I lived in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan for eleven months as part of a college-level student exchange program. There were very few English-speakers there and few of those were native English-speakers. I had a variety of adventures (and misadventures), both solo and with friends. The following are two of my favorite things from my stay in Japan.
The Kusuri Bridge （くすりばし）
My apartment building was in a predominently residential area near the Kushiro River (on both sides of which the city is built; it runs from the Kushiro Marsh to the sea). The river was between myself and the main train station, with its obligatory surrounding shopping district. I often had reason to cross the Kushiro River, and the bridge I usually crossed was the Kusuri Bridge.
I came to spend a lot of time on this bridge, watching the river flow by, people at work on or around the river, lights reflected on the surface at night. Standing on one of the bridges over the river wad one of my favorite things to do when I had time to waste, and I almost always paused mid-crossing to have a look at the river.
The Kusuri Bridge is one of seven bridges connecting the two halves of the city together. I saw most of them up close during my time there, and of those only this and one other had art built into the bridge. The other one is closer to central tourist territory, and is, I think, more well known; it has statues built into it. The Kusuri Bridge has sculpted flat panels built into the railing periodically along its length. Up close you can see the effects of the weather on it, but it gives the bridge character.
It was in crossing the Kusuri Bridge that I learned that an umbrella truly can flip inside-out if the wind is strong enough. I used to think that was a myth, fabricated for comic effect in fiction. I didn’t see a point in spending money on a good umbrella, and the ones I’d buy at convenience stores would flip inside-out as soon as I stepped onto the bridge if they were open.
I wish I could have seen the look on my face the first time it happend. Eventually I realized that I just needed to close my umbrella to cross the river.
Tea Ceremony Club
I was lucky enough to go to a university which had a tea ceremony club and an ikebana club. I joined the tea ceremony club the first week I was in Japan. I made some good friends there; it furnished much of my practice in Japanese speech and listening comprehension in the first five months I was there. They provided companionship and helped me understand Japanese society in the sort of ways you can’t learn in a classroom.
Our teacher, Ikushima-sensei, was a vigorous, vibrant old lady. I saw her at least once a week the entire time I lived in Japan. Only once did I see her wearing something other than a kimono — for which she apologized profusely. She’d had an appointment right before our lesson and it ran over, so she hadn’t had time to “get dressed properly”.
Ikushima-sensei was masterful at making people feel welcome. While that’s certainly due in part to her profession as a practitioner of 茶道 (the way of tea), her hospitality and endless patience with my inability to understand her when I first arrived helped me ease into life in Japan. She was delighted by my honest interest in tea ceremony and how fast I learned, and tried to cram a large variety of lessons into my head before I left.
I really fell in love with the tea ceremony. It’s such a peaceful endeavor. It’s unfortunate that there are no tea ceremony teachers in Alaska. I look forward to the day when I can take up lessons again.
The ikebana club was on hiatus when I arrived in Japan. It was an expensive club to be in, requiring the purchase of fresh flowers for every lesson in addition to the teacher’s lesson fee. As a result, it was never very large. When the ikebana club president, Rina, returned from exchange to Australia at the beginning of the second semester I was in Kushiro, its activities resumed.
She and I were the only ikebana club members who went to every lesson. The three other members (two of whom, like Rina and I, were also members of the tea ceremony club and one of whom was a teacher at the school) usually attended every other lesson. While I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the art and discipline of ikebana, I am more enamoured of the way of tea.
I also joined the drama club at the beginning of the second semester. That was initially the biggest mistake I made during my stay in Japan. However, it turned out to be one of the best learning experiences of my stay.
Since the spring semester is the first semester of the Japanese school year, I joined just in time to help with selecting scripts to perform that year. Where the members of the tea ceremony club had been deferrent — sometimes to the point of silliness — to my foreign nature and lack of understanding of Japanese, the members of the drama club just tossed me into the middle of things.
My Japanese reading speed tripled within a week because I was sight-reading scripts containing kanji I’d never learned. Sight-reading scripts in your own native language is hard enough; you have to read and process the lines fast enough to add emotion and action to the scene. Trying to do that in a foreign language? Well, it’s a good thing I thrive on diving head first into the deep end.
This was how I learned that clubs come in two kinds: the kind requiring a lot of linguistic proficiency, and the kind where you can do much of your learning by watching. Drama is the former, and I only managed to stay afloat because my past drama experience included more training than any of them had ever had. They didn’t have to teach me the basics.
It was a shame that I was unable to articulate myself well, because I could have taught them much. I did manage to teach them some things, though. It was a pleasure of seeing a total newbie improve by leaps and bounds after I had a talk with him about body language.
Joining clubs turned out to be the best way to make new friends and to learn about Japanese society. I got a taste of their traditions and a feel for their work ethic. I also learned that the performing arts attract the same sorts of people no matter what country you’re in.
If I had stuck to the foreign language students — the students who were interested in the world outside of Japan — for all my companionship needs, I would not have learned nearly as much about Japan as I did by just joining interesting clubs.