the first time, but I was enjoying myself. And when they danced ended, the applause was loud and comforting. We did it! And we did a good job, according to the huge grin and tears in Yukimi-sensei eyes. After scurrying off stage and back to the dressing room, I had some time to speak with Marina and Ayaka, the next generation of exchange students. We talked in Japanglish and truthfully I saw myself a year ago in their eyes. The same hunger for adventure but fear in leaving everything from behind. I told them whenever I miss home, I just look around at my new friends, wonderful host families, and amazing life as a Japanese person. It always works.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Letter Home On the 5 Month Anniversary

Dear Family, Friends, and Whomever Else,

It's an icy cold January day in Kochi, Japan. Thus there is nothing unusual about the weather, just January in Japan. It's been a long time since I have been able to write a journal or cultural observation. I've been so busy, and when I do have time I have to catch up on sleep. You wouldn't realize just how difficult going to school 6 days a week from 8 to 3 and then from 3:30 to 6 really is. But this is my life. The life I have choosen, in a brief editorial, of course. I've been in Japan for approximately 5 months, because I landed on August 16 in Narita, Tokyo. If you ask my mother, she will tell you these past 5 months have been eternity. She misses me, what else can I say. But as for me, these past 5 months have been the quickest and most exciting times of my life. If it is at all possible to fall in love with a country, or perhaps a lifestyle, then I am your proof of this. That's not to say that I love every little detail about Japan, because I most certainly don't. In fact there are some things that I despise beyond all belief. I have been settled in Japan for about 4 months and 2 weeks. That's right- it only took me about 2 weeks, or 14 days to learn to go with the flow rather than fight a system that you can't and never will change. Sure, there are times when I can't go with the flow, because it goes against everything I believe. But for the most part, I have been pretty flexible and open to everything. Thus, I'm welcome here, in a society that works and acts as a group, rather than my Western society, made up of individual actings. Society here is great in the respect that everyone works together, follows the rules, which leads to less crime and more safety, but honored above all are traditional and kindness. It causes alot of problems, but I won't go into that. I'd like to live in Japan for the rest of my life. It's true. I am fascinated and bewildered at Japan. I am welcome and happy here. But the fact is, there are just way too many forces acting against that of a foreigner here in Japan. The simple daily activities are never easy. And although I have conformed to nearly all of the Japanese rules, there are just some things that I will never be able to do. I can attribute this to my first 15 years of life and growing up in Western culture. Under a society where people think for themselves. That is my biggest problem. Ormaybe from a different perspective, it is my greatest strength. There is another problem, one that differs very greatly from the worry of what is against me in Japan. It's much more heavy than that. When the summer rolls in and it is time to return to America, will I be able to settle back into my old life? Living in Japan has given me a sense of security, there is no street crime, violence, unemployment, and any questioning of decisions made for you. It is also the lifestyle that I have grown accustomed to. The virtual every day sameness where change is incredibly rare and not particularly welcome. But then it's more than that, so much more that I couldn't even begin to acurately portray it. Last night, January 15th, approximately 5 months since I had seen my country, my town, my home, my family, and my life, I had a long talk with my host family. They were curious about my what my future plans concerning life were. To be honest, I was at a loss to tell them anything. It got me thinking, though, the choice of my future is mine alone to control. I can be anything I want as long as I set my mind to it. But there is something I don't exactly have a choice over; whether or not to return to Japan. Since the moment I landed here, met my host families, made new and wonderful friends, and built a life in here, I gave up that choice. I have a life here, people I can call family and friends. I don't know where I will be in 10 years. But I do know that my life and Japan have become forever entertwined together. It's not a questions of whether or not I will return, it's a question of when. When the time comes for me to leave this place, Kochi, Japan, my home away from home- I wonder who it will be the hardest for, Japan Julie or Western Julie. At the moment, I don't really want to know.

Best Wishes, Julie Garner

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Julie Garner the Musician

Did you do a doubletake at the headline? Did you crack up at the silly prospect of me, the world's most tone deaf uncoordinated human being playing an instrument? Well if so, keep laughing. I am Koto Player. And I'm proud to say it. The thing about the Koto is that I really really love it. It's hard to describe it. But I liken it to my love for running. I figure you can be really really bad at something but as long as you love it, then that's all that matters. As for my new musical interest, when my fingers, covered in the Tsume, touch those strings, it's like everything get's into place suddenly. Kind of like for that split second of playing, the world stops and listens in. I guess this doesn't make too much sense. So for the majority of you who have no idea what the heck a Koto is: The koto is a 13-stringed harp-like Japanese musical instrument, also likened to a zither. Unlike the western harp, it is laid horizontally. It consists of a long board of pawlonia wood, with the strings stretched tautly over moveable and removeable plastic bridges. The instrument is tuned by moving the bridges to the left and right. The performer (that me! haha) kneels on the floor at the far right end of the instrument and plays chiefly with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of the right hand. On those fingers, the musician wears ivory picks. The lefthand is chiefly used to raise the pitch a semi- or a full tone by pressing down to the left of the bridges while playing with the right. So there you are. So how did I suddenly become a Koto player? Once upon a time, I joined the Tosajoshi Koto Club. I think it miust have been December. After Track finished in November, I asked my school teacher to help me select some traditional Japanese culture clubs. My only request was that they not meet everyday because I had such a hard time with track being everyday thus having no downtime whatsoever. First I joined the Tea Ceremony club. I had been taking lessons during school hours, and had found I was better than I expected. The club only meets once a week. So I asked my teacher for another suggestion. Thus he contacted a middle school teacher who talked to me about coming once a week to the Koto club. So I started in December, when on a Saturday afternoon, a group of friendly girls in my grade, who I'd never met, picked me up after class and had me eat lunch with them. It was followed by my first lesson, which accomplished very little. Everyone just stared at me and asked for my autograph and weird stuff like that. 2 weeks later, the girls came and found me again. This time I was given music, a borrowed old tight set of Tsume (Ivory picks for the thumb, pointer and middle finger. These are the main pieces one uses when playing the tough strongs of the Koto) and an actual school Koto. The music was a very difficult (for a beginner) piece of "Kurisumasu Medori". I chose 4 songs in the Medori, Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, White Christmas, and Silent Night and practicied. The next day I was asked to come back. But I was very hesitant to oblige. I didn't want them to think I should start coming on a daily basis. I couldn't let the lack of down time I had when I was on the Track team, return to plague me. But I returned the following day. And by the end of the second lesson, I was convinced I was the world's worst Koto player... and yet. I loved it. When I played the mistakes were more common, but when I hit the right note on the right section, everyone cheered and felt so good. It's more of a feeling of getting out there and doing something, accomplishing something so incredibly unique. Reading the Koto music is different that reading the music alphabet of treble clefts and bass tones. For one, the music is read from the rightside, one note, the next note is found directly underneath it. Also the note is just a number (the Chinese number system.) The number stands for the string you must pluck. Perhaps it sounds, easy? It's not! Your right hand does most of the work, but your left hand also is used to move the picks up and down the wood as well as hold down the strings for additional sound. But the main reason it's not easy is because you have to be quick, and you can't mess up. The concert is a small group of 3 to 8 Koto's. Very easy to pick up a mistake. When the Sempie, or club seniors asked me if I would be atending practice during winter break, I couldn't say no. But it was also because I really started to enjoy it. And from 10 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon, I spent my time getting lost in my music. To make it better the members of the Koto club, suddenly became less intimidated to talk to me. By mid-week I was now laughing and causing trouble with Chiake, Yuki, Yukimi, Casami, and Taco. WIth just 3 days we ate joked, laughed, ate, got in trouble, and now have more inside jokes than one can even imagine. By the end of the first week, I felt like I had been in the club with them since middle school (which is how long they have all been in the club together.) And then on the last day of the practices, the Koto teacher sprung a scary suprise onto me. On January 7th, I would be playing what I had learned in front of the whole Koto club with my new friends. Basically I would only have about 5 or 6 actual practices before my first big concert. Scary, right? But I wasn't too worried. The Koto club was given a 2 week hiatus for the holiday season. I thought it would be a wonderful school-free week filled with no oligations. And I was right. But I kept finding myself wanting to return to Koto practice. I kept cell emailing Chiake and Taco "I Miss You Guys and the Club!!!" So, 2 weeks later, I returned to the school for some more practice. And on the 7th of January, I crammed some additional learning in at 7 in the morning. Dedication? More like determination. I wish I could say I performed amazing. But alas, I'd be lying. I did terrible, because I got really nervous when a bunch of my teachers and friends also came to watch. During the song, Taco, who was sitting in front of me, had to keep turning around to show me where I was supposed to be playing. Jingle bells wasn't exactly jingling, White Christmas was more like brown Christmas, Joy to the World wasn't too bad, but I think I did pretty well during Silent Night. When I was done, instead of retreating to the corner like I normally would have done, I bowed and said "I did my best." It didn't matter how bad I did, because Chiake, Taco, and Yukime were suddenly wrapped on my arms saying "You were excellent!" "Don't worry, you only just started played!" "Everyone loved you!" And sure enough, the embarrassed feeling I had from messing up, was replaced by a feeling of warmth and gratitude for my wonderful new friends and skill. Afterwards we had a huge New Year's party. Everyone sat according to their grades and skills, but the teacher's still put me with my friends and classmates. I'm pretty sure the teachers know that I'm never going to be professional, but with how hard I'm trying and enjoying myself, I'm going to get better. That's why for the HUGE April concert, in which it is held at a private Concert center and only the best are allowed to perform, the teachers thought I should get a chance to play. So Me, Chiake, Taco, Yuki, Yukimi, Casami, and all of the other High school first year's will be playing "Sakura." I'm not scared at all. Because when the teacher told us about this, everyone got really excited including myself. Thus this week I attended Koto on Wednesday and Friday. But I think Friday was a very significant day for me. First off I mastered a certain form in which to play the song. I should now have no problems with Sakura. Second, I purchased my own set of Tsume. I had been borrowing the teacher's pair. Let's just say my American fingers are long and chubbier as opposed to the toothpick shrimpy fingers of my teacher's. So when the Tsume salesman arrived, I was first in line. I got fitted and it took a long time to find the perfect set. A white extremely uncomfortable taped leather pair. I immediately hated there uncomfortbale feeling, so I asked if she had a more comfortable pair. She smiled and laughed and pulled out a set of a thicker cushioned ring. It caused everyone to laugh except the other's who have matching black ones. Apprently the white ones are better for more advanced players, the black ones are for people who need to be comfortable. That's me. Now I have a gorgeous pair of comfy black leather. Plus they also aren't the awful Ivory, elephant trunk, but are thick deer antlers. And yes they were extremely expensive. But I used the money I got from my host family as a New Year's present. Plus I haven't spent too much money and this was something I really wanted.The thing about me purchasing the Tsume's was that I showed the teachers and my fellow club members that I am committed to the club. And it's true: I am committed to this club because I love it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Year of the Boar and How I Celebrated

So I just returned to my room, in which I haven't seen since last year. Sorry I only get once a year to make that stupid joke. Although I guess I'll be able to make it over the summer. Anyways, over the past two days I celebrated with a large extended Japanese family a very traditional Japanese holiday- probably the best of all Japanese holidays. New Year. 正月Shōgatsu. This year I didn't celebrate my welcoming of 2007 in Times Square, at a party with my friends in Verona, skiing in Vermont, on a couch watching the Twilight Zone or any other usual way I would have spent the night first day of the new year. Instead I celebrated in the middle of nowhere, Kochi-ken, Japan. Better known as, Shimanto-cho, which is surronded by the greenest of unspoiled mountains, cleanest gushing rivers, the coldest of nights, bright stars, curvy scarecely paved roads, hundreds of under mountain tunnels, long drives to just about anywhere, select pockets full of traditional houses full of Tatemi floors, and Nuclear families. And you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way to welcome in the Year of the Boar! 12/31/2006: At about 1:00 on December 31st of last year, my host mother herded Yohei and I into the car for the hour and a half drive to Shimanto-cho. I was really excited because I would get to see Eri, my host cousin, whom I haven't seen since the last day of school. Infact we would be staying at Eri's family's home. The drive wasn't too bad because my Ipod was full of new Jpop music, thanks to Yohei. We stopped at a Mos Burger, which is a Japanese fastfood place. I got a roast Shrimp burger. God, I love Japan. haha. Like all my drives thru Shikoku, my eyes remained on the surroundings. I try to think of something to compare it to in the United States. Like perhaps Vermont's beautiful green mountains, but then it doesn't snow on Shikoku. So I guess there really isn't anything to compare it to. I don't know any state where you can drive alongside gushing crystal clean rivers, green lush mountains, and a rugged coastline all within a 15 minute drive. Shikoku is really just that beautiful. When we arrived at what appeared to be a convenience store, we were welcomed by Eri's family. Eri is the oldest of 3. She has a little sister of 12 named Me, and a little brother of 11 called Hiro. Before we could even get settled, Yohei and I were pulled outside and into some crazy games. Some of these games I wish I had known when I was a little kid. I won't explain them to you. But I will tell you 5 minutes into the first one, Yohei nearly took out my leg and I was on my butt laughing within 3 seconds. After some more interesting games, Eri and I went inside and sat with the adults for a little while. The house is fairly new, directly behind the family convenience store. Like all Japanese houses, it was ice cold. I didn't take my jacket off that whole first day. They suggested we go watch a movie so next thing I know I was laying down on the Tatami floor, heaters blasting, watching Harry Potter with Eri. Soon dinner was served, which was probably about 3 cows worth of meat. Good meat, too. Japanese people generally like their meat so well done it's like a tire, but this one was red and bloody. Sorry for the gory details. But it did make me especially happy. I ate and ate, until I was too full to open my mouth. Then I watched Yohei kick Eri, Me, and Hiro's butts in Mario Kart on Nintendo Game cube. If I played it would have been to pathetic to write about. Back in the Tatemi floored room, Eri and I finished Harry Potter. Then we turned on some Japanese New Year shows. Their was a program on with a lot of good Jpop. Actually it has become a more recent custom to watch this music show "kohaku uta gassen", a highly popular television program featuring many of Japan's most famous J-pop singers in spectacular performances. By spectacular performance, I mean Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl a couple years back was a Brady Bunch compared to what some of these Jpop performers, well performed. The most interesting was probably DJ Ozma's dancers finishing the song with tiny patches covering their privates, making Tarzan's loin cloth look like an Eskimo suit. Sometime later in the night, my host mom brought us in pudding and we all feasted. I asked her some personal questions about Japan and we ended up talking about alot of other stuff. The quote of the night goes to Mari-chan when we were talking about differences between old time Japanese people and old time gaijins. "Japanese ancestors looked like monkeys," she said in English. I nearly wet myself. At about 11:45, Eri's father, Mari-chan, Me, Yohei, Eri, and Hiro went to a Buddhist Shrine and rang a large gong to welcome in the new year. Omisoka is the name of the day of New Year’s Eve. Since the New Year is the biggest event in Japan, people celebrate the Eve as well. Japanese people stay up till midnight to listen to the 108 chimes of a nearby temple bell. The 108 chimes called Joya-no-kane, ring out the old year and rings in the New Year. It is supposed to release people from the 108 worldly sins. This year I got to go with my host family to a tiny old shrine on the side of a mountain and ring the gong for myself. I kind of messed up the second time around, but hey what do you expect from a gaijin? Afterwards we drove back to the house and talked in the kitchen for a little while. Mari-chan tried to explain the point of the animal new year. But it's kind of funny because she nor Eri's mother knew exactly why they celebrate it. They just kept saying that it came from China. So I was content with the knowledge that this is the year if the Boar, I was born in the year of the horse, and there are 12 different animals. For 14 hours I was in a different year that my friends and family at home. Crazy, right? I took a quick shower, which mind you sucks if you've gotten used to taking baths everynight, which I have. When it was time to sleep, Eri and I rock-paper-scissored for the bed or futon. I got the futon with is an extremely comfortable large cushion on the Tatemi floor. Best part is it was right below the heater. I got to admit I slept great that night. But before I nodded off, I thought about 2006. Pre-Japan: I brought home 2 marking periods of straight A's, started running and joined the track team, lost 30 pounds, started feeling good about myself, was selected to be a Rotary Youth Exchange Student, was given my third choice, Japan, which if you haven't figured out by now was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, had a going away party and felt like I was actually going to be missed contrary to what I originally thought. Then well, I came to Japan in 2006. I don't think I need to say more except that it was maybe the best decision I ever made. So looking ahead, I hope to god, 2007 is just as great if not better than 2006. 1/1/2007: Most Japanese households still observe rituals that go back as far as the Edo period of the 17th century. New Year's resolutions in Japan are made to bring prosperity and happiness for the future. Any unfinished business requires attention at the end of the year, so houses are cleaned, debts are paid, and foods are prepared prior to the New Year so the holiday can be enjoyed with leisure. Wearing new clothing, family members rise early on New Year's morning and visit the family shrine (okay so Eri and I slept till 11:00 AM...) Friends and family spend New Year's day visiting one another. The New Year is considered a time of forgiveness and cordiality to all. Japanese people don't go to work on New Year's Day. They rest and celebrate the holiday with the family. The first visit to the temple is called "Hatsu Mohde," which means the first visit. Unfortunately my host mother and her family can not visit a temple for "Hatsu Mohde" because of the tradition that a recent death in the family prohibits. At 102, Mari-chan's grandmother passed away on the 21st of December. Mari-chan's mother can not visit a temple for a whole year, while Mari-chan and her brother can't visit for 49 days. When she explained this to me I was amazed at such an incredible tradition. I am absolutely amazed by the Japanese religion. The majority of Japanese people refuse to admit they are religious and yet everyone follows the New Year's traditions of shrine visiting, as well as following loads more traditions. But then the average Japanese person will have a Christian style wedding and Buddhist funeral. Confused? I think not. I love this strange religion. The best word for it is that it's so nonbinding. So much freedom as long as you follow the very few traditions set in stone. I hope that makes some sort of sense. Anyway, on New Year's Day, the family starts the New Year with a "mochi" or rice cake breakfast. I hate Mochi, it sticks to your teeth and is just plain weird. Thus I didn't eat it. Rice pounding to make mochi rice cakes is a popular new year activity. However, many modern Japanese families buy them from supermarkets now. Eri and I woke up at around the same time and headed downstairs. We sat in the kitchen on the Tatemi floor (if you haven't figure out yet, the whole house is Tatemi flooring) a large old heater warmed us up as we watched some television. At around 12, Eri's father had Yohei, Hiro, Eri, and I take the dog for a long walk. The dog Badaa, is this enormous German Shepard and such a cute dog! It's Eri's job to walk him, but because she is so small, Badaa usually walks Eri. The day was grey wintery morning as we trekked on to the main road for a walk. Yohei and Hiro walked quickly ahead with Eri's father and Badaa, while Eri and I took our time. I of course couldn't keep my eyes of the surrondings. God I love Shikoku. It's just too beautiful a place to feel real. Just outside Eri's bront door is the almighty Shimato river, one of the last 3 rivers of Japan not to be spoiled by human reach. Our walk paralled the river, until we crossed a narrow bridge. On the other side of the river we walked thru alongside the forest on a narrow road next to mountains. In the distance smoke rose from a burning rice paddy. Eri's father gave me Badaa and I got to walk the enormous dog for a little while. Close to the way back home, we walked down to the riverside for rock skipping. Yohei beasted with a skip of like 12 times. I could barely get 3 or 4. We also took a group shot with my camera. Our back drop was the world scariest bridge, which is a very narrow slab of cement high sbove the river with no guard rails. I'm told that during Typhoon season the bridge usually gets washed away. Not suprising. We watched a daring driver attempt the bridge and I decided when I get my license and come back here I am going to beast that sucker. But by then it will porbably get washed away. haha. After we walked across it, we headed back for lunch. Lunch was a HUGE platter of sushi, leftover meat, and what I believe was Ozoni, a popular New Year's soup. Ozoni Soup supposedly has its' roots in that Samurai society cuisine. It is thought to be a meal that was cooked during field battles. It is also generally believed that this original meal, at first exclusive to samurai, eventually became a staple foodof the common people. Mostly it is served with Mochi, but thhat greatly differs regionally. Luckily Kochi region uses tofu instead. Not that I like Tofu any better than Mochi. The reason I tell you this is because I think it is very interesting part of Japan. Regional differences, that is. Each specific region has it's own customs, food specialities, religious festivities, many other differences. Japan is small but their are SOOOO many differences between areas that it gets hard to keep track. Anyway back to lunch. I ate a little bit of everything. Then Eri and I went back to watching a movie, Lord of the Rings in our nicely heated Tatemi room. On New Year's Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving pocket money to children. This is known as otoshidama (お年玉), which is a custom from China. It is handed out in small decorated envelopes called 'pochibukuro', descendants of the Chinese red packet. When eri's father handed me a little orange envelope, I had no idea what it was. So I smiled and said "thanks" but when I opened it and pulled out 10,000 yen (something like $100) I almost screamed. Then Mari-chan gave me another package from my current host father with 5,000 yen in it. I was kind of uncomfortbale taking this money and eventually addressed Mari-chan about it. So she explained the custom and now I'm a little richer and little more Japanese. *Smiles thinking about that new pair of jeans* At around 4, Mari-chan sprung on me the trip to the beach. Thus Eri's otosan, Mari-chan, Yohei, Hiro, and I headed to the beach. We took probably the most curvey road in the world, enough to give even the stringest of stomach a little jolt. After 40 minutes we drove along side of the ocean. Mari-chan at some point exclaimed, "Hey look there's America!" And somewhere beyond all of our eyesights my home country was celebrating 2007 at right about that time. I could have sworn to have heard Dick Clark as we arrived at the beach. The place looked vaguely familiar. Then I remembered... Back in August with the Masaki's, Naoko and I needed a bathroom stop. I encountered my first squat toilet at this very beach. Looking down at that sucker, I suddenly didn't have to pee anymore. Now I like Squatters better, as they are much cleaner. In the distance the faint sound of crashing waves comforted us as we walked to the beach. The others had no intention of doing what the stupid crazy gaijin did. Pulled off her shoes and socks and ran straight for the ocean... in below freezing weather... in January. Luckily for my feet, the water was warmer than the air and I ended up wading out into knee deep area of the wave protected channel. If anyone though I was crazy it was the 30 or so surfers out in the distance catching one of Kochi's most famous things, wicked waves. Hiro soon followed the crazy gaijin into the water and we were aplashing around and laughing. I gave my camera to Hiro's father and he took numerous pictures of us. But the greatest part about going to the ocean, anywhere in the world is just looking out at that horizon. Feeling so small. I could have stood there watching it for hours, but Mari-chan wrote my name in the sand and wanted a picture. Then I wrote in my best Japanese kanji Oono. Then I wrote 2007 and we all took a picture with the ocean as a back drop. Hiro and I continued to walk along the waves and I took dozens of pictures. But as the sun began to set, we decided to head back. We took longer than usual because we had to a car switch at Eri's mother's parents house. Back at the house it was just Mari-chan, Yohei, Obachan (Mari-chan's mother), and myself. Dinner was leftovers and stuff. Then I watched Yohei play his Game Cube for a while. Soon Eri's family returned to the house. All of the kids plus Mari-chan played card games for what felt like hours. I even taught them how to play PIGS, but I don't think they enjoyed it as much as American's do. Later in the kitchen, we split a pudding and studied Japanese for while. But bed was calling us and I curled up in my warm futon. First though I showed Eri my pictures, threw a pillow at Mari-chan, and joked with the famous "Goodo Nighto (Japanese intonation)" Eventually I fell asleep happy about the wonderful time I just had. 1/2/2007- I woke up at 11 again, but had to shake Eri awake. So at 11:30 we headed downstairs to be greeted by everyone. I talked with Eri's parents and we kindly made fun of their kid's names translated into English. Me is self-explanatory. Hiro as in Superman. And Eri (pronounced Eddie) is a boy's name is English. Poor Eri. At noon, in the pouring rain, Mari-chan brought Yohei, Hiro, and I to small chrine alongside the Shimanto. She places fruit and some other food inside and prayed. We headed back to the house and packed up the car. At 1, Eri's family and my host family headed into an actual town (of more than 100 people) and ate a huge lunch. Huge as in Steak for Eri and me. After lunch, we all said goodbye, and with Mari-chan and Yohei I returned to Kochi City. During the ride I ran into more Japanese mistakes. I told Mari-chan "You family is great!" She cracked up and said "Not my family, my brother's family." I explained in English family counts as cousins and nephews and aunts and all that stuff. I don't think she believed me. The ride home was very long because there is only one lane highway in Kochi and it was currently being blocked by an accident. And I had to pee. Not very pretty. But I survived and I nearly kissed the squatter toilet at a country convient store after I went. Relief! Back at home I received my lovely Nengajō and then took a rest. Looking back on the holiday I just spent with my host family's extended family in Shimanto-cho. Well the truth is, I loved every minute of it. It reminded me of when I was younger New Year celebrations in Main and Vermont with my extended family. I really can't acurately describe what an amazing time I had. It's not as though I felt apart of the family but I fwlt like more than a guest. More than a gaijin pretending to celebrate a traditional Japanese holiday. I don't know if this makes any sense. I just know I'll look back on this experience fondly as a learning experience about life itself. 1/3/2007- Celebrating the new year in Japan also means paying special attention to the "first" of something. People pay special attention to the first time something is done in the new year. Hatsuhinode (初日の出) is the first sunrise of the year. Hatsumoude (初詣) is the first trip to a Shinto shrine. Many people visit a shrine after midnight on January 1st or sometime during the day on January 1st, I went on January 3rd. If the weather is good, people often dress up or wear kimono. I was in jeans. My host mother could not go to a shrine because of the reason I described before, thus she had me go with her best friend. First we went to an Okonomiacki party then we trekked to a local shrine. Walking thru the Torii gates, we went for the fountain to cleanse our hands of ill will. We then placed 3 coins inside the Shrine, rang the gong 3 times, bowed twice, and prayed for a wish, then bowed once more. Afterwards we bought a paper that tells us when our wish will come true. My wish won't come true until it is too late apparenty. I know my description doesn't really give you a very good idea of the tradition. But I was very fortunate to be able to participate in such an ancient and powerful tradition. And that was my beginning of the Year of the Boar.