Monday, July 30, 2007

Eel Gives You Stamina

Eating eel on the hottest day of the year gives you stamina. Apparently.

Japan has a tendency to have really surprising events that come out of nowehere. A lot of these things can't be explained, but continue to shock me, and probably will for the rest of my life. Of course there is no such thing as "Eel Day" on our calendar here in Japan, but I would think that the day almost deserves such a name. Don't you think that a day in which probably about everyone in the entire country of Japan sits around their dinner table eating delicious and scrumptious eel, would merit such a name? The day, which is different every year although always in the last week of July, is actually called doyo no ushi no hi -– “day of the ox in midsummer.” It is said to be the hottest day of the year according to ancient customs brought over from China. Ushi, or "ox," refers to one of 12 animal names, assigned to both years, as well as days within each year. Many Asian cultures use these animal names to describe cycles of time.

Based on the lunar calendar,"Doyo" refers to the 18-day time period prior to a change of seasons. There is a doyo period before the onset of winter, spring, summer, and autumn. It is this latter one that most Japanese are familiar with, since it is on the ox day of this pre-autumn doyo, that eel-eating is believed to restore stamina that has been sapped by summer heat. "The day of the ox” fell on July 28th this year.
Eating eel with the Katou clan/

So what does the hottest day of the year have to do with unagi? Like everything else here, it can be traced back to a comical story. More than 200 years ago, owner of a very unpopular unagi restaurant asked a guy for an idea for boosting their sales. The guy, Hiraga Gennai, was a pharmacist. [Side note: Are all Japanese pharmacist tricksters and clowns? Captain Jack would definitely have come up with some hare-brained scheme like this and he is a pharmacist.] Gennai put up a poster at the restaurant, which said something like: “Eat nutritious eel to beat summer weariness,” and people were convinced that it must be a good thing to eat such a nutritious food on the hottest day of the year. It worked like a magic. The Ad not only saved the slumping restaurant but created a custom that has been passed down for more than 200 years.

On the supposed "Hottest Day of the Year," when people stayed inside anxiously to stay away from
Instead of beating the heat, we went out and faced it head on.
burning sun, choking heat, and all around awfulness of the weather, I managed to do just the opposite of what everyone else was doing. This morning when I woke up, I was looking at a day with absolutely nothing planned. I decided right then and there to go for a long and grueling run. Well, not grueling, but at least a run in which my body got some much needed exercise. I have not been able to run for over 2 weeks now, because of the heat and being prevented from my worried host parents.

I don't blame them, I nearly passed out in school, on particularly hot afternoon. It's not a good excuse, but I can't say that I didn't long for the ability to do my favorite activity in the world. I started off at 11, just after I woke up and had my morning coffee. The sun was blazing overhead, and it was already in the upper 90's. I thought that since I had not run in over 2 weeks, my body would not be able to handle a very difficult run. I planned on keeping it at a 30 minute run for safety and for getting my body back up to speed. But I surprised myself. Runner's High took over within minutes, and I decided to take a long run all the way to Kochi Castle and back. It takes 17 minutes while running to get from my house to the castle, and 17 minutes to get back. So I ran around the complex for about 26 minutes. It was an incredibly refreshing run. I was out in the sun for just over an hour, though it felt like 20 minutes tops. I was so happy and proud of myself, that I overlooked the fact that my face and turned the color of a peach. I must have forgotten sun screen.

When I returned, I decided to buy lunch at the food store. I had planned on eating a huge dinner of delicious eel, so I wanted to keep the meal small. I bought two cups of 80 calorie ice cream and gum. Then I headed back to the house. My legs were more tired then I had earlier suspected, and when I reached the house, a sudden shooting pain of Shin Splints shocked me into falling up the stairs. I wasn't too worried, because I had nothing else planned for the days activities. Or so I thought. Inside, I took a nice hot shower, did the laundry, and then opened a cup of my lunch and turned on the television. Life could not get any better, I thought. My cell phone started to ring, and I answered to hear Katou Okasan. After she scolded me for not having my cell phone on me in the early morning, which she tried to call me a dozen times, she began telling me something else. She asked me to get on my bathing suit and come to the family company. Michiyo and I would be going swimming at one of the local Kochi sports pools. I swallowed the remaining ice cream cup whole, as I frantically threw on a bath suit. I was out the door and on my bike within 5 minutes. At the company, I met up with Michiyo and we headed for the pool. It wasn't far, but I still spent over 30 minutes on the bike. The Shin Splints had returned in full force, and I was worried as I walked into the indoor pool area. I quickly got changed, making sure to look at myself in the mirror. It was so embarrassing, because Bikini's are really rare in Japan. My bathing suit is only a bikini top, with long shorts for bottoms, but I got alot of comments made to Michiyo.

Clan Katou post-Eel.
My skin is white, and I don't ust mean "Standard White Girl #1" white. I mean, "Are you going to pass out because you look deathly ill?" white.  In America, even people who around pretty white people tend to make comments about my color. Even though my arms are brown from the heavy sun exposure I've been receiving, I was wearing a bikini top. The color of my skin makes strike 1. Strike 2 is quite simple, I was wearing a bikini.

This is very bad, because in Japan, bikini's are only worn by loose college girls at the beach. I was a High School Student at a public pool in conservative Kochi.

My only saving grace was the fact that instead of wearing a normal bottom to the suit, I was wearing long boy bath suit shorts. But the real big strike, I mean the one that causes the umpire to start screaming, "YOU ARE OUT!" came with the fact that I was not born Japanese. At a pool in the middle of nowhere countryside Japan, a Gaikokujin had just entered. The only people who usually frequent this particular pool are in elementary school kids, or are nearing their 300th birthday. None of which as any idea who to react to a gaijin, other than just staring. And I wasn't just a plain Gaijin. I looked like a Ghost in a Bikini from some far away land. How far fetched is that?

I also lost some weight this year. Not much, but enough to make the bathing suit pretty much hang off of me at the top. And much to my horror, as I stepped into the pool, the top flung open.

Yes, you read that right.

My hand shot up to cover my exposed parts and I screamed for Michiyo to help me. In the water, we had it all fixed. Luckily, it was then that it was discovered that a Gaijin had entered the water. This is lucky, because my dignity could not take another strike against me. Think about it, the ghost in a bikini from America who can't keep her top on. Oh, the horror.

Michiyo and I changed lanes into a less busy section. She noticed how uncomfortable it was for me. I think it would be for everyone, if you suddenly had 30 kids and 20 old men and woman pointing at you and whispering things like, "look at that! A Gaijin!" or "She is SO white!"

[ Rant Time: I love Japan, and I love Kochi, but I'm tired of them treating me like I'm NOT one of them. Aren't we all humans? And they think I can't speak Japanese. I occasionally hear comments like, "Now look at that brave Japanese girl talking to the gaijin. What a clever girl speaking English!" Nobody will ever believe that I'm the clever one. I'm the one speaking Japanese. Sometimes, when the people making the comments are close, I'll turn to them and say something like, "I can understand you and I don't appreciate you words." Sometimes this will really shut them up, and they'll look away all embarrassed. But sometimes they'll keep going, "Wow what a clever Japanese girl! She taught the Gaijin a few words in Japanese!" Okay sorry for the rant, but pools in Japan always make me annoyed. End rant.]

Michiyo and I first did about 20 laps, and then we headed over into a different lane. Pools here always have a lane dedicated to walkers. Walking in the water is considered a sport. Now don't laugh, it's actually quite intense. But since Japanese people are so short, the water is really shallow. This would expose my ghostly stomach, and I wasn't in the mood for more comments. So I stayed on my knees, which actually helped my shin splints a lot. At 3:30, Michiyo decided that we ought to head back home. After we encountered 3 little girls who stared at me while I changed, we biked back to Mama Township. My body was exhausted when we parked our bikes. I needed that Eel for stamina. I told Michiyo I was going to go take a nap, because I had nothing on the agenda for the rest of the day, except a dinner of Eel.

She told me that I had to make sure to get ready.

Ready? you ask. Oh yes!

It must have slipped my mind that I had a 2 hour Yosakoi practice! Surprisingly, my body didn't object. I really think I'm an athlete because I can handle a lot of things. 70 minutes of running, 30 minutes of biking, 100 minutes of swimming, and 120 minutes of dancing, it is a bit on the cruel side. But I seemed to be okay.

At 6, the family all sat down at the dinner table and ate a delicious portion of Eel steamed over a bowl of rice. The side dish was spicy eggplant and tomatoes. It was utterly delicious, and I even had seconds on the Eel.

At Yosakoi practice, I did great. I was Genki and happy through the entire practice. I continue to surprise even myself. Though I think I'll give credit for this one to the eel.

Kagami Gawa Matsuri Night 2

The night before, I attended the Kagami Gawa Matsuri, and had an amazing time. I was with my host mom, a lovely woman, with whom I have become incredibly close to. Everything seemed almost perfect. When I found out that it existed for another night, I knew I had to go.

Last week when I went to the Obiyamachi Matsuri, I ran into Chiake. She couldn't stay but she texted me later saying that the next Matsuri we should go together. I remembered this when I emailed her and asked if she wanted to go along with me to the Kagami Gawa Matsuri. Even though she had Koto practice from 8 in the morning till 6 at night, she agreed to meet me at Hirome, and head to the festival. I had planned on wearing the Yukata, because the night previously I appeared to be the only one not wearing a Yukata. However, Chiake would be wearing her school uniform, and I didn't want her to feel left out.

Okonomiyacki on a stick! Also, in retrospect, a grossly
inappropriate photo.
So at 5:45, I departed the Katou house and headed for Hirome. I met Chiake at about 6:10. We crossed the main street together catching up. She told me all about her day's major practice. Since the team is actually heading to Shimane-ken on Tuesday for the All-Japan Koto tournament, she was nervous. They had only 10 minutes on the stage to perform a brilliantly difficult piece, in which they have been practicing for for over 7 months. They have practiced occasionally, but since the start of the summer, they have been playing just the one song. So from 8 in the morning till 6 at night everyday, the High School members of the club gather around and practice the one piece. I tried to imagine myself doing the same thing, over and over again for 9 hours. Nope.

I felt kind of bad telling her what I did. She was curious, and it seemed like she wanted to hear me say something like, "Save the entire continent of Africa," so that she and I could have had equally interesting days. Instead, she listened as I told her I strolled the Kochi Famous Sunday market and took lots of pictures. I think I heard her even snort. When we made it to the front of Mos Burger, I dropped off my bike, and together we followed a mass of Yukata-clad girls in the direction of bright lights and loud noises. It was on 6:30, and already there were more people than the previous night.

Walking along the narrow road was uncomfortable even, and I kept banging elbows with random
people. Chiake also has an annoying habit of walking, so that when I move an inch, she does as well. Her bag must have smacked my shoulder at least 30 times a minutes. Nevertheless, we kept moving, keeping an eye out for teachers. Chiake was in her uniform, and if spotted, she would be suspended from school. We didn't see any and we kept on going.

When we made it into the festival, the first thing Chiake did was ask me what I wanted to eat. I told her I didn't care, and we walked arm in arm along the stalls. I just stared and admired the mights and atmosphere of the festival. For me, it's just too much of an experience not to stare and get absorbed in everything. Chiake wanted to eat Karage, which is fried chicken. I told her I was leaving Japan in 2 weeks and could eat fried chicken at home. Then she wanted French Fries, I told her I was getting something else. I wanted to try something I had never tried before, and I spied one stall selling Hashimaki. The stall workers were mixing up a batter that looked much like an okonomiacki mix. Then they were spilling on the hot plate to where it cooked. I thought it was okonomiacki until the men rolled it up onto a pair pf chopsticks, then sprinkled it with Seaweed, Cheese, and Dried fish.

I waited in line, wanting to try it more than ever. Chiake even waited with me, because she suddenly changed her mind about the French Fries. As we waited, a weird old man approached us, seeing that we were speaking Japanese. He was drunk, and he demanded to know where I learned the language in English. I pretended to ignore him, until he asked me in Japanese. Then he demanded I practice English with him, which I knew would cause a scene. I ignored him, until he asked me where I came from. I told him France, and Chiake snorted. He sauntered away seemingly embarrassed. We both got one stick.

 What I liked best was that CHiake stood back and let me order. A lot of the time, the people I am with, even though they I can speak the language, try to make sure that the clerks understand before I
My Japanese best friend and I!
attempt in Japanese. When we both got our food, Chaike was on the lookout for a place to sit and eat. We crawled through some of the stands and found a spot next to the river. Then we opened out packages, and, in a very un-Japanese girl way, we inhaled the Hashimaki.

Actually we had a race to see who could eat the fastest. CHiake won, of course, because I don't do well with hot foods. We wanted to sit and enjoy the company, but our seat was right behind a stall making a Yaki Soba, and lots of lots of noise. Plus a family with small kids was looking for a place to sit, so we got up quickly and reentered the festival. Even though I was with my best friend, the night was cool, and I was eating some of my favorite foods, the magic of the festival had worn off. It was too crowded to be enjoyed in the fullness I had last night. But Chiake was still hungry, and she insisted on getting a Crepe.

Together, we ordered two strawberry jam-filled Crepes, which were filled to the brim with whipped cream. We found another spot by the river. I have never had the pleasure of eating with someone like Chiake and that is saying something. My sister can't eat chocolate ice cream without spilling on her shirts, but Chiake could eat a Crepe, which a food with a covering, without spilled nearly everything
Sensory overload.
on her school skirt. The only one she own. She ended up not being about to eat her crepe, on the count of it mostly being on her lap. When we were finished we walked around the festival some more. We ran into all sorts of Tosajoshi girls, but luckily no teachers. Chiake kept telling me that it was unfair that I was so popular. She said she should get some credit for being my best friend, and then burst into laughter. That's just the kind of stuff she and I say to each other for fun.

At about 7:30, Chiake's father called. He was just outside the festival and ready to take her home. I wanted to stay a little but longer, which caused her to worry. She told me that every time she was with me, weird people came up to talk to us and this caused her to worry whether I could be okay alone. I laughed at her and told her nobody messes with scary Gaijin. I walked her to her car, said goodbye, and gave her a big hug while wishing her all the best of luck in the All-Japan competition. It was the first time I gave Chiake a hug, and I noticed that aalot of people stared at us. I was mostly surprised that Chaike didn't even flinch. Upon returning to the festival, I bought some Tamago Yaki, but didn't really like it. I wanted to take pictures and play some games, but the crowds were just too great. It was still a great experience, and I love Japanese Matsuri, but it wasn't the magic I felt like the night before.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Kagami Gawa Matsuri Night 1

On Saturday, after what felt like the hottest day I had ever lived through in my entire 16 years of life, my host Mom decided to take me to the Kagami Matsuri.

The Matsuri, Japanese for festival, used to be an enormous exciting time with 100's of stalls, good fun, and nostalgia for all Kochi residents. The story of the Matsuri can be traced all the way to the end of World War II, when locals would come out into the night to celebrate the end of the war. Not that it ended well for locals or any of the Japanese, but I did not have the tenacity to press further for more information.

Alas, about 15 years ago, the festival ran out of money. With no money in the bank, about 5 years passed in which the festival did not occur. With no Kagami Gawa Matsuri, people began to take more of an interest in Yosakoi. Even though Yosakoi had been around since 1954, it used to be all about fun and dancing. But when the people lost their July Matsuri, they began to put all their efforts into Yosakoi. Now Yosakoi is a grueling dancing competition. But about 3 years ago, with a large amount of sponsorship from outside Kochi companies, the festival was able to make a comeback. The amount of food and game stalls are about half of what they used to be in size and items.

But a Matsuri is a Matsuri no matter how many stalls come or don't come.

When Katou Okasan asked me if I would like to attend to Matsuri, I was more than happy to do so.
The previous week I went to the Obiyamachi Saturday festival with all of my friends. It was such fun, and the Kagami Gawa Matsuri promised to be even better. However, she wanted me to wear my Yukata. I love my Yukata with all of my heart, and I would wear on any occasion. But just breathing made me break out in sweat on this day, so I begged her not to make me wear it.

Before heading to the festival, we had to meet Katou Otousan at a hotel in the middle of town. Otousan was serving as campaign manager to a local politician and with the matsuri, politicians were out in full-force trying to convert people to their platforms. When he was all finished, Okasan and I headed off in the direction of bright lights, Yukata-claded girls, and the fragrants of Okonomiacki sauce. Now I have been to a Matsuri already, and the last big event was held last summer, yet my memory of that Matsuri did nothing to stop the shock I was feeling. The only think I can really think of that resembles a Japanese Matsuri, even though inly a very little bit, is an American carnival. Matsuri's are full of people, mostly dressed in traditional Yukata and are absolutely stunning.

There are thousands of lights, all in different shades of reds, yellows, and oranges.

Unknown fragrants waft through the air, some resembling Okonomiacki sauce, while others smelled like the familiar scent of frying squid
frying in the distance, and even the smell of Ketchup and Mayonnaise. Come to think of it, there is no set smell, because every time you turn your head something news hits you. What seems like thousands of tiny stalls selling everything a Japanese heart could desire light the way. Okonomiacki, Takoyaki, Ikayaki, Tamagoyaki, Yakisoba, Hashimaki, Hamburg, French Fries, American Frank's, Tempura, Eel, Onigiri, Taiyaki, Osakayaki, Fried Sweet Potatoes, Corn on the Cob, Candied Apples, Cotton Candy, Crepes, Ice Cream, Sherbert, Snow Cones, Candied Strawberries and Banana's, Manjuu's, Anco filled Ice, and everything else a festival attendee could ever hope to find. The stalls are small, but each has a person taking orders and money, while another one is behind a large stove frying or preparing the food.

What I quickly realized with this particular Matsuri is that, the only thing to do, besides listening to the band, was eat. Count me in.

And eating was what people were doing. I tell you, I have never seen so much food being consumed in one place in one time. I watched as one particular group of girls sat at a table, each girl had a plate of Yakisoba, as well as 2 sticks of Hashimaki. Then they each had their own box of either Tamagoyaki or Takoyaki. I honestly don't think I have eaten that much food in my life. But all jokes aside, I was loving every moment of this festival exploration. Shoulder to shoulder with Okasan, we walked along the brilliantly lit stalls pondering over everything. I also began to regret my decision to not wear a Yukata. It seemed like everyone of the girls was dressed in a beautiful clothes outfit, while I was dressed in a jean skirt and yellow top. As we walked along, girls from Tosajoshi began to notice me. I think I got well over a thousand greetings from people that I somewhat recognized. Ever since my speech, I've become even more famous than usual. Now they all are aware that I can speak Japanese, and aren't afraid to wave to me and ask me how my night is going. Okasan managed to chuckle at everyone, and make a remark about how I am probably more popular than all 4 of her kids combined.

When we made our way all the way down one side of the festival, we stopped to listen as one band played some traditional tunes. Okasan asked me what I wanted to eat. I didn't want anything, but I saw that I was the only not gorging out on some food, wearing a Yukata, and gorging out on even more food. I asked Okasan what she wanted, since she was much more experienced in the art of Matsuri than I was. She wanted Ika Yaki.

For all those who are Japanese impaired, Ika is Squid, while Yaki is Cooked. Basically she ordered two long and large sticks, covered in thick white meat.

Squid Tentacles. Shaken, not stirred. Fried.

The Tentacles had just been smothered in a salty-flavoring sauce, and then thrown on the grill to roast. Like all squid, it was a bit too chewy for my liking. But other than that I could not have been happier. Seeing how thirsty the Squid was going to make us, Okasan decided we ought to buy some drinks. Since she bought me the Squid, I insisted on purchasing the drinks. I ordered two extra larges, which were twice the size of the McDonald's Super Size, in Tea. We took our Squid Sticks to the place around the stage, where and a small time band was playing some old time Japanese music.
There was excitement in the air, dancing, and all around freedom from work. It was summer vacation, and at that moment in time, chewing away at a Salty piece of squid, laughing at some toddler dancers with my host mother, and feeling a slight breeze blowing off the side of the Kagami Gawa river, I had a moment.

My exchange is coming to an end, there is no way getting around this fact. But you know? When I have these moments, when life seems to be absolutely perfect, that it almost seems to good to be true, and that no way could it possibly get any better, I think that coming here was the best decision I ever made in my lifetime. And I don't think I'm wrong about that.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Winding Down

I can't put my finger on a second or moment in my 14 years prior to Japan, when I thought I would end up here. But to be even more broad, I can't even think of a time, when I would have got on an airplane, full of dreams and hopes and a good attitude, with a plan to live in a country, any country for an entire year. A year has passed since I arrived in Japan, my host country, and I find myself thinking about everything that has happened in the past 11 and half months. And with analyzing each and every day, I'm beginning to realize things.

I have regrets. Not big ones, but still, there are a few in existence. For me, these regrets are little, almost insignificant ones. I wish I could have learned Japanese quicker, and more proficiently. That's not say I didn't do my best. I wish I had given my cell email to my friends earlier, so that I could have spent more time hanging out with them. But in my heart, I know, I made more friends this year then any exchange student in the history of this school. I wish I spent less time on the computer and more time with host families. But I also know that my host families were busy people, and I didn't spend half as much time on the computer as people think. I wish that more Japanese people would have accepted that I can speak Japanese, and treated me more like an equal rather than a foreign novelty. It seems like these regrets either couldn't have been prevented, or just weren't meant to.
But looking at everything has also given me a moment to realize something else. I'll be in Japan for 363 days, which really is not as long as one can imagine. I look in the mirror every morning and see a totally different person that I did a year ago, as I anxiously pulled post it notes off my wall in anticipation for departure. I've changed alot, but I can't grasp a specific moment in time, when the change occurred. I suppose it was all gradual. And yet, I've come to realize that one second can change a person's entire life. In one second, something can happen to make us open our eyes and change our thoughts on everything. I don't really know that this is making any sense whatsoever, but it's coming for my heart.

I went to the post office yesterday, to send a 13 kilogram package filled with school books and some small presents home. Even though, I'm highly conversational in the Japanese language, I still had trouble. I thought back to my first experience at the post office, back in September, when I spent over 3 hours trying to get 8 stamps. (Read the post in September Happening's for more details.) What I realized is that no matter how much time goes by, some things never change. It's just a bit sad that a trip to the post office had to make me realize this. But this realization is the reason why going home is scary for me. I feel like I have changed so much, or perhaps not at all, that just my scenery has changed and thus made me think I have changed. What is home going to be like? Will 363 days make as much of a difference as I seem to think, or will everything be exactly the same as I left it. Will my family have changed and gotten used to having just 3 people? I had good friends before I left, but will me missing the most important year of high school cause problems in our relationships? Will I be able to get back into life of being a teenage girl in America? I've heard people tell me that when they returned from their exchange, life is harder than when they were away. And that is why I think, I am afraid to go home.

I look at myself again. I've gotten through an serious year of intense Japanese study. I survived a sucky experience with my second host family. I've become more independent than anyone in my home high school can even think to claim. But will this make any difference, when I'm back in the USA?

Last night, I found sleeping to be the hardest thing I have had to do. I was overheated and exhausted, but I couldn't stop thinking about home. My heart beats with excitement at seeing my Mom, Dad, and sister, at being able to run on my home turf, at gluing my eyes to the new Harry Potter book, at being able to understand without thinking twice. While at the same time, my heart breaks, thinking about the amazing life I have to leave behind. I feel like a mess of emotion, even more roller coaster like than life as an Outbound, or student before leaving. The clock ticks, and another minute passes, another minute till my exchange winds to close. And still I can't decide what to feel.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Water Sports Carnival

I'm beginning to think that living on the sun might be more comfortable than living in Kochi in late July. Oh sure, the sun is loads hotter, but a lof of stuff doesn't exist on the sun that does in Kochi. Like Yosakoi Dance Practice in a steamy hot gym with no air condition, 30 minute bike rides to and from to go ANYWHERE, and uptight Japanese people who don't believe me when I say, "I think I'm going to pass out." Rainey season ended last Thursday, much to relief of many people in Kochi. I, however, was not happy. Unlike any of the other months I have spent in Japan, I arrived last August. And on my very first day, I got massive heatstroke. I don't forget things like this. I do believe that living here has made me stronger, I can handle bitter winters with no heat, walk to school in typhoons, and survive road rage from mad Japanese drivers. But I have never been very good with the heat. So much so, that in early-July, I got sent home early for nearly passing out in class, and I have forbidden to run by my host family, which even though it hurts me alot not to be able to do my favorite hobby, I know it would end up killing me. I still take a 20 minue bike ride to and from school, occasionally go for walks, and participate in 2 hours worth of Modern dance 4 times a week. And because of these seemingly minute activities, my arms are covered in prickly heat, and every time I sweat on my face, the dry skin sends a burning sensation to my brain. It's horrible. But I don't like complaining, just stating the truth. And because of this situation, I found myself springing on the occasion to go for a swim. On Tuesday night, Osaki Okasan asked me when I would have free time to have dinner next week to see her son, Yu, off to America. I replied that I would come visit the family to reply if they had free time on Thursday. Instead of telling me that I could come in the afternoon after club, like I intended for her to do, she invited me to Haruno Sports Park to watch Hikari and Maako's Synchronized Swimming Carnival. In June, I went to their main festival, and surprised the entire family by just sort of showing up. I participated in the girls team a few times back in March, and many of the team members got friendly with me. For a few of those practices, I swam with the 2nd grade girls, and since I'm really good with little kids, I made quite a few friends. Except, it wasn't I who was good with them, it was them who was good with me. They had to stop very often to show me what to do. It was pretty brutal to my self-esteem. But I've taken the stance, that being bad at Synchronized Swimming is really not the end of the world. Anyway, for as much as I enjoy the team, I was not going to go and watch their competition in the middle of a sulty hot End of July afternoon. It didn't matter that I had nothing to do. Because of I went, I would turn into a baked lobster and be out of commission for the rest of the day. But at the end of the invitation email, I was told to bring my bathing suit, so I could swim along with them when it was all finished. I replied that I only had a Bikini. And that seemed to be okay. Actually, I should rephrase this. I have a bikini top and shorts that I use in the water, because I am embarrassed at my legs. However, I bought the set 2 years ago, and about 35 pounds heavier. Let's just say this was not going to be pretty.
At 10 on Thursday morning, I woke up to my alarm and headed straight for Kouda, home to the Osaki's. When I arrived, all 3 Osaki girls acted like I was a new and novelty item. Every time I opened my mouth they freaked. It's like I hadn't even lived her for all those months. Only Hikari broke the surface. She and I worked on her Kanji Japanese homework. It really somes as a shock to anyone when you find yourself correcting a little kids JAPANESE homework. Hikari told me that she and Maako have Synchro 5 times a week, which explained alot. For instance, why the girls looked like one of their parents was African American, and why they looked like Raccoons. In the blistering sun for 5 hours a day, no matter how much sun block you put on, your skin is going to turn dark. But unfortunately the girls also wear goggles, which makes their face hilarious to look at on the aftermath. I now officially know the Japanese word for Racoon.
The night before, Katou Otosan asked me if I would be eating lunch with the Osaki's. I told them I didn't know, but wasn't worried about it. He told me, probably not, and then proceeded to call the Osaki's cheap. I found this hilarious, until I began to wonder the reasons for it. Sure enough, I didn't get lunch. I ended up going a full 24 hours without eating, after over an hour on a bike, swimming, and sun exposure. Brutality, I tell you. Anyway, at 12, the girls left for the practice, while I waited until it would begin a 2. They left me alone in the kitchen for over an hour, not that I minded, because I spent most of time remembering funny happenings that occurred there. At 2, I hopped in the van headed for Haruno Park, with Okasan Osaki. When we arrived, I was greeted in the warmest way imaginable by the girls on the team. But the funniest thing was when the coach came to see me. I first met her on my first day with the Osaki's, back in February. She was 9 months pregnant, and being forced into maternity leave by the parents of the Synchro team. It was she who had first suggested that I try the sport for fun. When she saw me, she smiled and told me I had lost some weight, I looked at her and told her likewise. She burst out laughing, while I peered into the carriage next to her, and saw her beautiful baby girl. More things to contribute to my amazement out how quick time flys.
The carnival was not just about the Synchronized swimmers. The first act was the water polo team. I grabbed a seat under the tent, to shield from the sun. I had smothered myself in sun lotion, but I have never been very lucky with sunburn. I'm white as a ghost, what can I say? From 2 till 3, I was forced to sit and watch little boys splash around in tightly whiteys, attempting to throw a ball into a net. It wouldn't have been so bad, if it wasn't over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I was staring at a huge open pool, but not allowed to swim in it. Torture. When the boring Water Polo was over, the Kochi Diving team began their act. I hauled myself to the other side of the pool, planted my but in the shade and watched as a bunch of muscly teenagers played Flipper off the Diving Board. It was actually pretty cool, though. One jump, had the older boys putting the girls on their back and then 'falling' into the water at 30M. In midair, they all did some somer saults and were no longer on each others back when they hit the surface of the water. As much as I tried to enjoy it, the heat was killing me. Even though I was in the lightest possible clothes I owned and sitting in the shade, I felt like I was sitting in a frying pan. I don't mean to share all the details, but sweat was pouring out of all parts of my body. I was hungry and thirsty, but would have settled for the ability to jump in the pool. My face was disgustlying itchy, and I could already feel it being burnt. I'm beginning to think Sunblock just doesn't work on me. At least, Japanese sunblock, anyway.
Finally at 4:00, the girls on the Synchro performed their act. Maako and her friend did a stunning rendition of 'Never Had a Friend Like Me' from Aladdin. For short little squirt, I have to admit, that girl is amazing. Hikari, who is a little cheese ball, only had one act. She and the 3rd grade girls did a 5 person act, which went really smoothly. I was impressed, and when they climbed out of the pool, I made sure to cheer the loudest. It was then that I saw it. The video camera. The Kochi channel had come to do a taping on the Water Sports Carnival. However, they seemed to find me a bit more interesting. Osaki Okasan told me that they had been taping me for over 15 minutes. I yelled at her for not telling me, I could have easily picked my nose, and all of Kochi would have known.
Whe it was all over, I went to pull off my shirt and jump into the pool. But Osaki Otosan dared me to go and jump off the 30 M high dive, where the Diving team was having practice. I will never decline a dare, especially one that involves me doing something incredibly stupid and dangerous. But when I went over to the practice, the coach, told me that I would have to complete some training first. I know this shouldn't sup rise me in the least. But since I have been in Japan, and even more particularly, the Osaki family, I have had the experience to try EVERYTHING. Synchronized swimming, Over 60 bowling and swim club, Karate, Tea Ceremony, Dance, and Hula Dancing. Now I get to add Professional Diving to the crazy thing I have done list. The coach of the team threw to me a normal bathing suit, because the bikini top would come right off. This normal bathing suit would probably not even fit teensy tiny Maako, let alone this big ol' Gaijin. But I sucked it up, and pulled my shorts over it for good measure. I couldn't let the world see that I had a bigger cameltoe/wedgie than the Grand Canyon. Though I was beginning to regret the bet. A few other kids joined and wanted to try diving. These kids were all young, slender, in Swimming clubs, and wearing properly fitting attire. I was doomed. On the side of the pool we learned how to properly jump off the diving board. I was interested to learn that after all these years, I was doing it all wrong. When we finally got to practice, I felt like Christmas had come early. Jumping into the cool water, was the best feeling in the world. All the achy cranky sweaty stinkyness of the whole day was gone, and it was just me and the water. Still though, it didn't make up for how tough the Diving tryout was. I, being the oldest, biggest, strongest (and best looking, I might add) was sort of expected to be the best. I turned out to be the very worst. The coach sort of rolled her eyes every time I jumped into the water. I'm getting kind of tired of being bad at everything. Just in the past 2 weeks of summer alone, I've been creamed by beastly dance practices for Yosakoi, and now Nazi Diving Camp. I don't get what these people expect from me!
Finally, we all 'passed' the first part of practice and then headed onto the big board. The 30m, 3 stories up, was off limits to everyone, which I found quite unfair. The 20m was also off limits. So I settled for the nest best, the 15m. All the other kids chickened out, and went to the 5 mete, while I took the great leap off. It was a little bit bigger than the Verona community pool High Dive, and thus no bog deal for me. Although I did jump off wrong, and hit the water pretty painfully. I also lost my pants. How do guys keep them one when they jump from such height? Oh never mind all of the guys on this team are in Speedo's. When I submerged, the team gave me a hearty clap. I got out of the pool, quickly got changed out of the bathing suit, and then returned to the coach. I thanked her and returned her suit. She asked me what school I attend, and I told her Tosajoshi. She then told me I had to bow to her, as she was my Sempie, or senior student.
At 6, the Shincro team was all finished, so we headed back to Kouda. I was supposed to be home by 7, which would have meant a heavy duty ride through Kochi. But when we got back to the house, the news had started. As I suspected, the Water SPorts Carnival had a main theme. One gaijin, the Tosajoshi exchange student, who had bested the heat to come and cheer on her fellow Kochi sports members. I loved how they actually thought I bested the heat. That is certainly not the case. When I biked home, late, starving, sun burnt, and overheated, I stopped at a Convenience Store. I wanted to buy a HUGE bento to inhale in one bite, but I was being a bit cheap. I ended up settling for an Energy drink. A full day's course in Vegetables drink. It was disgusting. But when I got home, dinner was on the table. I ate like I have never eaten before.

Naoko's Return

Over last weekend, I received an email from Captain Jack Sparrow, or Otosan Masaki. He invited me to have dinner with him and the rest of Masaki's as sort of a party for the return of Naoko. Naoko is my unofficial big sister, 23 years old, Kobe University student. I couldn't imagine why she was coming home to Kochi, as her testing was going to start on Thursday. But none the less, I would never miss the opportunity to spend some good old quality time with Naoko. With the permission of my host family, I replied that I would be able to go. So on Tuesday, after I helped my current big sister, Michiyo, create a website for the family business, I headed over to the Masaki family pharmacy. Though I was sidetracked by my love of shopping, and arrived late, I was not surprised to find Naoko asleep. I had not seen my big sister since last April, when she, Captain Jack, Okasan Masaki, and I headed by train from Osaka to Kyoto to mean my mother and Nana. So I darted up to the third floor apartment and jumped on a snoring Naoko. I think this was the reason she was annoyed with me for the first part of the night. After a few moments of catching up, Okasan Masaki asked us to help her go and buyb the food supplies. We would be chowing down on Takoyaki and Okonomiacki, 2 party foods here in Japan. On the 10 minutes walk to the local Ace 1, Naoko told me all about her and her boyfriend, her friends, the tests, and the upcoming trip to America she wanted to take. From August 28 or 29, thru mid-September, she is coming to the Eastern coast of America with her best friend from Kochi. She asked me to help her plan the trip, when we returned to thr apartment. When we walked into the supermarket, I had a Deja-vous, type experience. It's been happening alot lately, with the the knowledge than my time here in Japan is coming to a swift end. Side by side with Naoko, I remembered last year's August 17th. My first night in Japan. That night, I was overheated, overwhelmed, and not feeling good. My host family took me to a Supermarket, which in the 20 minutes we spent there, was the most prosperous and amusing experience in my life. I wrote it all down in a journal, but I never got around to typing it up, so I will do that now. From the night of August 17th, 2006: "After dinner, we went to a Sunny Mart, which is the name of a Supermarket here in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Masaki's kept calling it a Soopa, so I wasn't totally sure that it was actually a supermarket. That and the only reason we were going was to buy me a new set of chop sticks of my own. They feel really bad that at dinner tonight, I had to eat with wooden ones. But I didn't mind because I kept messing up, and the family just assumed it was because the wooden ones were so bad. They believed me when I told them I know how to use chop sticks. But the Soopa was in fact a Supermarket, which, is not exactly like the Supermarket's I am used to. I think back to the trips to Food Town, Shop Rite, and the others, and laugh because they are NOTHING like what I went through tonight. I walked in with Naoko, through sliding glass doors. The building smelled likes bags, not paper bags, but thousands of plastic bag. I thought it would smell like fish, because I thought that fish was all the Japanese eat. But it didn't. I was immediately taken aback by all the color. There were 20 aisles, set up like the ones at home. But the shopping carts were much much much smaller, and little kids couldn't sit in them. At home we can read all the labels, and understand everything about what we are buying. At Sunny Mart, all the colors and the labels were in Japanese, in an alphabet so foreign to me, that scribbled lines would make more sense. We first went down the dessert aisle, or at least I thought it was the dessert aisle. Mr. Masaki was laughing at me, because I stopped and stared at everything. My mouth was touching the floor, and I couldn't take my eyes of all the new and exciting things I saw. My head was bursting with questions, I wanted to know what everything was and how everything tasted. It's like I grew up in an entire different world, with different food and ways of life, and I never even thought that there could be something like this. No one tells you this kind of stuff. At orientation, the leaders told us things would be different, but they never took the time to tell us that simple things like going to a supermarket would cause minor heart attacks. Is the world really so big that I a supermarket in Japan could be entirely different than a supermarket in America? Apparently. As we made our way down the aisles, Mrs. Masaki stopped and asked me what treats I would like to eat.
Cookie Dough. Dove Chocolate. Orbit Citrus Gum.
I couldn't answer her because I had no idea what any of the items were. The amusement got only weirder when we went into the fresh food department. In America, there are plenty of places to get meat. But here, I saw only a small frozen section. Instead, I saw what looked like half the Pacific Ocean. For the first time in my life, I touched a Squid, Octopus Tentacles, Shrimp, raw fish meat, and worst of all Whale. I will never eat most of this stuff, especially whale, and seeing it made me feel gross. I wonder how anyone could eat any of this stuff. But I can't deny that I was amazed! There were hundreds of thousands of different types of fish all on display. And people were picking them up and throwing them in their bins without a second thought. While I watched Mr. Masaki throw a full squid into Mrs. Masaki's tiny carriage, I burst into a fit. They all turned to see my eyes, brilliantly wide and dazed freaking out at this new and amazing wonderland. I probably would have wet myself, but Naoko immediately grabbed me and pulled me into a different part of the market where the chop sticks were on display..." That is the word for word (though not grammatical error for grammatical error) experience I wrote about on my first night in Japan. Over 11 months later, and supermarkets in Japan are what I consider normal. I can read almost everything, so when people ask me what I want I can answer. And going into the fish sections, is the still the best part. This time, because I love being able to decide what tasty fish we are eating for dinner. I still refuse to eat whale, but everything is pretty good. FOr instance, Takoyaki, tonight's dinner, is made from Octopus tentacles, which are utterly delicious. Being with Naoko, in a supermarket, and remembering that girl from last year is quite interesting for me. When I told Naoko what I was thinking about, she cracked up and said, "yeah I remember that. I thought you were going to pass out. You were even more excited than Otosan Masaki is when a new Pirate of the Caribbean comes out." Was I really that crazy?
Together Naoko and I picked out quite a few items, including Takoyaki powder, sauce, Octopus Tentacles (and I didn't squeel once!) and of course, Hershey's Chocolate Ice Cream Bars, which Naoko picked out, though she told her family that I had my eyes on. When we purchased the items, we left the store, to where Okasan and Sakura were waiting for us. A few months ago, the Masaki family bought a new puppy, Sakura. Naoko likes to joke that she is my replacement. They were going to name the dog Gidget, in tribute to my own little dog, who's name has become a bit of a joke to Japanese people. I have not met one Japanese person with the ability to pronounce her name, so I make jokes at them. They didn't end up giving Sakura that name, because then no one would be able to pronounce it. Sakura is okay, I guess. This dog is barking racist! She lives and befriends all Japanese people, but as soon as I get within a 3 foot radius of anyone in the family, she goes absolutely crazy. I have bitten by this long little nuisance on more occasions that I can name. I'm just lucky her teeth aren't very sharp. But one thing is for sure, if I jump at her, she freak outs and goes to hide in her cage. And so, that it what I do. Naoko and I walked home with Sakura, while Okasan ran back into the store to buy some things Naoko and I had forgotten. Back at the apartment, we unloaded the food, then headed down to the pharmacy to help plan Naoko's trip. On the computer, we made a whole bunch of different scenarios. Naoko and her friend, an English speak, want to visit me in New York and then sit on a beach. But everyone keeps telling her that that is impossible. The Eastern coast doesn't have any good beach apparently. I told her that when she comes, I'll take her to the best beach in the world. No one can dispute that the Jersey Shore is not the best. We also looked into a Carnival Cruise, but with time restraints, that just isn't going to be able to happen. She is going to spend 3 days in New York with me and my family. I told her my family would not mind at all if she stayed at our house. I would like to go see Rent, do some touristy stuff in the Big Apple, and also take her down the shore. But we will just have to wait and see. At 7, when the pharmacy was all clased up, Captain Jack, Masaki Okasan, Naoko, and I headed upstairs, to where Ojisan, and Obasan were preparing the feast. We started making the Takoyaky. Naoko, famous for the fact that loves to cook, and even more famous for the fact that she is horrid at it, messed up the first batch of Takoyaki. We all smiled and pretended to enjoy the Fried Octopus, while our insides were threatening to throw up. The next batch came our quite well, though. Naoko and I made a special section with the Takoyaki filled with Cheese and Kimuchi, a Korean Spice. Captain Jack hates spicey food, and reused to eat anything. Therefore, he was the first to 'try a plain one.' While Naoko and I roared in laughter, as smoke flew out of Captain Jack's ears, he ran around the room looking for water. Naoko and I very much enjoyed our Kimuchi filled Takoyaki. When we were all done, and quite full, Masaki Okasan brought out the mix for Okonomiacki. Now this is quite unfair, because, no matter how full I am, giving the choice between a stomachache from fullness and an Okonomiacki and my stomach will be tortured. They were tiny Okonomiacki, thank heavens. But they were uttely delicious. Mine was Squid, Kimuchi, and Pork, smothered in delicious sauce and Mayonaise. AFter dinner, Naoko and I went into her room. I looked over all of her study material, for Thursday's big test. I made fun of her, but she turned around and made fun of me, because nearly a few days after I arrive in America, I'm off to begin testing. Throughout the night, I thought she was being a little cold towards me, but in her room, things were back to normal. In my family back in America, I was always the big sister, and in the host families here in Japan, that I didn't love, I played that same part. But with Masaki's and with my current host family, the Katou's, I'm the little sister. It's a part I was born to play. I do enjoy pestering my older sibling, while all the while absorbing every word that they say. Naoko has been that for me, since probably about last November, when I realized just how close the two of us are. While we sat and talked, Captain Jack entered the room and announced for us to get ready, as we would be going for Karaoke. I had never done Karaoke with Naoko, and Captain Jack knew she would be in quite a sup rise when she saw me. After all, he was the witness, to my brief mental crazy Karaoke escapade when the Short Stay students came to Kochi. As we left the pharmacy, Naoko ran into a friend she hadn't seen since Kindergarten. When they parted, she turned to me, shaking her head, and said, "Time does fly, doesn't it?" I wanted to tell her she had no idea, but I was having another Deja-vous moment. A few steps away from the Masaki Family Pharmacy is the Takumi Lunch restaurant. When I arrived at the apartment last August 17th, Mrs. Masaki was too busy to make us lunch. So instead Captain Jack, Naoko, and I went out to lunch at Takumi. I have never gone there again since that first day, but it holds such a special place in my heart. I pointed it out and asked Naoko if she remembered it. She tld me that it was the first place we all ate. The meal was Soumen and Raw Fish, and I refused to eat the Raw Fish. Naoko ended up eating it all, and Captain Jack called her a fat pig afterwards. I laughed thinking about it, and in English, said, "Good times, good times." The brief walk to the Karaoke place ended, and we took an elevator up to the 6 floor. I was the first to sing, and even though, it is the song that I ALWAYS sing at Karaoke, everyone was impressed. It is truly hard to sing a song in Japanese. With European language, the ROman alphabet is used, and even though you might have an incorrect pronounciation, you can always read what is being said. That is not the case with Japanese, as 3 different alphabets are used, 1 in which over 50,000 characters may exist. (I say may because no one really knows how many characters actually exist in Japanese, which should give you some idea how overwhelming it is.) Naoko was shocked I sang the whole thing in Japanese. But Captain Jack, who I just realized, is actually a really NASTY guy, had nothing but mean things to say. I love the man dearly, probably because he is hilarious and he treats me like his own daughter, but he can be quite mean sometimes. Like at dinner, he couldn't srop making fin of fat people. "Well Julie, when we first saw your picture, we didn't think we would be able to afford feeding you..." "Hawaii is so beautiful, if you overlook all the fat American's laying in the beaches." "Before Naoko was really quite a fatty, we thought we got her from America." But like, I said, I dearly love the man. I'm just thankful I have an enormous sense of humor. We all sang our own songs after that. Captain Jack tried for the Carpenters, but after a few minutes of failed English attempts, he gave up and switched into Japanese. At 10, after a good hour of pure Japanese karaoke, Captain Jack started to fret, he promised he would get me home by 10. So we ran home, to where my bike was. He assumed that I had walked, so he fretted even more. In his brothers American size van, we drive home. Naoko and I rehearesed several Japanese and English tongue twisters, which had Captain Jack saying something along the lines of, "Ze Smells Ze Yells, Boi Za Shii Show." When we arrived in Mama, my host town, I jumped out of the van and onloaded my bike. My host Mom came out, because she wanted to meet the world famous Naoko. And when it was time for them to leave, Naoko promised that when she returend to Kochi on August 8th, we would do some more Karaoke. She promised. And with that I gave my big sis a big hug.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Flight Schedule for Return

13 AUG 07 - MONDAY
> 300
> 01HR 15MIN
> 400

Monday, July 23, 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

Throughout my entire life, I must have heard this line, practice makes perfect, over a million times. I don't know who first said, But I think he or she was definitely on to something. Though I don't believe that in every case, practice makes perfect, especially when considering how often I sing Karaoke and dance at Yosakoi practice, and still suck at each respectively. Since the beginning of summer, I have been giving up hours of my days to practice Koto, and also to dance on the Mama Yosakoi team. I'm beginning to find myself wondering what the meaning of Vacation is to the average Japanese person. Surely it doesn't mean break from the rest of the world. That would be wrong. But enough about that.


Since about mid-May, I have been practicing playing my latest song at my club, the Koto Bukatsu. The song is "Yuyake Koyake," and I loathed it when I first received it. So much so, that I didn't go to club as often as I should. It's silly to think that a song could make me skip my favorite activity in all of Japan. And I have come to regret not going, especially now that my days are in the teens and that the song has grown on me. That and the fact that my best friend, and club leader, CHiake, is not shy to make comments like, "You've been working on that song since May, I don't think I have seen someone so slow." To be honest, the reason I hated the song, besides it's slow tempo and seemingly easy chords, was that I couldn't understand what most of it was asking me to do. Even though I always paid the monthly fee to stay in the club, the teachers never really went out of their way to help me. It was no big deal, for me, because I don't really like the teachers anyway. I think they are a little bit on the arrogant side. Finally, though, I asked Chiake for help, and she got the teachers to give me a private lesson. Now the song is the a piece of Chocolate Cake with Vanilla icing and rainbow sprinkles. Though I have mastered it many times over on these summer holidays, it is too late to start a new piece. I asked Chiake if she would have gotten me a new piece had I mastered it earlier, and her answer was No. The people who had selected this song for me, had always had in mind that it would be my final song as a member of the Tosajoshi Koto Club.

Summer for me started on July 17th, a Tuesday. I wish I could say Summer vacation started for me on that day as well, but well, that's be a lie. Vacation doesn't exist here. And so on the following Thursday and Friday, I got up bright and early with the sun, threw on my Tosajoshi uniform and biked 20 minutes to school. And when I arrived, I parked my bike in spot number 40, walked across the courtyard, and headed for the shoe cubes. There I pulled off my Black pilgrim shoes and replaced them with my indoor slippers. Teachers and students, dressed in uniform or sports wear, would always pass me and greet me. Finally after an entire year, they have accepted that I am a speaker of the Japanese language. I suppose it really is better late than never. Then I'm off to the third floor, Tea Room, where Chiake, Taco, Yukimi, Yuki, Casami, and Yoko, the Kokou Ninensee classmates, await for me. Though I'm usually late, everyone greets me in the warmest way, with big smiles. Then the Club leader, and my best friend, Chiake manages to find some sort of problem. She is the greatest person one could ever meet, but seriously, when it comes to the well being of HER club, I sometimes think she needs to take a chill pill. After I come in, she barks at me to get ready. I head over to the Koto closet and big the instrument that is in the worst condition possible. I've always been one to cheer for the underdogs. Then I grab a little bag filled with the tuning pieces and head into either the Tea Ceremony room or the Art room, where the less skillful players are practicing. I put on the Tuning pieces and then wait for Chiake to come in and tune my Koto, then I begin to play my song. For me, no matter what kind of a day it is, the first half an hour is always spent getting used to the Koto and remembering the strings. You see there are 13 strings, none of which have little markers that tell you which one is which. Now I have remembered all of them and can play it, but I need to take the time to refresh my brain about where each of the strings is. And after that, I can beast Yuyake Koyake. Since the start of summer vacation, I have gone to 3 practices. I would like to go to more, but the club has the upcoming All Japan Koto tournament so that club for less skillful players, which is me and the entire Middle School, doesn't exist. CHiake and the rest, however, come 6 days a week. They arrive at the school at 7 in the mornings and play the same song til 7 at night. I think the worst part is that it is always the same song over and over again. The song is the one that the club will play for the All Japan tournament. Sometimes what they do is play until the make a mistake, then restart until then can play the entire thing perfect. The problem is that the entire song is about 10 minutes long, and there are about 20 High School club members playing it. And nobody is perfect. So these girls end up playing the first page over and over again, until they decided to pretend they didn't hear that certain mistake they just made. It amazes me, because I have so much trouble playing Yukyake Koyake for 2 and half hours, which is how long my practice exists. Preservernce is beastly. The All Japan tournament is really serious, as I hear about every time I go to practice. Since CHiake is club leader, she is the most horrible thing to talk to when curious about the tournament. She often claims she just doesn;t care how it turns out, but one can easily tell she is lying. Koto is a dying hobby in Japan, and so onyl about 100 school compete in the tournament. According to Chiake, only 50 are worth their weight in gold, while the other 50 are all just beginners to the instrument. Tosajoshi usually lets in the 20's, which in my opinion is funaminal, while at the same time a bot scary. I can't imagine why these girls don't get in the top 10. They are, after all, INCREDIBLE. Sure that may be biased, but seriously I am amazed when I watch how the competitors prepare for the tournament. Chiake tells me that the top school train much harder, and I really can't imagine how much harder school can train for this. But while they train, I still enjoy the days's while practicing Yuyake Koyake in the Art Room. Sometimes the Chu Ichinensee, or first years to the club, come. Even though they entered the club in April, we are playing the same song. CHiake likes to tell me that this should embarrass me, but really I enjoy it. Especially since I am so much better than they are. I sometimes go over and help them. This kind of annoys Chiake, but I like helping the younger students, even though I probably need more help then them. Plus I have made 3 new friends. The Sempie-Kohei system of respect for the elder student almost mandates that Sempie are not really supposed to befriend the Kohei, I get in trouble by my fellow Ko Ninensee. Oh well.
My final day will be August 6th, a Monday, approximately one week before I head home. It scares me because this is my life. I know I say that I don't come often to the club, which is the truth, I have come to grow thru the skills I gain in this club. It's like when teachers force the students in their final year of high school to quit the clubs, many students go through periods of depression when they are't able to do the thing that they love. Now I don't reckon I'll go through depression, but I really do love this club and all it stand for with each and every part of my heart. I love the sound a Koto makes when it is freshly tuned, and the feeling my fingers get when they are being squished into the Tsume. But most of all, it's the friends, it's Chiake and Taco, and the 3 new club members. Saying goodbye to the Koto club, actually means forever.


Still, there is one more thing that I find myself thinking about quite often. The practice for the Mama team for Yosakoi. Now Mama team is supposed to be a very low level team. After all, there are probably about 100 people on the team, 50 of which are elementary school children. And 1 bog spastic Gaijin. The entire song, which is about 3 minutes and 30 seconds, is really splendid. Its a very traditional Japanese feeling, meets new age faster beat. After about 5 practices, all of the people learned the entire dance to the song. I, unfortunately, missed the last practice, so I didn't get learn the final 30 seconds. I wasn't worried because we still have a whole bunch more practices before the big dance. But I was probably the only one who wasn't worried. The first practice I missed was because I went up into the mountains to have dinner with Craig, Paulka, and Ruth as a bot of a farewell dinner. I asked them if they had ever danced in Yosakoi, and Paula and Craig admitted that they had. About 20 years ago, they danced on the same team. They told me that it was an absolute blast. They had only about 2 practices, and signed up only because they were promised free beer. They both agreed that the Yosakoi of today is totally different. Now it is only about competition, and the teams drill for months prior to the festival. It's no longer all that much fun. Yosakoi is the reason that I stayed in Japan for an entire year. I mean, I would have wanted to stay as long as possible, but having something to look forward to is an extra help. But no one told me that practice was going to be like Boot Camp. For instance, yesterday's practice was purely horrible. I know I'm not going to be a wonderful dancer, and I'm not even trying to be the best. What I am trying to do is be me. I'm trying to be the happy exchange student that I am known for. I want to have as much fun as possible, I'm not going into this dance for competition. And I shouldn't be expected tom because the team is supposedly quite low level. Yesterday, we all performed the entire dance over and over again. My team mates all performed perfectly, yet never cracking a smile. I was always one step behind, but having the time of my life. I love dancing, I'm just horrific at it. When we had our break, I was telling Michiyo that I didn't mind being the worst on the team, so long as I had the most fun. She told me that was the spirit. Then out of nowhere, a short elderly Japanese man came out of nowhere. He took one look and me, and with a face of disgust began talking to Michiyo. The thing I ate most in the world is when the Japanese look at foreigners and automatically assume we can't speak any Japanese. He acted like I was deaf, pointing at me and looking right at me, while not giving me any right to be in his conversation. Perhaps, I should have wished not to have been able to understand. He told Michiyo that I was the worst dancer on the adult side of the team. At least, the worst that he could see, because I am pretty much the tallest dancer. Even though, I no what I am doing, I'm always one step behind everyone else. Then he implored Michiyo to please take the time to teach me and make things perfect, because the team would like to step out of low level this year. At first, I was utterly shocked. Then instead of being upset, I grew angry. I'm soooooo tired of these people. I could have been born and raised in Japan, fluent in the language, and all the jazz, yet their are some people who will never accept me. I realized, when looking around, that most people looked at me, but would never come to talk to me. Everyone believed that when Michiyo and I talked it was in only English. And when I brought this up with Michiyo, she replied, "I know isn't it great? People actually think I'm smart." I reminded her that I was the smart one, speaking Japanese and not English. Then I blew up on her. I don't think I'd ever lost it so bad, nothing had ever made me so upset. This anger was replaced by sadness. The man meant what he said, and when we returned for practice, Michyo made me go with the group of girls who had just joined the team. I couldn;t even practice with them because I was so upset. I just burst into tears, until one of the teachers realized something was wrong. I told her everything that happened. She told me that it was true, that I was occasionally off in the footing, or slower than the other teammates, but it wasn;t such a bad thing. This team is about fun, not competition. She also spread the story to the other teachers, and eventually it got to the man. The man, who was actually just a judge, waited until practice was over. He came over to where Michiyo and I were talking in Japanese, and apologized profusely to Michiyo, still pretending I couldn't speak Japanese.
After practice, as Michiyo and I were walking home and talking, I kind of spilled my guts onto her. I told her how much I hated it when the majority of Japanese people assume that Gaijin can't speak Japanese, and how even when I make it clear that I can speak the language, most still refuse to believe it and treat me like a retart. She tried to cover for her people, but I was quick and pissed off. Eventually, I calmed down though. And I told her that I really didn't think I was all that bad. She agreed, but made me promise to practice with the DVD training tapes we just bought. As we continued to go on, she told me that I shouldn't worry either because the team would probably put me down as the team Handicap. I didn't think my self-esteem could get anymore smashed, but I was obviously wrong. She explained that teams were allowed to put down a few dancers as Handicaps. Usually these people are those with disabilities, but being a Gaijin counts. Even though being a Handicap is probably one of the most offensive things I can think of, nothing could hurt me anymore. My self-esteem had already been flushed down the toilet. The moral of the story: practice makes perfect. And of not, they'll just make you a handicap.

Raw Fish in the the Mountains

Things really get weird when your sitting in the middle of a valley surrounded by seemingly endless green mountains, all the while digging into a large pile of raw fish. Not even fresh water fish, either. I really mean like raw Tuna, Octopus, Konita, and Eel, all straight from the Pacific Ocean. To top it all off, is that each piece is as fresh as the next. In fact, the fish were probably caught less than a few hours ago. But before I could fully appreciate the oddity in this situation, I remembered that I am the current resident of the ever-baffling and always wondrous Japan.

Toshiki and Michiyo and me.
When describing Kochi to Americans, I often try to put it in simplest geographical comparison terms. I find myself comparing Kochi prefecture to Arkansas, just a country like state that's only purpose is to sit in top of Alabama and Mississippi. But Kochi is not like Arkansas, or any other state for that matter. Kochi is a place on to it self. No where in the world can you be deep within the cleanest, greenest, lush, and unspoiled mountains, and then a 10 minute drive later be standing on a beach looking out onto a Sea so clean that it seems like humans have yet to touch it. People make fun of this place for being one of the most remote and off country parts of all Japan. I think they are all just jealous.

Yesterday morning, I received a knock on my door at 7. "Judii, be ready in 5 minutes we are going to Tengu Kogen!" The miraculous thing is not that I was able to be ready in 5 minutes, it's that I was up and out of bed in 2 minutes. I'm getting really good at this spur of the moment thing that the Katou family excels at. The only problem, was that I had no idea what we were doing, where we were going, and why.

My only clue was Tengu Kogen.

This is a Japanese name, and so I surmised that we were at least sticking to something in Japan. Ah,
the powers of deduction! I had heard of Tengu Kogen before, but I could not place it with a picture. So as usual, I was off to live the day with no idea what I was doing.

In the car, we barely pulled out of the drive way and I was asleep. Before I got to Japan, I could never sleep in a moving vehicle. Now even if I get in the car for 5 minutes, I'm zonked out. But a few minutes into the drive, Michiyo pushed me awake to tell me we had arrived. What a second, I've only been a sleep for a few minutes. Is Tengu Ko-whatever really that close? No.

Instead, for breakfast, the family stopped at the brand spanking new Starbucks in Kochi. No, normally I can't eat breakfast, but I couldn't resist the Vegetable and Curry Wrap at the Raspberry Tea, in which I ordered and inhaled. And I got a very Westernized meal. Host mom got a Curry Wrap with a Azuki Frappucino, which is bean paste ice cream pretty much. While Toshiki got some sort of Yaki Tamago muffin, and a sandwich filled with something that still had a pulse. In conclusion, Starbucks in Japan, is a LOT more different than the good old America version. But still very tasty, if I do say for myself.

Back in the car, I was asleep before we even exited the city. I really need to work on this terrible trait, especially since I have a tendency to drool when my neck flops down. But I had no other choice, my host father was playing the radio which was broadcasting a Japanese baseball game. "Tanaka-san steps to the plate. Bunt. Tamura-san is next. Oh a bunt. Yano-san. Oh gee, I didn't that one coming. Can you believe he bunted? And next is Matsumura-san. Oh this game is really really exciting. Do you believe it? He bunted!" That is what you hear when you listen to a game of Japanese baseball. It's horrible. But it made for good sleep.

Michiyo and I on our hike.
About an hour into the drive, we arrived at Tatsu-something (Japanese name... forgive me) It was an extremely tiny town, virtually located in the valley of two mountains. The population of the town was something like 6 or 7 thousand, which in Kochi prefecture, makes it a big city. The town is apparently very close to the ocean and many of the main ports, so it is famous for having some of the best tasting fish in the whole of Japan. I was skeptical, because I couldn't even see the ocean. But I was told that the ocean was on the other side of those mountains.

I replied in my sardonic retort, "so is America." I was ignored.

Host Mom, Michiyo, and I went into a famous supermarket, known for selling fresh fish. Now how do I know that? The sign said, "Famous Supermarket for Fresh Fish." Inside, Michiyo and I bought some water bottles for the stay in the mountains, while Host Mom ordered two ginormous platters of raw Shashimi, or raw fish, with every kind of taste you can imagine. We watched as 3 meaty looking Chefs, bent down over the dead fish and began chopping it into little pieces, to be eaten by me. I love Shashimi, so I was very excited watching the fish get axed.

After a long wait, we got out food and headed back into the car for a short drive to Tengo Kogen. Not surprising, I fell asleep. We made a quick stop at Host Father's mother's house. With pride, Katou Otosan told me the house was built back in the Edo period and is nearly 200 years old. He promised he would give me a tour later when we returned for Linner (lunch/dinner) Michiyo, Toshiki, Otosan Katou, and I loaded back into the car, while Okasan Katou opted to stay behind. She knew we were going to be doing a LONG hike through the mountains. I'm beginning to understand that she avoids
Otousan and I.
exercises at all costs. Or perhaps she thought about the drive to Tengu Kogen. I just wish she would have warned me.

In the car, I fought to stay awake, and I engaged Michiyo in conversation. She told me about Tengo Kogen, which is a mountain area with great hiking. It is located on top of a group of mountains, called Shikoku Karusuto. Karusuto is the Katakana English of Crust. This means we were going up into the mountains to see a visible fault line that formed Shikoku. Wonderful. But Michiyo informed me that it had not been active in thousands of years. Luckily, for the entire day, the fault line remained in active. Karma found another way to get me though. The drive up to Tengo Kogen was probably the most cruel and beastly road for anyone. I like to think I have a pretty strong stomach, compared to most Japanese kids who throw up at the sight of a curvy road. But this road was too much. When we reached the top, I literally bent down and kissed the ground.

Border of Kochi and Ehime prefectures! Two places at once...
On the top of the mountain we were disappointed to see that it was a really cloudy and foggy day. We really couldn't see anything. Michiyo and I had to go to the bathroom, so we headed into the local hotel, which was packed with tourists. The Shikoku Karusuto area is located on the border of Kochi and Ehime, so there were people from both prefectures. There was even a line drawn in the hotel that distinguished the two prefectures. Kind of like the line in Hudson Tunnel that shows you when you leave New Jersey and make your way into New York. Michiyo and I did a little window shopping, while we waited for Toshiki and Otosan to finish up using the bathroom. Then, despite the fog and light rain, we decided to do a long hike.

The ending of the trail would be the huge crevice deep within the mountain that was formed by an earthquake. But I wasn't really thinking about the destination, but more the journey. Getting there was far too easy, that any of us anticipated, It took us about 1 hour to climb downhill. We strolled through clean forests filled with bugs, that found my blood to be quite tasty. Toshiki pretty much ran through the entire trail, while Otosan was slow and steady, and Michiyo resembled a woman on canes. I at least stayed a close pace to Toshiki. One thing I really like abut this family, is that they really enjoy these mountain hiking excursions. Perhaps I'm the weird one, but I enjoy going for a long hike, and Shikoku is the best place in Japan for this kind of activity. This is the second time I have tagged along for one of these hiking adventures, and even though it is never very easy, I never end up regretting it. Well sort of. Today's hike was all downhill, and I didn't even conider which way we might return.

When we reached the crevice, I was amazed. The same earthquake that formed the island of Shikoku
The crevice.
and the very mountain area we were climbing, was started by the very fault line. The crevice must have been half a kilometer deep straight thought the heart of a mountain. Toshiki pretended to push me in, which was a nerve wrecking. We took a few pictures, but looking at the clock, showed that we didn't have really any time to dawdle around. I looked for a new trail that we would take to get back to the car, until Michiyo groaned at the idea that we would be climbing the same trail we had taken to get here. Toshiki was already beginning the ascend, while Otosan was putting on the finishing touches to his Last Will and Rites.

Yes it was really that bad.

Now I'm a runner, and I like to think of myself as a pretty athletic person. I have great endurance, and I can deal with a lot of pain. But I think the only think that got my out of that park alive was idea that raw fish was waiting on the dinner table when I get back. Isn't that weird? Trying to look cool, I hurried up to catch up with Toshiki and tail him as far as my legs would allow it. While Michiyo and Otosan climbed at a pace that would have made the Tortoise proud. Even Toshiki was taking a beating, and we found ourselves closer to Michiyo and Otosan's pace then we would have wanted. When the two caught up to us, we could not mistake the heavy breathing. We made quite a few stops, and made sure Otosan didn't die on us. But I knew he was fine. Because as soon as we began hiking again after a brief stop, he began singing a rendition of his favorite Japanese opera. What is it with Japanese men and singing? I couldn't help but snort in laughter, which threw off my breathing. After about 2 hours, we finally made it. Michiyo was nearly in tears, Toshiki looking slightly tired, and Otosan, who had gone from a lengthy Opera to something of a funeral March, was breathing at an unhealthy pace. My body was fine, but I found myself really thirsty. When Michiyo handed me the bottled tea, I drank the whole think in one entire gulp.

Once everyone had regained some life, we got back into the car. Otosan wanted me to see Shikoku Karusuto, which is a famous landscape now. Cows roam this huge area filled with rocks and the brightest of Sunflowers. The fog had cleared, so I was lucky to be able to a see a god amount of the beauty. It was a really beautiful view, but honestly, no one seemed to care. We were all too tired to thirsty to give it much attention. After a few pictures, we got into the car and headed back to Katou's Otosan's mother's home.

The house, 200 years old, is quite astounding. When I entered the building, I felt like I was being transported back into a Japanese family from World War II. On the walls were War medals. There were hundreds of pictures of the emperor and his family, all underneath an ancient Japanese flag with the Sun rays still on it. What topped it was a picture of Katou Otosan's father hung above the family shrine, in his soldier uniform. And when I walked into the room, everyone bowed their heads to the picture. Katou Otosan's mother is 82 years old, but she lives alone in this old house. She is a really strict oldstyle conservative Japanese woman. But don't think she didn't treat me any different because I was an American. In fact, she was probably warmer towards me than to her own grandkids. She smiled and me, with her gold teeth, and Pug-like wrinkles. A woman of this age in America would probably be in a home, back in the States. But this woman was living all by herself in the middle of nowhere, completing the farming work to make a living and to be able to keep her home. Her husband had passed on sometime ago, and even though she had 3 kids, 2 of which were boys and should according to tradition be living with her, she has lived alone. She began speaking to me, but I unfortunatly couldn't understand what she was saying. She was speaking really really thick and non modern Tosa Ben, the language spoken in Kochi back in the days before World War II.

The first thing we did was wash off all of our shoes. The trails were covered in mud, and thus our sneakers had picked up almost everything. Then we headed into the main dining room. The room, a seemingly anient Tatemi room with the thick fragrance of the straw substance in Tatemi, was covered in World War II memorial. I felt really awkward sitting there and eventually letting my eyes wander to study the artifacts. But nobody seemed to notice. The sliding doors were opened, reveling a beautiful mountain scene. We were halfway up a mountain and had the view of the valley river and rice paddies burning in the distance, it was more of my favorite views of Shikoku. When everyone was seated, we dug into the huge platter of Raw Fish, Sushi Rice, Tomato's, and Egg. Michiyo actually picked up her plate of Sushi Rice and dumped into her mouth, while Toshiki and Otosan fought for the spoon on their 3rd and 4th helpings. I didn't eat quite as much as everyone, but I still had a bog helping of raw fish smother in Soy Sauce. When I went for seconds of the Sushi Rice, it was all gone. But I still had some raw fish. I sat there at the table filled with a traditional Japanese family, in a room straight out of 1943, piling in Raw Sushi in the middle of the Shikoku mountains. Honestly, I don;t think many people get to say they have had such an experience.

When the meal was all finished, time had slipped away from us. Michiyo and I had to get home for Yosakoi practice, much to the horror of our bodies. We said goodbye to Katou Otosan's mother, who waved us all off. Soon we were driving all throughout the roads and out of the mountains. We made a few stops, though. Mostly it was to family members of the Katou's, who had probably never seen a foreigner outside of television. Every single one was nearly in tears as they bowed to me and called me the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. I got more boxes of Japanese treats in 3 visits, than I did in one whole year. I think, even though I hate being the novelty that host families use to show off, seeing a foreigner in a place like Kochi is good for these people. I represent that there is life outside Shikoku, that there is an entire world out there.

And at 16, I have discovered this fact more times than most ever do.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Night at the Matsuri

I love my friends!
In the middle of Kochi City, there is a huge arcade type shopping mall called, "Obiyamachi." I have talked about it before because it has been in a lot of my adventures here in Kochi. The large arcade is a walking strip filled with everything you can imagine. Clothes stores, books stores, food, a department store, various shoe places, and much much more. The thing about Obiyamachi is that it's a very centralized place, in that it makes the heart of Kochi City. That being said, on Saturdays in the month of July and once in August, the large shopping center hosts a few Matsuri's.

A Matsuri is, in English, something like a festival. Japanese matsuri are chiefly of sacred origin, related, at least originally, to the cultivation of rice and the spiritual well-being of local communities. In the course of the centuries these observances have thus undergone considerable change, many old practices being cast off and new ones added – political, religious, agricultural and commercial. There has also arisen a new variety of matsuri, such as the Obiyamachi Doichi Noichi Matsuri. A matsuri is
Eating at the matsuri for the Gods. Supposedly.
basically a symbolic act whereby participants enter a state of active communication with the gods. It is accompanied by communion among the participants in the form of feast and festival. As the years passed, matsuri came to include festivals in which the playful element and commercial interests all but obliterated the original sacramental context.

The matsuri has two major aspects. The first is communion between gods and people. This comprises purificatory rites, offerings and communal banquets between gods and humans. This first aspect may be termed a religious rite. This is the reason why most people come out for a Matsuri, but it is certainly not the reason why they stay out at one. The second aspect of matsuri is communion among people. Many Japanese festivals feature a parade of Mikoshi, or portable shrines, and contests or games that give opportunities for community members to play together and match skills. The regulations of everyday life are relaxed and the atmosphere is one of spiritual renewal. One can always find in the vicinity of a matsuri booths selling souvenirs and food such as takoyaki, tempura, Yaki Soba, Ice Cream, and much more, and games, such as snatching goldfish with paper wands. Karaoke contests, sumo matches, and other forms of entertainment are often organized in conjunction with matsuri. But, perhaps, the most exciting part is that everyone dresses up in Yukata and celebrates with beautiful clothes.

The Obiyamachi Matsuri, like all Matsuri's, reflects a little bit on the people living in the area. It is not a huge Matsuri dedicated to the God's, but instead one dedicated to the enjoyment of the people. Thus, on my last full day of school, I finalized plans with Usami, Chika, Asaka, Aya, and whoever was able to make it to Matsuri for hanging out.

It was agreed we would all meet at 5, so prior to that time, I put on my best Yukata, or summer Kimono. It was the first time I did it all by myself. My host Mother and sister came home early and flourished me in compliments about how skilled I am in being able to do it all by myself. Kind of like a little kid when they first use the 'big potty.' They then preceded to pull it off and correct every little bend and mistake, though all the while ensuring me that I had done a good job. I had planned on taking the bus to Obiyamachi, but my host father insisted we drive. He and Michiyo dropped me off 20 minutes earlier than the agreed meeting time. So I waited and received more stares in 20 minutes than I have had in my entire time here in Japan. It is said that Japanese men love woman in Yukata or Kimono. Mostly this just means that woman can't walk Yukata-clad in an area
My two favorite outfits in Japan.
with a lot of bars. But it also means that you should never be alone in Yukata. As for me? Well once the Japanese men saw that I was their height and not part of their species, they certainly did not want anything to do with me. But that didn't stop them from staring. A lot.

On the cell phone email, I discovered that addition to my long wait, my friends were going to be late. But I got lucky, because almost as soon as this happened, Chiake, Yukimi, and Taco departed Tosajoshi and were heading my way. They had just finished club, and wanted to see the fancy dressed girl in the Matsuri. They looked at me, but had no idea they were looking at their best Gaijin friend. Until I said, "Hey idiots! It's Julie." I thought Chiake was going to fall off her bike, while Taco gasped at me. Yukimi was the only one who came running up to me and giving me a huge hug while exclaiming how beautiful I look. I hung out with the 3, until we were met up by Ri-chan, who was returning home from extra classes. Though Chiake and Taco had to get home early, Ri-chan, Yukimi, and I walked throughout the mall together.

Kochi when it sizzles
We went to the cell phone company booth, and met up with a large group of Tosajoshi girls, who nearly fainted at the sight of me. It was horrible. They then preceded to whip out their cell phones and take hundreds of pictures of me. I'm beginning to think that if I start charging people to take my pictures, I might return to America and be able to buy the state of New Jersey. Around this time, Usami emailed me and told me that she had arrived. Ri-chan, Yukimi, and I set off to meet her. I was so relieved to see her in Yukata, so that I wouldn't be the only person to dress up like this way. The 4 of us decided to get a Purikura before the rest of the group would meet up with us. When we were finished, Aya, Chika, and Asako seemed to come out of nowhere. Chika was dressed in a casual boyish Yukata, while the other two were in regular street clothes. Usami and I felt so stupid, but no one could deny that we looked absolutely gorgeous. Even though o most Matsuri's, one is supposed to dress in Yukata, Obiyamachi contained very few Yukata-clad girls. So Usami and I got a lot of attention. I should probably tell the truth, though. It was I who got all the attention.

Since there are so few gaijin in Kochi as it is, and seeing one dressed in Yukata is extremely rare, and probably never happened during this year. Little kids would see me and drop their ice cream comes while screaming for their Mom to look. Old woman on their bikes would ride by, see me, and then
send their bikes into a dangerous braking to get a better look. School girls harassed me with that word, Kawaii. While school boys stared at me like I was Santa Clause at a Bar Mitzfah. The staring doesn't usually bother me too much, but tonight, it was horrible!

The first thing we did was get food at the Central park. Everyone ordered large Steak on a Stick, Yaki-Soba, or Corn Dogs. I wasn't in the mood for hot foods, and decided to wait till we ran into something cold. Sure enough, as a rule with Japanese students, we paid a trip to McDonald's. I got a small Strawberry McFlurry to eat, while we walked throughout the mall. There really wasn't anything to do, so we sat down and in the central park and talked for what felt like hours. It's sad to think that I finally get to the point where I can understand almost everything they understand, and I have to leave in a few days time. We were all thinking about August 13th, even if only subconsciously. Even the meantime, the girls got more and more food, while I watched and wondered why the Japanese are so thin. I then took out the Beast, my camera, and snapped a bunch of shots. The air was cool and smelled of roasting Yaki Soba, while I laughed and enjoyed the final days of the best year of my life in the presence of friends.

A dance contest had begun, and Chika, Aya, and Asako went off to watch it. Usami, Yukimi, and I went to check out the times for the bus back to Mama, my host town. Usami and I would be taking the bus back together, much to the relief of both of our parents. The 3 of us strolled through Kochi
City, harassing some stupid Japanese boys who were afraid to talk to two Yukata-clad girls. Back at the park, we watched as one of the upcoming Yosakoi teams eagerly showed us their dance, which blew my team right out of the water. Then the group headed to a large arcade close to the exit. Chika had one some free money prizes, and we all decided to spend what she had. Random people came up just to watch us, and then make remarks like, "Yep, those are Tosajoshi girls."

At 9, Usami and I had to get going to the bus stop. I would have liked to stay out for another hour, but it was the last bus of the night. Saying goodbye is getting really hard, because one never knows if it is the last time. But with these crazy girls, I really don't think it is. We all exchanged emails and are planning on meeting up again really soon.