I was welcomed to Kansai by unbearable heat and humidity and by the wonderful Igoshi family. We took the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo early in the morning. It was incredibly fast and smooth and luxurious. That was the best part of our commute, because after we pulled into Osaka station, we took two more trains and a bus to get to Nishi Yamato High School in Nara. All told, it took over 4 hours to get to our destination. By that time, I was sweating through my shirt and wishing my duffel bag had wheels.
I kind of accidentally dozed off during the presentations because it was so hot. The school was enormous. And there were a lot more students there on a Saturday than I was expecting, but I later learned that was normal for everyone to be in school on Saturday. We removed our shoes and put on slippers upon entering the school. A whole flood of students entered the room and I knew that one of them was my host brother, but I had no way of knowing which one. And as I stood up on the stage to introduce myself, it occurred to me that he would know me before I knew him.
Later in the day, we did officially meet. Here are Issei, Miwa and Masato:
I have the best host family in the world. I was unexpectedly greeted by a firm hug from my host father. My host brother, Issei, will be in my group this week. I quickly found that his English is quite good. His parents insisted that their English is not very good, but that’s not true. Sometimes, he even asks them for help translating.
Issei likes to play soccer and is a big FC Barcelona fan. He, too, is addicted to Pokemon Go. He is in his second year of high school. He travels an hour to get to school and doesn’t get home until 7pm. I try not to talk too much because I feel like I’m wearing him out since he has to translate everything for himself and for his parents. I’ve seen my students the last two weeks and they’re always exhausted after a day of practicing English. I’m always with Issei, so I try to give him a break sometimes. I wish I spoke more Japanese. I learned a couple of words in the Osaka dialect like umai for oishii.
My host mom works 3 days a week at the local kindergarten a short walk from their home in Sakai, Osaka. She really likes children so she claims to like having me around the house because I’m like her second child. She treats me very well. She even drew me a bath! In Japan, you shower to clean yourself and then take a bath to relax. And the whole family shares the same water, which is why you first have to clean yourself. I didn’t intend on taking a bath, but how could I not? It was indeed relaxing. And when I emerged, there was magically a floor towel waiting for me outside the shower. She gave me a face towel, a body towel and a shower towel for soap, which I didn’t know how to use but was too polite to say so. The face towels are the size of hand towels and hand towels are the size of face towels. The body towel is made out of some material that is not conducive to soaking up water. It doesn’t run smoothly across my skin–it kind of gets stuck. It just takes a little more work to dry myself. And she did my laundry! Somehow she knew that I just hate doing laundry. And not only that, it came back dry and wrinkle-free. They actually do laundry every day here. So I didn’t need to bring so much clothes. The water used for the tub is allegedly hooked up to the machine, so it doesn’t waste water. It is so humid here, that you sweat right through your clothes, so they need to be washed often.
My host dad works for a railroad company. He works very long hours–he regularly gets home at 10pm and then eats dinner after we’ve already finished. He is a very fashionable man with his fancy hat. He drove us in their black Toyota and I remembered how much I miss being driven places. He has a great sense of humor. We were told by Yuuki that Kansai people are stereotypically very funny. Not a bad stereotype to have. So he said if we make a gun motion and pretend to shoot, they will raise their hands up. Issei confirmed that this is a real thing. But I have yet to try it. We didn’t believe Yuuki, but he was telling the truth. Host papa has refused to let me pay for things. He literally pushed me away. I thought it was just Chinese people that fought over the bill…or maybe I just wasn’t being aggressively Chinese enough.
They are very comfortable with me. My host dad patted me on the butt. And he also had no problem changing clothes in front of me in the living room, where he also fell asleep watching TV (like dad does). And my host brother walks around in his underwear. It’s like I’m actually a part of the family.
I got a tour of the house, which is two floors. I got a pair of slippers, though no one else wears them. Much like my shared house, there is a fancy toilet on the ground floor and a regular western toilet on the second floor. Toilets in homes have fuzzy covers on the lid sometimes and a floor mat/carpet that curves around the base of the toilet. The toilet paper holder on the wall has a knitted covering and a second roll hangs in a pouch underneath the toilet paper holder. Also, to insert a new roll, you don’t have to deal with those stupid rods. There is a small stick on either end so the rod doesn’t go all the way through, just enough to hold it up. And you can easily pull it out because the sticks pivot. But also like my shared house, the sink is only on the first floor. They have a great sink though. It is huge and the faucet sprays water like a shower head. The entryway has a beautiful painting by Issei’s relative. The living room has a long couch and a shorter couch along the back wall. And a TV in the corner with a Wii. There is a small four-person dining table, which is barely big enough for Japanese style dining. And by Japanese style dining, I mean lots of little plates. You get a new little plate/bowl for each dish served. And each dish is also in its own little plate. Japan is really into compartmentalizing, hence bento boxes (More dishes for them to refuse to let me clean). They have a shiny red refrigerator and in the kitchen is a giant wooden cabinet full of kitchenware. There is a clock on the wall that plays a different beautiful melody every hour. And then there’s lots of open space where you might otherwise find a coffee table. It’s the Japanese minimalism aesthetic. Each room has a door that is tightly sealed to keep in the AC. You can’t even see light escape the room. My room is on the second floor. Not only do I have a bed (I am so thankful for that after sleeping 3 weeks on the floor) but I also have a nightstand and a desk. I finally have furniture!
Having only had some food from the konbini for lunch, we had an early dinner around 5pm at the local mall, which was enormous. There is a “street” dedicated to restaurants and I picked the shabu shabu restaurant, basically hot pot. Of course, there is a whole process to eating hot pot. It cooks in the soup and you make your own sauce and dip the meat and vegetables and noodles into your sauce. I had 3 small plates which I alternated through. You go up to the bar to self-serve vegetables and noodles and tofu and they all rest on a bed of dry ice. The food was so good. And I ate so much meat and vegetables, two things I don’t think I’ve been getting enough of lately. At the start of the meal, you put your hands together (almost in prayer?) and say itadekimasu. The actual connotation may be more like saying grace before eating, but I think it is predominantly used like bon apetit. It’s the hands that confuse me over the meaning though. You also say something after the meal which I have been taught a few times now and yet the words keep escaping me. But I just googled it and it’s gochiso sama deshita.
After dinner we played at the arcade, which took up about half the floor. The four of us played air hockey and I lost to host mama at Mario Kart. Real mama back home would never play Mario Kart with me. But here, the arcades are primarily adults, not kids. We also played some crane games, which are generally impossible. But there are so many of them. They’re very popular here. I won some gummy candies.
Then we went down to the grocery store to buy some snacks. The Japanese are well known for their snacks. Walk into any 7-11 and you’ll see shelves full of tasty snacks you’ve never seen before, like multiple flavors of kit kat (I got raspberry). They spoil me. We got a whole assortment of candies and cookies and drinks for me to try. The drinks are essential in this heat. When we went out on Sunday, we stopped twice to get drinks. That’s also why there are vending machines everywhere. When you buy ice cream, you get a bag of ice to put in your bag so it doesn’t melt. And there are so many kinds of ice cream I’ve never seen .They don’t really sell tubs, just individual portions. They have flavors like ramune and matcha. And they also sell ice cream in small bottle shaped pouches that you bite out of (like the ices that come in one long pouch with a breakable section in the middle) and they’re coffee flavor. I had a small cup of fruity peach ice/smoothie/ice cream. It has the texture of ice cream, but chunks of ice and the taste of a smoothie. And you pay for everything and the cashier places it back in the basket so you can go off and pack your bags somewhere else.
Last year, he did a home stay in Utah. His school does this trip every year. His school is one of the top five in the Kansai region. They have a partnership with Brigham Young University. It’s a little random that they go to Salt Lake City and Provo of all places in the US, but it actually makes so much sense after some more thought. I don’t want to discount Mormons as a generally nice people, but Mormonism is also an apostatizing religion. Issei’s host family took him to church and he said it was boring. On this trip, they also visit Los Angeles and San Francisco. And they also all get iPads at school, though they are locked so that they can’t download apps, even educational ones. This school does lots of trips. There is one to Harvard for two weeks, Vancouver for three months, Cambodia/Vietnam to build houses, and even India. This school is loaded. It used to be a boys only school, but a couple of years ago they started admitting girls. They have dorms on campus for people that live too far away, though two hours is not too far away for some of these kids. They are strictly not allowed to use cell phones, even in the dorms, which is kind of ridiculous. They have to use a pay phone to call their parents! And they have school on Saturday. That might have been the saddest thing. I also just found out that Cirque du Soleil is coming to their school in September to perform Totem. I don’t know how they got that to happen, but that’s pretty incredible.
Issei told me they have had a home stay before. Two girls (one American and one Australian) stayed for 3 days or so at their house, but I have the longest home stay and obviously I’m better. They taught dance/song at Issei’s school. English might be a little more valuable for them.
So Sunday was a sightseeing day. My host family took me out. But first, we had a breakfast feast at home. I am someone who does not normally eat breakfast, or I might eat a small breakfast. But we had a lot of food for breakfast and I did my best to eat it all. Part of it was a salad, which I diligently ate. There was also some sausage, bacon, and lots of bread topped with deviled eggs and relish. And sweet corn soup, which I drank cold. I think someone must have told them that Americans eat a lot for breakfast. Because every breakfast I have had has been enormous. I had corn soup, with pizza toast and salad and yogurt. And another morning, I had an enormous bowl of dipping noodles (for breakfast) with yogurt and cereal. They are feeding so much food and my body is not used to eating that much.
We started the day at Osaka castle. We drove to Tennoji station and took the train from there. I have a card for the train, but my host family refused to let me pay for my train ticket. And thus began a day of awkwardly trying to pay for things and not succeeding. We went up the gorgeous Osaka castle. It was restored about twenty years ago to its Edo-period glory following significant damage from WWII air raids. The castle is beautiful. There is a museum inside full of scrolls and other objects from the Edo period. I don’t think Issei cared much for museums, but I like that kind of stuff. The view from the top was less impressive than the view of the castle itself from outside. There are golden fishes where you would find gargoyles in a European church. While I wasn’t looking, my host parents bought me a souvenir. On the grounds, there were volunteers who dress in samurai uniforms and take pictures with people. They pull out their swords to reveal long tongs for picking up garbage. These old men in the blistering heat are volunteers! They mostly take pictures with Chinese tourists. There are so many Chinese tours here. Cantonese and Mandarin. I heard lots of both. The grounds are enormous. The castle is located behind two large moats in the middle of a large park. And of course, it was hot.
My host dad bought takoyaki and yakisoba and a peach drink for me. So this was lunch after eating a large breakfast. They ate some takoyaki, but the food was really all for me and Issei. I felt really awkward eating if my host parents weren’t going to eat. But I ate and it was delicious. There was a magician doing some tricks by the castle. He was pretty good. This is when I discovered Issei’s interest in magic. And I showed him the David Beckham trick from Britain’s Got Talent.
Then we took a taxi to Shitennoji Temple, which features a tall pagoda and a giant statue of the eleven faced god next to a large Buddha, backed by hundreds of smaller Buddhas. The statues were surrounded by beautiful murals on the wall depicting the life of Buddha. There was a chanting monk who must’ve been there for hours just chanting. My host family also bought me lots of luck, probably enough for the rest of my life. You throw a coin into the box and clap twice and bow. In their presence, I couldn’t not participate. I also rubbed the head of the Buddha statue onto my own head, and then his arms, and then his legs. There was another smaller statue that you lift up and if it is the weight you expect then you get good luck; if it is heavier then you get bad luck. And then they bought me a fortune that predicted I would have money and love and the whole shebang. It is the first Buddhist temple in Japan according to Wikipedia. I learned some stuff about the place while I was there, but I obviously didn’t understand the Japanese. There were signs up prohibiting Pokemon Go from the premises. That must’ve just went up this week.
Then we walked over the Abenobashi terminal building. We stopped to buy drinks twice because it is so hot. The convenience stores sure are convenient. I was also forbidden from paying here. The Abenobashi building used to be the tallest in Japan before Skytree went up. It is part office building, part hotel, part museum, part train station, part department store and part mall. We went up to the observatory deck, which was free. The museum was showing a Star Wars exhibit. Issei has never seen Star Wars! But he was at least familiar with the music. I would have made him watch it this week, but he is quite diligent, and always goes to do his homework around 10pm.
We had Chinese for dinner. The soupy buns were thinner than I’m used to in New York. By no means were they bad, but I prefer our NY Chinese food. This restaurant has apparently been around forever. Each dish comes in its own plate which is then partitioned into four small plates. And you use a new plate for each dish that comes out. Again, they love to compartmentalize…and to wash dishes, I’m guessing. We ordered a seafood fried rice, and I was given the lone piece of lobster. And I felt awkward eating it. But I couldn’t really turn it down either. They were almost being uncomfortably nice to me.
The car was parked in a parking lot. The lots here have no attendants. A lot of these kinds of jobs have been automated. You roll into a spot over a bump, which then triggers a flap to rise preventing your car from leaving. This way the lot can also keep track of which spots are taken and which are full. Whether there is open space is prominently displayed in lights on a board. Then you pay at the machine when you return to release the flap and then you’re on your way. It is kind of genius. Machines also take the place of waiters at restaurants. I have also noticed that staff are not trusted with money. Cash registers are locked. You simply insert your money, and then it spits out change. The staff do not have access to the contents of the register.
It wasn’t too late by the time we got home, but all the heat and walking tired me out. I took a nice bath because I take baths now. And I also discovered how to take pictures off my camera. So in this post, you’ll see pictures shot from a real camera, not just my phone.