by TERRI KARSTEN
Excited students fill the gym, giggling, and whispering, with anxious eyes straying coanstantly to the entrance. Finally the twenty guests arrive. The band strikes up the Star Spangled Banner, and as one, every student stands and claps enthusiastically as the guests file in procession to the seats of honor at the front of the gym.
Who were these important guests? Rock stars? Movie celebrities? Official diplomats? No.
We were twenty teachers from all over the United States. The school where we were so honored was Oga Minami Junior High School in Akita prefecture in Northern Japan.
My colleagues and I visited this school and several others, as part of the Fulbright Memorial Fund, a program sponsored by the Japanese government to promote understanding between our two cultures. For the past eight years, three times a year, the Japanese government has brought 200 United States educators to Japan for three weeks to visit schools, to talk with education ministers, school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students and to learn about Japanese education and culture.
I began my adventure in Tokyo. This huge sprawling city covering more than 228 square miles with over 11.9 million people is a city of contrasts. Traffic zips along multilayered highways, and crowds of people crush their way into the vast subway system, side by side with peaceful gardens and silent shrines. Gigantic multistory department stores, filled with T-shirts starting at 6,000 yen apiece (roughly $60.00) rise only a few blocks away from open air bazaars and 100 yen stores (where everything is $1.00). A glittering glass and chrome banquet hall is found in the hotel guest house, a traditional structure with magnificent carved wood and sliding paper doors. Tokyo is the Japan seen in the movies, where the hotel staff lines up in crisply starched uniforms to bow and welcome distinguished visitors, where neon lights gleam late into the night and every other person hurries along the sidewalk talking on a cell phone.
From the first day in Tokyo, Midwestern culture met Japanese culture head-on. Aside from not being able to read most of what I saw, or understand most of what I heard, one of the biggest differences is in the food. Japanese food is mostly delicious, but it is not the standard meat and potatoes found in the Midwest. There is rice of course, and there is fish. In the three weeks I spent in Japan, I ate more fish than I had in my entire life before that. I now know there are more kinds of fish than I can name, and more ways to fix it than I could imagine. Fish can be grilled, steamed, poached, sauced or cooked at the table. It can be dried and flaked to sprinkle on salads, dried whole to munch on for a snack, or used to flavor candy and crackers. Fish can be made into broth for soup at breakfast time, or cooked into custards for dinner. One high school we visited has a school cannery where students learn how to make and can fish paste. (We were given copious samples of their product for lunch that day.) The most elegant way to serve fish is raw. At the reception banquet given in our honor by the city of Oga, the tables were spread with beautifully arranged raw fish and seafood. Fish eggs filled sea urchin shells, and huge platters, filled with thin slices of raw orange, pink, gray and white fish made a colorful array on every table. Fortunately for many of us, they also served a lot of fresh fruit (elegant indeed when you consider that a watermelon in Japan costs about $15.00, and bananas are at least $2.00 a pound.) Don't get me wrong; I like fish, but fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner seems like overdoing it a bit to me.
Another Japanese favorite is seaweed. Like fish, seaweed comes in many varieties and forms. Fresh seaweed salad is common at breakfast, and dried seaweed is used to flavor soups and other dishes. At Oga Minami Junior High School we ate regular school lunch with the students. We had makizushi - hand wrapped sushi. This meant taking a four inch square of dried seaweed, filling it with rice and pickled vegetables, sausage, cheese, or fish, rolling it up and eating it sort of like a taco. It doesn't taste anything like a taco, but really, it is not bad.
Japanese toilets also take a bit of getting used to. There are two basic styles, Western and Japanese. Japanese style are the squat variety, very clean and sanitary, but somewhat hard on legs of Westerners not used to squatting. (They are also a bit tricky for balance. You haven't experienced life until you have tried squatting over a Japanese style toilet on a bullet train traveling at 200 mph.) Western style toilets are of a more familiar shape, but Japan, land of technology, has a lot of very high tech toilets. Many Western style toilets come armed with a control panel to rival that of a jet plane. Some toilets had self-warming seats, and others played soothing water sounds to mask whatever sounds you might be making. Unfortunately, since toilet control buttons are invariably labeled in Japanese, I never figured out what most of them did, but I learned it's not a good idea to push any of those buttons with the seat up.
After five days in Tokyo, our group of 200 teachers split into 10 groups. I went with twenty colleagues to Oga, a peninsula jutting into the Japanese Sea, north of Akita City. The peninsula has several small towns and a total population of about 30,000 people. There are no subways, no crowds of people, and no Internet access in the sleepy little hotel. This is rural Japan, perched on the edge of the ocean, surrounded by mountains covered in thick, dark cedar forests. Here, the town song is broadcast over an amplifier at noon each day, and most of the stores close between 6 and 7 in the evening. Of the five restaurants in town, only one has a picture menu. But it didn't matter that we didn't really know what we were ordering, because the restaurant owners were so anxious to welcome the American teachers, that they bent over backwards to make us feel comfortable. In one restaurant, a group of businessmen at a table next to ours bought our table a bottle of sake, and the restaurant owner gave us a plate of delicious honeydew melon after we paid the bill. (Remember the price of melons?)
In fact, if I had to describe the people I met in Japan with just one word it would be friendly. In both rural and urban Japan, I found people eager to help me. A stooped old man in the train station missed his own connection to show me the way to my platform. A group of giggling teenage girls in Harajuku stopped their shopping to take me to the subway. A businessman in Oga on his way home in the evening, walked several blocks out of his way to lead me to a local temple. Japan is a land where politeness is so much a part of life, that people everywhere, from teenagers to senior citizens, stop what they are doing to answer questions and help a stranger.
One of the highlights of my time in Oga was the weekend I spent with a local family, the Sawakis. I watched Naouto, age 10, play the equivalent of little league baseball, hit a single, and steal his way home. I went with Mrs. Sawaki to a huge flower market and garden to buy flowers for the family shrine in the "Japanese room" of their home. I skipped stones at the beach with 6-year-old Kosei, played with the hermit crabs and then climbed Cold Wind Mountain with 14- year-old Takeaki. Mr. Sawaki took me on a cruise across the bay in his 40-foot sword fishing boat. In the evening, after a long, luxurious bath, I played cards with the boys. Although they spoke little English, and I speak very little Japanese, we had no trouble laughing together and having a great time.
Japan is full of surprises, contrasts and sometimes overwhelming differences. It's the differences I noticed first. In America we eat different foods, we arrange our homes differently, and we even drive on the opposite side of the road. Then I think of the people I met: the junior high girls on a school excursion giggling with each other as they tried out their English and posed for a picture with me; Manaka, a fourth grader who showed me how to fold up my milk carton after lunch and begged me to visit her classroom; the fifth grade teacher who completed lesson plans late in the evening so she could play the shamisen for the students' after school music club; the busy mother of four boys who welcomed me into her home as a stranger, and left me, two days later as a friend, though we didn't speak each other's language; and the 14-year-old boy who earnestly and diligently tried to teach me to read Japanese, and cried when it was time to say goodbye. Maybe we are not really so different after all.