Stories From The Road

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Technos International Week – Day 6

Friday June 11, 2010

SAITAMA CITY, Japan – Today marks the end of the first week of this incredible journey, which has been marked with extraordinary memories. We began the day early again, awaking to prepare for our departure from Midori no Mura and return to Tokyo. Tonight would also include the introduction of my host family whom I would spend Saturday and Sunday with.

I began my day my taking my final Japanese style bath, an onsen. I packed my bag and enjoyed a nice breakfast of eggs, sausages, salad, and yogurt. At quarter to nine everyone gathered at the front steps of Midori no Mura for a group picture.

Then we boarded the bus. While on the bus a new friend of mine named Joe from SUNY Purchase College in New York City showed me a card trick that one of the Japanese kids had shown him. The way the trick worked is that you count out the first seven cards in a randomly shuffled deck. You flip over the first card, for example a five of hearts. Then you put the card you drew at the bottom of the seven cards. You count out each of the cards in the seven by spelling out each of the letters of the card you drew, e.g. “five of hearts” the last card you turn over should be the first card you drew, in this case the five of hearts.

Shiraito No Taki Falls

Another View of Shiraito No Taki Falls

On our way back we visited the Shiraito No Taki waterfalls. We hiked a small path through woods surrounding the falls and up a steep set of stairs. The waterfall was beautiful and the hike was amazing. However, our hike up the stairs did not afford us a spectacular view and we turned around.

After thoroughly enjoying this outdoor scene, we once again boarded the bus, this time headed for lunch. Lunch today was flavored rice. The rice was served in a stone pot and topped with meat, a small egg, shitake mushrooms, an apricot, a sweet potato and a few other vegetables. The sides that went along with this meal included a cup of miso soup and various pickled vegetables. For desert there was a rice dumpling filled with a sweet paste that had a consistency close to chocolate.

Flavored Rice Meal

The hike up the steps into the woods

Below the restaurant was a small market selling various Japanese foods and goods. Some of these goods were sweets, of which I purchased sweet bean gummy’s. There was also sake and even dried crickets. We shopped for about fifteen minutes then boarded the bus. However, before we boarded the bus many of us purchased soft serve ice cream. I bought some blueberry ice cream, which I was told by Sho to be famous in the area. It had an extremely rich flavor, nothing compared to the blueberry ice cream in the states.

We traveled on the bus for another two hours arriving back at our hotel, the Marroad Inn Tokyo. We arrived at four and those who were partaking in a home stay were given one hour to pack their bag and come to the lobby. Those who were not doing the home stay checked into their room and had free time. I repacked my backpack quickly, but need to withdraw more yen before I left for the weekend. Luckily for me, Sho, is very eager to help out and he brought me to the local bank and then to the Seven-eleven to get money.

When I returned to the hotel I talked with some of the students not doing the home stay to see what they would be doing in their free time. Emily mentioned that when she was in Shinjuku the other night she wandered down a side street and stumbled upon a shop that used fish to eat the dead skin off your feet. She was interested in trying this. Not long after talking with the other international students, Erika’s father, the girl who was leading International Week 2010, introduced me to my home stay mother. She was one of the teachers at Technos College. Once we were introduced we left and weekend had begun.

“I speak little English, I am learning, so please speak slow and clearly” she said

“That’s okay” I said, I figured we would find some way to communicate.

“I live in Saitama City, about one hour outside of Tokyo, so we will get on the train. I will pay for your ticket”

“That’s okay I have a Suica card”

“Ohh”

We scanned ourselves in and found the platform for our train.

“Do you like Japanese food?”

“Yes, very much”

“What kind have you had?

“Udon, Soba, Miso, flavored rice, Katsu, and of course Sushi”

“Tonight for dinner we have Shabu Shabu, boiled meat. Have you had shabu shabu before?

“No” I say

“Shabu Shabu, you boil water and run the raw meat through the water until it is boiled.”

She motions with her hands the meat in chopsticks running through the water.

“Then you dip in sauce and eat”

I nod my head to show that I understand. We stand quietly for a moment or two as both of us get to know one another and become used to each other’s presence.

“What do you study? Your major?”

“I am a double major. I am studying English, creative writing and literature, and International Relations, how to build better bonds between countries.”

I know that she is a teacher at Technos College but I have no idea what she teaches so I ask her.

“What do you teach?”

“I teach word, excel, PowerPoint, business”

“Do you live in a dormitory at school?”

“Yes”

“Is your dormitory close to the school”

“Yes it is on campus so I have to only walk a few minutes to reach my classes. Do the students at Technos live in dormitories or do they live at home?”

“Some live in dormitories and some live at home”

“Are the dormitories close?”

“About fifteen minute walk. One of my students lives at home and lives just behind the school. He gets up at 8:30 for a 9:00 class.”

“That is very lucky I say”

“Yes she says”

The train arrives. We board the train and travel to the next station where we switch trains. We travel another two stops and transfer again. Travel one more stop and transfer one last time. This time we remain on the train for thirty minutes.

Mascot for Saitama City, which stands outside the train station – Unagi the Eel

Thirty minutes later we arrive in Saitama City. From first glance the city is small and not nearly as big as Shinjuku. The streets at as busy as Higashi-Fuchu but there are many more high rises.

A street in Saitama City

“First we pick up my son”

I follow her taking in the different sights and sounds of this new city. We weave down small streets and ally ways.

While on our way she begins to talk to me again

“Do you drink alcohol?”

“Yes I say”

“Good, we will have drinks with dinner. How old are you?

“Nineteen”

“Drinking age in USA is twenty-one, correct?”

“Yes, but when I am abroad it is legal, so I indulge”

We arrive at a door located between two buildings. She pushes the buzzer and waits for someone to answer the door. They open the door undoing multiple locks. While we wait she talks in Japanese to the owners of the daycare. While one of the other workers readies her son. About five minutes pass and he is secured in his stroller.

“This is Tiger” she says introducing him.

We exit the nursery.

Ground medallion in the city celebrating the 2002 World Cup

“It is about a ten minute walk from here to my house. Again we set off down small streets zigzagging through the city. We arrive at the main road and walk under a bridge. There is a loud rumbling and when we come out on the other side I see that it is a part of the railway system. She stops and not realizing this, I continued walking a few feet then stopped and turned around.

“Sorry she says, Tiger like trains.”

Flag of the Urawa Reds – the soccer team of Saitama City

I see that her son had turned his head, peaking out of the carriage to see the train pass by. Once it is out of site we continue walking. We veer off of the main street and back onto more side streets. As we turn onto another street she waves to a man in a yellow shirt and green plaid pants. He approaches us.”

“This is my husband”

He is young with spiked hair. He extends his hand and introduces himself

“Welcome to Japan” he says

The talk to each other in Japanese, and from what I gather he asks her where I am from. She tells him Boston. He nods his head in understanding.

“Boston Red Sox he says. Dice-K Matsuzaka’s, home town is Saitama City.”

Out of all of Japan I end up in the city of one of the pitchers of the Boston Red Sox.

“Saitama City was also the home of the 2002 World Cup” he says in broken English. We walk for another five minutes and turn into a gated off drive way. A car is parked there. One thing that I have noticed in Japan is the lack of full size cars. Many of the cars are compact and are often boxy in shape. This probably has to do with the narrowness of the streets. Just past the drive way was their house. The house is tall and similar to an apartment, but has three floors. The house is very compact and tightly packed. The house is beautifully decorated with dark wood floors and matching doors. Thin metal bars cross the door horizontally. When I enter the house I notice that there is about three feet of space then the floor rises. This is where I take off my shoes. My host family has provided me with slippers to walk around the house in.

I follow my host mother up the stairs to the second floor. This floor is the main living area. We turn to the right and ascend another flight of stairs to the top floor. She opens the first door on the left.

“This is your room”

There is a small round table in the center of the room, with small cushion on the ground. In one corner is a television. On the opposite side of room is two closets. She lays out a futon, that sits about two inches off of the ground. This bed is similar to the one I slept on while I was at Midori no Mura; only there was a little more cushioning here.

I drop my stuff off and she shows me around the house.

“In a traditional Japanese house the bathroom and the showers are separate.

To the right of the main staircase of the house there is a door that leads to the bathroom. I was amazed to find out that, as with the public bathrooms the toilets in a private home are all automatic. There is also an additional pair of slippers in the bathroom. When you use the bathroom in a house you take off your house slippers and wear the bathroom slippers.

We leave the hallway and make our way into the main part of the house. The living room of the house is connected to the kitchen. There is a raised stage-like area on which the television sits. The main floor of the living area has been changed into a play area for their son. A small four-person table sits against a bar, which divides the kitchen from the living area. On the far side of the living area there is a sliding door, which leads to the laundry room and shower room. The shower is made up of a modern onsen. There is small sink for washing and a modern bathtub. The floor is equipped with a drain for the water.

Once the tour is concluded, dinner was started. I sat at the table drinking with my host father and enjoying fish sausage as a snack. A small pot was placed on the table, which was then heated until it boiled. Thin slices of raw beef and pork were placed next to the pot along with sushi and maki rolls. Once the water reached a boil, the vegetables were added in. The vegetables included bean sprouts, cabbage, and carrots. After the vegetables were added the water was brought to a boil again. Each person takes a piece of meat and runs it through the water. The meat turns from its raw red color to a dull gray indicating that it had been cooked thoroughly. Once you have cooked a piece of meat you dip it into a sesame sauce and eat it along with some vegetables. The meat along with the sushi made for a delicious meal.

When dinner was ended I proceeded to give gifts to my host family. Japan is very gift oriented society it is proper and common to give and receive gifts to and from friends. I gave my host father a Red Sox’s baseball hat, my host mother some stationary, and my host families son, a complete set of the fifty states quarters as well as a Hobart and William Smith car medallion. In return my host family gave me a ticket holder from the soccer team of their hometown, the Urawa Red Diamonds. This ticket holder is only available to supporters of the team, its not available in stores.

The end of dinner and gifts brought the end to a long day. I showered and went to bed.

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Technos International Week – Day 4

Wednesday June 9, 2010

MATSUMOTO CITY, Nagano Prefecture, Japan – “Here the compass doesn’t work, the magnets make it impossible to locate the bodies…”

*

We awoke early again today and after breakfast filed onto the bus. We left our hotel for Midori No Mura or the Green Village, a small mountainous resort owned by the Technos College.

Mt. Fuji on a foggy day

Our journey brought us out of Tokyo and into Nagano Prefecture, the site of the 1998 Olympic games. One of the most famous sites in Nagano is Mt. Fuji, the tallest of the four mountains in Japan. We traveled up to the fifth stage of the mountain the furthest up you can drive. The fifth stage is also about halfway up the mountain. The second half of the mountain must be hiked. On the way up the mountain we learned of the different mountains in Japan and more specifically about Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano and since other mountains don’t surround Mt. Fuji it is visible from most of Japan.

Another view of Mt. Fuji

Each stage of the mountain has significance. Our guide announces, “We have just entered the third stage, this is where people go to commit suicide. Here the compass doesn’t work, the magnets make it impossible to locate the bodies.”

Another half hour of traveling brought us to the fifth stage and we exited the bus taking in Mt. Fuji for the first time. A thick white fog covered the summit and cold wind blew across my face as a freezing rain fell.

Group Photo in front of Mt. Fuji

The owner of the gift shop herded us inside so that we would purchase gifts from the various vendors inside. It was here that we were able to try many different kinds of Japanese candies. One particular candy that stuck out were chocolate rice patties, which had a similar texture and taste to chocolate truffles, but had the consistency of a dumpling covered in chocolate with a chocolate filling.

On the third floor of the shop was an observatory. It was here that you have the best opportunity to see a majestic view of Mt. Fuji.  After about a half hour at the mountain we left. Sadly the fog never lifted and I never did see a full view of Mt. Fuji.  However, having been that close to such a great natural monument was inspiring.

On our way down the mountain Mitsunari says:

“We have a song about Mt. Fuji. If we are quiet the tires on the way down will sing us the song.”

Halfway down the mountain silence drifted across the bus and melodic song was heard. It sounded as though a voice were singing to you, while it was a beautiful sound there was also an eerily haunting nature to the song.

Barrels of Aging Miso

Our Miso Lunch

As we traveled on we reached Matsumoto City and home of Matsumoto castle. Before we see the castle, we stopped for lunch at a traditional miso factory. This factory still makes miso the traditional way, allowing miso to age three years. The Miso most of Japan makes and the kind we are accustomed to is only aged for six months. While we toured the factory, we were also given the honor of being able to try some of the three-year-old miso, which is very rare. For lunch we were served miso soup, with three different bars of sushi, as well as fried rice and tofu. We had miso tea to drink and miso ice cream for desert. The miso soup that I usually have the states has a yellow color however this soup had a brown color with rich, bold flavors. The soup was filled with vegetables, tofu and pork.

Gate house at Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle and the surrounding city

Matsumoto Castle from another view

After a delicious lunch we left for Matsumoto castle. Matsumoto castle is the oldest castle preserved with its original materials. It is about 400 years old. The surrounding complex of the castle dates back to Sengoku period. The then leader Ishikawa Norimasa built the castle around 1590. In 1952 the castle was declared a national treasure of Japan.  It is a flat land castle and as such it was built up on a stone embankment about ten feet high and it is surrounded by a moat. The inside stairs were steep and tall with each floor serving a specific purpose. The fourth floor is where the leader would commit seppuku (hara-kiri) or ritualistic stomach cutting (suicide) and the fifth floor was for conferencing.

Part of our room at Midori no Mura

One of the many rice paddies

After an hour of walking around the castle and its grounds we left for Midori no Mura. Midori no Mura was located in the countryside and during our drive we passed rice paddies. When we arrived we moved into our rooms, which were covered with tatami mats and the furniture was low to the ground. It was then that I discovered we would be living the traditional Japanese lifestyle by sleeping on the ground.

After moving in we ate dinner in the dining hall with everyone. After dinner we learned about different aspects of Japanese culture and etiquette. It is here that we learned were how to use chopsticks correctly. We also learned about different Japanese holidays. The first year Technos students studying English presented this lesson to us.

The presentation ended and it was time to try out the baths. The baths were traditional Japanese onsen’s. We grabbed our robes and proceeded downstairs.

There is a ritual to the baths. The first step to the baths is to sit down and shower. After you are cleaned and all of the soap is gone you are ready to enter the hot bath or onsen. The onsen is most closely related to a hot tub. The most important rule to the baths is to not mix the shower water and the onsen water. After soaking as long as you want you rinse off in cold water. These baths leave you feeling refreshed, relaxed and also extremely clean. After the bath it was time for bed.