One Year Strong

Last year on this exact date, March 11, I stared at my computer and TV in a daze.  My Japanese TV looked like this:

My Japanese TV on March 11, 2011

One of the largest earthquakes in history had just hit Japan and a tsunami washed away towns in an instant.  On top of that, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was severely damaged and leaking radiation.  Even several hours after the disaster, I had no idea that more than 19,000 lives were lost in a single moment.  All of us in Japan were still trying to understand what had just happened.  With constantly watery eyes and an uneasy stomach, I refreshed the BBC’s Website for the latest news and phoned my family back home as much as possible.

I was safe in a warm and clean apartment with clothes, food and friends.  Meanwhile our neighbors to the northeast were grappling with how to survive.

Being in Japan during and in the aftermath of the quake, I can say that I feel changed for the better.  Shamefully, I sometimes still have moments of self-pity where I can’t seem to see how lucky I really am.   But I also feel stronger and humbled by what I’ve seen the human spirit endure even in the darkest of times.

My thoughts on this day are with all of those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, or 3.11 as it is called here.  I hope this is something we don’t remember only once a year.  It should stay with us forever.

Below, I have listed some of the most compelling media I have encountered regarding the anniversary.

Arigato from Japan – This moving video also includes the story of Taylor Anderson, one of two teachers with the JET Programme who were killed by the tsunami.

Fukushima’s Brave Hearts by The Guardian‘s Elena Omura – This thought-provoking essay discusses the often-ignored socioeconomic impact of the tsunami.  “One can’t help but wonder if the discourse would be different had it been Tokyo that was washed away,” Omura writes.  “The fact is Tohoku’s economy and industries were already in severe decline prior to 3/11. It was one of the most isolated regions of Japan, and young people were leaving in vast numbers, seeking better opportunities elsewhere.”

Japan tsunami pictures: before and after – Some fellow ALTs shared this Boston Globe photo essay on Facebook.  If you click on pictures two through seven, you can see the exact same spot after the tsunami and exactly one year later.

All of these stories are haunting reminders that so much still needs to be done.  がんばって!

A February Love Story

My Grandmother, Patricia Carey Burt, on her wedding day (November 7, 1942)

“In the dark, picture me in your mind.  And I’ll lay with you, so you don’t have to be scared at night.”

-Kathleen Edwards, “Scared at Night

Nineteen years ago, on February 6, 1993, my paternal grandmother, Patricia Carey Burt, succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  She was 71 years old.  I was eight years old and in third grade at elementary school.

That night, my father came home late in the evening, just as he had been for some time now.  He spent most nights after work visiting her in the hospital with his brother and sisters.

As he walked up the stairs in the frigid night, with only a bleak porch light guiding him, I saw him through the window and greeted him as normal. “Hi, Dad. How is Grandma?,” I remember asking, probably in between getting a snack and thinking about what TV program was on next.

His face looked grim but he said, “O.K.” and walked to the bathroom.

I went downstairs to join my brothers and twin sister, who were watching TV.  A few moments later, dad came down to talk to us.

“Your Grandmother died today,” he said solemnly.  I am sure he added something more eloquent and profound, probably telling us she died peacefully and was in a better place now, but I can’t remember his exact words.

My siblings and I were all of course sad.  This was the first time we experienced the pain of losing a family member, and our Grandmother was always so energetic and loved being surrounded by family.  Like many grandmothers around the world, she loved her children and grandchildren more than anything in the world.

“So, Grandma died…” I said to my brother, Kevin, a few hours after my father broke the news.  He was 2 ½ years older, so I looked to him for some sort of reaction.  But we played video games and didn’t talk about it much.

I don’t remember crying that night, but I felt strange, as if some sort of energy in the universe had been altered.

Of course, though, I was eight years old and couldn’t process my feelings the same way as I do now.  I most likely hugged my teddy bear and fell asleep peacefully.

Sometime before her funeral, I wrote a small letter to her and placed it in a frame behind my favorite picture of her.  In the picture, we are celebrating her birthday, and she is surrounded by her grandchildren and homemade pie.

To this day, when I think of her, I remember that night, especially her soft cheeks as I gave her a kiss, her warm fur coat I always wrapped my arms around, and the smile she gave everyone who visited her.

Her smile was one Hollywood stars dream of on Oscar night – glowing and perfectly natural, as if no muscle was ever forced to make such an infectious facial gesture.

It never occurred to me that she had a difficult life, losing her mother at an early age, and losing her first husband, my dad’s biological father, in WWII. All of these tragedies happened in her teens or early 20s, an age now many women associate with self-discovery and career decisions, not finding yourself suddenly alone with a child to raise.  But even with these pressures, she persevered and never gave up on life or her family.

She met and married a very kind and stoic man, a Navy veteran, who raised my father and with whom she had three more children.  They were simply Grandma and Grandpa to me throughout both of their lives.  They lived in a comfortable house in a suburb of Chicago and worked hard to provide for their family.

Although I did not know her intellectually, I knew my Grandma loved all of her grandchildren equally, and she was always content just to see us, never asking for anything in return.  It is not until my adult life that I have started to think of her as an individual who suffered through so much but still found ways to enjoy life.  My dad often reminds me how much my Grandmother would have loved talking to me as an adult, probably about my travels or the latest books I am reading.  She probably would have been apprehensive about my decision to move to Japan and teach English for two years, but I like to think that she also would have eventually embraced my decision, eagerly awaiting postcards and listening to my stories about the culture.

Although I unfortunately don’t think of my late Grandmother as much as I would like to admit, there are strange ways I still feel a connection to her.

These past two weeks have been incredibly stressful on me, much like my last February in Japan.  I love my life here, but winters don’t seem to agree with me.  I spent last week worrying about my re-contracting decision and an appointment I had at a Tokyo hospital for some tests.  As a result, I had a series of sleepless nights where my head felt like a giant inflamed balloon. If I rested it on my pillow, it only felt like concrete.

Finally, one night around February 6th, I managed to fall asleep somewhat quickly.  That night, I had a vivid dream where my Grandmother appeared to me.  I was surprised to see her at a family event at my parent’s house.  It was summer and everyone was relaxing outside.

“Grandma, you’re here,” I said.  I didn’t want to tell her she had died.  I stood motionless but she just kept smiling.

“Yes, I’m here Sheila,” she said.

A few days later, my twin sister Brigid, who wrote very eloquently about our Grandmother’s first love for a high school essay, reminded me it was the anniversary of her death.

I had completely forgotten.

As soon as I got off the phone with my sister, alone in my Japanese apartment and an ocean away from Chicago, I thought for a moment of her life and what she would be like if she were still around.  I smiled at the blank wall.

I hope my Grandmother saw it.

One Year in Japan – A Photo Essay

It goes without saying that 2011 was a difficult year for everyone in Japan.  As the country continues to mend in 2012, I hope the rest of the world does not forget the beauty that is everywhere here.

In 12 months, through four distinct seasons and an emotionally impactful year, it is Japan that taught me how to be strong, persevering and unafraid.  For that, I am forever grateful.



Gyouden Park in Namerikawa on a snowy January morning


Hakuba Ski Resort in Nagano, Japan


Volunteers in Namerikawa, Japan pack boxes filled with relief items for victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami


Cherry blossoms in Kojo Park, Takaoka, Japan


Bonsai rooftop garden at Bonsai Guesthouse in Osaka, Japan


Sea of Japan sunset from Namerikawa


Creek in Kamiichi, Japan


Nebuta festival in Namerikawa, Japan


Owara Kaze no Bon Festival in Yatsuo, Japan


A traditional Japanese garden in Toyama, Japan


Design Festa in Tokyo


Two brothers enjoying candy canes at Namerikawa International Day

All of these photos were taken with my iPhone, Nikon Coolpix S6000 or Lumix G2.

Train Stories #5: The Girls Who Screamed “Kawaii!”

Kawaii culture in Tokyo

Train Stories #5 – On most days,  with wild, unkept hair and pants that don’t always fit me properly, I generally think I look like a hot mess  – or a life-sized fuzzball walking down the street.  But because I am white, slender and have greenish eyes, a lot of teenage Japanese girls seem to think I look somewhat exotic.

I am always flattered when I walk past someone in Japan, and I hear them quietly whisper, “Oh, kawaii…”

Kawaii (かわいい) is the Japanese word for cute, and it is used almost as much as teenage girls in America say OMG!

See that Winnie the Pooh pouch? Kawaiiiiiiii!

See that three-foot cellphone charm? Double kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

On Saturday night, I took the train to Takaoka for a nabe (Japanese soup) party.  I was dressed pretty casually — in jeans, Converse shoes, a winter coat and red cap.

The journey to Takaoka takes about 45 minutes by train, so once I found a seat on the train, I put on some music and took out my book (Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running).

Midway through the train ride, at Toyama Station, a bunch of high school students suddenly stepped on the train.  What was once a peaceful journey turned into a mini-high school drama akin to a scene in Hana Yori Dango.

High school girls in short blue skirts, knee-high socks and matching jackets were giggling and looking at their ketai (cellphones).  The boys around them, in disheveled white dress shirts and slacks, tried to look cool and oblivious, so they played games on their cellphones or looked out at the windows.

Even on Saturday evenings, most Japanese high school students wear their uniforms for club activities or tests, so I wasn’t surprised to see so many students still in uniform. Just as the train started to move again, two high schools girls sat across me.  I looked up briefly and suddenly heard one of the girls say, “kawaii.”

I smiled at them and went back to reading my book, but before I could finish the next word, her friend, who seemed shocked by my smile, instantly repeated “Oh, kawaii.”

This made me laugh and take off my earphones.

“Oh, kawaii….” they said once again, this time looking straight at me and giving me the Manhattan Once Over.

“Are you high school students?,” I asked.


“High school?,” I said again.



Both girls looked at each other.

“Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!,” they said again.

Since kawaii seemed to be the only word they liked saying in front of me, I smiled one last time and went back to reading my book.

The girls went back to talking to each other and texting on their phones.

As soon as we arrived at Takaoka Station, I said bye.

Their last words to me?

“Bye bye. Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.”

Later the next week, I took the same train to Takaoka for a birthday party.  This time, I dressed-up more in a purple dress, black boots and make-up.

I left my red cap, however, in my bag.

I sat next to a young woman who looked about the same age. She never made eye contact with me and clutched her leopard-print bag the entire way.

As the train stopped at Toyama Station, once again a large group of high school students got on the train. This time, however, everyone ignored me.

It must be the red cap that is extra kawaii.


The Howlin’ Wind

Winter has really hit Toyama this week.

Every night, I make some chamomile tea and wrap a blanket around my shoulders.  Just as I get ready to take a sip of the steaming tea, I turn off any music or TV show and listen outside for just a few minutes.

I always hear the  tempestuous wind, howling at anyone in its path, and making its boisterous voice known to everyone.