Monthly Archives: February 2013

Japanese Elementary School Open House

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Sakura's class with all their instruments!

Today I was able to go my host sisters open house at school! It was so much fun! The day started with a performance by each class. They were split into groups of two, for example 2nd year class A and 1st year class B was grouped into a half hour time slot. Kokoro’s class was in the first time slot, and Sakura’s was in the second. This allowed me to see more then just Kokoro and Sakura’s classes sing. The Younger kids were so cute! Some were doing all the motions and dancing, while others just stood there.All were singing though and were on beat. They all would nod two times to all be together when speaking as one. It was impressive.

I remember when I had to sing for my parents it was usually more formal. But here at this program kids were dressed as they usually would for school. Also, since it is Saturday, it started in the morning, and the kids went to their respective classrooms for class afterwards. Parents were then allowed to stand in the back and observe the class. Although my school had a day similar where grandparents could come in, we never had our parents come into our lessons let alone come to school on a Saturday.

I had heard the songs that were sung today a lot at our apartment the past few days, but it was really incredible to see it with all the kids together. The younger kids has teachers playing piano and drums while they sang or played the melodica, sometimes having students additionally play drums and xylophone. The older classes, for example Sakura’s class, had students impressively play the piano,they changed piano players for every song. In addition there was one song where students played recorders, melodica, xylophone, drums, and accordions. The older students in general were also more uniform in how they stood and sang together. They even split into harmony beautifully. I am talking about ten year olds here. They have been practicing a lot, and it sure showed.

After the performance I went to Kokoro’s classroom. They had a fun lesson on sentences or phrases that could be read the same forwards and backwards. One example was “English” but was based on the katakana (Japanese alphabet for foreign words) spelling and not actual English spelling. It was Good Dog, which in Japanese is spelled グッドドッグ (Guddo doggu). It was a really cute and fun lesson to watch.

Sakura’s class was studying math when we went in. They worked on a multiplication question as far as they could. Then they discussed what the answer could be, and were given two options. They had to pick one and write an explanation of why they chose the one they did. Then the teacher had students read their reasoning and ask the class if it made sense. In the end the teacher did explain the correct answer and why. I thought this was a very good technique. Teacher did not just give them a formula of how to from the beginning. But had the students try to reason for themselves before hand. Also by having them write out in words their reasoning, it made the answer not a guess, but a thought out solution.

All in all, it is true Japanese schools are intense even from a young age. Students are expected to study a lot. But they still are just normal kids going to school, and school is school is school. There are the classrooms, the pictures hanging in the hallways, and the little ones who are loud and have messy hair. Japanese kids are not sitting perfectly, getting all the right answers. They are expected to greet their teachers at the beginning and end of class, and to stand when answering a question, but otherwise I think it looked like a regular elementary.
I am happy I was allowed this experience. It was funny that I couldn’t figure out the “English” the teacher was teaching because it was in katakana. I kind of had to laugh at myself.

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Saying Goodbye = Eating our Feelings

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This lovely smiling lady is Rina, and she is pictured here receiving one sneak hug from behind from Jess. Rina lived on our floor in the Kitazano building and we became friends thanks to her decision one night to just knock on some doors and introduce herself. She’s really awesome and sweet and unfortunately for us, she just moved out!

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We had a farewell dinner for Rina at a restaurant in Itabishi of Rina’s choosing. She picked a yakiniku restaurant, which means we barbecued our own food! The walls on the walk up the stairs feature images of dudes like this one, carrying/dancing with flames.

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You start by ordering a plate of raw meat and vegetables. (Or if Rina is with you, she orders, because she’s wonderful.)

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The next step is simply placing some food on the barbecue and letting it cook for a bit.

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It’s fun and really delicious.

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The only thing better than round 1 is round 2… or 3…

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We got a nice farewell group picture together before Sora headed home.

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Later we surprised Rina with a cake! It’s says “Valentine’s Day” because Valentine’s Day happened to be the next day… all the same it was delicious!

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Then Rina helped Jess make chocolates for her friend for Valentine’s Day. In Japan, women give men chocolate on Valentine’s Day and oftentimes they make the chocolate themselves.

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It’s cool though because the men are supposed to return the favor on White Day, which occurs one month later and dictates that men are supposed to reciprocate with gift-giving.

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The Grand Sumo Tournament

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All of us Kitazono girls purchased tickets to see a grand sumo tournament held in Ryogoku. TUJ OSS Student Activities had an entire section of the stadium reserved for TUJ students that purchased tickets and it turned out to be a really fun time. Ryogoku is known as Tokyo’s sumo town, and afterwards we wandered for quite a bit in an attempt to find a restaurant that could fit all of us and that was within our budgets – always a challenge in Tokyo! We ate eventually but the highlight of the day was of course all the crazy sumo action! By the way, sumo gets pretty intense. And entertaining. It gained some more fans after that day for sure.

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This is one of several murals that adorned the walls on the entrance side of the National Sports Arena. They made me think of Philly and miss its beautiful and not-so-beautiful-more-offbeat murals.

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These shrines were also located outside of the National Sports Arena.

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The National Sports Arena is a pretty large and interesting stadium. Located on the second level, we had chairs for seats while the first level seating was on zabutons.

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Banners of sumo wrestlers from yesteryear in all their glory. They look thinner in these images than the ones do in real life, but maybe the fact that these are paintings and that their bellies are covered helps with that…

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Sumo wrestlers are called “rishiki” and they spend more time during each match on traditional ceremony than they do in action. These practices have their roots in Shinto traditions. Westerners tend to know that stomping occurs in sumo, and this stomping occurs before the match begins. It is meant to frighten away demons.

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Another ceremonial practice that the rishiki take part in before each match is the tossing of salt into the ring, which is meant to purify the ring.

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They take this position when they’re just about ready to start shoving each other around.

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The shoving might look something like this.

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The ceremony is part of the fun, really, as it contributes to a good bit of buildup and to each match. There were many matches, and the matches themselves go by quickly. As the day went on, they became more intense and exciting as the better rishiki moved forward in the tournament.

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A yumi-tori ceremony (bow twirling) is performed after the final match.

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Big trophy for a big man.

Enter the Panda: Kitazono Girls Take Yokohama Chinatown

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The Kitazono girls spent their Monday off (it was a national holiday called “Foundation Day”) by taking a trip to Yokohama Chinatown.

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A little boy checks out the storefront of a restaurant where we’d just eaten our lunch.

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We’d just missed Chinese New Year, which had been the night before, because of the sumo tournament. It’s too bad that we missed the Chinese New Year celebrations but it was cool to check out these dragons that were on display as we entered Chinatown.

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There were many vendors, like this one, steaming food along the street.

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There were numerous panda-themed shops, such as this one, which visitors enter via magnificent giant-panda-head-tunnel-entrance.

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Pandas are rad. Yokohama Chinatown has the right idea. Panda socks, pandas in window displays, pandas wearing panda hats, pandas informing you about how to dispose of your trash, and panda buns – believe me there is so much more where all of this came from, thank goodness.

Yokohama Chinatown has other offerings too! Implying you need anything other than panda everything to keep you satisfied.

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Across the street from the yellow panda store pictured above was this amazing temple.

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Naturally, we climbed the steps to check it out (after figuring out whether we had to pay to enter. We didn’t!)

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It seemed, however that there was a cost to enter the interior of the temple, so we watched on as other visitors burned incense outside and made their way in to pray.

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When we were done at the temple, there were plenty of great shops to check out.

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I finally encountered Kit-Kat bars with crazy flavors! But they were 840 yen for a box of 12. That’s about 9 USD. Not okay!
top: KitKat Tamaruya Konten Wasabi Flavor
bottom left: Yokohama Edition
bottom right: Tokyo Rum Raisin

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Jody did some jewelry shopping.

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There are vendors all along the streets selling roasted chestnuts, and they try to rope you into a purchase with a free sample. Katie became the very pleased recipient of many a free sample.

Oh. And I learned that banana ketchup is a thing that exists.In case you're curious, it's popular in the Philippines and was created during World War II when there was a shortage of tomato ketchup. Learning is fun, thanks Wikipedia!

Oh. And I learned that banana ketchup is a thing that exists.
In case you’re curious, it’s popular in the Philippines and was created during World War II when there was a shortage of tomato ketchup. Learning is fun, thanks Wikipedia!

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Yokohoma Chinatown was a great time thanks to its plethora of pandas, free chestnuts, and the fact that this happened.

 

Language Barrier Questions Answered

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I want to take a minute to confront one of the most frequently questioned topics I receive from people back in the US about my current stay in Japan: the language barrier. I may have touched upon this earlier but I feel like it’s worth spending some time on considering the amount of concern I’m realizing people tend to give it. It is, after all, one of the most significant aspects of my stay.

Before coming to Japan I had studied Japanese at Temple for three semesters. It proved to be just as difficult as I expected it to be, due in part to the language itself being difficult and the class being taught pretty rigorously.  Despite many long nights of studying, I think that the rigor of the class was fundamental to learning such a difficult language, and I’m glad that it was taught in such a way. Though the three semesters provided me with extremely valuable skills, I also learned a lot of words and phrases that I didn’t very often have to use in America as they were geared towards actually traveling to Japan. Of course those words and phrases were the first things I forgot while in America, and the first things I realized I needed to look up once I got here. Admittedly, had I studied more before my departure I may have had an smoother adjustment.

My Japanese was tested almost immediately because my host family does not really speak any English. It wasn’t too much of an obstacle at first because they were understanding, and I was able to get through the day without problems. However, after a week or two I wanted to be able to communicate more thoroughly and found myself getting really discouraged. Though I’m sure in a span of a week I pick up more Japanese than I may notice, there were many simple things I began to realize I didn’t know how to say. For example, my host mother asked me what kind of tea I wanted, and I did not know how to tell her that either of the teas she was offering me was fine. She quickly realized what I was trying to say and taught me the phrase (どっちでもいい, I’ll never forget it now), but I was still frustrated that I didn’t know how to say something so simple. That being said, my biggest struggle since coming to Japan has been understanding many of the colloquialisms that people use in conversation, specifically informal conversation, as I rarely used them in a classroom setting. Instead of taking the next course in Japanese this semester, Intermediate II, I opted to take Oral Japanese I which is helping me tremendously. Speaking with my family is no longer really an issue!

I also want to touch lightly on writing and reading Japanese as this seems to be another major concern of people thinking about traveling to Japan. For those who don’t know, the Japanese writing system is made up of two syllabaries, of which there are 48 characters each, and Chinese characters called Kanji, of which there are thousands. The syllabaries are fundamental to learning how to read and write Japanese, so I was forced to learn them within my first month of study. Kanji, on the other hand, often take years to learn and I regrettably have probably only a handful memorized. However, Japan is very English friendly, especially where transportation is concerned, and I think it’s safe to say that anyone could find their way around Japan without being able to read Japanese.

Road signs almost always have romanji translations.

Road signs almost always have romanji translations.

Example of some really difficult kanji I found in a cemetery.

Example of some really difficult kanji I found in a cemetery.

However, it’s hard to say how many Japanese people are able to speak English. It’s common for young people to study it in school, but I’ve adopted a habit of almost always assuming that people don’t speak English. Usually if they do, they will respond to me in English, but I have yet to find a pattern in those who know it and those who don’t. I don’t think one exists. Most of the English speakers I run into are in pretty touristy areas such as Roppongi, Shibuya, or Harajuku, but even then they always surprise me. Either way, areas such as these are used to non-Japanese speakers and are pretty accommodating.

While knowing some Japanese has been really helpful to my visit to Japan, I don’t think it should discourage anyone from visiting! I’ve found it’s almost always possible to communicate what you need to to someone, even if you don’t speak the same language.

Sometimes the English translations are interesting, to say the least.

Sometimes the English translations are interesting, to say the least.

Thrifting in Shimokitazawa-Planned Stumbling

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On Saturday I went to Shimokitazawa with a friend. I had been here my first time in Japan with the same friend. We had been busy that day, loved Shimokitazawa, and planned to come back. It was crazy how we first found ourselves in all the same places we had gone before, but somehow everything seemed turned around. It was different then what I remembered. But I was not disappointed.

Shimokitazawa has lots of thift stores, small shops, vintage clothing, and other fun random things. This is right up my alley. However, in Japan vintage can be expensive, just like, say New York. However, if you spend enough time in the area going to all the upper level stores, and shops behind different buildings which are through alley ways, you can find some great steals. Also if you just go into the expensive places you can find some incredible sales, cheaper then the stores that have generally cheaper prices. I was in search of a large warm scarf. I really wanted one of the plaid ones that I see women engulfed in since coming to Tokyo. I have a scarf, but I had just made it before coming to Japan and didn’t bring my usual one. As it turns out the one I made is too small and not very warm.

We found what I wanted right a way, but decided to keep on looking cause it was too early to buy something. It was good that we did too, cause I found a cheaper one that from a store that had nicer quality ones on sale. Even as we speak I am engulfed in it! I am so happy!

Along with scarf searching we just went into lots of various shops, which carried some really crazy cool vintage stuff, along with random “American vintage” items like Boy Scouts jackets. We also looked at the hip clothes of my favorite titled store in Japan, Womb. Why they named it this, I have no idea.

We ate lunch at a place we had eaten at in Kyoto two years ago, which I had an unspoken goal of finding again. It is called Saizeriya. It is supposed to be Japanese/French fusion. It is cheap, but at the same time they have wines in addition to their really cheap food. Their food is so delicious too! I love their Doria and Gratin, which is what they are known for. It is this dish of rice with cheese and meet sauce on top. So basically, it is spaghetti with rice not pasta. It is so crazy that I was able to eat here, because I couldn’t remember its name before. My friend was just like, “Oh can we eat here? It is cheap.”

I am so happy from my trip to Shimokitazawa, it feels like every time I go there everything seems to fall into place. Good food. Good shopping finds. I believe the combination of these two things makes the happiest of girls. If anyone is in Tokyo and wants to go somewhere hip and a little more laid back compared to Shibuya or Harajuku, I definitely recommend Shimokitazawa as the place to go!

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Sumo and Snow

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This past weekend, being a four day weekend, I had the opportunity to take advantage of some of the activities the office of student services sets up for the student body every semester. The office plans numerous group activities throughout the semester, most of which I knew before coming to Japan that I wanted to experience regardless, but they often are given cheaper group rates for the activities than I would expect to pay if doing the activity on my own. A lot of tourist-y things are pretty expensive in Japan, so having the privilege to still be able to some of them at a lower expense is really nice.

Anywho. I began my weekend by attending a sumo tournament. I showed up in time to watch the entire final tournament, which is more or less the most significant part of the day-long event. I was first impressed with the amount of people who attended the event, and the arena was significantly bigger than I imagined. A lot of the fans were also really into the competition; frequently people would shout things at the wrestlers, some times in really absurd ways, but it was interesting to see how some people really followed the sport. For some reason that I don’t understand, I didn’t think that people might actually do that despite sumo often being on television.

Inside view of the tournament arena.

Inside view of the tournament arena.

The actual wrestling that takes place is very short lived. Each match between wrestlers didn’t last longer than maybe 10 seconds, sometimes much shorter. Before the wrestlers began they went through a series of traditional and repetitive actions, such as throwing salt and stomping the ground, which I learned has to deal with purification and awakening the gods for support. Much of the event was really ritualistic and it was interesting to see how even today the traditions of the sport have not been lost over time.

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After sumo I had a few free hours before beginning a five-hour trip to Nagano, where I spent my time skiing for the next two days. Before the trip I hadn’t skied in about seven years, and to be completely truthful I’m not a huge fan of skiing (or the cold, or the snow), but for the sake of what could be a rare lifetime opportunity I signed up for the trip. Besides, I knew that between my fits of whining about snow going up my sleeves or down my collar I would secretly be having fun anyway.

The lodge where we stayed is located within walking distance from the numerous slopes that make up the entire resort, which was really convenient considering how walking in ski boots for too long can become a pretty painstaking chore. The first day it snowed, and it snowed, and it didn’t stop snowing. Though it was beautiful and somewhat enchanting, it made it pretty difficult to see where you were going and there wasn’t much of a view from the top of the slopes.

Snowwww.

Snowwww.

The second day the snow let up and the landscapes that became visible were absolutely stunning. I found myself trying to stand still on skis on the middle of a slope to snap a picture more than was probably convenient for the people attempting to ski around me. I think the pictures speak for themselves in that it was worth it. On each of the days I went skiing I probably spent an equal amount of time sleeping; I found skiing to be much more exhausting than I remember it being some seven years ago. Despite being in Japan, the experience was not as different from what I remember as I thought it may have been. If anything, it was kind of comforting, as skiing is a pretty popular activity where I’m from in the Poconos, and even though I was asked a few times where I was from, I didn’t really feel like a foreigner.

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“Gundam” Style

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ImageOkay I couldn’t help it with the title! But seriously, I SAW GUNDAM ROBOT!!!! For everyone who doesn’t know what I am talking about, right now at Diver City center on Odaiba island there is this HUGE robot on display. It is replicated from a famous Japanese anime. I have not watched the anime or anything, but I had seen pictures of the robot. It was a must see on my bucket list. Here I was just following my host family around and BAM! It was there! I was really incredible. I always thought I was a little above tourist attractions, but no, I am not. I would even go again just to see it at night.

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We had a holiday on Monday (the 11th) and so my host family and I rode bikes to Odaiba. They first took me to see the little Statue of Liberty replica. It is crazy how I was studying in New York last semester. Now I have seen the real thing, and one in Tokyo! I still don’t believe that I am in Tokyo! We ate lunch in the Diver City center (From what I understand from being there, Driver City is similar to La La Port. Though I think it is larger, with arcades in addition to the clothing stores and food courts. ) I had this huge plate of omurice there!!!! YUM!!!

Sakura also had these tickets for free bowling. All we had to pay for were our shoes. I hadn’t bowled in a long time. But, for the most part bowling alleys are the same in Japan as the United States. Even though they had designated smoking areas, it smelled like cigarettes. Also, the place lit up in neons. The only thing missing was music, oddly enough. There was no music playing. I actually won our game too. I seriously would have gotten gutter balls every time, but since it was the girls first time bowling we had the bumpers up. This allowed my score to reach new heights. It was so much fun hanging out the four of us girls!

After the game we rode back to Toyosu. Kokoro fell asleep on the bike ride home (she was riding on the back of her mom’s bike) and Sakura had something for school to go to. So we kinda parted when we reached the apartment. Aya-san, Kokoro and I went grocery shopping. Usually I think I am just home alone when they go grocery shopping. But Kokoro insisted that I come too. When she did this I was so touched. Because I am not the best at Japanese it can be hard to understand what is exactly going on, and it is easy to find myself just home. It felt really incredible to have Kokoro reach out to me like that. Especially since she likes to have her mom to herself. But in that moment she was accepting me as a part of the family. I hope this continues! Also, at Driver City there were so many cosplay! It was crazy to see everyone in elaborate wigs and make-up!

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The Japanese Art of Sushi Consumption

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Four of us girls in the Kitazano dorm have a photography night class together. Last Wednesday after class we met up with our friends Jess and Rina at the Hakusan station – which is great because it was on the line we take to school and thus free to get to – and went to this restaurant called “Hamazushi.” It’s a conveyor belt sushi spot. The deal is, plates of sushi go by on a conveyer belt and you take what you want. They count the plates up at the end and charge accordingly. It’s a pretty good deal.

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Everything that goes by on the conveyor belt follows a sign with a picture that says what the item is. There are also signs that go by with pictures of beer or slices of cake – those things are things that you can order via touch screen and the signs are essentially going by to entice customers to order them.

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Family style dinner delivered via conveyor belt? Japan knows what I like.

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Katie was excited to try sushi with sea urchin in it. I was excited about my apple juice. Life was good for all.

Except Katie wasn’t the biggest fan of the urchin – but trying new things was exciting!

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We came to realize that the plated food that rests on these bowls is the food that people ordered via the touch screen monitor. We realized this after indulging in some sort of exotic sushi plate, then ordering our own tempura, and then finding that the tempura was plated in this manner. Woops. A beeping sound also signals to alert your table when your order approaches, so that you don’t miss it. It’s brilliant.

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Sometimes the food that goes by is intriguing, and you must try it, just to know. Just for the experience.

And sometimes it has a lot of purple tentacles and you think, “Maybe there’s a reason so many of these are going by. No one else grabbed them either.” And you think, “Maybe next time, mysterious tentacled sushi.”

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Oyster tempura sushi is great! Putting the whole thing in your mouth at once is a mistake that I may have made – the difficulty level for handling that with grace is 5 stars.

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Mass consumption and the aftermath.

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Rina helped us out by ordering our desserts for us. And then. Cake came out on the conveyor belt.

And everything was right with the world.

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The check was 4,989 yen for a meal that fed six hungry Kitazono girls.

38 plates of sushi + 1 box of apple juice + 1 mystery item + 2 orders of macha ice cream and + 4 slices of cake

= 831.5 yen per person = 8.97 USD = best meal deal ever

 We’ll be going back.

Meals with my Host Family

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Meals are especially important to me in Japan, because it is the time I have that I get to sit down and truly be with my host family. We usually watch television during this time too and I really enjoy being able to observe both my family and the show being watched. Because, I am able to engage without really needing to talk. I can “oo” and “awe” with the rest of them quite easily. During every meal I am amazed at the composition of the meal. For breakfast my plate usually has a least one smiley face and is full of color. It is an arrangement of fruit, vegetables, meats, yogurt, and some kind of bread or cake. This I think is my favorite meal because it is a balance of savory, vegetables, and sweets. (I really likes sweets) I wake up probably earlier then I need to for classes so that I can enjoy this time with my host sisters. Although some mornings they are running around trying to get ready for school and I am a zombie at the table. I like waking up to a household though instead of being by myself. I think this is one of the great things about living with a family is to wake up with others already awake. I am an early riser as it is, and in dorm life have had to tip toe around until heading out for classes or work. As weird as it sounds I like being woken up by the scuffling feet of my host family instead of an alarm clock.

Anyway, going back to meals, for dinner we eat from a variety of dishes. Each dish is a ceramic handmade  platter. The food presented on the platter is always composed with either carrots cut into shapes, tomatoes, radishes, green beans in a circle around whatever main dish is on the plate. Nothing is left by itself. It is always adorned beautifully like  food in high end restaurants. My host mother also takes a lot of time to prepare various dishes. It is very different compared to how I usually cook on my own. In which I usually cook enough of one thing to fill me (for a week). I have noticed that it is really common in Japan to have things presented in a well arranged composition. There is a lot more stress on the visual here compared to the United States. I mean in the United States the visual is stressed but not in the same way. Carrots are not cut into flower shapes. Another example of this in Japan’s foods, is the industry of bentos, or lunch boxes. In the store Tokyo Hands you can find materials for making rice ball pandas, cookie cutters for eggs and vegetables, along with lots of other bento fillers. However, sometimes I also wonder if my host mother prepares as much as she does because I am staying at the house as a foreigner. I believe my host mother does take the time to make everything look nice even when I am not around for dinner. However, sometimes I notice at breakfast my plate is arranged sometimes a little more than my host sister’s plate.

Here are some pictures of various meals that I have enjoyed!

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