Saturday, September 5, 2009

Saturday, September 5, 2009-

Turns out I didn’t visit Dr. Sato in the hospital today. I was invited to a river BBQ with my new neighbor friend Miki and 6 of her friends. They were all 27 or 28 years old but they treated me very well and we certainly laughed a lot. The location was incredible and the food was just as enjoyable to cook as to eat. The frying chicken, beef, and pork smelt so good mixed with sizzling soba noodles, fresh veggies, fresh air, and the smoking fire underneath.

I also experienced my first mini tea ceremony at Miki’s old high school. There was a school festival that she took me to and we toured the school. We were invited to take part in a short 10-minute tea ceremony. There were a ton of rules and I’m sure I broke nearly all of them, yet they were happy at how excited I was to be experiencing it for the first time, so they let it slide…for now.

We’ll go meet my host dad in the hospital tomorrow afternoon. Back to normal soon!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thursday, September 3 – Friday, September 4, 2009

Two very quiet days for Señor Sam. I am now back to full health, but I have had to remain homebound for the past three days. This evening (Friday) was actually rather fun however, because right before dinner the Sato’s neighbor, the 26-year-old Miki, came over to talk for a while. She was very fun and her English is pretty good, so she told me that on the 21st of this month I get to skip school and go with her to a sports festival, whatever that might be. Mama Sato told me that Miki is ranked 7th in all of Japan for Track and Field in the, get this, HAMMER THROW!! Look it up, it’s awesome.

AWWWW AREN’T WE CUTE (Mama Sato is on the far right) After dinner two of Hideo’s sisters came over for tea. The one also brought her husband. Unfortunately I never heard their names, so for now they’re just Obasan and Ojisan (Aunt and Uncle). It was great to finally use some Japanese. I am moving slowly, but merely being exposed to conversation certainly helps.

My Rotary welcoming party that was planned for tomorrow was pushed back a week due to my illness, making me feel quite guilty. Oh well.

PS Mrs. Sato is like a Laundry Master! She insists that she do mine for me, and the more I try to help, the stronger she refuses. Anyway she basically cleaned, air dried, and folded all of my dirty clothes from the orientation, hotel, and school in less than one day, wow!

LEARN TO SPEAK JAPANESE: That's right, you too can learn Japanese.

Sam’s Word

– Washing Machine –

Simply say the words "Sent A Cookie" with a slight Japanese accent! Fun, eh :)

洗濯機 せんたくき Sentakuki

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Finally Up To Date

I made it, I've caught up on my blogging. Sorry that took me so long. I apparently had bronchitis, however, so cut me some slack. = ) Hah, just kidding. I hope you've enjoyed everything so far. From now on I'm thinking I'll just check in every couple days with the highlights and so forth.
Doumo Arigatou Tomodachi
Thanks so much friends

Tuesday, September 1, 2009-Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Today just goes to show you never know what will unfold during your exchange year. With that in mind, this may prove to be the worst day of my exchange year. I woke up with a killer headache but merely took an all-day Aleve in hopes that that would solve my problem. At breakfast I barely had an appetite (I know scary right!) and while biking the 7-8 kilometer route to school I felt awful. I arrived at school and my headache was growing, plus I began to have the chills. I could tell that I was a little feverish but chose not to do anything about it, hoping that it would pass soon.

By the time we all jumped in the pool for our kayak test 6th hour my head was absolutely pounding and I really felt sick. I was in no state to take any pictures so instead I shall include this cool picture of a koi fish I took while staying at Sasayaso...just imagine it's my kayak : ) Anyway, I went to the school nurse and she took my temperature only to find that I was running a fever of 39.1 C or 102 F. They immediately made me start wearing a mask and panicked slightly because apparently there had been a case of swine flu in some school in a nearby state.

Mrs. Sato came and took me straight to a clinic where the Rotarian Dr. Kimura began running tests on me. We stumbled through describing my symptoms but I was quite sure I didn't have the flu, it felt more like when I’d had pneumonia in the past. They did this weird nasal test sticking a swab literally inches up my nostril (it hurt but I was just thankful I didn’t have to have blood drawn!).

They came back with the results that I was negative for Flu but did have a slight case of bronchitis and pneumonia. Dr. Kimura ran an x-ray or two and within the hour I was handed FIVE different pills to start taking!!

Back at home I immediately crashed in bed. Mama Sato fed me soup and I took the first batch of pills. I’m writing this the next day because I more or less slept all the way from 8 at night until 11:30 the next morning. Luckily my fever has broken and I’m merely going to spend the day resting. I do feel much better now however. Mrs. Sato's hot udon soup sure helped! Ok I’m off to bed, again.

Update: I’m feeling better, my fever is all gone, but I’m pretty wiped out. I spent the day trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep. So instead I read, studied, and worked on the blog. Super dull, but it's the slow-down I needed…I think tomorrow’s going to be about the same though.

Monday, August 31, 2009-

Three big firsts for me today! 1) I experienced my first earthquake last night! It woke me up sometime in the middle of the night and I was so groggy that I thought it was merely a nightmare in which the whole room was shaking until I was told this morning that it was real.

2 ) THE TYPHOON’S HERE!!! School was fun today because we were given an early release due to the weather. I had two hours of English and two hours at the fishery, so it was a pretty low-key day. The photo on the right is of the part of the fishery where all the delicious 魚 (fishies) live. It was just before the Typhoon really hit.

I did have to say good-bye to all the Sasayaso people this morning and they presented me with a beautiful Japanese pottery rice bowl to take with me. It has really intricate leaf patterns around the outside with the symbols for home and something else I can’t understand yet. I’ll definitely be going back for a dip in the Onsen sometime soon.

3) That aside I moved into the Sato’s house today. It’s been a strange journey getting here but I’ve had fun the whole time. Mr. Sato (or Otoosan - Dad - as I’m told to call him now) is still in the hospital and won’t be getting out for another 10 days or so. I learned that in fact he did have a heart attack and therefore they’re being extra cautious about bringing him back home. But my host mom's name is Kimi Sato. We spent several hours talking over dinner and I gave her the gifts I had for them. Woah, I have a long way to go in my Japanese, and the fact that neither of them speak any English is a little daunting, but we'll survive! It was comforting to know that she was willing to sit down with a cup of hot green tea and struggle through a conversation like that. I know that they’ll be a kind and understanding host family.

Now allow me a second to describe their “home.” I say that because Dr. Sato is also a dentist, and therefore they live on somewhat of a complex. Their house is half a dentist clinic and half their home. One of their two sons is also part of the clinic, so he has a dayroom building behind the main house but he still lives in Utsunomiya an hour away. It turns out their other son is a doctor living in Yokohama, near Tokyo. The bottom of the day-house, however, is the room that they have given to me! It’s huge, I have a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and large tatami mat bedroom with futon. These two pictures are of my room after I got settled in. It should be very nice.

Ok Beske’s this part is for you! Alisa are you ready for a crazy coincidence? The Sato’s have hosted two boys before, both from Sweden, and one of the two is from…you guessed it, Örebro!! Imagine my host mother's surprise when I described how connected our family was to the city. I think she understood because she kept saying the Japanese equivalent of, “Oh my, is that so? Is that so?” Hah, I was so caught off guard when I walked into their house and there was a rotary flag hanging on the bathroom door reading Örebro, Sweden! Small world, huh?

Well the typhoon is slowing down a little bit and I am ready to try out my new futon, it’s reassuring to have a place to call “home” once again. Plus tomorrow I’m supposed to have a kayak test in my 5th and 6th hour classes so I need to be well rested : ) I’ll dream of typhoons and fish and earthquakes…hmmm sounds just like Japan!

Sunday, August 30, 2009-

I got to sleep in again, arranging some of my stuff to be packed up this afternoon before taking an Onsen and eating breakfast. I had Natto fermented soybeans for the second time now; it’s not exactly sticking with me (pun intended). The Ohkawa’s were there again to pick me up at 10:30 and we made our way over the river to the Sato’s home where my future host mom welcomed us in for tea and fresh cut pears. We talked for a while about how I would move in tomorrow before Mr. Toshihisa Shiraso-San arrived. He’s my Bato-Ogawa counselor and his English is flawless. He lived in London for a while so he even has a little British accent. Apparently he’s the owner of a tiny Sake Company is town. We got acquainted and finalized how I would be getting to school and so on. Apparently there’s a typhoon (台風 #11- Typhoon 11. No names for Typhoons, only numbers) and it's on its way, all set to hit Tochigi sometime tonight or tomorrow morning. I know it sounds bad but I hope it’s really intense and scary. That’s how I’ve always imagined typhoons to be and I hope I’m not let down.

I then went to Kevin-San’s office where I had my picture taken for the monthly Nakagawa newspaper. Hmmm, don’t know what that will entail but we’ll see.

The Ohkawa’s then took me out for the second afternoon in a row and we had a great time. Lunch was a delicious tempura soba soup that was warm and crunchy and slurpy all at once. YUM! We then walked through a 120-year-old farm building with a hatched roof and tatami mats inside. The pictures on the left are from that farm. We then toured the Nakagawa history museum, dating back to 1000 BCE!

After the museum they took me out to the Nakagawa Suiyuen Water Garden again where we enjoyed cookies-n-cream gelato and laughed at all the little children running about. They dropped me off at Sasayaso once again and I packed up my bags for tomorrow morning, studied a little bit, read, watched a movie, took a dip in the Onsen and ate dinner. Quite an easy afternoon.

Saturday, August 29, 2009-

I got to sleep in a bit this morning, but couldn’t make myself stay in bed past 8:45. The frogs, bugs, and birds here are incredibly loud by that point every morning, it practically sounds like a rainforest right outside my window. That aside it felt good to be lazy a little bit, I took a dip in the Onsen, watched the only episode of Friends I have on my laptop (“The One Where Rosita Dies” – all you Friends fans out there watch it and think of me, it’s a good one), and went down for breakfast. I was picked up by the Ohkawa’s at 10:30 and we went out for a great day in the countryside. We started with a trip to the very unique MOB Museum of Bato. It’s an internationally recognized museum for art by the mentally handicapped. I was amazed by the creativity and intricacy for the art. We had cookies with the artsy museum director. She would have fit in very well at the NAG in Northfield.

After the museum we drove through the region of Bato that is hidden in the mountains and the Ohkawa’s took me to their beautiful traditional Japanese home. The style is distinctly that of Japan and the house even has a middle room devoted to the traditional tea ceremony that this nation holds in such high regard.

After a snack and drink we hopped back into the car and headed to a town north of Nakagawa where we visited an ancient Zen temple call Daioji (大雄時). It was a beautiful complex hidden into the hillside. From the road you would never have known that behind the forest of bamboo and moss covered pines there lay a huge stone and straw hatch temple known throughout the region for its beauty and serenity. Climbing the worn stone steps I passed engravings and sculptures so weathered and aged that one couldn’t help but be at peace. The two pictures on the right are both from Daioji. It suddenly feels strange that we don't have structures this old in our backyards also...

Lunch was spent in a quaint garden restaurant enjoying Onigiri rice balls, Miso soup, and Mochi rice cakes in sweet bean powder. To finish our meal we traveled for 15 minutes past photo opportunity after photo opportunity (If I were driving it would have taken twice as long without a doubt - to give you an idea of the countryside, the picture below was one of many just like it). Eventually we reached a teahouse so hidden in the twists and turns of the countryside that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back there if I needed to. The teahouse had been built 100 years ago as a small rice barn but has since been remodeled and is now known as the picturesque Rosa Mundi.

The owner was a welcoming woman who had studied English all over the world and now runs community programs in the area for Japanese of all ages, including an “after-school school” for those looking to improve their English. She made us her secret type of tea with herbs she had to step outside and pick as we sat there. The tea was served with a fluffy green tea flavored cake that reminded me of angle food cake, a truly delicious pairing, I’ll let you know!

The Ohkawa’s dropped me off at Sasayaso in the late afternoon and Sasaishi-San put in a Japanese DVD with English subtitles for me and we watched “Always,” a film about a down and out author and his strange love affair with a woman who convinces him to look after her friend’s son, while they all live across the street from this car shop where another boy lives with his father and mother who take in a girl from the countryside who thinks her family doesn't love her, but they really do, and it all takes part in post WWII Japan and Tokyo is being rebuilt while these rich people try to take away the writer’s lover’s friend’s son, and my point is that it was confusing (as you can obviously tell) but I really wanted to see how long I could make this one sentence, that’s all…ANYWAY, the evening was nice, now I’m ready for bed once again. Night. PS don't show this paragraph of a sentence to any of my English teachers, they’d be ashamed of me!

Friday, August 28, 2009 –

A new day at Bato High and I’m still laughing at my luck. I found out I am the latest foreign exchange student to the school in the past 10 years, so they’re kind of winging my schedule and how my day plays out. As before the English teachers have been so helpful, coming to my homeroom classes in order to translate the day's news and so forth. Today I had two hours of fish biology and anatomy followed by craft design (I get to make a cool Japanese style clay plate set). Then English 1 in which I helped lead the class in forming simple introductions.

My last two classes of the day were spent in Cooking class.

I learned to make あんみつ 餡蜜 basically it's a syrup covered bean jam dessert with fresh fruit and ice cream on top. It was fun even though I was completely lost as to what was going on. The syrup proved to be so sweet I couldn’t even finish the whole dessert, but the fresh fruit on top was delicious.

After school I went to the soccer club and played with the “team," aka 6 people. Despite that fact, a couple of the guys were quite good and we had a fun time taking shots and playing 3 v. 3 until I had to head back to Sasayaso. Dinner back at the inn was delicious. I had the famous Nakagawa Ayu sweetfish for the first time.

They prepared it whole with a salty coating covering the skin. The meat itself was superb, yet the fact that the fish’s bones and skin and insides were also involved was a bit of a turn off. They told me also to eat the head but I couldn’t handle the sour flavor and hard skull bones inside. Sorry if that was too much information but I figured I ought to be thorough on my first Ayu experience : ) The rest of the meal was great, Tendon tempura and rice with the top covered in a great sauce. The flavors were new and tangy and full. I didn't want to take a picture of the old man who I think owns the inn, and with whom I've eaten most of my meals. So instead I took a picture of this mask I found in a bathroom that looks IDENTICAL to him! It made me laugh out loud when I found it.

Mr. Blackburn sent me an invitation to take part in a traditional rice harvesting celebration this October. It ought to be a lot of fun and I’m going to see if the other inbounds want to join me. But right now I’m wiped out from all the fresh air and bike riding. It’s only 9 o’clock but I’m ready to crash. I can’t believe right now (9 o’clock Friday night) marks one week from when I landed in Narita. I feel like I’ve done so much already, it really is exhausting. Good ni..g...h….t…(yawn)….Zzzzz

Thursday, August 27, 2009 –

You’re going to laugh at my schedule when you hear what I did on my first day of classes. First of all I biked the 7-kilometer (that’s just short of 4.5 miles, FYI) trip to Bato KouKou with two of the boys staying at Sasayaso. It was a decent descent on the way there but it was hell going back uphill on the way home. There’s literally a kilometer long hill that winds its way up to the onsen that made for a fun trip down but required almost a 12-minute walk back up. The biking aside my day has been incredible. My schedule went as such:

Today I had..
  • 2 hours of Knot Tying, literally learning a dozen new knots to use out on the water. I couldn’t stop laughing at the idea that this was what I’m going to be learning this year
  • 1 hour traditional character Calligraphy with the whole black ink and huge brushes on handmade Japanese paper
  • 1 hour Math. This also proved to be quite humorous because it took a team of 4 or 5 math teachers to help translate my workbook page on functions and graphs.
  • Lunch in the classroom with my new classmates who were very welcoming to me, then 15 minutes of cleaning the school.
  • 2 hours of Diving and Snorkeling Class outdoors in the school pool. I didn’t have a swimsuit today so I basically sat outside by the pool for two hours talking in Japenglish with Tanaka-Sensei. He is the Fish Products and Manufacturing professor and the school archery coach. To give you an idea of Tanaka-Sensei, think of a Japanese John Daniels. They look alike, sound alike (minus the accent), and laugh alike. It kind of felt like I had a friend with me again, so thanks JD...or Tanaka-Sensei... Anyway, he invited me to the archery club practice after school so after the last bell he took me out to the archery fields on the school grounds and I hung out there, getting to shoot an arrow or two until the two boys from Sasayaso finished their clubs and we biked (the mountain) back home.
Back at the inn I was puzzled to find a bright gold gift box waiting for me with oversized plastic flowers taped to the outside. I hesitantly opened it, expecting it to be for someone else but inside were twenty little Origami cranes and pinwheels made for me by the young kids of the inn. I finished the night eating a delicious meal of breaded pork cutlets called Tonkatsu, and taking a dip in the Onsen with the guys. It’s a relaxing sort of life. The best term for it is - 気持ちいい - Kimochi ii – A good feeling!!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 –

My first day of school. I’ll now admit that I had been dreading going back to high school for one more year, but I’ve learned today that what I’ll be doing is far from normal high school. Because I am already an accepted student at the University of Denver, the courses I take here at Bato KouKou are for no credit and are really up to me to select. The school is situated on top of a hill overlooking the town of Bato.

I was taken to the cozy third floor library of the high school where I got to arrange my school schedule after a very kind opening ceremony, including a whole school introduction of myself and Ms. Grace Lee (a North Carolina JET Program teacher who will be helping part time at the school this year). The librarian, Mrs. Oshima-San, offered me a warm smile and I stumbled through an enjoyable afternoon conversing with her in her broken English and me in my slowly growing Japanese.

Because the other students needed to take a “review exam” today, Oshima-San and two of my second year teachers had lunch with me in Oshima-San’s office. The four English teachers at the high school have proven to be a wonderful resource. They have truly taken me under their wing, helping to translate when I am completely lost. So has Mr. Kevin Blackburn. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for him here helping me out. After school he and the Ohkawa’s took me around town to run a couple errands before dropping me off at Sasayaso Inn again.

I had planed on a dull afternoon reading or on the computer until the incredibly kind thirty-something innkeeper Mr. Kazuaki Sasaishi knocked on my door. I answered it hesitantly and was surprised to see a whole crowd at my door. He and eight young kids, all no more than 10 years old, took me outside where we played soccer for a little bit. Soon he started to explain something in Japanese that was completely lost on me. Finally he said in English, “I drive, wait here.” I had no idea what was going on but sat on an old wooden bench in front of the inn with two twin boys who couldn’t be older than 4 or 5 years old. They didn’t seem to understand that I spoke practically no Japanese because all afternoon they continued asking me questions that I simply shrugged my shoulders to. The 10 of us all crammed into Sasaishi-San’s car (the 8 kids all in the back seat) and drove 10 minutes down the road and over the river to the Nakagawa Suiyuen (なかがわ水遊園).

It is an awe inspiring river and aquatic garden complex that caught me completely off guard for a town of this size. Situated along the Nakagawa River its highlight is a pyramid-like green house reaching several stories into the sky, enabling visitors to see it from kilometers away. Inside we laughed as the kids and I went through a top-notch aquarium, including fish from not only the Nakagawa River but also from all over the world. I laughed at the fact that they had one lonely smallmouth bass on display as a foreign fish. I would’ve thrown it back myself! We also spent quite a while feeding a pond of giant koi fish. At times they were so dense they practically ran onto the shore in their fight to grab the little bits of fish food we bought for 100¥.

It was an awesome afternoon! It’s comforting how welcoming even strangers seem to be here. I’m so glad I am in a smaller town than a huge metropolis where foreigners are simple taken for granted. I tried to pay Sasaishi-San back but he flat out refused, so instead I gave the kids two bags of Skittles and thanked them again and again. Now I’m off to take a dip in the Onsen (photo on left) before bed. Oyasuminasai.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 –

Woke up early at Yamanakako and cleaned the house. We then drove several hours to Tochigi-shi where we had lunch and had to give a speech to a rotary club and our host families. As the Sato’s couldn’t make it, there were three Nakagawans there to greet me instead. Mr. Kinya Ohkawa is the current club president and has been very kind to me in wake of the Sato Situation. Mr. Yuji Shiozawa is also a Rotarian and will likely be my second or third host family. And finally Mr. Kevin Blackburn. He’s an American who came to Japan 19 years ago on the JET Program and has been teaching and working in Nakagawa now for quite some time. His Japanese is fluent so he has been my (much needed) translator.

We went straight from lunch to my host town, about a 1 ½ hour drive by car. The countryside is beautiful, very different from Minnesota. The central part of Tochigi is very flat as it’s part of the Kanto flatlands. Yet Nakagawa is located right where the plane meets with a series of tight, sharp hills. They look like crowded miniature mountains as they’re so densely forested and close to one another. Through the city runs the Nakagawa river, and as today's weather was so nice the river was full of fishermen casting their gigantic bamboo poles out into the rapids fishing for Ayu (or Japanese sweet fish, a staple of Nakagawa).

My first stop was my future school. At Bato KouKou (as it’s called in Japanese) I learned some exciting news. I won’t be attending normal high school but rather a specialized Fishery and River Husbandry school that draws from all over Tochigi and even beyond. This means that I will be doing quite a bit of outdoor activities, river work, experiments, and hands-on learning. It ought to be a real adventure and opportunity to spend a year at such a school. I can’t wait. I was fitted for school uniforms and finally taken to the Onsen Family Inn Sasayaso - ささやそ. It’s a traditional family run inn on top of the bluff overlooking the river and the city.

I have my own room with a traditional tatami mat floor and futon folded bed to sleep on. There are 4 other boys who live at the inn during the school year in order to attend the fishery school so I won’t be too lonely here. After dinner I relaxed, took a dip in the Onsen, unpacked and crashed in my room. I’m exhausted now. Japan is a lot of work sometimes, but I’m still loving it!

Monday, August 24, 2009 –

At the Rotary orientation back in Minnesota we were told we would each experience a rollercoaster of sorts during our year abroad. I’m just surprised I’ve already experienced mine! Don’t worry, I’m not talking about an emotional rollercoaster. Today we went to Fuji Q Highland Amusement Park, the largest amusement park in Japan. It’s famous throughout the country for it’s gigantic roller coasters, including the past Guinness World Record rollercoaster for highest and longest drop. 73 meters high, and a 71.5 meter fall.

Fujiyama (literally Fuji Mountain) was our first ride of the day and I can’t compare it to anything in the states. Not only was it gigantic but it was also almost double or triple as long as most of the coasters back home. Truly amazing. The rest of the day was spent on other fun rides, including one coaster that sent you on a straight out track at 173 kilometers per hour, that’s about 107 mph!

Dinner was a fun Japanese all you can eat buffet. It was both sushi and Yakiniku – thinly sliced meats cooked over a grill right in the middle of your table.

On our drive home we stopped for a nighttime view of Mt. Fuji. To give you an idea of where I am in comparison to the Mountain I took a picture of this tiny 3D map. The lake on the right is 山中湖 (Yamanakako). We soon headed back home where we set off a large pack of Hanabi fireworks that Ayano had bought for us. My first roadblock did come up today however. Matsuba-San got a call on her cell phone to tell us that my host father, Doctor Sato (PS I found out he’s a dentist) had a heart attack and/or some sort of pulmonary issue arise last night and has spent the day in Intensive Care, meaning I will not be able to stay at his house when I arrive in Nakagawa. Therefore I will be sent to some hotel for a while instead. Ok I’ll admit I’m a little nervous about the prospect of being on my own, especially trying to get to school and around town. I suppose this is merely my first bump on the Rotary Roller Coaster. I hope it’s as exhilarating as Fujiyama…

Sunday, August 23, 2009 –

Ok so the beds are still rock hard, but I slept like a log nonetheless. The first thing we discovered upon waking up was that Mt. Fuji had an incredibly rare double umbrella cloud over its peak. Ohtake-San, the cabin’s owner, says that it was his first time to see such a thing. Apparently such clouds only happen once or twice every decade. So we enjoyed the view as we ate breakfast but left early because we had a full day ahead of us.

The hour drive to Lake Hakone was a fun one. Me, Ayano, and Mai all got to ride in Matsuba-San’s car. We laughed a lot to say the least. It made for a great memory driving through the lush forests and steep mountain landscape as we descended into the basin of Lake Hakone. We caught the “Hakone Roapway Cable Car” to the top of the surrounding peaks that overlook the lake. I was surprised to learn that they were mining sulfur in the hot spring sources up in the mountains. It stank badly at times but the view was awesome! We ate fun Onsen Tamago, or hardboiled eggs cooked in the hot springs water, dying them dark black.

After the Ropeway we went down to the lake and took a giant ship decorated like an Old Spanish Galleon across the deep blue waters of the mountain lake. Ayano had bought bubble mix and we blew bubbles off the back of the ship for a while, taking lots of pictures together along the way. Still the best was yet to come as we disembarked and drove into the mountains to an awesome Onsen water park called Yanessansu Spa.

There was a fun waterslide and outdoor area where we spent quite a while swimming and having fun, but the real highlight of the day was a series of ofuros (hot tubs) each with a different theme. The first was very salty and you could float easily on your back in it. The second was coffee themed, and there was actual coffee mixed into the water. Then came wine, with just a bit of real wine in it, the water was a dark purple color and it even included an enormous wine bottle fountain pouring into it. Next was green tea and there was genuine green tea leaves soaked into the bright green water. After that came a real laughing point, a Sake hot tub with an actual stream of sake dripping into it that bathers were able to scoop up and sample.

The rest of the hot tubs were charcoal, rock and Goemon themed. The last is named after an ancient thief who was boiled to death after being caught. It was by far the hottest of the pools and us poor Gaijin foreigners couldn’t stand it too long.

In the evening we went out to a VERY nice Chinese restaurant where we were served a delicious community style 10-course meal. It even included expensive shark fin soup. We had a great time, the group really gets along well and the Rotarians are treating us royally. I’m really having a wonderful time here, I can't believe I’ve only been here two days now, I already feel like I’ve done so much.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009 –

Woke up in a bed much stiffer than I’m used to back home, but maybe that’s just the effects of such a long day of traveling yesterday. I went upstairs to breakfast where I met Anaïs and Amberly, the students from France and Canada, and the other Rotex girl named Mai, who is twenty years old and studied in South Carolina several years ago. They are all quick to laugh and I can already tell we’re going to have a fun orientation. Mr. Ohtake-San is the owner of the cabin and he and Mrs. Matsuba-San, the Tochigi district Rotary Youth Coordinator, have an awesome schedule set out for us. I went straight to the window to see Mt. Fuji, 富士 山、but unfortunately it was rather overcast so we couldn’t make it out mere kilometers to the west of the cabin.

The cottage is quite nice, three floors with a nice wrap around porch on the second level. Max and I have a downstairs room and Simon to joined us this afternoon. It is not a lake cabin like we’d call it back in the states. It’s more of a mountain home, situated in the hills around the lake. This afternoon the gang loaded into the cars and we were taken to a cool area of Yamanka town where there are “Eight Tiny Seas”, more like koi ponds really but we had fun tossing fish food into the water and watching the underwater fights ensue.

We ate Soba for lunch and were taught the “correct way” to eat it: slurping the noodles down with lots of noise. You’d hate it Mom, a whole restaurant full of slurps and smacks! So naturally, I fit right in. We then went to a grocery store where they bought food for our meals back home and us students bought a box of Japanese Ice Cream Popsicles to share. Before heading home we stopped at a miso store where we got to try the different flavors of miso they had made that day. Miso appears to be a Japanese staple, but I’m fine with that. It tastes sweeter here than what I’ve had back home and with a little soy sauce on top it can be quite good.

The evening was spent welcoming Simon and going to a Karaoke bar. Matsuba-San has already fallen in love with me and she brought me up on stage to sing me a Japanese 1990-something pop song involving the English lines, “I’m just a women, and I’ve fallen for you.” We did have quite a bit of fun though, leafing through an enormous book of songs that they have on hand. We ended up singing some Journey, Black Eyed Peas, Shakira, and finally the song, “Doomo Arigatoo Mr. Roboto.” A fitting song to end the night on.

Day 1 – Thursday, August 20 & Friday, August 21, 2009

Today is just the beginning. Before me I have one incredible year in Japan full of adventures, challenges, friends, & firsts. Yet in order to experience such a unique opportunity, I’ve had to say good-bye to my life as I’ve known it. My family, friends, home, & comfort zone are all now behind me in Minnesota. As I wait to board the plane at gate G4 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport I marvel at the realization that this year is up to no one but myself. It’s sure to be an exciting, challenging, & unpredictable year. Now if my plane would just board! I’ve been delayed several hours already and I really want to start The Shawshank Redemption…

Plane Update – So I’ve finished The Shawshank Redemption, I’d forgotten just how good that movie is. I can see why it’s one of your favorites, Dad. I asked for an aisle seat and ended up with a nice place in the middle of the plane near one of the big movie screens. I’ve just read your letter to me, Weaver, and I had to try really hard not to laugh/cry again. I can’t wait for this to be you. You’re going to have so much fun in Spain! And Mom and Maria, I had my iPod on shuffle and as I was writing this very paragraph the song, “Can’t Turn Back Now” by (ironically enough) the Weepies came on, I think it’s fate playing with me. I can’t believe how fitting these words are for my year abroad. I wonder if you’d known that all along Mom…

Yesterday when you were young everything you needed done was done for you,

Now you do it on your own, but you find you’re all alone, what can you do?

You, you, And me, me, Walk on, Walk on, Walk on. Because you can’t go back now.

You know there will be days when you’re so tired you can’t take another step,

Now you will have no stars and you will think you’ve gone as far as you’ll ever go

You, you, And me, me, Walk on, Walk on, Walk on. Because you can’t go back now.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah go where you wanna go. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah be what you wanna be.

If you ever turn around, you’ll see me. I can’t really say why everybody wishes they were somewhere else.

But in the end the only steps that matter are the ones you take are the ones you take all by yourself.

Yeah You, you, And me, me. Walk on, Walk on, Walk on.

Yeah You, you, And me, me. Walk on, Walk on, Walk on. Because you can’t go back now.

Walk on, Walk on, Walk on. You can’t go back now.

Yamanakako Update – I arrived at the Narita airport to be greeted by Mr. Aoyama who is my rotary exchange officer and Ayano Baba. She’s from Tochigi and went through an exchange to Minnesota four years ago. We drove two and a half hours in the middle of the night through Tokyo and westward until we came upon the sleepy shores of lake Yamanakako. At the cottage I met Max Beard, the Rotary Inbound from Jacksonville, Florida. We hit it off immediately and everyone finally got to sleep around 2 am. I’m exhausted but thrilled. I can’t believe I’m actually here.

Today was just the beginning.