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.

An artsy first day of spring

People work hard here. There are certain Japanese words with no exact English translations that relate to this tradition of hard work. Every day, I hear, “otsukare sama deshita” more times than I can count. According to Google translate, the phrase means, “cheers for your hard work.” But, it is so much more than that. Further, when anyone leaves the office, he or she says, “osaki ni shitsureshimasu,” Japanese for, “I am sorry for leaving work before you.”

“It’s already 8:30 p.m. and I’m very sorry to be leaving work before you.”

Sike.

However, lucky for everyone in Japan, there are 15 public holidays every year. In America, there are about seven. So, that’s a whole week more of three-day weekends and mid-week breaks.

On one of these public holidays, Spring Equinox Day, a friend and I took a trip to Naoshima. Naoshima is most famous for its contemporary art museums, such as Benesse House and Chichu Art Museum, as well as the idea of living art—art that coexists with the community. So, we often stumbled upon art without even realizing it was art—if that can happen.

Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Street festival to celebrate Spring Equinox Day

Street festival to celebrate Spring Equinox Day

Chichu Art Museum is almost entirely underground. So, on this very rainy day, it wasn’t a bad place to spend the afternoon. There are works by artists such as James Turrell and Walter De Maria. However, my personal favorites were those by Claude Monet. Not necessarily because they were by Monet (although, who doesn’t love Monet), but rather because, before entering the exhibit, we had to remove our shoes and put on slippers. Then, we entered a huge white room and admired Monet’s Water-Lilies while wearing slippers… only in Japan.

After wandering around the museums and in the rain, we eventually made our way around the island to see the famous yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. She is best known for her trademark of polka dots—that can also be seen in her recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. My friend and I might as well be in an advertisement selling expensive handbags, or at least promoting tourism to Naoshima… don’t you agree?

Yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

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.

C U NXT Year ; -)

When it comes to spelling and grammar, I am usually a snob. I turn my nose up when “over” and “more than” are used incorrectly, and I die ever so slightly if I read, “there” when I should be reading, “their.” Further, if a friend texts me, “THX UR AWSUM,” or, “UR A QT,” the relationship is immediately over.

However, with my students, I value understanding and enthusiasm more than grammatical ability. As a result, I did the unthinkable. For my last lesson with the first-year students, I taught them obnoxious cell phone lingo. OMG. I KNO. IM SRY : -( PLS forgive me.

When I arrived in Japan, I soon learned that a new realm of emoticons exists. From “simple” happy and sad faces—(^o^) and (-_-)—to more elaborate faces such as (*^◯^*) or even impossible faces such as ☆*:.。. o(≧▽≦)o .。.:*☆, I was not only illiterate when it came to words, but also emotions. For my students, “English” emoticons such as : -), =0 and : *( were equally novel. After teaching abbreviations such as “GR8,” “ASAP,” “@” and “WKND,” they played a matching game using the new words and faces.

Some students even started writing slightly inappropriate texts for their friends. For example, “let’s XOXO ASAP” and “CU soon to XOXO,” but—whatever—it’s English communication, right? Finally, every group wrote me a farewell text. The messages were absolutely FAB. Check them out for yourself and you will realize why I LUV these students.

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.

boysdc

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

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!