Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Announcement You've All Been Waiting For...

As most of you know, I've been deliberating over what to do after next July...should I stay in Japan another year? Should I move on to another country since I'm young and have the freedom to explore the world? Should I come back home to America? If I do go back to America, where should I go?

These questions have been on my mind pretty frequently lately. I know the decision doesn't have to be made until February, but mostly for my peace of mind, I want to know what my plan is. As I've thought it through, I realized that staying in Japan would be the easy decision. I have an apartment with cheap rent, a car, a good paying job that allows me to pay off student loans, a good social network and an opportunity to live in a foreign country.

Having said that, it would be only that, the easy decision. You would think that it would be harder for me to decide to move to a foreign country, not to move back home, but I've found that not true. When I decided to come to Japan, I was at that point in my life where I had to change everything no matter what -- I graduated college, needed a job, and no matter what I would have been going through a major life change and move. Now however, I'm just starting to feel settled in with life, and by coming home, I'm creating a disruption to that "settled in" feeling.

As I've realized that staying in Japan would be the easy choice, I've also realized that it's not the best choice for me. I have become somewhat complacent with my life in Japan. Yes, it's been a great opportunity for me and I have grown a lot in my time here. I've seen great things and met some great people. But in all honesty, I'm not challenged by my job here and I have lost most interest in learning Japanese since I know it won't be all that relevant to my life back in the US. Of course I am still interested in foreign culture, but anything that I haven't learned or done in two years I probably wouldn't do in 3, and I have had to come to terms with that.

So it's time to move on. I can't promise that I know what that entails, just that I am not signing a contract for a third year on the JET program. In all likelihood that means I'm returning home, but I make no promises. There's a small chance I'd go somewhere else (trying to get an international teaching job in Peru?), but I stress the small. Deciding to leave my job here was a big enough decision for means re-doing my resume, applying for jobs, finding a new place to live, deciding where to live, and overall analyzing what my goals in life are...big questions that do not have easy answers. And of course, making the best of the time I have left in Japan, almost exactly 9 months. The time is going to fly, and though I need to look forward and plan for the future, I also want to make sure to stop and take in the opportunities around me because I'll never get this time back or anything like it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dawna and Ashley Do Tokyo!

Actually a bit backwards since I already posted about Dawna and my adventures around my city, but we actually started out her trip in Tokyo. She arrived on a Saturday night, which meant I spent most of my Saturday on a train to the airport (I could have made it faster, but since I had the time, I went local and cheap). Barely room to complain since she spent 2-3 times as long on an airplane to see me!

We started off our evening at Shibuya. Shibuya is the place for the young and the hip, which both of us are really only bordering on :) But there are always interesting people to look at and stores to check out!

We took our obligatory picture with Hachiko statue, a statue of a dog who used to come to the station everyday to meet his master at the same time. Even after his master died in the 1930s, he continued coming every day. So they put up a statue of him and it's a common meeting place for people when they come to Shibuya.

Dawna and I with Hachiko in Shibuya

The we made our way across Shibuya crossing, one of the most famous pedestrian crossings in the world. Traffic stops in all directions and the intersection becomes a mass of people crossing different ways every few minutes. It's surrounded by television screens with advertisements and has one of the busiest Starbucks in the world that has a window overlooking the crossing. So despite the fact that Dawna probably didn't envision spending her first night in Japan at a Starbucks, I felt Starbucks deprived and she took one for the team! We had a coffee and headed back to our hostel to get some sleep!

Shibuya crossing and Starbucks

That same night and the next morning we visited Senso-ji Shrine, one of the more famous, and my favorite, Shrine in Tokyo.

I think it's a place that people go to most to pray for their health, as people rub incense onto their bodies from the big incense pot in front of the shrine and also rub one of the Buddha's feet for good health. Dawna and I also got our omikuji fortune where you take a big jar of sticks and one comes out a small hole. It has a number on it, which gives you your fortune. If you have good luck, you bring it with you, but if it's bad luck, you tie it up at the shrine to "leave your bad luck" there and the divine spirits will take care of it. We both had really bad fortunes, so we tied them up at the shrine.
Dawna tying up her bad fortune.

Rubbing Buddha's foot for good health

The first full day we were there, we tried to go to Disneyland, but it was much too full! They quit letting people in, so we just bought a ticket for the following day and took the train back into Tokyo for some sightseeing. We started off at the Imperial Palace, home of the emperor of Japan. I have been to the gardens before, but actually never saw the castle.

So we started off in front of Nijibashi bridge, then made our way to the gardens for a few "senior pictures."

Next we checked out one of the facades of Tokyo Station, the biggest station and central hub of Tokyo. After that we headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office and went up to the 45th floor, a free observation deck. You can see out over Tokyo and it's the second tallest building in Tokyo next to Tokyo Tower (which is taller than the Eiffel Tower). It's nicer than going up in the Tokyo Tower because you can see Tokyo Tower from the Metropolitan Gov't Building.

The view from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building at Sunset

Some huge ladybugs outside Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

We watched the sun set from there and then we went on an adventure to find Rainbow Bridge at Odaiba Bay. I've wanted to go there, but it's a bit outside of Tokyo, so I had never made my way there on my trips to Tokyo. We set out to one of the train stops recommended on the internet, only to find that we couldn't get to the water or see the bridge. I stopped a little old lady with a bike to ask her where the water was, and she proceeded to tell us that we had to go to a different train stop. I kinda didn't think she knew what she was talking about, and from there, she just wouldn't leave us alone! She told us we could follow her to the water to see the bridge, so we kept walking with her. She told me about her children and grandchildren and Dawna just chilled behind us probably thinking I was crazy to follow this woman! I tried several times to tell her it was fine, we could find our way back to the station, but she wanted to help us. Finally we bought train tickets with her still watching (at a different station than we arrived at) and she finally left as we were going up the escalator to our train.

In the end, we made it and it was nice to know that people still exist who will go out of their way to help someone who doesn't speak the language. I'm not sure there are many people like that in America anymore, just people who think people need to learn English. So, the adventure was a success. We got to see the huge suspension bridge, Tokyo Tower lit up at night (from pretty far away!), and the replica of the statue of liberty!

The next day we went to Disneyland, but I'll write a separate entry about that! The day after we wanted to try for the fish market, but in order to go there we would have to wake up at 4am! So instead we made our way down to Kamakura, and back to Fujinomiya. More to come!

See all of Dawna and Ashley's adventures here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Around the 'nomiya

We spent a few days just around where I live, and of course one of them was spent at Shiraito Waterfalls and Lake Tanuki, the sorta "must-sees" of my city. First we headed off to the waterfalls. On the path down to the falls there is a bunch of bamboo, so we decided to go senior picture style (as we did at many places throughout the week!):

At the waterfalls, we decided to buy the cell phone charms of some Mt. Fuji characters. They kiss each other and we wanted to make sure they had enough "alone time" before they parted ways again and resided in different countries:

After Shiraito Waterfalls, we headed up to Lake Tanuki for a little picnic, followed by a walk around the lake:

And a few more senior pictures:

Mt. Fuji didn't come out to play, but it was a fabulous day despite it!

Two Worlds Collide

I often feel like I live in two different worlds, which has some obvious truth to it. I have two completely separate lives that don’t really mix. My friends here listen to me talk about home, my family and friends and life in America and my friends and family at home listen to stories and see pictures of my adventures here, but there isn’t any interaction between the two worlds. Therefore it’s a bit nerve-wracking when the two worlds collide. Starting over in a new country with literally no one that you know allows you to sort of rebuild yourself – your image, personality, what background information people know about you. I can’t say that I really act much different than I do at home, I guess just in theory it's that way. So my friends in Japan got a small glimpse into my “previous” life and Dawna a glimpse into my “new” world (or maybe my same life in a different world?).

So anyway, the collision ended up being amazing ;) My best friend since childhood came to visit me in Japan for a little over a week. I think we had a really great mix of being able to relax and just do our own thing (watch movies and FRIENDS while eating popcorn and peanut butter M&Ms) and seeing new places and things. Coming to a new country, especially one with a culture so opposite your own, can be an intense experience and it’s easy to shy away from things but Dawna hit a few of them head on, which made me excited to share a few of those parts of my life with her!

From a purikura booth in Tokyo

I’m just going to do a few blog entries about the different places we went, because it’s too hard to cram a whole week’s worth of activities into one blog entry. Dawna, thanks so much for taking time out of your life to come explore mine for a bit. I love you so much and hope you enjoyed your time here as much as I did!

Keeping Busy

During the second half of last year I started to become a bit of a hermit, and since going home this summer I have really started to get out and take advantage of my time again. Here are just a few of the things I have been up to:

I went to an okonomiyaki restaurant with some Japanese friends. We were actually going to get Indian food, but our local Indian restaurant is taking a hiatus and doesn't open again until the end of this month. I don't really like okonomiyaki much, but I tried a few new types of things that I enjoyed! Okonomiyaki is often translated as a Japanese pancake, but it's really nothing like a pancake like you would envision. It's usually cabbage, some other veggies and chunks of meat, egg and some type of batter (but only a little bit to hold it together). You mix it all together and fry it, flip it, and then cut it in pieces to eat. It's usually topped with a special sauce, mayo, and sometimes fish flakes or shredded sea weed. Here's a video of the flip:

Remember if you're reading this in an email, you'll have to go to my blog to watch it.

I also tried a new thing that's like the omelette/pancake thing above - it's a mix of ingredients but isn't eaten in the pancake form, but more like a...stirfry? Not exactly, but my English is failing me these days, so see below:

The bowl of ingredients before mixing it.

Chiaki mixing in the the sauce to give it good flavor.

I also organized a rafting trip for AJET along with the vice president. It's quite near my house actually. so I had a few people come up to stay with me the night before and we just drove there. There were about 30 rafters in all, so quite a large group. It was a good time. Like last year the rapids weren't really that big, but we had fun in the water and in good company!

Our Raft Left to Right: Me, Kory, Kelly, Jaime and Dion

One of our team's rafts in the rapids

After rafting, we went to hana no yu, my favorite onsen and second home! The wine bath is back, though a different type of wine, so I am one happy girl! After onsen I road tripped it with a new friend out to the Izu peninsula and went to dinner with John and Kari. We scoped out a new bar in the "Nag" and stopped to soak our feet in a foot bath along the way. Apparently they are all over the city there, I wouldn't mind living there for the foot baths!!

Can you tell which feet are mine? ;)
So life has been good, hope it's as good there as it is here! Love you and miss you all!


p.s. After writing all this, I realized I had already blogged about some of it, but this time pictures are included, so I'm not deleting all this work!

Licensed to Drive

I've been really behind on life in general lately, so of course my blog follows suit. So, let's catch up!

The day after coming back from Goza beach (see previous entry), I braved transferring my American driver's license into a Japanese license. It is a little bit backwards, but when you first come to Japan you can use an International Driver's Permit from your local AAA office. All you have to do is pay to get it and stick a passport size photo on it, and you're 100% legal to drive in most foreign countries. Mine expired in August, so I had to get a real Japanese driver's license. Many other countries can just go in for an interview and change their license without taking a test, but Americans have to take a 10 question True or False test (in poorly translated English) and then a shortened version of the Japanese driving test.

People make a lot of noise about this and say that it's a huge deal. And it is a little bit, because most everyone that I know had to take the test multiple times before passing. After asking for lots of advice from previous test takers, I armed myself for success by choosing the easiest testing center (or most lenient to foreigners might be the most accurate) and wearing a suit to the testing center to assure the examiner that I was taking this seriously. Oh, and I should also add that to get this appointment I visited my local police station 4 times, got some Japanese translations of papers, got a letter from the MN DMV because I had renewed my license in July while I was home and it didn't look like I had my license for longer than 3 months, I didn't have the right size photo for the application, etc. etc. etc.

So finally I was there, thankfully with the help of a Japanese friend since I don't speak enough Japanese for the interview portions of the test. So first I turned in all the paperwork that I spent the previous month collecting and waited. Then I had an interview about what my driver's education classes and driver's test entailed and then I waited. Then I took a 10 question True or False test that was a bit harder than I expected, so I was a little nervous while I waited again. I took an eye test and correctly identified the "blue" and red lights. And waited. Then when I found out that I passed the written portion, they explained the driving course and told us to memorize it. Then I ate lunch, walked the closed course outside to get a feel for it while driving, and waited nervously as my friend had left for the day (noticing a trend here?). Finally was the driving section of the test. There were only two foreigners there that day taking the shortened test, me and a Chinese woman who understood even less Japanese than me.

The Japanese eye test consists of a bunch of circles with a gap missing.
< -- You have to say whether the gap is up, down, left of right.

I was chosen to go first. You drive the center's car (on a closed course), which is regular size and has a regular size engine. Yes, I realize I'm revealing my lack of knowledge in the car department with that description! But it's noteworthy because I drive a Kei car, which is a smaller bodied car with an engine around 550CC (). Now that doesn't mean much to me, but I've been told that many 4-wheelers and snowmobiles in the use have the same size engine as my car! Still it was nothing near the size of my parent's Le Sabre or the Taurus I used to drive! So after looking under the car and doing some safety checks inside the car (and of course looking underneath and behind the car for small children and animals) I set off around the course.

Me (a little bling that day) and the car I bought last November.

You get one loop around the outside of the course to get used to the car and the brakes and then the real test begins. I overused my blinker because I had been told to signal for everything, so I did and he kept telling me I didn't need to signal for this or that. I went around a few curves and then had to speed up to 40 km/hr on a straight away...that's about 25 mph. The rest of the test was much slower than that even! You go through a bunch of turns and stops at the fake stoplight and crosswalks, go around a construction zone, and make turns with limited visibility due to "buildings" on both sides of the road. The most difficult is the special turns section, mostly to prove that you can handle driving on the narrow roads of Japan that sometimes look more like sidewalks than roads.

One is an S-curve with a narrow road and I know a lot of people make it through the curves and then fall off as they are turning left out of the curve. Somehow I made it (if you fall off the course, you automatically fail and can't finish the test) and then moved on to the "crank." It's two 90 degree turns on a narrow path with bars hanging down around course. Again I made it through (driving at well under 10 mph).

We stopped back at the parking space and though a long conversation with lots of drawings, I was informed that I don't get close enough to the left and right side of the lanes when making my turns so a little old grandma on a bike could come up and I could hit them (even though I looked over my shoulder and in my mirrors multiple times on every single turn!). Also, I had failed to realize that my side of the road was a two lane, so I had made all of my right turns from the left lane! Seems pretty stupid of me, but it's hard to tell on fake roads! I was sure I hadn't passed since obviously making a right turn (remember that's across traffic here) from the left lane had to be a huge no-no!

The Chinese woman took her test after me, and I was really glad that we were on a closed course! She was hitting the brakes pretty hard jerking the car and pumping them on every curve. She finally reached the S curve and completely went off the course before trying to turn left out of the curves onto the road again. The examiner got a little mad at her it seemed, as he scolded her for not stopping, backing up and trying again instead of just driving completely off the course! She didn't get to finish the test. While she was driving back to the parking space he started asking me questions about me being a teacher and how long I had driven in America before coming to Japan. Apparently he liked the answers to my questions because I passed!

I had to watch a terrible safety video and get my picture taken. I got my license handed to me the same day! It was a long day, but worth it knowing I'm a legal driver in Japan again! And much easier than I thought in the end after being nervous for weeks.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fabulous Weekend in J-Land

I truly had a fabulous weekend! Here’s the rundown:

Friday during school, one my of students invited me to join her community’s taiko (Japanese drumming) group. Though I know nothing about playing drums and I am not sure I will actually join the group, I am excited to check it out a few times and learn a bit about it. It was also cool that she thought of me. She’s a really good student and I helped tutor her for Eiken, and English proficiency test last semester. She passed. After school I headed to Oz, the local “foreigner” bar in Fuji. We had a good crowd and I had a few people stay the night at my house for rafting the next day.

So for Saturday, I was in charge of planning rafting for AJET this year, so I commanded the troops with the help of Joey, our VP and social butterfly. The day was a success despite a forecast for lots of rain! It only rained a little bit while we were rafting, but as we were in the final leg the sun came out and the sky cleared, making it a beautiful morning on the Fuji River. It was nice to spend some time in nature as I haven’t done so in awhile! Then we were off to eat some sushi and then went to the onsen to clean off and relax after a morning of rafting in a dirty river! Seems the AJET event was a hit. Glad everyone enjoyed themselves!

After that my new friend John and I road tripped down to his ‘hood on the Izu peninsula. We jammed out and I forgot how much I like driving! Most of my driving consists of city driving and I absolutely hate it, so whenever I get out of Fujinomiya and Fuji, it reminds that it can actually be enjoyable to drive faster than 40 mph. John, Kari and I went out to one of their local faves, a tonkatsu restaurant where basically everything has pork cutlet. I had my usual favorite, katsudon (rice with a sweet sauce, egg, onion and breaded pork on top). It was the best I have had in Japan so far and the restaurant environment was pretty sweet as well with a bit of a winter lodge/log cabin feel. We stopped to soak our feet in a local foot bath, where we saw a bunch of older women getting together to gossip on a Saturday night! Then we commenced the awkwardness that is trying out a new bar in a small town. Japan doesn’t really do bars as we know them in America. There are a lot of hostess bars where men pay to be kept in good company with pretty women and there are Japanese style izakayas. I obviously don’t frequent the hostess bars, and izakayas are usually reserved for bigger parties, not your usually Saturday night drinking. So you never really know what to expect when stepping inside a new bar. It turned out to generally be a success. After that, I crashed at Kari’s place in exhaustion after a long week of getting up early and going to bed late.

I got to sleep in for the first time in awhile on Sunday, and it was some much needed rejuvenation. I needed to be rested up to judge a speech contest in Mishima. Being tired is not a good idea when you have to listen and judge speeches for 2 hours for people who speak English as a second language! So thankfully, I was rested and ready to go. I was kinda afraid the speech contest would be a bore, but it ended up going much better than I imagined. It was the first speech contest I’ve seen here, so I didn’t know what to expect. There were two classes, junior high and open. The open class had high schoolers and college students, and one random 62 year old guy who wanted to join the contest. It was some interesting variety and was really fun to see the cute little junior high kids since I only work with senior high. After the contest, the international association took us out to dinner. After, another judge and I made the trip back to Fuji area together. He lives so far into the boonies that it became an adventure. We missed our turn, but realized it when we ran into Starbucks and McDonald’s, and whenever I accidentally end up at Starbucks, I can’t really say that it was a bad thing. So we got a few treats, and drove off into the middle of nowhere. Somehow I found my way back to my city and after the coffee was in high gear to shower, wash dishes and pick up all the bedding in my house from the visitors on Friday night!

This week is jam packed: essay grading at school, coffee tonight, Japanese class tomorrow night, first taiko lessons/group on Wednesday, teaching my first adult conversation of the new session on Thursday, and Saturday Dawna arrives in Japan!! I know the week is going to absolutely fly by, so it will be nice to have some fun times with Dawna next week. For those who don’t know, my computer is down til next week. I needed battery charger/adapter, so my battery is dead until Dawna delivers my new one. That means no phone calls for you guys this week! Love you and miss you all!! Take care as the weather cools down!