6 Things They Don’t Tell You When You Go Abroad

Originally posted on Thought Catalog:

If you find yourself in a conversation about studying abroad sometime in the near future, you are guaranteed to hear the word “experience” almost as much as you’ll hear the words “legal drinking age.” In fact, the emphasis on living it up often overshadows the other elements of studying abroad. Relatives never mention the outrageous food prices, the disorienting phases of culture shock, or feeling of utter loneliness that kicks in on the first rainy day. They don’t mention a lot of things, actually. For example:

1. You might not make friends right away, and that’s fine.

I’ve never been one to strike up a conversation with the person next to me on the subway or invite a random stranger to philosophize with me at a bookstore. When I left the US, I was determined to break out of my shell like the beautiful butterfly my mother always…

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Best Ways to Aid in Tohoku Relief Efforts

Originally posted on Tokyo Desu:

In recognition of the third anniversary of the devastating March 11, 2011 East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster, we’ve decided to take a break from our usual knob gags and dangerous shenanigans to tell you how you can help those that were most deeply affected by the tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis in Tohoku:
(Photo Via: Wikimedia Commons)

( Photo Via: Wikimedia Commons )

Japan Volunteers

Japan Volunteers is a blog with a huge list of ways to help out, including account numbers for depositing donations and a comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities.

Second Harvest Japan

If you’re too broke, lazy or busy to leave the Tokyo area, you might consider volunteering with Second Harvest Japan. Last we checked, the organization is still putting together weekly care packages for people displaced by the disaster. Their headquarters and kitchen is located just a short walk from Akihabara Station.

It’s Not Just Mud

This is a…

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When It’s Time to Move On

February is the annual JET contract renewal decision month. My supervisor asked me with a hopeful smile on her face that I would stay another year. Actually, if I wouldn’t mind, they would allow me to stay the full possible five. She’s been telling me this since November, and since November I wrangled with my heart and mind over what to do.

Many former JETs told me when I got here, “Don’t wait too long to leave. If you feel it’s time to go, then go. Don’t stay where you are just because it’s comfortable. You will regret it.”

I always hated the vagueness of these words of wisdom. What does the feeling entail? What does too long even mean? How is comfort a negative thing? I asked these questions and more, but none of them could accurately tell me.

They just said, “You’ll know.”

From experience now I understand what they meant. The feeling isn’t just one feeling, it’s an accumulation of different feelings attached to certain things associated with working and living in one area.

I’ve lived in Itako for two and a half years now. If I let it sink in, that fact astounds me. Didn’t I just arrive yesterday? Where did the time go? Unbelievable, and yet true. I made a home in my 2DK apartment, putting up pictures of friends and family. I rearranged the entire place ten different times, added my own little touches here and there, tried to put my identity in a cozy space. I went on several amazing adventures with countless inspirational, caring, and beloved people. My Japanese skills improved with time, to the point I no longer need aid when it comes to complicated tasks like getting a new phone. I owe all of this happiness and warm memories to Itako.

What I didn’t expect was that the feeling can be a misnomer, because for me the big part of my decision came from a lack of feeling. I realized in December that the thought of not renewing my contract didn’t inspire feelings of panic or sadness at all. I felt excited at the prospect, and even started looking online at jobs in other areas. I knew on a cold December evening a few days before Christmas that I wanted to move to Tokyo.

Nostalgia goggles are tricky. I knew that come next year things that bothered me in the past wouldn’t change. On the weekends I’ll probably be left with few options for entertainment, probably opting to leave town to go to Kashima, Kamisu, Mito, or Tokyo to meet up with friends. Most likely, I’ll be watched, talked about, and monitored by everyone in my community. For dating, the options are limited in a country side area where there isn’t much dating material, and dating means “with intent to marry” and I don’t want to get married.

I now understand that staying too long means deciding to put your mental well being at risk of stagnancy instead of pushing for growth. I heard from many an ex-JET and ex-Interac how easy it can be to “get stuck” in the same place every year until it’s time to go. A routine is vital when living abroad. It gives stability when in all other situations we ex-pats feel out of control or lost. Going to work, teaching the same textbook year after year, I felt like I wasn’t in a routine anymore but instead getting into a rut. I tried to mix up the lesson plans, but even that didn’t make me feel like I was actually pushing my limits. I realized when I came back from winter break that staying and doing the same thing every single day for two more years could do more harm than good for me.

And that’s how I discovered how comfort can be a trap. The comfort of a routine, of daily activities and habits, means I can feel safe in the knowledge that I know what to expect. I see the same people every day, and I can usually predict how they’re going to behave. When I first arrived in Japan, I felt extremely unbalanced because I didn’t know what to expect for the first few months. The idea of starting all over again is scary, and that fear can be paralyzing. What if it doesn’t work out? What if my new situation is worse? What if I mess it all up? A thousand doubts pop up, but it’s easy for me now to say, “I did it once. I can do it again. I’ll make it work.”

I felt no urge to return to the United States. Even though I missed many people I love dearly, I couldn’t imagine going back home. Honestly, I can’t imagine leaving Japan for another couple of years at least, because in my heart still resides in Japan. I might return someday in the far future, but for now I’m not ready.

When I told my supervisor, she seemed disappointed, but she understood. Three years was a good run, after all, and she wished me luck. After she left, I felt guilty for leaving her with the chore of finding my replacement, but I knew I couldn’t say yes. I went back to work, determined to get things done.

In July, I will move on to a new life.

Wander into the magical land of Ghibli in this fairytale forest town


Putting this place on my Japan Bucket List. It’s absolutely gorgeous!

Originally posted on RocketNews24:


The only thing more gorgeous than the characters from Studio Ghibli’s animated movies would have to be the magical lands in which they live and play. And if you’re looking to play in a forest town where Totoro might be lurking, this unique shopping town in Japan’s Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, is the perfect location.

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Update: Garin Dart Found

About a year ago, I reblogged a missing person’s post for Garin Dart but it turned out I needn’t have bothered. Garin Dart is alive and well and currently residing in the UK. To make a long story short, Dart supposedly got into some yakuza trouble and ran away from it, leaving his pregnant wife and child behind in Japan. Many, many people doubt his story, but whether or not it’s true, I am glad at least he’s alive and not in a ditch somewhere.




China’s Horcrux: Tibet

Reuters (Beijing) recently reported about possibly the most hilarious use of a fictional character used as an insult in the political arena, with China and Japan calling each other Voldemort. China specifically referred to Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine as “a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest part of the nation’s soul.” While I commend Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming for his extensive knowledge of the Potter-verse, I would like to counter argue that if the Yasukuni Shrine is Japan’s horcrux, then Tibet is China’s.

Free Tibet

China committed mass genocide in the Cultural Revolution that killed over a million of the Tibetan people. Also, where Japan had comfort women, China had Thamzing, which was the torture and/or killing of any “political dissenters” (i.e. anybody who the Red Guards didn’t like). There were labor camps, executions, and numerous human rights violations.

Yes, the Yasukuni Shrine visits are a very hot topic, but Abe basically gets little to no choice in the matter. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. While their are war criminals at the shrine, there are also war heroes there as well. Would it be fair to neglect the people at that shrine who died to defend their country from the American invasion and subsequent occupation? How could Abe defend his stance not to go when the daughters and sons of those brave soldiers beg him to not punish the memory of their family’s noble deeds because they share the same space with dishonored men?

China hounds Japan for an apology for all the horror it inflicted in the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, but how about China apologizes for the 2008 crackdown against Tibetan protestors? How about China apologizes to Tibet for still occupying it long after it’s been made abundantly clear that Tibet doesn’t want to be a part of China? How about apologizing to the Dalai Lama for trying to kill him more than a few times?

Now, Abe talking about revising the Japanese constitution to allow for militarization and the recent Senkaku Islands debacle looks suspicious. Abe wants the U.S. out of Okinawa to make way for Japan’s new military base, and that definitely makes China uncomfortable , too. China has every right to point out there’s some shady goings on over here in Japan. I would be suspicious too if my neighbor and I were having a land owners dispute and then suddenly my neighbor came back with a license to carry and a gun.

However, it’s not a black and white picture that China, as well as Korea, try to paint it to be. Both China and Japan are complex countries with complex cultural views, and each considers their part in World War II with different sets of eyes. What’s obvious is that both China wants the world to view Japan in a negative light, and Japan wants the same for China.

At the end of the day, neither China nor Japan are Voldemort, but each definitely have the characteristics that reflect an alignment with Slytherin house. Yet, as many fans on Pottermore will attest, Slytherin doesn’t equal evil. Wanting to attain power isn’t a bad thing, because power can give a country the ability to take care of its people. Both China and Japan are ambitious countries that want to be taken seriously on the international front, but unfortunately this recent news makes them both look a little ridiculous.

And it’s a rotten shame, because the issues are far from trivial.

The Very First Christmas Abroad!

Well, it finally happened. This year, I ended up staying in Japan instead of going home. I expected that I’d feel homesick, that maybe I’d even feel like a terrible person for missing out on family time.

I have a confession to make: I felt NONE OF THAT NONSENSE. God, the amount of stress relief was amazing. No getting up at the crack of dawn to travel down to Narita. No crying babies for hours on a fourteen hour flight. No running to catch my stupid connection through a busy airport only to wait two hours for the next one. No traveling all over the country after I get to the U.S.A. because my family lives in separate states. No one bitching at me to come home instead of “living so far away.” Repeat process in reverse to get back to Japan and add in some really awful TSA groping at some point in Chicago O’Hare (aka the pit stain of airports). I love my family and friends, but being able to take a break from the Christmas madness was awesome.

Since I didn’t go home, I was able to go to the end of the year parties (bonenkai) with some friends associated with YES Eikaiwa, an English school that’s just down my street. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, where we sang Christmas songs and did a Santa Swap.


YES Eikaiwa Party!

I ended up winning some bath salts, which are amazing. I don’t know where they’re from, but they make my skin nice and pretty.


And of course, I got to do Christmas lessons. The students this year did songs and activities. The first years (7th grade for you Americans) got to make 3D Christmas cards. Some of them were really pretty!

ImageImageMy base school also had a bonenkai, which involved a buffet of Japanese food, BINGO Santa Swap, and some other games.

ImageThe BINGO game was fun. You could choose from a huge pile of presents when you won. I ended up choosing some fancy chocolates. I found that funny considering I gave chocolates as my gift. One of the teachers had this strange random number gadget that he would press for the next number. It kept doing old numbers over and over again, so all the teachers gave him a hard time.

ImageAfter the first round was over, we all went to the second round of the party (nijikai). We went to a karaoke place to sing and drink, which is par for the course of a nijikai. The party didn’t go onto a third round (sanjikai) because many teachers were also coaches that had games the next day.

Usually, people who are deeply liked, respected, and/or higher in rank are invited to the next party. If you’re just a part timer or the youngest of the bunch, it’s not uncommon to not be invited to the second or third rounds. For ALTs, it depends on the school if you get invited to the bonenkai or not. Some do, some don’t. Both of mine do, because they know I will sing Lady Gaga like no one’s business.

For Christmas Day, I went over to my friend Cameron’s house in Toride. She served some delicious chicken, salad, and some wonderful stuffing.


I forgot to take a picture of the food, so here’s Cameron’s pretty tree instead.

We had red velvet cupcakes for dessert.


Be jealous!

In between this time, I visited other friends in Japan, getting in touch with them again and having a blast. I remembered my family fondly, recalling all the times I’d gone to my grandmother’s house packed full of my father’s side of the family. All my aunts and uncles catching with up everyone about what’s going on and what everyone’s planning to do. The people in my age range talked among ourselves for the most part, my brother and I swapping stories and inside jokes. However, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out. I knew I’d be there again someday in the future, and I sent them my love from Japan.

New Years Eve I went to Tokyo. My friend Candice and I went to a couple of clubs and danced the night away. I got to see the sunrise on January 1st, 2014 in Roppongi.  Image


ImageA few days later, I went with some friends to the Kashima Shrine (Kashimajingu). I did go there on New Years Day about two years ago and it was a madhouse! This year I ended up going later, but guess what? It was still a madhouse!

New years and Beyond! 050

GAH! I can’t move!

We purified our hands before going inside and getting our fortunes for the new year (the year of the horse, by the way).

This is where people line up to wash their hands and gargle (NOT DRINK) the water.

This is where people line up to wash their hands and gargle (NOT DRINK) the water.

Turns out that for at least a week local shrines are packed full of people buying things for the New Year, such as good luck charms and fortunes. People will also burn certain items as offerings to the god(s) of the shrine and might get themselves purified within the shrine in the spring. The spring, by the way, is freezing cold, but it’s supposed to give you long life and good health so people go in for a dip. You can take a drink from a running spring in the back of the shrine, too, which is also for good health and longevity.

I did neither of those things because I would rather not be colder than I already am. Besides, my fortune was the top ranking, you can do anything you want this year congratulations kind of fortune.

Whoo-hoo! I won the luck lottery! Now if I could just win the real one...

Whoo-hoo! I won the luck lottery! Now if I could just win the real one…

These fortunes are fun little things that supposedly tell you what you’re supposed to do this year to get what you want out of life. If you get a bad one, most people tie them to trees or a standing wire board provided by the shrine so you can expel the bad luck.

I took mine and put it in my wallet. Putting good fortunes in your wallet is believed to bring you more money. It’s only good for one year, so once the year is over, you have to take it out, or so I’ve been told.

All in all, I was very pleased with my first Christmas away from home. It was a nice change of pace, and really did make me feel more at ease than trying so hard to get back. I think I will go home next year for sure, though, because Christmas really means a lot to my family.

Happy 2014 everyone! Let’s make it EPIC!