Konnichiwa! My name is Sheridan Skinner and I was a participant of the 2018 Michigan Shiga High School Exchange. To help show others what life is like on the program, I will be writing a series of blogs detailing some of the memorable moments and people from the journey.
This is my second blog post. My last post was about my best friend in Shiga: My Japanese Grandma. For this post, I will give you all a sneak peek into the vastly different life of a high school student in Japan.
On July 1st, I began my journey through life as a high student in Shiga. The night before school I did what I would normally do for my first day of school in America: ate dinner (Grandma and I made it), took a shower, brushed my teeth, prepared my clothes and schoolbag for the next day, and set my alarm for 6am. I was extremely excited but I eventually fell asleep.
In Japan the sun rises early so I rose early… at the beautiful and normal time of 4am! Back home I would fall right back asleep dreading going to school in a few hours but in Japan I jumped right up and got ready. I first texted my family really quick because the time I wake up in Japan is around the time they would be going to sleep. I remember telling them how excited I was to go to school.
I finally opened my bedroom door and slowly walked across the skinny hallway so I would not wake up my host family with my big loud slippers my host grandma gave to me. I walked into the kitchen and I saw my host mother cleaning dishes. Remember, it’s still 4am! After brushing my teeth and my frizzy hair that got messed up due to the heat, I put on my uniform. The school originally gave me skirts to wear but I ended up not being able to fit into the tiny long navy pleated skirts. I was grateful that I ended up bringing my own black skirts and blouses. I was all ready to go with my uniform on, hair brushed, teeth cleaned, pencils in my bag, and slippers packed. My host mother cooked a tasty breakfast of eggs and white rice for me, my host sister, and my host brother, Shuma. Before we left I said “ittekimasu” to my host grandmother, which translates to “I am leaving and coming back.”
We left for the train station around 7:15am. It would take around thirty minutes to ride the train to the station, and then about another 40 minutes to walk through the town of Maibara and up the mountain to the school. Keep in mind, it is about a hundred degrees Fahrenheit outside! I waved a fan the entire time walking up the mountain, and a group of girls surrounded me and waved their fans at me. My hair was puffing up and I looked like I was going to pass out. I learned I need to drink a lot of water in Japan and put my hair in a ponytail!
I finally got to the school and I was so excited to discover my new school and friends. I was beginning to feel nervous due to the fact that everyone was staring at me. As you walk into the school, there is a place to remove your outdoor shoes and a place to put on your slippers for school. It was very strange, slippers in school. I ended up liking it though because it made me feel more relaxed and at home.
I first went into the teacher’s room which is literally the only place with computers in the whole school. The teacher’s room is like the principal’s office but it has a desk for every single teacher in the building. Before you enter the room, all the students must knock on the door. Also, before I came to Japan, I had to create a speech about myself, in Japanese, to read to the teachers and to the students of the school. It took me a long time to prepare because I wanted my new school to learn about me and why I loved Japan. Horio-sensei walked me into the teacher’s room and immediately said, “Okay now go do your Japanese speech,” and I was speechless. I was thinking, “right now?!” Before I came to Japan, I had to create a speech about myself to read to the teachers and the students of the school. It felt very abrupt but I did end up doing it and all the teachers stood up and applauded me! They all said I spoke great Japanese and that they were excited to get to know me.
As I was walking through the hallway, all of the students surrounded me and kept shaking my hand, giving me candy, or saying “Konnichiwa, I am —-”, and when I would say hello back, everyone freaked out because they were in shock I could speak Japanese. I felt like a celebrity!
I then got to meet my new class for the next few weeks. The class’s name was “2-5”, which meant year two and group 5. I walked in and once again all eyes were on me. I never felt so much like a superstar before in my life! I was immediately bombarded with questions and hugs. Then, Horio-sensei told me to give me to give another speech to the class. So I gave my speech to the class in English and Japanese. Everyone looked so eager to meet me and so was I!
Sadly, this was the week of Maibara High School’s exams, which was a bummer because it meant less time with my new friends. It was okay though, while the students completed their exams teachers came and taught me their subjects like math, Japanese History/literature, and safety class (what to do in an earthquake class) in the library. This was very interesting because I learned math is the same all over the world no matter what language you speak. It was also cool to take a class on earthquakes and tsunamis since Michigan does not generally have those natural disasters. While I was in the library, I met some new friends as well. All of these girls asked to take photos with me and to read a book to them about American culture. It was funny to see a picture book about America. It had a lot of footballs and hot dogs!
After a long day of learning so many new things about Japan and meeting new friends, I headed to basketball club after school. Just imagine playing basketball in 100 degree weather with humidity in very thick clothing; it was very difficult to get used to. In Japan, most places do not have air conditioning and the gym (and the rest of the school) did not have it either. Going into the gym to play basketball with my friends was exciting but only seeing windows open and very minimal access to water was heartbreaking. However, I still had an amazing time teaching the girls the game “Lighting”. Everyone loved it so much and wanted to continue playing. Speaking Japanese and playing basketball is hard but doing them both at the same time is the ultimate challenge! After a long two-and-a-half hours of practicing, we finally walked all the way down the mountain and hopped back on the train back to my host family’s house.
Another club I participated in was tea ceremony club where I learned a lot about Japanese culture. I discovered there is so much more to tea preparation in Japan than I thought. I had to sit a certain way with my legs to the side with me sitting up straight, place my hands on my lap, fold the napkin correctly, make the tea properly, bow, and serve the tea and food in an elegant manner. I learned serving tea is not just an action, but it is something that would display your elegance and poise years ago in Japan. The club was mostly girls but there was one boy as well. Learning new things about the traditions of Japan really helped point out differences in our modern cultures. Going to clubs was definitely my favorite part about attending Maibara High School.
After all the students finished their exams I began to sit in on more classes. The classes I sat in on were ethics, math, English (I had to give a speech about America), biology, Japanese Literature, and calligraphy. My favorite class was biology because I got to dissect a sea urchin which was quite interesting. I went with the first year students to calligraphy and biology and I met plenty of friends there. They all laughed at my faces I would make at the gross sea urchin as I was dissecting it. I had the whole class laughing! Calligraphy was another fun class because I got to finally prove how bad I am at calligraphy. I was okay at it, but the Japanese students were writing beautiful complicated characters, while I was over there writing 雨 (“ame“, rain). For all my efforts, the teacher gave me a calligraphy pen, a fan, and a lot of calligraphy paper to take home and use. I love using the calligraphy pen to make my school projects look unique!
On the last day at Maibara High School I was in tears. The class had a goodbye party for me and they ALL gave me presents to take home. Let’s just say my suitcase was really over the weight limit. I received candy, food, games, toys, pens, pencils, photos, and long notes from my closest friends saying how they were going to miss me so much. I hugged all my friends and cried! I was leaving the closest and kindest people I have ever met, and I felt like I have known them for years. I was not ready to leave Maibara High School.
Six months later I still talk to my Japanese friends everyday about basketball, High School Musical, karaoke, and all of our amazing moments together. I told them we must all meet again and maybe even go to the 2020 Olympics together in Tokyo. They agreed and I plan to see them soon!
I wish I could write about every single detail about my experience at Maibara, but then this post would be two hundred pages long. As I think more about my exchange, going to high school in Japan was an eye-opening experience because I did not know how those kids did it: Eight hours of school, clubs, commuting, homework, and trying to get sleep too?! I thought my busy schedule was crazy until I discovered Japanese kids have thirteen subjects every day! To me, it seems like Japanese high schools are more difficult than American High Schools because of how much subjects and homework they have. Besides all the intense hard work of the students at Maibara High School, I learned that they all are kind-hearted and sweet people who became my friends. I hope to see them all again soon!