Byron Pendleton: Student Ambassador to Kurashiki, Japan

Summer 2010 Essay

Heart of America Japan-America Society

              Many kids, or people for that matter, have never been given the opportunity to experience Japan. The student ambassadors were able to experience Japanese culture and daily activities through native eyes while we lived with host families. I would like to sincerely thank all of the members of the Japan-America Society and members of the board for allowing me to go on this adventure. Without your generosity I would not have the lifelong memories I am now blessed to share.

              Dancing in the terminal during our layover in Chicago was a little comical. The girls were learning the dance fine, but Danny and I were in trouble to say the least. I was happy when the time came to embark on the 12 hour flight to Japan.

              We arrived in Narita Airport and met Mr. Kawahara. During our layover we ate sushi. Upon arriving in Okayama we were introduced to James Benson and Yukie Nishi. At this point I had no idea how generous and helpful these two would later prove to be. That night I discovered my first Japanese-style electric toilet. The next morning I went to the hotel’s continental breakfast where everything from rice and soup to pork and eggs was served. After breakfast, we met with Mr. Benson and Ms. Nishi once again and were introduced to our host families. First I met Mami, my host mother from the Fujikawa family. Mami and I walked to the car and I received a confusing look from her as I walked towards the passenger-side door. I soon realized that I was standing in front of the driver-side door, and in Japan the driver’s side is on the right side of the car. I also was slightly startled at first as we pulled out of the parking lot onto the left side of the road.  I was half-expecting green stop lights to mean stop and red to mean go, but at least some things are the same. Our first stop was at the tool shop, where I met my host sister Kaho, my host father Kazo and his co-workers. Kazo is a very skilled carpenter, and the longer I spent with him, the more he reminded me of my dad. We returned home, and I gave their dog a hair cut. It felt good to be able to help, regardless of  how small the task. Later that night, I met Miyu and Minori. The children in Japan go to school almost all year, and even during their small summer break they were busy with extracurricular activities. After I took a shower,  I was given a Hapi coat as a present and went to Wakuguri Omatsuri. I felt like I was in heaven as I shuffled between food stands buying a variety of delicious food I had never heard of. I ate takoyaki, taiyaki, udon, and yakitori. The Japanese couldn’t believe how much I could eat. My favorite food was definitely taiyaki, which is a fish shaped dessert that is filled with a sweet red bean called anko. The next morning I took a beautiful walk along the mountainside roads with Mami. Mami and I then went to a fish shop and an electric store. Afterwards we picked up Kai, Danny’s host brother, and went to a Jinja and Buddhist temple. A monk taught us how to meditate, and later we made wishes. Danny and I were told to write wishes on a piece of paper, so we wrote things like “wealth” and “prosperity”, but we were embarrassed as the monk told us the wishes shouldn’t be beneficial for ourselves, but for others. The trip to the supermarket was an adventure in itself. We bought sushi supplies on one level and took pictures in a gaming arcade on the next. That night we had fun preparing sushi, and afterwards I showed the family where I work and live using Google Maps.

              The next morning I went on a jog and experienced the beauty of the mountain side. Minori and I went to the beach with Danny’s host family. We had o-bento on the beach. The police approached us while we were eating, and started talking to us. Danny and I thought we were in trouble, but Kai explained that they were just encouraging water safety. They even gave us complementary towels. After having a blast at the beach, we went to the candy shop and the park. Japan truly is the place to be if you’re a kid.

              The next morning we drove over the Seto-Ohashi Bridge to see a new house that my host father Kazo had built. The house was very nice and  very modern- European looking. My favorite aspect of Japanese houses is the restrooms. I have never seen a toilet with so many convenient features. We went to an excellent udon shop in  Okayama Prefecture before visiting another temple. We took the electric train over the Seto-Ohashi Bridge to our next stop. The outdoor garden and castle were truly a magnificent sight. Afterwards we visited an electronics shop which was several stories tall and sold anything that can be plugged in to the wall.  That night we ate kaiten sushi, also known as conveyer belt sushi. I can easily say this was one of my favorite restaurants.

              I woke up the next morning ready to work. I was looking forward to finally being able to contribute to the household duties. Minori, Kazo, and I walked up the road to the Kazo’s workshop and grabbed a few tools to cut bamboo trees. We entered the bamboo forest, cut a few trees, and returned to the workshop to hollow them out. I had no idea why we were doing any of this. I heard “noodles”, “bamboo”, and “festival”. I thought for sure I had misunderstood something. I was handed a chisel to hollow out the inside of the bamboo tree, then the accident happened. The chisel slipped on the surface of the wet bamboo trunk and I cut my left thumb. I only had to glance at my hand to realize my trip was about to come to a screeching halt. Kazo helped to wrap my hand and we went to the hospital. I was wearing a white tank top, and by the time we got to the hospital my shirt was no longer white. I remember feeling a little like Rambo. The doctor looked at my injury and informed my host family I would need to go to Kawasaki Hospital. After the long drive we were met at Kawasaki Hospital by Ms. Nishi and Mr. Benson. I would also like to mention how much help these two individuals were. If I ever needed anything or had any communication issues at all, Ms. Nishi and Mr. Benson were there. I met my surgeon and listened to Mr. Benson’s translation regarding my options for surgery. One good thing that came from this was that Daniel and I would no longer have to perform the line dance with Irene and Hallie. I called my dad, and he answered the phone asking, “How bad is it this time.” I responded, “I’m in the hospital.” My dad knows me too well. We decided to have the operation that day. The surgery was one of the most bizarre scenarios I have ever been in. Three doctors and one surgeon wheeled my bed into a cold, pristine white room. High-tech medical machines with green and blue lights lined the walls. The wheels to my hospital bed came to a stop leaving me beneath an adjustable light extending from the ceiling. I attempted to make conversation with my new friends, but my anxiety rose a little bit as I realized they didn’t completely understand what I was saying. “So, am I the first American you have operated on?” There was a short pause followed by, “Yes, you are the first foreigner we will do operation on.” I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. The doctor then told me I looked like Tom Cruise. This was the seventh and final time I had heard this and yes, I counted. I told him, “I get that a lot.” They began to place a cloth between my hand and my body so I couldn’t see my hand. I then asked if I was going to be put under, and if there was going to be any pain. The doctor responded, “Put under? Pain? I’m sorry I don’t understand.” Honestly, I got a little more nervous when the doctors didn’t understand the word pain. I would like to make a recommendation for all foreign doctors working with American patients to learn the word “pain”. It is an important word. The doctor said, “The operation is about to start, tell me when you feel an electronic sensation.” After hearing this I wasn’t thinking about the operation, I was wondering why he knew the phrase “electronic sensation” and not “pain”. For some reason the anesthesia wouldn’t work (I felt no electronic sensation), so they used local anesthetics.

              Half an hour later my hand was bandaged, and I was wheeled into a room where I would stay the night. I was greeted by my host family along with Mr. Benson and Ms. Nishi. The doctor came into the room and explained that I had two options; either have another operation in Japan and wait five weeks before returning home or go home early and have the operation in America. He recommended that I return home early. Although the Japanese health care system is very good, it isn’t as specialized as it is in the United States. I had another telephone conversation with my dad and we agreed it was best for me to return home early.

              An hour later my host family returned with candy, sushi, and my newfound favorite Japanese food- anko. I offered some of my hospital food to my host family, and we all agreed that hospital food was “gomi.” Something extraordinary happened that night. Mami, Kazo, Minori, Miyu, Kaho and I were all huddled in a small hospital room. We tried to be quiet for the patients in adjacent rooms, but even with the massive language barrier we couldn’t conceal our laughter and chatting that is only accompanied with having a good time. In that period of time I was no longer a foreigner in a hospital, there were no formalities or awkwardness.  We were just a family enjoying one-another’s company.

              The next day Daniel and his host family came to visit me, accompanied by my host family and Ms. Nishi and Mr. Benson.  My tiny cubical of a room was once again packed with friends. Afterwards,  I checked out of the hospital, paid my bill and left. I would also like to add that the bill was very inexpensive compared to the bill I would have received for the same services in the United States. The health care system in Japan is partially universal. Patients accept responsibility for 30% of the bill and the government pays 70%. It is also interesting to note that in Japan hospitals are required by law to be run as non-profit organizations. My total hospital bill for surgery and residency totaled about $2000. In the United States my surgery alone without residency totaled $7600. This amount doesn’t take into account physical therapy.

              During my final night in Kurashiki, my host family met Daniel’s host family at a nearby steakhouse. The food was good, but was nothing compared to the people I was surrounded by. I said my goodbyes to Daniel and his host family and returned home for one last night’s sleep under the Fujikawa Family’s roof. The next day, my host family drove me to the airport, and I was told the story of Momotaro. My grandmother’s friends Kimiyo and Kate met me at the airport, and we had a nice conversation. Before I knew it, I was walking to the terminal accompanied by people, only a week earlier I didn’t know. After everyone exchanged goodbyes, Mr. Benson and I passed through the terminal bound for Tokyo.

              Before exiting the plane, I knew Tokyo was going to be unlike any other part of Japan I had previously experienced. The subways were filled with foreigners and Japanese alike. Every girl was adorned in high heels, and I saw shades of hair color ranging from purple to lime green. Mr. Benson and I had only a few hours to explore the city. We decided on a restaurant to eat at and ordered a feast. I found this restaurant very interesting because we didn’t give our orders to a waiter. We would select our order from a touch-screen computer at the end of a table, and a waiter would bring us our entrées soon after. Over the course of the night I got to know Mr. Benson, and I was pleased to find out he was as fun to hang out with as he was helpful. We got back to our hotel around midnight, but the illuminated city was still alive. I set my alarm and went to sleep. The next morning we scurried between trains and got to the airport just in time for the 13 hour flight home.