30 Years, 30 Stories: Hikone, Together (part 2)

Corey30years

2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

How many amazing things did you experience while studying at JCMU? For the sixteenth installment in our “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 2000-01 alum Corey Amend, and discover how in Shiga he found a new culture, a new language – and his second half.


What led me to Hikone

I always knew I wanted to study another language. Growing up on a steady diet of Nintendo, Sega, and Namco, I thought that learning Japanese would help me to better understand the origins of my favorite hobby. As I grew older and learned to appreciate Anime and Manga my decision to learn Japanese was further reinforced.

The first time I heard about JCMU during my Japanese History course at the University of Michigan I knew instantly that was where I wanted to go to learn Japanese. I had a desire to travel and see the world, and what better way to learn the language and the culture than by studying it in Japan? I saved as much money as I could, because I was determined to utilize this experience to the fullest and spend a whole year (Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters!) studying at JCMU.

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I remember feeling anxious in the plane terminal at the Detroit Metro airport: this was my first time living on my own, and the first time leaving the country. I knew almost no Japanese (“konnichiwa” [good day] and “yoku deki mashita” [good job] was about the extent of it), and yet I was packed to leave on a yearlong adventure in Japan. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I would return home having been changed by the experience.

After 3 hours waiting on the Tarmac and a 12-hour flight to Nagoya, drifting in and out of sleep along the way, I arrived and got off the plane groggily making my way through customs. I found my classmates piling up their bags to load on the bus that would take us from the airport to JCMU. The bus ride seemed like a dream, watching the signs go by in katakana and kanji. It was then that it really hit me both how difficult it would be for me to just do the normal daily things I was used to, and how exiting it would be to learn.

Life in Shiga

The first thing that struck me after arriving at JCMU, getting some sleep and my bearings, was that Japan is green. We got green tea, green melon bread, and green tea cake from Lawson’s across the street. There were green trees growing everywhere, and green fields between the school and downtown Hikone. The old moats surrounding Hikone castle were filled with an algal bloom, making them a bright green from the algae.

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During my time at JCMU, I made a number of friends and learned how to cook some simple dishes from scratch. I remember that the faculty at JCMU taught us how to cook several dishes at the school so that we didn’t have to eat pre-packaged food or go to restaurants all the time. I started making oyakodon (chicken and egg over rice), yakisoba (stir fired noodles), and wonton soup. One day I made some tacos from the ingredients I could find in the grocery store (Mexican foodstuffs were extremely rare) and shared it with my Japanese friends who had never had Mexican food before. To this day, one of my family’s favorite meals is the oyakodon I learned to cook while at JCMU, and I do most of the cooking for my family.

I made lots of mistakes during my first few weeks: I washed my clothes with what I thought was detergent (it was fabric softener), I wore my shoes into the dorm, and I didn’t understand how to work the tankless water heater settings to get the right temperature water. It wasn’t terrible, and the JCMU staff were incredibly helpful and forgiving of my ignorant ways. I was woefully underprepared, and at the same time supported and given the room to grow and bloom as I had never experienced.

I remember vividly the call of the roasted sweet potato cart in Hikone during late fall: “Yakiimo! Yakiimo!” The sounds of the fish song in the grocery store: “Sakana sakana sakana, sakana o taberu to, atama atama atama, atama ga yoku naru” (which means fish, fish, fish, when you eat fish, your brains, brains, brains get smarter). The sounds of the electric trains at the train depot, the chimes when a train was arriving, and the announcements of the next stop: “tsugi wa Zeze, Zeze desu” (the next stop is the Zeze Train Station).

At this point I should point out to any prospective students or parents that you can survive in Japan for quite some time knowing one simple phrase: “onegai shimasu”. Loosely translated it just means “please” and is about the most useful word in the entire language. Need to go grocery shopping? Put the things you want on the counter and say “onegai shimasu”. Going to a restaurant? Find something that looks interesting on the menu or in the display case, point it out to your waiter/waitress and say “onegai shimasu”. Most stores have prices listed in familiar numerals, so as long as you know which coins are which, you’re set!

Troubles in rainy day shopping

During Autumn in Japan it’s the monsoon season. One day, after biking to the local grocery store (AL Plaza) – which was in the basement of a multi-story building – the power went out while I was shopping. There was no light, since I was in the basement and there were no windows. After a minute or two I thought “Well, now what?” I had a basket full of groceries and more to get, but I couldn’t see anything. Just as I resolved to try to make my way to the registers the building generators kicked in, and the lights came back on.

I finished my grocery shopping and the cashier tabulated my total by hand since the registers were not being powered by the generator, went up the (now motionless) escalator to the ground floor. When I arrived at the front door, there was a crowd that had gathered. The doors were the sliding electric powered kind, and one of the store employees had to manually slide open the door to let someone in from the street. When I came to the door, I saw that although when I had arrived it was sunny, there was now about 2 feet of water on the street, and it was still slightly raining.

I realized that they were all waiting for the rain to let up before they tried to head out. I knew, though, that on my bike it didn’t matter if I waited 10 minutes or 2 hours, I was going to be soaked to the bone no matter what I did. I asked the store employee in my best Japanese “could you open the door please?”. He did a double take, as if he couldn’t believe that someone like me could speak any Japanese, let alone what I had said, so I repeated myself. He said “Oh! Okay.” and opened the door. I rode home, pedals going below the water as I rode, with everyone watching as if to say “What is that crazy gaijin doing?” (“gaijin” – foreigner)

Exploring Japan firsthand

One of my favorite places in Hikone is Ryotan-ji. It is a small temple within walking/biking distance of JCMU that has beautifully manicured gardens, both outside on the grounds and inside in their small and beautiful rock garden. It is adjacent to a school that teaches gardening to the monks who manage temple grounds all throughout Japan, and their excellence shows in their vicinity. When I sat there looking at the rock garden in the peace and quiet away from the dorms and the hustle of the city, I understood the beauty of simplicity and quiet reflection.

A major milestone experience in my life came when we had a class trip to Shiga-cho (Shiga City), where we went to a park for a barbecue cookout. There were several ladies who were working on the grill to cook some yakisoba for lunch. I offered to help, since in America men are typically the ones who run an outdoor grill, and since I already knew how to make yakisoba. The ladies were shocked that I would know anything or have any desire to cook but let me assist them even though it made them a little embarrassed. At one point, I recall one of the Japanese men coming and turning the meat on the grill and the ladies, no longer embarrassed, just smiled and accepted the help. It felt great to be outside of the culture, but still able to share some of my own and to represent my school.

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Hikone is near and dear to my heart, but Kyoto left many lasting memories as well. From the soaring majesty of Kiyomizu-dera to the awe-inspiring bamboo forest, from the lively Saruyama (Monkey Mountain) to the historic Imperial Castle, there was lots to see and do. JCMU took us on a train ride through the mountains around Kyoto and it was absolutely breathtaking. So much history, nature, and modern big city all wrapped into one.

The school offered so many activities to engage in the culture and interact with the community of Hikone; it really is staggering when I look back. JCMU got me discounted tickets to go see the Tokyo philharmonic, and I was humbled by the skill of the musicians. I took part in a play at Hikone Castle, dressed up in lord’s clothes and wore a top-knot “wig”, learning and reciting my lines entirely in Japanese before putting on a show for the whole community. I was in a Hikone parade that year, dressed up as a samurai, and even though I was a foot taller than everyone else in the parade, I felt welcomed. My photo during that parade made it into the Hikone newspaper, and after that I was often called “the man with the yellow hair”.

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Understanding new perspectives

One thing that can’t be understated is how much language affects the way in which you think. One day in the dorms, I asked Crystal what she did that day. In English, she responded with “Today shopping went.” I understood what she meant, but I gave her a quizzical look and she repeated “Today shopping went,” after which she realized her mistake. In Japanese, sentences are usually constructed in the form subject object verb, where the subject is often assumed. So, what she said made complete sense in the context of Japanese language structure, but when it came out in English with its messy sentence structures it no longer made sense.

This is true of cultural norms as well. The first thing you say as part of many interactions in Japanese is “sumimasen”, loosely translated as “I’m sorry”. It is simultaneously a show of respect for the person you’re speaking to, and also a way of showing that you understand that someone else’s time – and by extension the person – is valuable. Learning that language pattern changed the way that I interact with people, both making me bolder, but also more respectful and understanding than I was before.

My experiences in Japan as part of JCMU have left an indelible mark on me, and I am a better man for it. I have a greater understanding and respect for different perspectives, and I learned to value diversity. I forged new lifelong relationships and learned practical life skills. I got to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste what it’s like to live in Japan. There’s nothing quite like it.

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I want to give a special shout-out to everyone who made my JCMU experience so special and an awesome phase in my life:

  • Aizawa-sensei, Nishikawa-sensei, Yonezawa-sensei, Melville-sensei, Nishizawa-san and all of the faculty and office staff at JCMU: Doumo arigatou gozaimashita. Okagesama de, genki desu.
  • David Torode – The only guy crazy enough to go for a walk in the rain during a monsoon (besides me, of course), and one of the best men at my wedding.
  • Roger Bollier – Your song “Al Plaza wa watashi no ichiban tomodachi yo” (AL Plaza is my best friend) is still stuck in my head…

 PS – A JCMU love story (part 2)

Since my wife shared how we met, I thought I should share how I proposed to her, since that’s the other story we tell a hundred times.

When she had finally convinced me that I didn’t need to set up something extravagant or make some grand gesture to make the experience memorable, I got down on one knee right then and asked “Will you marry me?” To which she responded “Mochiron” (which means “Of course”). I thought she said “Mo ichi do” (which means “One more time?” – she has some difficulty hearing so she used this phrase often), so I repeated myself. She said “Of course, you silly! But why didn’t you ask me in Japanese?” Aizawa-sensei would’ve been proud. To which I responded “Kekkon shite kudasai” (please marry me). More than 17 years later, we still joke about it, and people still think we’ve just fallen in love.

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