On being back in the US

I’ve been back in the United States for about a month and a half at this point.  The adjustment was pretty rough at first.  Not only did I struggle with jet-lag, but also altitude sickness and culture shock.  I basically spent the first week asleep.  The amount of English used here was overwhelming, which everyone always thinks is funny when I mention it.  But let me put it this way: in Japan, if you hear English, you’re being addressed.

This means that my friend and I could be on other sides of a store and we would both be able to focus on what the other one was saying because our ears were trained to lock onto English.  This means that when you are in an English-rich environment, it is a little bit like I imagine ADD to be (And this might be a woefully inaccurate description.  I apologize if it is).  There are simply too many things demanding your attention and you cannot filter out the background noise from the things actually directed at you.  It was exhausting.

I spent a chunk of the second week I was here with my sister.  I finally got to see the house she bought, spend time with my niece, and catch up with my brother-in-law.  They live about 30 minutes to an hour (depending on who is driving) away from where I’m living with my parents, so I can’t see them everyday, but I can see them all regularly.  While I was with my sister, I also had an interview in Boulder.  The interview went really well, but I decided the job wasn’t the right fit for me.

I had a few more interviews throughout the next few weeks and finally accepted a position in downtown Denver.  The job has not started yet, so I don’t want to go into too many details yet, but I’m excited for it.  It will be great for me while I make a decision about graduate school and I’m really excited to have an income again.  One of the many great benefits of this job is that a transportation pass is included with employment.  This means I can take the light rail or bus for free, which works out well for me because I don’t have a car.  (And don’t plan to get one for the time being.)

I have mostly been trying to find ways to fill my currently ample free time.  I rock-climb about six times a week at a gym down the street.  Not only has climbing been a great mental and physical challenge, but I am slowly making more friends there.  I primarily like climbing by myself, but sometimes it is nice to have someone to belay me so I can try more different routes in the gym.  Climbing has also inspired me to sew a few things.

 

Like this fun Pikachu chalk bag.

I also finally got around to making a quilt with the tenugui I’ve been collecting for the past four years.  Tenugui are a type of thin cloth towel.

On the weekends, I’ve been hiking with my parents.  A new set of hiking boots was one of the first things I invested in when I moved here.

I have also been connecting with the local JET Alumni community whenever possible and I’ll be volunteering at a Japan America Society of Colorado event this weekend.  I am not back to my normal routine quite yet, but I am looking forward to establishing a new one once I start working.

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Returning to the US

With my contract finished and my tourist visa/extension quickly running out, it was time to move back to the US.  I prepared for the move for months, but I still felt like I was running around putting out fires at the end.  I shipped box after box (and had a few panic attacks/ breakdowns when I thought I wouldn’t be able to get it all shipped or pay for the shipping), but eventually all my preparations led to this: waking up in my empty apartment on August 9th.  The only things left in there were my suitcases and my futon.

The plan was originally for Chris to take the futon and give it to my successor, Tahirah, but when he showed up to say goodbye to me that morning he said there was no space in his car.  So I said goodbye and tried not to panic as I waited for my supervisor to come get me.  At this point, I had no phone, no internet, and no time to walk to the nearest convenience store for their wifi.  When my supervisor showed up, I asked her to put the futon in her car, but she said there would not be room with my suitcases.  It just so happened at that very moment the teacher who lives across the street from me was pulling out of his driveway.  We flagged him down and asked him to take the futon.  Thankfully, he was happy to and we were on our way.

At the airport we met up with a friend of mine named Panda.  Panda and I spent the time before I could check in for my flight teaching my supervisor American card games.  Eventually it was time to go.  I said goodbye to my supervisor and thanked her again for taking the day to see me off.  Then Panda and I walked through security.  I held it together until I saw the line to go through passport control.

Thankfully, I had Panda there for a much needed last hug to get me through.  With that, I waited in line behind the bunch of Korean and Chinese tourists on their way home.  It just so happened that the passport control agent for my line was the same man who helped me at the immigration office in downtown Miyazaki when I was changing my visa a few weeks beforehand.

Seeing him there was a nice final goodbye to my second hometown.  I waited in the tiny gate for a few minutes before it was time to board the plane and head to Seoul.

In Incheon Airport

In Seoul, I had about 6 hours to kill.  At first, I thought I would get a room at the transit hotel in the airport, or at least take a shower, but I decided it wasn’t really worth it.  Instead, I bought an adapter for my computer and found a place to hunker down and waste time.

The flight was hands-down one of the worst international flights I’ve been on.  I was seated next to a guy who could not keep his elbows inside the designated area, the seats were so close together that even I felt cramped, and the entertainment system didn’t even have a USB for my to charge my iPad.  The upside was a) the entertainment system wasn’t a touchscreen (which meant no one was jabbing me in the back) and b) I remembered to bring a small pillow so I could sleep leaning forward.  It was probably one of the best sleeps I’ve had on a flight.  I ended up sleeping more than watching movies, which is definitely a first.

Once I touched down in Chicago, I waited about 20 minutes for my luggage, but eventually got it.  From there I made my way to the taxis and got a ride to my hotel.  Even though I was only in the room for about 8 hours, getting the room was so worth it.  I showered, slept on a comfy bed, and managed to rearrange my suitcases enough to make my backpack a bit more comfortable.

Back at the Chicago airport, I had to deal with three different desk workers trying to convince me to rearrange my suitcases to avoid an overweight luggage charge.  I explained that I knew it was going to be expensive, but it was literally all I had.  There was no amount of rearranging I could do.  Finally, they gave in.

My first glimpse of Denver in a while.

The flight to Denver was not bad.  I swapped seats with a family to make it easier on them and ended up getting kicked in the back by a toddler the whole flight as a result.  Thankfully, the flight was not very long.  I made it to Denver and to my parents.  That evening I had a nice dinner with my parents, great-aunt, and grandma (who happened to be visiting).

A Final Walk Around School

Saying goodbye is hard.  Even if you are saying goodbye to a place, you have to deal with the stages of mourning just the same.  Overall, I don’t think I really internalized the fact that I was leaving.  Intellectually I knew it, but sometimes there’s a disconnect between what you think and what you feel.  The sadness caught me off-guard sometimes.  For example, the last few days before my contract officially ended, I walked around the school a lot to take pictures and just say goodbye.  I would be all smiles and laughs when around students, then I would turn a corner and be hit with a wave of sadness so intense I had to actually sit down a moment.

But like with every place I have said goodbye to, I know it’s something that will take time.  I also know that, as I said in my speech to the students, I will come back at some point.

The day before my flight out of the country, I had to stop by the school one last time to drop off a few things.  I had a few more things for my successor and I had to leave my bike at the school for the school nurse (she bought it from me).  While I was there, I made sure to do a final run-around and say goodbye to everyone.  I was doing fine and really holding it together until I went down to the school office to say goodbye to all of the office ladies there.

Then everyone, including Chihiro, (basically my older sister at work) and the principal, followed me to the entryway.  They then all stood there while I started crying so badly that I couldn’t see my shoes well enough to put them on.  We all shared a final laugh at that and a few hugs later, I was out the door.  I was very grateful for my sunglasses at that point because I ran into a student a few minutes later and I didn’t need them seeing that.

That evening, Nishikawa-sensei picked me up and took me to the phone store to cancel my cell phone, which was incredibly kind as it ended up taking much more time than we thought it would.  She then drove me to the to the train station and told me she decided she would take the day off work tomorrow and drive me to the airport, which was also incredibly sweet.

Afterwards, Chris picked me up from the train station in Hyuga and took me to his place for dinner.  Originally the plan had been that I would stay at his place and then he would take me to the airport that morning.  But since Nishikawa-sensei had offered to do it (and we later found that I still had both water and electricity at my apartment, though no gas), I decided to spend one last night at my place.

A Final Jyoshikai

About once a year the women from my taiko team organized what’s known as a jyoshikai or “a women’s party.”  These women-only parties are a good chance to bond and get to know the other women in the group.  However, they have also always been a huge point of stress for me.  First off, the casual-style conversation typically goes way too fast for me to catch, let alone comprehend.  Secondly, there is a lot of gossip about people who I don’t know and have never met.  I went to one or two in the past and did not have a great time, even though I know it was an important part of the group dynamics.  As this was my last jyoshikai and an unofficial goodbye party for me, I was pretty much obligated to go.

However, mother nature wanted to make sure it was a drama-filled as most typhoon-seasons have been.  A typhoon was bearing down on Hyuga at the exact time we planned to have the jyoshikai.  There was a lot of discussion in the chat group about whether or not we wanted to risk it.  In the end, it was decided that we would, in fact, head out in the storm.  Though, a few of the members who live further out were not able to join us.

Two of the women from the taiko team picked me up and drove me to a restaurant called Kama Kama, which I thought was mainly a pizza place based on my past experience.  Apparently they do so much more.  The restaurant even had a specific jyoshikai set meal, which was delicious.

Though there were some dips to the conversation, I am glad I went.  The other ladies also presented me with a pair of bachi, drumsticks, that all of the team members (the men included) had signed.  The sticks really mean a lot to me.  Now I just have to figure out how to best display them.

Hyottoko Matsuri

For those who were not aware, I decided to stay in Japan about 10 days after my contract ended.  There were several reasons for this: first, I knew I would need some time after work finished just to get my life in order and to wrap things up.  Secondly, I really wanted to stay for one last Hyottoko Matsuri.  Hyottoko Matsuri was the first festival I attended in Japan and it seemed only fitting that it was also the last.

The festival officially lasts three days, but with the bulk of events happening on the second day, the Saturday, of the festival.  I used the lower-key Friday part of the festival as an excuse to wear my yukata (summer kimono) for what I thought might be the last time.  Anna gave Tahirah and I a ride to the park where we met up with Cameron.  There was not much to do since it was the first night of the festival, but we did walk around.

The next morning was the main event.  Unfortunately, it was rainy and gloomy the whole day, but the show must go on.  We performed the one song in which I know the solo part, specifically so I could show off for my last show.  For the songs in which we wear the drums, the president kept telling me to get in the front, despite the fact that I very much did not want to.  Still, it was very sweet of him to try and make it a special last performance for me.

After the performance, the junior taiko team presented me with flowers and something called a shijiki board (or something close to that).  Basically, it’s a piece of white cardboard/cardstock stuff that people sign and write messages on.  The junior team members have barely spoken to me in three years, but it was really sweet that they all signed.  Most even tried to write their names in English.

I wandered the festival a bit with all of my friends who came to support me/ attend the festival.  After that, I took a break to go to the gym, before I headed back to explore the festival on my own.  It was a nice way for me to say goodbye.  I ran into members of the community who knew me and recognized me.  I also got a bunch of photos of the dancers.

The festival was a nice bookend to my life in Japan.  It helped me open and close that chapter of my life.

School Farewell Party

I have been having trouble writing this post, so it had to wait until I was successfully in the US and out of the craziness to write it.

A week before my last day of work, my school held a farewell party for me.  Originally the party was going to be held in the same event hall where the school holds all of its official parties.  However, a lot of people said they couldn’t come at first, so the teachers organizing the party had to find a smaller location.  They settled on a place called the Garage.  It’s a live music venue with a bar and a little bit of seating.  I was excited because it was a new place to try out.  I like the hall where we normally have events, but it is a little stiff and formal.  If nothing else, the new location would probably be more casual and easier for me to talk to everyone.

However, when the teachers organizing the party went around the school to confirm who could and who couldn’t come, it seemed like more of the teachers wanted/ were suddenly able to come, but it was too late to change the reservation.

I took a taxi to the party because I did not want to arrive looking like I had gone for a swim in the ocean.

The bar was small, but the teachers did a good job organizing and decorating it.  There was even a banner done by the school’s calligraphy teacher which read, “Thank you for 4 years, Jodi.”

I quickly handed off my camera to one of my co-workers who spent the rest of the night taking some ridiculous pictures.

My taiko team came and performed with me.  In the small space it was a little deafening, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.  At the end of the performance, the taiko president handed off the microphone to me, expecting me to make some sort of speech.  I just smiled sheepishly and tried to explain that I had a whole speech written out, but it was in my bag on the other side of the room.  I said a few thank yous, but basically said I would be more eloquent if they could hold off until I was reading from the paper.

I spent the night after that bouncing around from table until it was time for my speech.  I walked up to the mic and read my speech.  I was nervous, so I ended up stuttering a little and staring at the paper a lot, but everyone laughed at my jokes and applauded at the end.  I was then told to stay up there and teachers brought out some presents for me.

First, Chihiro held up a white box for me.  It took me a moment, but the light finally caught the top of the box and I was able to see the Apple logo on top.  They bought me an Apple Watch.  (I later learned that they had been planning it for months.  A few of the teachers even worked together to bring up Apple Watches and, “if you were going to buy one, which would you buy?”)  It’s really difficult to surprise me, so I was both moved and impressed that they pulled it off.  But as I was accepting it, I mouthed to Chihiro, “It’s too expensive!”  And she basically motioned for me to stop being ridiculous and shut up.  (I also learned later that nearly every teacher and staff member chipped in for the watch, even some teachers who did not work there anymore including two of my former English teachers and the previous principal who also was my vice-principal for a year.  This means that with over 60 people chipping in, it was very cheap per person and also a lot more impressive at the same time.)

I started tearing up and hugging her.  Next came a portrait of me done by the school’s art teacher.  Unfortunately, he had been in a bicycling accident and could not attend to give it to me in person.  After that was an album of pictures and notes from the teachers and another one of pictures and notes from all of the third year students.

The rest of the night was spent showing off the Watch to all of the teachers and thanking them for their contribution.

Towards the end of the party, the teachers brought out a cake from my favorite sweets shop in Hyuga.  The artwork on top was done by Chihiro, just like she had done for a few of my birthdays.

It was way too sweet for me, especially because I had not gotten much to eat with all of my responsibilities that night, but it was really pretty and a kind gesture.

There were a lot of those kinds of confessions that only happen when someone is leaving.  Lots of “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you more.  I was nervous and shy.”  It’s always sad when you think of what could have been different if you had both been a bit more outgoing, but there’s not changing the past.  I managed to have solid relationships with a lot of my co-workers, even if they weren’t deeper than greeting each other in the halls and the occasional teasing.  And those relationships made work a lot better, even if I did not find the job itself fulfilling.

I had hoped for a final karaoke session with my coworkers at the party’s after party, but for some reason all of the karaoke bars were full.  We ended up at an izakaya for a few more drinks and some more food.  Though I was a little disappointed at such a low key ending, I had some good conversations with my co-workers who came and the things we talked about are more likely to stick with me much longer than our off-key versions of Disney and Queen songs would have.

Tokyo Disney

We had a really great time the next day at Disney.  We rode a lot of rides and ate a lot of really delicious things.  And I was finally able to check Tokyo Disney off of my Japanese bucket list.

That evening, we met up with my former supervisor, Tamiya, for dinner.  She was doing a training program in Tokyo as well, so it was really luck that put us all in Tokyo the same time.  I had a small moment of frustration when, despite the fact that I had been speaking Japanese all day with very minimal English, the waiter of the restaurant brought over an English menu for me.  He hadn’t heard me speak English at all (just Japanese), but assumed I needed it.  I simply said, “I don’t need it,” pushed it to the edge of the table, and ignored it.

The rest of the dinner was spent in Japanese, eating good food, and trying to find the hidden Mickeys on the gift bags we had brought back from Disney.  Apparently there’s a hidden Mickey in each picture and the location changes depending on the size of the bag, even if they’re the same design.  Fun fact.

I originally had plans to visit another prefecture on my last day, but I was out of energy and out of money.  Instead, I had a lazy morning in the hotel, checked out, and hung out at the airport.

I stopped by the Mercedes-Benz cafe/ area in the airport and got what has to be the most expensive-looking donut I’ll probably ever eat.

Then hopped on my flight and headed home.

 

The Trip Where Everything Went Wrong and It Was Exactly What I Needed

My last full week in Japan I decided the only smart and responsible thing to do when I should be cleaning my apartment was run away for a bit to Tokyo.  Originally my plan was to make it a solo trip and do my normal “one prefecture a day” schedule.  However, one of my co-workers ended up being able to come for the second day, so I had to change plans a bit.

First up, I got to the airport and checked in using my super cool watch.  I do feel pretty awesome when everyone else has to pull out their phones to check in and I can just use my wrist.  I still had a few hours to kill and it was almost dinner time, so I decided to stop by one of the restaurants that I always forget exist on the top floor of the airport.  I got myself some really good chicken nanban (the prefectural dish) and soba.  As I was loudly slurping my noodles and mentally patting my back for getting so skilled at it (I rarely end up splattering my glasses anymore!), I realized that that was one of the skills and habits I am really going to have to unlearn.

I made it through security without any issues.  I was a little worried when I received a notification that my seat had been changed due to a change in aircrafts, but I was happy to see that we had been upgraded to a bigger plane.  That meant that a lot of people (myself included) were able to get our own rows.

I got to Tokyo, grabbed my bag, and found the right train.

Then the trouble started.  First, I couldn’t find my hotel.  I tried to ask someone on the street for help, but he pretended he didn’t hear me and then actually took a few steps away from me.  I was livid, but there was nothing I could do really.  It took a little more wandering but I did eventually find it.  I checked in, excited to just shower and sleep.

But then I got to the room.

It was disgusting.  Apparently the hotel’s policy did not have room cleaning services.  Guests were supposed to be responsible for that and I can tell you no one took that seriously.  Everything in the room was stained (sheets and couch included) or had mold on it.  It was almost midnight by this point and all I wanted was to sleep, but there was no way I was sleeping in there.  I marched myself right back downstairs to the front desk.  I politely asked if there were any other rooms I could switch to because my room was unacceptable.

The front desk worker’s response was that this hotel was old and that all of the rooms were like that. It was ridiculous.  After making sure I would get a refund for at least the next two nights, I returned the disgusting room to book a new hotel (and to call my mom for emotional support).  After I had a new room and my refund in hand, I spread out one of my shirts on the pillow and tried to curl up in the cleanest part of the bed.  The room was making my allergies go crazy so it was still another hour before I could sleep.  I will say this: as awful as the room was, the front desk staff was very polite and helpful.

I woke up after only three and half hours to my alarm.  I had to go check in to my next hotel.  When I arrived, there were two men berating the front desk staff.  After waiting about ten minutes listening to the conversation and catching such highlights as, “Sir, please stop pounding on the bell,” and “Do you want me to call the police?”  one of the men started talking to me while we were waiting for the staff to come back out after escaping to the back room.  Apparently, the worker was a new employee who kept making a lot of mistakes.  The latest mistake involved cancelling the other man’s reservation in the middle of his stay.

Eventually someone else came out and I was able to get my bag put away in their storage, even if check-in didn’t start for another 10 hours.  I headed out to find the train station and made my way to Tokyo Station to meet up with my tour.

I made it on my tour just fine, but I was so groggy that I did not really enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  The first place we visited was crowded and it was rainy which made things so much worse.  Besides, all I could think while I was walking around the temple was think, “I’ve seen a lot of these.”

However, I ended up reflecting on what seemed to separate me from the other tourists on the tour: I had seen a lot of those.  And I had navigated them myself without the aid of a tour guide or a translated audio tour.  The reason there was nothing new or wonderful about visiting this temple was that to me, this was just home.  My home happened to be filled with temples and shrines, but it was home all the same.  And though seeing shrines had become mundane and ordinary, they also felt comfortable.  I knew I would make none of common mistakes when washing my hands before entering or stepping through the gates and that made me happy.  Even though it was raining and crowded, I slipped away to take a few pictures by myself and found myself smiling.

I was having another moment of saying goodbye.  Moving out of the country has been such an enormous event that I could never process it all at once time.  Processing and saying goodbye came in bits and waves.  Because, truthfully, I am dealing with a loss (the loss of my current life) and with it comes the various stages of grief required for processing what is happening.  The trip really helped me come to terms with the fact that this was actually happening.  I was actually moving.

The second half of the tour was self guided.  I took a free shuttle bus from the temple to the historical theme park.  If I was on a date or with kids, I would have had a lot more fun at the theme park.  After wandering around and taking some pictures, I decided to catch an earlier bus to the train station and see if I couldn’t get back to Tokyo early.

A reserved seat on a train was part of my tour, but the train I was supposed to take wasn’t for another three hours.  I walked into the ticket office, explained that I wasn’t feeling well (true) and needed to get back to Tokyo early.  I paid a small ticket change fee and was all set.  I picked up a really good ekiben (station bento/ prepacked lunch box) with some of the local beef for my ride back.

The three hour train ride back to Tokyo was incredibly peaceful.  I passed the time taking pictures out the window and enjoying my lunch.  It was just what I needed.

It also put me in a really good mindset for my next day at Disney with my friend from work / Japanese older sister.

 

Hososhima Matsuri

In the midst of all the farewell partying, I snuck away to the Hososhima festival in the port area of Hyuga City whenever I could.  My friend, Panda (his actual last name and what most people call him) is friends with a lot of the people in that area.  He takes frequent walks in the area because it is a really pretty neighborhood and he ended up talking to the people he saw on his walks.  He was even invited to help build one of the portable shrines for the neighborhood festival, the Hososhima Matsuri.

I originally went to the festival to support him and I ended up volunteering with him.  We ended up doing a lot of different things, from helping set up chairs to sorting garbage to pouring beers.  He occasionally had official shrine-carrying duties to deal with, so I was sometimes on my own.  The strangest part of the whole event was being in a part of Hyuga where no one knew who I was.  I have worked hard to become a part of the community and as a result, a lot of people know me.  Sometimes they just know me as “that one foreigner who is in the taiko group who is probably a teacher,” but they still know me enough to say hello.

Over in the port area, no one knows me.  But they knew Panda, so I stuck with him whenever possible.

The second most interesting part of three-day festival was probably having sashimi and beer with a definitely yakuza  interesting group of men.  Chris and Anna were with me when we made friends with the men earlier.  The whole interaction was also a good reminder of how Japan treats foreigners who don’t look like stereotypical image of foreigners.  I, who has dark hair and eyes, was basically ignored while Anna, who has blonde hair, was a magnet for attention.  Whether or not she wanted it was not a factor.  I have been mistaken as a Japanese person by a few Japanese people, so I was fine in my role as semi-invisible.  It was actually pretty funny when Anna was struggling to understand what some of the men were saying and turned to me to translate.  Her struggles weren’t the funny part.  The funny part was the fact that the men both looked surprised that I was there.  Like they hadn’t realized I was sitting there for the entirety of the conversation up until that point.

I also ran into a lot of students at the festival, which was nice.  They all wanted to take pictures with me, which of course inflated my ego which had taken a beating from no one knowing who I was previously.  It wasn’t my favorite festival, but I am glad that I was able to go.  I think it’s probably an important part of the whole, “living in Hyuga,” experience.

Goodbye to English Arcade

The other volunteer event I participate in regularly is called (for some unknown reason) English Arcade.  I was definitely disappointed by the lack of video games involved the first time I volunteered.  The two hour long English conversation session can often be pretty difficult for me to get through due to the lack of general genki-ness from participants (read: energy and active participation), but I knew they appreciated it when I was able to attend.  An important condition of my attendance was always that I was not going to be leading the sessions.  I was there as background support, not as a teacher.

Still, I of course ended up in that role more often than not.  The participants have an interesting and diverse set of backgrounds.  A handful are retired engineers from Asahi Kasei, a chemical engineering company.  Others are students or teachers or just people who have traveled in their lives and don’t want to lose the English skills they’ve gained.

For my farewell party with this group we went to the house of one of the members for lunch.  Normally, that would have been (incredibly kind but) not a huge goodbye, but this woman’s home is actually a historical landmark.  Her (I think) father-in-law invented a new type of tuna fishing net in 1895 (according to the website) and made a lot money.  He invested heavily in developing the surrounding town and built a big and beautiful home.  The family still lives on the land, but recently finished building a more modern home next to the historic one.  The old home has been converted into a restaurant and small museum.

The English Arcade’s daughter (maybe daughter-in-law?  Not super clear on that point) gave us a tour of the museum area and then served us lunch in the restaurant.  The food was very traditionally Japanese.  I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t name half of what I ate.  I do know that it was good.

I was completely stuffed by the end of lunch and rolled back to the car where one of the members gave me a ride home, saving me from trainride.