Daniel Woodhams: Student Ambassador to Kurashiki, Japan

Summer 2010 Essay

Heart of America Japan-America Society


Before I went to Japan I called myself Danny Woodhams. Now I call myself Daniel. The reason I made this change was because in Japan, I didn’t want to have a name that meant “Tick”, and “Danieru” sounds nicer, I think. I’m 17 years old and a senior at the Barstow School. My activities include watching foreign films, reading books by Jack Kerouac, listening to David Bowie and writing. I’m an average kid that likes to have a good time. People who I’m not well acquainted with remember me as the “Japan Man.” My family, friends and teachers remember this passion more than anything else about me. I don’t have a problem with this, because honestly I feel the same way about myself.

Don’t get me wrong; my Japanese is far from fluent. It can be intimidating the amount of the language I don’t understand, but I still love it. People often ask me why I study it, and I never know what to say. I could say it’s because I like anime and manga, or because I like Japanese food, or because I like Japanese history or Japanese girls, or a mix of those reasons, but I really don’t know and I don’t think it really matters. But for the last four years, Japan has been the subject I’ve cared the most about. But I never went there until this summer.

I was nervous about going to a foreign country with no friends or anybody I knew. I can’t help but think of my friend Trey, who also went on the trip, who didn’t seem to be nervous at all about anything that could possibly go wrong. I found that Trey, or Byron-San as the Japanese called him, was never intimidated by the language barrier or the fact that he was a foreigner in a town that seemingly had none.  Even when his hand got cut and he was in the hospital he kept laughing. He, like me, couldn’t understand everything he was told, and sometimes he, like me, had no idea what was going, but he was there, and he was going to give it his best shot. His host family and my host family were close friends, so during the beginning of our trip, he and I got to spend much time together.

Unfortunately his time was cut short. Literally. When he left, I no longer had my American friend with me, but I was no longer intimidated to meet people and make friends. And thanks to a man called Mr. Mikihiro Matuska, and his son Kai Matsuka, I was able to make friends, and adapt to Japan.

Mr. Matsuka is a fun man, who seems much younger in real life than in pictures. He is very silly, but because he is so silly, his family and friends are always happy. There was not one single time when I was with him that I was miserable. When I think of him I always smile. He and I connected because when he was about my age he went to New Zealand for two years to learn English. He understood my concerns and anxieties, and he taught me how to deal with them. From him I learned the value of a smile and a friendly and outgoing attitude.

The first place Mr. Matsuka took me to is the place I associate Kurashiki with, Ojigatake hill. It is a hidden treasure, one that isn’t famous at all, which makes it even more special. Mr. Matsuka told me this was his favorite place in the world.

 I remember the surprise and awe I felt when I stood on those rocks and saw the ocean and the rest of Kojima.

Last week students from Kurashiki’s Amaki School came to Barstow. When I told them I had lived in the Kojima area of Kurashiki for a month, they all asked me if I had seen Ojigatake Hill. They had seen it not because it was so famous, but because they coincidentally happened to be acquainted with my very popular host brother, Kai Matsuka.

              Kai is my first friend from Japan. He’s my age and he studies in Los Angeles during the school year, so his English was fluent, so with him I was able to learn and understand much Japanese. He is a kind and generous friend, with a seemingly endless supply of friends and acquaintances. Thanks to him I was able to make several teenage friends in Japan and I even got to date a girl from Okayama, which is only 15 minutes away from Kurashiki by train. Sadly Kai has all of the pictures of my teenage friends and me and I still haven’t received them so I can’t show them to you.

              A girl from the Amaki School also knew Kai-Kun’s younger brother Sean and talked to me about his amazing ping-pong skills. I miss Sean very much. He’s a wonderful kid. He’s also the most determined 13 year old I’ve ever met. He wants to be the quote: “Takkyu King” or “Ping-Pong King”. During the summer he spends about 5 hours a day practicing and perfecting his style of Ping-Pong. I think he’s ranked second among all junior high students in Kurashiki. The first week I lived with the Matsuka family, I didn’t see him because he was at a national tournament in Aoi Mori. Sean inherited his father’s silliness. Even though he was four years younger than me, seeing his amazing skills at one of his ping-pong matches showed just how much determination and hard work can make you very special at a skill.

              My time with the Matsuka family was priceless. Everything was so care free and fun and special. Going to Okayama City, and to different beaches, and even trips to small second-hand book stores and shopping malls…all of these memories are beautiful in my mind.

              I was never completely separated from the Matsuka family though. They happened to be good friends with my second host family, the Yamamoto family. To my heart’s content, I was still able to see the Matsuka family often. 

              I loved the Yamamoto family just as much as the Matsuka family.  They are a kind and generous family, with a seemingly endless supply of relatives. My host-parents ran a hardware store, and my brother Daiki was studying for a difficult national test, and my youngest brother Kento was practicing with Sean Matsuka for a ping-pong tournament, but they always had time for me.

              My host mother is a very sweet lady. I remember in the car rides into the city we’d listen to Takarazuka Revue soundtracks, soundtracks from musicals performed by an all-female cast. I also remember how sweet she was to me. She took hundreds of pictures for me. When I was going through all the pictures to choose for my slideshow, I became sad when I realized I had none of her. I realized that this is because she was the one that was always taking the pictures.

              Daiki and Kento are equally sweet. Daiki taught me how to play games like Shogi or Japanese chess. It became one of my favorite games to play, but unfortunately I have nobody to play Shogi with in America. Daiki was very kind to me, but because of his studies I wasn’t able to get to know him very well.

              On the other hand I was able to bond very closely with Kento. He’s so fun to hang around and I enjoyed my conversations with him. I remember how he would ask me for girl advice, and I’d be unable to explain with language so I would draw confusing cartoons and diagrams about how to approach the girl he liked, and what kind of things to say. He also pointed out something to me that so many Japanese girls noticed; that I look like Harry Potter. I don’t get why this is, but I’m not complaining. I like the attention.

              The Yamamoto Family had a farewell party. The Matsuka family and Trey’s host family came. It was a wonderful night. But realizing that my time was almost over was very hard for me.

              I remember saying goodbye to everybody at the airport. I remember walking towards security, and seeing my host families become smaller and smaller. Soon after I saw Kurashiki become smaller and smaller. And a day later a saw Japan became smaller and smaller, until it faded into the distance. Throughout my summer I had been reading books by Jack Kerouac and I remembered this quote.


"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."


              I’m not sure what or where my next venture will be. I’m sure this is applies for everybody, but as I get older days become less smooth or easy, and it becomes easy for me to forget subtle beauty and the importance of a smile. Since then 57 days have passed. Not a day has gone by where I don’t remember something beautiful about Japan. Yesterday I received a message from the Yamamoto brothers. I was so glad I thought my heart would burst. Even though such moments are small and relatively insignificant, it reminds me how much my life is worth it. I want to visit Kurashiki again. I don’t how much time will have passed when I return, or what kind of a person I will be, but I know Ojigatake Hill will always be there, waiting for me.

I would like to thank the Japan America Society for giving me the happiest month of my life. Arigato Gozaimasita.