Sarah Willingham

Sarah Willingham
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Sarah Willingham

My name is Sarah Willingham and I represented the Heart of America Japan-America Society along with three other high school students in Japan this summer. On July 12, 2012, I visited Kurashiki City in Okayama, Japan, and had the adventure of a lifetime. While I cannot possibly express my gratitude enough for receiving this opportunity, I would still like to mention all those who helped make my trip possible. I sincerely appreciate the efforts of the Heart of America Japan-America Society and all of its members to provide this opportunity for high school students such as myself each year. The cost of the trip is immensely affordable and I believe it is a life-changing journey that all high school students with an interest in Japan should try to experience at some point. I am grateful that I was able to learn about the trip and given this academically rich and exciting chance.

 I would also like to thank James Benson, Tadashi Hirata, and the other Kurashiki city leaders for their effort in showing the student ambassadors around. Mr. Benson was very kind, professional, and always made everyone laugh. I was also very impressed by his fluency of the Japanese language. I only wish to match that type of skill someday! Tadashi-san was also very kind, and spoke very good English. His knowledge about America and Japanese culture and how they intertwine was very interesting to hear. I learned a lot just by speaking with him, and he showed the ambassadors several culturally significant areas and helped us learn more about Japan. Thanks to them, all of the ambassadors were able to have a very safe, interesting, and incredibly enjoyable trip. Next, I would like to thank the Kurashiki city delegation for having us. Everyone was very kind and supportive about having us there in the Kurashiki city hall. The Kurashiki students who went to Kansas were also very kind and I was able to make a lot of friends right away. I was very nervous to give a speech in front of all of the host families and the city mayor, but with all the warm welcomes and new friends, I was able to power through it without making a mistake. Last, I am eternally grateful to both of my host families, the Nagao family, and the Takesako family. They were both so kind and gracious and went out of their way to take me sightseeing, shopping, and many other fun places. I definitely believe they went the extra mile to make my trip amazing and they were what made my time in Japan so wonderful and enjoyable!

When we arrived in Japan, we claimed our baggage and then met James Benson, who was such a cool guy. He was very helpful and showed us how to send our bags right away. After that we decided to have our first meal in Japan. I was so exhausted from the running and worrying at this point that I was not too hungry, however having your first meal when you arrive in Japan is a must! We were all feeling quite indecisive, and so I suggested a ramen shop. After all, Japanese ramen is shockingly different from the cheap, dry, unhealthy packaged variety commonly eaten by broke college students such as myself. Japanese ramen is all thick noodles and slabs of pork or beef, often accompanied by bean sprouts or other vegetables, commonly a miso or soy sauce flavored broth, and sometimes even a boiled egg to top it off inside a giant bowl. Ramen shops are all over Japan’s streets, and they offer this delicious and very affordable meal that is even too big for Americans to finish!

None of us was able to finish our bowls of ramen considering our need for sleep greatly outweighed our need for food, but it was definitely delicious and a great first meal. I swear I had eaten so much, and I remember Mr. Benson remarking that the bowl had looked the same as if it was just brought out! The most interesting part is that it was a teeny tiny little shack with two small tables and a bar area, and incredibly humid and packed. Several elderly Osakan men were all packed in there, drinking and laughing with friends. They all spoke to us in Japanese with humor in their voices, with me being able to understand only a slight amount, and Mr. Benson translating the rest. My fondest memory is one of them telling me I was beautiful – I could not stop laughing! It was such a fun first night in Japan for us all, and then we retired to our first hotel in Japan, spirits lifted, yet still relieved to finally settle down and get some rest for a change.

I was actually unable to sleep for most of the night, and stayed up very quietly as to not wake Jordon so I could frantically practice my Japanese speech that I had prepared to give to the mayor of Kurashiki. I was incredibly nervous as there would be the other Japanese students, the Kurashiki city and the mayor of course! I could not count how many times I read the speech and practiced out loud. On the way to Kurashiki as well, when we rode our first bullet train, I could not have practiced that speech enough. Everyone else was also excitedly nervous to meet them too, and we all had a little song to sing in front of everyone, including our host families. After what seemed like forever, we finally arrived in Kurashiki. I just loved how pretty it is despite being the countryside. There are rice paddies almost everywhere, and fairly large vegetable gardens behind almost every home. The streets are incredibly narrow, to the point that it is scary how close a car is to the one beside it, the houses are all tiny and some being traditional Japanese style which is very beautiful, and beautiful blooming mountains loom in the distance in every direction. Even the trees and plants are beautiful and unique, compared to Kansas, that is. Yet something I noticed that really touched me is that there are sunflowers everywhere, which is what it shares in common with Kansas! I could not stop taking pictures of all of the fields and mountains, as I wanted to remember how clean and full of nature everything was.

When we finally arrived at the Kurashiki city hall, I was beside myself with nerves and trying not to freak out. However, everyone was so welcoming and warm. I was just so taken aback, even though I knew they were used to having the students come. They were sincerely glad to have us there and it calmed me down a great deal knowing that they wanted to further peaceful relations with us just as much as we did with them. I met many of the Japanese high school students that were also going to be going to Kansas, and they were so very kind! Two of them that sat at my table spoke a little English, namely a boy named Ryo, whose English was superb! I was pleasantly surprised by his eagerness to go to Kansas and improve his English, and very impressed. I tried to speak a little bit of Japanese with them as well, but meeting new Japanese friends as well as waiting to give my speech was not a good combination for my nerves. I also met my first host family who was sitting at my table, which was just so exciting for me! My host mother, named Miki Nagao, was a petite woman wearing makeup and having manicured nails, with curled long hair and a really warm smile. She was very cute and I knew I loved her right away. I complimented her on her bejeweled nails and then remembered reading on my host family information sheet that her hobby was nails. Her makeup and hair were also done very well and I was hoping she could teach me a thing or two, since I am useless at both. I also met a very shy little seven-year-old boy with large, shiny dark eyes and long black hair named Koutarou. I loved him right away because he was so adorable and I just wanted to give him a hug sometimes. His shyness made him even more charming, and I hoped I could be a good host sister to him.

I spoke with my host mother in a little bit of Japanese and introduced myself, and we immediately connected once we spoke of hair, nails, and cute clothes. Definitely my kind of mother! I also commented on how adorable little Koutarou was and she told me he is very shy. I felt right at home speaking with her and it took me a little to realize she spoke little English. This was very exciting for me because I actually had wished for a family with no English abilities; it would, of course, mean more opportunities for me to have to use my Japanese skills and improve them, and it certainly did!

After all the introductions had been made, we were introduced to a pretty Austrian girl named Astrid who had also come in Kurashiki for a week before us, and she sang a beautiful traditional song for everyone. The Japanese students then did an amazing choreography to a Lady Gaga song, and then we did our group sang “Home on the Range” with nervous smiles on our faces. While that was one thing to be over with, next the students were asked to say a few words about how grateful we were to be there. Of course, I was first up with my long speech and decided to go along and do my best. At times I spoke too fast and messed up a few words, but everyone was amazingly supportive and impressed. I was blown away by the loud applause after I had finished, and my host mother warmly supported me and made me feel better about it. The Japanese students also said a few words about their trip in Japanese, and then we presented gifts to the mayor of Kurashiki, who also gave us all gifts which were unique and great memories. We all took a lot of pictures with all of the students at the end, and Mr. Benson had a hard time trying to pry us away from our new friends to go home with our families! What was very special to me is that I had found out my new English-speaking friend named Ryo, was actually staying with a friend of mine that I had graduated from high school with in Kansas! We promised to meet, and we sure did, as Ryo was in Kansas when I returned from Kurashiki. We went bowling and to the mall and had a lot of fun, and it was a great experience being able to meet him again! After the meeting, from that day on we were to go home with our host families and have the time of our lives in this beautiful country.

When we were driving home, my mother asked me if I had wanted to go out or if I was too tired, and while I was incredibly tired, having stayed up almost all night the night before, my excitement took over this time. I knew I wanted to go to a popular Japanese mall chain called Aeon, although I had only American money on me having not been able to exchange it before. She kindly took me there for a little while, and we simply window shopped while I gazed longingly at the beautiful Japanese clothes in all of the shops. Japanese malls are a great deal larger than American malls which is ironic because, literally everything in Japan is smaller than America. To me, that might explain why in my opinion, Japanese clothes are so much cuter and well-made than American clothes. The Japanese malls typically have about six to thirteen floors, and many different types of shops besides just clothing shops.

We did not stay long as I was wearing down, and I was not able to buy anything anyway. Yet it was very nostalgic just to see a Japanese mall again, and be awestruck at how large they are and how many fun things there are to do. We then ventured home to the Nagao home, which I was blown away by compared to the very traditional Japanese home. It was so clean that it was almost sparkling, with the kitchen and living room all colored white, with a wide play area for Koutarou and a big front walk-out patio to view some of the city from. There was also an upstairs where my room was located, with a futon on the floor and very clean, with a little basket of snacks for me waiting on the shelf. I love Japanese snacks and was very grateful for this little present after Miki told me they were for me. Once I settled all my things in the room, my host father came home and we introduced ourselves, and then the grandma and grandpa came home and I met them as well. I sat down with everyone to a meal of delicious sushi, fresh corn and fresh vegetable salad, fresh grapes, and my favorite, green tea. My welcome meal was delicious and I could not wait to eat even more Japanese food during my time there! My time with my family was very precious and they were probably some of the nicest people I have ever met. I loved being able to connect with them in Japanese, especially with Miki, and just tell them about my life in America and some of the differences, and even how much I like Japan more than America. I told them about how I love the food better, and the weather, and the clothes and people as well.

I presented them with my gifts of Kansas City – barbeque sauce, chocolate sunflower seeds, and a Kansas University water bottle which Koutarou in particular took quite a liking to! I was overjoyed when I noticed him asking his mother for it all the time. I also gave Miki a series of Bath and Body Works products including a hand lotion, a body lotion, and a spray that all smelled very good. She was delighted, for which I was very relieved! The experiences we had were very numerous, because I had to wake up around six in the morning every day, and we would go out on adventures all day long! It was tiring but definitely worth it for all of the amazing experiences I had. Our first adventure was to the old and famous part of Kurashiki, where everyone used to live hundreds of years ago. It is famous for its little river that runs through the town. Before coming to Kurashiki, I had no idea about the city, and if one types Kurashiki in Google images, the first picture you see is of that famous river. It was very special to me going there to actually see it and how beautiful it is, and now I can tell my friends and family, “I’ve been there!” all the time. Next we went to an onsen, or a Japanese hot spring, which was very relaxing. I had been to an onsen before during my last stay in Japan, so I knew I had wanted to visit again because it is such a stress relieving activity. The hot water is amazing and I encourage all who are afraid to try it out to just go for it. Once you get in the water, it is very relaxing and worth it.

Our next trip included going to the beach, which I knew was something I had wanted to do from the beginning. Japanese beaches are beautiful and living in Kansas, I cannot exactly visit a beach every day. I wore plenty of SPF 60 sunscreen, and yet I managed to get sunburned anyway. If you ask me if it is worth it, of course I would say yes. It was very fun swimming in the salty water and having water fights with silly little Koutarou, and just lying on the warm sand as well! Swimming against the tide and having it lift you up is also very fun.

 After that, we ended up going to a big arcade called “Sega World,” which I – being a huge video game nerd – had been dying to go to for a little while. That day was very fun for me because I met Miki’s sister and her children, and we all went and played games there and used the UFO Catchers, which are toy catching machines similar to the ones in America. Japanese UFO Catchers are a lot better in my opinion though, because they all offer a huge variety of video game and Japanese animation toys. The catch, however (no pun intended), is that they are very difficult and cost about a dollar per each play. We must have spent about twenty dollars on this one particular doll that I wanted very badly, and through the combined efforts of Miki, her sister, her children, and I, we managed to win it! It was quite the victory and I was incredibly happy and grateful. The person who managed to win it was surprisingly Miki! I was so amazed and I told her how strong she is in Japanese – at UFO Catchers, that is! It was very funny and we had a great time. After we were done playing, we went to a restaurant called Bikkuri Donkey, or “Surprise Donkey,” and ate “American style” food which did not taste so American, but was still delicious. No matter how many burgers I ate in Japan, I still believe they have a Japanese flavor. I later found out that it is because they import Australian beef, which I found interesting.

My favorite experience by far was traveling to Koutarou’s elementary school, in which I met so many little ones and had a great time. I gave my speech again in front of all of the entire school, and was of course nervous again, yet I did fine and everyone clapped loudly again for me! All of the children were so cute and could not take their eyes off of me. It almost feels like being a celebrity for a day, with everyone staring at you constantly and all of them asking to take pictures with you. It was probably such a unique experience for them, and I was really happy that I could contribute to making them have a good day and learning experience. I stayed in Koutarou's class mainly, and got to know many of his friends and take pictures with them. I also spoke a little Japanese with them as well! I was asked to teach a little bit of English to them by the teacher, and so I taught them animal names, and even taught them the English version of rock, paper, and scissors! The experience almost made me want to become a teacher because they were so cute and I had such a fun time teaching them and playing with them. I was there the entire day and also visited many different classrooms of different ages in order to see what elementary school life is for them. I think the biggest difference is that they do not have air conditioning, which to me is impossible. Focusing in class is a must, and when it is swelteringly hot and humid all the time, I am amazed how strong these little ones must be to last through constant heat all the time!  I was honored to be a guest there and even wrote a little thank-you message to be hung up in the library so the kids could remember me.

After all of my wonderful adventures with my first host family, we eventually had a group activity where all of the host students met up again, including Astrid. It was very hilarious and nice to see everyone again. It was hilarious due to the fact that when we all got together and could speak English again, it actually felt weird to speak English again, and our grammar was all mixed up and we could not even think of some words to say! We met Tadashi, who was a very nice man who had previously taught English, and we went on a voyage to Miyajima, located near Hiroshima. We took a boat over to the island which was very fun and offered a nice view, until we arrived at the famous floating torii gate. However, that time of the year the tide was low, and so the gate was not floating, so we could see the bottom of it. It was still interesting and beautiful to see it that way, and we all took lots of pictures. We also visited the shrine there which was very beautiful, and Astrid made a traditional prayer by tossing a yen coin into the offering box and clapping her hands twice. The best part of the trip was probably meeting the adorable deer who surprisingly just come right up to you! Miyajima Island is well-known for its numerous wild deer, and they are very friendly because they basically try to eat you. We pet them a few times, and they nibbled on our shirts. A fond memory among us all is when a deer came right up to Tadashi and nibbled on his shirt, then after he finished, half the button on his shirt was bitten right off! He was very surprised but I could not stop laughing, though it was an unfortunate situation! After that we went to eat delicious okonomiyaki, which is a type of thin, fried pancake usually covered in fish flakes, mayonnaise, a special sweet sauce, cabbage, and some type of seafood or meat. The Hiroshima style has noodles cooked with it, which was delicious. Okonomiyaki was definitely a favorite food of mine while in Japan.

We later ventured to the Peace Park, where a famous area of glass cabinets is arranged. People from around the world visit this spot to hang up paper cranes inside the cabinets that relay a message of peace.  Tadashi had us all fold paper cranes on the train ride to Hiroshima prior to arrival, although because I cannot fold anything to save my life, my crumply paper crane stood out among everyone else’s nicely folded ones. However, Tadashi still decided to include it. I later pointed it out to my host mom and had a good laugh about it. We then visited the Peace Park museum which was very eye-opening, yet sad and made me feel very remorseful. It is interesting to only read about and hear the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from textbooks in school, yet seeing the Japanese story for my own eyes really changed the way I feel about things. We saw many sculptures, relics, and heard moving stories and terrible facts about the truth of the war, and learned so much more about everything that had happened. I am glad I could have the experience, despite the sorrow that surrounds the happening. It definitely made me want to continue to strive for peaceful relations with others, especially between foreign countries.

Our next group activity was to travel to the high school where the Kurashiki students who were coming to Kansas attended. We met many Japanese students there and went into the English classroom where we played games and got to know them a little bit. It was very fun and I spoke a little bit of Japanese with them. We saw some examples of their clubs such as the kyudo, or archery club, the kendo club, and even saw a tea ceremony club. It was very interesting to be able to have an insight into the high school life of Japanese students and compare it with ours. I am especially jealous of all the numerous fun clubs they have because, compared to American schools, they have such a variety! Our time was a bit short at the high school because after that, we then met our next host family. To be honest, I sincerely did not want to leave my first host family, simply because I had grown so attached to them. Miki was always telling me I was family to them, and I felt the same way. However, I definitely made the best of my last week with the Takesako family, and had a great experience with them as well!

My mother’s name was Erika Takesako, with one two-year-old boy and four-year-old girl named Ototarou and Wato. They were adorable and I immediately liked them, as I never can resist little kids. The father’s name was Rintarou, and he was quite an interesting fellow! When I arrived in the house I was taken aback because it was even bigger than the Nagao’s house, but in a different way. It had a big box-shaped playroom for the two little ones, full of boxes and boxes of toys, and the next room was the living room with a table and a big television, and then the kitchen was next to that. My room I would stay in was also upstairs, and upon entering it for the first time, I was amazed! Every wall except the wall where the futon lay was a shelf completely full to the brim with music CDs, and beside the futon sat a fancy CD player. I came to learn that Rintarou was a musician, and he loved music, with his favorite band being the Beatles. It was very interesting to me seeing how many American bands he loved and how he was very influenced by blues, jazz, and soulful music, much of it from America. He played guitar, piano, and had an excellent voice. He also showed me his music that he had recorded because he had even made a CD himself. I was very surprised and asked him why he was not famous yet, and he replied, “I don’t know. Why am I not famous yet?” He was a hilarious guy and I really enjoyed talking to him in some English. Erika was someone who had studied abroad when she was younger so she was fluent in English, and Rintarou was studying English, so it was fun to talk to him a little bit. He was very opinionated and we had some heart-to-heart conversations about the world, Japan, and America. He also loved to tell jokes and I could not stop laughing every time I spoke with him! I also told Erika about many differences between America and Japan, and we could talk about a lot of various things and really get to know each other.

My experience with the Takesako family was different because I could speak English, and they were not so structured with our time together, although not in a bad way. Things were very busy as a two-year-old and four-year-old are a lot to handle, no matter how cute they are, and so I tried to help out Erika as much as possible. Rintarou is also a doctor at a hospital, so he was usually home late at night. However, we did get to go on a few adventures together. Yet I liked being able to sleep in from time to time. One of the things we did together was going to a royal garden which was beautiful, and then going to Himeji castle which was an immense pure white that was very impressive. We also got to go eat gyudon, which is a traditional Japanese beef bowl, and Erika’s friends came over one day and made okonomiyaki. This okonomiyaki was my absolute favorite because it was homemade, and delicious! My favorite things we did together were going to the Seto Hashi Bridge, which is one of the longest bridges in the world. It was a far drive but worth it, and very impressive, and of course, very long. The other one that was very fun was finally going to a karaoke place, since I had never been. Rintarou amazed me with his voice by singing classic rock songs, Erika sang some silly songs with the kids, and I sang some songs in Japanese and had a lot of fun. Karaoke places are something America definitely needs; there are many times when I just want to go somewhere and sing my heart out!

Another wonderful experience I had was meeting Rintarou’s parents, and his sister. They actually invited me to stay one night at their house, and it was very fun and I had a great time with them. His sister’s name was Yui, and I became great friends with her! I went shopping with Rintarou’s mother and Yui, and spoke a little bit of English and Japanese with them. Their house was staggeringly big, about the size of an American home, and at that point I knew that was probably the biggest Japanese house I would ever see. It was also beautifully decorated and had many sculptures that Rintarou’s mother had made herself! One thing I am very grateful for is that Rintarou’s mother ended up buying me another luggage as I began to run low on space at this point, no matter how many times I refused. I would have been completely out of luck if it was not for her generosity!

Looking back, it was a precious three weeks that I would not trade for anything in the world. I only wish I could experience it all again, and my heart still aches for Kurashiki every once in a while. I love Japanese lifestyle, I love Japanese culture, and I love the Japanese language. I learned so much just being able to speak the language every day. I continue to work hard and study the Japanese language while currently attending the University of Kansas, in hopes that my hard work will one day bring me to my dream country. I am so grateful to everyone who helped make my trip possible.  I continue to correspond with both of my host families, as well as friends I made on Facebook to this day, and I really hope that I can meet them again! I wish the best of luck to future student ambassadors and I encourage you to go with an open heart and open mind, and I promise that you will return with a full heart and a full mind, and heightened sense of world awareness and harmony.