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.

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.

Caving to the craving

Sometimes, we crave fast food. Whether it’s to cure a hangover, remedy a bad day or simply make a good day better, there’s something about greasy goodness that leads us to cave to the craving every once in a while.

Of course, most things are okay in moderation. However, in Japan, I’ve found fast food that is more acceptable to eat on a regular basis. As a result, my cravings for fries, pizzas, burgers and wings have been largely replaced by cravings for salmon, tuna, scallops and edamame

Fortunately, fast foot sushi shops abound. Rather than golden arches, the defining characteristic of these sushi shops is conveyor belts. Passing every customer, sushi and other goodness goes round and round the restaurant. Some options, such as “ebi ten,” Japanese for “fried shrimp sushi,” or “amerikan chokorēto kēki,” Japanese for “American chocolate cake” (obviously a favorite of mine) are not healthy or fresh. But, as mentioned earlier—it’s all about moderation.

If nothing tempts you, you can order from your table’s personal touch-screen menu. Soon after, your order will arrive on the conveyor belt. Upon its arrival, your screen will display a cartoon and sing a jingle—a “happy meal” of a different kind.

However, the happiest moment of the meal is paying. At sushi-go-round restaurants, most things are ¥100, about $1. Essentially, with the exception of beer, soup and a few other items, the entire store is a dollar menu. It’s fast and inexpensive—a happy meal indeed!

Get some perspective

Perspectives vary from person to person. Our perspectives change depending on our relation to a certain matter. Although perspectives obviously differ, it is easy to assume our personal perspectives are clear.

“So Far West, It’s East” is all about perspective. It intends to connect my friends and family to my life in Japan. Therefore, when creating this site, I did so with a firm perspective—on my future home from my current home.

However, after making friends with people from all over the world, the title, “So Far West, It’s East,” has confused a fair number of them. Realizing that my perspective may not be as clear as I originally assumed, I will give you some of it (in third person).

“So Far West, It’s East” is written from the perspective of a 20-something-year-old girl from North Carolina. Born and bred in the Tar Heel state, she never imagined that some do not understand the importance of biscuits or shades of blue. Although her perspective on life is always changing, some things remain constant—among them is the direction in which she travels from her home in N.C. to her home in Japan. After flying 14 hours west and arriving in the Far East, it’s safe to say that she’s gone so far west, she’s east.

photo 1-7 photo 2-8 photo 3-2

Marathon motivation

On Nov. 3, I ran the Hiroshima Peace Marathon. Before you congratulate me, the marathon was not actually a marathon. It was a 10K. That being said, running 10 kilometers (or six miles for those of us who need a conversion) is not exactly the easiest thing for me to do. However, on Saturday morning, I laced up my running shoes and, fortunately, the day was perfect for a long run.

IMG_0714

Hiroshima Marathon1 Hiroshima Marathon2

After the race, there was a short period where I had zero motivation to exercise. However, with ominous signs of winter in the air, I decided to join a gym. For the past year, I have been jogging around Fukuyama and exercising in my tiny apartment. I have had to position myself strategically to avoid hitting the light fixture or kicking my desk.

So, along with all the grandpas in my town, I started going to the gym. I am assuming all the young people are at salarymen status and are too busy to use it. But, regardless, I am happy that I can now workout indoors. In January and February, I will be even happier when my sweat isn’t freezing and I am sticking to some of my New Year’s resolutions!