Gulp. I closed my eyes. With a churn in my stomach, I felt the plane descend towards the ground as it prepared for landing. I clutched the sheets of paper for customs and immigration that the flight attendant had handed me moments before. 17 hours before, I was outside of the local Holiday Inn, saying good-bye to my dad, my boyfriend, and my niece. The plane stopped, and the pilot’s voice rang over the intercom—I was officially in Japan. I would be in Japan for nine days…
Last July, I visited Kamogawa, Japan, as a student ambassador for the Manitowoc Sister-City Summer Exchange Program with five students. While in Kamogawa, I stayed with a host family of four—the Seki family. My American tour guide, Laura Jacob, an employee of Kamogawa City Hall, prepared an itinerary with an assortment of attractions for the trip. First off, Kamogawa greeted the exchange students and me with a heart-felt welcome party. Each day, I experienced something different: I saw live penguins for the first time at Kamogawa Sea World, and I visited the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line—a ten kilometers long tunnel that runs 26 meters under the ocean. I toured Tanjoji temple (the birthplace of the Buddhist monk, Nirichen), tie-dyed shirts at the Kuzikazome Natural Tie-dye Workshop, and wore a summer kimono for a tea ceremony workshop at the Oyama-Senmaida. There were so many rice paddies in Kamogawa—an amazing sight compared to the farmland in Wisconsin. I savored a delectable variety of incredibly fresh meals at restaurants, including the Ezawa-Ramen, the Sushi-Tatsumi, and the Yorozuya (a buckwheat noodle shop). At Nanohana-An, I baked tai-senbei, which are fish-shaped crackers that surprisingly taste like fortune cookies. I rode on the Tai-no-Ura excursion boat and witnessed phenomenal schools of red sea bream. I had a relaxing, unforgettable experience at the Hana-no-Yu public bath-spa, in which I had to bathe nude with other women.
Despite the action-packed schedule in Japan, I enjoyed the most my time with my host family. The Seki’s took me to see the Tokyo Tower and took me souvenir shopping—they treated me with so much love. On my last night, they purchased fireworks to light along the beach, and I relished my final moments in Kamogawa. Throughout the trip, I strengthened my bonds with my travel companions and the people of Kamogawa—I was reluctant to leave. In fact, as the people of Kamogawa gathered up to bid us farewell, everyone had to fight back tears to give their last words.
Looking back, this trip marked the last childhood experience I would have before the beginning of its end: my senior year in high school. As I transition through my final stage of adolescence, I will consider the important qualities of life that Japan taught me—the power of smiles and friendship, the respect for my elders, and the broad appreciation for socio-cultural differences.
Additionally, this unforgettable experience in Kamogawa has not only changed me, but my future plans as well. Before going to Japan, I was positive that I would attend college with a biology major. Japan has opened a new door for me. My journey helped me remember my forgotten love for the Japanese language and culture—I loved the clash of my Hmong-American background with the Japanese tradition. Now, I want the best of these worlds: science, foreign languages, and culture.
Kamogawa has become as dear to me as my hometown, my friends, and my family. Its memories will remain in my heart forever, and I will surely revisit it one day as an adult.
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