Blood is Thicker

I have a big family. As the last of four siblings, I’m the “baby,” though it’s been a long time since I actually felt like the youngest. We have lots of aunts, u cles, and cousins, a big circle that seems to grow bigger every year. We always get together for Christmas, Labor Day weekend, and – my favorite – Thanksgiving. There’s always too much food and at least one or two card games going. If there’s football on, we’ll watch it, but it’s usually overcome by chatter, jokes, and friendly arguments. I love that atmosphere. And I love my family.

Which is why it took me completely by surprise when I realized I don’t miss them. I knew that things would be different when I left my home country. But I didn’t think I’d go six months without hearing my mom’s voice. I didn’t think I’d find out from Facebook that my brother got engaged. I didn’t think that when my oldest sister came to visit she’d treat me like the owner of a B&B. I didn’t think my friends would feel more like my family than my family does. But they do.

Advertisements

Shigeo

Do you have an iPad?” His voice is a ghost of gravel, softly echoing the strength it used to have. Ebony eyes look at me over the golden-wired rim of thick reading glasses.

“I do,” I nod. “But it’s pretty old, so I don’t use it very often.”

His shaky hands, weary after so many decades, set down his pencil and I’m struck by the meaning of my words. I hope he doesn’t catch the parallel and suddenly my chest tightens.


I don’t mean you
, my heart whispers, urging the words toward 80 years of love and despair seated on the other side of the table.

But he is already turning the next page, the topic forgotten, the meaning lost in translation and left tumbling in the washing drum of my mind.

Don’t Rock the Boat

I almost died.

That may or may not be true. What qualifies as “almost”?

I could have died. 

Possibly more accurate, but I could have died crossing the hundred-pedestrian crosswalk outside the train station this morning. “Could have” doesn’t quite cover the mind-numbing fear of, “This is it. I’m gonna die.

​My friend from a local university messaged me one day out of the blue: “Wanna go white water rafting with me this weekend?” 

Um. YES.

Being a total newbie, I didn’t realize you needed a trained professional for this kind of thing, so I imagined a couple of our friends in bikinis and swim trunks splashing around on a wild lazy river. Imagine my surprise when we showed up to a shed full of life jackets, helmets, and release forms.

We met early on a Sunday morning at Kisogawa station, where we were met by our guide, who would drive us the rest of the way to Gifu and Nagara River. It hadn’t rained in a while, and the river was a bit shallower than usual, but it was a beautiful day and the water was the absolute perfect temperature. We were one of the last rafting boats to leave the take-off point, and fishermen were already setting up for a day of fishing. This gave us the perfect audience for our first rapid- which also turned out to be the first time we completely flipped the raft. Fortunately, nothing was hurt but pride. There were a few more accidental individual tumbles into the water throughout the day, but we managed to stay upright for most of the rest of the day.

 Our guide taught us to “surf”, where we paddled upstream towards the white water and balanced the raft right on top of the big waves. We also did a bit of cliff-diving, the highest point I’d ever jumped off of. I even learned to kayak (holy arm workout) in one of the long, calm sections of water.

The last rapid, we were told, was the wildest and most dangerous. It was a long, rocky section of where, the place where most accidents happen. And since it was shallower than usual… “Just don’t fall in.” You’d think I’d recognize foreshadowing when I heard it. Our guide told us about a man he’d had to pull out of where he was hanging onto a giant rock, ankle touching knee in an ugly fracture. But that just doesn’t seem real in a story.

Our guide asked me if I wanted to paddle the kayak through the rapid, and because I’m both reckless and dangerously trusting, I said yes. He then suggested that his guide-in-training — not the strongest paddle in the boat — should go with me. I wasn’t as excited about that, as we had yet to kayak together, but the guide told me to hurry and jump in the kayak while it was still close to the raft, and I moved before I’d thought it through.

The raft went first, with the two of us paddling behind. (Really, the guide was paddling and I was sitting behind him with one of those half-paddles those hat actually really sucks for tandem kayaking.) In case you’ve never rafted before, standard procedure is that, when the raft tips up to an uneven tilt, you stay upright by leaning towards the higher side. Turns out, this is not the same in a kayak.

In the very first bump, we were still working on straightening out and hit it at an angle. The kayak tilted, and my guide leaned hard to one side. Trying to be as helpful as possible, I leaned with him. Which was when I realized he wasn’t leaning. He was falling. And the whole kayak was going with him.

We tipped, and I splashed into the rushing water with three separate thoughts screaming for attention in my head. The first was an articulate, HOLY SHIT. The second: Get into safe position, feet up, pointing downstream, please dear god do not skin yourself on the rocks. The third: Get. The fuck. Back in the boat. 

We were near the side of the river, several boulders bordering the water. I considered trying to push off them with my legs, but instead foolishly scrambled for purchase along their slippery sides, water slamming me against them. The kayak came hurtling towards me, shoving me under, the dark bottom shutting all light out of my sight. I was slammed against the rocks underwater, hands reaching for anything to hold onto, my mind both fighting for survival and already accepting that I would never resurface.

When I managed to come up for air, I grabbed onto the kayak, trying to flip it right side up while staying in the feet up position, terrified of everything I couldn’t see in the water beneath me. I was either not strong enough or didn’t have the technique to flip the kayak over myself, and the guide was several meters downstream. I could see more rocks ahead, bordering the river as it turned a sharp left. The guide was pushed into the boat, and I lunged for the biggest rock with all that I had in me, clinging to it like the lifesaver that it was. (Or seemed to be. At that point, I was out of the rapids, but my survival-mode brain didn’t allow me to let go of that rock for at least a full minute.)

The main guide had managed to grab the kayak and flip it over, and in the mostly-calm post-rapid water, he paddled over to me, face a mixture of terror and the mask of calm he was trying to show me.

He reached out to me with a hand, but I was hesitant to let go of my new best friend. “Are you okay?” He asked.

Good question.

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.