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.

Ten holiday highlights

Recapping the holiday season in mid-January is not ideal. However, after traveling half way around the world and back again, I am giving myself some leeway. After returning to Japan last week, with my cultural and inner clocks adjusted, I give you 10 highlights of my holiday season.

1. Christmas Parties

I have been an avid attendee of Christmas parties for as long as I can remember. In the nice years, these parties included visiting Santa and eating peppermint candy. In the naughty years, they entailed wearing tacky sweaters and drinking peppermint schnapps.

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However, this year, I was commissioned to not only host the parties, but also to explain the motive behind the festivities. As a result, my alter ego, Santa-“sensei”—Japanese for “teacher”—revealed herself. I played holiday themed games with my students and, although I can’t say I enjoyed singing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” by myself, I did enjoy discovering that John Lennon’s, “Happy Christmas” was a more appropriate speed. Explaining the joys of the holiday season was the perfect way for me to find my own Christmas spirit.

2. New Friends

If the Christmas parties at school weren’t enough, December was full of good company. In early December, I ventured to Kobe with two friends. Every year, Kobe hosts the Kobe Luminarie. Of course, we wanted to see these beautifully colored lights, but more importantly, we wanted to see Courtney. Nearly a year and a half ago, Courtney, Sarah, Hannah and I arrived in Tokyo. We met at orientation and the rest is history. And, yes, this is a love story.

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In Japan, my friends are my family. Whether I have known them since arriving or met them three months ago, I am fortunate to have met each of them. Spending time with those whom you love is the best part of the holidays. I am happy that, this year, that included new friends.

3. Old Friends

Having new friends implies that there are old friends. After the longest flight imaginable, I arrived in North Carolina on the longest night of the year: the winter solstice. True to tradition, my family was hosting a winter solstice party. When I walked into my house, my oldest friends greeted me, most of whom, I have known my entire life—or at least half of it.

After Christmas, I went to Washington D.C. to visit more friends and celebrate the New Year. Welcoming the New Year in America’s capital was a wonderful start to what is sure to be, an exciting year full of choices and opportunity. This city is stunning and full of life and character—as are my old, but forever friends.

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4. Horizons

I continuously recognize and am overwhelmed by Japan’s beauty. Japanese culture is in harmony with nature and appreciates nature’s transitions. When given the opportunity to get out of the city, I am also reminded to be grateful.

In a sense, my trip to America was a trip out of the city. In Japan, mountains surround me. As a result, I had forgotten what it was like to look straight and see—nothing. Compared to my home in Japan, nothing felt so open. Further, a horizon of nothing sets the stage for the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I have ever seen.

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Sunset

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5. Eating Out

Any southern woman appreciates a glass of sweet tea and a plate of hushpuppies, barbecue and coleslaw. With risk of becoming a pig herself, she also understands that she cannot enjoy these luxuries too often. However, after nearly a year without them, I can say that 12 months is definitely too long to forgo the finer tastes in life.

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As a result, during the holidays, I ate all of my favorite foods—and a lot of them. After eating tofu and miso soup for the past week, I can’t say I regret it one bit.

6. Eating In

In Japan, I cook simple. Not because ingredients aren’t available, but because my kitchen area is comparable to a cupboard—and I don’t even have one of those—or a stovetop or an oven. During the holidays, however, all of these things were right at my fingertips—and, at my mother’s.

As stated earlier, I have eaten a lot of food in my life, and nothing compares to my mom’s home cooked meals. From a special Christmas dinner to a casual Thursday dinner, it just doesn’t get better.

7. Chickens

Perhaps one of the reasons my mom’s food is better than your mom’s food is that she uses fresh ingredients. Year round, my family grows vegetables and raises animals on our farm. Even in December, spinach, tomatoes and basil fill our greenhouse and cover our kitchen counter. Sometimes, we spruce up the array of vegetables with chicken. And, that is exactly what we did on Christmas Day.

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After a traditional Christmas morning, my brother, Jonathan, some neighborhood friends, and I decided to do something not so traditional—kill and clean some chickens. Normally, our chickens lead happy lives pecking around the farm, but, on Christmas day, some of the older girls became dinner.

8. Traditions

Killing chickens on Christmas will most likely not become a tradition, however, traditions are peculiar and often surround the holiday season. Every family has different traditions and Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without them.

Some of my favorite Christmas traditions include decorating the house with Christmas cows; making more than 30 loaves of bread and delivering them to our neighbors; racing to put on new Christmas pajamas; eating coconut cake on Christmas Eve morning; making fondue on Christmas Eve night and spending time with family.

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9. Family

Which brings me to my next point. On Dec. 21, I arrived in North Carolina and received the best Christmas present a girl could ask for: my family. I can’t imagine the holiday season without them.

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10. Coming Back

After saying goodbye, I returned to Japan on a Sunday night to find my mailbox full of “nengajo,” a Japanese word meaning “New Year’s cards.” Traditionally, Japanese people send postcards at the start of each year. Written by my coworkers, friends and students, the cards welcomed me back to what has truly become my second home.

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The next morning, my students greeted me with cheerful hellos and good mornings. Jet lagged and all, I am happy to be back and happy that I went.

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Sake celebration

In October, I celebrated my 24th birthday. One year ago, I never imagined that I would celebrate two birthdays in Japan. However, after one of the best years of my life, I was more than happy to welcome in my next year of adventures and challenges.

I could think of no better way to celebrate my birthday than by relaxing outdoors in the fall weather and drinking Japanese sake at an all-day sake affair. Luckily, this exact situation transpires itself every October in what is fondly referred to as the annual Celebration of Katie Ray’s Birth, or as others call it, the Saijo Sake Festival.

Last year, I could not attend because of my school’s sports day. Therefore, I was excited to finally experience this popular festival. Located in Saijo, a small town in the city of Higashi-Hiroshima, the festival (or my birthday party, if you will) features various types of sake from every prefecture in Japan. Before entering the party, you receive a party favor that comes in the form of a sake cup. The rest of the day is spent wandering through the different regions of Japan and Japanese sake—each represented by a different tent.

Because I am not a sake connoisseur, I chose my sake at random or asked the servers for their favorite types. Although I am still not sake’s biggest fan, I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the festival. A little day drinking goes a long way in bringing people together. So, this year’s birthday was full of sake, tipsy English and Japanese conversations, beautiful weather and beautiful friends.

A man named Yuki Tanabe asked if he could take a picture of us for a photography contest. Although I don’t think he will win with this photo (sorry Sarah!), he was kind enough to send it to me the following day!

Meet me in Vietnam

This summer, I said goodbye to some extraordinary friends. Because we come from different corners of the world, it is impossible to predict when and where we might meet again. However, after only two months, I found myself booking a plane ticket to Vietnam to meet one of these friends, Emily.

After leaving Japan, Emily, an aspiring photographer, packed a backpack full of camera gear and a shirt or two and started traveling. For eight months, she will travel throughout Asia. During her travels, I have no doubt that she will have the time of her life and find the beauty in other cultures and people through her photography. I am so grateful that I was able to meet her for nine days. Together we explored the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and the beaches of Phu Quoc Island.  Emily has given me permission to use her photos in this blog post. On her photography blog,  “Imagine,” Emily shares her passion for taking photos.

Ho Chi Minh City is full of energy. This energy is simultaneously chaotic and relaxed. There are endless parks scattered throughout the city where people lounge on benches, jog through crowds and play a Vietnamese version of hacky sack on the grass. On the streets, one can relax while drinking a beer or getting a haircut while also being hassled to buy three pairs of fake Ray-Ban sunglasses and ride in a rickshaw.

Emily Charlotte Photography

Emily Charlotte Photography

Further, the streets buzz with the sounds of motorcycles. After living in Japan and being forbidden to cross even a country meadow without a green light, crossing the street in Saigon was terrifying. Emily had to hold my hand. Seriously. However, after a few days, I realized that the chaos was quite organized. The traffic, the locals and the tourists blend together and everything just works.

Emily Charlotte Photography

Emily Charlotte Photography

The evening atmosphere was by far my favorite aspect of the city. Restaurants and bars line the streets and all have outdoor seating. Young and old people alike partake in this nighttime community. Therefore, naturally, Emily and I did more than our fair share of eating, drinking and people-watching. For the few evenings we were in the city, we always stopped under the same tent and sat in the same picnic chairs where the lovely woman pictured above served us cold beer and a warm smile. Under her tent, we were able to watch the busy streets of Saigon while catching up on the past two months and looking forward to whatever awaits us in the future.

School’s out for English camp

In early June, the average American high school student can’t manage to get to school before the bell rings. When she does arrive, she can’t sit through the remaining periods because there are mere days separating her and two months of lazy, crazy, hazy summer vacation days.

The concept of summer vacation is slightly different in Japan. Rather than spending two months on summer getaways, my students spent the first two weeks of summer vacation in summer lessons. Because my school has an athletic focus, the last two weeks are spent training for matches, meets and games. To those of of us who spent our summer days picking strawberries, scooping ice cream and procrastinating our summer reading assignments, such a concept seems daunting. However, my students seem to enjoy spending their short summer vacation at school with their teammates.

While my athletically-gifted students spent hours practicing their swings, kicks, spikes and shots, I volunteered to to be a counselor at two English camps. Although none of my students applied to attend, I am determined to convince them to take two days off of soccer and baseball practice and do so next year. I’ve already convinced them that speaking English will help them if when they make it to the Major and Premier Leagues.

During the camps, I worked with students from all over the prefecture who have a passion for learning English. I also had the pleasure of working alongside some of the most inspiring and friendly ALTs. With our students, we played games, did scavenger hunts, made skits and took a break from our daily school routines.

I enjoyed working with both the students and my fellow English-teaching friends in a more relaxed atmosphere. One of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts about teaching in Japan is seeing students express their personalities in English. Having confidence, a sense of humor and courage is hard enough for any 15- or 16-year-old, however, when asked to display these traits in a foreign language, the task could seem completely impossible. But, not for these kids. Their eagerness, curiosity and happiness was contagious and made me remember what a joy it is to be living and teaching English in Japan.

Easter hopped to Japan

Taking form of my wonderful mother, the Easter bunny hopped his way to Japan. Even though I did not get to search for an Easter basket, a nice Japanese post man delivered an Easter basket box to my doorstep. He did forget to wear his bunny ears and give me hints as to where he hid my basket. But, if I had been given the task of searching transpacific flights or ships and listening to directions in Japanese, I may not have ever located my box of delicious and dainty Easter goodies.

Delivering Reese’s peanut butter eggs, Starbursts, Cadbury creme eggs and a few spring essentials, he truly out-hopped himself this year. (Thank you Mom–I love you!) I am looking forward to warm weather so I can venture out in my new, ruffly Easter apparel. Unfortunately, this does not exactly correlate with eating a stash of fruity and chocolatey delights. However, somehow, I think I will find a way to manage.

Along with my Easter box, I was able to enjoy the spring holiday under the blooming cherry blossom trees. Cherry blossom trees may not be the palms of Palm Sunday, but they certainly are a beautiful and symbolic representation of spring. The trees began blooming this weekend–just in time for Easter. So, my holiday may have lacked sunrise service, Jello eggs and sausage biscuits, but the pink and white blooms were just what I needed to lift my spirits for spring!

Happy new year

After an incredibly busy, but wonderfully relaxing winter holiday in North Carolina, I suppose it is time for an obligatory New Year’s blog post.

A year ago, I thought this year would have little significance (as far as years go). I simply looked at it as the year after I graduated from college and ventured to Japan. I also refer to that year, 2011, as one of the best years of my life. I assumed that in 50 years, at the ripe age of 73, I would say, “Oh, I think I learned to speak Italian and Spanish sometime after I graduated.” Or, “oh, I went skydiving sometime after I lived in Japan. Must’ve been 2012 or 2013. Wait, no maybe it was 2015?”

However, as I was counting down the last ten seconds of 2011, I realized that 2012 has just as much potential to be fabulous (if not more so), as 2011. There I was with two of my best friends in one of our favorite Chapel Hill bars. In six days I would return to Japan for at least another seven months. Friends, drinks and travels? Talk about potential.

For the past, I don’t know, 13 years of my life, I have remembered the year according to what grade I had recently completed. After high school, 2007 was my benchmark. I assumed that 2011 would be similar. But, along with several other New Year’s resolutions, I have decided to define my own year, rather than let it be defined for me. No longer will I remember the year by backtracking or fronttracking (Is that allowed? Clearly, I’m forgetting English over here) from 2007 or 2011. Although I cannot predict what this year has in store for me, I can confidently say it will be memorable. Stay tuned.