Back in the US, thinking of Japan and my Host Family

I can’t believe that I am already walking on the right side of the sidewalk again, and handing store clerks my credit card with only one hand instead of two, and throwing trash in public outdoor trash cans instead of having to carry it home. After 8 weeks, I felt like I was really starting to get the hang of Japanese culture! I was finally automatically using the Japanese filler “ano” instead of “um”, and was getting used to using all my new grammar in everyday speech, and now I can hardly imagine what it will be like to try to continue studying the language without it surrounding me all day every day!

That said, I’m really excited to continue learning, and I hope to eventually achieve a high  level of proficiency! I am determined to find my way back to Japan, whether I can get an internship there, or possibly find a job there for a little while, or go there between graduation and grad school with the JET program for teaching English there. I really want to be able to use my Japanese in the future, and be a link between Japanese and American cultures. This program has really changed my life, and I am so grateful for the opportunity!


Above is the nighttime view from Mount Hakodate, overlooking the city with the ocean on either side. It’s the most famous sight in all of Hakodate, and I remember taking a trip to the top of the moment with my host parents on the last night. This picture is very sentimental!


Also, near the end of the program, my host parents symbolically welcomed me into their family by christening me with my own kanji name. My name in Japanese is アリソン (arison) which has to be written in the Japanese phonetic syllabary used for foreign names. Japanese people use the borrowed Chinese characters, kanji, to write their own names. So, my host parents found me kanji that have the correct pronunciations for my name and gave me my own Japanese name: 愛里孫 (a – love; ri – home, son – granddaughter). Basically every Japanese person has their own stamp with their name that they can use to sign formal letters or artwork; it’s often given to them on their 20th birthday, and is an important cultural symbol. My host parents generously had a stamp made for me with my new kanji name. Below is a picture of my stamp (center) alongside my two host mothers’. I will treasure it forever!


I will be missing Hakodate for a long time! What an incredible experience! I can’t wait to return!

More Truly Japanese Experiences

One emerging trend in modern Japanese culture is the concept of animal “cafes”. These are little shops that let you pay by the hour to play with a particular type of animal – the various cafes include all kinds, ranging from cats to owls! Originally created Tokyo, where it is difficult for many residents to own their own pets, these animal cafes have spread all over Japan, and I had the opportunity to visit a couple of them and experience this neat piece of Japanese culture for myself. These cafes fit right in with Japanese Kawaii culture! It was a lot of fun – I wish they had some of these back in the US!

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Above I am visiting a dog cafe, which consisted of a large room full of poodles, beagles, and a golden retriever! The customer just sits down on the floor, and dogs come running over looking for pets. The dogs love the attention, the people love the dogs, and it seems like a win-win set-up! They only allow a certain number of people in the room at once, of course, and the line was far out the door. Turns out this is really popular!

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Next was the rabbit cafe! In a room full of the most adorable rabbits I had ever seen, you could sit on a stool and pet a rabbit in your lap, switching rabbits every 10 minutes. Another great idea for a business!! I wouldn’t want the responsibility of owning a rabbit, but being able to play with them for an hour was a lot of fun. I can see why the Japanese really like their animal cafes!


Finally, another great cultural experience I had was the kickoff to the annual Hakodate Port Festival, which was a brilliant fireworks display. Summer festivals are a big deal in northern Japan, where the winters are long, and generally the whole town becomes involved somehow, whether it be in the parade, selling festival food, or visiting the street stands and the events. Most people wear Yukatas (summer kimonos) to festivals, and I got to wear mine and be a part of the fun. The fireworks were spectacular – I learned Japanese firework shows are always long, dramatic, and impressive, and this one was no exception! The following day I walked through the street stands observing the festival food – including colored chocolate-covered bananas on sticks, shaved frozen fruit (frozen fruit through a shave ice machine – amazing!) and yakisoba (a fried noodle dish). There was a also a huge parade (with 10,000 people in it!) featuring lots of squid dancing – Hakodate’s signature dance. This was an amazing experience for the last week of my stay in Hakodate. I hope that someday I have reason to wear my Yukata to a festival again!

Japanese Kindergartens

More on Japanese schools! I had a day off from school, and I spent it at my host mother’s kindergarten. She is the head teacher at this school, and so let me shadow the entire day, through classes as well as free play time. It was very fun and cute, as well as a fascinating experience!

Japanese kindergartens include ages 3-5, kind of like Montessori school. Interestingly, they have uniforms to wear to and from school, and then another uniform to change into after they get to school (clothes they can more easily run around in).


Kids arrive at around 8:30, and the school remains open until 6pm, although many kids are picked up by 2 or 3. The school day consists of free indoor and outdoor play periods alternating with formal “lesson” type periods, lunch and exercise. It is interesting the emphasis they place on exercise in Japan. There is this routine set of exercises to a particular musical track that many people in Japan seem to do often if not daily, and the kids are taught these exercises at school.

In their lessons, sometimes there will be organized arts and crafts, other times, they will learn songs or play musical instruments, or study the Japanese “alphabets” (hiragana and katakana) and read books. Each day there is a student who is the “teacher’s helper”, and they will stand in front of the class to start the day with announcements and use formal greetings to greet each member of the class. This routine seems to be a way fro them to practice using formal classroom Japanese, because at all other times they use plain forms, even when talking to the teachers! Since kids are always spoken to in plain forms, it makes sense that they would not have learned how to speak in “desu” and “masu” (polite sentence forms), which they will of course need to know for formal classroom settings soon, so it makes sense that kindergarten would be the place for them to learn this. It is funny that I have a much easier time speaking in “desu” and “masu” than plain forms because I learned those first! It didn’t occur to me before how they may be difficult for children.

Trying to speak to the kids in plain forms was good practice. Other than the exercises, polite speech practice, and tiny adorable bento boxes served at lunch, the kindergarten and the kids there seemed to be pretty similar to US preschools/kindergartens. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to spend a day here! The kids were so awesome!IMG_4250

Asahi Elementary School Visit


We had the opportunity to pay a visit to one of Hakodate’s public elementary schools! They taught us Hakodate’s signature dance, the “Ika Odori” (squid dance – Hakodate is very famous for its squid!) and then broke into small groups and played games with us. I was with a 6th grade class, and we had a lot of fun! It was somewhat challenging to try to teach them games in Japanese, but we were able to get laughs playing Pictionary telephone and Duck Duck Goose. Being able to communicate with them was really exciting because I was able to talk around words I didn’t know in a way that I definitely could not have done weeks earlier! It was also interesting to learn a bit about the school system. First through sixth grades are all part of elementary school in Japan, and it did look like 6th graders still had elementary-school style classrooms and lessons. Middle school here is 7th through 9th, and high school is only 10th through 12th. Also, the 6th graders were busy studying fro their middle school entrance exams (!!). Before entering middle school and high school, Japanese students must take an aptitude test, their score on which entirely determines which middle school or high school they will be able to attend and is a significant factor in their future success. That seems rather high-pressure to me for such young kids! Many of them attend cram schools after school each day to help prepare for the test.

This was a pretty neat experience!


Sapporo Trip


During the mid-program break, I had the chance to travel to Sapporo! It was a really neat city, and I got to visit the famous zoo, stroll through the beautiful Odori Park, see the TV tower, and even experience the Japanese “game center”. Japanese game centers, or arcades, are absolutely full of claw machines, except unlike in the US, they’re actually winnable! As a result, claw machines have become a huge part of Japanese culture. I can see why people get addicted – they are winnable but only just barely, in such a way that one always feels as though they will succeed with just one more try, one more try! Eventually, you will win, but only after you’ve spent way more money than the prize is worth. But perhaps it’s worth it to try it out once for the experience and the fun! It took me more tries than I’m willing to admit, but I was able to win myself a huge, adorable hamster. Japanese cute culture continues to amaze me – I don’t know how they can make so many random products so darn cute!


Also in Sapporo we were able to try my host family’s #1 favorite ramen place, where we ordered Sapporo’s specialty – butter corn miso ramen. It was a completely different experience from eating ramen in the US! Even though ramen is originally from China, and even thought of as “Chinese food” to people in Japan, it has been highly “Japanicised”, and these kinds are definitely types of ramen you could only find in this countryIMG_4185!

My Wonderful Japanese Host Family

I can hardly believe it, but I’ve been living in Japan for exactly a month now! My experience so far has been absolutely incredible, and everything that I had hoped for! That said, it has also been much busier and more challenging than I had expected, and somehow I let a whole month go by without writing a post. There is so much to talk about, and so I’d like to focus this post on my incredible host family, who, it turns out, are the most amazing people in the world!

Having only studied Japanese for one year before arriving here, I have to admit that I was very worried about communicating with a host family that didn’t speak any English. The first few days were extremely challenging indeed. In fact, I barely spoke at all. But it is indeed true that when plunging into an immersive environment with little background knowledge, one absorbs language really fast! Additionally, it helps that one of my host moms is a kindergarten teacher, and thus is used at using easy words and simplifying her grammar. I have reached the point where I can comfortably speak about nearly any everyday topic with my host parents, and it is such a great environment to practice all the new vocabulary and grammar outside of the classroom.

My host family consists of two sisters in their late 50s and their energetic shetland sheepdog, Lucky (ラッキー). Lucky and I became quick friends! I quickly got to know all the Japanese commands he knows.

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My host parents have introduced me to so many things! My first weekend, we visited the strawberry farm near their house. I was so surprised to see so much farmland right in Hakodate, and the strawberries were the sweetest, brightest ones I had ever encountered.

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On my birthday, my family hosted this amazing potluck and invited all their friends to come meet me! It was really fantastic to hear about all their different stories, and also to try all of the amazing food. I was very surprised by how much Japanese food I had never heard of! I thought I knew what Japanese food was, but the vast majority of the foods at the potluck were brand-new to me (and delicious).

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One day, we tried the most amazing ice cream shop, which is very famous throughout all of Japan. They sell actual ice cream sandwiches – meaning a scoop of vanilla ice cream on an actual bun! The bun is a special Japanese bread called melon bread, which is a kind of sweetbread. The ice cream goes into the bun right as it comes out of the oven, and the combination is surprisingly incredible. The name of the shop is 「世界で2番めにおいしい焼きたてメロンパンアイス」which translates as “The second most delicious melon bread ice cream in the world”. It’s an odd name indeed, since it’s the only melon bread ice cream in the world, but my host parents explained that the shop was just being humble. What an interesting cultural nuance!


One of my favorite activities was going to the 「運動会」(undoukai – “sports day”) that my host mom’s kindergarten held. An undoukai is a very fun modern Japanese tradition similar to field day in the US, except it’s held on a weekend, takes up the entire day, and all the parents and even grandparents come and participate in field games, relays, and dances. The kids were adorable, and everyone had a blast. What a great community-building tradition!


There’s even more. For my birthday, my host parents insisted on getting me my very own yukatta (summer kimono) which was amazing. One of the other teachers at the kindergarten happens to be a kimono etiquette teacher as well, and came over to teach me how to wear it (it is surprisingly difficult). I think I’ve got it down, although I still cant tie it as well as she can! I can’t wait to wear it at the Hakodate Port Festival in August.

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The transition to life in Japan has been a crazy experience, definitely difficult at times, and even more of a different world than I had predicted. I’m amazed at the all the new aspects of everyday culture that I’ve been introduced to, and by how far my language skills have come in just one month. I’m so excited for the second half!