Category Archives: Life in Japan

Querencia

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A good day is a day spent on a mountain.

Once upon a time, I used my winter vacations to escape to places like Thailand, India, New Zealand, and Nepal; places that, while my own home was buried under snow, enjoyed mild temperatures and dependable sunshine.

Not anymore.

Now I seek out the snow during winter; I’ve gone full chionophile. Last year, I scrapped a three-week vacation to Laos and Cambodia to head to Hokkaido to snowboard. This year followed suit; going back to Japan to board had always been my plan. (Korea has many, many things going for it….powder is not one of them.) And while I was excited to return to Niseko, the mega-resort in Hokkaido, for a week, I was even more thrilled to go back to Hakkoda, my home mountain while I lived in Aomori. Continue reading Querencia

My Head’s in the Clouds

I should probably be writing about life in Korea at this point, having lived here for four months at this point. And I will, sooner rather than later. Today, though, my head is firmly in the clouds.

Or at least the memories I made above them. Before I left Japan, there were a few places that I was bound and determined to see. Unkai Terrace in Tomamu in Hokkaido was at the very top of that list.  In the winter months, Tomamu is a well-known and popular ski resort, but in the summer, the attraction is all about the clouds. Unkai (雲海) is a nifty Japanese word that translates to “sea of clouds, and it’s a phenomenon best seen from mountaintops, where you’re above the cloud cover. The most famous example of unkai in Japan is most certainly the sunrise view from Mt. Fuji…which I had already sought out and then spectacularly failed at seeing a few years prior.

 

Unkai Terrace, for all its glory, is not a destination for those who like to sleep in. During the summer months, when the terrace is open to the public (and not, you know, covered with several meters of fine Hokkaido powder), the gondola’s first ride departs at four or five in the morning, with the final ride to the top leaving at seven or eight, depending on the month. There’s a reason for that ungodly hour; once the sun rises, that bright summer light burns off the damp, chilly cloud cover. It’s not exactly the best activity if you’re planning on hitting the snooze alarm a few times, but for the early birds, Unkai Terrace is wonderful, and it remains as one of my favorite spots in Hokkaido. Continue reading My Head’s in the Clouds

It’s Alive!!

I never meant to stop writing this blog. I’ve always loved writing – and I do mean always, even back in second grade when I’d write a short story a dozen pages long when Mrs. Stenner only asked for three – and when I started it nearly four years ago, The Globetrotting Geek was one of the best ways I found to catalogue and share my experiences living in Aomori.

But life, as it often seems to do, got in the way. I started my Master degree in TESOL at the University College London’s Institute of Education, and that pretty much killed any enthusiasm or energy I had for writing that didn’t have to do with prescribed grammar rules, the phonetic alphabet, or the sociolinguistic implications of narratives in ESL/EFL textbooks. In short, I got tired, and writing for this blog turned into an “oh, I’ll write a post tomorrow…or maybe next week” affair that dwindled and shriveled until it died an unceremonious, neglected death. Insert Pac-man womp womp death noise here.

But even the most dehydrated plants can be revived with enough water and care if you catch them in time, so that’s the plan for The Globetrotting Geek. (That name…oh, that name, as apt as it may be; why did I think alliteration was the way to go?!) With my IOE dissertation turned in and awaiting a grade, I suddenly find myself with oodles and oodles of spare time, and a girl can only look at so many pictures of food online before she starts to go a little crazy. As I said, writing is something that I’ve always loved and taken pride in, and the things we love often have a habit of settling themselves in our blood and bones and brains to wait; even if we don’t use them, they’re still always there, ready and willing.

In the two (!) years since I’ve written, some things have stayed startlingly the same. I still run. I still do yoga. I still love photography. I still love to cook (and eat and eat and eat and eat). I still teach English abroad. I’m still bitter about the times that Buzzfeed said my Parks & Rec soulmate was Jean Ralphio and that my potato counterpart was potato salad. I still like pineapple on my pizza and pretzels in my ice cream.

And then there’s what has changed, for sure the larger part of this pie chart. I no longer live in Aomori – or even Japan –  for starters. Nope, I finished my five-year tenure on the JET Programme at the end of July and then hopped over to South Korea to teach English at the end of September. Now I live in Gangneung, a small coastal city in the northeastern part of Korea that pretty much no one has heard of and likely won’t, until the 2018 Winter Olympics roll into town, that is. Every time I tell someone where I live, they reply, “Ohhh, Gangnam?! I know where that is!”, and I have to explain that actually, no, I don’t live in one of Seoul’s most famous and popular districts.

In the two years since I’ve put digital pen to paper, it’s not just my surroundings that have changed, either. I’m better-traveled, with a trip to Thailand, two to Taiwan, and a repeat visit to New Zealand under my belt. I’ve got a bevy of new, almost useful skills in my arsenal now. The last few years I lived in Aomori, I joined a curling team. Yes, as in with the brooms and the sweeping and the walking on ice with Teflon-covered shoes. For a year, I served as the food co-editor on JET’s online magazine. And most significantly, two years ago, I picked up snowboarding and absolutely fell head over heels (sometimes literally) in love with it, a fact that an unofficial poll of my friends and family, who very sarcastically called me “Grace” throughout the first quarter-century of my life, would for sure declare the top “Wait…what?” moment of my past few years. Now it’s one of the most important parts of my life; I honestly don’t know what else makes me happier.

I’m a different person than when I last wrote here, better in most ways, perhaps worse in some. The past few years have been filled with travels, love, heartbreak, new experiences, surprises, victories, and pitfalls; I expect I’ll write about a lot of them in the next few months. George Santayana had it right when he said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but my own personal version reads “those who do not record the past are condemned to forget it.” And there are so many parts of my own history that I never want to forget.

Autumn in Aomori

I know that winter doesn’t technically start for another three weeks, but seeing as it’s the first of December today, I started perusing through all the pictures I’d taken in the past few months. My overwhelming reaction: good god, this place is beautiful in the fall.. I’ve always loved autumn. Between the copious amounts of pumpkin (which I maintain that I loved before Starbucks turned pumpkin spice into a total cash cow) and apple foods, the colorful leaves, and the brisk weather, what’s not to love?

Living in Aomori has only strengthened that love. To put it lightly, autumn in Aomori spoils the hell out of me. The pristine mountain snow in winter and the cherry blossoms in spring are gorgeous, to be sure, but for me, nothing beats what autumn offers. After more than three years here, I’m convinced that nowhere does autumn more beautifully than northern Japan. And here’s the proof.

The rock garden and pagoda at Seiryu-ji outside of Aomori-shi.
The rock garden and pagoda at Seiryu-ji outside of Aomori-shi.
Reds, greens, and golds galore.
Reds, greens, and golds galore.

Continue reading Autumn in Aomori

A Sweet Return Home

The only thing that compares to the adventure of leaving home is the sweetness of coming back to it.

I went from this...
I went from this…
...back to this.
…back to this.

My summer vacation has finally come to a close. After spending the past three weeks cavorting around Turkey, I’m back at my desk at Aomori High School, surrounded by exams to grade, lessons to plan, and grad school enrolment (!) to complete. And oh, how good it feels to be home again.

I feel like I say it after every trip abroad I take, but this one may have been my best yet. Turkey, to put it simply, was good to me. Its sun turned my skin a few shades tanner and my hair a few tints blonder. I perused its bazaars, climbed a few of its mountains, and dove into its Mediterranean waters. I descended to new depths underground and reached new heights above it. I consumed as much of its delicious lamb, baklava, hummus, and halloumi as my stomach could handle. And I made a whole host of new friends and even reunited with an old one. The next month or two of blog posts will undoubtedly be dedicated to all of those memories, and I already can’t wait to relive them again…

…but for now, I’m just happy to be home.

Anyone who’s left home for any substantial chunk of time knows how much of a relief it is to come back again. Last night, when I staggered through my shabby, cozy apartment’s front door, weighted down by a backpack substantially heavier than when I left, I think that I was just as happy as I had been when watching the sun rise over the otherworldly rock formations in Cappadocia a few weeks prior.

Adventures abroad are all good and fun, don’t get me wrong. I know that I’m ridiculously lucky in the life that I’ve ended up with, but I love both sides of that life; I love the comfort and contentedness I feel at home as much as the foreign adventures I enjoy away from it. My feet love to tread over as much new ground as possible, but after a while, I can’t help but crave familiar surroundings and the routine that I left behind.

After a few weeks of changing hotels every night or two, the only bed I want to sleep in is my own. After a few weeks of eating out for every meal (delicious though they all were), the only food I want is what’s been made in my kitchen with my own hands. After a few weeks filled with a go, go, go! mentality, all I want to do is stop, sleep, and watch the new episode of Doctor Who. In my soul, there reside both an ambitious dromomaniac and a Netflix-worshiping homebody. Too much time spent patronizing one means that the other rears its head with a needy vengeance.

For now, the hermit side wins out.

Otaru’s Winter Lantern Festival

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What I would do for a bit of a cold snap…It’s currently about 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a heavy blanket of clouds to ratchet up the humidity, and basically the only thing I have enough energy to do is splay myself out in beached whale mode on my bed with my fan pointed directly at me. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for a healthy dose of vitamin D, but I’m finding myself wishing for cooler weather.

IMG_0484 Cooler, mind you. Not colder. Not cold, like Otaru in winter.

Otaru’s a little seaside town about a thirty-minute train ride from Sapporo, and I went there for a daytrip during the weekend I trekked up north for Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival. I hadn’t blogged about it before because, frankly, I didn’t really want to think about snow until December…Today, though, I wouldn’t be too opposed to seeing just a few flakes.

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Continue reading Otaru’s Winter Lantern Festival

The Cliffs of Hotokegaura

The craggy white cliffs of Hotokegaura in Aomori
The craggy white cliffs of Hotokegaura in Aomori

Even though I’ve lived here for nearly three full years now, Aomori still manages to surprise me in the best possible ways. There’s always some naturally gorgeous spot to stumble upon for the first time and make me fall in love with Aomori all over again.

See Exhibit A: the cliffs of Hotokegaura (仏ヶ浦), which now reign supreme as my absolute favorite place in Aomori.

Sapphire water, white stone, and verdant trees set the scene.
Sapphire water, white stone, and verdant trees set the scene.

Continue reading The Cliffs of Hotokegaura

Aomorian Graffiti

Of the many reasons I love my placement on JET, one of the most practical stems from the proximity of my school to my apartment. While a lot of other JETs have to take the bus, drive, or bike to their schools, my morning commute clocks in at a quick four minutes on foot. (And if I’m particularly in a hurry, I just duck through one of the chain-link fenced gaps near the back of school grounds and shave that down to two minutes.)

Being so close to the field also means that I get a front row seat to the team-building practices that go past 9 p.m. and involve, of all things, taiko drums.
Being so close to the field also means that I get a front row seat to the team-building practices that go past 9 p.m. and involve, of all things, taiko drums.

Anytime one of my students asks me where I live, I just point out the window of the classroom. From my apartment’s balcony to the school’s baseball field, it is a literal stone’s throw. It’s incredibly convenient and has made my life pretty stress-free when it comes to getting to work…

…but it does have one minor drawback. Continue reading Aomorian Graffiti

Deutschland, Deutschland! (Sorry, America…But I Have My Reasons)

At approximately 5:32 this morning, my upstairs neighbors may have been awakened by the sound of me screaming in exulted bloody murder. There wasn’t an intruder lurking over me and I didn’t squash a spider underfoot on the way to the bathroom or anything so sinister like that…no, I was whooping because Miroslav Klose, striker extraordinaire and all-around powerhouse, found the back of the net for an equalizing goal in the seventy-first minute of Germany’s match against Ghana.

Also, that infographic might be my favorite thing ever.

Miro’s very first touch of the game, and he put it in the net. And the nation of Germany – along with one American frantically pacing in her living room in rural northern Japan, several thousand miles away from Castalao Stadium in Fortaleza – breathed again. I freaking love Miroslav Klose. (If only he weren’t married…)

And I freaking love the World Cup. At the very least, it’s certainly the only sporting event that’ll get me out of bed at 1 and 5 a.m. to watch a game. (Curse time differences.) I think it’s the one tournament, even more so than the Olympics, that purely and perfectly personifies just how important sports are to the world at large. People are never more patriotic than they are when watching a World Cup match. (And to go hand-in-hand with that pride, international rivalries are rarely ever higher or more volatile. Oh, sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens may hate each other, but not like Brazil and Argentina hate each other.)

Admittedly, I fall into that group of Americans whose passion and enthusiasm for soccer spikes exponentially during the World Cup. I love soccer, don’t get me wrong (I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t), but aside from casually following Bayern München and Lazio (the Italian team Klose plays for), I confess that I don’t follow it slavishly for much of the year. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I just don’t have convenient access. Japan’s not exactly known for its soccer scene; if I were based in Europe or South America, I think it’d be a whole different story. We’ll see how that changes, depending on where I end up after Japan. When the World Cup comes around though, it’s soccer 24/7 for me.

But why, as an American born and bred, was I so amped up over a German goal? Here’s the thing: I may be an American, but when it comes to the World Cup, Germany, not the good ol’ US of A, is my team.

And I have my reasons.

I wasn’t always this way. In fact, up through most of my teenage years, I couldn’t have cared less about soccer in the first place. Both of my younger sisters played, and whenever I got dragged along to games or practices, I more than likely spent the time with my nose buried in a book, rarely glancing up to watch the action on the field. (For the record, now that’s changed mightily…I follow baby sister Mani – university superstar, accolade magnet, and nationally ranked player that she is – like a rabid fan, refreshing game stats every two minutes when she’s playing while I’m at work.) And no matter how many times it was explained to me, I never understood what ‘offsides’ meant.

That changed – or at least, the seeds of change were planted – in the summer of 2006, when I went to Germany for the first time. In 2006, Germany hosted the World Cup…and that week opened up my eyes. Before that, the World Cup wasn’t even a blip on my radar. But when I was walking through Berlin at eight in the morning and saw thousands of people – in German colors and otherwise – reveling on the street in jerseys and painted faces, I had an epiphany.

“There is nothing in America that compares to this,” I thought. “It makes the Super Bowl look like a weekend pick-up game in the backyard.”

Somewhere at home in America, that scarf is buried amongst my belongings.
Somewhere at home in America, that scarf is buried amongst my belongings.

In 2009, when I studied abroad in Germany, my conversion was complete. Köln, the city where I lived, was home to one of the worst teams in the league – 1 FC Köln – but that didn’t matter. One of my favorite memories of the time I spent in Germany was at a home match. I don’t even remember who the opposing team was – Dortmund, maybe? – but I remember being crammed into a subway car like a sardine with the rest of the fans, I remember sipping a Colabier on the grounds before the match started, and I remember shouting Tooooor! along with the Germans in the seats beside us every time Köln scored a goal.

Sparklers aloft. Funnily enough, I think this was one of the few games Köln won that season.
Sparklers aloft. Funnily enough, I think this was one of the few games Köln won that season.

Without question, it was more fun than any American sporting event I’d ever attended or watched. And I was more invested in that one game, as meaningless as it was in the long run, than I ever was in any Super Bowl that the Steelers, Pittsburgh’s (American) football team, played in.

Raisin' those scarves.
Raisin’ those scarves.

In 2010, when South Africa hosted the Cup, I bled gold, red, and black for Germany. I watched all the matches (shout out to my boss for being one hundred percent okay with me watching games while at work), cheering, fretting, and biting my nails through every one. The names of the German team – like Khedira, Podolski (who, incidentally, played for Köln at the time!), Ozil, Gómez, Neuer, Müller, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Boateng, and most of all Klose – were burned into my brain.

And now, in 2014, I’m waking up at all ungodly hours of the night to watch Germany’s games, hunched in front of my TV or over my iPad, freaking out when my stream lags or skips.

A good portion of my love for the German squad obviously comes from the team itself. From Cup to Cup, the German teams are often described as young, but they certainly don’t play like it. Like so many of things of German origin, they are quick and efficient on the field. They may not play the flashiest game, but damned if they don’t get the job done.

And as people? They just seem like awesome, regular guys. There is no German Ronaldo, known just as much (or even more so) for his looks as his talent. There is no German Rooney, with a snobby, superstar reputation off the field. There is no German Messi, whose own country isn’t so fond of him. In fact, there’s no real superstar that stands above the rest of the team. They’re just all damned good footballers. Even Klose, probably the best-known player on the squad, doesn’t showboat or garner attention with anything that isn’t soccer related.

I started this post by writing about my guy Miroslav, and there’s a reason for that. I’ve never been someone to look up to athletes as a major role model or inspiration. Miroslav Klose is the exception to that role. He’s stuck around for four World Cups and, with that goal against Ghana, is now tied with – and poised to overtake – Brazilian legend Ronaldo’s record of World Cup goals. It’s not just his talent that I love. In a sport that’s often ridiculed and criticized for its athletes diving or playing up injuries, Klose is a good guy. He plays it straight. And seeing as this will be his final World Cup appearance, I want him to go out on top.

When I tell other Americans that I cheer for Germany, I get a lot of negative reactions, at least from people who don’t know me well. Surprise usually comes first, followed swiftly by “You cheer against your own country?” The way I see it, I don’t cheer against the USA. I want them to advance past the group stage, and if they made it out of the “Group of Death” alongside Germany, all the better.

And, honestly, considering most Americans don’t even care about the World Cup, I don’t feel the least bit guilty supporting Germany. If there’s one stat that sums up America’s view on the Cup, it’s this: of all the teams competing, which team are most USA fans hoping to see lose? Their own team.

Later this week, Germany and the USA will play against each other…and I will be cheering for the country that taught me to love the sport of soccer. I’ll cheer for the country that I lived in when I discovered just how great that sport is.

And that’s Deutschland.

And if by some hellish twist of fate Germany doesn’t advance past the group stage, you’ll be able to find me curled up in my bed, sobbing while wearing my customized German jersey, adorned with the number 11 (Miro’s number, naturally).

But I’m willing to bet that Klose and company won’t let that happen.

World Cup stylin'.
World Cup stylin’.

The Best View in Tokyo

Sunset over Shinjuku
Sunset over Shinjuku

Okay, maybe it’s not the best, seeing as how every time you turn down a new street in Tokyo, you’re presented with something surprising and/or beautiful…but it’s definitely a top contender.

In late afternoon, the view's pretty nice...
In late afternoon, the view’s pretty nice…
...but when the sun starts to set, it gets downright gorgeous.
…but when the sun starts to set, it gets downright gorgeous.

Tokyo’s got its fair share of gorgeous views, but in my book, this one – from the Tokyo Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku (AKA, the skyscraper district of Tokyo) – reigns supreme. Each of the towers houses an observatory at 202 meters, and on clear days, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance. And the capper? Admission is totally free!

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Continue reading The Best View in Tokyo