Saturday, March 27, 2010

English Conversation Dinner

Last night I headed out for a dinner with my adult conversation class. Eleven out of about 14 students came, so I was really impressed! We had dinner and drinks at a place called Kotetsu. It has chill music, interesting things on the walls, and "world" food like tacos, nachos, pizza, Guinness on tap, etc. We had a great time!

Hiro, Chiaki, Yoshio, and Kyoko

Natsumi, Yoshiki, Natsuki, Ashley and Maki

Maki, Akihiko, Masayuki, Hiro

I also took home daiko for the first time ever. It's like a taxi, but there are two people and they drive your car home for you and the other person follows to pick the guy up who drives your car. It was an interesting experience. I had to ride in my own car, so in the front seat of course as my car is tiny and doesn't really have the most functional backseat and is a 2 door. I had some interesting convo with the driver (aka "I'm from America" and "I'm an English teacher" per usual). America should take note and offer this service to prevent drunk driving!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Incredible Support System

I realized today that I have two fabulous best friends and an amazing family and I just wanted to say thanks. You guys are rock stars :).

Someone I hadn't talked to in a long time was asking about my family today, and upon describing what they were all up to, I got to thinking about how proud of all of them I am. My sister's continually getting promotions in her job where she works extremely hard planning fundraising events for an amazing cause everyday. My brother has a BEAUTIFUL daughter and wife, and has been dabbling in real estate investments, he's so smart when it comes to things like that I can only hope he'll rub off some of that knowledge on me. I talked to my dad today and he was on his way to pick up donations from the local grocery stores to drop off at the food pantry; he's such a good man and I'm proud of how much time he's been volunteering since he retired. And I haven't talked to my mama in awhile, but she's been working like crazy it sounds like and is applying for a para job where she works. She finished her online coursework awhile back and I'm so excited for her! I hope the hard work pays off.

My sister came to visit and see my life in Japan. Had such a fabulous time!

Mom and Dad trying a self portrait. Too cute - I love this pic!

An older family pic, Avery is much bigger now!

I also have two amazing best friends that I couldn't be more grateful for. I know I'm luckier than most to have found two such amazing people who I consider just as close to me as my family. I'm always coming up with crazy schemes and dreams and both love me enough (or are crazy enough themselves) to support me and love me even more for it. Nicole has decided we need to go on a travel adventure together since she couldn't visit me in Japan because of her son being born this year and it's endearing how she throws in an argument for moving to Utah EVERYTIME I talk to her or every time she sends me an email :) And I got a card from Dawna today, just to drop in and say "How you doin'?" I can always count on something in the mail from her with a kind word or small laugh to let me know how much she cares. She's also helped me so much in the decision making process as I decide what to do next in life by sending me detailed emails, sometimes arguing her case for Minnesota, but also sent me a fabulous email with a ton of questions to ask myself to help me make the best decision for me. Of course both of these are only things that I came across today, one day amongst many. Both of you continually exceed my expectations in what I ever thought I would find in a friend, and I can't thank you enough. I only hope I give the same back.

Time spent with the BFFs while home this summer.

So I realize that this is pretty much a big long brag session, but I just wanted to say thanks, I love you, and I'm proud to call all of you my best friends and family. I'm eternally grateful for your love and support.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seoul - The Door to South Korea

Sorry for the double post, I accidentally hit "publish post" before I typed anything!


I don't claim to be good at photography, though I enjoy trying to be artsy from time to time. I thought the doors in Korea were interesting and took a bunch of pics. Some are old, some new, some grungy, some with great history, and some just a front gate, but all interesting. Check them out below.

A door at Gyeongbok Palace using the color accent feature on my camera.

A door in the Suwon Fortress Wall.

Suwon Fortress

A door at Seodaemun Prison, where Japanese "aggressors" tortured the Korean "martyrs".

Defending the Buddhists on Mt. Inwang.

Letting in the Neighbors.

At Gyeongbok Palace.

An old style lock at Hwaseong Palace.

One last photo at Gyeongbok Palace.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Graduation was on March 1. I started writing a blog entry a long time ago about it, but then lost the passion to do so. I thought I should probably just finish this entry before I go to Seoul this week or I will never do so.

Graduation here is different and the same, and rather than the traditional post, I thought I would post a list of the differences and the similarities.

  • No caps and gowns. Students wear the same school uniform they have worn for the last 3 years. In a few weeks is a ceremony for teachers who will be transferring to other schools or retiring, and at that ceremony the students come back and will wear their suits...and many will don recently acquired piercings and dyed hair to show they have broken free of the high school conformity.
  • All the students names are called and stand up as the roll is called, but only one student from each homeroom goes onto the stage to receive the stack of certificates. See the picture below.
  • The ceremony is in the morning on a school day, so all underclassmen have to go. The section for parents is smaller than in America; it appeared that each student probably only had one parent there to watch them and no brothers, sisters, grandmothers, etc.
  • The ceremony isn't really run by the students as it often is in America. There aren't speeches from students, picture slide shows, etc. Of course, being from such a small school in America, that's bound to be different in a larger school.

  • The school song, graduation song (a different one than Pomp and Circumstance), and the national anthem is played. But, everyone has to sing along which is a bit different.
  • Students are recognized by the calling out of their name and the top students and students with perfect attendance are recognized.
  • The ceremony is long and a little bit boring unless you're directly involved.

Highlights for the ALT:
  • Being asked to sign yearbooks.
  • An amazing lunch bento box.
  • Seeing the happy look in each student's eye and remembering what it was like to feel that way.
Watching the practice and the real event really made me think back to my own high school graduation. I thought back to the speech I gave with the theme of Oh, the Places You'll Go! and the disappointment in being second in the class instead of valedictorian. I thought about the accomplishments that I made in high school and how all of those things just don't matter so much anymore, both the great accomplishments and that disappointment. I thought about how I never in a million years would have seen myself visiting the countries I have now, especially living in Japan. How I had never considered so many possibilities and how little I had known was missing from my dreams. The more places I go, the more people I meet and the more experiences I have, the more the ceiling to my dreams grows. I hope the same happens for this new group of students that move on to the next chapter in their lives!

The Latest and Greatest of Mt. Fuji

Recently, it was pretty rainy for about two weeks. Finally, the clouds broke and Mt. Fuji came out to play! I'm coming upon some of my last days of seeing Mt. Fuji with frequency, as along with summer comes clouds, rain and rainy season. This weekend I had some friends visit from Aichi-ken. They had made multiple attempts to visit the area around Mt. Fuji, but were never successful. Finally this weekend they were able to see Mt. Fuji for the first time after being here for 2 years! This inspired me to post some pictures from the weekend. I'm gonna miss this mountain so much when I leave! Hope you enjoy the views!

From the third floor of my school, Fujinomiya West High School

From the cafe at Lake Tanuki, with a latte and a Mt. Fuji specialty cookie.

Fujinishiki Sake Festival near Shibakawa

The ladies from Aichi enjoying their first views of Mt. Fuji

Such Grandeur

Rice Paddy Jumping

Rape Flower Blossoms

Photo Opportunity

I love the nature around Fujinomiya!

I hope you enjoyed this collection as much as I enjoy the real thing! It was a great weekend - maybe I'll post more later. Mt. Fuji is back to hiding again today, unfortunately.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quote of the Day

It's almost time for bed, but I found this quote on my friend's Facebook page today, and it really struck a chord with me today. Hope it inspires you today too.

"Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Practice Hike #2

Well, I survived the night hike, my second long training hike for the upcoming charity event at the end of April. The first hike that I did was from Start to Checkpoint 4, and this time we decided on an overnight hike starting at Checkpoint 4 and ending at Checkpoint 7. We'll be doing a lot of this part of the course in the dark, so we thought it would be beneficial to also hike it overnight as it will be more realistic to the full experience. The hike was a total of around 38 km, or 23.5 miles.

As the hike was in the dark, I didn't take a lot of photos like on the first hike, but I thought I would share a short blurb about our progress between checkpoints.

Checkpoint 4 to 5

This part of the course is about 18 kilometers, with the first 6 of them being on a road, fairly flat. The bus stop that we went to actually cut out that first flat 6 km, so we started the hike right where it starts to go uphill in the graph above, making it only 12 km for us starting at 7:45pm. It was a little tough with the uphills, but as our legs were fresh and it really wasn't too much of a problem. Our spirits were high for most of this section. We took a smaller break at what we thought was the second highest point. We had a great view over the a bunch of surrounding cities in the shadow of the mountains. It was quite cloudy and a little foggy in places, but still a good view with the mist and the mountain shadows. It really a moment when I felt like what we were doing was really cool. It was peaceful in the night and my mind felt equally at peace and happy to complete the task ahead.

We started off again after maybe 20 minutes and realized that were we were wasn't actually the second highest part, but was the high peak and from there on out we would be going downhill. So we stopped again and decided we needed to eat our first snack/meal to keep us going. I don't remember this downhill so much...I just remember from the whole hike that the downhill was so much worse than the uphill. I fell a few times as it was muddy from recent rains and I haven't invested in hiking boots yet, so I was hiking in running shoes besides the fact that I'm naturally clumsy. We ended this section about midnight, so it took us about 4 hours and 15 minutes, a lot longer than anticipated. Adding to that, we ended up taking a pretty long break at the checkpoint, which set us back on our overall time.

We did a really good job in this first section at alternating leaders. You have to hike single file on the trails, so we changed the leader every once in awhile to mix up the pace. Also, it's easier to follow than to lead, especially in the dark. Kory and my headlights weren't as bright as Linton's, but they were still pretty good when loaded with good batteries.

Checkpoint 5 to 6

From Checkpoint 6-7 is 9.5 kilometers, a bit shorter than the 12km that we did in the first leg. It's also a bit flatter as you can see from the graph above. In addition to being flatter, it's also mostly on the road, so we didn't have to worry about slipping in the mud, tripping over roots and big rocks, and didn't have to stare so intently to be sure we were staying on the trail. It was smooth sailing. We also knew we had taken much too long of a break as we heard from the group who started 2 hours behind us and they had reached the checkpoint about 30 minutes faster than us, so that kicked us into gear! We also knew that sooner or later it was going to rain. Different forecasts predicted different times for the start of the rain, but there was no doubt that it was going to come before we finished hiking. So that also kept us moving swiftly as we knew the last leg was going to be the most difficult. We wanted to do as much of the course as possible before the rain started coming down. We ended up finishing this section of the course in exactly 2 hours. Again, our spirits were high and competitive as we didn't want the groups that started later than us to catch up. We could see the moon and some of the stars, which also helped. We spent only 20 minutes at Checkpoint 6, taking a break to eat some more food, stock up on some more drinks and take a bathroom break. We were on our way at 3:05am to begin the final leg of our journey for the night. I might add, we didn't see a soul during this hike. Not a bike, a car, or person walking. It was like we were touring an uninhabited island :)

Checkpoint 6 to 7

The final leg was the most difficult. It was the most difficult climb, steeper and longer than the other checkpoints that we did. In addition we had already hiked around 22 kilometers and had stayed up all day at work and hiked halfway through the night. And the rain started coming down about an hour in with heavy fog so that we could only see about a meter or two in front of us for quite some time. This was the real trying point of the night. The first little bit of this is on the road, but soon changes to trail - a trail that seems straight up and never ending! I was starting to feel winded and fall behind a bit even on the uphill road, so I asked the guys if I could lead since I would fall too far behind if I wasn't in the front. So, I started climbing, one foot in front of the other, but had to stop several times and even though Kory and Linton were at a more conversation pace for them, my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, I felt nauseous and was having a hard time catching my breath. They hung in with me and we got to an open patch with benches just as it was starting to rain. We stopped long enough to get on our rain gear and be sure that all of the stuff inside our packs was sealed in plastic bags to protect it from the rain. Then we were off again. I felt a little better, but definitely not ready to keep climbing that mountain!! One of the guys took the lead and I was in the middle. For awhile I felt like I was seriously sleep walking - I was wondering if it was possible to fall asleep while walking! This was the time of the thick fog and I could only see a bit in front of me. I was playing the ABC game (you know...I'm going on a picnic and I'm bringing an Apple, banana, cat...) inside my head all by myself just to try to keep my mind awake, but it didn't work so well since I was the one coming up with all of them, it was easy to remember.

While I was in a walking daze, it was difficult for the guys as well as we had to stop every few feet to make sure we were still on the trail. It was a bit dangerous since we couldn't see very far ahead. We were unsure if we were still on the right trail (there are many trails in the area that go to different places) and thought for sure that we should have reached the next landmark on our map. A few times we stopped and had serious discussions about whether we should go back or continue on the course that we were on. Ultimately we decided we must be on the right trail and kept going. Thankfully, we were correct and we found the next landmark long after we thought we should have already reached it!! After that, I got a second wind from somewhere and no longer felt nauseous. Of course I was still tired and the rain was coming down, but at least inside I was awake and again ready to take on the task at hand after fighting through a tough hour and a half where I wasn't sure I was going to make it.

Soon after, the sun started to come up, which lifted my spirits for the rest of the way. It was still foggy and rainy, but since it wasn't dark too, we were able to pick up our pace a little. After the sun came up we still had some uphill to go, and a big long downhill as well. If I am remembering correctly, this downhill wasn't near as bad as the downhill in the first section. We were able to go much faster in the light and there wasn't as much to trip over. It was more slippery however as it had been raining for awhile. I fell again (possible more than once...I can't remember!), but the first half of the downhill was speedy on the trail. The second part of the downhill was on road, partly paved and partly rock/gravel. This was honestly a bit of a tease, as it seemed we were getting close to the finish and coming into the town where we could catch the train, but it was a long haul before we actually got into town. At this point was the time when we just knew that the end was coming and we were just waiting for it. Though this part was tough for me, I think it might have been tougher on Linton and Kory. I was lagging behind, but running up to catch them in spurts. It seemed easier and used different muscles to jog than to keep walking at the same pace. I felt like I had already gone through my tough part and knew I was gonna make it to the end.

We came into the train station at 8:15am, completing the full hike in 12 hours and 30 minutes, 2 mountains and 38 km later. The group behind us finished in 12 hours, finishing only the first section 30 minutes faster than us, so we know we need to cut our breaks shorter in that section for sure. The other group also had a few hikers more familiar with the course, so they didn't have to stop as often as us I'm sure to check the maps. We wasted a lot of time trying to decide if we were on course or not, especially after the rain and fog started. Thankfully, that's part of the purpose of doing these practice hikes on the actual trail of the race, so we should be a bit more familiar in the real thing.

Our team chemistry is really coming together I think, even though this was only my second hike. Kory and Linton have done a few more I think, possibly four. Unfortunately John missed out on this one, but he'll be there for the next one. You really have to read each other's highs and lows, as you all have them at different points. So far we're doing well together and are doing well at helping each other through those highs and lows. We know that 100 km together is not only an individual challenge and trying on ourselves, but also on how we'll fit together as a group both mentally and physically. We are only as fast as our slowest member and as positive as our most negative person. It's our job to help each other out of those lows, know when to just let the others be and when to push them. So far, so good. I'm glad I've found such a good team to complete this challenge with!! Awesome work Fuji Crew!

On a quick final note, I'm also thankful today for the many people who have donated to our cause. We haven't been fundraising for long, only since I sent out that last blog and email less than two weeks ago. As you can see on the side of my blog, we're over 80% of the way to our goal already. We did put our goal low, as we have never done this before. Our minimum is about 1000 pounds, which we put as our goal, but we hoped to make far more than that. Looks like our friends and family have come to our aid and will push us far beyond the minimum required. We're so lucky to have such great support in our lives and the numerous people that will receive the benefit from that money are as well. Thanks for your support! If you'd still like to donate, or just see the progress we've made, click here.

Next Hike: March 27

Monday, March 1, 2010

Community Center Fun

Tuesday concluded another session of adult conversation class at the Working Youth Home where I teach once a week. I really enjoyed the participants this session, so I hope some of them return for another session!! I tried really hard this time to focus on actual conversation and I think that they got a lot better at everyday type conversation in English. Below are just a few of the students. The class technically had 15 people, but each week different people came. There were only three people who had perfect attendance. So these are the people who came during the final week!

It's weird to think I have just one more session left. In fact, I leave a bit before it ends! I also got an email today from my Prefectural Advisor about leaving. It's the first in an installment of 6 emails to prepare us to go. Starting to get real! Gotta get moving this month as I have a break from teaching until April. Today was graduation and the new school year begins in April. Will post later about graduation!!

Another Fabulous Weekend Gone By

Well, the title says it all! What a great weekend surrounded by friends!! It's weekends like this that make me say, "I don't want to leave Japan!" But don't worry, most of the people I spent the weekend with are leaving anyway, so I will be too!

Friday night I had a meeting with my Fuji Crew team for the Oxfam Trailwalker. We got together to talk about fund-raising and planned some practice hikes for the next two months. Our next hike will be overnight on Friday, probably from 9 pm - 9 am on Saturday morning unless it takes is less or more time to finish. It will be good to get an overnight hike in as we will be hiking through 1-2 nights in the real event come April. I'm sure many of you saw the email I sent about fundraising for the event, so please help me out as I train hard to finish the challenge! Our meeting was a success and afterwards we all went to dinner at a quaint little place called Safari. The walls are lined with big bookshelves, and everything is wooden. It was a cute atmosphere and I had the best cream cheese, salmon and cheese toasted bagel!

After dinner, three of us roadtripped through downpouring rain to the Izu. Kelly and I stayed with my friend Kari. We had some wine and watched The Cutting Edge in honor of the Olympics. The next morning we slept in and then ventured on our yearly strawberry picking adventure. The picture below is compliments of Kelly. Here we're posing in the huge greenhouse where the strawberries are grown.

Strawberry picking is a bit different in Japan. You don't actually bring any strawberries home, but instead it's all you can eat for 30 minutes. You pay a flat fee (a quite pricey one at that at $20, but it's all about the experience!) and can pick and eat to your heart's desire. They give you sweetened condensed milk to dip them in and it's quite common for the Japanese to count how many they eat. Their numbers put gaijin like us to shame, as I only finished a few over 20 strawberries, which equals out to $1 per strawberry. All in all, it was a fabulous time with lots of laughs!

The entrance to "Cafe Strawberry"

Finding the best ones! Another photo by KellyKilgore

Having some fun! Again, photo courtesy of KellyKilgore

After strawberry picking, we had a nice conversation with the workers. Always celebrities when foreign in Japan! We chatted for awhile and then bought some strawberry beer from them. I haven't drank mine yet, but it sounds quite interesting! I think it's locally brewed from the strawberries at their cafe if I understood right. Will let you know how it is!

Then we were on to our road trip to the best onsen I've been to so far. We drove through the mountains and a little over an hour to Ito, Japan. The ride included lots of music, car dancing and coffee. See below:

Finally, we reached our destination: Akazawa Onsen/Spa. It has indoor and outdoor baths overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a few mountains. It's absolutely amazing and one of the most relaxing places I have ever been! They also had some outdoor baths where you lay back and there are jets massaging your whole body. So great! The picture at left is the picture from the website, but a good idea of what it's like. We were there during the daylight and then decided to take a break and get some ice cream before going back in after dark. It was cool seeing the night lights of the surrounding cities in the mountains. See some more pictures of the onsen here.

Above I'm hanging out in the relaxation room where we got awesome massages for $2 (20 minutes) in the ritzy massage chairs. They are better than any of the other places I've been, even massaging your legs, thighs, hands, etc all at once! After we read and relaxed and cooled down, we headed back into the baths for our night view.

Then we got back in the car, and despite a short detour (oops! got a tidge lost!) we ended up at a specialized curry restaurant just in time to order before closing. I got a great beef curry and rice with naan on the side. A great night cap to our girls' day! Hope you all enjoyed the weekend!

Oxfam Trailwalker Japan

Through the day. In the dark. Overnight. Over ten mountains. Across rivers. Around lakes. Through the forest. Under the shadow of Mt. Fuji. Long stretches of open road. Three prefectures. Five cities. 100 km. 48 hours.

On April 23-25, the Fuji Crew will set out to hike 100 kilometers in 48 hours (that's about 62 miles for those metrically challenged)! We're in it for the challenge, the satisfaction of pushing our bodies to the limit. And to help a lot of people along the way. Oxfam Trailwalker has been coined the "world's greatest team challenge to overcome poverty and injustice." We're up for the world's greatest challenge and we hope you're up for helping us achieve our goal! We're just one of 200 teams working toward Oxfam's goal of "a fair world" by doing our part.

Fuji Crew:
L to R: Ashley (Minnesota), Kory (Texas),
Linton (Christchurch, New Zealand) and John (Alabama)

This goal isn't a small one and requires a lot of training. We've done some practice hikes on the trail (I posted an earlier blog about this and pictures on my flickr) and are planning them more frequently the next two months. We've been running in our school marathons, going to the gym, walking to school, and doing what we can to get into shape for the arduous task ahead.

Oxfam International is a group of 14 non-governmental organizations working with over 3,000 partners in around 100 countries to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. The money you give will truly change people's lives. Money from Trailwalker Japan goes toward emergency aid in the Congo, schools in the Philippines, overcoming hunger in Cambodia, women's rights in India, fighting AIDS in South Africa, and many more. See the full details on how the money raised from this event is used here.

What can you do to help?

Each team has to raise around $1400 minimum to do the hike. The money goes to the causes above. A lot of people in America haven't heard of Oxfam, but it's one of the leading organizations in the world. Any money you can donate would be much appreciated and put toward a good cause. I know many people don't have a lot of money to spare these days, but even $5 or $10 can go a long way in the countries above and you'd be helping me reach my goal for the team! You can donate online with a credit or debit card on our team page: Thanks in advance for your support!

Will keep you updated on future practice hikes here. This Friday I'll be doing an all night hike to prepare for the race, as we'll be hiking through two days and one and half nights!!