Do you ever wake up one morning and realize a month has passed and you can’t even remember what happened yesterday? That’s pretty much my life right now. Where has time gone? If you didn’t catch my last blog, I revealed that Ive extended my stay an extra 5 months. Flights have been rebooked and I’ll see you all December 13 at the Saskatoon airport, clear your schedules. Why do I want to stay longer you may ask? How about the fact that the “close door” buttons in the elevators here actually work, microwaves double as actual ovens (I literally bake pizza and muffins in my microwave), and Starbucks always writes cute things on my cups. Ok, in reality, my main reason for staying is I haven’t done anything yet! I finally have friends here (Japanese and English), I’ve committed to taking personal language lessons and I’m actually making headway now, I’m just getting settled in my new house (I’ll explain later), I want to experience every season here, and I have so many things on my “must do” list that haven’t been check off yet. I’ve been working like a dog, 16 hour days far from home, so that I can take the summer off and just enjoy Japan and travel with my new friends!
The most exciting thing since my last post, was that one of my best friends from University came to visit me for a whole month! Jenna came in April, just in time to catch the last of the cherry blossoms.
Oh cherry blossoms, the iconic emblem of Japan. In the brochures and travel guides you can find absolutely stunning photos of Sakura season in Kyoto. But, what they fail to mention, is that they got up at the earliest ray of sunlight to take these pictures of Kawaramachi, Arashiyama, and Heian Temple before the people flocked in for the day. At any other given time, you will be faced with the reality that your gorgeous photos will include an accidental photobomb by Jack, Jim, Jane, Yuki, Mami, Roberto, Stefan, and their entourages from every corner of the world. Walking the Kawaramachi area, it was not uncommon to see 10 wedding photo shoots going down. From traditional Japanese wear, to modern white dresses and tuxes. There are now about ten couples who have an awkward and embarrassed blonde unmentionable (ya, me) accidentally walking through the background of their beautiful photos. What can I say, the blossoms are simply mesmerizing.
All over Japan, people engage in “hanami” (はなみ). This is the custom of going to view the blossoms and basically having a picnic under them. There is literally no English translation for hanami. Although Jenna and I never formally took part in hanami, we did get to try some new foods. First we had takoyaki (たこやき), which is fried dough with octopus, next we tried okonamiyaki (おこのみやき), which is like grilled cabbage, vegetables, and meat with a special sauce. It’s looks like a crazy pancake and literally translates to “as you like” “grilled” which is exactly what it is. We tried fish shaped pastries filled with green tea cream (taiyaki- たいやき), mochi shaped like the aliens from Toy Story, dango, and many many kinds of Pocky and Kit-Kats (matcha, mint, Easter egg, raspberry, to name a few).
Jenna and I started our adventures in Osaka with the blossom viewing at the Osaka Mint, rode the giant Ferris wheel on top of a mall (the day of the giant earthquake! Thank god we didn’t know this yet), and saw Osaka castle. Next, we started our adventure in my city of Kyoto. We started at the monkey park, which was both overly exciting and terrifying at the same time. Wild monkeys just running around: DONT look them in the eye! We followed the flow of tourists through Arashiyama and ended up at Kinkakuji (the golden temple).
We found this amazing pass called the Kansai Through Pass that allowed us to have unlimited travel through the Kansai region for 3 days and boy, did we get our money’s worth. We started in Nara, home of the tame deer and I got in a tug of war match with one of the deer after he stole the map out of my pocket and was trying to eat it. I won, but it took some serious negotiating to get it back. I also forgot their Japanese name (shika- deer) and instead was trying to call them by saying “Shinkansen”… Shinkansen is the name of the bullet train here. Apparently the deer knew this, because they were rather offended and would not come to me anymore. To finish our first day off, we went to a lesser known town called Ikoma. We found a singing cable car shaped like a birthday cake and took it to the top of a mountain where we found a deserted theme park. Obviously a prime photo opportunity, but also quite eerie.
Jenna took off on her own to Hiroshima and then to Tokyo and I headed back to work. My parents finally convinced me to meet Jenna in Tokyo so we could go to DisneySea together. Surprisingly, work gladly gave me the day off, saying the Disney deserved a day off… Well okay then. I now realize how important Disney is in Japan. So, I hopped on a plane and got to Tokyo Monday night and we went to our first sushi-go-round restaurant. It was amazing. You order on your own personal computer screen and an automated belt brings it to you on a plate. We left there feeling incredibly full (I even tried shrimp!) and satisfied for a small amount of yen.
The next day we were up early and on our way to Disney. Cue the inner children in us both. We squealed our way through the lineups of families and (matching) couples. We had a plan, thanks to our Disney enthusiast friend Laura who gave us the tips and tricks to follow, as this is the only DisneySea in the world. Our first ride was the Tower of Terror, and, although it was all in Japanese, we knew the idea of the ride: Dropping. We strapped in and at that moment I decided I didn’t want to be there, as the strap was locked around my injured shoulder. Thinking about the car accident that injured me in the first place, and how the strap was in exactly that place, had me in tears, but it was too late. Up we went. Once we were in the air, I forgot about everything and Jenna and I held each other screaming as we dropped 12 floors, went back up, and dropped again. Exiting the ride, we were both shaking; a mixture of laughing and crying. We were now fully awake and ready for Disney!
The rest of the day was nothing short of magical. We must have picked the best day possible to go, as I had heard horror stories about the 3 hour long line-ups. We waited no more than a half hour for a ride and were able to do every ride at the park. Our favourites were Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which somewhat resembled the Log Ride in California, Indiana Jones, and Storm Rider, which was a simulation of being inside a storm. To my surprise and enjoyment, they had a Mediterranean themed section, which featured replicated Italian buildings, the Ponte Vecchio, a volcano, and gondola rides. We managed to get on a gondola for sunset. I’ve been to Italy 3 times, but my first gondola was officially in Japan.
We got pictures with the characters, went on the kiddie rides, laughed so hard we cried, and stuck around long enough to see the evening water show. All I can say is amazing. We didn’t speak for 20 minutes, totally mesmerized by the lights, character dances, fireworks and familiar childhood songs dubbed in Japanese. After 13 hours of Disney, we were exhausted and we had to put the kids to bed (aka ourselves).The next day, I hopped on a plane to make it back in time to work that evening. Needless to say, I had a 2 day Disney hangover of exhaustion, but it was COMPLETELY worth it. What an amazing day with some amazing pictures to remember it by.
When we recovered from Disney, we headed out on our final two days with the Kansai pass. We started with Mt. Koyasan and Wakayama beach. We got to see a very unique mountain top cemetery. Turns out they like to dress their rocks and statues with bibs… Dont ask me why. It was a very long day, most of it spent on the train, but totally worth the 4 hours to swim in the ocean in our bathing suits and CANADA tshirts while everyone else had on wetsuits, staring at us like “what are those crazy people doing? Ohhhh Canadians, okay”. We spent a few, more relaxing, days in Kyoto. We went hiking in a bamboo forest near my house, hit up Fushimi-Inari, famous for its red tori gates and endless stairs, and Kiyomizudera, famous for having the largest wooden deck overlooking nature. We went during the holiday, Golden Week here, which was a terrible idea, but we had no choice. So many people, everywhere. Again with the accidental photobombings.
We finished things off with a trip to Himeji Castle and Kobe. Imagine a giant white wooden castle. Then imagine it with even more wood and even whiter. Yeah, that’s Himeji. It was beautiful and unique to look at, but i would never go inside again. Packed with people, all I could think of was, ‘what if there was a fire right now’. I personally didn’t enjoy it, but glad I got to say I saw it in person. In Kobe Jenna finally got her Kobe beef and I watched as she ate it. We went to the port and then to the waterfall and the observation deck. Visiting all of these places makes me happy I chose to live in Kyoto. It’s still definitely my favourite!
We had two more things to check off Jenna’s list: party and karaoke. Although you may think of Japan as being very reserved, they have a pretty bumpin night life in Osaka. The only catch is, trains. The last train back to my house was at 10:35. So, we either had to party in the afternoon….. Or all night. Following the nightlife code, we chose the later. To kill time before going out, we did some shopping, became famous in Shinsaibashi, and killed 4 hours at an arcade. How did we become famous? Well after we got someone to take this picture we drew a bit of a crowd. People clapped and then one by one came forward to ask if I they could get a picture standing on my leg. There is now a multitude of pictures floating the Internet of people standing on me in front of the Glico man. In the end, an elderly man came to shake my hand and in broken English said “thank you, thank you. Welcome to Osaka.” And backed away slowly repeating “thank you” a few more times. Classic Japan. My knee was literally swollen for two weeks after that.
At the arcade we also made a scene… We actually thought we were gambling, so when we hit the “jackpot” on the Mario game, we thought we were going to be rich. Turns out, it’s just a game. But, people enjoyed watching us get so excited and they just kept giving us buckets of free play tokens so we would keep going. Again, classic Japan. When we finally got to the club, we pretty much instantly became the coolest people there, not going to lie. We knew all the words to all the songs and weren’t afraid to dance the night away. We caught the first train in the morning and made it home at 7:40. Exhausting, but a hilarious day and night. On her last night, we invited my old housemates and went for an hour of karaoke. Our booth was leopard print and we rocked the spice girls, Vanilla Ice, and sang our university song: Roxanne.
Needless to say it was a teary goodbye the next day at the airport and I felt so alone the next couple of days not having her around. Her visit was such a surprise and it was such an amazing experience. I always travel alone, but when someone joins for a short time, it just makes me so thankful and happy I get to be a part of their experiences. Thank you Jenna for the memories! I will see you at Christmas.
Now, back to real life. After she left, I began teaching kindergarten. Well folks I’ve officially done it all. I now teach adult business men and women, university students, and now Kindergarten and nursery school students. I agreed to this job before really thinking about it, to be honest. As the days came closer I thought: I have NO idea what I’m doing, I can’t do this, I don’t want to do this. But, the only way to expand your knowledge and develop yourself as an individual is to challenge yourself and work from outside of you’re comfort zone. And guess what, I did it! Kids are weird. My students don’t know what blue is, what a hamburger is, or what a triangle is, but in perfect English my student said “sensei you’re strange” to me. He’s 5!
To add stress to taking on a new job, I also discovered that my bedroom had a cockroach nest in it. How did I figure this out you ask? Well, I heard something in my garbage can, picked it up, and the damn thing ran up my arm. Now, these aren’t like Canadian cockroaches, no, these things are the size of small dogs, and they can fly. Flying cockroach dogs. Ok, that is probably a huge exaggeration, but they’re really big! After I found one, I found more, and more… My roommates (don’t speak English) found me in my bedroom crying and yelling, holding a can of poison. They very calmly killed the roaches and made me a bed in the spare room. Worst part, I sprayed my retainer with cockroach poison…..
After a month of sleeping on the floor in another room, not sleeping at night, and terrified to be at home, I decided to move out. To my surprise I found another place really fast. And so I moved that week, to a place of my OWN! I’m probably paying way too much for a house the size of a walk in closet, but I don’t care, it’s my walk in closet and I’m so happy to be there.
Now that I have relaxed, been able to sleep more, and have settled into a new routine with my new jobs, I’ve been able to focus on learning Japanese. I have lessons every week and I study every day. I refuse to be illiterate in Japan any longer. Although I’m personally employing the iced coffee industry it seems, with the help of coffee I’ve been able to even go out with my new friends after work. My Japanese friends have been great with taking me out and teaching me new things, and my English friends have been great to experience new things and enjoy the expat life with.
Rainy season has now commenced. Yes, Japan has 5 seasons. I will be facing about 30 days of rain and then 3 months of unbearable humidity. It’s so hot, they have a country wide policy that from June to October, business professionals (myself included) can dress for ‘cool biz’. This means I don’t have to wear a suit jacket. Woohoo’s all around.
An update on things I’ve learned about Japan:
Japanese people say ‘recommend’ and not ‘suggest’, ‘dustbin’ instead of ‘wastebasket’, in some situations green is blue, eating raw chicken is okay, people love Armageddon and Die Hard, coffee is life and if it’s not then you’re doing life wrong, people here believe me that my uncle is Neil Armstrong, nobody knows what the word gymnastics means (not one single person!), they have Costco here, and people know where Yellowknife is but not Edmonton or Ottawa.
My mind is exhausted every single day, but in a good way. To everyone who has been sending me periodic life updates, thank you! Even if I don’t reply right away, I always read it and I always appreciate hearing from you. To all of my friends who have had a major life event lately (my god so many people) a baby, a wedding, engagement, new house/job, convocation, etc. congratulations! I’m so happy to see everyone doing such amazing things with their lives and I am excited to see where everyone will be when I return. And just remember, if you have a new house, ill need a place to live when I come home, hint hint. If you had a baby, I’ll need a job when I come home and I’m great with kids, hint hint. If you got a job, I’ll need money and things when I come home, hint hint. Thanks y’all.
In the meantime, I’m looking for suggestions of other Asian countries that people have visited, unique Japanese things you’ve heard of that you’d like to see me try, recommendations on how to live with 5 hours of sleep. The first two for real though.
Xoxo Your Armstrong Abroad