Around 10:00 am, Katsura Sato comes to pick me up. Japanese cars are small and my backpack fills half the back seat. Everyone, including the teachers and the hosts are anxious about the home stay. It can be a l-o-n-g time if you dont have a good one. Katsura and his wife Toyomi are each 39 years old. He is a PE teacher at a junior high and his wife is a home health nurse (as best as I can understand.) They have two elementary children, the girl, Kiriko, is 9 years old and speaks some English. The boy, Keigo is 7 years old.
Katsura has a CD playing in the car and it is a Japanese singer singing Queens, We Will Rock You. It is great to hear something I recognize. Our conversation is stiff as we drive through the beautiful countryside. Katsura tells me some of the plans for my time with them. We will first make soba noodles (buckwheat.) You see soba growing all over and is something that is farmed, like we would grow wheat or soybeans. He is inviting friend(s) this evening for a Japanese barbque and we will use the noodles we make for the BBQ. We will have to do a little shopping for it. We will also make clay potshe is a potter. This sounds authentic and fun to me. I hope they like the gifts I have brought them.
We arrive at the home. When we turn off the main road, there is a long straight, flat road that leads to a cluster of houses. The houses are surrounded by gardens, fields and greenhouses. You enter the house through the garage, taking off shoes of course and going upstairs to the living quarters. I am shown where my room is. The rooms are fairly small and sparsely furnished, but everything that is needed is there. The living room contains a TV, computer, coffee table and a sofa. The living room is connected to the kitchen which contains a table where the family normally eats, but to make my visit a little more special for the children, we will eat at the coffee table and sit on the floor. COOL J
My room is across from the childrens room and I think may be used at times for storage. Guess what? I will be sleeping on a futon again. I am getting really good at this sleeping on the floor. Katsuras son is home and we go to make the noodles right away. This is very interesting. We do this on a table in the garage. In the garage are large fifty pound sacks of rice stacked high. I understand that these sacks are from the grandfathers fields. He lives in the attached house and used to be a merchant marine. These noodles are made with the soba flour and water but the interesting thing is that we use a l-o-n-g dowel rod to roll out the dough.
But first one must make the dough using your fingers to mix the flour and water.
Once it is kind of rolled out, the dough is rolled around the dowel rod and you continue to roll which makes them quite thin. It also makes the dough very even in thickness. After it is rolled out to the appropriate size, it is folded and cut very, very thin.
I was not too good or too fast at the cutting and I eventually had to turn the job over to make sure I didnt get them too thick. I thought I was done at that point but NO, it is time to roll out more. Man! I have never seen or made so many noodles. We had a really big pile on a large cookie sheet when we finished.
Keigo watches all of this atop the 50 pound rice bags that his grandfather grows and are being stored in the garage.
The daughter and mother have now arrived home. I take a little break and hang out with the kids. They show me Pokemon and their new books.
The parents do not think they should read those books so much (they read them all the time.) I am impressed. I think that the reading is great and these books help the mind categorize and learn about the little pocket monsters. I try to explain this to the parents but you can tell they think I am nuts to think this type of reading is good!
It is time for lunch and the mother prepares all the food and brings it to the coffee table. We have iced green tea the color of grass to go with our soba noodles. I had forgotten that soba noodles are cooked and severed cold with a kind of soy based sauce.
They also teach me that it is polite and sort of required to lightly slurp noodles and soup. This shows that the food is good and you are enjoying it. As this is a habit I gave up while learning manners common to the US, I actually have a big of a challenge getting myself to do it. I think this may be because they are all watching mehaha.
When lunch was finished and cleaned up (no dishwasher by the way), we load into the car and go to shop for the barbeque. They ask me again if I would like traditional or western food. I say I would like both, hoping there are no tentacles. I enjoy the drive as I get to see more of the countryside. It is very flat, bordered on one side by mountains and the other side by the ocean, though one cannot see the ocean. The fields are a mix of gold, brown and green, depending on what growing stage they are in. I recognize rice fields and soba. Towards the mountains, you can see clusters of little communities usually with one road that leads to it, a small, compact graveyard nearby and greenhouses. This is quite different from our rural areas as the houses are set very close to each other rather than being spread out.
The cars are interesting also as they are smaller than most American cars. Rarely, if ever, did I see an SUV. Of course the cost of gasoline there would equate to over $5-$6 per gallon. I think even the mini vans are a little smaller than ours. The names of the cars are usually in English and are one one-syllable word, like Sky. The makers such as Toyota, Ford, Nissan, etc are recognizable but not the models.
The shopping area we go to is busy and we have a little trouble finding a place to park, but one of the children spots a place and we take it and go in. The shopping area is something of the same size as one of our strip malls but build like a small mall. The grocery store is similar to ours but of course nothing on the shelves is familiar and all written in Japanese. The produce section even looks a bit different as there are fresh items I do not recognize. Cheese is packaged a little differently and sharp cheese is very reddish orange. The smell of the store is unmistakable. They definitely sell fish! And that is what is primarily in the meat department. The store has a fast food type deli as we do of cooked, ready to eat entries (the Japanese people work long hours so that is not surprising that the stores offer this.) There is no fried chicken, roast beef or ribs like we might find, but tempura, sushi and other Japanese delicacies. The family considers carefully their selections for the evening meal, with the children making their choices known as well. The children are obviously excited. This must be a rare treat.
I dont remember if I have mentioned previously that when one makes a purchase at a grocery store, convenience store or 100 Yen Store, if there are multiple items, they are put into a basket and you are handed a plastic bag and directed to a table to sack your items. If you are in a different kind of store where you might be purchasing a gift or personal item, it is wrapped in wrapping paper, before being put into a sack.
The Barbeque is very interesting and it sort of happens without my knowing it has started. Katsuras best friend and his two children arrive. The men set up a small hibachi grill near the garage door.
It happens to be raining tonight. Toyomi prepares cold items upstairs and bring them down. We do not sit down and all eat together; we eat when things are ready and served. I think I might be the only one sitting at a table to eat, except for the children who come and go.
Katsuras father and mother come through occasionally. I try to speak with the father, as he knows some English and is familiar with geography, but he seems uncomfortable talking to me. He does talk to the men quite a bit and helps them with their cooking. My hosts always tell me what they are serving and I wish I could remember. I think I had a fried tofu at one point that they thought I wouldnt like, but I did. (Anything that doesnt challenge my sense of taste is good J. They even take a picture of me eating it–hmmmm, I think it was fried tofu??
They also bake potatoes in a way that is interesting. They are baked in hot rocks in a Dutch oven. The rocks were heated on the hibachi and then poured out, potatoes put in and rocks poured back in. The rocks were from the river where Katsura often times fishesit was river rock like we sometimes use in landscaping. The potatoes didnt take long to cook and were delicious.
Keigo helps to keep the fire fanned
Following dinner, and it is hard to tell when it is over, we roasted chestnuts! I had never had roasted chestnuts before and they reminded me of boiled peanuts in the southsoft to eat. Good though. There was another nut that was roasted as well, much smaller, but I dont know what they are. The nuts are all gathered from Katsuras property and he said the children will take me tomorrow to gather some. I must have had ten or twelve different kinds of food at this barbeque, most of which were tasty but I do not remember what it was.
As the men were cleaning up the grilling area, Katsura remembers that he has some fireworkssparklers. The children and I have fun doing sparklers, then the guests leave and the children get ready for bed.
The end of the evening is quite fun and memorable. It provided one of my favorite photos from my trip that shows we are all so alike, no matter what our culture. Katsura and Toyomi bring out a bottle of Japanese liquor. It is not sake but it tastes like it to me. We drink it warm and eat a kind of pickle with it. Interesting. Katsura begins to play some of his favorite Japanese music. We are having fun enjoying the music and comparing what artists we are both familiar with. He says that he likes many different kinds of American music and is always looking for something new. I get my little iPod Shuffle that probably has 20-30 songs on it and we split the earplugs to hear the Black Eyed Peas, Pump It. He loves it. His wife takes a picture of us sharing the earphones and it is my favorite picture of the whole trip. It shows that despite language barriers and differences in culture, we are all so much alike and music is one unifying force. He agrees to burn me some CDs and I am going to burn him some when I get home.
After a jar of pickles, a half a bottle of warmed liquor and ninety minutes of music, I retire. The rain has made the air temperature rather cold and as the night wears on, I am cold. My futon is not as warm and soft as those previously, but adding my jacket and some socks help and I sleep until I hear the children in the morning.
DAY 2 of the Home Stay
This will be my last day with them and we have much planned. It seems like I have been here longer than one day. It is an easy and comfortable place to live. Of course, it is weekend and there is no rushing around to get ready for school or work.
Following breakfast it is time to make some pottery. Katsura digs his own clay from his property, has already cleaned it and it is ready to use. We are going to make tea cupsthe kind that looks like big bowls. The pottery wheel is manual and he shows me how to roll out several snakes to build the bowl, circle them one on top of the other and smooth them out to form the bowl. I feel pretty lucky to get these private lessons of Japanese culture. In fact, last night, he took me to what his wife calls, the museum. It is a room in his parents home that is FILLED with all sorts of clay items that he has made. There must be hundreds of chopstick holders, little animals, cups, origami, you name it. Some pieces are in glass cases, some sitting out. He gives me chopstick holders that are mice for the year of the Rat which is 2008. He also gives me three tea cups in two different styles. One has to be careful in compliments as what you are complimenting becomes a gift.
Katsura says my bowl looks really good for first time and reminds me that in Japan, not being perfect is what is seen as beautiful. I am a little unhappy with the top of my finished product so he corrects it for me. He says he will dry it, and finish it then mail it to me. (It arrives on my birthday with a few other small items and the cost for mailing it appears to be approximately $40.00Yikes!)
As he cleans up, the children and I go out to find nuts. We put on knee high rubber boots to go through some pretty wet spots.
They show me the trees and how to tell if a nut is good or notlook for tiny worm holes. There are a lot and the hull is very protective with stickery things so you have to pick them up just right or wear gloves. One stick and I opted for the gloves. We moved a little further and looked for the little nuts which we had eaten last night. They are much harder to find and are camouflaged by the ground. We are looking for all these nuts in ankle to knee high vegetation. I made them take a picture of me with the boots on for those who dont believe I can do this sort of thing 😉 We take the nuts back and the children now take me to see the greenhouses where there are suppose to be many cats who keep the rodent population down. We only find one but have fun playing cat and mouse with him. He obviously wants to play but will not let us touch him except every so often presumably to keep our interest. We chase this silly cat all over! Their grandfather is also out in the fields by the greenhouses, tending to some plants. The children talk to him briefly then we move on.
When we go back, Katsura gives me a tour through his garden. It is amazingly large, and along with the plants he has also has a small aquarium in which he is growing koi. This guy must never really have to go to the store. He fishes for meat; makes the dishes that they eat off of (from clay he digs up), grows all their vegetables, makes noodles from flour he makes from what they grow in the fields, gathers nuts and in the garden with the vegetables of tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, etc. are fruit and pecan trees.
The family also owns a dog but unlike Americans, dogs in Japan do not become part of the family. They are considered too dirty to live in the house, so the dog is tied up in the garden and has a doghouse. I heard him howl a little during the weather last night. It is a pretty dog and is of Japanese ancestry. It is a Shiba. This one is a mix from a friend, but I cannot tell it. I saw them in pet stores and they were expensive. I am not sure of the dogs purpose in this family or why they have it.
Lunch is a treat! They made me spaghetti! Wooo hoooo! The children like the spaghetti as well, particularly Keigo. His parents say he loves meat and wants to eat everything that has meat. He is very small by American standards and I cannot believe how much he eats! The children slurp the spaghetti the same way they slurp Japanese noodles but the parents tell them they are not to do that with American foodsonly Japanese. They have a hard time not doing it.
The family has to return me to the rancor by 5pm tonight so we pack up the car and make our way to the cliffs. It is a beautiful drive and of course, I love looking at the Sea of Japan.
The place we are going has a long bridge that connects to an island where there is a Buddhist shrine and a path that goes all the way around the island which we will walk.
On the walking bridge are several people fishing. Katsura explains to me that they are fishing for octopus. On the bridge are several black stains which I had not paid much attention too. But the spots are the ink from the octopus where they have been cleaned with the waste thrown away and the meat put into a cooler.
The bridge takes us to a small beach area with a small shrine. Behind the shrine is a steep set of wooden stairs.
When you climb the stairs there is a trail which takes you to a larger shrine / temple. The shrine, like so many is very old, but beautiful.
The trail continues and there are many people there, sort of like a national park in our country. There are rocks and small cliffs to climb on and we can see small boats pass by. It is a beautiful day and I think how fortunate I am to have such a nice thoughtful family and get to share in such an authentic experience.
The last part of the trail takes us through a wooded area. The trees are tall and dense and it is beautiful to look up and see the sunlight trying to break into the woods.
If there is time, the children would like to go to an aquarium just up the road. I am all about that so we go back to the car and wind our way up the road. Small parks dot this area and we stop at a couple for the children to explore something.
We arrive at the aquarium. It is mostly outdoors, set right on the shore of the sea. These photos are right on the property.
We arrive just in time for the dolphin show. We are in a small outdoor arena and while we are sitting near the top, those dolphins can make big splashes, let me tell you. I avoid getting too wet but Keigo gets a few sprinkles.
We walk through several exhibits of fish that are common to the area most of which I have never seen before.
One time the family moved on while I was still studying some fish. I had not meant to cause concern; I was going to catch up, but it wasnt long until Kiriko came back and took my hand and said, Come with me Kim-san. They were afraid I was lost. Kiriko took me into another building that had large tanks in them. It turned out to be a sort of petting zoo for fish. One could pet a shark (very rough skin!); a manta ray (very soft, slick skin) and an octopus (I just couldnt bring myself to touch that one!) There was also a very interesting tank that brought laughter to anyone who tried it. They called the fish doctor fish. When you stuck your hand in, the fish all swarmed to you and began nibbling on your skin. It is kind of creepy but too funny. Most of the fish did not follow your hand when it was out of the water, but knew immediately when your skin touched the water and raced to get to it.
There was a picnic type of area there with barbeque grills set up. The grills were full of rocks for cooking, just like Katsura had made the potatoes.
This was our last activity for the day, and it was near time for the aquarium to close. So we were just in time to watch the feeding of the dolphins. I normally wouldn’t take a lot of photos of an aquarium, but the children thought I should. 🙂 It was quite different from the ones I have been to in the United States.
It was time to leave and deliver me to the Japanese spa (ryokan) where I would be staying the one night. When we pulled up, I was greeted by the staff that immediately took my bag from me and pulled me away. I barely had time to say goodbye. The children looked puzzled and surprised to see me going. I was glad when my family walked in with me and waited until I had been put on the elevator. Though the Japanese are not huggy, all members of the family hugged me goodbye and said, We miss you Kim-san. We send email.
It was a perfect home stay and definitely one of the biggest highlights in learning about Japan.
posted Sunday January 2008