Friday, December 2, 2016

Some Japanese Food for Thought

Japanese food, oh how I love thou; at least most of thou. I loved almost all of the Japanese food that I ate in America, and for good reason, a lot of it wasn't really Japanese food. It was Japanese food made for American people. However Japanese food in Japan is a bit different. Here are some Japanese foods eaten by real Japanese people, some tasty, some not so tasty. 

Ouishi!  (Photo credit: Luke Chan)

   Lets begin with my favorite Japanese food, okonomiyaki. Have you never heard of okonomiyaki before? Well, if you haven’t, I’m sorry that you're missing out on one of life's greatest mayonnaise topped joys. The are of cooking okonomiyaki has two predominate schools of thought, Hiroshima style and Osaka style. Both are made with batter and whatever the person in the kitchen can find to throw into the mix. Ok, well maybe that's not entirely true but generally some octopus, shrimp, and/or beef is thrown into the mix along with some diced veggies. But the big difference is the inclusion of yakisoba noodles in Hiroshima style. Of course this has resulted in a rash of okonomiyaki gangs meeting in the street and fighting à la West Side Story. Well, maybe not, though some people are very opinionated about their okonomiyaki. However, feel free to disregard any critic, the beauty of okonomiyaki is that it can be made however you want! That is, of course, as long as you're not a heathen that eats okonomiyaki without mayonnaise. 

Udon (Photo Credit: Toyohara)
   The Japanese love noodles. How much do the Japanese love noodles? They love them enough for there to be over 20,000 noodle restaurants in Tokyo alone. That's not counting the outlying cities like Yokohama, Matsudo, and Saitama. That works out to an average of 9.1 noodle restaurants per square kilometer in the city of Tokyo. While I am left curious as to where to find these statistical 1/10th scale noodle restaurants, I can vouch that every other restaurant in this city is a statistical full size noodle shop.  
Is this small enough to be one of the mythical 1/10th restaurants? (Photo credit: A World of Flophouses)
  So why do the Japanese like noodles so much? Well because they're delicious and cheap! There's also all sorts of variety when it comes to the noodles! There's udon, ramen, soba, yakisoba, somen, chanpon, hiyamugi, tsukemen, rice noodles, and many, many more! You can have them hot, you can have them cold, do you want them lukewarm? I'm sure there's a restaurant that does it! Do you want lamb in your Udon, no prob! As Journey said, "Any want you want it, that's the way you need it!" 

Anko (Photo credit: Ai)
  So far i’ve been giving Japanese food amazing praise, though, no one is perfect and neither is Japanese food. One of the worst experiences in life I find is to not be included in a group that you want to be in. Such is my case with the people who like anko. What is anko? anko is sweet bean paste that is put into many Japanese sweets. Some even put anko into their ice cream. However, I can not stand it. The reason is because Louisiana red beans have the same texture as anko but instead of being sweet, they’re dry tasting. Because of the two beans sharing a texture but not a taste, I can not enjoy them. I want to enjoy anko, and though the heart is willing my stomach is not. 
Black Goma Dofu (No photo credit because the website google images links to  is currently down. Also only two images of black goma dofu exist on the internet apparently)
  The eighth amendment of the US constitution bans the use of cruel and unusual punishment. However Japan is not defended by the US constitution. The third article of the Geneva convention bans cruel and unusual punishment, however, though Japan did sign the treaty, they did not ratify it. So in this land of Japan we are left completely undefended from the true darkness that lurks within the hearts of man. Eating goma dofu. More specifically back goma dofu. Goma dofu is “tofu” but made from sesame. So I am going to save you the torture of trying this unholy abomination, It has the texture of thick jello and the taste of Satan’s running sock. It is the only food I have tasted in Japan that I could not bring myself to swallow. For as long as I live, I believe I will always be haunted by the memories of the cold october night that I tried goma dofu for the first time. 


Monday, November 14, 2016

60ft Up and Screaming: Joy's First Adventures in Japan

I had been in Japan for approximately four days. I had prepared myself for a slew of situations, but somehow I never expected to be twenty meters in the air, wobbling my way across a rope bridge and hanging onto my harness for dear life. My host sister’s reassuring voice came floating from ahead, “大丈夫、Joy? Are you okay?” My legs were shaking and my head was spinning, but somehow I managed to squeak back, “大丈夫です!頑張ります!” With another three shaky steps, I stumbled onto the platform, and immediately my host dad and brother erupted into cheers behind me. Up ahead, my host sister broke into a wide grin, while my host mom gave us all a round of applause from below. As my heartbeat gradually slowed, I looked up and took a deep breath. In front of me, the lush forest of Tsukuba rolled against a bright blue sky. My adventure in Japan had just begun.

I look like I'm smiling but deep down I'm screeching

As I write this post, two months have passed since I first stumbled into the 日本 Hippo Family. Since then, I’ve gotten to experience a slew of amazing things – from onsen soaks to cooking takoyaki, from multilingual speeches to school presentations, from riding buses to hip hop classes, and perhaps most fun of all: the myriad of Hippo activities and families. As I look back on the past eight weeks, one particular adventure keeps springing to mind: my very first trip with my host family, who I had known for less than 24 hours at the time, to the beautiful (and terrifying) Tsukuba Forest Adventure. At the time, I was busy trying to keep my balance on the five hundred different rope bridges I had to conquer, but lately, it’s begun to dawn on me how apt it is as a means to understand my time in Japan thus far. Here’s a quick look at the various ways in which my first adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun have been akin to being 60 feet up in the air.

It has been quite the journey – both on and off the cat bus.

1. What looks easy may be incredibly hard...for now.

I am, unfortunately, rather far from being athletic, and I tend to count SADAs and dashing for the train as my usual means of exercise. On the other end of the spectrum lies my host family, with my dad, sister, and brother as some of the fittest, quickest people I’ve ever met. To put it simply, if you compared us to the Mulan song “I’ll Make A Man Outta You”, they’re the Chinese army at the end of the song, while I’m tiptoeing in at the opening notes.

An accurate depiction of me vs. the rope course

As you can probably imagine, my journey across the dangling ropes was about as speedy as a tectonic shift, or perhaps a little faster than snow melting in Boston in February. Combined with my mild fear of heights, every course felt like a spinning, palpitation-inducing eternity. Every time I’d finally clamber onto the next platform, I’d watch enviously as my host dad and siblings swiftly navigated across the ropes. They made it look so easy that I was flummoxed – if they could be so nimble, why couldn’t I?

This little girl was a 6th my age and could speak 6 times faster than me – but she did speak to me!

The answer, of course, was simple: these were activities that they had done before, and in abundance. Even if the rope courses were new, climbing, balancing, running – these were second nature to them. It’s very much the same with language – we live our lives so close to the words we speak that we barely take notice of how easy it is for us to wield them. When I first arrived in Japan, I could only look on only longingly as the conversations galloped ahead, but I’ve kept the same comforting thought in my mind: what looks easy is only difficult for now. With time and a lot of experience, I’d be trotting alongside the conversations around me. What matters, in the end, is not how long it takes for me to get across the ropes, but the fact that I’m getting across them at all.

2. Don’t sweat the reactions

As I was struggling across the rope courses, I ended up voicing my distress in a number of ways. These noises ranged from freshly hatched velociraptor to skydiving turkey, and elicited concerned questions, chuckles, and encouraging words from my host family. While they each had their own way of expressing their care, my host family as a whole never stopped watching out for me, and it was with their support that I got through each course.

A children’s picture book, or a photo of Joy mumbling in Japanese? We can’t be sure.

Over the past two months, I’ve made a wide variety of sounds in my daily life as well, though thankfully not as strangled – my attempts to acquire not just Japanese, but also Spanish, German, Korean, and Russian, have meant that an army of garbled mumbles has made its way out of my mouth. This in turn has brought on a range of responses, including but not limited to: a laughable “Ah, this one clearly reads manga” from one of the fellows in my Hippo Family upon hearing my unusual Japanese phrasing; a concerned squint as my host mother tried to figure out which Russian phrase I was attempting; slow, careful enunciation from my fellow intern Yeppi; or a happy thumbs ups from my host siblings when I figured out the right way to use a phrase they’d taught me.

Prior to LEX, I used to be incredibly self-conscious – nervous that people would find my speaking odd and eager to make every utterance perfect, I ended up spending more time stealthily checking my dictionary apps than actually talking. However, just like how you can’t look up “how to cross a tightrope” when you’re wobbling across one, I quickly came to realise that once you’re in the midst of a conversation, it makes more sense to throw yourself into it and just go with the flow. Where I used to be embarrassed when people laughed at my speech, I’ve now come to embrace it – if I can elicit a chuckle or two with my samurai speech patterns and pick up the conventional phrasing after, then I’ve succeeded both in learning the norms of the language and in making someone smile. It’s not a bad position to be in.

3. Each challenge is different and the same

Before embarking on the Forest Adventure, I don’t think I had ever seen that many permutations of rope bridges. There were tightropes, suspended nets, twisting logs, X’s and O’s, swaying ladders – every time I thought there was no other way to make a bridge, a new one would lay itself before me. However, no matter how different they were, every bridge was just a variation of the same theme – a challenge to get from one point to another. And even more comforting was the fact that waiting at the end of each set of bridges was a zipline – the process may have been a struggle all the way, but I always knew I could look forward to whizzing through the air as the scenery unfolded before me.

Seen consecutively: the different reactions to the same rope bridge, featuring my host sister and me
Internal monologue: "help"

The challenges I’ve faced in Japan follow a similar pattern – on the surface, they may look considerably different, but digging a little deeper often reveals threads of similarity. Running a multilingual workshop, giving cultural presentations to kindergarteners, and talking to new mothers about language acquisition may all seem quite distinct, but they all revolve around the same goal: to connect with people through multilingualism and multiculturalism. These challenges may occasionally have been as terrifying as being suspended on a rope, but as trying as they could be, I knew I would finish with a zipline ending – connecting with new friends and family, learning more about others’ language discoveries, or simply soaking in the warm, bright atmosphere that Hippo tends to create.

4. There’s beauty in every step

When I first started out on the Adventure, I was somewhat myopic – completely absorbed in trying to bulldoze through the course, I could barely see past the bridge before me. This single-minded determination kept me blinkered until halfway through the course, as I was shuffling onto yet another platform and plodding over to the next section – behind me, my host dad called out, “Joy! 景色!” At the time, I didn’t quite understand what he was saying, but as I looked back to see him gesturing ahead of me, I turned around to see what it was I had been ignoring: the vibrant waves of green, the yawning blue sky, the sunlight blotting the leaves – the lush, summer scenery of Tsukuba.

The evening sky in Kawagoe

It was then that I realised what I had been missing when I had been wrapped up in the task before me – no matter how nerve wracking each course was, I was surrounded by nature, by gorgeous greenery and soft forest air, and flanked by kind, caring then-strangers who would soon become my family. As I slowly got the hang of things (pun retrospectively intended), I could start noticing – and appreciating – the beauty that I was immersed in.

The pastel view on the bus ride from Narita

I started out in Japan roughly the same way – there were times when I’d get completely wrapped up in my head, where I’d worry about understanding the culture, about how slowly my language was progressing, about whether my work was up to snuff. But over time, I’ve become better at pausing, taking a slow breath, and looking up. Every time, something beautiful reveals itself to me – be it in the steam from a cup of tea, the evening blue of the Saitama sky, a new word clicking into place – and I’m reminded of how extraordinary it is to be here, in this time, in this place, with the people around me.

A hidden street in Urawa

I’ve probably worn out my rope course analogy for now, so I’ll wrap things up with a finishing note: when I followed my host family on their adventure, I knew from the start that I’d be terrified, that it’d be difficult, that there would be times when I’d be ready to give up. But somehow, I still found myself on a platform more than 80 feet in the air, carefully latching myself onto the fourth, final, highest zipline. As I leaned back into my harness and kicked off from the platform, I knew that deep down, I had no regrets.

The 金木犀 in full bloom by my train station

These past two months have zipped by, but still more beautiful and wonderful adventures stretch out before me. Every day is a 宝物 – a treasure – in its own way, no matter how simple or small. I’m holding onto my harness and still wobbling a little, but words cannot express how excited I am to stumble into the next ten months ahead. 皆んな、これからよろしくお願いします!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

初めまして!Greetings from Joy & Alex!

¡Hola! 你好!Bonjour! こんにちは!Hello!
お待たせしました!We’ve kept you waiting, but we’re finally here – at your service, the 2016-17 LEX America Intern Duo, Joy and Alex! よろしくお願いします♪ The two of us will be filling this blog with snippets of our adventures and discoveries over the next year, so keep your eyes peeled for more posts coming your way~ To kick off our blogging journey, here’s a quick introduction to the both of us!


Alex Wray

Hello there everyone, my name is Alex! I am from a small town called Alexandria, Louisiana in the United States of America! I am a senior University student at LSU. I enjoy photography, Haruki Murakami novels, and long walks on the beach.

How did you find out about LEX Hippo?
I found out about LEX/Hippo when I came to Japan in October 2015 with my grandmother. She works as an exchange student coordinator for ERDT in America and won the a trip to Japan for placing a large number of students. She was allowed to bring one person with her and she picked me! We ended up going all over Japan with Bird and Kenshi. During our travels around Japan Bird told me about the Hippo internship and I decided to apply! The rest, as they say, is history.

What’s your favourite discovery about Japan thus far?
I have made lots of discoveries in Japan so far! One, Calpis is a wonderful drink that is a gift from the gods! Two, Okonomiyaki is also wonderful! Three, Asahi Dry is the smoothest beer on the planet! Four, Elevator “close door” buttons actually work! Five, Ameyoko is the coolest place in Tokyo!

Pick a favourite SADA!
My favorite SADA song is Soran Bushi! Every time we do it I get hyped up!

Joy Chee

大家好!我的名字是Joy(^_^)请多多关照!I was born and raised on the tiny island of Singapore, but I left my little tropical home to study at Tufts University in Boston for four years. Post-graduation life has since brought me to Tokyo, the Hippo Headquarters, and into the open arms of countless wonderful people. I like cooking, writing, occasionally writing about cooking, dog-watching, collecting interesting words, and of course, Hippo activities.

How did you find out about LEX Hippo?
I stumbled across LEX in my third year of college – given my love for languages and their quirks, I knew that Hippo was something I wanted in my life. The little office in Cambridge became a warm, nurturing space where I could experiment with language while helping and being helped by the members around me. After graduating, coming to the Tokyo headquarters seemed to be the next logical step – the process has felt like discovering a whole new (and incredibly extended) family on the other side of the ocean, and I can only imagine how much bigger the family will be at the end of this year!

What’s your favourite discovery about Japan so far?
My favourite discoveries have been somewhat linked – I was incredibly excited to find cans of grass jelly, a popular Singaporean dessert, at a tiny Chinese store in Ameyoko, and was even happier when I got to speak to the shopkeeper in Mandarin. It was also a pleasant surprise to discover that Milo – Australian in origin but practically a part of the Singaporean drink identity – can be found in pretty much any Japanese supermarket, and that my host siblings also drank it as children. These two moments were little insights into how connected we can be, no matter who we are and where we come from.

Pick a favourite SADA!
Like Alex, I am a huge fan of Soran Bushi – it has a supremely かっこいい feel! – and though I’m not particularly coordinated when I do it, I love Uno Dos Tres for how energetic it is!


We're both looking forward to sharing our stories with you, and we hope you'll enjoy reading them! For a more pictorial account of our life in Japan, and a sneak peek and the other lovely interns we're working with, check us out at @internrangers on Instagram! じゃまたねー

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!!