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 # 9: The Man in Rainbow

Osaka, the third largest city in Japan with a population of more than 17 million in the greater metropolitan area, has the reputation of being one of the rougher cities in Japan.  Compared to Tokyo, where millions of businessmen and woman in ubiquitous black suits and shoes ride the trains like zombies in a trance, the people of Osaka can sometimes be a little more straightforward and colorful.  It’s often said that Osaka people just like to be different.

They stand on the right side of the escalator (instead of the uniform left in Tokyo), they bump into you with uttering as many sumimasen (excuse me) and they sometimes can be a little abrasive.  The first time I ever witnessed a Japanese person shouting at someone was in Osaka’s JR Fukushima Station, where a man in casual jeans and a sweatshirt screamed at the train attendants for a good 10 minutes (he was still shouting when I boarded the train).  The train attendants just stood there without so much blinking and let the man release his energy.

An awesome hippie in Osaka

But even with that said, Osaka is still in Japan, meaning although it has a grittier vibe compared to other Japanese cities, it’s still a city brimming with people who work to death and travel to and from business in uniform fashion.  It’s a way of life everywhere in Japan.  You follow the rules.  You are on time.  You straighten your black suit or skirt and do what you are told without complaining.  Their work ethic is both admirable and maddening at times, like an entire population of people is just waiting to break free from the chains of twelve-hour per day labor.

So when I spotted a Japanese man wearing a blue baja shirt, patterned bell-bottom jeans and red shoes on an Osaka JR Loop Line train, my eyes were drawn to his colorful wardrobe.  Amid the surrounding grey of the train and passengers wearing conservative weekend clothing, he stood out like a rainbow emerging from the clouds after a rainfall.  He was probably in his early 50s and had a full head of long, stringy grey hair.  His youth was far gone in his face, but his clothes spoke another language.  The vibrant colors of his clothes seemed to scream:

I am proud of who I am!

I can’t say for certain if he thought the same thing, but I was proud of him.

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.