Nihon Minkaen — Outdoor Folk-House Museum

Saturday I was asked to run a workshop for Japanese college students who are heading off to spend a year in the US. They asked me to talk about a lot of academic stuff — how to write an essay, give them feedback on verbal presentations, etc. But there was also a lot of cross cultural stuff to discuss, and of course most of the students’ questions are about dating and parties! I think overall they realized that their English isn’t as good as they think it is — that talking to a real-live-American is pretty different from talking to your Japanese English teacher, but there were also a lot of funny little questions about what they should expect in the US. I even had one guy ask me, “So, my American friend says that all the American girls will think I’m gay. Is this true?” I just told him that some people think well-dressed men in the US might be gay, but when he says he’s not gay, and the girls realize he’s a well-dressed straight guy, they will be very excited, so he should just take it as a compliment and politely correct them. He seemed pretty pleased about that. At the end, one of the students asked if I would be teaching at the other pre-departure orientation sessions and when I said no, he responded “I will miss you.” Pretty sweet. So be nice to my eager little study-abroaders America, they’re super adorable and pretty nervous about meeting you.

After the workshop I went out for some beers with the other teachers and administrators for the program, which turned out to be a hilarious collection of people. At any rate, between feeling like I was really able to help these students with some of the challenges they may face, and having some fun after it was a good but very long day.

Today Jen and I headed out to the suburbs of Tokyo to an outdoor museum of traditional houses from around Japan.  The houses have either been moved from their original locations or moved to the park, where they’re now scattered across a few wooded hillsides. Most are thatched, although a few of them had tiles or wooden shingles weighted down with rocks. The simplest houses are just a few rooms, and in several of the houses the stables were actually inside the house, right next to the kitchen (a little firepit with a kettle over the top). It must have been quite a scene in the middle of winter, with the fire going, the air full of smoke, flies, the smell of horses and humans all jammed together. There were actually fires burning in a number of the firepits while we were there since they need to fumigate the thatch roofs to keep them from molding and to keep the insects out. They had quite a number of fancier houses too, from successful farming families to pharmacists, and samurai. Many of the farming families worked with silk-worms, often keeping them in the upstairs part of their houses. Many of them also kept cats to eat the rats, which otherwise would make a feast of the silk-worms.

To Jen’s horror, many of the houses were from the mountains where there is a lot of snow — enough snow in fact that many of these houses had “windows” on second and third stories that were used as doors when the snow got really deep. It was pretty smoky even when we were there, so I can only imagine how it must have been when all the windows and doors were closed in winter to keep the warmth in. All in all, we agreed that we appreciate our modern amenities (heaters! showers! deoderant! bug spray!).

There were also some traditional crafters there — two groups doing straw-crafts, and one doing indigo dying. Traditionally many things were made of straw — sandals (for humans but also sometimes for animals!), backpacks, mats, baskets, outerwear for cold weather, and other protective clothing. Just like there are people who like to do traditional crafts in the US, people get together to learn and practice with others, and also get gaped at by tourists!

There was a nice little park attached to the house-museum area, and we wandered through Irises, redwoods, azaleas (not in bloom) and lots of cute little wooded pathways. So now we are home, smelling like the consummate summer day — sweat, sunblock, and wood smoke!

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