Two days after arriving in the land of rice paddies and tiny cars, the whole group of thirty IES exchange students set off to a mid-sized, yet ancient suburb of Nagoya called Inuyama (lit. Dog Mountain), for a four-day orientation. We piled on a tiny purple bus which from the outside looked like it held 15 people max and headed for the Geihanrou, a five-story traditional Japanese inn. The rooms in the Geihanrou were fairly large wa-shitsu (lit. Japan room) with tatami straw mats for floors and real futons to sleep in.
In the day time, wa-shitsu usually have little else besides a low table in the middle with a few legless “chairs” with cushions, and in our case a TV. Our rooms also had a little a little side part with a fridge and western style table. There was tea and red bean snacks on the table in case we got the munchies for some old-school Japanese goodies. We had full maid service, so while we were at dinner they would come and lay out our futons for us and in the morning while we were at breakfast they’d come and stuff them back into the closets for us. In case you’re confused, futons in Japan consist of the bottom mattress (kinda like the cushion on our futon couches) and a thick, puffy down comforter. They also come with a pillow (sometimes filled with beans or pellets?!) and are super comfortable ( I loooove the fluffy comforter!) The Japanese, genius space-savers that they are, store their futons in closets during the day, making one room serve as bedroom and living room and dining room all in one.
(this is basically what our rooms looked like)
So anyways, we checked into the Geihanrou and started our first orientation session in which Tsukamoto-san, our program director, went over our semester schedule and some basics of how to relate to our host families, what to expect in Japanese daily life, etc. For example, always take off your shoes before entering the house, conserve energy (it’s mad expensive here), and when you’re taking a shower (there’re separate shower areas and bath tubs here) wash off in the shower, and don’t ever use soap in the tub. Japanese people get really ticked if you get soap in the tub, because each family usually uses the same hot bath water to soak in every night; getting into a tub with someone else’s suds could be pretty gross I guess. I actually remember hearing about one public bathhouse (onsen) in Hokkaido where some Russians didn’t wash off properly in the showers and got into the big bath covered with soap. The owners were so outraged they forbade any and all foreigners to ever come to their onsen again.
The first night, dinner was an all-out wa-shoku (Japanese food) extravaganza. We had little cushions to sit on the tatami and each person had a little table-tray loaded with shrimp, tuna, and salmon sashimi, rice, stuffed crab shell, and other stuff I didn’t even recognize, and was a little afraid to ask. It was really fancy, with new dishes coming every five minutes. Wa-shoku portions are very small, but by the end of a full-out traditional meal, they’ve brought you so many different plates that you feel like you just got done with Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately some of the food wasn’t as popular with us ‘merican kids as it might be with say, a group of middle-aged Japanese business men, and although I felt bad for not doing justice to the hard work the little old women in kimonos had done, there are some things I just can’t put in my mouth. They must have noticed, because over the next few days, the food became steadily less and less wa-shoku, and more like, Mom’s home cooking. I think we even had meat-loaf the last night, a pretty big change from a raw shrimp, beady black eyes still intact.
The next three days passed surprisingly quickly, in large part due to the pretty open schedule IES let us have. We did have to get up for breakfast at 730 every morning, and take a Japanese class from 9-12 every day, but the afternoons were all free time. The Japanese classes were both to give us a little practice before going to our host family’s and to prepare us for the upcoming placement tests that would determine what level Japanese class we would take this spring. We had a pretty sweet teacher named Takanashi Sensei. He taught us some fun “Engrish” or as I like to call it Janglish. Some of my favorites were “furaido poteto” (“poteto” for short) for French fries and “stabah” for Starbucks. I also love that they also use Google as a verb : “Guguru”.
(An ashtray we saw, and some delicious Japanese energy drinks – cow piss just for you,Jesse)
When class got done, we’d all head out to find a place in the town to eat lunch and then hang out and see the sights. Inuyama as a town goes pretty far back, and it boasts the oldest original castle in Japan and national treasure, called Inuyama-Jo. Shockingly enough, that simply means Inuyama castle, and it’s actually situated right on top of Mt. Dog itself; I know, hard to believe. The Geihanrou is actually right at the foot of the Dog Mountain, so we were a short walk from the touristy shops and restaurants meant for castle visitors and the Shinto shrine that guards the gate of Inuyama-Jo. There were three little restaurants near by, and my roommate Kate and the four girls from the next door room and I ended up going to the one little coffee-shop all three days cause it was cheap and didn’t threaten us with any raw menu items. The one day we decided to try their jam and toast after having heard it was something worth experiencing; I kid you not, it was the biggest piece of toast I’ve ever seen. An inch and a half thick and about 4”x6” of yummy fluffy white bread, covered with strawberry Jam =mmmm mm good.
Our second day there, we went up to Inuyama-Jo itself. It is preserved in almost the exact same shape as it was since it was built in the 16th century. This castle was not as you might think, used as a palace for some noble family; it was a fort, a stronghold in times of war. Everything about the castle is designed so that it would be as impenetrable as possible. First, an invading army would have to break down the massive main gate, then they would have to try to push through into the tiny entrance to the inner castle, all while having arrows rained down upon them from the barred windows. And then, in order to really get up to the second floor in the castle, they would have to climb stairs steep enough to be considered a ladder, and the only way they could get up those would be to drop their weapons and grab the railings by both sides. Those stairs are still pretty freakin steep let me tell you, coming down I had to go backwards.
(Woo IES kids plus our awesome guide Keiko, or “Kiki”)
(actually a candid shot of me and Kiki where she was demonstrating that “q and u are friends!”)
The view from the top of the castle went on for miles. There was a narrow, slanting walkway wrapped around the top room of the castle that made you feel like you might slide off into the trees below when you walked on it. All except the south side with the gate, the castle walls were built right on the edge of the steep mountain slope which would have made it pretty much impossible to scale the walls to attack from those sides.
After the castle the tour continued to the Joan teahouse, also a national treasure due to it’s being an old intact preservation of the original type of teahouse that they used to build in ol’ Kyoto…another interesting fact about Jo-an is that it’s called that because the guy whose teahouse it was was actually a Christian and took the name of John, hence, Jo-an.
(Joan Teahouse, National Treasure)
(Beautiful Garden near the teahouse) (A spring to wash your hands in before teatime)
(Hangin out near some winter sakura on the stairs to the Narita-san Temple.)