Japan foreign exchange full of goodwill

CHIBA, Japan – For Hiroshi Ebihara, it was “an honor and once-in-a-lifetime experience” to show his country to Americans.

For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime way to see the heart of Tokyo, and to experience the way of life of an average family who had never before had houseguests.

One or more home stays are a typical part of sister-state or sister-city cultural exchanges, but I choose to believe that my experiences were exceptional during a recent sister-state trip to the Chiba prefecture.

Thanks to Ebihara-san, who is 44, I have hopped from one train to another in downtown Tokyo, to watch sumo wrestling, to buy prayer beads at the city’s oldest Buddhist temple, to dip freshly simmered slices of beef into raw egg for lunch.

I have seen row after row of fresh eel, squid, shrimp and jellyfish at outdoor markets. I have been dazzled by multiple storefronts for tiny electronic cameras and flashy CD players at Akihabara (“Electric Town”).

Hiroshi-san took off from work to show all of this to me and Natasha Jarvis, a 20-year-old Beloit College student. This is not done casually in Japan; he may well have lost a day of pay. And the trip was an hour from his home, requiring three trains, often with just standing-room-only passage.

For more than 20 years, this good man has worked as a government “tax man,” with accountant and law training. It was his father’s job; wife Mieko is a part-time nursery school worker.

Son Yasuyuki, age 12, has had his black belt in karate for a year. Daughter Emi, 15, is bright, fashion-conscious and generous, insisting that two bears from her cherished Pooh collection come with us to Wisconsin.

It is unusual for the average Japanese family to open their home to guests, particularly strangers and for an overnight stay. We were told the average home, 700 to 1,000 square feet, typically costs $500,000.

Natasha and I were given the best, two rooms that took up one level of the house. We slept on futons that looked new, covered ourselves with bedding and quilts that looked new, used new towels to bathe.

There was a toast with saki, poured in small, ruby red and gold-plated stemware, used only for special occasions. We had a little refrigerator stocked with ice cream and pop. We were fed shrimp tempura and soba noodles, pancakes and fresh fruit.

The family spoke limited English, and the number of simple Japanese phrases that I know won’t fill the fingers of two hands.

It didn’t matter.

Good intentions and good humor go a long way in bridging cultural gaps. It is not hard to identify kindness or express an appreciation for it with few or no words.

I brought a small book that contained pictures of my family, pets, home, work and church. Natasha brought a video of her and other students learning African dance in Ghana. When questions or explanations brought blank stares, we chose to laugh about the lack of verbal connection, or act out a message, then move on. 

A few days later, our nine-person sister-state Women of Wings delegation hosted a thank-you party in another city. Hiroshi-san arrived when it was almost over, video camera in hand. It had been a two-hour drive for him, after work. He stayed less than an hour.

We saw him one more time, at the airport. This was a surprise; we were minutes away from heading through a secured area that required boarding passes.

It was a brief and memorable visit. I hope to someday return the hospitality. 

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I won’t gush as much about my other home stay in Japan, even though it also was a treat and extraordinary. I was the guest of Yasunori Kobayashi, a Buddhist monk who is married and has two children.

In the United States, a personal calling usually prompts people to devote their lives to religion. For Yasunori-san, it is simply his responsibility to take over his father’s work. Had the 33-year-old followed his passion, he would have been an airline pilot.

“This is my life,” he says, shrugging, and it is not an easy one. There are no vacations, no 9-to-5 work hours. Most encounters involve a death or illness among the 800-900 families that the monk oversees.

Ancestors and the newly dead are remembered at temple services, and Yasunori-san’s new temple hall opened a week before my arrival. It is a brilliant place of worship, situated next to his home.

Verbal communication, in this case, was easy. The monk and his wife, Chikako, met while at school in Monterey, Calif. Chikako-san also spent a year on a Minnesota farm at age 16, and several months in Texas.

She was particularly glad to help people as she had been helped, and she knew how to predict our needs. That meant offering to wash clothing, providing a cloud-like place to sleep, knowing that exquisite breads and jams would calm prior jolts to the digestive system. 

It will be a joy for me to watch this peaceful couple’s children grow. Daughter Ena is 5 months old; son Kai is 4.

Will Kai-san eventually become a monk? His father thinks not, as “the world is becoming a different place.” 

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Wisconsin’s sister-state relationship with Chiba, which is adjacent to Tokyo, began in 1990. The state Department of Commerce also acknowledges sister-state connections with Hessen, Germany; Heilongjiang, China; Jalisco, Mexico; and Nicaragua.

In addition, 42 official sister-city relationships exist in Wisconsin, according to Sister Cities International. Madison leads with matches to six cities; communities as small as Viroqua (less than 4,000, Vernon County) also participate.

For more, go to www.sister-cities.org or www.commerce.state.wi.us/IE/IE-SisterStates.html. 

If a trip to Chiba sounds intriguing, consider the prefecture’s 13th annual Grassroots Summit, which will be in October. Government officials would like 200 people from the United States to participate; for more, contact the Japan Center for International Exchange at www.jcie.or.jp/

For more about Women of Wings trips, which are held every other year, call the non-profit Wisconsin-Chiba Inc. at (608) 258-3400. This year’s trip cost $2,000 per participant, which included all transportation, lodging and meals for 10 days. We truly were treated like royalty.

Cultural-exchange options are good exercises in making your world a little bigger, and the globe a little smaller. We quickly learned that many experiences are universal, be it the trauma of moving a parent to a nursing home or the need to help people grieve a death, the dream of visiting new places or the power of connecting through music or a meal.