Saturday, June 5, 2010

Host family meeting day!!

Today we checked out of the OVTA hotel, walked over to the IES Center, and nervously waited to meet our host families. My host family was the last to arrive but THE AWESOMEST EVER. Tomoaki-san is the dad, Namiko-san is the mom, and Taku(mi)-chan is the son. They are soooooo so so so nice and very understanding. They have had four (including me) homestay students before, so they know how it goes and are very willing to explain things slowly and easily!! :D They love to go to neat places and live in a ridiculously cool part of Tokyo. It looked so foreign/unfriendly from Google Maps but actually being here is very easy and fun. The train trip was long and sometimes I will have to switch trains twice (3 trains total) to commute. But I don't care, this place is so worth it.

I was very nervous when I introduced myself in front of the group, but I remembered to say that in Japan I want to climb Mt. Fuji. Lots of the host family members laughed a little, and at the end of my introduction, Tomoaki-san said something in Japanese like, "We are definitely going to climb Mt. Fuji!" and Taku-chan yelled something in agreement. :) Everyone in the room was thinking, "Wow, Caroline has the coolest host family..." Namiko-san confirmed this by saying that they love to have parties at their apartment (a major rarity in Japan; homes are considered very private) and that everyone should come over and hang out with us. :D All of this was in Japanese, I can't believe I could understand it.

We commuted to their gorgeous apartment via trains after I bought my student commuter pass. The walk to their apartment building goes through the most lovely park, which I will walk through every day! They took me through an iris garden too, and we walked past a beautiful pond filled with turtles, and past a special park exhibit of rabbits (usagi) which are taken care of and exhibited for the joy of the children. Right after my host mom said that, an adorable girl started jumping around with happiness upon seeing the rabbits. So cute!

They live in a corner apartment, which means they have a much larger balcony that the central ones. I can't believe I have my own private bedroom! It is so spacious and comfortable compared to what I thought I would see in Japan! It is much better than a dorm room. :) The weather is so nice outside that we just leave the windows and doors open so the breeze comes through the screens all day. Namiko-san said that the rainy season starts in a week or two, so it might get a little wet then.

Here is the view from the 9th floor, where my family lives. Much like my new love of green tea (even unsweetened), I have suddenly become obsessed with really tall buildings. Thankfully, I'm in the right place. Tomorrow my family is taking me to Tokyo Tower!!!!!!!!! YESS, we can see Mt. Fuji from there!

After stopping by the apartment for a little while, we went out for sushi at "Sushiro" restaurant. It was heaven. I had this stupid grin on my face the whole time because I have never seen so much delicious sushi in my life, and so many kinds I had never tried before. My host parents were explicit in telling me to pick whatever I wanted from the conveyor belt, and they also handed me unknown sushi which I promptly put in my mouth. Several times I got a giant wad of wasabi in my onigiri, and it was hilarious to me and everyone else. It felt like my whole head was exploding but without a lasting pain, and it made my eyes water intensely. Tomoaki-san and Namiko-san laughed but I couldn't stop laughing either, because it really was great. I compared it to a rollercoaster, because it's scary but a lot of fun, and the fear turns into adrenaline.  They thought it was funny that I called wasabi "fun." :) Then we had flan for dessert, mmm. Here is a picture of Taku-chan with all of our sushi plates and miso bowls.

My family is unusual in several ways, all of them positive:
1. They have experience with hosting students before, so they are willing to accept help (like today when I offered to fold some laundry and help with dinner), unlike most Japanese families. Also, Namiko-san said it's okay if I would rather not take a bath, and it's also okay if I want to. (One always showers before a bath here, and I am accustomed to just showering.) They also explain things rather bluntly to me compared to what I was expecting, which is so great. The couple is young (30s) so I feel very comfortable in their modern living style.
2. They drive a car to get to many places, which may not be the best thing for the environment but it can be faster sometimes during non-rush hours because of where they live in the city. This is positive for me because if we are driving somewhere, I don't need to pay train fare. :)
3. They speak Japanese I can understand!! And they really don't seem to mind if I ask for repeats even twice in a row, which I sometimes do. I have understood many things they have said, and although they are learning English, they use that as a last resort, which is wonderful for me. Even Taku-chan is extremely patient with me, especially if we are playing with Pokemon toys. :) He loves to hide them and make me go find them, and then I hide them for him. Playing with Taku-chan is a lot of fun, even though I can't always understand what he's saying, haha. He has so much energy and it's very refreshing.
4. Namiko-san explained to me that it's optional to wear special slippers in the bathroom and that I don't need to flush the toilet while I pee to mask the sound. :D This is not typical in Japan!! Therefore they must be very modern, because in every public toilet, there is a button on the toilet to make a flushing sound to make pee sounds.

We had a home-cooked Japanese dinner tonight!! It was a specialty from Osaka. Click the photo to gaze upon its glory. Dessert was some awesome clear balls made of some plant substance, which I asked for when we were at the grocery store. It was cool! Not my favorite taste but a really neat texture. (Also at the grocery store, Namiko-san bought me fruity alcohol. :D)

I am absolutely exhausted yet again. I wonder if I will ever have a night where I go to bed lazily instead of dying to sleep, haha. I guess it is better this way, because it means I have really lived my day well!

On that note, I would like to declare this trip a success, even though it has just started. When I studied abroad in Mexico in 2008, I got so homesick and boyfriend-sick that I failed to have a good time, failed to make friends outside of my classroom (except for Jesus Franco, mi hombre!!), and failed to learn Spanish. I had some new experiences but very few compared to what I should have. But on this trip, I am so motivated to have wonderful experiences every day, to say "yes" to almost everything, and to speak Japanese and do fun things every second of the day. I am doing what I should have done in Mexico, and I'm so glad it's actually working. I live in the moment during the day and honestly forget about nearly everything in the US because I'm enjoying Japan too much. I am quite happy and I don't miss anyone. Sure, there are people I'd like to see, and I miss my dog, but I'm having the time of my life. I do enjoy checking my email but I think I will try to do that and my blog only at night, now that I am in my host family's house.

I leave you with the control panel (yes) on a public toilet. I have seen this panel on every toilet in Japan including private bathrooms, sometimes with more complex buttons. Cool, huh? Also, the seats are self-warming and they have sensors on them. It turns out they DO have low flow and high flow options on some of the toilet handles; earlier I just wasn't reading the toilet handles to see the kanji for "big" and "small." :)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Day 3: KUIS/IES/Makuhari tours and shopping (kaimono)!!

Today we had delicious breakfast again and then went on walking tours to the IES Center (the offices where our program is based), KUIS (Kanda University for International Studies, where we have our classes), and Makuhari (the area where we go to school in Chiba). It was a ton of exercise but lots of fun. I'm surprised at how we eat in mall food courts every day, but Shiho said it's much better food than American mall food courts.
<----The view of the TechnoGarden buildings from the IES Center building, from the 14th floor cafeteria.
This area is so beautiful.

We saw Avatar stuff at the mall when we toured there today. There are so many malls here!

When I went to the public restroom, there was a button that you have to press where it makes a loud flushing sound. This is because the Japanese, especially women, are really embarrassed about pee sounds and other bathroom noises. It doesn't sound realistic but it is better than being forced to flush the toilet many times while peeing and waste a ton of water. There is also a "warm shower for your posterior" which I have not tried yet, haha. And a bidet and various other functions like a seat warmer and a detector to tell if someone is sitting (the spray will not work if the seat is unoccupied). Fascinating. :)

Shiho, the awesome student from KUIS, is so funny. Two nights ago she talked about when she traveled to America, possibly to Texas. She said, "HOW can human being be so fat!? America has so many fat people! What do they eat??"

<----Yumi at the mall. She loves cute things.

I am dead tired right now, so let me just give some bullet points:

-I ran into a small pole yesterday with my crotch. I didn't see it there at all because I was saying Sayonara to the boy we played soccer with. I have a bruised ego and crotch!!!
-Speaking of crotches, I am 99.99999999999% sure I saw a man walking down the sidewalk with his dick out, today at the mall at Minami-funabashi station. I asked Shiho if this was normal because I was pretty shocked, and she said, "Yes, I saw a man masturbating in front of IES Center once! He looked so surprised to see me even though he was the one in public. But that is not illegal in Japan." The others in my group don't remember the man very clearly but think I must have been seeing things.
-I committed a serious cultural faux pas today. :( I was trying on a clothing item in the mall and I forgot to take my shoes off before going into the fitting room. The attendant freaked out and gestured wildly at my feet. I apologized and said that I forgot about the shoe rule. I felt pretty bad about that, because I should have known better.
-At dinner, I made another mistake. I ordered a big onigiri and some chicken on a stick (yakitori, maybe) and I asked for chopsticks. The cashier said in Japanese, "Chopsticks? Yes?" Then she gave them to me. But I had such a difficult time eating my food with the chopsticks! Then Shiho said, "You're not supposed to eat this food with chopsticks...just use the stick and your hands." We laughed and I realized why the cashier stared at me.
-Another mistake: I couldn't get the automatic toilet to flush in the mall bathroom! So Yumi had to come into the stall with me and we figured it out, haha. It took a long time!!
-I had a really good green tea+milk bubble tea at the mall! For breakfast today, I got some milk that tasted absolutely amazing, like whole milk plus deliciousness and happiness (like most things in Japan). I put some milk into my green tea and it was incredibly good.
-Speaking of happy things, I got an Engrish t-shirt today!!!!!!!!!!! It is gorgeous. It says, "Go ahead, make day of future" on it, among other things. Here are some more shirts we saw.
-After coming home from the mall today, Shiho and Yumi took us to the Aeon store to get alcohol. I got apricot and honey sake, which was SO SO SO GOOD. I can't wait to get some more in different flavors. They are small bottles that are very cute, so I am keeping a few of them for my apartment. :) Then we went to drink in the park at night, which was funny because it was very safe but seemed a bit creepy by American standards. Alcohol is drunk freely in public in Japan, but drinking/eating while walking is considered rude.
-Tomorrow we meet our host families early, at 10:30am. I am excited but nervous! I hope I am not too tired...

I leave you with this skirt made for very young girls. It says "Respectful" on the butt. How Japanese... :)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Day 2???

The Japanese are so concerned about conservation, especially of water (shorter showers are required), yet their toilets use like 20 gallons for each flush. It makes me feel bad to go to the bathroom! I have only used the Western toilets so far.... I'm sure I'll get brave enough to use the squat toilets soon.

My teacher always told me, "HUG JYA NAI" (no hugs!) in Japan, but yesterday, a Japanese student from Kanda University hugged me before I even knew her name! I told her that hugs were supposed to be nonexistent in Japan but she said, "Noooo, I love hugs, I ask for hugs every day." She was adorable. :D

Last night we met our friends from KUIS (Kanda University of International Studies, I think) and they are AWESOME. The awesomest of all is Shiho, who took us to get alcohol at the supermarket and then we all went to the beach. It's cool being the drinking age here. :) I got a wonderful peach drink that was only about $1. The beach was really neat at night, and it smells sandy and salty just like Wilmington's beachy air. There were Japanese school kids still in their uniforms shooting fireworks at each other. I asked them if they had an extra sparkler but they lied and told me no, haha. We saw them later with sparklers. ;) Oh well, I am a stranger anyway. Shiho told us that she got drunk the night before and went to the beach with fireworks too. I guess it's a pastime here! We walked out on the pier and looked at all the water. I think we could see Tokyo from there.
< ---the Aeon grocery store, or as Robert calls it "Target on crack", serves everything including tons of kinds of alcohol. In this picture you can see Yogurt Alcohol.
I chatted with a friend on the IES trip about how we are accustomed to seeing the Japanese schoolgirl outfits only in a romantic/sexual context, usually in anime. It feels so wrong to see girls of all different ages in the clothes that we are used to seeing in the US as a purely attractive thing for adults, because obviously these are normal outfits for them. It's a part of Japanese culture too, though; "sexy" manga starring young-looking girls in their schoolgirl outfits. Anyway, it's an interesting thing to think about why we make those associations.
This picture is a good example of how eye-catching those skirts and socks are

The people here are very attractive, men and women; and children are cuter than American children. It's not true that "all Asians look the same"; Japanese individuals look distinct for the most part. Last night I kept asking the same student for her name, and I felt bad because I forgot that I did actually know her name but I couldn't recognize her face. However, that has only happened with one person.

By the time I went to sleep last night, I was totally exhausted and my bed felt so nice. The pillows were so crazy though!! They had little, possibly foamy, balls in them and it made the pillow very firm. I ended up flipping the pillow over because I didn't want the rough texture pressing into my head.

Breakfast was amazing. I haven't eaten one bad/unappetizing thing in Japan yet, with the possible exception of natto. It was okay, but the person who described it to me as "a stinky, sticky bean" was correct. It is REALLY stinky and sticky. Slimy too. The yogurt is different here; more milky/watery. I failed at being Japanese this morning because I couldn't figure out how to get the green tea machine to work, and I forgot soy sauce and my chopsticks. Oh well, the nice lady at the cash register helped me.

This morning was orientation, and we learned about our host families and how to interact with them, the expectations for the school program, and how to commute to our new homes. We will meet our host families on Saturday. My family looks AMAZING. The parents are in their thirties and there is one boy who is 8. Take a look at this awesome photo. The form said they had hosted a student from UNC before and had a great experience. The little boy likes Pokemon cards and I BROUGHT HIM ENGLISH POKEMON CARDS OH YEAH! My commute to my house will probably take 70 minutes: 15 walking to the station, 35 on the train (subway then JR train, and sometimes a transfer), and 20 walking to the IES Center. The good news is that my station, Toyo-cho, is REALLY close to the main Tokyo Station, much closer than any of the other students in my class. The bad news is the long commute, although 1 hour is standard for Japan. The mom in my host family has a job in a financial company, which is unusual (housewife=most common thing for mothers). The dad is a systems engineer. I seriously can't wait to meet them; they seem ideal as a host family.

After orientation, I went back to my room to find the tiny trashcan had been emptied and I had received a new tube of baby toothpaste and new toiletries. For a society so concerned about conservation, they throw out so much stuff that could be reusable, like the razors and toothbrushes.

<------- I SAW AN INDIAN GUY IN JAPAN. He was working at an Indian restaurant in the mall and speaking Japanese. It was CUH-RAZY. I took pictures of him, haha. I didn't buy Indian food, though, instead I bought udon! That is Japanese soup with super-fat noodles. It was really good.

Between the time orientation ended and the time when we rode the trains to dinner (for the first time), some friends and I walked through a park and explored around some apartment complexes. There were cute children everywhere! We walked past an elementary school and I really wanted to play with the children, but my friends didn't. So I stared longingly at the playground while my friends walked on...but then I was able to convince them to go back! So we played soccer and catch with this cool 11-year-old whose name I could never understand, sadly. But he was so friendly without words, though we were able to talk to him a little bit. The other kids didn't want to play with him or us, but we didn't care because we were having a lot of fun. I got all sweaty, haha.

The train system is really complicated. We have to buy a train pass with our host families on Saturday, which hopefully will make things less complicated. Unfortunately, the train pass only works for one route (home-to-school) and all other routes cost the regular price, which is a lot when it adds up. But my route is so close to Tokyo station. :D

I got lost in the mall after dinner! The group just left without me while I was refilling my water bottle. I started walking one way, and then I remembered in the Girl Scouts that we are always supposed to stay in the last place where other people saw us, so I hung out in the food court while I frantically called people in my group. The third person picked up and came back to get me. Meanwhile I was nervously looking all around and for the first time, everything seemed really foreign and not necessarily welcoming. I was scared, wondering if the group would even notice I wasn't there before getting on the train home. That was discouraging, because they did make it all the way to the train before I was able to call the leader, Mariko.

<---- There are bikes EVERYWHERE in Chiba. I can't believe that people have to pay for parking their bikes, up to $7 for a whole day. I thought biking would be free. :( This is a bike parking lot in front of a grocery store that we saw while we were walking to one of the two train stations near our school. Thankfully, I will go to the nearer station of the two and my walk will be about ~15 minutes instead of 25.

We saw an old dog on the way there, and I asked in Japanese if I could pet it. The owner said yes but the dog looked in bad shape. It was such a sad sight: he didn't want to get up off the ground because he was so old and in pain, and he was losing tufts of hair. The two boys with me didn't seem to know how to approach stray/unknown/potentially angry dogs because they got all up in his face and he tried to bite them. I don't blame him, but I almost cried at how he wouldn't get up off the ground even when his owner wanted to leave. :( Poor baby. Another thing I have noticed: people have smaller dogs here, and they love to dress up their dogs in shirts or dresses.

Also, I figured out why Chiba is so neat and unpopulated compared to what I have seen of Tokyo: Chiba used to be underwater and is an artificial island-type of thing. So all the buildings are new and most people don't live here, it's mostly big buildings and schools that people commute to. It's a great place but I can't wait to go to actual Tokyo, or Koto-ku where I will live.

I was a little embarrassed on the train because our group was obviously American and wasn't blending into the Japanese crowd at all; we were so much louder. Hopefully that will change.

Did you realize that you can click on any of these photos to see them full-size? I just realized that! Here's a cool one, demonstrating how ridiculously colorful the grocery stores are. I got a whole lot of samples tonight, and for dinner I decided to buy things without knowing what they were made of. It was a good strategy. :)

One more thing before I go to bed: almost everything in Japan in English is either "happy" or "friendly". It's so cute to see kids or adults wearing shirts that say, "We have happy life!" or "Shiny happy day" or other fun English things. Here's "Friendly Airport Limousine", which is actually a bus.

This blog entry is too long. Gomen nasai!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


In the airport in NYC!
June 1, 2010
4:57pm NC time

I can’t believe I have been on this plane for around FIVE HOURS and we are not even out of Canada yet!! We’re not even over Alaska yet (and let me comment on how cool it is that I actually get to fly over Alaska: it’s really cool.) I thought Europe was a long flight, but that was maybe 8 hours compared to THIRTEEN. I have already gone to sleep and woken up three times, haha.


This aircraft (Boeing 777) is enormous. The plane is currently going ~550mph, at ~30,000 ft, and we are 4,000 miles from Tokyo. I’m in the cheapest seats on a middle aisle (it goes window, then two seats, aisle, then five seats, aisle, two more seats, window). I wish I could look out the window, so I’ve been wandering up to Business Class to peek out the tiny window on the emergency exit door where no one is sleeping. But the old flight attendant keeps shooing me back to non-privileged class because I’m not supposed to be up there. (She said I was going to wake up the Business Class with the light from the window, but maybe she was talking about the HOLLERING BABY two feet from me who woke up everyone before I even got there, hahaha. Why there is a baby in Business Class I will never know.) From the two brief glimpses I’ve gotten, it seems like Canada is beautiful! We’re over the Great Slave Lake now. I will certainly make a special trip to the bathroom if we fly over Wasilla, AK.

The plane lunch very closely resembled real food! We even got my favorite kind of sushi: salmon nigiri. It tasted like the Harris Teeter kind but still, that’s impressive for a plane. My mashed potato dish had a bit of an unidentifiable film on it but I ate it. :) There is no recycling on the plane and that makes me Very Disappointed With American Airlines. You’d think a plane would want to reduce the amount of trash they have, because it’s an enclosed space and all.

After eating all of my food, I got two cups of green tea with milk and the flight attendant looked at me like I was a moron for putting milk in them. She said, “Have you ever even had green tea before?” I said yes, despite having never tried it with milk. ;) It was great with milk and sugar! But I probably won’t get it like that in Japan because I don’t want them to stare.

Then I watched some incomprehensible Japanese game shows and listened to J-Pop on the radio. I put the instructions on the screen into Japanese and it was delightful. I’ve been reading the katakana on the maps trying to sound it out, like “guretosurebu…Oh, it’s Great Slave!” and “Howiitohosu…oh, Whitehorse!” It’s pretty fun, like a secret code.

The woman in front of me has been watching a Japanese drama about a Japanese woman whose dream is to open a restaurant. She fell in love with an Indian man and they dreamed of mango lassi and curry as they planned their restaurant together. But then when she finally found a suitable location for the store, she came back to her apartment to show her lover and he had stolen all of her possessions…and her heart! Also she had magic soybean paste and lost her ability to speak after the incident. She had a pet pig too but I thought she was going to cook him. I share this because now my friend Amit will be aware that all Indian men are thieves, and he shouldn’t get his heart stolen by Mo.



1:10pm Tokyo time, 12:10am NC time
Only 38 minutes until we land in Tokyo!! I have made good friends with the Vietnamese man sitting next to me even though he doesn’t speak English. :) I have drunk 4 or 5 cups of green tea (now without sugar or milk so I’ll be more Japanese), eaten countless little triangles of Gruyere cheese with crackers/bread, and eaten two full meals and a mini-sandwich. AA is super-wasteful with their food service but at least I am well-fed. In this picture I am looking a little rough because I am quite worn out after sitting doing nothing for 12.5 hours. That's my Vietnamese friend!! I don't know his name but we like to talk with our hands and do charades.

The flight seems short now that it’s almost over. I slept for a good 4-5 hours but it doesn’t feel like I’ve been on the plane for THIRTEEN HOURS. I played Tetris and Sudoku on the seatback console and listened to “Te Amo” by Rihanna probably 20 times. The JPop station is awesome but I don’t know the titles of the songs. :( I’m going to play Lady Gaga as we enter Tokyo. :D Not on purpose; that’s just where my iPod Shuffle happens to be.

I seriously can’t wait to land. Immediately we will ship the majority of our luggage to our host families’ apartments because we have a 3-4 day orientation to do first. That’s probably where we’ll go first, but I’m hoping I can at least see some Japanese buildings or culture before then! I am not too tired because I’m used to being up to ridiculous hours of the morning anyway. Next update with be in Japan, I can’t believe it.


5:22pm Japan time, 4:22am NC Time
I am in Japan right now! We are in the OVTA hotel for the next three nights and I have the coolest little room. I would like to extend a thank-you to Amit for making me popular, because I was the first person to figure out the light switches in our hotel rooms! It's the same as you said on your blog in India: put the key into the light switch to make anything electric work. :D We are not in the "main" area of Tokyo I think, but there are neat big buildings here. The streets have schoolgirls and business people on bikes but other than that, the streets are surprisingly empty.

In the airport we had to fill out a lot of forms, change our dollars/traveler's cheques into yen, and go through customs. It was painless except for my failure at Japanese. :)

We had to take a long bus ride to our hotel from the airport, about 50 minutes. We saw rice fields, neat country houses, and a temple from a distance. In my hotel room, I took a shower in their funky showers. It was neat. They call conditioner "rinse" and they provide the world's tiniest toothpaste tubes (about 2cm) and a toothbrush, razor, bathrobe, slippers, and an extremely tiny trashcan to each guest.

The internet is SO FAST HERE, my photos upload even quicker than they do at UNC or in Wilmington. I <3 Japanese technology.

It's about to be dinner time, and we get to meet our partners at Kanda University. My partner's name is Kami!! More later, I have to go scurry around and speak Japanese and eat amazing Japanese food.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Packing (rhymes with nerve-wracking)

I've been packing for DAYS now and I am still worried that I've forgotten things! But after charging up my camera in preparation for the trip, I decided to take a few Packing Photos to document this crucial part of my trip.
My bag to be checked. I have most of my clothes and all of my Mt. Fuji climbing gear in this bag. Yes, that is a box of salmon; my mom insisted that it would make a perfect gift to my Japanese host family, because the Japanese eat a lot of seafood. I also have my pepper spray and ethernet cord. And no trip is complete without fruit snacks!
The room in disarray! Actually this is way, way cleaner than it was earlier today. On the right you can see the flat duffel bag that I am stuffing into my checked bag so that I can check two bags on the way home. :)

 My carry-on bag, other than my backpack, which can be seen above. I've got everything I'll need for the three-day orientation and some snacks! I'm bringing an Obama poster as a gift to my host family because Obama is hugely popular in Japan (even more than in the US, I believe) and I think they might want a piece of history. :D It would be really funny if I got the only Japanese family that doesn't like Obama, though.

A photo of mini-Caroline to show to my host family. 子供の時、とても小さかったです!

That's all for now. The next time I post, I'll either be in the airport or in Japan! I leave for RDU hotel tomorrow afternoon, and then early Tuesday morning is my flight to New York and then the big 12-hour flight. :) I CAN'T WAIT.