Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009-

Two random comments before the real stuff

1) I feel so connected to my real family right now, it’s great. I skyped with Mom, Dad, and Maria this morning for a little Christmas tradition we have. Maria and I both have one special Christmas ornament for each of our Christmases. I always get a Santa ornament, and she an angel. The ornament has to be representative of our year and this year we “skype” hung up our ornaments.

But Mom being Mom had found an awesome collapsible Santa Snow Globe ornament that she mailed to me earlier so I could take part as well. The fact that it’s a globe [and that we had to mail it!] surely fits the part well. It looks great on my Christmas tree here in Japan. What’s more, this week I have received gift packages from both my Grandma Estenson and Aunt Kathy and her family. It was lots of fun to have actual presents to open! Thank you all so much!

2) Today I went out to lunch with my host dad’s sisters, but he didn’t come. Haha it was my host mom, my two host aunts, and my host uncle. We ate Okonomiyaki (a Japanese mixed pancake of seafood, meat, veggies, eggs, and seasoning) which is easily one of my new favorite foods here in Japan. I will be a master Okonomiyakier by the time I return next summer. This picture of the peaking boy in a lime green house was a fun one to catch!

The Nikko Mountains on our drive to the restaurant
Dohton Bori! Their logo is a big raccoon...yeah...
Me, my Host Aunt Emi-San, and my Host Mom

Now for the actual entry: I have been spending a lot of time in the school library lately due to testing and what not, so I’ve had much time simply to study. It sounds dumb but I have missed attending classes that I have to do homework for. I am now 3 ½ months into exchange and have never, no, not once, had homework of any sort. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly nice at times, but it’s odd to sit in classes that you don’t do any work for. I’ve never had that experience before. So to fill in my intellectual gap I have found a textbook on English essay writing for Japanese students of Tokyo University (one of the most respectable in Japan). It is written all in English by a Brit who has a fantastic way of describing what an essay should and shouldn’t include.

To be honest I am learning things about Japanese students, English students, and even English writing that I had never considered before. It’s Japanese students’ Basic English Writing 101 it is in basic English! Haha, but what the author adds is a comparison to Japanese writing styles. Because of that I learned a very interesting concept of Japanese vs. English communication that no one had ever told me before. Now that I look back on my past 3 months this makes perfect sense. I hope that anyone who is considering spending time, working, or living in Japan reads this before they leave. Japanese is a reader-responsible language, whereas English is heavily speaker-reliant. To best explain this, I’m going to include a paragraph from the textbook First Moves: An Introduction to Academic Writing in English by Paul Rossiter:

It has often been said that Japanese authors do not like to give clarifications or full explanations of their views when they write; both they and their readers seem to have greater tolerance for – and indeed a positive enjoyment for – ambiguity and imprecision than writers and readers in English. This difference may be the result of different views in the two cultures about who is responsible for successful communication. English speakers, by and large, see the writer, or speaker, as being primarily responsible for making clear and well-organized statements; if there is a breakdown in communication, it is because the speaker or writer has not been clear enough, not because the listener or reader has not tried hard enough to understand. In Japan, on the other hand, there is a different way of looking at the communication process. In Japan, it is generally thought to be the responsibility of the listener or reader to understand what the speaker or author intended to say. This difference may be illustrated by an anecdote. An American woman was taking a taxi to the Ginza Tokyu Hotel. The taxi driver mistakenly took her to the Ginza Daiichi Hotel. Being from a speaker-responsible culture, she said, “I’m sorry, I should have spoken more clearly.” The taxi driver demonstrated his listener-responsible background when he replied, “No, no, I should have listened more carefully” (Rossiter, 2004)

This one section has changed the way that I look at my relationship with my host parents and local Rotary counselor. In my mind they had been excessively vague, never telling me what they expected from me as an exchange student, and not introducing me to their friends, family, or community. There were many times when I was lost and confused (and it wasn’t just the language; my counselor speaks fluent English) but now I see that they are expecting me to draw connections and relationships that I as an English thinker would not necessarily think to create.

I hope all exchange students coming to Japan in the future know this before they arrive. It could potentially save them from some (but definitely not all!!) confusion.


Works Cited (this is for you, Cohrs and Mucha)

Rossiter, P. (2004). First moves: an introduction to academic writing in english. Tokyo, Japan: University of Tokyo Press.

PS. I’m officially on my 102nd page of size 14 Bradley Hand ITC font, single-spaced writing in Word Document. (I write the stories to each blog there and then copy them on online) SO MUCH WRITING!! But I've enjoyed it, I hope you have too= )

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009-

Today was one of those days I really hoped it wouldn’t rain, then it rained, and now I’m super happy it did! Haha, what does that say about me??

Anyway, today was the Bato High School All School Run. They called it a marathon (and at times if felt like that) but it was actually 14 kilometers. It was a very twisted, steep road up in the mountains to boot! I ran with four of my classmates the whole time; and by ran I mean we ran the first 3 kilometers, then jogged a bit, then walked a lot…and then sprinted the last kilometer! Haha I did actually have a fun time. The drizzle was constant and at times I was freezing but we laughed a lot and I was able to snap a couple cool shots. Below is a peak at our day.

But best of all we finished at noon (I came in 75th of 300 students [yes the girls had to run too!]) and had a big steaming bowl of soup waiting for us. We were able to go back home early and as soon as I had taken a hot shower, I turned on my heating blanket, curled up under three big down comforters, and played xmas music in the background. It was one of the best naps I’ve ever taken…in fact I think I’m headed back to bed right now!

Tanaka-kun and Seiya
Me and Tanaka
We reached the top!
Haha, Obaasan at the mountain well!
I told you it was twisted
And steep...
But we passed by some awesome countryside
Look to the forest behind
Bamboo poles
Plastic Tulips and Mountain Shrines
The rain was keeping this mountain stream flowing
In the summer, these would be rice paddies
It makes me wonder how old some of these buildings are. Probably several dozen years at the least
I couldn't believe it when I spotted these autumn leaves and flowers. Somethings are still holding on
The Japanese Citrons
and Kaki Persimmons
Purple Berries
And Bright Red Ones!
Oh the things you'll find on a rainy day hike...

Thursday, December 10, 2009-

I’ve had three rather deep and thoughtful blogs in a row, which has been nice, but I think it’s time for something a little less serious: FOOD! Today at school, instead of any classes we spent the entire day making ham sausages. The town of Bato is actually known for really quality ham products because of a shop up near the cliffs. Today the owner came with a big tub of meat, cooking gear, and the much needed patience of dealing with a couple dozen 18 year old boys learning about the wiener making process (if you even dare to imagine).

Then at dinner I accomplished yet another puffer fish goal of my life- eating the notorious Fugu sashimi. It’s the meat of the puffer fish and if it’s prepared incorrectly it can be lethal! The fish is actually incredibly poisonous so it’s the running Japanese joke that you’re risking your life every time you sit down to eat it. I was excited (don’t worry the fish had been tested beforehand so I wasn’t really worried!) and am now proud to cross this off of my “Japan Experiences” list = )

The links linked ready for cooking. The ham is seasoned with salt, sugar, and a few onions
Boil for several minutes until pale and floating
Then use a large metal bowl for smoking. Lay a sheet of tin foil on the bottom, add cherry wood and sugar on top, then lay the links on a grate above. Cover the sausages as they smoke for only 4-5 minutes. Open and rotate for a couple minutes on the other side. They should come out warm, smelling delicious, and looking like...
THIS!! We luckily got to sample our hard work and I will admit that they were some of the best sausages I've ever eaten. The meat was so fresh and the cherry flavor was awesome. Delicious, I love food!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009-

I couldn’t let go. I spent all day today thinking about my blog from last night. It consumed my thoughts and I felt that there was even more that I wanted to share about the realizations and experiences I've had on exchange. I didn’t want to simply write another entry with the stories and photographs, so instead I came up with a poem. I tried to keep it vague, simply because the emotions are more important than the words. I hope it makes sense. PS I don’t know what to title it, any suggestions??

Captive to a too perfect past

My feet struggle on this rugged path,

I keep my head held high but my heart hangs heavy.

Time is my trickster and his wine has me heady.

Moments so fast

They don't seem to last,

Hours so long

The clock must be wrong


Here all alone I must keep to my faith,

With the Devil on prowl, no Lion King’s safe.

It's one thing to preach, another to reach-

The greatness you're striving others to teach.

So take this chance to figure your fate

Don't expect that the road always points straight;

The route that you tread leads somewhere new,

Each person is different, it comes down to you


Gamble too late and your Heart's on your wrist

If this is all just a game, then the whole world's at Risk,

For this place is no Candyland,

And we could all use “Pass Go!”

Don't be Sorry for your hand

Simply go with the flow.

You see the Chess game of life is never black and white.

Yet, there isn’t a match if you don’t put up a fight.

So keep your cross and crown close, and take what you can,

Because Fate's a cold queen who won't spare her right man


This tour de force has its le miserable,

It's the price that I paid for the treasures I saw:

Highs so high

I thought I could fly,

Lows so low

I felt I could die.

Make the best of your lot because that's where life leads

The challenge to learn and to live, to love and to leave...


I've traveled the seas and have seen what's to see,

I've hiked to the mountains and stayed for a fee,

I've bathed in the rivers and climbed every tree,

I’ve swam with the whale and slept with the flea,

I’ve tempted the snake and been stung by the bee,

The earth's buried her secrets but I've dug up the key,

The treasures were golden but she gave them for free.

Now I’ve reached this far land still there's no guarantee,

When it comes to the future, well that's up to me...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009-

It’s often said that the full Rotary experience is not merely one year abroad, but rather three years. The first is the preparation, then comes the actual exchange, and finally the return.

For next year’s Minnesota/Wisconsin Outbounds, their Rotary experiences began this past weekend. The fact that it has now been 12 months since I too was interviewing, applying, requesting, and waiting to find out if I would become a Rotary Exchange student serves me up a nice slice of pride pie. I have made it through a year of excitement and disappointment, anticipation and realization, mistakes and triumphs, memory-blurring speed and clock-stopping tedium; I’ve built bridges, learned a new language, discovered what’s important in my life, had more time to simply think then I’d ever thought possible, and all while on the incredible adventure that is Rotary Youth Exchange.

My exchange to Japan has been very different than the Rotary experience that I’d held in my mind ever since the year 1999-2000. That fall, our first exchange student, Denmark’s Ole Sønderby, proved to be the epitome of cool, and somewhere in the back of my mind the exchange flame was sparked.

So when I went into the interview process last December, I had it in my head to study in some picturesque European city where I’d become fluent in days, travel the countryside on my wicker-basket bicycle, draw the village natives into a close-knit Van Trapp-esque family, and we would sing and dine and enjoy fine wines and cheese all day long… Well that’s not exactly where I ended up (and fyi I’m pretty sure no where is like that…well maybe Austria, but just because it’s really hard to do the whole Van Trapp thing without the mountains and castles...Anyway) I’ll be honest with everyone here. When I filled out my requests for countries last year my list went as follows: 1) Italy, 2) Switzerland, 3) Spain, 4) Sweden, 5) Denmark, 6) Brazil.

Well because of the age limits that Rotary places on various countries, coupled with the fact that I am already 19 years old, meant that I would end up being assigned to Japan. I waited for twenty days (which now seems like nothing but at the time felt like eternity) before receiving a large manila envelope in the mail. I was literally shaking as I opened the flaps, pulling out an official looking piece of paper with the Rotary seal and read that, “Rotary was pleased to offer me the opportunity to become a Rotary Youth Exchange Student in the year of 2009-2010 traveling to: Japan.” WHAT?!? I shook my head. I couldn’t believe that a country I had never even considered before was lying in big, bold, italics on the paper in front of me.

As the days turned into weeks, then into months, I still had trouble accepting that I would be spending my year in Japan of all places. I knew nothing of the culture, two words of the language (sushi and samurai), and was not at all excited about going from my very “Western” style of living to that of Asia. (I did know what Japan looked like vis-à-vis I took this picture of a cool cloud yesterday! haha random, but I wanted to include it). But back to the story, I refused to simply quit and at the sequential Rotary orientations I got to know the Tamura’s (my fantastic country officers) and learned more about the program. Yet best of all, by great fortune, my family was able to host my (exchange) brother, Ryota! He truly encouraged me to take the challenge, and motivated me to come abroad.

I soon began Japanese tutoring sessions once a week and quickly realized that I held countless connections to Japan in my friends, family, church, school, town, and so on. And as most of you know, to find the sweet sashimi lining on my unpredicted assignment to Japan, I do LOVE sushi and Japanese cooking. So I knew I wouldn’t starve!

As that unfolded I made it through my senior year, graduation, and a summer full of fun (and part time jobs) only to reach August 20th, 2009, when I boarded a plane flying from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Tokyo-Narita. My first stage of RYE had finished. I was actually leaving home and the life I knew in order to live in the Land of the Rising Sun for a year.

I could go on for hours about my year here in Japan, but then I realized I already have! Simply scroll back over all my previous posts. The search bar at the right will help narrow your focus. I have included my highlights – they have been plentiful – and I have hinted at my struggles; yet I will tell you that there are certain moments that hit you in the face on exchange that you simply cannot hide from. The random smell of orange peel takes you back to Grandma’s cabin, you pass through the subway only to spot the exact Japanese twin of a friend, and that damn iTunes shuffle plays All At Once from The Fray and you’re instantly back with your sister at the concert. The list goes on and on. Yet it has shown me what I value, the conflicts I’ve had prove to me how NOT to act in the future, the disappointments I’ve felt prove to be blessings in disguise, and the challenges I’ve overcome end up being my proudest accomplishments.

It took me a while to get here, but I now realize that this year in Japan is forcing me to grow so much more than I would have if I were just the 8th Van Trapp child. I will return home proficient in an Asian culture (something that is incredibly useful in today’s world), knowing an entirely new language, and making connections in a country I would never have challenged myself to connect with otherwise.

So my advice to all of you applicants is this:

1) Don’t stick too closely to your list

2) PREPARE yourself. This is actually a third of your exchange experience, so that means find natives, find the current exchange students, and study your language!!

3) If you are at first disappointed, step back and realize that the benefits of Rotary are universal. You’ll learn from your year no matter where you’re assigned

4) If you’re having doubts, that’s normal! But if you deep-down don’t want to go, don’t do it! It’s far harder to leave, make a mess of things, and be sent home than simply to tell Rotary sooner rather than later that you can’t follow through. They’ll appreciate your honesty, be sad that you’re leaving, but glad that you didn’t create more trouble for them. Personally, I 110% would encourage you to challenge yourself, because this is an opportunity you’ll never encounter again. College will always be waiting

5) And finally: Get excited!! This is an incredible opportunity and one that you should be ecstatic about. You’ll take things away from your time abroad that will stick with you for the rest of your lives. Friendships, languages, cultures, memories, and souvenirs galore. So take a deep breath, realize how lucky you are right now, and GO GET ‘EM!!!

I’m here for any and all questions. If you don’t want to leave it on the blog, find me on Facebook or send me an email: Estenson.sam@gmail.com. I love encouraging future “exchangies” and am more than happy to talk you through everything. All my best- Sam

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009-

Today being December 7th, I’d like to take a moment to mention that 68 years ago right now began America’s involvement in perhaps the most bitter and unbridled conflict that this world has ever seen.

On the morning of Sunday, December 7th, 1941 the Japanese Navy unleashed an unannounced attacked on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The battle was disastrous to the American side, sinking four battleships, multiple other ships, and in the end killing 2,402 personal, while injuring 1,282 more. It was the catalyst that sparked America to act. Our nation’s involvement in World War II was vital to the Allies’ victory, and yet it came at a horrendous cost. It’s believed that around 60 Million people lost their lives during the war, and the side effects can still be seen. Those who lived through the war hold their own memories, while the stories, photographs, films, and memorials stand as warning to the rest of us.

I went through the entire day knowing that this was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor; in fact I’d even been dreading it a little bit this past week. I had imagined some recognition of the event, or at least questions to me about how American’s felt towards Japan because of the war. But it turned out that I had to wait until the 10:00 nightly special before I heard the Japanese side of the story.

The coverage of the attack was of course solemn and historical. There were the photographs, the personal accounts, the sad music, and the narrator with virtually the same voice as every other documentary you’ve every seen (I swear there’s one man and one woman sitting in an audio booth making millions on documentary narrations!). So basically, I made it through the day without grueling interviews or threats of World War III, but in some ways that made it harder for me to accept.

But as I stop to think, I suppose the USA doesn’t exactly highlight all of our great errors either. We don’t like to discuss the condition of everyday people in war zones we created (PLEASE check out Dina Fesler’s story, a Northfielder who’s changing the world, she and Minneapolis NEED Magazine’s founder Kelly Kinnunen are all over the news as they uncover current day Afghanistan. They were front page Star Tribune, and international CNN/CBS are beginning to pick up the story. Kelly works his magic with the video camera while Dina does the contacts, helps with donations and constantly searches for media recruitment. The best source to learn more is: www.needmagazine.com/blog). As American’s we ignore what we’ve done to the Native Americans, you rarely hear mention of poor South America and the CIA’s twisted business down there, it took us years to confront equality issues and I couldn’t tell you the dates of our first attack on Iraq to save my life. So in the end, I can tell you for certain that on the whole the Japanese people do indeed feel an incredible amount of shame and sadness when it comes to World War II, yet they, like any other nation, do not go parading the streets when it comes to their greatest blunders.

What I continue to tell myself is that they lost over 71 Million people as well and the struggles that they went through to rebuild their nation is something that takes (and is taking) years to recover from. Fortunately the memorials are abundant, the stories are vivid, and the museums extensive. But what still gets me every time is the “Holy Crap” realization that if this were only two generations earlier, I would be at war with the people I surround myself with each and every day…it’s unsettling, I’ll tell you that much.

I was also going to type out a story for next year’s Rotary applicants. There are 20 applicants from my hometown of Northfield for RYE (Rotary Youth Exchange) and I know just how desperate they are to find out the results. I went through the same thing last year. I just hope my experiences, challenges, insights, and random pearls of wisdom -I’m bound to stumble upon one every once and a while ;) - can help show them what it truly means to be an independent, foreigner-reliant, uncertain, ambitious, and excited young adult in a distant land! But that will just have to wait until tomorrow.

PS Wanna know what I wasted my night on before writing this?! Making Christmas CDs for people! Haha, it was fun. I even drew individual pictures! Hahaha By far my favorite was Rudolph!

Upper Left going clockwise: Christmas Bells; A Candle and a Snowman; Awww it's Baby Jesus, A funky Christmas Tree; A Wreath with a big Bow; and Santa and Rudolph all set to deliver presents! Haha, I'm so lame = )

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Saturday, December 5-Sunday, December 6, 2009-

A dandy jaunt with the folks into Tokyo and Yokohama. My host parents took me down to their son’s apartment in Yokohama City. We spent Saturday in Tokyo itself, visiting the Edo Tokyo Museum, the Shibuya streets, and a rainy walk in Yebisu gardens. We then caught a train to Maki’s “mansion” (my 43 year old host brother). Quick cultural note: Mansion is just the Japanese term for a larger apartment!

Anyway, we spent the evening in their guest room and today toured Yokohama with Maki and his 3- or 4-year-old twin daughters, Yuka and Kana. Yokohama City follows Tokyo and Osaka as Japan’s third largest city, yet is located just outside of the Tokyo limits. It is a major seaport, and home to Japan’s tallest building: The Landmark Tower. We climbed to the top floor from where we were able to see the entire urban area spread out beneath our feet. It was impressive! And to top it all off, to the Southwest was a fantastic view of Mount Fuji rising over the jungle of buildings, smog, and foothills.

After the tower we saw the Yokohama China town, where we ate a tasty little lunch (definitely not little!) and walked the crowded streets. My host dad bought the largest size bag of roasted chestnuts they sold and didn’t stop eating them all day! Yuko and Kana enjoyed the challenge of opening the nuts as much as the actual snack. Lastly we watched a street performance on the Yokohama Harbor: a man juggling fire, balancing on two upside-down stools on top of a rolling tube. The crowd loved him.

Now I’m back at home and I am happily enjoying the Christmas cookies Grandma Beske sent my way. I know I have to savor them, but I couldn’t help but treat myself tonight!

The Edo Tokyo Museum. The building itself is impressive
This one's for you Dad. The tiny sign on the bottom reads: First National Bank. It looks like Northfields...kinda
Interesting (and a little strange) my host mom got real excited when she saw the wooden skates at the bottom of this picture. She told me, "Oh I had a pair just like these when I was a child!"
The Ryougaku Sumo Arena. It's where Tokyo's greatest Sumo wrestlers battle it out!
Shibuya on a rainy Saturday afternoon
The view from a dessert shop where my host parents' friend took us out to eat. Sorry it's a bit blurry = \
Yebisu's christmas lights
This is the reading area in Maki's apartment building. I came out here to read and found it hard to finally tear myself away...
As I sat and thought. I simply watched the city lights, the trains, the cars, the people, and their thousands of different lives...
This is the view from the balcony this morning. The area I zoom in on is Yokohama harbor, where we visited this afternoon, and then you'll see Fuji-San in the end.
The city from floor 41! If you look REALLY REALLY closely, you'll see mount Fuji in the center behind that first row of mountains
Yokohama in the Morning
Yuka and Kana are geniuses! They named practically all the flags and nations of the world in under 5 minutes! It was awesome
The Yokohama Mall
The view from the bottom of Yokohama Landmark Tower (the tallest in Japan)
Yuka (left) and Kana as they brave the view from the top, which looked like...
THIS!! The counterpart to the previous view. I was standing in that tiny plaza only 10 minutes earlier!
The harbor
And we stayed so long it turned dark out!
Not! I took a picture of a picture, don't get too excited
Another view. That's a hotel on the left, the building that looks like a sail. Then an amusement park in the center, with a giant Ferris Wheel. And finally the Yokohama "Rainbow" Bridge in the top center. It lights up in the evening with different illuminations
How romantic! That's Mount Fuji behind the third flame...
Mount Fuji viewed from afar...
This was so random (and kind of bizarre) my host dad was determined to get one of those caricature drawings of himself. So he paid 2000 yen to have this done. Just look at the boy to the left! So funny...
China Town
China Town
China Town
The Yokohama Harbor from below. That's the Landmark Tower rising on the left
Seagulls on their line
The Yokohama Harbor Performance
He's balancing that flame on his teeth! Ouch!
Even juggling under the leg
Yokohama's sister city is San Diego, and this statue is dedicated to the exchange