It just so happens that my god-mother is half Japanese. When my mom realized a connection there and shared my new-found interest in the country with my god-mother, my god-mother (Mary Ann) told my mom about how she wanted to send her own daughter to this Japanese language summer camp in Minnesota that is hosted by Concordia University. Already a fan of the summer-camp scene I was excited to go, and got two of my best friends in the world to join me.
Mori-no-Ike, in Japanese means "the forest's lake", was the name of this summer camp deep in the wilderness of Minnesota. Traveling there from Michigan was an adventure in and of itself. To get there, we had to take a ferry boat across Lake Michigan which took about 4 hours. If you've never done such a feat, I recommend putting it on your bucket list.
The forest's lake, indeed, Mori-no-Ike was miles away from civilization, and anything tied to the English language. When we got to the summer camp, we had to abandon all "contraband", meaning English magazines, American food snacks, or anything that tied us to the American world, because when we were at Mori-no-Ike, we weren't in America anymore; we were in Japan.
We even adopted Japanese names that we were to use for the next two weeks. My Japanese name, I remember, was "Haruka" and my friend Adrienne's was "Megumi". Our names were placed upon wooden name tags worn as necklaces and were called, "nafuda" and we were to go by our Japanese names and wear our nafuda at all times.
Two weeks of learning Japanese songs, eating only Japanese food cooked by Japanese cooks, and learning the Japanese language was what took up that summer at Mori-no-Ike. It was a place I'll never forget and will remember forever.
They had a small snack shop that only sold Japanese candy and snacks in which we could use money we had stored at the camp "ginko" (bank) during yasumi, or free time.
Every morning we would wake up at the crack of dawn and all line up at the basketball courts to do the semi-traditional "Rajio Taiso" or "Radio Exercises", which was a huge fad for Japanese office workers to do on a daily basis to keep their minds working actively throughout the business day to keep efficiency high.
For those campers that were particularly daring, you could be rewarded with an awesome sticker on your nafuda if you could go the whole day without speaking English (and hopefully speaking only Japanese). I had attempted this feat during my second year at Mori-no-Ike. Alas, as a 12-year-old that only new super basic Japanese, that sticker, although the day ended with it on my nafuda, basically was earned by not saying anything for the whole day.
To this day, I still remember the moves to rajio taiso, the words to many children's songs, and even some dance moves to some popular Japanese 70's songs. Often times, my Japanese friends are utterly shocked that I know the words and moves to Pink Lady's "UFO" song.
Mori-no-Ike was just the beginning of my adventure into the Japanese world, but it definitely had a positive impact to keep me going. I continued to go to Mori-no-Ike for the following year, before I decided that although the atmosphere was really authentic, I still needed to learn more.
My next mission was to somehow become more connected with Japan. And I found a way.