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.

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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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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.

Fireworks freakout

Most people can sympathize with that irresistible urge to photograph the same thing an inappropriate number of times. For example, that time you took 84 pictures of your fluffy friend with a tennis ball in his mouth. Or, that time you took 37 pictures of olives from various angles at the farmers market. I understand that real photographers do this with real intention and purpose, but–alas–I am not one of them.

I am just your average gal with a point-and-shoot camera who often gets carried away by the utter cuteness, beauty and surreality of people and events surrounding me. Further, I recently purchased a new camera, which I am sure doesn’t play a huge role in eliminating folders such as “Dec 2010 Buddy with Ball” and “Oct 2009 Olives at Market” on my computer.

This time, it was not a woman’s best friend or an infinite array of Mediterranean fruits that caused my inner paparazzo to reveal herself. Rather, it was the fireworks that fill Japan’s summer sky. For the past month, I have been on a blogging hiatus and a fireworks binge. I have been mesmerized by fireworks in Onomichi, Fukuyama, Miyajima, Setoda and Innoshima. And, let me assure y’all… that’s a lot of fireworks.

Japanese summer festivals often end with fireworks shows. These shows are nothing like Fourth of July fireworks in America. Stateside, I would expect 10 minutes of bright booming whilst enjoying a hot dog and a Bud Light–and, in all fairness–that’s not a bad night. However, in Japan, the shows can last one to two hours and include elaborate musical pairings that perfectly accompany the colorful bursts. I’ve also witnessed fireworks shaped like Hello Kitty and a fireworks rope that appeared to be dripping a rainbow of fire.

Although I can capture neither the awe resulting from a sky full of raining color nor the oddly comforting feeling of hearing happy children react excitedly in Japanese, I can show you a few of the photographs I have taken during the last month. Enjoy.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop from Thailand

The rainy season is not as bad as it may sound. And, would you like to know why? Because… “It’s raining men! Hallelujah! It’s raining men!”

Actually, it’s not raining men. But, if it were, I would prefer that they be tall, dark and handsome men. They would even be wearing black-rimmed glasses and flannels. A girl can dream.

Unfortunately, it’s raining rain—big drops of relentless, sideways rain. The ponds and rice paddies are basically overflowing and there is a permanent puddle on my doorstep. There is water and more water everywhere, but not a drop of it is crystal blue or for swimming—which has finally encouraged me to write about my trip to Thailand. Better late than never.

During May, there are three Japanese national holidays that fall in the same week. This week is called Golden Week. So, seeing an opportunity for a tropical vacay, I took a few days off of work and spent the week on my future honeymoon. Only this time—I was with two of my best girlfriends—so there was more shopping, tanning, drinking cocktails, dancing and shall I continue? Probably not.

After spending a solid 16 or so hours weathering a storm in China’s Guangzhou Airport, there were blue skies and even bluer waters for the remainder of our trip. From Bangkok, we flew to Koh Samui and ferried to our final destination—Koh Phangan. Here, we reached the nirvana of beach mode.

Our days consisted of eating breakfast and drinking coffee on the beach, relaxing under shades of straw and floating in the turquoise water. In between all this relaxing, we explored the beach, adopted a Thai daughter and ate the most delicious food I have ever eaten in my life. Essentially, I ate pad Thai, tom yum soup and spring rolls for every meal. Then I followed it with either mango juice, Diet Coke or Chang beer. Pretty sure, I would never get tired of that meal.

Along with the beautiful beaches and to-die-for-food, Koh Phangan is also known for its infamous beach and jungle parties. If you can somehow imagine a jungle clearing or beach shoreline with multiple deejays pumping jams; vendors selling sand buckets as cups—each equipped with a mini bar inside it; and thousands of people down to party; then—your imagination has only just begun to grasp the situation.

Island parties put the fad of neon sorority mixers to shame.

Fortunately, after each night spent in the jungle or on a beach, we were always reunited the following morning, dignity somewhat intact, ready for another day on the beach. I’m not sure when I’ll go again, but I cannot wait to be back in Thailand. Until then, I will have a blue-water daydream to add to my repertoire of raining men.