ODAWARA CITY, JAPAN – A Japanese boy, about 6 years old, whipped around a corner and saw me sitting on a bench outside a Japanese store in Odawara City. His eyes grew big and he must have realized he was staring. He mumbled “Konnichi wa,” which means hello in Japanese and ran out of sight.
A few moments later, he was back, this time with his 4-year-old brother. “Hello,” they both said to me excitedly. “Hello,” I said back and waved with a smile. They had spotted me, a red haired, freckled, blue-eyed American and got to practice their two English phrases. “Bye-bye,” they said and darted out of sight.
Moments later, they brought a 2-year-old bother around the corner. His eyes widened, too. The 6-year-old said softly, “hello,” prompting the little boy to say it to me. All three brothers then sang a chorus of hellos and bye-byes before their parents shooed them along.
Those brothers gave me the same interested stares as a car full of Japanese soccer players. They must have been about 10, my youngest son’s age. They stared at our group of Americans, so my friends and I waved to them. They giggled and asked us a question in Japanese. My friend told them that we didn’t speak Japanese. After a quiet discussion, one shouted “USA?” “Yes!” I said, and they all cheered.
It was truly an eye-opening experience to be the only Americans in sight during our first full day in Japan. As a part of the Hitachi Teacher Exchange Program, three educators from the Norman Public Schools were selected to travel to Japan to grow a better cultural understanding of our friends here. We will visit schools, sightsee and tour Hitachi here in Odawara City.
Jeannie Green-Lacroix from Hitachi is traveling with us as our host. We are so grateful to her and to Hitachi for allowing us this amazing experience. The other educators with me are Calypso Gilstrap, a Norman High School Librarian, and Ellen Kraft, and English Language Teacher at Truman Primary.
After a long day of traveling, Thursday and Friday, we settled in and slept in a beautiful Hilton resort on the side of the mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We are now 14 hours ahead of our Oklahoma friends and families, so our Saturday was still Oklahoma’s Friday, July 4. So Saturday in Japan, we rode the train to Odawara City and shopped and saw the sights.
I enjoyed being an obvious tourist. It helped me empathize better with people who might not speak English in Oklahoma or those who are visiting. Just eating the food from another country can be a challenging experience if you aren’t willing to try some things you aren’t used to eating.
I could write a blog post about many things that happened today, but instead I will just share some of the highlights:
Food – We ate well today. We started with a breakfast buffet at the hotel. While they had scrambled eggs, bacon and waffle bites, they also offered sushi and several fish choices. I kept it pretty American, but did add rice porridge, which I will need to learn how to make.
Lunch was in Odawara City. We actually chose off a menu at a vending machine and selected out entrees that way. The machine spit out a ticket and we handed it to the waiter. I had ramen noodles with some seaweed and pork in it. I am not an expert with chopsticks, so watching me try to eat noodles was likely a funny sight for the locals.
Dinner was at a tempura restaurant. They had an English menu that called everything “tendons.” I am pretty sure they weren’t actually tendons, but I had to get over the fear that we were. I had a bowl of rice with fried food including fish, shrimp, pumpkin, lotus roots and sweet potatoes. I only dropped one chopstick on the floor, and my trip mate Ellen and I got the giggles and laughed until we cried. (I think you probably just had to be there..)
Shopping – We found some beautiful things and some fun souvenirs for friends and family today. From gorgeous Japanese paper to EVERYTHING Hello Kitty, we loaded ourselves down with interesting things.
We went to several chain stores where the clothing was small to match the small people of Japan. We also went into several tiny stores operated by a sole proprietor. One store we went in was 350 years old and operating out of the original location. Some of the places we went had been in the families of the owners for multi generations. The stores sold everything from stationary to custom-made wood with Japanese lacquer.
Music – While we were looking for a shop, we stumbled upon a group of Japanese men playing in a drum and horn circle. The owner of the shop invited us in to watch them play. They did and it was so interesting. We clapped along and cheered them when they finished.
When we went into retail stores there was always music playing. But it wasn’t just one song; there were different songs playing at each section of the store. When we were in the 100 Yen Store (which is like our Dollar Store), one of the stations playing was an American Top 40 station. It was odd to hear “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea playing while in Japan.
People – We have experienced nothing but courteous, kind and wonderful Japanese people. They have been helpful and not even annoyed when we took pictures of everything. Even the fruit here is picture worthy!
We also had an American tour guide who has lived in Japan for the last 17 years. Gayla was a total lifesaver today. We are so glad she was with us to translate and help us.
Sunday we will do much of the same as we continue exploring Odawara City. Check back soon for another update to this amazing trip!
Michelle Sutherlin is a NewsOK contributor and a middle school counselor in Norman, OK, who works with students ages 11-15 daily. She is also a mom to two boys, Ryan (12) and Will (9). She and her husband have been married for 16 years. For more articles about parents and middle school, check out her blog.
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