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.


Transition Japan: Your Apartment

This is the first in a series of posts about life in Japan and life as a member of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). Please write any questions you would like me to address in the comments section below.

The outside of my apartment building.
The outside of my apartment building.

If accepted into the JET Program, your Contracting Organization (CO) or Board of Education (BOE) will determine your housing situation. Rent, size and money deposits will be different for every JET. More often than not, you will live in the same apartment as your predecessor. Homes are usually located near your main workplace, close enough so that most JETs I knew could walk or ride their bicycle to work. Apartments in Japan are often called “1K,” “1DK,” or “1LDK” based on the number of rooms.  A “1DK,” which most single JETs seem to live in, means you will have a kitchen and separate bedroom.  If you are married and/or have a family, your CO will likely organize a larger apartment for you and your loved one(s) to live in. You are technically obliged to live in your apartment for at least one year, so it is unwise to say you want to find your own housing, especially given how stringent some Japanese renting companies can be when it comes to dealing with non-Japanese people. However, if after one year you really want to move to another place, definitely talk in advance with your CO to make arrangements. This situation isn’t ideal — and it’s not guaranteed your CO will help you move to another place — but it’s worth expressing your opinion if you feel like a move is necessary for your well-being.

My BOE helped cover some of the cost of my apartment and I did not have to pay any key deposit money. As a result of the subsidy, I paid 20,000 yen per month (about $200/month). Electricity and water were not included, so total costs were around 30,000 yen per month ($300/month). Given my JET salary, I considered this a good deal. As you can see from the photos, my apartment was fairly narrow, but it suited my needs just fine for two years. Other JETs in the neighboring town lived in spacious houses and paid no rent, so it really depends case by case. I lived about 15 minutes by bicycle to my base school (i.e., the school I visited most often among my five). I also lived in the same apartment building as two other ALTs who worked at my town’s other junior high school and high school, in addition to a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR). This made my situation feel much more comfortable, especially at first when I was just starting out and noticed that my Japanese neighbors never spoke to me. Although you are not 100 percent guaranteed to live in the same apartment as other JETs, it is likely you will be fairly close to other JETs, especially if they live in the same town as you.

The entrance (and kitchen) to my apartment.
The entrance (and kitchen) to my apartment.

My BOE supplied me with basic furnishings (refrigerator, rice cooker, washing machine) and I bought all other major necessities from my predecessor, including a bed, bike and couch. You will likely not have a dryer in your apartment per Japanese tradition, so you will have to hang your clothes outside to dry when the weather allows it and/or visit a coin laundry to dry your clothes. If you need something that isn’t in your new home, check 100 yen stores first before looking at other more expensive stores or online (this is a trick I learned from my neighbor, Jenson, who helped me transition into my new home).

The bicycle parking area outside of my apartment building.
The bicycle parking area outside of my apartment building.
Basil growing on the "balcony" of my apartment.
Basil growing on the “balcony” of my apartment.
Rainy day view from my "balcony."
Rainy day view from my “balcony.”

I hope this answers your basic questions about apartment life. Again, please post any comments or questions below.

Transition Japan: Coming Soon

A man at a festival in Kanazawa, Japan.
A man dressed as an oni (mythical Japanese demon) at a festival in Kanazawa, Japan.

I recently presented at an information session for aspiring teachers and translators who are interested in working in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET).  In addition to gushing about my Japan experience, I received a number of thoughtful questions from prospective applicants.  Sometimes, I forget that Japan can seem so mysterious for people who have never visited or worked there.  Japan now feels like a second home to me, and it’s a place I encourage everyone to visit if they have the means.  But most people who do spend time here go through some form of culture shock.  In this series, Transition Japan, I hope to “demystify” the Land of the Rising Sun and respond to questions about the JET Program and about life as a teacher in Japan in general.  The inaugural post will be about my apartment (size, rent, neighbors). Please post any questions you would like me to answer in the comments section.

A Farewell to Japan

It’s hard to believe that three years ago I came to Japan. The time has passed so quickly, and I feel like a different person in so many ways. In July 2010, I boarded a plane from Chicago to arrive in Tokyo and begin a new adventure teaching English in Japan. Excited but also extremely nervous and worried, I planned to stay only one year. Slowly, one year turned into two, and two into three.

Finally, it is time to bid a temporary farewell to my love, Japan. I am in LAX Airport waiting for my connecting flight back to Chicago. I have no idea what the future holds, but I will certainly be writing many more “Stories from the Inaka” now that I will have more time. Thank you always for reading, and safe travels to you on your own journeys.


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.