Hawaiian Respite

It has been almost 3 weeks since I have arrived back in the USA for good. But I have yet to dedicate a blog entry to what I've done here. Perhaps I am trying to figure out how to keep up this web journal without the obvious prompts of adjusting to another culture. Seeing one's own culture with an outsider's perspective gives valuable insight. Or is it just reverse culture shock? That's what I'm trying to figure out.

I planned my flight back with layovers in Busan, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. My school, which graciously paid for my ticket, complained that I had such an indirect route but that was actually the cheapest ticket. A 12-hour layover in Honolulu... ok, I'll take it! Hawaii is a meeting point of East and West. The plurality of cultures there ensured that I wouldn't get the full "American" immersion for one more day. I needed to ease myself back into America.

It helps when I have family over there that I can hang out with. Stephen, my cousin, is a mechanic for a cargo airline that shuttles fish and mail to and from the tiny islands between Hawaii and Guam. His father was born in New York, his mother in Hiroshima, Japan, so he is half Japanese. His wife, Yumiko, is from Tokyo, so their four children are three-quarters Japanese. Staying with them when I left for, and came back from, Japan made for a gentle transition. We ate sashimi, fried rice, and edamame as I showed them pictures of my time there. They were impressed with how much Japanese I had learned while I was over there (I'm surprised at how quickly I think I've lost it since returning!).

What else do you do with family in Hawaii but go to the beach at sunset?! We piled into two cars and set off for Haleiwa Beach. All the way we chatted about our growth during the past year. At the beach, I played with the two youngest in the water while the college aged Jarel and Sara watched from the sand. Sara studies broadcast journalism at Hawaii Pacific University. She offered to take my camera and photos of the event. So the credit for the photos goes to her.

As the sun set and the evening cooled off, we drove back home. My flight would leave in 2 hours. Yumiko and I talked about what I missed and didn't like about Japan. I missed the food, I didn't like having to anticipate what other people were thinking. I have enough trouble figuring out what I think. I missed the public courtesy and customer service. I missed people who made sure they were taken care of by taking care of other people.

The overnight flight to Los Angeles gave me little chance for comfort or sleep. Japan Airlines fed me twice and always kept me hydrated on the 8-hour flight from Tokyo to Honolulu; American Airlines gave me one drink on the 6-hour flight to LA. Welcome back.

In the coming weeks I'll be searching for an apartment, a car, a job, and a voice for my new perspective on life with deeper knowledge of an Asian culture in my worldview. I hope I can keep the tone of my blog upbeat, insightful, and free of politics and ranting.


Hokkaido: a whole nother Japan

I'm back in the States now. For good. Have been here for a week. I wasn't expecting any readjustment shock, but that's exactly when it hits you. Here's some of my thoughts that I wrote in an email to a friend in Ukraine:

Waiting in line for Jamba Juice, I observe a line out the door and employees slacking off behind the counter. My Japanese sense gets me irritated to tell the manager to open another register so people don't have to wait so long. But I get the better of myself.

I still bow to drivers who let me cross the street before them.

I want to get waiters' attention by saying "sumimasen".

I start a lot of sentences or thoughts with, "it would be a whole lot more efficient if..."

And further more, I find myself talking less to strangers. Why? It can't be that I haven't spoken English fluently for a year. I spoke everyday with my English teaching colleagues. I find myself speaking very politely with anyone and getting nonchalance and casual speech back. Haven't I forgotten how to speak with pepperings of slang and lingo? Maybe.

But onto the title track of this blog entry. Hokkaido was awesome because it was the antithesis, remedy, and release from many of the things that frustrated me from Kansai/Honshu life. Kansai's tight spaces were opened by Hokkaido's open wilderness. Kansai's smog, haze, and pollution were blown away by Hokkaido's fresh air and dark skies. I saw my first clear sunrise and sunset in Hokkaido. It only took me a year! Kansai's busy-bodied, martyred overworkers were subdued by my pals at the Akan Nature Center who frequently napped in the office while they waited for their next gig.

I want to capture the spirit of my time there without putting it through the filter of my nostalgia now that I am back in the States. So I'm transcribing a page from my journal for your reading pleasure.

7/27 - It's hard to imagine hot air ballooning ever becoming a routine thing that I do, but that's exactly where I'll be a week from now. Today I felt more familiar with the procedure, so I could anticipate what needed to be done. Kurokawa-san (the pilot) took me up first thing and I was ready with my camera to take some pictures. It only occured to me afterwards that I was ballast for the test flight, with the possibility of crashing if something went wrong!

Afterwards, I hung out with the "guys" at the nature center. Ryo (owner's second son) was taking a long course canoe tirp and invited me to come along. Perhaps on the possibility that the lone child would want to sit "cleopatra style" with his parents paddling. But he wanted to paddle, so I took a solo canoe. Good practice for my strokes. And endurance! There was a headwind which sometimes blew my bow (front) from side to side. I wanted to be a model paddler, but sometimes I had to alternate paddling on each side to stay a straight course.

We took a tea and cookie break on the side of lake Akan where it was nice and calm. I chatted just a little to show that I could speak Japanese and they needn't feel shy to speak to me. "Nihon wa doo desu ka?" - How is Japan? This simple question still stumps me. I'm learning the basics even as I round a year in-country. I said "August, last year". That was the end of the conversation. Now I'll say, "Nihon wa suki desu." I like Japan.

We paddled through the reed cover on the way back to get some relief from the wind. I wanted to try my headstand before we got out but now show off at the same time. At the end I got my chance. A little shaky, but I did it! I'll need to teach that one to Ryo and company before I go.

I guess I was pretty pooped from the event because I napped all afternoon. Had dinner and a bath at Yoshidayama's and came back to the apartment. Sylvan (the other WWOOFer at a local restaurant, he's French) and I wated a pirated copy of Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. It reminded me of Tail Spin on the Disney Afternoon Cartoon circuit in the early '90s. Which one came first? Oh well, it was fun but in French. So I understood about 60%.

Stay tuned for more pages out of my Hokkaido journal in the coming days! Even though I'm back in the States, I will keep this blog up-to-date. I'll be recording my international and cultural adventures. If you can look at your own country with foreign eyes, it's just another adventure!


Suzushi Hokkaido

Well, I'm back from my Hokkaido adventure. It was incredible. The coolest place in Japan during my trip was Eastern Hokkaido, so I planned it right to beat the heat. I was actually cold one day when temperatures dropped below 15 degrees Centigrade like 55 degrees Farenheit?). I'd love to show you pictures, but I'll have to do that when I get my laptop connected to the Internet again.

I'm leaving Japan on Sunday. For good. Not because I don't like it here. If you've been keeping up with my blog you'll know that I have come to respect, be fascinated by, and enjoy Japan. However, I need to use my California teaching credential or risk losing it, so that is what brings me back to the USA. So with my two days left, I am trying to juggle administrative duties and personal appointments to insure that I leave Japan with an exclamation mark!

So back to Hokkaido. I couldn't have chosen a better spot to WWOOF. The Akan Nature Center offered hot air balloon rides, canoe trips, star gazing, mountain biking, and trekking. I got to experience all of them. Mr. Yasui, sons Gaku & Ryo, staff Fukushi, Arai, and Kurokawa all became good friends. I did my best to be helpful with setting up and taking down the balloon equipment. They were impressed and grateful that I had been a canoe instructor at Camp Leelanau, so they asked me to accompany as many canoe outings as possible, river and lake. Very cool. And you know what? Canoeing lakes and rivers in Japan is the same as in the USA! I found the climate and ecology of Hokkaido to be very similar to that of Michigan, where I spent my childhood summers.

Mr. Yasui was a mountain guide in his younger years, so he knows all the secret spots. On a dark night, he took a busload of tourists to go stargazing on a lake at the foot of an active volcano. Most of the tourists were city-dwellers like me, going North to escape the heat. Considering how many Japanese I know that haven't been to Hokkaido, this was probably their first time. So imagine the wonder that filled them as they saw the Milky Way, shooting stars (nagaboshi), and constellations for the first time. The urban ceiling is hazy and floodlit with neon. I saw my first legitimate sunrise and sunsets in Hokkaido!

The trip back was very slow as I relished my memories from the North and changed trains 15 times with my Youth 18 ticket. With each passing hour Southward, the temperature got higher and the humidity thicker. Once I reached Tokyo, I knew I was back in mushi-atsui land. But I had cool memories to relax with.

Stay tuned next week for a narrated slideshow of how I spent my week in Akan National Park! Genki de!


Fulfillment of a dream

After almost 24 hours of straight travelling, I have fulfilled a dream: to visit the island of Hokkaido. I've been using Japan's best-kept budget travel secret: the Youth 18 ticket. 5 person-days of unlimited travel on rapid and local trains. It is by far the best way to see the country if you have the time, logistical skills, and interest in the superb train system. Check, check, check all three for me! My day started by pulling out of the busiest train station in the world, Tokyo's Shinjuku station. I took a night train to Niigata, site of last year's powerful earthquake. I had 5 minutes to transfer to my next train, so no time to visit. Then things got interesting. Last week the Sea of Japan coast has tons of rain. So much, that a landslide covered some of the tracks that are on my journey Northward. In typical organized fashion, Japan Railways organized buses to detour us around the problem area.
On the way, I made friends with a very knowledgeable, semi-otaku train lover. He had the latest copy of the national train time tables. I showed him my itinerary and he was very impressed that a foreigner had the sense to plan it all out. He'd look it over, then flip through his timetable book. He did this 5 or 6 times and came up with suggestions to improve the efficiency of my trip. "You should take this later train so you don't have to transfer one more time". "Oh, when you come back this way, you need to take an express so you can make the bus and then your next connection." Do the Buddhist/Shinto religions have a concept for "guardian angel"? Because this guy was mine! Literally the entire 200 kilometers that our paths crossed, he was looking out for me. He booked a night bus reservation for me when I thought my "wing-it" style would be enough.
We said good-bye. I ate lunch in the city of Akita, famous for the dog breed of the same name. My next train was a 4-hour local to Aomori. Once the commuters got off in the outlying suburbs, it was clear who was going all the way to Aomori. I started chatting with an elderly trio. They were amazed to hear that I was from Nishinomiya, because they were from Kobe and doing the same Youth 18 ticket. It goes to show that you're never too young! Again, they took pity on the my inept logistical skills and helped me find the cheapest way across to Hokkaido. It turns out there's one exception to the local/rapid trains only of the Youth 18 ticket: the limited express from Aomori to Hokkaido! Score. I got on it without guilt and said goodbye to my second guardian angel.
Now I'm killing time in the international hotel while I wait for the night bus. For the last 3 nights I've taken overnight transport to save $ on hotels and keep making progress to my goal: Akan Lake. Still about 500 km to go. Stay tuned for the next time I get Internet access and an update. Genki de!

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA