Tag Archive: japan


One Year Return Anniversary

Becoming an independent adult in a foreign country was quite the adventure, but I’ve had to spend the last year adjusting to the work culture and expectations as an adult in the U.S.

1. My living expenses had to be adjusted. I pay less for fruits and vegetables but more for cable and internet. Electricity is cheap but healthcare is high. (At least now I can use the air conditioner in summer without breaking the bank.)

2. I can’t pay bills at the convenience store. I have to actually remember to write a check or pay online. And the late notices are less polite than in Japan.

3. Work doesn’t come home with me anymore. I don’t have an entire bookshelf dedicated to work materials.

4. Going to a Japanese restaurant/marketplace within the first few months of returning is not as fun as going about 6 months after returning. One year after returning is even more fun. It’s like going back in time.

5. I have to hold back the constant stream of “one time in Japan….” anecdotes. The struggle is real. I hope I don’t annoy too many people with stories.

I do have times when I want to go back to my old life in Japan, but those moments fade away quickly. Japan isn’t going anywhere, and when I get the vacation time, I’ll definitely visit again.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve been going through these days. It’s soon coming up to  1 year since returning from the JET Program. It feels like the ‘honeymoon’ phase of my return to the U.S. is over (driving! wide open spaces! cheese!), and now I miss my old lifestyle . Here’s a few of the things that I miss about working in Japan:

1. A busy social life. Mine has just started to pick up a bit, but it’s not near what I had a year ago. The JET Program made it easy to build a social network within my community of other English teachers. At the same time, I got to spend time with my coworkers at various work events, dinners, or drinking parties. It felt very busy at times, but I was never lonely!

2. Every day was a new adventure. You really never knew what was going to happen on any given day. That sense of adventure made up for the language barrier, distance from family, and uncomfortable moments in life.

3. Public transportation and pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure. As much as I like driving, I also miss taking the train to the city or peddling my bike around town.

4. Working with kids. Those kids were the reason I woke up in the morning, and why I stayed up until 1 AM making classroom materials with glue and construction paper. I guess it’s not surprising that making a fun class for kids is more rewarding than working in an office. I hope someday I can find my rewarding dream job.

Returning and Finding a Job

As I sit here this Thanksgiving Eve in America, I have a lot to be thankful for. Earlier this year I decided to not renew my contract on the JET Program and come home in July. I had 3 great years in Japan teaching English, and while staying there permanently might be for some people, I knew after a couple years that it wasn’t for me.

Before moving to Japan I spent 6 years studying Japanese and Japanese culture. I even got my B.A. in East Asian Languages and Cultures. From the moment I fell in love with the language I knew I had to live in Japan someday. I couldn’t afford to study abroad, but after the long application process I was lucky enough to be one of the people at Tokyo Orientation in 2011.

During my three years in Japan I spent most of my time teaching, thinking about teaching, or making teaching materials. I had to overcome a lot of challenges at first just to do my job, then do my job well, and then finally I was able to enjoy it. I also spent a lot of time studying Japanese, sacrificing my Saturday mornings to study with a tutor. After a couple years of study I was able to pass the JLPT N2 level. I wouldn’t say I’m great at Japanese, but I can definitely hold a conversation and read a document, more than I could have done right out of college.

The JET Program was a great experience, but coming back to the U.S. I was pretty worried about my job prospects. The economy hasn’t been that great, and even before the recession it was difficult to find a job with a B.A. in Japanese. I really wished I had paired my language skills with something practical, like business or computer science. So I was really surprised to find out that I was employable in the U.S. after coming back. People who can speak Japanese and are willing to learn some new skills are in demand, at least here in the Chicago area. I had three interviews with Japanese companies, and one job offer, which I happily accepted. I had been told so many times how difficult it was to get a good job with just a language degree, that I had psyched myself into thinking it would never happen. Now every day I get to use Japanese and English. I even help my Japanese coworkers adjust to living in a foreign country, something that I am extremely familiar with!

My current job is probably just one of many as I create my career, but for now I am very thankful for it and my coworkers.

Playing a game in elementary school.

Playing a game in elementary school.

Recently I made my yearly pilgrimage to Kyoto and the Kansai area. From the end of April to the beginning of May is known as “Golden Week” in Japan, because there are 4 national holidays that let people out of work and school. It’s one of the busiest travel times of the year, and if you’re traveling from outside of Japan it’s probably a good idea to avoid this week, unless you love crowds. I used some of my vacation days so I could travel mostly on non-holidays and tried to avoid the worst crowds. I still met with crowded buses, long lines, and expensive trains. I did this trip on my own this time, too. Traveling alone is never as fun as traveling with friends, but on the other hand I did everything at my own pace.

On Saturday I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I arrived around 11 am and quickly stashed my bag in a coin locker before they were all taken. My first stop in Kyoto this time would be Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion.

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

While the Silver Pavilion is not a must-see stop in Kyoto, it’s a good visit for anyone interested in Japanese traditional culture. This pavilion influenced later architecture, being the first to have a tokonoma, a small alcove in the wall for hanging scrolls and displaying flower arrangements. The beginnings of the Japanese tea ceremony started here, and the understated beauty of the pavilion and garden became the standard for Japanese aesthetics.

To complement my visit to the Silver Pavilion I intended to visit Ryoanji next, a zen temple with a famous rock garden, but I got on the wrong bus and ended up in completely the wrong direction. Timing is everything in Kyoto because most temples close around 4 or 5, and taking the wrong bus meant losing the chance to see Ryoanji that same day. Instead I got my bags from the coin locker in Kyoto station and checked into my hostel.

Day 2 in Kyoto I headed to Ryoanji first thing in the morning. If you’re already visiting Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion), Ryoanji is a 15 minute walk from there and I highly recommend it. There is a bus service available too, but the walk is pretty as you get closer to Ryoanji.

The highlight of Ryoanji is the zen rock garden. There are 15 stones/boulders expertly placed to help you meditate as you look at the garden. What’s interesting is that no matter where you sit or stand while looking at the garden, you can’t see all 15 stones. At most I counted 14. They say that the only way to see all 15 stones at the same times is to reach enlightenment.

Rock garden in Ryoanji

Rock garden in Ryoanji

How many can you count?

After enjoying the gardens of Ryoanji, I decided to spend the afternoon in Arashiyama, which is in the western part of Kyoto. I think everyone else had the same idea, because it was extremely crowded.

My first stop in Arashiyama was Tenryuji, a temple with a famous dragon painted on the ceiling (the eyes follow you!) and beautiful garden. My main reason for the visit though was for the restaurant in the garden at Tenryuji. The restaurant serves shoujin ryouri, Buddhist cooking. Buddhists are vegetarian, so the entire meal was meat-free. I discovered this place when my vegetarian friend Allison visited last year. I had to go back and have another delicious experience there. I learned too late that the menu was the same as last year though. At least I knew what everything was!

The set meal at Tenryuji

The set meal at Tenryuji

After lunch I explored the Arashiyama area. There’s a bamboo forest, and a picturesque bridge over a river with mountains in the background. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon shopping for souvenirs and grazing at the food stalls.

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

My third day in Kyoto I took a train to the southern outskirts of the city to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, a temple that is famous for it’s thousands of torii gates.

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Honestly I went to Fushimi Inari just to see these gates, and they’re as beautiful in real life as in the pictures. I had to wait a while to get a good picture free of other tourists, but the wait was worth it!

At many shrines and temples across Japan you can see the protectors of the shrine sitting on either side of the gates as you enter, and Fushimi Inari is no exception. Fushimi Inari is protected by foxes.

A fox holding a key in its mouth

A fox holding a key in its mouth

Here’s some trivia for you: The fox on the left of the entrance is holding the key to the granary to protect it from the mice!

The foxes are so popular that there are many fox themed souvenirs and fox related dishes that you can eat on the mountain. For example, kitsune udon (fox udon) is a noodle dish made with fried tofu, because foxes (supposedly) love fried tofu!

To finish my stay in Kyoto I went back to one of my favorite temples, Kiyomizudera. I already wrote about this great temple after my first visit, so I’ll end my Kyoto story here.

A final message about traveling in Kyoto (or anywhere in Japan) during Golden Week: It’s possible, but you must be prepared for the crowds and very patient if you want good pictures. I made it to two or three sites a day using the Kyoto bus system, which was cheap but slow.

Happy travels!

I can’t believe it’s already February! The new year is flying by fast. I hope everyone is keeping warm. One of the best ways to keep warm in the winter is to visit an onsen, or hot spring. Luckily, I live in Gunma Prefecture, where there are many amazing hot spring towns to visit. Recently I went to Kusatsu, a hot spring town that consistently ranks in the top 3 in Japan.

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Steam rises from the hot spring water in the center of the town.

I got on the train to Kusatsu at 11 in the morning on a Saturday. After a quick transfer one station over, it was a relaxing 1 hour trip to Naganohara-kusatsuguchi station. From the station there is a bus to the center of town. The bus ride was about 25 minutes long. Then, the hotel offered a pick up service from the bus terminal. I finally arrived!

A typical hot spring trip involves staying at a hotel that has private baths (indoor and outdoor), scenic views, and a dinner service, as well as breakfast. Meals consist of Japanese cuisine, and are usually quite good, though sometimes I’m not sure what I’m eating. Guests are served in their rooms, or if your party is big enough, in a private dining room. This type of hotel stay and meal plan can cost more than 10,000 yen (more than $100). It’s worth it though!

After checking in to the hotel and dropping off bags, I headed into town to do some shopping and enjoy the quaint atmosphere. The streets are lined with shops selling souvenirs, restaurants, cafes, and vendors selling hot food and drinks. There’s so much to see!

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A side street in Kusatsu.

Be sure to try the onsen tamago when you visit! Soft-boiled eggs cooked in a hot spring!

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A view of the hot spring water flowing in the center of town.

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A trip to Kusatsu, or any hot spring town, can easily be done in just a day as well. You don’t need to stay in a hotel to enjoy the natural hot water. There are free baths and some paid baths around town that usually sell towels for you to use. There are also many foot baths for people to enjoy along the streets.

After some sightseeing, I went back to the hotel to get into the bath before dinner. I used the bath again after dinner, too. And after breakfast! The water is full of minerals that makes your skin really smooth and supposedly is good for your health. It’s also really fun!

On Sunday morning I went into town again to get some last minute souvenirs and enjoy the foot baths. I didn’t have time to go to any of the free baths around town though. I would definitely go again, probably on a day trip!

The Maebashi Rose Garden

A few weeks ago the park near my house had its Rose Garden Festival. The roses were all in bloom and the park was packed with people enjoying the warm weather and pretty flowers.

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It’s really a beautiful park, and it’s only about 15 minutes away from my house. Also, it’s really close to the best hamburger shop in the whole city.

The roses had so many varieties, colors, countries of origin, and some even had interesting names.

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My favorite of the day:

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It’s so unique and it’s my favorite picture.

The park itself had some great features. I loved the rose tunnel.

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I also loved the cute little gazebos!

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It was very hot that day, so after seeing all the roses my group and I had some ice cream to cool off. I had rose ice cream, which was very unusual. It was like eating a delicious scented candle.

The final thing I want to share before I go is the rare “blue” rose.

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Is it really blue? You be the judge.

-Kristen

Some more back logging for you guys. In April I went to the world’s largest fish streamer display. Fish streamers are usually put up in honor of Children’s Day, May 5th, especially at homes with boys. This was the perfect time to go because the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The cherry blossom trees in combination with the fish streamers over the river made for a beautiful day.

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The point of the trip was to have a hanami party, which is like a flower watching picnic. You sit under the cherry trees, drink, eat, and be merry. Everyone brought different dishes to share and alcohol to enjoy.

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The park was packed with people, but I didn’t get any pictures of the picnicers or the general atmosphere there. It was very fun. There were lots of kids there playing with their families. Many people brought their pets (I got to pet a rabbit!), and for some reason there was a group of cosplayers dressed up, dancing and singing. Quite the day.

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After lots of delicious food and a couple cans of umeshu, I fell asleep on the blanket and got a sunburn. I can’t wait to go back next year!

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It’s been quite a while since I’ve made a post. This will be the first in a series of my recent travels.

In February I went to the Snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

You’re probably wondering what a snow festival is. Think tons and tons of snow shipped in from all over Hokkaido, compressed into huge blocks, and then carved into intricate designs and put on display for everyone to see. Add tons of food and people from all over the world, and you get a snow festival. There were even ice sculptures at the snow festival too.

I only got to go for 3 days, but that was pretty much all I needed.

The festival didn’t officially start until Monday, so Saturday and Sunday were a chance to explore the sights of Sapporo.

The first day was spent in a neighboring city called Otaru where I went to see the canal snow light path. It was snowing and cold, but very beautiful.

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That day I got to eat some delicious ramen. Hokkaido is famous for delicious miso ramen and crab.

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The second day was a chance to see Sapporo’s famous chocolate factory. At the beginning of the trip I thought the chocolate factory would be a boring, run of the mill factory. Instead, it was like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The factory owners/operators really tried to make the trip magical by filling the place with a ton of weird stuff, and of course some views into the factory and an explanation of how they make their signature product.

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I ate some more delicious ramen that day. This is called miso butter corn ramen. There is a lot of butter and corn in it!

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Sunday night was test night for the Snow Festival light up shows. I got some of my best pictures of the huge sculptures.

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An ice sculpture that has real crabs and fish in it.

Finally the day of the Snow Festival came. I saw all of the sculptures in the day time, some performances and shows, and stuffed myself with food from Malaysia, China, Russia, and Japan, of course. I wish I had taken some pictures of my food for you all, but it was gone quickly after I bought it.

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After a great weekend in Sapporo, it was time to go home. I want to go back soon to eat more fantastic food and see more of beautiful Hokkaido.

At the airport we ran into a special friend. Melon bear!

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I taught my kids the sentence: Kristen looks like food for melon bear. They weren’t as amused as I thought they would be.

Now for your feedback – what was your favorite sculpture?

-Kristen

Japanese Cuisine

I don’t feel like I’ve made any of my state side friends super jealous of me lately, so I’m going to rectify that. Feast your eyes on this:

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Katsu kare

a.k.a Japanese curry, rice, and fried pork cutlet. One of my top favs!

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Tenpura soba

Hot soba noodles in sauce with tenpura vegetables and fish.

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Okonomiyaki

A fried pancake mixed with all sorts of ingredients.

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Coolish

Soft serve ice cream in a squeeze container. Don’t knock it till you try it.

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Homemade Gyudon

Beef and onions on a bed of rice. Since this picture I’ve gotten better at making it!

When it comes to food, this isn’t even the beginning, believe me. Thanks for reading, and keep a look out for my next post: Japan – The Taste of Fall

-Kristen

Sado Island

Please forgive how late this post is, about a month late exactly.

Back in September I took a weekend camping trip up to Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture with two friends. Sado Island is famous for many things,  like wooden boats, the red-crested ibis, noh theaters, beautiful beaches, sea food, and the Sado Gold Mine. The island is the largest isolated island in Japan. It has beautiful rock formations and lots of hiking on the mountainous terrain.

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We left Takasaki Station early morning Friday by bullet train. It was very exciting for me, having never ridden a bullet train before. Watching our train come in was very cool and we took lots of pictures like the tourists we are.

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After the bullet train ride we arrived on the coast of Japan in time to catch the ferry to the island. The ferry we took was a car and passenger ferry, so it was huge! We bought our tickets and boarded the ferry.

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Within minutes we were all motion sick. It was awful. The only thing that helped was laying down and taking a nap, or sitting outside watching the waves. It was a two hour boat ride.

Thankfully, we finally made it to port on Sado Island! We landed at Ryotsu Port. We disembarked with all of the other passengers and had a look around. We wanted to rent a car, but all of the car rental places were booked up! So instead we bought unlimited use bus tickets for 2 days, which cost about $20 and probably paid for themselves twice. We ate a snack in Ryotsu, then went exploring. We found a farmer’s market and bought some apples and bananas for breakfast the next day. We also loaded up on snacks in case the campground didn’t have food nearby. Then we hopped on a bus to our campsite in Tassha.

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When we first got to the campsite, we were a little disappointed and confused. Where were the beautiful beaches? We asked a gift shop attendant and found out that we were in the right place. It was a gloomy day, and threatening to rain. We were a bit worried about the fact that it might thunderstorm, and we had no running water/bathrooms after 8pm. We decided to stick out anyway and put up the tent. We took a walk on the shoreline and then hiked up the road to explore. There wasn’t much around us. Sleeping in the tent that night was a little scary (I swear I heard a cat outside the tent!) but we made it through.  In the morning, the sun was out and we got to see the beautiful beach that was advertised. The gift shop opened at 8 am and we finally got to use the bathroom! We pulled down the tent and caught the next bus to our second destination: The Sado Gold Mine.

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Back in the day, the Tokugawa Shogunate was funded by the gold from the Sado Gold Mine. Now the mine is shut down, but it provides a fun tour into history for people. You can walk through and see animated robots doing the everyday work that real mine workers used to do. They even had a lot of signs in English! We paid 800 yen each to tour half of the mine. Then, we walked through a museum with lots of information and old artifacts from the mine. Then of course the exit took you to a gift shop! I’m a sucker for souvenirs.

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Outside the gift shop we saw a place selling dango, a specialty of Niigata prefecture. We bought sakura dango and enjoyed them together.

Next up on the trip, the port town of Ogi. We took a nice long bus ride down the island to our last stop. When we got off, we weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into. We didn’t know where we were, had no transportation (besides the next bus) and we had our heavy bags to carry everywhere. Thankfully the weather was nice, actually it was a bit hot for backpacking that day. We had intended to camp again, but the campgrounds were mostly closed for the season. We got over our initial nervousness to go look around and we found the tourist information building and got the phone number for the local hostel. Once we made a reservation, we hiked up to it on foot with all of our bags (it was quite a climb!) and paid about 3600 each for a night in a nice little youth hostel that seemed to be only run by an old lady. Once we dropped off our bags, we hiked back down to explore the town and soon realized that this place was tiny. There was no way we could have gotten lost! It was such a small town, the kind where you can walk through the downtown area and not even realize it… But anyway we found dinner at a nice little restaurant, took pictures of the ocean, and bought souvenirs. We were lucky enough to see one of the famous wooden tub boats being rowed (picture at top of the post). It was a peaceful night. As it was getting dark, we went back up the road to our hostel and spent the rest of the night enjoying the electricity and cell phone reception.

Then Sunday came too fast. It was time to leave. We got to spend a little bit more time in the little town before our ferry left. We left from a different port than we came in, because it would have cost a lot of money to take a bus back to the main port now that our passes were expired. This ferry got us to a fairly big train station on the main island of Japan, so it all worked out. Our second ferry also seemed like a much smoother ride, and it didn’t take as long to get back either. We weren’t too motion sick to go outside and enjoy the view, and we even got to feed some seagulls! That was fun.

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Goodbye Sado!

It took about 7 hours, 1 ferry, 1 bus, 3 trains, and 1 bicycle ride to get back home in Maebashi. But my weekend in Sado Island was a great one! I would recommend a trip to Sado Island during the summer season, when more things are open, and I would also suggest renting a car too. But either way it’s a fun trip.

I almost forgot to add a certain funny story. While Laura and I were on the bullet train back to Takasaki station, we were sitting next to a nice looking old lady. She had a heavy carry on bag with her, so I offered to put it up for her. Then we talked the rest of the train ride! She didn’t speak much English, but she had been all over the world and told us some cool stories about her travels in Europe (from what we could understand…). Then she gave us some souvenirs from her latest trip! It was too kind. Laura and I conspired to gift her back. I mentioned earlier that I was a sucker for souvenirs, and I had bought some at the Sado Gold mine. I pulled out a key chain, hid it in my hand, then right when we got to our stop, we sneak attack gifted her and ran away. It was great!

-Kristen

Visit Sado