times they are a’changin’

A lot happened yesterday, but I think that the most important thing was at the very end: the long discussion Evan and I had about our future. We have both decided that I will not be re-contracting with the Japanese Exchange Teaching Program (JET) for a fifth year, and so we will be leaving Fukuoka in August 2018.

Right now I feel a little bit like a goldfish that’s become too big for it’s bowl, and I need more space to swim around in. My role as Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) is beginning to plateau. I don’t feel like there’s anything left for me to learn as an ALT. These days I simply pass the time and get through work until my next big trip abroad or new experience here in Japan. Now that all those places and experiences on my list have been getting crossed out though… What do I have to look forward to? And is there anything actually tying me to this place any more?

After close to three years of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), Evan and I are both able to say that it is not where our passions lie. It isn’t that we don’t love the people or the kids, or that we’ve grown tired of Japan, and we aren’t jaded exactly. We’ve just both come to realize that we have more to give to the world, and that we want more in return as well. What do I mean by “more”? Neither of us are really sure.

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back from myanmar & laos

Evan, Fiona, Kohji and I all just got back from our winter travels this past Monday morning. It feels like ages since that trip started already, and yet I am still shocked that it’s January 14 already. Time truly does fly when you’re having fun! dmyanmarlaoscambodiaandvietnam-vi

For those who don’t know, here’s a rundown of our itinerary:

  • 2 nights in Yangon, Myanmar starting on December 26
  • 2 nights in Bagan, Myanmar
  • 2 nights in Mandalay, Myanmar
  • 2 nights in Vientiane, Laos
  • 1 night in Huay Xai, Laos (north against the border of Laos very close to Chiang Rai)
  • 2 nights in Bokeo Nature Reserve, Laos
  • 2 nights (sort of) in Luang Prabang, Laos
  • home by 10am on January 9

We were able to see and do so much in that short time, it is really pretty amazing. Although it’s very obvious that Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia share a lot in common, now that I have been to all four it’s clear to me that they are very different from each other too, both culturally and socio-economically.

Myanmar felt a bit more wild and less developed than Laos did. That was apparent just from walking down the street. In Laos the streets were generally pretty quiet. There were tuk tuks, but not a lot of motorbikes. Even in areas of high traffic there wasn’t a lot of honking and beeping in the streets either. In general, the cities in Laos felt more laid back and chill, and nobody seemed like they were in too much of a rush to get anywhere. In Myanmar there was a lot of traffic pretty frequently and tons of motorbikes on the road with two or more people on them (often whole families) except for where motorbikes were illegal, like in Yangon. The roads felt really hectic too, with pedastrians crossing at all times and a general disregard for street lights and signs. Add in the constant honking from all directions, and the simple act of walking down the street quickly ends up feeling like a high stress survival situation. That’s how it felt to me, anyway.

It wasn’t until we reached Mandalay and met a really nice cab driver with very good English that we started being able to decode the method to the driving and honking madness. We asked him how he could stand to drive in all the chaos and he seemed pretty mysitified that we were percieving the roads that way. He said the honking was just a way everyone communicated on the road, not a sign of rage or impatience like we thought. One honk means “I’m coming from behind you,” two honks means “I’m going to pass you,” and three honks means “I’m in a rush and going fast.” And while going through a four-way intersection, throw your hazard lights on to let everyone know you’re going straight. I wish I had known all that before riding our scooters around Bagan, a mildly harrowing and white-knuckle experience for someone with as little driving experience as me, even without all the sand threatening to put me in a tail-spin left and right. After learning the signs I do admit things did seem more orderly than I had realized before, but regardless I just don’t think I can get used to all that noise.

Something that stood out about Myanmar especially was how different the local fashion was. Practically all the local women wore long sarong-type skirts to at least the calf or ankles, which isn’t so different from Thailand, Cambodia or Laos. But in Myanmar, the men wear skirts too. The skirts are called longyi and they are actually over-sized tubes of fabric you slip on, grip tightly on the left and right side, then tie in a special knot in the front near your belly button. The majority of guys we saw all wore them starting from teenagers to elderly men. By the end of my time in Myanmar, I really learned to love the look of them.

Another Myanmar fashion that I haven’t seen anywhere else is thanaka. Thanaka is a yellow-white paste made from grinding a special type of tree. It is then applied on the face (mainly on women and children but sometimes men) in different patterns like stripes, circles and leaves. The designs are decorative, but the properties of the thanaka itself is supposed to protect against sunburn, cool the skin, and also prevent acne and fungus. Although I think it’s striking I wasn’t sure if I particularly like it, and I found myself wondering often about whether Myanmar men found thanaka attractive. Does a Myanmar man walk down the street and get drawn to a girl with the leaf patterns? Like, dannnnng I like a girl with leaf thanaka, look at her work that paste. Just a thought I had.

I uploaded my pictures to my computer just a bit ago, and I haven’t had time to go through them properly and pick out my favorites (the two pics above aren’t my own, just a couple I found in a Google image search). Tonight I will organize them so that I can post pictures between my rambling bits of writing. So for now I will cut this post abruptly short, and then finish my epic saga later!

To be continued…

winter is here

Hey all. Winter is in full swing and it’s cold as hell. I can see my breath in the apartment, so layering up with multiple hoodies in the house along with the kotatsu in the living room and the electric blanket at bedtime have all been musts. This cold makes working out feel totally impossible too. Even though I know it’d feel good and I would warm up quick enough, getting out from under my layers and electric heaters feels like torture. So there goes my Hot Hiker Body Routine I planned to prep for Myanmar and Laos! Maybe I can get it in action post-trip…

Speaking of, there is just a little less than a week and a half before the trip! Evan, Kohji, Fiona and I have one more meeting on Sunday to collect all important paperwork and sort through details. On Saturday Evan and I are going to go shopping for last minute things, like travel toiletries, his hiking shoes, a set of hiking pants for me, a first aid kit and things of that nature. I am getting so excited to go adventuring and get out of the cold for a while! But I am also nervous about traveling with two people whom I have never traveled with like this before. I am sure we’ll get on just fine, I just want everyone to have a good time! Oh, and I am dreading packing lol I just never feel like I have everything I need, and then I get there and think “oh no I have too much” or “why the hell didn’t I bring blah blah?!” Anyway, that too shall pass.

Oh yeah, remember that painting I did recently? The one of my father-in-law in his band, with the flowers and patterns? Well, I did indeed submit it to that exhibit, and then a few days later I got a letter saying that it was rewarded a prize..! I was totally shocked. The awards ceremony is this Sunday, and Evan says I have to go so that he can photograph me with all the pomp and circumstance. I feel really embarrassed about it, and I think I will be really nervous, but I am sure I will treasure the photos he takes later haha. It is nice to be recognized, ya know? I went and saw the show the other day too, and there were a lot of lovely pieces there. To be honest though, it makes me wonder… Did I win this award on merit? Or did I win because I was the only foreigner who entered? I am only suspicious because I really do think there were loads of other pieces that were much more deserving of an award than mine was… but here I am, and no use worrying about it now, I suppose!

All right, I will leave you with two stories from today that really feel like they represent Japan for me in a lot of ways.

Story 1: The Ten Yen Coin

For months there has been a ten yen coin on a table in the ladies’ changing room at the high school where I work. I couldn’t even tell you how long it’s been there. But there it is, totally unmoving day after day. By this point it feels like a permanent installation. Every morning I go into the changing room, hang up my jacket, do my makeup and I can’t help but look over and think, “I can’t believe no one has taken that coin. Maybe today’s the day I will take it, just for the hell of it,” but I never do.

Anyhow, today I walked into the changing room, and by God the coin was gone! I was actually kind of relieved. Someone had finally taken it, no harm no foul. So I hung up my jacket and went to the mirror to do my makeup, and there on the mirror was a note on a post-it in Japanese. It read, “If you are looking for a ten yen coin, the one that was on the table, it is being held in the office for safekeeping. Please claim it anytime.” I was totally dumbfounded. Ten yen is roughly equivalent to a dime in the States. A dime, people! If someone took ten cents off the table, even if it wasn’t theirs, who cares?! Jeez Louise, this is absurd! I think I actually guffawed out loud.

And yet, after a moment of thinking about how this scenario would absolutely never happen in America, I realized that this sort of thing happening in Japan is really not shocking at all. The level of honesty and the sense of justice that I have seen while living here has rivaled anything I have seen anywhere else by far. So as silly as it seems to me, I think that it must be obvious to people living here that if a thing is not yours, however inconsequential, you must not and should not claim it as your own. Period. Not even a ten yen coin.

Now I am not saying that everyone in Japan is some pure-hearted saint and that shit doesn’t go “missing” and crimes don’t happen. But I do believe that this is just one example of the many small, kind and earnest acts I see on a day to day basis in Japan, and these kinds of acts are what make living here so lovely.

Story 2: Merry Christmas, Merry Funeral

I mentioned in a previous post that I was planning a Christmas-themed lesson. And indeed, I planned it and have executed said lesson seven times for seven different classes already. After practicing this lesson so many times, I can say without hesitation that I have it down, from my first greeting to the students to my summing up the homework and ushering them out the door. So today I had my eighth and final Christmas lesson, and I was excited for it, firstly because this class of kids is in some ways my favorite (not too clever, but really open, personable and attentive), and secondly because I could finally stop doing the same goddamned lesson day-in-day-out!

In the middle of the lesson I do this activity I call Quiz Quiz Pass. I won’t go into the details too much, but basically you go around the room asking people different questions in English. The questions change every time, so this time I had questions like, “Who will you be with on New Year’s day?” and “Can you tell me three things you like about winter, please?” The students really like this activity because they can walk around, talk to whomever they like, and the questions are all randomized so you never really know what you’ll be asked when. At the end of the activity I like to have everyone sit and then I choose two or three kids to answer a question in front of the class.

For this particular lesson, the single-out-a-couple-kids-and-ask-them-in-front-of-the-class part is really fun for me. First, I pick a sort of shy girl to say three things she likes about winter, and everyone is quiet and listening earnestly (I hope, anyway). Maybe she stumbles over some words, but I help her out and all is well. Everybody applauds. And then I pick a boy and ask him, “What will you do on Christmas Day?”

Now before I go any further I should let you in on a couple things. First, in Japan Christmas has more in common with American New Year’s Eve than American Christmas. By that I mean it isn’t really a family event at all. The more common image of Christmas in Japan is going on a date, holding hands and viewing Christmas lights in the snow with that special person, and exchanging romantic presents, or maybe having a gift exchange party with friends. Second, I know my students pretty well. I may not have memorized all 250 of their names, but when I am in a class I know which students hate being called on but love when I stop by their desk for a bit of a chat, I know which students typically know the answers and understand directions and don’t mind when I ask them to explain stuff to the class in Japanese, I know who the sleepers are, and most especially I know the outgoing kids, the ones who love to speak out, share their opinions, and can handle a bit of gentle teasing now and then.

All right, back to my story. So I pick a boy, a boy I know pretty well, who has a sense of humor and seems to enjoy being made a spectacle of in front of his classmates, and I ask him, “What will you do on Christmas day?” He immediately responds, “I want money for Christmas!” The people who catch his goof laugh a bit and I gently ask again, “What will you DO on Christmas day?” He realizes his mistake and starts again. “I will….” He pauses with a look of confusion and starts making gestures in the air. His classmates laugh at his struggle a bit. And then I go into the routine that I went through will all the other boys before him. “Oh, are you going on a date on Christmas Day?” I ask coyly. Everyone laughs. He smiles and shakes his head and I ask, “Will you be with your girlfriend on Christmas Day?” and receive another round of laughs.

I am telling you, this schtick is really effective with my classes. Everyone gets a kick out of it. Eventually, the guy either gives in and says, “Yes, I will go on a date,” which is met with oohs and ahhs and applause, or he firmly states his actual plan, which is met with a mixture of laughter or sympathy or whatever is appropriate. And then I move on to the next activity with everyone in high spirits.

This time though, my guy is taking a lot longer to answer. He is muttering to himself (stuff like, “what do you call it… how do you say…”) and finally bursts out a word in Japanese that I don’t know. Everyone goes still and somber. A bit perplexed, I look to my co-teacher. “What’d he say?” I ask, to which she replies, “He’s going to a funeral on Christmas day.”

And then I feel like a total ass. Here I am teasing him about girlfriends and dates, and he’s just lost someone, maybe even someone dear to him. I say that I am really sorry for putting him on the spot like that, and he smiles and waves it away like it’s no big deal. What’s so funny is that all his classmates seem to be looking at me with something like sympathy, like they could tell how embarrassed I was and they feel a bit bad for me as I awkwardly switch gears into the next activity. But in my head I was screaming, “Who the hell has a funeral on Christmas day?? This is unheard of! I would never in a million years have expected something like that!” But of course, Christmas isn’t even a real holiday in Japan, just a quirky sort of event vaguely known about and ever so slowly gaining popularity amongst young people as a chance for a bit of romance and a few presents.

Anyway, the class continued and all was well. Nobody brought it up again, and after class I went to that kid and apologized one more time for any embarrassment I caused. He seemed totally fine and unworried about it, then went about his day.  Indeed, I seemed to be the one most affected by the whole thing. I was left alone in the classroom thinking about how Christmas is an entirely different animal in Japan than in America, and how these days I have become nostalgic and have begun longing for the merriment, bustle, family and festivity surrounding Christmas back in the States, and I wondered when I would experience that again, and how much I am looking forward to it.

transitioning into winter

After getting back from Kyoto, all I thought about was slamming some content for classes together and, more importantly, studying for the JLPT test (which was on December 4, Sunday)! While Evan and I were roaming to, around and from Kyoto/Osaka I didn’t do nearly as much studying as I intended. And before then? I was memorizing some kanji using the White Rabbit flashcards I bought a while ago, and I also wrote down a collection of grammar points geared toward the N4 level and started using them in my own original sentences. After getting back from the trip, kanji and grammar are what I mainly crammed. The day before the test I tried out a couple vocabulary, reading, and grammar practice tests, and I am really glad I did. They really got my head in the game as far as how the test is formatted and what type of questions I would have to answer.

How’d the test itself go? It’s hard for me to say with certainty if I passed or not, but I feel much more confident and optimistic after finishing the test this time than last summer, that’s for sure. Last summer I felt like I frequently went up against questions that I couldn’t even make an educated guess about, but this time those popped up way less frequently. I felt good about the reading section this time around too. Last summer I felt very rushed (almost ran out of time, actually) and was often uncertain about the meanings of texts or even the questions themselves. This time I got through the reading part quickly with time to spare to check my answers, and I never felt stumped as to the meanings of both the texts and the questions. Last summer I felt pretty good about the listening part and it was by far my highest score. But this time? I’ll be honest, and I hope I am not making an ass out of myself when I say this, if I get less than 90% of the listening section correct, I will be really shocked. It felt like such a breeze. Every answer seemed really clear and obvious, and there was never any doubt in my mind while I filled in those little bubbles. God, I hope I wasn’t totally delusional or in some alternate dimension during that section of the test though… because if I get my results back next month and see I bombed the listening I will feel like such an idiot, hah.

Regardless of how I end up doing, so glad that test is over with! I am going to officially put studying Japanese on the back-burner until after winter vacation, and then I want to push really hard to memorize kanji like mad! But, like I said, let’s not continue this conversation until January rolls around.

In the meantime… so much stuff on the horizon! I am going to make myself a list of it all here and now, just so that I can see it in one place:

  • Start my newly-crafted Hot Hiker Body Routine (explanatory post to come) TONIGHT so that I don’t die while hiking and traveling over winter break
  • Get new glasses because the ones I have now are scratched to hell and the perscription is over two and a half years old
  • Go shopping for Christmas presents and ship them to the folks they belong to
  • Celebrate Fiona’s birthday with drinks and karaoke this coming Friday and/or Saturday
  • Double-booked bounenkai next week 12/16 Friday, oh no! I have to choose which one to go to… Ariake Shinsei High School’s party or the Miike English teachers’ party
  • At least one more preparations and logistics meeting with Fiona and Kohji to square away packing, money, documentation and day-of departure plans for the big trip
  • Get through two more weeks of classes with all my ichi-nensei (sophomores) and san-nensei (seniors), which means making some sort of Christmas lesson…. and I have no idea what to do yet, so I have to plan that!
  • Clean the apartment so that we don’t return to a total mess after 15 days of crazy filthy backpacking and planes rides
  • Actually pack for the trip!
  • Something small but sweet to celebrate Evan’s birthday on 12/24
  • Happy Day’s big all day Christmas Party on 12/25
  • And FINALLY on 12/26 take off for Myanmar and Laos with Evan, Fiona and Kohji!

Ya know, seeing it all in a simple list like this makes all this stuff seem much more manageable. Let’s hope I can actually get all of it done in a sensible and stress-free way though, shall we? Updates to come…

adventures with riley

After taking a couple days to recover, catch up on sleep, and generally settle back into typical, every day life, I think I am finally ready to write about my recent travels (although grocery shopping, cleaning, and laundry are another story entirely, lol). As I have mentioned in previous posts, my good, old friend Riley came to visit Evan and I! It was the first time we’ve seen him in about a year, and also Riley’s first trip abroad. He arrived in Tokyo and did some traveling about on his own in the city for a couple days. Eventually Evan and I went by shinkansen (bullet train) up to Kamakura Station where we met up with Riley and began our adventuring together.

The last time Evan and I were in Kamakura was four years ago, on Evan’s maiden voyage to Japan. It was winter and the town was quiet. Although the shrines and temples we visited were a bit crowded, there really weren’t all that many people walking the streets. Kamakura felt like a quaint escape from the bustling crowds of Tokyo, a place to settle down with a family and grow old in.

Going to Kamakura at the height of summer Obon season is a totally different animal though. The train to the station nearest our hostel in Kamakura was crowded with tourists and their luggage, and being packed like sardines into those small train cars only intensified the already very hardcore heat. In fact, we were pretty much sweating all over each other, haha.

This same feeling of overcrowding was pretty strong in Enoshima, the nearby small island connected to Kamakura by bridge. The initial street leading up to Enoshima Shrine was filled to capacity with both souvenir shops and prospective shoppers. And I swear almost everyone was playing Pokemon Go! While exploring Enoshima we traveled up and down loads of stairs and through some beautiful caves. We caught a lovely sunset on the rocky side of the island too.

Our hostel was a very short walk away from the beach, and I was rather surprised by the very youthful party atmosphere it had. Bikini-clad sunbathers, people hauling surfboards, young couples canoodling under beach umbrellas, and beers abounded. I admit, it was a lot of fun to splash about in the ocean and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere there, even though the sand was so hot that walking on it felt like fire. A short note about our hostel called Slams: it was Slam Dunk themed! It turns out Kamakura is the setting for Slam Dunk, which I never realized before! Slams is also a restaurant which serves a very delicious burger they call The Dunk, so if you’re ever in Kamakura and looking for a hip spot with a yummy Slam Dunk themed burger, that’s your joint.

My favorite day in Kamakura was our shrine day. We woke up early, rented a set of bikes, and combed Kamakura for its best shrines and temples, of which there are many. Although the sun was oppressive yet again, the breeze from riding felt really great. We were also able to cover way more ground than if we had walked, which meant more shrines and more goshuin-collecting (aka. Evan’s version of Pokemon Go haha; goshuin are unique stamps and calligraphy that you get from each temple or shrine as a way to commemorate your visit). It was so cool going to the same temples that we went to four years ago, and especially seeing how different they felt in summer compared to winter.

Our next stop was Nikko, a mountain town a couple hours north by train and home to a set of shrines and temples that are both Japanese National Treasures and World Heritage Sites. Nikko was a wonderful respite from both the crowds and, more importantly, the heat. The weather in Nikko was cool and dry, which made walking all day throughout the World Heritage area so much more enjoyable and less grueling. It really was a relief not sweating all day! The bright red and elaborately decorated temples and shrines were so beautiful against the background of the misty forests and mountains. Actually, the cool temperatures combined with the mountain scenery and abundant cedar trees (which stand in contrast to Kyushu’s many bamboo forests) really made me nostalgic for the PNW.

The hostel and the neighborhood it was in were all very sweet and quaint. We appreciated our host’s helpfulness and generosity immensely. We also got a pretty good sense of the town itself during our forays to the local music festival, izakaya, snack bars, cafes and karaoke spots. I would really love to go back to Nikko again in the fall, when it is supposed to be at its most beautiful during koyo time (when the leaves turn bright red).

Next we shot down further north to Hakone, where our main goals were to get a good, clear look at Mount Fuji and take loads of onsen hot spring baths. Hakone is also a mountain town, and riding in the trains up the mountain was really interesting. I have never ridden a train that’s needed to go up switchbacks nor climbed to such great heights before. Also, the views from the train windows looking down into the valley below were some of the nicest all trip.

Although the weather was really beautiful the day we did most of our exploring, everyone was abuzz about the incoming typhoon bound to hit that area in the following days. While riding the cable car the clouds were really gorgeous against the bright blue sky, but the view we got of Fuji was only a partial one. Damn you, typhoon! Regardless, the following pirate ship ride was lovely, cool and clear. We also made it to a nice festival with fireworks that night, but the weather turned a bit nasty on us right when it started. They didn’t cancel the show, but we all got soaked through and were pretty cold by the end of it. Luckily we were able to warm up with that onsen bath I mentioned, but I have to say that the hot spring water was by far the hottest I have ever experienced, almost to the point of being unpleasant… though not quite!

Our last big destination was Himeiji Castle, which we hit between shinkansen rides on the way home. We got there just in time to have an hour or two explore the castle, which was conveniently situated a short walk away from the station. I felt like the overall modesty of the city as a whole was a great backdrop for Himeiji-jo and really set off its majesty. I was actually rather surprised by how small the interior was because it looks so immense from the outside. It was Riley’s first castle and another tick off of my Japan World Heritage bucketlist. Very glad we made it out there!

Even though I didn’t take a lot of pictures after returning home, that doesn’t mean the adventures stopped there! Evan and I took Riley to our favorite haunts in Chikugo, and then to Fukuoka city where we enjoyed the Lockup with Kohji, Vicki and her friend Su visiting from London. Karaoke was enjoyed, nomihoudai (all your can drink alcohol buffets) were abused, delicious food was eaten, goshuin and Pokemon were caught… Honestly, I don’t think Riley’s trip could’ve been better. It was truly a great time.