Thursday, January 5, 2017

Month 53 Roundup - December 2016

Wow, what a year!

2016 has been all over the map (literally and figuratively) for me.

Here's a quick recap:

January - lived in Roatan, went to Canada halfway through for family reasons
February - in Canada, interviewed for the JET Programme
March - in Canada, and then back to Roatan
April - found out I got a spot on the JET Programme, left Roatan for good
May through July - in Canada, with a few trips to around Canada and one to Portland in there
August - moved to Japan!
September through December - lived and worked in Japan as an ALT (assistant language teacher) with trips around Japan to Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and lots more local trips on my island.

I decided to end the year by straddling 2016-2017 in a brand new country for me: South Korea! I just spent 5 days around New Years in Seoul, and it was one of my favorite places I've been so far. Lots more to come on that soon!

So how was 2016?

I think at my last count I've been on 38 flights this year, 7 train trips, and set foot in 5 different countries. I drank about 3000 coffees, 1000 vodka sodas, and not enough green juice. I gained 25lbs living at my parents house with all the free food (oops), helped a family member recover from major surgery, and didn't have a 'real' job for 8 full months (January till August) but still managed to hustle quite a bit on the side. I scored my first major travel writing job (it's not online yet, but when it is you'll know!), started a partnership with a large charter airline that got my face all over the internet (and the seatback TVs in all their airplanes!), and had writing published in an in-flight magazine (a personal goal of mine). I did my first live radio interview. I helped out charities in Roatan from afar by designing posters, managing social media, building a website, buying raffle tickets, and sponsoring school fees for a friend's children. I moved to a city in Japan where I knew no one. I began learning my 4th language (Japanese), and started a job with basically no training in a country where I was functionally illiterate and unable to communicate.

It's really been a year living on the edge of my seat, and for now I don't mind being settled, cozy and content in Japan these days. Right now, the stability of a full-time job is still just fine with me. I like my job. I like having my weekends every single week, and knowing exactly what days I have off all year. It's nice knowing down to the exact yen how much money I'll make every month, and how much I'll have left over after my expenses. I'm finally paying off debt that was hanging over me and building the entire time I was in Honduras. My side projects are all running smoothly. I don't have to sell my furniture to pay rent anymore, and I don't have to worry every single morning at 7am whether or not I'll get called in to work. I also don't wake up hungover 5 days a week any more. So there's that.

I'm still pursuing location independence as a long-term goal, but for now this is all working just fine. I'm sticking with it another year - I've been offered a second year on the program and recently signed my recontracting papers. So I'll be in Japan until at least August 2018!

2017 is shaping up to be a big year for me. So far I have plans for smaller trips around Japan, like Osaka again next weekend, Tottori, and diving in Okinawa. For big trips, I bought myself Christmas present - a ticket to Philippines for a week in March with two of my lovely lady friends I met in Roatan! Indonesia is in the pipeline for this year too. There's also a chance I'll be spending part of summer 2017 in a very familiar place, but that's still on the maybe list for now.

I feel like 2016 was a weird year for a lot of people (also, I'm real sorry about 2016, America). Some really great things happened for me as well as some really awful things. Geographically and mentally the year was just everywhere and a real hot mess for me. I'm looking forward to a more streamlined, easy year this year.

Bring it, 2017.

Let's get on to the roundup!

1. My most-liked photo on Instagram this month: Insta fans enjoyed this photo more than the rest:

This was taken on a road trip with a fellow ALT where we set out to hike a mountain in our prefecture. We had to give up after over two hours of driving to the mountain, because the roads were too icy for her little car and it was getting dangerous. We decided to drive back down and stop at anything and everything that looked interesting. This beautiful stream was running through a picturesque little mountain town and just looks so quintessentially Japanese to me - this is one of my favorite photos too! Believe it or not, the color of the water was even more intense in real life. It was really incredible!

Bonus photo: the place we gave up with the car. This was the stop-and-turn-back point! We had a picnic lunch on the hood of the car, played some Christmas music and skated around on the ice before heading back down. It was a little disappointing we didn't make it to the mountain, but better safe than sorry.

Note: my personal policy is that Instagram is a give and take platform. My profile is private and if you don't have any photos on yours or you're selling crap, I won't accept your request, sorry! There's just too many scam/spam profiles out there, so I don't accept anyone who doesn't look like a legit user.

2. In case you missed it:

Nailed it with my once a week post goal!
Lots of posts about my recent adventures around Japan. I love showing people what I've been up to, especially posts about my island (Shikoku) because there was so little about it online in English when I looked it up before coming. It definitely lives up to its nickname of "the hidden gem of Japan". I hope these are helpful for when next year's wave of Tokushima and Naruto JETs are getting their placements and searching online for info!

Next up: posts about my trip to South Korea!

3. One Second Every Day - December 2016

I'm using 1 Second Everyday to quickly chronicle my time here in Japan by taking a one second video every day. At the end of each month the app puts it together and you end up with a 30-second video of the month. I like it because it shows what I'm really doing each day, not just all the highlights of super fun stuff once in a while. I think it gives a good insight into my daily life. (Not sponsored! I just like this app!)

You can see all the previous roundups here. Cheers!

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Visiting Ritsurin Garden

You know that picture in your head you have of Japan? Maybe you imagine lush green Japanese gardens, with impeccably manicured trees, zen gardens, traditional teahouses, tranquil ponds and moss everywhere... at least that's what I pictured before I came here. I recently visited Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, and my imaginary picture came to life!

At the entrance, there are special attendants who have "I Speak English!" buttons, but all you really need to do is hold up the number of fingers for how many tickets you want. They're Y400 (About $4) per adult for entrance. Once you're  in, there's maps to show you around or you can get an English one from the attendant. We were firmly in the "wander around and see what we find" camp.

This garden was stunning. We spent an entire afternoon exploring every nook and cranny we could find, often doubling back to make sure we didn't miss anything. Though the park was full of visitors, as it was a Sunday afternoon, it still wasn't too busy. There was lots of space for everyone. (Just steer clear of anyone carrying a flag - they're leading a tour group, and if you've ever been to Asia you know there is no such thing as a non-obnoxious tour group!)

The whole park had a really relaxing vibe, and the twisty pine trees and water features really felt like we were in Japan!

One of my favorite places was next to the big pond, where koi fish were swimming everywhere. We found a little side stream and were watching the koi, when suddenly an older man with a park uniform came up to us and shyly handed us bread to feed the fish. It was a really sweet gesture, and while I don't condone feeding wildlife (especially feeding them bread, it's terrible for them)... I wasn't gonna say no to this super nice old dude. So we threw some snacks in for the fish and giggled over them fighting for crumbs.

Also on the edge of the pond is a little snack stop. It was too cold for ice cream, but we settled on dango (mochi rice balls on a stick) being grilled over an open fire. I got sakura + shiso (cherry blossom and Japanese mint leaf) topped with miso sauce. We ate them on a big rock near the pond and watched tourists float by in traditional boats.

All in all this was one of my favorite afternoons. It was so peaceful and green. There were lots of English signs around the garden talking about the history of certain trees or buildings. The garden is from the 1600s, with lots of original stuff left, so reading the historical background was amazing. The Wikipedia page has a good rundown of the history. My friend went in one of the teahouses and watched a traditional tea ceremony. I opted out as a giant noisy tour group was barging in and I didn't feel like ruining my chill vibe, but she said it was really nice. At about $5, it's worth a go if you've never done it before

Ritsurin Garden is a must if you're anywhere near Kagawa prefecture! Go, get zen, thank me later.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Happy Holidays from Japan!

I haven't been home for Christmas in close to 10 years.

My family doesn't really "do" Christmas, so I'm not missing much. But the above statement seems to horrify a lot of people! I think if you've ever worked in the service industry, you have gained knowledge that Christmas is sometimes just another day.

The last few years in Roatan I spent Christmas working, just like any other day. Imagine all those people coming down on their winter vacation and being told there's no diving on Christmas day so the staff could enjoy Christmas...! I don't think that would fly.

This year, I'm living in a country that doesn't celebrate Christmas. This seems to be shocking to people but I'm not sure why. Christians only make up about 1% of the population in Japan. The rest of the people are either Shinto or Buddhist, so obviously they don't do Christmas. While some holiday traditions have seeped in from the West in the last 50 or so years, they get a bit mixed up here since people don't have the background or beliefs that are more prominent in the west. KFC started a campaign about having "Kentucky for Christmas", and now people here eat special KFC Christmas chicken buckets to celebrate. More than a few Japanese people have told me this is what they think Americans do for Christmas (filing that under "WTF JAPAN").

Christmas here is also a romantic day to go on a date. (Uhhhh? Ok?) And it's definitely NOT a holiday. This year it fell on a weekend - otherwise I would have been at work on Christmas Day. But as an expat who hasn't had a "proper" Christmas in years, it doesn't really bother me.

I enjoyed my Christmas weekend by not getting out of my PJs for the entire two days, cooking a roast chicken dinner, playing Christmas tunes on Spotify and watching all my favorite Christmas movies. I was by myself but it was great!

My #1 favorite Christmas movie is Home Alone, so I watched that on Christmas morning and had some pudding with a cute Santa label on it. Merry Christmas!

Now I'm back at work this week and gearing up for my big New Years trip - in Japan, New Years is the big family holiday where people get time off work and businesses are closed for a few days.  I'm headed to Seoul, South Korea for 5 days and I can't wait to see a new country and be in a big city for a while.

Happy holidays from Japan!

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Weekend in Osaka

When I first visited Japan seven years ago, I crammed as much as I could into my trip. I think I came to Osaka, the second-largest city in all of Japan, for about two days. My memories are hazy, partly from drowning my brain in rum during my recent years living in the Caribbean and partly because the breakneck speed of my trip back then means everything sort of runs together in my mind now. All I remember seeing was massive restaurant signs in Amerika-mura (the "American" neighborhood...note the quotes) and Dotonbori lit up at night with rotating takoyaki balls, giant red crabs and huge gyoza. I also know I went to the Osaka Castle and the aquarium, and that's about it.

Recently, some of the Vancouver JETs who I came to Japan with in August decided to meet up in Osaka for a weekend so we could get together with an alternate candidate who didn't make it to Japan this year. He was visiting Japan and so we came to Osaka to meet up with him during his trip. After realizing my town was only a 2-hour bus ride from Osaka, I jumped at the chance to head to a big city for the weekend and see some of my favorite people. I still love my town, but it's nice to have a change once in awhile. And I really wanted to see my friends! The other ALTs in my town are great people, but I have almost nothing in common with them so we don't hang out much. It was a lot of fun to spend time with people from Vancouver whose interests and personalities line up a little more with mine.

Getting There

Osaka is a major global and local transportation hub, and it's super easy to get there from just about anywhere inside or outside of the country. Kansai International Airport (KIX) is the Osaka airport, and there's the shinkansen (bullet train) connecting Osaka to Kyoto, Tokyo and other major cities. There's also lots of different rail lines to get in and out of the city.

I took the Tokushima Bus both ways, which took me from the bus mall in my city and dropped me right at Osaka Station for Y5700 (about $57 USD) return. There are cheaper ways to do it from Tokushima, including the Nankai Ferry + train combo which costs Y4000 ($40) return but it takes nearly three times as long, including driving from my house to the ferry port. It figured it was worth the extra $20 for the convenience, but I didn't factor in the $15 I had to pay for parking three days at the bus mall, so really it was an extra $35. I still think it was worth it.

Where I Stayed

Harsh reality: Japan accommodation is super fucking expensive. This can be a cheap country to travel in if you're smart about your food, transportation and activities, but accommodation here is ridiculous in bigger centers. I stayed in Nishinari neighborhood, which is known as probably the roughest area in Osaka (side note: this is 'rough' by Japanese standards, which means there are some homeless people. I didn't even notice it being 'rough'!) I'm headed back to Osaka in a few weeks and I've already booked a hotel in this area again. It's cheap, has some good restaurants in the area, is well connected to other neighborhoods by train, and there's lots of hotels to choose from.

Anything under about Y6500 ($65) a night in Osaka will get you accommodation with a shared bathroom. Usually the $15-25 range is dorm rooms, and $25-65 is private tiny (and I do mean TINY) rooms with a shared bathroom on the floor, with varying degrees of shower facilities. If you want your own bathroom, you'll be looking at the $75+ range, and those rooms don't start getting decent/nice until around the $130 range.

I stayed at Hotel Mikado in a private room and paid about $47 for two nights. I had asked for a room on the ladies floor but didn't get it. It wasn't a huge deal, but sharing the washroom with dudes meant listening to some pretty nasty habits. Girls can be gross too, especially in bathrooms, but the walls are thin in these places and listening to dudes grunting while taking a dump and hocking loogies all night wasn't that cute. However, earplugs are a great thing. Also, the 8th floor washroom (the ladies floor) was open to all female guests, but the elevator here was slow as hell so it wasn't always a viable option. This hotel does have a Japanese style bath (that allows tattoos!) which was a nice extra. There were also three 24hr private shower rooms on the main floor which was a little awkward going up and down in the elevator with other people dripping wet with no makeup on. But it's been a long time since I lived the hostel lifestyle so maybe I'm just getting old.

this is my room, and this was literally the whole thing.

My friends stayed at Park Inn and Toyo Backpackers Hotel which were both about 50ft from my hotel. They both had private rooms for a little cheaper than mine. I'd recommend any of these three hotels.

What I Did

We had only three plans for the weekend (and by we I mean my friends, I did nothing to plan this weekend and it was really glorious. I just showed up and followed them around and it was great!) We wanted to go to: 1) a ramen expo, 2) an outdoor German Christmas market, and 3) illuminations (= what Japanese people call Christmas lights!)

The first night, I arrived late so I met up with my friends in Dotonbori, and we waited in line for the famous Ichiran Ramen and took touristy photos of the river and the infamous Glico Running Man:

The next day we managed to hit all three things we wanted to do in the same day and it was one of the best days I've had in ages!

First, the ramen expo:

A huge side benefit of attending this ramen expo was that it was held in Expo '70 Commemorative Park, where the 1970 Expo was held. Now home to Expo City, a massive park full of shopping and restaurants (and weird Japanese things like a Pokemon store/cafe, and a CNN-branded coffee shop). Before hitting up ramen, we ventured around Expo City.

Then we headed to the other side of the park (entrance fee Y250/$2.50) to fill our bellies with ramen. It was the perfect day - sunny with a crispy fall breeze, just the right temperature for walking around without getting too cold, or being too hot to eat a steaming bowl of soup. It ended up being really chilly at night, but there are all kinds of vendors set up with their handicrafts throughout the park and I hooked myself up with a huge fluffy hand-knitted scarf and hat for a steal.

The ramen expo featured 10 different shops from different prefectures and between 4 of us we managed to sample six out of the 10 shops. One came out the clear winner for all of us, but we couldn't read the sign so I don't know what shop it was. But it was delicious!

Japan perk: when we bought our tickets for the ramen stalls (Y800/$8 for a bowl) we were handed free shochu (a clear Japanese hard liquor) with tiny cans of club soda. Honestly, North America, why you gotta be so uptight about your drinking laws? No one here was being an asshole, and we all got free booze, in public, with kids all over the place. Everyone behaved. It was awesome.

We went back again and again for more bowls of ramen - everything was SO good. I made it through two and so did others but one of my friends managed four. Super impressive. By the time we finished gorging, it was starting to get dark, so we walked through all the sparkling Christmas lights set up around the park.

We also went through the "Twinkle Maze", which was just sheets of lights hung up that we walked through, but we were having fun and it was actually pretty nice being inside all those lights.

After getting our fill of the illuminations, we headed back into the Umeda neighborhood of Osaka to take in the German Christmas market. Held at Wonder Square under the Umeda Sky Building, this jolly German-style Christmas market was just like the ones I used to go to in Vancouver. There was (too much) hot mulled wine, a giant Christmas tree, Christmas music, German food and handicrafts and a ton of people out and about. I also didn't take any photos because I was drunk and forgot. I only had wine during the night that we were there, but we went back the next day for about an hour to meet some other ALTs and I sampled a bratwurst and a waffle on a stick and everything was delicious.

After too many mulled wines at the Christmas market, we headed for a late-night McDonalds run before the last train (because this is what you do in every country including Japan) and then headed off to our respective hotels.

On the last day, we spent our time wandering around Dotonbori again. We were in search of kushikatsu, which is basically just fried food on a skewer with a communal pot of sauce in the middle, and unlimited cabbage to go with it for pouring sauce onto an already-bitten piece of food... DO NOT double dip at these places! The sauce is shared between customers, they don't replace it each time the table changes. Kushikatsu really crunchy and the food inside is cooked just right. It's perfect with a beer.

Then we made our way to Honolulu Coffee so I could indulge my intense need for relaxing in a coffee shop. The beachy vibes were exactly what I needed, and the boys settled into a big leather couch in the glassed-in patio as I sipped on a macadamia nut coffee across the table and watched some kind of crazy outdoor J-pop happening on the street below.  I was a little tired of taking photos by this time (and let's be real I was slightly hungover) so I just soaked up the atmosphere, but this post by another blogger has fantastic photos and mine wouldn't have been this good anyway since the place was jam-packed when we were there.

After that, we hit up some of the major chain stores to do a little clothes shopping before we had to start heading back to our little middle-of-nowhere towns. And then it was time to get back to the train station and start making our ways home!

It was the most fun I've had in a long time. I'll be back here again in less than a month and I'm already looking forward to more adventures. I really liked being back in a big city with so much to do and see. I like my little town and it's great for saving money, but getting to visit the "big city" once in a while keeps me sane. The locals in Osaka were fabulous - we had all kinds of people, foreigners and Japanese alike, who would just come up to us and start asking us questions about ourselves. They were so friendly! Most of Japan, especially rural areas like where I live, don't have a lot of Japanese people who can/like to speak English and people are generally very reserved with strangers (especially foreigners), so Osaka was a nice break from that. If I end up staying in Japan after my contract is up, I'd really like to live in Osaka!

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Islands of Japan: Ogijima

The third installment of my Islands of Japan series! I'm an island girl at heart, so this country is perfect for me to explore all the islands that make up Japan (did you know there are 6,852 of them? I've got my work cut out for me).

We visited Ogijima after spending the morning on Megijima. Just a short 20 minute ferry ride away, Ogijima has a similar yet different vibe than Megijima. It's much smaller, and the community seemed more traditional than Megijima, whose main focus seemed to be tourism. Ogijima was quite clearly a fishing village. This island also hosted some of my favorite art installations. (This island, along with Megijima, was also part of the huge Setouchi Art Fest.)

 In case you missed my Megijima post, here's the info on ferries, etc. again:

How To Get There

First, you'll need to get to Takamatsu City in Kagawa Prefecture. Once you're there, you'll need to get to the port. It's located right outside Takamatsu Station or the Takamatsu-chikko Station, depending on which train line you're riding. Both stations are across the street from the port - just walk towards the ocean! The Setouchi Art Fest website has an excellent ferry access info page which is helpful in scheduling times. Be aware when large school and tour groups abound, you may be pushed to the next ferry time. We had to go over an hour early on a Sunday to buy a ticket, and we got the last three spaces on that crossing.

What To Do

Just like Megijima - walk around, eat food, look at art! We did so much wandering around this place, I think we covered the entire community. Again, this village is on a hillside so this is not a great activity for those with mobility impairments or heart/respiratory issues. There's no way to get around other than walking up and down all the little roads.

I loved the art on this island, and the quirky little cafes and food stands that dotted the village. This hilltop pizza shop had my favorite viewpoint:

We took our time here and just strolled around, walking into anything that looked interesting. We took a break and sipped on iced coffee after stumbling into a whimsical coffee shop full of sea glass hanging from the roof and a jazz playlist on rotation. The sea glass gently clinked around overhead as we relaxed on outdoor loungers. It was the most chill place I'd been since arriving in Japan!

There was also a bonsai festival happening at the same time, which happens to be one of my favorite things. I'm obsessed with bonsai! I really wanted to buy one here, but I didn't want to carry it around all day so I missed my chance.

The art on this island was spectacular as well. I don't have as many pictures as I would have liked because a lot of the installations were in dark, small houses so it was difficult to capture. We did manage to get a snap in the Kaleidoscope, which was a super intense house that had been done floor to ceiling in black and white patterns and mirrors in strange places. There were vests and jackets at the door with the same pattern on it and as you walked around, it was very disorienting as you started to blend in. We walked into a few walls that ended up being just a mirror reflection, and tried not to fall in holes in the floor (that we later discovered were just skillfully placed mirrors!).

Overall, I enjoyed my time on these two islands a lot. I already live in a small, laid-back town but these islands had even more of an "island time" vibe. I could have spent the whole day just drinking coffee in the breeze. And next time, I just might.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there's that.