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

 

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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.

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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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!

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.

The “sakura” spirit

My first winter in Japan was a test of survival. Although not exactly comparable to a Jack London short story, I had never been so cold in my life. Taking the old man’s advice, I traveled with friends to one or two snowy places. And, just when I thought I would never thaw, I saw spring at the end of the tunnel.

Spring did not spring upon us. Rather, it came slowly with occasional glimmers of happiness and sunshine followed by pea coats and sadness. However, eventually, after some prolonged begging, spring arrived bringing with it the lovely さくら, “sakura,” Japanese for “cherry blossoms.”

I must state the obvious by saying that the blossoms were absolutely breathtaking. If you have ever been to Washington D.C. in March, then you have seen the beauty of Japanese cherry blossoms. However, in Japan, cherry blossom trees are everywhere. If a super advanced satellite took a picture of Japan on the last day of March, it would depict four island-shaped blobs about the same color as Bubblicious bubblegum.

The cherry blossom trees line the streets and cover the mountains. They surround schools, shrines and castles. They even come in plastic form at the 100-yen store and are used as decoration in train stations, restaurants and cafes. The latter blossoms border on tacky, but the point is that Japan becomes enamored by and in the spirit of sakura season.

This “sakura spirit” is by far the most beautiful aspect of spring. People, even those who are usually too busy working from dawn until dusk or shinking (my official gerund form of taking the shinkansen) from Okayama to Osaka, stop, even if only for a moment, to admire the cherry blossoms. For a solid week, cherry blossoms are the talk of the town. Those who can make time take part in はなみ, “hanami,” which I will translate to “a cherry blossom viewing picnic with numerous foods and beverages.”

Finding myself in the spirit, some friends and I embarked on a two hour walk from Fukuyama to Kannabe in order to enjoy the cherry blossom trees on Yoshino Mountain. After the long walk, we loaded up on snacks and drinks prior to hiking up the mountain. Then, after a lunch of fried chicken, grapefruit and Oreos (I know, weird cravings… whatever) we spent the day chatting, napping and enjoying the beautiful weather.

Although all the cherry blossoms have now fallen, my springtime spirit is still very much intact and I am looking forward to the new Japanese school year which began in April, as well as new experiences in Japan.

Not quite a little black dress

Several weekends ago, I traveled to Tomo-no-ura for a kimono-wearing event organized by the Fukuyama Association for Global Exchange. Basically to sum up the story—we got dressed in kimonos, strolled around the town and several weeks later a Fukuyama monthly newsletter was waiting for me on my desk. Why is this newsletter “blogworthy”? Well, because we are in it. Not because we committed some sort of kimono-crime, but rather, because what is more entertaining than a few foreign gals in kimono? Quite a lot actually, but that’s not the point.

It's like "Where's Waldo," but much easier...

It’s difficult for me to remember if I had any specific associations or impressions of kimonos prior to coming to Japan. But, if I remember correctly, kimonos made me think of geisha and those brightly colored parasols. After my arrival I found that, once again, I was completely off base.

Instead, many Japanese people wear kimonos. Old men and women, little boys and girls and everyone in between can choose to strut their kimono on any day or at any time. Usually kimonos make an appearance on special occasions including holidays, festivals, graduations and weddings. Also, there are many different kinds of kimonos depending on one’s age, the occasion, one’s marital status and who knows what else.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many layers are involved in dressing oneself in a kimono. Fortunately, in our presence, there was an absolutely gorgeous elderly lady who seemed to be an expert in the art of kimono. All of the other women called her sensei (teacher), and she seemed to have the ultimate say in who was dressed in which kimono and which accessories were perfect for one’s hairdo. All I can say is, on that day, I hope she dressed me in a single-lady kimono and adorned my head with single-lady hair accessories because I’m not trying to miss any opportunities. Kidding.