Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Successor

Somewhere, someone was eagerly waiting to find out if they had gotten into JET, was then waiting to see where they'd be placed and what academic level, and THEN wants to hear from their predecessor to learn as much as they can about their placement before they arrive to be totally prepared!


That was my experience at least, but due to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that happened mere months before my arrival, my whole process was pushed back by about six weeks. So maybe that's why I was so eager... 

My predecessor was helpful with whatever I asked of her and sent me a video of the apartment so I knew exactly what kind of space I had to work with when I arrived. Not only that, but if you remember this post, it also took the edge off my shock when I arrived (but did nothing to alleviate the tears. hmm). She would comment on my pictures the first few months after my arrival and so on. 

As I was waiting to hear about my successor, all the other ALTs had learned of theirs and began the usual process of informing them about their daily life and duties as well as trying to establish what could be sold to the successor or thrown away from their belongings. My JTE had told me on other occasions that my three previous predecessors were girls and from America so I just assumed that would be the case. I had wild imaginings of preparing long a Word document detailing every aspect of life in Tamba and what I had learned. I got this idea from my previous employment where a sort of manual is on file listing useful phone numbers and quick help guides, but with a to-do list as long as mine, that didn't happen..

Soon after I found a note on my desk with the name Peter Johnson and his email address. I took the grand leap of deducing that this was news I had been waiting to hear! Hello, Peter! Peter? A boy...huh, well look at that. He is from America though, and the nicest guy. We emailed each other a few times, but he didn't have many questions or expectations. He bought a few items off of me, but oddly refused the mattress. For some very hygienic people I know refusing a mattress is not a surprise at all (myself included), but I was selling it dirt cheap, it was a full size, already in the apartment, and even for a clean freak like me, a new mattress cover would have sufficed. He explained that a futon would be fine for him (maybe for the authenticity?) so I wished him Godspeed and sold the mattress to another incoming Tamba ALT.  (oh these youngens with their resilient backs). 

It's not too common for a predecessor and successors to meet since people usually leave their town to travel or go home right after their contract, but I was sticking around for various reasons and so, we met! It was strange going back to my home of two years, the site of so many happy, sad, quiet, personal, intensely visceral memories and having to walk in to my apartment like a guest. I explained a few things that were baffling him like the bathroom temperature control panel and the hot water faucet, and left my apartment forever. 

Good luck, Peter! May you come to love Tamba as dearly as I do (but you will never be queen of Kasugacho Mountain! That's mine forever! haha)

Friday, May 31, 2013

Spring Breakin' all the rules (Part 2)

Here is Spring Breakin' all the rules part 2! Click here for part 1~

I last left us off with me leaving the wondrous and ancient kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia bound for the 'Island of the Gods' as lauded by some, Bali.

I went via Malaysian Airlines where my dashing, but very tall companion had enough leg room to completely stretch out. He was quite excited about it for an 8 hour flight. We arrived at the airport at night and like in many Southeast Asian countries, the hotel pickup service was late and needed to be reminded to come get us as they had offered online. We arrived at the hostel and got the grand tour.

It. Was. Gorgeous!

Very lush, giant pool, open air bar and patio for morning breakfast and cathedral ceilings in our huge room that had a view of the pool from the balcony. It was also just down the road from the main road in Kuta. The only downside to this place was the spotty wifi, but not the worst thing when you're suppose to be disconnecting for a while, right?

Unlike Cambodia, we had whole of Bali to see and just 3 days to do it in. My friend had his must-sees and I had mine. Luckily, we had discussed beforehand what kind of travelers we are to see how compatible we'd be, so a lot of the same things were on both our lists.

Day 1: Tourists in the extreme!

I was told that Bali is the Australians what the Bahamas is to Miamians - a paradise next-door. Aussies go Bali for weekend trips and want nothing but the beach, pool, trendy shops, and restaurants. So that's what we did and it was glorious. That part of Bali felt very much like places we were used to back in our own respective countries, especially me as I thought of Miami Beach. Also keep in mind that back in Japan it was still cold even in March so a day at the beach was just what we needed. I took it up a notch and wanted a surf lesson. I'd never had one before and am always up for new experiences so I was really excited when I read about easy it was to book one. Different guys would have their surf boards set up on the beach and would kind of follow you for 10 feet while you passed them trying to convince you to have a lesson with them. The usual advertising was for a two-hour lesson for the equivalent of 30-50 USD. They know many people are tourists, so are willing and even expecting to pay this price no questions asked. I'd read online though how to handle the ones that we being too pushy or bargain them down if a two of you wanted a lesson for example. In principle, I hate being swindled, but when traveling in poorer countries, I try to consider that this is these peoples livelihood and if I'm blessed enough to be on vacation in their country, I'll pay their prices. BUT I refuse to be harassed or forced into any purchase so the winner of my surfing affection was this cool dude who, from a distance, called out and asked if I wanted a lesson and when said, 'maybe in a little bit,' he just gave me a thumbs up.

I walked up and said, 'how much for two hours?' He asked if my friend wanted one as well (probably already savvy to the split cost technique), but my friend wasn't interested. I ended up only paying the equivalent of 30 USD for 2 1/2 hours. I put on a skin guard and we practiced how it is you swim, stand, and steer all on the sand before heading out into the waves. The waves were rolling in gentle that day, but still high. My first problem was not standing up fast enough. If you don't do it in time, the momentum of the wave will prevent you from ever getting your balance once you're up. My second problem was overcompensating my balance to one end and virtually launching myself from the board. The last problem I had was trying to master this new technique while taking selfies with my underwater camera - haha! My friend was taking photos for me from the beach, but nothing like that first person point-of-view, right?  Once I started paying attention more, I picked it up quickly and was riding the waves all the way to shore. No fancy tricks or anything, but I was able to switch directions and do a cool pose for the beach paparazzi. I knew that dragging the surfboard from shore back out to open water over and over again was going to leave me aching so afterwards I decided to take advantage of one of the many spas~~~

My hubby walked with me till I found one that I liked and then he went off to do some tourist shopping while I had a two hour package deal. Massage, rose-petal milk bath, and hydration wrap, aaaahhhhhh. It's a little known fact about me that I love a spa day. You could gift me a spa day for any occasion and I'd love you forever. But this, this was the mother of spa days! Of course a spa day in Bali, paradise on earth, was going to include lush garden as your surroundings, the actual ocean sounds not far, and the sky changing colors like a kaleidoscope overhead. Surreal.

After the spa experience, we met back up and had a romantic dinner on the beach complete with a Balinese troupe of people playing traditional music as they walked up and down the beach as the sun was finally setting in to the sea. It's the most striking sunset on the ocean you'll ever see.

Day 2: Temples, temples, temples

Remember how I said Bali is the Island of the Gods? Well then naturally, there would temples everywhere to celebrate them. Like the Japanese, the Balinese didn't separate their religion from their lives; They blend seamlessly in everyday practices, architecture, and speech, so already we had been exposed to some of the religious paraphernalia. There are many famous temples, so with our limited time we chose they most famous and most varied of the options. We rented a taxi through our hostel (about 45 USD for 8 hours) which was the best thing we could have done. It was perfect to have a personal chauffeur, GPS, and tour guide all in one. This seems like an obvious perk to renting a taxi but I've actually known people who rented their own cars or mopeds because it's cheaper. Bali can have scattered showers and winding, dirt roads can be dangerous to navigate so I don't recommend doing so. Moving on, although the hostel told us how much it cost, it was important to also confirm this with the taxi driver at the onset. If you don't, they might say there were surplus fuel charges or some other bogus charge that surprises you at the end. Just like with the temples of Angkor, I'll list which ones we saw and my brief impressions:

Pura Taman Ayun

The most typical Balineses temple. It was interesting because we could see what the typical layout of these temples are with this one, but overall not too interesting. I think more interesting was how a group of ladies were falling over themselves to take a picture with me and boyfriend - two light haired, light-eyed foreigners. Oh, dear.

Pura Ulun Danu

This is the temple that you see whenever you google Bali. Picturesque, packed, and full of interesting facets to look at. Unfortunately, some of the infamous scattered showers was happening while we were there, so people were packing in all the crevices, limiting our leisurely strolling. There was a great market outside of it for souvenirs as well.

Tanah Lot

The must-see out of any temple on Bali, and at sunset for sure!! You can walk out the famous rocks, sit and watch the waves, wander around the typical pagodas, see the gates up close, get a snack nearby or visit the little shops on the grounds. I bought my favorite necklace there for 2USD and will forever regret not buying about 18 more.

These temples weren't close to each other, and of course we spent time at each one, so unlike at Angkor, we only saw these three. Also, we squeezed in time to go to a coffe plantation where I bought THE BEST dark vanilla chocolate I've ever had in my life, a short hike up to Git Git Waterfall which was definitely worth it, saw the famous stacked rice paddies, and went all the way up to the north to go to best Black Sand Beach in Lovina. 8 hours was all most not enough time, but we managed it!

Day 3: Just being a local

Due to different school schedules, I was leaving my boyfriend to go back to Japan while he continued on to one of the most famous diving spots in Indonesia, but on our last day together in Bali we walked around and saw some smaller local temples, found a mall in the touristy area where I did some shopping (and found some of my favorite shirts till this day) and enjoyed a last lunch eating traditional Balinese food we found in a hole in a wall. It was basically a no-fuss, let things play out kind of day taking in Bali as a local instead of a tourist. I then made my way to the airport via taxi and left this island in the sun.

Ever since that trip, when I tell people about my travel around Asia, the mention of Bali always seems to make their eyes widen just a little bit more. It's one of those places everyone says they'd love to go or imagine they would, but scarce few do. And I do consider myself extremely fortunate to have made it down there. It's not an easily accessible place of the world and I still pinch myself that I was able to go. I say 'able', but I know I moved heaven and earth to make to heaven on earth. Best decision ever.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Spring Breakin' All the Rules! (Part 1)

Last post, I explained how I managed to have a proper Spring Break despite my lack of PTO and now, here's the result! I had a fantastic 8 day journey yet again through parts of Southeast Asia that I never imagined myself going to. This time, it was with my best guy friend and together we set out to make this a trip of lifetime.

Early in January 2013 we were causally talking about what we'd both like to do before leaving Japan. After what was at first just a talk about what we longed to do, quickly became a plan! Not being overly ambitious with our limited break time in between semesters, we agreed on two countries and made clear goals for each. The first, travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the infamous Angkor Wat. The second, some chill time on the well known beach paradise, Bali.

I won't bore you with the details with how we figured out the ever exhausting puzzle of finding flights and accommodations, but after a crazy week of constant research and tactical planning, we managed to get very good deals on our flights and hostels. We get paid well enough on JET to not have to worry about price so much, but it becomes part of the challenge for the avid traveler.

After that was settled, the next hurdle was my 'spring breakin' out of work' plan (even though no work was to be had, since it was break for the kids, but you can read all about that here.) Last came my favorite part - planning the activities! Spontaneity always makes for better memories when traveling, but I would hate to have gone to a place and missed out on its most famous {fill in the blank} attraction out of pure ignorance. My policy is to be in-the-know about what to expect from a place and then let the days fill themselves with that knowledge or whatever else comes our way. What follows is an account of the activities we managed to do, which is impressively, about 98% of everything we wanted to do.

Overall Itinerary:
March 23        Flight from Osaka, Japan to Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 24~25  Trekking the Angkor Kingdom Ruins and Temples
March 26        Flight from Phnom Penh to Bali, Indonesia
March 27~29  Exploring beautiful Bali at our leisure
March 30        Flight from Bali, Indonesia to Osaka, Japan


The Kingdom of Cambodia is a fascinating place with a tragic history and the most kind people. If I had more time, I would have gone to see the sobering 'killing fields' and gotten to know more of the culture of Cambodia. However, my time only allowed me opportunity to go the World Heritage Site, Angkor Archeological Park. I've heard of visitors spending up to a week in this place, but most have a 3 day excursion (my companion and I saw the highlights in 2 days).

We arrived in Siem Reap after a layover in Shanghai where we met the nicest Korean gentlemen who inadvertently chatted us up so much we nearly missed our flight. How ridiculous would it have been to miss a flight during a 4 hour layover? Anyway, once we arrived we paid the 25 USD entry visa (paying for visas on arrival is not always an option so check that about any country you visit ahead of time!) and in line met a woman from San Francisco who was the chaperone of a group of high school kids on a volunteer trip. My boyfriend (he's going to get various names from now on) and I could pass as high school kids ourselves with our baby faces, so she must have felt the need to take us under her wing and next thing we knew, we were being escorted to our hotel on a free ride via their tour bus.

Arriving at our hostel, we immediately inquired about how we'd go about seeing the best of Angkor. As is usually the case with hostels, they are extremely helpful with these matters. We devised our plan for the following day, showered off the trip and got to bed. But not before learning our hilarious wifi password, you know, since we're unabashedly addicted to our smart phones. The rest of the trip consisted of us using that pass code as code for something or other (sorry! I'm gonna keep it our little inside joke, haha!)

Another thing I love about hostels is that they will typically have a restaurant attached to them that serves some of the local food for ridiculously cheap and without the hassle of searching for a place on your own. Cambodia used to be a French colony until as recently as 1963 and so baguettes were on the menu. Baguettes, fruits, eggs, beans on toast, juices..simple but delicious. After our $3 breakfast, our tour guide arrived. His name was Bo and is a friend of our hostel owner. This is obviously a partnership they have going on so we had full confidence that he'd be a good guide in the interest of keeping this partnership going. He would be taking us around the expansive park in his Tuk Tuk. A normal Tuk Tuk ride can cost between $2 - $4, so for the whole day we were asked to pay $15. That's it. He was going to be our personal driver and tour guide for $7.50 each (it wasn't required but we tipped him enough to make it an even $10 each). And after going to the park I believe transport via Tuk Tuk, as opposed to tour bus or bikes, is the best option. These temples are part of a huge complex and are not close together. Being in bus loses some of the adventure aspect of it, but being on a bike means you're exhausted by the time you arrive at each temple and have the sun beating down on you most of the day.

Bo recommended doing what is known as the outer (also 'big') circuit one day and then the most famous temples the following day. We trusted him and off we went. The hostel had also lent us a Lonely Planet book, so on our way to each temple we'd read up on what we were about to see. From the first temple to the last, each was unique in its own way and absolutely fascinating. Trees woven in between crumbling structures. Intricate carvings, weathered and yet vibrant with their history. The structures themselves stood tall and I for one found myself staring in awe.

The only unfortunate part of the experience is that in front of each temple are various peddlers grabbing for your attention, including small children. Even inside some of the temples, usually men crouched in a corner, are Cambodians offering to give you personal tours of the temple for a fee. What they do is they start walking with you, pointing things out and their significance. Once you're intrigued and listening, they ask for a tip. They also know some creative poses for pictures within the walls. Outside, food vender stalls set up which is convenient for a quick lunch break without leaving the grounds. I say unfortunate about these things because it does distract you from walking up to these ruins with only wonder in your eyes since instead you're saying 'I'm sorry, no thank you' to the 20th kid to ask if you want a postcard. However, more unfortunate is that for many this is their only livelihood. Cambodia is poor and Angkor is the biggest pull they have as far as local economy.

Now a quick summary of the temples I saw and my impressions (the history is for the guide boks):

A quick note before I start, some temples are dress-code enforced and others are more spectacular at certain times of the day. Take heed when I point these out. Also, make sure to discuss where your ride will be waiting for you outside of each temple if you choose the Tuk Tuk option.

Pre Rup: Gorgeous one to start the day off. Lots of steps and different carvings on the wall to see. The morning sun worked really well to shed light on the intricate carvings. 

East Meabon: Elephant corners temple! There were Elephant statues at each corner and that was basically the only differentiating feature about it.

Ta Som: One of the more popular temples that is the first on the Big Circuit you'll see with the trees weaving themselves in between the crumbling ruins. Be ready to wait to take a picture in front of the courtyard entrance where one tree has elegantly draped itself. *must go*

Neak Poam: A long walk for a big lake with some still-standing ruins around it. I'd skip it.

Prea Khan: The bridge leading up and the back courtyard are the best bits of this temple. The bridge is the best example of the Naga bridge style in my opinion. The back courtyard is virtually empty but has one of the tallest, if not the tallest, tree sticking out of one of these temples and was really impressive. *must go*

Phnom Bakeng: Notably, the sunset temple. Lots of steps to climb, but at the top there is really only one not so very impressive structure. It does afford you a view of the park but not a great view, just a lot of foliage. It's very crowded with people waiting for sunset and not worth it in my opinion. Also, dress code enforced (ladies, no bare shoulders or above the knee; gents, just no cut off shirts if I remember correctly)

The Bayon: The temple with the faces. There are lots of steps to go up and down so you can see the faces up close and from the ground. This is also one to do when the sun is high in the sky so that the faces are illuminated and thus letting you see all their intricacies. I kept expecting one to talk to me about the legend of the hidden temple, haha! *must go, my favorite temple overall*

Ta Prohm: The Tomb Raider temple. Just wow. You've never seen trees like this. They're big, tall, wide, long, twining, never-ending, and just imposing! They spill over the temple like melted candle wax. Because it is so well-known, this temple is very crowded and many places for photo ops have a wait (but only 5 minutes or so). This alone is a reason to come to Angkor. *must go, one of my favorites*

Angkor Wat: People mistakenly call the whole park 'Angkor Wat' when it is in fact referring to this one temple - but with reason. This is the most important temple and rightfully should take up at least half a day. This temple has both a dress code enforcement and a time day to see it; that time being sunrise. Bo and other tour guides know this and so they have no problem accommodating this as part of their tour. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is something I'll never forget. The colors burning into the sky, feeling the moisture in the air turn humid, seeing the shadows of the temple burn away to reveal new layers - it is simply stunning. You'll be able to see it anywhere from the walkway leading up to it, but most people like to be the perfect distance away to be able to get the rising sun and the temple by in a tight shot. My buddy and I went the extra mile and some perspective fun using the sun (as seen below!). The temple is also beautiful at sunset, so in this case we left Angkor Wat after sunrise, went to Ta Prohm and The Bayon, and then came back to see the rest of Wat around early evening before closing time. This worked out well for us as the sun was not necessary to see many of the inner courtyards. *must go, my favorite lasting impression of the whole experience*


After the archaeological park, we had found that the cheapest way to Bali was through Phnom Penh and not through Siem Reap where we were. To clarify, we knew this when we booked our flight while still in Japan, but left finding a way to Phnom Penh until we arrived and talked to someone. We found a bus (again, through our hostel), that would take us there over night in time for our flight in the morning. It was $20 for a 6 hour overnight bus, but we saved over a $100 on the flight as a result. This was ultimately worth it, but there was a short period while making the arrangements where it seemed like we wouldn't be able to get a shower in before getting on the overnight bus. Picture it, we got up at sunrise, spent the whole day visiting temples, were about get on a 6 hour overnight bus that would take us to the airport where we'd immediately take an 8 hour flight to Bali. Just after a day is dusty, humid Angkor, we were gross. And thus I had my first ever panic attack. I'm a very clean person and don't mind getting sweaty and dirty as long as there is the promise of a shower at the end of the day, so without warning and faced with this prospect, I started pacing, shaking, and hyperventilating. Thankfully, my boyfriend saw something was wrong, took the lead, and found us showers. I don't think it was a full blown panic attack, so forgive me if it seems like I'm making light of it or if my reason for having one seems trite, but it's just the truth of what happened. I mention it because now I know for future travel to avoid that situation because it is a trigger for something that, apparently, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Before boarding the bus, we had some time to browse at a local night market and a quick dinner and then we were making our way to Bali! This post has gotten quite long so I'll save that half for next time!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spring Breakin' all the rules! (the heist!)

I have a hard time following rules that I don't see as making any sort of logical sense. For example - I'm required to be at work when I have zero work to do while the kids are on break. And I don't mean they give me busy work to do. They actually ignore me the whole day while I do what I want (as long as I'm at work). I know this from plenty of break experiences by now. If I wanted to take the day off I'd have to use PTO (nenkyuu), but I don't have any of those days left. Thus with spring break coming up for the kiddies, I hatched a plan and set it in motion spurred by the Mark Twain quote,

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do [...] Explore. Dream. Discover."

And no, I wouldn't use that as justification for whatever I please or to blanket past regrets. But for taking advantage of opportunities I might not ever get again at no cost to those around me? It wasn't even a question.!

The plan: eight day vacation exploring ancient ruins and relaxing in paradise.
The cover: bad case of food poisoning that normally incapacitates someone for at least a week.

Simple enough I thought. The key to all of this was one simple piece of paper; a doctor's note to excuse my absence from work in the official records (quite a big deal in Japan).

Phase 1: The day before I left on my trip I planned to go to the doctor's office to plant the seed. Between my Japanese and the doctor's English, we established my 'symptoms' (basically every food poisoning symptom I could find online), but then he wanted to check my stomach for sensitivity. My boyfriend was in the room at the time and as the doctor gently pressed down on my abdomen for signs of agitation or discomfort, I inconsistently gave him grimaces of pain. At that I could feel my boyfriend face-palming behind me, but what can I say! I'm a terrible actress! Unfazed, the doctor just prescribed some powdery medicines and sent me on my way. Sort of success.

Phase 2: While away on my trip, I needed to call my school every weekday morning to let them know I wouldn't be coming in. In the past, for reasons out of my control, I knew that if I didn't call, they would show up at my apartment and would go as far to enter my apartment without my permission just to check on me (another story altogether). This meant that I had to buy Skype credit to make calls internationally, make note of the difference in time zones to know when to call, and have crystal clear wifi. I could handle the first two, but the last bit had me worried since that was out of my control and lo and behold, I had reason to worry. At our last hotel, the wifi was shiiiite. I can't really blame the hotel though.. wifi and paradise should really be incongruous things anyway. So the best reception for the wifi was out by the courtyard where we were having breakfast every morning. I have one picture of my face while making these calls, but a recording would have been much more entertaining. Between kids crying, roosters crowing, plates clinking and other sounds that have no place in my apartment where I'm supposedly on my death bed, my JTE must have been rolling his eyes as hard as I was scowling at the source of the noises. By the third day in a row that I called he was definitely on to me, but blessedly too Japanese to call me out on it. Success enough in my book.

But to add insult to injury (from me to them), I had been given the news just the week before that some remodeling would be done to my kitchen. This was most certainly welcome news (since I think my apartment should technically be labeled as dilapidated), but what terrible timing! They were expecting me to be there to open my apartment and let the workmen in every day as well as to answer any questions they might have. Fortunately, my boyfriend wasn't going on the trip and so he was there to at least open the door, but of course the builders would be asking for me. I had to avert this dilemma (quite brilliantly I thought) by saying that a lack of kitchen and sink in my (food poisoned) state required me to stay with a friend so I could have full amenities available to help me get better. They understood and left the matter alone. Further complicating things, even my boyfriend couldn't be there as he suddenly had to be in Osaka for two days! Not able to do much, this delayed the kitchen remodeling process until even I had to deal with it when I got back from my trip. Oh well.

Phase 3: Once back, I had to return to the doctor to let him know that I had missed work and required a doctor's note. One problem - I got back on a Saturday. In Japan, -no- form of medical clinic, hospital, or outpatient center is open. It's often joked about here that you should only plan on getting sick or having some other severe injury on a weekday or else suck it up until Monday morning. It sounds ludicrous but it isn't far from the truth. You can call an ambulance on the weekends to receive first aid treatment and certain tiny emergency centers are open to receive such patients, but you better be on your death bed to expect treatment. Me? I just wanted a note. A note that if I didn't get could incur serious repercussions, but they would not be amused for me to show up wanting a note. If need be, the repercussions route it was then. I would deal with them without complaint of course since, after all, it had been my choice to choose adventure over a desk sentence. But despite accepting my potential fate beforehand, it was still an uneasy thing to go into work Monday morning to face my boss empty handed.

To my utter surprise, my boss cheekily said (while actually pointing to his cheek), "nice color" (referring to my tan), and asked for the note. I gaped for half a second at his knowing remark and then confidently said, "I'll have it tomorrow." He smiled, nodded, and kept on walking back to his desk. What in the what just happened?? After all the phone calls and excuses I made, I was expecting a full interrogation! (and was prepared for one too). Instead, I simply went back to the doctor's after work to get the note. On my way I felt a little bad because I thought that telling the doctor that he had sent me away for my condition to only worsen over the week might feel like a failure on his part. But a second cheeky surprise of the day came when he heard of my continued illness and told me I had misdiagnosed myself as having food poisoning instead of what obviously must have been a virus (this in spite the symptoms I listed and the medicine he prescribed?) So for the second time that day I gaped at someone, but recovered my composure and said that he must be right, silly me. NOW GIVE ME THAT DOCTOR'S NOTE.

Success!! Doctor's note in hand I handed it over to my boss the next day and without further incident, I had managed to have a trip of a lifetime instead of keeping my seat warm at my desk without jeopardizing my standing at work.

I've never thought my school to be the cruel aggressors who make the rules for prefectural JETs, only the ones that enforce them. Remember when I said my JTE was on to me? I like to think that the cheeky admission that was made to me afterwards was an acknowledgement of sorts that said as long as I work within the rules of system (getting a doctor's note to excuse my absence), they didn't mind that I took the break into my own hands. Besides, it fits with the known paradigm of Japanese people to turn their faces away from things that are unpleasant to deal with or discuss. An ambiguous policy of theirs, but in my case it read, no harm, no foul!

The moral of the story I want to highlight is that this is your life and it shouldn't be dictated by anyone's set of rules. You might miss out on something that can change your life. As long as you don't affect other lives negatively, go after the things you want and don't take no for answer. Where there is a will there really is a way.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Second-Year JET reflections

I had always planned to stay on the JET Program for two years. That plan was nearly derailed early on after my bumpy start and the surprising, overwhelming homesickness I felt. However, I had hope that things would get better, and boy did they ever. With much trepidation I signed the contract for my second year in February 2012, but by the time I was making my way back to home in August 2012 for a visit, I knew I had made the right decision.

I had made some amazing friends, traveled to amazing places, and only just fully settled into my life in Japan. One year is simply not enough to properly fit in the experience or to even make the hassle of moving your life to a new country worth it. To make this post easier, I'm going to categorize my reflections.

I mentioned in another post how I enjoyed knowing what was expected of me and that the upheaval that comes with the new school year every April is jarring. Be that as it may, it is still infinitely easier to merely adjust to these changes than it is to find your groove when starting out. This second year meant that from the start I was confident in teaching, giving presentations, and communicating effectively with my students and teachers. It's an ease that can only come with time, so after about seven months of struggling to find the balance, the remaining seventeen have been a breeze.

Living Space:
When you're not certain about how long you'll be staying in place, certain purchases become questionable. Buying a car, or a TV, or some kitchen appliance for example. I hate investing in things that I won't get a significant return on, so this was plaguing me the first couple of months. After signing my contract though, I made a couple of 'comfort' purchases that I had decided I could live without for a year, but throughout have made all the difference. They tell us at orientation to make your apartment someplace you feel comfortable in as a means of escaping the every day stresses, and they were spot on. Not having to use the mental and physical energy to do this for the first few months in my second year was refreshing.

The nature of the JET Program is that people come and go. They make their mark on their communities and then become a memory. Luckily, six out of nine of us were new to our town when we arrived and we all decided to re-contract for a second year. We were definitely a dysfunctional bunch of misfits when we got here, but this second year solidified them as my family away from home. Unlike friends back home, I've relied on these people for my sanity. Friends back home do that too but it's not the same. This was survival in a foreign environment and it's because of them that I have not only survived, but prospered. When we received one new person our second year, we welcomed her with open arms and extended help the way it was done for us. Being a second year JET means you reciprocate what previous JETs have done for you and help them navigate through all the changes. The camaraderie among JETs and built in support groups are some of the best aspects of the program in my opinion.

Within Japan and Asia, there are more places than I could ever hope to have visited even after two years. Within the confines of the school schedule and carefully placed PTO, I have managed to travel to most everywhere on my personal list and then some. It's just a no-brainer that a second year in Japan meant that I'd once again have the cycle of holidays and PTO to travel. I was quite enthusiastic in my first year and traveled to most of my destinations within Japan so the second year was all about going abroad. It's just as expensive but more time consuming so not traveling as often has also meant I have saved money. This brings me to my next point..

Moving to a new country is ridiculously expensive! JET pays for your flight to Japan (thank God) but there are still a million things to buy in preparation and then upon arriving. Basically, you're broke until your first paycheck, and then traveling like I have means that I was constantly (but happily) broke in my first year since I'd blow my paycheck on weekend excursions to the furthest reaches of Japan. What you spend your money on and how frequently you travel are up to you, but this next part isn't: your contract. I was in the lucky last batch of JETs to have a contract with a stipulated consistent salary throughout my time in Japan. The next year we learned that new JET contracts work on a pay scale with each year adding more money to your salary as incentive to stay since bringing in new people is a hassle for everyone. In their first year, they make less than I do, in their second, the same, and then a little more in their third year. For me, staying a second year meant that sure, I could save money, but for a new JET it could possibly make a world of difference in supplementing their financial needs.

This program was my dream come true. After many years of waiting to apply and then being accepted, I'm so glad I stuck it out through the hard times in the beginning to see the best times of my life. Like I thought, after two years I'm ready to come home, but if you're on the fence and don't have immediate plans, consider staying a second year. It makes all the difference in the overall experience.

SING! SING! Singapore!!

Ever since I came back from my vacation in Miami, I've felt the need to 'take mental breaks' from Japan. The culture is so rich here is almost suffocating. I sometimes need to remind myself that there's a great big world out there where people from all different cultures live in harmony much like the place I'm from.

Singapore has always struck me as this rare gem in the middle of South East Asia. Being one of the Four Asian Tigers, I had read how modern, clean, and advanced it was compared to its neighbors. Pictures alone are cause to allure you. So despite how much more expensive it was to vacation here in comparison to other nearby choices, I ponied up and had my plans for Christmas.

After some skillful planning, we were off. Part of the reason the flight was so expensive was because it was direct, but I was happy I paid it to avoid a full day of travel. We were leaving freezing cold Japan for warm, tropical Singapore so that first breath of air off the plane was humid but welcome. We weren't in any rush so when our eyes spotted a Quiznos at the airport we wordlessly wandered in that direction...but then remembered we didn't have any cash so we exchanged money and THEN went. haha! Our fast food chains aren't transposed to these new places without some changes to the menu, but it didn't matter. It was a toasted fresh sub so I was ecstatic. We then made our way to our hostel via the metro. Like many of the other places I've been in Asia, they're metro was fast, cheap, and very convenient. The only part that wasn't fast about this metro was the ticket dispensing. I'm an impatient person, but this was obviously slow. Each time we'd go down to use the metro in a popular place, the line to purchase a ticket would be about 5 minutes long. It doesn't sound terribly long, but in most other places I've been, I walk right up to a machine. If you don't want to wait, I recommend buying an all day pass or metro cash card.

We stayed at a hostel that I switched to last minute because I was sold on the pictures. It was the Concept Hostel Singapore. I'm not going to give it a bad review. It was conveniently located near the center of town, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the place did match the pictures. My only gripe was with the bathrooms. I hated the showers. And although I've stayed in hostels before, because I booked last minute, I had to sleep dormitory style instead of getting a private room like I always go. I was not a fan of it at all. That's just the prissy girl in me though since I know many people who don't mind dormitory hostels at all.

With way too many options of things to do in the next few days, we showered and immediately head out to hit the town. The obvious choice since it was already night time was the beautifully decked out Orchard Road. The pictures I captured truly don't do it justice. I have never seen public spaces more fully cloaked in Christmas garb than I did in Singapore, and especially Orchard Road where it went on as far as the eye could see.The road sits on top of a huge underground mall. The stores were getting ready to close so we moseyed about making mental notes of shops to return to.

The next day we intended to make our way to Merlion Park (pictured at the top) and the conspicuously famous Marina Bay Hotel. Along the way we were severely distracted by yet another huge underground mall. I'm normally a woman on a mission when I'm traveling, but although I said the humidity was welcome, it was also just plain hot to be out in. That said, walking around a cool mall eating all the western food we could find became a blur over the rest of trip. Once we did force ourselves outside the comforts of the mall, we found it was overcast anyway. Yay, because it wasn't as hot, but boo because I wanted amazing lighting for pictures (oh well). I worked my magic and the final shots were adequately lit. Merlion Park isn't big at all with it's focal point being a two story tall fountain of the lion fish. He is the guardian god of Singapore and so he's the mascot representation for the city-state (even some of my students recognize him as Singaporean). He faces the bay where directly across sits the Marina Bay Hotel. A marvel to look upon as it appears to have a boat sitting atop its three towers. The hotel is practically new and has only been around for a couple of years. Once we snapped some photos of us with Merlion, we took a taxi (oh yes we did) across the bay to the hotel.

The inside of the hotel was as magnificent as the outside. So luxurious! That famous infinity pool you've probably seen a picture of without even knowing it is for hotel guests only (again, boo!), but with four floors of endless mall, I wasn't too fazed. There's even an ice rink in the food court! Once it started getting dark, we walked outside of the mall onto a connecting bridge that would take us to the Gardens by the Bay. You can go during the day to see all the gardens or just at night to just see the Super Trees pictured below (with the Marina Bay Hotel in the back). Remember when I said the pictures alone could lure you to Singapore? Well, these are the pictures that did it for me. The Super Trees are the main feature of these gardens and something about them just mesmerized me. They were so alien like yet beautiful with their pulsating glow. We walked around until the light show. A story was being told while these Eco-friendly wonders danced with light to the music. Besides being able to actually feel the Christmas spirit this year, this was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

The dedicated the next day to heading out to the Night Safari, an aspect of the popular Singapore Zoo. I was slightly disappointed to learn that we needed tickets that were sold out to see the newest attraction, a pair of Chinese pandas, but still we went. The Night Safari was recommened to us by some friends so that was the main event. It was a ways away, but more relief from the humidity while riding the bus was not so bad. At the zoo, I had the most delicious chicken platter (maybe it was delicious or maybe I was just really hungry) and we were able to watch a fire-dancing show while we ate making for an impromptu dinner and a show. Fun stuff! Then came time for the Night Safari itself. Like at other zoos, we waited to get on a tram and then went off onto the prearranged trail with a guide telling us about the animals. In the end, I was not impressed. I suppose I've been to enough zoos that the usual animals are not really exciting to see again and again. An elephant?! A tiger?! Yippee! Not.. The best zoos I've been to have been small but with the most unusual animals. 

On our last day, we found a beautiful temple and food market near our hostel that we enjoyed lunch at before heading out to Sentosa Island. This place had good potential on paper and if you're between the ages of 10-16 you'll love it! I'm not being mean with that quick review, but it's definitely a family place, so as a couple, we walked around and enjoyed the scenery, but most of the activities available - butterfly garden, ziplining, a mini Universal Studies, the beach - were things we either weren't dressed for or weren't interested in because we have such attractions where we're I'm from in Florida.

We relished in our last Western food dinner (yup, more Quiznos and Cold Stone) and made our way back to freezing cold Japan the next day.

Overall, I really enjoyed Singapore. I was floored by how modern and rich a place it was while literally being surrounded by other places in Southeast Asia that I had visited and were the complete opposite. In my mind, I think of places that are either worth a visit, worth multiple visits, or worth living there. I would rate Singapore as a place worth multiple visits, although I don't see myself going back for many years to come with so much else to explore, but thank you for saving Christmas 2012 Singapore!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Happens When You Live Abroad

Since my blog here is to help others and give them an idea of what living and working abroad might be like, I'm re-posting this article from Thought Catalog because I love how perfectly someone has been able to articulate what it's like (source link at the end). It takes a certain personality, a certain kind of person, to be able to do this and I've seen many people fall short. I definitely think it shapes a person in a unique way which they can relate to others who have lived like them.

I am forever changed by my time living in foreign culture, a foreign land, and I love it.

What Happens When You Live Abroad

May. 21, 2012

A very dependable feature of people who live abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups of ex-pats aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in America, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Europe, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter.

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

It’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s often part of the reason you left in the first place. You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.
So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.
Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.

But there are the fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back. We all meet the ex-pat who has been in his new home for 30 years and who seems to have almost replaced the missed years spent back in his homeland with full, passionate immersion into his new country. Yes, technically they are immigrants. Technically their birth certificate would place them in a different part of the world. But it’s undeniable that whatever life they left back home, they could never pick up all the pieces to. That old person is gone, and you realize that every day, you come a tiny bit closer to becoming that person yourself — even if you don’t want to.

So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.
When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Teaching update!

Wow, so it's been more than a year since my last update on the teaching experience. I was quite blunt about it last time and will continue that now since, I wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong impression of JET (like I had). But do keep in mind that the JET motto is, 'every situation is different.'

I wrote my last post in November of 2011 and a big change happened between that post and this one - the new school year in April. Several things were a complete surprise to me since I had no idea about the changes that accompany the new school year in Japan. The biggest surprise was the giant game of musical chairs the teachers play (not actually, but I muse about it a bit in this post). When I got back from my spring vacation (time I used PTO for since teachers are expected to come to work even when there are no classes), I found new faces and a new desk placement waiting for me in the staff room. After 8 months of getting used to my role in this school, it was all about to change. Naturally I started to feel a bit nervous. Re-reading my last update, I might have sounded a bit dejected about how I'm used as an ALT, but actually I became comfortable knowing what was expected of me. New jobs always bring about challenges, but as long as you know what they want from you, it shouldn't be so bad. So new teachers, new schedules, new students, and probably some new responsibilities. At my base school, Hikami, the only change that affected me was the addition of a new JTE. Fortunately, she is the sweetest thing ever. Her name is Yamashita-sensei and although she replaced a younger, male teacher that I got along with, she is a far better teaching partner than he was. She's soft spoken, but knows how to put those freshmen in line. She doesn't necessarily make learning fun for them, but she teaches the material in a way they understand, so at least it keeps their interest. She observed a lesson with my usual JTE, Taniguchi-sensei, and now uses me much in the same way he does - to write out the exercises on the board, pronounce words, correct papers, give special lessons, get insight on confusing English, and the like.

At Hikami Nishi (HN), my visit school, everything changed. I even go there on different days than before. Before I came in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but now I come on Mondays and Thursdays. My weeks used to drag, but now since I change up my environment more often, every time I turn around it's Thursday and only one day away from the weekend! Another plus is because I don't prefer my visit school to my base school (for many reasons), whenever we have Monday off as a holiday (which is quite often), I miss a day at HN. Woo hoo! As for the actual teaching changes, two out three JTEs were replaced. All three were pretty incompetent, so I traded up for sure. Since my last post, I did realize that the reason these incompetent JTEs always had me come up with the lesson plans was because they just wanted a break. Nothing wrong with that, but they wouldn't tell me what the kids were learning so those lessons were not all that beneficial for the kids. I can tell though that under the new JTEs the kids have actually been learning. I am used more like I am at Hikami and so, although my job is easier, I'm at least being effective on their studies. The only problem is that for some reason, the new young female teacher doesn't seem to like me very much and so I only go to class with the other male teacher. We definitely have more in common anyway and even talk outside of class, so I don't mind. The third JTE (part of the original three ) was made into a part-time teacher so he's not at the school on the days that I am - bliss!

These are the actual changes that happened, but how about my attitude? It was pretty bad when I first got here, I'll admit. I hadn't been around that many kids in long time and considering some other messed up circumstances with other aspects of JET life, I let it seep into the teaching experience as well. Now though I am perfectly content and confident playing my role in both my schools. It's not personally fulfilling or challenging, but I do understand the impact I'm having on the education of my students and so I take that role seriously. I provide them with a positive, non-threatening experience with a foreigner (you may underestimate how important conidering how homogenous the Japanese society is). I gently correct their English in class and encourage them to continue their studies beyond high school. I give them an idea of how other people in other parts of the world live, whether it be by presenting my opinions on a subject, or with my occasional cultural lessons. I don't tolerate any inappropriateness you'll hear other JETs complain about so hopefully that communicates a respect for women and people in authority. Just my appearance is literally something to make their day a little different and more exciting. Outside the class, students will call at me from every direction just so they can wave at me. At restaurants in town, I'm sometimes spotted and am pointed out to their family. And most precious to me the unspoken bond we share: When they catch me making a face because I didn't know they were looking, or I when try to be funny behind my JTE's back and it works; When they want to stand next to me at assemblies; When they point out my hair, nail, or eye color and just stare; When they shyly come to my desk with a drawing, origami, handmade cards, or other stuff for me; And even if I (still) don't know their names, I'll always remember their faces as they are now.

So yea, now instead of annoying little brats, now I think my students are adorable (even if they are high schoolers already). I'm genuinely sad, but happy for my seniors who are going to graduate at the end of this month since they are the students I'll have had the longest. I'm happy to go to class knowing exactly what I'm suppose to do and being completely comfortable with my students and JTEs. I know other JETs got to experience this right away, but it took until almost the end of my first year for me to get it. Ironically, that is exactly the amount of time our liason at the Japanese consulate said it took her when she was giving us a pep talk at our pre-departure meeting.. It's one argument she made for us to consider staying a second year and now I can totally agree.

So unless much changes in the next new school year this coming April, I think this will be it for my teaching experience updates. From my friends, I know a little about the experiences of JHS and elementary school teachers, so please feel free to ask any questions about my or their experience if you're considering being an ALT in Japan!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Seoul*ful Experience

*Don't worry, I won't make any more puns on the name

Seoul! I don't know about you, but Seoul was the place I'd heard about as being amazing and thought of how much I'd like to go, but never actually made the plans. Well, this second time around the JET block means I'm finally having the time to go to these places I only ever thought of in passing. I'm really grateful for this chance since now some of these 'wish-list' places have become my favorite travels.

Seoul is a city full of vibrant people who are unfazed by the foreigners who visit. It is international while retaining it's culture. It is fashionable, yet gritty. If it were a person, it would be like talking with the most fascinating person you just met, but while you are absorbed by their every word, they aloofly glance at their phone. It was such a fresh breath of air for me compared to Japan. As great as Japan is in many regards, I feel stifled me from time to time and constantly like an outsider by the all the homogeneity. Thus, it is through these glasses that I give you insight into my Seoulful experience...and that pun doesn't count since I already used it.

While Japan was still sweltering away in mid-September, my friends and I found a good flight deal via Peach Airlines and bounded off to the land of kimchi. The weather while we there was beyond agreeable with only the slightest chill at night. Our hostel was excellent too; It had a great complimentary breakfast in the morning, was nicely decorated, conveniently located, and had cheery helpful staff. It was located near a university so it had a great night life. Each night, we'd return from sightseeing with every intention of turning in, but the buzz of young people coming in and out of bars, restaurants, shops, and clubs kept us out exploring. Our feet did not thank us for the extra work!

Traveling in groups can be tricky. Everyone has priorities when they travel whether they realize it or not. Their focus can be on relaxing, shopping, sightseeing, eating, or some other quirky thing (I don't know, maybe you have an affinity for hanging out with the locals). Seoul can satisfy all these aspects and more, but with only a long weekend to work with, we merely dabbled a bit in each. Some notable places we skipped were the Korean War Museum and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). No loss on my part there, but instead we walked along some of the famous areas eating street food and laughing at odd findings, did some awesomely cheap shopping in Asia's largest underground mall, and saw sights old and new, namely, two of the famous palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung), North Seoul Tower and even went to fake Disney aka Lotte World!

Foodie or not, you gotta eat so we had the famed Korean BBQ a few times. One night, we went in search of a place where you supposedly eat on top of barrel drums. If this sounds strange it's because I can't accurately describe it since we never found the place. The foodies on our trip were quite sad and still talk about it to this day (they really have to let it go..), but I was happy with any meat and kimchi place. I will say though as a big fan of yakiniku places in Japan that I found the wait staff at Korean BBQ places to be... too involved in your dining experience (for my preference). They'd bring plates of raw meat and then rearrange our grill to fit the new pieces, flip some over, and even cut up the big slices for us. It was just kind of awkward to keep a conversation going with the waitress leaning over my friend, so we just sat there and watched before resuming. At Japanese places, they bring the goods and let you do the rest, coming only when called. Small gripe, but in any case, the food was excellent. Interesting observation on my part - I didn't find the kimchi to be any better than anywhere else in the world I've had it. Maybe my palette isn't sophisticated enough to tell the difference? Or maybe the dish isn't hard to mess up? I don't know. I'm curious though so let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts.
Overall we had as much Korean food as we could pronounce save for the time we got excited and detoured to eat at Quiznos and Jamba Juice. Well, honestly I think I was the only one who was excited since back home in the States I could live on subs and smoothies - both of which I am sadly deprived of in Japan.

As a graduate of Asian Studies, seeing my studies come to life in my travels, via something like the unique style of temples and palaces in different countries, has been immensely interesting. But like it is said of churches in Europe, eventually they do all start to look alike. I think for that reason, the North Seoul Tower was my favorite sight this trip. Probably a combination of the things actually. We arrived at the tower in the evening just as the city was transitioning from twilight, to dusk, to nighttime. The popular 'love locks'  gimmick (where a couple combines two locks on a fence thus sealing their love) lined the periphery which made for an interesting stroll along an otherwise boring fence as people often leave notes and messages as well. The gift shops had the cutest souvenirs of the tower and other Korean items (I'm a sucker for nicknack shopping). And then as we were just about to start heading back, we heard an announcement come on and announce that a light show on the tower would start. We hadn't known there would be one, so from exactly where we were standing, ready to leave, we had the perfect place to sit and watch the show. Instead of a typical light show, they used the side of the tower to get creative with cylindrical objects. For example, filling a glass of water, as an aquarium, pulsating with music, and so on. Oh, and did I mention that this was after we had the subs and smoothies? That probably also had something to do with my elevated mood and this being my favorite sight

If you get the chance to go to Seoul, be open to interesting sights and tastes in a bustling atmosphere and you'll enjoy it immensely! I'd love to go back to this wonderful city, but alas, I find myself filling up my limited time here with even more points of interest. I guess this might've been my Seoul opportunity to see one of Asia's best cities. (oh, shh! that one was too good to pass up!)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mt. Fuji.. never again..

I have been wanting to climb Mt. Fuji ever since I laid eyes on the thing in 2005. Later of course, I learned more about the significance, difficulty, and admiration associated with climbing the tallest mountain in Japan. Let me lay out some of those points:

Significance: Mt. Fuji is not only Japan's tallest mountain, but also it's most revered. It's literally the symbol of Japan along with cherry blossoms and the rising sun.

Difficulty: At 3776 meters (12,389 feet) high, it cannot be climbed in a day. Don't even try. In fact, most people (including myself), start at the 5th station (2,305 meters) and some still don't make it to the top because of altitude sickness, fatigue, or an underestimation of the difficulty.

Admiration: Don't quote me, but supposedly less than 1% of Japan's population climbs Mt. Fuji and even those who attempt it don't always succeed. Saying that you made it to the summit always yields some form of accolade from Japanese people. If they've done it themselves, then an instant camaraderie is formed.

My journey to the summit began in May 2012. After much research and an assessment of my permitting circumstances, I decided I would go about mid-climbing season with only a few friends who were up to the challenge. I also decided that despite being a former athlete, the days of being in my optimum endurance condition were behind me and I needed to train my body for this. The way I saw it, I only had one chance to make it to the top, so I couldn't leave things to chance - not leaving things to chance is something I should've stuck to..

Together with my friend who was part of the trip, we climbed mountains in the area and built up our endurance. Leg strength, breathing techniques, power snacks, element control, equipment management were all aspects we improved on that really did help once we entered the dark side of the moon, also known as Fuji.

With an impending trip home in August, my time to plan to the logistics of the trip was falling behind. At this point, my friend suggested going with a preplanned tour that would get us there with less hassle and take care of all the planning (transportation, accomodation, etc). With my to-do list so full as it was, I agreed. This was first mistake, because as it's said, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

The day came in mid-July, and our group of 4 headed out to meet up with the tour that would take us to Shizuoka Prefecture. We were meeting at 8 in the morning in Osaka which meant that I left Tamba at 5:30 am. The bus was comfortable enough, and the first two hours were spent introducing ourselves to the 50 plus other tour members. Around noon or so, I was really starting to feel the hunger pangs having had no breakfast since waking. The problem though, was that so far each rest stop only had souvenir type food (cakes and cookies) or convenience store food (I know, seriously?). The last rest stop had an eatery with not a thing I liked on the menu. It was like someone was playing a joke on me. I like plenty of Japanese food for there to have been nothing appealing. Not even a side bowl of rice! In the end, I had some chocolate for it's caffeine benefits and chips to satisfy the carb cravings. Chips and chocolate, people - all the fuel I had to climb my formidable opponent. Even if I had bought something at the eatery, the tour guides told us we had 10 minutes at the stop. Ten minutes to wait in line, buy food, and choke it down and if that was your plan of action, then forget a bathroom break. So, trusting the tour would make time to get us brunch since they hadn't told us to pack a lunch: Mistake number two.

We arrived at the Fujinomiya 5th station around 1pm - an hour later than schedule. It immediately started to drizzle which was likely to happen at any point during climbing season, but woe is you when it does. I proceeded to buy a walking/stamping stick and a poncho. For whatever reason I found myself at the back of the pack as we started climbing in one long line. But, I actually didn't mind it because I knew I'd be stopping for pictures and annoyed if someone were constantly on my heels, trying to set my pace. What I didn't expect was the constant "encouragement" I got from the guides that came with the tour. They thought I was having a hard time keeping up and would yell "Ganbatte! Hayaku! Mousukoshi!" (C'mon, hurry! a little farther!) every 5 minutes. I'd just look up at them and use my stick to point at my camera with a smile that could only be interpreted as, "Can ya SHADDUP?!"

I hear you guide! I just don't care!
The Fujinomiya trail is one of several trails you can take up the mountain. This one happens to be the steepest, but shortest route to the top. From the 5th station there are stations 6, 7, 8, 9, and 9.5 before you reach the summit. We were stopping at station 8 to spend the night before waking at 2am to resume our hike and make it to the top by sunrise. Now, three stations doesn't seem like much to cover, but when you're on the trail, you think that next sign post will never show itself! Climbers are climbing up and down the same trail and the trail is roped off by tiny steel rods. This means that if you were thinking of sprinting up the mountain head on, think again. Being careful with the people coming down and climbing within the rods means it's dangerous to try to pass other climbers. The terrain itself is as I described - like being on the dark side of the moon. I was warned before that it's not a "pretty" hike like many other gorgeous ones throughout Japan. Instead of lush forest, rivers, and forgot relics of Shinto tradition to surprise you along the trail, Fuji is nothing but red rocks, small and large with twigs sprouting out here and there. 
What did I sign up for?!

Being at the end of the group, by the time I would reach each station they had been there for their 10 minute break and were ready to move on. Us at the caboose though would lag behind and catch our breath for 5 minutes before that last guide would "encourage" us some more. So with little food and rest, in the rain, it was forward ho! Around the station 7, the next obstacle presented itself...

The mild asthma of my youth never stopped me from playing sports, but it did mean that I had to take care to know my limits. On only a few occasions did I nearly pass out from over-exertion, but having no experience and little knowledge about it, I was quite worried about getting altitude sickness, something that affects those with strong lungs but definitely has it out for a previously pre-asthmatic kid. Luckily, they sell oxygen cans with built in masks just for this kind of thing and were readily available. Actually, most essentials are available on the trails, but for no small fee. Basically, they know you need it, so get ready to pay at least 3x the price. For example, the 600en (8 dollar) can of oxygen I bought in a sports center in my town, cost 2000en (30 dollars) on Mt. Fuji. It was like that for everything too - snacks, water, heat packs, etc. So back to my climb. Somewhere approaching the 7th station I noticed that I wasn't feeling sick, but that I was starting to take in less oxygen and needing to stop more frequently than my group to catch my breath. The first burst of oxygen from the can felt like a cool breeze on a spring day had wafted in through a window and into my lungs. I don't know if I was ever close to getting altitude sickness, but I can only imagine this helped fend it off because from then on I was taking oxygen shots often until the descent. Don`t worry, I`m off the stuff now. haha!

Puff, puff, pass...

At this point it had stopped drizzling but was still overcast. Now, I anticipated it being cold of course, but one tends to forget how amplified the cold can be when you add sweat to the equation. As long as I kept moving , I was ok, but once I stopped at our bunker for the night at the 8th station it was a different story..

Our end group of about 12 people made it to the 8th station at dusk. Between all the head starts at the other stations, we heard others had been there for over half an hour at that point and had already chosen their "beds." I didn't imagine much for sleeping quarters, but I wasn't expecting a wooden floor with only enough room to lie on my back either. But that`s exactly what I got. Last choice meant I was near the door where rude and inconsiderate people coming in and out would open it wide and let cold air gust through every time. Oh, and I forgot to mention that our cabin was literally next to a glacier. Cool to see, but totally ominous at the same time and of course, freezing! Needless to say, the 4 hours of "sleep" we were suppose to get was more like 4 hours of quiet time in sweaty, cold clothes and a hard wooden floor with strangers being close enough to breathe on you. Ya. At least I had my boyfriend that I could face, but that breath on the back of my neck was still unnerving. I did finally have something to eat though. We were given some Japanese curry and rice. It was hot, so okay by me.

Is that what I think it is?!

2am, rise and shine. I was given some bread with custard in the middle and sent on my way up to the summit. But! before that, we were treated to the most spectacular and unexpected surprise - a view of the Milky Way! It was so clearly visible and filled with tons of stars! We stared in awe for a few minutes, re-charging ourselves with cosmic energy. It was amazing to be made to feel so small, but in a good way.

Now, maybe you're wondering how I hiked a mountain in pitch darkness and I was wondering too until I stepped outside of the cabin. A trail of lights shone beneath and above me. Upon closer inspection I saw these were other climbers and their head lamps! They had stayed at stations lower on the mountain and had gotten up earlier to start the climb to the top! Even with lots of headlamps all around me, it was challenging to look down to where I wanted to point my light, and then up to not crash into things. Back and forth I did this for the next 2 hours.

Previously, three stations had taken me 6 hours and with 2 more to go with sunrise deadline, I had my work cut out for me. However, like I said, this was my one shot, and that motivation kept me going as I wanted nothing more out of my time in Japan than to see the sunrise over Mount Fuji. At one point I did get nervous because the sky was turning blue in the east and I was only shortly past station 9. In my panic, I did the dangerous thing and started passing people by darting in and out of the marked trail. At one point, the crowd was at a standstill as people were goose necked into a thin part of the trail. Suddenly as I was darting, two other foreigners (surprisingly) stopped us by sticking out their walking stick and nearly tripping us just to say, "Guys, there's a line." My friend and I exchanged glances momentarily with looks of disbelief before he shot the best line back - "Ya, well this isn't Disney World and we're not waiting in line." HA! and onward we went with their grumbling behind us. And it's true. As dangerous and ill advised as it is, if we want to go outside of the trail and pass them, it's on us. If they think it's not allowed to butt someone in line while we're hiking a mountain then they missed the fine print of this trip that read 'every man and woman for themselves!' I don't think they made it to the top by sunrise either considering how many people we passed to get there in time. Hope they thought following the crowd was worth it to miss what could be a once in a lifetime view.

So despite my worry, we make it to the top with some time to find a spot to view the sunrise. Being completely stationary and sweaty at the peak of the mountain was intense. For 20 minutes I sat at the top of the world and contemplated how long I had dreamed of this moment. It was a quite a journey I was recounting in my head, but to others I must have looked like a frozen gargoyle waiting for the sun to come out to reanimate her. Finally, the sunrise started to send its rays over the horizon and although it wasn't as spectacular as some photos I had seen, it was my sunrise on Fuji. And it was one of the most gorgeous things I'll ever see.

I wish I could end the post there, but that's not where the story ends. In fact, the worst was yet to come. After being at the summit, snapping pictures, stamping my stick, and gazing upon Fuji's crater, we began the decent. I thought we'd be going down the same manageable Fujinomiya trail that we'd gone up and had seen others go down, but I was wrong. Instead, this idiotic tour picked the dreaded Gotemba trail. This trail is supposed to be the fastest way down, but hmm... how can it be faster than Fujinomiya is that's the shortest trail? BECAUSE YOU RUN DOWN IT!! At a 45 degree angle in a sandpit of small red rocks that you sink in with every step, you have no choice but to jog as gravity drags you down. Also, the sandpit is dotted with huge boulders that with any misstep could have you suddenly breaking to stop if not crashing into it. And at that angle it means you could fall head first into the sandpit. Thank God I had some snow boarding experience where leaning your body back parallel to the terrain is what keeps you upright. However, even good snowboarders (which I am not) fall, but instead of fluffy snow it would a face full of lava rocks! LAVA ROCKS! (at least it's minus the lava...)

I was beside myself with rage at this tour at this point and later we were all apologized to by the Facebook group that booked this tour, admitting that they were unhappy with the way things had turned out as well. But at the time I was just trying to get off this god-forsaken mountain. It really puts you in a desperate mood to know that you can't give up. If you give up, no one is coming to save you. You have to climb down yourself. I was also not expecting that unlike the stations on the way up, the way down had a different set of stations. Station 9, 7.5, 6.85, 5. This really made the climb seem longer since we couldn't anticipate the next time we'd see a station or get a break. The craziest part about this climb down was that at one point we were climbing UP again! And it started drizzling again! Argh!! So much rage!

Finally we got back to the Gotemba 5th station. After nearly 2 days of straight climbing there was nothing better than to look forward to than the onsen we were taken to (the only redeeming factor of this tour. Nearly two days of climbing, exhaustion, malnourishment, being wet and cold just melted away in the onsen.

Plainly said, it was an experience. One that I would have to be crazy to do again, so that seems unlikely for me (or likely depending on who you're talking to). I certainly don't regret it, but I do regret going with this tour that seemed to cause most of the irritants that I had. If I still had the same experience without them, then I'd have no one to blame but myself, but since that's not the case, I blame them. lol. Also, I wouldn't ever in good conscious recommend for anyone to climb Mt. Fuji. If you don't have the desire and will-power to do it on your own, then you'd only hate me for putting you through it.

Climbing Mt. Fuji was at the top of my Japan bucket list and now it's been checked off.

A Japanese proverb says that if you don't see Mt. Fuji during your time in Japan, then you are destined to return.

I saw more of that mountain than many and so I am no longer destined to return to Japan.
My 大和魂, my Japanese fighting spirit can be finally be at ease.