Sunday, March 29, 2009

My weekend in Nagano

Nagano - what a place.

Snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, thousands of tall green pine trees, rock formations, flowers, winding roads.. beauty.

I couldn't believe my eyes. We only drove two and a half hours from Tokyo and ended in this location. Unreal.

Friday morning, Kayo, Takuto, and I were picked up by Kayo's friend from college Hanako and her son Tomo. Hanako doesn't speak much English, so Kayo had the role of translating for us when we wanted to say something to each other. She did great. I was impressed.

We arrived at an old Japanese inn tucked away in the middle of the mountains, thousands of feet above sea level. It was just how I pictured it would be. We were greeted by the staff who were dressed in traditional kimonos and other attire. After enjoying some green tea and biscuits we were led to our room - tatami floors, a tea set, a table with pillows and wooden chairs, beautiful view - it was perfect. After some relaxing, it was time for the hot spring. We put on our kimonos and our sandals and walked under a bamboo canopy to the spring. Just looking at the steam coming off the water, the apples floating, and the hot water pouring out of a fountain, was enough to relax me. The fountain was retrieving water from hundreds of feet below us. The water was hot, just as hot as a hot tub, but it was natural. I left the spring feeling rejuvenated, fresh, and healthy. My skin felt so soft. We enjoyed the rest of our evening eating a traditional Japanese dinner consisting of about thirteen dishes (I thought I was going to lose weight while I'm here. I think the opposite may occur! haha), resting in the room drinking some green tea and chatting, taking another dip in the hot spring, then eating three desserts (Oishkata! -- they tasted good!). The next morning at 7 we went in the hot spring one last time (the perfect way to wake up and start the day), then went downstairs to the restaurant to have breakfast (many dishes here favorite was the white fish). We left the inn after talking with the owner (a lovely older lady named Yoku dressed in a beautiful kimono), petting the goats, and taking in the scenery around us.

We spent the rest of our Saturday in Karuizawa, a very expensive area in Nagano surrounded by woods and mountains. This is where many wealthy Japanese people have vacation homes. The architecture of the homes were similar to homes in the U.S. We did some shopping at the biggest outlet mall in Japan, had lunch at a great restaurant where we had freshly hand-made soba noodles (Nagano is where Soba noodles were created), and drove around looking at the area. It was very very cold! I was not prepared for the frigid weather, wearing just a thin jacket and few layers.

It was a great little trip and I am so thankful that I already got to experience a place outside of Tokyo. I definitely deem Nagano as a must-see in Japan. Pictures can't capture the beauty.

There are hot springs all over Japan. There's one even fifteen minutes from where I live. I think I'll make it my new hobby!

The time with Kayo was wonderful ofcourse. She deserves time away from the busyness of motherhood, so I was glad I got to relax with her. We had many great conversations, lots of laughs too! We've both told each other that we feel like we've known each other a long time. I can't believe I met her only a week ago! We already have a close friendship. Her friend Hanako was so sweet as well. Even though we couldn't really talk to each other verbally, we communicated in other ways. She is so sweet!

I am doing very well. Like I said earlier, life here feels very normal already. I miss home, my family, my friends, everything being written and spoken in English, all that is familiar, but I am in Japan and I have to embrace the differences and the challenges. I am only here four more months and I'll be back to what's comfortable again. By far the biggest challenge is that I don't know the language well. It's really hard because I want to be able to talk to people around me and have conversations with them (more than just "Nice to meet you and how are you?"). It is such a motivation to learn Japanese!

Nice day planned for today. Lunch and socializing with family friends under the cherry blossom trees (sakura).

Bai bai for now! Hope you enjoy some of the pictures I have taken.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

One week in

Time for a new post I think. It's 10:00 am here in Tokyo and I just finished babysitting my baby brother, Takuto, while Kayo and Takashi ran some errands. I've never had a baby brother before. I love just being able to hold him and play with him whenever I want to. He's beautiful.

I have been in Japan for one week now. What a week! How I feel now differs greatly from how I felt the first couple days of the trip. In my journal this morning, I was writing about how surprised I am at how comfortable and normal life feels here already. For the past few days I've been commuting to my school for orientation activities all by myself! I have to take two train lines and it's about a one hour journey in total. My first day of traveling to school was quite hectic, but very funny to look back on. I think I approached about ten different people and first asked if they spoke English (in English), most of them replied with "a little," and then I proceeded to ask them for instructions on how to get to where I needed to be. I'm glad I'm outgoing, otherwise I probably would have ended up in some remote village hours away! Hah! The train is a bit stressful though. When I change lines, I have to hop on a train that is known to be one of the busiest train lines in Tokyo! Great! One man's job is to push people onto the train..literally shove them in! AH! Not fun, but quite the experience.

Orientation is going well. The other students and I have discussed how we think it could be shortened. We still have two more weeks until classes start! But, I will not complain too much because they have planned some fun and very interesting activities for us. Yesterday we went on a bus tour of Tokyo, which was fantastic. They let us off at a few stops to look around. We took a walk around the Imperial Palace, where the Japanese royal family lives. It is beautiful there. It is surrounded by a brick wall dating back to the palace's origin and a moat miles wide. The royal family is much more private here than the royal family in Great Britain, but their roles in society are similar. They say the princess here is often compared to Princess Diana. I am interested in learning more about them. The tour also took us to a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine in Asakusa. Japan is the only country where Buddhism is intertwined with another religion, Shintoism. I spent much of my time there observing the Japanese people as they either prayed or drank from the holy water or covered themselves in incense to make them smarter or prettier or heal an ache. I have been learning a lot about the overlapping of culture and religion. Many customs experienced here are argued as purely a cultural exercise, rather than religious. This is why Christianity in Japan is much different than in the United States. Many people cling on to both the traditions of their culture (such as praying to their ancestors) as well as the teachings of the Bible. I am finding this to be an area of conflict for the Christian people. I plan on learning much more about this. Kayo is teaching me a lot. Back to the tour, the tour allowed us all to see the areas around school, including Ginza, the up-scale shopping area, Akihabara, the technology center, and all of the political buildings around. Sophia University is located in a very governmental area. It is very nice. Something that has taken me by surprise here is how much Tokyo reminds of London. Maybe it's just my way of finding comfort in an unfamiliar place, but I've noticed many things, such as the respectful demeanor of the people, the trains, the lines on the roads, the smallness of buildings, stores, and cars, the English pubs, and many other random things that I see. Funny, huh?

So, one week in and I am doing very well. Tokyo is very westernized and I definitely credit that as a source of comfort for me. Japan has the second most McDonald's restaurants after the United States (and Japan is smaller than the state of California!). I am noticing that American culture is very popular here. Many Japanese people love McDonald's, KFC, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, American movies, American clothing (just shirts that have English on them are popular and many times what they say doesn't make sense), and so on. Something else I have noticed is just how fascinated Japanese people are with other cultures. I have heard that rascism is not common because foreign lifestyles are viewed as interesting, not bothersome or threatening (this statement is not as true for the older population of Japan, who for example, can view the American culture as threatening the traditional "real" Japan). In my opinion, because our world has become so interconnected since WWII, it is impossible to avoid foreign influence and westernization, especially in cities. Holding on to traditional values and customs is much more difficult than ever before. One of the many reasons Japan is so intriguing though is that the old and the new live together in one place. For example, there are Buddhist temples right in the middle of the urban Tokyo. I love it.

Well I must go get ready for another busy day. I have to hop on the train in an hour. Today orientation is covering class registration. Exciting! haha. Commuting today should be much easier seeing that I am going at a much later time! Thank goodness.

Bai bai! (bye bye in Japanese romaji)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Beginning

I am writing this from my bedroom in Ehara-cho, Nakano-ku, Tokyo, Japan. It is 5:45 a.m on Sunday morning. This is the latest I've woken up since being here!

I arrived in Japan last Wednesday evening around 4:00 p.m after a very long and cramped direct flight from Chicago (13 hours!). I arrived very excited and nervous, but also very tired. My first two days were an emotional roller coaster for me. I found myself surrounded by students who had all taken at least one year of Japanese and were here first and foremost to become fluent in Japanese. My motivation to come here differed from theirs and I was frustrated. I questioned why I was here, why I chose to be so far away from all that was familiar. I was sad, homesick, and had a major case of culture shock. For the first time in my life I honestly felt like I was in a dream. Nothing was real. I couldn't relax, I couldn't eat, I was waiting to wake up. This suddenly changed when I met Rory, a student from Notre Dame who is a vegetarian and doesn't know much Japanese either. Talking with her eased my apprehension and made Japan more of a reality for me. I'm not crazy! Yay! Later I found out that there are several students in my position. Hallelujah! I received the most clarity and peace though after speaking with the Lord one night, when He reminded me of the reasons why I chose to come here and all the doors He had opened for me. I am here to speak, love, and learn from and to the people of Japan. I am here to learn about the world from a new perspective and learn Japanese along the way. I am here to help people learn English, which is a major need here. I am here to shine the light of Christ to a nation of unbelievers (according to statistics, only 1% of Japanese are Christians) and to the students in my classes and in my program. I am also here to just live and be used by God however He needs me. I am available.

Japan is beautiful. During the day, the weather is sunny and in the 70s. At night it gets a bit cooler and it's windy. Though I am in Tokyo, tropical plants and cherry blossoms are all around. The cherry blossom trees are expected to bloom in about a week or so. I can't wait! The weather and the greenery of Japan gives me such calmness.

I moved in with my family about two days ago. I couldn't have asked for a more loving and fun family to live with. They are the Yamano family. My host father, Takashi, is an Economics Professor at a Graduate school here in Tokyo. He is well-traveled, very insightful, and a great father to his kids. My host mother, Kayo, is on maternity leave right now after having son Takuto only three months ago. She told me she wants to be my friend, not my mother. She's only 35, so she's young, cute, and loves to do girly things. We really click. She and her friends are taking me to a traditional Japanese inn and to a hot spring next Friday night. I'm looking forward to that! The three children are Hinako, 4 years, Wataru, 2 years, and Takuto, 3 months. They are such beautiful children. They don't speak a word of English, so we communicate in other ways. I am teaching Hinako how to say eye, nose, lip, chin, hair, and tooth and she has it almost completely down. She's a quick learner. She is teaching me Japanese. She is a strict teacher, but a very good one. Takashi and Kayo are fluent English speakers. Takashi more so than Kayo though. Takashi received his PhD from Michigan State actually and lived in the U.S. for awhile. He also teaches all of his classes here in English. Kayo lived in Toronto, Canada for ten years to learn English. I am helping her with her fluency. I am enjoying my time here with the family very much. I already feel like I have been here awhile. They have made me feel so comfortable. One of the biggest blessings here is that Kayo is a Christian! God had His hand in this completely. The odds of having a parent that was a believer were very slim. She is actually taking me to church today. She hasn't been able to go to church in awhile, so she is so glad that now she has a chance to go with someone! There is a nearby English-speaking Protestant church that was founded by an American missionary. Hopefully I can meet her today. I look forward to experiencing the fellowship of Christ's followers here in Japan so so much!

I could go on and on about all of the blessings I have received just in this short time. I can honestly say, without a single doubt, there is no way I would be able to leave my family, live in Japan for almost five months, live with a Japanese family, and have the strength to wake up every morning, if it wasn't for God's faithfulness and strong presence. He is here. I feel Him. I don't need to worry, I don't need to be sad. He will use me here. I am ready. I praise Him for comforting me, for loving me so much I feel it everywhere I go.

I am so excited to be here. I love Japan and its people. I am living on the fifth floor of a condo building and it looks out to the skyline of Shinjuku, the capital of Tokyo. It's fantastic.

Quickly before I go, here are some fun Japan facts that may be of some entertainment to you:

- Many people wear face masks here, either to prevent getting sick or to not spread their sickness to other people -- health is a top priority for the Japanese people
- Slurping is considered very polite
- You must wear slippers in the homes (I had to go buy some yesterday)
- Tokyo is so clean! I was walking down the street the other day and a man in a uniform had a bucket of soap and a sponge was cleaning a hand rail. There are many more examples.
- Taxi drivers wear gloves
- It is so safe here. I could walk outside by myself at midnight and the likelihood of something happening to me is soo slim. I won't try it, but it's great to know. I've decided that Tokyo is the opposite to Chicago. Guns are illegal here.
- It is considered rude to tip a waiter or anyone for that matter. They will give you the extra money back. Their mentality is that their good service is their job and should be expected of them.
- Tax is included in all prices
- and more and more and more... save them for the next update

I need to go get ready for the day.