It has been one busy week of traveling to arrive at Hakodate in Hokkaido, the northernmost region of Japan. On Tuesday, June 6, I had a grueling fourteen-hour flight from Atlanta, GA to Narita Airport in Tokyo. Luckily, another student from my class and in the same summer program I am attending was on the flight with me, so it made the time pass a bit quicker. We, along with many other program participants, stayed in the grandiose Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba Hotel the night we arrived in Japan. There, my friend and I met up with a few of our other classmates who had stayed in Tokyo the week prior and were joining up with us for the program as well. They led us through the rail stations to show us Akihabara, one of the main shopping districts in Tokyo. We were able to have our first real Japanese meal, consisting of ramen and oolong tea.
Now, since Tokyo is a tourist city, they cater a lot to individuals speaking English. Therefore, it was not much of a difficulty to get around and ask for help from the natives (who were incredibly helpful). However, this ease with which we could communicate would not be as prevalent when we got to Hokkaido. Due to it being a bit more rural and not as tourist-y, Hakodate possesses less of a presence of English-speakers. Despite this, with the help of peers more skilled in speaking Japanese than myself, walking around and going out for dinner once we were in Hakodate came with relatively no concern. The La Vista Hakodate Bay was our residence for two days while we took our placement tests, until the opening ceremony. Their accommodations were just as wonderful as the ones in Tokyo, and the view from my room was terrific.
Also, apparently the buffet that our hotel serves was voted the second best breakfast establishment in Hokkaido. We were lucky enough to be able to enjoy that as well, and below is my attempt at trying a whole bunch of new Japanese foods.
Once the opening ceremony rolled around, we were all a bit nervous. This was when we would meet our homestay families for the first time, although some of us were able to contact ours beforehand. However, there was nothing to be worried about. Everyone’s first greeting was a bit awkward, but I believe we all warmed up to each of our families pretty well in a short amount of time. This was also when all of the participants split ways.
From here, I met my own homestay family, two older sisters who lived together with their dog about thirty minutes away from where classes would be held. As the younger sister, Masako, went to drive the car around, the older one, Mitsuko, talked to me for a bit. I told her my Japanese wasn’t terribly good, and she understood. Our conversation wasn’t terribly long, but I was surprised we could communicate quite well. She and her sister had been hosting HIF students for about thirty years, and Mitsuko later told me that her parents did it before she started to. After we left the hotel with my bags, we visited the kindergarten Mitsuko works at, which is not far away from the main HIF building, so she’d be able to drive me in the mornings and pick me up later. I met a few of Mitsuko’s coworkers there and since then, at dinner that night and the next day at Mass. Dinner was a bit of a difficult affair, as I barely understood much of the conversation around me and struggled to finish all the food on my plate. However, from what I did comprehend, I was able to sufficiently stay engaged in talking a bit. Additionally, I had real tempura for the first time, and it was very tasty, a norm for the food that I’m taking notice of during my time in Japan thus far.
After a stress-free shower, I headed to bed early to get some good sleep. Today, I woke up refreshed and somewhat ready for the day ahead. After breakfast, we went to Mass at the Catholic Church right next to the kindergarten. I was introduced to many people and got by with simple “Good morning”s and “Nice to meet you”s in Japanese. In Mass, I also understood very little word-for-word, but, from being to Mass so many times in my life, I could keep up with the pace and get the gist of what the priest was talking about. Afterwards, we sat for tea and coffee while chitchatting with a few more people. After seeing someone writing out a letter, I mentioned to Mitsuko if we could go out and buy some postcards for our thank-you letters. One of the gentlemen I had just met offered me a whole pack of some – with illustrious drawings of Hakodate on each – when he heard I was planning to buy some. I was grateful to him for his kindness, and after expressing our thanks, we left to go back to the house. Tonight, the sisters are throwing a party and inviting their friends, and I’m sure that it will be a whole other experience for me in my attempts at making Japanese conversation.
From the time I’ve been here, I have already garnered that it’s going to be quite a challenge constantly interacting in Japanese day-to-day. However, this has also further cemented my interest in learning more of the language and hoping to do well in class, which begins tomorrow. With cultural classes, language practice, and even more community interactions to look forward to, I’m both excited and nervous for what is to come. Wish me luck!