Two Nights on the Inside: The JET Home-stay

The scene vaguely resembled old war-time footage of evacuee children standing on a station platform, clutching their belongings and waiting to be paired off with their temporary families; the new JETs sat in a large lecture room, excited and nervous to meet the people whose home they’d be staying in for two nights, and wondering what staying in a Japanese household would be like. As each JET’s name was called, they stood and made their way over to a large crowd of Japanese people—babies, excitable children, high school kids trying to look cool, beaming parents, and retired old people—where they were introduced to one or all of their host family members and promptly left the building together.

Five minutes into the drive to my home-stay family’s house, I felt sick. Really sick. Sweat was collecting on my forehead and I could almost feel the colour draining out of me. Successive late nights, one too many “welcome to Japan!” parties, and the heat of Japanese summer were something of a lethal cocktail and my stomach wasn’t happy at all.

With a gesture to the window I asked my newly-acquainted host mother, a woman in her mid-thirties who had been introduced to me as Yuka, if I could “ano… open the… mado?” Yuka let out a tiny gasp of apology and immediately switched the air-conditioning to full blast so that my eyes stung from the cold.

“Arigato, Yuka-san,” I said, discretely wiping away a tear.

“No problem,” she replied with barely a hint of a Japanese accent, before bringing the car to a halt at a junction. Then, turning to face me, she tapped me gently on the knee, smiled and said: “Anyway, I should probably tell you now – I’m not really Yuka.”

I looked at her in silence for a second. Perhaps I had misheard?

“I’m not really Yuka.” She repeated in a calm voice. “I’m not your host mother. I just told them I was.”

A quick survey of our surroundings – a small boy on a bike; an old man cleaning up his dog’s poo; a road-sign I couldn’t read. There was no getting out of this one easily…

“So… who are you?” I ventured as the lights turned green and we moved off again.

“I’m Keiko. Yuka’s friend,” she replied with a check of the rear-view mirror. “Yuka was busy this afternoon, but we’ll be at her house soon. Anyway, nice to meet you!”

So began my home-stay in Aizu Wakamatsu.

When I finally met them, my actual host family comprised of host parents Yuka and Taro, 6-year-old Tamako (who could recite the names of all the Harry Potter characters) and 4-year-old Soichiro (who just looked terrified when he saw me). From the moment I entered their decidedly cool and modern house, they ushered me to the sofa and told me to relax as if I were in my own home. I did my best relaxing impression and flicked through TV channels with Tamako while Taro tried his English by asking what sports I was interested in and Yuka cooked (and cooked and cooked) in the kitchen.

It has to be said that the vast majority of my home-stay time was taken up with eating and drinking. I attempted to play video games with a shy Soichiro and had Tamako test my knowledge of hiragana, but the rest of the time I was holding a drink, fork, or pair of chopsticks. Dinner on the first night was comprised of easily five or six courses, breakfast the next morning was huge, and on my second night, my host family’s neighbors joined us outside for an enormous barbecue party. At both evening meals I was provided with an infinite assortment of alcoholic drinks, and by the time Yuka told me to have “one last drink before bed”, I was already bleary-eyed and teetering on my chair. In Japanese class the morning after my first night, my teacher asked if I was feeling OK. I responded by asking them how to say ‘no, thank you’ to offers of a top-up. Lesson learned: in Japan, if your glass is empty, it is an indication that you want more.

Thankfully, Yuka could speak enough English to get by and with Keiko around, the conversation was rarely labored. A wide range of topics were discussed (the ‘gold’ hair on my arms; slurping noodles – why foreigners think it’s rude and why Japanese people do it; chopsticks and the use of; my big nose; Japanese women vs. English women; religion; my ‘spacious’ forehead…) and, although feeling a little bit embarrassed that most of the conversation had been conducted in English, I learnt so much about Japanese attitudes and ways of thinking during my two nights with my host family. When I asked Yuka why she opened her home up and invited foreign strangers (strange foreigners?) like me to stay, she told me that it was mainly for the benefit of her children. Although they couldn’t really communicate with me, she said, they would benefit from being around foreigners and – unlike a lot of Japanese kids who never meet a non-Japanese – would be less likely to be apprehensive about communicating with foreigners in the future. It was nice to meet someone who so evidently saw the importance of internationalisation.

Despite my best intentions, I didn’t keep in touch with my host family after my home-stay. No doubt they’re still inviting JET participants into their home and filling them up with food and drinks, and chances are one of this year’s new JETs will get to spend time with them. I still have a photo of me and them, and recently found their address details after nearly three years of them being buried in my apartment. Having now had a chance to sit and recall the events of my home-stay, I think I might even venture to use a bit of Japanese and send them a letter…

Enjoy your home-stay, newbies.

Hiking in Fukushima

Hiking in Fukushima

There are many great places to hike in Fukushima, especially in Aizu. The region’s mountains provide great hikes through natural surroundings ranging from easy walks to full on spirit crushing climbs. Here we are going to review a few of these spots, giving directions to each and a bit of information about the hike. We will give a 1-10 rating, 1 being a flat walk and 10 being a climb requiring ropes and tackle. Read more

Japanese for Dummies

I would like to start this column by welcoming all the newcomers to Fukushima. Settling into life in your new home can be quite difficult at times, but one thing that can make it easier is learning at least a little bit of the language. This column will not teach you any Japanese as such, but with a bit of luck it will equip you with all the tools you need to learn on your own. If you want to learn a bit of Japanese but don’t know where to start, then this column is for you.

Learning Japanese can seem daunting at first, mainly due to its sheer foreignness. It uses a completely different alphabet (actually it uses three), and the grammar has little in common with English. But don’t let that stop you from learning. It’s not actually as hard as it seems. Firstly, there are only five vowel sounds in Japanese. English, by comparison, has between 15 and 20 depending on the dialect. The same goes for consonants. The same lack of consonants that makes us laugh every time one of our students says “flied lice” or “shit down” works in our favour. There is nothing particularly foreign to us about the sounds used in Japanese, which makes it much easier to speak than many European languages. Here are a few tips.

  1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana
    I know you probably can’t be bothered sitting down with a book and memorizing a bunch of abstract symbols, but you really should. I’m not suggesting you go out and learn all 2,000 kanji, just the 52 hiragana and 52 katakana. If you study for 10 or 20 minutes per day then it should only take you a few weeks. The aim here is not to be able to read and write Japanese. It is just to become familiar with the sounds used in Japanese. By learning the phonetic characters you will be training your brain to recognize the sounds you will hear. This will not only help with your comprehension but also with your pronunciation.

    The added benefit of this is that it will help you understand Japanese pronunciation of English better as well. There is nothing worse than when your JTE or a student is speaking English to you but you have no idea what they are trying to say. If you are familiar with the limited sounds they have to work with though, things will start to make a bit more sense. You will need all the help you can get when you are trying to puzzle out what someone means when they tell you something like; “I wento tsoo mukoodonuroodo on sahzudei undo eito a hunbahgah”.

  2. Bug People to Teach You Vocab
    If you are just beginning to learn a language the best thing you can do is to learn as much vocab as you can. Don’t worry if you can’t string together a coherent sentence, just learn words. Then throw the words together with some creative gestures and hope the other person understands you.There are plenty of books that can teach you Japanese but they are mostly aimed towards passing tests. That’s fine if that’s what you are aiming for, but if you want to be able to use your Japanese in the real world, there are better ways of doing things.

    There is no point in learning words if they have no connection to you, so start by trying to name the things around you. Looking around me, I can see things such as a pasokon (computer), memo-cho (note pad) and an insatsuki (printer). Make a note of them in your memo-cho if it helps. If there is anything you don’t know the word for, you can look it up in a dictionary if there is nobody around, but it will tend to stick in your memory better if you ask someone to help you. You get the dual reinforcement of seeing something and hearing it at the same time.  It is an added bonus if you are attracted to the person who is teaching you because you get the positive reinforcement of talking to them too. A fun way to learn is to go to a restaurant with a cute waitress/waiter and get them to talk you through the menu. They usually won’t mind helping you out, and you get to learn new words, enjoy talking to the waiter/waitress and even get the meal you want at the end of it. If you manage to find yourself a girlfriend/boyfriend, then that is better still.

  3. Copy People
    Once you have learned enough vocab that you feel like trying to make sentences, the best way to learn sentences is to watch what other people say in different situations. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of Japanese grammar to find expressions that get you what you want. If you are at an ice cream shop for instance and the person in front of you orders an ice cream, listen to what they say and just copy it. If you see a girl being harassed by a guy and they tell him to bugger off, listen to what she said and store it away for if you ever need it. You can learn a lot like this without ever picking up a textbook.

    You need to be a little bit careful when you are copying someone of the opposite sex though. Japanese language is very different for men and women, so if you are a guy who wants to tell another guy to get out of his face, you probably don’t want to use the expression you heard a girl use at the pub the night before. You would just get laughed at.

Hopefully these tips will help you learn enough to get by without the hassle of sitting down with a textbook for hours at a time. In general the best advice I can give you is just to get out of your apartment, talk to people, and enjoy yourself. And if you are going to make mistakes, make sure they are big ones that everyone can laugh at. It’s much more fun that way.

FUJET Fuji Climb 2009: How was it?

Now that you’ve done the impossible and climbed the tallest mountain in Japan (through a fair amount of bad weather, might I add), what do you think?  What was your impression of the climb?  How do you feel?  Climbing Fuji isn’t THAT tough, right?

Please post a comment here!

Also, I’d like to congratulate Matt and Gemma on their first completed FUJET trip.  Good job guys!