Heartbreak and Fear, and Moving Forward

On Tuesday night I went to bed hopeful. It was just barely Tuesday morning in the US, and my sister texted me to say she got to the polls at 5:45am to vote. I planned out a white outfit to wear to school, in a nod to suffragettes. I proudly pinned my “Future is Female” pin on my sweater and fell asleep after crying, because I truly thought the next day would mark the election of America’s first female president, and I was overwhelmed with joy and hope.

Wednesday morning (Tuesday night in the US) I got to school and caught only the first few states before I had to leave my laptop and teach two classes. The staff room TV was tuned in to the election, and several teachers had asked me about it. They all asked if I liked Trump, and when I said no they smiled and said they agreed.

When I got back to the staff room 2 hours later, the mood had clearly changed. Everyone looked at me, then at the TV, a look of concern on their faces. When I realized what was happening, I literally ran out of the school to get my phone and call home. I listened as my sister watched the election coverage, and I cried again, this time because I felt hope was lost.

America, we have just elected a man who has the full support of David Duke and the KKK. We have elected a man who will go on trial next month for child rape. A man who has used hateful and degrading language to talk about women, Muslims, people of color, people with disabilities, and anyone who is not like him. This is not about economics, or a push for smaller government – this is about spitting in the face of civil liberties because people who look different are scary.

I know that some of the people I love voted for him. I would like to think that they hesitated, they felt some slight shame or concern, and I am angered and disappointed that in the end fear won out. Many of my friends are posting notes on Facebook telling anyone who voted for Trump to remove themselves from their lives. I understand, and for many of them this is important for their safety and sanity. I will support them.

I wish I could do the same, but I know that’s not how we fix this.

Family and friends who voted for Trump, I am angry, I am disgusted, and I want us to talk. I need you to understand why my friends, many of whom are Black, Asian, and queer, are afraid for their lives in the coming years. I want you to tell me why, knowing full well what he stood for, you supported this man and pushed him to the highest office. I want you to explain why Hillary was such an abhorrent choice, because I sincerely don’t get it.

I worry about the future of such a divided nation. But I also know that we have risen above in the past. I hope those of us who are shocked and hurt today are motivated into action. We must support organizations that work to uphold our civil liberties, especially when they are threatened. We must recognize those who will be hurt most in the coming months and stand up for and with them. We must remember that political action is not limited to voting every four years. Our government still exists to serve us, but we must take action to demand their service. Call your representatives about issues that matter to you. Vote in midterm elections. Donate your time and money to organizations like Planned Parenthood or the ACLU. And most of all, talk to people who don’t look or believe as you do. Don’t shy away from the chance to change someone’s mind. After all, that’s what got us here in the first place.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I’m going to fight like hell to make it better. I hope you will do the same.

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Getting a Drivers’ License in Japan

As my first year in Japan drew to a close, there were about a million different administrative issues I needed to deal with, from taxes to getting a Japanese credit card. But at the very top there was a task I faced with dread – getting a Japanese drivers’ license.

For foreigners living in Japan there’s a one year window during which you can drive with a license from your home country, so long as you have an international driving permit (IDP). These are super easy to get, require nothing but a fee and a trip to your local AAA, and are an absolute life saver if you are traveling (they’re good in most countries). Sadly, after one year of use (or, in Japan, one year from your arrival in the country) they are no longer valid, and you must go through the not-so-fun process of converting your foreign license to a Japanese one.

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My car, which I’ve been driving since December

Now, this process isn’t so bad for everyone. If you’re from Australia, Canada or the UK, it’s a pretty straightforward process. You make an appointment with the Japanese equivalent of the DMV, show them that your license was valid for at least three months back in your home country, watch a video about driving safety and boom! You have a new license.

Sadly, Americans don’t have it so easy. Because each of our 50 states has different driving laws and tests, the Japanese government has not developed any agreements for licenses, and we must take a modified driving test, in addition to answering lots and lots of questions about our driving history. The whole process took about a month, start to finish, and I was lucky, since I passed the test on my first try. But basically, this is what you have to do:

Have your license translated. This is done by JAF, the Japanese equivalent of AAA. All you have to do is mail an application, a copy of your foreign license, and a $30 fee to the nearest JAF. If you’re in a big city you can do this in person, but that wasn’t really an option for me. One thing you have to be careful of when doing this is to check your license and make sure it lists all the required information. A Missouri license, for example, does not have a date of issuance, which is required here. Because of this, I had to send in a copy of my driving record, which my mom was kind enough to pick up for me from the local DMV and send to me. Thanks mom!

Gather all of your documents. In addition to your translated license you will also need your passport, residence card, two ID photos, and your foreign drivers’ license. None of these are especially difficult to get. The license translation only takes a few days, but the JAF website suggests allowing two weeks.

Make an appointment to drop off your documents and have an “interview.” This was probably one of the most confusing bits. In Miyazaki, all foreigners have to go into Miyazaki City for this, which is a bit annoying (that’s an hour’s drive for me). My supervisor was nice enough to call and set this up for me, but it was a bit of a bureaucratic headache.

The department that handles interviews is only open in the afternoons, and they claimed they could only handle one scheduled interview a day, despite telling us that the interviews never take more than two hours. This was pretty ridiculous, especially because my neighbor and I were hoping to go in together. They also require that you bring a Japanese speaker along with you, for translation. Of course the office is only open during the week, so finding someone who would be willing to take an afternoon off to do this was looking like an impossible mission. On top of this, my friend’s supervisor called and found out that all but one appointment had been taken for the entire month of June! We were a bit panicked, since we needed to take the actual test before the end of July, or we’d both be saddled with cars we couldn’t drive.

In the end we convinced them to see us both at once, due to the time constraints, and my friend’s supervisor was given permission to treat this as a business trip and come with us. Crisis averted!

Go to your “interview.” After all of that headache setting the interview up, it was a total breeze. You show up, give them your documents, and they give you another form to fill out. It’s in English and Japanese, so it’s easy to understand, but they ask that you fill certain sections out in Japanese. But honestly, I found the Japanese translator to be unnecessary, since most things were pretty easy. They asked all kinds of strange questions about the engine size of my car in America, how many questions the written driving test had, whether I had taken the practical test on a course or the open road, how much my license cost. Again, lots of bureaucratic silliness. It was over quickly and we were told that we could come back any time after a week and take the practical driving test, no appointment needed.

Take a driving lesson (optional). While a lesson is not required to get a license or even to take the practical test, I have never heard of anyone passing without it. This is because the test foreigners take (which is a modified, shorter version of what Japanese people do) is essentially a choreographed route. It’s on a course at the DMV, and there are two possible routes you will be asked to drive. The test administrators do not speak English, so while they will tell you when to turn, it’s pretty much expected that you memorize both routes. It’s possible to do this with just the map, but the test is set up in such a way that small errors will lead to failure. A driving lesson will allow you to go out onto the course for two hours and practice exactly when to use your turn signal, because it really, really matters.

With that said, the driving lesson will likely be incredibly frustrating. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so stupid in my life. Though I have nearly ten years of driving experience, this course is not designed to test how you drive on an actual road, it’s set up to see how well you can follow arbitrary rules. The whole thing is done at a crawl, and points are docked for putting your turn signal on too late, not turning into the correct side of the lane (no, not wrong lane or side of the road, side of the lane, because you have to set yourself up for your next turn). I couldn’t believe all of the nonsense involved. I left the lesson feeling like a worse driver, and on the drive home I found that nothing I was taught was applicable to a real world scenario. Regardless, driving the actual course was invaluable, and having the instructor tell me every rule and how strictly it would be enforced was completely necessary.

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One of the driving routes you have to memorize

Take the driving test. Once you’ve memorized the course, taken your lessons and prayed to whatever you think will help you, it’s time to take the plunge! You’re expected to arrive around 8:30am to the Driving Center, and of course you’ll do a lot of sitting and waiting. First they’ll have you fill out some paperwork, pay a fee, and then take the written test. It’s only 10 questions, and the content is not particularly difficult, but the language is designed to be confusing in Japanese, which makes it nearly unintelligible in English. The pictures often don’t seem to match the words. I got this question about small motor vehicles with a picture of a bicycle. So confusing! But in the end my friend and I both passed, and they told us to go downstairs for the driving portion.

When we got downstairs we learned which of the two routes we would drive (they choose one each day) and were then allowed to go out and walk the course. This was surprisingly useful, and made us both feel a lot more confident as we walked around and narrated what we would do at each point. Then it was back inside to receive instructions (all in Japanese, none of which I understood) and wait until our name was called. My friend went first, and when she came back in she had passed! She told me that we were in luck, today the only English speaking instructor was there, and he would be driving with me as well. I got into the car and went through all of the carefully choreographed motions, making sure to do all of my checks in the right order, to never drive faster than 20mph, and to narrate everything I did. It was super nerve-wracking, but when we reached the building, he said  I passed.

Get license! After the test, the worst is over. They send you back inside to wait again. You get paperwork from about four different desks, pay another fee, and then have your picture taken. After the photo you wait a bit more, and then your get your license. It’s good for three years, and you are free!

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Celebratory drinks

In the end, I had to take two full days off of work, spend close to $300, and probably lose a fair amount of sleep over this whole affair. But now I have a Japanese license, and the country is my oyster (so long as my car can handle it). I celebrated with my friend over burgers, and since she drove that day I even treated myself to a fancy Hawaiian beer.

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We did it!!!!

Back to “Normal”

Hello everyone.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to my last post. Thank you for all of your kind words and support, it really means a lot to me. The past few weeks have been full of more upsetting news, from the Brexit to bombings in Turkey. But also good news, like the Supreme Court’s decision to bar convicted domestic abusers access to guns, and Missouri Gov. Nixon vetoing a bill that would have made Missouri the first state to enact a Stand Your Ground law since Treyvon Martin was killed. It’s a lot to take in, no matter where in the world you are or how you feel about the issues. In response to world events I appreciate getting multiple perspectives from my friends around the world and within Japan. The general consensus (which, to be fair, is of my mostly young, mostly liberal friends) is a general state of sadness and disappointment at where the world is heading, but also a tentative optimism. While there is real fear, and rightly so, that the world could go to hell in a hand basket at any moment, there’s also assurance in the knowledge that so many people care. And hopefully this interest in the future of the world will lead to activism, or at the very least participation in government on a very basic level, like voting.

So in the coming weeks and months I will continue reading and listening, trying to parse out the state of the world. I’m not sure if I’ll write about that here – I know that my opinions are very strong, but also that they’re constantly evolving. Every article I read, every interview I listen to will shift my views a bit. I like this. I think this view keeps me thinking and learning, but it also keeps me from feeling confident in my writing. One thing I am confident about, however, is my lived experiences, and so I will continue to write about those.

This month I’m tackling the bureaucratic nightmare that is getting a Japanese drivers’ license as an American, and I will be writing a full post on the ins and outs of this process soon. I’ve also recently been appointed Block Leader for my area’s JETs, so I’ve been caught up planning the farewell party for the people leaving next month and parsing out my new responsibilities. Luckily, school is almost out for summer break, so I should have plenty of time to write soon. And hopefully I’ll be able to share more good news and fun stories. It’s a bittersweet time, as I say goodbye to lots of friends, reflect back on a full year in Japan, and prepare to welcome a whole new group of people and start year two. I hope you continue to read along with me.

Responding to Tragedy from Abroad

Sunday night I had dinner with some friends at a Korean BBQ restaurant. It was a laid back evening, and afterward we all came back to my apartment for ice cream and a bit of venting about the frustrations of working in Japan. As a group of Australians, Americans, and South Africans we were all coming from a different place, culturally and physically, but our experiences of foreignness help to tie us together.

At some point in the evening one friend, another American, checked her phone and said, “oh man, twenty people were killed in a shooting.”

I want to say I was horrified, or enraged, or deeply saddened. But in truth I barely blinked. I think I said something like, “wow, really?” and we moved on to talk about some youtube video.

When I woke up Monday morning and checked my Facebook, I was overwhelmed with reports of the attack, messages from LGBT friends who had attended Pride events and felt afraid, reports of another near-attack on Pride in LA. I was (and am) heartbroken, angry, and conflicted. Watching the US from a distance while retaining my ties to home is a strange experience. The tragedy, the idiocy, and the hatred take on a slightly more theatrical air. I frame thoughts about events in terms of how I will explain them to others, or I rush out to find fellow Americans who will understand without explanation, who can join me in a rant or tears, as the occasion requires. I try to think how best to tell others what has happened without playing into stereotypes about how scary the US is, how everyone has a gun. A friend of mine went to school last week and a student screamed when he saw her, then said, “she’s American, she has a gun!” in Japanese. This was a first grader.

In more conservative Japan I also find myself wondering how I would frame the conversation about an attack on a gay club during Pride, when the very concept of homosexuality is shaky here, existing only in the major cities and certainly not out here in Miyazaki, or at least not to my knowledge. I thought of a junior high student who wrote in her diary a few months ago about her favorite character in a game, telling me, “he’s handsome, and he has great vocal ability. But don’t worry, he’s not a gay.” I still don’t know what to say.

And while I still find myself coming up with speeches and explanations in my head, they weren’t needed yesterday. Not a single person at worked talked to me for more than a minute or two, and never about anything more than a schedule change or a grammar question. I couldn’t tell if this was because they knew what had happened and wanted to let me be, because they knew and didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe they had no idea and it was just a quiet day. The layers of passive implication involved in work here are trying on a good day, and utterly alienating on a bad one.

When I left school, after passing off my English club duties to the other ALT, I reflected at home on what had happened, how I was feeling, what this meant for the increasingly murky future of the country I call home. I cried, I talked to my friends and neighbors about it, I wrote letters to elected officials and posted articles to Facebook. I ended the day by watching another video, this time of the people who had lined up around the block to donate blood for the victims. And I cried again.

So far from home I feel I am both part of and apart from the tragedy. I hurt, and I feel guilty. Shouldn’t I be there, trying to make a difference, grieving with loved ones? I feel relieved, to be in a place that is so safe I can walk around at night alone without fear. My school doesn’t have lockdown drills. My students have probably never seen a gun in real life. And again I feel guilty, for being safe when others aren’t. And then I stop, and I realize this is absolutely not about me. The guilt remains.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post was. I think it was mostly for me to work through my feelings, to let people know that what happens at home affects those far and near, that even in Japan we care. I know in the coming days people will want to talk about it, will look to me for explanation. Today I talked with another teacher about the attack, about how worried he is for his daughter who will move to the US later this year. The world is watching the US, and it’s not pretty.

To everyone back home, I love you and want you to be safe. I want change, and I want an end to violence and bigotry. If you feel the same, I urge you to contact your elected officials and let them know. To vote in November and to start thinking seriously about what this event says about our home, our lives, our futures. To remember that acts of terror do not exist in a bubble, but are perpetuated by hateful rhetoric agains everyone from LGBT folks to Muslims, from people of color to women. Perpetuated by easy access to weapons of war. Perpetuated by our inaction, our resignation to the cycle of tragedy.

I’ll leave you with the words of Leonard Bernstein, delivered in 1963 after the JFK assassination, which are no less relevant today.

“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.” Leonard Bernstein (find the full speech here)

2015 in Review

Somehow it’s almost the end of February, and over the past month I spent a lot of time thinking about what I’ve done, who I’ve met, and where I went in 2015. I thought I’d take a minute to round up a few of my favorite moments from the past year, and share a few photos I never got around to posting.

January

I rang in the start of 2015 with Annin in Phenom Penh, eating dragon fruit and learning about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. It was a bit of a somber way to start the year, but I loved that trip. When I left Annin I met up with the family in Hawaii for a week of relaxing on (or near) the beach.

February

In February I spent a weekend teaching at a high school in a Soc Trang, a rural area of the Mekong Delta, and felt very old. It was an interesting but exhausting experience, and I decided to think of it as a test run for how life in Japan would be. Turns out it’s quite a bit different. But after that weekend I flew to Guam for my JET interview.

When I returned to Vietnam it was time for the biggest holiday of the year, Tet. Brad came to visit for a few days, and then I set off on yet another big trip: Vung Tau with my friends, then Singapore, Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang on my own. I saw manatees, skyscrapers, drag queens and merlions in Singapore. Lanterns, traditional buildings, beaches and Buddhist temples in central Vietnam. And the food! I still think about the food. It was my first time traveling solo, and it was quite an eye-opening experience. Looking back, I’m so glad I did it. I’m not sure how much I want to travel alone for extended periods in the future, but it’s great to know that I am 100% capable on my own, and can have a good time with just me, myself and I.

March

March was a bit quiet after nearly two solid months of travel, but it was nice. I visited Selina and attended a wedding in the countryside, and they wouldn’t let me stop dancing! March was also prime kite-flying weather, and I spent quite a bit of time flying (and sometimes losing) kites with friends. When I think about Vietnam, I often think about flying kites with friends, and how cool it was to see hundreds of kites out on any given afternoon by the river.

April

As my time in Vietnam drew to a close, my friend Ha made up a bucket list of things our friend group had to do together before everyone went their separate ways. The crowning achievement of that list was the “Color Me Run” in Ho Chi Minh City. All of our friends came together to “run” the 5k track and throw colorful powder at each other, followed by a concert, and then nearly an hour of trying to get a taxi to pick us up while we were covered in colored powder. A few other favorite memories from April include eating at a great bbq restaurant as often as possible, going out for way-too-spicy noodles with the teaching assistants, and helping out with Gia Viet’s “farm day” where students had to dig up vegetables and use farm-related English.

May

My final month in Vietnam was bittersweet. I started off with a trip to Da Lat that was both beautiful and also a bit sad for me. The mountains were gorgeous but I think that the stress of leaving Vietnam and waiting to hear back from JET, piled on top of not sharing a common language with most of my travel partners was a bit much for me. But when we returned from the trip, I went with Selina to visit Ha in Ho Chi Minh City and had what was possibly the best weekend of my entire year. We went rock climbing, saw a live show, found a man with a pet squirrel, and ate tons of great food. It was wonderful to spend time with friends, and sad to know it was coming to an end.

In my last few weeks in Can Tho I tried to spend my time with people I had come to love, in my favorite coffee shops and eating my favorite meals. I’m not sure I quite accomplished this, but I had a good time trying. The final goodbye party was nice, and ended with the ice cream cake we had bought melting too much to cut, so we all had to dig in with spoons. My last week in Vietnam was spent shopping in Ho Chi Minh City at the monthly Saigon Flea Market, and hanging out on the beach with Ha, Lavender and Peter. I cried when Ha dropped me off at the airport, and knew I would miss this place immensely. I sometimes half-plan return trips when I have free days at work, or when I’ve had a particularly bad Japanese coffee, or when my friends post gorgeous photos on Facebook. I miss Vietnam, and the friends I made there, and I know I’ll be back at some point, but of course I also know it won’t be the same when I do. If I keep thinking about this I’ll never stop writing, and it’ll get sappier and sappier, so I think it’s best to just say I loved Vietnam, and move on to June.

June

After leaving Vietnam I had signed up for a two-week tour of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore with G Adventures. I’d never done a tour before, and I don’t know if I’d do it again, but it was nice to have other people there to arrange all of the details, and to help me carry my stuff from point A to point B. The locations themselves were fantastic. I realize I never wrote about my summer, but it was great. One of my favorite memories of the whole trip was my first day in Bangkok – I woke up and decided to find a kaya toast restaurant I’d read about online. After a long cab ride and an hour of searching, I gave up and ate at a roadside stall, but of course as soon as I left the stall, mostly full and resigned to miss out on this particular dish, I found the place. Since I’d missed the breakfast crowd there was only one other person in the restaurant. I ordered, and afterward the other woman came over and asked if she could join me. Her English was fantastic, and it turns out she was preparing to go to Cincinnati for a masters program. It was fun talking to her, and at the end of the meal she asked if I’d like to go shopping with her nearby. I had no real plans for the day, and so she took me to a massive market, followed by her friend’s coffee shop. It was so much fun spending the day with this kind stranger, and I felt like I was able to see so many parts of the city I would never have known about. In the end, I decided that Bangkok is a fascinating city, one I’d love to return to and explore in depth.

But besides that day, the tour wasn’t super eventful. I was the only American in a group of mostly Europeans (all of us were in our twenties, most were solo travelers). We went from Bangkok to Ko Samui by overnight train and spent two days snorkeling and sitting on the beach. One memorable day we took a boat into the marine park and I climbed 500 meters just about straight up to get a gorgeous view of the surrounding islands. The hike was pretty tough, and by the end there was literally just a rope and some rocks, and we were expected to pull ourselves up. This isn’t something that would fly in the US, but in Thailand anything goes. I have never sweat so much in my life, but I definitely enjoyed the sense of accomplishment from reaching the top, and of course surviving the journey back down.

After Ko Samui we made our way into Malaysia, to George Town. George Town is a quaint little town in Penang, and one of the coolest things about it is that some years ago they decided the best way to increase tourism was to turn themselves into the street art capital of Malaysia. We had a free day to do whatever we liked, so I hunted for street art and shopped, which is just about a perfect day for me. I would defiitely go back given the chance. After George Town we drove to the Cameron Highlands. The mountains were gorgeous, and the tea plantations were spectacular. The tea itself wasn’t much to write home about, but I loved looking at it.

From the highlands we moved to the urban jungles of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city. There are tons of museums and beautiful buildings in KL, but I think my favorite was the “Heli Bar,” a helipad by day and rooftop bar by night from which you can see KL Tower and the Petronas Towers unobstructed. The night I went there was a live band playing, and it was quite an experience. We rounded out our stay in Malaysia with a trip to the Batu Caves, a massive cave with a hindu temple inside, and finally a day in Malacca, which I found quite charming.

The last stop on our tour was Singapore, and by this point I’d had about enough of my fellow tour-mates and was more than happy to be a solo traveler once again. I decided to stay in Singapore a few extra days, since I had liked the city so much on my first visit. This time I took in a light show, did a bit more shopping, explored the exceedingly creepy Haw Par Villa, and ate some of the best sushi of my life.

From Singapore I took a quick flight to Perth, Australia, where I met up with Cindy for another two weeks of travel!

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It was great to spend time with Cindy, and Australia was amazing. Our first stop, Perth, is in Western Australia, and we used our time there to adjust to the time difference, explore the cute town of Fremantle, and meet some quokkas. In case you were wondering, quokkas (the “world’s happiest animals”) are exactly as cute in person as you’d expect them to be.

From Perth we flew to Melbourne and rented a car to take on The Great Ocean Road. While driving on the left presented its own challenges, I think this might have been my favorite place in Australia. The road was stunning, with views alternating from rainforests to cliffs to amazing rock formations. We saw koalas, wallabies and emus, did a bit of hiking and a lot of driving, and best of all – we were just about the only people on the road. That comes in handy when you’re not quite comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road, both for the driver and the far more nervous passenger (me!). We finished up the road trip with a day in Melbourne, which turned out to be a fun city with lots of tasty food, art, and culture that I definitely plan on revisiting soon.

From Melbourne we went north, to Cairns and Port Douglas, where we stayed at an eco lodge in the Daintree Rainforest. It was stunning, and completely different from the forests we’d seen in the south. We went hiking, took a trip through the rainforest to Cape Tribulation, and of course went snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was an amazing few days, and a fantastic experience.

Finally it was time to start heading home, and we flew to our final destination – Sydney. We only had one day in the city, and we spent it wandering, which was really fun. The night before we left we found out that our flight had been delayed by about 6 hours, which was a huge pain in the butt, especially since the airline never actually told us. Cindy found out only because she couldn’t check in ahead of time and then fought like a tiger to make sure everything was settled for our return trip. But despite the hassle, I was actually glad for the extra time, since it gave us a chance to tour the Sydney Opera House. The building is pretty spectacular.

July

From Australia I finally returned home to St. Louis, where I spent a quiet month at home with family and friends. It was great to see everyone, and to play with the dogs, but pretty soon it was time to head out again. Due to JET’s complicated rules regarding interviews and departures, I had to leave for Japan from Portland, OR. I took this opportunity to spend a week in the Pacific Northwest with friends. I went to Tacoma and Portland, saw lots of old friends, and ate lots of foods I knew I would miss in Japan.

August

My first month in Japan was a blur! While orientation was in Tokyo, I spent almost no time there and quickly moved on to my new home, Miyakonojo. Adjusting to life in Japan wasn’t so bad, though I quickly realized how rusty my Japanese had gotten. I was glad to find a really awesome community of fellow JETs , and together we went on weekend trips, participated in festivals and had lots and lots of Japanese firsts.

September

By September I was starting to feel at home, so naturally it was time to take my first big trip in Japan. I met up with Annin and traveled around Kyoto and Hyogo, and it was fantastic. These were places I’d been dreaming of seeing since I was in middle school, and I had finally made it! September was also when my school had it’s culture festival and sports day, when my students went to the regional English speech contest, and I waged (and won!) the battle with the pigeons on my balcony.

October

By October I think I had pretty much settled into work, and was just starting to get comfortable. Outside of work I kept going on weekend trips with friends. I saw lots of flowers, some horseback archery, a Noh play, some pretty cool fireworks and a lantern festival. For Halloween I flew to Osaka to meet my friend Sam while she was traveling in Japan, and we had the thoroughly surprising and extremely fun experience of people watching for a Japanese Halloween.

November

After Halloween Sam and I went to Universal Studios Japan, where we had a total blast at the Harry Potter park. The rest of that trip was spent shopping and sightseeing, from Osaka Castle to Nara’s Deer Park. Otherwise, the month was pretty quiet. I celebrated Thanksgiving with a fantastic meal with lots of my friends from all over the world. We did the holiday proud by eating far too much. It also turned out that almost all of my friends had our birthdays within two weeks of each other, so it was sort of a combined birthday/turkey day celebration (with chicken instead of turkey).

December

And finally, I closed out the year with my 25th birthday, and lots of karaoke. I did a weekend homestay in Izumi, a samurai town in the neighboring prefecture of Kagoshima, where I was dressed up in a kimono, which was fun. I bought and started driving my car, learned exactly how far Japanese customer service is willing to go, went to my school’s end of year staff party, and finally made the long journey to Europe to meet up with the family.

And that’s it! It’s been a crazy year, and a great one. I traveled to four continents and seven countries, saw old friends and made new ones, pushed myself to try new things and continued to find comfort in the unknown. 2016 is already off to a great start, and I can’t wait to see what comes next as I prepare for year two of JET life in Japan. Thank you as always for reading and going on this journey with me. Now, onto the next year!

The Leftons Take Europe, 2015-16 Edition

Hello everyone and happy belated 2016! I suppose my New Years resolution of writing more prompt blog updates is off to a rocky start, but the year itself has been pretty great. I’ve officially signed the papers to stay in Japan for a second year and I’m pretty happy about it. I’m hoping another year will give me a chance to improve my language skills and keep exploring, and I really like my school and teachers. The adventure continues!

But for now I’ll take some time to look back on the holidays, and the week I got to spend with my family in Europe. Fair warning, I’m putting the whole 10 days into one post, so this might get a bit long….

Anyways, this was the trip that almost wasn’t, what with the Paris attacks and general panic over the state of the world. At one point my mom called to tell me the trip was off, but two days later it was back to, “no, let’s wait and see.” I’m very glad that annoyance over having to discard our plans won out over anxiety about the state of the world, since in the end the world seems to have kept on going, and we all survived the journey.

The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick's or Christchurch.... I can't remember now)
The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick’s or Christchurch…. I can’t remember now)

This is not to say that the trip was easy. The journey was long for all of us. I took off on Christmas Eve and flew from Miyazaki to Osaka, where I had to spend the night. After a lazy day that ended with me being scolded at a Japanese Starbucks for attempting to charge my computer (yes, it was as strange as it sounds) I set off on the second leg of my journey: Osaka to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I had a bit of deja vu when I realized that exactly four years ago I was making almost the exact same journey from Hong Kong to London to meet my family for the holidays on Pac Rim. It’s funny how much things have changed since then, but have also remained the same… Anyway, once I made it to Amsterdam I had a nice long layover before I finally made it to Dublin, where I met up with the family.

Presto and the Abra Kebabra
Presto and the Abra Kebabra restaurant

It was great to see everyone, though of course we were all beyond tired the first few days. We only had two full days in Dublin and both of them were fairly quiet. We all took a  walking tour of the city that was very informative, though the guide was a bit long winded. We saw Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin Castle and several other historic old buildings. It was all very interesting, but by the end we were feeling a bit oversaturated with information, and of course more than a little tired.

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The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick’s or Christchurch…. I can’t remember now)

Day two didn’t quite go as planned,since mom woke up in the middle of the night with back spasms. She and dad had quite a night going to and from the hospital, and of course when morning came they were both set on staying in bed. So Katie and I took the day to explore on our own. It’s not often that we get to spend time one-on-one, so I was glad to have a chance to catch up with her. We walked around parks and in and out of shops before ending up at the Guinness Storehouse. The tour was nice, but since neither of us are particularly fond of Guinness or interested in how beer is made, the whole thing was a bit lost on us. The view of the city was cool to see though, and many of the exhibits and props for old Guinness ads were fun to take photos with.

All in all our stop in Dublin was very short, and I think everyone decided that was fine. As cities go Dublin is perfectly nice, but it’s really the countryside that draws people to Ireland. Sadly we didn’t have time to get out of the city, so I’ve put Ireland back onto my list of places to go. Next time I’ll just rent a car and take in the scenery, and I’ll do a bit more research into holidays. This time we had the bad luck (well, really just poor planning on my part) of arriving in the middle of a bunch of bank holidays, and just about everything was closed.

In any case, after leaving Ireland we landed in Edinburgh, Scotland, our main destination. Mom’s back was mostly back to normal, though she spent most of our trip dealing with the side effects of the drugs the doctor had given her. In light of everything she went through, she was amazingly resilient, though of course we all wished she didn’t have to be. But in any case, it was good to arrive with our family members in better shape than before, and I was excited to see what Edinburgh had to offer.

I can’t speak for the rest of the family, but I found Edinburgh to be an utterly charming city. The architecture was gorgeous and gothic, the accents lovely, and the food surprisingly good. We spent a fair amount of time wandering the Christmas markets, which was a fun, seasonal treat (and who doesn’t love mulled wine and chocolates?).

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Our main purpose for visiting Edinburgh was to join in the New Year’s festivities, and so on our second night in the city, December 30th, we all bundled up to join a massive torchlight procession through old town. There were so many people when we showed up, that mom got a bit overwhelmed and decided to watch rather than participate in the procession itself. Katie and I jumped right into the crowd and waited in line for about half an hour to have our torches lit before finally making the journey down the hill and into town.

In the end, the wait and the cold were worth it, because it really was an amazing sight. There were over twenty thousand people in attendance, and they all  created a river of light throughout the town, and I felt a bit of a rush from taking part in something so cool. Photos don’t really do it justice. By the time we made it down the hill we realized we were running a bit late to dinner (where we would meet back up with the parents. Being late would have probably meant inducing a panic attack, since none of our phones really worked). We gave our torches away to a few torch-less tourists and made it to the restaurant just in time.

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The next day Katie went rock climbing and the rest of us split up to explore or nap as we pleased. I decided to wander the city and see where I ended up. Edinburgh is a surprisingly walkable city, and I had a great time getting lost and finding myself in unexpected places. Taking time to just wander is always my favorite part of traveling, and while I love traveling with friends and family, it’s nice to have time for self-reflection. In the evening we met back up to have dinner and check out the official New Year’s street party.

The street party was cool, with five stages for live music and fireworks going off every hour or so from Edinburgh Castle, but in the end the cold was a bit much for us. Katie and I stuck around long enough to see one or two shows, but by 11 we noticed that the crowd was significantly drunker than we were, and our warm hotel room was calling. Not the most exciting of New Years Eve stories, but we had a good time and felt well rested in the morning.

Katie and I decided to kick off 2016 with a hike, so we set out from our hotel to climb Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain (well, ok, a hill) in the center of the city. I’d read that the hike offered 360 degree views of the city, and it definitely delivered. We also lucked out with the weather – a nice, mildly cloudy day in what was otherwise a bit of a cold and rainy week.

After the hike we met up with the parents and decided to tag along on a Harry Potter tour of the city. Edinburgh is where JK Rowling lives, and so the city supposedly inspired a number of people and places in the books. Below we have the “original” Hogwarts, the grave of Tom Riddle (or He-who-must-not-be-named), Diagon Alley, and a bit of Harry Potter inspired street art. The tour was fast paced and entertaining – we were all given “wands” at the start (someone had painted disposable chopsticks with glitter and string) which was very silly, but also cute. I’d recommend the (free!) tour to anyone who likes Harry Potter and finds themselves visiting Edinburgh. It was way better than a similar tour we took in London a few years back.

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Magic duel in the graveyard!

Our final days in Edinburgh were spent walking around, taking in the sites and eating our way through town. We saw the castle, of course, bought ourselves some tweed clothes, and Mom ate and liked black pudding, until she found out what it was (the not-so-secret ingredient is blood!).

On our final day in Scotland we took a tour of Stirling Castle and the highlands that turned out not to actually go into the highlands, but did bring us to a very pretty loch (which is a lake). Katie tried vegetarian haggis, we drove past the castle where they filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail (though sadly we didn’t get to stop and go in), and I braved some serious wind and cold to get a full tour of Stirling Castle.

The next day it was off to Amsterdam. I think that all of us found this to be an extremely interesting city, but we were also a bit drained from all of the travel and time together. We took an extremely interesting walking tour of “alternative Amsterdam,” a less interesting canal boat tour, visited the Anne Frank house, Rijks and Van Gogh museums, and of course walked over canal after canal. I really wish we’d had a bit of extra time, since Amsterdam is gorgeous and fascinating.

But I think my favorite thing about Amsterdam was the food. No, seriously. The tour guides laughed about how Dutch food isn’t very good, but I beg to disagree. Pancakes, bitterballen, olibollen, stroopwafels, gouda! Given a few more days in Amsterdam, I surely would have gained about ten pounds from all of the delicious treats – especially the stroopwafels, which I made everyone go out of their way to find at a market near the Van Gogh Museum. We all agreed it was worth it, there’s not much better than a warm waffle-cookie with gooey caramel in the middle.

But in any event, after two days in Amsterdam, it was time to part ways. It was sad to go, but I think I do better with goodbyes when it’s not leaving St. Louis. There’s a sort of finality to leaving home that just doesn’t exist in quite the same way when we’re all traveling. Mom said she had the opposite feeling, since she can go home and distract herself with the dogs when I leave from home. I guess I’ll get to test my new theory when I eventually come back home later this year (still figuring out when that’ll be…)

So that’s it! A very long account of our family trip to Europe. See ya next time!

A Bit of Culture, a lot of Deer

After Sam and I parted ways I decided to take the remaining day and a half of my trip to soak up a bit of culture, starting with Osaka Castle.

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Osaka Castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan, and it’s very impressive to see. There’s a huge park surrounding it so you get a nice view walking up the path towards the actual castle. If I had been there just a week or two later, I might have seen some fall foliage, but as it was, the leaves were just starting to think about changing. But looking back I can’t be too upset about this – the weather has been so unseasonably warm throughout Japan that the leaves skipped changing color and just fell in many places, including where I live. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to see some real “koyo” (the Japanese word for fall foliage) next year.

When I arrived at the actual castle they were just about to close for the day, so I couldn’t take a tour. Instead I spent a while looking at the massive castle, taking pictures, and doing a bit of people watching. I really liked the tigers on the sides of the castle (you can see them in the top photo), but I gotta say, I think I liked Himeji Castle better. After a bit of reflection on the past few days I returned to town for a bit more shopping and planned out the next day.

Osaka is a great place to visit in Japan, not so much because it’s an amazing city (though I really like it!) but because it’s so close to lots of other places you might want to see. Kyoto is a 45 minute train ride away, and Himeji isn’t too far either. But since I went to both of those places last time, for this trip I decided to go to Nara – home of the famous deer park.

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Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, established in the 700s. There’s a ton of history to be found in Nara, along with dozens of beautiful temples, and of course, the (in)famous deer.

Nara park has hundreds of free-roaming, somewhat domesticated deer. I’m guessing this is because they’re protected within the grounds of the park, which has several important Buddhist relics and temples. Deer have a special place in Buddhism, because the Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park, though not this particular one. So the deer are sacred and protected. You can find people selling senbei (crackers) to feed the deer all over the place, and they’ll eat them from your hands. Personally, I decided against feeding the already overfed deer, since I’ve had my fair share of interactions with sacred animals, and really didn’t feel the need (you can’t really beat being blessed by an elephant!) Plus, I’d heard stories about their persistence and bad temperament, and the signs warning of head-butting didn’t really do anything to change my mind.

But besides the deer, I found Nara to be quite a fun trip. After walking through the deer park I arrived at Todaji, the main temple. Pictures don’t really do it justice, this thing is huge, as is the giant Buddha inside.

I made my way through and around the temples, taking in the various sights. Since I was traveling solo I went at a slow pace, which was nice, and managed to see almost every place I had set out to find, except for the sacred forest, which was kinda far away.

My favorite temple in Nara had to be Kasuga Taisha. It’s known for its lanterns, both stone and brass, and I almost missed the place because I took the wrong route and skipped the massive line of stone lanterns leading to the main entrance. Luckily I saw a huge group of people and figured it was probably worth visiting, whatever it was, and found out that certain parts of the shrine were open for just one day because it was Bunka no hi, or Japanese Culture Day.

The lanterns were gorgeous, and they even had a dark room where they lit a few and let people get the full effect of what it would be like at night or for festivals. It was beautiful, and photos don’t really do it justice (or, my low-quality iphone photos anyway).

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It was finally time to head back, and as I was walking toward the train station I passed by a parade. Everyone was dressed in period clothes and at the end of the procession there was a princess. Very cool.

I bought myself some tasty donuts and coffee at the train station and started the journey back to Osaka when I decided to double check my flight time. Turns out I was wrong, and the flight was actually an hour earlier than I had thought. I panicked a little, but there wasn’t much I could do – I was already on the train to my airbnb, and I needed to get my bags.Once I actually made it back to the apartment and grabbed my stuff, I remembered that the train to the airport was not exactly fast, and it was another painful hour of “will I make it???”

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Culture Day Parade

Of course, the answer is yes, I made it just in time. After a bit of arguing with a lady at check-in about how much stuff I could carry on (I tried putting on every layer of clothing and shoving all devices into my pockets to outsmart the bag scale, but was still a little overweight), she eventually gave in and let me through, and I promised to never do it again. Really I just learned that if I look panicked enough and struggle a bit more than necessary trying to speak Japanese I can get away with anything! But really, I don’t want to do that again…

I made it onto my flight and returned home without incident. All-in-all, it was a fantastic weekend.