When Jacob Starr enters a home he instinctively takes off his shoes. He also can’t seem to stop bowing and don’t get him started on his frustrations that local cable companies don’t carry many amine programs.
Though unusual in America, this behavior is perfectly normal in Japan where Starr, 19, spent the last nine months studying as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. The Orangevale teen was sponsored by the Rotary Club of El Dorado Hills and lived in Mombetsu where, Starr learned to love Japanese potato sticks and experienced very un-California-like weather.
“In Japan you learn about a whole different kind of cold,” Starr said during a presentation to El Dorado Hills Rotarians and guests at the club’s Wednesday morning meeting. “It was -4 degrees Fahrenheit.”
He recalled freezing rain so fiercely angled that he had to hold his umbrella in front of his body. Running late for school one day, Starr told the crowd that he jumped out of the shower, dressed and ran for the bus a short distance away. “My hair froze,” he said.
Of course, the cold didn’t faze his Japanese classmates; the girls frequently wore short skirts and high socks during the winter months — a choice that baffled Starr. “I tried wearing shorts once,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
With all that cold comes great snow, sometimes 3 feet in a day, and Starr also tried out his skiing skills on northern Japan slopes. Skiing was a required PE activity at Starr’s high school.
“I’d never skied before in my life,” Starr said. “I don’t want to ever ski again. It hurts.”
Shivers and tumbles down the slopes were only a small part of his adventures. Starr said he really enjoyed spending time with his host families even if he didn’t quite understand their traditions (throwing rice at a person wearing a demon’s mask? wearing cow costumes on Christmas?).
His host town, which primarily relies on fishing, is home to about 25,000 people and annually hosts a Drift Ice Festival during which master artists carve unbelievable sculptures out of ice. The Casa Roble High School graduate also travelled around the country, visiting Tokyo and Tokyo Disneyland as well as numerous Buddhist and Shinto shrines. Some Buddhist shrines were so huge he said he felt “tiny” standing next to them. He also met a Japanese princess.
When he wasn’t posing for photos with royalty or sampling the delicious festival food (tasty breads with filling), Starr was studying. He called American high school “easy” compared to Japan’s educational expectations. High schoolers are in the classroom for three semesters each year and though the school day officially ends at 3 p.m., he said, club participation — anything from soccer to kendo to proper tea etiquette — is required so students don’t get home until mid- to late evening.
Japanese high schoolers don’t have the social lives Americans have, Starr added, explaining that students stay focused so they can get into college. Once in college, they relax a little and have more fun.
Speaking of college, Starr is currently attending Sierra College in Rocklin and hopes to get into an introductory Japanese class to practice the language. Though able to speak Japanese, he confessed he couldn’t get the hang of reading the language and relied on classmates to translate. Now that he’s home, Starr said he misses speaking the language every day … and, of course, those delicious snacks. Good thing his host family gave him that care package full of treats.