Travelogue 2013 – Julie Isbill

The most remarkable thing about my experience in Japan has been the generosity of our host families.  Mari Eosco and I are living with the Hiroshi and Yuko Narita.  They have tended to our every need, and more.  They drive us everywhere, feed us heartily, try very hard to communicate despite our language barrier, and shower us with gifts of all kinds.  For example, each morning Yuko prepares a feast for breakfast; something like rice, pickled seaweed and vegetables, fish, edamame, sauteed eggplant and peppers, a freid egg, melon and tea – wow! Sometimes there are foods that are less appealing (e.g., boiled squid) but overall the food is tasty and healthy.
In addition to feeding us so well, Yuko notices if we are interested in some aspect of Japanese culture and then figures out ways to give us first hand experiences. One evening she showed us kimono catalogues and the next morning proceeded to bring out her own gorgeous wardrobe of silk kimono and obi (the sash) for us to touch and even try on!  Then Hiroshi suggested they buy us our own yukata (a simpler cotton kimono-like garment), which we wore to the welcome party. Women wear kimono to formal events such as weddings. A bride wears three different outfits, including a kimono for her wedding. There are several cloth belts used to hold the kimono in the proper position before adding the obi which is the wide sash tied elaborately in the back. The back neck of the kimono dips down to show a small bit of the neck. No jewelry is worn.
On another morning we told Yuko we were going for a walk and she offered to accompany us to a friend’s special garden. Many here, in their own small and grand ways, have their own “Japanese” garden.  These kinds of gardens are not just for public parks. The garden we visited was intricate, well-tended and a beautiful mix of ornamental and food plants. Traditional Japanese gardens include large rocks placed amongst pruned pine and other trees and other largely non-flowering plants. The ground is mostly bare or simply sand or gravel, sometimes raked to resemble rippling water. Many people have greenhouse structures covered with plastic early and late in the season and uncovered during the summer. In summer the structure is often used for growing climbing plants such as peas, tomatoes, and cucumber. While private gardens are integrated into the neighborhoods, rice fields surround the villages. Rice is everywhere!
In another act of generosity, tonight Yuko asked us to participate in a ceremonial prayer at their home shrine to honor the anniversary of Hiroshi’s brother’s death.  We placed special foods in many small bowls and placed them on the altar.  Then, one by one, we knelt in front of the altar and lit a stick of incense, hit the singing bowl with a gong and then prayed and bowed.  It was quite moving.
We have been given so much in Japan.  I am honored to be part of a cultural exchange between Bath and Tsugaru City, Japan.