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Sayonara Japan and the Korean ‘No Fly’ List

I can’t believe it’s that time already. After 3 jobs, 2 houses, 1 passport extension, 13 prefectures and countless hours spent on trains, my 286 days in Japan have come to an end. This will be my last blog post of Japan, but when I return home I promise to post my “The Best of Japan” list like I did for Italy, in case any of you plan on travelling here in the future. 
Im really happy I chose to stay here to see the autumn season. They really celebrate each season here. It is actually starting get cold here (or I’m just turning into a totally baby), but I’ve already sent home all my warm clothing. So I’ve been doing a lot of shivering while pretending I’m okay with it; walking around in my light sweater while everyone else is rocking down jackets…. seriously. Full on scarf, mittens, toque, weather for them now in Japan. That being said, it still hasn’t cracked 0 degrees yet.

Since my last post, I have officially become unemployed (shout out to anyone hiring in Canada! Get at me). I said goodbye to my kindergarten kids, who were being extra satan-like that day, which made it a lot easier to leave. In fact, one child punched me in the crotch twice on my last day as I was teaching. That was my “I’m finished teaching kids for a while” moment. I said goodbye to my one-on-one adult students that same day, who were a bit more thoughtful upon saying farewell (none of them punched me in the crotch). I received many wonderfully written cards, letters, and small gifts. The next day, I said goodbye to my university students, who encouraged me to one final dance off as we parted ways for the last time, as I’m always dancing while I teach. That’s my thing. Its the best way to learn to enjoy education; dance it out!

Students aside, the greatest people I met here were my coworkers. I had to say thank you and goodbye to all of them. It was overwhelming, and I really suck at goodbyes, so we made it as informal as possible. A few drinks, so many laughs, and a couple of selfies just for good measures.

One bonus of having a house the size of a rabbit hole, is that there isn’t much to clean or pack, and I really don’t have many belongings. As my anxiety issues have increased throughout my travels, I’ve found ways to deal with it… like packing. Packing and list making smooth my anxiety, which brings me to “The Stages of Leaving” list:

  • 2 months to go – “ya, I’m going home really soon. I’m so excited, but I haven’t really though much about it yet.”
  • 1 month to go – *avoid talking about it, avoid talking about it* anxiety kicks in. Start packing and immediately unpacking again because I realize I still need everything.
  • 3 weeks to go – “ok, I’m ready to go home. I’ve accepted it and I’m excited about it”
  • 2 weeks to go – “DONT BRING IT UP!” *still packing and unpacking every day.*
  • 1 week to go – * buys all the souvenirs, eats all the food, drinks all the coffee, spends all the money*
  • 3 days to go – “I have tons of time left. This isn’t goodbye, I’ll totally see you again before I go ” *runs away and never looks back* 
  • 2 days to go – Everything’s packed. There’s nothing else to do to curb the anxiety.
  • 1 day to go – “In my head I’ve already left.” *turns into emotionless potato sack*
  • Leaving day – 

I’ve been trying to avoid the topic of “when will I see you again” with my friends here, because the reality is I have no plans to return, and let’s be honest, nobody visits Saskatchewan, Canada. Of course most of my time spent overseas is full of amazing adventures and educational opportunities, but the hardest part is saying goodbye. These people have been my crutch while I’ve been here. They helped me through real issues: finding a house, a job, not getting lost, and so on. However, they were also there for me when I needed help on a personal level: brought me food when I was too sick to leave my house, ate countless cookies and chocolate with me as we ranted about our life problems, organized adventures that I would have never been able to do on my own, encouraged me to remember I am not a Japanese person and it’s okay to stray from the norm and use a fork once in a while, and also helping me understand the culture, language, and expectations in this country. Needless to say, without seeking any professional services in my time here, I had a doctor, a tour guide, a personal driver, a bartender, a therapist, a chef, a translator, a real estate agent, and a family here. I will miss everyone dearly. The laughs have far outweighed the stresses.
Thank you Pixie for being as weird and crazy as I am, and always being there to lend an ear and a few curse words of support when I needed it most. I’ll never forget beers and stories by the river, chopstick Jenga, and having a ‘fika’ (did I use that right?).

Thank you Taka for asking me 1,000 English questions every day, but also answering my 1,000 Japanese questions. I will never forget Hiroshima, so many cups of coffee, and hilarious translation mistakes.

Thank you Anna for being so loyal and honest. Seeing you grow in your English and as a person has been amazing. I will never forget Snapchatting with you and watching you fail miserably at beer pong.

Thank you Maiko for accepting me in Japan and including me with your friends in Kyoto. I will never forget meting you, reading the dictionary together (hōto), and meeting your friends.

Thank you Brandon and Vivi for making every Friday easy to wake up and go to work knowing it was going to be full of laughs. I will never forget giving you all the details of my week adventures in the ten minutes before work, epic dance battles, looking at memes on the train, and courtesy laughing at Brandons jokes that no one understands.

Thank you Hayato for being so sweet and understanding that I am a very picky eater. I will never forget ALL of the adventures you took me on, saving me from cockroaches, and teaching me real, useful Japanese culture and language. 

I love you all so much and would never have survived here if it weren’t for you. 

My last week I got to finally check out 紅葉 京都 ライトアップ (koyo Kyoto light up). This is where they illuminate the もみじ (momiji – mini maple) trees at the temples. It was absolutely breathtaking, and we enjoyed some traditional warm drinks as we sat and enjoyed the beautiful evening. I had 抹茶 (matcha) and Hayato had 甘酒 (amazake – a hot drink like sake but non-alcoholic). 

We finally made it to Hayatos favourite restaurant (he’s been telling me about this place for months) and I tried おばんざい (o-banzai – food/eating style native to Kyoto with many small traditional Japanese dishes prepared in a simple way using foods usually discarded as waste [better than it sounds]). Every dish we ordered that night was a new food for me! I had to take a picture of the menu to show just how traditional this place was. 

Yes, we took off our shoes and sat on the floor. No, there was absolutely no English. No, I couldn’t read the menu. Yes, I was scared to try every single food, but he pushed me to. Yes, I would eat it all again. We ordered: おから (dryish tofu), ナス たいたん と しそ (cooked mini eggplants with shiso leaves), おでん (daikon, tofu, and egg in a soup broth with a spicy yuzu [small citrus fruit] dip), あつあげ と カツオ (a type of deep friend tofu with bonito flakes, onions, and ginger), チス と みそ (cream cheese with miso paste and shiso leaves), ゆば と わさび (tofu skin with wasabi). He also ordered me 梅酒 (umeshu – plum wine) which is my favourite drink and told the staff I don’t eat fish or pork. He knows me well, and clearly we have eaten together too many times. 

I finally had a free weekend, with good weather, that I could dress up in my yukata and go walking in traditional Kyoto! Pixie and I got all dressed up (I did my own hair with a Kanzashi and tied my own kimono bow. Thank you very much!) We gave up counting how many times people stared at us as we walked down the streets like this. It was too many to count. Two guys about our age stopped us and asked where we were from. We said Sweden and Canada, but we currently live in Kyoto…. it never gets old, telling people that we live here. Their reactions are priceless. They then asked where we rented our kimonos from and again we blew their minds by saying that, actually, we owned them. Ya we are the coolest gaijin around. 


Things I’m looking forward to at home:

  •  Men with facial hair
  •  Space
  •  Driving
  •  Being literate again
  •  Tim Hortons
  •  A real kitchen with a real oven
  •  Multigrain bread

Things I’m going to miss about Japan:

  •  Trains
  •  Matcha everything
  •  Being a rare and unique species
  •  Heated toilets
  •  Respect for keeping places clean
  •  Cockroaches (JOKING)

So, after the final goodbyes, I headed to the airport to start my final journey home. Things didn’t exactly go so smooth….First of all, my flight was delayed a half hour. Then, as we were lining up to finally board, a loud alarm started going off and an announcement came on as follows: “The fire alarm has been set off. We are investigating. Please stay tuned for more information.” Okay….. 30 seconds later “A fire has been confirmed. Please evacuate the building as quickly as possible!” Cooooool. There were three non- Asian people in my line and we all were looking at each other like ‘oh my god what do we do now?’ Meanwhile, everyone else was as calm as ever, even the staff. One girl turned to us and said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s no problem”…. and then we proceeded to board during the fire alarm. I survived and saw no fire…. onto Korea!
I finally got to Korea for my layover. Bags came, filled out the declaration correctly, all was good. Then, just as I found a spot to sit and wait for my flight, over the loud speaker in the airport I hear “would Armstrong Jody please report to gate 8 IMMEDIATELY”. Naturally, i’m the ONLY non-Asian person around at this time, so everyone stared at me like they knew it was me, Armstrong Jody. So I go to the desk like, I guess I’m Armstrong Jody. He tells me I have to follow him to security to be questioned about my bags… um, what?! So, awkwardly I follow him though a multitude of security checkpoints and he says to me “don’t worry, I’ll stay with you the whole time and translate everything for you.” Thank God for this sweet, young man, he was so comforting and explained everything to me as I had to show and re-show my passport a million times. I was taken to this little room behind the baggage check desks. So It’s me and about 10 Korean security staff. They speak in Korean and he translates, telling me they found a bullet in my bag and I need to explain it as it’s forbidden material. A BULLET!!?? A bullet!!? Ohhhh…. that bullet. 

So I proceed to explain that I went on a war tour in Bosnia in January and was given this AK47 shell from the minefields. This prompted them to then ask me if I was in the army. No. I’m just a stupid, but harmless, tourist. They told me they’d have to confiscate it and that they also found more metal in my bag they were going to search in front of me. I couldn’t think of anything else that could possibly be a red flag in my bag…. then he pulled out a bag of nickels… yes, I had a bag of 5 cent Canadian coins. After confirming all the details and being satisfied that I was not a threat to the country, they seemed to actually find it funny. I had to sign some documents and then was escorted back through all the security lines. On the way out, my translator told me that he has worked here 3 years and never seen a bullet, and the staff had never seen a bullet like that before either. He said they were all very interested in it and found it amusing that I (a little blonde, innocent, lone travelling Canadian girl) was the owner of such a thing. He assured me all was cleared and they finally returned my passport they had been withholding from me. 

Needless to say, I’m sure that bullet of mine will be on display in their office and it’s highly possible that I’m flagged as a suspicious person on Korean airways now. 

After that I was allowed to board the plane. After we boarded, we were informed our flight had been, again, delayed about a half hour. They then served dinner, which happened to be seafood friend rice. Im sorry, I know I don’t like seafood, but myself aside, it just seems like a terrible thing to serve on a plane, unventilated and all. I politely returned mine and plugged my nose for the next hour until the shrimp stink started to disappear. The only good part of this day: I had a whole row of seats to myself on the plane. 

Baggage came, visa was approved, and I walked into Cambodia having NO idea what to expect….

Stay tuned for my final travel blog: Cambodia and Thailand. I will see you all in 9 days

Your Armstrong Abroad

“I Have No Idea What I’m Doing” – Cambodia, Thailand, and Homeward Bound

Cambodia, oh where do I begin? How, how did 6 days go by so fast? The very first thing I did when I got off the plane was look up. Stars. Finally! I couldn’t stop smiling. I hopped in for my first tuk tuk experience and I could not stop giggling as he drove. For those of you who don’t know what a tuk tuk is, it’s a scooter with like a small carriage hooked to the back. It’s probably my favourite mode of transportation now. If I didn’t live in a country with snow half the year, I’d make one.

I had booked all 6 nights at a new hostel called Tipsy Turtle. As I got there the one owner said, so where are you from? I said, Canada… Saskatchewan. He said the other owner was from Red Deer, Alberta. In fact, we had mutual friends. What a small world. From there on, the Canadians just kept flocking in.

The hostel had their grand opening while I was there and it was like a mish mash of some of the coolest, most laid back travellers I’ve ever met. I got to speak Japanese with a few people, tried out my Italian with one guy as well, and shared Canadian prairie jokes with a group of girls from Alberta. 

I splurged and got the 3 day pass to the Angkor temples. Another bucket list item. On the first day, I shared a tuk tuk with a girl from India and we went all day around the main temples. To be completely honest, Angkor Wat itself was a bit disappointing. The pictures are better than the real thing, however, the less popular temples were absolutely amazing! 

As we watched the sun set that night over the temples, a group of high school kids approached me for a picture. I immediately could tell they were from Japan and I started speaking in Japanese. Their faces showed a cross between shock and amazement. I had my Japanese baseball hat with me and so I put it on and they couldn’t stop giggling and taking pictures. One brave boy who could speak some English talked to me for a while, telling me he wanted to study abroad. In front of his friends (who were shyly watching from a safe distance) he asked for a hug, I said sure. As he hugged me his friends went craaaaazy! Laughing and shouting. So I turned to them in my best Japanese and mockingly said “yabai” which means like ‘risky’ or ‘exciting’. This made them lose it again and the teacher was even cracking up and thanking me for talking with them. It was just as funny for me as it was for them. 

Unfortunately on our way home that night, we got mugged outside our hostel. It was scary and stressful, but neither of us were hurt. A guy on a motorbike cut the purse strap as he drove by and stole everything from my friend, but nothing from me. We screamed and yelled and some locals came running to help, but by that time it was too late and he was long gone. As wonderful as places are, you can never forget how carful you really have to be with your belongings. Travelling alone, it’s always something to be aware of, but I’ve never actually had this situation happen before. I guess there has to be a first for everything. I’m just glad everyone came out unharmed. 

I took a bicycle for my second day at the temples, which I definitely recommend to anyone if you feel you can physically do it, and go to the less known temples for the best photo opps. I even had a street fight with a monkey… that sounds way more badass than I mean it to be. Basically a monkey wouldn’t get off the road (also a wild pig…) and me, being stubborn, wouldn’t give in. So we had a stare down as I got dangerously close to running him over with my bicycle, but he finally gave in a I felt victorious as I peddled on. 

My third Temple day I woke up at 4:30 with 2 Canadian guys and a guy from Hong Kong and we went out to catch the sunrise in a tuk tuk. It was beautiful, but by noon we were exhausted and headed back to the hostel.

Before I went to Cambodia, I read a blog about the different charitable organizations and eating sustainable products. Cambodia is definitely still recovering from their devastating history, but there are so many organizations that have sprung up to help give back to the community. I made it my mission to try and hit as many of these as possible. I mean, a girls gotta eat, may as well give back to the community while doing it. 

Over 5 days, I managed to make it to New Leaf Eatery, Sister Srey, Blue Pumpkin, and Genevives. They were amazing! They each had a different charity to support or reason to give back, and I was happy to support them all and see local people coming together to make a difference for their future. I also hit the fair trade market, giving fair market opportunities to disabled people in the community. I met one of the artists who was in a wheelchair and he showed me his work. He was so proud of what he had done, and I found his paintings so unique I bought some for myself. 

I really wanted to see New Hope Restaurant, but after biking around for an hour through a very rough area, I had to give up. Although the experience was not wasted. I got to have a look at how people outside the city centre actually live. It was the most poverty I’ve ever seen, but the smiles and waves as I rode through, made my heart so happy. Small children running beside me on my bike, yelling “hello!” While laughing and smiling. I think it’s very possible I’m one of the first white people they’ve ever seen, from the looks on their faces, they had no idea why I was there, but they were happy to see me. 

Things I learned from Cambodia:

  •  you can make use out of everything
  •  $1 can go a long way
  •  “Lady” is the most well known English word
  •  A smile is a beautiful thing and the resilience I saw here has made me be more grateful for what I have in my life.
  •  6 days is so short

So I made my way to Thailand. Guys, I am not joking when I say I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe I gave off the impression (to my parents.. cough cough) that I was totally okay, ya no problem, I’m a travel guru, I know what I’m doing. Well, in reality, I had absolutely zero plans. So I got on a bus from the airport to Au Nang. On the bus I met a guy from France and that started it all. I met a ton of people all sort of on the same travel agenda. We met up, separated, and met up again several times during my week there and I’m grateful for their part in my travels, though short, it was sweet. 

I made it to Railay Beach with a Scottish guy who coincidentally had also just come from a year working holiday in Japan. It was super cloudy and we decided it was a good day to try and rock climb. Those of you who know me from home, know I have a bit of a shoulder problem at the moment and don’t have the ability to pull or lift with my right arm. So, climbing was interesting to begin with. 

We tried climbing to find the “blue lagoon”. It was crazy muddy. The red mud that just sticks to you and slides everywhere. Using a combo of ropes and tree roots to climb, we made it up in about 20 minutes, but then this lagoon was nowhere in sight. We were then told no, no now you’ve got another climb down to the lagoon. As we started climbing down an even steeper cliff, a wild monkey started jumping from tree to tree overhead. Sounds exciting, but those little guys are demons. So we tried to avoid drawing any attention to ourselves. 

As we got to the bottom of this one we looked down and (straight down with just a rope) was the lagoon. Getting down wouldn’t be the problem, but with my arm getting back up was a bit iffy. At that point it started pouring rain and the mud started running everywhere so we decided to play it safe and head back before things got unbearable. It took probably 45 minutes of slipping, sliding, and clinging onto any sturdy tree roots you could get your hands onto, before we got to safe ground again, but we were so happy we did it. Huge highlight of my Thailand trip.

I then headed to the famous Phi Phi Islands. I’m not really a beach person or a big party person so not sure why I thought this would be a good idea, but yolo I guess. First night on the island we realized how much of a party place this was. I’m telling you, lights flashing, music blaring, fire dancers, and booze as far as the eyes could see. So after a day out on the beach, we decided to give this party a try. It was crazy. From a limbo competition (which I got 3rd place in thank you), to a light up giant jump rope, to a game of musical chairs that I apparently missed, all along the beach. I pretty much have nothing else to say about that night other than a fanny pack is a great investment. 

The next day I was super sick (obviously thinking I was hungover) but it just persisted all day. Turned out to be sunstroke, and I had a really rough two days spent between my bed and the bathroom ( which had no toilet paper and a wild rooster that would run through randomly screaming all day and night). I had to get out of the sun and off the island, so I got the next ferry to Krabi town. 

As soon as I got there, I noticed everyone lining the streets wearing black. I assumed it was something to do with he Kings passing, so I sat on a nearby bench to watch. A police officer came over and told me to kneel down as the Royal Family passed. I weaselled my way in to sit with a Thai family and they showed me what to do with my hands as the new King passed. In a wave like fashion, the crowd of people waved flags and yelled something in Thai (I later found out to be “long live the king”) as he drove by. It was a really interesting historical event to be part of. 

Once I got settled in Krabi the sickness got worse, and I basically spent the rest of my trip like this. I managed to pull myself together for two outings in Krabi. The first, I made the hike up the 1200 and some stairs at Tiger Cave Temple to watch the sun set. It was totally worth it. The giant golden Buddha paired with the panoramic view as the sun lowered over the sea and the hills was the best sunset I’ve seen on my trip (apart from Mt. Fuji). I managed to get in with a really cool group of people to hike down with, and stay safe with. Monkeys are crazy everywhere here and they immediately attacked my bag and found my crackers I had with me. I let them have them. There ain’t no way I’m fitting a monkey for a pack of 50 cent wafers. 

My second outing was on my last day. My roommate and I got our butts out of the city and went on a kayaking tour through the mangrove trees and limestone caves. It was absolutely fantastic. We could see monkeys, crabs, fish, mud gliders, and lizards in their natural homes. Our guide was amazing and had learned a combination of words in many different languages. He even spoke to me in Japanese for a bit, and by the end of the trip, he was calling me teacher, and told me I can come back for free kayaking anytime if I teach him more English. He was a gem. 

Things I learned in Thailand:

  • It’s hot. 
  • I suck at bartering 
  • There are tiny invisible things in the ocean (jellyfish) that sting you and I can’t deal with it (damn the jellyfish… damn alllll the jellyfish)
  • Most bathrooms don’t have toilet paper
  • You will forget what it’s like to have a solid bowl movement…

Finally, it came. The day to leave. So after 8 countries, 17 flights, 5 jobs, and 422 days, I prepared to set foot on home soil again. Or should I say home snow. I’m incredibly grateful, amazed, overwhelmed, and touched by all the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the things I got to try. The pictures I have don’t do justice to what my eyes have really seen. My feet have walked through 6 seasons, touched down on 12 countries, and wore through an uncountable amount of shoes. I have learned languages, cultures, and life lessons along the way. I have taken trains, planes, cars, motorbikes, busses, ferries, long boats, kayaks, tuk tuks, taxis, hiked, and rode in the back of a truck. 

Am I excited to come home? Of course! Will i miss this life? Absolutely, but I won’t be settling for good quite yet. Don’t bother asking me what I’m doing next, because I honestly have no clue what even tomorrow holds. All I’m focused on is hugging my parents, kissing my grandma, laughing with my sister, gossiping with my friends, and and doing some much needed laundry. 

Please be patient with me as I come home. After 47 hours of travel across so many time zones, I’ll have some trouble adjusting to life back in Saskatchewan. Return culture shock is a big thing, and I’m trying to prepare myself for it. I’ll be really emotional for a while until I can get myself on my Canadian feet again and I’ll need all the help I can get. I want to see each and every one of you, but please be patient with me. Your support and encouragement over these past months have meant the world to me and have kept me following my dreams. I can’t begin to say thank you enough.

For the last time …
Your Armstrong Abroad