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.

Train Stories #8: The Boy in Blue

“I am a rock. I am an island.” -Simon & Garfunkel

Everything about him was blue – from the frame of his glasses to the sad, doe-eyed look in his eyes.

When riding a local train recently from Naoetsu to Namerikawa – about a two-hour journey – a boy dressed in nearly all blue sat in the seat diagonally from me.  I was riding the train with my sister, who was visiting me in Japan for the first time.  For the first part of our journey, we were the only two passengers in the car and after talking for a bit, my sister rested her eyes.  As she slept, I stared out the window, beginning to daydream about the future, until the boy in blue got on the train at Itoigawa, a town of about 48,000 people in southern Niigata prefecture.

I had never seen someone wearing so many shades of blue at once before.

He wore blue jeans, blue socks and a striped blue-white collared shirt.  He carried a blue North Face book bag and wore a purple watch.  Dangling from his book bag was a small teddy bear charm.  A few minutes after boarding the train, he stretched his legs up on the seat in front of him and took out some paper.  Squinting and rubbing his forehead, he stared at the graphs on the paper with a diligent intensity.

After a few minutes of studying, his eyes slowly shifted to the window.  It was dark outside, and we sometimes went through tunnels, which muffled the sound in the train and caused some of the doors to violently shake back and forth.  But after passing through a tunnel, we could occasionally see the faint city lights glowing from homes and shops outside.

He looked about 18-19 and was probably a first-year university student.  He reminded me of many high-school aged students I see in my Japanese town.  They are constantly studying on trains, even on the weekends.  They joke and laugh when with their friends, texting on their cell phones and teasing one another about sports and girls.  But when alone, their disposition changes to that of a lone wolf.  They zone off and listen to their mp3 player and read a textbook or worksheet in hand.

I wondered what the boy in blue was thinking.  Like so many other Japanese young men, his fortress of solitude seemed impenetrable.He left the train sometime before we got to Toyama.  He moved so quietly that I can’t even tell you what stop he got off at.

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.

“Eh?”

“High school?,” I said again.

“Yes.”

“Cool!”

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.

(^_^)

Fukuoka’s Tsukurimon festival

Fukuoka, Toyama Tsukurimon festival

One of the best parts of exploring a new culture and country is seeing things you never thought imaginable.  I encountered this feeling of awe when I took the train to Fukuoka, Toyama in September to see the Tsukurimon festival, an event devoted to creating art out of produce.  Here are some memorable pictures from the festival.

Vegetable cat bus ( ねこバス/nekobasu) from Totoro
Vegetable Chopper (from the anime One Piece)
Vegetable dancers