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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 20, 2007
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Tokyo's culture, cleanliness fascinate Hartselle student

Editor’s note: Hartselle High School student Amanda Elliott, 17, is spending seven weeks in Akita, Japan, this summer on a scholarship through Youth for Understanding, a nonprofit educational organization. This is part of an occasional series Amanda will write for The Daily while she is attending school and living with a host family in Japan.

I arrived in Tokyo mid-afternoon June 18 after a 10-hour international flight from San Francisco. It soon became apparent just how far 6,000 miles can span.

Weighted down with a suitcase, duffel bag, backpack and small purse, I stepped through the doorway leading out of Narita airport, and into a whole new world.

From the airport, it was a one-hour bus ride to my hotel in the heart of Tokyo. On the way, I watched street signs written in complex Kanji, the picture-like character writing system of the Japanese, speed past the bus window. Of course, I could not read them.

The city seemed shockingly clean — no litter, no trash cans, no gum on the sidewalks, nothing to give any clue that people actually inhabited the city. The cars are small, compact and clean.

The hotel was less than a block from the Tokyo Tower. It was so close, in fact, I had to keep the heavy wooden shutters over the windows at night to deflect the bright orange glow emitting from the tower’s many lights.

On Tuesday, after a fitful night fighting my jet lag, our group visited the American Embassy in Tokyo and met with officials from each section of the embassy in the official meeting room. We wore formal business-wear and listened intently to every word as officials spoke. At the end of the meeting I was tempted to pursue a career in foreign service.

That night, the students experienced Tokyo for themselves in small groups. We received 1,000 yen (about $10) and were told, “Go feed yourself.” It was so exciting!

It was then I finally got a real taste of Tokyo. I ordered food from a small takeout restaurant about two blocks from the hotel, and sat in a park and ate. I noticed, as I took in my surroundings, the similarities, as well as the extreme differences that Tokyo had with New York. It was, of course, a large city, but other than that, not too many things were the same.

The city layout was fascinating: a mix of extremely advanced technology as well as old, traditional Japanese architecture and art. I would be walking down the street and pass the DoCoMo cell phone center, and less than a block away would be an amazingly beautiful Shinto shrine.

On one occasion, I peeked inside the gates of a small temple entrance and found a courtyard the size my whole hotel! Many other temples were in the courtyard, as well as more statues and shrines devoted to different gods and goddesses, adorned with clothing and flowers the visitors to the temple had left as offerings.

I had the good fortune to come across a Japanese string band doing a photo shoot in front of one of the larger temples. They let me take a picture of them and even played a short tune for me. I loved it.

Tokyo was merely the first leg of my journey. There, I was simply a tourist, an observer. The real adventure begins when I start living in the home of my host family, as a member, rather than a guest, experiencing everyday life as the Japanese do.

- Amanda Elliott

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