Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thursday, March 4 – Saturday, March 6, 2010-

The past few days have brought little to share. I am without a doubt living the most carefree days of my life to date. It has to have been years and years since I could spend my days simply lying on the couch, watching movies, grabbing a snack, going for a walk, or reading a book without a single thought to the contrary. It is in some ways very peaceful, but for a 19-year-old guy bursting to experience as much as he can, it can be a little monotonous.

One fun experience that deserves mentioning is the annual release of over 2000 salmon fry into the nearby creek. My 15 and 16-year-old fishery classmates were having a field day. Oh fishery schoooooollll….

A picture of Sasaki-Sensei whilst taking a picture of me taking a picture of him taking a picture of me...did that make sense??
Craft Design: my art class where I've made Japanese pottery, bamboo baskets, silver pendants, and more. Tell me Yoshida-Sensei, the woman on the right, doesn't remind you of Northfield High School's own art teacher, Katherine Norrie!? If you heard Yoshida-Sensei talk and sat in her class you'd be convinced that the two are really miraculous, multi-national twins. They even laugh similarly

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tuesday, March 2 & Wednesday, March 3, 2010-

Today is Japan’s Hinamatsuri, the national holiday of tiny dolls set out to pray for young girls’s growth and happiness, yet another name for today is the Momo no Sekku, or Peach festival. The warm winds of spring are on their way, and the peach and plum blossoms are just beginning to show their true beauty here in Tochigi. This afternoon we were treated to a gentle, warm breeze out of the Northwest. The river is running higher and higher as some of our neighboring foothills begin to thaw and, of course the perpetual sign of spring, muddy puddles scattered about helping to make my bike rides and walks more like a game of Mario than anything else. Thank goodness I’m so easily amused and can imagine it’s hot lava or something exciting like that because otherwise I’d probably consider it a big inconvenience swerving, jumping, and pushing my way around the hills of our tiny Nakagawa, Japan. But it’s all cool =) I’m a child at heart!

To top off the signs that a brighter season is soon approaching, as I was saying before, the first plum and peach blossoms have done just that: blossomed. The hilltop hotel where I have my monthly Rotary meeting also has a scenic plum tree garden, so today, seeing as my host father is currently in Wakayama on business I told my host mom that I’d walk the hour plus route back home. I enjoyed the sun, actually rolling up my sleeves, and later, due to the mud, my pant cuffs. It felt like I was back in shorts and a T-shirt once again. Can’t wait for the renowned cherry blossom season that is just around the corner. I’ll definitely have to snap some more photos then as well.

A very kind Rotarian from the district governor's office named Tatsuo Seshita.
Some of the Rotarians listening to Seshita-San's speech
One of the decorative displays of dolls
The pink blossoms of a peach tree
In the park
A rare palm tree with the Nasu Mountain range lying in the background
An old hilltop watchtower long gone to the vines and rust
Plum Blossoms Galore
The intricate seals of a building in the park
Watch out! Inoshishi (wild boar!)
The Naka River, in Japanese- "Nakagawa"
The sad truth of the riverside is that fishermen couldn't care less about how much trash litter its banks
A solo country man crouched down on the dyke overlooking the river...don't ask me what he was doing, I'm just as confused as you are...
My daily time spent reading in the library. Yesterday Oshima-Sensei gave me a Sakura (Cherry) rice cake wrapped in a real cherry leaf

Monday, March 1, 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010-

And we’ve reached March. I do have to admit that for how much I wrote about long days in my last entry I find it remarkable to think that so much time is now behind me and only four more stand between me and my return flight. I am honestly not sure of what emotions this provokes in me, be they shock, sadness, encouragement, regret, excitement, pride, exhaustion, determination, dread or exuberance. Judging by the fact that I just wrote that sentence all in one go, not even pausing to think as I spilled out my not so subtle heart, I’m guessing it’s a mixture of all of the above. Yet be that as it may, I still have four months left and I’m determined to make them memorable ones.

This morning was the graduation ceremony for the high school third years at my school (high school only lasts three years here in Japan, elementary school being six, and middle school three). The procession was FAR different from mine at Northfield High School back home. I was commenting to my friend Samantha Weaver who is studying this year in Spain, ( about how it seems like only yesterday that we were filed out on Memorial Field, receiving our diplomas, making speeches, tossing our caps, and laughing and hugging with family and friends. The ceremony this morning was a distant cry from such festivities. For starters, we arrived at class in the morning just like any other day, seniors included. The entire student body, not just the graduates, were on folding chairs in the gym, clad in our normal school uniforms, accompanied by a crowd of merely thirty or forty parents and teachers. The senior class entered and took their seats at the front, managing a tricky order of bowing to the flag, then the principal on one side of the gym, followed by the vice-principal on the other, then the PTA committee, then the teachers, then their parents, all before being able to take their seats. As nice as it is to pay people respect, it sure can be confusing!

The principal was introduced: everyone stood, bowed, and sat back down. The PTA was introduced: everyone stood, bowed, and sat down. We sang the national anthem: everyone stood, sang, and sat back down. All in all I think we stood, bowed, and sat somewhere around a dozen or more times. As for the diplomas, the seniors’ names were read off, but instead of each student receiving their award, each section was read, then the group leader went to the front stage where that single person was handed a paper in place of the whole class. This went on until each of the four classrooms were officially graduated. There were more speakers, more standing, bowing, and sitting. During the two student speakers (each nearly 10 minutes long) the entire student body remained standing. Everyone sang two more songs, and finally the recessional song came on and the seniors filed out, followed by the PTA, then the teachers, then the parents, then the second years, and finally the poor first years who had to stay back and stack chairs! Oh the hierarchy games Japan plays.

My view forward during the ceremony. This is what you call uniformity

There were no gowns, no caps, certainly no catcalls or whistles as names were read off, no cheering, little clapping, nearly everyone had dry eyes and to my surprise not many of the seniors even had smiles on their faces when they left the gym. It was a far call from the enthusiasm (and relief) that us Northfield high schoolers so happily enjoyed last May. It seems strange to think just like I have not seen many of my fellow graduates since last May, I will almost certainly never see most of this year’s Bato Koukou High School graduates again either. The experience of graduation to an exchange student has double the feeling of finality that others may feel. For us, we will soon be heading back to our home countries, far from the jobs, colleges, tech schools, or universities to which these people will now go.

If nothing else, today’s ceremony served to make me more and more (if that’s even possible) excited about attending the University of Denver next fall. I simply can’t wait to begin what I know will be some of the most active, intensive, exhilarating, and enjoyable years of my life. But for now I’m in Japan, learning about new cultures and systems, so that once I reach college I’ll have even more in my pocket to share with others! I think you’ll all agree that it’s few and far between the students in American universities who can describe a Japanese high school graduation ceremony. Now why such knowledge would ever serve a useful purpose back in the States is beyond me, but hey, maybe I’ll get lucky and be asked to plan an international academic ceremony specifically designed around the Japanese model…if I’m lucky.

PS finished A Study in Scarlet by Sir Conan Doyle. Lots of fun!! Mystery may be my new favorite genre =)

Last night's dinner photos
The "yakiniku" (grilled meat) is really Korean food, but the Japanese love it just as much. The front plate is Squid and the next is raw beef, a whole raw egg, scallions, and apple slices. You mix the whole plate together and eat it like that, no grilling or anything. The flavor was great but today my stomach is punishing me. I don't think I'm used to handling so much meat, especially meat which is still "mooing" =/

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monday, February 22 – Sunday, February 28, 2010-

Wow, a full week without blogging, that is the longest I’ve yet gone without a single post. In some ways I’m sorry for not writing to you all sooner, but to be honest I think I would have bored you if I had.

Due to testing at my school, the first three days consisted of me lying on the Kobayashi’s couch watching the Olympics, the movies Ironman, Pirates of the Caribbean I & II in Japanese, and breaking up the afternoons by going for long walks in the rice field filled countryside. It was a relaxing way to waste my days away, but unfortunately that’s precisely what I feel that I did. Thursday wasn’t much different. My school day consisted of the library, library, calligraphy, math where I read a book because they were returning the tests they’d just taken, library, and sitting at the fishery alone reading my book for two more hours due to even more test checking. Those were my classes throughout the day. Clearly my schedule has taken a serious hit ever since the seniors have stopped attending class. Their graduation ceremony will be held tomorrow, but for all of February and March I am spending nearly half of my day reading in the library.

This means I’ve gotten through a number of different novels. Thursday I read The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (did everyone know that it’s actually an assortment of stories and Mowgli and the Disney storyline is only the first part of it?!) and then on Friday I started the first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet after having read a different one last week. They really are exciting reading. I enjoy simply lying back and trying to use my brain in a way that isn’t trying to understand Japanese. Once again I feel as if I’ve hit a bit of a roadblock period in my language learning. I can tell that I’ve improved since moving in with the Kobayashi’s but it is still not up to the level that I wish it were at. I know that I should be more patient yet as I’ve stated before: it gets tiring constantly improving. The greatest challenge of learning a brand new language on exchange is that the more you improve, the more your host family, teachers, and friends upgrade their speech with you. When I first arrived they knew I understood very little so they used simpler language, I improved slightly so they stepped up again, and each time I make progress they keep upgrading and upgrading. I’ve recently hit the full extent of country dialect and it’s far from regular. More than once have I listened to a whole sentence by the Kobayashi’s grandmother and understand barely a fraction of it. She’ll laugh at my glazed over eyes and empty expression and then try to rephrase it (*Note: this doesn’t always work, she usually just switches from one idiom to the other, or one slang term to the next! The grandkids laugh and her and can usually point me in the right direction but it’s true, the elderly and young children, are certainly the hardest for me to understand.) Still, it is rewarding to look back on how far I’ve come but I can think of few challenges I’ve faced in my life that have left me so exhausted.

Luckily long days such as these always pass by and are replaced by exceedingly satisfying ones. Saturday was an exceptional day spent with the Kobayashi family driving down to the prefecture of Saitama just north of Tokyo. We went to the old city of Kawagoe that has a famous district built back in the Edo period and still maintains the same air of quaint shops, food stands, temples, shrines, architecture, and history. We walked, window-shopped, enjoyed different local specialties (I had grilled teriyaki pheasant and sweet potato dumplings), and enjoyed the day. Today, Sunday, is Hiroshi’s birthday and we went out to eat with some of the relatives in the evening. During the morning I went to a music concert but was back in time to celebrate Hiroshi’s birthday. A funny story, at dinner Hiroshi and Sumie (my host parents – who are really more like good friends rather than parental figures) were talking and Sumie wished him a happy 46th birthday. He looked at her and said, “Honey, what are you talking about I’m 45!” She laughed at him and said, “No you’re not! I just turned 46 last month, we’re the same age. Hiroshi, you’re already going crazy?” Everyone then started to make jokes about how old age was beginning to set in but Hiroshi looked at everyone and said, “This is a joke, right? Sumie, we’re 45.” He then proceeded to count backwards only to prove that they were in fact 45 years old. Sumie was so surprised she didn’t know what to say. She’d been going around for a whole month telling people that she was 46. Now she suddenly realized that she had gained a whole year of her life back. It meant for a good laugh and I’m guessing that Hiroshi enjoyed the whole exchange almost more than any of his presents or cards. I was left chuckling at my good luck; what a funny family!

I’ll try to upload some pictures of tomorrow graduation ceremony tomorrow and compare the ceremony to that which I experienced last May. I can already tell that it will be quite different. We’ll just have to wait and see how they compare.

The Kobayashi's walking through Kawagoe
An old temple bell tower
One of the foxes inside a temple
Yuki and Masahito during lunch. Always a laugh
A stroll through the side streets
A rickshaw tour
Dinner was Okonomiyaki. Always delicious
Some of this morning's music recital performers
Another performance
A snapshot from one of my walks through the countryside.