“Spent some nights in old Kyoto, sleeping on the matted ground.” –David Bowie, ‘Move On’
Confessions of an American exchange student in Japan:
- Sometimes I go to the bathroom even when I don’t really need to because the toilet is the warmest place in the house
- I am suspicious of other foreigners I see walking on the street, and often avoid them
- I have considered buying a bicycle bell so I can ring it while walking to make ridiculously slow-moving people get out of my way by toying with their subconscious
- I avoid looking at reflective surfaces, as it reminds me that I look different from everyone else
- I have never tried so hard to conceal gagging on food as I have when I am served “vegetable jelly,” whole mushrooms, and chicken skin swimming in raw egg (all of which may or may not be combined)
Despite these minor hardships, every day I am becoming more accustomed to the Japanese lifestyle, culture, and language. In fact, even though I’ve had to give up things like central heating and air conditioning, grape jelly, transportation by car, and dinosaur fruit snacks, there are so many things that I don’t know how I’ll live without when I return to the United States. For example…once you use a washlet you can never go back. I was horrified when my friend and I went to go see a Takarazuka play last week and the toilet seats were normal! Wait, you mean, I have to manually flush this? The seat isn’t heated? How primitive!
School has been getting busier over the past few weeks, and I feel a bit guilty for locking myself in my room to do homework all the time…but perhaps it can’t be helped. Winter break starts next Saturday (Christmas Eve) and is two weeks long, ending just in time to have a week of exams before a longer break. Needless to say, my entire winter break will be taken up by studying, researching, and writing papers, hopefully with a bit of time for baking cookies (if I can figure out how to bake with the metric system and in an oven the size of a shoebox).
Over the past month I have been to Kyoto three times (train fare adds up!), and it has been interesting to see the seasons progressively change with each time I have gone. One out of many things I have taken from Japan so far is a greater appreciation of not just nature in general, but how nature isn’t rigid and changes with the seasons. The Japanese widely consider things to be more beautiful if they do not last, such as the short blooming period of cherry blossoms in spring, or the turning color of maples in fall. Only days after they reach their peak of magnificence, the color fades and the leaves start to fall. But the beauty is not truly gone, because it lies in the fact that it only lasted for so long, and that it will come again next year. I find this encouraging, and in stark contrast to the Western image of beauty. I like to think of it as conforming and adapting to one’s surroundings, rather than manipulating those surroundings to suit one’s tastes.
The first time I went to Kyoto I visited several shrines and temples, walked around the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and got to see a rare dance performance by maiko (kind of like apprentice geisha, but that’s not a completely accurate description). I also stopped by the place where noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, or The Tale of Genji. I even went to an art museum whose special exhibit was, ironically, a collection of Van Gogh paintings from the Washington National Gallery of Art. I’m halfway across the world and I…oh, never mind.
A week later I went with my Shintoism class, and we visited a couple of shrines. Interesting, but honestly, when you’ve seen a few shrines, you’ve seen most shrines. Don’t get me wrong; they’re very beautiful and each one is unique, but in a tourist group when I don’t have time to meditate on my thoughts on the shrine’s grounds, they become more of a photo op than anything else. However, the momiji, or “fall colors” were at their peak, and the vibrant colors of the scenery was truly a sight to behold.
Last Saturday I went to Kyoto yet again, this time with my Japanese culture class, where we went to a traditional Japanese sweets shop and learned how to make Japanese confections, or wakashi. They didn’t look very nice, but they certainly tasted good! Also, I found out that a Japanese stereotype of Americans is that they (not so surprisingly) love sweet things. The Japanese woman next to me asked if I liked sweets, and I answered yes. She then asked me what country I was from and when I said “America,” she responded, “Oh, yes, Americans love sweets.” …Perhaps there is some truth behind that, but really…? I also discovered during a slideshow presentation in my culture class that Japanese people view the average American lunch box as containing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and two bags of candy (which isn’t completely inaccurate, save perhaps the excessive Mike & Ike packages that were stuffed into the red, white, and blue lunch box in the image on the slide). But yes, I love sweet things, and I am an American. Reinforcing stereotypes? Perhaps. Going to do anything about this particular fact? Not likely.
So much has been going on lately that I don’t know how else to synthesize everything I’ve been up to! Last Sunday I went to go see the Kobe Luminarie with my friends, an enormous light display in memory of the devastating 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was more crowded than Disneyland on Christmas, but I’m glad I had the chance to see it. On Monday I went to go see my second Takarazuka Revue performance with my friend from Maryland, who hadn’t been yet. The Star Troupe put on a musical version of Ocean’s 11, which was absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t understand everything, but I definitely picked up more than I did the first time I went to see Takarazuka in September.
The plan for the next few weeks consists mostly of Christmas parties, karaoke, and, of course, studying. Hopefully I’ll be able to strike a nice balance, but knowing college, that probably won’t happen until I’m done with the semester. For now, I’m just taking one day at a time.
Posted on December 15, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged american exchange student, bicycle bell, central heating and air, fruit snacks, japanese lifestyle, vegetable jelly. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.