Waterfalls

The sun rose at 4:28. I know this because I had already been up for an hour. I’d gotten out of bed to use the bathroom, but when I laid back down my eyes stayed open. It was ridiculous to think I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was still full after drinking enough wine last night because my neighbor was having a party in honor of her husband’s seventh year of passing. I’d only been asleep for four hours. I closed my eyes and rolled over.

When half an hour passed I pulled out my phone. I felt completely sober as well, but a dry mouth made me get up to gulp down a couple glasses of water. No smart decisions are made or lost with a cell phone and nothing to do. I immediately pulled up the REI app which I’d downloaded sometime early in the spring. It was their anniversary sale, and I still had a couple things to check off my list if I wanted to start camping by summer. For three hours I scoured the pages, going between REI and Backcountry (despite my membership, I found the latter to have some better deals). I was repeating almost the same process I had done a year ago approaching July 2016, with visions of Japan mountaintops and morning hikes. Back then I was making less and just gotten out of debt. I decided to clear my cart at the last moment and be done with it. I think I’ve mentioned this habit before. I’ll spend hour(s) shopping online or in real life — I’ll create these alternative realities where I’m fully enjoying a product I can’t live without — and when it comes to checkout I put everything down and leave the store. I think it’s a good practice in restraint. It’s always smart to wait before making a purchase, and after a year of having the urge to go camping I finally had to act.

I wrapped up all the shopping around the time my alarm went off. I could’ve stayed in bed a little longer, but really I had the mindset to get up and work so why put it to waste. Originally I had wanted to spend the day studying, applying to jobs, getting things in order and focusing on my side projects (which there are plenty), but those original plans fell through and I arranged to hang out with the only Japanese friend my age left in the city.

“Wanna hang out on Sunday?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“Bring Hazuki with you.”

“You mean in the morning, then?” he asked.

Hazuki is his … let me do the math, eight month old daughter. Wow, it’s weird to think that’s she’s only eight months, and at the same time she’s already eight months. Babies, I guess, are weird like that. Like only now among my third year students I’ve noticed the different in height and loss of chubby cheeks from when I first got here, but this girl has barely even existed for a year and she’s already practicing how to walk. Just weird. Let’s not think about that. Although I enjoy her company, even taking care of pets for more than a month I’ve found to be too intruding so I’m certainly not going to think about children within this decade. Well, not that I have a choice at the moment anyway.

Dillon with a baby

They arrived just before noon. She gave me huge confusing eyes as I looked at her. When Kubo, her dad, passed her over to me those eyes shone up at me, then over to her father, then back at me. Then they turned to twisted black raisins on roiling over puffy red cheeks, as her hands sprung out back towards her dad. I quickly passed her over, amazed at how immediate the crying stopped. He chuckled and then put her back in my arms where she started crying until I set her down on the floor. The last time I saw her she wasn’t much smaller, but she had stayed silent most of the day and didn’t seem remotely aware of what was going on around her. But now she was crawling and exploring and practically a hazard on four legs.

Hazuki standing Hazuki Crawling

Eventually I had to unplug my mouse and keyboard from my computer because she was so determined to play with them. We left when she got curious enough to dig into the floor plant I have.

We didn’t really have a plan so we first went for lunch at a restaurant near my school. It was my second time being there and basically solidified sauce katsudon as my favorite Japanese food. It’s pretty tough to describe. On the surfuce is just tenderized pork deep fried, dipped in sauce, and put over rice. It’s half a common dish in Japan but the way it’s done in this prefecutre is a bit of a specialty. I eat it as much as my healthy lifestyle will allow.

From the restaurant we stopped by his home to see if someone was around to take the baby. With the driveway empty and nothing else in mind, we took a quick detour to a walking trail. The weather now is basically summer. It’s a little hot directly in the but we put Ha-chan in a stroller so she was pretty comfortable. As soon as I strapped her in — maybe even a bit before — her head plopped against a shoulder and she fell asleep. The path took us down and around to a small baseball stadium where a minor league game was going on. At first I thought it might’ve been a high school match where I could see some former students. When we saw the entrance fee was roughly five bucks we decided to turn around and find something else to do.

That’s when I learned you never want to wake a sleeping baby. As soon as I lifted her out of the stroller she started squiggling, and wailing a bit more. When I set her in the car seat I noticed she burped a little milk. I’m not sure I expected what was coming when I decided to pick up again and pull her out of the car, but then she threw up a little bit more on my arm.

“Oh, no.”

Truly in these types of situations you can never move as quickly as you know you need to. The next thing was a jet-stream of white baby formula cascading down my shoulder. I’ve seen this happen in the movies, but I always thought it was some kind of trope. The obvious reaction would be to point her mouth in a different direction, but instinctively I just held her closer until it all poured out. Kubo just laughed at that reasoning.

“Don’t you have a towel?” I asked.

“No.”

“What! You’ve been a father for eight months and you don’t have a towel?”

He rummaged around for some baby wipes and started scrubbing her arms and legs.

“Well, has this ever happened to you?”

“It used to a lot, but recently not so much.”

I guess I’m just lucky. He pointed me over to the restroom where I washed my shirt in the sink and tried to clean the side of my shorts. Only being familiar with wine and nose bleeds, it seemed like it’d take a bit more than cold water to clean out this mess.

This little predicament settled our own issue of trying to find something to do. We went back to his family’s house to leave the baby with his wife and he tossed me a clean shirt. He had a place in mind in the neighboring area, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to explain it to me in words I understood. I could guess, though, what he meant when he said bridge. After all, in a rural area such as this, there isn’t a variety of sightseeing attractions under that category.

kazura vine bridge

It wasn’t nearly as long, or rickety, or high as I thought it would be, but maybe that’s just from a 6’3″ American’s point of view. The planks were tied a decent ways apart actually, but Kubo made fun of me because my foot size is so big I couldn’t even notice.

Under the bridge ran a stream with a path leading down to it on the other side. The water was a bit cold, but completely clear and I couldn’t help whipping my socks off to go stand it in. It was nice to be back in the nature, which only affirmed my morning camping purchases. The other side had a garden, a small koi pond, and even a dojo to make soba noodles. We went into a tiny hut with a map of attractions around the area. Kubo was attracted to one particular image of a waterfall that didn’t look too far away. It was already four o’clock and I had planned to run and hit up an onsen before the night’s end, but I didn’t mind a little more adventuring.

The trip was a forty minute drive into the woods on a narrow path without any signs. I pulled up google maps, but even that didn’t know exactly where we were trying to go. Luckily, I have never once come across a dirt road during my time in Fukui so the only real worry you ever have to have while driving is avoiding the open gutters on either side (which is occasionally a problem when two cars have to pass by on a curving hill in the woods). We actually passed by the parking lot, driving straight up to where the waterfalls were. It was pretty stunning, but we drove to make a u-turn because Google Maps actually didn’t know where what road to take us on.

waterfall gif

The fall is huge, and really there’s no good way to capture it all in a picture. It’s too wide, and too tall. Because it’s sandwiched between the ridges there isn’t much sun, but at that time of day it was shining perfectly to feel like a fantasy novel. It’d be a great place to have a picnic. There was literally a family with two boys splashing around at the base of the waterfalls. I thought it might be a bit too cold for that, but I envious they’d thought to bring a towel.

When we left we drove a different way back to town. I remember on the way there I was struck by how high we were going and how vast the woods seemed, but this time was a bit quicker. I figured it was OK since I’d seen enough. Pushing myself to the limits of my motivation, I did go out and enjoy a half hour run before the sun went down and immediately biked to the nearest onsen, one I hadn’t been to before. I felt a bit uneasy the whole time because the entryway and lockers were plastered with signs that said they didn’t allow tattoos (seriously on everything that I would touch). That’s pretty common in Japan, but usually the signs are tucked away and ignored. This place felt a bit different. On top of that the admission was ¥200 more than what I normally pay, I didn’t get a stamp card, and their outdoor pool wasn’t even working. Well, at least I can feel more assured about the quality when I go back to my regular one. Unfortunately this is all a Sunday, and I’d be much happier living in the future where they’ll almost certainly have three day weekends (at least). For now, I can only bask in the laziness and get back to work.

Update

It’s easier to say six months ago than half a year.

Half a year seems too far away. Half a year ago I had so much time, so many plans, so many choices yet to make. Six months ago was a bit more organized. I had the small goals to reach, the decisions to focus on one by one. For example, in January I had to decide whether I’d continue my contract for another year. I didn’t. In February I would visit Hokkaido for the winter festival. I planned for that, but not for an unexpected visitor to extend that into a week long vacation. By March, I would pay off my first student loan and use my tax return to pay off half of another. I succeeded in the first act, but turns out not paying federal taxes because I live in Japan means I don’t have enough taxes to warrant a return. The spring break was followed by a doubly unexpected visit and vacation plans that actually put me further away from my goals. I’ve gone to two job fairs, slowly polished my LinkedIn account, and have every job finding app alerting me every minute on my iPhone to some new opportunity perfect for my field. I’ve purged my closets and drawers of random socks or flyers to make a more minimalist living. I’ve looked at maps of where to go, and where I’ve been, and where opportunities might lurk waiting to be hunted down.

And I have two months. In reality it’s less than two months. If I pretend it’s two months than it will look organized. Those small goals will be met right on the deadline, but the overarching picture will be lost. If I wait until the end of July to understand what I’m going to do next I’m doomed. Instead I’ve been looking at it in paychecks. After all, those are what actually determine my safety. After the next seventy days will I have enough money to stay in Japan, continue to pay my student loans, have a place to live?

All of this I say lightheartedly, unable to muster the stubborn pessimism of my parents, falling in line more with their siblings. I’m not worried. Even now as I apply to jobs I’m finding things that I would love to do, and maybe more surprisingly that I’m qualified to do. I’m still studying Japanese, among other things, even though I can’t speak worth the time I’ve been here. My apartment is clean, and certainly warmer as the spring rolls in. I’m running more now that the weather agrees with my hobbies, and at least in the vaguest of senses back to making art. I’m not reading or writing nearly as much as I should or want to, my hair is slowly falling out, and I’m in more credit card debt than this time last year, but the wise philosopher Vonnegut once said, “so it goes.”

I think worst of all, I’m having a lot of fun. Over the past six months, half a year, several paychecks, credit card bills, burned CDs, photo uploads, anime seasons, onsen visits, and bullet trains I’ve twisted through every option of my future and where exactly I want to end up. I simultaneously don’t want this lifestyle to end, while fully supporting the drive to move on to something new.

I’m not calling this a revival, but this post isn’t very long, so if you’re still reading this don’t give up hope that I’ll write a couple more before long. After such a hiatus I’ve actually found a number of drafts more than half-way done that I never got around to publishing. Like all things in life, there’s never enough time, but in looking towards the future I think it will be good to catch up on the past. Only time, or seventy days in this case, will tell.

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.

Election

“Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years but all the time. So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear; making our economy work for everyone not just those at the top, protecting our country and protecting our planet and breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.”

–  Hillary Clinton, November 9th

For about a year I’ve been saying the only reason I have to stay in Japan is a Trump presidency. Since then, I’ve come to find more reasons in my life, but none that seemed to compete so much with that reality. I never considered it seriously, and I never thought I’d have to. I sent in my vote a month ago with a Hillary mark at the top. I’ve been following the election more than I think I ever would’ve in America, and I didn’t think the question was ever “would she win?” but “by how much?”

Then again, I remember having a truculent debate one night in New York almost three years ago after a couple tall boys over how Hillary would never get the presidency. The only thing is I was on the side of the Republicans. Of course, Hillary wouldn’t become president, history would prove that a republican would come after Obama — it’s the ultimate form of our checks and balances.

I really don’t think I would’ve minded a Republican winning this year. I was always more Hillary than Bernie — and than other option — but I wouldn’t see such a dismal future had someone like Rubio, Kasich, or dare I say Bush been elected. The GOP party platform is so far away from aligning with my views of the world, but actual republican systems of smaller local government is something I prefer on most cases. The thing is this time it isn’t a Republican leading the country, and it’s not really a wolf in sheep’s clothing (that title can go to Pence). I feel we’ve elected an entertainer because in the end the American body wants to be entertained. The concepts of efficiency and solving problems have been disregarded for pure showmanship. Wanting to change the system is not a bad thing, but defining it in a vote for a man as crude as Donald Trump might as well be like ordering off the dollar menu at McDonald’s in order to save money.

All day yesterday I tracked the results. Being fifteen hours in the future and a day where all my students had standardized test, I had the convenience of being awake and present for the whole thing. I had multiple websites tabbed up in my browser checking the plots, maps, and down ballot results. I refreshed at least once a minute. I watched as the 538 website varied around 78/24, to the Pennsylvania & Michigan stalemates that brought them to 52/48, and then the plunge as Florida was called and New Hampshire was still undecided. I held out all sorts of hope as her chances reached 15%, readying myself for a Arizona win. And then I finally had class, and went away defeated.

The hardest part was returning to the teacher’s room, and having all my Japanese co-workers ask me for the results. Now, everyone has their own reasons for supporting their candidate, and there are certainly a few valid ones for choosing Trump. But Japanese people (as I suspect most parts of the world outside of Russia) on a whole did not want Trump to win the election. They are worried about what it means for their country. They’re worried about the leadership in their own government, and how American relations could influence the populous into a negative cursory change.They follow this race at the same level I say any reasonable person should. That’s where this result really impacts me.

Every time there’s an election in my life (this would mark the fifth) I hear people saying they want to move to Canada. They say they’re getting out before the place goes to hell. In the end I actually think that’s counterproductive to their cause, and most don’t actually fly north for the four year winter. Except I have the actual excuse of being out of the country. I have to choose now whether I should go back, and I don’t know if I feel safe doing so.

I also think people tend to overestimate the drastic changes that will happen. Remember back when Obama won the first time and everyone (on the winning side at least) had such a feel good outlook that the Bush years would be immediately remedied and systemic inequalities and discrimination would be solved? Or that baffling movie put out by the conservative right that discussed how Obama’s anti-colonialist upbringing would lead to America’s demise by 2016? The thing is both of those outlooks, positive or pessimistic, didn’t really pan out how people expected. Obamacare is getting extreme (or eradicated), as is Syria, and George Bush tried to fix education while isolation the poor, but both of their plans only strained a system that was already running. My point being Trump might be sickening to some and a savior to others, but I’m not completely convinced he’ll be able to do much to the extent of what he says anyway. I still have faith that Paul Ryan is as sane and pragmatic as they come. I believe Hillary and Obama and Bernie and Elizabeth will cultivate support and change on their own. I think the machine that is the American government might need some repairs after four years but it will keep revolving.

So now I’m stuck, having to introduce myself as a Canadian at least for a couple of months, while I decide what to do. Frankly, I’m not comfortable going back to a country that has Donald Trump as president, or a majority that would elect Donald Trump as president. I really wanted to consider going back to America. I’m going to see what happens in the next two months. It could depend if all the global markets compete against the dollar, or if the yen falls into another recession with the lot. It’ll depend on American living and increase in job potential. It might have to depend on what civil rights will be revoked.

Until then, I have the privilege to carry on, worrying about it a little less because I’m in one of the safest places on earth.

To sum it up, or at least to give a little bit of sunshine, I’d like to point to Stephen Colbert’s conclusion to his live show on Election Night. I insist you watch it all the way through. I think his feeling is the most accurate state of America. His rare candor through the whole segment inspires hope that no matter the turmoil of the past months the humanity beneath it all will still be able to laugh together…

Pokémon

When the game first came out I heard about it from Carmelo. He pulled it up on his phone, and I watched baffled how such a thing could exist. I downloaded it, and learning it wasn’t released in Japan, set it aside for later use. When it did get released, I was still using a disintegrating iPhone 5C wihtout a working clock or GPS. On one hand all my lucky eggs and incense were infinite (a bug now solve, by the way), on the other I could hardly catch any Pokémon because I was stuck in one spot. Once I finally got a new phone in the mail, I logged on and twirled around the screen, hopping at any moment a Pokémon would pop up. I was a bit disappointed. The gameplay for Pokémon Go still has a lot to make up for, and without the surge of popularity I probably would’ve deleted the app and just bought a DS and Japanese copy of Black or White secondhand.

Then midway through August I was strung out on my cash. My unexpected vacation to the Narita airport set me back almost $300. The lack of school activity also made my weekdays a bit more translucent. At night I my typical bedtime was moving further and further back. With a bit more time on my hands, and not too many free things to do (in the countryside) I found any excuse to be distracted. It came on a Sunday morning. I woke up earlier than usual for the weekend, feeling refreshed, and instantly did my laundry. By 10 o’clock, I had a vacuumed apartment and a bright and sunny day ahead of me. So thinking I’d go downtown to run some errands, I hopped on my bike and (because I’m a dangerous fool with ignorance to caution) pulled up the Pokémon Go game.

The next seven hours was filled with me riding around in the sun, waiting for my phone to vibrate, hatching several eggs, and searching out whatever Pokéstops I could find. By the end of the day I’d leveled up, attained a couple medals and increased my Pokédex. I felt pretty accomplished, but not only for my status in the game. Following the tiny map on my phone, I’d discovered parts of the city I hadn’t bothered exploring before. Perhaps one of the biggest visitor’s spots we have, Murasaki Shikibu Park, which was always just a block away from my apartment, is something I never stepped into before. I took a tiled pathway from there and found the back roads past the community pool to the post office. I discovered the town has way more shrines and temples than I ever imagined. There are plenty of remnants from decades ago, too, where the city was bigger and full life. That was during a baby boom before the population decline fell into crisis mode.

Playing the game made me realize more about the community I’m placed in, what has been thriving, just how many other people play Pokémon Go. There are plenty of restaurants that look delicious and even side streets that at night turn into a time machine for the past. So often as I make my way home, I’ll get distracted by a rare Pokémon that will divert me to a difference way.

Often this happens when I’m running. Granted, it’s not the best thing to play as a runner (you tend to stop and reorient yourself a lot), but it’s also one of the main supporters in getting me out the door. I’ve been running everyday for over a month now — something I could hardly do in college. It also keeps me out longer, going just a bit further, to see what’s around the corner, or to hatch that second 5k egg.

On trips it can be especially fun. When I went to Tokyo last month, I kept getting a buzz from my phone, looking at the map to catch some Pokémon, and then noticing a bunch of Pokéstops in a nearby place. Especially in bigger cities, if you follow the trail it usually leads you to some sort of tourist attraction or sightseeing place, or even just something locally worth knowing about.

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I write this because when you ask me what I’ve been up to the past 2 months I would definitely be lying if I didn’t mention Pokémon Go. In light of the election which I’ve been following off NPR podcasts and radio fervently, it’s nice to have a lighter distraction. It’s a mind-and-time sucking game with significant amounts of room for improvement. But it’s also kept me active, choosing to go outside on a better (or even typhoon) weather day than stay in and watch movies. I suspect the fads and interest in parts of America are dwindling as they are in Japan. Whenever I do go out to hunt down a silhouette on my Pokétracker, though, I still see the devoted fans, walking by with cell phones raised, or standing still and flicking their screen, and at least for now I’ll join them.

Renew

A first impression of this post’s title might be misleading. I should start out by explaining this isn’t the type of renewal that you’ll see on the side of face creams, but instead more like the renew that you’ll inevitably do three times for the library book that you brought home on a whim and will return without ever reading. This renewal is about the start another trimester, the end of summer, and the second year of me being in Japan.

Summer vacation was a bit latent in August, but came on full force with the last week. There were moments in the morning where I realized I was just falling asleep, and moments at night when I wondered if I was just waking up; I saw plenty of fireworks, both in the air and out of my hand; I did my own workouts swimming in the outdoor community pool, and relaxed swimming out into the sea. There were few moments involving alcohol, except for those when I would drink wine and grill on my neighbor’s porch.

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The real take away came September 1st after missed connections home and a resignation to stay out of America for longer than a year was the new direction I needed to look towards. Mainly, whatever I would be doing after another year. I mean, I’m literally fourteen months and counting living outside of America without ever being back. This is the longest I’ve gone without contact home and sometimes it doesn’t seem more than a blink. Another blink past and I could be leaving this job and in the midst of an unknown.

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I think this feeling first came with the end of the summer seminar. It finished, and the next day I woke up wanting to go in and continue working on it. I suddenly had a ton of free time, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. The last time I’d really thought about the future seriously was applying for this current position. Re-contracting came pretty suddenly — without much thought, really, because I knew I was happy enough. But now after an entire year, I feel I’ve finally gone through the whole cycle, I know what’s coming and what to expect.

It really dawned on me after a morning conversation with Stefan, my roommate from college. He’s probably been working since I visited him last year in San Francisco on convincing me to move out there. It doesn’t help that I was already leaning towards the West Coast (Seattle), another friend of ours just moved out there, and most jobs that fit my professional aspirations exist there in some form. After an hour of talking, I kept thinking. My final destination was hardly certain to be San Francisco, but the horizon of the next step seems to approach at a dauntingly steady pace. I’m not quite settled on leaving my job come next year (I still have two months to decide), although, if that happens I don’t want July 2017 to come without any plan or destination.

So I’ve renewed my position. At the same time, everything has changed. The Sports and Culture festivals this year were not nearly as fun as last year and if anything bordered on nostalgic. They also seemed over in a flash. Teaching has been easier to manage, but at the same time I can quickly scrutinize the parts that are wickedly flawed or inefficient. It’s certainly more demanding because a lot more can be expected from me.

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After the summer respite I really began to look around at what to do next. Or at least try to figure out what I want to do next. I’m so torn between writing and design, and a mix of other things. I kept telling myself if Trump wins the presidency I would be able to narrow down the next step to places outside of the United States, but now it seems like all those options will (thankfully) still be in the mix. Add onto that my friends are currently spread out so far across not only America but even the globe, and I have no clue where I want to end up. Last month I ended up visiting Carmelo, who left the neighborhood for good and moved to Tokyo. I ended up having a fantastic time. I’ll end up writing about it soon, so I won’t go into detail, but Tokyo has ended up towards the top of my options for what’s next. I feel like I’ve started to invest a lot into this country and language that I can’t just give it up now.

At first glance of this post’s title I wonder if you thought it meant the type of renew you use to describe the smell after rain in April when spring flowers are finally blooming. I’m not entirely convinced it’s the type of automatic renewal of your Netflix subscription you never think about but still exists there on the credit card statement you never see because you do all your banking online. Maybe it’s more like the renewing $10 I give each month to Minnesota Public Radio. It’s not something I feel bad about doing, and I’ll definitely continue supporting the cause, but when I leave, the system won’t fall apart and I’ll still contribute to the connections every now and then.

I guess this is just a mid-millennial crisis way of pondering: what the hell am I doing with my life? For now I’m here, and I’m content, but an impermanence that has always been present is finally speaking up to ask: what next?

 

Birthday

With over 650 students it’s pretty hard to make a connection with all of them, remember their names, or even interact with all of them in any given week. Thus, one of the easiest things I could think of to make them feel appreciated (and force me to wiggle my artistic limb) was a birthday card. It’s actually quite time consuming some days–when there are five or so birthdays–but it’s also pretty self rewarding when I feel like I’ve done something extremely clever. There are certainly times when I make variations of the same theme, but I try to make them original and somewhat related to the interests of the student. Here are some of my favorites:

I’ve had plenty to write about, and with the end of summer vacation and festivities I suspect I’ll finally have some time to write about them. Stay tuned.

Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.