Sayonara, Japan – A Photo Essay

The biggest decision I made in 2013 was moving from Japan back to Chicago.  Although I’m looking forward to establishing a career in America, I miss my Japanese friends and my daily life there.  Thankfully, I have hundreds of photos to remind me of the gentleness, beauty and challenges of life in Japan.  Below are 12 photos representing my year, and many of them were taken in Japan.  As always, thank you for traveling with me.  I’m looking forward to a great 2014, and I wish you all a prosperous New Year.  For the extra curious, see my 2010 in photos here, 2011 here and 2012 here.


I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s holidays in America (overhyped & overpriced) but New Year’s Day in Japan is more like Christmas in America — the days leading to January 1st are meant for reflection and quality time spent with family.  On New Year’s Day, many Japanese people visit shrines or temples to pray for a healthy year.  I rung in 2013 at Ishite-ji Temple and on January 1st, I visited Matsuyama Castle for kakizome (writing the first kanji of the year).



On a balmy Sunday in early February, I traveled to Gogoshima Island to harvest mikan (oranges) on a steep mountain.  We sent 32 boxes of fresh oranges to the people of Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster still impacts so many.




The innocent faces of these two sisters, who were playing drums at a festival in Matsuyama, brightened the day of so many.



I had too many cherry blossom photos to choose from.  And while I don’t think this is necessarily my best picture, I couldn’t resist the chance to see sakura up close one last time.  The image of thousands of sakura petals falling to the ground every April is something I will always remember about Japan.



I also had too many photos to choose from in May thanks to many travels, but May marked the first time I returned to my Japanese hometown of Toyama.  I bicycled to my junior high school on a cool spring day and was awestruck once again by the might of the Tateyama Mountain Range.



I took this photo with my old iPhone, so it’s not the clearest.  But to me, this picture describes the dissonance often apparent in so many aspects of Japanese culture.



My friend Tsuneo-san took me to the top of Mt. Ishizuchi to see a spectacular sunrise.  I easily consider this one of the most serene views I have ever seen.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to live in another country other than my own, and to see life from completely different perspectives.  This picture reminds me that even through a sea of clouds, the sun always emerges eventually.



As my time in Japan came to a close, Tsuneo-san and another friend took me to see an equally amazing sunset overlooking the Shimanami Kaido Bridges, which connect Shikoku Island to the mainland.



My last month in Japan.  In my three years in Japan, I experienced so much — earthquakes, typhoons, confusion beyond expression.  And yet I survived it all and loved so much about my time abroad, in particular the gentle people who I met and now hold in my heart forever.  I’m not the same person I was before Japan and will never be.  I climbed mountains with amazing friends, and always enjoyed the view, even on cloudy days.  Japan isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful time. (Pic is from the top of Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima, the second highest mountain in Shikoku.)



And so I began my new journey in Chicago.  I was delighted to be around family again but also experienced frustrating moments where sometimes, I felt like an alien in a strange new country called America.



Even though I visited my family every summer during my three years in Japan, I have realized that I also missed so much in my time away.  So, I’m especially happy to have moments now where I can reconnect with my family and learn more family history.  In November, for the first time, my father and I visited the grave of his maternal grandparents, who dedicated their plot to their son, my father’s biological father, who was killed in WWII.  Sound confusing?  Life almost always is.  Read more about the story here.



Footprints in the snow on a sidewalk near my parents’ house.  As I write this, Chicago is battling brutally cold, sub-zero weather that has forced schools and some businesses to close for two days in a row.  I’m also waiting to hear back about a job that I hope to get.  So I’ve been spending more of my days inside close to my computer and phone rather than outside.  But as I continue on my journey and new life, I’ll always consider myself a seeker, hoping to leave some sort of positive imprint in the world.


The Ballad of Michael McDermott

Photo of Michael McDermott at the Metro by Niva Bringas.

One of the most challenging things about being a journalist is the fact that, oftentimes, the story never ends.  You have to be constantly digging – interviewing more people, combing through more documents and following-up with your sources.

Rest doesn’t always come easy.

But through it all, we are rewarded with meeting and conversing with people who have the potential to impact our opinions on life even through only a one-hour interview.

I often think about those in the past I have interviewed – from a boy with cancer to a mother trying to get her life on track after suffering from drug addiction.

Although we have only met on a handful of occasions, Michael McDermott is one of those interviewees who impacted my life.

I first met McDermott, a singer-songwriter, in a Chicago graveyard six years ago.  For a college magazine writing class, I wanted to profile two musicians and/or bands – one more established but still trying to “make it” and the other just beginning.  I hoped to compare and contrast their experiences.

After a few weeks of searching, I found my subjects in McDermott, who was often hailed by critics as the “next big thing” in the early 1990s, and the Mannequin Men, a Chicago punk band I had interviewed for an article in The Daily Northwestern.

Both McDermott and the members of the Mannequin Men were talkative and outgoing, but I was struck most by McDermott’s willingness to be a friend to anyone.  I spent time with him in bars, backstage and in his car as he drove me and my friend Tom around Chicago.  In that time, he was constantly surrounded by people who cared about him and he for them.  He told me that he often struggled with the darker side of life – including drug addiction in the past – but his friends always made him want to become a stronger person.

After writing my story, I decided to separate McDermott’s story from the Mannequin Men’s at the suggestion of an editor.  I waited and waited for the right moment to pitch it to a publication, but it never felt complete.

Writing backstage at a Michael McDermott concert (Photo by Thomas Lee)

When I was ready to give up on journalism completely, I unexpectedly ran into McDermott at Uncommon Ground, a small venue and restaurant in Wrigleyville.  We chatted a bit and I talked to him about some of my frustrations. “Sheila, I’d hate to see you give up on your dream because of a temporary situation,” he said.

Those words stuck with me, and although I am no longer a full-time journalist, I know I will always continue to write in some capacity.

I am happy to say that since our last encounter, McDermott seems to be doing well.  He is now married to Heather Horton, also a musician, and they have a beautiful daughter Rain (named after one of McDermott’s songs).

McDermott recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his first album 620 W. Surf, which brought him some fame and mainstream media attention.  He performed the album and its follow-up, Gethsemane, in their entirety recently at Lincoln Hall.  He also performs on July 10th at Uncommon Ground to celebrate the venue’s 20th anniversary.

His story seems to have come full circle, so I finally decided to share my original McDermott article.  It is this week’s feature story at Gapers Block.  Read it here if you like.