Sayonara, Japan

Oh, hi. I’m back—in America that is. Home—North Carolina—is such a great place to have some down time and simply enjoy life. I’ve been working on the farm, spending time with family, taking trips with friends, eating a lot of bacon and wheat bread, applying for jobs and doing just about anything to put off writing this final post. I’ve also been readjusting: bowing to people while jogging; marveling at the concept of free refills; excusing myself upon entering and exiting rooms; gawking at the size of grocery carts—and removing my shoes prior to entering my room.

I do love being back. However, I feel as if leaving my life in Japan is similar to that feeling you get when reading a great book—a book that you’re so enthralled in and charmed by—that you neither want to put it down nor finish it. Anxious that, after reading that final sentence, you will feel empty or sad—like you just wanted a little more—and you’re just not ready to start reading a new book.

But, on my twenty-fifth birthday (after two years of birthday celebrations in Japan), a little surprise arrived to North Carolina in the mail—a collection of birthday messages and pictures compiled by my “family” in Fukuyama. It reminded me that the life and the friends that I made in Japan will not simply be closed and eventually forgotten—but it (and they) will continue to live with me and be influential in whichever book I choose to read next.

For two years, my friends, students and coworkers in Hiroshima prefecture truly were like my home-away-from-home family. Living in my little mansion was the first time I’ve ever lived alone. Usually, during my morning commute, my students’ smiley good mornings were the first interactions of my day—and sometimes, their goodnights my last. On other days, I stayed out late chatting with friends or coworkers and laughing at one of the few restaurants or bars in our town. On weekends, I would play basketball, go on adventures or just relax with whomever felt like lounging. On my last day at school, my students made me feel more than special–and on my last night in Japan, my family of friends gave me the sweetest farewell party I could have ever imagined.

I know the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program always reminds participants that every situation is different, and I am so fortunate that my situation was such an ideal fit for me. But, that being said, I believe that happiness is a choice—a choice we must make when things are both difficult and easy. My life in Fukuyama was so wonderfully colorful. I met some of the most extraordinary people and saw some of the most extraordinary places—but, contrary to what many people may think, my daily routine also seemed very ordinary (but in the best of ways).

Japan may be far away, but I’m sure that no matter where life takes me, my experiences and friendships will continually be with me. I hope that my life becomes as extraordinary and ordinary as it was in my beloved little Fukuyama. I’ll always love you and be thankful for you, 福山, 広島, and as a whole, 日本. I’ll certainly come see you again.

Strawberries and summer love

My last summer in Japan began in America.

On June 8, one of my best friends, Kayla, married one of her best friends, John. It’s not every day one of your best friends gets hitched. Therefore, since her engagement, I had been eagerly awaiting my trip to America to help her tie the knot—and I am so glad that I went. With sunshine, corn hole, a cigar bar and dancing, Kayla and John’s wedding celebration was a perfect reflection of their fun-loving and down-to-earth relationship.

Prior to the wedding festivities, I also got to see my family. With strawberry season in full swing, my brother was busy picking and selling strawberries. With every moment spent in the strawberry field and, (thanks to extreme jet lag), every early morning spent watching the sunrise; I was continuously reminded of North Carolina’s beauty.

As I will soon be leaving my life here in Japan, this trip was a positive reminder that returning is something to look forward to—a preview of what awaits. Although leaving this place that I have truly come to love will surely be difficult, this trip home encouraged me to view it as exciting. Although change can be daunting, it leads to new opportunities, new friends and new adventures—and I’m so fortunate to have had all three of those things during my time in Japan.

An artsy first day of spring

People work hard here. There are certain Japanese words with no exact English translations that relate to this tradition of hard work. Every day, I hear, “otsukare sama deshita” more times than I can count. According to Google translate, the phrase means, “cheers for your hard work.” But, it is so much more than that. Further, when anyone leaves the office, he or she says, “osaki ni shitsureshimasu,” Japanese for, “I am sorry for leaving work before you.”

“It’s already 8:30 p.m. and I’m very sorry to be leaving work before you.”

Sike.

However, lucky for everyone in Japan, there are 15 public holidays every year. In America, there are about seven. So, that’s a whole week more of three-day weekends and mid-week breaks.

On one of these public holidays, Spring Equinox Day, a friend and I took a trip to Naoshima. Naoshima is most famous for its contemporary art museums, such as Benesse House and Chichu Art Museum, as well as the idea of living art—art that coexists with the community. So, we often stumbled upon art without even realizing it was art—if that can happen.

Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Street festival to celebrate Spring Equinox Day

Street festival to celebrate Spring Equinox Day

Chichu Art Museum is almost entirely underground. So, on this very rainy day, it wasn’t a bad place to spend the afternoon. There are works by artists such as James Turrell and Walter De Maria. However, my personal favorites were those by Claude Monet. Not necessarily because they were by Monet (although, who doesn’t love Monet), but rather because, before entering the exhibit, we had to remove our shoes and put on slippers. Then, we entered a huge white room and admired Monet’s Water-Lilies while wearing slippers… only in Japan.

After wandering around the museums and in the rain, we eventually made our way around the island to see the famous yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. She is best known for her trademark of polka dots—that can also be seen in her recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. My friend and I might as well be in an advertisement selling expensive handbags, or at least promoting tourism to Naoshima… don’t you agree?

Yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Springing into new opportunities

Excuse my absence. I have been soaking up spring.

My last post was on April 15—most likely when the first cherry blossoms began to bloom. Their beauty awed me last year, and would continue to do so every year, even if I spent the rest of my days in this lovely country.

Cherry Blossoms at the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

However, just as the blossoms come and go, I recently made the decision not to extend my teaching contract for a third year. The (almost) two years I have spent in Japan have been more than I ever expected them to be—full of friendship, opportunity and most importantly—self-awareness and self-empowerment. With all of these experiences and unforgettable memories, I will head home in August.

Although I clearly focused my studying on speaking at izakayas rather than writing kanji,  I did manage to complete my final paperwork.

Although I clearly focused my studying on speaking to strangers in “izakayas” rather than writing kanji, I did manage to complete my final paperwork.

Therefore, although this is certainly not my last encounter with springtime in Japan, this spring was especially special. From Hiroshima City and Fuchu to Onomichi and Fukuyama, I enjoyed the blossoms in every corner of Hiroshima prefecture.

Cherry Blossoms at Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Nighttime "Hanami" at Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Next spring, I hope to experience “hanami, 花見” Japanese for “relaxing under cherry blossom trees,” in a new city—Washington D.C.  Therefore, tell your friends and professional contacts… (as my students would say)… let’s hiring Katie Ray!

Atsukos's birthday, Fukuyama Castle

Atsukos’s birthday, Fukuyama Castle

Cherry blossoms at school--Kannabe

My school, Kannabe

My daily commute, Kannabe

My daily commute, Kannabe

Fuchu Park, Fuchu

Senkoji Park, Onomichi

Senkoji Park, Onomichi

 

Sunday strolls

During my first year or so in Japan, I was always on the go. Whether it be by bus, shinkansen, local train or plane, I never stopped. Friday evening was go time and Sunday night meant unpacking and preparing for the upcoming week. I traveled to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Wakayama, Tottori, Fukuoka, Shimane, Shikoku, Hokkaido and Iwate–just to name a few. Further, I spent many of my “free” weekends in Hiroshima City with familiar friends.

As a result, that year was a whirlwind. A whirlwind of incredible, life changing trips and experiences for which I will be forever grateful. However, recently, I am equally as grateful for the down time I have had in my Japanese hometown–Fukuyama.

As “Lonely Planet Japan” quickly notes, Fukuyama is a small industrial city “without much to attract the traveller.” However, for those of us who live here, it is full of good friends and thus, good times. I have spent many pleasant Saturdays and Sundays doing absolutely nothing with these friends whom I now consider my family.

On one of these lazy Sundays, we wandered to Myououin Temple, southwest of Fukuyama Station. With its bright orange five-tiered pagoda and view of Fukuyama, it is actually quite impressive and I can’t believe I had never visited it until now. So, take that Lonely Planet.

C U NXT Year ; -)

When it comes to spelling and grammar, I am usually a snob. I turn my nose up when “over” and “more than” are used incorrectly, and I die ever so slightly if I read, “there” when I should be reading, “their.” Further, if a friend texts me, “THX UR AWSUM,” or, “UR A QT,” the relationship is immediately over.

However, with my students, I value understanding and enthusiasm more than grammatical ability. As a result, I did the unthinkable. For my last lesson with the first-year students, I taught them obnoxious cell phone lingo. OMG. I KNO. IM SRY : -( PLS forgive me.

When I arrived in Japan, I soon learned that a new realm of emoticons exists. From “simple” happy and sad faces—(^o^) and (-_-)—to more elaborate faces such as (*^◯^*) or even impossible faces such as ☆*:.。. o(≧▽≦)o .。.:*☆, I was not only illiterate when it came to words, but also emotions. For my students, “English” emoticons such as : -), =0 and : *( were equally novel. After teaching abbreviations such as “GR8,” “ASAP,” “@” and “WKND,” they played a matching game using the new words and faces.

Some students even started writing slightly inappropriate texts for their friends. For example, “let’s XOXO ASAP” and “CU soon to XOXO,” but—whatever—it’s English communication, right? Finally, every group wrote me a farewell text. The messages were absolutely FAB. Check them out for yourself and you will realize why I LUV these students.

Two years later

I will never forget the morning of March 11, 2011. On a spring break trip with two of my best friends, we woke up to the devastating news of the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami.

Two years later, on March 11, 2013, I woke up in Japan on a beautiful spring day. In the morning, I learned the expression “hinata boko,” a Japanese expression meaning “relaxing in the sun.” It wasn’t until the afternoon when my school observed a moment of silence that I remembered the significance of that day.

During that moment of silence, my mind raced. However, eventually, I decided to reflect on my personal volunteer experience. After the earthquake, many organizations began volunteer trips to support relief efforts and encourage tourism. Last November, with WhyNot!? Japan, I traveled to the Tohoku region and volunteered for a man named Mr. Sato. We listened to him recount the day of the disaster. Pointing to the ocean and to a road that had been split by the earthquake, he told us his story with such appreciation for life. His courage and perseverance awed me. Surrounded by mounds of debris, he told this story while helping us plant tulips in his garden—his possessions still broken, but his spirit strongly intact.

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

This man and others like him offer hope to a country that is still coping with disaster. The disaster united people in support and simultaneously fueled protests. Today, there are debates about reconstruction, decontamination efforts and nuclear energy usage. Charged by the passion of leaders on both sides, I hope these debates, lead to advancement and action. I hope that this passion is utilized to build a strong future for those in Tohoku.

Further, no matter where life takes me, I hope to live with the passion that I saw in my brief encounter with Mr. Sato. No matter where life takes me, March 11 will forever be a day in which my heart is in Japan.

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura