A Thirsty Waterfall Hike and Some Magical Watermelon Juice – Day 2 in Taiwan

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When planning our trip to Taiwan, Annin and I were both set on getting out of the city for at least a day. Taiwan being a fairly small place, it’s known mostly for its major city, Taipei. And while we were interested in exploring the city, we had also heard some pretty great things about the Taiwanese countryside. If you travel just an hour outside of the city, you have easy access to some gorgeous mountain hiking and beautiful coastline rock formations. After a bit of research Annin found a particularly appealing waterfall hike, and so on Friday morning we set out for Sandiaoling. Continue reading

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A Trip to Taipei

Summer in Japan is a great time for festivals and fun, as noted in my last entry, but it’s also a great time to get away from Japan. Students in Japan don’t have quite the same summer break as we do in the states, but there is definitely more time off over the summer than at other times of year. Sadly, this time off is mostly just for students, not teachers, but with a bit of creative scheduling I was able to plan a trip to Taiwan with my frequent travel buddy, Annin. Continue reading

How to Spend a Summer in Japan

The start of my second year in Japan marks the end of my first full Japanese summer. Summer is a fantastic time to be in Japan (despite the high temperatures and killer humidity) as it’s the height of festival season. Everywhere in Japan, from tiny towns to major cities, has its own festival, and if I had the energy I could spend every weekend watching fireworks and eating festival food. It’s a nice change from winter, which gets pretty quiet as everyone hides inside under their kotatsu.

Since I’ve only done this once, I’m no expert, but in my experience I’ve learned there are a few key aspects to having a great summer in Japan. Below I’ll walk you through my list of things to do for summer. Continue reading

To the US and Back Again

Hello everyone! I’m sorry I’ve been seriously slacking on my updates. When life falls into its normal routine I run out of steam to write, and of course  I forget that what I see as everyday occurrences might actually be interesting to everyone back home. But now the weather’s warming up and we’re approaching festival season again, so hopefully I’ll have plenty to write about in the coming months.

In the meantime, I’m back from a quick trip home to the US, where I actually saw many of my usual readers, which was great. While I had originally planned on going to Indonesia with my friend Selina, a few things changed back home and I decided that it would be a good idea to use that rare stretch of time off to spend time with family instead.

In truth I was a bit worried about going home. I talk a big game about my love of travel and adventure, and I know I make it sound like I never want to go back, but that’s simply not true. While I spent most of my adolescence dreaming about escaping St. Louis, once that actually happened I started to realize that home wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, every time I come home I find new things to love, and it becomes harder and harder to leave again. That doesn’t mean I’ve decided to move home forever, but I’ve accepted that St. Louis is home, and going home is nice sometimes. And while I’ve generally enjoyed my time here in Japan, the month or so prior to my trip was a bit of a struggle. I was really worried that if I came home, I wouldn’t be able to return to Japan with quite the right amount of “genki” spirit.

I’m relieved to say that wasn’t the case. Sitting here at my desk I’m actually doing a lot better than I was before I took my trip. Reminding myself of what awaits me when I eventually come home was nice, and sort of helped me reframe my thinking about the things I’ve found difficult in Japan. Of course I’ve always known this wasn’t permanent, and that I should appreciate living here while I can, but that’s not the sort of idea that’s top of mind when I can’t find decent cheese in the grocery store, or when walking into a shop causes the clerks to panic and suddenly disappear. These things will still annoy and upset me to varying degrees, as will all of the cultural blunders and miscommunications at work and with friends, but at least for now it’s not so bad.

And honestly, the month I’ve had since returning to Japan has been pretty good. I’ve had enough classes to be busy but not overwhelmed, spent time catching up with friends near and far, checked out some new places (photos to come) and have generally had a very chill time. As summer approaches my days will soon get significantly sweatier and possibly busier, with speech contest season on the horizon, but for now, life’s good.

So thank you to everyone who took the time to see me while I was home. The food was great and the company was even better. I miss you all and promise to be back again before too long. But until then, it’s time to soak up as much Japan as I can.

Customer Service and School Dumpster Diving

I know it’s been quite a while since I wrote last but I have a (not so) quick story today since this literally just happened to me and I am still in a bit of disbelief.

So everyone’s heard of Japan’s legendary customer service, how the customer is god and employees will bend over backwards to improve your shopping experience. Everyone shouts “Irasshaimase!” when you enter and thanks you profusely for buying even the smallest thing. So far I’ve found this really helpful at best, and at worst mildly overwhelming, but today just blew me away.

This morning I went to the post office to send a package to a friend in the US. Communicating was a bit of a struggle, and I had a feeling the woman who was helping me didn’t quite know what she was doing, since at one point she told me I could leave and I pointed out that I hadn’t given her an address yet. So it’s no surprise that over the course of the interaction we misunderstood each other several times. She wrapped the fragile gift in a sheet of plastic and was going to send it off when I stopped her and told her I wanted a box. I bought the box, we filled out the forms again, and she had me pay for shipping again. I thought the shipping price went up due to the dimensions of the box, but since it was still under $20 I didn’t really think too much about it. I really wanted to stay and see the package through to the very end of its wrapping and form-filling, but I had to get back to school and decided to leave it to fate.

I got back to school and went about my day. Met with a student for lunch, graded papers, etc. After lunch I gave the junior high students’ practical speaking tests and when I got back to the teachers’ room I was told to go down to the office, someone from the post office wanted to talk to me.

I figured there must be something wrong with my package and someone had called (actually, come to think of it I have no idea how they found my place of work….) but I went downstairs and the woman who had helped me earlier was there. We struggled through another conversation and I understood that she had charged me twice for the same shipping, and wanted to refund the first transaction. I said that sounded great, and she said she needed a receipt.

Normally this would have been fine, since I keep all of my receipts to record them in my budgeting spreadsheet. But I had entered them in as soon as I got back to school, and thrown them away right after. And naturally cleaning time had already happened, so the students collected the garbage. I tried to explain that I no longer had the receipts, and she looked panicked. I told her I didn’t care about the $3 and she said no, she couldn’t go back to work without the receipt, was there any way to find it?

We had a circular conversation in my broken Japanese for a few minutes, with me feeling worse and worse for this poor woman, who apparently could in no way resume her normal day until she returned with a receipt in hand, until I eventually asked one of the Japanese teachers for help. She basically repeated the same things I’d said, and when the woman kept asking if there was any way to find the receipt, we went up to see if by any chance the garbage hadn’t been thrown out. It was raining today and sometimes the boys who are in charge of taking out the garbage get lazy. We found a bag of trash and took a quick look, but didn’t see a receipt.

When we told her it wasn’t there she looked like she was on the verge of tears. We stood awkwardly in silence for a few minutes while she tried to figure out what to do. Eventually she gave me the $3 refund and a pack of tissues (businesses here hand them out as promotional items all the time) and said something about coming back tomorrow. The teacher and I then went upstairs and she suggested we check the garbage again.

We picked through the garbage by hand, piece by piece, until we somehow, miraculously found the receipt. The teacher called the post office and I took it down to the front office so the woman could come by and pick it up later.

The whole exchange has left me utterly confused. This is truly something that would NEVER happen in the US, and my American mind couldn’t find any way to make sense of how much time and effort was spent (on all sides) refunding $3. Japan is a strange and fascinating place.

Month One – A Quick Summary

Hello everyone!

Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip
Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip

I’m so so sorry I’ve neglected my blog since arriving in Japan. It’s been a fantastically busy month, and every time I’ve sat down to write, something fun has popped up and I couldn’t say no. So, while I’d love to go into detail on all of my adventures thus far, I’ve decided to at least start with a quick summary and lots of photos!

Bonchi Matsuri

Ready to dance!
Ready to dance!

Before I’d even left St. Louis, I signed up to dance with the Miyakonojo International Association at Bonchi Matsuri, the city’s largest summer festival. I showed up to city hall on Saturday afternoon and was promptly helped into a yukata (a summer kimono). The process was fascinating, and there’s no way I could have done it on my own.

All dressed up in a yukata
All dressed up in a yukata

Once we were all dressed it was time to learn the dance! For the festival, lots of different groups around town each learned a different dance to the same song, and we all performed together on the city streets. In what I would learn is typical matsuri fashion, the streets were lined with food stalls, offering all sorts of food on sticks, shaved ice, ice cream, and tons of other tasty treats. These proved to be very distracting during the actual dance, when after 20 minutes we all wanted to take off the tightly-bound yukatas and gorge on yakitori (chicken on a stick) and nikumaki onigiri (fried meat rice balls. These turned out to be delicious). But somehow we made it through the dance without messing up too badly, and were able to change back into our normal clothes for the rest of the night. If you want to see us dancing, click here for the video!

Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)
Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)

The evening wrapped up with a fireworks show, because Japan loves fireworks.

Himawari Matsuri (Sunflower festival)

Look at all the sunflowers!
Look at all the sunflowers! (photo by Meagan)

The following weekend I set out with some friends to check out the Takanabe Himawari Matsuri. The entire event was essentially a giant field (usually used for farming squash, I think) was covered in thousands (possibly millions) of sunflowers, and somewhere in the middle they set up observation decks and food stalls. That’s basically all it was, but it was pretty stunning to look at. We also quickly discovered that one of the stalls sold authentic Chinese food (the owners were from Taiwan) which was amazing. While I have yet to grow tired of Japanese food, my companions were entering into their 4th and 5th years in Japan, and were overjoyed.

The whole gang - all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo
The whole gang – all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo (Photo by Eddy)

Continuing the foreign food trend, we joined up with another group of festival-going JETs and stopped by a Thai restaurant in Miyazaki City on the way home. It was delicious, and it was nice to learn that Miyazaki has a decent selection of foreign foods, since I know come winter I’ll be missing certain foods.

Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)
Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)

Miyazaki Orientation

Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???
Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???

While not quite as exciting as the previously mentioned festivals, the official orientation in Miyazaki City was a big part of my first month, and it gave me a chance to see a bit of the capital of Miyazaki. As with Tokyo Orientation it was three days of lectures and seminars, but this time much smaller, and with a bit more focus on what we will actually face here in Miyazaki. I enjoyed trying out local restaurants during lunch time and spent one night in the city with friends, which was a lot of fun. It was also my first time using trains in Japan, and the experience proved to be very easy and comfortable. Sadly, trains aren’t as convenient here on Kyushu as they are in other parts of Japan, but I’m sure I’ll use them at least a little in the coming year.

Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)
Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)

Kumamoto Day trip

Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto
Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto

The weekend following orientation I went to Kumamoto City with two friends who were meeting up with someone visiting from Tokyo. Kumamoto isn’t too far away, and turned out to be a much bigger city than Miyakonojo. We went to a temple with 500 Buddhas, which was apparently known as the location where a famous book was written. We didn’t really know much about that, but it was pretty.

Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle

Then it was on to Kumamoto Castle. It was hot and muggy and there were tons of people around, so we decided against going into the actual castle and instead went to the nearby shrine. Turns out that’s the best place to get photos of the castle anyway, and far less crowded.

Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle's mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)
Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle’s mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)

We wrapped up the evening by walking around the city center, and I had my first experience with “purikura” photo booths. I gotta say, I think these things are kinda scary. The idea is that they take photos and automatically make them glamour shots by whitening your skin, enlarging and brightening your eyes, and generally making you look like an alien. But it was a lot of fun, and I’m sure it won’t be my last time.

"Purikura" falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it's all good fun
“Purikura” falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it’s all good fun

Day Trip to Aya

Aya Suspension Bridge
Aya Suspension Bridge

For the last weekend of the month I had planned on going to the Cape Toi Fire Festival, but sadly the event was rained out. Instead a group of friends took the day to drive up to Aya, a mountain town nearby. It’s famous for a massive suspension bridge between two mountains, and a castle.

First up we visited the bridge, and it was amazing to look at. I’m proud to say I walked all the way across and back, and rewarded myself for the feat with mango soft serve on the way out. One thing I’ve recently discovered is that Japan has pretty fantastic soft serve ice cream, and I foresee this becoming a bit of a problem…

Aya Castle

After the bridge we went to Aya Castle, which had a small museum inside and offered a nice view of the town from the top.

Group photo at the castle
Group photo at the castle (photo by Maegan)
The view from Aya Castle
The view from Aya Castle

We ended the day with burgers back in Miyakonojo, at this adorable diner. The owner is apparently obsessed with American diner culture, and makes a mean burger. I’ll definitely be back!

Look at that beautiful American-style burger!
Look at that beautiful American-style burger!

That’s about what I did for my first month in Japan. I’ll write more about where I live, what it’s like getting around, and what the food is like in a later post. A quick word about my school though, because I have been asked about this recently. Student privacy is taken very seriously in Japan, and as such I will not be posting photos of my students, school, or anything else that could be viewed as an invasion of privacy by the school. Toto, we’re not in Vietnam anymore.

Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto
Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto