Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday, January 13, 2009 - ? [Gone for a little while]-

With winter break behind me, you might think my fun is done with for the month, but in fact I have yet another adventure ahead for this coming weekend. With dear family friend and past Japanese economics professor, Bruce Dalgaard, coming to Japan for Fulbright business, I have been invited to spend Friday the 15th-Tuesday the 19th with him in Tokyo. We'll stay at Waseda University, go sightseeing, experience the city that Bruce loves so dearly, meet new people and old colleagues, and even connect with our mutual friend Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak who also happens to be a St. Olaf prof in the capital city of Japan.
The following day, the 20th, is my moving day! That's right, after nearly five whole months at the Sato's house I am soon moving in with my next host family, the Kobayashi's. It ought to be an extremely different type of household to live in, so I'm excited to experience a different type of Japanese lifestyle. As tomorrow night is the Rotary Shinnenkai, or New Year's Party, I will not be able to post then either. That means that from tonight on I won't be writing for a while.
Although I have written nearly everyday up until now, I don't know that this style of blogging is the best option for total immersion like Rotary Youth Exchange Program aims for. I have sincerely treasured the opportunity to share my experiences so closely with each and every one of you, yet in my new house hold I hope to become busier during the evenings. This may mean that the free time I have hereto filled with blogging will hopefully be consumed with games, food, TV, conversation, and plain old family life. So if all goes according to plan I hope to adapt a somewhat less frequent style of blogging, aiming at perhaps twice a week. Still, once I first move to the Kobayashi's I am thinking that it would be best for me not to blog for a couple days. It's not exactly a great first impression to have your guest waste nights away on the computer, you know? So this isn't signing off, but this is signing down. I hope you all understand. Thanks for all the comments and encouragement this far. In many ways this blog and knowing that I have a crowd of supporters out there has gotten me through the Fall in more ways than I have let you know. I am truly optimistic about the future of my exchange. And what an opportunity it is! Thanks again and again, I can't wait to share these stories with many of you in person upon my return - Sam

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Friday, January 1-Sunday, January 3, 2009 [Combo 7]-

Here in Japan, New Year’s is a celebration called お正月-Oshogatsu. It is three days of rest, family, religion, and tradition. I have never seen a country quite literally “close down” like Japan does during the New Year’s. In my area, stores and cities are all closed up so that everyone can start the next 365 days off to a peaceful and focused start.

The first sunrise of the New Year is a special one for “the land of the rising sun” so in honor of the holiday I woke up at 6:30, climbed up onto our roof, and watched the sun climb over the hills to the East. I was all alone, it was freezing, and yet what took my breath away wasn’t the cold, but instead the realization that it was already 2010! I was almost halfway done with my exchange year, I will turn TWENTY this year (an age that feels far too old to call myself), I have come so far here on exchange and can now speak Japanese, and on top of that I was about to see one of Japan’s most treasured moments: the first few rays of sun of a new year. It was a profound moment of self-insight that I wasn’t ready for at six something in the morning on a frigid Japanese rooftop. I know that I will carry that moment and the image of a soft, golden New Year’s sunrise with me for the rest of my life.

After falling back asleep for another couple hours I woke up in time for an early lunch of “Osechi ryouri” or traditional New Year’s cooking. Everything was prepared in fancy lacquer boxes meant to last the three days of Oshogatsu so that women wouldn’t have to cook for that time. The vast spread was somewhat different from regular Japanese cooking because everything needed to keep for several days, meaning that nearly every dish contained vinegar, sake or some sort of preservative. I did enjoy the tasty large prawns cooked in sake and soy sauce, boiled black beans, roasted walnuts, broiled fish cakes called Kamaboko, bitter young mandarin oranges, Zouni mochi rice cake soup, and even herring roe. Each dish has a different meaning: shrimp having a long curved back are supposed to represent reaching such an old age that your back bends, black beans are meant to bring health, the mandarin oranges are called Daidai in Japanese which also happens to mean “generation after generation” implying that they will bring you many descendant, the same idea goes for the herring roe, because there are so many tiny fish eggs the hope is that you will have just as many children. It was actually a very enjoyable lunch with my host parents as I think they had missed having children in the house with whom to celebrate. I was reminded that even though they’re at home doesn’t mean that they’re surrounded by family either. I am very lucky to have relatives back home who are so connected and loving.

During the afternoon we made the traditional visit to local shrines called Hatsumode. The shrines are primed and polished for this, their most auspicious of days. I was impressed by the influence of tradition that Oshogatsu brings with it. I know for a fact that many Japanese people do not have very “professing” types of faith. Yet today they were out in the hundreds. Still, in my four months here I have yet to be invited to take part in real religious ceremonies (just once at the Sato’s visit to their family grave) and no one has tried to teach me about Buddhism or Shintoism. I know that that is not the case back in Minnesota where many exchange students are at least invited to local churches in an attempt to show them our Christian faith. I’m not complaining, I’m simply saying that it plays a role on overall culture when your religion is more of a tradition than a belief. Who knows, the same might be said more and more of Christmas these days in America and certainly in Europe.

Anyway, I visited both the Hachimansan Shrine where my host father’s cousin keeps the temple and also the very popular Torinokosan Shrine. Torinokosan has the patron image of an Owl and is perhaps the most well known shrine in this area of Tochigi. The crowds were out in force and the three of us had to park part way down the mountain, but the climb up to the top was well worthwhile. The music, food, stalls, decorations, ringing of the shrine bell, and opportunity to see Mt. Fuji were definitely the highlights of my three days. I snapped one shot of distant Fuji-San in the distance but because the colors were mostly gray and faded I used iPhoto to change it up a bit. The image to the right is my new background and I’m reminded of my New Year’s celebrations every time I see it. Look closely and you'll be able to make it out in the center there...
The rest of the holiday was spent visiting Miki’s house. The Miyazaki family and I ate a large sushi feast, watched TV, joked around, and played a Japanese version of the card game SPOONS where instead of spoons in the middle they threw in different coins! It was a riot as her cousins, aunt, grandma, and mother all joined in the fun. Let’s just say before it was all said and done three people’s knuckles were bleeding and Miki’s grandma had to stop because she thought she would strain her back if she had to keep diving across the table! UNO also made an appearance and I stayed over at their house as late into the nights as I could. All in all, I was as relaxed and well-slept-in as I’d been since who knows when. I am definitely a new fan of the Japanese style of three full days of holiday, I wonder how hard it’d be to convince president Obama to change that…hmmm, I’ll get on that, maybe give him a call sometime this week. I’ll add that to my list of things to do.
A view from the roof just before the sun actually rose
One more snapshot of the first few beams of 2010
The Osechi Ryouri lunch table
My host mother, Kimi, and host father, Hideo
Hatchimansan Shrine. Apparently a god of music lives in this building
It makes its home in that little black hole and the colored papers are a symbol of its music
The far less crowded Hachimansan Shrine. Torinokosan was literally packed
I also decided to watch the sunset from the roof top the evening of the first too
What I forgot to mention above is that although all of Japan is closed down for the first, the post offices are not. It is Japanese custom to send countless New Year's greetings to family and friends. Think Christmas cards but they are almost all themed up the zodiac sign of the new year (this one being Tora - Tiger!). You get the same kind of funky ones as back at home (i.e. the elderly woman dressed in a full-body tigress suit, or the family that just sent a picture of their two pugs...), but some of the cards are incredibly intricate, with fancy handwritten calligraphy. They can be placed in the mail any time throughout December but it is up to the postal service to deliver them all on the afternoon of the 1st! Poor mailmen and women, instead of a relaxing start to the year they're hit with by far their busiest day! On the bright side they're done with it for the year =)
The card table with the Miyazaki family
Miki and her dad with the delicious sushi feast they invited me over to on the 3rd

Monday, January 11, 2010

Saturday, January 9-Monday, January 11, 2010 [Combo 6]-

大嶋先生、お誕生日おめでとう! =) Happy Birthday Oshima-Sensei

This past weekend I had yet another Rotary Orientation, this time visiting the towns of Ashikaga and Sano City. It was a fun weekend spent with friends, Rotex, and Rotarians. I always enjoy my trips to see the district Rotary people, they’ve truly become some of my favorites here in Japan. On Saturday morning, Simon, Anaïs, and I made our way to Sano City where we met Amberly, Max, Ayano, and Chisaki.

The schedule, however, was thrown off slightly because the train the Anaïs and Simon and I were on actually experienced a suicide. I hope I’m not too graphic but unfortunately people stepping in front of a moving train as a form of suicide is just another sad part of Japanese culture. This weekend was our first experience with the ordeal, it also happened to be a firsthand one. When we suddenly stopped in the middle of the tracks, passengers started looking around, wondering what was going on. That’s when the conductor came on and explained that there had been an accident. As police started to arrive and more and more officials crowded around our train we began to understand what was going on. It took nearly an hour but eventually the line was reopened and we were able to continue. I hadn’t expected this to happen, but when I stuck my head out the window to see what was going on I was actually able to see the body nearly 20 feet down the track behind our car. It was my first time seeing a dead body like that and it wasn’t exactly how I wanted to start my weekend.

Now as for the fun parts! We spent the day shopping at the Sano Mall (aka Amberly’s second home), eating famous Sano Ramen Noodles, meeting up with other Rotarians, visiting the beautiful Ashikaga Flower Park Illuminations, eating Yaki Niku, singing the night away at Karaoke, and sleeping over at Otake-San’s home (you may remember he’s the one whose cabin we stayed at near Mt. Fuji…simply put, this house was just as nice!). To give you an idea of his house, I got to drink mountain water from Mt. Fuji in a solid gold goblet! Amberly and I stayed up late talking with him and that was one of the treats he shared with us, it was an awesome experience; we felt so rich! haha Then on Sunday we gathered for sightseeing in Ashikaga. The town is home to the oldest school in Japan (it used to teach Samurai!) and is now a national relic. We also saw the shrine of Bana, which has several old wooden buildings and a gigantic wedding ceremony tree. There were many 20-year-olds taking kimono photographs for today’s holiday [read more about that below]. Throughout the rest of the day we got to sew kimono fabric at a well known Ashikaga weaving spot, ate lunch with friends at Coco’s Restaurant which was a nice treat of Western food again, went to karaoke once more, and finally took the train home.

Today being the national coming of age holiday celebrating anyone who has turned 20 years old throughout the past year, I had one last blessed day of winter break. This has truly been a fantastic break for me and I feel revitalized and excited for what lies ahead in the coming months. I made it over the hurdle of early winter that many exchange students must face and now I’m simply cruising. I’m glad I’ve made it now, it’s all worth the while!
Playing Mario Cart in the Sano Mall Arcade
Happy New Year from the Ashikaga Flower Park
Some of the cool illuminations
Some of the Rotary gang
Cool reflections in the ponds, aren't they?
Karaoke - Sing Guys!
Anaïs and Simon
We made fun of Amberly, saying that she looked like a dinosaur with her backpack like that and THIS is the face that she made. I'm just glad I was able to snap this shot! hahaha
At Otake-San's house...yeah, he made us all hold different stuffed animals and statues for his picture...I don't know, I didn't plan it (but clearly I went along with it. That's me pretending to be a lion)
The Bana Shrine
Part of the Ashikaga Samurai School
Very old buildings
Max sewing his kimono cloth
Me having to study for school tomorrow. I actually had a lot of English and Math homework =(

Monday, December 28-Thursday, December 31, 2009 [Combo 5]-

My stay at the Baba family’s household was a great whirlwind of sightseeing, laughter, late nights, and early mornings. Spending four days in their Utsunomiya home, getting to see Luke Bradt (a fellow Minnesota exchange student living in Osaka), spending time with Ayano and her family, meeting Ayano’s ridiculously cute and tiny grandmother, eating the best fresh sushi I’ve ever had, and seeing other Rotex students on Sunday night were all highlights to say the least. Seeing as I am running behind on my blogging I figured I would simply put these days all together. Pictures will put it best, so I included a batch below. The photo to the right is of Luke, Hitomi (Ayano's sister), Myself, Ayano, her grandma (awww...), Max, and her Mom in front of their house before I left Monday morning.

The last day of 2009 was spent by returning to Nakagawa town in order to spend the biggest holiday of the year with my host parents. We made long buckwheat soba noodles from scratch during the afternoon, as they are a symbol of longevity. It was fun to roll out the dough and cut them into thin strips. Soba is one of my new favorite Japanese foods so it’s a good thing that my third host family owns a soba restaurant!!

During the evening we stayed at home, watching the famous New Year’s television programs. There is a gigantic concert on NHK; think Oscar-like stage decorations with performances by all of Japan’s biggest artists! I found out that none of the seats in the monster theater in Tokyo are for sale, instead it is a lottery drawing where viewers submit letters to the TV station months beforehand in hopes of having their names drawn. After that everything is free, meaning that the fans go all out in signs, cheers, and enthusiasm. It must be a fantastic atmosphere to be a part of. The singing ended just before midnight so that at the stroke of twelve there could be live shots from temples all over Japan, where the large temple-bells were rung 108 times, once for each time of Buddhist sins. And I thought the seven of Christianity were tough, although ours happen to be DEADLY! Definitely a “のんびり” [Nonbiri] start to 2010. Nonbiri is a word I recently learned that carries the same connotations as “Relaxed and Chill.” I hope I have many days of excitement throughout the year, but certainly a fair share of “Nonbiri” ones too! So with that, “明けましておめでとう御座います!今年もよろしくお願い致します!” [Let there be congratulations that the sun rises again! Please continue your goodness to me in this year also!] Two of the more common Japanese ways to simply say, “Happy New Year!” Hope it’s a good one for each and every one of you!

On the morning of the 30th, Ayano's Mom, sister, sister's boyfriend, Luke, and I drove the hour long trek to Nakaminato, Ibaraki where some of the freshest seafood of the region can be found...only problem is that so did everyone else in Japan! The roads were packed =\ It's a good thing the food was delicious. This picture is Ayano's sister, Hitomi, pointing down the long row of cars coming into Nakaminato City.
Luke, Hitomi's boyfriend, and Hitomi in front of the second-floor sushi restaurant we ate at. It's right next to the ocean, above a gigantic fish market. Definitely a new experience!
Luke and Ayano's mom in the "kaitenzushi" restaurant. That's the type where the sushi come by on small plates and you simply grab which ones you'd like
Between Luke, Ayano's mom, and I we did darn well. This was our finished stack! haha, it was absolutely scrumptious. Very, very, very fresh. I kept a list of the plates I ate:
Kujira - Whale!!
(it was my first time and the dark red meat- it's a mammal after all- was very oily and fatty. The flavor was great but I felt bad eating whale, seeing as they're dying out. Yet the whales that they serve now in Japan are already ones that have died, meaning this one wasn't hunted, so I felt okay. The way Luke and I justified it was that this would be a disservice to the whale NOT to eat it, we were making sure it didn't die in vain!)
Hamachi - Young Japanese Amberjack
Unagi - Freshwater Eel cooked in a marinade
Katsuo - Bonito Tuna
Hotate - Scallops
Houbou - Gunard
(if anyone can tell me what a Gunard is, that'd be great!)
Amai Ebi - Sweet Raw Shrimp
Maguro - Tuna
Buri - Adult Amberjack
The fish market below the restaurant was an awesome experience. Very loud, lots of people, sights and (of course) smells!
Luke being Luke next to a huge, whole, $60 Octopus in shrink-wrap
Sun-dried, Marinaded fish
The crowd buying fish for their New Year's feasts
Max and Chisaki at the Rotex year-end gathering Sunday night
My host mom rolling out soba dough in our living room
Working on them noodles
I chopped these soba noodles myself. Each one now folds out into a long, straight noodle that is supposed to represent a full, healthy life
Please tell me that other people think of Vicki Dilley when they see this picture!