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23 July

I’ve been carrying anxiety around with me in my belly for the last couple weeks.  Unrestful sleep.  Too hot. The noise of storms at night.  It settles like a hard knot, dissolves, coagulates again.  No longer do I feel untethered, drowning in responsibilities and lists, but rather robotic, on cruise control.  The emotions well up, overflow, are gone.  Are replaced with over-structure and resolve.  My anxiety has not been all for naught.  But mostly it’s surreal: watching myself go through the motions.  All these complicated motions to tie up loose ends and move myself across the seas.  Well, I’m not there yet.

24 July

I’m bad with finality.  Ending relationships, all sorts, is hard.  Especially difficult when there’s little chance of ever seeing these people again.  America is always there.  My friends in America are always there.  But will I ever be in Kazamaura, Aomori-ken again?  Likely not.  Japan- yes, Kazama – no.  And here live people who I lived alongside for a year.  Who touched and changed my life, somehow.  Am I a changed woman?  I don’t know.

— —

I’m beginning to think that I need this sense of displacement, in a way.  My desires for deep settling and roots conflict mightily with my wanderlust.  I believed that one year outside of my own country was enough.  It’s not good enough to visit places.  I want to learn and live them thoroughly, deeply, widely.

Am I Una or Ahab?

26 July

There is ease and comfort in the traveling.  What will it feel like when I’m there, for good?  Real? Weighty?  Will there be substance?  In transit, I am weightless.  Suspended between the realities of my life.  The responsibilities, plans, next steps.  There is a delightful sense of uncontrollability on the move.  In limbo, I am exempt from the figuring.  But landed, arrived – it’s all fair game.  Here comes America.  Or rather, here I have come, America.

— —

I didn’t expect leaving to be so sad.  It blindsided me.  Handing in my gaijin card was like closing a door on my life.  Or a chapter.  America so far is harsh, loud noisy, fat.  First thoughts.

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While I’m sure much of the fun-loving world is the same, my ability to focus, sit still, pay attention to the people speaking Japanese around me, and study Japanese and/or Economics plummets with each degree the temperature rises and the cloud that makes way for Sunny D sunshine.  This itch to be outside, in conjunction with my looming deadline of departure (July 26th y’all!), and all the things to prepare for it, results in this fierce sense of being untethered, spinning on an axis of minutes and hours I can’t quite halt.

And so: It’s come to my attention that I spend so much time outside of the US idealizing it.  Remembering and missing, of course, my friends and family, the impressive grandeur of our National Park system (unrivaled to any country I’ve visited), the vast genetic variations of the American face, lazy Fridays riding my bike to and from the Oak Street farmer’s market, a good sandwich.  But now that my touchdown on US soil is mere months away, I’m starting to panic a bit.  There’s so much about America I dislike; that frustrates me.  And I’m returning to a place that may be the epitome of cringe-worthy America: car-culture and traffic, suburban sprawl, blatant racism, consumerism, an obstinately divided government, fake boobs and plastic surgery, misuse and abuse of the precious little natural resources we have left.

I’m not saying I don’t want to come home.  Because I do.  I’m ready.  Ready for next steps.  Ready to hold my squirmy Samson in my arms.  Ready to share a bottle of wine – or three – with friends I haven’t seen in years.  Ready to sit in classes again and fill my mind with new ‘stuff.’  Ready to put all my books on one bookcase.  (This sums up my notion of home.) But I am resigning myself to the fact that just because I’m ready to leave Japan now, doesn’t mean I’ve gotten “it” out of my system.  That maybe mine own wanderlust is an affliction, a disease that defines the journey as the goal.  But here I go again, getting ahead of myself, and why worry about returning State-side when there’s always so much stuff to busy myself with now. So on that note, I’m going to study some Japanese grammar and teach yoga poses to eight-year olds, because I know how excited you must be getting for a play-by-play of a typical day in the life of THE Kazamaura ALT.  It’s all sorts of crazy up in here.

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Thoughts

The trip itself was fascinating.  I learned more about Chinese culture and history than I had ever known before, and it sparked a lot of questions about what it means to be a successful nation, how that success can be attained, what a country can and can not do for its people, and the differences between China and the other Asian countries I’m familiar with (notably Japan), and between China and the West.  Where Japan is quiet, subdued, and mannerly, China is boisterous, loud, and gregarious.  Japan’s version of rural is nothing compared to the poverty and poor infrastructure that still exists in parts of the Chinese countryside. If I think I get gawked at here (Japan) for my slightly Asian-slightly not features, it was nothing compared to the looks I – and even more so, my blue-eyed friend – received throughout our trip.  Though in many instances, they believed me to be Chinese and yammered away at me accordingly.

In addition, I think China might benefit from a program like the JET Program, with which I am affiliated.  There is a foreign person in almost every city, town, and village in Japan.  Japanese children are exposed to foreigners as young as preschool these days, and while there is still this huge sense of “outsider” vs. “insider” mentality in Japan, it is nowhere near as jarring as it might be if the past generation of Japanese kids wasn’t exposed to foreigners until their later years.

I was also surprised to learn that China just entered its Industrial Revolution less than one hundred years ago, compared to Japan.  In many ways, it is still playing catch-up (quickly, at that), but is stuck behind some major obstacles.  The water is undrinkable. The notion of waste (i.e. trash everywhere) is shocking to an outsider.  The backcountry enthusiast’s green motto “Pack it in, pack it out” seems to hold little social sway in China, where I was astonished to see so much debris along the country’s number one claim to fame, the Great Wall.

In my earlier post, I mentioned our guide with whom we did not get along.  However, meeting him really inspired a lot of thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and furthered my already instilled sense of privilege at being born a woman in America.  Here was a young man, born in 1984 in rural China to farmers, who worked his way through the seemingly grueling Chinese education system to become fluent in English and with a good job as a tour guide in one of China’s biggest cities. Bravo. Somewhere along the line, he began to question his country’s policies and even the rhetoric fed to him throughout the years about the Evil West.  He mentioned to us reading Orwell’s Animal Farm post-university and how it opened his eyes.  This is a book that almost every American reads in either Middle or High School and which many of us take for utter granted.  However, our guide often swung widely between stereotyping the West, particularly America, in a favorable light and an unfavorable light, taking his vast textbook knowledge and trying to apply it to a country he had not once yet stepped foot in.  Though he mentioned his enthusiasm at making many American friends, the only investment he seemed to have in us was for just that sake, and none else – that we were Americans.  There was no effort at getting to know what we, as Americans, were really like.  As to why, we can only guess that we two represented the unfortunate half of our species: women.  This case was further illustrated in such comments that his family was lucky to have had two sons (sidenote: the further out of Beijing you get, the more lenient the one-child-only policy is) and in his general behavior towards us.

China’s form of communism is also very different to the form I witnessed in Cuba (shhh) only a year ago.  Where in Cuba, it seems that everyone was in the same impoverished boat living off government staples and earning the same meager wages, China is obviously very capitalistic.  From what I could gather, China’s communism was based on: one single party consistently holding all the power; blocked websites such as Facebook, You Tube, and personal blogs; control of the press; such programs as farmers contributing money per household capita or a portion of the year’s harvest – which is really just as similar to our tax system; the fact that no one can own land; and it’s justice system, where rather than suspects being reviewed by a jury of their peers, they are judged by officials elected by (and therefore representative of?) the public.  How can two countries (China and Cuba) both be politically communist yet be so vastly different?  How is China able to reconcile its politics with a developed capitalist and focus on education, while Cuba flounders in the Caribbean?

In the end, I admit that that my view of China is widely incomplete and hugely elementary.  Spending a week in one city and on the Great Wall by no means a China expert make.  And, perhaps some of my opinions seem harsh.  We also met some charming, friendly, welcoming and open-minded Chinese people, particularly getting to share the generous hospitality of family friends who showed us the “local’s” Beijing, and meeting a college girl traveling solo with excellent bohemian fashion style who accompanied us on some sightseeing we did our last day in the city.   What I can state for fact though: that China is an onion of a country – layers upon layers of history and culture, and getting to travel there even for the briefest of times highlighted that which I value in travel (and life).  Exposure to new sights, sounds, foods, people, and ways of thinking.  So yes, my week was certainly Golden.

**This was definitely a mammoth of a no-photo post.  Thanks for getting through all the words.  Any thoughts and comments are always appreciated. KS.**

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Even in the darkest hours of December, I thought to myself, There are way worse people with whom I could be stuck in the middle of nowhere Japan. And while I’ve made friends, missed friends, spent many an hour writing emails and talking on skype, in the end, it’s been me in this house on the hill overlooking Hokkaido.  Just me.

Recently, I caught the evening light just right on a deserted beach several hours south of my town.  Here, I welcomed the coming season with some warmer winds and my sights on the Pacific.  And on much more.  I’ve yet to internalize all that these past eight months have done to shape me as a person, a woman, a daughter, a friend; but the way I felt on this day, greeting Spring on the shores of Japan in excellent solo company, is a start.  On the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I am steering myself in the direction I choose.   Happy Birthday to me.

The Beast has been a noble, if not slightly ghetto, adventuring companion

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In a couple weeks, I will embark on my first solo international adventure – aside from actually living independently abroad.  I’ve booked tickets and planned two weeks of gallivanting around Thailand, a country I’ve long wanted to explore.  I am going alone because the pals with whom I would have liked to travel can’t go for reasons including time, money, and being on the other side of the world.  So, I decided to go by myself.

If I might hypothesize (why thank you, I will), I think Thailand is going to be a perfect place to cut my solo wanderer teeth.  I consider myself a curious person.  I love traveling, and I love being self-dependent, and personally, I am excited to test my mettle embarking on an adventure of one – and getting to make all the decisions!  Thailand seemed like a good fit because the busy holiday season sees a lot of other travelers and so chances are I won’t be alone all the time.  It also seems to have a great infrastructure for easy transportation, and it’s cheap enough that I can financially do it by myself.  It’s relatively stable and there’s little serious threat against foreigners.  However, they still speak a completely different language (one I don’t know), have a completely different culture, and I’m still a small statured woman.  (In many regards, the most inconvenient type of person one could be.)

Some people think this is dangerous.  Some think that a young woman is naive and stupid for traveling alone somewhere where getting taken advantage of (by “natives” and other travelers alike) is a possibility.  (In my opinion, it’s a possibility anywhere.) Some people are just plain worried that something might happen to me.  These people comprise mainly of those with a vested interest in me staying alive and well.  It’s perfectly understandable.  However, I would argue (and dare speak for them) that they would rather me be an independent, self-assured, adventurous soul rather than a person that stays at home afraid of her own shadow – or more precisely, afraid of all the perfectly terrible things that could befall a woman (or a man) out in the unknown.

So, what must one do to stay safe?  In my opinion, keep in mind the same travel basics as you would if accompanied.  Keep your wits about you.  Be skeptical, but not overly.  Make friends and contacts.  If you’re a woman, stick to places where there are other women and/or children around.  Make copies of all your important documents.  Travel lightly and without expensive or important trinkets.  For me, I spent a lot of time planning and organizing my trip so that on any given day, I am able to be accounted for by someone.  Give your itinerary to family or friends.  In my opinion, this (traveling somewhere foreign and alone) is something that almost anyone can do if confident and prepared.

I’m not going to tell you that I’m not a little nervous, not a little unsure, and not afraid that I might just be a little lonely at times, but as far as challenging myself in the face of all these insecurities, big and small, I’m thrilled!  I’m sure I’ll have lots more thoughts on the matter come January upon my return to Japanland.

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Said by none other than Mr. Charles Darwin. He would know.

Snow Monkey Sighting Count to Date: Around 30 (including drive-bys and on runs behind my house). Good pictures of the wiley guys: .5

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Tsukiji Fish Market

Monday morning came early after our hedonistic feast at the Molecular Bar, but we awoke (albeit a little later than planned) adamant to catch the action at the Tsukiji Fish Market on the Tokyo Bay.  The market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and the day typically begins bright and early with a tuna auction around 5:30am.  It would be easy to visit Tokyo and forget that it sits almost directly on the ocean, but at Tsukiji, one realizes what great real estate Tokyo boasts as far as seafood.  Nearly all the seafood in Japan passes through Tsukiji before it goes on its way to the various tips of the country.  Even tuna caught in my neighboring town, Oma, goes all the way down to Tokyo before it is shipped back and resold in the two supermarkets here.  (Though if you know any fisherman, as almost everyone in Kazamaura or Oma does, you bypass this silly step entirely.)

Pick a fish, any fish

Pick a fish, any fish

Tuna Awating the Knife

Tuna Awaiting the Knife

A fully operating daily market, the Tsukiji Fish Market is comprised of a huge warehouse, at the center, where the big tuna auctions take place.  Surrounding the warehouse are stalls upon stalls of individual sellers, offering up everything from hoya (sea pineapple), ikura (fresh salmon roe), any assortment of fish, squid, or eel your heart desires, and, ofcourse, maguro, (tuna) in all its many cuts and forms.  Outside of the covered market, and between the roadway arteries where zip all forms of man- and gas-powered vehicle at Level 5 Frogger speed, are the shops selling wholesale veggies, knives, pottery, pickles, and my favorite: the early morning sushi and sashimi shops, barely wide enough for a single bar seat.  The equivalent of $30 got us two cups of green tea, ten varied nigiri, a few sushi rolls, and two steaming bowls of miso soup.  A breakfast that was hard to beat in price, freshness, and taste.

Good morning, Tsukiji

Inside the Market

Sushi Breakfast

Lord preserve us, and protect us, we've been eatin sushi for breakfast

As a (sea)food lover, Japan has been a pretty big treat in terms of feeding my hankering for fresh, good quality fish.  However, I can’t help but be suspicious at the grocery store when I purchase cheap fish, or when I stroll the bustling, bursting, cultural and epicurian hub of Tsukiji, and wonder…how these fishing practices can continue sustainably.  They, Japan, subsidizes their fishing industry in the same way we, America, subsidize our meat industry: nearly to the point of exhaustion.  Small fishing villages like Kazamaura and Oma consistently bring in less and less of everything, compared to years past. And in a country where you still find neat, pink packages of kujira (whale) in your average supermarket, and further, where the hunting of whales has been justified since they “eat all the tuna,” I struggle to find a happy medium in the seafood department.  I love eating melt-in-your-mouth toro sashimi (an especially marbled and delicious cut of tuna) but I have also heard it likened to the negative environmental impact of driving a Hummer.   All that said, it is hard to take away from the unique experience that is Tsukiji and I believe you must appreciate it for what it is, without losing sight of its very real, slippery underbelly.

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