Stepping off my own beaten path

Today, I took a new path. I blazed a trail into the unknown and learned a very valuable lesson along the way: don’t leave your apartment without your keys. Because your boyfriend will leave and lock the door behind him.

As a result, I ended my workday at 4 o’clock, daydreamed about being home and on my couch in the A/C, and made it all the way to just outside my apartment building when I realized I didn’t have a key to get in, and R wouldn’t be home for six hours.

Fortunately, his work is only about a thirty-minute mixture of walking and riding the train away. In a direction I’ve never had reason to go before.

Now, you might think that living in a foreign country always feels… foreign. Or maybe you think that after a short while it all becomes commonplace. Both of those are true. The train ride to work for me feels as familiar as it does to any other commuter. Walking around my local park or supermarket is as normal as wandering around the small town I grew up in. But as soon as I step off the path that I travel every day, that’s when I re-enter the foreign country and remember, HOLY CRAP I LIVE IN JAPAN.

So taking that new train to that new city, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it was enough to shake me up a little and remind me that there’s so much more out there that I haven’t seen, even as close as a ten-minute train ride away.

Which makes me wonder, how much did I miss when I was living back in Kansas? How many fascinating places did I not go because it all felt so normal to me? It doesn’t feel so normal from a thousand miles away.

A quick reminder that it’s always good to step outside your comfort zone.

 

Japanese phrase of the day: ぬるまゆにつかる

“neh-roo-mah-yoo nee tsu-ka-roo” – to avoid a challenge (stay in your comfort zone)

 

 

 

 

Discounted Sushi and Alpaca Wine

I. Adore. Supermarkets.

In Kansas, after I finished college, I lived about a five minute drive from Walmart, and was at least ten minutes further from an actual grocery store. This resulted in a whole lot of frozen food being put in my cart, with a couple boxes of pasta also being a staple in my grocery list. In my small hometown, there were only two grocery store options, and both offered limited options on fresh foods (and also cereal, which my parents and I both agreed was a top-5 item). As a result, I remember way too many weekends of driving to a bigger city thirty miles away, helping my mom pack an entire cart full of groceries that were supposed to last a week or two, and then having to take four or five trips in and out of the house to unload the bags from the car, even when we enlisted my father’s help.

In Japan, there’s a supermarket a three-minute walk from my apartment. It has vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, and fish I didn’t know could be eaten outside of 5-star restaurants. If you show up after nine, the day’s sushi will be marked down and you can get about ten different kinds of fish in one bentou for the equivalent of about four bucks. It’s magical.

As a result, I make homemade meals 9/10 times, using fresh ingredients rather than frozen or non-perishable. Meat comes in smaller portions, so I don’t have to plan multiple meals using one container of beef or chicken. Produce tends to have the faces of the farmers who grew it right on the label. And there’s about ten times as many alcohol choices than I’m used to back home (possibly because everyone walks to the store since it’s so close, possibly because casual drinking doesn’t have much of a stigma, or maybe because most young people here are too honest to buy alcohol when they’re underage) and best believe I take full advantage of that. My interior decorating now includes an entrance hallway lined with about 20 different kinds of empty wine bottles. I do have to go to the supermarket much more often now – about every other day – but it’s so much more convenient than back home.

Casual observation of the day.

The Realization

I wrote this quite a while ago, after hearing a story about a man who died trying to save fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual story; the hero who gives his life for others during a war. But this particular news article, it made me wonder. What was the man thinking? What would have happened if he had lived?

 

“A flamingo.” Coffee nearly flies out of my nose and I cough, trying to prevent myself from choking on the liquid mixed with laughter.

“Any animal in the world, and you choose a bright pink bird?” I wipe my mouth and look with incredulity at the man next to me. Corporal Anderson Tyler is a bull of a man, with the arms of a gorilla, the sturdiness of an elephant, and the unwavering focus of a viper. He sits next to me, cutting pieces off of a chunk of wood. I can’t tell what it is yet, but I know it will soon come to life as all the others had.

“Yeah, but it’s like the most popular bird. It’s the bird all the humans copy and all the other birds want to be.”

I nod. “So you want to be the Homecoming King of aves.”

He chuckles at himself but shrugs. “I guess that’s a yes.” I laugh and sip at the rest of my coffee. We sit in a large tent, soldiers and corporals and lieutenants buzzing all around us. Many of them are discussing the new rumors of the enemy that had reached camp, or trying to gain the eye of the general who is newly in attendance, but Corporal Tyler and I prefer to hang back and watch until given orders.

I lean back in my seat, eyeing the new general. He doesn’t look like much, just a thin man with a thick beard, but the stories I’ve heard of him are anything but dismissible.

Something dark moves in the corner of my vision. I turn my head and look to the opening near me. A man appears, one I knew well. He is a native, a translator, and his name is Hamad Usain. I look down at his hand. He sees me watching and closes his eyes, then his hands make a quick movement and he tosses what he’d been holding into the tent. It rolls to a stop just ten feet in front of me.

One second. Shock registers. I’ve worked with Hamad for three years and had never seen this coming. I know the names of his three little girls. He knows the name of my mother and the story of my first day in kindergarten. He’s played baseball with Corporal Tyler and several of the other other men in the tent. He loves his country and his god and peace.

Two seconds. I find myself on my feet. Everyone is shouting now, backing away and turning around. My sergeant stands in front of the general, attempting to shield him. I consider throwing it, but we are surrounded on all sides by soldiers and tents, going on for several layers, far outside my capabilities of throwing, no matter how many times it has been suggested that I be the pitcher.

Three seconds. Suddenly, I’m not on my feet. I’m curled up on my side near the front of the tent, squeezing my body as tightly as possible around a ball barely the size of my fist. I imagine my abs, my stomach, my spine, see in my mind how they will be ripped apart in milliseconds and I hope that it will be enough.

Four seconds. I see my mother. I see my sister and her son, lifted onto the shoulders of my father. I see the girl I’d kissed just days before leaving the U.S. I see the faces of men, women, and children, covered in dirt and cloth and blood. I see the gun that never leaves my side. I see the dream I’ve had since preschool of swimming through the Great Barrier Reef. I see the class I’d taken after high school, the one I’d liked but hadn’t studied hard enough for. I see the things I had done instead of studying. I see my favorite bar and my favorite burger. I see the piece of wood Corporal Tyler had been cutting. I see the general. I see the U.S. flag hanging above him. I see my second grade teacher, the one who first taught me about the army. I see rain. I see the picture of Hamad’s daughters. And then I realize: I don’t want to die.

Five seconds. I squeeze my body even tighter, squeeze my eyelids closed until I see stars. And then it feels like my whole body is on fire and I think, This isn’t so bad. I had thought dying would hurt more.

And then I realize that the roaring in my ears isn’t death. It’s life. I hold my position, wondering why the grenade hasn’t gone off yet, wondering just how long I’ll have to wait to die. I don’t want to die. I swallow. I count to three. I slow my breath. This is impossible. I count to three again. This doesn’t happen. I count to ten and I almost laugh, realizing the magic of reaching the number. I hear voices, at first garbled and then clear. “You’re okay. You’re alive.” I open my eyes. And nothing is the same.

Here Goes

I thought about it, but I didn’t really take it seriously before I moved: the fact that moving meant I could start a new life. I could shorten my name. I could make new friends. I could start new hobbies. And I did.

“My name’s Dan,” she said as I sat next to her in my first day of training. It was her second, as, due to VISA delays, I’d been late getting to Japan.

In my head, I saw two possibilities in a split second. “I’m Karita,” wanted to come out, a reflex after 22 years. But I wanted something different. I needed it. And maybe it sounds small, but to me, it was the biggest change so far. So I said, “Hi, I’m Kita.”

Moving to a place where no one knows you is almost like there isn’t a you. No one knows your personality, your preferences, your dislikes and styles. So I went new places. I tried food that I can’t even name – like, literally, I don’t even know what that was – and some that, unfortunately, I could: octopus as purple as an iris, chicken intestine, tiny fish with eyeballs. I took up new hobbies, like photography, guitar, and skateboarding. Rock climbing is next on my list.

I think I was trying to make an entirely new me. I wanted to forget everything I had left behind and become someone who hadn’t lived through any of it, who was so much cooler, more experienced, just plain better. But, slowly, I came back to me. I realized that adding new pieces doesn’t mean I need to get rid of the old ones. I started saying no to foods that look questionable. (I’m not all that picky, but if your stomach churns at the thought of putting something in your mouth, don’t do it.) I stopped putting up with people’s bullshit just because I wanted us all to be friends. I accepted the new parts of me that I thought should stay, but stopped trying to be someone I’m not. And I returned to my oldest passion: fiction writing.

At the end of my senior year of college, I was sitting at lunch with the sports administrator and the university’s president (it’s a small school). The sports administrator asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to be honest, and I told him that, although I’d basically denied it for most of my life, I really wanted to be a writer. The president spoke up and said, “But what are you gonna do for money?” He’s an endearing old man.

So, with an internal middle-finger-up to everyone who’s – intentionally or not – put me down, I’m gonna do my best to become the best damn writer I can be. Will I make a career out of it? I don’t know. But will I love it? Without a doubt, and if I’ve learned anything in life so far, that’s what really matters.

It’s a slow evolution, so forgive me; I’m just starting out. Here goes nothing.

A Year of Change

2016

I go to the grocery store with a twenty-dollar bill, because that’s all I have. I focus on my shopping list, food that will hopefully last me a week. I tell myself, “Don’t buy that, you can’t afford it.” I’m hungry, so I grab a candy bar because it’s cheap. I head to the self-checkout, so I don’t have to be embarrassed if I’ve miscounted and don’t have enough money. I leave for home, hoping the few dollars change will be enough for gas.

 

2017

I go to the grocery store with a hundred-dollar bill, because there are two in the “Groceries” jar. I focus on my shopping list, ingredients for a new dish I’m making for dinner. I tell myself, “Don’t buy that, it isn’t healthy.” I’m hungry, so I remember to buy a couple kinds of snacks. I head to the self-checkout, because there isn’t a line. I leave for home, hoping I didn’t forget anything.

 

Expat Politics

“Trump!” He announces the topic as I step into the small classroom. I groan inwardly, the news of the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement still fresh in my mind. He gestures wildly at his companion, his best friend of nearly 30 years, and I think, yet again, how entirely opposite they are. “We talk about Trump!”
I glance at the woman. She keeps her eyes lowered, too polite to discuss with me, an American, the same thing that she had just been talking about with her friend. He has no such qualms. Spouting off rapid, excited Japanese, I can only catch the gist of what he’s saying. He pauses for breath and I nod, sliding into my seat across the small table from them.
“Trump is…” I search for the right word. “An idiot.”
They look at each other and she is no longer reserved, now having a new English word to grasp onto rather than the controversial topic. “Ijit? Idyo?”
I enunciate slowly, making my mouth movements precise so they can watch the words form. “An. Idiot.” He repeats me several times, his pronunciation worsening while she reaches for her phone and her go-to voice-to-translation Google Translate app. I shake my head. “Maybe that’s a bad word.” He quiets for a moment so I can clarify. “Trump is not smart.”
“Yes!” He nearly shouts it, fist high with the triumph of understanding. “He’s… face, no good. Brain, no good. World is not business.” Switching to Japanese in his excitement, he chatters first to me and then to his partner, once again both too fast and challenging for me to understand. His arm jerks up close to his face and quickly draws an angled line towards the ground. I catch “America” and “i-me-ji.”
She stops him, speaking slowly into her phone then turning it towards me. He is bad for America image of world.
Used to decoding Google Translate, I nod. “He’s bad for American image in the rest of the world.” It’s not a question. I’m agreeing.
With a big smile, he says, “Yes, that’s right,” then rattles off more Japanese. Our English lessons work slowly. Remembering, he changes back in the same breath, shaking his head to emphasize each word. “Trump is not smart.”

This is only the most basic of so many conversations I have had with Japanese people about the new U.S. president. It was difficult to explain, at first, how Trump made it into the running for my nation’s leader, but back then it was a bit of a joke. Next, it became hard to answer how he made it into the final two, as people across the globe realized the seriousness of our situation. Then, it became impossible to answer how he had won the presidency. My Japanese students didn’t understand. My fellow English teachers from other countries didn’t understand.
I was naïve and hopeful at the time that the repercussions of this wouldn’t be as bad as I was imagining. “Many American people want a change,” I tried to explain simply. “And Trump has promised a change. I just hope it is a good one.” The language barrier and my own confusion, disbelief, and denial made it difficult for me to fully express my opinions. But it did not prevent everyone else from expressing theirs.
I now have friends from Australia and New Zealand. I have friends from England, Ireland, Canada, Morocco, Taiwan, and of course, now, Japan. Combined, they’ve studied – and have work experience in – foreign languages, history, film, business, linguistics, education, science, medicine, literature, international relations, management, advertising, and philosophy. I have students who are businessmen, housewives, college students, lawyers, artists, salespeople, teachers, professors, landlords, translators, architects, and even the wife of a monk. A wide range of people with a wide range of experiences, abilities, and ideas. Yet they all agree on one thing. Donald Trump should not be the president.
My American friends and family members are split. Many of them agree with my foreign allies. A handful of them are conflicted because “vote Republican no matter what” never seemed to have such damaging consequences before. And a few of them stand faithfully with our nationalistic, artificial, disoriented president as he turns back the clock on progress while simultaneously turning the world on its head.
It’s time my country realized that to “make America great again,” does not mean what that man intended it to. True American greatness has never come from putting other people down, but from bringing them up. It has not come from excluding “the other” but from including the underdogs. It is not a competition to see who gets the title of World’s Best Country. And it is imperative that we stop thinking of our world as “us” versus “them.” Or else we will all lose together.

Mountain Adventures: Five Days on the Kumano Kodo

Note to self: do not buy new boots for a five-day hike. You will regret it.

My boyfriend and our best friend, Angela, found a famous pilgrimmage hike just a few hours south of us in Wakayama Prefecture. The Kumano Kodou is made up of several routes that cross the largest peninsula in Japan and visit hundreds of small, historic shrines. (Originally, we had wanted to go to Yakushima, a southern island famous partially because of the Ghibly movie Princess Mononoke, but decided travelling there would be a bit expensive. I was happier about the trail change later when our friends did this hike and explained how hikers were supposed to poop in bags and carry them with them until they came across a – rare – disposal site. Pooping in the wild? I’m game. Carrying it up a mountain? Helllll no.)

The Kumano Kodou crossed mountains, small towns, several rivers, and two incredibly famous and beautiful large shrines. (In all honesty, I’m not a big shrine person. In my opinion, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen most of them. But these two were still impressive: Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha.) The trail was often cut along the side of a mountain, with a sharp incline on one side and a steep decline on the other. If you’re afraid of heights, this trail is not for you. Several times, we worked on the quad muscles with some steep rocky stairs, but the trail occasionally took a leisurely flat break along the highway.

We started our journey by taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin-Osaka, then an express JR to Kii-Tanabe. From there, it was a short bus ride (alongside a couple other foreigner hikers) to Takijiri-oji, the “spiritual entrance” to the mountain trails. I took a short nap on the hour-long bus ride, dreaming I found my boyfriend in his hammock being constricted by a large boa – which don’t live in Japan – and I had to cut off its head with our tiny pocket knife – probably not the best plan – to save his life. Best girlfriend award, right here.

The information center just next to the bus stop offered us a last bath of air conditioning, a few pictures of traditional hikers, and my personal saving grace, a bamboo walking stick (which, naturally, we named “BamBoo Radley).

We took the Nakahechi trail, the easy route – don’t be fooled, it wasn’t easy – which was considerably safer than the trail for experts, on which you have to hammock because there’s almost never enough floor space to set up a tent. There also may or may not be a larger number of snakes and bears on that trail, but that just adds to the fun, right?

From Takijiri-oji, the trail begins with a hazing ritual of rock stairs that take you about 300 meters up – elevation-wise, not distance. I immediately regretted my “wearing a hoodie is a good idea” decision, but the excitement of the hike starting pushed us onward – and upward – at a good speed. Maybe fifteen minutes in, we passed a giant rock with a small cave underneath. A sign near the rock told a story about a couple who had a baby while on the trail and left it behind, inside the cave, to be protected until they finished their pilgrimage and came back for it. Fortunately, a wolf apparently took the child under it’s wing…or paw… and took care of it until the parents came back. Thus, any woman who enters the cave and climbs through the birth-canal-like hole at the back is guaranteed a safe delivery. Naturally, we all braved the dark cave and pulled our way out – “Hes’ crowning!” – through the tunnel. It seemed like a good omen. And on we continued, though a bit dirtier than we’d started. Later that evening, we passed through a small village. Maybe “village” is a generous word – there were a few houses with large gardens, a rocky carpark with  a great view, and a couple of sign for the hikers. The people we passed by were very friendly and seemed excited to have travelers coming through. One of them, a woman who owned a souvenir shop, let us fill up our water bottles in her shop. She also offered us shelter from the three minutes of rain that appeared out of nowhere. A few minutes’ walk farther, we found a coffee shop where the owner brought us fresh oranges and pizza with our coffee, which we drank in a small clearing with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. She even offered to let us camp there, but we decided to use the next hour of sunlight to move a little further on the trail. Observation: people in small towns tend to be much more friendly and approachable to strangers than people in big cities. In my experience, Japan and the U.S. appear very similar in this way.

The first night, we hung our hammocks in trees just next to the path, which had recently been logged. The forest still seemed pretty dense, but about one third of the trees had been cut down to stumps. We ate dehydrated pasta boiled on the camping stove my boyfriend had brought, created our first “bathroom,” and went to bed around 7 pm, because it was too dark to do anything else.

The next day, we saw our first fellow hiker, our second snake, I started to sunburn, and the sweetest man gave us all little origami kimonos. Soon after, we had to take a sunny, up-hill detour because part of the trail had cracked open during an earthquake a few years before. An hour or two of sweat, sunlight, and a splinter under my nail later, we made it to the top and were close to our planned campground; a rest stop with a bathroom and small eating area. We set up our camp in the trees close by. A trio of French travelers camped out in the rest stop and we ended up sharing our dinners, our whiskey, some oranges, and a few travel stories. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

On day three, we discovered that going downhill might just be worse than going up. I like to think of myself as being in pretty good shape. Not as good of shape as I was in college, due to – in effect – being paid to work out (hello, college athletics), but I still run a couple of times a week and do HIIT Youtube videos when I don’t feel like going outside. But this hike killed me. Every day was a full day of “how far can we go” and “how fast can we do it.” Now, my knees aren’t what they used to be (hello, college athletics), and eventually it got to where going down the mountain hurt as badly as going up. My new boots had formed quarter-size blisters by the second day, and by the third I was walking like and 80-year-old. By the fourth day, my boyfriend was hobbling alongside me. Angela, on the other hand, looked like she was enjoying a breezy walk in the park.

But it was beautiful. That day, we made it through Hongu Taisha, where we stopped for some touristy things, udon, and Kumano Kodo beer with a view of Japan’s largest tori gate, before continuing on the trail and making it to one of Wakayama’s top 100 sunrise/sunset view points. That alone was worth the pain. Nothing but mountains, as fare as the eye can see, the sky every shade of gold as the sun moved towards the farthest peaks. Unfortunately, we had to camp another hundred meters down. Don’t tell my father I slept by a drop-off in a carpark in the middle of nowhere. We were close to running out of water, and though we knew we’d be passing a place to fill up the next day, that was a whole night and about 2 kilometers away. By some stroke of luck, the Japanese couple that we passed heading to the sunset point as we were leaving it drove past our campsite and offered us a two-liter bottle of tea. I thanked them about seven times the next morning when we ran out of water.

Before we left the campsite for our fourth day, I made the discovery that compost bathrooms are crazy. It took me about two minutes to realize that underneath the toilet was supposed to move and make noise and it wasn’t a killer coming to get me. My mom always said I had a great imagination.

We missed another stamp and took an unexpected detour through a graveyard on our way into the next town. Finding a place for water, we each gulped a stomach-full before filling our bottles. How good is water? At this point, my feet were hurting so badly I almost couldn’t walk. DO NOT HIKE IN NEW BOOTS. Newb. We were close to a bus stop that could take us the rest of the way, so as Rory went to check on bus times, Angela and I sat down to cook a late lunch. When he came back with news that the next bus was four hours away, we decided to just tough it out and continue for the last several kilometers. I was being a wimp, but I knew he really wanted to be able to say he’d walked to whole trail, so we agreed to finish on foot.

That was before we realized the next 800 meters were up. UP, up. You know how, when you run a race you’re supposed to pace yourself and then at the end, when the finish line is in sight, you switch to an all-out sprint, giving everything you have to those last hundred/thousand steps? That’s what we did. And damn, did it feel good at the top. There’s a sign there, at Echizen-toge Pass, with a quote from an old, famous poet (Fujiwara Teika) who hiked the Kumano Kodo in 1201 (yeah, that’s how old the pilgrimmage is), saying, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.” I imagine it was a little tougher in traditional Japanese wear, but bro, I feel you.

Not too long after that, just before it was too dark to continue, we found our last campsite. It was probably our best, with a table for our dinner, perfectly-spaced trees, and an amazing view of the end-of-the-trail valley right next to the ocean. We ended up paying the price for the view that night, when the wind came through and nearly froze us. (Or maybe just me; the other two said they slept fine, whereas I shivered and peeped my head out of my sleeping back every thirty minutes to see if it was light enough to wake them yet so we could get a move on.)

Having somehow lost the last of our granola bars, we ate a breakfast of nuts and Earl Grey tea before traveling the last kilometer down to Nachi Taisha. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, with a three-story orange pagoda right next to a tall waterfall offering the best backdrop for tourist photos. At that point, I was too hangry to fully enjoy the area – we’d thought there would be a cafe and a chance for a more filling breakfast, but no such luck. After getting our fair share of pictures, we were ready to move on to the final leg of our journey – although it took us a solid twenty minutes to figure out where the bus stop was. It was a short ride to the JR station that would take us home, but we all agreed on lunch being a top priority. We found a cafe – a beautiful, warm, home-cooked meals cafe – and we each ate two full meals, either totally impressing or completely disgusting the locals at the nearby tables.

Happy, full, and exhausted, we boarded the train an hour later and settled in for the four-hour ride along the coast back home.