Before our trip to Japan we often talked about personal goals that we all wanted to meet during our time exploring the country. Everyone in the group often had concrete goals that they all expected to complete and seemed sure of what they were going to get out of the trip. I on the other hand often found myself questioning what I truly wanted to get out of my two weeks in Japan. I knew that I wanted to do things such as learn more about Japanese life and culture, but past this I wasn’t so sure. Now looking back on my time there, I realize that I’ve learned so much more than I ever expected to. Through our experiences in Tohoku & Tokyo I feel as though I have gotten a better understanding of being a global citizen and what that means. This trip has helped me to see that there is so much more past my small hometown of Washington D.C., and that there are so many more people and cultures around me. I am appreciative of all the amazing people we have met on this trip, and I have learned so much from every one of them and am inspired by all that they do. My experiences in Tohoku are ones that I am especially grateful for, and all of what we learned there and the personal stories told to us from all over the region have allowed me to see what amazing things people can do when they come together. I am still amazed by the strength of these communities and what they have accomplished since the disaster. I will never be able to forget the people in this region or their strong sense of resilience. I hope to come back sometime in the near future to see the growth and reconstruction that I know these towns will make. I am also incredibly grateful for the experiences we had in Tokyo, and all of the Japanese friends I made at Keio. I loved my host family, and they made me feel so welcome in their home. I hope to see them again soon! Now, while flying back to Washington, I am truly realizing how much I will miss all of the people we have met and made friends with in Japan. I am really excited to go home now and see my family, but am also really sad to be leaving Japan. I know that I will go back sometime soon to see more places in Japan, and make even more friends.
We just left Japan. Since this is my last blog post I decided to do something different than usual. Instead of writing this as prose, I will share a poem I wrote instead. I give you ‘Nippon.’
I have left Nippon.
I have left the crowds pushing and shoving through Asakasabashi.
I have left the hostel.
I have left the days of wandering through Tokyo.
I have left the nights with new friends.
I have left the mornings of black coffee hit from a machine, shoved shoulder to shoulder with strangers on a train.
I have left the fault line faulted by natures fury.
The rain and fog and utter beauty of a troubled nation at peace.
The water and islands, the mountains seen in the distance.
Frogs jumping, the sound of water.
I have left the shrines and temples.
I have left the smiling survivors, whose spirit stays stronger than the power of an earthquake.
I have left the voices of the past,
I have left the vision of the future.
I have left the land of the rising sun.
A sun that has not dimmed throughout disaster.
The red rays still pour over the island.
Hearts of gold, strength of steel.
I have left Nippon.
But Nippon has not left me.
I give a final sayonara to Japan. I have the honor to say that I truly had a life changing experience through TOMODACHI US-Japan Youth Exchange Program. I have discovered why I want to help others. Why we all should. I want to be a force of hope and love to the world. Tohoku has shown me an accomplished version of this dream for their own region. I have been inspired by them and their initiative to rebuild a better and greater community out of the disaster. My time in Tokyo was also fantastically valuable. It gave me such good adventures as my first time traveling abroad and I couldn’t be more grateful. I want to travel more places now. There are so many fun and unique cultures to explore! Japan has also given me a highlight of my childhood. Being a longtime fan of Naruto, it was amazing that I was able to buy the last book in the home country. I couldn’t ask for a better time. I met so many new people and gained so much new love. Although it’s goodbye for now the return is promised, and I can’t wait to come back with my second home better than ever! Micah
Here’s the poem, inspired by manga/anime characters, that Micah shared on the last day.
Justice is Blind
When Doflamingo was a boy
He wished the common world
He was born like this
Like all of us
He is a product of his people
That is the thing that people do not see
That we are blind to
Doflamingo was cursed
He traveled to escape hatred
A virus that slowly took the previously healthy cells of love
It’s funny how so many powers are born from each other
How they sprout from the same seed
Grow in the goal of the same womb
Yet have two different heads when released for their own views
Love and Hate are siblings
Izanagi and Izanami
Doflamingo was born blessed
‘In the sense of man’
He had wealth
Given to him by his people
His people believed themselves to be gods
Compared to the common man
From events they didn’t even cause
In turn Doflamingo was born a god
His idea of love differed
He had the right to use a human as a stepstool
He had the right to kill two boys his own age because they crossed the street in front of him
He had the right to burn a man’s wife alive
He had the right to take both eyes of a man for sport
His justice was blinded, not blind
And so was that common man
The common people crucified him, his brother, and his father
For the sins the common people believed the boy committed
The boy committed no sin
Yet neither the common people
This conflict was the product of one blinded eye looking the opposite direction of another blinded eye
Now Doflamingo’s justice was shaded by love
These ungodly roaches had hurt the people he loved
The roaches had killed his mother
Hate was born from the same plant as love
It flowered it
And it’s pedals were bright red
Can a person be blamed for the circumstances they are born into
Hated for what they thought was natural?
We tend to cover one eye and see one side
Be blind in both my friends
Do not crucify
Also do not be fooled
It’s easy to say we are already blind
Because love is so powerful, generous
That we have done good to others
Done because of love
But when that love struck
It will be avenged through hatred
Yin and yang are placed next to each other
For a reason my friends
They are the same child
With different face
Izangi and Izanami
Leaving Japan was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had. Over the past two weeks I have become attached to Japan. I even felt like I had actually lived there. I mean how could I not? Japan has been a place of wonder for me since I was young. And seeing the problems, struggles, and pain throughout my trip has only made me love it more because it makes it real. Speaking of real, I have met the real people of Japan. Not the stereotypes or rumors. But real people and that made my experience so much more wonderful. The people I have met have stories, stories which they shared with me and that made a bond. They were different but treated me so nicely and respectfully. Two people who have done this were Shinobu and Sosha. They both looked over me, over the whole group. They made this trip fun and made it so much more comfortable. They gave Japanese lessons and taught me so much about Japanese culture. They told me I would always have a home in Japan. Just typing this is making me cry. You bet you I cried like a baby when we said our goodbyes at the airport. I held on to Sosha and Shinobu for quite a while. They were very much like another set of parents to me and I am so glad to have met them. So Japan, this is not a good bye but a see you later. You have not seen the last of Sierra Queen!
Harajuku is probably one of my favorite places on earth. It is incredibly eccentric, horrifically crowded, and very tacky, but it is incredibly charming. From the colorful stores selling bootleg clothing, to the small candy and ice cream shops boasting bright and happy cartoon mascots. One of the things that surprised me was all of the West African immigrants who owned stores down Takeshita Street. Before coming to Japan I wasn’t expecting a lot of foreigners making a life there, and if there were any, I was expecting them to be Chinese or Korean or any country close by. But here there were many people owning stores from countries like Ghana and Senegal. The diversity of the stores may have to do with the diversity of the people who owned them. From weird niche clothing shops, like Gothic and ‘Hip-Hop Fashion,’ to strange unrecognizable candy and sweet shops that I didn’t recognize, Harajuku is bleeding what makes Tokyo unique.
Harajuku certainly lives up to all of the hype. As one of the most well known spots in Japan, our entire group had preconceived ideas about what it was and what it would be like. All of these preconceived notions flew out of the window once we arrived in this special spot in Tokyo. The streets and the people were all an exploration of different Tokyo styles and cultures and getting to see it all in one area is a dizzying experience.
One spot in particular, cat street, is an area that all of us had heard about through stories told on the internet and weird news articles that we would never admit to have actually read. The biggest attraction on cat street is the cat cafés. We were all excited to explore one for ourselves and jumped at the chance to go inside one. Once we entered the café, we were all shocked by the number of cats all over the café. We were also shocked by how calming the entire experience was, sitting on couches quietly talking and petting cats might sound like a really strange thing, but actually it was really calming and enjoyable. Although Ms. Parascandolo did run out of the café earlier than expected, we did have a great time visiting one of the newest parts of Harajuku.
My life in one place!
Harajuku was the most amazing shopping district ever! I don’t know why people will shop anywhere else! They literally had everything I could ever want for clothes. There are also great places to eat around there.
However there was one place in particular that stole my heart. The place was the Manga cafe! That place gave me life. I am not exaggerating. If I was by myself and didn’t need to go anywhere, I would have stayed there for hours and I could have. They had showers, a booth where I could sit (a lounge chair was there), a computer if I wanted to go on the Internet. They also brought me a blanket and I could drink an endless amount of drinks. The greatest thing however was the manga. There was a countless amount of manga. I almost cried in joy. My group mate Micah who is a fellow manga lover and I just had the time of our lives there. I will definitely be going there again when I come back to Japan.
Today we went to Harajuku. We had so much fun walking along Takeshita Street. It was very interesting to see the many subcultures housed in Harajuku. One includes Lolita, in which girls dress as if they were from the Victorian-era. Another subculture includes hip-hop, so we came across many stores selling many things considered to be a part of urban culture. We also saw many stores selling cosplay outfits and gothic outfits. Overall, I can now better understand why it is so popular among the youth. The street is full of things to do. You can shop, eat crepes, try on clothes, or even people watch. I had a great time visiting the must-see Harajuku district.
We visited the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Harajuku. At each gate we bow in front when entering and leaving to tell the Shinto Gods we are here. Once we arrived down the path to the Shrine Pavilion, we had to bathe our hands in water, then put it in our mouth and spit it out to cleanse ourselves. The Shrine Pavilion had two very beautiful trees to the right and left. One of them had prayers that you could hang up on wood.
We were even lucky enough to see a traditional wedding. The group walked in one line across. They walked very slowly with serious faces. The priest was in front, in the middle the married couple under an umbrella, and in the back are those invited to the wedding. Police officers made way for the group. We learned that shrines often host marriages and other celebratory occasions.
What I really like about Shintoism is their belief that god is in everything. Everything and everyone is part of one force. It was very interesting, and gave me insight into how some people in the Tohoku region could still have respect for nature even though it’s destroyed so many lives. Many Japanese people I ask make the point that no one can really tell if another is Buddhist or Shinto, but the religions are so imbedded in the culture that even if people were wrecked by nature and not at all religious, they can still forgive. This belief is part of the culture. Maybe not consciously, but it is there.
We visited the temporary shopping village of Minamisanriku. After, some shopping and admiring, we met with some inspiring and powerful high school students and their college student sponsor/mentor. These students have formed several organizations, such as COM. COM is an abbreviation for Center of Minamisanriku. COM strives to invoke positive social change in the community. The group is spreading their word by making pamphlets and talking to the people of Minamisanriku. We engaged in great discussions about the changes the town is experiencing because of the earthquake and tsunami. Some of the key words we came up with were appreciation and regret. We found that these have a direct correlation, as some of the students shared that they lost people close to them, and never expressed their appreciation towards them. Now they regret it and wish they simply said thank you.
After the great time-sharing experiences, we made pizza. This was very fun and made us even closer. We bonded over talking, eating, and dancing. Slowly, we broke down cultural and language barriers. This experience was very moving and motivating, because those students are taking action rather than simply complaining. They tackle many adult problems surrounded by 3/11 and are making a lot of progress in making positive change.
The Mayor of Minamisanriku, Mayor Sato, is one of the strongest men I have ever seen. I am still bewildered by him and his strength. I have already said that the people of Tohoku have this kind of strength I rarely see anywhere else and I am so glad the mayor embodies this strength. His story was tragic and horrifying. I don’t know if I could have kept being mayor after the tsunami. I mean can you imagine looking at nine people around you when there was 53 people just seconds ago? I would have broken down at that instant, probably having a panic attack. Then having to survive on a roof for a couple of days where it was freezing and snowing? He is a true survivor. What really got me though was when he told us the story about the reporter from Chicago who was also a psychologist telling him he has post traumatic stress disorder and he just basically said I very well might have it, but I do not have the time to be dealing with it. There is still work to be done. That is dedication right there, and I would definitely have him in a government position where I live if I had the power. He is a real true leader, one of those men you rarely find.
Mayor Sato filled the room with his presence. He felt bigger than life, and it was surreal to hear him speak knowing what he went through. When he told us his story of the Tsunami, it made me respect him even more. He had clung to a small fence on the top of the disaster prevention center and 43 other people with him were swept away, tragically ironic. After the disaster, he took the job as mayor back up, and had the daunting task of rebuilding Minamisanriku.
At the reception, it was my job to present the day we spent with him. There is no way to say everything I wanted to say in the time slot I had. I don’t think I truly got across how monumental his meeting was for me. After the reception, we ate buffet food and added everyone in the room to our Facebook to create future contacts. People came to me and told me that I was very lucky to meet mayor Sato, but I don’t think they truly understand what a difference that he, and the other survivors we met, had on me.
Our entire TOMODACHI US-Japan Youth Exchange Program group presented in front of our sponsors and TOMODACHI alumni on Friday. My own group did one on our journey in the Tohoku region. Our Japanese TOMODACHI did a presentation about our time in Washington D.C. during the summer. Afterwards we were able to mingle with our sponsors and fellow alumni. I learned that the TOMODACHI Initiative is very vast and there are many other programs I can join! With so many TOMODACHI connections in the room, I immediately felt like an alumni with a vast family of connections for my future. Everyone I met was as great as the people I did my own program with! I’m so glad I’m accepted in this family! It has truly been a life changing experience thanks to TOMODACHI and has made my future clearer. I’m so happy and grateful for this opportunity, from the bottom of my heart.
Our final presentation was a great success. Showing donors, TOMODACHI alum, and different individuals from the United States Embassy and US-Japan Council our experiences in Tohoku turned out to be quite an interesting experience. At first I thought the presentation would be very hard to give because we learned so much from our trip to Tohoku and compressing it all into one power point presentation seemed very hard. I was proved wrong once we began our presentation, and was amazed by how much detail we were able to squeeze into ten minutes! I really enjoyed sharing our experiences and talking to all of the people who came to watch. We also got to learn a lot more about the different parts of TOMODACHI and what they do, which was a really cool experience for me. Our group also really enjoyed listening to the Japanese side of the exchange presentations. It was really the first time that we got to experience the exchange through their eyes. Hearing what they had to say about their time in DC was really thought provoking and showed us a lot about what they held on to and found special about the experience. Overall the presentation was an interesting look into both the Japanese and American experiences and was a great way to learn more about the TOMODACHI project.
Water hit us from all directions. Rain from the sky and waves splashing over the side of the boat. My jeans were completely soaked through and I had to yell to be heard over the motor, but I couldn’t be happier. The fog grazing the black water as the waves swelled up and down looked like something straight out of a Godzilla movie. At any second I was expecting giant dorsal fins to cut through the water. The fisherman whose boat we were on stopped the boat and started to pull up a mass of oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. Something about the grittiness of the boat and the intenseness of the weather made me feel like an authentic Japanese fisherman. The boat owner, Mr. Muraoka, grabbed one of the oysters and cracked the shell open, sucking the raw oyster through his teeth with a loud slurp. He then motioned for me to do the same. This was the only thing during this trip that I hesitated before eating, but I eventually did slurp it down. It tasted like liquid salt. It wasn’t necessarily bad but could use a little lemon.
We ended up getting off the boat and lighting up a grill under a temporary building that looked like a waterproof circus tent. We dropped the shellfish we just caught onto the heat and began to feast on what was by far the freshest tasting oysters I’ve ever had. During this lunch, we listened to the fisherman’s story. He survived the tsunami after saving his entire family and a fellow fisherman. His story both humbled and inspired me. I never knew someone as respectable and saintlike as this man could possibly exist, and my world now feels a little more hopeful knowing people like him are real.
A topic that really interests me came up in our discussion with the fisherman, Mr. Muraoka. The topic that came up was nature, particularly the ocean. Mr. Muraoka said he believes that nature allows us to live, that we should take of it for allowing us to live off it. I will have to say that I agree. Nature is something of great beauty. There is no doubt about that. But it is also something of great destruction. Me and many other children have been told this for years and have acknowledged this fact. However seeing the damage first hand has changed everything, and even though I’m experiencing this 3 years after the tsunami happened, I feel the bone-chilling fear of what happened. It is very different from watching a disaster happening on TV or in a book. When you actually stand in the place where the disaster took place, you realize a lot of things. For me it was realizing I stood where houses should be. I stood where there should be shops. I walked by a space where there should be an elementary school. I should be seeing green everywhere but there is not. Instead I am standing in a construction area. I am standing in fields of brown dirt. I am standing near temporary houses. I am standing with tears in my eyes realizing where I am standing was once covered by a tsunami that washed away 1,800 homes and approximately 840 people.
That is why my fear of nature is on a whole new scale. Don’t get me wrong. I do not hate or blame the ocean. The ocean does not have emotions or have a vendetta against humans. The ocean just is and it does what it does. The ocean is still the livelihood for the fishermen and without it, the town has no chance of revival. During my whole time in Tohoku, I marveled at nature, including the ocean. The beauty here is indescribable and the air feels fresh and clean. So my personal belief is that nature should be respected and protected, but also be aware that it is not a joke. It has no problem with taking anything away from you, and you have no chance of fighting back. However it feeds us and gives a home. In closing, nature is not good or evil; it just lives and moves forward.
Our day in Minamisanriku was an interesting exploration of a community that has been changed completely by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Each community member we met today had different experiences with the earthquake and tsunami, but they all had one thing in common: a strong will to persevere and rebuild the town to an even better state than what it was before. I enjoyed talking to all of the Minamisanriku citizens yesterday and felt that their stories changed my attitude toward a lot of things like the idea of being grateful for the small things and people in your life.
One of the community members we got to meet yesterday was a woman who had started a business making small figurines out of cocoons. Astonishingly, she makes and sells them out of a small temporary living facility near the sea. When we first walked into her workshop, we were all amazed at the amount of intricate little cocoon dolls she had made. At first glance I was sure that I could never make anything so nice, but when we began to make them and she helped us through the process we all began to see and understand how these cool little dolls could be made by even the most non-artistic person.
We all began to craft our figurines together, and as we made them many people in our group began to come up with our own individual ideas that we could make into dolls. Sierra made a very ‘kawaii’ caterpillar, Micah made a very frightening ninja complete with a sword, and Luke made a very interesting model of Godzilla with his. The experience was actually really fun and getting to make these while talking to a community member trying to change her town for the better was a very interesting experience.
We went to the Togura area of Minamisanriku to discover their way of fishing. We learned a bit of the fisherman’s trade from fisherman Muraoka-san. We rode on Mr. Muraoka’s fishing boat and got to see interesting fish. There was one fish that was so cool to me and extremely different from any fish I’d heard of. It’s called a Sea Squirt. It’s a single celled organism that hatches from an egg and begins as a tadpole. It then grows to a fish. The weird part is the final product. It becomes a hard red stone like creature, and only has a mouth and waste hole. It even grows after that! It keeps its last shape though. When cooked it is very sweet and, as Mr. Muraoka described, has a magical affect. After eating it once, everything you eat or drink after has a sweeter taste. It’s a “magic fish.” This fish can only be found in Togura, and is a specialty to the people. I wish we got to try this fish. It sounded so amazing and tasty. I know that when I return to Minamisanriku one day, a Sea Squirt will be sure to be on my dinner plate!
During the morning, we had a great fishery experience and looked into one of the fun activities of Earth Camp. I really enjoyed the time spent with Muraoka-san. He is a real-life superhero. He is a fishermen, chef, gardener, loving family member, leader in his community and much more. I really appreciated his willingness to talk to us about 3/11. He saved so many lives because of his awareness and selflessness. These amazing traits coupled with his resilience is truly admirable and inspiring. After our amazing experience and look into the fishing industry, we made art out of silk cocoons. This was even more special because it was in a temporary house used for crafts. The woman teaching us to make the crafts was also the wife of a brave fisherman that we met earlier. This was very engaging and fun.
Today we ventured past Sendai into two new cities, Watari and Minamisanriku. These cities were our first look into places that were heavily affected by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Our experiences today have been entirely different from the rest of our trip and have given me a look into what Japan is really like outside of Tokyo. These cities also have given us the opportunity to see what effect the tsunami and earthquake really had, and how the people in these cities have coped with the hand they have been dealt.
Our first stop today was the history museum for the city of Watari. This museum was an interesting look into the culture and history of a small strawberry growing town near the coast of Japan. I really enjoyed learning about the rich history of the place and the people who had been living there for centuries. The museum was filled with amazing different artifacts that really spoke to the diverse nature of the town. Artifacts such as a past king’s armor taught us a lot about Japanese symbol. One of these symbols was a feather-like talisman featured atop a past king’s helmet. This symbol was represented through a long tail-like feather, which was meant to symbolize a caterpillar. We quickly learned that caterpillars symbolize much more than we think they do. Caterpillars are animals that never go back; they only move forward, which is a mentality that is very important in battle. This is why kings put the symbol on top of their war armor. It is believed that this symbol will make kings braver in battle and always move forward, like the caterpillar. This look into the culture of ancient Watari was very interesting to me. I felt that the museum was a great introduction into the town of Watari and the identity of the people who live there.
Today we arrived in Minamisanriku after a two-hour bus drive from Sendai. We toured around Minamisanriku and visited three spots. The first was an elementary school high up on a hill that looked over the town. From there I was able to perceive how the once bustling town became what I saw. Minamisanriku is very close to the sea. All the land next to it was only construction and temporary shops. Before the tsunami, the town was filled with cement and tiled homes, many shops, and beautiful sunflower fields. Our Sensei Sosha made the point that it is very difficult for foreigners to imagine the damage other than the town area because the vegetation returned. It’s important to make the point that all these trees that stay on the hills were once decimated.
The area that struck me most was visiting the Disaster Prevention Center. The residents of Minamisanriku memorialized the building for all the lives lost. Only the red steel foundation of the building remains, and the mayor of Minamisanriku survived by hanging on to the pole on the top of the building. We paid tribute to those lost by praying in front of the memorial of two small statues and flowers. I think I’ve made it clear that I believe in God through this blog. With all those lost I wasn’t sure what to pray for. There’s always the factor of others who are lost in nature’s wrath, or that nature even has a wrath, or why people even go through such pain!? It was all so complicated for me, so I made it simple.
“God, nature is confusing, the world is confusing, and you are confusing, but I trust you.”
That was good enough for me. It gave me comfort for the people of Minamisanriku, for those devastated in the world, and myself. It gave me comfort, and I believe I’m ready to help now, as much as I can.
We were standing on a hill, looking out over a barren construction site that was once the district Togura before the tsunami happened. All that’s left now are bulldozers moving back and forth and lopsided remnants of people’s homes. The view was horrifically beautiful. With the sun perfectly setting over the mountaintops, and the trees swaying in the light breeze, it almost felt as if nature itself had no remorse. We treat it as a disaster, as it should be treated, but it feels like the planet just acts like what happened that day was just another part of the cycle. Nature will never be in our control. Nature will always be bigger than us. This sentiment was displayed perfectly by the morbidly decaying ruins of the disaster prevention center, almost as a perfect metaphor of how little prevention could be done. The whole experience was an emotional journey that was not enjoyable, but definitely necessary for us to see.
Tohoku has surprised me and has evoked more emotion than Tokyo ever has. Don’t get me wrong, I love my time in Tokyo, but there is something here that makes me feel strong and alive. A great example of this is when we went to the Watari Museum. There was so much history and stories in the little town. It amazed me. A piece that really stood out to me was the reason why the king of Watari had a plume/feather material on his helmet. The plume represents a caterpillar. You see a caterpillar always moves forward, never back, and that was how the samurai were during war. They kept moving forward. There was no going back. Another part is that swords were like leaves and since the caterpillar was their symbol, it was like they ate the swords like caterpillars eat leaves. This really showed me a different side to the word strength: to keep moving forward, whether in times of war or in times of a disaster. The people of Tohoku have this kind of strength within them.
In the morning we visited the Watari Museum. Here we learned about the history of Watari-cho, with the oldest artifacts dating back 5,000 years. We then traveled to a shop named Watalis. Watalis was founded after 3/11 and is an upcycling organization that gives new life to old, unworn and/or damaged kimono fabric. The rather small shop has received over 314 boxes of kimono fabric weighing in at 2.3 tons. I really enjoyed learning about the beautiful story of Watalis and loved making our own pins from donated kimono fabric. After the workshop, I happily bought some merchandise from the shop.
After a nice lunch at a place created to hold community meetings after 3/11, we got on the road and headed for Minamisanriku. Even the trip to Minamisanriku was moving because I began to notice large areas of land that appeared to be cleared. We visited many different viewpoints to get a grasp for the destruction caused by the earthquake/tsunami. This really sank in after comparing what I was seeing to pictures of the town before the disaster.
Waking up in Sendai was rough. Staying up late watching Sumo wrestling had definitely taken a toll on me, and even the hotel’s complimentary coffee had little effect on me. My breakfast consisted of egg, rice, natto [fermented soybean], and a slab of salmon. We left to go see a seminar about Filipino immigrants in Japan. Although this meeting was informative and very interesting, the real highlight came a few hours later when we visited a local junior high school. We were greeted by excited waves and nervous hellos from the hordes of uniformed preteens stretching their necks to get a look at the strange foreigners.
We all replaced our shoes with slippers and went through a quick tour of the school. When we went into the room of kids, we were surprised by a rambunctious round of applause, and a smaller round of applause after each of our extremely butchered Japanese Introductions. All afternoon we played English themed games and asked questions to each other in English. While obviously not perfected or well-tuned, their English skills were a lot better then my Spanish skills were at their age. Their enthusiasm to learn the language definitely inspired me, and their eagerness to listen and talk made it easy for us to connect at a more personal level than I thought we would.
Today was my day for meals. I had the most delicious meals I ever had so far! I did not expect my favorite meals to be in Sendai. My first favorite meal of the day was at lunch. Taco rice! Don’t scoff yet. Read the rest of it! It may sound American but it was absolutely heaven in my mouth. I literally destroyed my taco rice. Let me tell you what it is before I go on a tangent. So it has rice as a base with lettuce and tomatoes with this sauce that was amazing (and it doesn’t have soy!). I regretted not getting the large, but all was good because I got some of Gabby’s.
The next meal shocked the life out of me. Beef tongue! I was expecting not to like it and be stuck with eating rice because I did not like the beef tongue at the Japanese Embassy in DC. This beef tongue however was the bomb dot com. It was like steak but just so much better. The seasoning was perfect. I had the salt base because the miso has soy. I was not upset at all because I was told that with the salt base you taste the beef more, and I really loved that beefy taste. Overall today was a great day to eat!
Kids’ Door allowed us to have activities with Takasago Junior High School, which was hit by the Tohoku tsunami and earthquake. The middle schoolers carried so much energy with them! As soon as we got out of the car and even got next to the building, students were screaming English greetings and waving their hands and even arms hysterically to get our attention. It was amazing how much joy I felt from their presence. I could tell I would have a great time with them just by their welcome.
When we partnered up with the children, we started off by introducing ourselves in Japanese. Then each American student had a group of Japanese students. I asked everyone in my group questions. Then we played a game. The game is called Yamanote Line. It’s the same rules as the game Concentration 64. The group claps to a beat and at each interval a person has to say something under the general topic. Like if the topic is world cities, the group would clap twice and I’d say Rome. This game was an amazing icebreaker and brought out the competitive spirit in all of us. It was really cool hearing how they said some cities I knew with a Japanese accent. I’ve learned from my own Arabic class that different languages may have different names for cities and countries. It was cool hearing the Japanese version and comparing it to English and Arabic. I had a fun time with all the students and am very glad we felt such lovely energy from a recovering area.
Meeting various organizations in Japan that work to better society has been both interesting and inspiring. I really enjoy and appreciate getting the opportunity to meet and talk with the people who run these organizations. One of these organizations, SEELS, a nonprofit which helps recent Filipino immigrant women find jobs as English teachers in Japan, was one that we got to see today in Sendai. SEELS’s main mission is to help Filipino women who want to teach English to Japanese children and adults start their businesses. By helping the women become English teachers, SEELS is helping these women gain a sense of economic stability which allows them to leave low-paying hostess jobs. Leaving these jobs and transitioning into more desirable and permanent positions such as English teachers does a lot for these women and their ability to feel more comfortable in Japanese society. The SEELS organization is also helping to lessen the lack of English-learning opportunities for Japanese students. This service is really needed in Japan, and despite the hard time the organization has being accepted in society, it seems to be working well for those trying to learn English. I found this organization truly interesting because of how this business model really solves two huge societal problems in Japan, and the Tohoku region. I really enjoyed meeting with the group today and seeing another part of Japanese culture.
Today we visited the organization named SEELS. SEELS is an empowerment program for Filipinas living in Japan, more specifically Fukushima and Sendai. The program helps those Filipinas challenge the stereotypes of only being capable to be entertainers and night club workers. These women are becoming caregivers for the elderly and English teachers. Although they are far from achieving many goals, this is a huge step in the right direction and is helping establish their place in their communities. Through the SEELS program, one of the largest goals, acceptance, is much closer.
We then visited an organization by the name of Kids’ Door. Here we discussed how the tsunami affected the children of the area and how the organization is working to help them. We also prepared for our visit to Takasago Junior High School.
When we arrived at Takasago Junior High School we had a very warm welcome. This was very nice. I also enjoyed meeting with a woman from the United States that has been in Japan for three months teaching English through the JET Program.
We then saw some classrooms that were filled with objects of importance from or due to the earthquake/tsunami. We then went to a classroom full of eager students ranging from 12 years of age to 15 years of age. I really enjoyed meeting them all and playing a game called the Yamanote-Line game. We also talked and I know now that we have so much more in common than I thought.
This soccer ball has an amazing story of traveling many, many miles from the tsunami and eventually finding its way back home to the school.
The school festival at Keio high school knocked my expectations out of the park. There were so many clubs and classes doing their own theme. I seriously lost count of how many hoodies I saw because each class has their own designed hoodie. My host sister designed her class hoodie, which was pretty cool. Now going back to the clubs, I wish my school had as many options. Three clubs stood out to me the most. The first was the band/orchestra. They all looked so professional and neat. The songs were played beautifully, especially the studio giblets songs. I felt like I was in a theater listening to the track. The second club was the art club. I was so bewildered by the fantastic art that was there. It inspired me to work and get better at my own art. The third club was the rock band club. There were two bands: an all girls band and an all boys band. I was really feeling both of them. Micah and I were really into it in the end when the boy band was playing the opening of Naruto. We both literally ran up in front of the crowd and started singing and jumping.
At the end of the home stay I sorta didn’t want to leave, as I have mentioned in a previous blog post that I am in love with my host family’s house. I am also so grateful for all the things my host family did, like housed me, washed my clothes, and cooked me meals. Speaking of cooking meals, during my last night at my host family’s home, my host mom made me some pizza from scratch. It had pepperoni and onions. It was oishi (delicious). It is now one of my most favorite pizzas ever. I will miss my host family very much and I hope we can one day meet in the future.
Keio High School’s school festival is a once a year celebration and open house. The Japan TOMODACHI students gave us a tour of Keio, and guided us to different rooms, presentations, and activities. I enjoyed the Keio orchestra most. They started off with a piece that felt like it was torn from an action movie. The two next pieces were dear to my heart and I greatly enjoyed them. The first was from the video game Donkey Kong. The music is very jazzy, and they captured that feeling and exaggerated it with excellency. The next were a few pieces from the anime film Totoro. I enjoyed reminiscing over the movie while listening to the music. It was fantastic and I’m glad I got to see less popular culture in America come to life in its home country.
My first ever homestay experience was fantastic! I stayed with my host brother TM and his family. I lived with TM’s mother, father, and little brother Gaku. I did not meet TM’s father until the last night, because he was in San Antonio for a business trip. For first night I had such a warm welcome. I mostly remember a very large dinner with so many various foods, and I especially like the Japanese fried pork. I really like the way the Japanese fry food. It’s not deep fried and greasy, yet still very crunchy. The second day we went to a family restaurant and had hamburg. Hamburg is hamburger meat without the buns, and is usually served with a sauce. I also tried bone marrow for the first time. It was fried, but I soon found out, when my family and host family video chatted, that bone marrow is a popular meal in the south where my father is from. I still laugh because little did I know this meal that I thought was so foreign is so close to home!
My last night TM’s father arrived. He brought popcorn from his layover in Chicago. I had never heard of Garret Popcorn before but it is extremely popular in Japan because the Japanese don’t really eat popcorn. I imagine Garret Popcorn is a hidden jewel in America. I think that America’s cities have that one secret thing that easily distinguishes a local from a foreigner, like mambo sauce from DC. That’s why I imagine I wouldn’t know Garret Popcorn, yet if I talk to any Chicago lover they’d instantly know what I’m talking about. Or I just didn’t know the place and everyone else does, but oh well. I definitely felt that Garret Popcorn was prized by the M family, and as I saw a shop for Garret Popcorn in Tokyo Station I instantly thought of my host family. It is something dear to my heart now, all because of the love that I felt connected our family.
Today was the last day with our host families. After an hour of now trying to get everything in my suitcase, and 5 minutes of me and my host mother running to the station at full speed to make sure I don’t miss my train, we caught up with the other TOMODACHI students, and I bid farewell to my host mother with a hug and went off onto the train, ready for the next chapter of our Japan adventure.
After a few minutes in a regular train we got off at Tokyo station. Looking around, this station might be one of the coolest stations we’ve been to. Filled with stores, snack shops, and restaurants. I could have walked through it for hours. It seemed as though every Japanese cartoon character had their own store, and there was even a whole hallway made up of only ramen shops. This is where we ate, and it was delicious.
The bullet train was crazy, extremely smooth and comfortable, and the constant stream of urban skylines, mountains, and rice fields outside of my window kept me mesmerized the entire way. We got off in Sendai, a city ravaged by the 2011 earthquake, and I have yet to really explore the city.
Sadly, Sunday was our last day with our Japanese host families. I had such a wonderful experience with my host mother Mikki and my host sister MI. I really enjoyed staying with them and the wonderful conversations we had. On my last night with my host family, we all went out to dinner at a local ramen restaurant. At the restaurant we could choose from many different kinds of ramen bowls that all looked amazing and featured many different toppings such as pork, egg, and chicken! I chose a ramen bowl with a miso broth and chicken on top – it was delicious. When I first got my steaming hot bowl of ramen I was so excited to eat it! It smelled delicious and I couldn’t wait to try the miso broth. As I was eating it I realized what a mess I was making, I could never quite get the broth and the noodles in one bite. My host mother quickly noticed that too and was quick to help me master the art of eating hot ramen. As she showed me how to slurp and spoon my ramen quickly and efficiently so that I got maximum flavor possible, I found my self really sad that I would be leaving soon! I really grew close to my host family over my last four days with them and will really miss them when I leave Japan. I am really grateful for my experience with them, and found it such a great way to truly experience Japanese culture.
Today we had the school festival at Keio SFC. It was very fun and I really appreciated the hard work of the students and teachers at the school. Some of the events we visited included an amazing performance by the band, adventures in different classrooms, and viewing beautiful art from the art club. Although the long anticipated school festival was great, it came with the last day with our home stay families. I really enjoyed my entire home stay experience. On the last day we had an amazing meal. That same night, I gave my host family their gifts that I brought with me from DC, which they accepted graciously. We then watched ice skating and ate green tea ice cream. Watching ice skating has a deeper meaning, because it was something we could all enjoy, seeing as all other channels were in Japanese. I will miss them when I go home, but for now I am anticipating seeing them again at the final presentation.