Goodbye Japan!

I flew out of Hakodate earlier today and it still feels strange, even though I have yet to actually leave Japan. There is already a very apparent shift, in that I have heard more English today from other people than I have in a long while. It will only get more different when I fly into Canada and Japanese becomes almost nonexistent around me.

These past two months have been incredible, and often also felt incredibly long. Now I feel as if I have barely gotten started. It seems like such a cliché, but where has the time gone?

The other day,  Mitsuko told me that it was not “さよなら “(“sayonara”) that I should say to them when I leave. She told me that I should say “行って来ます,”  which is what I say leaving the house each day. It means I will go and come back eventually. They explained that this would signify that I am going to come back to Japan, and at that time we would see each other again and I would say the greeting I say when I return to the house each day, “ただいま” (“I’m home”).

As I was leaving today, it indeed felt like I was leaving home, and Hakodate and my host family were indeed a second home to me these past two months. I know that when I head back to the US I will surely get homesick for Hakodate and my host family there.

As I left and said my temporary farewells to Mitsuko and Masako, I could not help but feel so lucky and so grateful for being able to come to Japan. While I cannot wait to see my family after a long two months, I really do hope that I will get the chance to say “I’m home” again to Japan. Advancing in Japanese this summer and having all the wonderful memories in Hakodate have only made me more determined to continue my studies in Japanese.

So while this might be goodbye to Japan for now, this is no さよなら. I will go, and I will come back, Japan. Until then.

日本 and the US

In order to find out how local Japanese people view the US, I interviewed the two members of my host family and a teacher from the kindergarten my host mom works at.

When asked what the first thing to pop into their minds about the US was, two out of the three said the Statue of Liberty. They also mentioned other famous landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. When asked hw they felt about the US, mostly I got very positive responses. They said things like they love or like the US, and that it seems very “cool” to them. They also said it was somewhere they would like to travel. One person also said that when they think about the US, they think of how much larger it is than Japan, and also that they are jealous that the houses are much larger in Japan.

When they were asked about possible things they disliked about the US, biggest answer I received was about the fact that people are allowed to carry guns in the US. My host family expressed the sentiment that they thought this is a dangerous practice, and wished that it was different. Someone also said they thought the portion sizes in the US were extremely large, and that when they are in the US they can ever finish their meals.

We started talking about some of the cultural differences between Japan and the US, and something that my host family said they really like about the US is that there is equality between men and women. They said that in Japanese culture, women and men still are considered quite equal, and they like the fact that men and women are seen in the same light in the US. Another cultural difference mentioned in one interview was that they think Americans are open-minded. They said that because the US is so big and has so many different kinds of people, the people there are much more open-minded and willing to accept people who are different. One person said that Americans are less judgmental due to the openness in the US.

Finally, the both teachers said that they liked the American education system better than the Japanese one. One of them said it is due the fact that it is more varied and less rigid than the Japanese system. One said it is more open to individualism, which is something they appreciate.

Overall, the interviews were really interesting for seeing how people from a different country view the US and US citizens. It was fun to do, and afterwards we switched and they wanted to know what I thought about Japanese culture and its quirks. I really enjoyed all the conversations we had and it was an interesting opportunity for cultural exchange.






Hakodate いか!

Yesterday, I went out to eat with my host family for the last time to a sushi restaurant. One of the kinds of sashimi we ordered was the Ika (“squid”) sashimi. Ika is a local Hakodate specialty, and the squid serves as a sort of mascot for the city as well. In the Hakodate Asaichi (“morning market”), there is even a tank of live squid where customers can pay to catch their own squid, which will then be freshly prepared on the spot into sashimi. When I visited the market two weeks ago with my host family, I watched a crowd of people queue up to get a chance to catch their own squid for breakfast!

I asked some questions about the local specialty dish, ika sashimi, in order to find our more about how it is made and what distinguishes good from bad ika. The restaurant was quite busy, so I also supplemented some of the answers from the staff of the restaurant with answers from my host family.

The best way to prepare Ika sashimi is to cut it extremely fast, because the hands are warm, and holding the squid to long makes it less fresh because of the heat from the hands. The best way is to cut it up while it is still alive. The best ika sashimi is as fresh as possible, and the only ingredient is the raw squid meat. It is served with pickled ginger and they suggested dipping the ika in soy sauce mixed with the pickled ginger.

The best ika is really clear and see through, while bad or less fresh ika is white or cloudy. Good ika also has a very fresh chewy, almost rubbery texture. It makes a certain noise when you chew it. Bad ika is more soft and slimy, and has a more gooey texture.

The reason Ika is so popular locally is because the ocean in between the city of Hakodate and Aomori on Honshu has lots of really delicious squid in it. This city makes quite a bit of its living off of the port, and specifically the squid that come in from the fishing boats in the port.

Squid is a huge part of this city’s identity. My host family told me that one of the number one things Japanese people know Hakodate for is squid. There is even the Ika Odori (“Squid Dance”) that everyone who grows up here knows. My friends and I actually learned it for the Port Festival last week and did it in the parade last Friday.

There are also tons of squid themed shops, souvenirs, and other foods available for tourists and locals alike. All in all, squid is an important aspect of Hakodate culture, food, and history, and the city would not be the same without it.





Churches and Hakodate

In Hakodate, there are several historic churches in the sightseeing district of the city. Among the three or four churches, there is the Motomachi Catholic Church, which my host family and I frequent on Sunday. In Hakodate, there are three Catholic Churches, but only two priests to say Mass. As such, the priests alternate churches every week. These churches are fairly small, and lots of the members know each other very well.

In Japan, Christians are part of the religious minority, as the large majority of the Japanese population identifies as Shinto or Buddhist. As this is hugely different from the United States, I was very interested to see how this affected my host family’s identity as Japanese people and their social identity. I wanted to see how it differs from my experiences as a Catholic in the US, where the religious majority is heavily Christian. I interviewed my host family to ask them how they felt about being in the social and religious minority as a Catholic.

First, I asked how they felt about being in the religious minority. They told me that because there is freedom of religion in Japan, they feel that they are treated much the same as everyone else. They explained that when they inform other people they are Catholic, they do not get any special kind of reaction, and instead feel as if their treatment is very normal. They said that although their church is extremely small, and they know quite a lot of the people there, they still feel as if the community is not closed off from the rest of the community. They told me they are very open to the community and have both Catholic and non-Catholic friends and acquaintances.

I was interested to find out how similar their experiences theirs were to mine as a Catholic. It was interesting to see that even being largely outnumbered almost 10 to 1 they said their social identity was not particularly affected. I was very excited to find out more about Catholicism in Japan, and was really glad we had an opportunity to discuss their cultural experiences in conjunction with their religious ones.



Hakodate Port Festival

This week in Hakodate, the Hakodate Minato Matsuri (“Port festival”) is held. It includes an hourlong fireworks show held in the Bay Area on Wednesday, attended by throngs of people wearing summer yukata. I watched these fireworks from my host mom’s workplace, a kindergarten with a nice view of the port. On Thursday, there is a large parade through the Bay Area and stalls for food are set up for the parade-goers. Today, Friday, there is a second parade in a different part of the city, where I will do the Ika Odori (“Squid Dance”) along with many other groups and companies.

In order to find out more about this week’s festival and holidays, I went to the local Motomachi tourism office to ask what the festival is about. At the tourism office, I received a map and information about the different parade routes through the city. The festival is a yearly one according to the office. They also informed me there would be different special events held, but did not give me very much background information on the origins of the festival or why it is held yearly. Due to the fact that it is a tourism office, their approach was primarily focused on tourism rather than history.

Later the same day, I repeated my questions to my host mother in an effort to see how someone in a non-official capacity would explain the festival. She gave me a surprisingly lengthy rundown of the history and told me almost nothing about the actual events that take place. She informed me that the festival is held due to Hakodate being one of the first places in Japan to open its port to non-Japanese ships, and so the port festival commemorates that opening and the coming of Matthew Perry, an American who contributed to its opening to other countries.

The festival has extreme cultural significance to Hakodate, as embedded in this city’s identity is the port and the goods provided by it. The largest difference between the accounts I received regarding the festival was the focus of each one. The tourism office clearly prioritized informing me about the special events that bring visitors, while my host mom wanted to tell me about the history of Hakodate, something she is proud of as someone who grew up here.

Weeks 1-2


Haneda airport in Tokyo

I have been in Japan for almost two weeks and I finally feel as if I am getting settled in. When I first arrived the Wednesday before last in the Haneda (Tokyo) airport, I had started to get very nervous, as there was this transition in landing there from seeing mostly English to mostly Japanese. Then, once I arrived in the significantly smaller Hakodate airport the amount of English dropped down to pretty much zero, as did the number of people speaking English. Those first few days were a bit nerve-racking what with not having spoken Japanese all that much for almost a month and it definitely gave my confidence a shake, but since then I can say that it has been all uphill.

The group from HIF met at the airport and then spent the first few hours getting carted around from the train station to the tram station and then finally to the youth hostel where we stayed for the first two nights of our stay here in Hakodate. I was able to get acquainted with some of the other students and we were all given passes to the nearby traditional onset for baths for the night. It was a really interesting experience and definitely very different from anything back in the US, but I can say that I would gladly go again because it was also extremely relaxing. In the onset there was also even a restaurant, where we were able to get our first meal in Hakodate outside of the hostel!

I met my host family consisting of two sisters that weekend and got to unpack and relax, and on Monday classes began. They have been pretty great so far, even with having class three hours a day. We get to do an Independent Study project where we can explore things we are interested about Japanese culture, and so I am going to look into different sports and ways to exercise around Hakodate, such as martial arts, hiking, or swimming.

Along those lines, I tried kendo and kyudo last week! Kyudo was really hard because the arrows just kind of went into the grass. I only hit one target (and it was the wrong one three targets over) but it was awesome to watch the high school kids do it really well. Kendo was super fun because I got to wear a cool outfit (pictured!), yell, and swing a wooden sword around. It was kinda scary at first because we were just hitting the sensei in the head repeatedly, which was mildly worrisome, but after we all adjusted it was pretty great.

This last weekend I went hiking (for the first time!) with friends up the most well known mountain in the area, Hakodate mountain (函館山). It was insanely beautiful and I plan to hike it again to explore more of the trails. Later this week I get to try judo and take a kimono etiquette class, both of which I am super excited about! I am trying to take advantage of all of the culture classes available as I know that I will most likely never get an opportunity quite like this one.