Friday, January 8, 2010

Sunday, December 27th, 2009 & Friday, January 8, 2010 [Combo 4]-

Way back on the 27th I enjoyed a great day out and about in Utsunomiya city. Interestingly enough that’s just what I did today as well! Funny how that worked out…

Min and I at the Utsunomiya shrine

On the 27th, Ryota and I made the hour long trek into the capital city of Tochigi Prefecture, Utsunomiya, where we met my good friend Min. Min is the Korean exchange student who is currently studying at the University of Utsunomiya whom I met during the Nakagawa Rice Harvesting Festival way back in October. I have been in touch with her ever since and last week we were finally able to meet up again, and luckily Ryota was able to spend the day with us also. Seeing as the University campus is located outside of the downtown area, none of us knew the main strip of Utsunomiya all that well. We decided to follow one of the “walking tours” on the map I grabbed from the train station. We laughed at ourselves- an American, a Japanese, and a Korean making our way though the city as map following tourists. We spoke almost entirely in Japanese seeing as Min knows just a little English, yet her Japanese is fluent. We covered the main sights of the city: the shrine, the malls, the shopping street, a gigantic ginko tree, and even a beautiful stone church. Inside, there was a tiny Portuguese Post-Christmas service being held, so we stopped in. Min is Catholic, I a Methodist, and Ryota a Buddhist/Shinto/Christian/Mix. I found a great amount of peace and nostalgia sitting in a warm church knowing that God was up there smiling, just like me, at the fact that even in a country where the Christian population hovers around merely 1%, I still managed to find a cozy Christmas service…albeit in Portuguese…

For lunch, get this, we went with Min to one of the most famous fried dumpling restaurants in Utsunomiya called Min Min!! We planned the whole day around being able to get into Min Min…we’re so lame! But it was well worth the 30-minute-long line, as the Gyoza dumplings were absolutely delicious! Fried, grilled, or boiled, they were all topnotch. For dinner, we also treated ourselves to a fun Korean restaurant called Seoul. We ate Yakiniku, Bibinba, Reemen, and more. It was my first real experience with good Korean food and I can already tell that I’m hooked. Min is sincere that I have a place to visit in Korea any time I want. Wouldn’t that be fun?!?

After dinner the three of us went to take Purikura (fancy snap shots in a big photo booth). Min loves them and has been several dozen times here in Japan. The same can be said for Anaïs, the Rotary exchange student from France, so I have a feeling her and Min would be a dangerous pair in a Purikura arcade!

Later on I met up with Ayano, saw Ryota off to his train back home, and waved good-bye to Min as she biked back to her dorm. I was happy to be heading to the Baba’s household, but I was sad to be leaving Ryota as he was so kind to me throughout the winter break. I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll be able to meet up again soon. Hopefully the same can be said for Min too, seeing as she goes back home at the end of February. I made my way back to Ayano’s house where Max, Luke Bradt (Ayano’s past host brother, a Minnesotan, and a current Rotary exchange student to Osaka, Japan), and I spent the four days leading up to New Years; more of our adventures there to follow.

As for today, the 8th, I spent a second enjoyable day with my friend Miki. Yesterday as we were talking at the ski resort, he mentioned that he still hadn’t seen Avatar yet. I told him I hadn’t seen it in 3D, and so he invited me to go to it with him today. Therefore, according to the Exchange Student #1 Rule of “don’t decline kind offers made by friends, no matter how little money you have in your wallet,” I gladly agreed. So we made our way into Utsunomiya this morning, it being his only day off of work before school starts, and saw Avatar, walked around the Bell Mall, and simply did what teenagers do at when they’re bored: no, not drugs! We killed time just going into stores, listening to CDs, finding a book shop, and eating McDonalds…Yep, sounds about right to me =) Good day, I’d say

The inside of the Church as the Portuguese service was being held
Min and Ryota
Min Min's delicious Gyoza!
Min at Purikura
Today at the Bell Mall

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wednesday, January 6 & Thursday, January 7, 2010-

Skiing! It is one of my absolute favorite ways to spend a winter day. Today, along with 7 different people from Bato High School, I went to the impressive Hunter Mountain Ski Resort for an incredible day of powder, speed, laughs, and fun.

The ever so generous and inviting Yoshida-Sensei planned the whole event. He picked me up yesterday afternoon and drove me to his home in Nasushiobara city 45 minutes north of Nakagawa. Nasushiobara is more of a region than one specific city. It claims a population of about 110,000 people, but it stretches from the northwest mountains to the eastern boarder. There are multiple ski areas in Nasushiobara so it’s a very successful tourist city. We arrived at Yoshida-Sensei’s house in time for dinner with his wife, 24-year-old daughter Shoko, and his wife’s mother. They were a real treat to spend the evening with and the food was top notch: sushi, fried shrimp, salad, and hot soup.

The morning started at 7am and we went nonstop all the way until 6:30 when I was dropped off back at the Sato’s. Yoshida-Sensei invited the school principle (whose name is also Sato, no relative however, Sato’s a very common Japanese last name), two of the English teachers (the wonderful pair of Funayama-Sensei and Shimanoki-Sensei), Sasaki-Sensei (one of the youngest teachers at the school, he is good friends with my neighbor Miyazaki Miki, and is a very good snowboarder), plus my two classmates Miki and Tanaka. That made a total of eight of us. Everyone had been skiing before and the school principle really impressed me by being both a talented skier, but also a good snowboarder. Ready for the surprise: I’d put him around age 50-55! Haha Besides that Yoshida and Sato-Senseis also paid for my lift ticket and ski rental! I was so grateful to them. I really, truly was placed in an incredibly generous school.

Hunter Mountain is always one of the favorite ski-getaways for people from Tokyo and today was no different. It was busy from morning to afternoon, but luckily it is quite large and I never felt crowded and hardly had to wait for chairlifts. The weather was an ever-varying mixture of snow and clear skies. The morning brought pretty thick snowfall, but by the afternoon it was only scattered flurries. I loved the whole day! Nothing more I can add besides that. It was a fantastic day. I can’t think of anywhere I would rather have spent it.

Sushi at the Yoshida's
Yoshida Sensei's family
Principle Sato, Yoshida-Sensei, Sasaki-Sensei, Miki, and Tanaka
Hunter Mountain. Fun Fact: The mascot of Hunter Mountain, far from a man with a shotgun, is half of a hard boiled egg! I know, I laughed for a long time too! The reason is that in Japanese, "Han" means half, and "Tama" is the first part of the word "Tamago" which means egg. So when you put them together you get "Hantama" which, when pronouncing it with a Japanese accent, sounds like the first part of "Hunter Mountain"
Yoshida-Sensei, Shimanoki-Sensei, and Funayama-Sensei set at the highest run. They were all really good skiers
Miki and Tanaka in the gondola
Shimanoki-Sensei, being happy like always
Snow clouds and clear skies
One of the views of the Nasushiobara mountains
View to the South East
View to the North West

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Saturday, December 26, 2009 & Tuesday, January 5, 2010 [Combo 4]-

The day of the 26th was spent taking a train from Ryota’s area up north, back to Tochigi. The train was packed, as many people were busy preparing for New Years. We were picked up at the train station by my host mother and spent the day at our house getting ready for the Sato’s Christmas party. By 7 o’clock there were a dozen or so people filling their living room eating sushi, cake, fried shrimp, sandwiches, eggs, roast beef, and cheese. Get this, I even made my Grandma Beske’s plätter (Swedish pancakes) for them; with a little sugar and butter, they love them. It was a very kind thing for them to throw a Christmas party and I really appreciated them showing me a good time. I’m also glad Ryota was able to come because after dinner, Ryota and I headed to the onsen (hot springs) and watched a movie. I think Ryota fell asleep before the previews were over, but it was still fun to have him stay with us.

Today, I slept in until 11, ate a late lunch, cleaned my room, and went out to bowling and sushi with Simon Sigier and his host family. Simon is changing host families tomorrow and will go from a very, very remote country town (population around 800) to the heart of Otawara city (population around 100,000) so he is kind of excited for a change of pace. I hope everything goes well for him. Now I’m just packing for my ski trip tomorrow and Thursday (that means I won’t blog tomorrow, sorry) and filling out the University of Denver Housing Application. Strange to have to start worrying about college again…

Yummy yummy in my tummy
プレッタが懐かしい! "Natsukashii" That's how you say "I miss plätter" (it's pronounced pletta, for those who haven't heard of least that's how my family's always said it...)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Friday, December 25, 2009 & Monday, January 4, 2010 [Combo 3]-

Christmas was a very calm and relaxing day, that is until the evening. In the morning we slept in and watched more Friends episodes. Ryota’s family was abundantly generous to me, even giving me Christmas gifts. His mom gave me a super cool pair of Columbia clogs (that’s shoes, not canines in case the font looks funny!), Ryota gave me a sweater, his dad gave me a cool sushi mug with Japanese characters on it, and his sister a fancy pair of pants unlike any pattern I’ve had before. I love all of them [people and gifts that is!]. After lunch I was happy to continue another Christmas tradition of the Estenson family- seeing a movie on Christmas Day. This year I went to the mall with Ryota and his sister to see Avatar. Holy Smokes! That movie blew me away. I went into it knowing nothing about the story, graphics, or actors and left with my jaw on the floor. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Luckily (for me) it was in English with Japanese subtitles so I was able to enjoy it in its full glory! I’ll definitely have to see it again when it comes out on DVD (probably won’t drop another $20 bucks to go to it in theaters again! Movies are soooo expensive here!). After the movie, Ryota and I went with his friends to a batting cage and fun soccer tic-tac-toe arcade before coming back for dinner. That’s when out night changed.

When we got home Ryota’s sister was sitting on the couch crying and his parents were gone. The three of us immediately got back into the car and headed for the hospital. Ryota’s mom had suddenly become very ill just 20 minutes earlier and was in intense pain, being sick again and again. We spent the night waiting in the Emergency Room, learning that his mom had eaten bad Kiwis and gotten food poisoning. It was especially scary for their family, however, because nearly 10 years ago Ryota’s mother had stomach cancer, so there was the gut wrenching (bad word choice) fear that it was something related to that. Luckily (again bad word choice, take it in context) she was scheduled to be dismissed around midnight, so we were able to go back home for dinner and cake.

Our delicious Christmas feast. It included Nabe, fried shrimp and oysters, sashimi, and more!

It sounds like a horrible cliché or even a stupid joke, telling people that I spent Christmas night in an ER waiting room, but as I sat there I realized that this is something that does actually happen. I was slapped in the face with the fact that there are people who spend Christmas, Thanksgiving, every day of the year, in hospitals, nursing homes, jails, refugee camps, or even at war. I realized then and there that my spending ONE meager year as a safe, healthy, supported exchange student was far from the challenge I had at times built it up to be. This year is remarkably easy for me, and I vowed then and there - sitting on the hospital’s cold plastic chairs, smelling the sting of rubbing alcohol, hearing a baby wheeze down the hall, listening to the hiccups of Ryota’s sister sitting next to me, feeling trapped in between the overly white walls of this, as ever other, hospital - to value each day of this exchange.

Today, Monday the 4th, I spent more time at Miki’s house with her family (even though she had to go back to work today, haha, poor Miki). But her brother, Hideki, following in the path of his barber shop owning parents, uncles, aunts, and even grandparents, is a talented stylist in Tokyo. He offered to give me a free haircut today, and after that we went to the shrine with his cousins. It was yet another low-key day, and now I’m simply relaxing at home. Not much to say beyond that. Probably will watch a movie tonight and read more of my book.

Impressive Christmas cake, huh?!
Haircut Before...
and After
Miki's cousins Miho and Takanori
That's Miki's brother, Hideki, in the center...
And Miki. Can you tell they're siblings??!!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Thursday, December 24, 2009 & Sunday, January 3, 2010 [Combo 2]-

The morning of Christmas Eve was spent in one of my favorite lazy day routines: sleeping in and waking up to a bowl of Blueberry Muffin Tops cereal, while watching episodes of Friends (in Japanese this time!). Ryota knew exactly what makes me happiest = )

After breakfast, he and I drove into Sendai city. We talked and talked on the car ride there, listening to music and laughing at how strange it felt to have the roles reversed this time- he the host, driving me around, and I the exchange student. Once we reached the city I took him out to a fun lunch of mixed rice and cow tongue (not quite like the Scandinavian feast that my grandma makes each year out in tiny Hector, MN, but it was nice to be with family of a different sort). I also managed to find a couple cans of A&W Rootbeer just like out at the farm. Ryota’s a big fan (which is surprising because most Japanese people think it tastes like their kind of cough medicine- vis-à-vis they hate it) and so we drank to a happy holiday. The afternoon was spent merely walking the city, shopping for odds and ends, people watching and enjoying the over-the-top Christmas decorations all around the city. Before I knew it we were hopping back in the car and on our way home.

There weren’t any churches in Ryota’s area, so instead of the annual Christmas Eve service where the Beske Clan swarms the front pews of the tiny Hector United Methodist Church, I said a little prayer, hummed Silent Night, and thanked God that I had a family to be thankful for, even if we were on opposite sides of the globe.

I am pleased to report that although I couldn’t find Grandma’s Lutefisk (the Jello-y, lye-scented, Scandinavian cod fish that our very own Norwegian relative termed as “not to be eaten by humans!”) I did enjoy a great sushi buffet instead. Ryota, his mom, dad, and I went out to a restaurant appropriately named “Stamina” because it is an all you can eat Japanese buffet. We ate, laughed, and relaxed throughout the evening, even going to see a large ship that is famous to Ishinomaki. It was actually used two or three hundred years ago to sail all the way from Japan to Italy and back. Now it is lit up every year and as Christmas Eve is considered one of Japan’s most romantic evenings, the park was crowded with wondering couples, holding hands and trying to stay warm in the cold wind coming off of the Pacific to the east. By the time we were back home one of Ryota’s sisters arrived bearing cakes and breads from her job as a pastry chef at a Sendai hotel. This was the first time I’d really met her, but in true Kimura Family fashion she immediately give me a big smile and we hit it off right away. What an enjoyable, yet different, Christmas Eve it was.

Now as for today, Jan. 3rd, I have done hardly anything all day. This morning I had the pleasure of Skyping the entire Grand Theater, filled with Rotary Exchange enthusiasts. I only spoke for a moment or two, but it was nice to know there were so many people come out to see all of Vicki Dilley’s hard work. She does such a great job. The rest of the afternoon I went to see Miki’s brother play tennis; he was ranked #1 in Northern Tochigi all throughout high school, so he’s quite good. Miki of course reminded me that she was also #1 for hammer toss, and actually should be considered better than him because she got 7th in all of Japan. Haha oh Miki. This evening I am going over to their house for dinner and to play cards with all their relatives. It’s certain to be another hilarious night.

One of the shopping streets in Sendai
The Ship, isn't it cool all lit up?
Ryota and his mom