Yakushima: Mystical Forest Island (Part 1)

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Tired feet at the top of the trail

It’s finally April, which means a number of big things here in Japan. First, it’s almost cherry blossom (sakura) season, a frantically busy time where everyone does their best to spend as much time under cherry trees as possible. The buds haven’t bloomed just yet, but it’s coming, and everyone is feeling the need to get outside and embrace the warmer weather.

April also means the start of the new school year. Teachers have been transferred, new teachers and staff will arrive soon. The students are all off on spring break, which means most of them are actually at school for club activities or to keep studying… Yes, after two years it’s still hard for me to get over this particular culture shock.

But for me, April signaled the true beginning of the end. I have four months left in Japan, and this will be my last semester teaching. I’ve got a bucket list a mile long, with not nearly enough money or time to get through everything, but that won’t stop me from trying. And one of the biggest items on my list, “visit Yakushima” has just been checked.

Yakushima is part of the Osumi Islands of Kagoshima

Yakushima isn’t usually the first place people think of when planning a trip to Japan. To be honest, I’d never even heard of it before I moved here. But when I started researching places to go in Southern Japan, this little island quickly moved to the top of my list.

Located off the southern coast of Kyushu, Yakushima is technically part of Kagoshima prefecture. It takes about two hours to get there via high-speed ferry, and the island itself has a population of about 14,000. The draw of Yakushima has always been its dense cedar forests, full of “yakusugi,” trees which are estimated to be between 1,000 and 7,000 years old. In the past these forests were heavily logged, but since the 1960s there has been an extremely successful conservation program in place, and the forests have regained much of their grandeur.

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Welcome to Yakushima!

Annin and I set out for Yakushima early Friday morning, taking a 7:45am ferry and arriving with plenty of time to start exploring. We picked up our rental car and drove straight into the mountains for what I thought would be a light walk to acclimate ourselves. We went to Shiratani Unsuikyo, one of the most popular hiking spots on the island. It’s probably most well known as the inspiration for Miyazaki Hayao’s “Princess Mononoke,” and indeed when we spoke with a park employee at the entrance he pointed out the specific spot on the map that tourists have named the “Mononoke Forest.” Looking at the map, it became clear that I had confused a few different trails, and this was a bit more of a hike than we had intended. But we had full water bottles, hiking books and plenty of “genki” spirit, so we decided to go for it.

Shiratani Unsuikyo, despite being a popular destination, felt serene. The forests reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, with giant trees and deep green moss over everything. The trails we used were originally logging trails, made in the Edo Period (1600s – 1860s) with found stones and bits of wood. They’ve been maintained amazingly well, and the first hour and a half of the hike was smooth sailing. The final part of the trail is an added loop up to Taikoiwa, a massive rock peak from which we were told there might be a good view of the island, depending on the weather. After a very short discussion we decided we might as well give this last leg a shot, and took the steep path up.

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The view from the top

Taikoiwa did not disappoint. Despite gray skies and overall gloomy weather, the view from the top was lovely. The valley was completely filled with mist, and we felt on top of the world.

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Our hike back down was quiet, which was wonderful. There’s truly something magical about the forest in Yakushima that put me completely at ease. There were several moments along the trails where I felt the need to stop and just soak it all in. In Japanese, I think this is sometimes called “shinrin yoku” or “forest bathing.” It did indeed feel like a mental cleanse, and as we made our way back to the trailhead I felt refreshed and ready to take on whatever the weekend had in store for us.

After running into a friend of a friend on the way back to the car (it’s a small world!) we made our way to our hostel, Tomarigi. We were a bit apprehensive, since we’d booked one of the cheapest hostels on the island, but our worries disappeared as soon as we met the owner. I swear, I have never met a nicer woman in my life. She showed us around and we felt instantly at home. We planned out the next day with her help, then decided to wash up at a local hot spring followed by dinner at a surprisingly trendy cafe down the road.

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It was a great start to a fantastic trip.

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.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

Our day began with a bit of a frantic scramble for both train tickets and breakfast. While the subway system is super efficient with a train every few minutes, getting outside of the city requires a bit more planning, and the Taiwan Railway website isn’t super intuitive. We tried speaking with someone at our hostel, but unfortunately by the time we asked, the English speaking staff had already gone home. In any case, we eventually pinpointed what we hoped was the correct train, and made our way to the station early in the morning. We bought our tickets, and had half an hour to find food before our train left.

While Annin did a lot of the research into where we would go, the job of finding out what to eat fell to me. I had read about a bagel shop near the main train station and since we were already there, I was determined to find it. Bagels are a rare treat when you live in Asia, and these ones looked pretty promising. A few things I didn’t account for were 1) the fact that, as we had discovered the day before, google maps is not the most accurate in Taiwan, and 2) once we actually found the place, it took them a good 20 minutes to make my cream cheese and lox sandwich. Not great when we were short on time! They handed us our bagels just in time for us to run back to the train, and oh man they smelled so good. Sadly, eating on public transportation is sort of looked down on, so we didn’t actually get to eat them for an hour and a half. It was pretty rough.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

In any case, we took two trains: Taipei Main Station to Ruifeng, then Ruifeng to Sandiaoling. The trains were really crowded, but only one other group got off at our station, and they seemed to have done so by mistake. We took a few minutes at the station to eat our bagels, which were just as delicious as I’d hoped, and set off to find the waterfall hike.

The hike we chose, Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike, is a bit off the beaten path. Most tourists opt for the much easier Shi Fen Waterfall, which is sometimes called the “Niagara Falls of Taiwan.” That hike is much shorter, and closer to a train station. But we were looking for a challenge, and were delighted to find that there was almost nobody on the trail, whereas the whole crowd on our train was likely headed to Shi Fen.. We probably ran into a total of 10 people over the course of 3 hours or so.

The trail took us through a lush tropical forest, over two rope bridges, up a particularly steep set of stairs, and past three lovely waterfalls. I think that the water was a bit low due to the time of year, but we still thought the falls were beautiful, and the surrounding forest was spectacular. I would highly recommend the hike to anyone visiting Taiwan.

But as beautiful and peaceful as the hike was, it was also incredibly hot and humid. We really underestimated the weather, and neither of us packed quite enough water. By the tail end of the trail we were pretty thirsty, and a bit worried about finding drinks. While Taipei has a convenience store on every corner, the hike was really in the middle of nowhere. From the trailhead we had seen a sleepy little town, but nothing that resembled a store from the outside. Once we made our way off the trail and into town, it didn’t look very promising, and I was feeling more than a bit dehydrated. Just as I was starting to worry, we stumbled across a hotel with some tables set outside. The owner was chatting with someone, and we tried to ask about water. Of course, we don’t speak Mandarin, and she definitely didn’t speak English, but holding up the empty water bottles seemed to get the message across. She said something and brought us two bottles of homemade watermelon juice, which was close enough for us. Now, I’m not usually a watermelon fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything as good as this watermelon juice. It was pure heaven, and the woman was clearly pleased we liked it so much. Once we’d paid for the juice she brought out a kettle and refilled our water bottles for free. We left with quenched thirsts and a serious appreciation for her kindness.IMG_7535

As we walked back to the train, we decided that rather than continue on to Jiu Feng, a nearby village, we would head back into the city to change and have a chill evening. We were exhausted and more than a little sweaty after the hot hike. And the universe seemed to approve of our choice, since right as we made the decision the sky opened up and let out a tropical downpour. Now we really wanted to change, and so we took the train back into Taipei.IMG_7433

The rest of our evening was centered around food. We sought out a famous beef noodle soup restaurant and followed that with a long-anticipated treat – mango shaved ice. It’s just as tasty as it looks, being made up of mostly condensed milk and fruit, and a pat of panna cotta on top. Fabulous!

IMG_7434After eating we stopped by Longshan Temple, an old confucian temple near our hostel. It was a beautiful place, but what really struck me was the number of people out playing Pokemon Go. I haven’t played the game myself, and don’t really plan on playing, but it seemed such a shame to me that in such a beautiful and culturally important place, people were all staring at their phones. But I suppose to each his or her own.

We rounded out the evening with another trip to The 58 Bar and called it a night. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.

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.

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Statues in front of Taipei Main Station

Taiwan is a place I’ve had on my “must-visit” list for quite a while now. An island off the coast of China, Taiwan has a complicated history and lots of fascinating culture. To seriously oversimplify, Before WWII Japan occupied Taiwan and used it as a Japanese colony, and after WWII it was “returned” to the Republic of China (ROC). Then, when the communist party ousted the ROC a faction of nationalists, known as the Kuomintang, fled China and took over Taiwan, using it as the base for the ROC, which they claimed was the true/rightful government of China. What followed was, as I said, a very complicated and often bloody history. Today Taiwan maintains a tenuous relationship with China, one I cannot even begin to explain because I don’t entirely understand it myself. There are also remnants of Japanese occupation all over the place, and I remarked many times that Taipei felt a bit like a grittier version of Tokyo. And to be clear, I view that as a positive thing. Japan is awesome, easy to live in, and very safe, but I’ve found that I miss the hustle of a place like Can Tho. There’s an energy to a place that’s still growing and developing, and Japan sometimes lacks this, in my opinion.

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Taiwan is known for delicious food, but I’m not so sure about this place…

In any event, Taiwan has seen a serious boost in tourism in recent years, and it’s developed a bit of a name for itself among those who are interested in traveling within Asia. The food scene is legendary, and while the capital city of Taipei is certainly just as urban as Osaka or Singapore, the surrounding area remains far less crowded, with gorgeous coastline rock formations and tons of hiking trails.

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Ximending at night

With all of this in mind I set off to meet Annin in Taipei. Upon arrival it was clear that Taipei would not be so difficult to navigate – signage in the airport was clear, people were super friendly, and transportation was easily accessible. I took a bus to the center of town,  bought myself an MRT pass, and made my way to the hostel. We chose to stay in Ximending, a shopping district which seems to be the center of youth culture in Taipei. There were hundreds of shops blaring music and blasting air conditioning into the hot summer streets, and the area was hopping well into the night. Coming from my sleepy little town in Japan, I was both surprised and thrilled to find myself once again in such an urban setting. Looking back on the trip I’m not sure I’d choose to stay in Ximending again, but the proximity to the subway and low price of the hostel were both pretty nice for a short trip.

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In front of the National Palace Museum

On our first full day in Taipei it was a bit overcast, so we decided to check out the National Palace Museum. This museum holds the largest collection of Chinese art in the world, and is probably one of the most visited places in Taipei for tourists. Despite the weather and summer travel season, we lucked out and it wasn’t too crowded. The museum’s collections are really amazing, though we somehow missed the two most famous pieces. Regardless, we both walked away feeling much more cultured, and also ravenously hungry. We decided to try for one of the city’s most famous dishes – xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings.

The restaurant we tried to go to initially, the original din tai fung, had a 40 minute wait, which we weren’t quite up for. So we walked around the corner and found another highly-recommended restaurant around the corner, where we were seated immediately. The food was delicious! We ate xiaolong bao, steamed pork buns, seasonal veggies, and shumai. All of it was amazing, and I was in heaven.

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A mural on the side of a bubble tea shop that caught my eye

After our super filling lunch we decided to stay in the city and find the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. We wandered for quite a while circling a university because Google Maps said it was somewhere inside. After almost half an hour of this we realized that the building on the map was not in fact the famous memorial, but the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Gymnasium. No wonder the students were giving us strange looks…. Moral of the story is, don’t trust Google Maps abroad.

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Delicious tea and scones at Smith&Hsu

Anyway, after failing to find the memorial we instead made our way towards Taipei 101, which at one point was the tallest building in the world.  On our way we happened upon a fancy tea shop called Smith & Hsu, where we had the most amazing tea and scones. It was a much-needed pick-me-up after our memorial search, and we were both super happy to get a break from the heat. I had read about the shop on Lady Iron Chef, one of my favorite sources for food recommendations in Asia (I have yet to be disappointed by any of their recommendations). The atmosphere was sleek and modern, and the tea selection was really impressive!

After our tea break we walked in and around Taipei 101, though we decided against a trip to the top. It’s a pretty pricey elevator ticket, and we both felt that we’d visited enough tall towers to have a good idea of what we would see. Far more interesting to me was the Eslite bookstore around the corner, which had a larger selection of English language books than I’d seen anywhere else in Asia. Somehow I was able to limit myself to a single collection of Ray Bradbury short stories (probably because I was doing this trip carry-on only), but it was tough. Honestly, the store was so nice I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a highlight of the trip!

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Selfies are a struggle. But hey, look – Taipei 101!

By the time we finished up at Taipei 101 it was time for another meal, and so we hopped on the subway and went to Yong Kang for some street food. We had the most amazing scallion pancakes at a tiny shop with a line around the block. They were super simple, but possibly the best thing I ate in Taipei. Part of that might have been due to the setting. We bought our food at the stall and sat in a nearby park to eat, which is something I did a lot in Vietnam, but which is seen as a bit strange in Japan (unless you’re at a festival). I had really missed the laid back feeling of hanging out in a park at night, eating cheap street food and just people watching.

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Delicious scallion pancakes

 

And finally it was time to head for home, but not before a drink! It turns out there’s a really cool bar in Ximending that only sells Taiwanese beer. I think it’s owned by some expats, but the sheer number of locally made beers was really impressive. There were lots of interesting options, and they were nice enough to give recommendations, since I know almost nothing about beer. So we settled in for a drink and watched a bit of Olympic archery (which was far more interesting than I anticipated).

All in all it was a solid start to the trip, and I’ll tell you all about the rest of our time in Taiwan next week.

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Locally brewed beers at The 58 Bar

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.

Matsuri

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Okage Matsuri with friends. Meagan dressed us all in yukata!

First and foremost the above-mentioned festivals, known in Japanese as “matsuri.” They’re everywhere, and most of them follow the same format of performance, street food, fireworks. But with a bit of digging you can find some really interesting matsuri, since they often celebrate a specific event, product, holiday or crop. In Miyakonojo we kicked off the matsuri season with the Okage Matsuri – giant lanterns were lit and carried in procession, taiko performances were held at a local shrine, and it was generally just good fun. Lanterns are always a good bet for a pretty night out, and you can find lots of lantern festivals, going into fall as well. There’s also the Takanabe lantern festival in October, where local kids decorate paper lanterns, and if you show up early you can help light them. The highlight of the Takanabe festival is their “river of light,” with bamboo lanterns set up to look like a flowing river down the hill. It’s gorgeous.

Wear a Yukata

If you get a chance, wearing a yukata to a summer festival is a cool way to engage in the local culture. While there has been a lot of discussion in the US about cultural appropriation when it comes to clothing, while in Japan it’s a bit of a different story. My Japanese friends and colleagues were thrilled to hear I had an interest in kimono, and whole events are organized around dressing foreigners up. Of course, you should always be respectful and try to learn about the piece of culture you are participating in.

Beer Gardens

Spending time outdoors is a summer must, and with the Japanese heat it’s usually best done at night, preferably with a cool drink in hand. Beer gardens abound in Japan, and are usually set up as “nomihoudai” or all-you-can-drink. Make a reservation, and show up with your friends or coworkers prepared to have a good time. One of my favorite summer memories this year was of a night at a beer garden with my Japanese teacher and her other students (my friends and fellow ALTs). The beer garden was on the roof of a hotel, so we had a lovely view of the sunset over town. And our teacher was super prepared – she brought silly games and punishments for losing, such as silly straw glasses and fake mustaches. It was such a fun night!

Fireworks

Japan is all about the fireworks! All festivals will have at least a small fireworks display, and it’s perfectly legal to buy your own. On a few occasions I went out and lit fireworks with friends, and it was always a good time. Plus, it’s a great way to amaze most international friends – fireworks (even sparklers) are illegal in many parts of the world!

See Some Nature

It’s summer, so you have to get outside! Japan, as always, is all about seasonal flowers, and so there are often gardens set up for viewing. Early summer is hydrangeas, and there’s a full hydrangea park in my area. Grab your camera and picnic gear and go enjoy some beautiful scenery.

Camping is also a great option. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m planning a camping trip for next month to tie in with a local fire festival. Last year the festival was rained out, so fingers crossed I get to see it this year!

Take a Roadtrip

If you have access to a car, Japan is green and gorgeous in the summer, and a roadtrip is a great way to see the countryside. Seriously, Japan has so many vivid shades of green I’d never seen before, it is stunning.

Go Swimming

A summer classic just about everywhere. Japan being an island, you can usually get to the beach if that’s what you want, but my favorite swimming hole is Sarugajo Gorge, over in Kagoshima. It takes a bit of a hike to get to the swimming area, but the water is clear and the area is gorgeous. I’ve heard from several ALTs that this is their favorite place in all of Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

And that’s about it. With so many great options and only so many weekends, the hardest part of summer is finding the time to do everything. I’ve still got a few weeks left, and I intend to do my best to get out and do as much as I can before the weather turns cold again.

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)

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.

Lanterns, Revisited

Lanterns in Nagasaki
Lanterns in Nagasaki

[Note: I wrote this up almost a month ago, but somehow never got around to posting it. Apologies for the delay!]

It’s amazing to think that a little over a year ago I embarked on my first solo trip. It feels like ages ago. A few weeks ago it was once again the lunar new year, celebrated in Vietnam as “Tet” and other parts of Asia as “Chinese New Year.” Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, sees the New Year as one of the most important holidays, but moved the date in line with the Gregorian calendar in the 1800s. But while China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan use the same calendar these days as well, the lunar calendar is still used for holidays and religious celebrations (just like in Judaism, though they do disagree on when the new year is).

While Japan as a whole doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year anymore (though they do have holidays that still work on a lunar calendar) there is one part of the country that does: Nagasaki. The port city of Nagasaki was the country’s most prominent center of trade, and was in fact the only city that remained open to outsiders during Japan’s period of isolation. Because of its proximity to the rest of East Asia, and its status as a gateway to the outside world, it has long catered to outside influences in a way the rest of Japan still often resists. The population of foreigners and people of foreign descent is also much higher in Nagasaki than other areas. And it’s for this reason that they hold a Chinese New Year Lantern Festival every year.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

When my friends told me about the festival I pretty much decided on the spot that I would go. I loved the feeling of Tet and Chinese New Year in other parts of the world, and missed that atmosphere living in Japan. I also heard good things about the lanterns themselves, which turned out to be really beautiful. In fact, they were very similar to those that the Missouri Botanical Gardens used during their own lantern festival.

In any case, I booked a hotel back in November (Japan is not a great place for last minute travel decisions, especially if there’s an event) and invited my neighbor. When the date of the festival got closer, my neighbor said she couldn’t go, but luckily the festival is a popular event, and it wasn’t hard to convince other friends to go.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

So on Thursday, February 11 I drove up to Nagasaki with my friends Mei and Eddy. We had the Thursday off for a national holiday and decided to take the Friday as well and make it a long weekend. Nagasaki is around a four or five hour drive from where I live, but to hear my coworkers talk you’d think it was more like 10 or 12. I’ve learned that Americans tend to think a lot less of long car trips, since our country is massive and we can basically drive across the whole thing (and many of us do). I mean, Nagasaki is about as far from Miyakonojo as Kansas City is from St. Louis, and I’d barely consider that a road trip. But Japan, being a series of not-so-big islands, really isn’t as on board with the road trip idea in general. Also, speed limits are waaaaay lower in Japan than in the US, and highways are almost all toll roads, which all serves as a bit of a barrier for travel. Regardless, we were determined to make it work.

After a full morning of driving, with a necessary gas/ice cream stop or two along the way, we made it to our hostel in Nagasaki. If you’re a traveler of the hostel-going variety and find yourself in Nagasaki, I’d definitely recommend AKARI, which was right on the edge of Chinatown, walking distance from all of the excitement. We unloaded and chatted with the very friendly staff before setting out to see the lanterns for ourselves.

Small lanterns lined the streets and shopping arcades, and larger lantern installations sat on street corners and along the river that ran on the outskirts of Chinatown. We made our way through the crowds and happened upon a parade. There were dragon dancers and children playing instruments, and we decided to follow them. They led us to a stage, where we learned there would be Lion Dancing. We settled in and watched a really fun show.

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If you’ve never seen Chinese Lion Dancing before, it’s pretty amazing. Each “lion” is made up of two people, wearing a joined costume. One person mans the head and front legs, while the other plays the back legs and tail. This may sound like the old joke of a two-person donkey costume, but there’s really no comparison. The two dancers move together to give the illusion that the lion is one animal, and they dance, jump, and run round the stage and through the crowd. The costume has puppet components as well, and the lions bat their eyes, waggle their tails and sometimes “eat” gifts thrown in their mouths by audience members. Below is a short clip of a professional lion dance, which is definitely a step above what I saw, but you’ll get the idea.

After the dance we ate a bit of street food and continued to wander and take pictures. Somehow in our wandering we realized it was late, and most of the restaurants were closing. We couldn’t make up our minds about what to eat, so we ended up with a conbini meal. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world. We decided that the next day we would plan out our meals better, and went to bed.

Day two was mostly driving around the outskirts of the city. My friend Mei had developed an interest in kimono, so we spent the day in second hand stores looking for kimonos and the various accessories that go with them. She even convinced me to buy one or two things, which I have no idea when or where I’ll ever use, but they’re really beautiful. I’ve given some thought to taking up sewing, because used kimono are so cheap, and the fabrics used are just gorgeous…. Every time I see one in a shop I can’t help but picture how it’d look as a skirt, or a dress…. but I haven’t worked up the motivation to really pursue this interest.

In any case, after a full day of shopping we found ourselves in Sasebo, a town north of Nagasaki near a US military base. While military bases are often controversial, they do have one uncontested positive point – the plethora of restaurants that pop up around them. We ate an amazing Mexican dinner, and I remembered exactly why I missed cheese so much.

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On our third day in Nagasaki we decided to walk around the city. Nagasaki has a fair amount of tourist attractions if you’re historically or religiously minded, but my friends had been there before and already done most of them. They insisted that they’d go again if I wanted, but they didn’t sound like the idea was super appealing. Instead we wandered the streets and found cool shops, snacks and art, which is pretty much my idea of a good day anyway. We also stopped outside of Dejima, the island where the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of isolation. It was tiny, and honestly not much to look at. The ramen shop we found down the street was much more interesting, but it’s hard to compete with a bone marrow and chicken skin broth.

In the evening we drove to the neighboring prefecture, Saga, to check out a lantern festival. Saga is known for its ceramics and massive kilns. In fact, when we showed up we realized that it was a ceramic lantern festival, and the lanterns lined a path up the hill around a very large walk-in kiln. They had set up a cafe inside the kiln just for the festival, so we went on in and drank some coffee. It was an interesting experience, but once we went back outside it had started to rain, so the festival was a bit of a bust.

On our way back to Nagasaki for the night Eddy’s friend contacted him and invited us to dinner back in Sasebo, this time for Thai. We made our way over and had yet another fantastic meal, at a restaurant I was sort of glad we went to at night, since it sat right on a cliff. I’m sure it was a gorgeous view, but I didn’t mind not seeing the drop.

The next day it was time to leave. We packed up and checked out, then made our way to our final destination for the weekend, a massive field of plum trees. February is when the plum blossoms bloom in Japan, and while they are planted in parks and gardens all over, this place was actually a plum farm. There were thousands of trees in various stages of bloom, mostly with white flowers but with a few pink and red throughout. The really lovely thing about plum blossoms, called “ume” in Japanese, is their smell. They have a lovely cinnamon scent, which a friend described to me as “exactly like big red gum.” Standing in a whole grove of them was fabulous.

After snapping some photos and breathing in the cinnamon smell, we left the farm and headed for home. Looking back, I’m glad I made the somewhat impulsive decision to go for this trip. It was a lot of fun, and a great chance to see a unique part of Japan.