Thursday, December 24, 2009

A very very Merry Merry

The most Merry Christmas to everyone out there! I really hope that love and happiness finds everyone this season. Because of all the snow last weekend, we have a truly white Christmas so everything feels very festive for tomorrow. I am so happy to be home with my family for the evening. I am always reminded how important family is when I finally get to see mine after so many months of "real life."

As the year draws to a close, I have been considering the past months and how my life has changed since the beginning of 2009. There have been so many important events and transformations over the year that I hope I can take this momentum into 2010 and create a good life for myself.

Enjoy your family time, and I will be doing a brain dump in the next few days.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Baby steps

Today the sun was shining, so that's a good sign. My heart is still heavy, and my eyes fill with tears at random moments - the sound of a familiar song, an old memory pops into my head - but these feelings will help me to grow and continue on a forward moving path through life.

I'm not at all ready for Christmas, but I am VERY ready to be with my family. After being half way around the world during the holidays last year, I am very thankful to spend this time with my family and to tell them I love them whenever possible. I am fortunate in that I will always have a home with wonderful parents where I know I am welcome any time.

I think we all need a safe haven. For some that is a physical place, for others that is a person - for everyone it is a necessary part of hurting and healing from which none of us are exempt. Perhaps it is cliche, but the truth remains; the holidays are a perfect time for nostalgia, memories, and feeling every emotion of which you are capable. I'm thankful for the life I am living and my ability to remember so many wonderful things. I have learned a lot about change and transition, but I still feel deeply and cling dearly to the memories I have made with those whom I love.

For as sad as I have felt over the past week, and the sadness I am sure to experience in the coming weeks, I am eternally thankful for the abounding love and support in my life. Sadness is an emotion like any other that needs to be felt and shouldn't be ignored, but I am looking forward to the near future when my inclination is to laugh instead of cry.

And to end on a happy note, even through my foggy tears, I have a wonderful network of friends and family that all made me feel really special today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Today is awful. My tears just won't stop. My heart hurts and I don't know that it will ever feel whole again. It's hard to breathe and I just can't stop my head from spinning. I don't like when life doesn't make sense. I need to find God again, I need to learn to rely upon myself again. I have to figure out how to push through life while the debris is falling around me. I know I am not the only person that feels so desperate and in pain. I know that you are hurting too. I don't know what else to say. My words are all gone and my happiness with it for the time being. I still believe in love, and I believe in the future, but the present feels like a burning house from which I cannot escape.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thundersnow of '09

Sitting by the window and staring at the snow is really all I have been doing all day. Quick update and recap: I am now living with my grandparents and doing temp work at the Japanese Embassy in DC. I really like working. I wish this were permanent and I didn't have to continuously think about finding a permanent job, but for now things are going pretty well on the job front.

But as for right this minute, we are being pelted with snow and it is not afraid to accumulate! So far we have about 14 inches and down it continues to pour. I haven't seen snow like this since I was a kid! Of course the snow puts a total wrench in my weekend and I have to miss some events that I was really looking forward to, but I guess safety should be a priority. Secretly though, I think it is pretty cool. I know I have this reputation for hating winter and snow and cold - but I still have a romanticized idea of a White Christmas and a Winter Wonderland.

Can you picture it? Bundled with scarves and hats, snow boots and mittens. Walking hand in hand through snow covered woods. Pink cheeks and noses, cold ears, soft kisses and bright laughter. Evening setting with the moon gleaming off the stark white snow. A warm fire inside with cookies baking and muled cider in over-sized Christmas mugs. Sweaters and turtle necks, thick socks and blankets. Jazzy Christmas music playing and more laughter and kisses. This has got to be the happiest thought in the whole world!

I am deciding today to just be happy. I don't feel so purely happy much these days, so I am taking today and sticking in my pocket so it can't escape from me. I wish happiness to anyone still checking up on my blog. Thank you to my readers - even through all the months of no new thoughts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

There's no in between

I'm either crazy busy and running around or I am sitting on the couch all day trying to look for a job. My first few weeks home was a whirlwind of traveling and driving and theme parks and reconnecting with friends and family. It was busy and happy and I had no time to sit and think about, "What next?" I kind of liked it that way - I like being busy. Lately it's only been about, "What next?" I've been thinking about this question a lot - and about how to make my savings stretch until that next piece falls into place. Everything is a double-edged sword right now, and with that brings a lot of ups and downs. I'm walking a tightrope with myself to try and figure out what the next big step in my life should be, where it should be, and how I should make it happen. It's a nice thought to think that I am the only one to consider in this decision - but wholly unrealistic.

I think I need a bit of focus - but it's really difficult for me to cut out any options when I am so desperate for a job. Again, double-edged. It's great to talk to my Mom all the time and to so many other people that care about me, but sometimes I just don't want to talk about the job search any more. I don't want the valuable advice I'm being given or the magazines I am being told to read. This is immaturity and stubbornness talking - but it's the truth. Everyone has an opinion about how I should do this and everything thinks I am so capable and qualified, but no one is in the position to just GIVE me the job. Heck, all I really want is to get an interview - I can handle the rest.

I vow to continue applying and taking the suggestions and advice from those around me. I vow to follow-up with the applications I have already submitted and express to these employers that I am for real. I vow to keep trying until something pans out. Mom and Dad, I vow to keep paying all my bills and begin applying for retail and service positions if my savings wears too thin.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Just keep writing, just keep writing, writing, writing

It has been a month since I moved back to my West Virginia home. It has been a hectic month traveling and having wonderful reunions with friends and family. Some of the highlights have been vacationing on the beach, parties up in Boston, quality sister time in New York, and the happiest visit with Chika and Jason in DC. There are so many things to be happy about and thankful for being home.

Sometimes though, I do lose sight of these things. Being home is only hard because Japan is far away - really the same reason being in Japan was hard. **If anyone could invent a working teleportation device, I would give up my first born.**

So what am I doing now? It's a natural question, but comes with a certain amount of stress. Now, I am doing the job search thing - but not as productive with this task as I could be. I have no excuse and I don't intend to think one up. Simply, I am trying my hardest to feel comfortable in my own skin again and comfortable living in the room in which I grew up. I am taking all parts of growing up and being an adult at my own pace. Ultimately, I trust myself and my abilities to find a job and continue on with my life.

In this transition lives many emotions. This is something I was expecting, and not something that I can explain; so I won't try. I will continue to write this blog and share my thoughts and experiences and as much of my emotion as I can with you. Writing has a great healing power in my life, and something that I need to do in order to remain clear-headed.

Have patience with me or don't. Keep reading or don't. Don't expect me to live up to your expectations - I am struggling with my own right now.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I can see the end

So here I am. Facing my last two days in Japan. Living here has given me a whole new perspective on the length of a year. What is supposed to have been 365 days living in Japan, can now be counted in blog posts and pictures and laughs and visits to my favorite restaurants and fireworks.

Standing at Reagan National with my Mom one year ago, I was desperate not to come to Japan. I was afraid of leaving my family and leaving my usual, everyday life in America. This year has been anything but usual and everyday - but in that, my definition of usual and everyday has changed. Living here is comfortable now. I understand how to live on my own, how to make my own money and show up for work on time everyday.

I am afraid to leave this life I have created for myself behind. Perhaps not afraid so much as uncomfortable. But again, jumping out of my comfort zone is my new thing, so that's what I am going to do. I am confident that I will be welcomed home with open arms and more love than I can anticipate. And everything I learned with come with me and help me to build a good and successful life for myself. This transition will be another one for the books, but my experiences in Japan will continue to live and enrich my life as long as I remember how real this past year has been.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No time to chill

The fact that my time here is limited is annoying. The way people anticipate the ending of a phase causes nothing but stress! It would be so much easier if everything were normal and then all of a sudden, POOF, I just wasn't here any more. As it is right now I am scheduling myself until I have only a few hours sleep every night between dinner dates, and packing, and cleaning...

I always feel guilty for over scheduling or having to say goodbye before my friends are ready, so that I can move on to the next goodbye. I am afraid that my overly packed schedule comes across as aloof and nonchalant to these friends of whom I will miss so dearly. I don't have time to make everyone happy.

In addition to trying to see everyone here in Japan, I don't have time to talk to anyone from home any more either. There is no time to Skype, barely any time to talk through instant messages and getting to the point where I don't get online much at all! And realistically speaking, nothing will calm down once I get home either. I just have to wait out the next few months until my leaving and my arriving is less exciting.

I know that all of this stress just means that people love me - and I truly love all of you as well. And if that is the case, then I will take the stress if it means having good friends that care so much for me. I will miss everyone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I'm not counting...

...but if I were, today marks the 2 week mark until I am back Stateside. For some of you that is really excellent news, and for others it is really sad. I can feel both sides of this, believe me. First, I am SOOO sorry that I have fallen so behind on my blogging; I can't believe it has been a month. If some of you have stopped checking altogether, I don't blame you. There has been so much going on in the way of parties and last hurrahs in Tokyo and spending as much time as I can with my friends here that I have barely had time to sleep, let alone blog about it all. Luckily I have pictures to document my last few weeks here, and I will try to put those up soon - but it may not happen until I am back in the States.

I really hope to keep up my blogging when I get back home. Writing and documenting this year has given me a really effective outlet to think about what I am experiencing and how these things are impacting my life. When I get home, I will be back in very familiar territory, but I do think that I will still need to put my thoughts somewhere. I cannot wait to be home with my family, but in a way, I am afraid of regressing. I want to keep my independence and my ability to take care of myself. All this worrying is probably in vain (I hope) but at least I am keeping the possibility in mind so as to be extra aware not to let it happen.

Gah, my mind is in a thousand directions right now and I am finding it hard to make a coherent post. Bear with me and I will try to clarify my thoughts throughout the week.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bar たくや

Last Saturday, my good friend Jason made the trek out to Koga so we could hang out. Ibaraki is a pretty large prefecture, but its infrastructure is pretty conducive to easy travel. However, my little spot of Ibaraki, in Koga, is about as disconnected from the rest of the prefecture as you can get. My trains don't go into Ibaraki, but into the surrounding prefectures and the roads from Koga are rather indirect to get to the capital or other cities. This makes it hard to hang out with Ibaraki JETs very often because it is quite the undertaking to travel 2+ hours by train or car.

Anyway, Jason decided to make the journey, and we had a nice time. I guess this is where I should mention that Jason is dating my good friend Chika, but she had a huge table tennis tournament on Saturday, so she couldn't hang out with us - but we saw her on Sunday. :) Anyway, on Saturday night, after dinner we went to this new bar near my apartment. This bar just appeared out of nowhere, but I am glad it did. It is called Bar Takuya and has a tiki/Hawaiian theme. It is a small place, but well decorated. On the outside the door is bright blue and due to the grand opening, there are fresh flowers everywhere - lilies, orchids, carnations, etc.

Jason and I stayed for two hours or so and had a really great conversation. We hit on all kinds of topics, it is really nice to have a friend like him. The drinks were good and pretty well-priced, compared to what I have paid for drinks in and around Tokyo. After we were finished and paid the bill, I asked the bartender if I could take a flower home, in Japanese. He spoke back to me in his best English and said, "Sure, take this one!" He gave me a huge, beautiful orchid plant that his mother had given to him upon the opening of his bar! I will post a picture, but they are really gorgeous and brighten my apartment in such a big way!

Surprises and experiences like this are what I am going to miss about my life in Japan the most.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

When in Rome, do as the Japanese do

Or was that supposed to be something else...? Anyway, I have been terribly remiss in my blogging, so now I am playing catch-up. A couple weeks ago (June 13-14th) I took the long train/bus ride to Itako to see my favorite gal, Lauren. Her little hamlet of Itako hosts one of the largest and longest festivals in all of Japan. It is called the Ayame Matsuri (Iris Festival) and it lasts for six weeks each year. For this festival, they ask many of the young women of the community to be the hostesses or "daughters" of the festival. This means they have to wear traditional yukata every weekend and welcome the thousands upon thousands of guests to view the beautiful irises and take part in the many other events sponsored by the festival. For Lauren, this is a huge undertaking and time commitment. For her friends (i.e. me) it is a really great opportunity to see a huge, traditional festival and lounge around for a weekend. :-D

When I came to Japan many years ago for a short homestay, my host family gave me my own yukata as a gift. Since then, I have held onto this beautiful garb for such occasions as an Ayame Matsuri. The morning of the festival, Lauren and I each were dressed in yukata by a fantastic older woman named Osaki-san. She is one key volunteers of the festival and helps Lauren to get properly dressed every weekend. And this particular weekend, she was kind enough to help me as well. Lauren's yukata is identical to that of the other "daughters" of the festival. They are a day navy blue with pretty irises printed on the fabric. They have gold obis (thick belt tied into a bow) and matching geta (traditional wooden sandals). My yukata is red (naturally...haha) with white rabbits and fireworks. It is an unusual pattern, but I really love the white rabbits.

Because I was a foreigner and such good friends with Lauren, the festival organizers and the other "daughters" were extremely welcoming to me and even allowed me to be an Ayame Musume for the day with everyone else. I helped to welcome the guests to the festival and handed out maps of the festival grounds. As an unwritten part of my non-existent contract, I also had to pose for about seven hundred pictures. Honestly, it made me feel like a celebrity and I don't mind the fact that there are a ton of pictures of me floating around Japan; that can be my little mark on the world. Later that day, there was a parade for the festival and I was even asked to dance with the other daughters in the parade. The dance was really easy, and I had a blast. I went around the loop with the dancers 1.5 times, but I think in total, they did 4 rotations.

After all the dancing and festivities, Lauren, invited all the JETs back to her place for a party. She is quite the hostess and the food was delicious and the presentation immaculate. I always enjoy a good party, and this definitely was one. I am going to miss all my JET friends and the atmosphere of living in Japan. I almost feel like I am graduating and moving on from college again - so this is a good thing.

The next morning all of us who spent the night at Lauren's place woke up and ventured out for a breakfast of chocolate croissants and omelets with rice. I headed home that afternoon to an evening of karaoke and then sleep. Sleep is something rather evasive lately, but I rather have it that way than sleep through my last 6 weeks in Japan!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On days when the job is good...'s really good! Now, at the end of my time here, I am starting to have more successful classes and the feeling at the end of the day is great. Last Thursday, I taught by myself for the first time at Koga Second. The class was a group of second grade (11th grade) students, whom I have known and taught for the whole year I have been here. They are good students, but the prospect of teaching them alone was a bit nerve racking. The lesson I was to teach was in their reading textbook and discussed a little girl named Sally who had Down's Syndrome. Their regular teacher asked me to discuss the article and check for comprehension and also to relay some of my own experiences knowing people with Down's Syndrome. In Japan, they have special schools for all children with handicaps, so most students have never been in a classroom with anyone different than themselves. This is just one sheltering technique Japan tries to use to pretend everyone is all the same.

We discussed Sally's story and then I spoke to them about going to school with students with Down's Syndrome. They could not imagine how it was possible for different students to all be in the same school, but I explained it the best I could. Sally is quite an exceptional girl and very high functioning. She had a talent for painting and would sell her work in order to send the money to care for children in Africa. The whole article was a feel-good inspiration, so at the end I asked the students to each complete the sentence, "My dream is _______." They had to write three reasons for their dream. At the end of class I had each student read their dream aloud to the rest of the class. It was so much fun to hear their aspirations and see the reaction of their classmates - everyone was impressed by their peers and it left the class on a really high note.

At the end of the day, as I was leaving school, one girl from this class came to me to talk. She wanted to tell me that she really enjoy my English class today and that I was a good teacher. I was really touched that she thought so much of the class that she wanted to seek me out and let me know. That kind of forwardness is almost unheard of in Japan, so it really means a lot to me.

Then on Friday, I was at Koga Third. I was nervous to be at this school because I was trying out a new lesson. I had three classes total and the first two were okay, but nothing spectacular. I was starting to get pretty down about my new lesson, so for the last class of the day, I decided to change it up a bit. I always had the intention in previous classes to teach the students how to listen and dance to the Cha-Cha Slide, but I had never quite had the time so it hadn't happened. Since I was a bit discouraged and wanted to end the day/week on a good note, I scrapped my plan as it was and spent the class teaching/coaxing the students to dance the Cha-Cha Slide with me! It was so much fun. By the end of the class we had moved the tables and chairs out of the way and everyone was in the middle of the room dancing! I justify it by telling myself they had to listen to and understand the instructions being said in order to do the dance properly. Ultimately I just wanted them to have fun - and I needed to have a bit of fun as well.

There are definitely secrets to this job that I wish I had known from the beginning. In my position, I am not here to teach hard and fast concrete English. I am here to talk about America, have blond hair, dress differently, and make them laugh. These are things I can do.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Angry chick music is my favorite!

It is by far the most fun thing to sing and often the lyrics are not only pointed, but hilarious!! Some of my favorites (the anger levels are all relative) Kate Nash, Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, KT Tunstall, Alanis Morissette, Meredith Brooks, Duffy, Adele, Joan Jett, Jewel, Janis Joplin, and Lily Allen!!! Which brings me to my wonderful weekend with my fantastic girl, Lauren (you knew it).

On Friday afternoon, Lauren and I both braved the rain and the traffic to venture into our favorite city for a concert we have been talking about for months!! Lily Allen graced Tokyo with her presence and her tunes to lighten up an otherwise dreary Friday night. The venue was small and intimate in Shibuya called O East. The drinks were good, and the music was better. Her lyrics are snappy and I think they can be very clever sometimes - I will say that her language can be a bit vulgar, so that might be a big turn off for some. She has a wonderful energy on stage and a really great way of performing her music in a live setting.

I learned about Lily merely by chance a few years ago when I was in GB 301 (the subject matter of the class isn't really important for the story). My first day of class, at 8:30am, I walk into the cold room to be greeted with Lily Allen blasting from the speakers and videos being projected onto the screen at the front of the room. My professor wanted to jump right in and discuss with us her innovative and exciting marketing techniques and the career he was certain then (3 years ago) was going to explode - Professor Cross, you were right. Since that morning, I have been hooked on Lily Allen and I have started to seek out these cheeky girls for my listening enjoyment - I find that most of them come from the UK - what does that say? ;)

As is every adventure spent with Lauren, it was a very happy and exciting evening. The music was fantastic and now I have to curb my envy for this 23 year-old singing sensation traveling all over the world just to sing!

Japanese Field Day

Last week, I was able to experience what Japanese schools call a class match. For two days they have athletic competitions between each homeroom class in each grade. Sanwa had a variety of sports for both boys and girls (they like to keep the genders separated in all things). The boys played softball, soccer, and table tennis; while the girls played kickball, volley ball, badminton, and table tennis too.

The basic run down for the day is that the students meet up in homeroom for a roll call and a pep talk from their homeroom teacher, after which they all don the same class shirt and head out to the field for stretches and formalities. Because Sanwa is not my only school, I could only attend the first day of the class match. In the morning I watched the girls badminton matches. They are really good, especially the girl here that is ranked number one in our region! The force with which they zoom the birdie over the net is really impressive, seeing as when I play at home I can only manage to pop it up into a high arc. I was a little jealous and wanted to play, but these activities are for the kids, so I just watched and cheered on my favorite classes.

In the afternoon, I headed outside to watch the softball games. Again, all I wanted to do was play. At least this time I played catch with one of the kids to help them warm up a bit before the game started. I miss playing softball and it would be fun to find a community team when I get back. I know every time I write a blog it seems I want to find some other club or activity or something to keep myself busy when I get home. I don't really want to bury myself in an overwhelming schedule, but there are just so many things that I miss from home and the ease in which I can do things and find things.

It was a really great day, and while it was a bit dark, the weather cooperated and stayed cool, but held off on the rain! Days like this are the most confusing for me because I so desperately want to stay and experience this kind of camaraderie and happiness with my students, but I really am ready to come home and do some of these things for myself.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fluffr Nutter - with xtra nutz

I have nothing to write about, but I am happy. I am embracing everything that is me and just really enjoying smiling. I am happy and giddy and excited about the weeks ahead. My friends are incredible and that makes me happy. I feel so proud to know the people in my life for their numerous inspiring accomplishments and goals for the future. And these spectacular people embrace me - exactly as I am - even when I can't find the energy.

But not today. Today I am beside myself with smiles, despite the rain. Happiness is incredible because it makes all my senses come alive. Colors are brighter and food tastes better. I can hear crickets and frogs and birds chirping through the pounding of the rain. The textures of every day objects (my keyboard, keys, book, pillow...) feel sharper and softer, and warmer. I can smell the fresh miso soup being made from the home economics room across the school and the light aroma of rice steaming.

When I try to think today and nail down my happiness to find its source, I can only think in smiles and all-consuming warmth. I can hardly sing for smiling so much, but the sound of music catapults me even further. Everything is bliss.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just a thought from nowhere

So often we refuse to take responsibility for the things in our lives, the good or the bad. We wander though the day thinking that life HAPPENS to us, that we have no control. The reality of life is that in every decision we make, we push our life in a new direction. We have control over the path in which our life takes, and all too often people relinquish that control to pity themselves instead. The odd thing about have it until you give it to someone or something else by allowing their words and actions to affect your mood absolutely. And while you're still in control, you often feel like life is whizzing by and you can't keep up.

After a while, when you've given up control, you see so clearly that it was yours to give up and you did so willingly. Clamping back down on control lost can be such a painful and tedious process because it means taking responsibility for your emotions again. You can no longer blame anyone or anything else for your sadness or misfortune. There are so many reasons we relinquish, laziness, LUST, desperation, self pity. None of these reasons are particularly good - especially not love. Maybe you can argue that in love everything is worth it - every step you take. Sadly, that just isn't true. When true love exists you should never feel any desire to give up your control to appease "love." Love is one of those amazing occurrences in life that should mold to you. Good love is like papier-mache. It shapes to the priorities and goals of your life, but the delicacy of it makes it special and a thing to be revered and respected. A good love will never ask you to change course or lose sight of your ambition. It will never require that you sleep less or cry more.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Time is running out

I posted the video that Lauren took of me singing in Shanghai. It is at the bottom of my blog page, so check it out if you haven't already seen it on Facebook!

Since returning from China life has quickly gotten back to normal. I've been working and teaching some, having dinner with Chika and Mari and Hideki, etc. I had a meeting in Mito last Friday for JET to discuss the procedures for finishing up my contract here and leaving Japan. I guess the finality of it all is starting to settle in. I have read through and highlighted all the information packets they have given me and now I need to schedule some time with my crazy busy supervisor to tie up loose ends. Turns out, I may not have internet for the last month in my apartment - but I will keep you updated on the reality of that when I find out for sure.

I have so much to do before I leave, not only in terms of packing and stopping my bills, but saying my goodbyes. So many people here have touched my life in such a kind way that I am afraid of losing them in my life. When it comes to my other JET friends, I have confidence that we will stay in touch and probably even meet up again somewhere in the world. When it comes to my Japanese friends, I am a little more worried. I could not have gotten through this year without the selfless friendship of so many teachers and friends in the community. Of course there is Chika - I will feel like a little piece of me will always be here in Japan with her. There is never a time when I am not happy to see her or want to make a plan to spend time with her. And then Heartful and Pela Pela - I look forward to seeing them each week. Even when I am tired and don't feel like leaving the house, seeing them is always worth it. I learn so much from the members of these groups and I feel like I have a family here. They share their lives and special events with me, and are always interested in what I have to say.

It is safe to say that I have learned without a doubt that I am not cut-out to be a teacher, but my co-workers make my time at school happy and fun. Sanwa has been such a security blanket for me. If I have a question about travel, my apartment, trash pick up, mail, culture points of Japanese life - I can ask someone at school. The teachers who don't speak much English, help me to practice my Japanese. They want to speak to me and they want to make me part of their school life. And most significantly, Aritoshi, Maya and Hiromi...they are my life-savers. Aritoshi is like Superman, he can tackle any question and always gives special consideration to my feelings and my preferences. Hiromi helped teach me and got me through my JET Japanese Language Course. Not only was she a great English teacher for her students, she was a great Japanese teacher for me. I miss her terribly since she has moved to a new school, but thankfully, I can call her whenever I want to have dinner or just chat. And Maya has taught me so much about the importance of travel and family. She is so intelligent and driven and she acts on those feelings, something that is kind of rare in Japanese women. She has patience with me and is always incredibly accommodating. I respect all of my teachers in a huge way.

I am ready to move on to the next step and I am ready for changes to happen. My heart is going to ache as I prepare to leave Japan, but I will use that heartache as motivation to make sure the friendships I have forged here and the experience I have gained are not in vain. It is thanks to these people that my life here has been so special and will continue to shape me in the months and years to come.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

All things Beijing

The afternoon of May 5th, Lauren and I touched down in Beijing for the final and longest leg of our journey. We were greeted at the airport by my Uncle Tim and Mr. Gao. Uncle Tim had arranged for a car to pick us up and take us to the apartment where we would be staying. Because Lauren has fabulous friends all over the world, we didn't have to shell out for a hotel in Beijing. Instead we stayed with her friend Jimmy at his three bedroom place in Wudaokou, near Beijing University (BEIDA). There are 18 million people in Beijing, so traffic while getting from one place to another is a given. It was a nice ride from the airport, but once we got to Wudaokou, Lauren and I were beat. I made plans with Uncle Tim to have dinner that Friday and then said our goodbyes.

It also happens that the day we arrived was Jimmy's Birthday/Cinco de Mayo. Lauren and I rested up that afternoon and in the evening we went with Jimmy to celebrate the big day. Naturally we went to a Mexican restaurant called La Bamba - and I must say that the Chinese do Mexican so much better than the Japanese, but no one does it like they do at home. Anyway...At La Bamba Lauren and I were introduced to some of Jimmy's wonderful friends from all over the world. First I should mention that Jimmy is French. We met Carlos from Chile, Marie from France, Ehe from Turkey, Helaine from Holland, and Jamie from the USofA. After being in Japan for so long, the diversity at our dinner table was so refreshing! The food and drinks were overflowing (literally, the waitress proceeded to spill tequila shots all over me!) and the party was just beginning. After our meal, we moved to a "beer garden" that is a seasonal fixture across from Jimmy's apartment. Every summer they set up this beer garden with tables and chairs and it turns into a huge out door party. After some more drinks and discussion there, we again moved to a pizzeria/bar/club called Pyro. The music was great and the place was celebrating Cinco de Mayo in full swing, so the margaritas were a plenty. There was even a little slide show of famous Mexicans looping! We were at Pyro for about an hour and then decided to call it a night.

The next day Jimmy had to go to class (he is doing intensive study of Chinese), so Lauren and I set out with our map and an big agenda for the day. First thing is first, and we grabbed some breakfast at a little diner called Lush. It is a great little place with cheap food that is delicious! After a veggie bagel, we caught a taxi to Jingshan Park. It is almost in the center of Beijing and lies on the Dragon Line. This is an imaginary line that stretches all the way through Beijing in which all the most historical points are located including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Jingshan Park is the site where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hung himself. The best part is that from the top of the highest hill, you can look out over the whole Forbidden city (and if it weren't for the smog you could see all the way to the Olympic Stadium along the Dragon Line).

After our hike through the park, we kept walking south to the Forbidden City. This place is a total maze. Jimmy had given us some advice to enter the city and just walk due south. However Lauren and I were easily distracted by the architecture and a mini art show, so we got lost inside the city for a bit. Once we found the correct path again, we marched along through temple after temple and watched each grow larger than the last. The Forbidden City is so named because until 1925, no one aside from royalty and their servants could enter the walls of the city. Since then it has been open to the public for tourism. Just to the south of the Forbidden City is a gate whose literal translation means Gate of Heavenly Peace. This is the thresh hold into Tiananmen Square. We were able to get a good look at the portrait of Mao Tse-tung and walk down the length of the square. Surprisingly it wasn't very crowded. However to get into the square, each person much go through security and metal detectors.

After the square (and a very long day of walking) we hopped in a cab to a section of Beijing called Hou Hai. This is a place situated nicely on a river jam-packed with restaurants and bars. Lauren and I stopped off at a jewelry store to check out their jade items and then we sat on an out door patio and enjoyed some pumpkin soup. The restaurant with the soup was a little sketch, so we finished and then quickly moved to another restaurant with a perfect menu and perfect atmosphere called Buffalo. In the Hou Hai area there were three restaurants all called Buffalo right in a row - each served a different type of cuisine (Chinese, Western, Asian fusion). We chose the Chinese section and had a fantastic open window seat overlooking the river. We ended up sitting in our window perch for nearly 3 hours enjoying course after course of delicious food including some more Peking Duck.

Tangent story: At the airport in Shanghai trying to get to Beijing, we were in line in front of a couple from Canada also on their way to Beijing. We spoke to them for a few minutes while waiting to check-in and then did the obligatory, "Well, maybe we'll see you in Beijing." *laugh, laugh* So funny story, while Lauren and I are enjoying our Peking Duck sitting in Hou Hai, we spot the Canadian couple walking down the little road! Since we are sitting there in the open, we call out to them and strike up a nice conversation! Of 18 million people in Beijing, we in fact do happen to run into the random couple we met at the airport in a different city! I like stories like that.

We did a little more exploring down the streets of Hou Hai after our dinner and discovered that every bar up and down the road had live music and bad karaoke! Each new place was competing for the sound waves and Lauren and I just wished the singing would find the right key! After a short saunter, we grabbed a cab and went back to Jimmy's apartment to call it a night.

The next morning we woke up to quite a surprise. Jimmy had already headed off to school for an exam, but Lauren and I had no running water of any kind. The faucets wouldn't work, no toilet, no shower. This is the day we decided to pull back our hair and rough it a bit. Leaving early than expected, not having to take the time to shower, we went to the northern part of the city to check out the Olympic sports center. We started by walking through the Water Cube. The architecture of this thing is really cool and you feel like you're in a bubble when you're inside the building. From the outside I think it looks like a drop of water ready to burst. It was really neat to go inside and take pictures of the pool where Phelps made history. Afterward we went over to the Bird's Nest and looked around a bit. It is a much more exciting and impressive building from the outside because of the unique architecture; on the inside it is like any other wide open stadium. One day I would really like to be in attendance for an Olympic event.

Once again we were on the move and we went across town to the Summer Palace and gardens. This is a very wide open expanse of gardens right on a small lake. Since we hadn't eaten yet, the first thing we did was each grab a bowl of real Chinese ramen; during lunch we even had a show! Just outside the little restaurant there was an incredible Chinese man painting kanji on the sidewalk with long sponge brushes. They had long handles so he could stand up while he was painting on the sidewalk, and at the bottom very absorbent sponges to hold all the water he was using. The most impressive part of what he was doing was that he would paint with both hands at the same time! Sometimes he would write the same kanji with each hand, but mirror them; and other times he would write two completely different kanji at the same time!!! Once we were finished eating, Lauren and I went to get a closer look at what he was doing. He noticed us admiring his work and started to draw some for us. In English he explained what he was drawing - China, America, People, Friendship, Happiness, Power. Afterward he gave us each a small souvenir of the same kanji written on delicate tissue paper for us to keep.

We continued walking through the Summer Palace searching for a boat ride through the lake. After walking forever, we finally found a dock and a big boat to tour people around the lake. The boat was shaped like a dragon, and it was packed with Chinese tourists. After the boat ride we decided to call it a day and we went back to Jimmy's to hang out with him a bit and take it easy.

By our third day in Beijing, all the traveling was catching up with us and we made it a point to sleep in late! We lounged around in the morning, wrote postcards, checked email and bank accounts, and around lunch time we finally headed out into the big wide world with Jimmy and his friend Carlos for lunch. Jimmy loves fancy places and to call the Lan Club fancy would be an understatement. It was the most intricately decorated restaurant to which I have ever been. It was designed by a man named Philippe Starck and is beyond decorated. The whole place is practically a museum! The paintings are on the ceilings and the banquet rooms are blocked off with burlap. Lauren and I walked around (as though we were in a museum) and took some pictures. I don't know if my words can paint the most accurate picture of how COOL this place really was. The food was good too and thank goodness we went there for lunch because it is crazy expensive for dinner! After lunch Lauren and I got back on the tourist wagon and rode it all the way over to the Hutongs. Hutongs are traditional Chinese villages that have been largely destroyed in Beijing. Of the 10,000 that used to exist, there are only 3,000 left and the Chinese government has finally decided that it is important to protect these wonderful historical buildings. Hutong literally means narrow road, so the best way to tour through them is on foot or by rickshaw - we did both. We didn't have a lot of time to spend, so we hired (waaaay cheap) a private tour guide for a one hour over view of the Hutongs. We even got to meet a local woman who lived in the Hutongs and speak with her about daily life there.

After our tour, we ran back (and by ran back, I mean we were in a slow cab during rush hour) to Jimmy's place so that I could change clothes and Lauren could take a nap. I had dinner plans with Uncle Tim for the night and I had to meet him on the other side of town in less than an hour. I quickly changed clothes and did a quick primp in the mirror before I decided to jump on the Beijing subway instead of endure a long and slow taxi ride. I got to the hotel where Uncle Tim was staying and found him in the hotel lounge. We enjoyed a drink together and started to plan our excursion to the Great Wall for the next day. After our drink we walked over to the tour reservations desk and booked a private car and English speaking tour guide for the next day to take us to the Great Wall and back to the Hutongs for a real, in-depth tour.

Once the plans had been made (mostly in Chinese which was cool because I had never heard Uncle Tim speak Chinese before), we went to dinner at a Korean bbq place that he really enjoyed. Now there are a lot of reasons, but in my life I had never spent any real, quality time with my uncle getting to know him. I discovered quickly that there was so much I didn't know, but really wanted to. There were overwhelming amounts of food, but the best part of the meal was the conversation he and I were able to have. I learned about his past jobs, more about his education, and a lot more about the direction he wants for his life in the future. This dinner was so special for me because for the first time we were able to see and acknowledge one another as so much more than extended family members. I feel a closeness to him now that I feel I can count on for the rest of my life and embarked upon the beginning of a relationship that I am hoping will grown and evolve through the years. I am such a believer in the closeness of family and in taking the time to understand learn about all the amazing experiences that someone else has had. Dinner ended with a great hug and a, "see you tomorrow" and then back to Jimmy's I went.

Once there I was greeted with one heck of a wild party happening. To continue celebrating his birthday, Jimmy was throwing a party for 50 of his closest friends in Beijing at his apartment. I had already had plenty to drink that night, so I hung around the screaming people throwing back the beer for about 15 minutes before I went back to my room and fell asleep.

Bright and early the next morning, I woke up to take a shower and get ready for a full day with Lauren and Uncle Tim! Upon walking out into the hallway, I was greeted with the stickiest floor I have ever felt on my feet and the debris of one crazy party. I'm really glad I slept through it. Around 8:25am, Uncle Tim and the private car he hired pulled up outside Jimmy's building and the three of us were on our way to Mutianyu - an historical section of the Great Wall complete with a cable car ride. The car ride took about an hour and a half, so after the tour guide introduced herself and gave us some background about the Wall, Lauren and I were zonked out!

The first thing we did was hike up a hill lined with vendors all selling the same Chinese trinkets. At the top of the hill was a cable car that gave a nice view of the wall on the way up to where tourists can climb it. Just so happened that we got into car #58. The significance of car #58 is that former President Bill Clinton rode in that exact car when he visited China in June of 1998 - boy did I feel lucky - *cough* At the point where the cable car drops you off, you can begin climbing up the wall to either the left or the right. MeiMei (the tour guide) informed us that the right section was much more level and easier to climb (called the parents' trail) and the left side was more rigorous and challenging (called the heroes' trail). We were guilted into the heroes' trail. Uncle Tim had already climbed the wall, so he hung back and waited for Lauren and I to get to the end and back again. You may think that this is just like walking on a straight path....NO! This is like serious climbing in certain parts and the smoggy air isn't really helpful for a fully oxygenated climb. But in about 45 minutes Lauren and I made it to the end of the Mutianyu section and took a few minutes to take in the scenery. The view of the wall from way up there is really wonderful. It is so hard to believe that ancient Chinese people began building this wall nearly 2000 years ago! MeiMei told us a story about how when the laborers were building the wall, they would often die of fatigue and malnutrition and their bodies were buried inside the layers of the wall because there was no time to dig a proper burial.

We took a ton of pictures and then started making our way down the wall, back to Uncle Tim. We met up with him at the bottom and grabbed the cable car back down. You'd never believe, but the cable car we got was none other than #58 - the Bill Clinton car - again! We met MeiMei back at the bottom and got in the car and made our way back to the hotel where Uncle Tim was staying to grab a quick lunch before our excursion that afternoon. We had a quick Italian meal with salad and real pizza and then took off down the road for the Hutongs! The tour with MeiMei was a three-hour in-depth tour that included the bell tower (on the Dragon Line) and Prince Gong's Mansion. Prince Gong's Mansion was really impressive because of how large it was in addition to the wonderful tea house we were able to visit. Inside the tea house, Lauren and I sampled four different kinds of Chinese tea - Oolong, Jasmine, a modern fruit tea, and a cherry tea with rosebuds. The woman inside the tea house taught us how to do a traditional Chinese tea ceremony (which is much less involved than the Japanese one) and also showed up some magic. I am always a sucker for magic, so all her porcelain tea ware that would change colors when heated made me oooh and aaah. I even ended up getting a couple "magic" mugs as souvenirs!! After our tour through the Hutongs, the car took us back to Wudaokou and Uncle Tim and I parted ways. I am so thankful he was there and I was able to spend such a nice time with him. I am really looking forward to being home and visiting with him some more!

Once inside, Lauren and I watched a movie to avoid packing. We grabbed a Japanese dinner with Jimmy and his friends to finish out our incredible Chinese vacation and then packed and went to bed. The next morning was an early one and little did we know what was in store for us and our long day of travel. But that is for another post.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How hai? Shanghai!

On May 2nd, Lauren and I woke up in Hong Kong, grabbed a great dim sum breakfast with Becky, and then hopped on a couple planes for Shanghai. The currency between Hong Kong and mainland China is different, so Lauren and I decided to change money once we got to the airport in Guangzhou for our layover before Shanghai. However, because of the Swine Flu scare, our three hour layover proved to be just long enough to go through the quarantine rigmarole and get to our gate. New plan, Lauren and I are going to change money once we get to Shanghai. Given our long day of traveling and complete forgetfulness, we got into a cab at the Shanghai airport without any cash. Luckily we had a really great cab driver and he had no problem letting us change money once we got to our hotel.

Once at our hotel, we collapsed under fatigue. We took a nap from 7pm-9:30pm, and then woke up pretty hungry. Our hotel was in an excellent location right on Nanjing Road - a popular street for shopping and night life. Lauren and I ventured out and realized that there was a Haagen Dazs right next to our hotel. We had ice cream for dinner, just like real adults....hahaha. Afterwards, we took a short walk down our fantastic little street and made the wise decision to get a sandwich from Subway to supplement our ice cream dinner.

This is also the night we were introduced to the pushiness of mainland peddlers and vendors. Just walking down Nanjing Road we were approached by no fewer than ten people trying to sell watches, purses, shoes, toys, all kind of fake stuff for "good price." We quickly discovered that the best way to get them to stop following you all the way down the street is to ignore them completely.

The next morning, we got up and with Lauren's good research headed over to Fuxing Road. This is a really quaint part of Shanghai that's not too crowded and is part of what they call the French Concession. It was such a fun street to walk down and the trees lining the road were very pretty. As we walked, we came across a nail salon. Lauren had been dying to get her nails done, and I was no opposed, so we walked in and discovered that the prices were phenomenal. And by phenomenal I mean that in Japan to get a full manicure is upwards of $70 (the same thing at home I can find for $25 or $30) and in Shanghai at this salon we could get it done for about $35. We relaxed and left after a couple hours with beautiful manicures and a hungry appetite.

While walking down the street, we found a wonderfully decorated Thai restaurant with outdoor seating. After months of craving Panang curry, I finally got some and it totally hit the spot. We got some nice pictures of the outdoor scenery and flowers and then after lunch we were on our way to explore more of Fuxing Road.

Before I left for Shanghai, I was told by one of my teachers at Koga First to see the acrobatic show in Shanghai. As you all know, I just saw my first Cirque show at the beginning of April, but that experience did not dwarf the spectacle of the Shanghai acrobats at all! This performance was in a regular theatre space and the technical aspect was not the most impressive part of the show. At first they started slow to ease the audience in with some basic tumbling and flipping. But they progressed quickly into an incredible contortionist act. This woman was more flexible than the actual Gumby! She balanced mini plastic chandeliers on her hands and feet and proceeded to roll all over the floor without dropping anything. It's as though the directionality of her joints were merely a suggestion to which she was in no way bound. There were high fliers and awesome feats of strength. I got a couple blurry pictures, but I will try to get some up here soon.

Lauren loves the night life, so after the awesomeness that was the acrobatic show, we went to the Park Hyatt to check out a bar Lauren had read good reviews about. Sadly the bar we wanted to go to on the 93rd floor of the World Financial Center was closed on a Sunday night so we went to the bar on the 91st floor instead. This would have been incredible except that it was on the verge of rain and way overcast, so up on the 91st floor all we saw was fog! The drinks were great though, and I ended up having something with gin (of course) and also egg whites. Strange. We also met a Japanese man who had just moved to Shanghai to be the manager of the bar at which we were drinking. We spoke to him for a while and he asked where our next destination was, "House of Blues and Jazz," we said. Since he had only been in Shanghai for a few days, he didn't know where it was, but he immediately went over to a computer and looked it up online for us. This turned out to be incredibly helpful because the Jazz club had moved from its original location and while driving around in a taxi, we had to use the driver's cell phone to call the club and get the new address.

The Jazz club, once we finally found it, was great! There was a band there on a three month booking from The States with a guest trumpeter from Tokyo! After a few songs, Lauren got the idea for me to sing with the band! I told her this then, but she reminded me so much of my mother at that moment, "How cool would it be if you could sing with the band! You should really do it! I will go talk to them for you!" That was paraphrasing, but you get where I'm coming from. It was fun and encouraging, but I am shy as all get out when it comes to my singing, so I let Lauren go talk to the band leader. After just a couple minutes, she comes back to me and asks what songs I know. I throw out some titles, Gershwin and Over the Rainbow. She plays the mediator and before I know it, I am up on the stage singing Over the Rainbow in a real jazz club with a real jazz band in a foreign country!! It was such a crazy thrill, I was on top of the world! And Lauren got a video of it on her camera, so I will try to post that as soon as I can.

My song with the band was the last song of the night, so after that Lauren and I hung around to chat it up with Igmar (the band leader) and Nori (Japanese trumpeter). In fact, Nori had another show he is playing in Tochigi (the next prefecture over from Ibaraki) at the end of May and I really hope to go. Not much later Lauren and I went outside to find a cab to take us back to our hotel for the night.

The next morning we got up to do some serious temple scouting. We began at the Longhua Temple and Pagoda. The temples in Shanghai were all yellow with brown roofs. And while walking through Longhua we saw a huge open pile of trash just strewn in a corner. I thought it was a pretty interesting social commentary to have such an ugly display in a place for reverence and prayer. Next we moved to the Jade Buddha temple. Again each building was yellow with very similar decorations and gardens. The Jade Buddha was rather impressive however. We were unable to take pictures given that white jade is prone to easy deterioration. Outside of that particular statue however, there were more Buddhas that we could capture on film. One of which is called the reclining Buddha for the relaxed position in which the statue is carved. The whole time through this temple, Lauren and I had been following a German tour group. Lauren knows German, so any time she has a chance to practice listening or speaking she really enjoys that. But while we were trying to get our pictures of the reclining Buddha, a German man behind us did not approve of us trying to snap a good shot and quite purposely said, "Shit Americans." Lauren was livid and we were both ready turn around and show him how ugly we could be, but good sense got the best of us and we just moved on and fumed to ourselves.

Next we moved to a section of Shanghai called Old Town. It is a location with very traditional architecture and wonderful shops and food everywhere. We had typical Chinese lunch of dumplings and rice and then started looking around the shops. This proved to be quiet and enjoyable experience and a real chance for Lauren to keep working on her haggling skills! I purchased a few souvenirs for some friends and I got a small journal for myself with a silk outer cover. There was one woman in particular that was just so much fun for me to watch as she and Lauren went back and forth on the price of six little Buddha statues. At the end of it all, we got a picture with she and Lauren!

Lauren and I were pretty beat after this, so we went back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner reservation at New Heights - a chic place in a section of Shanghai called The Bund. The Bund is the banking and financial district of Shanghai with classy restaurants and bars. The night view is wonderful and New Heights is the best place to go for the atmosphere but not the exorbitant prices. Our view from the roof terrace was wonderful as it looked out over the Huangpu River. We were able to sit there for a couple hours just chatting and eating slowly enjoying the scenery and taking it all in. After dinner we ventured over to yet another bar Lauren had researched called Glamour Bar. We each enjoyed a drink - I a Long Island peach tea and Lauren a glass of wine. The music was great, so we got up and danced in an open area next to the bar. We were the only ones dancing, but we didn't mind! And just after that we went to Rouge Bar. The decor was cool, but the place was pretty dead, so we decided to call it a night. Lauren probably could have kept going, but I was so beat - I just don't have that kind of stamina! The next morning we hopped on a plane for Beijing and my adventure will continue there...

Monday, May 11, 2009

And my story begins on an island

The name of this island is Hong Kong. After a long day of travel - six hours on a plan that was supposed to be a 4 hour flight - Lauren and I arrived and I made my first new friend. In Hong Kong we stayed with a friend of Lauren's from college named Becky. Becky has been living in Hong Kong since January as a temporary transfer for the law firm she works for in Chicago. In short, I really loved Becky. She is funny and easy going and really generous to have let us crash in her place for a few days.

April 30th was our first day of touring, so Lauren and I got up pretty early and set out on what proved to be a really great adventure and vacation. Becky had to work that first day, so Lauren and I were on our own. Luckily Lauren is the queen of research for new hot spots and great places to see when traveling, so she had everything all mapped out. First we went for breakfast at a great place that Becky recommended called The Flying Pan. We had been warned that the portions were large, so we split one eggs Benedict meal that was incredible. It was served Greek-style with feta cheese and spinach.

After breakfast we walked around the streets of the Wan Chai district where Becky lived. There are so many luxury shops and incredible malls here that Lauren and I got lost a bit and just let the time slip by. Once we realized that the afternoon was fast approaching, we got a move on and found the ferry boat that takes people to Kowloon. Once off the ferry we grabbed a taxi to the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas. The temple itself is on the top of a huge hill and leading up the hill is a path lined with larger than life Buddha statues. According to the Hong Kong image of Buddha, he was a fun guy! All the statues are hilarious, but when you get to the top, you realize where the 10,000 Buddhas come into play. There are different buildings at the top built very close together that each have one large statue in the center of the room, but along the walls are very small Buddha statues packed into little cubby holes covering all the walls. The sheer enormity of it all is overwhelming. And I did wonder whose job it was to dust the top shelves!

After our Buddha adventure, Lauren and I hurried back over to the Hong Kong via the ferry and met up with Becky and some of her coworkers for dinner. They had chosen quite a nice Chinese restaurant. We all ended up getting a 10 course meal with Peking Duck and a Beggar's Chicken. Now, Beggar's Chicken has a cool little story to go along with it. In ancient China, a beggar stole a chicken from the Emperor's estate and quickly took it away to be cooked in the nearby village. So as to keep the chicken from emitting a savory aroma as it cooked and giving him away, he first plucked the chicken and wrapped the meat in lotus leaves for flavoring. Next he slathered the lotus leaves in a thick layer of mud to seal in the flavors and smells. Once the chicken had been cooked, he had to use a hammer to beat his way through the hardened mud case to unwrap the lotus leaves and finally eat the cooked chicken. In this particular restaurant, they let the customers use a hammer and crack the outer shell and then they give you a little souvenir hammer. They took our picture and put it in a nice little frame with the story printed on it as well.

After our decadent dinner, we ventured on to a wine bar that was owned by friends of Becky's coworkers. Did you follow that? The wine bar has a simple loungy atmosphere and was a really nice place to hang out and chat with our little group. Lauren and I also met the owners of the bar and spoke to them a bit. Shortly after that, Lauren and I crashed back at Becky's.

The next day was a holiday in Hong Kong, so Becky was able to go with us touring! The first thing we did was to buy some fresh egg tarts at the bakery below Becky's apartment building. They were hot and really delicious! After that we went for a real breakfast at the Flying Pan again! Once we really got on the road we headed over to the cable car station to take a car up to the top of Victoria's Peak. It was a really great view of Hong Kong, the surrounding islands, and all the wide open mountainous land that Hong Kong has. Also at the top of Victoria's Peak, there is a Madam Tussuad's Wax Museum!! After my excursion last July at the new Madam Tussuad's in D.C., I really wanted to go to the one in Hong Kong! Turns out Becky had never been to one and Lauren had gone many years ago to the one in New York. We had such a blast there, and I am forever amazed by the incredible likeness they are able to achieve to the actual subject. We dressed up in certain areas and Lauren decided to wear a pink tutu around the whole museum!

Victoria's Peak and the museum were a bit tiring so we cooled off a bit with some quality ice cream and homemade waffle cones. Afterwards, we took the cable car back down the mountain and caught a bus for Stanley - another town down by the ocean. There was a market in Stanley and a crazy number of restaurants lining the street. After walking through the market a bit, it began to close, but Lauren and I were on a mission. Lauren really wanted a silk robe and I wanted a Chinese dress and in the end we both came away happy. We found one little shop that was still open with two very nice women working inside, they helped us with styles and colors and sizes and at the end Lauren tried her hand at bargaining and got us a nice discount on our respective souvenirs. Through the trip Lauren turned into a master haggler and we walked away with some great deals and nice keepsakes. After our shopping adventure, we got a table at an Asian/Western fusion restaurant and all enjoyed some curry.

After the bus ride home from Stanley, the three of us got all dressed up again and went out to a bar that Lauren had been dying to try called Felix bar. As I said, Lauren loves her research and found great reviews and good word of mouth feedback about this particular bar. Once we got there, we all decided that it was a nice place, but all the hype was a bit much. One thing however was incredibly confusing....the bathroom situation. When you got off the elevator for this bar, to the left looked like double doors into another hallway and to the right was the large seating area and wine room. After being showed to our seats and chatting a while, I got up to use the restroom. I asked one of the hostesses where the restroom was and she pointed me down the hall to the double doors I mentioned. I walked down and instinctively took the door on the right into what I thought was another hallway. Turns out, I just about walked into the mens' bathroom! I then shifted to the left door and was in the right place. The bathroom was beautifully decorated and very chic. When I came out again, I looked at the doors to see where the markings were to signify men and women. Looking very closely, I saw that there was a small bronze disk on either door and a light shining from the ceiling at an angle reflecting on the disk a small M or F. It kind of made me laugh out loud how minimalistic this place was to make the bathrooms so inconspicuous!

The next day we got up early and headed out to the airport to fly our way onto mainland China and Shanghai.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Off to a faraway land

Well China isn't so far from Japan, but that's where I'm headed! My trusty pal Lauren (the ultimate travel buddy!) and I are grabbing a plane tomorrow afternoon to Hong Kong. We will be traveling from Hong Kong to Shanghai to Beijing and back to Tokyo for two weeks. And while I know that I have been doing a lame job of updating lately, I definitely won't be updating for another two weeks. HOWEVER, when I do return from China I will have more stories than I can type. So be on the lookout for lots of new exciting stories and pictures after May 10th!!!

Also, I am not taking my laptop, nor do I anticipate being able to check email, but I will respond to all comments and emails as soon as I get back to Japan.

AHHHH I only have three months left!!!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Magic tricks and bedtime stories

Tonight's English lesson with Heartful was really fantastic! This is a prime example of the things that mean the most to me here in Japan that I will miss terribly. Heartful is actually in a bit of a transition now because one of our teachers moved away. James (the guy from Kenya), decided to move to a more exciting place than Koga and take a new ALT job. It was a bit of a sudden decision, so Heartful is still trying to find a replacement teacher. This is good news for me though because until they find a replacement, I get to take over James' classes and see them more often!

Tonight was especially fun because Boom Chan told us about a class that she teaches on Tuesdays at a university in Tokyo. Boom Chan is a bit of an expert at entertaining children. She writes children's books, and knows magic tricks and does puppetry, etc. So the class she teaches is an early education class for people who want to own and teach at day cares and kindergartens. Today she taught her class a magic lesson they can use for wow-ing large groups of kids. So we coaxed her to show us some of her tricks tonight for fun.

The tricks she showed us tonight were mostly things with rope and knots. She even taught us all how to do a couple of them! The first was to make a mosquito, Cat's Cradle style, and then clap our hands and all the knots would fall out. Next we made a Bunny Foo Foo with our hand and went through a hide and seek sequence until all the knots we made fell out. It was so much fun to watch everyone in the group try to learn the trick and then practice until it was perfected! Boom Chan has written a book about magic tricks and a few different children's stories.

Hiromi has two grandchildren and she bought one of Boom Chan's books for them. She pulled it out to show me and it turned into story time. Each person would translate one page of the book into English for me and then pass the book on to the next person. When it got around to me, I would read the Japanese out loud and then translate it myself. The story was about a little ninja whose father asked him to deliver a letter to his grandpa. The little ninja was afraid to go alone, so he used his ninjitsu magic to help him multiply into three little ninjas. So the ninja starts on his journey. Along the road there is a big snake, so the little ninja multiplies to 6 ninjas and then 100 ninjas. All the ninjas run very quickly around the snake to make him very dizzy. And then the snake falls down. The little ninja finally makes it to his grandfather's house to deliver the letter!

Boom Chan reminds me so much of a really great teacher of mine from middle school. She has a ton of energy, great sense of humor, and works so well with kids. In fact, I think I will go write Lauren a letter right now! So many wonderful Lauren's in my life!!!! :)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Busy week, no more time to be sick

I am slowly starting to kick this sickness, which is good because I have a pretty busy week coming up. I have both English clubs this week on Monday and Tuesday, dinner plans on Wednesday, and my own Japanese class on Friday. This weekend I am going shopping with Chika (mostly just to hang out and enjoy looking at summer clothes) and then next week is only a two day week before I am off to CHINA for two weeks! But my To Do list needs to be complete before next Wednesday, so I gotta get in gear.

With all the excitement and bustling that has been happening, the days have been moving right along in their warp-speed kind of way and only when I actually look at a calendar, do I realize how little time I have left. Recently I have been talking to my Mom about eventually leaving Japan and what a huge transition that is going to be for me. Now legit, I am doing so much better with the idea/occurrence of change. That doesn't mean that my life here is unimportant. I have learned that being able to deal with change and being sad to see a chapter in your life close are two different things. I will be very sad to see this year of my life come to an end, but I am ready to move back home. Some advice I got from Mom (modified to be universal), "Write down all the reasons why you made the decision to transition, now. Then when you are in the thick of sadness and emotional time of moving onto the next thing, you can look at your list and be reassured you made the right decision for you, even if it is hard."

I will be starting to reflect a lot more as the weeks slip by. I cannot be more thankful for this year and the people who encouraged me and threw me on that airplane to get here in the first place.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I would like to begin this post by letting you know that I also finished Love As A Foreign Language Vol. 3, but I have decided to stop reporting on the series. Suffice it to say, I really love the series and it really hits home with me. Thanks, DC for bringing it into my life.

Now, as for Wicked - I finally read the whole thing!!! If people think Baum's OZ book was political, wait until you read Maguire's take on the fateful country! He is an incredibly intricate writer with a strong voice and intense characters. I will say that for those of you who have seen the musical, they are hardly similar. In my opinion, the musical is very pointed and cohesive, the book is more realistic - as realistic as a magical land with witches and dragons can be. He speaks in a very real tone of political turmoil and misguided leaders turned dictators.

The story is of the life of Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire delves into the reason as to why she is green-skinned, but also her aversion to water, and her aptitude toward "evil." I found it quite interesting actually that Maguire explores the definition of the word evil and the role it plays in society - this bit of the novel can be extrapolated and set against modern society and the behavior of those considered "good" versus those considered "evil." One opinion of the debate I found extremely thought-provoking was the statement, "Evil is an act, not an appetite." It goes on to discuss how evil can only be seen, and that our private thoughts or appetites, no matter how dark, cannot be considered evil because no one knows to judge them. It is only when an appetite is acted upon that evil exists because of the real consequences of physical action. What do you think?

"What is the difference between science and sorcery?"
My thought is that what is considered sorcery (or magic) tends to become science. Instances of nature that at one time were inexplicable, were considered of the Gods or magic. Eventually all of those mystic events were to be explained by science. Without detailed examination of sorcery, science would cease to exist.

"It is not for a girl, or a student, or a citizen to assess what is wrong. This is the job of leaders, and why we exist."
This statement is rather nerve racking and I fear speaks of the tyranny of big government. In my opinion, it should always be for the common person to contemplate and have an opinion on how he is governed. When the population grows to significant numbers, it is unrealistic for each person to have a clear vote on every national issue. However, I think sometimes governments are elected to office and then have quite a lot of free reign until the next public vote - which is never soon enough to stop the mess from being made.

I think this book is really phenomenal and is worth reading. It took me a while to get through because of the intricate language and so many created words. I surely recommend it though.

Tired and Sick

I would have titled this post the other way around, but that phrase has such a negative and unsatisfied connotation. Anyway, I have been sick for about a week now. Nothing that keeps me from working, it just makes work that much more tiring. I just started teaching again for the first time in a month, and I am happy to report that my schools have been keeping me busy. I really love being in the classroom with the new kids, but this head cold has GOT TO GO!!!

Each day is different and sometimes I think I am feeling better, but then after a full day of classes, I'm back to where I started. Needless to say, I have been dead tired and just can't seem to get enough sleep. So this week I have been doing a lot of reading and lesson planning in the evenings, so nothing terribly exciting to report. I was hoping to be feeling better this weekend, so that I could go see Lauren in Tokyo (my favorite girl and my favorite spot) but I just don't think that will happen. However, if better judgment does not prevail and I end up spending Saturday in the big city, I will be sure to report my escapades when I return home! ;)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turn

It has been two weeks since all of the new teachers came to Sanwa - all 12 of them! and one week since classes have begun and the new students have been in school. I started teaching again this week.

Of course as a recovering Metathesiophobe (fear of changes), I was a little apprehensive about the flurry of activity around me as the new school year approached. Sanwa underwent some pretty big changes including 12 new teachers (3 of which are English), a new Vice Principle, of course new freshman students, and a new layout to the teacher's room. But I am happy to report that not only have I endured the changes, but I am enjoying my new view of the teachers room and I am excited to meet my new students. The new English teachers are really great too and it helped that I knew two of the three of them before they got here! One teacher is from my old school, Sakai Nishi, and the other is from the school where I was a substitute ALT, Yachiyo High School. They are such nice women and oddly, I am helping them learn the culture of Sanwa a bit since I have been here longer. Imagine that, me with some experience! haha

The story with our new Vice Principle is a little strange to me, and I am sure I am missing some of the details in translation, but... The Vice Principal that was here until March had no clue he was leaving until about three days before the new school year was to begin! I kind of think about it like a sports team; our Principal knew he would be trading the VP, but he didn't tell the VP until the last minute so that nothing could be done about it. It came as a shock to everyone, and as with so many other situations I have encountered here, no one seems to understand what is going on or have details about a situation. I will never cease to be surprised by the amount of blind faith the Japanese have in the group and the higher-ups to make decisions. They aren't really concerned with details or the reason why - a way of going through life that is completely foreign to me.

Last week was rather uneventful for me at work, but on Thursday I had my rock concert debut! Every year there is a welcome assembly for all the new students. They listen to speeches and most importantly, every club at school does a small presentation for them to try and entice them to join. I thought it was cool to watch all of the different clubs (mostly sports) give little demonstrations. At the end of this segment, the "rock band" club sang two songs for the school. I have been practicing with Kohei and Kensaku for about 5 weeks now and watching these guys play is just fun. Kohei was one of my students that went to Australia way back in November and he always makes it a point to come and speak to me when I am working at Sanwa.

Sadly I have not been spending as much time outdoors since school started because of being a little busier (thank goodness) and of having a yucky head cold. I have been reading like a fiend of course and still riding my bike when I do go out. Hopefully this head gunk will pass quickly. I have more travel plans in the works and I will be sure to keep everyone updated. :)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Love as a Foreign Language - Vol. 2 by J. Torres and Eric Kim

I just finished the second installment of this comic series and I am really enjoying it. The character is struggling with his desire to be back home and his new found energy and motivation to stay in Korea and keep teaching English. The job is frustrating, but he wonders if that is reason enough to leave his new life and go back to the old one. I really like the mirror effect this series has for me. In the dialogue I can see my own situation somewhat and it helps to have that reflected back. There was an unexpected twist at the end of this book, and now I am on the edge of my seat for the third!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Spring is upon us

In Japan, spring brings many new beginnings. The beginning of a new season, new school year, new wardrobe, new energy and excitement after a long, cold winter. The Japanese school year begins in April and ends in March, and Sanwa has been buzzing to get ready for the new year and new students. The weather has been beautiful and so enticing that I have spent a lot of time outside while at school. I am lucky that I have such freedom that I can take a walk outside during school hours. I have been getting a lot of bike riding in lately as well. Just on Friday, I was able to check out of school a couple hours early and head over to the Koga Peach Blossom Festival again.

I am so happy to have been introduced to this park because the atmosphere is beautiful and it will be a nice place to spend time this summer. Luckily I got to the festival early enough in the day to visit some of the vendors and get a chocolate banana. While I was shopping through some different kinds of tea leaves for sale, one vendor offered me a sample of green tea and we struck up a nice conversation. I am always so happy to speak to people in the community in Japanese. It gives me some great practice and I like that they try to talk to me. This woman did a fantastic job by using easy vocabulary and speaking to me slowly. She asked me where I was from and why I was living in Japan. When I told her that I was an English teacher, she gave me a big smile and said, "Good luck! Work hard!" I thanked her and moved on. It was great to find a nice place to sit down and read my book for a bit too. The peach blossoms were still out and gorgeous and a nice atmosphere to begin the weekend.

And to end the weekend, Chika, Jason and I went to another park of which I cannot remember the name to see some cherry blossoms. This is a park covered in sakura trees. They have a nice open field where you can sit and observe the blossoms and enjoy the company of those around you. In the spring it is a popular Japanese past time to sit, drink sake, and watch sakura trees in bloom. And as always, I was able to get some great festival food and enjoy the chocolate bananas! Festival season is just beginning and I hope to report back from many more as the spring turns into summer.

The circus is in town!

I love when my friends have birthdays because it means that I get to join in their fun as well!! This weekend was my friend Jason's birthday and his girlfriend, Chika, and I bought tickets for the three of us to go to a Cirque du Soleil show! I have known a bit about Cirque, but I had never seen a show. Before we went, I did a bit of research and learned that Cirque du Soleil has been around for over 20 years! It began in Canada and now can be seen in many locations all around the world. Unlike Broadway or traditional theatre, Cirque shows are in two separate categories - shows that travel and shows that do not. The shows that do not travel are only in one location, so the show here in Japan cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

The whole idea behind Cirque du Soleil is to be a new-age circus for a modern audience. The spectacle of the show is completely amazing. The acrobatic feats and amazing strength of the performers is nothing short of awesome. There were two singers that narrated each act. They were very talented and had voices so clear and controlled. We could not quite make out the language in which they were singing, but it sounded like a romance language; Spanish perhaps.

At the beginning of the show there were traditional clowns drawing in the crowd and connecting the story. The story of this particular show (titled ZED) was of a man who was drawn into a story book and then became part of the story. The performers were from all over the world. My favorite part was the strength demonstration. There were two people who were lifted up from the floor. The man was standing up with his head bent down and there was a woman on his back, upside down. her head was bent and she was balanced on his shoulders. They moved completely in slow motion and the physical strength was mind boggling. I felt like a kid watching with eyes wide and mouth agape. I am on a mission to see as many different Cirque shows that I can!