Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ise-Jingu and Sunshine

Last Sunday, my host parents took me and my friend Austin (the only other USC student at Nanzan this semester!) to Ise-Jingu, a shrine said to be one of Shintoism's most important shrines! Not only that, but it's supposed to be home to one of Japan's three imperial treasures, the "Yata no Kagami" (mirror). It's a three hour drive away in the city of Ise. It's actually in the next prefecture over, which is called Mie. The shrine was insanely beautiful, I can't even describe it. The sun was bright and the air was crisp and the red leaves are really starting to show. I wish these photos could do it justice!

There's something special about these chrysanthemums... (see next photo!)
It's all ONE plant! Isn't that amazing?
Okaasan and Otousan in front of the clearest river I've ever seen

We first walked through the shopping street of Ise before reaching the main area. Apparently, the shrine is actually home to 125 smaller shrines. We were able to give a donation and pray, and afterwards we walked around the shrine complex. Okaasan told us that they rebuild the two main buildings every 20 years as a way to honor and pass down the ancient methods of construction. Want to hear something amazing? It was apparently built in 4 BC. Want to hear something even more amazing? They don't use nails to build it, only notches cut in the wood.

The "torii" we went through

After we saw the shrine, we went and got some food! Sashimi and miso soup and tsukemono (kind of like pickles). A nice, traditional meal! We sat on tatami mats while we ate and drank umechu, which is like plum liquor. It was made at the store we bought it, right across the street!


Austin and I

After that, it was time for some sight-seeing and souvenir-buying! Here's a video of some koi we saw in a pond near the shrine:

I always get really refreshed when I see old Japanese culture. I feel like when I'm hanging out in the city, I could be hanging out in any city, shopping anywhere in the world. It makes me feel a bit like I'm wasting my time. When I go to festivals and wear kimono and spend time with old Japanese culture, I feel like I'm really getting the most out of my time here.


I just got back from what I can tentatively call a part-time job. For the past few Wednesdays, I've been helping at the community center at a group called "Sunshine." It's an English conversation practice group that Okaasan's friend runs. I have a lot of fun doing it. Not only are the people there interesting and fun, but it's a bit of a relief to see somebody else struggling with English as much as I struggle with Japanese. I'm really happy to help them, so it's comforting to think that Japanese people might be just as happy to help me.

Tonight was special because another English partner, Erin, showed us all a recipe. Being from Houston, she had told the class that she'd be showing them a Texan recipe, which I was predictably ecstatic for. It ended up being CHILI!! I was so stoked.

There was one problem though... Erin had asked the Japanese group leaders to buy ingredients, which of course included kidney beans...

but they returned with lima beans and garbanzo beans! So we made due with what we had and made the most delicious lima bean chili I've ever eaten!

Looks good!
Okaasan got to eat a little bit. I was really excited to show her Texas food! Later I'm going to make a lemon icebox pie for her.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Back with an Anecdote!


I’m not sick anymore! My computer was broken and got fixed for free! I got my roots bleached! I’m watching one of my favorite anime on live TV for the first time ever! And a commercial from a campaign that I’ve loved for years just came on:

A lot of things have improved since my last post. And it’s not just because I’ve passed the halfway point… I think maybe I finally came out of my culture shock lowpoint. Things are still really tough, I still struggle with everyday life, but my confidence level has greatly improved. I can’t really explain why, but I don’t think it’s just because my Japanese speaking level is improving (both my host parents and CJS friends say so).

A few weeks ago I made an appointment to get my hair done at a Toni and Guy that I happened to find in Sakae (downtown Nagoya) with the intention of taking my friend Erika with me to translate. Unfortunately, the day of my appointment, Erika had an emergency and wasn’t able to accompany me. Nonetheless, I decided to take the plunge and go it alone.

Just kidding I wasn’t that brave about it, I just didn’t know how to cancel an appointment over the phone.

So, following the map that Okaa-san had helped me print out, I went to the Fushimi station and to the building that was marked out. Fumishi is home to a large, fancy theater called the Misono-Za at which I had seen a kabuki performance the previous week (note: if you’re going to a kabuki performance, make sure they have an English translation headset… Being that it was about 5 hours long, it was a pretty painful experience.) My hair salon was supposed to be on the same block, only a few stores away. Not seeing a Toni and Guy sign or anything remotely hair salon-y in the area, I wandered around in circles for about 10 minutes before a good Samaritan saw this pathetic gaijin looking hopelessly lost with inch-long roots and a rumpled map in her hands. She pointed me in the direction of the building that was marked, which I had already passed a few times. Nonetheless, I thanked her and continued on, not knowing how to explain. The time of my appointment was growing near, so I started to worry. I had been walking around the blocks surrounding the Misono-za for about 30 minutes now. I walked into the closest (and friendliest-looking) store, went to the front, and clumsily asked for help. The clerk baffledly looked at my map and turned around and pulled out her own map. After spreading it out on the desk, she pointed to the address on my own map, and then pointed at a building that was marked on hers. She then said “But right now, we’re right here,” and pointed to a location that was about five city blocks away. The map on the company website had been wrong!! The salon was all the way in Yaba-Cho, a few stations away. I asked her how long it would take to get there walking, to which she laughed and said “Ganbatte.” I said “Well, I guess I’ll run!” and thanked her and bowed so low I almost hit my head on the desk.

With 10 minutes until my appointment, I knew this endeavor would be impossible on foot, so nearly in tears, I called the salon. I still had my school bag, so I was running with two oversized purses, a coat, a pitiful map, and my phone in my hands, doing an awful shuffle-run that girls who don’t know how to wear high heels yet do. Slightly impededly but stylishly hobbling along in downtown Nagoya alongside the Misono-za, unquestionably one of the most sophisticated places in the city, I too-loudly stumbled over an apology and alerted the salon that I’d be late. Out of breath, I arrived at the taxi area and practically dove into the backseat of the first one I saw. I poked at the address on my map: “DO YOU KNOW HOW TO GET HERE?” The driver probably feigned ignorance to avoid having me as a passenger, so I moved onto the next one. Again, the driver didn’t know it. Eventually I had caused so much of a scene that I was surrounded by taxi drivers who did their best to try to help, but none of which knew the address I was trying to get to. I gave up on this location and started running in the general direction of the salon. I tried one more time to hail a taxi, and upon showing him the address, he said “Yep,” and programmed it into his car’s computer. 5 minutes later, I had arrived and paid the driver a hefty 500 yen. So exhausted that I didn’t have the energy to feel nervous anymore, I walked into the salon ten minutes late for my appointment and was greeted by a bunch of chic stylists whose faces all said “…Oh no.” At that point, however, I was so proud of myself for actually getting to the salon without the help of any of my friends that all of my apprehension about describing what I want done had completely disappeared.

Indeed, I was able to tell my stylist what I wanted without a hitch. All in all, the experience was great. I got to spend the next hour getting pampered and worked on by at least four different stylists while listening to compliments on my Japanese and my “big eyes.” Also, get this; they give you MASSAGES at Japanese salons, totally for free. I definitely recommend it. When I was finished, I thanked everyone (probably bowing too much), paid for my service, and left with a map that the head stylist had drawn for me that told me where I could buy special shampoo and where I could find the nearest station. Glowing with happiness and basking in the wonderful fresh aroma of bleach, I went on my way.

The reason I chose to recount this story was that I think it might’ve been a major turning point in my experience here so far. Until that day, I hadn’t been able to confidently talk to a single Japanese stranger, whether a worker or not, without help. I had every intention of going to the salon with a security blanket that day, but when that plan fell through, I didn’t chicken out. I was practically lost downtown and I was able to not only find my way out, but to my intended destination, with nothing but my Japanese and 500 yen. Sure, my hair also didn’t fall out or all get cut off for lack of communication at the salon, but that success really pales in comparison to what else I was able to do that day. After that experience, I’ve found myself able to leave the house without needing anybody else. Recently, when my friends have been unavailable to hang out during the day, I’ve been occupying myself by just wandering around Toyota. I’m confident enough now that I can do that without fear.

Anyway sorry for making this post so long and without pictures, here's a picture of me in a kimono that you'll see more of when I post about the festival I wore it to.

Until next time! Thank you everybody for the kind comments on my last post. I promise I'll blog more, I've only got two months left!

Monday, October 11, 2010

So This is Culture Shock

Since it’s been over a month since my last post, I’m guessing that a lot of my readers have stopped checking. I haven’t given up on this blog though, mostly because I don’t want the layout that I worked on for weeks to go to waste.

Things have been a little tough, and it’s not because I’ve been sick with bronchitis  (JAPANESE BRONCHITIS IS GNARLY) for about two weeks with no signs of improving. It’s not to say Japan isn’t wonderful. Everything here is adorable. The fashion is perfect. The dollar stores that you can find in every single mall carry things that you have to buy online in the states. The food is delicious and they always pay the utmost attention to detail when preparing the food in order to make it just as attractive as it tastes. There’s always a show about cute animals on tv. The streets are safe at night and it’s easy to find a place to wait until the trains start again if you’ve missed the last one. You can buy a drink called chu-hai for 200 yen at any convenience store (sorry Mom and Dad.) The weather has gotten to be really gorgeous, and I get to see the mountains from my train every day on my way to school.

One of the reasons why my boyfriend is better than any boyfriend in the world

Despite all these things, I haven’t really been too happy for the past month or so. I miss my boyfriend. I miss my friends. The evening of October 2nd, when I celebrated my 21st birthday, might have been the loneliest night of my life, and I didn’t leave the house at all on October 3rd. Not that my new friends aren’t amazing, I just miss the normalcy of a life where I don’t have to struggle through daily speech. Also, not being stared at, talked about, and generally being made to feel like I’m from Mars is a luxury that I often take for granted in The States. I miss the convenience of being able to read drugstore products or food packages. And in true Lady Dallasite/Angelina/USC Girl fashion, I’m starting to panic because I can’t find an English-speaking salon to bleach my roots. I miss the comfort of privacy; If I want to just zone out and watch TV (only shows about America or the aforementioned cute animals) or use the computer, I have to be in the main room of the house, which means that I’m still at risk of being talked to in Japanese that I don’t understand. So, just to avoid that (mis?)communication, I’ve often found myself shutting myself in my room to try napping or to read the Haruki Murakami book that my host parents gave me or to examine my nailbeds (at least my nails look better than they ever have) or to cut off my split ends.

I guess this must be culture shock.

USC really tried to prepare their study abroad students for this kind of thing, to the point of freaking everyone out. I kind of didn’t really believe any of it, though. After all, I’ve wanted to visit Japan my entire life and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and so on and so forth. The handouts they gave me says that I should confide in friends and advisors, and I do talk to my friends. They’re experiencing the same homesickness, but I feel like our culture shock is a little different on the level that their Japanese is leagues better than mine. I should also be trying to “put myself out there,” and to not withdraw, and I’m really doing my best. I’m still trying to talk to my host family and join in on the conversation when my fellow study abroads are talking to a Japense student.

Courtesy of
Anway, this is why I haven’t blogged. I’ve been so consumed in, well, not wanting to do anything at all, that I just haven’t really been interested in it. My days consist of getting up early for classes that I don’t want to go to because of how humiliatingly huge the difference is between everyone else’s Japanese skills and mine. Then I go home to a place that I really just want to withdraw from. I eat dinner with the family, stay at the table for a little while to be polite, maybe check my email, then go to bed as quickly as I can to start it all over again. I mostly look forward to emails from Bob and the food, and even the food is starting to lose my interest. Sometimes my day will have a blip of a highlight, like the fact that I was brave enough to go into a manga supply store (of course only to be too embarrassed to buy anything) or that I mustered up enough courage to ask a girl who’s carrying a guitar if the music club is fun (resulting in a stare that lasts longer than her one word answer.)

My new friends Erika and Sam. These girls are helping me stay alive!
 Not to sound spoiled, but I feel like I’ve seen enough… Even though, according to these handouts, this depression should be over soon and I should be back on my feet happier than I was before I left, it just doesn’t seem possible with my inability to get around in everyday life. I’m just going to try and push myself with my studying and speaking practice. I’ll also try to push myself with blogging, because I guess that any attempt at normalcy could help.

I have had some fun experiences that I’ve taken pictures of, but I guess I’ll post those at another time. Sorry if I'm worrying anybody.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's been so long! My first day

Hard to believe, but I’ve been so incredibly busy since my last post that I haven’t had time to blog! I’m sorry!

First on the list of things to talk about would be my flight. The first flight, from Dallas to Tokyo, wasn’t bad at all. I had an entire row to myself and my plane had the whole individual-touch-screen thing going on, which I am definitely a fan of. Even more exciting was that they had four episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm on-demand. I also watched The Devil Wears Prada twice. Obviously I hated it.
It was a really strange flight, because even though it lasted about 12 hours, it didn’t get dark at all! I’ve never flown that direction before, so it was kind of unsettling. Thanks to my sleeplessness the previous night, though, I slept for a good four hours. When I arrived at Narita (~1:30 PM), I was still experiencing my nervousness and excitement, but this time I was feeling a little more helpless since everything around me was in Japanese. I actually had a bit of trouble finding my connecting flight, so after mustering up courage for about half an hour, I finally asked someone for help. I approached an official-looking young lady and probably looked really helpless, because she said, “I speak English. What can I help you with?”

Airplane sushi: Pretty much tastes just like you'd expect...
The flight from Narita to Chuubu lasted about 45 minutes. During those 45 minutes though, I got to gaze out the window and look at the beauty below me. Rice fields for miles, deep blue water (with Godzilla and Cloverfield in mind the whole time), and little houses and schools. About halfway through the flight I saw a huge, sloping mountain emerging from the clouds. The people who were sitting in front of me were looking at it and taking pictures, so I figured it must’ve been important somehow. I took about 5 minutes to muster up courage and recite the line in my head over and over again, but I eventually leaned forward and said, “sumimasen ga, Fujisan desu ka?” (Excuse me, but is that Mt. Fuji?) The lady in front of me nodded, and I was so excited that I had just communicated in Japanese, even if the answer I got wasn’t really verbal. I was floating on that experience for the rest of the flight.

Arriving in Nagoya had my heart pounding. I was so nervous to meet the family that I’d be living with for the next four months! After I got my bag from the baggage claim (57 lbs, oops), I made sure I had myself all put together so that I looked graceful and mature when I first met them. I later discovered though that they were watching me the whole time I was struggling with my three bags. I should’ve known they would recognize me, since I not only was the only blonde probably in the entire airport, but I also towered over everyone there by at least five inches.

Despite my extremely awkward arrival, I was received very warmly by Mihoko and Youichi Fukami. They had a sign with my name on it, and as I approached them they smiled and shouted “Youkosou!!” They both immediately offered to carry my bags, which I actually really didn’t expect and of course turned down. Mihoko was very happy to see that I was dressed very Japanese (tights and shorts?) and said that her daughter, Maiko, who had just left on a journey to Boston the same day from the same airport, was wearing the same thing. “Oshare!” The drive to their home in Toyota-shi took about 45 minutes. I had been dreading this moment for months. Luckily though, my host parents are very talkative and apparently have done this many times before. I’m actually very lucky, because I later found out that, in the entire CJS program, the Fukami family has hosted the most students. Mihoko actually gives workshops at Nanzan on how to be a good host. Their experience really shows, because I’ve been very happy and comfortable here. They’re very understanding. From what I understand, Okaasan (Mihoko) and Otousan (Youichi) run an after-school program and both teach. I think Mihoko actually teaches English. Usually I hear from people that it’s bad to get an English teacher as a host, because you’ll often use more English than Japanese with them. Okaasan really seems to know what she’s doing though, because she always uses Japanese first, and when I inevitably don't understand, she’ll gradually translate what she just said for me.

The Toyota-Shi station (yes, Toyota like the car) It's perfect because it's at the end of the line, so if I fall asleep it's ok!

Arriving at the house was another event that I’d been worried about for months, visualizing in my head everything that could go wrong; I’d forget to remove my shoes, I’d accidentally say “tadaima,” my bag would be too big to fit through the door, I’d break something or knock a photo off a shrine, the list goes on. Thankfully, the only thing that went wrong was that I failed to notice the slippers that Okaasan had waiting for me on the step into the house, so I stepped up in bare feet, which is apparently a no-no. Also, it took both Otousan and I to get my bag up the stairs, at which I was thoroughly embarrassed.

I’m staying in the room that belongs to Maiko, my host sister, who I mentioned before is away in Boston. It’s an adorable room, everything is very neat and organized, and I’ve heard from family and friends that I’ve mailed pictures of it to that it looks “very Japanese.” Since energy is extra expensive in Japan, I’m only allowed to use the air conditioner for one hour a day, while I’m sleeping. Coincidentally it’s the hottest year that Japan has experienced in 130 years, so it rules. Okaasan said that they usually stop using the air conditioner by now, so this weather is extremely abnormal. Women here dress extremely conservatively, which means not even exposed shoulders. In that aspect I’m being very American, because I refuse to cause myself that much discomfort just to fit in. I am carrying a parasol at Okaasan’s insistence, though. There’s actually supposed to be a typhoon tomorrow, so hopefully that’ll bring in a cool front!

Me being totally Japanese in front of my fan!

I’m afraid that I’ll start boring my readers, so I’m just going to gradually update on what’s happened so far, and I’ll end this post here! Oyasumi nasai!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Last Night in The United States

I don't think I've ever been more apprehensive in my life.

Even now, hours after I've finished packing, after I'm positive everything is in the right place and that I have everything I could possibly need for the next four months packed into a duffel bag and two carry-ons, my heart feels like it's going to beat out of my chest. My parents took me to dinner at Al's Barbecue (which they highly recommend, if anybody is looking for good ribs in Dallas!) for a good Texasy meal before I take off in 12 hours. Unfortunately, after we sat down to eat, I could barely look at my food without getting nautious. Just so you can gauge what that means, I LOVE barbecue, and I've never had this reaction to nerves before! I also had a tearful breakdown to my mom while we were finishing up packing.

What I'm living out of for the next four months

It really hit me as I was putting together my photo album of my family, friends, and boyfriend, that I'm going to have very scarce communication with these people for the next 1/3rd of a year. It was heartbreaking looking at these photos of dear friends who I've spent my most important moments with for the past few years of college and knowing that I won't see them until January. Up until a few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I hadn't been separated for more than 24 hours for the entire summer. Our first year anniversary is on Halloween. I can't believe I'll be talking to my parents and sister with over 6500 miles between us. If for some reason I ever needed to go home, I was only a 20 hour drive away, but now I'll be trapped on an island.

Some of the friends I'll be leaving behind

Ok, that was a little dramatic. I obviously won't be TRAPPED. I really shouldn't be acting so spoiled, since I have an incredible and rare opportunity right in front of me. I've wanted to visit Japan my entire life, after all. All I need to do is put one foot in front of the other and keep in mind that my loved ones will all be here waiting for me when I get back, and everything will be the same as I left it. After that, the only fear I have left is my fear of being unprepared. As much as I wish, though, that I could just drop myself into Japan and have interesting conversations with my otou-san and okaa-san about the differences between our two cultures, or that I could venture into Shibuya to make friends with the gyaru and send text messages using gyaru-moji, I don't think that would ever be possible. No matter how much I've prepared language-wise, I will never be prepared for the culture shock that inevitably awaits me. I hear it happens to every student studying abroad, and I'll try my hardest to welcome it with open arms.

I probably won't be able to sleep tonight... Maybe not at all until the night after tomorrow, when I'm finally in bed in my new home.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I got a letter from my host mom today!!

It was so funny. I had been sitting at my computer for hours stressing out about this introductory email that I wanted to write to my host family. I posted a draft to multiple forums to make sure everything I wanted to say was appropriate and correct. As I was reading some corrections somebody had made ("say お世話になります instead of 宜しくお願いします to be more polite and to kind of thank them in advance for taking care of you!"), I got an email titled, 日本からこんにちは Hello from Japan.

First I started to panic! I felt so rude that I had let my host family contact me before I had the opportunity to contact them! I opened the email and was immediately relieved, because what I saw was a very friendly and warm message.

Fukami Mihoko, my host mom, told me that right now in Nagoya, it's so hot that everyone's exhausted every day. She told me not to worry though, because by the time I arrive it should be nicer weather. She told me that she was happy to hear that I like cooking, and she offered to teach me to cook Japanese food. She gave me news of both of her children, a man and woman both in their thirties, and living away from home (I think...)

I'm sure my new okaasan tried to write simply for me, but she used a lot of kanji that I didn't recognize. I had to use a translator to get the gist of the email. I emailed her back and told her how excited I am to be staying with her family. Hopefully my broken Japanese gave her a gauge of how far I have to go...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hello! My Introduction

I guess I'll start my blog off with an introduction and a little bit about me. As you can tell from the sidebar, I'm a junior at USC. I'm studying art and new media with the intention of going into a career in animation.

The first thing you should know is that I'm a Texas girl. I have lived in the same house in Dallas ever since I was born. I went to a summer camp in Burnett called "Camp Longhorn" and was dressed in cowgirl outfits by my mother in elementary school. Although my hair has been through most of the color spectrum, I think a subconscious yearning for Texas while at school has inspired me to settle on Bottle Blonde, a color sported by many native Dallas girls. Although I hope to make California my home one day, I'll always be a Texas girl at heart!

I've studied Japanese for a year now, and I'll be (hopefully, if the placement exam goes well!) entering level 3. They say that you advance 2 levels when studying abroad, and level 4 is technically fluency. So far, that is my main goal while in Japan! Nanzan's Center for Japanese Studies only accept 200 students worldwide per year, so I'm expecting classes to be very challenging. I really didn't expect to be accepted by the program, and I applied to Tokyo International University as a back-up. I'm very excited to be in Nagoya, though. I want to challenge myself as much as possible. Tokyo is only a two hour shinkansen (train) ride from Nagoya, so I'll be able to take weekend trips there. I'm very interested in Japanese street fashion, so I have many stores and districts that I want to visit in Tokyo.

See how close Nagoya and Tokyo are?

Something I'm very excited about is history. I'm very enchanted by Japanese folklore and legends, and apparently Nagoya is teeming with that. It is home to a castle that was built during the Edo period in 1612, which I am definitely going to see! Even more exciting than that is the Atsusa Shrine, which is said to be home to the legendary Kusanagi Sword, one of the three imperial treasures of Japan (the other two are a mirror and a gem.) These three treasures are part of Japanese legend and ancient religion, and they commonly appear in Japanese pop culture. For example, in the anime and manga Sailor Moon, Sailor Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto fight with a sword, a mirror, and jewel. I'm so excited to be in the presence of such an important and ancient relic!

The Kusanagi Sword, as it appears in one of my favorite video games, Okami

Other than experiencing it firsthand, I hope to be studying Japanese history and religion while I am at Nanzan. I feel like I know nothing about the country's history, and Shintooism is so interesting to me, I want to learn as much as I can!