Before I share our experiences in Japan with our friend, Tomo, let me tell you how we became friends. Jim and I were at a fundraiser in the summer of 2018 when a former colleague asked me if I knew anyone who might be willing to house a Japanese student who was attending the local community college. I immediately responded we might be willing and dragged him over to share the story with Jim. He told us Tomo arrived at the Mason City airport on a bitterly cold evening in January 2018 looking for public transportation to the dorms at North Iowa Area Community College. A local architect explained there was no public transportation to the college at that hour but in the tradition of Iowa Nice, Randy offered him a ride which began their friendship. Tomo lived in the dorms for a bit, then shared an apartment with another international student but what he really wanted was to experience living with an American family. Well, Randy told Mark who told us and the rest, as they say, is history.
In a brief interview with Tomo he explained he chose NIACC because his research revealed it to be a high quality program at a relatively low cost. We explained our kids were grown and live in Des Moines so it wouldn’t be a family experience in the sense of parents with children at home, and we had a young political staffer currently staying with us. I’m not sure how much of this information Tomo understood as his English was limited and our Japanese was non-existent, but I’m sure we were the only offer on the table so we arranged for him to join our household in July.
Tomo told us he had a strong desire to see the world and he took several trips during the six months he stayed with us. Jim and I are also travelers (or we were in the Before Times, before COVID, that is) so we were gone part of the time, too. When our schedules permitted, however, we tried to share as many experiences with Tomo as possible and he seemed to enjoy most of them except maybe watching the TV show Ozark which he soon gave up on.
He insisted Jim let him mow the lawn and when I asked him about his mask, he explained it kept out contaminants. Wise pre-COVID lesson… Our 20 X 40 garden impressed him and he willingly helped Jim harvest our abundant crops. He even seemed to like shoveling snow but I suspect that enjoyment may have worn off after one winter.
Jim and I have always eaten dinner at the table together and we welcomed Tomo to join us. We cooked our usual fare and Tomo seemed to appreciate everything he ate. He introduced us to the polite Japanese customs of saying “Itadakimasu” (Let’s eat) before meals and “Gochisosama deshita” (thank you for the meal) following the meal. To hear the correct pronunciation, just click on the word. Tomo also took his turn at cooking and we enjoyed many memorable meals together. The sushi was exceptional!!
Of course, we went out to a number of restaurants as well. Tomo especially liked Mexican food so the Pastime Gardens in Mason City was an obvious choice. Kate even taught him how to cook some of her specialties and shared some culinary secrets with him but, try as we might, we couldn’t get him to spill the beans with us. The iconic Northwestern Steak House in Mason City was another definite favorite.
We took a couple of short excursions around Iowa. Friends near St Ansgar hosted a musical concert in their home so he accompanied us there and we stopped at a historic site, Fort Severson, on the way.
In Des Moines we visited the State Capitol, the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, the New Oriental Food Store, and Fong’s Pizza.
When Tomo wasn’t attending school, traveling, or performing volunteer work locally, we introduced him to leisure activities including my mahjong group (they loved him), tailgating at Iowa State football games, and Friday night wine drinking with my girlfriends although he didn’t drink. He accompanied us to a Christmas party hosted by friends and Jim even took him to a volleyball game at NIACC and they joined our sons in Ames for a wrestling meet at Iowa State.
But this rendition of Happy Birthday performed by Tomo and our neighbor, Brian, ranks right up at the top of memorable experiences.
Arigato gozaimasu, Tomo and Brian.
We enjoyed our time with Tomo so much that when he left in January 2019 to return to Japan, saying goodbye was difficult. It was made easier, however, knowing we would travel to Japan in March on our way home from a cruise around Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Tomo even helped me find our hotel in Tokyo. When I asked him about a hotel I was looking at, he laughed and said, “You don’t want to stay in that area. That’s where the yakuza and red light district are.” Yakuza are Japanese organized crime or gangsters and you know what red light district is. Thankfully, I had Tomo to steer us in the right direction!
We took Tomo to the airport on a bitterly cold morning one year after he had arrived in Mason City, Iowa. I hope he found his experience valuable. I know we did.
In my next several posts, I’ll share our experiences with Tomo in Japan.
Based on events in July 2018 – January 2019.