by Lily McFeeters, CCI Greenheart Travel Exchange Student in Japan
On our final day of orientation, we packed up our things and loaded onto a bus for a two-hour ride to the Shinkansen, also known as the Bullet Train. The Shinkansen is quite a modern marvel that connects Tokyo to most of Japan’s major cities. From Tokyo, I was approximately 500 miles from meeting my host family. With the Shinkansen capable of speeds up to 185 mph, it would take us a little over 90 minutes to get our stop, Hyogo, which is close to Osaka and Kyoto.
It was very crowded when we arrived at the station. Yet we twenty plus exchange students with backpacks, carry-on luggage, and gifts for our host families somehow managed to make it through all the hustle and bustle. Once seated, we ate the obentos that our local coordinators from JFIE had brought for us. Obentos can be either homemade or store-bought boxed lunches. My consisted of vegetables, dumplings, fried shrimp, noodles, and rice with an umebōshi (pickled plum).
Everyone’s excitement grew, as we got closer to our destinations. My stop was one of the last stops, so I watched as other students disembarked at their stations. Through the window, we could see the host families waiting on the platform. It was so heart-warming to watch everyone’s happy faces as they met their new families for the first time.
Finally we reached my station. My heartbeat quickened with anticipation; it was my turn to meet my new family! I got off the train with the other three exchange students going to the same high school as me. Momo-chan, my host-sister, was waiting for me right outside the train on the platform. We said, “Hajimemashite!” to each other, which means, “How do you do?” or ” I am glad to meet you.” But this expression truly has the connotation of “first time,” in this case, meeting for the first time. After that, we didn’t have much to say, but smiling at each other was enough to know how we felt. She was in her school uniform because everyone was going straight to school from the station with his or her host-families.
Obaa-san, my host-grandmother, was waiting with the car outside the station by the train. I said the Japanese phrase, “Gokagetsu kan, yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” which translates to something like, “Please treat me kindly/take care of me for five months,” or “Best regards for five months.” I could tell how happy she was to see me, and I felt the same way. We loaded my luggage into the car and drove to my new high school, Kakogawa Kita Kōkōgakkō (abbreviated Kita Kō).
The first thing we did at school was…take off our shoes! There was a genkan (entranceway) that had shelves for indoor and outdoor shoes. The principal, some teachers, and our local coordinator were all there to greet the new exchange students and their host families. The principal seemed very friendly. The exchange students went to his office, and he asked us questions like, “What do you think of Japan?” He used to be an English teacher so he said to me, “Oh, Lily, like Yuri? Yuri-chan!” Yuri is the Japanese word for the lily flower.
When we went back into to the main room, there was tea waiting for us on the table. But our host families had already drunk their tea. During orientation, we had been told we could not drink during class, not even water, so I wasn’t sure if we should drink tea during the discussion. I was rather conflicted about this, so as soon as there was a break in the discussion, I quickly drank it. The conversation seemed very formal because the principal and teachers were using honorific speech, a more reserved way of speaking.
When we left the building, I noticed several students in their gym uniforms practicing for their club activity (bukatsu). We stared curiously at one another a little as we walked to the car. Perhaps we will get to meet each other once the new school year starts in about ten days.
Next up: Juku (cram school) and ohanami (seeing the cherry blossoms)