I would like to start off by thanking the Japan America Society, especially Patty Woods, Lydia Kanki and Jun Shrout. I also want to express my deepest gratitude to Kurashiki City, the Miyake family, the Fujikawa family, James Benson, and Tadashi-san. Thanks to their kindness and the opportunities they offered me, I had the most amazing experience of my life.
In my application essay, I quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation that “A mind once expanded by a new experience can never return to its old dimensions.” This proved to be very true for me. I learned a lot just traveling to Kurashiki. I didn’t have a boarding pass from Tokyo to Osaka and I was worried my trip would end at Narita airport. But as soon as my feet touched Japanese soil, we had no difficulty claiming our luggage, getting through customs, getting our boarding passes, and still catching our plane in time. Everyone we met was so helpful. By the time we landed in Osaka, I forgot every doubt I had. I realized I really could speak Japanese. I realized I could do this.
After we landed in Osaka and we met James Benson, we went out for a long awaited meal at a ramen shop the size of a walk-in closet. It was not a quiet meal. We had come in when a group of elderly men were enjoying a late night bowl of ramen. We enjoyed chatting with these older men about ourselves and our place of origin and jokingly scolding them for mistaking me for a boy. We had fun connecting not only with them, but with each other as well. That night in that crowded little ramen shop was my first experience crossing cultural, age, and language barriers and I had fun doing it. I felt like I belonged in Japan. And that was the best ramen I ever had. I ate every bite.
The next morning after multiple trains and a shinkansen, I found myself at the town hall meeting my host families. My first host family consisted of Mami, whom I called okaasan (which means mother), Miyu, Kaho, and Minori. Kazu, who I called otoosan, was at work. I was also introduced to my second host family. Yoshiko was to be my host mother, and Kenji was to be my host father. Yoshiki was wearing a beautiful kimono that radiated something that can only be described as true Japanese elegance. It was then that I thought “I’m really here; I’m home.”
After saying our goodbyes, my first host family took me to the mall with Kelsey and her host family. My sisters wanted to take me everywhere, but eventually we settled on a depaato (department store). I was focused on the yukata. I was surprised at all of the styles, patterns, fabrics, and even lengths! Later, after dragging me away from my fluffy floral cloud, we got to the Fujikawa’s house. After the long ride through the mountains, I was exhausted. But there was visiting to be had. I met my host grandmother and Kazu. I was also stuffed with food. When I finally made it to my 4’x10’ bedroom, I lasted five minutes before I passed out.
The next few days were jam packed with ice cream, visiting Okayama Castle, the Seito Ohashi, numerous aquariums, and hours of Super Mario Brothers with Minori. At night I would think about how for the first time in my life, I had sisters and I would wonder how I was going to leave this family I had come to love. During my stay, the other girls and I went on a day trip with Tadashi, a representative from Kurashiki. Tadashi was not a large man, but with his ever present smile and sense of humor, he had a big presence. On the way to Hiroshima, he had us fold cranes for an offering. When we walked through Peace Park, I was silenced by the dignified presence that the park symbolized. For dinner on Miyajima, we had okonomiyaki. After we finished, we traveled back home.
One of the most interesting experiences I had was with my sisters, watching their extracurricular activity of baton twirling. It seemed as if they were practicing all the time. When they watched TV, when we played games, and even when we snacked, they were working the baton into patterns so fast that you could only see the glimmer of silver. One night, they decided to teach me. Kindly showing me what to do while restraining themselves from laughing at my perceived attempts at injuring myself, they opened their world to me. Not just baton twirling, but their desire to learn and better themselves and the people around them. After a week of fun and celebration, we had a goodbye party at our house. We had one last piece of cake from my favorite bakery, Hyakujyuji. The cake said, “We love you, Jordan” and I tried not to cry when I saw it. I really did feel like I belonged to this kind family and it was so hard to think about leaving them.
The next morning, we went to a high school with Kurashiki representatives. Everyone was so thoughtful. We visited several clubs. I especially enjoyed the kendo club and the tea ceremony club. I was happy to be reunited with Yoshiko, who would be taking me home, and that made it a little easier to leave the Fujikawa family, although It still broke my heart to say goodbye. When we got home, Yoshiko introduced me to Keisuke, my host brother who was coming to the U.S.A. to work as an airline pilot. I also met Ryoma, who was their exuberant beagle. I brought Ryoma a stuffed skunk for a gift. I had rubbed the stuffed skunk all over my dog, Rudy, before leaving, as my dog’s way of saying hello. When Yoshiki gave the skunk to Ryoma, he went berserk, throwing the skunk in the air and shaking it. He obviously loved the gift and my host family thought it was hilarious. Last week, Yoshiko emailed me and said they still tease Ryoma with the stuffed skunk. They ask him, “Where’s Jordan?” And he runs and gets the skunk. He thinks Jordan is the skunk! I learned that a good sense of humor is an excellent bridge between two cultures. We all enjoy a good laugh over the same things.
Over the next week, I grew close to Yoshiko and her friend Yuki as they taught me Ikebana, flower arranging, and fan dancing. Every evening, I would take Ryoma on a walk with Kenji though the gorgeous countryside, crossing rice paddies and admiring huge electricity towers that loomed over the misty mountains on the horizon. We discovered that we both loved Led Zeppelin. Kenji even had it on his iPod. I discovered that music was another excellent bridge that connects people together. After we got home, we would eat a dessert of Japanese peaches. They were the sweetest, most succulent peaches I have ever tasted and I miss them! I did not want to ever leave. But alas, even the sweetest adventures must end.
The day we left our families for good, we went to Kyoto with James. I had my first Japanese crepe, and it was love at first bite. That night I could not sleep. My mind was too full of new experiences and the sorrow of having to leave my two new families whom I had grown to love as if I had always been a part of them. So after hours and hours of restless pacing, I left my hotel room to return to the airport. When we took off, none of us could speak. The feeling of loss was too thick in the air, but by the time we landed in Dallas, I had begun to feel better. I knew I would return. I am friends with Miyu on Facebook and Yoshiko and I write letters to each other. My trip to Japan definitely expanded my horizons and changed my life and I am so grateful to have had this experience.