Friday, May 1, 2009


Going to Japan is like stepping into the future. They have the coolest technology and funky gadgets everywhere! For example, in many of the restaurants you go into, you order through a machine. No joke! The menu is a touch screen, you choose your food, feed your money into the machine, it spits out your change, and suddenly a server is coming with your order! And at some sushi places there is a conveyor belt that runs past your table carrying plates of sushi. You pick out the sushi you want and when it is time to pay the bill, the server counts up the color coded empty plates to calculate it. Also, one of the sushi places I went to had tea cups, a little pot of powdered maccha (green tea), and a hot water tap all right at your table so that you could make your own tea! They have maccha everything… tea, ice cream, cake, candies, lattes… everything. My favorite gadgets by far, however, were the vending machines. I know we have vending machines in the United States, but Japan has probably ten times as many vending machines as the States and they are everywhere. That’s not the cool part though. Not only do these vending machines have cold sodas, teas, and water, they have coffee. Cold coffee, yes, but also hot coffee! It comes in a can and it’s hot, cheap, and actually pretty good too. It was not good, however, for my caffeine addiction…

When I first got off the ship in Kobe, Japan I met up with my family for the home stay I had signed up for. My “family” ended up being one 20-year-old girl named Yayoi. She has a family of course but her parents were working and her brother is studying abroad in Spain. I didn’t mind that they couldn’t be around though. Yayoi and I had so much fun and it was nice to be shown around by someone my own age. We did tag along with a couple of other Semester at Sea students and their families for the first day though. All of the host families were part of this organization called Hippo. The organization focuses on teaching different languages and cultures and coordinating home stays and exchange programs. I went with Yayoi, June and her husband (an older couple), Monica (an energetic woman who was so much fun to be around!), and three other Semester at Sea girls. Together we were three families, but we all travelled together to Kyoto, got lunch at a food court in a mall there, and ended up at Monica’s house for tea. At tea, Monica’s neighbor and her son came over. Her son was about seven, very shy, and adorable! He was so good at origami and taught us some. After tea we went to Nijo Castle to see the cherry blossoms. The castle was alright, but the cherry blossoms stole the show. The cherry blossoms, or sakura, bloom for only about two weeks out of the year and we came during the peak three days! After the castle we went out for sushi and Yayoi’s mother met us for dinner. She was so sweet, I wish we could have spent more time with her. That night we stayed at June’s house. She reminded me of my own grandmother because she was into all kinds of arts and crafts. Her house even smelled like my grandmother’s.

The next morning June made us all breakfast. Breakfast in Japan is so different! We had a noodle soup, salmon, rice, and baby sardines. And, of course, green tea. Then Yayoi and I went off on our own. We took the bus to the Golden Temple and after wandering around the Temple grounds for a while we got ice cream. I got maccha ice cream, of course. Then we took the bus to a shopping district and found some coffee. Yayoi speaks a little bit of English, Spanish, Korean, French, and a few more but I can’t remember them all. She said she only spoke a little of each one, but her English was very good and she was almost fluent in Spanish. She has studied abroad in Spain and has been to Mexico and India, and probably a few more places though we didn’t talk about them. She had pictures of all of the people who have come to stay with her family from all over the world since she was a baby. She goes to school in Osaka and is studying languages with an emphasis on Spanish. Soon it was time for me to catch the train back to Kobe so we met up with the other families again to say goodbye. I took the train back to Kobe and walked around Sonomia—a district of Kobe—with a couple of friends, got some food, and started to walk back to the ship. It was a longer walk than we thought and we got a little lost on the way and had to run to make it back to the ship on time! But we made it and the ship left Kobe for Yokohama.

On the first morning in Yokohama a few friends and I took a combination of trains to Tokyo. One of my good friends is from Japan, so she helped us find our way around the train system. I don’t know what we would have done without her! Once we made it to Tokyo we walked around before getting some lunch. Tokyo is huge and even more modernized than Hong Kong. The streets are clean and busy with crowds of people, many in business suits. That first district we stepped out into had designer stores on every corner—much more expensive than any of us could afford—so later we found Takeshita Street, a mess of younger, more casually dressed people and t-shirt shops. We found a huge, multi-floor 100 Yen store (the equivalent of a dollar store) and stocked up on snacks. Japanese snacks are so good. My favorites were these little chocolate cookies soaked in even more chocolate… I don’t know how they make them, but they are delicious. I also loved looking at and reading all of their t-shirts. My friend from Japan told me that it’s considered cool to have English words printed on clothing in Japan, but it’s all random! The shirts make no sense. I almost bought a sweatshirt that read, “How often do trains?” Almost. I was walking around a convenient store when a guy came up and asked me—in English—where I was from. I told him the United States and he asked what I was doing in Japan. I got ready to explain the whole concept of Semester at Sea—it usually takes a while—but I had hardly started when he interrupted and said, “oh yeah, that school ship that goes around the world?” Turns out he had run into some Semester at Sea students while we were in Thailand too! I asked what he had been doing in Thailand and Japan, because he obviously wasn’t Japanese. He said he was originally from Italy and had been saving up for a few years to just travel. He had no particular plans for while he was in Japan. I don’t think he even knew where he was going to spend the night! I’ve talked to a few tourists and travelers (there’s a difference) in each of the countries and I have heard some amazing stories. Compared to most of these people, I have hardly been anywhere or done anything. We talked to him for a while before going to the “Times Square” of Japan for coffee and people watching. Then we caught the train back to Yokohama and the ship.

I spent my final day in Japan in Yokohama. I wasn’t too crazy about Yokohama, mostly because there just wasn’t much to do. We went to a big high-end mall and got some (expensive!) sushi for lunch. We were studying the sign to find more food when I heard a piano playing. About six floors down in the lobby there was a pianist. While the other three girls I was with went to McDonald’s and Coldstone I went down to listen to her play for probably an hour or so. She played Claire de Lune and a Chopin piece I remember learning. Then she played Sakura, a song I’ve known forever but didn’t know until I got to Japan that sakura means cherry blossom. I’d had that song stuck in my head for three days, so it was cool to hear her play it while I was in Japan with the cherry blossoms blooming right outside. Soon it was time to be back at the ship and to leave Japan.

What followed was a nine day stretch across the Pacific to Hawaii. You’d think it would be a nice break after so many countries one right after the other, but I had so much schoolwork to catch up on. On top of that, the ocean was a little bit rocky so I had almost constant headaches. You can imagine how ready for a break I was by the time we finally reached Hawaii.