Remembering Japan

This coming December, it would be 5 years since my unforgettable trip to Japan via the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange Students and Youths (JENESYS). The program was initiated by the Japanese government to strengthen ties and improve understanding between Asian nations by inviting foreign students to experience their country. As far as I can remember, the program was supposed to run for 5 years. Since it started in 2007 (to which I was lucky enough to be part of the pioneer batch), I’m guessing the last batch will leave/has left this year. During my time, the organization responsible for screening the 60 students and 6 teacher participants was American Field Services (AFS) but according to Google, National Youth Commission now performs the task and the period of stay was shortened to 10 days from 14.

This was unexpected back then because in my honest opinion, I failed the interview miserably. I stuttered a lot during the 30-minute question and answer portion while the panel interrogated me and at the same time probed into my answers. “Define a leader”, they asked. “A leader is a good follower”, I answered. “That’s so cliche, wala na bang iba?”, they dared with raised eyebrows.

Come to think of it, the interview happened during this time of the year or sometime in September. I received the confirmation later that I passed, along with tons of requirements on October that year, after I lost in an inter-school quiz bee. At first I had doubts as to the genuineness of those pieces of paper but when there’s an affidavit signed by a lawyer included, you couldn’t really question the integrity.

Fast forward to Japan. I had some inhibitions during the first few days because, (listen to this) I was homesick. The probinsyana who has never been away from her family and her town for more than a week was in a foreign land, surrounded by strangers of different nationalities. Filipinos, especially those from the province, have the tendency to feel inferior when put beside, let’s say, an Australian. I felt the same. Good thing I learned that stereotypes will forever remain stereotypes unless you go around and break out of them yourself.

In memory of those 2 wonderful (not to mention all-expense paid) weeks in the land of the rising sun which triggered my love for going places and broadened my perspective, I’ll share some moments through the meager pictures I took (less than 200, boo! thanks to the low-tech digicam. Heck it even had the dates stamped in yellow) and try to relive the joy, changes, improvements, whatever I could, in between those stills.

The company that was in-charge of the tour was JTB and they did a pretty efficient job in accommodating 600 participants from 8 countries. First off, they divided the group into three for the different study tours in different prefectures of Japan. The only time we were put in one place was during the Tokyo Study tour and the Lunch Reception. For the former, we went to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) which houses this globe with the actual weather forecast.

The place was full of cool scientific stuff that ranged from robots to space shuttle machines and many more.

That was when I first noticed Japan’s cleanliness. After the museum, we headed out to some tropical garden and greenhouse I forgot the name of.

The next day was the Lunch Reception at Tokyo Big Sight where the participants get to mingle as a huge group. We were required to wear our national costumes. The Philippine delegates are pictured below.

With Nicky who gave me comfort beyond compare during the program since we were the only two participants from Isabela.

After the lunch reception we separated into three groups to simultaneously experience the three study tours (ST) namely Hiroshima ST, Kyoto ST and Nagoya ST. It was freezing outside and I made the mistake of wearing only my slippers. Thank God for the yellow thermal jacket.

I was in group 3 and our first stop was Nagoya. I can’t help but admire whoever organized this because everything was planned meticulously. They gave us a folder with important reminders in it including brochures, schedules, what to pack and for how long (because we can’t bring our luggage everywhere, a smaller pack was provided), tips for personal safety, and helpful Japanese phrases. And I have to give it to the Japanese because they are always on time. By always I mean the schedule was thoroughly followed. Add that to the fact that we were always accommodated in nice hotels. Some of them were: Nikko Narita International Hotel, APA Hotel and Resort, Royal Park Inn, Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima, and Otsu Prince Hotel.

And they did not forget to indulge us with food as well. Before going to Japan, I thought I would lose weight because I am not fond of Japanese cuisine but I was wrong. Breakfast buffets in hotels equal unlimited bacon plus Obento boxes for lunch and dinner. The best part? The white (sometimes brown) carbohydrate known as rice is also a staple in the Japs’ diet.

One of my most unforgettable meal was in a buffet restaurant somewhere in Nagoya. I was so full and so happy that night. Special thanks to Nathan (Bai!) because he told me the night before at our 8-course-full-of weird-named-dishes meal to eat everything whether it was good or bad because I don’t know when I’ll go back to Japan again. Makes sense.

Almost everything in Japan can be found in vending machines. From camera to underwear to chocolates. I tried buying ice cream and ended up getting flavored ice. Major fail.

December 12 was the day I was to meet my foster family. It was also the day I was to ride their famous Shinkansen for the first time. Aboard, we were given this meal. The juice was so sour I had no difficulty believing it was 100% pure.

My host family especially my host mother was very kind. I was with other participants in our community but alone in the family. Some of my most fun experiences (i.e. onsen) in Japan was during my home stay. I got to experience the country not merely as a tourist.

Another of the many temples we visited. The branches without leaves were Sakura trees aka cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, they weren’t in season during our visit. I’d love to see those pinkish white flowers in the future.

My foster brothers and father played the Japanese drum and they tagged me along in one of their practices. The sound of the drums commands complete attention so I was awed while watching. I gave it a try and I sucked.

We also went to a safari and I got to feed lions. They were scary with those sharp and yellow teeth. Thank God the steel bars surrounding the vehicle were strong enough.

Near the area was Akiyoshi Limestone Cave. It was slippery and dark but still magnificent and huge. I wanted to take good pictures but lack of natural light wouldn’t let me.

This was my most favorite meal in Japan because the meat was so tender and delicious and bloody and the grill was made of stone and had Japanese characters written all over it.

While this one, I am not very fond of. It was Shabu-Shabu, I think and when I learned that we were going to eat the fish raw and the vegetables steamed, I backed out. Plus, I had really bad leg cramps from sitting on the floor.

While touring the area, we spotted a Japanese couple having a photo shoot and we joined in. Cool how they still wear their traditional costumes for weddings.

We also visited a place with many Buddhas but I forgot the name. There were really kawaii statues there.

Home stay was fun. I get to sleep on a futon bed, wear cute duckling slippers, watch Japanese cable, experience their wonderful toilet facility and simply live like one of them. I especially love the fact that they take a bath at night because everyone knows I’m a lazy person when it comes to that particular hygiene.

The roof of my host family’s house.

I also experienced going to school, albeit I was irregular and unable to try the school uniform (didn’t have a foster sister). My favorite class was calligraphy though I need to practice more. I also attended Biology where we dissected some animal’s brain, Ike Bana (flower arrangement), Physical fitness where I was a liability to my team mates in a game of basketball, music, soft tennis which I actually enjoyed and most of all, lunch in my homeroom. My foster mother made me a really cute obento but I was so hungry I forgot to take a picture before wolfing the whole thing down.

All the Math subjects were taught in their native language. I think that’s one of the factors why they’re so good at it. On my last day, my classmates were kind enough to write this on the board. I almost cried because despite the short time that we were together, I had fun and learned a lot of things about their culture. And they’re all kawaii and kakui.

I was crying when I left my foster family but there’s still two study tours to look forward to so I stopped sulking. After a couple of days of staying in one place, it was back to the nomadic lifestyle. First up was a dinner of Okonomiyaki or Japanese pancake containing a variety of ingredients.

For the Hiroshima Study Tour, we visited the site of the atomic bombing during World War II now converted into Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. At first I was happy about the place, with all the paper cranes and this iconic building but when we entered the museum, I was saddened by what I saw. People literally turned into dust plus the more devastating aftermath which left thousands under the mercy of radiation.

Our next stop was Itsukushima Shrine more popularly known as Miyajima, a shinto shrine that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was low-tide when we went there. As expected with the Japanese, the whole complex was well preserved.

The next day we went to Kyoto for the last leg of our tour. We visited Kinkaku-ji or simply the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple. It’s a three storey bulding with the top two stories covered with pure gold leaf.

During my last few days, I successfully bought a nice Japanese Ice cream. There were a lot of other things in those two weeks but writing about them in detail would need a post twice or thrice as long. So I’ll stop here knowing that that fortnight will always be one of the best of my life.

P.S. Additional things I learned/discovered:

– Chocolates, especially the Meiji brand are very cheap in Japan. A box that costs 100 pesos here in the Philippines is just 100 yen (35 pesos)

– The best souvenir you will ever have are pictures. I will never make the mistake of not bringing ample battery and memory with my camera again.

– Body/sign language works just fine.

-You can be late anywhere else but never ever in Japan. Lest you want your bus mates to look at you like you committed some heinous crime.

– When your national organizer tells you to bring just 5,000 yen plus another 5,000 provided by the Japanese government, be stubborn and bring more money. Or else you’d look like a poor little kid while watching participants from other nations splurge on goody goods with their 80,000 yen moolah.

– Old Navy jackets can last a really really long time. I still use the sweater I wore above up to now.

Japan, I promise I will be back.

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