|[2.07] Weekend Homestay with the Yamada Family||Last updated
17 Feb 1999
I woke up at about 7 AM on Saturday morning to get ready for my first
weekend homestay. The night before I had wrapped "omiyage" (gifts) for
PHOTO: Wrapped omiyage with names.
After eating breakfast and packing my things, I waited in the JCMU lobby for the families to arrive (this weekend about 7 or 8 JCMU students did weekend homestays).
I had no idea what to expect. I was pretty sure that someone in the family would be able to speak English; that was usually the case with weekend homstays involving level 1 JCMU students (I had heard). I was worried that my Japanese was not going to take me very far, and that we'd have a big communication problem and I'd end up making a mess of things.
I had packed my laptop and camera for picture showing and taking. I brought along my Japanese and my Betty Crocker (American) Cookbooks just in case I needed to refer to them. I also brought maps of Michigan, and lots of postcards from the upper peninsula.
My host mom arrived just as the last families were getting in the door, and Nishizawa-san and Dr. Scott said a few words to the parents on behalf of JCMU. Dr. Scott told us that this was our opportunity to "get away" from the classes and the dorm and to see what it's like out there in Japan. I introduced myself to my host mom, Mitsue-san, in Japanese. She responded in Japanese, and then in English. We walked out the front door toward her car.
She asked me if I knew Japanese, and I responded "Nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu" (I understand Japanese a little). We got in the car and she started driving me to her house.
At first we tried to converse entirely in Japanese. A few sentences worked, but her Japanese was quite a bit different than the very small amount I have thus encountered in the classroom. Here's an English analogy of what I'm talking about:
Classroom: "Do you understand?"
Classroom: "We are driving to my house."
Little differences in phrasing like this caused me usually only to catch parts of what Mitsue-san said.
She told me to call the kids "Sana-chan" and "Shuu-chan" (chan is a diminutive ending, similar to calling someone named "Daniel" by the name "Danny"). I asked her if "Sana-chan to Chuu-chan wa, eigo ga wakarimasu ka" (do Sanako and Shuusaku understand English?) She told me that they did not, and added that her husband Takashi did -- he had been an English teacher at one time.
During the ride to their house, I used as much Japanese as I could, and Mitsue-san usually replied with English, or small amounts of Japanese. I explained that I had brought my computer: "Watashi wa, kompyuta ga arimasu. Kompyuta ni, shashin ga takusan arimasu. Terebi de shashin wo mimasu." (I have a computer. On the computer are many pictures. Using a TV (one can) see the pictures.) I asked if they had a computer, and she told me that they did.
When we got home, I unloaded my things from the car and Mitsue-san led me into the house, up the stairs, and to my temporary room. She explained that Shuu-chan currently was sick, and so I'd be using his bedroom for the time being (he'd be sleeping elsewhere). The day was Saturday, and children in Japan have school every other Saturday (I think). Shuu-chan had stayed home from school, but Sana-chan had gone.
After I set my things down, I met Shuu-chan at the top of the stairs. I said "Konnichiwa" (hello) and Mitsue-san introduced me. Shuu-chan initially was shy, but later when he tried to speak to me, I couldn't understand him because he was using "kid-Japanese". Similar to the situation with Mitsue-san, I had troubles understanding verbs and sentence structures, because they didn't match the "classroom form" that I had been used to.
Mitsue-san showed me the rest of the house. It was an atypical Japanese house to say the least. Part of the house was "older", and that was where the grandmother lived. That section was close to a typical Japanese home -- it had tatami mats, paper-window doors, and other such attributes. They had since added on a newer section to the house, and that was where the two parents and two kids lived. The house was amazing. They had hired a few builders who were either their friends or friends of their friends to come and do the work. The builders were American and Austrailian, and so the resulting work turned out to be rather "Western" in style. The main living/kitchen/dining area was almost totally western. It even had -- you ready? -- a fireplace (actually a wood stove). Now that's something you don't normally find in a Japanese home. The kitchen sink was even imported from the US.
To give some background to the issue of heat, I must explain that most Japanese homes do not have central heating. This goes for many buildings too. My JCMU dorm doesn't have central heating, and the JCMU common areas (lobby, hallway, etc) are not heated at all. This is probably the one most annoying thing about Japan for me so far. I can't stand being too cold (or too warm) indoors. I'll admit I'm spoiled. I want perfect temperature and humidity at all times when I'm indoors. That's just not the way the Japanese do it. They often don't insulate walls; they often use single-paned windows, and if they do have heat, it sometimes comes out of a register on the ceiling (do not ask me why, I have not been able to ascertain the logic). In an old-style Japanese home, there is no heat source indoors save heated rugs, kerosene heaters, and electric space heaters.
To keep warm in such a place, one often sits at a table called a kotatsu. A kotatsu is a low table (as in 16 inches off the ground) with a blanket coming out of all sides of it. Underneath the table in the center is a small heater which keeps the air underneath the table and blanket nice and toasty. If you sit at a kotatsu, your legs will be very warm, and your nose, ears, and fingers will likely be cold. It certainly costs less to keep a kotatsu heater running than it does to centrally heat an entire house, though. A variation of a kotatsu (I forgot the name) has a heated rug on which the table sits (like a large electric blanket).
PHOTO: Low table with heated rug.
So, heat in Japan is expensive. My heat bill for my first month at JCMU was rather high, about $260 (that's JUST for heat). I kept myself comfortable at all times, though (I didn't have the heat on at night or during class). Using central heat in an entire Japanese home, then, would be completely outrageous. Now that you understand the context, you can understand how odd a fireplace is in a large Japanese room. It certainly is cheaper than paying for gas or electric heat, but it still is very uncommon to heat all the "air" in a large room.
Back to the Yamada household. The living room/dining room/kitchen area was TOASTY when I walked in. I couldn't believe it. Mitsue-san told me that she didn't like cold rooms. I agreed! She'd get no argument from me! She offered me some tea (ocha -- Japanese green tea) and rice crackers, and I accepted. Shuu-chan came to the table with us to snack, and he tried to speak to me with his kid-Japanese. Unfortunately I could not understand him. I did ask him a few yes/no questions in Japanese, for example, "kore wa suki desu ka" (do you like this?). At this point I was still trying to stick to Japanese. If I wanted to say something, I used Japanese. If I couldn't use Japanese to say it (because I didn't know how), I kept silent. Later I'd change this strategy.
Mitsue-san, after showing me various pictures of the kids in Tokyo Disneyland, told me abouth her interest in stenciling (using stencils to paint on wood arts and crafts). In Japan, stenciling crafts like that is not all that popular, so Mistue-san had opened a classroom (a special room in her house!) to teach it. Currently she wasn't teaching it, but apparently she had in the past. She told me about her need for a name for the class. She said her favorite English word was "cozy." Her American friend had told her that Cozy was an adjective, however, and that you probably couldn't name your business/school just "Cozy." She thought perhaps "Cozy Stencils" would be OK, but someone had told her that the "nuance" was not quite right. I agreed. :)
Mitsue-san showed me a picture of their previous homestay student from JCMU. She said that he didn't like Japanese food. What a shame! Mitsue-san asked me if there was any food I coudln't eat, and I told her that no, I liked all food. "Nandemo ii" (everything's good). One of my shortcomings is that I'm intolerant of people who are intolerant of food. I seem to know too many people who come to Japan and hate Japanese food -- they won't even try it. I just don't understand. :) Anyway, Mitsue-san was surprised that I liked all food, and was surprised that I was interested enough to have a Japanese cookbook.
In need of more conversation starters, I grabbed a map of Michigan, lots of postcards from the upper peninsula of Michigan, and my Japanese and American cookbooks and brought them downstairs to the kitchen. I showed Mitsue-san where I lived, where my college was, how far away it was, and how much snow was on the ground now at my college. "Watshi no uchi wa koko desu. Demo, daigaku wa koko desu. 880 kilometer desu! Ima, daigaku ni yuki ga takusan arimasu (held my hand 1 meter above the ground)." I showed her some postcards of upper peninsula nature, and she loved them.
While we were talking, Sana-chan came home from school. Mitsue-san introduced us. She as well used kid-Japanese, so I unfortunately couldn't talk to her much (other than ask her yes/no questions). Mistue-san and I started talking about difficulties in English and Japanese. I used plurals in English as an example of a difficulty. "0 Fish, 1 Fish, 2 Fish, 3 Fish. 0 Dogs, 1 Dog, 2 Dogs, 3 Dogs." We then discussed some differences between Japanese and English, like the yes/no answer difference. In Japanese, when you say "Hai" or "Iie" (affirmative, negative, respectively) to answer a question, it works a little differently than in English.
For example, in English:
We both tried to confuse each other with weird attributes of our native language. It was fun. Mitsue-san said that Takashi-san would be home later, and that he was much better with English and "teaching" things than she was. (Her English was still much more advanced than my Japanese.) I still had lots of fun and learned many things from talking with Mitsue-san.
Before Takashi-san got home, the kids showed me their Nintendo Game Boy and games. They were excited that I said "Watashi wa, bideo geemu ga suki desu" (I like video games). The two particulars they were playing (if you're interested) were a Kirby title and a Mario title (two characters whose scope extends far beyond the video game circle in Japan especially and also somewhat in America). I tried to play for a little while, but not having practiced those games, I didn't do all that great. I mentioned to them, "Watashi no kompyuta ni, Mario geemu ga arimasu." (On my computer I have a Mario game.) That got them all excited. This statement would have an effect on the second day.
After a while Takashi-san did arrive, and I greeted him in Japanese and
he greeted me in English. His English was pretty impressive. He did
speak to me in Japanese, at first with vocabulary and structure that was
too difficult for me to catch. He soon automatically adjusted his
"level" so that I could understand a lot of what he said. For example,
he used only "polite" forms of verbs (a grammatical concept -- think of
sticking with simple verb forms in English. For example, saying "I write
with a pen" instead of saying "I have written with a pen" or something
more complex.), and stuck with simple vocabulary (school, chair, student,
car, etc). It worked really well. We had a system down that went like
If I had something to say, I used entirely Japanese if possible. Sometimes I said things in Japanese just because I could (like, I asked the kids what time their school started and ended, because I had just learned those phrases in class a week before).
If I knew everything except one noun or verb, I'd use entirely Japanese except for one English word: "Watashi no uchi no chika ni, pool table ga arimasu" (In my house's basement, I have a pool table).
If I couldn't say it with all Japanese, I used Japanese elements in an English sentence: "Watashi wa, daigaku ni, I had to clean the yuki off of my kuruma sometimes twice a day." (As for me, at my university, I had to clean the snow off of my car sometimes twice a day.)
If that failed, I either kept silent, or, as time went on, I got more comfortable "giving up" and just using English (especially for theoretical concepts or "if" sentences or hypothetical situations).
If Takashi-san had something to say, he'd often say it with English (and I could understand his English perfectly -- it was much, much more advanced than my Japanese).
If it was a simple concept, he'd use his "classroom Japanese" that I could usually understand. He'd say the sentence, sometimes pausing a few times if it was a big sentence, and I'd say "Hai" if I understood it at each pause (in Japanese, when someone is talking to you, you need to acknowledge that you understand what they are saying otherwise they may assume that you do not -- it's like nodding your head when someone is in the midst of talking to you in English). If there was ever silence for more than 3/4 of a second (because I didn't say "Hai" right away), Takashi would instantly switch to English and restate what he had just said in Japanese. The "system" worked beautifully. So, I could keep him speaking to me with simple Japanese if I kept acknowledging what he was saying. Takashi also got used to which words I knew and didn't know (I'm sure he was keeping a subconscious list of my vocabulary ability), and would use Japanese for words he knew that I knew (car, house, etc.), and would use English words for words he knew that I didn't know (colonization, macro lens, traditional, etc.).
That's how the communication worked. It went very well, and I felt comfortable from that point onward.
Takashi-san had visited Vietnam just a few years before, and showed me his pictures from his short stay there. Some of his pictures of the native people in candid situations looked like things you'd see in National Geographic magazine. They were great. I didn't know much about Vietnam, but here are a few things I learned: The French colonized it some time ago, so there are lots of French buildings, French restaurants, and French language influences. Many people live in boat-houses on the river. They eat fish from the river, and sometimes sleep in their boat or on the shore. Students and workers dress in different colors. (I'm just spitting out random things I remember him saying.)
Takashi-san currently is a teacher for disabled students, and works with two Vietnamese students who used to be connected as "siamese twins." They have since been surgically separated, and have physical as well as mental difficulties (from what I understood). Takashi-san showed me pictures he took of babies that didn't make it (preserved in large jars). They were appalling. He said that dioxins Americans used during the Vietnam War had poisoned certain areas of Vietnam, and that deformed and mutated babies were being born at an alarming rate in those areas. I saw pictures of babies with feet growing out of their chin, various siamese twins, and all sorts of other horrible sights. I had no idea. I asked Takashi-san if the Vietnamese were bitter toward America because of the war, and he seemed to say that they weren't. Apparently, Vietnam wants to have a good relationship with America, so most people there look upon us in a favorable way. Interesting.
After I viewed some of Takashi-san's photos, he offered to take me out and show me some sights around his home. I agreed that it would be a good plan. First, Mitsue-san fixed us a little lunch (fried eggs, Canadian-type bacon, and basil-buttered bread), and after we were finished, Takashi-san, Sana-chan, and I got into the car and headed out.
First we went to Sugimoto-san's house. Sugimoto-san (a different person
than the one that owns the Sugimoto bar in Hikone) is a taiko maker. A
taiko is a Japanese drum made by stretching leather over a hollowed out
wooden barrel shape. Takashi-san told me that Sugimoto-san was one of
only two people left in all of Shiga prefecture that make taiko drums.
He had sons, but they didn't want to continue their father's trade. The
city in which Sugimoto-san lived was made up of people called
"Burakumin". At one time in Japan, animals with four legs were feared,
especially when dead. No one wanted to touch them or deal with them.
(I think this had something to do with Buddhism). It was necessary to
to do deal with the animals at some point, though, so some people did
deal with them (for example, to make leather). Most people were scared
not only of dead 4-legged animals, but also scared of the people that
touched them. Over time, the people that dealt with dead animals grouped
together to make their lives easier. The government often helped the
people in such villages (because they often produced such useful things,
like leather). Through marriage, Burakumin became very concentrated
into certain areas, and were often discriminated against (Burakumin
children often would not mix with others). Even today, Burakumin do not
have a perfectly integrated life.
So, Sugimoto-san is Burakumin because has to use leather to make taiko drums. Every country, apparently, has ugly elements in its past (and sometimes its present).
Anyway, to switch from sorrow to awe: the taiko drums were amazing. The biggest one I saw was 250 years old (Takashi-san joked that it was "older than my country"). It was made from one tree, and was close to 4 feet in diameter. The wood portion was 250 years old, but the the leather cover was currently being replaced (and was being stretched and dried). It took months to stretch and dry. I think I remember Takashi-san telling me that it was approximately worth $100,000. He told me that cows had to be imported from Asia, because no cow of Japan had a hide big enough to cover the drum.
There were many other drums, some painted with very artistic animals and designs, some with ornate metalwork, and others of various shapes and sizes.
While we were looking at the drums, Sugimoto-san (who apparently is a friend of Takashi-san) gave us all "vitamin C" drinks (Japan has all sorts of cute little drinks with vitamins in them). I don't remember all the details of the drums, but it certainly was an impressive experience.
We moved toward Sugimoto-san's house, but before entering, first took a look at his traditional Japanese garden. It was still covered with snow, and was quite beautiful (the Japanese have a way of taking a bunch of nature, concentrating its beauty by cramming it efficiently into a small area, and enhancing its aesthetic feel by pruning and controlling the growth of its various elements).
We entered Sugimoto-san's house, which was the exemplar of traditional Japanese homes. The floor was made of tatami mats (woven bamboo mats each slightly smaller in size than a bed), the walls were made of sliding paper doors (shouji), and there was no central heat (there was a space heater in the corner). We all sat on the floor around a low table. Immediately we were poured some fresh ocha (Japanese green tea) by Mrs. Sugimoto. We were also offered okashi (sweets) mostly based on "an" (azuki bean paste! delicous!). Takashi-san kept apologizing for our visit inconviencing Sugimoto-san (a way of deeply saying thank-you) every time we were offered more sweets.
PHOTO: Sugimoto-san and his wife.
We took our leave of Sugimoto-san (both of us thanking him many times).
We next headed to a sake (pronounced sah-kay) brewery. The building
itself was impressive. Large wooden columns made from single trees rose
through the first floor and into the second. I saw the barrels they
ferment the rice in, the fermented rice itself, and the many bottles of
different sake on sale. Takashi pointed out that any time a building
sells fresh alcohol (sake especially), they hang a sphere made from pine
branches near the front. Interesting.
In back of the building was a traditional Japanese garden (which was unfortunately rather heavily covered with snow). Right outside the garden was a tanuki statue (a mythical racoon-dog creature that's supposed to bring good luck to your business) holding up some sake. After I had taken my usual dose of pictures, we were offered to visit the second floor by one of the employees. The second floor had a piano and a small stage; people must use it to hold public performances while sipping sake (I'm speculating). Takashi-san and Sana-chan put their arms around one of the main one-tree pillars and were barely able to double-hug it. It was huge. Before we left Takashi-san bought me a little "usagi" (rabbit) toothpick holder (remember: 1999 is the year of the rabbit). "Doumo arigatou gozaimashita," I said with a big bow (thank you very much for what you did).
PHOTO: Brewery's garden - poles support snow-laden branches.
Our next destination was the grocery store. I think (from talking to
a few people; this is no scientific survey) most Japanese visit the
grocery store more often than Americans. One of my friends said that her
host family visits the grocery store almost every day to buy materials
for meals. Most Americans I know buy meal materials for at least a 5 or
7 day span.
Takashi-san said that we'd make nabemono (literally "things in a pot") for dinner. A nabe (pot) is a big ceramic pot one in which one places broth, various vegetables, and fish. Apparently it's traditional winter meal (it's nice and warm). The nabe pot itself doesn't really have an American analogue (it heats things very evenly because it's ceramic). I guess traditionally the pot is set over a heat source (like a portable flame) in the middle of up to 6 people. To eat, you use your chopsticks to grab a veggie, mushroom, or piece of fish, and transport it from the nabe pot in the middle to your dipping-sauce plate in front of you. And then from your dipping-sauce plate into your mouth it goes. Another point about nabemono is that "everyone's eating out of the same pot." Eating out of the same pot as everyone else means that you trust them.
Takashi-san showed me around the grocery store as he picked up various ingredients. Chinese cabbage (hakusai), giant white radish (daikon), long green onions (naganegi), two kinds of mushrooms (enokitake and shiitake), clams, some fresh fish, dried bonito fish (katsuo-bushi) for broth, chicken necks for broth, and a few other ingredients all went into the basket. After purchasing the groceries, we headed back to the house.
Takashi was pleased that I liked food, and asked if I'd like to help
prepare that night's nabemono. I accepted the offer. He showed me how
to cut the vegetables so that they would cook properly in the pot, and
showed me some of the steps in the process of making nabemono. I helped
out by cutting some of the ingredients.
When everything went into the pot and onto the stove, we had an hour or so to kill, so first I ran upstairs and grabbed my "omiyage" (gifts). In Japan, giftgiving is a little different than in the U.S. We Americans tend to give gifts on special occasions (birthday, Christmas, etc.) The Japanese do some of that too, but they also give small gifts more frequently. When you visit another household, you should bring gifts, or when you go traveling and return (say you're Japanese and you travel to America and return to your Japanese family) you should bring gifts.
I put a lot of effort into selecting gifts that were somewhat unique to Michigan. That way, they carry a more special meaning. I did a lot of shopping before I came to Japan. :)
For Takashi-san, I wrapped an MTU coaster, an MTU leather magnet, and a
polished petoskey stone (official stone of Michigan).
For Mitsue-san, I wrapped a figurine magnet from a Michigan craftsmaker. The figurine was a cow with a cupid-style bow and heart-tipped arrow (the Michigan craftsmaker has quite a few cow figurines, they're called "Mary's Moo-Moos"). Apparently it was a really good gift, because Mitsue-san was born in the year of the cow (the Japanese keep track of the Chinese cyclic animal calendar just for fun; 1999 is the year of the rabbit, for example). I just chose a cow because there are cows around my house in Michigan. :)
For Sana-chan, I wrapped a United States 50-sticker activity map sheet. It was a fold-out map with pictures of the different states and what they are famous for (Detroit has pictures of cars, for example). There were 50 stickers with those famous items; one has to stick the stickers on the right states. She had fun figuring out which ones went where.
For Shuu-chan, I wrapped a toy John Deere tractor. "Watashi no machi ni, kore ga takusan arimasu," I said. (In my town, there are many of these.) I think he really enjoyed it, because he played with it off and on for the next day.
After the gifts, I asked them if it was OK if we looked at the pictures on my computer. We went into Mitsue-san's stenciling classroom to use the TV there. I was surprised to learn that Takashi-san didn't like TV's in the main areas of the house -- he believes that they hinder communication and family interaction. Smart man.
I showed them my pictures taken at Michigan Technological University, at my house, and at Internet Services of Michigan (the company where I work). I tried to use as much Japanese as possible to describe what was happening in the pictures. "Watashi no ie ni kurisumasu no dentou ga arimasu. Chokoreto chippu kuuki desu!" (In my house, we have a Christmas tradition. Chocolate chip cookies!) It was fun. The first question Mitsue-san asked me when she saw the inside of my house was, "Is it warm?" The family also noted that we had a basement with more than just cement in it -- most Japanese homes don't have basements because of earthquakes (for one reason). I also showed them an "offline copy" of www.daninjapan.com, and they got a kick out of seeing their names at the top of the "Happenings" section.
When dinner was ready we ran downstairs and seated ourselves at the
table. They asked me if I liked sake, and I said I did (I had only had
it once before, so I still wasn't sure). Takashi-san poured some for me
(from a bottle he had bought at the sake brewery earlier) and himself.
We then proceeded to eat the "mono" out from the "nabemono" (the "things"
from the "things in the pot"). It was delicious, and very warming (just
like a giant bowl of chicken soup when you're cold). I tried the sake
again with my "open food-mind" and although I liked it, I don't think
it's my favorite drink in the world. Maybe I just haven't had it under
the right circumstances.
I was sure to say "Oishikatta desu!" (it was delicious) at the end of the meal. I really enjoyed it. I plan to buy a nabe ceramic pot before I leave Japan.
After dinner, the Yamadas told me that they were going to have a party the next day. Teachers and students that were friends of theirs would be attending. It sounded like a lot of fun. Unable to contain the urge to cook something as a way to help out and show off at the same time, I looked through my cookbook while I mentioned that I might cook something. When I hit the apple pie page, I suggested it. Mitsue-san sounded quite interested. I ran through the list of ingredients, and realized how strange some of them sounded in a Japanese context. Shortening? Brown sugar? Apples? A 9-inch pie plate? Uh... no. We looked through the cabinets and found some of the ingredients (sugar, flour, cinnamon) and a somewhat smaller, deeper glass container. I decidied that it would probably do, and since everyone seemed to like the pie idea, Mitsue-san said that we could go to the grocery store to pick up the missing ingredients. I was all for it. So, we hopped in her automobile (Sana-chan joined us) and headed back to the grocery store. We left at about 7:44, and Mistue-san told me that the grocery store closes at 8:00. We made it just in time, found the necessary items (apples are a bit expensive in Japan, and are much bigger, and "raado" (lard, the name for vegetable shortening) comes in a squeeze bottle), and just as we were leaving the grocery store, Sana-chan found a "go-hyaku-en" coin on the ground (500 yen; about $5). Apparently Sana-chan had been wanting to buy a book, so we stopped at the "hon-ya" (book store) and she picked one up.
After I returned, Takashi-san mentioned something about making a home page on the Internet. We fired up his computer and I first showed him www.daninjapan.com. He expressed an interest in putting some of his Vietnam pictures on his (yet-to-be) Web page. I took a look at his computer, and did my best to navigate around. It was totally in Japanese. I could get around if I was using a program I was familiar with (because I knew what each part was going to say no matter what characters appeared on the screen), but I had to have Takashi-san translate some things for me. I ran through the steps on how to make a simple Web page, and showed Takashi-san how to add pictures to it and how to place it on the Internet. I told him, "Watashi wa, kaisha ni, Internet no sensei desu." (I am an Internet teacher in the business (at which I work).) I could tell he was excited. It got late quickly (as it does when you work on a computer), and so the time came to work my way toward bed.
First, though, the time had come for me to use the bathroom. Why am I
writing about this, you ask? You'll know in a second. There is a
complete bipolar situation when it comes to toliets in Japan. On one
hand you have the pits in the floor (the squatty potties as they're
called by JCMU students) with a simple porcelin lining, and on the other
hand you have the toliet seat from the future (like the one my host
family had). I couldn't beleive the thing. For one thing, it's heated.
When you sit down on it, it trips a switch that starts a fan blowing
scented air. On the side of the seat is a control panel with about 5
buttons and a little "flip cover" with more permant-type settings under
it. There's also a dark red piece of plastic. At first I was confused
as to what it was for. I then spotted a control console mounted on the
wall with various buttons on it. The console was covered on top
with the same red plastic. Bingo! Infrared remote control! No joke. When
you press a button on the wall console, it bounces an infrared signal
off the ceiling to the toilet seat. But what does it control? Well,
there's a setting for the heat and setting for the "nozzle." The seat
is equipped with a washing device for both a man and a woman. It also
has massage settings (for the stream of water) and a stop button. For
me, this was completely strange. I had never even imagined that a
toliet seat could be so advanced. When I was finished, I of course
looked on the advanced control panel for "flush", but was mildly
disappointed to find that the toliet still had a manual "handle" for
that. Still, even with a manual handle the Japanese toliet is more
advanced: turn it one way toward the "small" character, and it gives a
little flush. Turn it the other way toward the "big" character, and it
gives a full flush. Conserve water! Another part of the toliet that
confused me for a brief moment: a small sink on top of the back tank.
Where does the water come from? When you flush, the clean water that
goes into the tank for the next flush first goes through this little
sink (so you can wash your hands without wasting water). What a smart
idea! Those crafty Japanese sure know their stuff when it comes to
toliet technology, but I think they could stand to study up on home
heating and insulation technology. :)
The room containing the toliet and the room containing the shower, bath, and sink are two different rooms. Takashi-san told me that the family normally takes a bath at night, and so I agreed to go with the flow (I normally take showers in the morning, but I'm flexible). Here's how a Japanese bath works (boy, didn't think you were gonna get this many lectures on Japanese culture when you started reading this, did you?).
First, a member of the family begins filling the tub (which is much
deeeper and more square than an American tub) with very hot water. The
tub has a cover like a hottub to keep its heat in when no one is using
it. The entire bathing area is completely coated in rubber/plastic and
is totally waterproof. There's a drain on the floor, and a stool and
bucket outside the tub. The shower head is connected to a hose, and
first you wet yourself with it, scrub all the dirt off with some soap,
and then rinse yourself (you can stand up or sit on the stool). Now,
normally everything in Japan is smaller than everything in America.
Smaller houses, smaller people, smaller bags of Doritos, smaller
everything. But this "fully rubber/plastic coated bathing room"
actually gave you a lot more space than any shower I've seen in a
typical American home. Back to the explanation: After you're clean,
you open up the cover on the bath and slide in. Boy, did it feel good.
I could only stay in it for about five minutes, but I was completely
ready for bed after that. Since I was the last person to use the bath,
I drained the water. If there had been a person after me, I would have
covered the tub, rinsed the floor beside it, and left the hot water for
the next person to use. At first I was skeptical of the Japanese bath
system ("Why can't they just shower like us Americans?"), but now I
understand. It's a shame the JCMU apartments aren't equipped with the
Japanese style bath room and separate toliet room. :)
Next on the agenda: bed. I said "o-yasumi" (good night) to Takashi-san (the only one still awake at 11:30) and headed toward my room. Brrr. It was cold (probably about 40 degrees Fahrenheit). My bed (which was Shuu-chan's) had about 5 layers of blankets, though, so it wasn't too bad. I crawled under the covers and went to sleep.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of my watch alarm (set for 7:00). I turned it off and fell back to sleep (a bad habit of mine when it comes to alarms). I awoke again to the sound of Shuu-chan knocking at my door and saying something in Japanese (I think he was telling me that breakfast was ready).
I quickly jumped out of bed, changed, combed my hair and headed toward
the kitchen. Everyone exchanged "ohayou gozaimasu" (good morning)
greetings. Takashi-san asked me if I prefered sweetened corn flakes and
milk, or a traditional Japanese breakfast. I asked, "Jaa, minnasan
wa...?" (well, what about everyone else...?) He said that the kids were
going to have corn flakes, so I chose those without really thinking too
much about it. While eating my "corn frost" flakes and drinking my
coffee (the Japanese need to take a little of that
toliet-seat-technology energy and direct it toward coffee-making
technology -- the most common way to make coffee is to pour hot water
through a filter placed over a pot or cup -- it just doesn't taste the
same as geninue drip-maker-made coffee), Takashi-san was preparing his
traditional Japanese breakfast. Here's what I can recall of the
ocha (Japanese green tea),
A traditional Japanese breakfast can also contain other things such as a nama-tamago (raw egg), misoshiru (fermented bean paste soup), and sometimes fish. Healthy stuff. In fact, Takashi-san was telling me how children of his year would eat traditional breakfasts, and how they were always "genki." Genki means "strong, healthy, vigorous" -- a common phrase in Japan analagous to "How are you?" in English is "Genki desu ka?" It literally means "are you healthy?" Takashi-san went on to say that nowadays Japanese children eat "corn frost" flakes for breakfast and junk food throughout the day, and now children are not so "genki." It was funny.
After breakfast I took the opportunity to do brush my teeth and finish
my appearance-related morning tasks (shaving, etc). The Yamadas said it
would be a while before I could start making the pie (the party would
begin at noon, and I told them it would take about 2 hours total to
prepare the pie). Since the sun was out, I went outside and took some
pictures of their domicile from various angles.
PHOTO: The Yamada family sign.
I returned indoors and took a few pictures of everyone cleaning up for the party. Takashi-san asked a quick question of Mitsue-san regarding the amount of rice that needed to be made for the party. After agreeing on an amount, he turned around and opened a door to reveal a rice-measuring device. I found it pretty interesting. The bin probably held about 50 pounds of rice. At the bottom it had three buttons (mechanical, not electronic) and a sliding tray. To measure out 150 grams of rice, for example, one would press the "150" button. "Shhhhk" -- into the tray would pour 150 grams of rice. Pretty slick.
PHOTO: Indoors: take your shoes off before entering the house.
To make rice in Japan, one uses a suihanki (rice cooker). Necessity is the mother of invention; since so many people need to cook rice, people in Japan have invented all sorts of different appliances to help in its preparation. After measuring the correct amount of rice, one places it into the rice cooker's pot (which comes out of the appliance). Next, one washes the rice. A few times. Once the washing water is almost clear, one drains the rice and adds about 1.2 parts water for every 1 part of rice. One places the rice bowl back into the rice cooker and hits the "sutaato" (start) button. Many rice cookers have timers (so that you can have rice ready when you wake up) and some will keep rice fresh and warm for dozens of hours (cook it in the morning and eat it at night). I'm going to buy my own rice cooker (the JCMU room comes with a standard issue one, but I want one I can be proud of and bring back with me), because I like them so much. I should mention, too, that Japanese rice is completely different than the junk they serve for rice in the USA. Japanese rice is very sticky and has a nice flavor and satisfying chewy texture (my mouth is watering just typing this). None of this "long grain" nonsense or rice that has grains that don't stick together. :)
|After the rice got started and I set up my computer for picture-viewing at the party, it was time to start the apple pie. I took a look at the recipe, and just before I started I noticed that the apples were some sort of red delicious (not really a good cooking apple). Oh well! I made the crust (just like my mom taught me) without the aid of a pastry cutter (what? pastry cutter? in Japan?) and set it into the deep glass container. I then cut the apples with a giant Japanese knife (Takashi-san helped me cut some too) and mixed the flour and sugar and cinnamon onto them. I put them into the pie crust and sprinkled the crumbly butter-flour-brown sugar topping onto the top. Now, the next part would prove to me a minor adventure. The Japanese for the most part do not have big ovens. In fact, they ususally don't have an oven in their stove. They have a small broiler (for broiling fish, I think). What they do sometimes have is a microwave/convection oven on their countertop. I converted from Fahrenheit to Celcius (gee, I knew memorizing that formula would come in handy one day) and put the pie in for 25 minutes just like the cookbook said.|
In the meantime, the rice cooker had finished, and it was time for the
kids and I to make onigiri (rice balls). Making onigiri is simple.|
Here's how it works:
Put cooked rice into a container
We made three different kinds, and didn't use seaweed. By the time I was done with that, the pie timer had sounded, and I rushed over to see what had resulted. Hmmm... still looked rather raw. I asked Takashi-san to set the timer for 10 more minutes (he asked me "Chotto, mo sukoshi?" (not quite, a little more?)), and in the mean time watched everyone bustle about (helping a little here and there). After 10 minutes? Ehh... maybe 5 more minutes. After 5 more minutes? Hmmm... maybe it's more raw than I thought! Try... 7 more minutes (by this time I had learned how to use the oven myself!). After 7 more minutes? Sheesh! How long is it going to take? Try another 10 more minutes! After that? I think it's done! Nice and golden brown. Lessons learned:
When baking with a convection oven and converting to celcius, round up, not down.
When baking with a small convection oven, bake for a little longer.
By this point in the day, the kids had already asked me 3 or 4 times if they could play my Mario video game on the computer. We all decided we'd make them wait until the party to play it.
The Yamadas had set up two low tables with cushions on the floor in the living room area. The food for the party consisted of fruit salad, apple pie, pasta salad with a bit of turkey, Japanese "mikan" citrus fruits (similar to tangerines) and bananas, "onigiri" (rice balls with seasonings), rice crackers, and teriyaki-flavored sloppy joes. Beverages included coffee, some citrus soft drinks (like Sprite), and "mizu" (water). An interesting combination to say the least.
The first two guests to arrive were two formers students of Takashi-san. He had taught English several years ago, and apparently had kept in touch with these two. I think they were in their first year of college. Their English was probably OK, but a little rusty, so they tended not to use more than a word or two of it at a time.
I showed them pictures and maps of Michigan, and told them the unbelievable tale of how much snow falls in the U.P. (accompanied by a postcard with a picture of the "snowmometer" -- a giant sign similar to a thermometer that shows the current total snowfall for the year in the Michigan Tech area). By this time I was getting lots of practicing using Japanese to describe my postcards and pictures.
LINK TO ANOTHER SITE: Keweenaw Snow Thermometer
When I was just about finished describing all of my postcards, more guests arrived. I was completely surprised to hear the sound of high-speed, slurred, colloquial English being spoken. I had been speaking and hearing Japanese for the last 24 hours, and occasionally hearing or speaking very "textbook" English. Two guests had arrived who were Americans living in Japan. I think both were English teachers in Japanese schools. With them was a Japanese woman who also spoke English to some extent.
We had a big ol' English party going on, in Japan, in a Japanese home. At first I felt completely uncomfortable using colloquial English with the two other Americans. My thought process was: "I'm in Japan. I'm here to learn Japanese. Most people in this room understand Japanese much more readily than they understand English. Speaking in colloquial English blocks out everyone else from understanding what we're saying." But it was so efficient! With a few mumbled noises and chopped off words, I could convey such complex information! (At this point I was used to "thinking" in grammatically simple manner to make it easier to communicate.) I still tried not to use English whenever possible.
When everyone had arrived, we started to sample each of the foods on the
table. Everything was good. Teriyaki sloppy joes? Good stuff! Pasta
salad? Mitsue-san likes spicy stuff, so she had put a little pep into
the spices on the noodles. The red-delicious-apple pie had actually
turned out OK. The crust was a little on the dry side (probably from
being cooked more slowly for a longer time), but it was still pretty
good. Mitsue-san cut up the modest little "ringo no pai" (That's what I
had named it, not quite knowing exactly how to say it in Japanese. It
translates to "pie of apples".) into lots of pieces and served it up with
"banira aisu kuriimu" (sound it out "bah-nee-rah ah-ee-soo coo-ree-moo"
and see if you can figure it out). I had mentioned that it was a good
combination earlier in the day, and indeed it was!
PHOTO: Apple pie
Since everyone was gathered around the table, and had I connected my computer to the TV earlier, I decided to start my "slide show" of "watashi no daigaku to watashi no uchi to watashi no kaisha to watashi no machi" (my college, my house, my company, and my town). Everyone was enjoying the "aki no shashin" (autumn pictures). "Kirei" (beautiful) they would say.
When I came to the end of my Japanese vocabulary rope, I'd sometimes fall off into "mime mode", because it was more fun than using English:
"Kore wa watashi no joushi desu. Joushi no okusan desu. Kore to kore wa joushi no inu desu. Ookii inu desu neee! Kono inu wa, 'Konnichiwa!', sorekara..." [I stood up and made hand motions like a giant animal was about to knock me over, and then I fell down and pushed an imaginary muzzle out of my face].
When I was done showing the pictures, the kids were questioning me about
when they were going to get to play the Mario video game on my computer.
I set up the game, and they were completely absorbed into it.
Occasionally they'd encounter some English text in the game, and call me
over ("Dan-san! Dan-san!") to translate. I did my best. The way to a
child's heart is through a video game, I suppose. :)
While they were playing, I went back to the conversation table, which had turned into almost completely English. And then, as if we had't had enough dessert, after coffee someone had pulled out little individual Italian ice cream cartons with the strangest flavors I've ever seen. So far in Japan my favorite flavor of ice cream is mattcha (special Japanese green tea leaves crushed into a powder). Mattcha tea itself is deliciously bitter, but when made into ice cream, it's just the best. The ice cream flavors (as far I can remember) were sesame, British tea, Japanese lime (I don't remember the name), and ginger. We all shared spoonfuls, and the sesame flavor was absolutely unexpected -- and delicious! I need to find out where to get more, or how to make it! The ginger was good, too. If you've ever put vanilla ice cream into ginger ale to make a float, it was sort of like that (but much heavier on the ginger flavor). Tasting new things that I never even imagined (like "sesame ice cream") and discovering that I like them has got to be one of my favorite things to do. I'm so glad I came to Japan. :)
The English continued, and I noticed the two Japanese college students
were looking rather left out. I had remembered that Takashi-san had told
me that one of them (Hashiguchi-san) had practiced "shodou" (Japanese
calligraphy). I had tried "shodou" once before in my Japanese class at
my college (my Japanese teacher, Nagatomi-sensei, was always teaching us
interesting things). It sounds simple: Take a brush, dip it in black
"sumi" ink, and paint a few strokes on a piece of paper. It's art,
though, and some Japanese practice it for decades.
I asked if it was ok ("ii desu ka?") if he could show me how to do it. I asked Takashi-san if it was OK, and he went and got his brush, ink, paper, and some newspapers to protect the table. When the instruments were asssembled, Hashiguchi-san asked me what he should write.
A common practice with foreigners is to "reverse-engineer" their names into Kanji (Kanji are the complex Japanese pictographs that came from Chinese long ago). Each Kanji not only contains a meaning (like mountain, rice, love, harmony, etc.), but ususally has a few different pronunciations as well. Of course, these pronunciations overlap when you go in reverse (just like pair and pear in English mean two different things but are pronounced the same). To make "dan rou sen" (Dan Laursen) with three Kanji characters, one could choose from quite a few characters. For "dan", Takashi-san decided that "group" would be OK. For "rou", he chose "waves", and for "sen" he chose "boat". Kanji-ified this way, my name could mean "a group of boats on the waves". With that decision made, the skillful Hashiguchi-san (he had practiced calligraphy for 13 years) stroked out my name. I could tell he was good just by watching him.
Next it was my turn! I had only done it once before, so my rendition is rather pitiful next to his, but I had fun giving it a go! For each stroke, he showed me the order and direction by waving his hand in the air.
PHOTO: Me giving shodou a try.
Hashiguchi-san then wrote my name with a completely different style. I think he said it was an old Chinese style. It was characterized by violent strokes and 270 degree rotations when turning corners instead of 90 degree rotations. It may look messy to an untrained eye, but I'm positive that it takes lots of practice.
Tim, who was one of the English teachers at the party, tried his hand
at a few characters, and Hashiguchi-san also stroked a few more. When
we were done, we put away the "shodou" materials. After that it was
about time for most of the people to leave the party. The two college
students stayed a little longer and talked with Takashi-san and me. We
compared various elements of Japanese and American culture for a while
(when Japanese learn to drive, how they get a car, how kids get
transported to and from school, how Japanese elementary schoolers go to
school some Saturdays, etc). Somehow our conversation turned to wood,
and Takashi-san showed us what he put in his fireplace. At first I
thought they were paint stirers (they were strips of wood with holes in
them). But Takashi-san told us that abacus factories discard lots of
wood in the production of abacuses. I thought that was interesting.
Still on the topic of wood, Takashi-san to show us some things he had
whittled. He showed us two letter openers that he had made. One was
shaped like an elephant with a very long snout, and the other shape I
couldn't initially determine. He invited us to guess, and gave us a hint
that it related to music. It looked a lot like a rest on a music staff
(which is what it was, he said). He said, "We become very busy, so when
you use this paper knife, you are reminded to stop. To rest." I really
liked that (probably because I'm always so busy!). I said "suki desu"
(I like that) with a smile, but writing retrospectively, maybe I should
have contained my amazement.
After we talked for a while longer, it was time for the two students to leave. We said our sayounaras, and the house was quiet again. Takashi-san told me to peel the children away from the video game I set up for them. Next I asked, "minna no shashin wo totte mo ii desu ka?" (Is it OK if I take a group picture?). The family said it was OK, so they assembled on a recessed bench in the living room. They left a space for me, and I set up my camera to take a picture after 10 seconds. I hit the button and ran onto the bench. After repeating the process three more times (you can never be too careful when it comes to group pictures), I thanked them and showed them the results on the TV.
They asked me what time I wanted to start back toward JCMU, and I told
them that 6 PM would be OK. Since it was close to 6 PM, I started
packing and assembling my things into a pile. While I was packing my
computer away, Takashi-san handed me a bag with a bunch of Japanese
snacks and goodies. He then handed me the wooden "rest" letter opener
that I had said I was fond of earlier. With a look of absolute
surprise (I was quite surprised), I gave a deep bow and said, "Doumo
sumimasen! Doumo arigatou gozaimasu!" (I'm sorry to have inconvenienced
you! Thank you very much!)
After I had all my things (or so I thought), Takashi-san told me that I could come back anytime if I wasn't busy. He said that February was filled with things to do, but March and April were open. I'll definitely visit the Yamadas again if it works out.
I said my goodbyes to everyone and got into the car with Mitsue-san. On the way back to JCMU, we talked about various things. She told me that Takashi-san had really enjoyed the little Internet lession I had given him. I told her I was sorry that I didn't have more time to help him out. She said that the next time I came over, if I wanted to, that would be something that Takashi-san would really enjoy.
Mitsue-san mentioned to me that Takashi-san and I have very similar interests. She said that when he visits another place, he likes to try all of the different foods. He likes to cook, and he has a photography hobby. He also likes computers. I had known all of those things, but when Mitsue-san mentioned them all in one place, I realized what a similarity there really was!
When we arrived at JCMU, I took all of my things and once again bowed deeply while thanking Mitsue-san with as much Japanese as I could muster.
Riding high on a wave of international cultural exploration, I gushed about my experience to anyone who would listen to my stories. I talked with the other returning JCMU weekend homestayers, and found that most of them had also had a wonderful experience.
The next day I got email from Takashi-san saying that I had left a cord at their house. I didn't quite know what he was talking about, but got a cord from my camera in the mail the next day.
What a nice family! I'll definitely be visiting them again if I can.
Hey, you -- yes, you -- the one reading this lengthy text!
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