Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009-

This, the shortest day of the year, has truly turned out to be one of my favorites of 2009. I cannot give one definite reason for my sudden raise in spirits, only that I have been blessed so incredibly much over the past 12 months, and it is still so, so remarkable to me that I have only known about Japan for one year, let alone been here for a third of that. I didn’t even realize it, but yesterday was my four-month mark. It came and went without me ticking it off like I had the first three. I think that says a lot about where I am as an exchange student that I am finally taking the days as they come, rather than measuring my experience by how many I have under my belt.

Yet perhaps what made today so special was the fact that I spent the morning back in Minnesota. My family Christmas (just my dad, mom, and sister) was this morning, or their Monday night, and I was able to Skype with them the entire time. For those of you who don’t know, Skype is an incredible (and amazingly, free) Internet form of video chat that works anywhere you have a connection and computer camera. As Mom said this morning, “Skype saved our Christmas!” And as Dad said when we were saying our good-byes, “Do you have any idea how much this visit would have cost us 20 years ago? Hundreds of dollars!!” So Skype was like a little Christmas present all in itself.

But anyway, I was able to “sit” at the dinner table, in the living room, by the fire, and near the Christmas tree all while actually snuggled up in my futon here in Nakagawa. I had as great a Christmas celebration as ever. I got fantastic presents and the time I spent with my family was truly the little “fix” I needed to get by the next few days. I am thrilled to have made it this far, because as Samantha Weaver [http://samantharomaweaver.blogspot.com/] told me this past week (also via Skype, coincidentally), “As fantastic and wonderful as the first part of the year is for most exchange students, to be honest, in the back of our minds we are really telling ourselves, ‘Get through Christmas, just get through Christmas!’ Because that is when we miss our families, could really use a break from this exciting, but very stressful, new life we’ve made for ourselves in a foreign country, and are just plan missing what we’ve had.” Well I don’t remember exactly what Sam said, but it was close to that = ) Haha, you get her point and I totally agree with it. So I am happy, and proud of us, that we have made it to Christmas Break and are now able to enjoy it rather than dread it, as I had once feared I would.

The rest of my day was spent listening to Christmas music, wrapping presents, and giving the Kobayashi’s, the Miyazaki’s, and my host parents their Christmas gifts (which all of them loved by the way Mom, so you did good shopping!), opening my present from my host parents which turned out to be a pottery cup from the famous Tochigi pottery city of Mashiko, and finally packing for my trip to Sendai and Ishinomaki where I will meet my past Rotary brother Ryota and his family! I leave tomorrow morning and won’t be back until the 27th, but only for one night. I will try to post a couple photos, but I will likely not be able to blog until after New Years! I am going to be visiting Rotary friends, enjoying the holidays, and preparing for my first ever Japanese New Years. So I apologize for not being able to write, but I hope each and every one of you has a very JAPANESE Christmas: By that I mean…

I wish you a good Shogunate of a family with whom to celebrate,

And that your presents are fit for the grandest of emperors, while your house looks like his great royal palace.

With luck your Christmas will be as snowy as the top of Mt. Fuji,

And you'll find some mistletoe for your beautiful geisha wife.

I pray there's less drama at home then on the stage of kabuki,

Meaning there's no ninjas throwing stars at your killer sushi feast.

I hope your friends are packed in like a Tokyo subway,

And the fire's got your cheeks toasty like a big shot of sake.

Make sure to take a lot of photos be they Nikon or Sony,

And always remember to show your holiday cheer with a nice peace sign for the camera.

So be happy, don't think hara-kiri think hello kitty!

And enjoy this your most Japanese of Christmases

Sincerely signed your skillful SAMurai

Doing Fruit Fondue with Maria!
Mom's sick sense of humor!
Just a couple of the presents the family shipped over for me to open. It was a wonderful day, thanks to you three. I love you so much. Have a great Christmas and tell the rest of the family that I miss them and wish them the best!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009-

Does it get any better than this? To finish your last day of school before Winter Break, only to go read with a warm cup of green tea and a hot sweet potato pie? I'd call it pretty darn relaxing
In honor of the Japanese tradition called Oosouji ("Big Cleaning"), we spent the last hour or two of school today thoroughly cleaning the classroom.
Apparently it's a Japanese style of cleaning to throw wet newspaper balls all around the room before sweeping them up! It was the first time I'd ever heard of it, but it was of course tons of fun to joke around with friends like Seiya here
Clean and Tidy
We even waxed the floors

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009-

I don’t know what’s more telling about today: A) I learned how to make different kinds of Japanese mochi rice cakes, or B) I learned four or five different ways to tell people I’m exhausted in Japanese!

Because the truth is, I’m wiped! It was so much fun to spend all day with Miki and her family, the Miyazaki’s (they have been like a second host family to me, and Miki has surely been the most inviting person I’ve met here in Nakagawa), helping to make EIGHT full batches of rice cakes, also known as mochi, in front of their home. The day started at 7 am and I am just getting back home now at 6 pm. It was one full day, but I had a great time. Making mochi with your family is one of the great traditions for Japanese New Year so it was very nice to be included in the Miyazaki’s. Plus we certainly got our fill of mochi before heading home (laden with even more mochi…)

PS do you like my fancy apron? Miki bought it for me, and then immediately told me (in her best boss voice [which was still her laughing at me]) "GET TO WORK!!" Here are a couple pictures from the day...

The Mochi "stump" as I liked to think of it, is really a hollowed out tree that is used to pound rice into a sticky Japanese rice cake. Today we were working beside the Miyazaki's house
Miki and I workin' on the mochi
These mallets were literally 20-30 pounds, so after a while it really wore you out
In the beginning the rice looks a little something like this. It has soaked in water for a long time, steamed for a while, and mixed together in "the stump"
But after it has been beaten a while, it looks more like this. This mochi still has a little way to go, but you get the idea. It's super sticky and hot! A real treat
Some of our finished product. Mochi in sweet bean powder
The kind above was plain mochi, but we also made the Miyazaki's favorite "Tochigi Specialty Mochi." It included:
Plus: Ao Nori (seaweed), white sesame, and salt
Here's Yuka (our friend) and Miki with just some of the finished mochi. We literally made enough to feed all of Nakagawa!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009-

The letter has arrived. It’s ARGENTINA folks. That is where my younger sister, Maria, will be going for Rotary exchange next year. Maria is seventeen years old, currently a senior at Northfield High School, and the epitome of fun. If you looked up the word spontaneous in the dictionary, you’d find her picture. She is known to throw random picnics in the Arboretum with friends, is trendily up to date on the latest alternative musicians while in love with photography and the arts, she maintains an avid exerciser routine, is the strangest sneezer I’ve ever met, has a not so hidden love for Blueberry Muffin Tops cereal, speaks better Spanish than she gives herself credit for, and is the youngest relative on both sides of the family yet certainly not the least. She infamously sleeps on a swinging bed on our veranda from Spring to Fall, enjoys hot tubs with friends and family, whips up a mean Betty Crocker Confetti Cake (if she doesn’t eat all the batter first), has seen every episode of FRIENDS from start to finish, is the best reader of peoples’ moods that I’ve ever met, can always make me smile, and, as enforced by the fact that I am getting choked up writing all of this, has been, still is, and always will be my best friend.

Maria, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you this year. But I also can’t begin to tell you how excited I am for your very own escapade to Argentina. I am proud of you, thrilled about the experience you’ll encounter in South America, and anxious to see how far you’ll go in life with all of your many talents and connections.

You’ve told me before that you try to live up to the standard I’ve set before you; well you’re that and more, girl! Just know that there’s no way you’re making it through your exchange year without me coming to visit because I simply cannot only see you for one measly month in two full years. That’d be too tough on this old kid! I love, love, love you and will be by your side all the way until Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Summer, 2010 when you get to start out on your very own adventure. After that you’ll be the one looking over your shoulder at me! I can’t wait to see where these next couple years take you. Hold on for the ride, you’re in for the time of your life. – Sammy

I found this tonight on YouTube and nothing could possibly fit better! Jason Mraz's song Make It Mine is exactly what I want for you (and every other exchange student for that matter) but the fact that it is in Argentina just made me know I had to share this with you. I can already imagine you in a crazy clapping, cheering, singing, Spanish crowd totally in love with the world!

Make It Mine - Jason Mraz

Wake up everyone

How can you sleep at a time like this

Unless the dreamer is the real you

Listen to your voice

The one that tells you to taste past the tip of your tongue

Leap and the net will appear


I don't wanna wake before

The dream is over

I'm gonna make it mine

Yes I... I will own it

I'm gonna make it mine

Yes I'll make it all mine




I keep my life on a heavy rotation

Requesting that it's lifting you up

Up up and away

And over to a table at the gratitude cafe


And I am finally there

And all the angels they'll be singing

Ah la la la ah la la la ah la la la la la love this


Well I don't wanna break before

The tour is over

I'm gonna make it mine

Yes I, I... I will own it

I'm gonna make it mine

Yes I'll make it all mine


Oh timing's everything

And this time there's plenty

I am balancing

Careful and steady

And reveling in energy that everyone's emitting


Yeah I don't wanna wait no more

No, I wanna celebrate the whole world

I'm gonna make it mine

Because I'm following your joy

I'm gonna make it mine

Because I... I am open

I'm gonna make it mine

That's why... I'm gonna show it

I'm gonna make it, all mine

Mmmmm Gonna make gonna make gonna make gonna make it make it make it mine

It's mine... it's mine, it's mine, oh mine, oh mine, oh it's mine, it's, oh it's mine

Yes I will make it all mine...


Here's another great live version from New York. The sound doesn't cut out at the end on this one. Songs like this are why Mraz is one of my all time favorites: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6Mclgw89nk


Now for basically everyone else, sorry about that, I could have just told you to skip to the end! Today I went for a little photography walk, thinking about Maria and just where she'll be at this time next year. I laughed when I thought about how you’re going to take so many of these little photo strolls next year. Yours are going to be loads better, but here are a couple shots I took walking through my neighborhood here in Nakagawa.

PS. That picture above of the little girl statue is what I’m sure you still look like in Mom and Dad’s eyes, so cut ‘em some slack if they get a little tripped up with all of the Christmas/Rotary/kids-leaving-home/why’d-they-have-to-grow-up-so-fast stuff ;) I know you’ll hold down the fort well

PPS. Don’t worry Mom, you still have my permission to cry!

Sunsets and Graveyards. Apparently my two favorite subjects to shoot
Oh, and trees too...
Can you see the cat? She's watching me
The red door pointing straight North. I took it to be a sign from Santa. Haha =)
A single strip of plastic coating allows for an almost private glimpse into this warehouse
Fancy pants tree
Followed by the fanciest manhole covers I've ever seen. FYI this image pretty much captures my time so far in Nakagawa!
Props if you can decipher this one! Hint: thinks trees and bushes

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009-

I’m so full!

I have nothing more to add than that! I ate far too much today (as is appropriate for this season), and I am sure I’m steadily adding on the pounds. True fact for youth exchange: almost everyone comes home a couple kilos heavier. It doesn’t matter much where you go because like I wrote the other day, grandmas are universal. So expect to constantly be fed “the local food.” Everyone will want to make sure you’ve tried: Mochi rice cakes, mikan oranges, dried kaki persimmons, Tochigi strawberries (used on the cake at right), sweet potato pies, fresh grilled Ayu sweetfish, salted Ayu sweetfish, wrapped Ayu, Ayu in brown sauce, Ayu with fish eggs inside, Ayu with seaweed, Seaweed with Ayu heads, grilled Unagi, wrapped Unagi, Unagi with marinade….Do you get my point yet??? There are always local dishes that exchange students are ritualistically force-fed. Don’t think your area has them? I can almost guarantee that any exchange student who has come to my town of Northfield would have a list looking something like this: Malt-O-Meal cereal, Blue Monday coffee, Crazy Day’s Quality Bakery Alaskan donuts, hot cider, Northfield High School ala cart pizza, Arby’s curly fries, holiday cookies, eggnog, innumerable types of cheese all the way from cheddar to cake, tater tots, egg salad, multiple hot dishes, Jell-O and it’s accompanying assortment of dishes you’d bring to a Lutheran Pot Luck, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup cereal, corn on the cob, walleye, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and who could forget literally gallons of milk [to go on top of their cereal, of course].

Huh, what do ya' know? That basically became a list of all the kinds of food I've had a longing for! = ) Mmmmm

Anyway, today in my food design class I made a “Christmas Cake” with two friends, Omori-Kun and Asami-Chan. It was delicious, yet incredibly sweet as we used real cream, tons of sugar, strawberries, and peaches! Grandma, you would have approved.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009- SNOW

It's currently snowing for the first time all winter here. It's amazing how much I have missed the snow and all of the traditions, games, songs, sports, and even hassles that the fluffy white stuff has brought for me the past 19 years. I finally feel like I can celebrate Christmas now. Whew, what a relief! More later, I'll even upload a pic of the ridiculously meager amount of snow that is falling, but at least it was enough for me to catch a snowflake on my tongue. I'm oddly at ease right now...off to school. Biking in the snow =)
Well I'm back home, unwrapped from my multiple layers of jackets, scarves, vests, long sleeved shirts, and more. The picture to the right is of the cliffs but if you look closely you can see tiny little snowflakes as well! hah, good luck, there weren't many...
The fact that it is still only in the 30s and 40s here is surprising to me. I think because Japanese buildings must be built with earthquakes in mind, their walls must be thinner and therefore heat-retention isn't exactly at the top of their list. I sleep every night with five thick blankets over my futon and still wake up chilly. But I'm not complaining by any means, because the cold is making it seem even more like Christmas! Today's snow was over before I even arrived at school, but for that brief while I had happy thoughts of blizzards, sledding, igloos, and snow days. A self revelation: I enjoy all four seasons! I can't wait for Christmas and still find it slightly unnerving that it is NEXT WEEK!!! Wow...
Look closely. This is the Sato's garden and if you're really observant you'll be able to stop the snowflakes [if you can't see them then at least enjoy the cool trees!]
There's a small creek that I cross everyday on my bike and I came home today just as the sun was setting. I couldn't resist stopping and pulling out my camera. I know I looked like a total foreigner again, but for a couple fun shots it was totally worth it [plus only like 3 or 4 cars passed by, so it was all good]
Another funky angle

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009-

With no homework to worry about I am free to spend my time after school doing whatever I feel like. Today was a fantastic after school day! I spent an hour and a half reading my new Soccernomics book that I got from Grandma Estenson at the town rest stop (this is the one with the great gelato and the friendly old ladies working behind the counter). Well today I snagged an absolutely delicious sweet potato pie that was made by hand at the rest stop (seriously, rest stop is an awful word for this place). It was only 100 Yen (about $1.10) and the old ladies behind the counter decided I looked too cold as well so they gave me free green tea on them. They then proceeded to give me seconds, the best spot by the window, and a handful of red, ripe strawberries! It was perfect. It was my today’s little something. Old Japanese women are so giving and won’t stop feeding you until you feel like you’re going to burst. Apparently it’s a universal Grandma thing!

Anyway, as I left the rest stop I spotted Miki and Seiya on their scooters and we headed to the 711 convenience store for a while. Sadly, that is the first time I’ve ever hung out with one of my school friends outside of school. I’m seriously warning any exchange students coming to Japan: DON’T EXPECT TO BE VERY SOCIAL HERE!! It’s not that students aren’t kind, it’s just that they literally have to go home or to their jobs right after school. And in my case it’s tricky when almost none of the students live in town but commute by scooter. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems to be true for the other Tochigi exchange students as well.

After 711 I went to the Kobayashi’s store where I was fed even more and helped them wrap literally hundreds of packages. Their business is REALLY doing well now around the holidays, but they’ve told me it’s even busier during the summer. I can’t even imagine it!

I wish I had taken another picture where you could see my next host dad, Hiroshi Kobayashi, better. He's the one on the left behind the guy in the mask. He's great. Really fun and young and I can already tell that he's super easy to get along with.
PS can you tell how many boxes there are? This isn't even busy. Last week was FULL!
That's my host grandma on the far left. The other two are her little grandma friends. They're working to package even more boxes. Yeah, they pretty much love me ;)
My host mom, Sumie (sp?), is in the middle. Again, so easy to get along with and she's got a great sense of humor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monday, December 14-Tuesday, December 15, 2009-

The highlights of my past two days have been the little things. An appreciation for tiny moments of happiness is something that I am learning to take away from this year.

There will certainly be days in your life when you flat out don’t have anything special planned and nowhere special to go, so find something small that makes you happy and enjoy that instead.

The illuminations at the Suiyuen Aquarium are held nightly until 8 o’clock thru Christmas Day, so tonight after dinner my host mom drove me over to see them. The water was a perfect mirror and the lights lit up the sharp winter air spectacularly. It was my little something. For lack of any better way to describe it, for 10 minutes I was freezing but “home” happy…

Can you believe that the bottom half is actually a reflection over the pond? It's so clear
Yay for Christmas lights. I have actually been quite impressed by the amount of Holiday Cheer I've found here in Japan. The big cities go all out in decorations, stores of course love another reason for people to buy gifts so there's music playing in every shop you step into, and "illuminations" such as these are more common that I'd have guessed.
I realized that if you look at this one sideways it looks like a fly's head!
I still can't believe how black the black is!
This one is using the "antique" effect on iPhoto. It looked cool so I kept it that way
Here's one of my previous blog pictures to show you a summertime day view of the aquarium. Cool comparison, huh?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009-

Christmas Party! The exchange students, Rotarians, host families and next years exchange students all had an Xmas party in Tochigi City this afternoon. It was loads of fun to see my friends again and of course to get so many presents, almost all of which were food!! Haha

We gathered for appetizers, a magic show, a very funny “Russian Roulette” game with desserts, a costume contest, presents, bowling, and dinner! What a day. To clarify, the cookie game: there were four cookies on a plate. Three cookies were filled with a sweet paste but one was filled with spicy wasabe-like mustard! Four people at a time had to randomly pick a cookie and eat them. Everyone then acted like they had eaten the spicy one while the crowd had to guess who had really eaten the hot one. Extremely funny. As for the costume contest, I was one of three winners with my Christmas Tree outfit! The bowling was enjoyable too, and to my surprise my host mom beat all the other host moms. Haha, who would've guessed!?!

Chisaki and Ayano being festive
Anaïs as Santa! Nice beard...but shouldn't it be Max Beard who actually has a beard?? Why don't you have a beard, Max? Amberly and I have been wondering that...
Me, Mai, and Ayano at bowling. Apparently Rudolph is really excited to bowling
NO I HAVEN'T GAINED (much) WEIGHT!! I'm trying to look like a tree! haha, but this is a fun picture of everyone. That's our district governor, Matsuba-San, in the middle next to the big (dog) reindeer Ayano!
We stopped at someone's relative's house to see their christmas illuminations =)
On our way to the party we even ran into a highway motorcycle gang. First time for everything! Fun fact: Apparently the word for them is "Bozo" or at least that's what my host mom called them