Homesick

•September 13, 2010 • 4 Comments

How hard is it to come back to America? How hard is it to see people that look like you and wonder why there are so many foreigners everywhere you go? How hard is it to turn on the TV and experience genuine shock at how much English there is? Why can I understand it? Why doesn’t it look like it did there? How hard is it to not want to go out and drink and go to new clubs and bars because it’s NOT Sam & Dave’s, it’s NOT Barco’s, and the people with you ARE NOT the people you trusted with everything that you were and would become for a year?

All I remember is the smell of the clubs at 4am, when I was too drunk to smell the clubs. And all I remember is the taste of the wine when we stayed up talking until we weren’t even tired anymore. And all I remember is the taste of brownies that we made into cookies because our toasters weren’t big enough for the ‘real’ thing. And all I remember is everything that was perfect, the days that I ran until I was breathless, smiling into the fading sunshine, wishing the day would never fade to darkness. And all I remember is making a new stir fry on my tiny burners in my lived in apartment with its smell of warm tatami in the summer and the hot macha tea I made in the winter. All I remember is the faces of everyone I loved. They flash before me, over and over, like the counted sheep of fables, as I try to fall asleep. But unlike the counted sheep, they keep me awake, remembering every secret and embarrassing moment, every misstep and perfect step, and I laugh, out loud, to myself, because it’s so funny, the memories we made. And I’m so engrossed in all I can remember that it becomes my reality, in those moments late enough at night for it to all to make sense — that this is all I remember.

I squeal, so loudly it terrifies my roommates, about the smallest things – like Eminem performing on TV. And I scream when I hear JB on the radio. And I can’t explain it to all the people that think I’m crazy, that think I’ve got the worst taste (though I do), that think I am so far behind and am too excited for things that are absolutely mundane. But I’m so excited because it’s everything that wasn’t Japan, everything that I missed in Japan. But in all my pro-America excitement, I miss it – Nippon and my tomodachis. I miss the feeling of missing America, because that became Home. For so long home was a place nonexistent to me – my address changed every six months, every eight months. But Japan, in all it’s crazy and all its obscure and all its misunderstood (by me) traditions and cultures, became Home. Japan was the first Home Ive had since little kid home. And America-missing became a part, a tradition, a feeling of that home. So I watch and I listen to American pop culture in America, and all I feel is Japan.

It’s backwards, you know? To think only of America in Japan and only of Japan in America, but I suppose that’s the way life structures itself. We want what we can’t have. But somewhere along the way, we trick this old wives tale by loving what we can’t have and the place we can’t have it. Me wanting America is me being in Japan, and those are the things I love, far more than being in America itself and loving America itself. I love America the idea, when I’m so far away I can’t taste the bagels and hear the rudeness on the streets.

Mostly, I spend my days daydreaming about the perfection that was my friends and the experiences we had.

Mostly, I’m nostalgic for home.

Mostly, I’m homesick.

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

•July 28, 2010 • 2 Comments

I remember when I got back from South Africa, my first real trip abroad, I had that overwhelming feeling that new traveler’s often have that nothing had changed while I was gone. Everyone was still just plowing away at the same lives they plowed at before I left. They still struggled with the same menial problems at work, shopped at the same stores, ate the same food. Something so deep, I was certain, had changed within me – my mind had been opened to the world – but everything at home was the same. It distanced me from my friends, that self-indulgent, dignified feeling of grand self-worth I carried around.

This time, everything has changed, and everyone has changed. I would say maybe it’s the time difference – five months in South Africa versus a year in Japan. A year is a long time (long enough to get pregnant, have the kid and nobody know, as I describe it), but it’s not the time. It’s not the difference in immersion levels either – South Africa was solid at 40% immersion; Japan was 100%.

I think it’s me. I’m different. I don’t feel important because I’ve seen or done things others haven’t. I don’t feel dignified because my world view has expanded. I feel like I lived a different life and made different choices than my friends here, and neither is better than the other. Really, I may be envious of their choices.

Their problems, their jobs, their lives – they’ve not stayed stagnant. They’ve changed in drastic and important ways. Through it all, they’ve grown and turned into these… adults. These people who live and work in the real world, as college kids everywhere refer to adult life. They’ve made their apartments homes and their homes their private spheres, separate from the professional lives they lead by day. They’ve fallen in and out of love, built lives with significant others that transcend their work problems and family dramas. And they’ve made new friends, learned new cities and experienced new things that I can only imagine (stability, commitment, retirement plans….).

I gallivanted around the world for a year while they’ve grown up in the sincerest meaning of the phrase. They’ve moved on past reminiscing college days and retail jobs and hopeful internships. Now they’re employed, with benefits no less, building careers and families. They’re these beautiful people that it feels like I only recognize in their beautiful faces. I keep reminding myself, much like I do when strangers speak to me in English that I speak that language, too, that I know them. I know their likes and dislikes, their favorite sports teams, their siblings’ names and where they went to school. I know their goals and their dreams, and I know the history we made together. But even as I remind myself of all that, I keep staring blankly, like if I look at them hard enough, take in their faces one more time after a year devoid of them, that it will all come back – that everything will be the same. But with every word I watch come out of their mouths, I know that nothing can be the same. The best, albeit the hardest, part of friendship is watching it ebb and flow and adapt, and I know that the people my friends have become this year are even wiser, funnier and, if possible more beautiful than they were a year ago. Now I just have to re-get to know them.

It’s overwhelming being back among all this change. When I visualized, and I did so many times, arriving back into America, I took myself into a grocery store, a bank, a gas station. I didn’t think to visualize my first steps into my friends’ lives. I couldn’t have imagined how that would feel – overwhelming and comforting all at once, out of place and grounding simultaneously.

My life right now is in a massive red suitcase and a big blue bag, and my overnight that I carry slung on my shoulders. I’m homeless and unemployed, and despite the incredible experiences of the past year, I can’t help but remember what I missed here. My friends are reminders of that. When I left, we were all so scared of what would happen next, the people we would be in a year. We made goals for our year and dreamed up the experiences we thought we’d have (“Cyndi, you should pick ONE country, in case you can only afford to go to one!”).

It’s all so different now that it’s said and done – we’ve met some of our goals and changed others. Our dreams have shifted, and our expectations have been altered.  It will take me a while to get to know them again, to not stare at them, pinching myself as if to remind myself – this is real. But it will happen, and like they did this year, I will build a life for myself here, too. In fact, if their lives and how far they’ve come are anything for me to go off of – I should be encouraged to know that scared and overwhelmed by it all as I may be – I only have to look forward to, like good wine, getting better with time.

Aishiteru, Nippon

•July 26, 2010 • 3 Comments

Dear Japan,

We’ve had a complicated relationship, haven’t we?

When you first propositioned me, I turned my nose up at you. Remember that? It seems so funny now, the way things that become glaringly obvious in hindsight tend to be. You weren’t my type. You weren’t very tropical or laid back, you didn’t ooze calm, cool confidence or romance me with your opportunities for adventure. No, you were just stubborn and persistent. You were nerdy, into gaming and technology and upholding traditions – everything I thought I couldn’t stand. But you kept strong, and eventually, I said yes, even though I was certain we would never reconcile our differences.

Those first few nights together, I wanted to run away – to get the hell out, as they say. I couldn’t understand you or eat your food or even drink your drinks. But you were patient. And when you insisted I conform to your standards of etiquette, demeanor and femininity, I said no way – take me as I am or not at all – and you were, mostly, gracious then. But gosh, we eventually compromised on that one, didn’t we? You agreed to listen to my ideas, as I did yours. Somehow we negotiated a middle ground – somewhere between buffalo wings and sashimi; it was the Stir Fry Compromise – your grains, my meats.

I remember that night; it was the first time I opened my kitchen window and allowed the smell of your rice fields in summer to fill the space. I ate our stir fry at my western kitchen table, clumsily holding my hashi and staring out at the vividly green hills and fields dotting the horizon. I fell in love with you that night, feeling for the first time the magic and depth of your history and, later, the delightfully soft touch of your tatami under my bare feet.

That’s when our romance really began. I tried new foods at your encouragement; bike rode through your impossibly narrow streets; strolled among the rice fields, offering friendly bows and “konnichiwas” to all I passed, even in the stifling humidity of late July; I frolicked in your oceans, stripping down to my sports bra and laughing my way – arms outstretched (is there any other image of frolicking in the ocean?) – into your welcoming waves. I learned to love your sake and we spent nights drunk on the newness and excitement of our courtship, like honeymooners sequestered to there Casa del Love.

But even then we fought, didn’t we? As the humidity faded to heat alone and then, finally, the cooler breezes of a tragically short autumn, we fought. I was lonely every night alone in my apartment, trapped from the outside world by a failed internet connection and restless energy. Furthermore, you treated the woman I worked alongside so poorly. “It’s not worse, it’s different.” I got so sick of hearing that and reading that and thinking that I wanted to flail and bonzai scream my way through my offices, as if somehow the disruption would awaken everyone to the massive injustices around them.

But even after our worst fights, I never went to bed angry at you. Instead, I devoured books about you like they were my life support (I think they were). I read about your history, your customs, your lifestyle and pop culture, even your gangsters and prostitutes (for what else makes a culture?). You set out a challenge for me, if an unspoken one: choose self-righteousness (you would forgive it, after all) or be courageous enough to step outside your ideological comfort zone to hear other ways. Even though I’d spent 24 years perfecting the former and occasionally chose it (sometimes I still choose it), mostly I chose the latter.

And always, no matter my choice, I rolled my eyes at how rigid you are – Lighten up, already! But, of course, the more I learned, the more that nagging voice in my head kept pointing out – are you not rigid in your thinking, too? Annoying. But through all that and my resistance to change and your resistance to my resistance, I loved you anyway, and I accepted your challenge. It even halfway worked.

As the fall turned into the freezing six months of winter, I needed a break. I needed out, so I headed abroad. I went to Thailand and then Korea and finally China, and each time I was courted by the Dames of English and sunshine and the Dukes of laughter and individuality. I flourished then, hungry with desire for flavorful food, fields that weren’t made of rice and oceans that turned turquoise at a glance. After the first times I came back, we yelled. I yelled. I cursed you for never changing, never relaxing your rules, not offering any more than you’re supposed to offer – not doing anything, really, that you’re not supposed to do.

But after the third, after China, it was different. I cried when I stepped off the plane and proudly shimmied my way into the “Foreign Residents” line. When I was greeted warmly with a bow, in an airport filled with efficient lines, quiet, patient waiting and signs answering every question, I felt… at home. I hadn’t known you had become home until, well, until I knew in that moment. Instead of lambasting your sameness and hostility towards change, I marveled at your orderliness, efficiency, cleanliness and respect for your own cultural heritage. I began to think like this and in other new ways, and it was then that we moved past infatuation and intense disfatuation to mutual respect and affection.

I guess I could say that even through dancing at your clubs until the sun had risen again and making ‘paper, rock, scissors’ a permanent fixture in my life – I grew up.

So where does that leave us now, on the one year anniversary since the day I first stepped off that plane into the sweltering humidity of a late-July Tokyo summer and at the start of my new, separate journey? It leaves me saying this: I came to Japan 365 days ago intrepid and impatient, improbably stubborn and impressively Western, and I leave that same exact person… but the paradigm has shifted. I’m not somehow greater, wiser or more correct because of my cultural heritage (even if it is the brilliance of cracker jacks and Paris Hilton). I leave appreciative and respectful and filled with adoration for a country that is none of the things I am but so many of the things I have come to treasure. You have been a mirror through which I have seen myself, vulnerably and honestly, and I have come out of it a better person. My relationship with you this year has been a relationship with myself, and it’s the healthiest one I’ve ever had.

Saying “yes” to JET one year ago is the best decision I have ever made. Thank you for this year and for the memories.

Love,

Feminist-san

Fuji-san, what a beautiful beast.

Shikoku: Cycling the Shimanami Kaido & a Mini-Pilgrimage (parto ni)

•July 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

feminist-san interviewed the participants in last month’s Shikoku voyage to find out exactly how extreme the far away (is)land really is. Check out their never-before-seen answers in this exclusive interview.

  1. Describe Shikoku in one word.

Whitney: Foreign (said in distress – “We’re in another country!”)

Kwame: Express… what? You have to take express trains everywhere!

Cyndi: Wild

2. Shikoku is famous for haiku. What’s your haiku about Shikoku?

Cyndi:

City of haiku
built upon castle ruins
It’s Matsuyama

Whitney:

Hot water feels good
The humid air not so much
Shikoku balanced.

C&W for Kwame:

Express trains – choo choo!
I am the biking badass
My name is Kwame.

Kwame:

Biking was awesome.
Hot days, taxis, two old shrines
Would do it again.

3. You’re stuck on Shikoku, and Shikoku is the island in Lost. Do you understand the plot any better?

Whitney: I’ve never watched Lost. So… yes.

Kwame: I’m not bothered.  There is no plot to the damn show.

Cyndi: It’s five minutes ago. This question hasn’t been asked yet.

4. You’re deserted on Shikoku for the rest of your life. You get to bring one foreign food, one friend and one anime character.

Whitney: Gerard – he’s a strong, fast dude that can speak the language better than me.  (3 minutes later) …but maybe Kwame instead. G-man couldn’t be fun in some ways. Fajitas and the river dragon god from Spirited Away – because you can ride it!

Cyndi: Pam (she speaks Japanese! and, you know, I could sleep with her in a pinch), raisin bran and Dora the Explorer.

Whitney: You could bring Doreamon.

Cyndi: because everyone needs a robot cat?

Whitney: He could translate for you! You know that dish honyaki-konyaku? He eats it and then can translate. Plus, you’d automatically make friends with any Japanese girl!

<<SOUND EFX: CRICKETS>>

(at this point Kwame fell asleep and Whitney and Cyndi imagined his answer…)

Kwame: Whitney, because I couldn’t imagine a day without her beautiful face to wake up to, British stew or meat pie and ice cream. (W&C: WE SAID ONE KWAME). And Totoro because he’s magic!

(Kwame then woke up)

Kwame: Whitney, lamb and Pikachu (because it can power electricity. I’ll just use it as a slave. It can power my laptop so I can watch some porn.)

5. Would you rather re-do the bike ride or walk alone to all 88 temples?

Cyndi: Walk, full stop.

Whitney: Walk.

Kwame: The bike ride. And then I’d just cycle to the temples.

6. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get back (to civilization)?

Whitney: Plan my next great exercise adventure to burn all the calories I gained after burning them off on this one…. or go to an onsen.

Cyndi: skype Jamie. I’ve been too long without him. Change my socks – I’ve been wearing the same pair for three days.

Kwame: Go on skype and see if Whitney is online.

(Cyndi:: fights nausea)

I love pagodas.

7. You three managed to get to 8 of the 88 temples, a pathetic attempt, but we understand taxis were necessary in the time crunch you faced. Which was the best temple you saw?

Whitney: #51 – naturey and lots of incense.

Cyndi: #51 – Ishiteji. PAGODA. If there had been a man with a beard there, I might never have left.

Kwame: ……

8. You’re writing the wiki page on Shikoku. Give us one paragraph.

Whitney: If you want to do the pilgrimage, take the time (about 60 days) to walk it. There’s a lot to see and learn, but if you do it rushed it feels like you’re just collecting stamps. It’s worth it to work for it!

Cyndi: See previous post for her long-winded answer.

Kwame: Buy the lemon juice thing at #57 –

Whitney & Cyndi: Ohhhh that was delicious!

Kwame: -You get free postcards from the taxi driver if he likes you. Accept the free yakimochi from the drunk lady at the Family Mart near #51 while getting a taxi. Say hello to every one you se because they might be your friend later. If you’re pretty and beautiful, beware of old men on trains who will call you their wife.

Cyndi: I think they’d delete that weirdly particular paragraph.

(Kwame: <<glare>>)

9. If you had more time in Shikoku, where would you go and why?

Cyndi: Iyo Valley! The biggest gorges in Japan, world class white water rafting canyoning, cliff jumping, vine bridges, hiking – it’s my heaven on earth. A car is almost necessary, unless you book tours with a rafting agency. To hike, you need a car and a grasp of Japanese and money (it’s about 6000yen from from Imabari Station to Awaikeda Station).

Whitney: Takamatsu – one of my favorite books, Kafka on the Shore, is set there. Or I would do the full 88 temple pilgrimage.

Kwame: I’d rather to go a nice beach somewhere after cycling if the weather is quite nice.

10. Best memory?

Whitney: Finishing the bike ride!

Cyndi: Our taxi driver in Imabar/ Dogo Onsen

Kwame: Watching the sunset as we were about to cycle over the last bridge onto Shikoku.

—–

pics or it didn’t happen? feminist-san’s on top of it.

#46...? Imabari. The first ancient temple we saw, and it was under construction. Awesome irony.

"Am I allowed to sit here?" "I don't think so... hurry and do it fast!"

Pilgrims carry a book that they have stamped with the seal of each temple. A monk at each temple does the stamping and then writes the temple name and the date (sometimes) in calligraphy. It's beautiful. Whitney and I both have books. One of my favorite sourveniers from Japan.

My second favorite temple, after the one with the pagoda. This was so green and so beautiful. This one's in Imabari wayyy up in the mountains.

Let's play a game of "Where's Cyndi?"

View of Imabari from nearby the temple. We saw pilgrims hiking up here. That's a pursuit of zen death by heatstroke.

We get to Matsuyama and I walk into a friendly neighborhood Lawson's (convenience store) to ask directions to my hostel. They say, oh, it's close. Just walk outside to the left and go up the stairs. They meant THESE stairs.

The Dogo Onsen station and area of Matsuyama is the quaintest place I've seen in Japan. It's a refreshing difference to the other concrete, neon Japanese cities.

Matusyama Park. I took a book and pretended not to care when gnats tried to eat me.

Dogo Onsen! Featured in Japan's (arguably?) most famed movie - Spirited Away.

Last temple, shrouded in green. It was love at first post-rain mountain air sniff.

Pingyao

•July 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Every time the lightning strikes, I see the outline of the Wall.

It’s brooding, looming over me and everything else. I can’t see anything else of the city. I don’t even know for sure this is a city. It feels like a road to the Wall. (Then again, I think this city may just be made up of roads that lead to the Wall.) I know the streets are cobbled at least. The taxi goes, clunk clunk and I’m jostled in the back.

…I think this is a taxi. God, I hope this is a taxi – a real one, a licensed one, one that won’t take me into the woods and leave me there with nothing. I should have thought this plan through. I shouldn’t have arrived at – gosh, what time is it, even? I lost track between my nap at the table I finally nabbed at that KFC back in Tiyuan and when the train arrived. It took 30 minutes to get that table. By then my food was cold. But the table felt good, like the first stolid place I’d sat all day. That table was worth it. Where was I?

The taxi clock says it’s 12:33am.

What is wrong with me? It’s 12:33am, and I’m in a questionable taxi and all I can see is this Wall of mythical eerie proportions every time the lightning strikes. This doesn’t feel auspicious. Maybe I should have stayed with them in Beijing – my friends. Most of them will leave tomorrow – today, I guess, but I could have gone on to Shanghai with the others. I could have skipped all this. But my curiosity always wins those battles – between the rational and the not… especially when danger is involved in the not. It’s barely a fight then. Right now, I wish rational had won.

I wish I could see more than the Wall. It’s right in front of me, taller than I imagined, more ominous than the thickest historical fiction novel written by white guys could have described. There’s a watchtower on top. It’s gray, or black, and tauntingly indestructible – like it wants to be challenged.

The downpour hits the stones of the Wall with such alarming force that it seems to echo. Each plunk! sounds like a clash of an invisible sword swishing through air only to contact stone. God, how much fantasized Chinese history have I been ingesting? KABOOM! I think the ancient cannon sitting beside the watchtower just took fire. I jump each time, until I remember it’s only thunder.

The taxi is slowing down. Oh God. I have my backpack still on and my right hand is clenched around my purse. I have my keys – to my car and apartment in Japan (that I swear simply don’t exist in this same universe) in my other. I learned one time that a carefully, forcefully aimed stab with a key can be as wounding as with a knife (not experientially… just from heresy). I swear I can handle this. As long as all he wants is my stuff. No. That pisses me off. I’ve had my money and camera stolen once this year – I’m not doing it again. I will not be okay if all he wants is my stuff. If he wants the stuff, he will have to get through this key.

But we’re still clunking. We must still be on the cobbled streets, which are inside the Walls. Surely he would take me somewhere outside, where no one could hear the loud American girl scream, if he wanted to rob me.

I’m breathing now. I guess just there before I wasn’t. My chest feels a little lighter. The pictures of this city on google last week were quaint and picturesque. In person, this city is tragic and haunted. I swear this storm is no average one. The sky is so black with fury it’s as though it has been scorned. I’ve never heard a storm this cacophonous, discordant, angry. I wonder what the city did to deserve this; it feels like revenge rain. What secrets does that Wall hold?

There’s dirt everywhere. I can tell that much. Outside my window it’s like the street is washing away beneath the stones, running to escape. It’s all black, but I can see the mud flow rushing in front of us, towards the Wall. Maybe I should join it and get out, too. I wondered why everyone on the train silenced and raised their collective eyebrow when I stood up for this stop. I thought my skin color blinded them momentarily, but it seems they know something I don’t.

I’m drunk off the hour and the history I’ve been reading. I should shake my head to get it out. Don’t let the night and the storm and the wall invent imaginaries. I repeat that.

The taxi’s stopping now. Oh God. I can hear my heart thump thump thumping over the rain and the thunder and the cracks of lighting, and that means that it has got to be on the verge of exploding because the storm is so uncomfortably loud. My hand is on the door. My keys are ready. I know karate. Oh God, remember the karate. Punch high, kick low. No, fuck. Kick high, punch low.

“… guesthouse….?” I hear only a word.

“Punch high kick low!”

Why did I say that?

Chinese. Chinese. Chinese.

Wait. He’s talking to me. His voice is nice. He’s asking me, what? Right. The hostel where I am staying. Confirming the address. No, this is not my hostel. I’m confused. I’ve never heard of this place. Where are we? I have to breathe.

“Hostel okay?”

“No, Harmony Guesthouse, please.”

Lights flash on. Was that lightning? No, it’s actual lights. We’re at a hostel. He must be asking me if this hostel is okay. I can see an older man and woman un-boarding and locking the door. It’s an operation. They’re in their night clothes, running out into the rain now. But how did they know — he must have called. Yes. I remember him making a phone call. I roll down my window, the tension inside of me as thick as the rain already soaking through my clothes.

“Stay here? Nice room. It’s very late!”

She speaks English!

“I’m sorry. I’m staying at Harmony Guesthouse. Do you know where that is?”

She crosses her arms and stands firm, not even blinking.

“No.”

No? This city is tiny. How is she not blinking with all the water running down her face?

A quick look at the clock – it’s 12:46, and I hand the driver the money I already had counted out in my pocket, ready to toss and run if need be. Like if he were going to rob me, offering him our agreed upon price would change his mind. At least I had been smart enough to negotiate a price first, though. One thing done right.

I place the money in his hand and notice for the first time that he has a kind face. He gives me a smile. “See?” it says. “Nothing to be afraid of.” And he called the hostel for me, woke them up so I’d have somewhere to stay. It probably wasn’t nearly as altruistic as that – I imagine he gets a cut when he misdirects customer’s here – but still, I’m not on the side of the road missing all my belongings. All things considered, I misjudged the situation.

I thank him in Chinese and throw myself out of the cab and into the assault of rain. How did I forget to buy an umbrella? The elderly man, who hasn’t said a word, shelters me with his coat and we run inside. Along the way, I watch the woman crack a grin. Well played, I think.

Inside, I ask her how much for a single room.

“We have very nice, very big room for – ”

“That’s okay.” I’m firm. “The simplest you have will be fine.”

I’m not in a position to negotiate, but she either doesn’t realize how lost I am or pretends to not, because she offers me a better price. I’ll take it. I’m relieved to be inside, out of the storm, off the road and away from the foreboding Wall.

She runs to get the key, and I notice for the first time that this guesthouse is old. Old with age and history, not with furnishings. Those are modern – there are computers in the corner, a desk (this must be the common area), oversized wooden tables and chairs I figure even I’ll, at 5’9″, have to hop to sit up on. And in the corner there are two couches, comfortable by their worn looks, with a table in the middle. I peer over and notice the title of the open DVD case – The Green Mile. That doesn’t make this place any less dark.

Before I can take in more, the woman runs back with a key and shoos me out the back of the common room into an open courtyard. We pass under an awning, by a room with lights still on and always – through the pouring rain. She doesn’t need a flashlight, because the lightning fills the entire compound with a glow that seems to last long beyond each strike. It’s beautiful – seeped in history like the pictures I saw on google last week. Nothing new has ever been built in this city – not in modern history. It could have been a teahouse or a private garden residence or a traditional compound in another century.

She keeps us running against the side of the building; I can feel the mud sliming its way across the sleeve and hood of my white hoodie. Why would I only bring a white jacket on a 10 day backpacking trip? We race up a set of outdoor stairs and finally into a covered hallway. Shes tops at the second door on the left and gently unlocks it. She pulls on the light with a hanging drawstring and asks – “Is this okay?”

It’s perfect. The large, traditional kang bed takes up three-fourths of the room. A small bathroom is in the entrance and windows look out over the courtyard. She leaves me to dry off, placing the key in my hand. My jacket is covered in mud, and I try to wash it out, using the continual rubbing motion of the cloth on itself to scrub out my built-up tension at the same time. Now it’s just wet and a slightly lighter shade of brown, but I hang it up to dry anyway. It’s the best I can do.

I crawl into the massive bed – it’s dark brick base a pleasant contrast with the sharp white, thick blanket. It feels like I’m covered with cotton weights, heavy like sleep and soft like sheets. I’m comforted now, breathing normally finally, my fears of earlier seeming as fantastical as they are now distant. I pull out my journal and as I begin to write, finally at peace, lightning cracks so loudly I scream and the lights inside flicker. I swear in the shadows I can still see the outline of the wall. My mind is taunting me.

It’s black now, and outside the thunder once again begins to rumble in tune with my nerves. This City feels far more Forbidden than the well-lit, ornate one that actually carries that name. This much history can swallow a person whole; it’s threatening to swallow me whole right now. I have got to keep breathing. Deeper breaths. I’m in Pingyao, the best-preserved ancient walled city in China, and I’m determined to still be here tomorrow. I repeat this mantra.

I hunker deeper into the heavy blanket, swallow my fear with a shot of pelting rain and wait for morning to draw near.

...before the camera broke.

Random sitenote: my camera broke in Pingyao. That was depressing. I’m not on my third camera this year. It’s called “Tough.” Let’s hope it is!

Conflicted

•June 19, 2010 • 2 Comments

Half the time I’m so excited to go home to America that it hurts, and the other half I’m so sad to leave here that it hurts even worse.

This is normal, right?

Moral of this story: Don’t ever believe anyone when they say a year isn’t a long time. It’s 365 days. That’s enough time to meet someone, get pregnant and have a kid without anyone back in your home country ever knowing. That’s a long time. (Not that I did that…)

America home

Japan home

Now you see why I’m torn!

Japan, You’re so Fresh and so Green, Green (Cycling the Shimanami Kaido)

•June 16, 2010 • 8 Comments

Two weekends ago, I followed through with possibly the worst idea I’ve ever had: biking the Shimanami Kaido – the 70km route between Onomichi City on Honshu and Imabari City on Shikoku, Japan’s 4th major island. The route crosses multiple islands and the bridges that connect them in the Seto Inland Sea. My friend Whitney, equally insane, agreed to this foolhardy mission and then convinced a third friend – Kwame – to come with us. I find it statistically hard to believe, in retrospect, that there are three people this mental in one tiny prefecture – but it’s possible. The bike ride was monstrously exhausting; it didn’t help that we got lost numerous times – on a well-marked trail…. When all was said and done (and we were too tired to function or think), we biked over 80km, or 55 miles. I may never ride a bike again. It was a breathtaking ride, though and a great adventure through the islands and over the brides and across the sea in Japan!

(disclaimer: just because you run 2-3km three times a week does NOT mean biking 70km will be “fairly easy,” as I may or may not have suggested it would be…)

Saturday morning – 10am: First island (after getting lost for an hour – which added, oh, an additional 10km to the ride)

The second bridge. The ride is beautiful, albeit masochistic.

and then we were on Easter Island! Me: "What? Why?" Whitney: "This is Japan." TIJ. Truth.

(Disclaimer: inappropriate simile) All the green was like an orgasm for my senses. it's so lush it's unreal.

Atop one of the bridges.

Whitney and Kwame at 40km. I have no idea how I had the energy to even take the picture!

28km left - In my head: "OMG I WANT TO BURN THIS BIKE." Around 30km or so, we made a wrong turn onto a more advanced path. Then, Kwame went ahead while Whitney and I stopped for a water break. When we went to catch up with him, we made another wrong turn and ended up on a super advanced, "short-cut" path. By "super advanced" they mean LANCE ARMSTRONG WOULD BE PANTING.

The chain came off Kwame's bike. Solution? Give up. (also, thank goodness for the vending machine love in Japan - we always had water!)

A second wind. Me: "Alright, guys - I'm feeling genki again! (happy/excited/ready to go) We can do this!" So. so wrong.

60km. 6:30pm. Waiting for Whitney and Kwame to catch up, I fell asleep on the road. Really.

The final bridge!!!! It's 4km - the longest - and has an incline - the hardest. But the sunset was gorgeous. I rode with one hand on the handlebars, and the other pushing my leg down to keep moving.

Sunset rest break.

I couldn't get enough.

last one. I promise.

But, by 8pm, we made it! Truthfully, I am shocked that we finished it. I kind of expected desperately wanted us to return the bikes somewhere along the way and take a bus. None of us would really settle for that option, though. knew where we could do that, though. By “none of us” I mean Whitney and me. Kwame outcycled us like nobody’s business. Boy can bike.

It was hard, but it was rewarding (kind of) to finish it. My muscles felt like they were on fire, and I was sunburned and grouchy, but doing this bike ride has been a goal of mine since last September, and goals are good to meet… right? haha I wouldn’t do it again, but it really was a good experience.

Interested in cycling the Shimanami Kaido? Here are some tips:

Rent bikes near the Onomichi Port. It’s across the street from Onomichi Station on the JR line. Fax this bilingual form to reserve bikes. I recommend this – bikes go quickly, especially near holidays. The start of the route is not in Onomichi. Take the ferry by the bike rental (yeah… it probably should have been self-evident for us, too….). There are three routes – a recommended, intermediate and advanced. Stay on the recommended if you’re not moderately fit superhuman. Watching the sunrise over the last bridge is beautiful but try to cross it before dark (it feels never-ending…). There is a Sunrise Itoyama right off the ramp of the last bridge in Imabari. Rooms are as cheap as 4000yen for a single. You can also return bikes here. There’s an affordable, pretty tasty restaurant and a large ofuro. They have a free shuttle bus in the morning to the JR Imabari Station. Ganbatte!

Snow BEST – Sapporo Snow Festival 2010 (part deux)

•June 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

J-Fans drinking in their – pop

boys are jumping –

the Eiffel Tower

is so blue – in Sapporo,

1950s  ice skates swirl

like the snowflakes splashing my tongue-

Ikimashou!

Snow Fest 2010 has just begun.

Gosh. Well, I fell in love with winter at Yuki Matsuri, the Sapporo Snow Festival. It was negative 10 and 15 degrees, but I felt warm wrapped in my blanket of winter. There were nine of us – I call us the Yamaballas – a name so glib it has stuck. There were nine of us – and we filled Sapporo as fully as did Jimmy’s Backpackers, on the edge of Odori Park.

Tiff and I join forces to become the newest villain around: the Two-Headed Giant Snowman!

I’ve tried for three weeks to write about our trip, but all I have is strikethrough marks and discarded pages. You see, Snow Fest was so brilliant and so charmed with the purity of a new snow and all the forgiveness it brings that it seems the memory has burrowed its way into a very cavernous, visceral place in my heart. I can’t think about it without smiling, and I can’t smile about it without missing it, and I can’t miss it without getting misty-eyed about it,  and I can’t do any of that without tasting supernaturally sized Hokkaido snowflakes on my tongue and hearing the Hawaiian Tiff Yoshi say, “But I thought snowflakes were as big as the ones we made in school out of paper.”

sigh

These snowflakes were just about that magical.

Callie and I chug alongside Thomas the Tank

There’s a freshness in the air there that made me laugh every time I tumbled on the ice-coated streets and gave me the giggles when I frolicked my way through a foot of snow to pose with a bigger than life-sized snowcature of Thomas the Tank Engine. I swear there’s a certain city-sized good karma that runs through Sapporo’s streets: the ramen makes you close your eyes and moan it’s that good; the karaoke sells itself with a kitschy “Dr. Horrible”-esque monster front; the chapel is so monstrously disappointing that it charms your frown right off.

The ever-popular Michael Jackson sculpture.

It coats you, this winter wonderland. And when you’ve seen the stories-high ice sculpted temple and grabbed your crotch in a classic MJ pose beside his face carved out of powder and drank kahlua hot chocolate while watching a traditional dance on a shrine of ice, it’s hard to think there’s anything you haven’t seen.

Then you’re on a train and a bus and standing at the top of the not-so-beginner slope at Teine, the site of 1972 winter Olympics, and the world just. stops. moving.

This slope was NOT a bunny trail, but the view was worth all the tumbles!

There are snowflakes dancing on your cheeks, and if you’re me you’ve lost your hat riding up the ski lift, but all you can see is the ocean spreading out so far in front of you like a baby blue sky on land. It’s framing the endless snow-capped peaks in front of you, and all you can think is that something, someone, sometime, somewhere happens just right and this was the result. So you do the only thing you can – you stare without blinking and swear you’ll always keep this picture alive because not much else in this life can possibly be karmically gifted enough to be this damn perfect.

Then, if you’re me, you tumble down the slop and land face first in a snowdrift.

So, you see, Hokkaido was perfection. Sapporo Snow Fest, this trip as we experienced it, was once in a lifetime. How do you tell that story?

Performers (very, very cold performers I imagine!) dance on a shrine made of ice. (Disclaimer – the video is really loud – you may want to turn down your volume before starting it!)

Mad powder! (Did I sound like a real snowboarder just then?) I only look so... right up because the trail was mostly flat. Now that's my kind of bunny slope!

The festival is divided between two sites. This one is much smaller and houses the ice sculptures.

Rawr.

Young girls singing on a giant Mickey and Minnie snowlpture

After a day of snowboarding, we somehow managed to conjure up the energy for karaoke.Callie and I rap to Eminem's "Lose Yourself"

In the giant ferris wheel that looks over Sapporo. You know, a lot of Japanese cities have these. It's like a thing.

DANPA. Which is panda, spelled inside out. There is more danpa stuff in Hokkaido than snow. Sapporo is covered in it. Every time we saw/heard merchandise, banners, whispered nothings about it - I burst out with, "WHAT IS DANPA?" I got my answer. It eventually becomes a part of you, and you just get it. Danpa is Sapporo. Sapporo is Danpa.

Yeehaw! A Yamaguchi Hoedown

•June 11, 2010 • 3 Comments

I write about my travels a lot… I’ve been to four countries this year, explored Japan more than I could have ever imagined possible, seen things I thought I might only ever dream about (ie – the North Korea border Great Wall). I’ve done a lot of very cool things this year. I don’t take any of them for granted, but in between all those big trips and big sights, I stay grounded by making rural Yamaguchi one of my favorite places to be. I don’t write about those times enough.

It has taken me the better part of this year to associate “grounded” with having every weekend free. I haven’t had my weekends completely free since I was 16 and started serving tables. Sometimes, I feel like I have too much time. And even when I don’t feel guilty for having so much time, I feel guilty for spending so much money. Weekends are for earning money, not spending it! That’s what I always learned. But here in the Guch, I do have free time, and I do have more money and more of a social life than I’ve ever had before. I know it’s going to end abruptly and painfully when I’m back, jobless, in the States in less than two months (!!), so I’m living it up and enjoying every single second.

One of my favorites of these weekends happened less than a month ago at the first ever Yamaguchi AJET Hoedown party. The theme was somewhere between White Trash Bash (yes, yes, I’ve heard all the “racist” and “classist” arguments – but I figure my lack of offense to this? It’s probably an in-group thing…..), country/western and hoedown. It turned into – anything that will fly in America’s Deep South – would fly at this party.

And the Deep South – well, that hits home (har har). In the past couple of months, I’ve been told that I’ve suddenly started sounding more southern than I ever have before. I’ve also started cooking southern food for my friends, and I went on a country music kick and burned myself a cd of all my old favorite country songs that I’ve about worn out. I don’t know what’s happening to me – it’s like a South Will Rise Again party inside me. It has to do with identity and me trying to find mine again after a year so far from my ‘normal’ life that I feel I’ve lost touch somehow. Whatever the psychology – it has been fun to reconnect in some serious and not-so-serious ways.

This party was the ultimate throwback to all the things I love to lovingly mock about the most about the south: classless fun, cheap beer, carefree dancing and, of course, all things red, white and blue.

And as the old saying goes, that my friends here love to tell me (and these pictures prove): you can take the girl out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the girl!

Enjoy!

Before the Hoedown, some of us got together for a dinner of MEAT. Just like a night back in Georgia! From the left going around - Mack, Chris, Callie, Tiff, Hozumi, Ryan, Seb, Brent, Mike, me

In this country world, grillin' is a womansss job! Kiwi Mike to my left and Kentucky Eric to my right. Wait for the costume Eric has in store for the night...

Jamie's and my new house.

Cyndi's top features red, white and blue stars and stripes, representative of the American flag. It's from Zara, a steal at only 3000yen. Callie's shirt comes straight off the arms of a country man himself. Her hat, spelling, "JELLS" can be found in Shimonoseki seamall for a bargain price of under 2000yen. Their bandanas are handmade from cut off jeans by designer Jamie Smith.

In Japan, it's just assumed all Americans carry guns. If you don't have a lighter, just pull out your .9!

Another southerner!! We've taken over the ken this year! Hozumi is from North Carolina.

Charles, in what distinctly reminds me of my 2003 mechanic's jumpsuit, is attacked by dancers.

And then came the dancing. I blame the results on Jack Daniels and Budweiser!

(Seriously, do I have no shame?!)

It’s called the Tush Push, y’all!

I love that the Brit, Jamie, boot scoots us under the table. He was born in the wrong country!

…and then there’s this. The dance-off at the end of the night. It was the last moment of the competition, and I had to put in something extra special to try to win it, so I did the classiest thing I could think of…

...this.

After that shining moment, I waited in anticipation for the awards results.

(drum roll please)

I didn’t win best dancer (HOW WITH CHOO CHOO TRAIN ARMS COULD I LOSE?), but I DID win…..

BEST DRESSED GAL! Eric, in his AMAZING Wal-Mart vest, took best dressed guy, and Monica took best dancer.

Best Dressed goes to the Kentuckian and the Georgian. What can I say? We know howta git 'er done!

Fantastic party. Fantastic friends. Fantastic food.

This party was so silly and the pictures are even more so, but they’re the ones I’m going to look back at in six months, a year, five years, and laugh so hard my stomach aches. And then probably cry – because I miss these people and this place so much. Yamaguchi and the Yamaguchians have become my home and my family, respectively. And THAT gets the biggest YEEHAW! 😉

Yuki Matsuri! Sapporo Snow Festival 2010

•June 7, 2010 • 1 Comment

Meet my friends!! This post is only about, oh, 3.5 months late, but better late than never? The next post will be my take on the Sapporo Snow Fest (easily one of my favorite memories from this year!) with even more pics. In this post – meet the group of people that have become the reason I can’t even bear to think about leaving Japan: the Yamaballas! (yeah…. we really do call ourselves that…… forgive us, please?!)

Courtesy of Kris Nand, Pretty Person and Nihongo Speaker Extraordinaire

(these are excerpts from a collaboration piece for the AJET Yamaguchi-ken magazine – ZenZen – about our collective trip to Sapporo, Hokkaido in February for the annual Snow Festival. ‘KNand’ wrote the majority of the descriptions. The rest comes from the speakers listed by their first names. Enjoy!)

King Kong in snow. This was one of the snow sculpture highlights!

BRR! It’s cold in here! I said there must be some Yamaguchers in the at-mos-phere!

…Or we could just be in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

In February, a large troupe of us (9 in total) headed up to Sapporo to see Yuki Matsuri, the snow festival held annually in Sapporo. There were massive displays of snow and ice sculptures, some large enough to take on actual buildings, and all were made with intricate attention to detail. Despite the frigid temperatures, people bundled up (we were quick to realize that one layer of socks was not enough) and admired the beautiful snow creations, while scarfing down delectable, hot festival food such as crab soup and ramen.

Callie: Yay, Sapporo!

Kris: Sapporo was COLD. This is coming from a Canadian. It reminded me of home!

Sebastian: I agree with Knand, it really did remind me of home, especially the crisp cold air, pretty refreshing.

(this included wearing more than two pairs of socks, カイロ in the boots and more than one sweater)

Tiffany Y.: Hey guys, remember when America conquered Canada? I believe you are called the Northern United States now…

Callie and I prepare for battle in an igloo outside of the Bier Garden at the site of the Great Canadian-American War of 2010.

Snowball fights are fun!

Sebastian: Truth. And remember how Canada snow-job-ed America?

(after a peaceful feast of mouth-watering lamb yakiniku, a certain Hawaiian [tTiff] opened fire on an innocent Canadian [Kris], pummeling her with snowballs. Tired of being the passive country, Canada retaliated, thus beginning a war of epic proportions between America and Canada. Despite being outnumbered (two against four), Canada fought valiantly but in the end, forfeited. Days later, Canada would dominate America at ice hockey in the Winter Olympics and win the most gold medals, fully “serving” the red, white and blue nation)

Sebastian: Eric’s ribs should be mentioned, as should Tiff’s wheelchair and 80s karaoke night…

(there were a notable number of fatalities (okay, fine, injuries), but not to worry, all of these stemmed from being injured in the Guch. Eric decided to try snowboarding for the first time on what probably is some of the best powder in the world. Unfortunately, his first fall turned out to be his last fall after landing on a previously broken rib. He never made it to the bottom.)

Eric: Hey, I think it’s only one rib, thank you. Thriller karaoke. That was pretty ballin’. And the crab. The crab was amazing. Remember Christina’s crab that she wanted to eat from the trash can?

Trash can crab. YUMMM!!

Kris: I think that shows how amazing the crab was in Hokkaido. Christina even wanted the puke-like remains.

(At the festival, there was a trashcan with the remnants of a massive crab in it. For some reason, Christina commented on how delicious it looked, unbeknownst that moments before, everyone was gagging at how disgusting it looked)

Christina: To defend myself, I was commenting on the fact that it was the biggest crab I’d seen, and THUSLY it looked “amazing”. I have not, and will not, ever eat crab from a garbage can. For the record, the crab that wasn’t in a trash can looked even more delicious.

Thriller Karaoke. Seb and I took it over with Meatloaf and Billy Joel.

Ryan: Oh yeah, Thriller karaoke! I don’t know what was better, the guys synchronized dancing, Eric’s rendition of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” all that alcohol, or Eric and Perry’s (Kris’s Canadian JET friend in Hokkaido) crab vs monkey walk afterward.  It was probably the alcohol.

Cyndi: 2 thumbs up for hot cocoa with Kahlua. Best festival stall of all time.

Callie: Shout-out to Jimmy! Our very awesome hostel owner and new bff.

Ryan: Holy crap, Jimmy’z hostel was awesome! So clean, small, cheap, best location…amazing! Not bad for my first experience in a hostel. I would have been happy so long as I didn’t have to crap in a bucket.

Kris: It was surprisingly really warm! Then again, they should know how to keep

Callie and me with Jimmy, the owner of our great hostel, Jimmy's Backpackers. Our group nearly took up the entire place!

warm up there. They take after Canadians. 😉

Eric: “Wao. Gaijinsanda.” I didn’t see as many gaijin as I thought I would. I think I liked that, though.

(when we were leaving a restaurant, a little boy piped, “Wow, gaijinsanda!”. Apparently seeing so many of us rocked his world)

Callie: Though there weren’t as many gaijin as we expected, there were enough that Cyndi almost punched me for playing the “There’s a gaijin!” game everytime I saw one.

Cyndi: Omg, and then to make fun of Callie, I started pointing out all the really unique gaijin (“there’s a gaijin wearing a green shirt!” “there’s a black gaijin!” ((really really rare)))–until finally I said, “Hey Callie –there’s a GAY gaijin!” and all his friends heard, turned and glared at me like I’m homophobic. Oops! Swear, I’m not, friends! I felt awful!

Ryan: I was a witness to that whole incident. I saw it coming right before Cyndi finished her sentence (because I was thinking the exact same thing). Those guys were pissed! I was waiting for shoes and pink scarfs to start flying. It was like watching a person get hit by a car while crossing the street: you don’t know if you should yell out a warning or sit back and watch what happens. I guess I chose the later.

Hozumi: Soup curry with broccoli and natto! ❤ And green onions –can’t forget that. And all the ramen we ate!

Ryan: No joke! I ate ramen 4 times in like 24 hours and it was amazing every time

Tiff, Seb and chocolate bananas. Sadly, they looked better than they tasted.

Tiffany Y: I ate a chocolate covered banana on a stick. In a wheelchair. During the coldest month of the year. In Sapporo. Twas delicious.

(You gotta eat to stay warm! Tiff was subjected to 2 hours in a wheelchair at the festival after her ankle was destroyed during her Oshima marathon. She was our little cripple.<3)

Ryan: Let’s recap all the things Cyndi lost or almost lost on this short trip, shall we? First, her brand new snow hat while riding on the ski lift. Second, her cellphone while attempting to conquer the mountain (later recovered at lost and found). Third, her bus ticket back to the station from the mountain (later recovered in her bag). Fourth, her cellphone, again!!! (almost left on the bus seat)

Cyndi: bahahaha The best part is that after all that, I waited at the bus station with Callie for 30 minutes for the next bus to Shimonoseki. When the bus arrived, I realized that I had lost my bus ticket!

Eric: I can’t get over how pretty that place was at night. I didn’t get any good pictures of it but walking through Hokkaido University’s campus was really pretty.

Coming down the snow slide!! SO much fun!

Christina: One of my favorite memories is the time where everyone else was incredibly excited to go tubing down a giant man-made hill of snow while I spent the entire hour in line imagining all the ways in which I could die during the 7-second ride.  It turns out that I am kind of a wimp!

Hozumi: Tubing in a winter wonderland! Knand lost her hat on the way down.

Kris: Yeah, we got to go down a massive snow slide in a black tube!!! Totally awesome. When my hat came off, someone had to climb up the slide to get it…

Ryan: I wish we could have ridden on that gigantic snow slide more! Too bad there were so many people waiting in line. Though, it was amusing watching people bust their ass on the ice as they joined the line. It was like a funny intermission to a show before the grand finale. I can say this because our whole group busted ass in the same spot.

Hozumi: The guy who put me in the line was like, “Are you scared? Ok, awesome! Let’s put you in the scary one [on the steepest slide].” I’m glad that Eric didn’t fall on his rib (or his face) while sliding down on the tube.

Eric: I am glad I could keep my face, all things considered.

Sapporo Clock Tower. Awesomely disappointing!

Cyndi: Personally, I’ll never forget the joy of my own disappointment at seeing the Sapporo Clock Tower – voted “Japan’s Third Most Disappointing Attraction.”

Callie: It lived up to its name!

Cyndi: It’s pretty… in a very, “That’s it?” kind of way. The ferris wheel was also pretty cool. We searched for over an hour to find it – it’s on top of a building, but the view of the entire city, with the mountains in the distance, is sick.

Callie: Which reminds me of the view from the top of the first run we did at Teine. I’ve seen some beautiful mountains in Colorado, but I’ve never stood on top of a mountain and seen both mountains and ocean for as far as I can see.

Kris: It was really breathtaking. Snowboarding was definitely a highlight! I can’t wait to go again next year! 😀

So this concludes our random reflection on Sapporo. It may seem like not much went down, but the food, the snow, the lights and the friends (of course) made it an amazing trip!

Ferris wheel view

Preparing to take on the slopes. From the left: Ryan, Kris, Christina, Hozumi, Callie; in back - Eric and me (Tiff was out injured and Seb stayed with her)

On snowboarding days, we call ourselves the Yamafallassss. (Well, Christina and I do, anyway!)

The view from the top of Teine, a former winter Olympics site.

Beer garden!! Callie and I ate here twice it was so good! It's tabihodai/nomihodai for 90 minutes (all you can eat and drink) lamb yakiniku (grill-it-yourself meat). DELICIOUS.

The girls, with fun-happy-smiley-care-bear-type-snow-sculpture-thing (from the left: Callie, Kris, Hozumi, me, Christina)