Commute

I’m on a train back to Fukui, barely a month after I left, finally finding myself with time to edit my life. I thought a life in Tokyo would mean constant trains, and yet, most of the time I’m walking places. This post is actually one I started months ago when I was still fantasizing about my life in the city. I’ve got a backlog of posts similar I have to go through and reorganize, but plan to push out here soon. I guess this is a start.

When I lived in New York I read so many books. The first two months on the subway I went through two books of Game of Thrones just riding on those metal carriages. Back then there wasn’t WiFi to be found. An hour completely underground can pass by unnoticed while flipping the final pages of a 400 page novel.

Coming to Japan my reading has been staggered. I started the book list with the goal of finishing in two years. That put me at roughly one book every two weeks — a type of math I didn’t bother figuring out. As my astute comrade in Spanish poetry and renowned literature Nico Sanhueza pointed out: reading merely 20 pages a day from Infinite Jest (the last book on my list) would take me almost two months. I tried and succeeded in the very beginning. After travelling, and having over a month to get settled to my new small life in Japan, I found the amazing Tokyo-based English bookstore Infinity Books to spend enough of my new salary. Without a car and the onset of winter, I burrowed in my one room apartment (not studio, mind you, this was much smaller than a studio) and flew through the first couple books without a problem. Then I met Virginia Wolf with some of the best and most dense story telling I’ve ever encountered (there are two short stories weaved into the otherwise tough novel To the Lighthouse which is among the best writing fathomable). I actually skipped over her for a while, and then spring came, and I was outside, and lazy, and enjoying nothing. After struggling with the enormous paragraphs of Michael Chabon soon after,  I decided to quit literature all together.  After all, the original goal was to finish the list before I left Japan. At the time I thought that’d only be two years, but… things change.

After a year in Japan I started to notice a few slips in my vocabulary. You see, at a junior high school level of teaching English, the scope of your corrections are pretty redundant. Things are very interesting. Students try hard. Tokyo Disneyland is a great place. Because its fun. Surrounded by a bunch of other expats who are involved in the same thing, your language starts to clip the longer words. The grammar also evolves, to match those non-native speaking minions you interact with everyday. The result is a strange abandon of usual language, for something more direct and less verbose.

Learning another language, also, doesn’t support the retention of the former.

Moments (which are now too familiar) started happening in the middle of conversation. I’d be telling a memory, or a story, or just asking for a favor.

“Did you stay at a capsule hotel in Osaka?” “Oh, I wanted to, but there we no… open beds? Free spaces?”   “You mean, vacancies?”

“The new bakery sells huge cinnamon rolls, but they’re not very… great? enjoyable? delectable? … Satisfying!”

“In Minnesota you always hear about accidents with drunk people driving on… winter… jet… skis, but you know, like jet skis for the snow.” (I actually can’t remember what they’re called right now, and have too much pride to Google: winter jet skis.)

It happens at least once a week. I can see the word flash in the front of my mind whenever I think about it. A shining, well outlined … piece? shape? … thing that disappears as soon as I think of it. “Come back!” I cry, as its rolls off the tip of my tongue cackling into oblivion. Instead I’m left defenseless, degrading my language to amend the situation, pondering what could have been.

I looked at the stack of books holding shape against my wall. Each a sword against this latency in language. There are the ones I definitely can’t handle right now: Catch-22One Hundred Years of SolitudeThe Dharma Bums. Then there are the slimmer volumes, the ones written for the common people, sometimes inventive (Slaughterhouse Five) but more often objective (Casino Royale). Even a poignant story like Fahrenheit 541 has a chase scene in it. Those were my jam, those I can do. Even the unwinding accents in As I Lay Dying are comprehensible through the short three page chapters. They become manageable escapes from mundane lifestyle.

The problem with reading, though, is the actual process. I recently wondered what I was like without a cellphone, or even without a smart phone. Many times I recall keeping my Gameboy stuffed in my pocket, but equally as often I would carry a book with me, a finger poised between two pages ready to continue the story at any moment. So smartphones are the culprit right, or internet at large, offering more distractions than necessary. Consuming our time with nonsense.

This can’t only be the case, for even on weekends when the news is on a break, the apartment is clean, the outside is raining, I can’t be helped to pick up a book. It’s the sense of time prioritization. When I was a kid and didn’t have to worry about what would happen to me, I had the time to bury my nose into a story. As an adult I’m constantly thinking of what to cook, what to clean, what to buy. My value of books is suppressed by the sense that my time would be better spent somewhere else. Not to mention the rate that I read a single page is snailish.  I try to absorb every detail, and in such focus often have to reread from missing the bigger picture.

In Fukui, I drove to work every day, forty minutes there and forty minutes home. The onset of winter dragged that even longer: one hour, one and a half. Someone would say I should invest in things like Audible (I do keep waiting for a sale), but there’s something to miss in listening versus reading. Sure, I swear by the Jim Dale versions of Harry Potter over any printed form, but not every author has the time, dedication, or voice as great as local author Ben Percy. I’ve found quality narration reserved for just the bestsellers of the latest season, and my list knows no bounds.

Instead I turned to Podcasts. I’ve been listening to them for almost three years now. I first got into Serial right before I came to Japan, and broaden my spectrum since my former neighbor and professional backpacker, Mac, introduced me to Stuff You Should Know. It still strikes me that their popularity hasn’t truly reached the mainstream. I consume them while doing everything else in my life. They probably run at least four hours of my speakers everyday. Even today I’ve already listened to NPR’s Up First, APM’s In the Dark case about Jacob Wetterling, Vox’s The Weeds, and Dan Pashman’s The Sporkful interview with Michael Pollan. I guess it’s a result of not having internet access. I just download podcasts all at once somewhere and run them through the day or week. Still, it’s not enough. Unlike a book, if I miss something in a podcast, I just let it run until the story catches my attention again.

Originally, when I first thought about this post, here is where I’d talk about my solution to start reading again. How living in Tokyo would mean that I’d once again be stuck in a train without WiFi and all the opportunities granted by faded paper. It’s almost still something I long for. Except in Tokyo, the commutes are cramped and drudging. Where in New York I could buy a monthly unlimited pass for around $120, in Tokyo each time you ride a subway costs at least $1.50. I decided this was not the way I wanted to start my mornings and waste my evenings. I actively sought out places within walking, or biking distances from my work. I exceeded my original expectations with where I live now, but there is a part of me that thinks about the books.

Overall, I’m more than relieved to cut the two hours of sedentary transit from my daily life. I was hoping to have one final hurrah with my car, but that’s a subject for another post. I still ride a train every week to get to my Japanese lessons, and occasionally on weekends if I need to go out across the city — or on my way to Fukui. Recently I’ve downloaded the Kindle app to my phone and found digital books can be read just as effectively for some genre. Except in those cases, stopped on the train, there always seems to be so much more worth planning. Multiple trips to be sorted. Photoshoots to arrange. Then of course, keeping in touch with you in the simplest way possible. After all, why read when you can write?

Colors

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been moving since Halloween. I wasn’t looking forward to this past weekend because I had to come in for class on Saturday. Usually my school makes up for it by letting us take the following Monday off, but unfortunately all the ALTs had a conference in the city scheduled for that day. Eventually I will take the Monday off, but for now I have to suffer. Because of all that I was really looking forward to Sunday being as lazy as possible. Maybe catch up on a ton of self-help organization I’ve been trying to fit into my life, and also fulfill some other obligations I’ve given to other people. Alas, somehow I managed to talk to Yukie, my friendly-neighborhood-English speaker, on Saturday night who almost immediately invited me to join her the next day to go with another couple to Shiga prefecture to see the colors change. As my great art professor John Saurer once told me, “say yes to everything.” Of course, he was mostly talking about work-related situations, but I’ve began to adapt it to every day life. Organizing my lazy life could always wait, and I had never been to Shiga before.

We left early in the morning, a little after 8 o’clock. The couple we were going with, Mr. & Mrs. Takahashi, are actually pretty close to me. I met their three sons at a wine party last New Year’s Eve, and since they seem to look out for me like their own. They donated their bike for my use back in January, and over spring vacation I joined them to the youngest son’s college graduation in Osaka. I actually have been trying to go around Japan to visit where their sons live, but instead it seems I’ve been running into them more often. Mr. Takahashi pulled up to the apartment with his wife, Yukie, and to my surprise her thirteen-years-old Norfolk Terrier in the backseat. From there we were off, to a place I couldn’t even point out on a map, with a mix of Japanese and English, and some CDs I’d brought with.

 

192We arrived maybe two hours later, to gorgeous weather, at the steps of Eigen-ji (A-gen-G, the ji stands for temple). Now, it may be a bit confusing because Fukui-ken also has (the oldest temple in Japan) Eihei-ji, so going to another prefecture to see something that sounds similar was a bit misleading. Really, the temple is less pronounced than the nature that surrounds it. Here especially the changing colors were blazing.

The place was pretty popping. You could tell that people were just coming out to enjoy the warmth, but there were also a suspicious amount of artists with books or canvases scattered about the grounds. We discovered that there was a contest on that specific day for whoever made the best painting within the allotted morning. As we went along it was pretty fun to snoop over the shoulder of  everyone and try to discover why they chose the specific spot. Also I was experimenting desperately with a new camera lens.

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From the temple we ate some hot soba noodles and delicious various foods on a stick before setting out back on the road. Before heading back we took a detour to see this famous temple that at one point might have housed the sun goddess/mother of Japan Amaterasu or was built by her parents or something like that. This month is also a traditional time for families to celebrate the shichi-go-san holidays when children turn 3,5,or 7 years old. The temple had plenty of dressed up visitors and adorable kids wrapped in kimonos so it was a fun stop to watch.

From here on out it seems the weather will start to go downhill, so I’m not quite sure when I’ll enjoy tourism as much as I have lately. Already my school is talking about introducing Thanksgiving in class. It’s a constant reminder to make my stomach growl wishing for all the delicious home-cooked meals I won’t be able to find here.

 

Daytripper

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the changing weather it’s you’ve gotta take what you can get. So many days now I come to school wearing a light jacket only to have it dark and freezing by the time I leave. Often it’s begun to rain. Sooner than last year I expect it’ll start to snow. Sometimes I wonder if I should go for a run, or wait until I’m free in the evening with less errands to do. Too many times I’m stuck at 9:00 bundling in gloves and long pants, when during the day I could’ve gone out in shorts.

Thus before I’m completely shut in for Winter, I’ve been able to go out and enjoy the season just a little bit more. This has probably fatigued me a bit, being my weekends have been booked completely since Halloween, but I’ve also at least been more active than I would’ve otherwise.

The first weekend trip followed a day where I volunteered as a judge for a high school English debate tournament. Seeing the dozens of students compete in such advanced English made my average work seem inadequate. I doubt there are many opportunities in a junior high school where they can learn such enabling English, even after three years they’re barely learning how to use prepositions to connect verbs with nouns. I did find a reward though meeting one of my students who graduated last year. During the last round he asked me to sit by him and we talked pretty fluently about the points each team was making, as well as how he studied English, and what he was enjoying in high school. At least that gave me some hope that not every student I teach will go on to expel any hint of English by the time they graduate high school.

I woke up my usual weekday time on Sunday morning to car pool with some neighbors to the train station where we’d be picked up by a Japanese lady. I must admit I didn’t really have any clue what I was signed up for. Another American English teacher who arrived in the summer had invited me to go, so I didn’t even look at any of the details. Just that we’d be taking a tour of some ruins basically only famous in our prefecture. Maybe they were some sort of heritage site, but on that I can’t be sure. I didn’t even know how to dress. For some reason I had the impression we’d be hiking a mountain, so I packed extra snacks and gloves in my backpack just in case.

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We drove out of the city and arrived to meet two other cars of people at the entrance of a small museum. Literally, it was the most budget friendly museum in just an open foyer and a single humidified room. Most of the objects in glass casing lining the walls were broken pottery somewhat assembled back together. There were some scale models of what the area looked like hundreds of years ago, but the most interesting object to me was an old sword.

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After that short tour we drove out to the actual valley where these ruins were partially reconstructed. From what I gleaned a ruling family, Asakura something, had set up shop in the area about 500 years ago. Even more surprising was at the time it was the 3rd most populous place in Japan right behind Kyoto and Tokyo! The inaka countryside that I’d been living in for over a year used to contain the center of Japan. How things have changed.

Seeing the ruins and replicas they built was definitely not spectacular, but there was some solace about the place. If you imagined the type of people that would have lived there and the strains that society has taken to evolve into the present. Even among the inequalities and famines, the simplicity of the life appeals. This is certainly a weather-changing-another-year-overworked-pessimistic-me point of view, but the focus on living instead of life has some advantages.

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One of the best uses of the day came while strolling down the village street and finding inspiration to write. Actually through the whole day I realized I’d been gaining experience helpful for any sort of fantasy or old-world story I might dive into. Just being there and seeing what life was life gives my writing a bit more authenticity.

I’m quite surprised I’ve made it this far in my description because at the time I really didn’t seem to feel so affected by the tour. I suppose I was happy to be out in the nice weather, but to be honest I was more distracted by Pokémon Go half the time. Then again, there really wasn’t much to look at.

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Maybe the highlight of the day actually came in the afternoon once the tour was finished. We moved from the outdoors more into the valley to an old restaurant lodge specializing in soba noodles. They had an entire hall full of tables to teach how to make soba. Of course, you’ll remember from my post last Christmas about how to make soba. Well, maybe you won’t, I almost didn’t. It was fun to make again, especially since our tiny grandma of a teacher kept interrupting what we were doing to fix any mistakes. This time we left the cooking to the actual chef, though, so the end result lost some of its majesty.

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Still delicious, and I topped it off with a beer from the cooler.

Tokyo

It reminded me of the first time I lived there studying abroad, and even a bit of my life in New York. I’ve been going back and forth on Tokyo ever since I left four years ago. It’s a sprawling but dense city of monotone concrete but eccentric culture. The pros and cons are bipolar and throw off any scale you try to weigh them on. You can’t find a trash can anywhere and yet the streets are sterile. The nature is equally as sparse apart from tourist traps and out of the way parks of which there is an abundance. Foreign people are few enough to stand out, but common enough to not warrant overt friendliness. It’s a dream city where literally any hobby is respected and any behavior tolerated — if not first marginalized. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world (beating out any city in America), and despite shrinking apartment sizes it’s ranked high for quality of life.

Last year I wrote a length about it when I went with Carmelo to celebrate a concert and Silver Week. It was hardly thought out, nearly affordable, but still a decent amount of fun to be had.The days before I was getting a paycheck, could remember how to speak Japanese, or even knew how to enjoy the city as a non-tourist, non-student. This year the holidays lined up well enough that I could take a Wednesday off and still have up to six days of vacation. Longing for the summer freedom again, I figured the end of September was good enough as any anniversary to make another venture to the city, my first in a year.

My weekend wasn’t as long as I’d originally thought because of the two day culture festival the bit into the first Saturday. Now, the culture festival is great. I took plenty of pictures I’d love to post here. I had franks on a stick, fried chicken, ice cream bars, shaved ice, donuts, juice, and a matcha flavored cream puff before I felt like I couldn’t eat anything more. The talent show was pretty entertaining, though I did feel a lingering nostalgia too that shadowed everything a bit. This was about the time I really started knowing my students last year, finally remembering their names, and caring about their successes. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen in a years time, and no matter what happens my favorite class (the current third years) wouldn’t be around.

That all, however, was on Friday. It’s Saturday that really bites. Twenty-one classes — luckily, because last year it was twenty-four — performed songs, usually traditional staples, one after another the whole day in the gym. Last year I remember falling asleep a little too early, but this time I managed to stay alert the whole time. Perhaps I can thank two surprises. A bit before lunch one of the English teachers who switched schools at the start of this year, showed up. He’s the same guy I went to Kyoto with, so the rare moments he shows up are always good. Then in the afternoon one of last years third years found me. He was the same student who I’d spent three months with working on the English speech contest. His was visiting because his younger brother is a second year. At first I was shocked just to see him, a bit taller with the adolescent badge of a sparse peach-fuzz mustache along his lip, but then he started talking and I was flabbergasted. Last year I felt like I had to pry words from his mouth, even as he was rehearsing his speech. Now, however, we were speaking almost normally. He told me he’d visited Australia for two weeks, joined the archery club at school, and had a continued hobby for guns. Not for the first time since my birthday did I feel like an old man. This kid had only graduated four months ago, and already he’d changed so drastically. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

So, the Saturday was worthwhile if not monotonous. I took an afternoon shinkansen the following Sunday with just my backpack and an umbrella. The weather on my side of Japan was holding out, but in the midst of rainy season with a typhoo on the way, I’d learned not to take chances. I got off the train at Tokyo station and instantly remembered why I hated the city. Tokyo station is a distilled version of all that’s bad. It’s a tangling mess with multiple floors, thousands of people, and every direction. There are gates that exit, gates that go to different trains, gates for trains that go to different cities. You can wrap your way around hallways of shops that sell nothing but tiny packaged sweets to give out as gifts to your co-workers without ever seeing an exit sign. Certainly some for of direction is intended by the way the floor plan is laid out, but really people just dash in and out like a school of fish. Occasionally, especially at night, it’ll slow down, but then you’ll just see the people overworked, or homeless, or drunkenly stumbling and passing out from the clubs. With that in mind, and excluding its sprawl, it is also effective as the quintessential station. You’re either going or leaving, and never wanting to stay.

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By this point I realized I might’ve packed a bit too much, too. I would inevitably be shopping and buying things, so I probably didn’t need the spare book to read, the extra clothes. I even brought running clothes and shoes only to be neglected. Carmelo was at the same concert we’d gone to last year, so I was stuck making my way to his apartment outside Shinjuku. Another two friends of ours were staying with him this weekend, too, so I decided to try and meet up with them. After stopping for a hour or two at a cafe, I decided to ditch my bag at a station locker to lose the weight and head out to start my night. I’d messaged my college roommate Yasushi who’s now working in Tokyo doing important things. We planned to meet at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya (a place I thought I knew, but in fact didn’t actually know) but eventually we found out way out to a dive for drinks and food. It didn’t feel like a year since we’d last seen each other, but I could tell his time at grad school in DC had matured him. He spoke way more fluently, and I was happy to see he hadn’t gotten fat (even if smoking was an occasional vice). We caught up well over the next two hours, and then went back to the statue to join up with Carmelo and friends. I offered for him to come with, but a bit more responsibly he declined because he had to work in the morning.

The remaining five of us — the unemployed Carmelo and his girlfriend, and vacationing ALTs — did not have to work. So, fresh off the vibes of an outdoor EDM concert, Carmelo took us down the streets with Coke bottles of gin and ginger beer in hand to what is one of Shibuya’s most reputed nightclubs: Womb. I’d like to say I went into it open minded, but the appeal was almost instantly lost to me. Through a smoky entrance, ¥3000 cover charge, and the grim realization that we’d have to stay out until the first train at 5am I tried to disagree with the fact that I was not drunk enough. Nor was the club packed enough. There were plenty of people, as it was deemed the after party for the mentioned concert, but there was certainly open space, too. I went through the crowds, occasionally dancing, trying to work up a sweat to at least seem like I was having a better time. As the night wore on, it simply became a meditation for survival more than anything, though, I did have some fun embarrassing moments with some local Tokyolites.

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We did make it on the first train back to the apartment, and I did pass out until two o’clock the next afternoon. Carmelo, Eri, and I left the apartment bravely at my prompting under clouding skies. By the time we’d made it a block the sprinkling mist was turning to a full shower, but I was determined to make it to the same event I went to last year: the Tokyo Art Book Fair. As cheapskates we decided to walk the hour to the campus it was held. My raincoat, pants, and shoes were fully saturated, but also so was everyone else. It also made the place feel a bit more crowded since everyone was inside roaming the aisles, trying to get away from the rain. We perused, I bought some postcards, but nothing as good as last year. One the way home we diverted under a train overpass, and stopped by a specialty food store to pick up some curry for dinner.

That night we stayed up catching up on the latest episodes of the anime Dragonball Super, a weekly ritual we used to do. The next two days were still just as rainy, and just as lazy. I think I slept until noon both Tuesday and Wednesday. Following a small breakfast and we planning I went out to find the geekiest shops around. We started in Shibuya, but I also ran solo to Ikebukuro and Akihabara, discovering some new places that I hadn’t really explored. Usually when I’m out travelling alone I don’t have too much fun, but Wednesday when I set off by myself I was kind of having fun. I think this time without having to lug a backpack around, or be on a time constraint to check in somewhere really helped. That night, meeting up with Yasushi, we went out to Shinjuku, trying to wind up at a club that I’d enjoyed as a college student. Eventually we got there and the passage of almost five years felt like nothing. If it’s to get from point A to point B without any references, I’m usually a dunce for directions. But give me a place I’ve visited before and I can trace my way through parts like it’s my hometown. So being there in the night, a bit more refreshed and at the end of a vacation, felt a little bit better than the start of the week. I had a good time, stayed out all night, and didn’t mind catching the first train home.

I took the night bus home the next day, almost missing it when I couldn’t find the right loading zone. It was a grueling 8 hours and some of the worst time I’ve spent traveling.

Nonetheless, I had already started planning when I’d be going back.

Nagoya

The title of this post is a bit misleading because even though I’ve been in the city a night and a day, the reality is I’ve hardly experienced or even seen any of it. Remember the rain Friday night delayed my arrival and any chances of going out, and the entirety of my Saturday was spent at an event center full of folding chairs and two thousand men.

Thus, it comes down to Saturday night. Blake drove me back downtown closer to midnight than I was expecting, and I met some of the other ALTs he traveled with at his hotel. I half considered crashing on his floor, but I wasn’t quite sure what my plans were for Sunday (if I’d go back to the tournament) so in order to avoid being a hindrance I headed back into the night. I didn’t have much of a plan or clue on what to do. Luckily I’d charged my phone in his hotel so my GPS was useable, and of course, this was far from my first time wandering in a big city. Very much like my time over Silver Week in Tokyo, I headed first to find a place to stay at one of the elusive capsule hotels.

I say elusive because really, even when they’re on a map, they’re hard to find. Like most cities in Japan the shops are built vertical. You’ve got to constantly glance up at the unreadable signs to make sure you don’t miss anything. Even when you have a map, the shop or place you’re looking for could be on the third or sixth floor and you can easily miss it. For foreigners I’ve found this to be one of the biggest problems in enjoying time out.

I reached the first capsule hotel quite easily, but tentatively walked in after passing a chalkboard sign that I was quite certain read “no vacancy.” The small lobby was brightly lit and pretty extravagant for a capsule hotel so when I reached the desk my suspicions were confirmed.

Wanting to conserve my phone battery I asked the woman behind the desk if she knew where else another hotel might be and she pulled out a mapped and started circling a couple places. “But… probably, they’re all full,” she said in polite Japanese. I knew the probably was unnecessary. Still, lugging around a bag and tote full of clothes, cards, and camera finding a place for it all was the only mission I had.

Somehow I made it to the heart of the downtown nightlife, to a district that used the kanji for princess in its name. As I approached I was a bit surprised by all the light and sound, and even amount of people still strolling the street. Most of them were drunk, in some pretty risque fashion for January, and I was wondering if my second plan of going out would be too late. In general I think Japan’s nightlife starts early ends early, or else goes all night, without much in between. The fact that most metro systems stop around midnight probably contributes to that lifestyle. It can be a hassle, but also a pretty brilliant way to encourage both responsibility and indulgence.

Anyway, these are the things I wondered about as I wandered clearly not going anywhere specific and without many options. This was becoming less like Silver Week where I had four hotels before I could find a room, and more like my first night in New York where I spent most of the night exploiting the subway system.

Maybe that’s what led me to find the post office that was still miraculously and a bit strangely open even after midnight. When in doubt you can always count on government services (I do pay Japanese taxes, after all). So, walking on set to what seemed like a Stanley Kubrick movie, I sat down at one of the open tables and unfurled. It was a small area, more like a lobby, with an alcove of metal P.O. boxes and an escalator that was turned off. I sidled against a column and stretched out my legs hoping to be as discreet as possible.

There was a sole open post counter framed between the P.O. showing a slice of the ghoulish fluorescent office behind. Occasionally there would be a shuffle or loud mechanic noise, but for the most part it was subdued. For a while, except then someone came in from the dark and went to the counter. A woman appeared and they exchanged some words and then both vanished again. The threat level of my scene was diminished (no lurking anomalies to worry about as long as the worker was around), though now my film seemed more like a David Lynch feature. Again a man came in carrying a big cardboard box of what looked to be the latest sell off Amazon or eBay; an older woman purchased stamps and sat down at the table across from me to glue them each to a stack of envelopes; a slew of other people for whatever reason decided to make it to the post office at two in the morning to deliver their letters.

Eventually the strangeness was upon me, and not willing to commit to sleeping there I wrapped up my stuff and headed back into the night. I followed my phone in search of a net cafe, but had no certainty about the turns I was making. Somehow I wound up around Osu, a huge covered intersection of streets flooded with shops and arcades and hobby stores. It’s also referred to as Kamimaezu which sounds a lot like it translates into “Maze of the Gods.” At this point the streets were vacant and I felt like I’d entered Twin Peak’s red room. The paint off the wall literally gave everything a rose hue, and as I kept walking I wondered if I’d ever find my way back to the street. It’s hard to believe I could just stumble into such a place without realizing it, but it also seemed like a good reason to stick around and explore that part of the city in the morning.

I made it to the net cafe (open 24 hours of course), emerging back to the midnight blue streets. I went inside, but even as I walked down the stairs to enter  I was calculating the amount of money it would set me back. Even if I only stayed for the five hour minimum, I’m not sure I’d feel any better. My leniency while shopping at Costco the weekend before was coming back to haunt me. After looking at the nonsense paperwork I’d have to fill out just to get a membership card I exhausted said no thanks. Back on the sidewalk, now facing the way I’d come, I saw my respite.

Like some sort of mirage in a Vegas desert, illuminating the hollow street in yellow light was a great big sign with retro style font reading in plain English: Denny’s. If I’d cared to wonder why on earth there was a Denny’s in Japan, it came second to me being thankful that even in a foreign country  some habits never change. It’d been a while since I’d been for breakfast so late at night — if only Nico were around — and although I was guaranteed this wouldn’t be as good as the hash browns in Fargo I’d had a week before I left the states, after forgoing a proper lunch and dinner it seemed like breakfast in order.

The place was doing a decent amount of business which a strange crowd. Groups and couples of all ages who’d mostly looked liked they’d left the nightclub, but I even saw some people playing Magic. Had it not been for the lack of sleep and probable body odor I would’ve attempted to join them, though, at that moment I could barely focus on anything other than ordering.

I got a set with tea. The first plate was a salad dressed in fruit, followed by a hamburger patty drizzled in sauce with both fries and rice. The cap was a dish of ice cream with strawberries, whipped cream,  bananas, and chocolate sauce. It revitalized me a bit, or at least made the night worth it. Not as good as the Perkins I was expecting, but fine for a close substitute for home.

Really, in the corner of the restaurant I was in, I doubt it would’ve been a problem if I’d just laid out in the booth and passed out there, but being the civilized young man I am I headed back to the Post Office to finish out the hours before sunrise.

This time even the P.O. window was closed, though, that didn’t stop people from coming in. I didn’t really fall asleep, or maybe I did. I wasn’t exactly tired throughout any of the night. Luckily the stamina from cross country running can be used in many ways. I think I just tried to preserve any amount of brain power I had. Being in Japan helps, too, because I didn’t really have to worry about any mess of problems I could encounter in America (but even those are mostly irrational).

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In the early light of the morning I went back on the street. With the disheartening realization that most of the shops would still take two to three hours before they would be open, I headed into a coffee shop that is supposedly famous in Nagoya. There I recuperated the rest of the night and tried to make my day’s decision. I looked through the program from yesterday’s tournament and found the list of side events. In poor translation I figured out another mysterious game titled “Super Sunday Melee” with a couple of rules in bulletins I couldn’t quite understand. The sign-up started at nine, which was still before the rest of my days was planned to begin. Really, I’d come to Nagoya to play Magic so I figured I might as well do just that. When I want to enjoy the city I’ll come back and do it with proper planning.

When I got back to the convention center I was fully awake. I signed up for the tournament and even got to see the Day 2 main event start. After last night, I’m a bit relieved I didn’t have to go through another nine rounds today, but it also gives me something to work for. There’s another tournament in Tokyo over Golden Week and then in Kyoto in the fall. What was the most impressive was being able to see some of the well known pro-players. Especially this guy named Yuya Watanabe who’s one of the greatest currently competing.

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The game that I was joining in was the most bizarre format that I’ve participated, and it will probably remain that way for a while. At the last moment I had to rush and get a playmat because it was a requirement to play. They setup everyone at a long row of tables and handed out masks to every eighth player or so. In total there were over thirty people, and among my crowd I was definitely the only English speaker. Like the day before we were given six packs to make a new deck, but this time we would be competing with the people on either side of us. When someone lost, then they’d leave the spot and everyone would squish together — hence the melee. The catch is you could only play offense toward the person on your left, defend against the person on your right, while targeting both of them with other effects.

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There’s a format called EDH/Commander, which is touted as one of the more socially enjoyable ways to play. I imagine this was like that on steroids, but was actually some of the most fun I’ve had playing the game. It was just ridiculous to have to worry about if the guy six seats down from you had just hit ultimate on Kiora while encouraging the guy you’re supposed to attack in the future to attack the guy on his left. The masks were used as place-markers and being required to use them only forced the silliness that much. (Don’t worry, they were worn like hats instead of actual masks, no fear of the flu, maybe just lice.)

I lost just about the time one of the guys I’d driven with came and found me. Surprisingly he also had a bundle of packs in his arms he said he’d won from other side events. Seemed like I’d been playing the wrong games, since I’d won nothing but the belittlement of Japanese players much more intense than I.

I guess there’s not much more to this story than to say I also lost my backpack. Well, at least that’s kind of what everyone seemed to assume when I said someone took my backpack. I caught it when I was starting the melee and looked under my chair to find it vanished. Quite impressively too since it had my rain jacket, yesterday’s clothes, my lucky shirt, iPad, headphones, DSLR camera… Like me alone lugging it around was a feat, but to make off with it unnoticed is skill. I told a judge, who got event staff, and I went to lost and found, I backtracked everything, and despite everyone else’s disbelief I was certain it was gone because of someone else’s accord. I mean, yes, in Japan crime rates are lower, but not invisible, and at an international event like that with so many temporary people it’s not hard to believe. I definitely was a bit too lax about it, too, with too much trust in the system. Perhaps my best and worst quality is my faith in the “it can’t be helped” mentality, and when I started the melee I tried not to let it wreck my experience.

Honestly, though, the most annoying point was seemingly everyone putting the fault on me. Even when I searched out among my coworkers the word for stolen in Japanese no one seemed to believe that I hadn’t just lost it. Yes, plenty of fault on me for not keeping it connected to me at all times, but I mean clearly I hadn’t lost it right? I was starting to even doubt myself.


My vindication came almost two weeks later when my school got a call from the local bank. My adviser told me the police had found my backpack outside a train station, and found my bankbook (which only works in Fukui and can’t withdraw cash anyway) that has my name on it. Afterward the bank called the school, and we called the station.

I stood dreadfully trying to listen in as I asked my adviser to ask them what else they found.

“Oh, a jacket,” he translated. “And headphones.”

“What about a camera?”

“A tablet.”

He asked about the camera.

“No, no camera.”

Exhale. Damn. Strange and impractical and thankful, only one thing, but also the most expensive to replace by far. At least I’ve got my lucky t-shirt. I suppose this makes it even luckier.

They were even able to mail everything back to my apartment instead of me having to go back there just for it. Still my only backpack and rain jacket (hauled through Thailand and New York), and it was a pretty big hassle to go without them — especially now that winter is ending and spring is starting.

So, yeah, another trip outside the safety of Fukui complete and when all is said pretty successful. My faith in the system is restored, my acceptance of my nerdy habits is complete, and my ability to travel alone became a bit stronger. Although, being the beginning of the month, I really didn’t budget very well, and it became a bit of a problem stretching out what cash I had left before the next paycheck so I don’t know how soon it will be before I get off on another adventure. Spring break is still a month away.

 

Gathering

Waking up in the morning was quite the feat. Maybe the anticipation of the tournament had worn on me, or maybe the anxiety of making sure everything was in order, but before 7 o’clock I was up and dressed. Soon after I said goodbye and went out in search of the train station.

The sky was a bright gray with just the fresh remnants of rain. I had only my phone to get me to where I wanted to go, but had at least memorized the colors of the trains I needed to travel by. I popped on my headphones and plugged in the latest podcast from Limited Resources banking on their latest set review to be my saving grace in understanding how to play in this tournament.

(For those interested in Magic: before I mentioned I play a format called limited, which means you only get to play with cards you see on the spot. I like it more because it can be relatively cheaper — for example, a card from a recent set has been hovering around $50 with it topping $100 in the fall — increases strategy, and does a good job at supporting those who truly understand the mechanics. It also focuses a significant amount on the actual deck building and tweaking which is 50% of why I like the game. A big appeal of this tournament was the entire main even being done in limited sealed and draft formats.)

With a quickened pace through the crowds, I twisted among the center of Nagoya’s largest station and arrived just on time to catch the train before its doors shut. As with many things in my life, I didn’t double check any of my steps, so as we rolled away from the platform I became I little panicked I was going in the wrong direction. I’m almost certain there’s some trait in my DNA, or perhaps humanity at large, which requires us to panic within the first fleeting moments of feeling relief. I looked around at the somewhat crowded train and felt assured by glancing at the cell phone of a pair next to me to see previews of the latest cards.

As with most convention centers this on was placed on the outside of the city. The long train ride gave me time to go over the game in my head, but also made me realize how tired I already was. I followed the crowd from the station to the pathway toward the center. The whole thing was pretty free form and I was pretty unsure about what exactly I needed to be doing at any one point. There were mostly just stalls set up showcasing hundred of rare cards in glass cases. It was actually the first time I’ve seen such material outside a game shop. I can hardly recognize any of the cards, it hardly seems possible that the game has been evolving for almost thirty years now. Among the Japanese faces I could also see plenty of foreigners, some who I found had come to Japan specifically for the event. Here I am planning my trips less than three hours away, looks like I should dream a little bigger. One of my friends played a guy from Norway who said he came with a couple of teammates to practice. Serious.

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I picked up a coffee from the vending machines (a staple whenever I plan a Magic marathon), and downed a small fruit flavored shot of vitamin D. Originally when I first studied abroad and lived in Tokyo, it was introduced to me as the cure for a hangover, but now I’ve learned that it’s the best sort of preparation whenever you plan on straining your brain. After meandering back and forth looking at all the merchandise and trying to supress a nervous feeling, an announcement was finally made to send everyone to their seats to start the rounds.

I found my seat, on the very edge of the English section of participants. Because hardly any of the critical information had been translated off the original website, I hadn’t expected this much grace. Looking back, though, it makes perfect sense that out of 2,000 participants they’d dedicate at least ten percent of the competition to English players. This only served as a better advantage being I’d practically memorized all the cards anyway thinking I’d have to play entirely in Japanese anyway.

I tried to make tepid small talk with the person across from me while at the same time trying to assume he didn’t speak English. In fact I would’ve guessed he was Brazilian from the phone calls he made, but either way he didn’t really show any interest or enthusiasm towards being there. I was still confused as we passed out packs and promos, wondering if he would have to be my first opponent and how disappointing that would be.

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Another perfect part about this format of the game is you’re always opening new packs. The thrill of finding rare cards, or the grind of making good with what you’ve got, makes even the start  of the game great. For me, after playing with physical cards in Japanese it was bizarre to be in Japan and have fresh English packs in front of me. I tore them open in my normal ritual, a slap on the back of the hand for good luck, and then counting them face down before looking at the lot.

(The next portion will be heavy on Magic, and instead of explaining every little detail, I’m just gonna put it all out there with the assumption what I say makes sense. Sorry in advanced.)

The system was well regulated, I even had to sign a consent form. The pressure was a bit different than what I’ve been used to because the time was also split up so we could mark on a checklist all the cards we’d opened. I supposed this was their way to prevent cheating, if anything absurd happened in a deck a player could always call a judge to check the list.

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I opened a strange combination of cards. Typically people have an affinity towards a certain type of deck. I definitely favored red/white aggro as of late, hoping instead to pull off b/w allies, but was pretty stifled by all the colorless cards I opened. With a Thought-Knot Seer and plenty of colorless mana, I ended up going blue/colorless/black — a strong but complicated way of playing. Typically control decks are what I avoid because their margin for error is a lot smaller, but alas it’s what cards I was dealt.

It actually worked out quite nicely. My first opponent was Japanese playing with Japanese cards, but I understood almost all of what he was doing, with a blue black mirror that I was able to out perform. One of the biggest concerns, of course, was getting mana screwed, but I stayed pretty even the whole tournament. I won with plenty of time in the fifty minute round. I found another first year ALT from Fukui named Blake, who had barely arrived in time to open his cards and make things work.

The second round was a bit surprising as I faced a kid less than half my age. He was undeniably intimidating with slightly chubby cheeks, puppy dog eyes, wispy strands of hair carelessly strewn across his forehead, and an overtly cute blue hat in the shape of a dragon quest slime. (I quickly noticed that his father and mother were also in the tournament wearing the same hat, and noted it as a safeguard against missed connections.)

Onigaishimasu,” I said sitting down, the custom in Japan.

“Onigaishimasu,” he repeated nodded his suede blob my way.

Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to win the first game. The advantages were clear cut, and there was no calling over a judge. For all I knew he could win the tournament, and I tried to treat him with that respect — even in that adorable Japanese lisp that all children seem to have until they turn twelve. The second game, well, that was less concise. By turn five he had the win. He’d ramped into a creature that continued to get pumped by counters while all I had was a potential deathtoucher. Our board states were hardly at parody when I started drawing into removal and evasive creatures. With an oblivion strike it was over, but I still felt guilty about the win. In a more casual game I would’ve made the assumed motions that he was attacking, or even suggested it to him. He clearly could’ve won and I would’ve been fine sealing my win in a third game. But this is the top tier of competitive Magic, so I could only hope that he saw his mistakes once we finished?”

“How old are you?” I asked. I wasn’t going to ask because I didn’t want to sound patronizing, but I was genuinely curious.

“I’m eleven.”

“Really? How long have you played?”

“Let’s see, I started when I was about 8, so three years.”

Damn. If he keeps it up he’ll be a pro in no time. I thanked him again, and this time with even more time left on the clock decided to go outside where food trucks had lined offering all senses of overpriced concessions. I got what was advertised as a Chinese burger, basically a burger on a steamed bun with lettuce and teriyaki sauce, and chowed down a little too quickly. Along the wall and people waiting, were also the slew of smokers and the smell overwhelmed the scene. Sometimes I’m amazed how quickly American laws changed about tobacco and how unaffected I was by it’s presence. I still don’t care if I’m at a rooftop bar or passing by, but here it’s still saturated to the point that my school still has a room the teachers can go to in between classes.

I lost the third round. It was close off a mulligan, and potentially misreading cards, but a loss is a loss nonetheless. It wasn’t until now, a little more than three hours since the start of the tournament that I finally did the math and asked Blake:

“How many rounds are there?”

“Nine total, but you’ve gotta win six to go onto Day Two.”

“Nine… but that means it won’t end ’til, like, nine or ten! I was thinking it’d be done by three or four.”

“Yeah, Grand Prixs a grind, man.”

So here we go. The real start of the marathon. Only, there was something else. By the time I lost in round four and looked down at my results sheet I noticed an amount of points next to my name. Each round is worth three points, with the goal of 18 (in the case of draws) being the qualifier for the next day. However now the slip only showed me with three points, when really I should’ve had six.

I approached a judge to find a solution to my problem. It’s a supreme level of geek now, but after watching plenty of tournaments on Youtube I’ve started to recognize some of the more frequent judges who travel with the tournaments and get on the feeds. It was pretty impressive to actually see them in action, or at least gave me a feeling of accomplishment for finally being at the same tournament as them.

The judge I started talking to introduced himself as Eric (Eric Levine) and he was practically everything anyone would want from customer service. He took me to the main booth at a raised platform in the front where Judges and players were dodging back and forth like bats in a fly-storm. He got someone to look up my results my matches, and thankfully I’d been smart enough to write down the table numbers I’d been playing in my memo. “Alright, no worries, this guy will get it all sorted out for you.”

No worries, but just a lot more embarrassed guilt coming my way as they made an announcement for my second round opponent to come to the front.

Needless to say it didn’t take long for me to see the three matching blue slimes bobbing among the heads my way. Where’s a soldier’s sword when you need it?

My eleven year old opponent approached the booth and the man behind him, in an excessively polite voice asked if I’d played him the earlier round.

はい.”

“And did you win?”

“ちがう、まけた.”  Wrong, I lost.

When I didn’t think beating a kid could get any worse the system has to go and rub it in my face, reminding me of what a horrible person I am to have no such mercy on someone willing to wear such an egregious hat simply because his mother told him to.

With my points back up, and my score now 2-2 I was ready to bounce back, refusing to let my chances at the second day end so quickly. (Blake in the meantime was scoring 3-1, while my ride from Fukui had made it 1-3. At least I had that to stay optimistic: I could do better, and I could do worse.)

Eric, the judge I’d met earlier, also boosted my confidence simply back making sure everything got sorted out and wishing me luck when he saw me heading to my table for round number 5. Honestly, the usually friendly community of players and people around Magic is often overlooked, but hard to say that’s not a genuine reason to like the game.

I’d done back to back tournaments before during pre-releases, and certainly online. This was nothing like those. The breaks never felt long enough, especially as people became used to their decks the rounds seemed to drag on a lot longer. I could only imagine how I smelled, and took breaks outside every moment possible. My mind wasn’t cracked yet, but it was pulsing to the point of unbearable.

I won the fifth round against a jolly guy in his forties, who by the end of the games seemed more happy to be there and experience his loss then to actually be playing. I tried to embodied some of his spirit as he shuffled away from the table.

The sixth round I lost to another foreigner. It made the game play a lot easier, the moves and typical intuitions came back, but also the easy misplays and bad habits. Japanese play includes a ton of checks and pauses, so no intention is overlooked. It takes a bit of time, but is a lot more efficient to avoid problems.

I lost my fourth round at number seven making me ineligible to get to the second day. At first it was a bit of a disappointment, but not hard to believe. This was, after all, my first time playing this level of Magic. It did mean, however, that I was free to drop out, as many other players had already done. The clock approached 8 o’clock and the night had already started. Didn’t I want to go out and actually see the city I was visiting?

Of course I stayed at the tournament. In the end I paid to play nine rounds, and I really couldn’t turn down the extra opportunity to play Magic.

Both my next opponents were also in the same position so it made the game more fun. We didn’t have to worry so much about the right plays as much as the cool plays, and the pressure lowered the competitive atmosphere as well. Also I won both of them to end on a high note and realize that I was only one round away from making it to the second day.

I ALSO PLAYED TWELVE HOURS OF MAGIC.


By the time we left it was 11 o’clock, and Blake offered to drive me back to the city. It hardly seems possible that this trip could be split into three separate posts, but with the end of another day it seems a good time to break.

Magic

Only a small amount of people who know me (mostly those who’ve lived with me) will know one of my nerdiest and strongest interests. Indeed even when I subtly tell people that  one of my hobbies includes Magic, they often only think of it as the Penn & Teller version that junior high school boys get into one summer and then hopefully give up in pursuit of sports or even theater. Alas, my Magic is much more functional, geeky, addicting, and always concluded with “: The Gathering.”

After an early departure from President, archaeologist, and astronaut — goals which even at the age of five I could tell were not as fun in real life as in the movies — there have only been a few futures that I’ve really ever been passionate about in my life. Sitting right between writer and artist, somewhere before lottery winner and globetrotter, comes the dream job title “Professional Card Player.” It’s not too hard to imagine where this would come from. Before I learned to count in school I was playing card games like war with my Grandma. From there it graduated to complexities like Canasta and somewhere around Junior High my Dad taught me the ins and outs of poker. After solving a Rubik’s cube while waiting between races at track meets, Kelson and I quickly went to conquering counting cards in Blackjack with eighteenth birthdays looming.

All the while my generation grew up on Pokemon, with a slew of cards to collect and a somewhat functional gameplay I’d try to figure out with the other boy who lived in the apartment above me. When I finally moved in elementary school I met another neighbor who turned me to my first otaku habit: the Saturday morning cartoon show and card game imported from Japan known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Really it was more like the Pokemon for teenagers and I became engrossed. My past times included waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episodes; delving over all my cards and makings lists of decks; walking the block to my local game store to play on Friday nights (ironically next to all the MTG players); forcing Mom to get me the PS2 and Gameboy spin-offs; not to mention towards the end writing my own fan-fiction that poised me as a finalist in the Battle City Tournament. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the Japanese word otaku is almost always synonymous with obsessed, and recalling it now it’s really unbelievable how much of a passion it can still stir up in me. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Upon entering the hurricane that is High School, however, those hobbies got replaced — or oppressed — as I focused on all the new things a burgeoning hipster has to discover. Occasionally I’d sort through my Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! (and Harry Potter) cards, I’d even briefly learned the basics of Magic with Kelson (using a starter deck Dad had bought me and X back in 2000), but really my overall appetite for the game became subdued. Although I should probably mention for the last two years of high school I got decent into WoW becoming a pretty heavy player over the summers, so maybe I only replaced the physical of strategy with a virtual one.

Then college happened and my MMORPG time was limited. I met a guy we called “Lucious” who ran for Olaf who shared my enthusiasm (at the least) and basically became my instructor for the intricacies of rules and gameplay. It was a lot easier to find time to talk about the game when you’re on an hour long run. Then an app came out for the iPad which made it easy to play, as well as an increase of material on their website and Youtube channel. What originally served as a distraction from homework has turned into a way to stay connected and social after college. When I was in New York with hardly any friends not named Kath, I was able to go to an awesome game store for some FNM where they even started to recognize me by name.

It’s quite popular in Japan, but I never really sought it out because the language difference. Instead I still find it easier and more convenient to play online (I focus solely on limited formats anyway), although, that still didn’t stop me for signing up for a huge tournament for February in Nagoya way back in December. I figured it was a good way to get me (who dislikes travelling alone) to go out an travel alone. When Gavin, who himself had sought out the Fukui MTG community, brought me to a pre-release tournament with a little over a dozen people at our local shopping mall — all in Japanese — I took it as a sign I was ready for the big leagues. You see, the biggest problem would be understanding the rules. Since everything is in Japanese, and there are over 200 cards in the set, I basically had to memorize the art from each card and then remember which rules and effects applied to them. Really when you’ve played through a new set each year, it’s not hard to follow intuition, but with each set comes a new group of mechanics which can sometimes throw you off balance.

Alright, the adventure begins:

I signed up for the event in late December, even though I’d been considering it since before the fall. That gave me well over a month to make of some sort. Since in half a year I hadn’t drifted very far from Fukui, I’d never been to Nagoya let alone really knew it’s relative location. My former roommate Yasushi had always said he’d lived close to Nagoya, but I couldn’t remember, did he mean the city or the prefecture? I was a little lacking on the details, so assuredly I’d reach out to the JET community and find someone to stay with, probably someone else who’d be going to the event, too. That’s what I thought, at least, and unfortunately anyone who knows me knows that I’m a class S procrastinator. The week of the tournament approached and livin’ on a pray I just decided to wing it like most things. Remember only the weekend before I’d gone to Costco and stretched my budget a little bit more than I’d wanted. A hotel was certainly out of the question, but a capsule was something to look forward to. A lot of this trip hearkens to my experience in Tokyo last September, so I figured if I could do it there than Nagoya would be a piece of cake.

Luckily enough, about two days before the day I was planning to leave by God only knows what kind of transportation, I got a message from Gavin connecting me to one of the guys who runs most of the the local Magic events. Through my elementary Japanese and broken English we figured a way to meet and car pool with another local to Nagoya. About the same time my last minute pleas to various couch surfers were finally answered and it seemed like I had a place to stay.

The rain as we left on Friday night had been pouring for hours. It seemed like a perilous plan to make the two hour drive with limited view in a kei car, but then again our other options were naught. For an hour we drove smoothly making a merciful attempt at awkward conversation, or otherwise cruising in silence. He had switched off a playlist of what I thought was hardcore videogame music (think Castlevania), probably out of assumed embarrassment. We picked up our third companion and he drove the rest of the way. During that point I was only glad to be in the back seat, trying to ignore the speeds that he was flying at. We stopped briefly for dinner, but were still a bit lost on time. All the while I messaged my host giving him estimates that kept creeping later. When we finally made the outskirts of the city we detoured from a huge traffic jam, adding some more time.

With the map on my phone we slid down side roads, a bit turned around, until finally I decided I’d be able to find the place. They dropped me off, and I waved goodbye glancing up at the stories of apartment buildings surrounding me. As I closed in on the pin I messaged my host hoping I had the right place. Thankfully the rain had stopped in the city, so I loitered a moment at the bottom of some buildings until one of the various doors opened to a lighted hallway.

“Hey, Dillon?” a fluently English voice called out.

My eyes adjusted to see my unexpected host as we went into the elevator. I don’t think he’d mind me posting, but I’ll just say from his profile name alone I could tell two things: he was Japanese, and he wasn’t. That fact was reaffirmed as soon as we began talking. He was shorter than I expected (though, I should really just readjust my expectations in this country), with sleek black curls on his head that reminded me of my older brother. His skin is a light shade of cream like everyone else during the winter, but among his features I can see what’s characterized as Japanese and what isn’t.

“I’m sorry, am I pronouncing that right: Dil-lin? Dee-lon?”

“Don’t worry, even I get it wrong sometimes. But you’re gonna have to help me with your name.”

“Well,” he pronounced his name, “but you can just call me Vyn.”

I was happy to see his apartment wasn’t too larger than mine, just a bit more modern. If I’m living in the country and I can’t even boast about how much space I have, at least I get be proud about how freaking fortuitous my subsidized rent is, right?”

“Yeah, I pay a decent amount for this place, but I used to have a roommate who left about three months ago, and thankfully the landlord just hasn’t charged me differently.”

He opened a door that could’ve led to a closet and showed me my new room for the night.

“So now I’ve just been using it for friends and to host couch surfers. Usually I have to tell people how to use the air conditioning and lights, but I guess you already known how to do that.”

It was probably the same size as my room, with just a cheap bed, blankets and pillows.

“And the place looks a little weird right now because I’m actually moving out tomorrow, which is why you can’t stay on tomorrow night.”

Right, he’d mentioned something like that before. This last moment savior seemed more like another twist of fate to introduce me to another world’s version of myself (Gavin being the former). At first I didn’t understand what he meant by “a little weird” because it looked pretty normal to me: shelves of books, and kitchenware, and shampoo. Except I’ve moved from tiny room to tiny room more than a couple time the past years, and it dawned on me that he was seeing what tomorrow would bring: how to carry the bookshelf with the books still in it; stack the plates so the forks will fill the between; and mix the shampoo with the videogame controllers. He was super accommodating, ready to let me do my own thing and call it a night, but from what bits I’d already found out about him I had to ask, “Mind if I stay up and talk a bit?”

After confessing my commitment to Magic as the reason I’d be leaving so early in the morning, he spit out a slew of nerdom mostly in the form of videogames to even the playing field. I found out he was from the prefecture, but one side of his family had Brazilian heritage. Being that a large population of my town  consists of Brazilian immigrants, I asked how it was for him growing up as hafu looking for some insight on how my students might feel. Also a bit of a coincidence that we could compare my experience being racially diverse in American school systems. It was easy to understand how he knew bother Japanese and Portuguese languages, but the English was still a mystery.

“Well, I learned it in school.” Yeah, my purpose of being here, but also none of my students learn to speak so fluently. “And then I also watched a lot of American TV shows.” Some of which I watched, but he was way more versed in prime time television.

He’d moved to the city first to go to college in computer science (he’d graduated about the same time as I) and was moving again because of a job. In the interim he’d be going to Amsterdam, to do enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, and was planning to leave the following Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m not really Japanese,” he said with a laugh.

I’ve heard this from a number of Japanese people, but none with more candor. After breaching midnight, figuring the long day ahead of me, and the amount of packing he may or may not have spent all night doing, I decided to call it a night.


I really wasn’t expecting to say so much in this post but to keep things concise I think I’ll call it there. After all, most of the magic from the weekend actually happened in getting there, and the tumult that follows will probably be an equally long story.

 

Eiheiji

Previously I said that I wouldn’t be making any resolutions for the new year. In reality I think it’s almost impossible to follow that rule, or at least unlikely that you can avoid the influence and meandering thoughts that consider what part of your life needs improvement. In past years I’ve had some success with these ideas: giving up pop (soda), learning guitar, writing more; I’ve also had some short lived denials: keeping a planner, travelling the world, writing more. From the past couple of years, I’ve resigned to not make any changes in a life which on a whole is pretty content.

With everything in mind, though, it’s still hard not to try the future outlook, especially with the unique and impermanent situation I find myself in. For example, I’ve been living in a foreign country for four months and still haven’t really made any native friends. OK, so that’s not entirely true when you factor Yukie and my two English-speaking co-workers, but even they’re not particularly the company I can unwind with completely. Similarly when I lived in New York I had a similar series, where it basically wasn’t until the third month that I finally went out with someone I hadn’t known in college. So if the new year isn’t a time for me to make new guidelines or set out to achieve goals, I think it can be a period for me to completely reset.

Basically a winded entry into discussing my new habit of approaching every weekend fresh. I never decided to make the most of my time, and I haven’t really sought anything out. Maybe my zest for exploration is just continuing off the curtail of my winter vacation excess. As it had just seemed right to finally go out and surf, it also just seemed right that I’d finally make it to the oldest temple in Japan.

Besides, I didn’t really have anything better to do, and certainly wouldn’t have had any other plans, as I rode my newly donated bike to Yukie’s house on a cloudy but fine Sunday morning. She greeted me with her lap dog in her arms and with a boisterous, “Hello! Shall we be going?”

We made a pit stop for gas and then stopped at a garden store where she picked up a couple of plants before setting off on our way. At least that’s what I thought until we stopped in the neighboring city. “Oh, why don’t we have obento, it’s really nice. You’ll like it, really cheap and beautiful.”

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With the bento on board we were finally set. We drove about an hour away, past the city into the reclusive town of Eiheiji. Well, I guess reclusive is not the right word because, in spite of it being far out from the city with hardly any train access and a small population, it is among the most touristy places I’ve visited in Japan.

As we drove up to the castle we passed parking lot after parking lot with people outside them waving signs and trying to schuck the oncoming traffic into their lanes. “Oh we can get one much closer,” Yukie said, driving uphill at full course, “I know the place.”

We parked quite literally as close as possible in the back lot of a tiny souvenir shop. The weather was a bit cloudy but seeing how it’s winter you can’t ask for less. Although, I do think the whole area would look pretty great covered in snow. Because the area is pretty inland their chances are higher of having it, but apparently it had all melted the night before. Instead as soon as we were out of the car it started to drizzle rain. The woman running the souvenir shop handed us two umbrellas and wished us a good time. Sometimes nothing beats small town convenience.

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From the outside I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the temple. You really don’t see much of the grounds from the approach as it’s dug into a mountainside and surrounded by forest. From the entrance you meander down a hall taking off your shoes and being reminded not to take photos of special places or any of the monks there. I’ve yet to discover the reason behind this rule, but I suppose it’s probably to keep the temple separate from a full out tourist spectacle and respect the monks who practice there.

We followed a decent crowd up the staircase to a grand hall with a fantastic painted ceiling of individual vignettes depicting nature. It was a place you could easily just lie down in and spend over an hour wiggling around to glance each frame. I snuck (honestly accidentally) a picture with flash of what was probably my favorite scene:

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The extravagance immediately stopped in that room, as we followed the way to the main building. The tatami and carpet on the floors, the sconces lining the wall and the decorated ceilings dissipated.The rest of the temple was tranquility unbound.

I could see why someone would choose to study there to escape the superficial forms of life. Apart from the abundance of nature outside the walls, only the minuscule things could distract a keen mind. There was a doorway we passed, where the line of visitors slowed and hushed and peered in. Monks were lined sitting seiza on pillows facing wooden barriers inches away from their face. I can only imagine that room isn’t the most ideal for meditation as anyone squeaking by with their mumbles and coughs could wreck a train of unthought.

The entire structure was built from wood, and in Japanese tradition probably lacked any nails or metal holding it together. We walked up steep slanted steps peering through the plastic covered windows to what seemed like the main ceremony hall.

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Apart from the gold it was actually pretty dull without a high ISO. I saw some pictures of the space being used full of light and people and it does seem like a fantastic thing to join in. It’s pretty hard to imagine living in that space. First, it is saturated with traditions and rules and systems that even growing up around the culture doesn’t prepare you for immersion in the lifestyle. I have a third year student who recently wrote a speech about how when he graduates high school he wants to become a monk. I don’t wonder the reason why so much as to how. The whole thing seems like quite the process. Also, there’s the slight inconvenience of having no heat. I mean, I get that you can stoke fires and everything, but I struggle every night not to run up the electric bill with my air con, and I certainly didn’t take off my coat anytime walking around there. I wonder what the constant feeling of cold in the monks robes must be like. I get the appeal of camaraderie and life skills and finding inner truth through hours of meditation. Except there is such a history that you’re carrying on your shoulders, it seems like quite the burden as well. I wonder if it’s much like a men’s college cross country team.

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All in all, quite a good place to contemplate. There really isn’t too much to see, but in that case it also makes it a good day trip–especially if you bring obento. I think I’ll have to go again in the spring to see all the flowers blooming, and it is certainly full of color in the fall as well. It’s strange to think about how long the temple has been around, nearly 800 years, and even perhaps how constant its culture has been through that time. Compounding that incredulity is the comparison to some of the places I went to in Germany with a history equally as long. These places existed in the same Earth, but in such different worlds.

I’ll wrap up before I get too deep and embarked on my own meditation of time. In college I learned an amount about religion in Japan (unbelievably enough to have written a twenty page paper about the history of Shinto), and since that time I’ve even been able to retain some of it. In my senior seminar “Buddhism, Peace and Justice” taught by the beatific Barbara Reed we learned about a practice of meditation called Vipassana. There have been many revivals and uses of it in the past couple decades, and I’ve looked into retreats here in Japan that offer the ten day teachings. I don’t want to go into it unprepared, but who knows. Maybe next time i have a vacation I’ll give it more thought. Sometimes the real meaning of a break is not going out to the most decadent places, but realizing what you don’t need to have in the world

Surfing

There are plenty of things I hadn’t expected about this winter vacation. Last year I worked between Christmas and New Years, so I didn’t really have much to consider. In September I’d had dreams about skiing and snowboarding down the famous slopes of Fukui’s ski resorts. Even at the beginning of December I’d thought about making a dash to get back to America for a little while. The least likely of my unexpected plans would have surely been surfing.Yet, with the end of winter vacation upon us, and a random Monday off the first week of school, surfing is exactly what I found myself doing.

You may think it’s crazy, and I’ll admit to it being not the most appealing winter sport, but you’ve gotta remember that it hasn’t even snowed anywhere short of the mountaintops. Not even two weeks earlier I’d gone for a run in shorts and a t-shirt. Really the weather was not an issue. In fact, as my advisor and soon-to-find-out surfing virtuouso, told me that the winter in Japan was the best time for waves to form. After nagging from me for over two months he finally gave in and offered to take me. The nagging was more persuading, though, as every time I asked to go he got this longing look in his eye as if there’d be nothing he’d rather do than ditch school for the waters.

It only adds to his resume as the coolest teacher I’ve met. He’s been at my school for three years, but told me that his previous school was closer to the beach. He’d wake up early most morning in order to drive out to the sea and surfing for a couple hours before heading into class. He learned back when he lived in California after high school and continued when he moved to Australia after that. By the time he was back in Japan he competed near a semi-pro level, and I could see that surfing for him was like a long run to me.

So my persistence finally paid off and we were off predawn on that Monday morning. The weather was a bit cloudy, but looking to be good at the point a little over an hour and a half drive’s north. At first we drove out to a beach with roaring waves and no surfers. It looked awesome and I reassured him that I could figure out how to surf after my few years of skateboarding and boogie boarding when I visited my aunt in San Diego. He deferred to his better judgement and scoped out a more mainstream section with more regular waves.

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We parked and he tossed me an old wet suit he’d had. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but lifting it up to me it was clear that we were in the “make it work” mindset. He is after all third of a foot shorter than me. I struggled slipping into the thick lining of the suit, thankful I’d decided to wear compression shorts when he had to yank the waist up while I held my body down. With a final squeeze it zipped up and I was off to waddle with the penguins.

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After a short bit of stretching on the beach we waded into the sea. I was pretty giddy with excitement so I didn’t consider the fact that I’d be going into tumultuous waters, nor the fact that I hadn’t swam in a couple of months. My stretching could hardly be considered anything by the time we got afloat and started balancing on our surfboards. Well, Keisuke was doing just fine, but I was more like the long forgotten diversity promo of a Weeble Wobble.

I think I probably would’ve been fine had it not been the couple of other surfers clearly more experienced than me. It’s not really that I was embarrassed, but more that I just didn’t want to try to get up on a wave and end up crashing into someone else. So I stuck more to the edge, paddling into waves and chilling with a woman who also was a bit new fine to chillax on the outer edge.

Eventually I ran into a problem. I had gone out the night before (it was after all a three day weekend), and though I didn’t really feel so hungover I also didn’t realize how much the waves would rock me back and forth. Combine that with the ever-crushing squeeze of the wet-suit and you’ve got a bigger mess than a Tijuana truck stop. I shuffled off to the restroom, also for the first time realizing how freaking cold my bare feet had become. It was as if my outer limbs were the glaciers in Antarctica while my innards were the hole in the ozone layer rapidly depleting. Also, a pretty unique anxiety to feel, but there’s almost nothing like having to take a too small wet suit off in two minutes urgency.

I shivered my way back to the sea, contemplating not getting back in. Alas I decided I’d have to stick at it, and there was an idea that I’d learned long ago that water temperature is usually warmer than air temperature. (I think I understand how that doesn’t work in this case, but with bone white toes I needed anything to convince me I could get warm.) Luckily the nausea subsided, and I was still flip flopping around.

The sun had risen high in the sky by this point and the blue sky was quite stunning. It was really staggering to believe it was barely January on top of the situation entirely. Really almost the most ideal conditions I could imagine, though it could’ve been a bit warmer. Keisuke swam over to me and asked if I was ready to go. I hadn’t been able to keep any track of time but he’d said we’d been in the water for over two hours. I didn’t believe him at first, no way had I survived that long, but I guess it seemed plausible. When we finally dragged ourselves onto the beach I started to feel the aches. I supposed for the most part my body was completely numb, so I didn’t realize how much work I’d put in until I warmed up.

Luckily the veteran surfing master came completely prepared. After stripping out of his wet suit in the blink of an eye, he brought out a container and poured hot water into a bucket. I was helpless and so thankful to just pad my feet around until they got any sort of feeling in them. It’s a good thing I lost all the nerves in most of my toes from Nordic skiing or else I would’ve faced a world of hurt.

 

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When I finally, with much assist, ripped my wet suit off, Keisuke asked if I wanted to go into the town. Within a fifteen minutes drive is one of the more famous natural monuments in Fukui and even among some crowds known in Japan at large. The thing is, the cliffs of Tojinbo are mostly known because they’re a popular sight for people to go and commit suicide. But when in San Francisco you’re not gonna avoid seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, so I figured this had the same reasoning.

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They weren’t anything super staggering, maybe because the tide was higher from the rain, but really the biggest thought was how unappealing a spot most of the cliffs would be to jump off of. Japan is pretty famous for having spots like this around the country, but I would hope this isn’t the first choice of most people. When we arrived the sea was clear and there was a pretty sweet rainbow off in the distance. It was good just to check it off the list, top off the day, and enjoy the weather.

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In the winter Fukui is pretty famous for its crab, so we stopped by a restaurant for a quick lunch of crab ramen. Fresh and fantastic. At first I was worried at the cost, but Keisuke pointed me to a different menu. Turns out the one I was looking at listed the prices for crabs reserved to be sent to the Emperor’s palace.

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All around a bomb diggity way to start my interest in surfing. Wouldn’t mind going again, but definitely need to scour the YouTube for more technique and practice videos. For now, I just hope it can snow soon so I can surf the slopes instead.

Yamaguchi

Maybe I’ve said this before, but even if I have it bears repeating:

It’s sometimes unbelievable how much a constant running has been throughout my life.

Out of so many other sports, clubs, interests, religions, hobbies, and places I’ve gone in life, it’s the only thing that’s stayed there. It’s responsible for some of my closest friends, my biggest achievements, and quite entirely my college experience.

So ever before coming to Japan I was doing research on what the running scene was like. My expectations for a low interest and slow field were pretty wiped when I found out that there’s a decent crew of fast runners throughout the nation (though mostly central, like America’s heartland of talent). Especially with the Olympics approaching, the government is encouraging and funding even more programs specifically towards younger people to do well in sports. (For example, this 16 year old track star will likely podium for Japan in Tokyo 2020.)

I was pretty happy to be put in Fukui just out of the fact that it’s got some nature to make long runs through. I’ve been holding off talking about my own running experience for the proper post, but I’ll just add that this is the first time in a while I’ve been running without a direct goal.

Even last year, my first seasons out of college running I still looked forward to my alumni races or the season in the fall. Unfortunately here, the season is less year round and more marathon focused. And I am one to swear against any sort of marathon in the foreseeable future (though Tokyo was tempting).

After busting my foot for a month and then working my way back for another, I was pretty set come October (when it finally started getting cold after I left work) to join the track team at school. It let me do something other than crushing my mind against correcting pages for the last hour of work and deleted the excuses I’d later come up with to convince me not to run. I’d been told how great the school’s track team was, and looked forward to running with a team again. Turns out the rumors were pretty true, or I was just really out of shape (and probably a bit of both). After a 3000 meter time trial where the top time was around 9:40 I decided that at least three of them could be faster than me (the equivalent of an American ninth grader). It intrigued me to find out how fast the actual elite were, and I immediately vocalized my interest in going to the national race at the end of the season.

So, the days go by, and the time I enjoy at school grows exponentially simply because I recognize more students and know more about their lives. I’d been thinking about my counterpart back home, Kelson, who’d signed up for his second season of coaching and get why he enjoys it. At the least it keeps me from getting fat, at the most it keeps me young.

And finally it the week of the race, and I’m psyched. I came in to the teacher’s room after practice on a dark December night to see some of my co-workers huddled in the end of a discussion. “So,” one of the teachers says, “it’ll be about 1 mansen yen, is that OK? That’ll cover everything, transportation and hotel.”

I shrugged, not quite expecting it to be that much, but really can you put a price to anything nowadays. “Sure.”

And we’re off. The end of the week there was no practice because over ten kids were going to this race in Yamaguchi, which included all the long distance side of the team and even a couple soccer players. There was a lot of nostalgia on my part, remembering packing up the St. Olaf vans for the rides to Regionals and Nationals. Thus was the feeling that came to me as I got picked up a little after the afternoon on Saturday to make the eight hour ride to the end of honshu Japan.

Now, a long time ago, I wasn’t really considering how long it would take to get to Yamaguchi. When accounting for the less than three hour trips in each direction to get to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Nagano, I’d always had this skewed image that Japan as an island couldn’t take any time to get to any important point on the map. But whatever, I was committed with a notebook and Clive Cussler novel and ready for the trip.

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As much as I love to go into the menial details, I’ll skip over the drive to wind up the night sitting at the end of a table full of raw meet and drinks. By the time I was at number two, everyone else was telling me it was number three, but the food was delicious so I didn’t care. It was my first time eating this kind of Korean bbq, and I topped off the meal with bibimbop thinking of Stef in San Francisco. One great common thing when getting meals with a group of people in Japan is the evenly split bill at the end of the night. It’s pretty nice for everyone just to take responsibility for the whole, and encourages a pretty good time. It can get a bit awkward if you’re sure someone has been hogging the drinks or food, but then you just deal with it through a bit of moral superior karma. Of course, the 5000 yen bill at the end kind of hurt, but at that point in the month I still had time to live wealthy.

Of course, that wasn’t the end to the night by far, and as we left I quickly got a small glimpse of Japanese social (gender) expectations, as the women of the group headed of in one direction (presumably to the hotel, but I’d have to guess that’s strictly a presumption) while the men stroll in the other direction. I ended up in another bar, somewhat izakaya style, while we brought up another chair to a table and ordered a nomihoudai. It’s times like these, only a few so far I’ve had, that make me feel like I fit in exactly how I should. Even in the presence of two other English teachers, I was shooting out Japanese back at the questions asked to me.

Not too much excitement for the night, but enough contentment for me.

(And I got to sleep in a bed! Always a good time, compared to the futon that I roll out on my floor every night. I hardly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, but sleeping in an actually bed still comes off like a luxury.)

Thus, it came that I woke up within ten minutes of check-out time–luckily before my co-workers messaged me to ask if I was ready to go–as I rushed to put on some athletic clothes and shove the rest of my stuff into my backpack. I scanned the room with the inevitable feeling I was forgetting something, and went to the lobby sheepishly ready to start the day.

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It was beyond impressive to see the extent of how the race was set up. It’s basically in a state park, but the park from what I gleaned is set-up specifically to hold outdoor running events. Now, I know we’ve got shoe companies in America that host these races–this one was sponsored by Mizuno–but even at my college level I never saw such support built in for running teams, let alone for junior high school level. The tents alone were a little over fifty teams, each with a tent the size of my apartment and a decent amount of people there to watch. (Also, take into account that only 6 of the dozen students they brought were racing, but all of them rode the shinkansen and hosted up in a hotel for three nights. Quite frickin’ awesomely unbelieveable.)

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We waited around for a good couple of hours. I took a chance to walk around. It’s weird because back home, I never feel too far out because plenty of my students are mixed race, not to mention a decent amount of my neighbors are Brazilian. Now, at this pretty specific Japanese event, I was quite certain I was not only the only non-Japanese person, but the only dark skinned human over six feet tall. I mean, I certainly have that constant look over your shoulder in America, but here’s it’s a similar feeling for a completely different reason.

Anyway, I ended up running into a couple of my students heading down to the merchandise stall. They helped me in choosing a sweater, and I ended up meeting some of their parents. It was weird because I could hear them talk about me before I turned around to them, and even though I’d never met them, they already clearly knew who I was. Later on, one of the third year’s mothers thanked me so much for joining the team and even a little sister from one of my elementary school visits recognized me with a surprised, “Dillon-sensei?!” We’re talking first graders here that I taught for one hour two weeks ago remembering me by name. It was a crazy realization just to point out how connected I was to the community without even doing anything–or much, at least.

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The boys race went off after the girls, and anxiously I crowded around to saw a mass pile through the first curve of the track hardly distinguishable from one another until they passed beyond the treeline to the 3km trail. Basically over the next hour it was me running back and forth trying to cheer at all the good spots, take times and pictures, and keep warm. The weather started decent, but actually got a bit shady and chilled during the middle. An hour went by, and well, the lead team was dominating and my team, well, was not. We weren’t in last, or too near it, but we definitely weren’t towards the front or, maybe even in a standard deviation of the middle. Oh well, it was inspiring to see everyone try and think about pushing them through the winter to make a better performance for next year.189188

And just like that we were back on the road, literally as the students were bowing in the traditional appreciative thanks my group was shuffling back to our van to make the eight hour return trip. Can’t say it was as much fun as the way up there, but I was satiated on a well spent weekend full of nostalgia and inspiration. As I start to expect snow any time soon I can already say I can’t wait for the spring. I know I’ll keep up running, but really it’s just awful compared to the rest of the year. Luckily I’ve still got a great team to keep me motivated.