So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

It’s been a month since I returned to California from a three year spell in Japan, and I’m feeling nostalgic.

In the weeks (and then days, and then hours) leading up to my departure from Minamiboso and the life I’d built there, people kept asking me, “So… How are you?” And I couldn’t feel anything except confused. How was I supposed to be? Upset? Stressed? Lonely?

The truth is, I felt none of those things. When I first decided to work in Japan on the JET Program, I planned to stay for three years. And after an actual three years, it felt right to leave and begin the next stage of my life.

In my English classes, we started every day by asking the students “How are you?” Most of them would answer “I’m fine” or “I’m sleepy” or the rambunctious “I’m CRAZY!” Some students had answers that were less grammatically correct or contextually inappropriate, but nonetheless interesting: “I’m Kosei” or “I’m reading.”

So, in the spirit of my student who once answered “I’m reading,” as though “reading” was a state of being, the only appropriate answer I found to “So… How are you?” was “I’m moving.”

Because, perhaps like “reading,” that is too complicated a feeling to sum up with “I’m stressed” or “I’m sad” or even “I’m really excited to start my next adventure.”

I was all of that. I was moving.

With all the meanings of that word combined.

The Decision

The decision when and how to leave the JET Program and Japan is different for everyone. Some people stay in Japan after they leave JET; some people go back to their home countries, or even to other countries. Some people leave after one year, some after five, some after… well, if you stay for more than five, you’re probably going to be in Japan for the rest of your life.

And that’s not a bad thing. Japan is a great country. I know I’ve complained about it a lot and it certainly has some issues it’s gotta work out (coughxenophobiacough), but so does everywhere. Japan has its pros and cons. You just have to decide which ones matter to you and how much they are going to affect you personally.

For me, I wasn’t too fond of the work conditions in Japan, so I didn’t want to continue my career there. On top of that, as much as I love teaching and think education is important, I don’t want to be a teacher. Maybe I’m just resisting the inevitable, but I want to explore other things. Even if I do end up teaching again, I think it’s important to have other experiences, too. Maybe it’ll even make me a better teacher.

So as you’re getting ready to make your decision, ask yourself this: What do you want to do?

When the time came in February to recontract or not to recontract, my decision wasn’t so tough. It was scary, though; I was leaving something that was certain (at least for two more years) for the great unknown of Unemployment and Job Searches.

And also (shudder) the United States. Being in the good ol’ U.S. of A. is… a complicated feeling. I wrote an entire poem modeled after Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy about “The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma.” (You’ll never see it, sorry.) I am not fond of this country in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it is my home country, and that’s something you can never really shake yourself of. Besides, now I get to be back in the country and try to change the things that made me reluctant to return, rather than watching helplessly from across the ocean.

I think I made the right decision. I felt good about it at the time, and as I sit here, alone in my house, searching for jobs in a really tough market, I still feel good about leaving the JET Program after three years. That was a good amount of time, and I’m happy with it.

This will be a new adventure. And like all my adventures thus far, it’s going to be Totally Awesome.

The Process

JETs from the U.S. have to make their recontracting decision in late January to early February, which always seems too early, especially for first year JETs. How are you supposed to know if you can survive another entire year in a strange country at a job you may or may not be accustomed to yet only six months in?

For second year JETs, it’s a bit easier; you know what you’re in for, pretty much. It’s just a matter of being aware of your abilities and limitations. This is why they push the culture shock talks so much at orientations and meetings; they really want you to be self-aware, so you can make the decisions that are best for you, and by extension, best for your schools and the program.

Back when I was working with a very difficult person, I was unsure whether I wanted to stay on another year if it meant I had to work with her. I wouldn’t find out until the end of March if she was being transferred away, but I took the chance and recontracted for a second year, because I loved the students and learning more about Japanese culture every day I was there. I figured if she wasn’t transferred, there were plenty of other things I could focus on to keep me grounded.

The first time, my courage was not rewarded. She stayed at my school another year and our working relationship worsened and it sucked. I tried to get along with her for the students’ sake, but at some point, it all just fell apart and communication came to a halt. She cried and screamed at me one stressful day, wagged her finger in my face, used a middle-person to communicate what we would do in class (I still feel really bad for that student teacher…), and finally made me cry. I didn’t cry in front of her, of course, but I did cry, and my other JTE finally took me aside to help me through it. It was a pretty bad time. I began to dread going to work every day, feeling almost physically ill at the thought of having to see her.

I finally decided that if she stayed at the school another year, I would have to stop going to her classes altogether, because it was becoming obvious to me that we couldn’t work together well and it was going to cause problems for the students. I was sad about not being able to work with the students in her classes, but it would probably be for the best.

So, naturally, after I made that decision, she transferred schools.

And I was blessed with a brand new English teacher that was so positive and open and enthusiastic, and I swear, you guys, I could not have had a better third year in Japan. My JTEs are fantastic teachers and wonderful human beings.

So why not end on a high note? February 2015 rolled in and I signed the paper saying I would not be recontracting for a fourth year.

Because it was time to move on.

Preparations for Departure

The JET Program is great because they provide so many services and support programs. A friend of mine is even currently having problems with her Board of Education, but instead of being left to the wolves, she has access to people who can help her because of the program. She can contact the prefectural adviser, and they can help her negotiate with her BOE. The JET Program also gives us resources for counseling and provides orientations and conferences throughout the year.

And then, when you’re leaving, they also organize a career fair and an After JET Conference to help departing JETs prepare for their next steps. The conference was very encouraging, and gave me tips on what I can do next and how I can apply the skills I’ve learned on JET to other things.

To be honest, the career fair was not as helpful as I was hoping. It was geared more towards people who planned to stay in Japan, which was fair. We were in Japan, after all. And I suppose if we’re planning to go back to our respective countries, we don’t need a job as immediately as someone who needs a Visa sponsor might.

My Board of Education was very supportive, too. Enoguchi probably did a lot of paperwork for me—there’s gotta be a lot of paperwork, right?—but he never let me see it if he did. He also guided me through the pension process, which I’ll finish in about six months. (It’s complicated.)

Last Hurrahs

Now that I had a deadline for having fun in Japan, I shoved in a few more trips and a lot more socializing. My mom came to visit me, I took a trip to Korea (because it was right there), and I made a last minute trek to Mie for one more visit with Ryusuke and Mariko.

I also said good-bye to a lot of people.

First, I said good-bye to my third year students, the ones I came up with, when they graduated in March. A year prior, I had revealed to my JTE that I was going to stay one more year because I wanted to see “my class” graduate. She told them this and they were really touched and excited, and, damn, you guys, I miss them a lot. They were a great group of kids, and we got along really well.

One of my favorite memories comes from that class, actually. Back in October 2014, I dyed my hair red over a weekend. When I came to school on Monday, no one said a thing. No one noticed that my head had become a completely different color (albeit a natural-ish one).

Until sixth period, when I had a third year class. I walked in and they immediately began to yell about my hair in broken, frantic English. “HAIR COLOR. CHANGE HAIR. COLOR CHANGE HAIR! HAIR COLOR CHANGE!”

I played it off for a while. “What are you guys talking about? My hair has always been this color. Are you crazy?”

They began to get this look on their faces, like they were thinking, “Maybe we are crazy,” but one student, Tomoya, was looking at me with suspicion. Then he slowly stood up and, pointing his finger at me, yelled, “YOU ARE A LIAR!”

I will never forget how hilarious that was. They’re gonna take on the world someday. And they’ll be brilliant.

July rolled around more quickly than I can explain (temporal flux?) and then I decided I didn’t want to leave.

Not right away, anyway.

I made arrangements to extend my Visa a little (to a visitor’s Visa) and when the new JETs arrived, I moved into my friend’s apartment for a week. I had final hurrahs with everyone, going to karaoke ONE LAST TIME, enjoying a local fireworks festival with everyone ONE LAST TIME, and having lunch/dinner with friends, coworkers, and the Board of Education.

One. Last. Time.

Except not, because I absolutely plan to visit in the future, and guys, we have the internet now!

It’s the end of an era, but not the end of everything. It’s a See You Later, not a Good-Bye.

The Last Day

My last day in Japan was August 6, 2015. Enoguchi and I had a lot to do—we had to cancel my cell phone contract (expensive), close my bank account (easy), and give my car away (aww car). We had decided a while ago to just throw my car away, because it’s very old. Throwing your car away is expensive, but the car shop we usually deal with offered to take it for free—to sell for parts and then junk when they were finished. This seemed to be the best last-minute deal I was going to find, so on my last day, we dropped the car off at Tomono Motors (I still have opinions about that place) and I said good-bye to Cricket.

Cricket

See you in Hell! Just kidding, you did your job, Cricket. Otsukaresama!

When we were finished with slowly pruning away pieces of my life in Japan, we drove to my school, which is located right at the end of the highway. My JTE had expressed disappointment when I told her what day I was leaving. She said that she usually sees her ALTs off at the airport, but that she had a meeting that day.

Luckily, my flight was in the evening and her meeting ended just in time. So Enoguchi and I picked up my JTE, the music teacher, the vice principal, and the science teacher, and we got onto the highway and drove to Narita Airport together.

My JTE told me that I was the first ALT that she had worked with for more than one year. Every other year, either she transferred schools or the ALT changed. She said she felt that we worked very well together and that it wouldn’t be the same without me and that she would miss me, and, ah, fuck me, I teared up behind my sunglasses. I thought I was going to be able to hold it together, but these people kept pushing my Feels Button.

On my last day of elementary school back in June, I finished up my fifth and sixth grade classes and then walked around the school to thank all the teachers I had worked with. They were very sad that I was leaving and told me good luck, but when I got to the fifth grade teacher, the tide came in. She said that before, she didn’t really like English and wasn’t very interested in learning it. But working with me for two years and exploring it with the students kindled her interest and now she wants to learn more. She started to cry and said that she would miss me and asked for my address, because she wants to send me postcards.

And you know what? Driving home from elementary school that day was the only time I actually sobbed about the entire leaving process. Because, shit, I did something. I changed someone. Someone was going to cry like that for me.

A lot of people I worked with expressed anxiety about the new ALT, about having to adjust to working with a new person after getting used to me and me getting used to them, and I kept telling them that it would be fine, that they probably thought the same thing when I came in as a new ALT, that seriously, you guys, I’m not that great, everything will be fine.

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe I did something with my time in Japan that I didn’t even notice while I was busy just being me. Maybe I made a difference somehow.

That’s not a feeling that everyone gets to have in their life. That they made a difference. That they touched someone’s life in a way that, even if they forget you, will stay with them forever. Because I was only there for three years, and I’m sure that they will all eventually forget me (Megan who?), but at least for a little while, their interest in English and the rest of the world increased just a little bit.

And isn’t that all a “grassroots international liaison” can hope for?

So we said good-bye at airport security and took our final pictures together, and I walked down the stairs to customs, waving at Enoguchi and my former coworkers until we couldn’t see each other anymore, and stepped across the threshold into my next adventure.

Things I Will Miss and Already Miss

My students <3

My students <3

01

My Block

03

My Town

04

My Coworkers

07

My Kyudo Class

08

09

My Gaming Group

10

12

The Locals

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Chiba Prefecture JETs & WiALTs

My friends in Minamiboso <3

My friends in Minamiboso <3

Thank you Japan and everyone I met there. I’m definitely not lying when I tell you that I’ll never forget you.

I really won’t.

またね!

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Kanto & Kansai: A Spring Break to Remember

I’ve mentioned before that there is a sort of rivalry between the Kanto region (where Tokyo is) and the Kansai region (where Kyoto and Osaka are). For no real reason, I think, which is usually the case in rivalries (see: Northern & Southern California; Montagues & Capulets). Both places have a lot to offer.

So for Spring Break this year, I managed to travel around both regions in a matter of 5 days. Because Japan is just that small.

Kanto

Ghibli Art Museum

One of the things on my Bucket List for Japan was to go to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. I grew up on Ghibli movies (Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were some of my favorite movies), and it would be a mortal sin to not go.

Mie Trip 002

Tickets for the Ghibli Museum are 1000 yen, which is surprisingly cheap. But there’s a catch: The museum is so popular that you have to buy your tickets a month in advance. Check the date for when tickets go on sale for the month you want to visit. I used Lawson to buy the tickets, and it was very easy. You can check out the Ghibli Museum ticket-buying guide here!

We lined up at our ticket time and they led us into a small movie theater, where we watched an exclusive short film. It was adorable.

rat sumo 02

From Everything Ghibli

It was, of course, all in Japanese, but it was simple Japanese and even if I didn’t understand, the story was easy to follow.

After the movie, we were free to wander around the museum, which had displays showing how the films are animated (classically, because Miyazaki).

Yugioh 0 Abridged Ep 3

Yugioh 0 Abridged Ep 3

They also had some sets showing how the artists worked on the films—their paintings, their tools, their work spaces, the process from turning paintings into animated films, art books. Art books. Art books.

toy story art books

There was also a Cat Bus, but only children were allowed to play on it. :( Bummer.

Pictures were not permitted inside the museum, but outside we took a picture with the giant!

Mie Trip 005Yokohama: Ramen Museum & China Town

I hadn’t been yet, and it seemed to be one of the glaring absences in my list of places I’ve visited in Japan, so after the Ghibli Museum, my friend and I headed over to Yokohama. Yokohama is a city in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, and it may or may not be the largest city in Japan (first most populous municipality, second most populous city; don’t ask me what the difference is). It’s a neat city, and there is a lot to do, but with our limited time, my friend and I stuck with two destinations: the Ramen Museum and China Town.

The Ramen Museum is a fair walk from any station, so be prepared for that. I thought it sounded a little hokey, too, and it was, but it was also really fun. The best part was making your own ramen.

That’s right: After learning about the history of instant ramen (actually really fascinating), you get to make your own cup of instant ramen, including decorating the cup and choosing ingredients.

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A history lesson

When you arrive at the museum and buy your ticket, you also have the option of getting a reservation for making a customized ramen cup. Tell the person at the ticket counter that you want to do it, and they’ll give you a ticket with a time stamp on it. It’s an extra 300 yen, but it’s worth it.

Line up and follow directions to wash your hands and pick up a Styrofoam cup. When you get seated at a table (with strangers), you can use the provided markers to draw all over your cup however you want. I’m a gigantic dork and drew this:

Crappy panorama, sorry. But you get the gist.

I am way too proud of this. Crappy panorama, sorry. But you get the gist.

Then, when you’re done decorating your cup, you take it to another line where you will choose ingredients for the “cooks” to add to your instant ramen cup. Then they will seal it for you and you can take it home and enjoy at your leisure.

With our custom instant ramen cups in hand, we walked around the area to check out the harbor and watch the sun set, and then we headed to China Town, only a few train stations away.

Unfortunately, they were doing construction on the gates the day that we went. Man, just like the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima…

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Oh well. Here’s another gate anyway.

Instead of choosing a single restaurant, we did the street food thing. My friend bought a lot of panda merchandise, but there was nothing I had in mind to buy, so I just enjoyed the food.

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xiao long bao or shoropon

assorted shumai

assorted shumai

panda-man

sad panda-man

Kansai

I grew up in a city with a large Japanese-American population. That is easily the reason I became interested in Japan. Many of my friends were Japanese (or least part Japanese), and I got hooked on Japanese animation early, in the form of Pokemon, Digimon, Sailor Moon, and Ghibli movies.

I’m pretty much the only one in my family with any interest in Japan, though. My mom and my aunt are visiting in May, but only because it’s convenient that I’m here. I’ve never heard my brother or sister express any interest in anything Japan-related, besides maybe in our childhood when my sister and I watched cartoons together.

So I was surprised to discover that my grandmother and grandfather actually have friends in Japan.

And they never even told me!

Many, many years ago, my grandparents lived in Torrance, where I grew up and where my dad grew up. They made the acquaintance of a Japanese couple who were renting a house in my grandparents’ neighborhood. The husband was a commercial sailor whose company would make him a captain if he learned to speak English and worked in Long Beach for a few years. His sons went to school in the United States until about high school, and then the whole family moved back to Japan.

And apparently they all stayed in contact with my grandparents all this time.

My grandmother likes to write letters, and we exchange letters back and forth periodically. But all this time I had no idea that she was also corresponding with some old Japanese friends, even at the same time I was in Japan.

She got us in contact with each other—I think she gave me their contact information first and I wrote a letter to them—and after a while, one of the sons, Ryusuke, invited me to visit him and his wife, Mariko, in Matsusaka, a city in Mie Prefecture.

So I spent three days with some old family friends I had never met before.

I was a little nervous—because meeting new people is always scary—but I was really excited to meet the people my grandparents know. How cool is that?!

I have done so much traveling in my time in Japan, so getting there wasn’t really a concern. I just bought a shinkansen ticket and rode on over to the other side of the island. No big deal.

They picked me up at the train station in Matsusaka and we had dinner at their very nice and stylish Japanese-style house. It was only built a few years ago, so it still smelled of cedar. They were incredibly kind people and fun. We talked a lot that first night, a little nervously. Ryusuke speaks English very well, having been educated in California for much of his life, but Mariko doesn’t speak any English at all—which was just a great opportunity for me to practice my Japanese. We communicated very well, I think, which was a relief.

They showed me around Mie Prefecture, and then some of Kyoto and Nara, too. Despite being from the area, they hadn’t been to a few places that I wanted to check out, so all of us were able to see new things. Like…

Nara: Todai Temple

Nara is famous for the deer that just wander around the park. You can buy deer senbei (rice crackers) to feed them, and they will walk right up to you and let you touch them. After going to UC Santa Cruz for four years, where deer roam all over the campus, it is both familiar and entirely strange. Familiar, because deer are a completely normal sight, and strange, because you aren’t really supposed to feed wild animals. And they are so unafraid of humans that they just walk up to them. That’s unnatural. In Santa Cruz, you’re more likely to be mauled by a deer than approached by one.

Seriously, Nara: WTF?

Mie Trip 028

Anyway, it was fun to see deer wandering around, looking as much like tourists as the actual tourists, but I decided to skip that crazy mess and skip straight to the temple at the end of the road.

The temple is the largest wooden structure in the world, and the one standing now is actually smaller than its original form (which burned down at some point in history).

This isn't even my final form!

This isn’t even my final form!

The Buddha statue inside is bronze, and on a particular day of the year, they open the windows of the wooden building housing the daibutsu so that you can see its face from outside.

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daibutsu = big Buddha statue

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We ate soba nearby and then paid a visit to one of the local gardens. Ryusuke and Mariko both work as gardeners and landscapers, and I think they were hesitant to request a stop in the garden, but I love gardens. They took some pictures and said they want to try a few things from the garden at their house, and then Ryusuke found a tree that he wanted to take with him, because it was the perfect tree for one of his projects. Haha!

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Kyoto: Fushimi Inari Shrine

Mariko grew up in Kyoto, but she had never been to Fushimi Inari Shrine, and they were both surprised at how crowded it was.

I wasn’t.

Way back in 2012 during my first trip to Kyoto, this shrine was what I was most looking forward to. I had seen pictures, and the sheer amount of torii was amazing to me (and, I think, to other visitors to Japan). And, as it turned out, it was the one place to which we did not go.

Now, though, I had a chance to see it.

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Inari is a patron god of business and agriculture, so all the torii (a Shinto gate) are donated by businesses as thanks or prayers for good fortune.

Mie Trip 089

The shrine is on a mountain, and you can walk up the mountain in the tunnels of torii. At one point on your walk up the mountain, the road splits into two rows of torii. A woman guiding a group of English speakers in front of us explained that one side led to heaven, and the other to hell. “But that’s the problem,” she said, “I don’t know which one.”

As we walked back down the mountain, I searched for Chiba Prefecture and took a picture with every Chiba torii I saw.

Chiba torii

Ise: Ise Jingu

When I first contacted my grandparents’ friends, they recommended that I visit Ise Shrine, which had been rebuilt about two years ago. They rebuild it every twenty years, so I saw a relatively new building.

Ise Shrine is a pretty sacred place, so you’re not allowed to take pictures past a certain point.

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We walked up the steps to the… er… praying place. Ryusuke and Mariko handed me a coin and we walked up to make wishes/say prayers.

I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about this sort of thing a few weeks ago. As an atheist, it is incredibly weird and uncomfortable to participate in religious activities of any sort. It feels disrespectful somehow, probably because it’s like lying. Like miming. Like mocking, almost. I can certainly respect people that have religious beliefs and I have been to a lot of shrines because I like learning about the history of them (and they’re usually in really beautiful areas), but participating makes me feel very uncomfortable.

When I was in middle school, I went to a weekend church camp in the mountains with my friend. I really only went for the social aspect and the mountains and because my friend told me it would be fun. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)

One day, during a prayer time, we all had to sit in a circle and say prayers for the person on our right, or someone in their family. The person next to me had a sick grandfather, and I had never even thought a prayer before, much less said one out loud for the benefit of some poor kid with a sick relative who is hoping that prayers will somehow help. It was terribly awkward, and I asked if we could skip me, because I was uncomfortable, but they actually made me do it. It was awful. I felt awful. I was lying to this girl.

Luckily, I have never had to do that again.

The same thing goes with other religions. People go to shrines and temples all the time and ring the bells and do the coin-toss-bow-prayer thing, and I never feel right doing it.

I felt the same way at Ise with my new friends, but I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I walked up there with them and threw the coin in. I guess as a donation to the shrine, no matter what. I can’t pray—I just can’t, I don’t believe in that, I just don’t believe just wishing for things will make them happen, it feels foolish and false—so I just made some personal promises. Things I can actually control, instead of “Uhhhh world peace plz kthnx.”

I guess we all have to make up our own rituals for coping with the world.

Swimming. Swimming is good.

Swimming. Swimming is good.

Lobster Ice Cream

We walked back down from the shrine and browsed the shops. I bought some akafuku (a red bean and rice cake sweet) for my teachers and some sake for my vice principal, and then I found this.

??

??

What. What. Why.

A little while ago, I tried shirasu ice cream. That was damn gross, but I figured lobster couldn’t be worse, because I actually can eat lobster by itself without gagging, so I thought it would be worth a shot. To temper the inevitable fish flavor, I got the mix of cherry and lobster.

It was… fine. Would try again.

Mie Trip 138

I like trying weird ice cream flavors though. 

Matsusaka: Takoyaki Party & Matsusaka Castle & Kaiten Yakiniku 

My last day was Sunday, and it was rainy, so we didn’t go far. We explored the Matsusaka Castle ruins and then went out for yakiniku. Matsusaka beef is famous, so I definitely wanted to try it while I was there, and my friend had told me about a kaiten-yakiniku place—that is, a conveyor-belt yakiniku restaurant.

What?

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It was very busy, so we couldn’t sit at the actual kaiten part, but the beef was delicious anyway.

Mie Trip 166After spending two days with Ryusuke and Mariko, we got pretty comfortable with each other. By the end of my stay, I felt like we were old friends. I met Ryusuke’s parents too, who met my grandparents back in Torrance, and his father was so happy that I followed his recommendation to Ise Shrine.

God, they are such lovely people. All of them.

On my last night, Ryusuke, Mariko, and I had a takoyaki party at their house. I had never made takoyaki before, but apparently it’s a Japanese family tradition. It was a little difficult—spinning the takoyaki balls around with a tiny stick to cook all the sides is tricky—but we had a lot of fun.

takoyaki

After dinner, Ryusuke showed me some of his drawings. He is a landscaper, so he had a lot of garden sketches and paintings—and some ninja cartoons. He showed me a few ninja comics he had drawn, and then he asked me if I drew anything.

And from there, a doodle fest was inevitable. We all grabbed pads of paper and doodled for hours that night. I think that, especially, I will never forget, because it was such an easy, intimate moment. Just a couple of friends, casually drawing Batman together.

Batman not pictured.

Batman not pictured.

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Universal Studios Japan & The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

After a frankly depressing last day in Hiroshima, my friend and I decided to boost our spirits… with a trip to Hogsmeade!

YES PLEASE

YES PLEASE

I love (love LOVE) all things Harry Potter, and I had been looking forward to this trip for ages. (And I mean ages. I’ve been waiting for a Harry Potter-themed park since the days of Merlin.)

Not this Merlin, silly Internet people!  (Source: spinoff.comicbookresources.com)

Not this Merlin, silly Internet people!
(Source: spinoff.comicbookresources.com)

Universal Studios Japan is located in the lovely city of Osaka, only an hour’s ride on the shinkansen from Hiroshima. I wanted to visit the park solely for the opportunity to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but I didn’t have an excuse to spend so much on a shinkansen ticket all the way across Honshu until now. Since I was going to be in Hiroshima for the holidays, I figured this was perfect.

‘Twas.

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The park was moderately crowded the day we went, which was not a shock. We went on December 23rd—a national holiday in Japan. After my experience at Tokyo Disney Sea, I didn’t expect to get much done all day. Our one and only goal was to go to Hogwarts.

We bought tickets at the front of the park and then quickly moved into the center to get something like a Fast Pass for TWWHP. Since it’s so popular, you have to get a ticket to be let in. The tickets are free (as Fast Passes are), but they give you a specific time to visit HP’s homeland. We arrived early enough at the ticket spot that we could choose a time of day. We briefly considered choosing 1:00, but then decided on 10:00 (only half an hour away), because why wait? This was the only thing we really wanted to do anyway.

Turns out it was a good decision, because HP World was very crowded and wait times just inside that area were ridiculous. We hopped on the Jaws ride before heading over, and then we walked right into Hogsmeade.

It was magical.

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I was having a major geek-out. My friend also likes Harry Potter, but everyone knows that I like Harry Potter the best.

avpm love him the best

We went into all the stores, and I had to force myself to leave, because it was so cool. Ollivanders’ was the best, because it was just floor to ceiling wands. I didn’t buy a wand because I already have one—that I made. (Left it in the U.S. though, in my trunk.)

I did want to buy robes, though. I saw people walking around with Hogwarts robes and hats, and I told my friend, “That’s gonna be me. Sorry not sorry.”

Of course, that all depended on the price of the robes, and they did turn out to be a bit too expensive (and low quality! I can make my own, thanks, for cheaper). I did, however, find this baby:

The Time Turner necklace was a Christmas present from my mom.

The Time Turner necklace was a Christmas present from my mom.

Ugh. I freaked when I found it. I had to have it. And it’s brilliant.

After shopping around a bit (I also got a Chocolate Frog and some Pumpkin Juice), we stood in line for a ride. The line was about two hours, and the ride was short, but it was fun! Unfortunately, the other ride in HP World had a four hour wait. No thanks. (Riddikulus!)

The ride we skipped was the one that led you through Hogwarts, though, so we were a little disappointed until we saw that you can take the “Hogwarts Tour”—meaning you can walk through the castle with everyone else (in a separate line) and just not get on the ride! That was a cool compromise, so we walked around inside the castle. They had some illusions of the characters talking (in Japanese) and famous landmarks in the castle.

Man, us Hufflepuffs have to pick up the slack. But at least we aren’t Ravenclaw. Shameful.

Man, us Hufflepuffs have to pick up the slack. But at least we aren’t Ravenclaw. Shameful.

I tried “lemon drop” but he must have changed the password.

I tried “lemon drop” but he must have changed the password.

After that, we departed from Hogsmeade and explored the rest of Universal Studios. It was a typical theme park day. We went on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, watched the Waterworld live show (complete with foreign actors as the main characters), skipped over Spider-man because the line was four hours, and waited in line for Hollywood Dream only to have it break down.

I would say that USJ is worth it, if only for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was crowded, but I enjoyed myself.

harry potter is real

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Hiroshima: A City of Peace

Hiroshima has a longer history than we give it credit for. In the Western world, sometimes it seems like Hiroshima’s entire history started when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on the city. But there is so much more to the city than that. The fact that it has such an old, old, rich history makes its destruction perhaps even more devastating.

Shukkeien

Even though I live in a rural area near the ocean, there isn’t much… nature to speak of in my tiny town. Everything seems paved, and all of the buildings are quite close together. It’s jarring after graduating from UC Santa Cruz, with its beautiful campus and the trees, oh the trees, to come to Tomiura and realize there are no trees here.

So when I can go to gardens, I go.

Shukkeien means “shrunken scenery garden.” I think the name pretty much speaks for itself: Everything in the garden is a miniature landscape. It was cool to go through a bunch of different scenes as my friend and I walked through the garden.

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There were also tea houses, and my friend studies Japanese tea ceremony, so we talked about that a bit as we walked around the garden that was created in 1620, destroyed in the atomic blast in 1945, and reconstructed in 1951.

Itsukushima, a.k.a. Miyajima

On our second day, we went to Itsukushima, an island in Hiroshima Bay famous for its shrine. The island is also known as “Miyajima,” which means “shrine island.”

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You have to take a 10-minute ferry out to the island, and it’s very convenient. There’s no reason not to go! Except…

“Oh man, Megan,” my friend said, looking at her phone. “I’m looking at the roundtrip ferry prices, and it’s totally gonna break the bank.”

“Uh oh,” I said, wincing internally. I was hoping to save as much money as possible on this trip. “Lay it on me.”

She looked at me, straight in my eyes, and revealed the horrifying truth to me, dead-pan: “180 yen.”

…So yeah, there really is no reason not to go.

We decided to spend the whole day there, because you can see the shrine at both high tide and low tide. Our hostel even posted what time the tides were! When we arrived, it was high tide, and there were a lot of people taking pictures of the torii (Shinto shrine archway) floating in the bay. We snapped a few, flirted with some deer, and then headed up to the mountain.

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Flirting with deer.

On Miyajima, you can take the ropeway up the mountain to a spot with a great view, and then you can hike 30 minutes to the very top. We had all day, so we figured, why not? The ropeway costs 1800 yen for a roundtrip, and you take two cars up to the top, with a short stop at a station in the middle.

Terrifying.

Terrifying.

Once you reach the last stop, there’s a rest stop and some rocks from which you can take gorgeous pictures and admire the scenery.

Admire it, damn you!

Admire it, damn you!

And then you can choose to hike to the very top. It’s not a difficult hike, and it’s worth it.

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Who is this BAMF who climbed all the way to the top?

We started to climb back down the mountain to the ropeway station, meaning to take a slightly different path so as to see everything. Unfortunately, at some point, we went the wrong way and started to hike down the mountain path. If it weren’t for a Japanese couple looking at their map in confusion too, we would have probably been hopelessly lost and walked down the entire mountain.

But with the help of the Japanese couple, we found the fork where we went wrong and eventually made it back to the ropeway station. Word to the wise: Pay attention to the signs. Do not just walk on autopilot. Yikes.

On our way down the ropeway, we ran into an American family that made us so mad. We couldn’t stop thinking of them for the rest of the trip because they were so damn stupid.

We took the first car down the ropeway and got off to switch cars, and this tourist family looked really confused. They argued about what to do next, and my friend jumped in and told them that they had to take the second car up the mountain to get to the top. The young girl and the older man in the group seemed to understand and argued a bit longer with the mom and the grandmother. My friend and I got in line for the car down the mountain, and at some point we turned around—and the family was standing behind us in line.

They wasted 1800 yen to take the ropeway halfway up the mountain. So. Dumb.

We told them what to do. What was so hard to understand about it? For the rest of the trip, we complained about that family to each other. “Remember that stupid American family?” “I can’t believe they wasted 1800 yen to see nothing!” “They missed it! They missed everything!” “Oh my God!”

We made it back to the beach just in time for low tide. Now everyone was walking around the beach and taking pictures of the torii up close.

Real close.

Real close.

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There are a few special foods that you should get when you go to Miyajima. First is the momiji manju. Manju are pastries, usually with anko (red bean) filling, but they come in many flavors. Momiji are a type of maple leaf famous in Japan, so momiji manju are just pastries shaped like maple leaves. There are a lot of places to get manju on Miyajima. My friend and I chose a place that sold fried momiji manju and had a sign saying Travel Advisor recommends it.

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Before I left, my coworkers kept telling me that I had to eat oysters while I was in Hiroshima, because apparently oysters are a big deal there. My friend and I aren’t big fans of oysters (or seafood in general), so we didn’t really go out of our way to look for them. We did find a place that did kakidon, though, meaning oysters over rice, and we figured that was as good a way to eat them as any.

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So there you go, coworkers—I ate oysters. And actually, it was quite good.

Our new friend here couldn’t have any though.

Our new friend here couldn’t have any though.

Hiroshima Castle

We left our hostel early in the morning to trek across the city for our last day in Hiroshima. It was surely going to be the saddest day ever, judging by our itinerary.

We started at Hiroshima Castle, built in 1589 and reconstructed after the atomic bombing in 1958. The grounds were huge but completely demolished. There were only foundations left for many of the buildings, somewhat reminiscent of the house foundations I saw in Fukushima.

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Hiroshima was a candidate for the bombing in the first place because it was a large military center in Japan during WWII. Hiroshima Castle actually served as HQ for a lot of military projects. It’s too bad a place of such rich history had to be obliterated for a supposed “greater good.”

Thanks, Grindewald.

Thanks, Grindelwald.

The (reconstructed) castle itself was pretty cool, but then, I love Japanese castles. The architecture is fantastic.

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A-Bomb Dome & Hiroshima Peace Museum

From the castle, it was just a short jaunt (okay, a 20-minute walk) to the epicenter of the bombing: the A-Bomb Dome.

Now called Genbaku Dome in Japanese, this building used to be an exhibition hall for art and education. Sounds like my kind of place! Too bad America has to ruin everything I love.

Everything.

Everything. (Image from moviepilot.com)

The bomb detonated over Shima Hospital (a hospital; you monsters), and took down pretty much everything within 1.6 kilometers, and then some.

I feel like this is some real Mockingjay shit.

I feel like this is some real Hunger Games shit.

The A-Bomb Dome was the only building left standing, so it became a memorial and a symbol of peace (with some controversy). I think it is also possibly a symbol of resilience: You can bomb our cities all you like, but we’re still standing.

Preservation is ongoing, and unfortunately, my friend and I arrived in Hiroshima during the period when they were checking the site for damage. So the A-Bomb Dome looked like this:

Despite all its rage, it is still just a building in a cage.

Despite all its rage, it is still just a building in a cage.

Despite the construction blocking the real view, it was actually pretty cool to see how they preserve it. They were checking for structural damage (from earthquakes and the like), but more impressive was the debris scattered inside the fence surrounding the memorial. They just left rocks and bricks and everything exactly where it was in 1945, so you could see exactly what it looked like after the bombing. That is some intense, sobering stuff.

Down the walk in the Peace Memorial Park, we found a few other memorials. The first was to students that were forced to work during war time. Many of these students were pulled out of school to help with the war effort, and because they were in the city at the time of the bombing, instead of at home or in school, a huge number of junior high and high school students died.

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Next was a memorial to Sadako, a junior high school girl who died from the after effects of the bomb. Like many children, she suffered from “atomic bomb disease” (原爆症) and was diagnosed with leukemia. There is an old Japanese legend that if you fold one thousand paper cranes, you get a wish. Sadako made one thousand, and according to the museum kept going after that, but she died anyway. Her memorial stands in honor of all the children who died during and because of the bombing.

People still fold and add paper cranes every year.

People still fold and add paper cranes every year.

At the end of Peace Memorial Park was the actual museum, which my friend and I approached feeling really sober already. By the end of it, I was just angry and upset. I already knew a lot of what we read about and saw inside the museum, because I watched some documentaries by Steven Okazaki a few years ago. It was still a sobering experience, and I did learn a lot. The images of the effects were the most educational part, I think, because you can read all you want, but you can never see. Unfortunately, cameras were not permitted in the museum, so I can’t share any of the gruesome images with you.

Or maybe that’s actually fortunate. If you’re really curious, check out White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After we left the museum, some high school girls approached us and told us about a school project they were doing. They were asking people to write messages of peace for a video project. They had a large sketchpad and big black pens, and they asked us to write a message and allow our picture to be included in the video. We agreed, but we didn’t know what to write, so I browsed for peace quotes on my phone. What a phony. (Heh. Get it? Don’t laugh, it’s not funny.) I found one I liked, wrote it in cursive in the sketchbook (got it wrong and my friend had to correct me), and doodled some flowers around the edge. They gave us the web address for their high school and said they would post the video on the home page.

Winter Illuminations

It was late afternoon when we were done with our Hiroshima tour, so we stopped in a Starbucks to chill before checking out the local illuminations. So worth the trip.

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Check out this decked-out bus! Festive as hell.

Check out this decked-out bus! Festive as hell.

Hiroshima Okonomiyaki

As a proper farewell to Hiroshima, on our last night, my friend and I ate Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Similar to Ramen Yokocho in Sapporo, there was Okonomi-Mura in Hiroshima.

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Okonomi-Mura is a building holding several okonomiyaki restaurants. There were so many to choose from that we just picked one at random—one on the second or third floor, I think. You really can’t go wrong with any of the places, but we were lucky with ours. The people were very nice and patient, and they were old pros at making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki right in front of your face.

You walk in and sit down at the bar surrounding the teppan. There isn’t a lot of room, so try not to bring a huge party (though there was a group of about six high school students seated at one point). The cooks will bring you water and a menu, or else just tell them what you want. Before we went, the guidebook we had said that you might have to ask for a plate, but this place just gave us some automatically. Then they make your food in front of you, and you can eat it right off the teppan or transfer it to your small plate.

And then you can enjoy this magically delicious piece of work:

Ohhhh yeahhhh…

Ohhhh yeahhhh…

Thoughts From Places: Hiroshima

Everywhere we went in Hiroshima, we were reminded of the atomic bombing, but more importantly, I think, we were also reminded of human resilience. Hiroshima came out of that tragedy and rebuilt itself—and is still rebuilding itself—and that is what’s amazing about this place. And really, humanity in general.

At the end of the Peace Museum walkthrough, there were several books laid out for visitors to sign and read. A lot of politicians from all over the world had left their comments and you could read translated version of what they said. So many of them said that they were amazed and inspired by Hiroshima’s courage. “Never give up, Hiroshima,” someone wrote. That phrase, out of everything the international leaders wrote, has stuck with me.

Here is the quote I chose for the high schoolers’ project:

“Peace cannot be kept by force;
it can only be achieved by understanding.”
(Albert Einstein)

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Okinawa: THIS IS BEACH!

Before I moved to Japan, I didn’t travel outside of the contiguous United States. A lot of people I meet in Japan are surprised by this, like it’s totally normal to have enough money to make international trips all the time and going on vacations to Hawaii.

True, I lived practically next to the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s gone out of style to spend Spring Break in Tijuana these days.

(Haha, no it’s not, but it’s more dangerous now than it once was, and I don’t know anyone who did go there for any break.)

So it was a huge treat for me to be able to visit the lovely tropical island of Okinawa!

When

As it was the most convenient time for us, my friends and I went to Okinawa in late July, immediately after the spring semester of school ended. I’ve read elsewhere that mid-May or earlier in Spring is the ideal time of year to visit Okinawa, though some sources just recommend summer anyway, probably because it’s tourist season and that’s when everything is open.

But late-July was fine for us! We just missed typhoon season (which starts in August, I think), and it was sunny every day. It was unbearably hot and humid. At one point, we spent an entire day outside and it was a torturous day. When we got back to the car, the car’s temperature system said it was 42°C (107°F)! Luckily that was a mistake—the car was just hot as hell because the shade had moved.

The general temperature was around 30° to 32°C (typical) and the humidity was almost constantly 100%. But you’re gonna get that no matter where you go in Japan during the summer.

I highly recommend sunscreen, no matter what season you visit during. I put on sunscreen constantly and got some color, but my friend forgot hers and never put any on—and she paid for it.

How

Before you go to Okinawa, you’re gonna need a few things.

One of the most important things you’ll need is a car. I cannot stress enough the importance of renting some form of transportation.

Public transportation is practically nonexistent in Okinawa. There are a few buses, but they’re inconvenient at best. My friend took a trip to Okinawa a year before I did, and none of her travel companions could drive, so they had to hoof it or take confusing and slow buses.

With her warning, my two friends and I rented a car and split the cost between us. It was convenient and inexpensive, and there are tons of rental places near the airport to rent from. They even have free shuttles from the airport to the various rental places, so there’s no reason not to rent a car (unless, of course, you can’t drive in Japan).

We booked our flight, car, and hotel through Rakuten and used ABC Rent A Car, and it was nice enough. We stayed at Rakuchin, a small hotel in Naha, and that was nice, too, and close to the airport and within walking distance of this International Boulevard that had some neat shops and restaurants.

Quick tip: Don’t drive down that street. Just don’t. It’s not worth it.

The toilet at our hotel was

The toilet at our hotel was “sanitarized”!

Where

There is so much to see in Okinawa, but we only had 5 days to see it all. We sat down together a few days before the trip to map out our days, and here is what we finally decided on.

Friday, July 25: Shuri Castle & the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum

We flew in the afternoon before and spent the evening mostly in our hotel, though we did walk around the area a little.

The next morning, we got up and drove over to Shuri Castle. Parking was a bit of a hassle (it was pretty crowded, even early in the day), but we eventually found a spot in front of a restaurant, which apparently accepted parking for the castle park. We may or may not have had to pay 500 yen; I don’t remember.

Shuri Castle was really cool. The castles in Okinawa are from the Ryukyu kingdom and have architectural influences from China and Japan.

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Next was the Prefectural Art Museum, because I can’t resist a good art museum.

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In the afternoon, we walked from our hotel to a nearby beach, and I got to experience the clear blue waters of Okinawa for the first time.

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There aren’t many natural beaches on the main island, but we had plans for that later.

Saturday, July 26: Nakagusuku Castle Ruins & the Southeast Botanical Gardens & the Tomigusuku Festival

I love visiting ruins, so this was a must-see for me. And totally worth it, if only because of the enormous grass lawn, which I spent a good half hour just running around and doing cartwheels and admiring it.

grass run screen shot

Once we got inside the ruins to explore, it was gorgeous. I think this is my favorite place that we visited, actually.

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After that, we continued our day outside at the Southeast Botanical Gardens. They were gorgeous, but it was hot as hell outside and omg why did we spend a whole day outside?

Oh yeah… Because of this.

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And more importantly, because of this.

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That night, there was a music festival going on near the airport, so we parked in a very crowded parking lot (and thus had to spend a good hour afterwards trying to leave), and wandered around the festival grounds and listened to Japanese pop. It was actually really fun, and the groups were interesting. One of the girl groups just had a shtick—hella gymnastics. Daichi Miura was there, and he is apparently really famous and from Okinawa, so it was fun to see him perform in his home prefecture.

Sunday, July 27: Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium & Nago Pineapple Park

The Aquarium was amazing, but then I also love aquariums. This one is one of the largest in the world, and it has whale sharks.

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Nago Pineapple Park was actually really hokey and probably more of a young-kids family thing. It was 600 yen to get in, and then we took a tour on this automatic cart that rolled around on this track and explained what pineapples were. It was… weird. And the park’s theme song was an incredibly irritating earworm. I don’t actually know that I would recommend this place, if it weren’t for all the pineapple merch you could get at the gift store afterwards. And the impromptu pineapple wine tasting.

pineapple park screen shot

Monday, July 28: Zamami Island

Since the main island does not have any nice beaches for snorkeling, my friend recommended Zamami Island. You can take a ferry out to the island and then walk a short distance to a beach.

It was awesome!

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As I was too busy having fun snorkeling in the beautiful, clear water, I did not take many pictures. You’ll just have to check it out for yourself.

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Snorkeling at Zamami Island is pretty simple. There are a bunch of food and rental stands at the top of the beach, and you can rent your snorkeling gear (face mask and flippers) for 500 yen and go off by yourself and swim around the nearby reef.

OR you could just save the 5 bucks and bring your own swim goggles. (I forgot mine. Oops.)

As a strong swimmer, I didn’t rent the flippers, and the face mask by itself was a lot cheaper. The reef was pretty close to the beach, but there were no waves anyway, so you can swim out really far! There were a lot of fish, and you can just swim along them… It was an ocean-enthusiast’s dream. I loved it.

At one point, I started to swim up to this big anemone (about the size of my hand), but as I got close, a whole group of fish got all up in my face. Like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEAR OUR ANEMONE GET OUT HUMAN!” It was really sweet.

Unfortunately, since it’s such a popular tourist spot, a lot of the coral was dead and white, because PEOPLE KEPT TOUCHING IT. It took all of the self-control I had not to swim up to some people and kick them in the face, the way they were touching and stepping on all the coral.

DON’T TOUCH THE CORAL. IT KILLS IT. Jeezus.

Regardless, it was beautiful and fun and I wish, I wish, I was a fish.

While we were on the island, we got a SURPRISE STORM. While I was snorkeling, it very suddenly began to rain heavily. It only lasted for 10 minutes, but that was enough to soak everything. Luckily, we rented a beach umbrella, and thus managed to keep our stuff dry. It was pretty hilarious, though.

Tuesday, July 29: Omiyage shopping & the flight home

And thus ended my adventure in Okinawa. We went shopping for souvenirs on Monday night, actually, because we were afraid we wouldn’t have time on our last day, with having to check out of our hotel, return the rental car, and catch our early afternoon flight. We did have time to stop for lunch, though! We had pineapple curry near the rental car place. It was a nice, relaxing ending to the trip.

What

The food in Okinawa was delicious. We tried umibudo (sea grapes) as an appetizer, which was a pleasant surprise, and I wish I could get it in my area.

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My first dinner was soki soba, which is soba noodles with boneless pork ribs.

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We went to a restaurant across the street from our hotel, and we ended up going there twice in our trip because it was so convenient and good. The second time we went, I got goya champuru. Champuru is an Okinawan dish. Champuru means “to mix,” and goya is a bitter melon. I wanted to try it, but it turned out to be one of those dishes that I can only eat so much of before I got sick of it. Better to share, I think, with others.

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Also, I think champuru is where this anime got its name from?

Also, I think champuru is where this anime got its name from?

Up north, near the U.S. military base, there is a lot of international food. We found REAL California-Mexican food, and the Indian food was actually spicy. The waitress warned us… but we didn’t listen…

Heed the waitress’s warning, you guys.

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And of course I had taco rice, which is an Okinawan invention. I can get it in Tokyo, though, so I didn’t take pictures, but rest assured, it was awesome.

The best place to go for souvenirs is, of course, Kokusai-dori (International Boulevard).

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There are tons of souvenirs shops and restaurants to check out, so spend a few hours walking the street! It reminded me a bit of some special areas in Los Angeles. (Actually, much of Okinawa reminded me of California, especially during the drives. It was obviously more tropical, though.)

Here are some must-get souvenirs, because they are delicious:

Chinsukou cookies. They are salty and sweet and so delicious.

omiyage salt cookies

These sweet potato tarts. They are purple and I love sweet potato, so it was almost impossible to resist.

omiyage sweet potato tarts

My coworker requested that I bring these back for him, so I did, but… Like. What.

omiyage pig ears

They’re dried pig’s ears. I don’t understand.

Then there are these sweet Okinawan donuts that I highly recommend called andagi.

omiyage andagi

And then, of course, you can’t forget the snake juice!

hebizake. Legit, a snake inside sake.

hebizake. Legit, a snake inside sake.

Just kidding.

And all the pineapple stuff you can get.

At Nago Pineapple Park

At Nago Pineapple Park

Why

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074 091 148 165 178 183 192 198

Why the hell NOT? Were you even paying attention?

Expenses

Expense Yen
Rakuten flight, hotel, and rental car 64300
bus ticket to Haneda airport 2250
rental car insurance fee 1080
ferry tickets (round trip) 4030
Shurijo Park 820
Okinawa Art Museum 1050
Nakagusuku Castle Ruins 400
Southeast Botanical Garden entrance ticket 1500
Nago Pineapple Park entrance ticket 600
Nago Pineapple Park souvenirs 1728
Churaumi Aquarium 1850
souvenirs (furikake and donuts) 2430
cookie souvenirs 1080
Pineapple House lunch 1540
gas for rental car 1027
TOTAL 85685

In other news: Where Have You Been?

You, er, might have noticed that this is a rather late blog post. I was going to start video blogging for my third year, starting with this Okinawa trip, but I couldn’t get my shit together, so I have a lot of videos just sitting around, waiting to be edited with a program that I don’t have.

So that’s why it took me so long to write about Okinawa. Sorry!

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