When I fell in love with Japan
A sister city exchange story
City of Obihiro
Friends of the World perform the obon dance during the Heigan Festival in Obihiro.
Editor’s note: Amy Carney traveled to Obihiro, Japan as a participant in the adult exchange with Seward’s sister city. Carney works as the Seward Library/Museum Collections Coordinator.
Sometime after 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 3, our plane left Anchorage with the full moon waiting for us above the clouds. Tember Eliason, Richie Mack, Chelsey Olesiuk and I settled in for a long flight that would take us to Seattle, where we would transfer to San Francisco, and later fly for almost 11 hours across the Pacific to Narita, Japan (next to Tokyo).
Arriving on the afternoon of Aug. 4 (due to the crossing of the International Dateline), the four of us were confronted with the most hot and humid weather we had ever encountered. The Japanese culture buzzing around us had little effect on us compared to the stark contrast of weather.
This is not when I fell in love with Japan. But from what we would learn in the following days, even our host families found the Tokyo weather to be quite uncomfortable.
Once oriented within the airport and successful at operating Japanese pay phones, we called the owner of Narita Airport Hostel, where we would be staying for the night before our domestic flight to Obihiro. Mr. Yama picked us up free of charge and took us to our room where four futons lay stretched before us across the floor.
After making contact back home and waiting for the sun to set, the four of us ventured out into the twilight to find food. On our 20-minute excursion to dinner we encountered tree frogs, enormous spiders, farmed fields and polite locals. It was nice to be apart from the city, despite the large welts, known as mosquito bites, which I managed to acquire along the walk. However, the curried pork, chili shrimp, and spicy chicken we ate at the Kaku Restaurant made the journey worthwhile. Yet this is still not when I fell in love with Japan.
The next day would prove to be more of an adventure than planned. But rather than spend the rest of this story telling you about how Richie and I managed to make it to Obihiro first while Tember and Chelsey had their own tour of Tokyo, I’ll let you ask them. They tell it better anyhow. But I will mention that I was very glad at this time to have learned a little Japanese before the trip. Again, this was definitely not the time I fell in love with Japan, even though Obihiro had a wonderful group of greeters to make Richie and I feel welcome upon our arrival to our sister city.
So, by now you’re probably wondering when I did fall in love with Japan? I’ll tell you that it didn’t happen all at once, but rather over the next 12 days of my stay I became fond of all that was around me.
It started when I laughed so much with my first host family because Takanori kept telling his family “no Japanese, please” in a semi-serious effort to help us all communicate in English. The Fujiki family taught me that Japanese culture was more relaxed and Westernized than I had anticipated. They were an excellent example of Japanese hospitality.
Takanori’s wife Naoko was the one who impressed me the most. Though Naoko spoke the least amount of English in their household, she was very engaged in our conversations and happily took on the role as a tour guide through Obihiro. Thanks to Facebook and e-mail, I will be staying in touch with the Fujiki’s.
But my love for Japan had only just begun to sprout through that experience. Staying with the Fujiki family for two nights was so much fun that I thought everything was going to go downhill from there. Seriously. I chalked it up to getting the best family first. But it wasn’t that way at all. The Nahara family proved that immediately.
The Nahara family taught me that some traditional Japanese values are still alive. I enjoyed staying in this household because it was so lived in. I mean this in a way of not how tidy the house was, but rather how family-oriented it was. Chieko was caring for her mother-in-law, as well as spending quality time with her son and daughter-in-law, who came for dinner every night. We had great conversations about Americans, Japanese, actors, food and so much more. And though we spent a lot of time just trying to express ourselves properly across the language barrier, it was a lot of fun doing so. This household gave me a peek into the combined worlds of modern and traditional Japanese living intertwined.
My third homestay with the Harada family was not disappointing. Though I would only spend one night there, I was happy to be spending a day and night with a couple my own age. I might also mention that Mika is a librarian at the Obihiro Public Library, so you can imagine how interesting that was to me. And Kouhei was one of Seward’s adult exchanges last year. Perfect, right? This couple allowed me a totally different perspective on Japan. I had the opportunity to learn about my own generation living across the globe.
By the time I transferred to my last family, you can imagine how tired I was from all the activities in which I participated, including meeting the mayor, attending a tea ceremony, learning calligraphy, ice skating, and shopping. Not to mention the beautiful gardens, parks and zoo I saw, as well as the buildings I toured (like their public library and Centennial Museum). But the Nishioka family still had activities in store, including involving me in the Heigan Festival, which offers a glorious presentation of fireworks and a dance-until-your-feet-hurt parade, also known as the Obon Dance. This family reminded me of family back home.
Through all these diverse homestay experiences, it was inevitable that I would have an amazing time and receive stories (and gifts) to cherish forever.
Amy Carney and Mika Harada dine on curry, a favorite dish of the Japanese.
This summed up tale can by no means encompass all of the stories I am capable of sharing about my stay in Obihiro. Even the hundreds of photos I took would not let you see what I saw. But no matter how little I am sharing here, I am enormously grateful for the opportunity I had travel to Japan via the Seward-Obihiro sister city Adult Citizen Exchange program. And I am not the only one. Ask anyone who went this year or in past years to Obihiro. They will be happy to share their interesting stories.
If you ever get a chance to visit our sister city Obihiro, I would recommend that you do it. Whether through the student exchange program or an adult delegation party (this October, for instance), take the time off to meet a people with which we have much in common (overlooking the chopsticks, kanji writings and barley tea). You, too, will find that they love to laugh, eat and connect. And after your experience, don’t be surprised if you find yourself falling in love with Japan because of its people.