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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Train Stories #11: Between the Rice Fields

Emiful Masaki in Masaki, Ehime-ken.
Emiful Masaki in Masaki, Ehime-ken.

I’m usually sleepy and a little disgruntled on my Saturday morning train rides to work, but on a balmy morning last month, something inside of me was awakened – a realization that in another life, I was probably a Japanese Buddhist nun.

Every Saturday for work, I commute from the city center to a smaller country area just outside of Matsuyama. Smack in the middle of rice fields is Emiful Masaki (エミフルMASAKI), which is said to be the largest shopping mall in Western Japan and is quite the attraction in the otherwise rural Ehime-ken. It’s also home to one of my company’s English conversation schools.

As a result of the location of Emiful, there is always an interesting mix of people surrounding me on my morning train ride, from the J-pop wannabes glued to their iPhones about to spend their monthly earnings on designer clothing to the obasan carrying a rolling “granny cart” because she is going to the supermarket to buy groceries.

On this particular Saturday morning, two young men to my right chatted and laughed while the other young women surrounding me stared at their smartphones. All of the women wore pounds of mascara, covering their eyes like a black web. One proudly toted a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse and the others were admirably well-dressed and groomed with perfectly painted toenails and well-tailored clothing.

When the train stopped at Okada Station, a rural area with only ricefields in the distance, I looked out the window. Directly in front of me, there was an elderly woman probably in her late 70s working on a farm, tending to her rice crop on a cloudy Saturday morning. Like so many elderly woman I see in Japan, she probably walks with a hunched back after years of hard labor on the farm. Her life is her family and the crop she produces and harvests – a stark contrast to the designer brand frenzy that consumes so many of the younger generation in Japan and other wealthy countries.

As the train slowly started to move again, I forgot about the younger passengers surrounding me and noticed a woman sitting directly across from me. For some reason, I didn’t see her before.

I can’t remember anything she was wearing, but I can still see her posture vividly: she looked down at her shoes as she clutched her shopping cart. She never once stared at me or any electronic device, but rather seemed deep in thought, perhaps thinking about what she will cook for dinner or recent medical tests. “It’s the simple pleasures in life that matter the most,” she seemed to say to me, though we never made eye contact or said hello to each other. Every wrinkle on her face and hands seemed to tell a story of strength, survival and wisdom. Even though she was more than three times my age, I felt connected to her more than anyone else sitting around me.

At 古泉 (Koizumi), she and I exited the train along with most of the other passengers. I let her walk in front of me. She gently tugged at her cart and trotted to the grocery store past the rice fields.

I watched her for a few seconds before continuing on my path to work. She has no idea how much I admire her, but I do.

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.

Train Stories #10: The Girl Who Looked Up

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The Girl Who Looked Up

With a challenging new job and new city in Japan to establish myself in, it’s been a tough few months. I like many things about Matsuyama City and Shikoku, but some days, I find myself thinking about Toyama and all that I left behind ( friends, people who I genuinely loved, a good job where I was respected). There are days when I think the people in Namerikawa, the seaside town I lived in for two years, were simply nicer (though I’ve met great people in both places). It seems Toyama residents smiled at me more, asked about my life and were sincerely concerned if I felt sick. They also talked to me on trains more.

Most days and nights in Matsuyama, I’m alone in my apartment after work with too much to think about, sometimes cursing myself for perhaps making a poor career decision and sometimes cursing a country that I love but also find so frustrating.

So when a young girl who was no older than eight looked at me on the train one Saturday evening after work, I was somewhat surprised. With innocent brown eyes and a pink book bag, the young girl smiled at me as everyone else stayed in their own world.  Suddenly, any contempt I felt for my new situation melted. Something in her eyes spoke to me, seemingly saying, “I will speak English well someday, so I can talk to people like you.” I thought of my young students, some of whom can be really challenging but others of whom I feel privileged to teach. They try so hard after a full day of school to speak a foreign language very different from their mother tongue. At their age, I couldn’t even tell you how to say hello in Japanese, or any other language besides French or Spanish perhaps.

I was a little worried for the girl because she was on the train without a parent or friends, but it’s surprisingly common for young children to take trains alone in Japan, probably due to the fact that crime rates are extraordinarily low here. Still, I felt a little sorry for her and smiled back at her. She looked down as if she was a little embarrassed, but I could see the faint trace of a smile beginning to form under her cheeks.

I walked back to my apartment alone, feeling lucky to have taken the risk of moving to Japan to teach for a few years. I don’t think I want to be an English teacher in Japan for much longer, but these little experiences always make it worthwhile.