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.

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.

 

Taking Care of Business, and…

Japan’s schooling is fascinating.

In Japan, working overtime is the cool thing to do. You don’t actually have to be doing anything important. But you have to stay at work 1) as long as your boss does, and 2) long enough to tell people that you have ridiculously long hours. (Now, this isn’t always true. In some jobs, you actually have that much work to do – is it necessary work? I’m not sure. But the “overtime is cool” rule applies to almost everyone I’ve met.) The long hours have gotten so bad that many companies have to go through lawsuits based on claims of overworking their employees.

This transfers over to students in school. Being busy, ALL DAY, is the key to being (or looking) successful. I have junior high school students who come to my class at 9:00 pm, after a day of going to school around 8:00 am, going to some sort of sports club after school, and then usually going to cram school after that. They’re exhausted, physically and mentally, before my class even starts. They have a solid 14-hour day, every day. An exception here – at least in that particular class – was one boy who told me he also woke up at 5:30 every morning to study before school. Clocking in that overtime.

But with heavy competition to get into the right university, there started to be be intense competition to get into the right high school, and eventually more competition just to get into the right junior high school. So huge numbers of hours studying in order to get the right job are necessary before most students have even decided what their favorite class is.

If you pass the test to make it into one of the highly-selective private schools, you’re on the right track to a *bright future. But if not, you’re stuck in public school – which isn’t really where you learn things. Sleeping during class is okay. There are levels of respect to your teacher that must be paid, but the daily procedure is “listen and repeat.” Critical thinking isn’t required. And if you have any real questions, ask your cram school teacher. You just have to pay them a lot of money first.

Footnote: living in a country doesn’t make me an expert on it, and I can’t assume knowledge of the entire country based on the one prefecture I teach in. But these overtime, high-pressure tendencies are hardly out of the norm.

Why a Semi-colon?

Moving to Nagoya, Japan was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Life-changing. Life-saving? Dramatic semantics.

One year ago, I had recently broken up with the boyfriend I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. The one who was my best friend, who I could talk to about anything, who I shouldn’t have been with because he’d already broken up with me once to get back with his ex. And after that – the final break-up – I was okay for a while, because I thought it just hadn’t worked out but we’d still be close friends forever and I’d always be his “day one,” until I found out that he was back with his ex, again. The ex I’d worried about during our whole relationship. The one he’d sworn he couldn’t see a future with anymore. And it wasn’t even him who told me.

And then it felt like I’d lost everything. I didn’t have anything left; a direction, a purpose, a future. And for the second time in my life, I wanted to kill myself. Sometimes, you don’t realize a relationship is toxic until you end it.

I’d already decided to take the jump and move to a foreign country. But at the time of the decision, a thought in the back of my mind was that when I came back, he’d be waiting for me. And then I realized the only person he’d ever waited for was her.

So I broke down. I cried in front of my friend and played happy in front of my family. I got black-out drunk at a bar and went to work the next morning like nothing happened. And then I packed all of the pieces into two suitcases and a backpack and changed the course of my life forever.

It wasn’t perfect immediately. I went through ups and downs so quickly it terrified me. But, slowly, everything started to fall together. The job title of “teacher,” the one I’d sworn I’d never stand under, started to tattoo itself on me and I discovered that I loved it. The freedom and beauty of walking around my city instead of driving through it gave me air I didn’t know I hadn’t been breathing. I stopped working out with the purpose of looking good when I went out to clubs with boys who had no interest in knowing me for longer than one night, and I started running so that I could breathe and feel again. And I started to return to music.

Nagoya is a city most people consider a passing-through point. It’s like my home state of Kansas, known as a flyover state. But if you’re in either one long enough, you realize they’re so much more. People playing music in the park or close to train stations, small bands meeting and joining to play like they’ve always known each other, bars that welcome you in like you’re family, and people who listen to you play week after week and encourage the beginners just as much as the experts.

Last night, I went to a jam at the house of a couple I’ve only known for a few months. I was encouraged to sit at the piano, pick up a ukelele, belt out some Beatles, and go home with an extra pair of drum sticks and a Rudiments practice sheet. And I realized I have a reason to live again.

 

 

 

Life is Like a Sushi Roll (or something like that)

I fully intended to write blog posts every week. But life is crazy, and nine months after beginning this blog, I’m writing post number two.

Hey, it’s a start.

Switching from life in America to life in Asia is like seeing a koala for the first time after a life full of dogs and cats. Like, who are you? What are you doing? Why are you eating that?

For one things, trains are a beautiful invention. And Japanese trains, which run like clockwork, are absolutely fantastic. You can spend what would have been an hour-long drive listening to the same radio music you heard yesterday preparing for work, sending messages, playing a ridiculous number of Sudoku puzzles, or – gasp – taking a nap. But not eating. That’s a pretty solid no-no in public.

My parents seem to think I eat sushi every day. And, I mean, I can. But this country provides a plethora of other options, as well. Many specialties include ramen – gourmet or from a Styrofoam cup; lesbehonest, it’s still delicious – pizza, hamburgers, pasta, and OH MY GOSH curry. If you’ve never eaten curry, do yourself a favor and try it right now. Indian or Japanese, they’re both delicious. Just prepare yourself for the heat if you choose the top spiciness options; you’ll feel that heat again the next day. Of course, there’s also fish jerky, tiny dried fish that you eat eyeballs-and-all, chicken neck, cow tongue, raw horse, poisonous-if-cooked-wrong puffer fish, and this weird thing called natto that’s kind of like a mix between beans and Laffy Taffy. Lastly, one of my personal favorites in Japan is this brilliant thing called “Nomihoudai” (飲み放題), which means all-you-can-drink. Kind of like a buffet, but for alcohol. Solid 10/10, guys.

You also get to prepare answers for the inevitable question: “So, uh… Trump?” To which I usually grimace and say, “I’m so sorry.” The whole world was watching us on that one. And it’s pretty obvious we let them down.

One of the reasons I moved here was to learn Japanese, and let me tell y’all – it is SO much more difficult than I expected. You get pretty good at understanding things, picking up words here and there and puzzling them together to form a main idea, but forming sentences in a language that has a grammar structure almost entirely opposite of your own is harder than Calculus and Chemistry II combined. But if you’re not challenging yourself, what’s the point?

じゃあまたね。

 

Current favorite Japanese phrase: しょうがない

“Shouganai.”

It can’t be helped; oh well.