Thursday, August 18, 2016


I have been very lucky to try on many
kinds of kimono this year! This kind is
called a furisode.
Wow...I can`t believe that I have only 11 days left until I head back to the U.S. This year has certainly had a few moments that felt long...jam-packed, sweaty train rides when I had to stand...feeling homesick for some good Wisconsin cheese curds and beer...wanting to give my American family members hugs... However, those have been overwhelmingly outnumbered by the many fun, exciting, new experiences I`ve been lucky to enjoy!

So, to wrap things up, let me treat you to my kansou (remember this? If you don`t, refer to my previous entry).

Things that have been awesome/unforgettable:
(There`s a lot I could list, but let`s try to keep this post under control)

1. My host families.
This has been my number one factor in making this experience so great. I`ve had three awesome families in the Tokyo (now I`m living with my last one in Yokohama), one in Nagoya, and two in South Korea. All of them have been different, all of them have been amazing. Getting to make that real, person-to-person connection is so crucial to understanding a different culture. Because of it, you can see the commonalities, and demystify the differences. It also helps language skills improve by leaps and bounds. Thinking back to my Japanese skills before I came...and seeing where I am now, it`s incredibly different. Immersion truly is the most natural method to acquiring language! I want to express my deepest thanks to my host families for welcoming me into their homes, showing me different aspects of Japanese/South Korean daily life, and becoming true family members of mine!!

Final MFP for our group of interns
2. My friends
This year, not only have I made many wonderful Japanese friends, but also with people from lots of different countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico, France, Thailand, name a few)! Because of them, my perspective has broadened as I reflect on my own culture and experiences in Japan. Furthermore, I`ve been able to connect with friends from the U.S. who are either living in Japan or visiting! While goodbyes are hard, I feel all the more richer knowing that I have people I care about all across the globe.

3. The food
Cooking class with Meaw (Thailand) and Yeppi (S. Korea)
Wow, the to begin? I have gotten to eat so many delicious things, and been treated to excellent home cooking by all of my host moms. Not to mention I`ve been taking cooking classes once a month with other interns, so I`ve been able to add some new skills and recipes to my own repertoire. While I may sometimes crave food from the U.S., I am consistently amazed by the overall quality and deliciousness of what`s available to me here. Also...Korean food? AMAZING! I look forward to when I can get back and try some more. Interested in reading more on my enthusiastic perspective on food? Click here for my previous post!

4. The camps/visits to other areas
Hippo has sent me to all sorts of places this year, Snow Camp and Nature Camp in Nagano, Nagoya, South well as all sorts of camps around Tokyo. Recently, I went to English Camp for Hippo high school students heading to the U.S. to study abroad for 10 months. There I gave daily lectures, instructed games, and generally helped out. What a week! Before going, I was worried I`d be really tired and, I admit, bored. Let me tell you, that was the exact opposite of what happened! Okay, yes, I was pretty exhausted by the time it was done, but I also felt so accomplished and revitalized. The teens? AWESOME! The alumni who were also volunteering at the camp? AWESOME! The activities? SO DARN AWESOME!!! Working with these teens, giving presentations, playing skill-building truly reminded me of my passion for exchange programs, and why I want to continue this sort of work in the future. I want to thank Hippo for giving me this chance to really light an inner fire and get pumped for the future!

Things that have been tough, but made me stronger:
My little host sister, we went camping
as a family

1. A lack of wide, green space.
Now, in actuality, Tokyo incorporates a lot of green space very cleverly. Parks, gardens, rooftop greenery...for a mega-city, they do an excellent job. It`s just that I am from a small, Wisconsin town that has a ton of wide, easily-accessible nature. Even my university`s city, Madison, WI, is built around two lakes, and is just a skip and a jump away from countryside. Here, I have to work to become "surrounded" by nature. While I have sometimes looked at the cityscape and longed for trees, I have become all the more appreciative of the times I get to experience Japanese nature! There are a lot of beautiful spots here, and I hope I can find even more in the future.

2. Dealing with bad news from the U.S. from far away. 
I think that we feel the same way every year: "things are so awful this year, we`ve never had anything like it!" Shootings, racism, police/civilian conflicts, intolerance...presidential elections (cough cough)`s really awful, scary stuff. The fact is...terrible crap happens everywhere, all the time. Also...GOOD stuff happens everywhere, all the time. And it`s really hard to pick out the latter when you are looking at the situation from a distance. I`ve had some moments when I felt very doom-and-gloomy about the state of the U.S. However, while it is SO important to recognize the bad, and strive to change it, it is also necessary to realize that`s not the whole picture. Growing up, moving out of our comfort exposes us to the messy reality of life. But that cannot stop us from moving forward, and striving towards making the world a better place. AND, it should not stop us from enjoying the good things in life! I think I have been able to realize this lesson better this year, and while I still sometimes fall into that gloomy pit, I can pull my self back out, enjoy the now, and look towards the future with hope.

3. A lack of good cheese 
In the mountains, near Nagoya
Okay, let me be real. Despite being a Wisconsinite, I don`t eat a lot of cheese. HOWEVER, Japan, you gotta step up your game. Food is so good here, it`s time to bring cheese up to par. "Pizza cheese??" What`s that, mozzarella? I think not. There are dairy farms in Hokkaido, right? Let`s beef up the market (pun intended). Artisanal cheese, let`s make that a thing!!

So...finally, did I achieve my goals? Writing down one`s goals is something that has been ingrained in me from 4-H, and is one of the pieces of advice I always pass on to youth going on international exchanges. In my planner, I have a page dedicated to my list of goals. I`ll try not to throw too much at you, but here are a few:

  • Understand the "exchange student perspective," by putting myself in a similar scenario.
  • Demystify Japanese culture and appreciate the "human connection."
  • Speak Japanese naturally and comfortably.
  • Gain new friends and family.
Sakura blossoms back in March
How have I done? Well, I think I can say that I have been successful in achieving all of them! This year has pushed me in ways I would never expect, and because of that, I have grown all the more! 

Finally, I would like to say thanks to staff and members of LEX/Hippo Family Club in Tokyo, Nagoya, Seoul, Daegu and Boston, all my wonderful host families, WI 4-H International Programs, my friends from all around the world, and last, but certainly not least, my natural American family. Thank you for all your support, patience, and love. I wouldn`t be where I am today without it.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

All hail the Kansou!

Trying on kimonos with my American
Anyone who has ever been a member of Hippo Family Club knows the prevalence of what is called...the kansou (感想). It translates to "impressions," but can also be thought as your evaluation of an activity or event. Just as anyone involved with Youth Development programs, like 4-H, recognizes the importance of participant evaluations to program improvement, so is Hippo with the kansou.

Hippo employs two methods for reflection and evaluation...written, and delivered verbally in a group. Kansou is incorporated into basically every single aspect of Hippo activities (and I mean...Every. Single. Activity.). For example, after any workshop, camp, or exchange program, the coordinators and participants gather in big circles to share their thoughts and impressions of the experience (and yes, EVERYONE speaks).

Now, as you may have guessed by my tone, I have a complicated relationship with the kansou. I realize its importance to program development, as well as the cathartic benefit for people to share their reflections.`s always so darn long, and usually right before lunch (or bedtime--either way, I am not in much of a mood to listen).

At an elementary school presentation with my friend Meaw
from Thailand
The U.S 4-H group has arrived in Japan for one month
However, last weekend I was reminded how much I appreciate programs that allow for members to think on and share their experiences. I went to a camp for LEX high school students who had just returned from 10 months abroad attending local high schools and living with host families. During the three-day camp I listened to their stories. Each of them had had distinct experiences, with some similarities between them. Everyone had been to different places, the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, and Belgium, but they had all come away from the program more mature and open-minded.

Listening to their sharing sessions, I was struck with a sliver of jealousy. You could really see the kinship formed by the sharing of experiences--both good and bad. Exchange programs are truly life-changing, and affect you in many ways, which are usually quite good. But, it can also bring up many confusing questions and conflicts within--regarding identity, culture, life goals, personal values, etc. The best way to cope, and ultimately grow, is to unpack these feelings. And what easier way to do it but with others who have gone through similar things!

Unfortunately, when I return to America, I won`t be able to attend sharing sessions with other LEX interns. However, I will not be alone. Pre-departure, I am able to discuss common impressions with other LEX interns from South Korea and Taiwan. I can also share with the many understanding LEX members and friends--who have usually been on
Fun with fellow interns at Multilingual Nature Camp!
exchange before. And of course...I`ll be updating this blog with a "what I have learned/discovered" post, so stay tuned!

Once returning to the U.S., I will have the chance to talk with staff at the 4-H International Programs Office, who are experts in the art of evaluation, as well as amazingly compassionate human beings. I will give a presentation in front of my old 4-H club as well!! I can`t wait to hopefully inspire interest in younger members. And, last, but certainly not least, I`ll talk extensively with my American friends and family. Without their support, I wouldn`t have been able to embark on this fantastic journey in the first place.

So I guess I`ll concede. Kansou, you win this round. Thanks to you, I am able to grow to incredible heights, even beyond this year.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Birthday Cake and Kimchi

Characters from KakaoTalk (a Korean texting app) 
It`s been far too long since my last update! I guess I could use the excuse that it`s been crazy-busy, but that feels like copping out. Let me instead fill you in with all the juicy details:

My BIG EVENT that`s happened: I went to South Korea for one week for work. The first three days I stayed in Seoul with a host family. As I`m often reminded, host families are the bomb! Mine consisted of my Oma (mom), Apa (dad), nam-dong-saeng (little brother), and yuh-dong-saeng (little sister). My little sister`s name is Yu-Bin, and both she and her brother will be traveling to Wisconsin this summer for one-month homestays with 4-H! Yu-Bin and I were able to spend a lot of time together. Her brother is currently living at his high school dorm, so I was only able to see him briefly. But connecting with Yu-Bin was one of the most special parts of my time there. She is 16 years old, but I could still talk with her quite easily. Her English is excellent, but more than that, she comes off as a very thoughtful, genuine, and enthusiastic person. I think she`s going to have a great time in Wisconsin this summer!
My host family in Seoul, pre-norebang (karaoke)

Seoul is a fascinating city. Traveling from one giant metropolis to another, you`d think the similarities would be overwhelming. However, the differences were striking. Seoul is situated around the Han River. Space is utilized differently than Tokyo, where almost every area feels carefully planned, like a sort of urban Tetris. In some ways, it also feels like that in Seoul--evidenced by the abundance of towering apartment complexes (allowable by the fact that there are no earthquakes in South Korea). And yet, roads feel more "American," (as in wide, not to mention, on the right side). Houses can appear more spacious, and the division between city and country seemed clearer.

The Korea 4-H Office is near my host
family`s home. Of course I had to visit!
After Seoul, I headed two hours south on the KTX (Korea`s bullet train) to the city of Daegu. Daegu is a big hub of the southern part of the country. There I stayed at the home of the adult chaperone who is headed to Wisconsin this summer. She was very kind and welcoming, and I enjoyed spending time with her and other Hippo fellows in the city. Daegu uses a slightly different dialect than Seoul, and I was pleased to be able to pick up on some different intonations and mannerisms, even with my untrained ears. I suppose since I`m used to listening carefully to Japanese, I have become attuned to the rhythms and cadence of languages other than my own. Multilingual environments, gotta love `em!

My last two days in South Korea were spent at a Hippo Camp held near Daegu. There, members prepared for upcoming homestays. Some will head to Taiwan, others to the yearlong program in Japan. Ten are headed to Wisconsin, through WI 4-H! I loved getting to share tips and advice from my past experience working as a WI 4-H International Programs Assistant. I was also lucky to reunite with members who had come to Wisconsin last summer! It`s a small Hippo/4-H world.

Now, my impressions of South Korea. It was only a week, the time flew by, but I was able to observe and gather a few thoughts. First, Korean food is even more delicious than I had ever believed. good (feel free to read that in a valley girl voice). Lots of veggies, pickled side dishes, rice, and of course, kimchi. I had seafood, but it seemed less prevalent than in Japan. All parts of the animal are used, organs, bones (beef bone soup is delicious). I saw a stall selling pig head soup. Coffee shops are EVERYWHERE (I drank so many yummy lattes). Spice is definitely a trait of lots of dishes, but everything I ate had a perfectly tolerable heat. My favorite dishes were samgyetang (a chicken, ginseng rice porridge), jeonbokjuk (abalone rice porridge we ate for breakfast...I obviously have a thing for savory rice porridge), jjimdak (steamed chicken in a spicy sauce), and samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly wrapped in fresh lettuce and served with a spicy, miso-like sauce). Korea...I`ll be back for seconds.

Seoul: apartment complexes loom over vegetable gardens
Peoples` mannerisms are certainly different from Japanese and Americans. Of course, personalities differ on a person-to-person basis, but overall straightforwardness seemed to be more acceptable than it is in Japan. I spent a lot of time with middle-aged women, and they appeared comfortable with having less personal space. I was on the receiving end of lots of friendly touches. When I converse with Japanese people they usually give a pretty wide berth of personal space, the same with Americans. My interactions in Korea weren`t uncomfortable for me, just notably different.

The group headed to WI this summer
Of course, Hippo activities held a lot of constants. We still played games, mimicked the language CDs, and members were open-minded and excited to learn about different cultures. Seeing the same activities play out in a different environment was a mind-bending bit of fun.
Hippo fellows in Seoul

I`m really grateful that Hippo has allowed me this special opportunity! I know I`ll head back sometime soon, there`s just too many things to do, and so many more friends to make!

So, you may have been wondering why today`s title is "Birthday Cake and Kimchi?" Well...last week, I had my birthday! And, as my current host dad says, kimchi goes with everything...even cake (we agree to disagree). Before you ask...I turned 23 (darn! All my milestone birthdays have already passed). This year was an especially wonderful birthday celebration, for a multitude of reasons.

Hippo members arranged for my friends and
I to try on kimonos and traditional wear.
First, two of my best friends from the United States were visiting. It was a much-anticipated reunion, and it felt incredibly special to share my daily life in Tokyo with them. I was amazed with the outpouring of love I received this year for my birthday. So many Hippo friends sent me well wishes and congratulations. Not to mention I received FOUR birthday cakes! Cake is truly the way to my heart...I was so happily surprised. Getting to share that day with friends and family from here and back that is something I will always cherish!

As always, thanks for reading, and tune in next time!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sakura and Snow - It`s Spring!

Believe it or not, it`s feeling like spring here in Tokyo! I know it`s a bitter contrast with the weather in Wisconsin...last week my disgruntled parents sent me a photo of more new fallen snow. It`s been great the past week or so--low 60`s, partly sunny, and course, adorned by cherry blossoms. They are finally beginning to droop now, most of the blossoms are on the sidewalk instead of the branches, but they really did live up to the hype while they lasted.

But, before I delve too deeply into the topic of sakura, I`d like to share some of my biggest highlights of March! I had a wild couple of weeks, jam packed with a ton of stuff. However, it was all extremely fun and exciting, the exact sort of
"busyness" that I love.

This period was kicked off by a visit from my former boss at WI 4-H International Programs, Kay, her family, and a volunteer for WI 4-H Intl/WI Price Co. 4-H Educator/former LEX intern, Amber. They are wonderful people, two of my biggest mentors. It was wonderful to take them sightseeing a bit in Tokyo. Meeting up with friends halfway around the globe truly makes the world seem smaller. 
Intern from Taiwan, Nancy, and I energetically MC`ing
for "Snow Sumo"

Immediately after my time with Kay and Amber, I headed off to Iiyama city, Nagano prefecture, for the third annual Multilingual Snow Camp. This is a huge event, with over 500 Japanese participants and 100 from overseas. The campers are of all ages, from 4th grade elementary students to college students and working adults. Everyone is divided up into groups of about 25 people, with adult Hippo fellows as chaperones and two college or high school students serving as volunteer junior chaperones. Each group stays in their own minshuku, local, mom-and-pop-owned/run lodges that provide lodging and meals. For four days, each group acts as a family, eating and playing together. Participants even sleep in the same rooms and share bath time (separated by gender).

I had an absolute blast! Our group got to try plenty of fun, snow-based activities, such as snowshoeing, snowball fights, sledding, building snowmen, and even making ice-cream. Beforehand, there was a bit of worry about the snow--it was quite warm when we went, and there was only one meter of snow on the ground. But honestly, it was perfect. It was nice and sunny, the kids had plenty of snow to play with, and those who hadn`t ever seen it before were able to get their fill.
A new friend from Snow Camp
For me, I`ve grown up in Wisconsin, in the northern part of the United States, and I`ve seen snow every winter. So it`s a little hard for me to get that excited about seeing it (memories of both shoveling the driveway and walking to my university on icy sidewalks are a pretty good ways to kill any romanticism).  But, as I threw snowballs and built a snow fort surrounded by tons of kids from all over Japan and from other countries,it was easy to release my inner child.

Hanami with my host family
Ultimately, my favorite part of the experience was getting to meet and make friends with the kids in my minshuku. They were all super energetic and friendly--always chattering away and excited to play. My Japanese is quite proficient enough for me to talk with them, but even if it wasn`t, we still would have had fun. There was a little girl from Shanghai, China, in our group who was really quiet and didn`t speak any Japanese, but sure enough, she was able to make friends. Once the kids got out together and started making snow forts, she started smiling and joined in tickling and teasing the other girls. By the last day, she seemed pretty comfortable--their goofing around in the bath ended up creating a quite the tsunami... In the end, making multilingual friends through playing together in nature, that`s the goal of Snow Camp. From what I saw, it worked pretty well! I`ve seen this with summer 4-H exchange students as well. Kids may not speak the same language, but plunk them down somewhere where they can play, and soon enough they`ll find a way to communicate all by themselves!

Little brothers
After returning to Tokyo from Snow Camp, I was able to marvel at the full splendor of the sakura (cherry blossoms). The blooming period for cherry blossoms is rather short, and the peak usually hits a high for about a week. Luckily, I was able to enjoy plenty of hanami! Hanami is a sort of cherry blossom-viewing picnic/drinking party that takes place in parks, or wherever there might be a good crop of trees. People spread out on tarps, eat, drink, and make merry. This can go on for an extended period of time! I got to go twice, once with my Hippo family club members and once with just my host family. Of course, I took the mandatory million snapshots of the blossoms, so I`ll always be
able to look back.

Making takoyaki, they`re like savory octopus donut holes!
As we move further into spring, it reminds me of how limited my time is in Japan. We are already halfway through April, and my flight back to the U.S. at the end of August has already been booked. Honestly, I`ve been fretting a lot about the future. I`ve been using my spare time to rewrite my resume, draw up a cover letter, and have started browsing job posting websites. Not having a plan yet for when I return to the States really makes me nervous. When I think realistically, I know I have time, and that employers are probably not going to hold something four months out. Of course, anxiety doesn`t like to respond to reason! Furthermore, I`ve been carrying tension in regards to the future of the United States, what with the presidential primaries and such. I think it`s easy to get disillusioned about your own country when you aren`t there, because you are only seeing the dismal headlines that get all the focus. It`s important to remember that life goes on, there are good people everywhere, and that if you put in the effort, things will usually work out okay. Worrying about the future and upcoming changes are typical--not just for people living abroad, you just have to find healthy ways to deal with it.

So, I`m striving for balance, planning for the future, but staying in the now! I have a ton more amazing things coming up--a preparation camp for the next students going abroad for 10 months, a one week trip to South Korea in May, dear friends visiting from the States, and much, much more. My Japanese feels stronger and even more comfortable day by day. I have wonderful host families, great friends and co-workers, and of course tons of amazing, supportive people back home. Really, there is so much to be thankful for!!        
Let`s end with this lovely shot of the interns` trip to
Hello Kitty`s Puroland!!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Intern Rangers and my Metakatsu Breakthrough

Anne, Nancy and I with our Special Judges` Award
This past Sunday, two of my fellow interns, Nancy from Taiwan, Anne from France, and I participated in the 3rd LEX Multilingual Presentation as a team. The LMP is special event for young adults, ages 17-25, to give presentations about their perspectives on language, society, and culture. Along with Anne, Nancy, and I, twenty-six other contestants shared their views on these subjects. Our team was awarded the Special Judges` Prize (the judge`s choice award, bronze, silver and gold were awarded to 8 other participants), which includes a special scholarship that can be used towards participating in a LEX exchange in the future!

I was SO proud of our group for achieving this special award! I had competed in the previous LMP back in the fall, and had been mortified when my presentation went over the eight allotted minutes. Also, I had been extremely stressed about using over three languages--obsessing about word order and absolute correctness. This time however, I was able to relax, feel confident, and actually have a lot of fun!

For my part, I spoke Korean, Japanese, English, and Mandarin. Nancy used Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, English and French, and Anne used French, German, English and Japanese. By working together as a team, we were able to try out each other`s languages, and give each other help and support. Any anxiety about speaking Mandarin, a language I have zero background in, was drastically reduced as I mimicked, or did "metakatsu," of a recording of Nancy reading my part. I think because I was paying less attention to minute details, I was able to "absorb" the sound and flow of the words.  The tones and pronunciation felt natural to me, just part of the rhythm!

Fellow interns Kahye and Yeppi cheered us on!
I think this is a big breakthrough in how I perceive the language-learning method at Hippo. Of course, when one learns about Hippo we hear all about the benefits of mimicking, the "waves" and sound of language, and the brain`s innate ability to absorb it. But learning about the Hippo method is one thing--accepting and embracing it--is something else entirely.

While I`ve always considered myself open to the Hippo method, I realize now that my preconceptions of language-learning were holding me back from diving into it completely. There was always some sort of doubt that was holding me back. Perhaps it comes from society, perhaps insecurities that came from my own language-learning experience...whatever it is, it kept me teetering on the edge.

I was so proud that my sister, Risa (center),
took one of the two golds!
Let me be clear, I do not discount "traditional" language-learning methods. While my 3 years of studying Japanese in college were certainly not easy, and often stressful, I firmly believe that they provided me with a strong basis in grammar, writing, reading, and various nuances such as honorifics. In my opinion, the Japanese department at University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the finest in the US, if not in the world. Not to mention, the amazing staff of professors and TA`s are committed to providing a rigorous, multi-faceted education for their students. I owe a LOT to their guidance and dedication. They have given me the foundation for the Japanese I use today.

That being said, there is no one perfect method of learning languages that is going to suit everybody. Classroom style did not always suit me, just as the Hippo method does not cover every base for language learning. However, they each have strong points!

Now that I`ve overcome this mental hurdle towards metakatsu, I feel that I am able to participate fully in the Hippo activities. While I happily did metakatsu at weekly clubs before, I now feel motivated to try it on my own. I don`t plan on completely abandoning conventional tools--things such as kanji practice books and my fun smartphone app for learning Mandarin will remain part of my toolbox. However, I feel that by embracing metaktasu more fully, I can enhance and round out my language learning in a fun, simple way that gives me confidence!

Friday, February 5, 2016

ごちそうさま - Eating Well

Signs advertising shirasu, tiny fish famous in Kamakura
Today I would like to discuss a topic that is near and dear to my culture. It`s well known among my friends and family--and heck, probably anyone that I`ve had a substantial conversation with--I absolutely LOVE food. I love cooking, I love eating, I love talking about food, and I love talking about food WHILE eating food...It`s a subject that I never tire of!

So naturally, it makes sense that I would hold interest in Japan`s food culture. When I came back in August, I brought with me a desire to taste and learn. Not only did I hope to sample a wide variety of Japanese cuisine, but also to try my own hand at preparing a variety of dishes. Part of the requirements for my visa is some sort of cultural learning. For this reason, American interns are expected to select an aspect of Japanese culture to study. Naturally, I had selected food. In order to fulfill this requirement, I enrolled in private cooking lessons with Nancy, the intern from Taiwan. Through that experience I have learned how to prepare a wide range of foods, from keema curry, naan and cakes made in a rice cooker, to sesame dumplings and biscotti.  

Grilled food available for purchase at a festival--
the Japanese equivalent of county fair food
Variety in food isn`t limited to home-cooked fare. Tokyo offers a vast assortment of cuisines and eateries: Indian curry, Italian pasta,  kebabs, burgers and waffles...Chinese, Malaysian, Thai...all-you-can-eat pizza buffets, crepes stuffed with fruit and ice cream, croissants and soup dumplings...You could practically eat your way around the world in this city. One of Tokyo`s taglines is that its restaurants have more Michelin stars than Paris. While those sort of ranking systems shouldn`t necessarily be used to determine whether one city is better than the other, it certainly carries an indication of widespread quality.

A chocolate-almond cake
we baked at one of my cooking classes
Not only is a lot of the food delicious, there are usually healthy options available (okay, maybe not at the ramen shop or bakery, but still...). Train stations are often connected to department stores with delis, bakeries and restaurants, and you can hardly go a block without hitting a 7-11, Family Mart, or one of the other convenience store chains. Convenience stores offer plenty of unhealthy options: cookies, candy, corn dogs, instant noodles, chips, beer, sugary drinks...but you can also get fresh veggies, edamame, yogurts, onigiri (rice balls), low cal. jellies, green tea, etc. Usually the portions are on the reasonable side, and everything has a calorie count. Compare that with some of the gas stations I`ve been to in America (cinnamon rolls the size of a child`s head, XXXL soda cups, foot long hot dogs and doughnuts). Now I`m not saying that all Japanese food is healthy--ramen, while delicious, is horrible for you. Many foods, like tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), ebi fry (breaded shrimp), menchi katsu (breaded minced meat), and kaarage (fried chicken), are fried. And of course, there`s plenty of pastries, ice cream, and burgers to go around! White bread is almost as much as a staple as rice (seriously, I never ate this much bread in the US!), and kids and teens still love their Mickey D`s. 

Some homemade osechi ryouri (special New Year`s food)
Just like in the US, home cooking is quite different from eating out. Let it be known that I have only lived with one host family so far, and cannot make any sort of widespread judgement of what all Japanese people eat at home. Let me instead give you a view into what I`ve experienced. 

My day typically starts with breakfast around 8:20 AM, before I head to work at 8:45. I usually prepare and eat it by myself (my older sister has already headed to her job as an occupational therapist, and everyone else is just getting up or is already conducting their daily business). Typically I make toast with peanut butter or jelly (I`m lucky to have a host mom that regularly bakes her own bread), which I may eat with yogurt or fruit. Finally, wash it all down with a big cup of green tea (there is always hot water in a big tabletop dispenser). All in all, this is hardly any different than what I ate back in the States! No cereal or oatmeal, but I am quite satisfied by the options I have here. Sometimes my host mom is around and she will offer to make me miso soup, which I gladly accept. 

My friend and co-worker Nancy showing off
the cute obento her host mom made for her
Lunch is also a pretty laid back meal. Sometimes I swing by the nearby convenience store and grab a salmon onigiri (rice ball) and an instant soup, or I may get a wrap or sandwich at a take-out joint. Occasionally I eat at a restaurant with a co-worker. There are a lot of great spots nearby. So far I`ve had Malaysian, Korean, Indian, Turkish and Italian. Kindly, my host mom will sometimes make me an obento, or lunchbox, filled with a variety of goodies.

I really enjoy coming home to eat dinner everyday with the rest of my host family. My host mom, a wonderful chef, typically prepares the meal. If I were to summarize her cooking style...I would say, healthy, varied, and flavorful. In the past, my host mom was very interested in macrobiotic cooking (a diet based on the balancing principles of ying and yang, with an emphasis of whole foods, grains, veggies, soy, and fermented items like miso. Added sugars and animal products are discouraged). Indeed, six years ago, when I stayed with them, both my host parents were pescatarians. Now they`ve relaxed their diets, and consume other animal products, as well as sweets. Nevertheless, balance remains key influence in how they eat. 
A matcha parfait in Kyoto--yum!

They have some meal practices which I plan on bringing back to me in the States. A fresh veggie salad is always served (as well as daikon roshi, grated fresh daikon radish--full of enzymes, as my host dad always says). They usually eat food on multiple small plates, instead of one big one (smaller plates=you are inclined to take less food, therefore, eat less). After the meal we drink green tea, and maybe have a dessert. The dessert might be something like a few pastries, or some chocolate. Instead of each of us eating a whole pastry, however, we slice it up-and share it between us. What a smart way to satisfy a sweet craving without overdoing it! I`m not sure how well this will work when I live alone though...

While I`m afraid this blog post has no thesis statement, nothing really to prove or conclude upon, I think I can satisfactorily say that Japan is filled with many foods and cuisines that you should certainly try if you have the chance! While I have nothing against American-style Japanese restaurants (heck, putting avocado into maki sushi is a bit of delicious genius!), I recommend holding off too many judgments or generalizations of Japan`s food culture until you`ve had a chance to check it out at the source. It`s a scrumptious adventure waiting to happen!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

I`m dreaming of...sashimi and Christmas cake!

Cooking class fun with Nancy, intern from Taiwan
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy New Year! 2016 is here, did you make (or break) any resolutions? I`ve made a few for myself, hopefully I can stick to them:

  • Appreciate each and every day. It`s easy to look at the past or future with rose-colored glasses, and while a little nostalgia or anticipation is fine, it`s oh-so important to cherish the current moment. This year abroad is a truly special event, and there is always something new and amazing to experience every single day. I`m taking plenty of pictures--which reminds me of the beauty in everyday life. 
  • Love my friends, and make many new ones. LEX offers the spectacular opportunity to meet all sorts of fascinating people, of all generations. I want to continue to make great connections with people from around the world. It broadens your mind and opens your heart!
  • Improve my Japanese skills. Whenever I think I haven`t made progress, I look back to before I came to Japan. How nervous I would have been to spontaneously speak Japanese in front of large audiences! Now, I barely blink an eye. But, there is plenty of improvement to be made. I`ve bought some new books, so I can improve on my reading comprehension. To expand my language repertoire, I`ve also started listening to the Hippo CD`s in Korean, and I anticipate adding Mandarin Chinese to the rotation soon.
My host dad and I in front of Kinkakuji
I think these are some reasonable goals. Most importantly, I`ve identified the steps I need to take in order to achieve them. We`ll see how I`m doing by the end of the program.

So, what have I been up to since my last blog post? Where to start... There were several highlights in December, including a visit to Kyoto and Nara with my host parents. I think that Kyoto is a place that most people associate with the idea of "traditional Japan." Truly, it is a spectacular place. I really am grateful to my host parents for taking me there.

My host mom and I in Gion
After we arrived via Shinkansen (bullet train), we hit the ground running. We visited Nara`s deer park, the Daibutsu, (giant Buddha staue), Kinkakuji (Golden Temple), Ginkakuji (Silver Temple), Gion (the famous geisha district), and more temples and shrines than I have ever seen. Even though it was already December, the koyo (changing color of the leaves ) was in its full scarlet and golden brilliance. Despite the tourist crowd, there really is a sense of refinement and elegance about the place. Several fellow pedestrians were donning rented kimonos--but turns out that most of them were tourists from China! It was a bit too cold for the Japanese (and me! Some Wisconsinite I am).

Note the big ol` 4-H clover on my photo album
I`ve also been lucky to participate in several Kokusairikaijugyou (International Understanding Classes). These are special classes put on by LEX members at local schools, usually middle and elementary schools. There we do lots of activities, such as multilingual games and cultural presentations. I am asked to do presentations on American life and culture. In a mixture of Japanese and some English vocabulary, I share photos and stories of my life in America and Wisconsin--on food, family, nature, school life, and holidays. During December, I presented on my family`s celebration of Christmas. The children were amazed to discover that Christmas cake is not a phenomenon in America, that you do NOT eat a gingerbread house, and that you can cut your own Christmas tree.

On two instances, I was lucky to be invited to eat lunch with the children. Japanese school lunch is a bit different than my experience in Wisconsin. For one, the kids, not staff, serve each other. Food is prepared by staff, brought to each classroom (no cafeteria!), and then the children, wearing smocks, face masks, and hairnets, dish everything out to their classmates. After two students lead everyone in the ritual saying of "itadakimasu" ("bon appétit," or "thanks for the food"), everyone eats together at their desks. The kids are extremely cute, and ask me ton of rapid-fire questions..."What`s your favorite sport?" "What games do kids play in America?" "How tall are you?" "Do you have a boyfriend?" "What`s your type [of guy]?" The last two gave me a good laugh!

Milk, tonjiru (a pork and vegetable stew), tomato rice,
and baked fish with breadcrumbs
From the two times I ate kyuushoku (school lunch), it seemed to me that the fare was healthier than what I ate as a kid. At my elementary school, we were always served one vegetable side (green beans, broccoli, corn), a fruit (canned peaches, pears), a main dish (hamburger, french toast, chicken nuggets, tator tot casserole...), a dessert, and a milk (chocolate, 2% or skim). The milk is present in Japan as well, whole, white, served in a small glass bottle. The rest is pretty different. No dessert, vegetables are incorporated into most if not all of the dishes, and there`s more fish, less meat. I thought all of the food was yummy, and of good quality. While I do occasionally miss the stuffed crust pizza from elementary school, so far the schools here have won me over!

The Christmas Day spread
In Japan it`s common to eat cake on
Christmas. White sponge with whipped
cream and strawberries is most popular.
Now...the big highlights of the past several weeks: Christmas and New Year`s. I was definitely preparing myself for a different sort of Christmas this year. From my experience as an exchange coordinator at 4-H, typically, the winter holiday season is the hardest time for exchange students. The cold weather, family holiday can really make you homesick. However, as I was amazed to discover, my homesickness was very minimal. Not only was I intrigued by the Japanese celebration of Christmas, I felt surrounded by love and support from family and friends (both in Japan and back home). The only time I felt down was on Christmas Eve, when I had to work. It felt mundane and routine...not what I usually associate with that day. However, I am so lucky to have my great friend and co-worker, Kahye-chan. I told her I was feeling down, and so we went out to lunch together and had a nice conversation. Thanks to her, I finished the workday with a smile on my face.

My host mom went all out on Christmas Eve, making a delicious meal, setting a beautiful table, and even getting me a present. I was extremely touched by her, and the rest of my host family`s, efforts. Even though I knew I had to work the next day, my heart was filled with holiday cheer.

Christmas Day was extraordinary as well. After work, I made a batch of walnut and chocolate fudge, which we brought to a party at my host aunt`s and uncle`s. We had dinner with their family, my host sister`s boyfriend, and Paco, a former LEX yearlong student from Mexico who is now studying abroad in Japan. Paco had come to Wisconsin through the LEX Mexico/WI 4-H exchange several years ago, so it was great to catch up! We enjoyed all kinds of delicious food--sashimi, hand-rolled sushi, spring rolls, salad, fudge, and more! That day I truly felt that "Christmas spirit," of family, friends, and love.

New Year`s threshold decoration
Christmas lead right into New Year`s, still carrying with it that sense of family and togetherness. I participated in New Year`s traditions, such as watching the televised New Year`s Eve musical performances, hectically cooking osechi ryouri (the many particular dishes of the New Year`s) with my host sister and mom before the family party, visiting a local shrine to wish for good things in 2016, and of course, relaxing with family at home. In America, for New Year`s, I usually had dinner and drinks with friends, maybe went to a party. This year, I was able to immerse myself in the Japanese New Year`s traditions. What a great way to kick off 2016!  

I feel so enthusiastic about the rest of my time in Japan! Four, almost five, months have passed by so quickly. I look back at all the amazing things I have been able to experience, and I feel so grateful. I truly look forward to all the new adventures that this year will bring! I look forward to sharing them with you.

(A quick shout-out, if you have Instagram, and are interested in seeing more of my pictures of life in Japan, please follow me @alreadyinorbit. I post quite often. Thank you!).