Tokyo Twenty-Two

On July 17th, I turned 22! (cue Taylor Swift’s lyrical interpretation of this new milestone)

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I’ve gotten to celebrate my birthday in some pretty cool places: I turned 14 at a beachside resort in the Philippines, 18 on horseback in the Dominican Republic, 21 squealing over penguins in Cape Town, South Africa and now 22 in Tokyo!

On my actual birthday, I didn’t do much outside of my usual routine.  I still woke up at 8am, ate breakfast with Mrs. Koseki and headed off for school by 9am.  At school, the students wished me a happy birthday and the rest of the day continued with lessons as planned.  Of course, spending all day learning Japanese wouldn’t be my first choice for a birthday celebration, but I had been expecting it.

After class I took the subway to Tokyo’s Ginza district.  It was a lot like Toronto’s Yorkville, filled with fancy shops and things I couldn’t afford.  But it was fun to window shop and check out another part of this giant city.  I even stopped to treat myself to a few pieces of delicious sushi.  It doesn’t get much better than sushi in Japan!

Checking out Ginza's famous clock tower

Checking out Ginza’s famous clock tower

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My host family had let me know that we would celebrate my birthday on the 18th, since Mr. Koseki and Yuko were both away on the 17th.  I wasn’t sure what the celebration would entail, as I’ve heard birthdays aren’t a huge deal in Japan.  But I was so touched and blown away by what they had planned.

On the 18th I came home to a dinner of homemade sushi.  Except, this sushi looked just as good, if not better, than restaurant sushi! And, it was accompanied by a bottle of champagne.  They made me pop the cork and then the whole family tucked in to some delicious food!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

After sushi, they pulled out a cake that had my name written on it and candles bought just for me.  Everyone sang and I tried not to laugh as Mr. Koseki, who actually has a lovely singing voice, struggled to pronounce my name in time with the song.  Pictures were taken, candles were blown out and cake was stuffed into our already full stomachs.

Yuko & I

Yuko & I

"I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22!"

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22!”

The family then presented me with gifts.  I wasn’t expecting anything, but really appreciated the tokens of Japan they gifted me with.  Mrs. Koseki’s aunt gave me a beautiful handkerchief that had Mt. Fuji and two little cats on it.  Mrs. Koseki bought me a traditional fan decorated with Japanese goldfish.  And Yuko gave me the coolest card depicting a Japanese festival.

Beautiful host family gifts

Beautiful host family gifts

After all that, the family took me out to the balcony where we lit sparklers.  I’ve never been one for pyrotechnics, but I really enjoyed watching the sparklers go off, especially when Mrs. Koseki’s aunt seemed almost afraid of hers.

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Sparklers!

Sparklers!

The next day, Mrs. Koseki took me to a LABO party.  LABO is the organization hosting us here in Tokyo and teaching our Japanese lessons.  They also run English clubs for Japanese families and facilitate homestays for Japanese children in English-speaking countries.  At the LABO party I watched a few skits and speeches by the kids, participated in a game of human knot and even gave a speech myself about all of the places I’ve travelled.  I pulled out my pictures, when one kid asked what kind of animals I had seen, and was immediately swarmed by all of the children (and their parents!).  It was a really fun event!

Towards the end of the party, the LABO organizers surprised me by getting everyone to sing happy birthday.  One of the high school girls then presented me with a handmade card she had drawn and gotten her friends to sign.  And one of the moms gave me a package of chopsticks that she explained the LABO moms had handmade for me.

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

From my host family to people I had just met; I still can’t believe how sweet and kind everyone has been.  22 will definitely be a birthday to remember 🙂

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Meet the Koseki family!

A week ago I was introduced to the lovely Kosekis; my host family for my time here in Tokyo.

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The Kosekis live in Fuchu, a suburb about an hour out of downtown Tokyo (by transit).  It’s a good neighbourhood with a residential section and a main shopping strip.  I’ve yet to do a proper walk around, but I think there are some cool shops, shrines and other things to discover.

The Koseki house!

The Koseki house!

Their house is really modern and surrounded by Ms. Koseki’s amazing garden.  She is always out in the garden taking care of all her plants. And I found out the building across from us is actually their garage and more garden space.  They have their own jungle!

In the jungle

In the jungle

The inside of the house is also quite modern – they have an elevator (for a 3 storey house…)! The set up is quite different from houses I’m used to: the first floor is a guest room (aka my room for the next 3 weeks), the second floor is for the family bedrooms and the third floor is the kitchen/living room.

The elevator!

The elevator!

I sleep in a traditional tatami straw floor room, which was quite a shock when I first walked in.  It still kind of feels like I’m living in a touristy Japanese restaurant or something! But the most shocking bit was realizing I wouldn’t be sleeping on a real bed, or even a mattress for that matter. Instead, I roll out two comforter blankets and sleep on top of those.  My back is still getting used to it.

Welcome to my room!

Welcome to my room!

I have the sweetest host mom in Mrs. Koseki.  She cooks all the meals, which are all amazing, and has been showing me around whenever she can.  She greets me after school and indulges me in slow English conversations since my Japanese is nowhere near up to par.  She always checks on me and never lets me help with anything.  And, she always gets very excited whenever I use a Japanese phrase correctly – you should see her when I nail my “good mornings” and “thank you for dinners”.

Mrs. Koseki picking up breakfast at the bakery

Mrs. Koseki picking up breakfast at the bakery

Mrs. Koseki & her aunt making gyoza from scratch!

Mrs. Koseki & her aunt making gyoza from scratch!

Mr. Koseki is a retired drug store owner.  He seems to spend most of his time in front of the TV, but, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much my life and I’m nowhere close to retirement.  And he has the best laugh! He is extremely good-natured and cracks up about everything.  He also seems to think my grasp of Japanese is much better than it is as he is always trying to explain things to me without a word of English.  I’ve mastered the smile and nod with appropriate pauses and the occasional laugh.

Yuko, 16, is my host sister.  She’s very sweet and is working on her confidence with English.  However, Yuko is the busiest 16 year old I’ve ever met! She is always at school and then after school she has all of these activities or even more school! In the week that I’ve been here, I think we’ve had two meals together.  And today (Saturday), she left the house by 7:30am, made a brief appearance around 7:30pm and then finally returned after more school by 10:00pm.

Yuko & her mom walking through the neighbourhood

Yuko & her mom walking through the neighbourhood

Lastly, there’s Mamei, the family’s fat black cat.  She has giant yellow eyes and is nimble as anything jumping around the place.  Her favourite spots are on top of the piano, directly in front of the television or meowing near her empty food bowl.  Friendly would be a stretch, but Mamei is definitely a character!

Meow!

Meow!

And that’s the wonderful Koseki family! More to come on Japanese lessons and celebrating my 22nd birthday in Tokyo!

Week 1 in Swaziland

I’m in Africa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa one week ago and was met with a six hour layover (after an 11 hour red-eye) and over-pushy airline staff.  It wasn’t the best introduction to Africa.

I flew over to Matsapha, Swaziland with a fellow UBC student, Courtney, on the smallest plane I have ever seen. I think there were about 20 people on our plane; my one seat was a window and an aisle!  After a short hour in the air, we landed in Swaziland and met our guide, Jabu.  Together we waited for the private kombi (a Jon & Kate +8 type van that seats 14 comfortably but is often pushed near 20) to take us to the Swazi Oak Lodge where we found Marie and Alejandra, two other UBC students, fast asleep.

The next day, Jabu took us out on a tour of Mbabane.  We visited the mall and learned how far our Canadian dollar could go: breakfast for 4 with leftovers for $7 and a phone, SIM card and 30 rand worth of airtime for about $45. We also learned how popular foreign people are in Swaziland, being met with many proposals, whistles and love professions as we trekked through the kombi station. 

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Our kombi from Mbabane to work!

After that, we walked downhill to the post office.  I’ve promised quite a few people postcards and I’m sure the postal service from Swazi to Canada is far from speedy, so I wanted to make sure I knew where I had to go.  On the way down, we noticed the beautiful mountain background and snapped a few photos, as we had been doing all morning. 

The next thing we knew, we were being brought into a government building and asked to show the security officers our photos.  As we browsed through our memory cards, the officers found a photo of the picturesque view that happened to have the side of their building in it; a building that clearly says “no photos” on its fence….which was impossible to read from where we took the photo.  Even after explaining this to the officers, we were introduced to an embassy official who took down our information, explained that we could be arrested and possibly working against the Swazi government before inviting us to a party and sending us on our way.   

We laughed off our near-arrest while walking through the craft market and sitting down to lunch (I never did make it to that post office).  Later in the evening, a kombi picked us up for a sunset safari at a nearby national park.

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Ale and I enjoying the sunset views

As we drove up to the reception desk of the park, our kombi happened upon a family of zebras and we all immediately began pulling open windows, leaning over each other and snapping away.  The rest of the evening treated us to views of gorgeous mountains and grasslands, relatives of the deer and gazelle, Pumbas (warthogs for the non-Lion King folk), a sunbathing crocodile, more zebras and hippos hiding in the shadows.  Our jeep headed up the mountain just in time for us to catch the perfect African sunset while toasting the beers our friendly guides brought along in a cooler. 

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You can’t tell but there really is a crocodile under the tree!

 

After dinner in the park, we convinced Jabu and our kombi driver to drop us off at Bushfire, an annual 3-day music festival of southern African artists.  Though we didn’t know any of the bands, we enjoyed listening to the music, perusing the fair-trade market and admiring the cool architecture of House on Fire.

On Saturday we headed out to our host families.  Marie and Courtney went to Siteki while Ale and I met Mama and her family in a suburb of Mbabane.  We were introduced to Mama, her boyfriend, two of her five children, their helper and a few other friends.  It was nice to finally be able to unpack and join Swazi family life.  But Ale and I spent the majority of our first weekend with the family sleeping!

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Keeping bits of home with me in Swaziland

On Monday we started our work at SOS Children’s Villages.  We’re working at the main Swazi village just outside of Mbabane.  Transport to work has proved difficult so far (we waited over an hour for our first kombi), but we’re hoping to figure out a faster solution (aka weighing the pros and cons of hitch-hiking).  On our first day at work we were introduced to another Jabu, a female this time, who is the village’s social worker.  We had an orientation with UBC education students working with SOS, the national director and the programme director.  Right away we were thrown into our work, meeting with staff to come up with goals for our time at SOS and meeting some of the children for individual sessions.  So far, it’s been very overwhelming to come into a position where so much help is needed and to be feeling pretty inadequate with the skills I can offer.  They definitely expect a lot from us.  While it is really exciting to be able to contribute so much and to be doing such relevant work, it’s daunting to be thrown into the role of “psychologist”.  Hopefully we’ll get more comfortable with our positions, figure out our game plan and leave some benefit for the village that goes beyond our short 3-month stay.

So it’s been a whirlwind first week here in Swaziland!  I can’t believe I have another 12 or so still to go.  But by the end of this I plan to master Swazi public transportation, fit in another safari or two, appreciate the fine art of taking a bath with just a bucket of heated water, make a lasting difference at work, feel like part of my Swazi family and experience countless memorable moments to take home with me.