Thursday, August 16, 2007

Back in States

Plane ride home. Can't really see the tears and
baggy eyes in this photo though.

From the moment I arrived in Detroit International Airport, I knew I was back in United States of America. Besides the fact that I was greeted with a large, "Welcome to the United State of America!" sign with a bright colored flag and a picture of some good-awful looking family. Here I was exhausted from a lack of sleep, and wearing my Tosajoshi school uniform, hauling 4 large bags through a seemingly endless airport terminal. Large isn't even the right word to use either. These bags were obnoxiously giganta-normous, and had cost me and arm and a leg to ship them overseas from Tokyo. But I was here, and I was happy to be home on some level.

You see, I love my country. You might not have gotten that impression from my passionate talks
Mt. Fuji. I'll be back one day to climb you.
about Japan. But I really love America. There is somethings that this country has that no where else in the world does. Like real pure freshly-squeezed Orange Juice, a kick-butt national anthem (second only to "O Canada!") and diversity. Case in point, I barely took two steps off the plane when I saw a a person of Hispanic heritage for the first time in a year. And I found myself staring at a family of African-Americans. In addition, I found myself suffering from a huge case of reverse culture shock.

 Where were all the Asians?
Why was I surrounded by gaijin?
Wait a second -- someone else with blue eyes!

But what really made me remember that I was back home was the lovely Custom officer, Mr. Carlos Fernandez, who must have weighed about 400 pounds. He took one look at me and said, "What the hell are you wearing?" I could very well have answered him with the fact that I was wearing my school uniform from Japan and the Rotary blazer. It would have been the simplest thing to do I'm quite certain, but I did not think that quick. I have been living in Japan, a country known for it's manners, in which bowing too slightly could cause numerous problems. Needless to say I just stared at the customs officer and his foul-tempered mouth. "Great you don't speak English, wonderful," he said. "No I do, but-you-you- see it's been a -long-long time," I replied. "Whatever," came his reply. Somehow I actually managed to get through customs without much more insult expect when some jerk cut me off in line for the metal detectors. I emerged from Customs relatively unscathed but realizing that I was going to have to get used to life back in America.

My least meal in Tokyo... Katsu Curry (Curry Pork.)
There is a Japanese Joke, "Outkare Katsukare!" which essentially
means "Until next time, Curry Pork!" Seems fitting to eat
as a final meal.
With some time before my flight left for Newark, I resigned myself to a cup of coffee from an Au Bon Pain. A year ago, before leaving for Japan, I would NEVER have drank coffee, which considered some sort of satanic potion. Yet, I drank it furiously hoping that I would be able to wake up. By then I was feeling really quite nervous. It's hard to explain why but I was actually nervous to reunite with my parents and sister.

When the plane had taken off, I sat next to this Puerto Rican fellow, who apparently did not want to do anything but stare at my stupid outfit. I had nothing to do, so I actually opened a Japanese textbook and began studying. There was honestly nothing else to do. The plane ride was fairly short, and I made sure to watch out the window the entire time. I saw the Jersey Turnpike and all the 'beauties' that make up my great state.

When we arrived at Newark, I truly found myself feeling at home. I even found myself sprinting through the terminal to get to the place where I assumed my parents were waiting. Along the way I passed by the little stand where I had a bought a blueberry muffin the year before. I was exhausted having not slept the entire week before my departure for Japan. I don't think at that time I ever really imagined I would be coming back. I was just too excited to get going.

Now I was home. Or whatever that word once meant.

My parents were not waiting for me at the exit. I was disappointed, but when I went to claim my luggage, I spotted my Mom. I actually got to sneak up behind her and say, "Hey stranger." She was surprised because she thought my plane would have come back later. Within seconds, my Dad and Sister came sprinting from the other side of the airport or wherever they were currently causing travel. "JULIE!!!" I had not seen him and my sister in just about a year, so they were marveled at how skinny I had become, how goofy I looked in my school uniform, and how excited they were to have me back. I feel like a horrible person for admitting this, but I had not emotion. On some level I was happy to be home, but on the other I was done traveling. The time in various other airports and on long flights kept me distracted from the fact that my journey was truly over.

In my Mom's new car, which she quickly established that she hated, we drove home. I kept a smile on the whole time, as my parents asked me the mandatory questions, "How was Japan?" I figured I may as well create a perfectly acceptable answer for this question because it would be asked often. I told them both all about my day at the airport, how everyone was there to see me off. I also talked about airline food, and rude customs officers. For some reason I really did not want to talk about Japan. It kind of hurt me, I'm not sure if this make sense. But the whole concept of Japan was causing me pain. I missed it so much and I had barely arrived back and left Japan.

It was all coming back to me as we drove down the main street of my little down. Nothing had changed significantly. The town had celebrated its 100th birthday, and there some existed remanants of the celebration. The buildings did not look aged, and cars still drove along. A year did little but age this place in theory.

We pulled down my street, and eventually into the driveway, which I noticed had been redone. When I climbed out of the car, something fell from the bag. I had been carrying around a glass mug from Kochi all this way with success. Now as it had finally reached it's home, it fell and broke the handle. It was then that I lost it. I don't know that I was crying for the cup, so much I was crying for being in the driveway of the place I was supposed to call home. I did not want to be here, I wanted to be in Japan, and I sobbed for it. I felt horrible for feeling so horrible. My Mom quickly tried to control my sobbing, she told me not to worry that it was just a mug. I tried to collect myself, but I felt like a mess. Then I think that I really hurt my mother when I climbed the stairs into my room. My Mom had worked diligently to make it a great room for me. She had thrown out my old bunk bed, and replaced it with a nice wooden bed. She purchased a great desk and had found sheets of my two favorite colors, blue and orange, to throw around the room. She asked me what I though, and I nodded and told her it was nice. That's it. I'm a horrible person, but all I wanted to do was crawl into a ball and cry.

We met with various neighbors, who had come to see me. Most were shocked and called me much too thin to be healthy. I could not deal with the comments, so I begged my Dad to take my sister and I to a Cold Stone for some Ice Cream. After some tasty cake batter cream mixed with cookie dough, I came back home.

As I lay in bed that night, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Why I was such a horrible person to my parents who had done so much for me, and why I was so upset that Japan was over. I did not get any sleep, even though I had been up for 32 hours at least. Instead I thought about things, everything. I did not want to be this person. I wanted to be that happy person who accepted everything I got with a smile and wink. I wanted to be her. The room really wasn't so bad. In fact, as I gazed at all four walls I grew in appreciation for my mom's tedious work effort. The mug was broken, but it could be fixed with some glue. But most importantly -- I could not be so upset that Japan was over. Instead I should be overjoyed that it happened. And I was. When the sun rose the next morning, I vowed to remember that I had just returned from the best year of my life, and that instead of wasting time yearning to be back in Japan, I should just be thankful that I had been given the opportunity.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Airports and See Ya Laters

What may by my happiest and saddest memory of Japan.

I planned on first doing a final entry on Yosakoi Day 3, but I have so much on my plate right now. Eventually I would love to finish, and I have everything written down so I won't forget it. But for now, I'm just going to settle on the final morning.

I slept that night. I'm not really sure how I did it, because I had so much racing through my mind. I
My older Japanese sisters. Two of my heroes and friends.
had two sparkling medals from the Yosakoi dance competition adorning my neck, a heart full of pride at the fact that my team had so well, and a feeling of hopelessness drifting on my mind.

I tried so hard to not think about it.

I figured if I didn't think about it until the very end, it wouldn't hit so hard. But it was hitting me. It was creeping inside of me like the winter cold on a late November morning. I slept, though, much to everyone's surprise. Yet when my blue cell phone  alarm clock rang for that final time, I felt as though I had not gotten an ounce of sleep in my entire lifetime. It was a feeling of exhaustion and immense despair jumbled up into one overwhelming panic.

Captain Jack stealing the show one
last time.
Quickly I changed into my school uniform, maybe for the last time. There was no need for me to be wearing it, but it was just something I had to do. I loved Tosajoshi and everything about it, and my final salute to the school was to wear that stupid sailor uniform to Tokyo, Detroit, and finally back to Newark. I put my hair up and then I trudged down the stairs into the kitchen, where I quickly met with a solemn greeting. My host mother and father were eating some sort of Tamago-yaki and rice, as I sat down. My host mom immediately grabbed the coffee maker from the wall, and began brewing my everyday coffee. I chuckled and asked her if she would continue to drink coffee every morning when I was gone. She didn't reply. The word "gone" seemed to dawn on her in the same way it had hit me this morning with my alarm clock.

Michiyo, Mamiko, and Toshiki simultaneously came bounding through the paneled doors. Only Mamiko seemed to be enjoying herself. I greeted them with a smile and then sipped my delicious instant coffee. When I was all finished up I asked the question that was sitting in everyone's brains. Should we get going? I had an early flight, and my Rotary counselor asked that I be there very early for a bit of a going-off party.

My blazer was a hit.
But first, I needed to get my bags down to the car. We women sat back and enjoyed ourselves watching Toshiki and Otosan strain to carry my bags. I had been growing incredibly worried about the heavy weight of my bags, but at this point I no longer
cared. When there were no more things that needed to be done, I slowly climbed up the steps trying to take in every moment of this last day. I scanned the entire stairwell. Remembering the incident with the Gokiburi (cockroach), my first experience with laundry, and the endless conversations Michiyo and I shared discussing everything from life, the future, and the little things that make it all worth it.

In my room, I picked up my incredibly heavy backpack, inspected the area one last time, making sure it was in a tip-top shape. I realized that the room could never be as clean as it was before I moved in, but I figure a messy desk is a sign of a genius. I walked out the room knowing I would probably never see it again.

Outside the home, the sun was rising in the bright blue Kochi sky. The humidity had already fell upon the city, and I expected the day to be unbearably humid and disgusting. It reminded me of the day almost a year ago when I arrived in this splendid little city, spending all of 5 minutes outside, and returning with sweat dripping down my forehead. To top that, my air conditioner decided to die during the night, and I awoke that
Goodbye to my best friend.
following morning with a severe case of heat stroke. No,w hot weather had become a pretty decent ally of mine.

In the Katou's tiny sedan, we piled in, all but Mamiko. I did not even realize that I would not get to say goodbye at the airport, but we could not all fit in the car. Instead I wrapped my arms around her and embraced her. I had only just met her, but I still loved her. I loved her family and all that they had done fore me. I told her to come visit me in America when she could. Then in the car we drive off.

I took it all in.

Every moment of it.

he Sunny Mart, where I discovered my true love of Manji sweets, the Jusco shopping center, where
My school mates from the Koto club. How I will miss
each and everyone of these lovely women.
the bargain movie cost me 20 American dollars, a Sushi restaurant where I made a simple error in the eating of the fish, which resulted in a screaming by the insane chef.

And it was the little things like the tiny hidden alleyways that I had penetrated on my tireless run through my host city. That dirt pathway along the river where Katou Otosan stopped and pointed to a seemingly empty spot and ordered me to gaze out. Sure enough a light appeared and I witnessed a firefly. Over the river I could see the tall building of the Masaki's pharmacy and apartment, and in the distance I knew that the Osaki's cramped house waited for me to return as well.

Osaki Otousan being adorably sweet,
as usual.
We did not talk much. The Katou's seemed to understand that I needed this time to just think, remember, and dream. Maybe they didn't actually understand, but were instead at a loss for words. After all, what do you say to a kid who quite obviously doesn't want to leave? And who you don't really want to see go? The silence was soothing, it helped me gain some composure. I knew I was going to need all the support I could get at the airport.

Sure enough, we hadn't even pulled up to the airport when I saw a medium-sized crowd hanging outside the terminal. I recognized the stocky figure of Captain Jack (Masaki Otosan) as he waved to the Katou's car. Katou Otosan pulled to the side, and let me and the rest of us out. Then he and Toshiki grabbed the bags from the trunk. Toshiki and Captain Jack then heaved the bags inside to where I can only assume they bribed the airline workers to allow the bags to be put on the plane without being weighed. Meanwhile, the Rotarians that came to see me off, and there were quite a few, whisked me off into the room just beside the security check point. I had been in that room only once before.

Japanese Steven Seagall, oh, I mean
Katou Otousan.
On my very first day, when I was asked to do a speech in Japanese. I could only Konnichiwa, so you can imagine how badly that worked out for me. My hair was long back then and I wore the Rotary blazer. Back then it had just a dozen pins on it. Now it had about 50 or so colorful ornaments decorating the entire thing. Most people, upon seeing the blazer, are absolutely astounded by it. I guess I don't really blame them. There are so many pins from all the places and people I have met.

Anyway, inside the room, I saw a group of people already waiting for me. Actually, I was late for my own final going away party. The Koto Club, led by Chiake, had come to send me off. As soon as they saw me, they came sprinting at me and jumped at me. I received more hugs from those girls then I did over the course of the entire year. To make small talk and not really think about the impending departue, the girls asked me how I though Yoskoi went. I told them that it was honesly the most fun I have ever had. Then they told me all about their big Koto competition, and the fact that in a year's time they would no longer be allowed to be in the club. I told them that a year passes quickly. And we all sort of fell silent again.

I also ran into the Osaki's.

Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
Naoko's Birthday present.
Obachan, Ojichan, Obasan CHizuko, Otosan, Okasan, Ebuki, Kaho, Maako, and Hikari. I think if cats were allowed in the airport, they would have brought them too. Hikari and Maako were enthralled with my blazer. They insisted on trying it on and googling at all the pins. When Hikari put it on, I honestly though she was going to topple over from the weight of the pins. I found myself growing really upset when Hikari said, "How are you going to remember me? I didn't get you a pin." I promised her that a pin doesn't make you remember someone. Instead it is the memories, the laughter, and tears, and the bonds formed that make you remember someone. I promised her I would never ever forget her.

In addition, I found Naoko and gave her a cute birthday present that I had been saving to give to her. She hugged me and whispered in my ear not to feel sad. When I asked her why, she patted me upside the head and told me she was coming to visit me in America in three weeks. I also brought her to talk to Michiyo, "Big Sister Naoko you know my Big Sister Michiyo, right?" I then returned to one of my most favorite parts about being Julie in Japanland... the little nagging sister. I made sure to whine and
 groan and pester my two older, wise, and loving sisters. You never know how lucky you are until you suddenly have 2 big sisters, and they love you like you ACTUALLY were the younger sister.

When everyone who was expected to come had arrived, Matsumoto-san, my Rotarian counselor insisted on a formal speech. I knew that this actually meant a tear fest. He called for each host father to give a brief speech about me. They were not always kind in their speeches. They remarked on the difficultires in hosting someone who could not really speak the lanaguge, but how it all worked out in the end. And how by the end of the year, they could all honestly say that I would be sincerely missed. And that most importantly, I was like family, and I was always welcome back. I cried so hard, even though I pinched myself profusely in the thigh, trying to dull out the sadness with pain. Then when they were done, Chiake stood to speak. She talked about how no
Chiake speaks.
matter where we go in life, she would never forget this year, and how a curious American girl stepped into her life and changed it forever. She promised everyone that we would be friends for forever.

A million little things were booing in that room at that time. Nearly everyone was crying and everyone who was not crying was pinching themselves trying not to. I sometimes think that a funeral would have been less sad. For a few more moments I relaxed and enjoyed myself surrounded by the people that I have come to love and respect. I dreaded the every ticking of the seconds, and knowing that it was time. And when I could no longer delay for fear of missing my flight, I lost it.

I mean seriously lost it...

I was hysterical as I embraced Hikari, and Chiake, Captain Jack, and Matsumoto-san. Japanese
Maako also tries on the blazer.
people don't really hug, but for me they made an exception for yours truly the sobbing mess leaking from all facial orifices. They carried my remaining bags to the long line outside the security line. I was unable to collect myself, and I could barely walk. People from all over were staring as this massive group of people departed from a room holding up this random wailing gaijin.

For the first time, the staring didn't even bother me a bit. While in line, the large group of people waited just beyond the rope. I checked in and placed my blazer and back pack through security. Just before I walked through the human security check point, Chiake and Hikari pushed aside the folks waiting behind me. "Julie- we will miss you. Come back soon!" And it was in those words- those powerful words- when a sudden surge of pride overcame the sadness. I wiped off my tears and faced the group and shouted, "ITEKIMASU." They were all pretty surprised, but after a few chuckles and a few smiles from my close friends and family, they replied, "ITERISHAI!"

Itekimasu in Japanese means something along the lines of, "Im leaving but I'll be back."
While Iterishai means means something like, "We will see you later."

And when I made it through security and up to the gate, I turned around one final time to catch a glance of the people, I saw it. Through the glass windows separating the boarding area with the main terminal, about 40 people waited waving, crying, smiling, and knowing I would be back.

My Japanese family.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dancing Kamekaze Gaijin Yosakoi Day 2

This is our night performance from the previous day.

To think that next week at this time, I will be back in America. I hate this thought. Not that I am dreading going home, but leaving Japan, a country I have come to feel at home at, is heartbreaking. I used to read some exchange student blogs from around the world before I left, and would get really
Mamiko and I getting prepared for the day. Sort of.
annoyed at the students who said, "I hate America (France) is ten times better! I only think of (France) as home now!" It's true, I hated people who made those obnoxious comments and thought, 'you've only been in your host country a year, so shut up.' But now that I have been here for all that time, and fallen in love with this country, I understand this point of view to an extent.

And this is what I was feeling as I woke up at 7 to the alarm of my cell phone.

I quickly threw on a buttoned shirt, because it would be easier to take off later, and a jean skirt. I barely made it out the door, when I heard Michiyo screaming that we had to go. Michiyo and I set out for the hair salon right around the corner. Contrary to yesterday, I was not nervous. In fact, I was overloaded with excitement. When I noticed Michiyo NOT twitching with joy as usual, I asked her what was wrong. She told me she was sad how quickly Yosakoi was flying by, it was already half over with since we more than likely would not be making it
the final round tomorrow. I called her a Debbie-Downer, and told her to just enjoy the rest of the day. Kind of ironic coming from someone who was really hurting over the ideas of going back to America. We headed up into the 2nd floor of the salon and were greeted by the beautician, who on the previous day had remarked at the big size of my head because she didn't think I could speak Japanese.
My beautiful hot sister Michiyo.

Today, she smiled and fought very hard not to look/laugh at my large head, though she did talk to me a few times. Michiyo went first again, and I followed. Still quite painful, with the beautician stabbing me n the head with a million little bobbie pins, I asked for a new style. Today I wanted my bangs to fall into my forehead. Today I had hatched an incredibly embarrassing plan, that involved my forehead and my dignity. Bangs would certainly help.

Back at the Katou's house, I unbuttoned the shirt and dressed myself in the green Yosakoi uniform for the team. Instead of sitting down in front of the TV like I had planned to do, instead I ran back upstairs to reveal my embarrassing ploy. I got my hatchimaki, the same one I had worn on my last day of school, and tied it to my forehead. For the record, a hatchimaki is one of the bandanna type things that wrap around the forehead and usually display a single word that has something to do with pride. If you still aren't sure what I am talking about, I recommend watching an old World War II movie. At the part
Rocking the Kamikaze band. 
about the Kamikaze pilots that fly their planes into American battleships, you'll see pilots wearing a Hatchimaki on their foreheads.

((I wish I could give you a good movie to watch, but I really hate the old American war movies about the Pacific conflict. Not because I side with one side or the other, but because I have lived in Japan for a year. And in that year I have learned that the Japanese are NOT English speakers, and are no where near being decent enough to merit the title of an English speaker. I was once watching a movie about the Battle of Midway or Guam, I'm not sure what island exactly, and Emperor Tojo was speaking with a distinctive Midwestern accent. Emperor Tojo couldn't even speak English, let alone have an accent you might find in Illinois. Call me crazy, but something just isn't right with this. But I digress.))

Cheese, much?
Anyway, I decided to wear my favorite Hatchimaki, the Nippon (Japan) with the Rising Sun. Even though the Ban Ban Zai Yosakoi team had strict rules about hair, I figured they would be laughing too hard to really consider the rules. And sure enough, my first test, the Katou family, was literally rolling on the floor as I rushed into to show them me being an idiot. Katou Okasan insisted on taking another set of pictures with the cute little Gaijin in the Hatchimaki. I was also reminded to put on my medals, the red flower and the tiny golden Yosakoi chain, though I was really quite reluctant. I had begun to consider the fact that I got those medals because I am Gaijin, cute, and stupid all at the same time. It was unfair that when I was this bad, I got the most medals. But I didn't say anything to my host family.

Instead, after a few hundred thousand pictures were taken, Michiyo and I set off for the Sunny Mart
The medal queens!
where the Ban Ban Zai bus was waiting. We looked over the itinerary, and both agreed that this day would be better than the previous day, if that was possible. This is because we were set to dance in Obiyamachi and a Harimacho, both awesome shopping centers. At the bus, we boarded almost forgetting that I was wearing the Hatchimaki. Not 2 seconds passed when the whole bus ripped open in laughter at the silly Gaijin in the Kamikaze band. The instructors ranted about how cute I was as I passed them. There would be no repercussions for breaking the strict rules on hair.

Michiyo and I just headed directly into our seat. Our first stop was on the other side of the city, called Kyomachi. I'm not going to go into details, but basically it is just a small black top. There must have been 100 teams sitting and waiting at Kyomachi, and the sun beat down on the black top with furor. It
Words and pictures don't do it justice.
Fun is an understatement.
was thus far, the worst experience with Yosakoi I had. We had to wait just about 90 minutes in the hottest weather, surrounded by about 10,000 people dressed in elaborate and heavy outfits. Needless to say, everyone was sweating so bad that it looked like we all just got out of a swimming pool. I ran into a few friends from school, Booby and Mosa, who nearly cried when they realized that I had just one more day in Japan.

One more day.

I hung out with them and reminisced about all the crazy experiences I have had with them, until the announcement for their team to start dancing was heard. Then I hung with Michiyo and walked around the parking lot to get views of the different dance teams. In the heat, Michiyo admitted she couldn't handle it without some delicious Kakigomi, which is basically shaved ice with flavoring, or a snow cone. I got an Extra- Large Strawberry flavored Kakigomi, which turned my mouth bright pink. I devoured the thing, but I don't think it really helped me get cooler. Meanwhile, my Gaijin senses were flaring and I spotted a fellow gaijin in the distance leading a large team of Gothic looking Yosakoi dancers. Upon scanning the team, I noticed two incredibly familiar faces.
The team mates and me.
And before I could wave to them, my third host Obachan and Aunt Chizuko grabbed me from behind, "JJJJUUUUULLLLLIIIIEEEE!"

They garbled on about how they had come to watch Kaho and Ebuki dance (the gothic team) and had spotted Ban Ban Zai. And besides the fact that I am dressed exactly the same as 100 others surrounding me, speaking the same language, and doing a damn good job at pretending to be Japanese, my tall height and my Gaijin appearance make me stand out in a crowd. As soon as they saw me they had to come rushing over and hug me and wish me best of luck. Even though I tried to sneak away to speak with the mysterious gaijin I had spotted, Obachan had me on a leash and sat me down claiming the heat was not good for me and that I should just take a rest. I hope no one ever wonders if I am being taken good care of in Japan.

Kochi's American Girl.
When Kaho and Ebuki's gothic team began the dance, I couldn't help but stand up and scream for the girls. I probably made a fool of myself, but I wanted them to know I was here to cheer them on.

When they finished their circle around the judging pavement, they all ran off and headed for the bus. I sprinted after Ebuki and jumped her from behind. Even though she promised to come see me off at the airport, I had to make sure to say goodbye in case I didn't see her. She cracked up and told me to stop being silly, that she would come to the airport no matter what. Then before I could argue, Michiyo called me over to the team. The mysterious gaijin had approached my host sister and asked her why she had a Gaijin with her. I was really impressed when Michiyo, in her best English, said, "She is my sister. We family host Judii... She good dancer!" I complimented her English and then told the Gaijin, whom I learned worked at a local English-school, about my year. He was really impressed and told me to give him a call when I was done with college.
There was always a job waiting back for me in Kochi.

But then there is a lot more than a job waiting for me in Kochi.

After what felt like forever, or at least a full blistering 2 hours, Ban Ban Zai was called up to dance. Now I'm not going to lie, this was not one of my better performances. Wearing the Kamikaze headband, and I had all eyes on me, which didn't bother me so much. Until I tripped. Actually the strings that held up my shoes slipped off and even though I was in control, the person behind me stepped on the cotton string. I lost balance. Even though I recovered quickly with a smile, I'll never forget that lousy performance. When we were finished we hauled onto the Ban Ban Zai bus that transported to the next venue, also our last judged stage. This is because we spent so much of our precious time wrapped up in that stupid overheated blacktop. The dance instructors regretfully announced we would not be dancing
Michiyo is also cheesin'
two venues, Obiyamachi (which I was REALLY REALLY REALLY looking forward to) and Harimaya Shotenkai. We were all overcome with a disappointment on that bus and it transported up the the Vegetable Street (I'm not sure of the name in Japanese.)

When we got there, we had to wait on another long line for a spot. The only nice thing I can say is that there was at least a fair amount of shade. When the Ban Ban Zai truck pulled up, we all quickly assembled in position behind it. The instructors reminded us that even though the team was not about competition and all about fun, this was our final judged performance. No one expected us to actually get enough points to pass onto the final day, but the Japanese are a bit obsessed with perfection. Just a bit.

The Vegetable Street dance went well, and Michiyo even received her first medal. Like my red
Little people also dance!
flower, it was a medal surrounded by a bright green flower covering. It was very cute, and I couldn't help but think that she deserved more than anyone on the team. After all, she had to put up with me for all these months of Yosakoi practice. She even told me that she would never have done this if it wasn't for me wanting to dance so badly. But that she was so glad I essentially coerced her into it. Gosh, I'm going to miss her.

At around 4 PM, the dance troupe headed for the abandoned bus lot for our big dinner. Tonight it was just two onigiri, rice with seaweed wrap. This stuff just never gets old though. I think I actually drank 4 cans of Pocari Sweat, which is strange because I usually abhor that stuff. (I think it has something to do with it being named after perspiration.)

We kept dancing.
After dinner, we rushed over to Chuo Kouen, or central park. This is the venue that well over 1,000 people come out and watch, as it is situated right outside the Obiyamachi in the middle of Kochi. I was excited because we were right in a big stage with blaring spot lights, TV camera, cheering crowds, and smack dap in the center of my favorite city. The wait was not as significantly long, and night had fallen so it had become cooler. It was the perfect setting for what was about to come. The Ban Ban Zai team assembled in formation, held the Naruko instruments as we charged onto the stage, placed on a gleaming smile, and got into position. From the moment the song started, we were unstoppable. I really reckon that not one person WAS perfect. The thing is that we all laughed through the entire song on both dances. You see, because the whole formation was messed up in that we weren't dancing down a street but on one wide stage, no one was really sure what was going on.

So we did a little improvising, knowing that this was our 2nd to last dance (or so we thought...) and that we may as well have a little fun with it. As we finished the last song, the announcer came on to restate the team name. Then another man came on and began speaking in loud and difficultly fast Japanese. I did not understand a word. Nor did I understand why all my fellow dancers had suddenly broken out in an embarrassing cheer and emotional dance. I sat there clueless, when Michiyo ran over to me, "Julie! We are dancing tomorrow! Ban Ban Zai scored high enough to dance in the All Japan Yosakoi Competition!!!!"

I think I began to cry, then cheer, then cry again.

Naoko and Okasan Masaki were the first to see me when I clamored off the stage, "JUDIIII!!!
Concentration. Or maybe... hunger?
OMEDETOU (congratulations)"

Later Otosan Masaki jealously told me that he and Naoko had been dancing Yosakoi for 12 years and never once got to dance in the All Japan Yosakoi COmpetition. And here I was a Gaijin, one that dances Yosakoi like a mangled Octopus, heading home in just 2 days. And about to dance in a major, almost professional, type dance routine.

The night did not end at Chuo Kouen, for the Ban Ban Zai team was supposedly to end the competition by being the final dance team to march down Mama, or supporters. We arrived in the brilliance of the Mama night lights, all of his spouting tears of joy, and words of surprise. No one had expected to do as well as we did, but we did it, and we deserved it. The vendors of Mama that had pledged money for our team all came out to cheer us on. The Masaki's and the Katou's and even Chiake and her family rushed down the street snapping photos and cheering for our team. It was the most magical dance of the whole competition. At the end we all rushed up the street to thank our judges and supporters, receives free cans of tea and warm words of support, and a complete schedule of the next day. Excitement flooded the atmosphere.

Back at home, I dug into a cup of my favorite Goma (sesame) ice cream, took a much needed shower, and finished packing my bag. I'm leaving in less than 48 hours but if there is one thing that is totally for sure besides that I am going to miss this place, it is this: I am going out with a bang.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Morning Before Yosakoi

Naruko, the tiny instruments used
in the dances.
In the midst of everything being the last of this and the ending of that, there is one thing I have been truly looking forward to. The reason that I stayed all the way through in Japan for just about an entire year is because of Yosakoi.

Even though it was supposed to be the end for me in Japan, once I started practicing for the big festival, it became more of a beginning. Yosakoi is the biggest festival in all of Kochi, and is increasingly becoming a popular and famous competition. This year there are 194 teams that are participating in the festival. A team can be made up of any amount of people up to 150, and the best teams have waiting lists to get on them. It costs Y8000000 for a team to be enter, which is the equivalent of about $76,000.

And so, most teams have sponsors.

To be entertained even before the festival, finding out the sponsors of some of the teams is pretty fun. Kochi is one of the poorest prefectures in the country of Japan. Take for example the light lanterns outside of Kochi Castle during festival season. The lanterns all say Homerun, which is a famous Pachinko parlor, or casino, in the city. While Himeji castle has beautiful colored lanterns written in thick Calligraphy displaying the name of the city, the city of Kochi is too poor for this luxury. Instead, the lanterns are sponsored by a Casino. Gotta love capitalism!

But little things like who sponsors a team, does not bother most dancers in the events. They just want
to dance, party, drink, and enjoy their lives. Thus, there is always the Pachinko, as well as the Track, two teams sponsored by some slightly racy local Casinos. Than, of course, you have the night clubs, which may or may not be local strip clubs. I'm pretty sure a Love Hotel is even a sponsoring a team. Do you know that there is even a team sponsored by a group for the promotion of only Japanese? And thus, the team allows no Gaikokujin, like myself.

Only in Japan.

As for me, I'm on a G-rated team. I'm dancing for the Mama Shoutenkai, which are the famous stores located on the old narrow road full of Shopping history in my hometown of Mama.

Yosakoi 2007 is taking place from August 9th thru August 12th. The festival opened on the night of the 9th, with a showcase of all the spectacular teams that won in the previous year. They all gathered in Chuo Kouen, or Central Park, to give a demonstration of the days to come. I went with with host siblings, Michiyo, Mamiko, and Toshiki.

After a large dinner of Eel, we walked to the Obiyamachi. The main shopping center was filled with people, which I could tell were not from Kochi. Michiyo pointed out that the festival has gotten so big, that people from outside the prefecture come to see it. Not very many, but still enough to help the Kochi economy. After a Purikura with my host family, we trekked to Chuo Kouen, where we did not get very far. The crowds were enormous! Thousands of people had come out to watch the initial dance. Lucky for us, the 4 of us are pretty tall. And after we squeezed through the crowds, we were able to get a view of the screen above the teams. I watched as the top 12 teams performed their dances. The first few were actually disappointing. People talked about these top teams like the gods had personally blessed them. And it is true, that they were skilled, but the dance was slow and nothing like the excitement in the Mama Shoutenkai team. But then teams like Honiya performed. In the middle of the song, the lights dimmed for 2 seconds. And when they returned their uniforms had completely changed colors. I was shocked, as was the rest of the crowd heard in the huge gasp. Softbank Cell phone company did a dance right out of the rap studios of Detroit. While Kamimachi only had elementary school girls do a cutesy type Japanese dance. The final team, and best, was JuuNinJuu, a self-sponsored team. Their skit was slow, but if you watched everything they were doing, you could not deny they were amazing. I think they even all breathed at the same moment.

Tomorrow begins the festival, in which every time regardless of skills, can participate. While the final day of the competition is when the top 30 teams of this years festival gather one final time at the base of Kochi Castle. There they compete for the 2007 All-Japan best team. There are 3 types of teams. The first type is the incredible top tier. These teams usually have sponsors like Cell Phone companies, big Shopping Centers, or the team members sponsor themselves. They also have practice everyday from June till the start of competition. And even though, they really are amazing teams with complex and skilled dances, they are a bit too competitive for my taste. The next level is the medium level. These teams are great to watch because none expects to get to the final level. Though a good percentage are good enough to make it to the final round. They just want to enjoy the festival, that they have worked so very hard to participate in. And the last level is the teams that are the most fun to watch. This is probably because they are the worst and have members going left, and members going right. Last year, Mama Shoutenkai was the last level. Last year was also the first year that the team started. The staff members, store owners in the Mama Shoutenkai, wanted to change and improve. And thus the price went soaring as they bought a piece if music and dance from a famous Yosakoi teacher. They still kept their tradition allowance, in letting little elementary school children dance on the team. But they were thrown to the back. Sanmi-sensei, our teacher, or as I like to think of her, as Drill Sergeant, taught us the dance.

On my first practice, as the and teachers did a demonstration of the teams dance, I distinctly remember slapping Michiyo on the arm and screaming, "Muri! Dekinai Muri Muri Muri!" The dance was a modern and incredibly fast paced song with a little bit of a traditional Japanese feel to it. Seeing the slender and strong bodies of the tiny Japanese dance professionals freaked me out. They were performing this song in a degree of perfection. It seemed to me like being small was the most important thing, and small is one thing I am not. They wore smiles as the hoped to and fro in this complex dance, and I wondered how they found time to breath. Now as you may know, the Julie before Japan would never have, in a million trillion years have danced. But not just danced, Yosakoi is about dancing in front of thousands of people. I don't dance. Or at least I didn't dance. Japan really whopped that out of me. At school, I was forced into Traditional Japanese Dance. I hated it, but I lost that fear of embarrassment. Now, exactly a month after that first Yosakoi practice, at our final practice, I was not as good as Sanmi-sensei. And yet, I could do the dance. Not well, as I will be sure to remind to the world as often as possible. But still, being able to do the dance is better than not being able to do it. And I pointed this out to Michiyo. She smiled, and agreed that we had come along way.

But had we come long enough for Yosakoi?

In a few hours time, Yosakoi begins for me and the members of the Mama Shoutenkai team. All 88 members, which make up about 40 elementary school children, and 40 adults, are going to do our very best, even though we aren't no way near the level of the best team. I'm so excited and so nervous at the same time. Everyone I have met this year will probably come to watch me dance, which is scary to say the least. I'm leaving now. Michiyo and I are going to get our hair done for Yosakoi. This should be interesting. I can't wait to type about what happened!

Ban Ban Zai, Yosakoi Day 1

The banner on my head says, "Kochi" because it is my city.
At 16 years old I am just about to go home, or at least to the place I was born. I guess this sentence can be read in a lot of ways. 16 year-old girls always go home after a night of hanging out with their friends.

And yet, I ask myself when I have ever been a conventional teenager?

Truthfully, I do not think ever really. At 16, I wonder how many people in this world can say that they
Dancing in this festival has been a major highlight.
survived an entire year of living abroad in another country. And for those who have been able to do it, I wonder if they ended their year on such a high note, as I am about to. I am going back to America this Monday, August the 13th. But in the mean time, I'm finishing my year abroad in Kochi, Japan by dancing in the city's most famous festival, the Yosakoi Matsuri. On more than one occasion I have talked about Yosakoi. Mostly about how the Matsuri is one of the bigger reasons why I opted to stay here for the entire year. That's not to say I would have wanted to come home earlier, but when I set the date it was in November of 2006, and I did not know that this year was going to turn out to be nearly perfect. Instead my host father made me promise to stay for the festival. And so I did. But when he made me promise to stay, I seemed to take it as promising him I would dance in the festival. And so I did.

My teammates, a bunch of misfits that did WAY better
than anyone imagined we would.
My Yosakoi team was the newly formed Mama Shotenkai (Mama Township Stores)The nice thing about being newly formed was that no one had any expectations on it. The team was considered to be in the low category, or not a big competitor in the dance competition part of Yosakoi. What I mean is that this year, there will be 192 teams dancing up and down the streets of Kochi in Yosakoi. On the third day, only a few top scoring teams get selected to participate in the Zen Koku Kai Tai, which is basically the All Japan Yosakoi Dancing Competition. Ban Ban Zai was most certainly not going to be in the same league as some of those teams. And truth be told, I was happy about that. I joined a team to have fun, enjoy the festival and my last few days of Japan, not worry about being perfect and competitive.

My hair in the up-do.
On the hot morning of August the 10th, I woke to the sound of alarm clock and the whistling of
Michiyo as she did the laundry right outside my window. The night before she gave me a button up collar shirt because we would be needing a shirt that wouldn't mess up our hair. A few moments after I got dressed, Michiyo and I set out for the hair salon right around the corner. On the way there, I realized just how nervous I was. In fact, I could barely stand up straight. Michiyo laughed when I told her how nervous I was, and then proceeded to tell me not to be nervous. She explained that Yosakoi was about fun and dancing, and Ban Ban Zai dancing was going to be great. I believed as we headed up into the 2nd floor of the salon and were greeted by the beautician. Ban Ban Zai was very strict in that all of the dancers had to have their placed on top of their head and covered by a purple cloth to match with out uniform. Michiyo went first, and I followed. It was actually quite painful, with the beautician stabbing me in the head with a million little bobbie pins and remarking at how large my
The Dress Rehearsal!
 head was. When I finally revealed I can speak Japanese, she got all flushed and pretended to have not heard me. But in all, my hair did look great, and there was certainly no denying that.

Back at the Katou's house, I unbuttoned the shirt and dressed myself in the green Yosakoi uniform for the team. I couldn't tie everything properly, so I asked Mamiko and Katou Okasan for some help. When Michiyo and I were all decked out in uniform, Michiyo forced me to put on some makeup. And for those of you who know me, you know that I hate makeup. Needless to say, after she plastered my face with red lip crap, I found tissue and wiped it all off. The Katous then insisted that we take half a million pictures, and we posed gracefully inside and in front of the house. I'm not going to lie and say that as we walked over to the Sunny Mart, which was the meeting place of the team, I was not nervous. I kept worrying that I would screw up beyond all realms of the imagination and embarrass myself, because let's not forget that despite my impeding departure date, I still am in Japan. And in Japan there are, like, 50 foreigners in the whole country, all getting starred at and watched 24/7. So when normal Japanese people make a little mistake, it is just a little mistake that nobody notices or cares too much about. But when I make a mistake, the whole population up to the Emperor of Japan will probably know about it and discuss it at dinner the next night. But then again on that note, this is still in Japan and so even though everyone is going to notice my mistake, they are also going to applaud
Michiyo and I heading out to meet the rest of the team!
the fact that I came out there and participated.

When Michiyo and I arrived at the Sunny Mart, many of our teammates were already scrambling towards the huge coach buses at the end of the lot. We boarded the bus, and the 20 or so dancers that were already seated applauded as we walked down the aisle of the bus. It was a pretty comforting feeling to be cheered for, amidst all the nervousness that currently plagued my system. Parked right next to the bus was a large truck painted with splashes of purple, green, red, and white. On the back was a huge picture lantern with "Ban Ban Zai" written on it. Set up on the way back was a huge stereo system. You see, teams are required to have these mascot truck things because they are obligated to play their own music. The Ban Ban Zai team also hired some singers to sing along with the dance routine, and they were to stand on top of the bus while it zoomed along the streets with the dancers following the trucks. As Michiyo
The Ban Ban Zai Bus. It's a play on Japanese characters, which say
Mama Shotenkai (Mama Township Stores) but can also be read as
"Ban Ban."
explained all this to me, the nervousness was painted with a splurge of excitement. Yosakoi had not even begun for the team, and I was already wondering why no one ever hears about Yosakoi outside of Japan.

The team's first dancing destination of the day was the Kochi Federal Government Elderly facility. This was a bit strange for me, when Michiyo read it off the list of dancing destinations. I honestly did not think old folk homes existed in Japan because of the high level of respect for the aged. It always appears that the elders of the family always live with their children and grandchildren, no matter what. Michiyo explained that in rare cases, elders aren't allowed to live with their children, don't have children, or have outlived their own children. That's why this particular sort of place is rather dismal.

The ride was short, but we took the road alongside the mountain until we reached a run-down old government building. There was already a Yosakoi team on spot, and as they boarded their bus, we departed ours. This particular bus somewhat of a warm up for the team, and it did not count for any scores in the whole competition. When asked why were performing for the facility, the dance instructors replied that it was just the right thing to do. Inside the building, there was very little room and so we had to form lines in the hallway and squeeze in real close. It wasn't very comfortable, but
I look like a professional. But in all seriousness,
I'm about as amateur as one can be.
no one could complain as a few old Japanese men and woman eagerly trudged our of their rooms to watch us perform. Michiyo stood in front of me, only about 1 foot away from 3 old Japanese grannies that were toothless and possibly drooling. Amazingly enough, they could see me, and were taking great pains to communicate to the other elders that there was a Gaijin on the team. We performed our dance, though I personally feel that I did terrible. In fact, I managed to knock the wooden Naruko instrument out of my neighboring dancers hand, not once, but twice during our performance. Still, though, no one seemed to care. Not even the person whose Naruko went fluttering across the room.

By the end of our dance, quite a few old folks had wandered over to watch me. They clapped and cheered as I waved goodbye to them. I had no admit, the performance wasn't great, but it served as a warm up for the coming performances. Our next destination for dancing was the opening of the Mama Shotenkai Street.

Basically we were going to kick off the competition in Mama Township by dancing down the street of our sponsors. But first we were to take a team picture in front of the Mama Dollar Store. The 100 members of the Ban Ban Zai team assembled on long bleachers and stood with smiles as a camera man shot a round of pictures. I, being the goofball that I am, put my two Naruko instruments on top
Michiyo and I in Mama Township.
of the person in front of me to look like 'bunny ears.' She is going to hate me when those pictures are published!

When we were finished, we noticed that some people began to crowd the street. These were the people that were coming out to see us dance, which trust me, is a really scary thought. As we climbed down from the bleachers, the teachers informed us we would be trekking up the very beginning of the street.

At approximately 12, the loud Ban Ban Zai bus was to begin and our Yosakoi season was to officially begin!!!!

In the meantime, the team stood in the sweltering sun, complaining of dried throats, sweat pouring down our foreheads, and nervous feelings creeping up our guts. I must have told Michiyo over 100 times that I couldn't do it. As we waited around, I occasionally heard my name being called out. First Naoko and Ojisan Masaki arrived. Ojiisan held onto his fancy camera and promised to take some
That goofy grimace is me realizing for the
10 millionth time how lucky I am here
in Kochi, Japan.
 pictures of me, while Naoko hugged and me and wished me the best of luck. She told me that she and her father had danced Yosakoi for years, and she was very proud of me for going out and trying it. Just as the team assembled in the middle of the road, Osaki Otosan and Hikari appeared out of nowhere calling my name and cheering for me. Toshiki and Mamiko Katou also arrived to see my big performance. Oddly enough, though, this did not make me nervous. In fact, I suddenly felt so confident that my heart nearly burst with pride. The 3 most important factors of my exchange year had come to watch me dance: my beloved host families. Now I could list all the things that my exchange to Japan has given me, confidence, self-assurance, etc. And I can't help but realize that all these people love me enough to come and watch me dance, and cheer for me along the way.

And in the middle of a sweltering August afternoon, the colorful Ban Ban Zai bus began our song. The best 3 days of my life had begun.

On the whole street, we were able to dance the theme song about 5 times. Since the song is about 3 minutes and 30 seconds, and the song is fast paced, we were sweaty throughout the whole experience. But nothing, not a few simple mistakes, or the occasional "GAIJIN!" call could take away from the excitement of the experience. We danced over the bridge and down the streets, through territory that I have come to call my close home living with the Katou family. People watched us in awe, because nobody expected us to be as good as we turned out to be. My host families all met up with one another and chased my dancing team down the street cheering and calling for us to smile at the cameras. In that 20 or so minutes that I danced, I must have smiled through all of it and laughed and cheered. Not even 10 seconds into the dance, and I knew that staying until the end of this year to participate in
Michiyo can not help but be competitive. She's Japanese,
after all.
Yosakoi, was perhaps, the best thing I did all year.

Well, except maybe coming to Japan in the first place.

I wish I could go over ever single move, emotion, all the colors and stores and noises and smells, just everything but I feel like no one but me will really understand it all. When we got to the end of the street, Michiyo and I raced with our line all the way to the tent advertising drinks. The Mama Shotenkai Drink booth served us delicious chilled tea, which I poured down my throat. The day had just begun, as my host families swarmed around me to congratulate me on successfully completing my first dance. Osaki Otosan, wearing an American Flag tee-shirt was covered in sweat, as he embraced me in a somewhat-forced hug. I asked him about Kaho and Ebuki, his daughter and his niece, who were dancing Yosakoi at the Obiyamachi shopping center at that very moment. He threw his hands in the air and told me he'd rather see me dance. Naoko and Ojiisan asked Michiyo where our next venue was, and then promised to come meet us over on Kamimachi Street.

I probably look like a narcissist with all these photos of myself.
I swear I didn't any of them! But they came out great!
Before I could stay and chat, the Ban Ban Zai teachers were calling for everyone to get on the bus on the double. We were expected at the Kamimachi venue for our next dance. On the coach bus, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. I pretty much scarfed down a Calorie Mate bar, which is the Japanese version of a Granola Bar. Actually Granola Bar's are like Christmas Ham compared to Calorie Mate being dog food, but I was hungry, and wasn't going to complain.

At Kamimachi, our bus pulled into line in between a line of other buses and teams waiting to be judged. This particular venue was the first of our destinations, in which judges would be giving us an actual score based on our dance. The dancers of Ban Ban Zai didn't really care about the score, but they did care that this was also the first chance to receive a medal. You see, at many venues, in addition to giving the whole team a score, the judges are allowed to hand out medals to particularly good dancers. Our teachers had warned us not to get our hopes up, but there is no denying that everyone really wanted to get a
Searching for medals!!

A few minutes of waiting for our chance to dance, Naoko and Ojiisan arrived. Naoko and Michiyo talked a little bit about Yosakoi, and it was nice to see my two adopted older siblings conversing. When it was time for us to begin, we lined up in our formations, and waited for the song to come bursting out of the stereo. The Kamimachi street is a lot more narrow than Mama, and so there was more than one occasion when I stomped on Michiyo's feet. The first few times caused us to burst into laughter at my spazziness, one occasion even cost us a chance to get a medal. But we didn't let that bother us, we were too busy laughing at ourselves, one of her better quotes goes like, "Good god, Julie! Your feet are enormous!" It was funny because when she screamed it out, the music was at a quiet slow moment, and everyone on our team was able to laugh.

Concentrating way too hard
on not failing.
When the venue was finished, we assessed our teammates, to see if anyone had won a medal. Luckily, little 9 year-old, Mi-chan had won the first medal for the team. I first met Mi-chan at one of the Yosakoi practices, in which she ran up to me and began speaking in funky English. Now normally, I frown upon the Japanese speaking to me in English, but little kids are usually deathly afraid of me and never approach unless obligated. I learned that she had lived in Boston for a few years with her parents, and desired to learn English above all else. It came to a point where me speaking Japanese over her poor English became more practical, so I promised to teach her a few American kiddy games. And sure enough, as soon as Mi-chan was done showing off her golden medal she pranced over to me and forced me to teach her the correct words to Bubble Gum Bubble Gum. The little circle started off with just Mi-chan, Michiyo, and I, but by the end of the day, had grown to well over 10 people, including little kids who acted as if they were afraid of me. I found that every time we had a few moments between dances or free time on the bus, Mi-chan and company tracked me down for epic battles of thumb wars, Poop in the Barnyard, Patty Cake, and Hand Slap. I dominated in Hand Slap, but got pulverized in Thumb Wars. I just claimed that my thumb was too sweaty to really be able to compete with her, even though she was undoubtedly stronger than me every time.

Our next dancing destination was Masugata, a small street in the middle of the street. We had about an hour to kill, so I hung out with Naoko and Michiyo and watched the other teams dance along the street. There was one team from a school in Tokyo that had 3 other Gaijins on it. I got to say, seeing others like me was a bit of a relief. SO much so that I fell into the Japanese habit of screaming, "GAIJIN!!!" and chasing the dancers down the road on the sidelines. Naoko and Michiyo, in fits of laughter, had to remind me that I was in fact, a gaijin, and not to forget it. A few minutes after I calmed down, I decided to head to the bathroom, where I had to wait in a line for about 25 minutes. It would have been 40 minutes, but a group of young school girls took one look at me, and scattered in
Having way too much fun!

Sometimes it pays to be a gaijin.

When it was time for Ban Ban Zai to dance, I put on a smile and walked with Michiyo side-by-side to our spot in the formation. The music began, and we did our thing, about twice at Matsugata. There was a large stand in the middle of the street that was handing out medals, and scoring our team. I made a note that the better dancers of our team, those who were placed in the front, were being plastered with medals. I promised myself to go and congratulate them. One nice thing I noticed was that in the middle of the venue, a large formation of Tosajoshi girls had formed. I immediately recognized Aimi, and the rest of the Tosajoshi Track and Field club. As I passed my they chanted my name, "Judii...Judii... Judiii.... Judiii!!!!!" I smiled and tried hard to cover the couple mistakes that I was unmistakeably making. At the end of the street, the team raced over the water booth and guzzled down some cups of water. The teachers told us to drink as much as we could and remain hydrated, because the next venue was going to be tough. We were heading to Atago, the straight, sun-beaten shopping district. It probably was not going to be as long as the Obiyamachi venue, but since Atago was out in the sun on this humid scorching August afternoon, we were all a bit nervous.
Gah, Michiyo is gorgeous.
The bus ride was quick, but I managed to shove down the last Calorie Mate Bar, and hope for the best. Since I had never danced Yosakoi before, I really had no idea what to expect and was listening to the moaning and groaning of my teammates. Growing tired of their worries about the length and heat of the street, I declared that I was excited for Atago.

The other dancers called me crazy, and part of me agreed with them. As opposed to the long waits of the other venues, Atago was a mere 15 minutes. The street had very few people coming out to watch the occasion, but they had still gone way out and decorated for Yosakoi. Tiny random Naruko's hung from the roofs of the shops, and store clerks put out Good Luck signs for the dancers. I was so pumped when that music began, that I didn't even realize how many times we were performing the dance. The street, probably about 3/4 of a mile, was the last thing I worried about as I danced along, smiling and enjoying my final days in Japan. I was into the dance, that I did not even notice when we reached the Judge stand. It was only when a chubby Japanese judge pointed at me and had another street vendor tell me to go and visit him, that I realized that we had been dancing for well over 20 minutes. When I ran over to the stand, the judge ushered for me to bow my head. I did so, and then he whipped out a little shining
medal and placed it over my head. I was ecstatic and thanked him about 10 times in English and Japanese. Then he pointed for me to get back into the line up.

Won my first medal!

Medal-clad, I jumped back into line, excited and smiling, as I completed the final stretch of Atago. At the end of the road, I lent Michiyo my shoulder and we tiredly headed to the water booth reaching out some much needed fluids. The whole dancing team was exhausted, but we still had many more venues to get to. Luckily we had about an 2 hours, until we were expected at Umenotsuji.

The Ban Ban Zai staff had rented out an old lot on the other side of the city, where the group headed for dinner. When we parked and settled down, Bento boxes that had been specially made and designed for the dance team were passed out. The boxes had a small cartoon Ban Ban Zai dancer on the package, along with kind words of support. I gobbled it down, and then drank about 3 bottles of the Japanese sport drink Pocari Sweat. (Yes I know- a sport drink called 'Sweat' is not exactly a refreshing sound.) Before we could even begin to digest, it seemed, the buses were again off and headed for Umenotsuji. This venue was in the back of
Our dinners have a little mascot to represent our team!
Tosa High School, the top school in Kochi. When we arrived, the 3 bottles of Sweat had caught up with me, but I was not able to find a bathroom in time. The sun was going down, and the traditional Japanese lanterns lit up the street, as we watched competing teams dance down the road. When it was our turn, I realized just how badly I needed to go to the bathroom. But I held it in, though I'll admit that it was not exactly the most comfortable experience I have ever had. At the end of the dance, the venue served us a lemonade/tea, and I must have drank 4 glasses, because I was sure there would be an available bathroom soon.

Sometimes I think, I'll never learn. One of the parents in charge of the support for Ban Ban Zai dancers laughed at me when I asked her for a bathroom. Then, when she realized I was serious, she gravely began searching for possible places. Alas, no bathrooms existed at Umenotsuji, and we couldn't stay for very long to look. In fact, we were already late for our 2nd to last venue of the day, and probably one of the most important of all locations, Otetsuji. Otesuji is a street from Kochi castle
Japanese food is the absolute best.
toward east. There are schools such as Otemae High School, Tosajoshi, and Otemae Elementary School. Nichiyo-ichi(Sunday Market) also runs along this street on Sundays. I remembered seeing people building large stands right outside Tosajoshi, but I did not realize that they were for the prime and expensive seats for bystanders of the competition. Otetuji has 2 parallel streets, called East and West.

Both offered 2 different opportunities for dancers to get to dance in the best location of the competition. The West street was also where a cameraman was located for the Kochi regional television. But what we did not know was that East Street was where a camera for NHK was located. Mind you, NHK is national television, shown in every home in all of Japan. When we arrived, I was given the option of using the bathroom and missing out on some of the dance, or dancing the whole thing through. I wanted to dance, but the teachers could see how badly I had to go to the bathroom. I was so fortunate, when another team, that had arrived at Otetsuji early, had agreed to switch places. In a way, the 100 or so Ban Ban Zai dancers had to wait an additional 15 minutes for me to go to the bathroom. I know I should feel guilty about this, but when you got to go, you REALLY got to go. One of the Ban Ban Zai helpers raced with me down about half a mile to the nearest restroom.

It is in times like these when you realize the benefit of running long-distance for fun.

I was wearing those awfully uncomfortably Zoriis, which are basically the bamboo flip-flops with socks, and quite literally sprinting through crowds of dancers. I had already used the bathroom, when the Ban Ban Zai helper caught up to me, remarking about how fast I am in even painful Zorii's. Luckily, I didn't how her that the skin between my first two toes and broken into a cut and the blood was rushing through the sock. That's the price you got to pay for fun, though.

We arrived back with the team, just in time to get into formation with the group. I placed myself between Michiyo and my other chubby neighbor. Michiyo was looking a little bit green, and I asked why she looked every so nervous. She told me that Otetsuji was were huge crowds of people came to watch, TV cameras came to film, and judges came to score. Before I could reply, the music came booming on the stereo and we were off. Otetsuji is one of my favorite spots in all of Kochi. It is the more urban section of the city, with street lights, bright advertisements, food stands, and an all-around warm and welcoming atmosphere. And on this night of Yosakoi, the atmosphere was ten times stronger. The traditional Japanese lanterns lit the way as we danced and clapped down the street, never faltering the smiling department. About the second time of our dance, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a huge black things swooping down from the lights. I couldn't make out what it was until I suddenly found a huge NHK camera in my face taking in everything I was doing. I got a little bit nervous and sort of messed up, but never stopped laughing and having a good time. When we crossed the main roads onto the judging station, which was significantly larger and brighter than the other stations, a woman began placing the coolest medals on the necks of the girls in front of me. Unlike the little yellow metal I received at Atago, this medal was a medium sized shining medals surrounded by huge red flower pedals. I danced on by the awarder, until one of the judges motioned for her to follow me and give me a medal. She pretty much chased me down the street until she caught up to me. I bowed my head, and was given a red flower medal for wonderful dancing.

The mangled octopus that ended
up on Japanese television.
I thanked her, and feeling quite proud of myself, continued down the street with stars in my eyes. Even though I had the medal for superb dancing, it still didn't make my clumsiness cease. In fact, I obliviously smacked a Naruko out of the hands of my chubby neighboring dancer. It went flying into the air, and I didn't even realize it until it came down and smacked one of the dancers in the head. I'm not going to lie, it was pretty embarrassing. When we finished, drank some water, and competed in a few Thumb Wars, it was time for our final dance of the day. We were going to be the final team and closer at the Mama Shotenkai. Since we opened the street, closing the streets of our sponsors seemed right. Under the lights of our home sponsors, we finished up the same place that we started out on. This time Captain Jack and Masaki Okasan came to watch.

When we had finished with the dance, Captain Jack told me some pretty crazy news. I asked him how
he liked my performance and he said that he had already seen it. I asked him where, and he replied on "Japanese National Television." That camera that had zoomed in on me at Otetsuji was an NHK national camera! I had been seen on television all across Japan. He said that the nightly national news showed about a 60 clipping of the festival, honoring the best team in Kochi, and the most random one, Ban Ban Zai, which was the only Kochi Yosakoi team with a Gaijin dancing on it.

He then proceeded to tell me that my dance resembled that if a mangled Octopus. Sometimes his jokes never get old.