June 1999 -- I went to Japan for two weeks as part of a high school student exchange program--with a twist.
I had just finished my sophomore year in college, but I got to go with a group of American high school students, in part because my younger sister was signed up for the trip.
The upshot was that I was the only person in the group to have two years of college-level Japanese under my belt. Which came in handy for the few times that we did not have a Japanese chaperon--especially in the hectic train stations!
Obviously, I have a lot of pictures and awesome memories, but I'll spare you every little detail. Here are the highlights.
We spent the first few days of our trip exploring Kyoto.
One significant thing about Japan: there are temples and shrines everywhere. You might be walking down a busy market street, turn a corner, and BAM! There's a gorgeous temple nestled in lush greenery and tall trees.
Here is one of the more famous ones, the Golden Pavilion Temple (Kinkaku-ji). Our group posed in front of it; that's a twenty-year-old me kneeling on the left.
Notice the second guy from left, with the afro. His hair made him the most popular guy of our group. Even little old ladies on the bus wanted to touch his 'fro.
Here's another temple. This one is part of a large complex of temple buildings on top of a hill in Kyoto, and the views are amazing. I'm very sorry to say that I cannot remember the name of it. It might have been part of Kyomizu-dera.
Here's a dragon water fountain at the entrance to the temple. With the ladle, you are supposed to wash your hands to purify yourself.
I spotted this sign while we were walking the city streets. So cute! I think it had something to do with cleaning up your garbage, but I don't know enough Japanese to translate anything other than the word "yamereon," which means "chameleon." Obviously.
This was a lovely statue in one of the Buddhist temples we visited.
We also went to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, an incredibly sobering experience.
This is Ground Zero, the A-Bomb Dome (once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall). I stood right here, took this picture, breathed the air... it was incredibly quiet here.
This is one of the many monuments at the park, the Statue of the A-Bomb Children or the Children's Peace Monument. You probably have heard the story of Sadako Sasaki, who believed she would be cured of radiation sickness if she folded 1,000 paper cranes. There are chains of colorful paper cranes surrounding this monument, sent from around the world.
Here is another temple. I believe this one is in Oita, where we finally met up with our host families and began attending high school.
This is a women's toilet in Japan! Fortunately for us, there were usually "western style" toilets available, though sometimes it was only in one stall and we had to take turns using it. None of us were brave enough to try using this Japanese style toilet.
We were like local rock stars; we met the mayor of Oita (who gave us t-shirts that said "I love Oita"!), the high school had a HUGE welcoming ceremony for us, and we even got into the local newspaper. This is very different from the way we Americans treat our exchange students! I've never seen a news article about exchange students visiting here.
Then it was time to start school. We went to a high school in Oita for over a week. Ever wonder why the students in Japan don't have issues with being overweight? Here's one reason: they bike or walk EVERYWHERE.
I rode a bike to school for the first time in my life. Not just a couple miles, either. It was a hardcore up-and-downhill ride, about an hour long, every morning and every night. No matter what the weather.
The school was at the top of an incredibly steep hill. It felt more like a mountain when you were walking up it. We had to leave the bikes at the bike rack, which was at the bottom of the hill.
Up and up and up... The Japanese kids took it in stride, but I thought I was going to die.
OMG where does this hill end???
In Japan, you don't wear outdoor shoes in homes or schools. Once at school, we changed from our regular outdoor shoes to some clog-type shoes that were for indoors only. That's my sis on the right, me on the left.
Here's the view from one of the school balconies (aka hallways). The view was amazing. If only you didn't have to climb up that hill!
Students clean the school during a regular cleaning time each day. There are no janitors. This ensures that students don't litter or mess up the school, because they're the ones who will have to pick it up.
These are the high school "punks." They were fooling around during a break. That kid in the purplish shirt was really daring for violating school dress code! (He put his white shirt back on after the break was over.)
One of the field trips we Americans went on while our Japanese counterparts were stuck in school--we went to a local park! It was really for little kids, but we had a lot of fun. Look at this funny old man sitting on this animal... he let me be in a photo with him. I don't know who he was, but he looks sort of like a baseball coach.
Here was one of the rides--some sort of trolley that you sit on and ride down. I have never seen one of these in the U.S. (at least, not at a public park without any supervision)... maybe because they practically scream "lawsuit" over here.
It had recently rained. My sis bravely rode the thing back over a massive mud puddle.
And here are the monkeys! I can't remember the name of this place, but I think it was something like "Monkey Mountain." There were monkeys everywhere in the park.
The monkeys could go anywhere they wanted and do anything they pleased. Ain't nobody gonna stop them.
Here's a momma monkey and her tiny baby:
There were signs everywhere that said (according to our Japanese hosts) "Don't touch the monkeys," and "Don't feed the monkeys." Apparently, the monkeys could be extremely nasty if they felt like it, up to and including killing us.
But there were some very pretty places in this park, so we ventured bravely in among the monkeys and took some pictures of us in front of big flowery bushes. Here is my sis trying to hold very still and not enrage the monkey in front of her, while still looking happy and relaxed for the camera. Not an easy task.
At the end of our stay, the Japanese school kids held yet another party for us. They drew pictures of us on the board.
There's my sis next to her likeness. And my likeness next to hers. And a big blue bunny saying "Oh--!!"
The trip to Japan was officially my Best. Trip. Ever.