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. Continue reading

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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

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

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.