Dreams of Happiness

My best friend dreams of being a professional ballerina. She works her body to the maximum, until there are numerous blisters on her feet and muscles ache so that she can be one step closer to her goal. When I watch her dance, I am always blown away by how perfect she can be and how blissfully happy she looks in that spotlight…

Sometimes I am jealous of how sure she is of what she wants her future to look like. My future is mostly hazy and the image keeps changing in my mind. I have so many dreams and goals that it is difficult to choose just one to put my all into. The one thing I do know, though, is that I want to contribute to making this world a better place, somehow.

I have also always wanted to become a mother. I dream of raising children who understand the joys of running barefoot in a downpour and of understanding various cultures and beliefs.

But to conquer this dream, I know that I must first become a person that my future children can look up to. I know that at this moment, I am not this person and that I need more time and pondering. One of the reasons I wanted to study abroad this year was that I wanted to figure out who I really was, so that I could use that knowledge to improve myself. Yet coming to Japan has made me aware that I need even more time to think.

In Japan, high school students are expected to know just what kind of future, what job they would like to do, before they start college. This is because each college is meant for different jobs and futures and students cannot easily transfer universities in Japan. Therefore, most of the girls in my class, though they are a year younger than me, have clear pictures of what they dream of being. Since my class is math and science centered, most of the girls either want to become doctors or pharmacists. Yet the underlying reason behind this, it soon became clear to me, is not to save lives but to make as much money as possible. Money, to these girls, is the key to happiness.

When I watch men and women at the train station, fingering their cell phones and listening to their ipods while waiting for the train, all lost in separate worlds, I wonder if they are happy. All, I assume, are relatively rich, especially compared to the rest of the world. Some work unhappy jobs in order to make money to support their families. Yes, they can buy and eat whatever they please, when they please. But does this make them happy?

I had this conversation with one of the girls that I eat with at lunch. Her opinion was that I should not assume that they are unhappy, because it is they that judge how happy they are, not me. In other words, in my mind they might not look like they are enjoying life because I grew up happily surrounded by nature and love, but to the people who know only life of studying, studying, studying and working, working, working for the sake of making money, to them, this might be happiness.

This opened up my world a bit. Perhaps my childhood, in their opinion, is not one that is happy. Maybe this kind of happiness that is sustained by love, not money, is only felt by those who grew up the same way I did.

Yet at the same time, I cannot help but feel sorry for the girls at school when I watch them being told that they should study at least three hours a day so that they can get into a good college. Instead of learning for the sake of gaining new knowledge and having the world open a little wider, they are forced to study so that they can get good test grades. Thus, they despise studying and learning, which I think is a pity.

On the same subject of happiness, lately I have been turning the thought of if I am happy over and over in my brain. Years back, I believed that looking in the mirror and thinking that you are beautiful, both in and out, is selfish. But it has gradually become clear to me that this type of selfishness is necessary. If I do not believe myself to be beautiful and love myself for who I am, I am unable to love others. I also believe that the people who act the most selfish are really the ones who have no confidence. So, lately I have been trying to train myself to be positive about my reflection…

I have also realized that my fear of failing comes from the fact that I believe myself to be dumb. Growing up with two brothers who excel at math and science, I always felt that my brain lacked the skill of seeing things mechanically and logically. Thus, I worked extra hard to get good grades at school and to become someone that anyone could be proud of. When I did not do well on a test or live up to my own expectations, I became terrified and severely insecure. But a couple of months in Japan and a few rounds of tests have taught me that failing is necessary in life. There is no need to lose confidence, since every person has different subjects in which they excel at.

Winter break is coming up in a few weeks and since tests are over, I have plans of going out with my friends from school. I will be experiencing karaoke for the first time, which I am very excited about. But I also need to finish my last essays for college. I only have one required supplement essay and one optional one to go… 🙂

I have gone through periods since I arrived in Tokyo when I wanted to escape this stressful society. But when those times come, walking my route home from the train station always revives me back to my happy self. Each step past traditional Japanese shops, past elderly men and women sitting on little benches, enjoying conversation, past little energetic boys and girls holding tight to their mothers’ hands, breathes fresh air back into me…and when I bow to the grand temple and look up to see the blue, blue sky above, I cannot help but to smile.

Update :)

I feel as if eons have passed since my last update on this blog… but, in case any of you out there are worried, I am fine, alive and very happy. 🙂

Midterm tests are over and it is already time to gear up for the next round of tests, coming up in a few weeks. I did not do as horribly as I thought on these tests and next time I strive to do even better. Yet before I can put myself entirely into my studies, I have to complete the seemingly endless process of filling out my college applications.

I do not know what finally convinced me to complete my college applications from Japan. I may have realized that even though I was stressed and busy, filling out college applications was not going to hurt me, or it may have been because the prospect of starting college just months after arriving home from Tokyo had become more and more alluring to me. Challenging classes at my Japanese school have made me quenched for more knowledge and learning, something I have no doubt in gaining at a university.

Whatever the reason, I have spent the past month communicating back to my school counselor in America in order to fill out my application, sending emails to teachers at my high school back home pleading for recommendation letters, contacting one English teacher at my present Japanese school for one as well, sending out my ACT scores and finally, writing and re-writing application essays. The last one on the list turned out to be the most strenuous and stressful. Whenever I sat down to write, the pressure coming from the knowledge that I must write the best essay of my life, that describes my whole existance caused me to be constantly let down by my writing. I would write a paragraph then scrap it, write another, scribble it out, and on and on until all of the built up frustration came to a maximum.

But thanks to a suggestion from my Aunt Terra, who told me to just write out all that I wanted to say in a draft that we could always change and make better later, I somehow was able to finish my main essay.

Yet the tiresome process of writing my college application essays has made it clear to me that my English is faltering a bit. Departing a bilingual environment to come to a strictly Japanese-speaking one has had some effects on me. Though my Japanese speaking, writing and reading have reached amazing levels, I am, at the same time, losing my English ability. When I try to write, for instance, I am unable to fully express myself, since English words do not pop up convieniently like they used to in America.

To combat my loss of English, I have began an epic quest to read all of the Harry Potter series books. I remember being not a big fan of fantasy in America, but for some reason, once I started reading these books, I could not put them down. This has become almost a problem, since I have had to stop myself many times from reading it during class… I have since completed the third book and will check out the fourth tomorrow, but thanks to these books, I have sensed a recovery of my faltering English. Not only that, but my dreams have become quite interesting…

Sadly, that is all now for this post, since I must get back to my college essays…

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am a bit depressed that I cannot be home for the holidays. But I am looking forward to the Japanese New Year! 🙂

The Unraveling

My first month in Tokyo left me wound up, quite like the miniature chick I remember playing with as a  child at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, that I used to wind and wind until that exhilarating moment when I would let go, to watch it go flying, buzzing mechanically as it spun across the floor. But, luckily for me, the letting go, or the unwinding of it all, was gradual. So gradual, in fact, that I did not realize the change until the process was ending.

The first discovery of change happened before dinner one evening, when it hit me that I was not as hungry as usual. This was quite different, since during the past month, not only had I devoured a full breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I had also gobbled up snacks before and after supper.

With this discovery came a flood of others, starting with the realization that during the same time that I had been gorging myself constantly, I had also experienced full body muscle pain and incurable exhaustion – as if I was going through a growth spurt. Also, I remembered that I had felt like my mind was constantly at work, ceasing to rest, even at night. My emotions had also been affected: I always had been in a nervous and restless state of tension, at home and at school.

I was able to connect all of these symptoms back to the stress of adjusting to a completely new and different environment. I also discovered that the symptoms were inter-related; for example, the restlessness caused by my stressed condition in turn caused me to turn to eating to keep me occupied.

With time, though, as my body and mind got used to my Tokyo life, these symptoms went away. My nervous condition lessened, and I began to feel more relaxed, even a bit lazy. I stopped eating snacks and the pain in my muscles disappeared, and with that the exhaustion.

Sadly, though, the story of my first month does not end with a happily ever after, for one of the above symptoms caused problems later on. The symptom I am hinting at, of course, is the growth of my appetite, for hardly no exercise combined with eating an awful amount of food day in and day out always seems to lead to disastrous outcomes. The reason for my state of hardly no exercise is that I had decided not to join any sport clubs at my high school in Japan, since none seemed to suit me. So walking the route to school – to the train station, switching train lines, and the walk from the station to my school and back again – was the only form of exercise that I had been getting.

When I first began to take note that my jeans were getting harder and harder to put on, I ignored the extra fat thinking it was just a phase. But when others began to notice and comment, I became alarmed and took immediate action.

First, instead of always taking the escalator when switching train lines, I began to take the stairs. I also practiced speed walking my route to and from school, which,  I admit, may or may not look a bit funny to others around me. But I find speed walking very enjoyable and love that I can get home even faster.

Second, taking a good friend’s advice, I made a promise to myself to do thirty sit ups right before bed. I may have broken this promise two or three times – okay, maybe more-  but even so, I can feel my precious abdominal muscles taking shape again.

Finally, and most importantly, using the good tennis shoes that Akiko-san bought for me, I have taken up running around the local park at night, two or three times a week. Sometimes I put ear buds in and listen to music while I run, past the park and up stairs, across a gigantic bridge and back again, but lately I like to listen to the night. All of the stress from packing my brain with new information fades little by little as I stride past other runners and walkers, increasing my pace little by little, until finally, when I arrive at the last stretch out of the park, I sprint as fast as I can, using up all of the energy I have left in me, my breath heavy and my face covered in sweat.

This, I have discovered, is great for both my physical and mental health. To be in control of something, in this case, my running, gives me great satisfaction and confidence.

So, now that my long period of adjustion has officially ended, I have turned my attention to doing well at school. I have midterm finals coming up next week, for instance, that I am gearing up for. There are about nine different classes that I have to take finals for, and most I still am having trouble with. The only classes I have a bit of confidence in are my two math classes. The other classes, such as World History, Classical Japanese, Modern Japanese, Biology, etc, have so many difficult kanji words and concepts that I have to memorize, so thus, are exceptionally difficult for me.

It is impossible, clearly put, for me to do well on these finals, but still, since I am a bit of a perfectionist, I imagine that I will feel a bit depressed when I see my scores. But all of my classes are very interesting and mind expanding, so I enjoy going to school. I especially enjoy Modern Japanese class, for we are reading essays with titles like “Myself: The Mysterious Existence of ‘Me'”, which I find thrilling. Philosophically, I have learned, the reason I understand that I am “me” is because there are other people to compare myself to, and if, for some reason, no one else existed, I would not think of myself as “me”, if that makes sense.

All in all, school is a fun place to be. My classmates are hilarious and all very kind and accepting, and I have made lots of friends.

I am indescribably relieved and glad that I have returned to normal, in terms of body, spirit, and mind. Now then, let my adventures in Tokyo begin! 🙂

Lessons from Tiny Failures

Even now, four days after the event, I still do not understand why I did it. It might have been because I had been off from school for a week and had forgotten the school rules, or maybe it was because I was so exhausted that my mind seemed to be blank, or perhaps it was caused by the fact that because that day was devoted to readying our room for the school festival, it did not feel like an actual school day to me. But whatever the underlying reason, on Friday, September 24th, I got in trouble at school for the first time in my life.

I had just spent two days absent from school vacationing near Yamanaka Lake, relaxing in natural hot springs while gazing up at the full moon, trying on heavy, ancient samurai armour for fun, and taking pictures of the gorgeous Mt. Fuji in the distance. So, of course, when the girls at school asked me what I had done away from school, I was overjoyed to explain. When there was nothing left to do, I had the grand idea to show them pictures of my visit that I had taken on my cell phone, since I believed the pictures would illustrate my two days near Yamanaka Lake nicely. But no sooner had I turned on my phone when I heard a voice call my name. It was Saitou-sensei, my homeroom teacher. In confusion and shock, I was led away to the teachers’ lounge and told that my cell phone would be taken away, my host mother would be phoned and that she would have to come get the phone the next day at a certain time. I bowed my head in shame and apologized, all the while feeling as if this was not really happening and that it was just a bad dream.

When another teacher came over to explain to me that foreign exchange students are punished in the same way as regular students at the school and that the fact that I was being punished was entirely my fault, since I knew the school rules, it hit me, like a ton of bricks, that it was not a dream and that I was actually in trouble. At once I was terrified and confused, since it was unlike me to be in this situation. I searched my brain frantically for a memory of something similar happening to me earlier in my life, but nothing appeared. Instead, the disappointed faces of my parents surfaced and just like that, I was crying. This development surprised the two teachers, but surprised me most, since it was the first time since I had arrived in Japan that I had let my tears fall. When I had waved goodbye to Daddy at the departure gate at O’Hare, I had held them in with all my might, and when I missed home more than anything in the world, I had bit my lip, had taken deep breaths and had tried to smile…and yet, there, in the middle of a crowded teachers’ lounge, in front of two teachers, I had finally lost my self-control and was entirely powerless to stop salty liquid from running down my cheeks.

I could not believe I was in this situation, for ever since I was a little, I worked hard to be a good girl. I studied hard to get good grades, did the dishes, took care of the chickens and goats, worked on the farm, and never purposely caused trouble for my parents. I looked down upon violence so much that my parents tell the story of how when I got angry at my brothers, I would lift my fist in the air to cry, “I’m gonna HIT you!” but never once could. Even now, the thought of me bringing physical pain to someone else makes me want to cry. As I grew up, I was taught that drugs and alcohol were bad and therefore never had the urge to try either. In short, if someone I trusted, like my parents or teachers, told me not to do something, even without explanation, I would not let myself do it.

Yet, there I was, faced with the fact that I had done something against the rules. Was I becoming a bad person? Would this lead to more breaking of rules? These thoughts scared me out of my wits. Coming to Japan by myself was supposed to be a chance to finally unveil who I really was. Was this the real me?

Now, four days later, after many thinking sessions on the train and at home, with my cell phone safely back, that initial hysteria has died. Yes, what I did was bad, but I am not a bad person for doing it. The world is not separated by black and white, good and evil. People cannot be perfect: therefore, there is not a single bad person in this world. If a person does commit a crime, such as murder, that does not mean he or she is incapable of good, but the opposite, and we must create a world in which they can be happy.

From now on, I have decided to trust my own instincts, instead of relying on others to teach me right from wrong.

When I first realized I was in trouble at school, I wished with all my might that I could rewrite history…yet now, I understand that thanks to this event, I am a little bit wiser.

The Importance of Daydreams

It is almost four o’clock on a Saturday evening, and I have just dragged my burned out body and brain out of bed from a three-hour nap in order to complete a promise made to myself made earlier this morning: to finally continue the story of my Tokyo life on this blog, after a two-week blank. So, I begin now the task of recounting a seemingly distant history…

Two days after my first introduction to school, I got my first taste of a full day of classes. Contrary to the United States, each day has a different line up of classes. Each class is not taken every day, rather, ten or more classes are scattered throughout the week. Also, in high school, Japanese students are typically separated into two groups: math and science centered and literature centered. My class, for example, is math and science centered, so students have to take two math classes and a science class at more difficult levels than other classes.

World History was my first hour class that morning. An older man with a square face and smiling eyes framed in glasses walked into the classroom and set his materials on the podium in front of my desk, and when the bell- which is not just one ring, but a chorus of bells- sounded, one of our class leaders called out an order for us all to stand, bow, and sit down again. The same practice is carried out at the beginning and end of every class, including homeroom and at the end of the school day. The teacher, of course, noticed me in the front of the class and after learning that I was a foreign exchange student from America, he tried out a few words of English, which produced laughter from the girls. Then a lesson was started. Since I did not have a textbook yet (Textbooks in Japan are a total opposite to the heavy, hard cover books of America and instead are light and soft covered. They are usually bought by the students, but in my case the school has offered to let me borrow them.), I asked the girl on my right if I could share hers and in reply, she nodded her head and pushed her desk closer to mine. By this time, the teacher was in full out lesson mode and was talking excitedly about ancient Chinese history, speaking and writing and pulling questions out of the air and throwing them, randomly, at us. Someone would guess the answer, and he would smile and shake his head dramatically when it was wrong, causing us all to giggle. It was a fifty minute lesson, but time passed quickly and I found myself very interested in the subject, even though big words caused the class to be difficult to follow at times.

As soon as the chorus of bells rang and we bowed goodbye to the teacher, all of the girls went to the back of the classroom, to their lockers, to grab their physical education clothes, and proceeded to change in that very classroom. I followed suit, and after putting my wallet in with everyone else’s into a duffel bag to carry with us- for fear of someone coming into our classroom and stealing our valuables- I tailed after my classmates to walk to the high school gym. Before stepping up onto the gym floor, we took off our shoes and replaced them with tennis shoes. Because I was a PE helper – every student in a class has a job, for instance, grading papers, cleaning the classroom, etc- I stood before the class with Yuuna-chan and Maho-chan to lead the warm up exercises. We paired up afterwards to do a series of sit ups and other work outs, including one called the Russian dance, where about ten girls joined hands in a circle and kick, kick, squatted simultaneously. (This work out later was assumed to be the cause for my upper leg muscle pain that made walking near impossible for two days thereafter.) The rest of the class period was spent hula hooping, which according to the teacher- an older woman known to be strict by my classmates- would be the topic of a PE test later on.

The next two classes, before lunch, were both math classes. One covered sines and cosines and the like, and the other probability. Though I had covered both of these math subjects before, both classes were hard for me, mostly because in Japan, the use of calculators is not allowed. In America, I always had access to my handy graphing calculator, which took seconds to come up with answers, with only a little prodding from me. Therefore, to find the sine of thirty degrees, I only had to punch that into the calculator, and ta-da! There the answer was. But in Japan, I realized then that I needed to come up with the sine of thirty degrees on my own. Thus, I soon became frustrated, especially because even though it was a new semester, instead of starting a new chapter, it was a continuation from before break, which meant I had to jump in halfway through, completely blind and thoroughly confused.

I was indescribably happy, therefore, when lunchtime came. Akiko-san had again made me lunch for school, which was like heaven for my starving stomach. Yuuna-chan, a happy-go-lucky girl who sits in a seat left and behind me,  invited me to come eat with her friends, an offer I gratefully accepted, and all of my frustration faded as I talked and laughed and ate. After my stomach was full and happy, the girls told me that they were going to the science lab to take care of crawdads, so with just that knowledge, I walked with them down the halls to the classroom. In the back of the lab, about ten small tanks were lined up, each with an assortment of blue colored crawdads. I learned later that Yuuna-chan and the other girls, along with some girls from another class, were taking notes for an ongoing experiment. They weighed each crawdad, noted its color and eating habits, and gave each tank food. By the time we had finished, the bell was already ringing, so we rushed back through the halls and to our classroom for English class.

English and English-speaking class were both, of course, easy for me. What really surprised me was that English was a hated subject for most of the girls in my class and that they believed English was awfully difficult. I should not have been that astounded, since English is indeed a hard language to learn, especially from a completely different language like Japanese. But I guess growing up in a bilingual environment caused me to unconsciously assume that both languages were easy to master. The English class was taught by a Japanese teacher, while the English-speaking class was taught by a young American woman from Pennsylvania. Both classes were a huge relief from the mind-bending morning.

Saitou-sensei returned to our classroom after our sixth hour class and stepped back to let the two class leaders go over reminders and the like. She then gave a closing remark, and we all got up and bowed for the last time that day to say goodbye, then all of the girls began pulling their desks toward the back. Confused, I asked them what they were doing, to which they answered that the room was going to be cleaned and the desks were in the way. Sure enough, a few girls were pulling out brooms from the cabinet and were already sweeping. Because I was not on cleaning duty, I changed my school shoes for my outdoor ones, called out “Sayonara” to everyone, and made my usual route home.

Days like these have continued for two weeks now, and the stress from trying to keep up with all of my classes has gradually built up, causing me to be very hungry and weary. At home, hours are spent studying every night, which is a new experience for me. Back home, I would finish all of my homework at school most days and spend school nights daydreaming, dancing and pondering life. Now, by the time I get home from school, do housework and homework, eat dinner, take a bath and write my day’s summary, there is no time left to do my usual deep thinking before fading off into Dreamland. Thus, my dreams are always jumbled and make no sense, so when I wake up, I am always confused and still tired. I never knew that my seemingly useless hours back home of lying on my bed and staring off into space, or walking slowly down our driveway in the dark with my eyesight blurred from sudden tears and afterwards, looking up into the stars and the moon in search of answers, were so drastically important to me, but now that I do, I miss those precious moments terribly.

I came to Japan to figure it all out: my life, my dreams, the meaning of it all. Yet I find myself stuck, out of breath, needing a break from running in circles, needing the stars and the moon to speak to, to cry to. I have found independence and confidence here in Tokyo, but somehow I am in need of something else…something that will rescue me from this pit of confusion.

Independence and Confidence

I woke up, already exhausted, on the first day of school- tired from tossing and turning all night from nervousness. After putting on my school summer uniform – a white, short-sleeved polo shirt underneath a blue vest, with a long, blue, plaited skirt underneath, long white socks and school loafers- I ate breakfast in a daze and lugged my fatigued body to the train station, following Akiko-san and Saki-chan’s lead. But the sight of so many people, moving, walking, running, ten thousand different ways soon woke me up…even Saki-chan and Akiko-san were walking so quickly that I had to increase my pace in order to catch up. When the train shooted in, I gasped at the sheer number of people crammed into the tiny space of the train and thought that I could not possibly fit, but Akiko-san and Saki-chan went right ahead and dragged me in, pushing for space. Before I knew it, the door was closing and people surrounded me on all sides, all touching, all so close that I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. I was just thinking, so this is the famous Tokyo morning rush, when Saki-chan bended toward me to explain that what I was experiencing right then was not even the usual rush. I did not believe her, for I could not comprehend having even more people on that train. In my mind, it had reached its limit.

As we passed through two or three stops, more people got off than on the train, so the ride became more comfortable. Saki-chan got off next at the stop closest to her school, but Akiko-san (who was helping me get to school this first day) and I rode to the next stop in order to switch trains. I followed Akiko-san and the green circle signs that said the name of my next train line, walking up and down stairs and showing my train pass a couple times.

The next line was quite unpopulated compared to the major line I had just got off of and we were even able to sit down. We rode to the Komagome station, got off, and walked the three minute route the high school that I will be attending these ten months in Tokyo- Bunkyo Gakuin University Girls’ High School. The whole trip had taken about forty minutes.

At the school, Akiko-san and I met the other two exchange students also attending the school for an academic year – one short blonde-haired girl from Belgium and the other girl, who had a darker complexion, from France- before bidding Akiko-san goodbye, for she had to go back to work.  After short introductions were made between me and the other two girls, we walked to the auditorium for an assembly, where we were expected to make short speeches in front of the entire student body. My stomach clenched at the thought, for already, girls in the same blue uniforms as me were spilling into the room and taking their seats. I tried to run over the words to my short introduction, but my mind and body could not keep still, so I soon gave up.

When everyone had taken their seats, an annoncer commanded everyone to stand, bow, and sit down again. This was followed by the introduction of the student council leaders, who lead the school song and reading of the school motto. Then the powerpoint switched to say ‘Introduction of the Foreign Exchange Students’ and taking this as our cue, all three of us stood up and walked up the stairs and unto the stage. My heart leaped inside my chest when I noticed that there was a cameraman who was video taping the whole assembly. The Belgium girl went first, producing oohs and ahhs as she spoke Japanese, then French. Then it was my turn, so I stepped toward the mike, looking out into the sea of alert, interested faces of the students, and strangely, my usual nervousness faded. I did not know any of these people, and they did not know me, and these facts was all it took to put me completely at ease, and my voice was clear and strong as, smiling, I introduced myself in English and Japanese.

Later, after buying my inside school shoes, I went to my homeroom class, which is named Ran, or orchid. In Japan, instead of the students walking to each class, the teachers move. Therefore, I would be spending every single class with these same classmates. When I entered and said hello to everyone, the twenty-seven girls in my class clapped their hands happily. My homeroom teacher, a wide-eyed, smiley young woman named Saito-sensei, showed me my seat, which was located in the very front and center of the room, which I deemed perfect for taking notes. I hung my school bag on a hook on my desk and sat down. Before me, there was an enormous television screen that showed an older man talking on the very stage and behind the very podium that I had just used for my speech. I assumed that he was the principal and that the video camera that I had seen earlier was being used for this purpose. But it took me a bit more time to realize that not everyone in the school had been sitting in the seats of the auditorium and that most had watched the assembly from their respective rooms. This made sense, since the seats probably could not hold the one thousand student population.

When the long speech, which focused on college choices, ended, the television was turned off. Two girls came forward to make an embarrassed explanation to me of what this particular class was like, and then I was called up to the podium by Saito-sensei for another introduction. Since I had been sitting in the very front of the classroom, I finally got my first look at all of the girls. They are all younger than me, which felt a little strange since in America, I was always the youngest in my class, but I could see that they were all very lively and nice! 🙂 After I sat down, they each went around and said their names, but a combination of exhaustion and short-term memory loss caused me not to remember a single one…

That first day was only a half day, so after taking an English vocabulary test, going to an exchange students’ orientation, and eating the delicious box lunch that Akiko-san made for me, I headed home. This time, no one was there to help me get on the right train. I checked and double checked the train route home and felt quite independent when I was able to follow the signs with no problem when switching trains. Before I knew it, I was exiting the Monzen-naka-cho station and was tracing back the steps I had made that morning, this time heading towards home.

I opened the door to the apartment with my key and all but collapsed on my bed, exhausted but happy. I felt something shift inside of me as I thought about how the old me, who had depended so much on her family and friends to carry her to safety, always, could have never traveled by herself on a Tokyo train, could have never arrived home in one piece, for she had no confidence. But yet, the new me, the strong, independent, proud me had just completed a successful adventure home.

What surprised me most was that it had seemed so…easy.

Bonds Formed in Bon Odori

I stood perfectly still as Akiko-san draped a long, deep blue yukata – the summer form of a kimono- on my shoulders, crossed the fabric across my chest, wrapped a pink obi sash around my middle and tied it in a huge bow in the back. Later, when I had put my hair up, putting two beautiful ornamental pins, or kanzashi, into my curls, I viewed myself in the mirror. I was astounded to see that a half Japanese girl like me could look so traditional in this gorgeous get up.

That night was the first night of the two-day Bon Odori Matsuri, or Obon folk dance festival, which is held all over the country at different times during the last few weeks of August. Obon is a Buddhist memorial holiday in which Japanese people honor the lives of their ancestors and reflect on the meaning of their own lives. The Obon festival has been celebrated since 657 AD in Japan and thus has a long history, which means every area of Japan has its own, specialized dances. The ward where Akiko-san and I were going to dance that night, for example, has different dances than other Tokyo wards.

We sat daintily in our taxi seats on the way to Hamacho Park- where the two night festival was being held- careful not to disturb our yukatas. When we arrived, we shuffle-stepped our way into the park in wooden geta clogs, past the entranceway and into the crowds surrounding a central stage. The whole park was lit up by thousands of small lanterns that hung from the two-story stage and from the street stands all around it. The bottom stage was shaped like a huge circle and rose about five feet above ground, while the upper stage, which was a smaller circle above the bottom stage, held taiko drummers. Skilled dancers moved their way around the bottom stage while a singer carried out long, high notes of folk songs.

The stage was astounding, but what captured my attention most was the lines of people below the stage, dancing. They circled the stage as they danced in rhythm, in sync, with each other. Old men in suits, little girls in tiny yukatas, teenagers, fathers, grandmothers were all present, smiling and moving, flowing, to the beat of the taiko drums. Akiko-san immediately urged me to join them, so I moved in. I felt a bit self conscious at first because since I had to copy the movements of the dancers in front of me, I was always a beat or two behind everyone else. Also, when I finally got the hang of a dance, the song would end and another, different dance would begin. But even then, I felt my happiness soar to great heights when I saw the serene faces of everyone around me, clapping, dancing, moving in unison, slowly circling around and around the central stage.

A woman speaker on the bottom stage first introduced the dancers, then the group of were slow and exact and therefore easy to learn from, I started to understand some of the easy dances.  I had to stare hard, though, at the man in order not to fall behind and after a couple of dances, he began to take note. After one dance, he turned around to smile at me and to tell me that I was getting better at the dances, which I thought was very sweet.

Apparently he also thought I was sweet, because he began introducing me to all of his dance troupe friends. When he went up onto the stage- or yagura- to dance, he introduced me to a woman dancer so I could follow her. While he was gone, I became comfortable with the dances and concentrated on making my movements flow with the same soft, dainty feel as the woman before me. I began to notice that every dancer incorporated their own, unique style into their movements: one woman across from me, for instance, made her movements soft and beautiful while the man in front of her chopped at the air. I found this fact especially rewarding, for in America- in my experience, of course- people seldom have the courage to join in and dance, particularly men, but in this little festival world in the middle of Tokyo, everyone flaunted their style rather than cowering in the shadows.

Because Akiko-san and I thoroughly enjoyed the first night, the second night of the festival was a must, so Akiko-san and I again put on our yukatas and rode the taxi to the park. This time, though, I held more confidence in my Bon Odori dancing skill, so I joined the dancing group without any hesitation.  Halfway through, I could honestly say that I was not copying movements, but producing them myself. So I clapped my hands and smiled with the others, twirling my hands and flowing to the music, feeling the warm air and the presence of happy dancers all around me.

With only about an hour left to go, I had just finished a dance and was waiting for another to begin, when an older woman, about seventy and an inch or so shorter than me, came up to me. Without any hesitation or embarrassment, she looked me straight in the eye and asked me if I was Nikkei, or Japanese American. I shook my head no, since I am not full-blooded Japanese, and she guessed next that I was half Japanese, so I smiled and said I was. But  that was all of the conversation we could get in before the next song, a fun, disco-type dance, came on. I was clapping my hands and shaking my hips, enjoying the dance, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman who had just talked to me dancing. Her long black hair was pulled primly up into a bun and she was wearing a beautiful, dark yukata, yet she was dancing as if she was in her twenties, underneath a disco ball, wearing a sparkly red dress. She shook her hips and waved her hands, smiling at me, and called out, “Hai, hai, hai!” to the beat of the music. Her movements were so energetic and cute that I could not help but join in on her enthusiasm, laughing as I made my movements bigger. Soon I was yelling out “Hai, hai, hai!” with her and as we locked laughing eyes, I felt a happiness overflow me, that this old woman, unknown to me until now, was sharing a spunky dance with me and had accepted me into her world, though she knew I was from far away. I did not know this woman, or where she came from, or what kind of life she had led until then, but in that instant, I thought I understood her.

I never wanted the dancing to end, but it had to and did, so Akiko-san and I ran outside to the street stands to buy some treats before we made our way home. Then we walked back, staring up to the bright, beautiful moon, smiling about our wondrous adventure.  Yet I felt bittersweet, knowing that as we turned our backs to the lantern lights and festive music, I was returning to my exchange student’s life, while that spunky old lady went back again to hers, to lead an existence unknown to me…our momentuous connection already gone, changing form into a blissful memory.

Tastes of Tokyo

Back in Tokyo after the tranquil weekend in the hilly countryside, the next few days were spent learning the ways of my new home and adjusting mentally and physically to the always populated, seldom quiet atmosphere of the gigantic city.

Together with Akiko-san and Saki-chan, I explored the community around our apartment, which includes two shrines- one of which, Saki-chan warned, brings out crowds and crowds of people during the New Years time – any kind of shop you could ever dream of, hundreds of restaurants and a train station. I also visited Akiko-san’s workplace and met her brother and his wife, who live up above the company floor.

Monday night was monja night. Monja is a kind of “fast food” or “junk food” as Akiko-san claims, which might give the impression of hamburgers and fries, but chase that image away, because it is actually quite the opposite. Diners sit at a table with a hot plate in the middle, and servers come to pour a mixture of vegetables, meat and soup onto it. They then chop it up and fry it right in front of the diners’ eyes. Monja is very famous in an area a little ways away from our apartment, where during World War II, was safe from American bombing because of the foreign residents living there and also because a hospital for foreigners was located close by. The street where we enjoyed our monja, therefore, contains beautiful, age-old architecture. Akiko-san explained that monja is so popular there that there are more than fifty monja restaurants on that same street.

Monja! Right in front of our eyes!!

On Tuesday, I tagged along with Saki-chan when she visited her friend, Yukiko-chan, who is studying abroad in Canada for two years starting this summer. We rode the train for about an hour and got lost on the way, but I was very grateful that we made it because Yuki-chan and her mother were both so kind. We ate lunch, discussed both silly and serious topics, walked around town, ate a delicious home-cooked dinner, and rode the train home again. The full moon was bright and beautiful that night…

The next day was, as promised, an afternoon of shopping and a movie at the local mall, the Toyosu Lalaport. There are many shopping centers around Japan that carry the name Lalaport, but according to Saki-chan, the Toyosu mall is the newest and largest. I believed this fact as soon as I entered the gigantic complex- which resembled an American mall, but was even bigger. I could already see myself getting lost, easily, so I was forever grateful for the fact that Saki-chan knew her way around.

After a few hours of shopping – Hello Kitty, clothes, shoes, pencils, books…anything I could possibly want was present – we sat down for some soft-serve ice cream (strawberry-chocolate for me, double chocolate for Saki-chan). My feet ached from walking around the huge complex, so we headed over near the movie theater to find a place to sit.

Saki-chan spotted some chairs so I sat down happily and breathed a sigh of relief as the pain slowly ebbed from my heels. But when I looked up, I was facing a busy, noisy game center, and as I peered closer, I noticed some puricura stalls. (Puricura stalls are a hit among teenage girls because basically, anyone can go in with friends, take pictures that exaggerate faces to look like models, decorate them on the computer, and print them out as stickers, all for an amazing price of 100 to 200 yen.) I had never taken puricura pictures but had read about them in fashion magazines and when I mentioned the stalls to Saki-chan, who told me she had taken some pictures with her friends, she too became excited, so we both decided to run in to one of the stalls to take pictures together.

When entering the stall, we put our belongings in a cubby, inserted some coins and posed, posed, posed while a mechanical, cutesy woman’s voice urged us to hurry, repeating the phrase “time is running out” over and over. This caused me to feel rushed, so the first two poses I couldn’t even spot the camera and accidentally blinked when it flashed, but by the end I was beginning to understand it. As soon as all of the poses were done, we grabbed our purses and went outside the stall to quickly put decorations on our pictures on the computer. I had no idea how to use the computer, so I accidentally covered one of our pictures with random images of flowers while Saki-chan quickly decorated the rest.

The Puricura Stall

By the time we received our puricura stickers, I felt as if I had forgotten to breathe the whole time. I had never knew taking puricura pictures could be so difficult! Saki-chan and I laughed hysterically at our awkward pictures – there was only one okay one in the bunch- and promised to take better ones, someday. 🙂

After the puricura madness, it was time for the movie – a Ghibli animation called Kari-gurashi no Arietti, or The Borrowing Life of Arietti- to start. The Ghibli studio is famous for its founder, Hayao Miyazaki, who produced such famous animation movies such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, among others. This new anime was directed by one of his apprentices. Saki-chan and I both thoroughly loved the plot line- a sick boy comes to stay at his grandmothers’ countryside home and meets a miniture girl named Arietti, who survives with her parents by borrowing bits and pieces of supplies (sugar and tissues, for example) from the humans in the house. Arietti and her family decide to move after being discovered by the boy and the housekeeper because of the danger, but not before a love emerges between Arietti and the boy. We also enjoyed the gorgeous portrayal of the gardens of flowers and the miniature life of the family- of using nails sticking out of the wall as ladder-steps, fighting off mice and insects, or using tape to stick on the bottoms of their shoes to walk up walls. But most of all, at least for me, the music that accompanied the scenery was most enjoyable- songs that mixed a soft harp and a clear, refreshing voice.

The Movie Poster

Coming home in the car, Saki-chan and I giggled out our stories of the puricura fiasco and the heart-wrenching, gorgeous anime to Akiko-san. After our late night routine of dinner and a hot bath, I lay down to sleep on my bed in the living room, still smiling, enjoying yet another day of city life.

Hope and Innocence

When I first met my host mother, Akiko-san, and host sister, Saki-chan, I was very surprised- probably because they were both complete opposites from what I had imagined, but also because they both are dynamic people and blew me out of the water. Even right after I had met them at the Center and was in the car, driving with them to their vacation home located near Yamanaka-ko (literally, lake in the depths of the hills) together with Saki-chan’s friend, Yokohata-chan, I had already noticed that they seemed to be in a different frequency than everyone else. I had trouble – still have trouble, actually- following their conversations because topics switch every few seconds and therefore keeping up with them is near impossible. They both also love to use big words, so when every once in a while they stop to explain everything in a way I can understand, I am very grateful.

Yamanaka Lake

We were stuck in traffic half of the way to Yamanaka-ko, probably because it was the weekend and all of the city folks craved fresh air in the countryside. When we finally arrived after noon, I got my first glimpse of the hills, lake and Mt. Fuji in the distance. Yamanaka-ko is one of the lakes situated at the foot of the famous Japanese volcano, and the vacation home is located in one of the hills near the lake. Because of the trees all around, the scenery reminded me of home.

Saki-chan showed us around their massive house, which has three floors including the basement. But before entering the house, there was a genkan- entranceway- where I removed my shoes, stepped up onto the platform of the wooden house floor and carefully put my feet into house slippers. The Japanese cannot live without cleanliness, so wearing dirty shoes inside the home or touching the floor with dirty feet is a huge no-no. After putting on the slippers, Yoko-chan and I were showed the kitchen, living room- which contained a ping pong table- and bathroom on the first floor, and the bathroom, Japanese style tatami mat room and luxury bedroom on the second. Though I refused profusely, I was made to sleep in the luxury bedroom- which held a huge, soft bed and a gigantic closet, with a lot of room left to spare.

Akiko-san prepared a delicious chicken dish for us to eat along with lunch and then Saki-chan, Yoko-chan and I honed our ping pong playing skills until we decided it was time to explore the area. So, explore we did! Saki-chan grabbed a gigantic stick and told us to follow her lead and grab similar ones to brush aside plants on our way down the vegetated hill. Every once in a while, when I spotted an interesting plant- a leaf with a berry growing smack dab in the middle of it, for example- I asked about it, and Saki-chan told me its name in a heartbeat, along with some facts about it, which I found impressive. The walk down lead to a library, where I checked out a fashion magazine and a Jake Shimabukuro CD.

Returning home, Saki-chan’s bird marking friends- and older man named Saito-san and a younger, kind-looking man named Mineo-san – were waiting. Both men work to catch wild birds in nets to put tiny, metallic markers on the birds’ feet in order to track their progress and habits. Saki-chan went with Mineo-san to set up the net while Yoko-chan, Akiko-san and I rested at home for a bit.

Soon enough, though, we were headed for the bird marking field, where about ten thousand swallows flew in giant circles overhead, so close that I felt as if i could reach out and touch them. On the other side was a great view of Mt. Fuji in the sunset. After we stared in awe at the beautiful scenery all around, Mineo-san explained to us that swallows live for about three to five years, but that about eighty percent of the swallows in the sky above were just born this year. He explained further that only twenty percent of the ten thousand that came to our location that night would return the coming year. When I asked why so many came to this field, he replied by saying that the swallows had made nests on top of the tall grasses. They slept in high places in order to escape becoming dinner for small mammals, mostly raccons. The grasses below us included wild herbs, so as the wind moved the leaves softly, a natural, calming smell enveloped me.

Where we stood, we could see the net that they had set up earlier, and by using binoculars, we sighted swallows caught in the net, unable to untangle themselves. When it was dark enough that the swallows dissappeared to sleep instead of flying around- so therefore none of the swallows could be caught in the net- we walked to it, Saki-chan and Mineo-san carrying small bags for gathering the birds. Yoko-chan and I watched while Saki-chan and Mineo-san carefully removed limbs and wings from the net and gently placed each bird into bags.

After gathering them all, we returned near the car, where a desk was set up. The bags were placed neatly side-by-side so not to overheat the swallows. Then the marking process began in the light of a kerosine lamp. Saki-chan took out a swallow and help its head between her pointer finger and middle finger gently- which immobilized it. Next she took the metal marker and clamped it onto its tiny foot. (Swallows have smaller feet than the normal bird, Mineo-san explained, because they fly for long distances and need larger wingspans. ) Saki-chan then informed Mineo-san of the swallow’s age and marker number. Gender is impossible to tell when the swallows are young, so that was not recorded. The deeper the red tint of its neck, the older it is. When Mineo-san finished marking a swallow, he offered me a chance to hold it, which I gratefully accepted.

Its head was adorably tiny and soft between my fingers and its innocent eyes looked at me in wonder- and only a second into holding it, my heart was taken. I could not let it go, so I held it in my hands and wondered it if would make the trip down to the Phillipeans safely, if it would return here next year, refreshed, already an adult. Then I let go of its head and placed it upright in the palm of my hand and bid it goodbye, but it just stood there, dazed, its little feet grabbing the skin of my hand. It walked on my hand, then crossed over to Akiko-san’s hand. We ooed and ahhed until suddenly, the swallow took off- flying into the black of the night.

I held about ten other swallows and released them all into the air, each time feeling a mix of sadness and joy- while Saki-chan and Mineo-san marked about fifty or sixty swallows in all.

After parting with Mineo-san and thanking him for the amazing opportunity, we ate dinner ( I called Mommy for the first time in the diner), bought fireworks, built a fire outside the house, let off the fireworks, took baths…and finally, went to bed. As I settled into the soft cushions, images of swallows danced in front of my eyes- pictures of these small life forms struggling to survive, eyes full of innocence and hope- and I wished with all my heart for another meeting, someday.

Rules and Tours

The first day of orientation, I woke up at three in the morning because of jet lag. I could not fall back asleep, so I lay in bed until about five, wrote, went back to use the internet with Stephany, ate a buffet breakfast of veggies, miso soup and rice, and then went to the orientation. The orientation was held in a small meeting place close to where breakfast was. The morning was spent going over all the regulations one more time: not to have visits from family or friends, go anywhere alone, help out at your host family’s home as much as possible, etc etc.

After lunch, we – the seven exchange students- each gave a little introduction speech in Japanese of who we were and where we came from, and then we sat outside the little room in chairs and laughed and talked while we were called in, one by one, for an interview.

That night, we were told that there was going to be some fireworks near where we were, so Elina, Kuan Jen, Niina and I went outside to see them. Sadly, though, it turned out that the fireworks were blocked by a massive building. Then Kuan Jen decided that she was going to go meet her friend at the train station and ran off, so Elina, Niina and I were left to wander around in search of a place we could watch the fireworks. In the dark, we rustled around paths of grass and tried to go around the said building, but that was impossible, so we ended up riding the elevator up the the top floor to see if we could see them out a window. The top floor was a restaurant, so we went to the seventh floor, where we were able to find a balcony for emergency purposes. There, we could only view the top half of the fireworks, but I was still able to grab a couple photos and enjoy the show.

Fireworks from the balcony

As the night grew darker, I started to worry about Kuan Jen and her whereabouts. I remembered that the EIL staff members had asked us not to venture out of the Center and that  Kuan Jen had said she was heading to the train station to meet her friend, so I worried if she would be okay alone, in the dark. I told the other two girls my thoughts, and they too became worried, so Niina, Elina and I returned to our lodge to wait for Kuan Jen, though the fireworks were not over yet. We were soon joined by Stephany and Mike in the TV room. To pass the time, we watched TV and used Stephany’s laptop, but when the clock clicked ten and Kuan Jen had not yet returned, we all became antsy. Every time we heard a sound, we jumped up to see if it was her, but it never was. Being a worrier, I tried not to imagine Kuan Jen lost at the train station, abducted, raped, or worst of all, murdered- but that was quite difficult…

Stephany sugguested that we tell the EIL staff members about what had happened and we all agreed that this would be a great idea, so we all headed over to the D Lodge. We rode the elevator up to the seventh floor and headed to the room next to the exact balcony that we had watched the fireworks. When the door opened, Stephany explained the circumstances and the situation was discussed, and we finally decided that the only thing we could do was wait, since we did not know her cell phone number.

Before we headed back to our room, we searched the Center for Kuan Jen but she was nowhere to be found. Giving up, we decided to wait again in our room, but when we passed the D lodge I spotted a girl in a crowd that looked suspiciously like Kuan Jen, walking into the lodge. I started running towards her, calling her name and I was overjoyed to see that it was really her! Elina, who was also very worried, was right behind me and we both let out sighs of relief.

So it was back to the staff members’ room to tell them we had found her – they were very relieved and impressed that we had worried so much about her- and then we headed back, for the last time, to our lodge. All that energy I had for worrying about Kuan Jen was suddenly gone and I was as exhausted as ever and as soon as I lay down on my bed, I was out.

The next day, I again woke early because of jet lag. I took a shower, changed and watched TV until it was time for breakfast. After eating, we met the EIL guides and started our tour. First, we walked to the Meiji Shrine- built for the Meiji Emperor and Empress- which was located in a lush forest of age old, tall trees that I certainly did not expect to be found in the middle of the city. We washed our hands and mouth in the holy water and walked up to the shrine, where we threw in a coin offering, clapped our hands a few times, and held them together in prayer. I prayed for my family’s health.

Beautiful trees…
Meiji Shrine

After the prayer, we walked down to where there were wooden placks of written prayers hanging from a wall. Anyone could buy a plack to write their hopes on, so there was anything from wishes for world peace to wanting to become rich. Farther down, there was a shop where you could buy an ‘omamori’ – which literally means “honorable protection”. In the Shinto religion, there is the belief that these amulets will protect you from all kinds of disasters. For example, my favorite was an omamori for traffic safety. I will be in desperate need of that one when I get back to the States! Niina bought a pair for she and her boyfriend for loving bonds.

When we finished looking around the Shrine, we walked a bit further to exit the beautiful park. I started seeing signs that said ‘Harajuku’ on them but I could not believe that we had walked all the way to Harajuku from Shinjuku, since they are different wards. But we had, and we were soon shown the famous “Takeshita Doori” or Takeshita Street, where there seemed to be as many shops as people. We girls went off by ourselves and shopped around. Being a bargain hunter, even though I was not planning to buy anything, I could not help myself when I found clothes for 500 yen or 1000 yen! I ended up buying four items…

We are all very independent girls, so it was difficult to stay together and we kept losing and finding each other. Elina had disappeared by the time we were supposed to head back, but thankfully Niina had her number and texted her to find out that she had already returned to the meeting place, so we ran back to meet everyone. We then ate lunch at McDonalds and then walked to the train station to ride to Akihabara. The boys did not really find anything to do in the girl shopping paradise of Harajuku, so they were justly excited by the prospect of buying electronics in the electronics capital of the world. Akihabara is known for cheap, good, duty-free electronics and manga (comics). We were shown a large building- floors and floors of every single electronic thing you can think of- and were left there and told to meet up in a couple hours. Though I enjoy electronics, I was not in a particular need for anything, so I became bored after seeing all the floors, so after a while Niina, Elina and I went outside the crowded building to look for a place to sit. Since we found none, and also because my whole body, especially my feet, were heavy and hurt from all the walking, we decided to sit down by the wall outside the mall.

I was very relieved, but Elina kept noticing that people were staring at us. We wondered if we were doing something wrong and sure enough, a policeman came to tell us that we were not allowed to sit there. So we got up again and after taking some pictures, we found a bench to sit at. Since we were facing a street where everyone crossed after coming off the train, there were always about twenty to thirty people walking in front of us. Elina became a little creeped out that people seemed to be staring at us, so she started a count. Niina and I soon joined in on the “creepy starer game” and in the approximately fifteen minutes we were there, we counted one hundred people staring at us. What was strange was it was not just a glance, it was a stare, look back, stare back again, and again, kind of deal. One little boy, who was my favorite out of everyone, stared back at us all the way across the crossing and even tapped his mother on the shoulder to point at us. 🙂

We were laughing about the game all the way back to the train station and all through dinner.

Before I went to sleep, I thought about how I was going to meet my host family for the first time the next morning…