Reflections on 2016

A quick mention- Today is the 2nd anniversary of my WordPress page. Two years ago I found myself wishing to document my study abroad experience in Oaxaca, Mexico. Last year I was making my way to the East Coast on a road trip with my boyfriend. This year, I’m in my hometown, with no plans currently to travel anywhere for a while *sigh.* I’m saving up money, but I don’t know where I’ll be heading to next.

     2016 has been an interesting year in all senses of the word. I won’t get into the politics, social issues, and other events of the year- that’s too broad and lengthy to cover (and would be exhausting and depressing to be honest). (I am still in mourning over the loss of musicians such as David Bowie, too, but that’s another post for another time.) I will try but fail to keep this a brief post. It’s more of a way for me to remember what happened this past year, and for those I haven’t spoken to much in the past year.

     2016  was the year of the monkey, and the monkey is my zodiac sign. I went into 2016 after a fulfilling 2015, fully expecting a great year ahead. I wanted seize the day (carpe diem) and make the most of the year. In some ways, I did. The universe did pull some strings and make things possible for me, as did hard work (I fulfilled my dream of visiting and working in Japan!)

At the beginning of the year, I spent two weeks on the East Coast with my boyfriend in upstate New York and Maryland visiting his friends. It was my first time on the East Coast. We visited Washington D.C. and played tourist during the off season of snowy January. I attended a Bernie Sanders rally at the end of January. I didn’t have a job for a couple of months after graduating in Dec. 2015. I allowed myself some time to relax and recover after burnout at the end of my undergraduate career. I began job hunting online in February. At first, I looked for work in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but then I branched out and looked for jobs teaching English in Japan. I tutored English online briefly at this time.

In the spring, I harvested maple syrup from the trees on our property (I live with my parents and brother on 22 and a half acres of land in rural Wisconsin). I purchased a Nikon d3300 and began figuring out how to use a proper camera. My family adopted a very sweet old dog, who is half German shepherd, half Australian shepherd. By March, I was accepted to a position teaching English overseas. Within about a month, I was on a big jet plane headed for Tokyo.

I spent three and a half months teaching English in Japan. I grew a lot as a person, and began to mature, learn life lessons, and adjust to living on my own.

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My best friend and I. Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan. Aug. 16′

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A shrine in Kyoto, Japan. Aug. 16′

It had been my dream for nearly ten years to visit Japan. I was fortunate to receive the opportunity to teach overseas. I enjoyed my experience and learned many life lessons, had the chance to experience a new culture and way of live, and had the chance to learn a new language. I networked and made several friends and strengthened existing friendships in Japan. On the weekends, I took advantage of my time to travel and sightsee in Yokohama and Tokyo. However, my time didn’t go quite as I had expected. I was scheduled to work for one year, but due to job stress and unforeseen health issues, I returned home to Wisconsin.

I made my way back to the states feeling like a complete failure at first. I felt good for about the first day, (I was excited to see family and friends) but I was mentally struggling after that. My extreme highs turned to extreme lows. I didn’t know what to do with myself after my lifelong dream had been fulfilled/shattered (depending on how you want to look at it). I didn’t know what I would do for work, where I wanted to live, and so forth. I was having an existential crisis (an ongoing on, if that’s possible) about what I wanted to do with my life, and what my true purpose is. I walked a lot when I came home from Japan, as a way to both be with my thoughts and to escape them. I would walk for three miles at a time, once or twice a week. While I still don’t have the answers to purpose in life, I can assure you I am better today than I was when I returned home.

Two weeks after returning to the US, I applied to a barista position at a local coffee shop in my hometown. I was hired and began working shortly thereafter. Working shortly after my return home helped me readjust to American life and reconnect, or create new connections with people in the area. It took a while, but I began to make new friends and create new bonds. I enjoy having a moderately fast paced job that keeps me busy, but allows for a good work-life balance and isn’t too stressful (it’s the least stressful job I’ve had to date, actually).

The future is uncertain, but I’m not necessarily scared for what lies in 2017. Well, maybe a little bit. The rise of a bigoted, xenophobic, racist, homphobic president scares me (okay, this is my one political blurb of this post, I’m done now). I will continue to do my best to grow as a person, help others, learn new languages, visit new countries and states, and make new friends. If one thing is certain, it’s that there is no certainty in life (I sound like a cliché).

I hope 2016 was kind to you. If it wasn’t, (I’m guessing it may not have been) I look forward to a different 2017 with you. See you next year.

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Best,

Sarah

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A journey to Kyoto

If I had to boil down my Kyoto experience into just a few favorite moments: I would remember the incredibly friendly shopkeepers we met, the beauty of ancient temples and shrines, and singing while walking through Fushimi-inari with my best friend. Mari and I hummed/sang the Princess Mononoke song while walking from the top of Mt. Inari through the beautiful forest-covered mountain lined with orange, fading torii gates.

My best friend Mari and I sat down on her bedroom floor with her laptop in front of us.

“Where should we go over Obon week?” Mari asked me.

“I’d love to see Kyoto. It’s been a dream of mine for almost ten years. It’s gonna be a bit expensive though, as well as hot and crowded” I told her.

We started to do some research and make a list of pros and cons. We discussed a few options aside from Kyoto; such as Hokkaido, Okinawa, and even Nagano. We almost selected Nagano Prefecture as our destination. I wanted to see mountains and have a quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. How my heart has been longing for nature recently and missing my quiet hometown in Wisconsin.

Mari and I finally selected Kyoto, and I am happy we did. Mari sorted out all of our travel details (it would have been more difficult for me as I don’t speak Japanese fluently) as I finished up a hectic week of teaching. I asked that Mari find us the cheapest way to enjoy Kyoto. Mari booked a night bus for around ¥18,000 round trip (about 180 USD) and found us an Air B&B motel located near Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. Her senpai’s friend owns this apartment and rents it out for about ¥2000 yen a night ($20).

The bus departed Yokohama Station at around 11:50 pm on Wednesday, August 9th. We arrived at around 8 or 9 am on the 11th, tired from a lack of sleep on the bus. The seats weren’t the most comfortable, but we couldn’t argue with the price. With tired eyes, we hopped off the bus, carrying our luggage with us to Kyoto Station.

The first priority was to find a coin locker to store our bags in for the day. We also picked up some snacks, bought water, and so forth.After some searching (the station was filled with people jostling to find a locker to store their bags), we found one for about 500 yen. It is a great idea to put your bag in a coin locker, you will end up regretting carrying a heavy bag with you all day. Tuck your suitcase away from just a few hundred yen until you can check into your hotel or wherever you stay. You can thank me later.

On our first day, we visited Tenryu-ji, (the name means “Heavenly Dragon Garden,” which is pretty neat) a temple with a Zen Garden and spectacular views. According to my research, the garden dates back to the 14th century. There weren’t a ton of people, so it was possible to sit and enjoy the view, relatively undisturbed.

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Tenryu-ji

After visiting Tenryu-ji, we took a bus to Arashiyama. This area has a beautiful bamboo forest, with lots of opportunity for taking pictures of the scenery. I found it to be very peaceful despite other people being there. Seeing women wearing yukata brought back to mind old Kyoto, catching a glimpse of the past, if only for a moment. Glimpses of the past could be seen whenever we ran across a stunning natural backdrop, an old temple or shrine, or when left to wander traditional streets near Gion, the area famous for geisha.

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The serene Arashiyama bamboo grove

Mari and I walked around and did some shopping in the Tenryu-ji area on our first day as well. There are many opportunities for buying omiyage, or souvenirs from Japan. Many shops sell ice cream, traditional candies, and other delicacies that should be tried while in Kyoto. Mari and I stopped for ice cream at a shop overlooking Tenryu-ji midway through the day to recharge and escape the heat for a while. Later in the day, we visited Togetsukyo Bridge and stopped to take in the scenery. This bridge is iconic and has appeared in the media. It is stunning and best seen in person. I wanted to live in this area- it was so beautiful and postcard-picture worthy!

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Breathtaking view from the Togetsukyo Bridge

At around 3 or 4 o’ clock, we returned to Kyoto Station to pick up our luggage and check into our apartment where we would be staying for two nights. We were pretty beat after not sleeping well the previous night and having walked around a lot, so we decided against doing too much more sightseeing the rest of the afternoon. After resting up for a bit, we walked around the area where we stayed near Kinkaku-ji to find dinner. We settled on a restaurant that serves okonomiyaki (Japanese style “pancake” that varies, but is made of flour, cabbage, sometimes meat and various veggies) and yakisoba (buckwheat noodles, ours came with meat, veggies, and ginger). The restaurant owner, an older woman, chatted our ear off as we ate our delicious supper. We  were happy to consume calories we had burnt off during the day and to have made a new friend.

Mari and I woke up bright and early our second day. We headed to Kiyomizu-dera, which has breathtaking views of Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous places in all of Kyoto (it is a UNESCO World Heritage site). Enough has been written elsewhere on this spectacular Buddhist temple. Let the photos speak for themselves.

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After visiting the temple, Mari and I shopped on one of the streets near the temple. I got caught up in buying omiyage for friends, as well as myself. We met many kind shopkeepers and clerks as we shopped. One of the shopkeepers we met was the 6th generation to be in the same shop in Kyoto. The shopkeeper, a man in his 60’s or 70’s, was very kind and talked with us for a long time. He’s met a few famous people, and has been in a TV commercial (back in 1993 it was an advertisement promoting Kyoto tourism). A singer (I don’t recall who) from the famous group EXILE featured a photo of himself taken in front of this store because he loved the shop so much – that was before he became famous, but it was put into their first album artwork. The shop has been featured in guidebooks, photos, and even in children’s manga. As we were leaving, the shopkeeper gave me a 5 yen coin necklace. “For attracting money,” he said. He also gave me a small charm, and a postcard, and did the same for Mari as well. I feel I made a grandpa and a good friend after talking with him.

Our next stop of the day was a smaller temple we stumbled upon while exploring. We also wandered the streets, poking our heads in other shops along the way. I visited a store selling Studio Ghibli items. We went out for lunch in the late afternoon. At the end of the day, we decided to visit a public onsen, which was more of a bathhouse than actual hot springs as it was indoors. This was my first time at an onsen, so it was quite the experience for me. I actually enjoyed it, and felt no shame being naked with other Japanese women. We’re all human, and in this case, all sweaty and ready to bathe. At onsen, you rinse off at a shower first before getting into a pool/tub area. Some onsen might have a locker to store items. We brought our own towels and shampoo.

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Mari in the streets of Kyoto

For the third and final day, we had a packed itinerary we tried our best to get through. We didn’t get to Ryoan-ji or other places we’d hoped for, but we still managed to visit several places. Our first stop was a short walk from the place we were staying in- Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion/Golden Temple! It was beautiful to see. There’s not a lot of walking to be had as the Golden Temple is the only thing to really see here, aside from the pond and garden area, which is fairly small. It’s still worth the entrance fee. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to see the inside of the temple, which is unfortunate as each floor has a different architectural style.

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Kinkaku-ji

The stop at Kinkaku-ji didn’t take long at all. We had time to go back and check out of our apartment, and put our bags in a coin locker again at Kyoto Station. From there, we made our way to the place I’d been looking forward to the most: Fushimi-inari Taisha! I had dreamed of walking through the bright orange torii gates of Fushimi-inari for nearly ten years, and that dream finally came true. Fushimi-inari is actually on Mt. Inari, which being a mountain takes some time to climb. I believe it took us about an hour and a half to make it to the top. I was surprised there wasn’t a view from the top, but the walk is still well worth it. Crowds thin out the higher you climb, and the torii gates are older and weathered, and the woods on the mountain are beautiful. The writing inscribed upon the gates are actually the names of businesses and people who have donated money to the shrine, which I wasn’t expecting. Kitsune, or fox spirits kept an ever watchful eye over Inari.

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Kitsune at the top of Mt. Inari

Climbing Fushimi-inari is a very peaceful, and even spiritual experience, albeit a sweaty one (wear good hiking shoes). This was definitely my favorite place I saw in Kyoto. On the descent, Mari and I hummed the theme songs from several Studio Ghibli songs. The woods here felt like something out of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. I was expecting forest spirits to be just around the corner, watching, waiting. Spirits were around I am sure as it was obon week. Ancestors were likely making their way back to their homes as we hiked the mountain.

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Fushimi-inari took over 3 hours in total. The later afternoon was upon us, and we had time to kill before the day was over. Most shrines and temples close around 5 or 6 pm and we had until midnight before the night bus would leave. Mari did a bit of research and found a boat near Togetsukyo Bridge that would take us out to watch fisherman who would catch fish via the assistance of fire torches. We waited an hour as the sun went down, sipping a drink and taking photos before the boat cruise went out. It was enjoyable to sit on the boat and watch the fishermen use birds and torches to catch fish out of the water. They would reach into the bird’s throats as they caught fish and pull them out. It was quite a spectacle.

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View from Togetsukyo Bridge around sunset

The last thing we did before leaving was to visit a public bathhouse near Kyoto Station to clean off before hopping on a bus for eight hours. I was thinking about the five yen necklace I received as I was spending money in Kyoto and definitely not attracting money my way. At the bathhouse, however, I went to use the vending machine. I wanted to grab a lemon water before catching the night bus back to Yokohama. When I pushed the little lever to get my change back from the money I just put in, it gave me an extra 400 yen!

I will treasure the photos and memories of my Kyoto trip for years to come. I hope to make a trip back again within the next few years.

Growing pains

     I do a lot of things on my own in Japan. I make my own activities on my days off, (most people work on Mondays, but I don’t, hence I’m usually alone). I’m learning to enjoy my own company. I cry alone, I go through struggles, I explore on my own, I laugh by myself, and I learn on my own. But lately, I have been having some problems I can’t handle on my own.
You need to reach out to others for help, even if it scares you.
     I have been filled with anxiety and self doubt recently, particularly after my hajimete (3 and 4 year old students) class this past Saturday. During the class and immediately after, my thoughts wavered to a panicked, “I want to go home, now. I can’t handle teaching,” “I’ve made a big mistake,” etc. The students were running in every direction, all of my games and toys were thrown off the shelves, the class was a total disaster (or so it felt like to me). The students didn’t repeat the vocab, some were sitting while others were standing, they tried crawling on the table, they hid under the table. My class looked like a war zone as it came to a finish with Jenga blocks scattered across the floor and letter pieces strewn about.
     Recently, I’ve thought to myself “am I the best teacher, is this what the students deserve? Is there someone else who is more energetic and has more to offer than me? I bet other teachers are more fun and would do a better job than me,” etc. etc. My mind keeps racing with these sorts of thoughts. This past weekend was really fun, but I still couldn’t enjoy it fully as my mind has been cluttered with worries and negativity. I’ve also been juggling the stress of trying to please the parents of my students by having their kids learn English, while also ensuring the kids have fun and are engaged in their lesson. There are also cultural differences to take into consideration.
     Another stressor in my life has been my bills. Not only is this worrisome financially, but it’s also been a problem because 1. I can’t read kanji, and can only  read hiragana and katakana, and 2. I don’t know how to pay bills. I am now learning how to do that finally (thank you Japanese convenience stores). I still can’t read my mail, and I have troubles distinguishing between junk mail and legitimately important documents on occasion. On an almost daily basis, I send a photo of my mail to my best friend (she’s Japanese) and ask for her assistance. Where would I be without her help? I’m not always alone, my best friend has been very helpful in my transition to Japan. But even your friends can’t be there 24/7 to assist you.
     After speaking with my coworker, and reaching out to one of my supervisors over the phone today, I’m feeling a little better and less likely to book the next flight home. My supervisor gave me some good teaching advice, and they both gave me good encouragement. As my supervisor noted, I set my goals too high, so I am filled with stress when I miss the stars. But when you aim for the tops of the trees, metaphorically speaking, you’ll be pleased and less stressed when you find you’ve made that goal. I think I’ve been trying too hard and wishing for too much to happen all at once. Teaching is a process, and it will take a while for rules and boundaries and routines to be established and understood.
     It took the encouragement from both of these people, but it’s helped me see my own self-worth a bit more. Young children can’t be expected to sit still. It’s okay if the class didn’t go perfectly. They had fun, my coworker mentioned to me. She spoke with one of the parents and their kid said they enjoyed the class. That is the main point. It was out of control a bit, but the biggest goal is for the students to have fun while learning English. My coworker said to me today “I’ve seen many young teachers, and you are the best one I’ve met.”
     It takes difficult experiences like the ones I’ve been having in order for a person to truly grow. Sometimes I wish I could repress my negative emotions and avoid experiencing them, but that would only make the problem worse, and it would come up later. Sometimes I wish I was just a tourist and could see the fun, sparkling side of Japan and not have to deal with the harder side Japan and figuring out the not so candy coded parts of society. But that’s a different conversation. My thoughts boil down to this: we must deal with the emotions that come to us, even if they’re ugly or unwanted. It’s important to filter through them, realize they serve a purpose for use, and then let them go.
Until next time,
Sarah
“Nobody said life would be easy, they just promised it would most likely be worth it.”
-Harvey MacKay

My first month in Japan

Life has been a whirlwind since I last wrote. It is difficult to find the time to sit down and write, or even to find time to sit at all, for that matter. I have been on my feet a lot lately.

I am about to open a new English school in Idogaya, Yokohama. I live a short distance from my school. Starting tomorrow, I will be giving demonstration lessons to students. The school officially opens on the 28th of June. I will be working weekends for the next two weeks to do promotional work, such as handing out flyers to people on the streets and possibly putting flyers in people’s mailboxes.

So, Sarah, you haven’t even gone to your new school yet. What have you been doing for the past month? Great question. I had a week of training in Aobadai back in mid May. After that, I spent two weeks training at Motosumiyoshi. The following week, I had more classroom training in Hoshikawa. Finally, I spent a week and two days at Musashi-kosugi.

Aside from training, I have been able to find some time to get out and see Tokyo and Yokohama. It’s been quite the adventure. Training has been stressful and I have been awfully homesick lately, but my adventures make everything worth it. Allow me to touch on some of the highlights since I last wrote.

  1. I embraced my inner nerd at the Ikebukuro Pokemon Center (May 21st).13256537_10153579238537727_5941886529827482303_n.jpg
  2. I found a small slice of peace within Tokyo at Meiji Jingu Shrine (May 23rd).13267982_10153583220012727_925948059940576925_n
  3. I sang karaoke and ate home cooked Japanese food (May 29th).13327372_10153595174512727_7469379530191468320_n.jpg
  4. I reunited with two of my best friends, who I hadn’t seen in 4 years (June 6th). We took purikura photos, had lunch, and sang karaoke!13407327_10153610436467727_1137460386214499751_n.jpg
  5. I moved into my apartment where I will be living for the next 11 months (June 6th).13325682_10153610611377727_3696651919611866427_n.jpg
  6. I met my best friend Mari’s family (on two occasions now). Photo is from June 19th. Mari’s mom cooked us an awesome dinner with lots of cheesy pizza, which is one of my favorite foods!13417451_10153638612027727_1315269840838549587_n.jpg

I went to Kamakura to see the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine and to see the Daibutsu (giant Buddha) Buddha at Kōtaku-in. My friends and I even witnessed a Japanese wedding ceremony at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu!13435419_10153639537802727_1267096801897433082_n13451001_10153639615907727_617950774966733908_nMy experience has been very incredible so far. I’ve had the time of my life, have been stressed out, cried a lot, made new friends, and generally experienced a wide range of emotions that comes from starting life in a new country. I’ve been so busy that over a month has passed seemingly in the blink of an eye. Already, this is the longest I have gone without seeing my family and some of my friends back home.

I am still getting settled into my apartment in Idogaya. Today was the first day I had the chance to explore the place I live. I found a few Lawson stores near my house, and went to a park on the top of the city. It’s only about a 10 minute walk, but the view from the top of my city is beautiful. I want to hang out pictures in my apartment and decorate the place for it to be my home away from home.

Best,

Sarah

 

 

 

My first days in Japan

I arrived Thursday night (JST – Japanese time) and met my supervisor at the Narita Airport. He has been incredibly helpful throughout this entire process. I flew from Minneapolis to Toronto and finally Toronto to Tokyo. The 13 hour flight from Toronto to Tokyo was boring, but boring is okay! I typically experience motion sickness on many forms of transportation, particularly on boats and planes, so I’m glad I didn’t get sick and didn’t feel too nauseous during my flight. I’ve come to swear by wrist bands with pressure point bulbs (not sure the name of them). I watched a few films, but due to the plane being uncomfortable and my nerves being awake, I couldn’t sleep much on the flight. Luckily however, I seem to not be experiencing jet lag. I think this is due in part to sitting in the middle of the plane so I couldn’t see how light/dark it was outside the plane windows, and the flight attendants adjusted the lighting of the interior cabin (plane) to match the day in Japan. I’m also convinced that my optimism and enthusiasm has kept jet lag away as well.

I met a coworker Alex who is staying in the apartment below me when I got to my apartment, he’s a great cook and speaks Japanese very well. By the time I arrived and settled in, I was so tired I didn’t even want to take a shower. I threw my bags down, glanced over my company notes, and passed out around 9 or 10 pm JST. I got much needed sleep I had been missing out on over the past two days and managed to sleep about 10 or 11 hours total.

On Friday I met my roommate Natalie who is staying in the same apartment as me during our training period in Tokyo. She arrived just in time so we could meet; I almost missed seeing her as I was scheduled to go out with my best friend Mari. I invited Natalie and Alex to tag along. Together, the four of us quickly bonded and had a lot of fun. We took photos, and went exploring around the area in Minato-ku, stopping for dinner at a noodle shop and at a purikura machine to take photos. On Saturday, the four of us went to Senso-ji for Sanja Matsuri, a traditional festival that attracts thousands of people to this Shinto temple. There were many people wearing traditional clothes, such as happi and kimono.

Senso-ji 002.JPG We also went to harajuku and Shibuya. From the time I was 14 years old, visiting harajuku has been one of the biggest dreams of mine. I’ve been very interested in fashion subcultures that stem from harajuku. In my free time as a teenager, I collected books and magazines such as Gothic & Lolita and Fruits, while reading avidly about decora, sweet lolita, gothic lolita, gyaru, and other unique fashion from harajuku. While I’m a working adult and wear business attire, I still appreciate the cool and trendy fashion from Japan. I think on my off days while I won’t be able to dress as say, a lolita, but I can still photograph people who allow me to take their photos. I don’t feel the need to wear decora or lolita fashion in the same way that I used to (In 9th grade I wore many different colorful clothes and accessories similar to decora). However, given the chance and if I had enough money, I would wear cute/trendy clothes out and about harajuku on a Sunday if I could. 🙂

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Today Alex, Natalie and I began training at our new job. We have a week or unpaid training followed by a week of paid on the job training. I can’t wait to figure out my school placement and to get settled in my company apartment, which will be set up with LeoPalace. Life is busy but it’s good. I’m finally living out my dream of being in Japan.

I’m signing off for now as I’m quite tired after my first day of work and I’m sure I’ve made a few grammatical errors writing this. I will write more soon.

-Sarah

I’m going to Japan!

Last week, I had a Skype interview with WinBe English School in Japan. This is a fairly small company, with about 100 foreign employees and 400 Japanese employees, if I’m not mistaken. A few days ago, I had a dream that the company send me a congratulations email/acceptance email, followed by an email with the contract. Well, yesterday at 3:30 am, I woke up (I was too warm mostly) and had the distinct feeling that WinBe had emailed me. Sure enough, as I sat up in bed to check my phone, my inbox showed one new message from WinBe, offering me a teaching position in the Yokohama/Tokyo area. I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited! I emailed back quickly to accept the offer and asked about the next step. WinBe proceeded to tell me about a form I needed to fill out and files I would need to send to get the visa process going. I’ve already sent in most of the files I need to apply for my work visa. WinBe has been very helpful with the paperwork process this far.

Nine years after developing an interest in Japan, and four years after developing an interest in teaching, my dream of living in Japan is finally coming true!

 

Photo I sent to the hiring committee