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.

JANUARY

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).

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FEBRUARY

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.

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MARCH

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

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APRIL

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.

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MAY

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.

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JUNE

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.

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JULY

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.

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AUGUST

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.

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SEPTEMBER

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.)

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OCTOBER

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.

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NOVEMBER

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.

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DECEMBER

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.

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Sunset Journeys

I feel sad that I haven’t had time to write as much as I would liked to this year.  My job keeps me quite busy everyday, and when I’m not working, I am trying to explore Ehime (and Japan) as much as possible.  Thanks to the help of my gracious students, I recently had the opportunity to see two beautiful sunsets.  The first was near Imabari City, home of the spectacular Shimanami Kaido Bridge, which connects Shikoku with Japan’s main island (Honshu).  The second was from Futami Beach in Ehime, a popular place for tourists and locals, mainly because of the stunning sunset that can be seen from the beach.  I suppose it’s fitting that I post two pictures of sunsets, as in exactly one month, I will be returning to America.  I’ll soon be reflecting more about my time in Japan, and chronicling more “Stories from the Inaka” as I look back on my three amazing years in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Sunset over Shimanami Kaido Bridge.
Sunset over Shimanami Kaido Bridge.
Sunset over Futami Beach in Futami, Ehime.
Sunset over Futami Beach in Futami, Ehime.

The Fleeting Beauty of Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Spring is my favorite time in Japan, mainly because for two fleeting  weeks, cherry blossoms emerge, luring the young and old outside to appreciate Japanese nature at its finest.  Although cherry blossom season is over in Matsuyama, traces of fallen blossoms remain on the ground, reminding me to appreciate things or people who won’t always be around.  Below are some of my favorite photos from this year’s hanami season in Ehime.

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A couple relax under a cherry blossom tree along Ishite River, Matsuyama.

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The elderly enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms.

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Matsuyama’s famous ferris wheel as seen from atop Matsuyama Castle Park.

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石手川公園松山 (Ishitegakoen train station, Matsuyama).

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Dogo Park.

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The view of the cherry blossoms along Ishite River Park as the sun sets.

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Matsuyama Castle.

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A man rests on a bench after biking along Ishite River Park, Matsuyama.

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Nanrakuen Garden in Uwajima, Ehime.

My Second Year in Japan – A Photo Essay

Per my blogging tradition, below is a collection of 12 photos representing my 2012.  In general, it was a good year, but also a challenging and emotional one, where I said many goodbyes, changed jobs and moved to a different part of Japan.  I wish everyone a very prosperous and healthy 2013. あけましておめでとうございます!

JANUARY

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Toyama is a part of Japan’s 雪国(snow country) and the winter brings days and nights of endless snow.  This is a picture of a frozen window at Hayatsuki Junior High School, where I worked as an ALT for two years until July.  I love the imprints from my students’ fingerprints.

FEBRUARY

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One of my favorite places in the Toyama region is Gokayama, a small village tucked away in the mountains full of “gassho” style homes.  These traditional houses are all built with a steep thatched roof said to resemble clasping praying hands (and protecting the homes from the heavy snowfall).  On certain nights in the winter, the village is lit up with candles, creating a mystical winter wonderland for everyone to walk around and appreciate the beauty winter brings.

MARCH

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Now I know what it feels like to get married! (Sort of).  雛祭り, or hinamatsuri/Doll’s Festival, is celebrated every year in Japan on March 3.  On this day, people pray for young girls’ growth and happiness. Several dolls dressed in traditional Heian period clothing, representing the emperor, empress and their court, are often put on display. I was asked to dress up like a doll with my friend Jon, a fellow ALT in Toyama-ken.  We walked around the festival greeting people and taking pictures as if we were the emperor and empress! 楽しかったですよ!

APRIL

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No year in Japan is complete without seeing sakura, or cherry blossom trees.  In late April, my friend Jenson and I biked to a park bordering Uozu and Namerikawa for the first time just as dusk was approaching.  The blossoming sakuras and lit lanterns created a magical, very peaceful, atmosphere – a welcome gift after a long winter.

MAY

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My sister and two friends came to Japan during Golden Week, so I spent my spring vacation showing them around several “must-see” areas of Japan, including Tokyo, Kyoto and of course, my former stomping ground Toyama.  My sister and I both snapped a picture of this young boy running gleefully through Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine, one of my favorite places in Kyoto. かわいいですね。

JUNE

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I finally saw a geisha (or a woman dressed as a geisha).  I love the stare this woman is giving to the person next to her.  I saw her at the Kanazawa Hyakumangoku festival.

JULY

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I spent my July saying goodbye to Namerikawa, the seaside town I lived in for two years.  I took this picture while biking home from one of my elementary schools, likely teary-eyed at the thought of leaving the view of the Tateyama Mountain Range and open freedom of seeing rice fields upon rice fields.

AUGUST

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I spent most of my August in Hiroshima, studying at Hiroshima City University as part of the Hiroshima & Peace Program.  On August 6, the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing, thousands of people gathered along the riverfront and set afloat paper lanterns in memory of ancestors, friends, and other loved ones lost – not only on that fateful day, but in wars and tragedies across many nations.  I lit one in honor of all those who lost their lives in war, as well as my paternal grandmother, whose life story inspired me to apply for the program.

SEPTEMBER

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I moved to Matsuyama on Japan’s Shikoku Island in late August for a new job.  Matsuyama is the largest city in the otherwise rural Ehime Prefecture, and like Toyama, a kind of hidden gem in Japan.  This is a view of the city from the top of a hill in Dogo Park.

OCTOBER

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Mt. Ishizuchi, in Ehime, is the tallest mountain in western Japan.  I climbed it with a group of my adult students on a lovely October day.  The rugged landscape from the top was awe-inspiring, and made me want to climb many more mountains before I leave Japan.

NOVEMBER

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Shimonada Station in Iyo City, Ehime, is the said to be the closest train station to the ocean in Japan.  One of my adult students, who told me this is his favorite place in Japan, took me here on a fall day to photograph the sunset.

DECEMBER

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The holidays are sometimes the times when I feel homesick the most.  I haven’t been home for a family Christmas in three years, and I miss my mother’s home-cooking and all the other comfort that comes with being around family.  Thankfully, this year, I spent a day with my summer host family in Hiroshima.  We walked around Hiroshima Dreamination, a spectacular collection of illuminations that recreates a fairytale world for children and adults.

Slowly Becoming an Instagram Junkie

I’ve been playing a lot these days with Instagram, the popular photo sharing program recently acquired by Facebook.  I’m usually not one for gimmicky iPhone apps, but I must say that I enjoy exploring what I can do using one of Instagram’s 16 digital filters.  Best of all, the app is free and makes it easy to share pics and follow other photographers.  Here are some of my favorite photos that I have taken with Instagram.  You can follow me on Instagram @lulubellphoto.

Orix Buffaloes baseball game at Kyocera Dome Osaka
Tokyo skyline from Mori Tower
Shibuya, Tokyo just after sunset
Gion District of Kyoto
Sakura in Takaoka
Miyajima deer
Floating torii gate in Miyajima
Namerikawa sunset
The road to my junior high school (Hayatsuki) in Namerikawa

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.

2011年はとても大変でした、でも日本が大好きです。

January

Gyouden Park in Namerikawa on a snowy January morning

February

Hakuba Ski Resort in Nagano, Japan

March

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

April

Cherry blossoms in Kojo Park, Takaoka, Japan

May

Bonsai rooftop garden at Bonsai Guesthouse in Osaka, Japan

June

Sea of Japan sunset from Namerikawa

July

Creek in Kamiichi, Japan

August

Nebuta festival in Namerikawa, Japan

September

Owara Kaze no Bon Festival in Yatsuo, Japan

October

A traditional Japanese garden in Toyama, Japan

November

Design Festa in Tokyo

December

Two brothers enjoying candy canes at Namerikawa International Day

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