As is the case with the vast majority of tourists who come to Japan, my first taste of the Land of the Rising Sun was Tokyo. It’s a dizzying city that’s full of enticing ramen shops, soaring skyscrapers, and gaudily vibrant neon lights, depending on which metro station you pop out of. After a few days in the big city, the second impression I got of Japan during my first trip here was of 寒川 (Samukawa), a small town in Kanagawa Prefecture, which neighbors Tokyo. The few days I spent in Samukawa were the homestay portion of a two-week Washington & Jefferson study abroad course mentioned in these posts, and it was a welcome contrast to the other guided parts of our trip, as well as an awesome chance to experience Coming of Age Day, a Japanese holiday that’s held on the second Monday every January.
Having lived with a host family when I studied abroad in Germany, I wasn’t too nervous about rubbing elbows with a Japanese host family for a few days. Most of other students on the tour, though, didn’t share my “this’ll be a breeze, calm down!” sentiment, and as our bus had pulled up to a parking lot filled with excited Japanese grannies and grandpas, I couldn’t help but pick up a bit of that nervousness. Thankfully, my worries were for naught, because my host mum and dad were the nicest people I could have ever hoped to stay with. This was my first foray into Japanese home life, and it didn’t take much effort to enjoy every single moment of it.
As my parents-for-three-days whisked me away to their house, I got the welcome surprise that I could see Mount Fuji from the kitchen window. How’s that for a view while you’re sipping your morning coffee? Their house, as most Japanese homes are, was incredibly cozy. I was more than happy to spend three days snuggling down into my futon, sipping miso soup for breakfast, and lounging with Mari, the family cat.
Since we were in Samukawa on Coming of Age Day (成人の日, Seijin no hi), there was plenty to keep us occupied. First, we visited the 寒川神社 (Samukawa Jinja, town’s main Shinto shrine). Coming of Age Day coupled with the fact that it was still early enough in the year that plenty of people were still completing their 初詣で (hatsumoude, first visit of the year to a shrine) meant that the shrine was filled with plenty of crowds.
A good portion of the time we spent in the shrine was filled up by the much quieter gardens that made up the back part of the complex, but we also had a chance to wander through the food stalls and gawk at all of the completely foreign food. It’s funny how back then I was a little iffy about eating common Japanese street foods like たこ焼き (takoyaki, small balls of dough with diced octopus in the middle), and now I’ll pop them in my mouth without a second thought.
After visiting the shrine, my host mum, along with a few of the other host mothers, whisked myself and two of my friends off to one of the town’s administrative buildings so we could see a portion of the Coming of Age Day ceremonies for ourselves. Coming of Age Day marks the time when young men and women turn twenty, which is the age of adulthood in Japan. Any young adults who have turned or will turn twenty between April 1st of the previous year and April 2nd of the current year are eligible to participate in the ceremony.
These days, it’s becoming less and less popular, as many young Japanese both view it as an old-fashioned practice and don’t see themselves as being proper adults yet. That being said, enough still turn out to make it quite a spectacle. Young women go the whole nine yards: they wear their most elaborate kimono and hair accessories. It’s traditional for young men to wear Japanese garb, but it’s becoming more and more common to see them dressed in formal Western black suits. Usually town government officials give speeches and present the newly recognized adults with small presents.
The other event that I remember best about staying in Samukawa was making mochi, or small Japanese cakes made from glutinous rice flour. At the time, I wasn’t such a huge fan of the endlessly chewy texture of mochi, but like たこ焼き, now I love it. Pounding the flour into mochi is largely a community event. Plenty of families from my host family’s neighborhood attended, and it was one of those opportunities to feel less like an outsider. Sure, I (along with the other W&J students who attended) still stuck out like sore thumbs, but it was a far cry from watching the same sort of thing as an exhibition or workshop specifically geared towards teaching foreigners.
Samukawa is definitely not a huge place of notoriety in Japan. In fact, the first time I mentioned in a conversation with one of my co-workers in Aomori, there was a short beat before he asked, “..wait, where?” But looking back on those three days I spent there, Samukawa is definitely home to some of my fondest memories of Japan.