Life on the Last Train

Yokohama | 2002 | 25 years old

In the land of super efficient transport, the train and subway system was my indispensable peephole into Japan. Like most others there, I depended on the reliable trains that crisscrossed the urban metropolises and connected cities and the countryside. Indeed, without it, I would not have been able to regularly disappear into the crowds in Shinjuku, visit my host sister’s newborn son in Kanazawa, or witness the New Year’s bell ringing at a Kyoto temple.

Yet, in addition to their function of getting me to my destination of choice, the trains were cultural journeys in and of themselves. As a foreigner, each ride held the promise of glimpses into the everyday lives of a wide swath of Japanese society. Depending on my luck that day, I might have the chance to eavesdrop on the giggling chatter of uniformed school girls. Or I might be able to watch from across the aisle, the interactions of a mother and her two rowdy, carefree young boys. Each train ride was unique, providing intense snippets of insight into the subtle intricacies of behavior in a country dominated by relationships and mannerisms.

One experience stands out in my mind – it happened during a ride that I took on the last train of a Friday night in Yokohama. I shuffled on, riding the crowd’s momentum into a car that was already crammed with other riders who, like me, had timed their plans to end exactly when the last train would take them back to their homes for the night. Scanning the car, I saw that it had packed in its usual late night crowd – teenagers and 20-somethings who had spent their night at karaoke and salarymen and office ladies who had shared several rounds of Kirins. In particular, I recall seeing a 20-something guy who looked the worst for wear. Held up by his clan of three friends, the guy hung heavily like a puppet. He had obviously graduated from Kirins to sake that night and seemed on the verge of losing it. And five minutes into the ride, he did. Before we knew it, all of us were privy to the gastronomical delights that he had partaken of earlier that night. What happened next though was what surprised me most. Immediately, one of his friends asked for tissues, and soon passengers in the car reached into their purses and pockets, passing dozens of tissue packets to him. He and his friends then began to wipe up the mess, and within five minutes, it was cleaned up. Then to top it off, one of the friends made a short speech of public apology to the train and thanked everyone for their tissue and understanding. When the train came to a stop, the three friends helped the staggering fourth off.

Amazed, the first thought that crossed my mind was that this never would have happened in the U.S. At best, the mess might have been cleaned up, but more likely, it would have been left there for the train staff to discover. Certainly, there would not have been a public apology made to the other riders. If nothing else, this experience solidified in my mind the value of responsibility, social cooperation, and consideration in Japanese society. It also demonstrated the strength of bonds of relationships in Japan. How many of us can say that we would mop up our friend’s vomit on a train?


Niigata | Summer, 2002 | 20 years old

Only twice did I encounter the underlying resentment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Please understand, in Nigatta I was welcomed into a home sheltered in a traditional neighborhood where community is paramount and tradition is woven into the ordinary. Westerners hardly ever, if ever, came this way, so naturally my arrival was a spectacle. An American was coming into their home to watch and witness their ordinary lives. I hoped they didn’t think I would judge their ways, comparing and contrasting our differences and judging them simple. And to top it off, I was a foreigner with whom they could hardly communicate to explain themselves, even though I was their daughter’s friend from college.

But my friend’s family kindly welcomed me into their home. My thank you: showing a childlike enthusiasm to learn and try anything Japanese. Dispelling their anxiety and breaking down a cultural barrier was a true privilege, proving that not all people limit themselves to that with which they are familiar. My friend’s mother, whom like an aunt to me I later called Obasan, fretted over my stay wondering what to cook for an American. To her surprise, I relished each colorful and carefully prepared exotic dish, tasting and enjoying the indigenous home cooked dinner.

My first morning, I went outside to take in the dusty street and green rice fields that colored the horizon. In this seemingly quiet corner of the world, an elderly woman hunched over her walking cane strolled by, muttering “Ah, Americajin, Americajin.” Distrust still lingered in her eyes. I wanted to say, Yes, I am an American. One who flew over 14 hours to immerse myself in your beautiful culture that I respect and admire. But I had not the words.

Any leisure time the family and I had was spent in the family room since it was the only room with an AC to provide relief from the sweltering summer heat. This family time was wonderful. With no one addicted to a particular program, no one argued over which channel to watch. Jokes passed from one to the next and my friend provided the translations.

Lying on the tatami mats, I looked over my workbook and notes, practicing phrases and calligraphy. Obasan and the others happily assisted by conversing within the topic so I might try my sentences and learn to understand theirs.

One night, though I am unsure how it began, my friend’s father asked my opinion of World War II. I do not remember my answer, but before my trip to Japan, I had not yet heard how many Japanese believe the decision to bomb was racist. I never learned that view from a textbook.

When her father began telling me his opinion, I looked to my friend to translate, but she only rolled her eyes and turned away. He continued speaking with me, gesturing his hands and looking directly at me so as to engage my attention, even though he must have known I could not understand. But I also felt he only wanted to share his thoughts and feelings, and so I honored him as I could. I listened.

Little Treasures: The Intricacies of Japan

Niigata | Summer, 2002 | 20 years old

The simple, individual aspects that distinguish one country from another are the treasures one discovers when traveling abroad. These little treasures comprise some of my favorite memories, leaving me with an indelible impression of the intricacies of Japan.

The morning after my friend and I arrived in her village of Bunsuimachi, Niigata, she and I crept down the steep, narrow, wooden stairs to begin breakfast at 5:00 AM. Neither of us could sleep because of the 13-hour fast forward to which our bodies could not catch up. Stopping half way down the stairs, I took a seat and wiggled my toes on the cool wood. There I was, in a traditional Japanese house. Cream-colored sliding doors to my left displayed grey-green watercolor patches; darker and lighter crisscrossed dashes conjured the image of a bamboo forest seen from above. Ahead of me, a concrete entrance led visitors into the main house, after adding their shoes to the jumbled piles along the entryway. Despite unfamiliar surroundings, I felt at home: perhaps because I had been studying Japanese culture for almost a year, or because of the home’s inviting ambiance. In either case, I wished to freeze that moment on the stairs, to remain on the edge of possibility, when I knew that outside the front door, the rice fields stretched across the horizon and into greater Japan.

My friend and I arrived just in time for the town’s summer festival, and her mother kindly dressed me in a yukata, a summer style kimono, for the occasion. As excited and nervous as I was to be clothed in the traditional garb, I remember most the reaction of the town’s people. As we walked toward the entrance of the street fair, children tugged their parents’ sleeves and the police stopped directing traffic to welcome me with loud applause and cheer. Red faced, I demurely covered my smile with my sleeve and nodded to the observers.

A garden is cared for in front or to the side of each home in Bunsuimachi. Magnificent trees, lush shrubs and vegetables, all with foreign names, add to the country scene. When walking on the dirt paths that squared off one home’s plot from the others, I discovered neighbors balancing on ladders to trim the tops of ancient cascading trees, or dusting off freshly picked cucumbers, tomatoes, edamame beans, or themselves. One quiet day, I joined my friend’s family in picking edamame. Sitting on an overturned bucket with an even bigger, red one before me, I plucked the pods from their vines and listened to them plunk into the plastic container. I thought of all the packages sitting on shelves in Asian-American grocery stores, while I was here, picking my own, in Japan. Another day, I heard my friend’s mother yelping in the vegetable garden. I assumed bees or snakes had surprised her like they do my mother. Instead, hundreds of miniature frogs overran the ground, leaping over vines and each other. In my yard back home, occasionally I stumbled upon a frog or two, but they were no smaller than my palm. Despite my friend’s and her mother’s protests, I could not help but think these teeny frogs adorable: a tiny miracle, hidden in this exotic corner of the world.

One of my favorite memories is of watching the distant fireworks from the rooftop, outside my friend’s window. The dark sky and dry air provided the perfect envelope for the occasion. And while the distance reduced the bursts to faint crackles, we heard the soft chitchat of neighbors strolling along the dirt road below.

Many hours in Niigata were spent with my friend driving along the Sea of Japan. Weaving in and out of the undulating emerald mountains, which dipped into the sapphire coast, lulled me to sleep as though we were out at sea. The sun sparkled gold on the sea, while the music of Dreams Come True accompanied us from the CD player. To this day, all I need is to insert that disc and close my eyes, and I am there again, traveling down the road of my memories: the rice fields, the cheers and the warm night air, all a part of a world colored by gems. I have my treasure, and the nostalgia is overwhelmingly beautiful.

For Great Hikes, Head for the Hills

Osaka | Fall, 2001 | 20 years old

When we speak of the wonders of Japan, we tend to focus on that which is man-made. Human innovation and achievement are unquestionably one of Japan’s greatest wonders, and modern technological feats along with the asthetic beauty of older temples and gardens are rightly a centerpiece to any first-time visit to Japan. However, Japan is also a country of astounding natural beauty. Nearly seventy percent of the country is mountainous, and due to a desire to live among others rather than in isolation, developed cities and towns often end abruptly at the foot of steep hills. When the road ends, that’s where the real tour begins, because for a small country with so many inhabitants, Japan still maintains a large and varied mountainous landscape that is sure to invoke thoughts of days-gone-by rather than days to come. Mt. Hiei (Hieizan) is one such recommended natural excursion, reachable via Kyoto’s rail system.

I was introduced to the beauty of Mt. Hiei by way of a Japanese history class I was enrolled in during my semester abroad in Osaka. It’s worth the trip for several reasons if you’re in the Kansai area. It’s easily accessible, holds a wealth of cultural treasures, and provides fantastic views of the forest, hills, and of course Lake Biwa. Our class convened one Saturday morning in early fall in a small town at the foot of the mountain just before the train turns to navigate the landscape toward Biwa. After filling up on onigiri and other snacks at a convenience store, we were all set to begin what our professor called a “strenuous hike” to its summit. Our plan was to hike up the Kyoto side of the mountain, forgoing the convenience of the cable cars for the views and the exercise. After the initial hike and lunch we would enter the central temple area of Enryaku-ji and tour some of the religious sites that were so central to Japanese Tendai Buddhism over the last 1200 years. We would end our tour with a descent down the Lake Biwa side of Hiei and pick up a train home from there.

I quickly learned that our professor had not used the term “strenuous” lightly. Our initial ascent was a steep and narrow trail that wound delicately through the dense forest and vegetation of the foothills. We reached the first overlook panting and out of breath, slightly amazed at our much older professor’s lung capacity and stamina. However, the fruits of our climb were evident within the first half hour, as we had already reached a clearing that afforded us a stunning aerial view of Kyoto and the mountain range that stretched far beyond to the north.

Additionally, our professor told us a rumor regarding a path to Buddha-hood that I have yet to substantiate, so I’m throwing it out there: We were told that one must go on a pilgrimage of a three year solitary hike around the mountain, and if they complete the journey, they will have earned the status of the Buddha. We joked, with a touch of genuine sincerity, that the three-year plan to Buddha-hood sounded a little better than the four-year plan to a BA. Finally, I must point out however that this information is totally un-verified, but makes for an interesting idea for a three year diversion.

We reached the temples at the at the top of the mountain shortly after noon. Branching from the first temple established 1200 years ago, the mountainous spiritual center (loosely defined and known as Enryaku-ji) at one point contained nearly 3,000 religious buildings and temples. Lots to choose from, however, there are several that should not be missed. Saicho , a Chinese priest who brought the Tendai sect of Buddhism to Japan, founded Kompon Chu-Do in 788. Due to disasters throughout the years, the hall has been rebuilt and expanded, with the last construction on the temple being completed in the 17th century. One of the largest and most beautiful temples is Enryaku-ji.  Stop to watch the flame in the temple’s Inner Chamber. It’s been burning for the past 1200 years. Another beautiful temple I would recommend is the Amida-do complex, a gem of an orange structure that was enhanced by the surrounding fall foliage. For some interactive fun, line up to ring the large bell near the main hall, you´ll feel the zen-like vibrations in your bones.

Coming down over the other side of the mountain, the trees began to break on clear blue water stretching out nearly off the horizon. The town of Biwa wraps around the lake and hugs the shoreline as the neighborhood meets the trails of the mountain. The trail curved back and forth through the mountain as we descended, ambling along until the houses and roads picked up the path .

This is a fantastic hike that I would recommend to anyone visiting Japan. However, if you’re not in the Kansai region, there are many more hikes like this one out there, just head for the hills!

Tokyo – Land of Neon and Mystery

Tokyo | 1996 | 25 years old

At the time I decided to teach English in Tokyo, I was working three jobs (as aspiring writers and free spirits tend to do to make the rent) and I was yearning for a new adventure. One day an ad in the paper caught my eye. It was advertising for teachers abroad. Specifically to Japan. A light bulb went off. During my travels thus far, I hadn’t conquered Asia yet and it held a certain novelty. I went for the interview and quickly realized that I met the major requirements. College degree—check. Native English speaker—check. Pulse—check. Clearly they needed warm bodies to fill the teaching slots. I dusted off my passport and two weeks later I had offloaded most of my earthly possessions to scale down to life in a six tatami mat apartment in Tokyo. Think tiny. I was told that I’d be trained in their ESL teaching method, that I’d have the choice of living with a family or in an apartment complex with other English speaking teachers, and that I should bring a certain amount of money to tide me over until my first paycheck (which would also include reimbursement for my plane ticket). I was less than thrilled to have to pony up the cash for the plane but figured it was a worthwhile investment. It also made sense that they would do it this way because I figured otherwise people might be tempted to take advantage of a free transcontinental flight and then back out on the actual teaching bit.

So I got all my ducks in a row, read up on Tokyo and attended my going away party at which everyone seemed supportive yet baffled by my latest choice of employment. “Why Japan? Don’t you speak Spanish?” Um…yeah. But my generic response was always—”Why not?” Some envied me, others were just clearly stumped. Two weeks after the interview, after a long flight and train ride I arrived in the land of neon. It was like Disney, Vegas and New York City all rolled into one. Even though I was exhausted, my excitement soared as I wondered what amazing new escapades this city would bring into my life. How would it compare to my other travel experiences? Would I make new friends—maybe lifetime ones? Would the people be friendly? What would my apartment be like? How would I deal with the inevitable homesickness? I couldn’t wait to see the city and explore all of its neighborhoods and nuances. I couldn’t wait to begin my new life.

After the training period was over and I started getting settled in and making friends I started to feel more comfortable in my environment. I did realize fairly early on that the expenses were higher than I could have begun to imagine. A movie ticket was nearly twenty dollars as was a cantaloupe! So I would be catching up on my cinematic and melon consuming quotients at a later date when I had returned stateside. In the meantime, I’d learn to love revolving sushi bars and octopus on a stick. And I’d start getting used to being the only Caucasian on the train everyday. And sitting on the floor. And tiptoeing around the local customs in order not to inadvertently offend someone. And to watch where I stood on the crowded subway to avoid the ‘skebbes’ aka ‘perverts’ who grabbed women’s butts. And I developed the skill of watching where I stepped to avoid the phlegm globules on the road since the Japanese are not shy about spitting here, there and everywhere. I also learned to smile and laugh off the British teachers’ anti-American jokes. But despite these annoying issues there was an inherent beauty to Japan that made it all worth it. Like the supernatural silence at the shrines, or the fairylike snowing pink petals falling from the cherry blossom trees during ‘Sakura’ the spring season (when everyone picnicked below the ethereal trees).

I also learned that karaoke was completely different in Japan. Instead of singing in front of a large group of strangers, it was customary to rent out small rooms with a group of friends and be served all night by a waitress who brought snacks and drinks and sake. The warm rice wine was something I never quite acquired a taste for but Japanese beer was flavorful and potent and it wasn’t unusual to see many coworkers throwing back a few after a long day at work. Although apparently the culture is changing and one is not expected to drink half the night away with upper management. Now it is far more common to head straight home from work thus avoiding the syndrome of showing up for another long grueling workday both hung over and potentially embarrassed by the drunken antics of the night before. The way women are viewed is also evolving according to some of the younger students I spoke to. Women are now asserting themselves more and although the feminist movement took a bit longer to reach Japan, it has taken root in a noticeable way over the course of the last decade or so. During the year I spent there, I realized that the older generation of women were raised to cater to their men. Now however the younger women are postponing marriage and exploring their career options instead.

In a year it’s barely possible to begin to scratch the surface of another culture, especially when your Japanese is limited to “Where is the train station?” and “One beer, please.” Some of my favorite moments during my brief time there are a montage of memory flashes. Like the country family who’d apparently never seen a foreigner before and asked me to pose for a picture with them making me feel like the world’s weirdest rock star. The smile on the face of a 15-year-old high school student as she began to master her ‘l’s and ‘r’s which are notoriously difficult to pronounce for Japanese people. The huge concrete Buddha statue that I passed every day on my way to work. The old couple who gracefully seemed to float rather than walk in the park near my apartment every Sunday. The sales clerks who’d yell the high-pitched welcome greeting ‘Irrashaimase’ in the department stores as soon as you walked through the door. The bond and camaraderie with the other teachers from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Australia, and New Zealand despite the constant good-natured teasing. The kink in my neck from bowing so much. The several students who asked me (because I was an American) if I owned a gun. The endless sea of neon–making the city seem like it was daytime all night long. The paradoxical fast pace yet underlying serenity of the way people navigated the crowds without jostling knees or elbows—the quick reflexes almost inborn. The elderly women with osteoporosis who were shaped like commas due to a lack of calcium since milk was not really introduced until after the war. The openly curious stares of the people as they wondered what the heck I was doing there. And I often wondered myself. But that was part of the whole mysterious experience. Stretching the limits of my comfort zone was both humbling and educational. Being abroad you have to balance cultural sensitivity with seeing the absurdities of it all, too. When I heard that in the sex district there were vending machines with women’s dirty underwear I was both appalled and entertained. Keeping perspective is always an important thing whenever you travel so you’re not perceived as the so-called ‘ugly American.’ This can be even more challenging sometimes in a post 9/11 culture where our reputation in the world can be tenuous. Japan is incredibly technologically advanced yet has a historical depth that gives it that enigmatic feel. Everyone who goes there whether for business or pleasure or a little bit of both will have their own personal, individual experience and will approach it differently. The main thing to remember is that you are a guest. And you are representing an entire country—no pressure. So have fun but be respectful. And keep an open mind and heart. If you do that then you can’t go wrong. And hey—octopus on a stick? What’s not to love?

Food, Glorious Japanese Food

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

My host father was an executive of a bread company. Periodically he brought crates of extra bread home from work. It was the most wonderful and unusual experience for me because, although there were some breads I was familiar with, many of the items were completely different from anything I’d previously experienced. I loved one particular bread stuffed with red bean paste. It became a favorite staple of mine during my time in Japan. But there were all sorts of other breads totally different from those I’d encountered in the U.S…. it was as if the baker decided that, say, an omelet needed to be made into bread. Or that people really needed to have their sausage and eggs squeezed into the bread itself rather than simply sitting on top of a biscuit the same old way I’d always seen it. I came to imagine that the baker in charge of those creations must certainly look like a nutty professor, Einstein, or something equally as wonderful. There were normal items like muffins and Danishes. However, those “normal” breads in the crates my host father maneuvered through the door, while delicious, were not nearly as sweet or messy as those I’ve tasted in the U.S. I would have to say that, overall, the sweets in Japan were never nearly as sweet as they are in the U.S., but somehow they were always more satisfying, gratifying, and delicious!

I wasn’t allowed much of the bread at home. My host mother would let me have one or two and then she bagged it up and put it out of sight. She was a wonderful mother to me. She treated me almost exactly the same way she treated her oldest daughter. My host sister, the older of my two sisters, was pudgy by Japanese standards (which I did not understand at all because she was beautiful in my eyes). My host mother rationed food to both of us. I was quite fat by Japanese standards, even though I was nearing the thinnest I’d been in my life. I didn’t mind because I knew she loved me and wanted me to be better. I looked forward to the times that my host father brought bread home, though, because the next day my host mother would fill my bike’s basket with bags of bread. She directed me sternly to share all that she gave me with my friends at school. I definitely shared it, but I was also able to eat a couple more of those wonderful breads!

My experiences eating out were wonderful, embarrassing, and hilarious. The first time I went to a restaurant, I picked up one of the packaged foods in the display case and brought it to the cashier. I was quickly informed by my gaijin friend, who just wanted to laugh at me, that I wasn’t supposed to buy the display. I was just supposed to choose what I wanted from what was in the display. The cashier laughed behind her hand at me and the workers behind the counter turned to hide their smiles. It certainly must have been funny to see a chubby, blonde, gaijin trying to buy fake food. I learned quickly that most of the food displays in Japan are examples of what you can get; you’re not meant to touch them – much less try to buy them!

Okonomiyaki became my favorite food in Japan. I ate it anywhere and everywhere I went as much as I could. I purchased it from one of the small shops at the Hirakata-shi shopping center, which was nearly on top of the train station I traveled through most frequently. I preferred my cabbage pancake with octopus, but I would eat any version with relish. I liked it best with Japanese mayonnaise and this special brown sauce mixed together and slathered on top. I could easily eat two at any given time (not because I was that hungry or could hold that much food, just because they were that delicious!).

My host family did their best to expose me to various Japanese fares. My host mom prepared Chinese food at home, for the most part. She took cooking classes and created luscious dishes. One of my favorites was a tiny eggplant practically drowned in, what I later learned, was oyster sauce. She made sure to expose me to traditional dishes like soup with raw egg on top. She also made sure we had the dish in which you cook your own food in boiling water and eat it with rice. They did prepare okonomiyaki at home once and I thought I would die of pleasure right then and there! My family took me to a Korean barbeque restaurant and “tricked” me into eating cow’s tongue. Normally, I am very squeamish about things like that, but I’d already eaten it, loved it, and exclaimed as much – so when they revealed what I’d just eaten I momentarily balked and then smiled, laughed, and again exclaimed about how yummy it was. They gave me more and I happily ate it!

My host family also took me to a Chinese restaurant and a pay-by-the-plate restaurant. Now, by the time I went to the pay-by-the-plate restaurant, I’d already been to a number of restaurants with conveyor belt service. In the restaurants with conveyor belt service, there is usually a counter around the chef or one that goes from the kitchen to the outside of the establishment. A majority of the restaurants I’d visited on my own and with friends charged a flat fee for as many plates as you could eat within a certain time period (usually an hour). I had absolutely no clue that we would have to pay for the food based on how much we ate (and no one told me!). So, I ate and drank until I was quite satisfied, even a bit full, and then realized to my horror the reality of my situation. I had at least 20 plates! I don’t know how much my host parents paid for that dinner, but I know I will forever be more cautious when dining!

As a last note, if ever the opportunity arises, make sure you buy Melty Kisses. I’ve always loved chocolate, but I will forever dream about Melty Kisses, which are pretty much little square truffles that melt in your mouth. I was so lucky to be in Japan during the fall semester for myriad reasons, but particularly because I would never have tasted the most splendid chocolate to ever pass my lips if I’d attended school during the spring or summer terms because they only sell them during the winter. Melty Kisses are much like my husband’s homemade truffles, but because of the emotional significance of those packaged pieced of heaven, no matter how my sweetie perfects his concoction, they will always be second best! One of my dear Japanese friends brought two packages to me when she came for my wedding and I cried. It was an unexpected, yet treasured chance to taste the wonderful treats one final time. I made those morsels last. I think I ate my last bite two or three months after receiving the box!

Mistaken Identity

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

Smiling, nodding, and running away was one of the early sets of skills I developed during my first trip to Japan. Because I am Asian, I was often approached by Japanese strangers who erroneously concluded that I too was Japanese and similarly fluent in their native tongue. Little did they know that my grasp of Japanese was basic at best. Thus arose the need for my simple but cowardly three-step solution of smiling, nodding, and running away. I developed and perfected this technique during my visits to department stores and shopping districts where I was frequently approached by friendly salespeople eager to assist a potential customer. Unable to understand the salesperson or find the vocabulary to respond, I was left with two options: 1) attempt to respond in Japanese and watch the salesperson go through the typical progression of reactions: annoyance (What is wrong with this girl? Is her brain fully capacitated?), confusion (Why is her Japanese so bad?), realization (Oh! She must be a foreigner), and finally, awkwardness or curiosity; or 2) smile, nod, and run away. Since the latter was less daunting and involved, I often chose to take this route, giving the illusion that I was a polite but aloof shopper who was one of them.

Despite burdensome expectations that I be fluent in Japanese, being Asian allowed me to feel a strange sense of belonging in a world where I was constantly reminded by my cultural or linguistic struggles that I was a foreigner. Oddly appealing, it was (as long as I kept my mouth shut) a reprieve from the alienation a foreigner cannot help but feel. In crowded urban streets, I was easily swallowed up in waves of Asian faces. I was never approached by friendly strangers eager to practice their English but rather by those who were lost and asking me (of all people!) for directions.

In contrast, my non-Asian friends were not expected to be proficient in Japanese and often received praise for knowing even the most basic of Japanese greetings. Although I imagine that this type of response could become tedious over time, it was one that I admittedly longed for, particularly in situations when my language ability was inadequate.

While my non-Asian friends benefited from these stereotypes, they could never truly escape being identified as a foreigner. One Caucasian friend remarked that because of his appearance, it was as if he permanently wore a camera around his neck and shouted, “I’m a tourist!” Every day he would pass the tissue ladies on his way to and from class, oftentimes plotting his path in hopes of receiving some free tissue. The tissue ladies, as we referred to them, were the ladies who would pass out free packets of Kleenex with advertising printed on the packaging. Yet, some ladies routinely ignored him. Here was a willing, almost desperate, recipient and still they did not take advantage. We hypothesized that perhaps it was because they assumed that he could not read the printed advertising. Or perhaps they viewed him as a guest in their country and did not want to thrust junk advertising on him. In either case, it was apparent that the reason for his special treatment was because he was obviously not Japanese.

While I am not convinced that my friend got the harder end of the bargain, I realized then that my plight was not so bad. At least I could get all the free tissues I wanted.


Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old

Before going to Japan, I was taught that social disapproval carries a much higher stigma in Japanese culture than it does in the United States. It was a recurring theme in the culture lessons in my Japanese language and history classes in college that social approval and approbation play a very important role in Japanese society. I was taught that group approval as an aspect of Japanese culture was markedly pronounced and considered quite important. I found the Japanese attitude toward drug and alcohol use of great interest to me during my stay there for reasons of cultural comparison.

When I first visited Japan in 2001, the sale and/or purchase of psychedelic mushrooms was legal. In fact, there were entire stores devoted to selling mushrooms and other drug paraphernalia, and low-level criminals often sold mushrooms off of folding card tables at night in the streets of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s largest business and entertainment districts. However, despite this apparent air of permissiveness, other mind-altering substances, such as cocaine and marijuana, were regulated with strict efficiency. A number of Japanese people told me that penalties for the use or possession of these substances were very severe, and I did not know of a single person who risked using them. On the contrary, mushrooms seemed to me to be very popular among students, and I knew of many people who used the drugs before their sale was made illegal in 2002. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that it was legal to buy, sell, or possess mushrooms, it was illegal to use them for recreational purposes, or for shopkeepers to dispense advice regarding the drugs. Through conversations with my host father, I learned that mushrooms were originally protected because of their potential for use in traditional Japanese religious ceremonies, and they became criminalized because they had in recent years acquired the stigma of a recreational drug with the potential for abuse.

My encounter with Japanese peoples’ attitudes towards alcohol was also of great interest to me. With very few exceptions, it seemed to me that people adhered very strictly to the laws regarding minimum drinking age, which in Japan, was twenty. For instance, despite the fact that clubs that served alcohol in Tokyo rarely if ever carded, I almost never met an underage Japanese person who went out to bars or clubs. Unlike in the United States, where students frequently purchase fake IDs and often drink underage if they can get away with it, in Japan, such activity was almost unheard of. In fact, it was my experience that, while underage students in the U.S. often sought to subvert the system in Japan, it was not only expected that underage persons would not drink, it was self-enforced. I remember one instance when I tried to get my language partner to go out to a club with me. “I can’t,” she replied, “I’m not twenty yet.” When I pointed out that no one at the clubs actually checked on that, she still refused. On top of that, at one point my host mother offered me a drink, then caught herself, saying, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot. You’re only nineteen – you don’t like beer yet.”

September 11th

Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old

During my stay in Japan, I lived with a host family in a lovely three-story home in western Tokyo. Despite the three generations of Morimoto family living in the same home, and the ultra-traditional connotations of such an arrangement, my host family was actually acutely aware of Western standards and ideals of individual life and privacy. My parents never minded if I stayed out late and came home in the wee hours of the morning. I was never questioned as to how I had done on tests in school, or what kinds of girls I was interested in, unless I first volunteered that information. I was even given the entire furnished basement to use as my bedroom. That was why it was such a surprise when my host mother entered my room, having never before even come into the basement while I was in it, to tell me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

It’s sometimes hard to remember what the world was like before nine eleven, but when I heard this news from my host mother, I could only assume that she had made an error in translation. Honestly, it was hard to believe. I am not a skeptic by nature, but this woman whom I had only just met came into my room to tell me that a plane had crashed into an iconic building in my home town. I was, at first, doubtful.

“Okay, I’ll be up in just a minute,” I told her.

And I was. And what I saw was mind-blowing. A building on fire. Smoke. Nonsense noises – I still didn’t speak Japanese very well by then, so the running commentary on the news only added to my confusion. We switched between CNN and Japanese news coverage, and I watched as a second plane flew towards the towers. At first I thought that we were watching a taped replay of the original footage, but then I realized that it couldn’t be because the first building was already on fire. There was another crash. Another gigantic explosion. I watched as the second tower was hit, and kept watching through that night as the towers continued to burn, and then eventually fall.

I was a half a world away, powerless to do anything, yet being forced to watch these events as they unfolded. I tried to call my father, who worked downtown near the towers, but couldn’t reach him because all the phone lines were in use or down. It was nighttime in Japan, not early morning, as in New York; this only added to my dread and sense that I was living out some kind of horrible nightmare. I think now that if I had been by myself, I wouldn’t have known how to handle it… but my host family was there. My host dad suggested that I use his computer to send an email to my dad’s PDA. My host mother stayed up with me to talk until I felt well enough to go to sleep. The next day, we all ate breakfast together (a rarity, since my host father generally had to go to work well before the rest of us even rose in the morning). The next day, I heard from my family in New York that everything was OK. The personal worry, at least for me, had ended. But on that day, I was shaken as I had never been before. To me, what had occurred was nothing short of a crisis, but my host family came together to support me. On nine eleven, my host family and I became just that – a family.

Sitting in Seiza

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

In Japan, kneeling in the “seiza” position is the traditional and proper way to sit on floors. While it is not required in informal settings, it is still used by women, though to a lesser extent nowadays by younger generations. For instance, women often sit in seiza when dining without chairs around low tables. What perhaps began as a necessity for kimono-clad women continues to be considered feminine and similarly necessary for contemporary Japanese women who frequently don skirts. Personally, this was reason enough for me to almost stop wearing skirts altogether; it was, in my mind, a form of punishment… literally.

During my childhood, kneeling was used as punishment by my parents, saved for our naughtiest moments. Instead of spanking or sending me or my sister to stand in a corner, my parents chose to have us kneel on the floor for what seemed like hours on end. In reality, the kneeling probably never lasted longer than a half an hour, and the floor was thickly carpeted, but the pain of trying to stand or walk in the aftermath… Long minutes would pass before the numbness disappeared and muscle capabilities returned. After my sister and I outgrew this form of punishment, I never revisited this posture except in passing. That is, until I went to Japan.

In trying to learn the language and culture, I often attempted to act Japanese by behaving in a way that was considered socially-acceptable for Japanese women, and my attempts to sit in seiza fell into this category. Yet, despite my intentions to act properly feminine like all the other women around me, five minutes of sitting in seiza inevitably led to hours of shifting to the left, then to the right, then back to the left until finally I gave in to the comfortable but masculine crisscross-legged style. Fortunately for me, I was often excused from sitting in seiza due to my foreigner status. Although this reason would typically spur me to disprove any preconceptions about foreigners and their ability to do “Japanese” things, in these instances, I quickly and eagerly played my foreigner card.

On the whole, I managed to avoid the seiza position. In formal and traditional situations, however, I was not so fortunate. During a class trip to a local temple, we were kindly given the chance to meditate with the monks (which was a great opportunity at an inopportune time, since it followed an exhausting morning and a substantial lunch). To begin our meditation, we were instructed to sit in seiza style. Not surprisingly, after only a few minutes, circulation ceased in my legs, and I struggled to fight waves of pain along with bouts of drowsiness. One would think that my sleepiness would dull the pain or that alternatively, the discomfort would douse my urge to dose, but somehow I was not so lucky. I knelt there quietly, waiting, wanting the chanting to end. I only managed to stay awake out of fear that I would involuntarily cave into my desire to stand or lay down.

Supposedly, it is said that one can increase one’s ability to sit in seiza through practice. That challenge, however, I left to my fellow exchange students. I opted instead to wear pants and choose tables at restaurants with chairs. I am a foreigner after all!

Doing Laundry

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

Ah, laundry, the weekly ritual of lugging bulging sacks of soiled clothes to the washing machine and the tedium of sorting by color. One might think that with all of Japan’s high-tech advances, doing laundry would entail putting clothes into a Jetsons-like contraption that would sort, wash, dry, iron, and fold. But sadly that is not the case. Laundry in Japan is like it is in the U.S.- still a chore… with a couple of extra wrinkles.

As expected, I was responsible for washing my own laundry at my host family’s house. Just before I went to wash my first load, my host mother explained which box held the detergent and what buttons I should push on the washing machine. I memorized the design of the box and the differently shaped and colored buttons like I was preparing for a Japanese vocabulary quiz, nodded, and went upstairs to sort my laundry. Finally! Something I could do on auto-pilot. This, I thought, I could handle.

About a half an hour later, I heard the washing machine’s melodic chime, which signaled the end of the wash. Having seen laundry hanging in the balconies of houses and buildings during my long train ride from the airport to Kanazawa, I was prepared for what came next. Like in many other Asian countries, homes in Japan do not have clothing dryers, and clothes are hung outside to dry. So with my basket of wet clothes in one hand and a handful of hangers and clothespins in another, I went outside to start the next phase of the chore.

As each weekend came and went, the routine of doing laundry became established. What did change, however, as the weeks went by was the size of my clothes. Without a clothes dryer, my all-cotton clothes grew larger and larger from the weight of being hung to dry. As my clothes stretched and expanded my longing for a clothes dryer also increased. What I would have given for a dryer to shrink my now-too-big jeans and t-shirts back to size and give it a fluffy dryer smell!

Depending on the sun and gentle breeze to dry my clothes also meant that laundry required advanced planning. Doing laundry in Japan inevitably involved watching the weather forecast and timing the drying phase to fall exactly during the calm between the frequent storms of the rainy season. On the weekends where heavy rain poured nonstop, all of us had no choice but to wait until the next sunny day. Unfortunately for me, that often fell on a weekday which also meant that I wouldn’t be around to hang my laundry. So on those days, my very kind host mother and grandmother took it upon themselves to hang my laundry for me. As if having my unmentionables on display wasn’t embarrassing enough, the fact that my host family would be hanging them up made it even worse… Had I known, I would have packed only my Sunday best!

Needless to say, I kept this in mind when I packed for my following trips to Japan. I filled my luggage primarily with fast-drying, non-wrinkling clothing made with spandex and other synthetic materials, not to mention unmentionables suitable for public viewing!

The Family Toto

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

As a Taiwanese-American growing up in a city with a large Japanese population, I probably suffered less of a cultural shock upon my arrival in Japan than some of my classmates. Eating rice and tofu regularly, using chopsticks, taking my shoes off at the entry- those were all things I grew up with, so probably to the dismay of my Japanese host family, I was at times neither traumatized nor mesmerized by the novelty of it all. That is not to say though that I didn’t suffer from the usual cultural shock and homesickness. Despite my familiarity with some of the daily rituals and customs of Asian culture, I often found myself in situations where I was at a complete loss.

The day I arrived at my host family’s house in Kanazawa, my first trip to Japan, one of my earliest challenges was the family Toto. No, I’m not referring to Dorothy’s lovable canine companion in The Wizard of Oz. This was a completely different beast altogether. And in this family’s case, the beast was pink and contained in a room of its own. It was- the family toilet, manufactured by a company named Toto. As I entered the little toilet room, where there is literally only a toilet in a small 4-foot by 8-foot enclosure, I immediately committed a cultural faux pas; I walked in wearing the same slippers I had been wearing throughout the house. It wasn’t until I sat down on the (surprise!) warm seat and saw a set of slippers marked “Toilet” across the top that I realized I was supposed to have changed my slippers. In line with the Japanese ideals of cleanliness and sanitation, one is supposed to wear only toilet slippers in the toilet room and the house slippers throughout the rest of the house (except for the tatami room, of course). After making a mental note about the slipper switching for future visits to the toilet, I noticed that to my left were two neat rows of buttons marked with a few characters or pictographs. Now, without going into detail, sitting on a toilet is probably one of the most vulnerable positions that a person can be in. I was not about to push some strange looking buttons that would do who-knows-what while I was locked in this tiny space. Plus, if any harm were done, either to me or to the toilet, how could I explain this to my host family? I had a hard enough time making idle conversation with my limited vocabulary and knowledge of Japanese. I decided to stick to the basic flush button and ended my trip to the bathroom uneventfully.

During those three months and the following summer with the same host family, I never did summon the courage to conquer that beast. Even after consulting with fellow exchange students and learning that washing and drying were common features of Japanese toilets, I wasn’t sure that it was something I wanted to try. Give me natto or give me more vocabulary to memorize but an automated toilet? No thanks. It wasn’t until my third and most recent trip to Japan that I finally ventured into this unknown. I decided that I couldn’t have the full Japanese experience without it. Also, I couldn’t use the excuse of not being able to read the characters as a valid justification anymore. So how was it? Not bad. I can’t say that all those extra functions became part of my daily ritual. But the seat warmer… Ah, sitting on a warm seat in a bitterly cold Japanese house where there is no central heating… Although I still prefer central heating to an electric toilet seat, I now understand why these toilets are so popular in Japan!

The Calligraphy Lesson

Chiba | Summer, 1999 | 16 years old

Students were sitting with name stamp, brush, and pressed paper in hand: calligraphy class was in session. I walked around the room to view the homework from days past, pinned up high to remind the students of outstanding works. The students aspired to do better because the Japanese valued skilled calligraphy.

The teacher calmed the chatter, and students, all in blue uniforms, waited to hear the day’s assignment. The teacher gave directions in Japanese, prompting students to collect ink, choose a kanji, and practice the utmost perfection in stroke order.

In Japan, artwork is not signed with a painted signature, but with a stamp bearing the characters for the artist’s name. I walked around to see the students’ name stamps, which were dipped in red ink and pressed alongside their calligraphies. These beautiful stamps were unique to the artist, displaying their kanji in a way carved by each student. The stamps were beautiful, but illegible, to me.

With the teacher by my side, I tried my hand at the art. The guidance was clear: “Always use the correct stroke order. Each stroke should be one fluid motion. See the beauty in the character and try to express it on the paper.” I learned that much of the art was in the wrist as I struggled to control mine. What came to life for the students seemed like stale, thin characters when I tried it. I was a rookie, but enjoyed every minute of my lesson.

With ten minutes left of class, students placed their calligraphies in a pile near the teacher. He announced, in English, that each student had made one as a gift to me. As he held up each character he translated the meaning into English: “sunflower, beautiful July, joy, many flowered street…” From the room, each student artist spoke up: “I imagine that there are many sunflowers where you come from.” The reasons for their choices came out and I was so touched by this priceless gift. I still am today as the art graces my walls and I remember the stories behind the kanji and the faces behind the name stamps.

Dancing in Circles

Chiba | Summer, 1999 | 16 years old

After weeks of practicing to put on my Japanese yukata dress, I was about to debut my dressing skills at a traditional Japanese dance. The yukata’s fabric was a beautiful blue, accented with pink cherry blossom flowers. My sash had striking blue dragon flies circling in the pattern. I had a “cheater” sash bow, the kind where a pre-tied bow was attached to a wire hook and placed gently in the sash. It saved me the challenge of tying the bow myself, and was common for both Japanese and foreigners to purchase. The process of dressing myself in yukata was still challenging. It required great concentration as I recalled the process.

Once dressed, my host sisters and I traveled to the site of the summer dance. It was hosted outdoors, lit by Japanese lanterns. Traditional music played in the background, while a lone taiko drummer kept the beat on a scaffold high above the dancers.

The dancing was in large circles, with yukata-wearing women leading the motions. The movements were slow and graceful, carefully following the beats of the music. As I joined in, my traditional Japanese geta shoes clattered underneath me. My host sisters commented that all eyes were on me, the foreigner, as the other dancers admired my footwork. My Japanese friends and family always encouraged me to try new activities. It was their continual compliments and sincere support that helped me feel comfortable trying new things, despite my amateur skill level. It is because of this overwhelming support that I experienced so much in the Japanese culture. My favorite dance was a well known tune called “The Cole Miner’s Daughter.” The motions told a story with a rich history behind it.

Around the dancing area were stands with games and food. Young children wore their first yukatas with simple sashes and bright colors. This dance was just days before my departure and I was determined to take it all in: the late-July breeze, the drum’s thump, the sizzle of the food, the children’s laugher, the swish of long yukata sleeves. It was a picture of a Japanese summer.


Chiba | Summer, 1999 | 16 years old

In the U.S., I loved to go on road trips with my family. So when I received the news that my host family was taking me to see Mt. Fuji, I was ecstatic. It was a long journey, they explained, but Fuji-san is an important symbol of Japan. I was not going to go back to the U.S. without having seen it.

Several days later, a 6:00 a.m. wakeup call ushered us out of bed and into a traveling company’s charter bus. It was a six hour drive through Chiba’s traffic, Tokyo’s skyscrapers, and country land to make our destination.

Coming up on Fuji-san, every business had the mountain in its logo and every town had a sign depicting Mt. Fuji towering over the city. We even passed an amusement park with a Mt. Fuji shaped rollercoaster. It was a symbol of the people and their love for it was great.

We went half way up the mountain (about 2,400 meters) and stopped to eat a traditional meal. Resting on tatami mats, each of us had a flame to cook our meat and vegetables ourselves. The meal seemed even tastier with the striking view of the landscape below, visible through the restaurant windows.

Many busses were parked outside and the rows of tourist shops reminded me of the Grand Canyon, or another great U.S. site. So much seemed similar, except maybe the food sold by vendors. Instead of hot dogs, these vendors peddled fish, octopus, eel, and other exotic meats on a stick. I walked passed and enjoyed what now was familiar to me.

Our tour was completed with a short hike on Mt. Fuji. We viewed caverns, waterfalls, and most of all, the villages below. These villages were home to the many Japanese communities who have grown to love Mt. Fuji, Fuji-san, as a symbol and a friend.