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.

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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:

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“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.

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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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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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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.

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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!

Up, up and away

The air is brisk in Fukuyama. The leaves are falling and the mornings are frosty. This weekend, I used my heating unit for the first time since last winter. No matter where I am living, time moves faster in fall. The colors are richer and moods are happier. Every spare moment is spent outside. Every weekend is spent wandering—wandering around the neighborhood or wandering through the new and unexplored.

Therefore, with the lack of central heating in Japan, the first signs of winter can be intimidating–seeing your breath in the morning, sprinting from your bed to the shower, noticing the first frost in the fields and even drinking red cups from Starbucks. However, with said red cup, winter does give one the opportunity to relax. The cool weather and my down comforter have encouraged me to coop up, curl up and catch up. Coincidentally, “up” is exactly where I have been.

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Or, where I was. A long while ago, in the early months of fall, I took a weekend trip to Tottori Prefecture. Tottori may be the least populated prefecture in Japan, but it is also the only prefecture where people can fly paraglide off of sky-high sand dunes. The Tottori sand dunes, or “sakyu” in Japanese, are strange. One moment you’re looking at a forest, and the next you’re in a new world abounding with sand. They are similar to those in Kitty Hawk, N.C., but, either they are bigger, or I simply saw them from a more impressive angle.

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We spent the day with three chilled paragliding professionals. They showed us how to operate all the 80s-colored gadgets and directed us while in flight. Although each flight was only about 30 seconds, being above the dunes and overlooking the Sea of Japan made every short second well worth it. After landing and looking up to where we started, the dunes seemed even larger. Fortunately, the prospect of paragliding again gave us the motivation to hike back to the top.

 

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After paragliding we ate pear ice cream and drank pear cocktails. Pears are famous in Tottori, and in true Japanese fashion, there are countless desserts and snacks made from them. We also visited the sand museum, which had been featuring a British-inspired exhibition since the start of the Olympics. There were sculptures of all things London—Parliament, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Isaac Newton and Queen Elizabeth. It was a stroll down a sand-paved memory lane to the semester I spent in London. Or, as all of my British girlfriends put it—“It was well-good”—as was the entire weekend.

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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!