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.

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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.

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.

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.

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Obama’s left hand

After studying vocabulary to describe physical appearances, my students wrote speeches about their favorite celebrities. Although most chose Lady Gaga, Ichiro Suzuki or Justin Bieber, Kayo described Barack Obama.

Therefore, in honor of the 57th presidential inauguration on Monday, I want to share her speech:

Obama 1

“My favorite celebrity is Barack Obama. He is the president of the United States of America. He is brack. He has short hair. He is tall and smart. He was elected president again in last week. He is left-handed. It is said that the president will be successful left-handed. I want to become a good president.”

As the speech prompt instructed, Kayo notes three physical characteristics. Obama is black, has short hair and is tall. Then, she moves on to Obama’s handedness and predicts that because he is left-handed, he will be successful. Obama has also encouraged her to do the impossible–become a good president. Thus, without getting all political, like Kayo, I hope you have a faith in Obama’s left hand and optimism for the next four years.

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.

santa

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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college

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.

bbq

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.

chickens

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.

Cow decorations

bread

coconut cake fondue

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.

nengajo

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.

ESS