Friendships Abroad

 By Aspasea McKenna

Sep­tem­ber 4th, marked the year-to-date that I hopped on the plane that would take me to the city that never sleeps. I ask myself where that pre­cious time went and my mind is flooded with noth­ing but incred­i­ble mem­o­ries. This past year has been one filled with intox­i­cat­ing adven­ture, irre­place­able life lessons and unfor­get­table expe­ri­ences that helped me grow in ways I didn’t know pos­si­ble, and ulti­mately, helped me find myself in what I thought an impos­si­ble search for what’s impor­tant in life. But these wild adven­tures would not have nearly been as such if it were not for the peo­ple that shared these won­der­ful moments with me. The human con­nec­tions that we make are what keeps us going through this long and tumul­tuous jour­ney we call life, and what sticks with me more than the fun I had, are the peo­ple that were right there by my side expe­ri­enc­ing them with me.

Masa and Ryoko’s wed­ding where we per­formed the Chris Brown wed­ding dance

The awe­some thing about study­ing abroad is that you get to meet hun­dreds of peo­ple; Peo­ple of your host coun­try, as well as peo­ple from around the world and all walks of life. The first six months of my time abroad, I chose to stay in the inter­na­tional dorms. There, I met awe­some peo­ple from coun­tries like Aus­tralia, Swe­den, Spain, Hol­land, Croa­tia, and from all of the Asian tigers and the Amer­i­cas. I not only got to learn about and live out my host coun­try, but over some beers and tasty Japan­ese snacks at the local iza­kaya (tav­ern), I also sur­pris­ingly learned a lot about my new friends and fel­low study abroader’s home coun­tries. It was these stu­dents that were along­side me dur­ing the down times shar­ing mutual feel­ings of home­sick­ness, and the up times explor­ing our new home.

But of course I can­not for­get to men­tion my Japan­ese friends. Through their actions, they taught me the Japan­ese lifestyle and what it means to be truly Japan­ese. Their inter­minable hos­pi­tal­ity and warm hearts that know no bounds, their cease­less pos­i­tiv­ity and empa­thetic minds showed me a new kind of friend­ship and taught me a new out­look on life.

 This year will for­ever stay engrained in my mind as the best year of my life. Of course the rag­ing rock con­cert in Burma, danc­ing in a tra­di­tional Newari fes­ti­val for Shiva in a remote vil­lage in Nepal, crawl­ing through a 100 meter long war tun­nel in Viet­nam on my hands and knees, tak­ing a yacht ride on Yoko­hama Bay with all of my exchange stu­dent friends and see­ing a world famous guru in India for my for­tune take the top of the list, but what undoubt­edly takes the lead is the life-long friend­ships that I forged. The friend that was patient with me when I was learn­ing how to use my now favorite DSLR, the friend that brought me flow­ers and med­i­cine when I had a high fever, the friend that played wing-girl when I met a cute boy. If it weren’t for these spe­cial peo­ple that blessed my life in ways they can’t pos­si­bly know, there is no way that I would have got­ten through this year with­out call­ing my mother at home cry­ing as I ask her to come pick me up from Japan.


An Entirely New Terrain

By Aspasea McKenna

We made it! After months of prepa­ra­tion and hard work, we’re finally in Nepal. Due to a delay in Guangzhou, China, we arrived in Kath­mandu at 12 mid­night on Wednes­day. Other than the dim light com­ing from the small Suzuki’s head­lights, the drive to the hotel was made in com­plete and utter dark­ness. Because of fre­quent power out­ages and from just a lack of lamp posts, at night, Kath­mandu becomes a city devoid of light. Sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing Kath­mandu is the cap­i­tal and the most urban city of Nepal.

Although it was dark, I tried my best to take in all that I could of my sur­round­ings. Every so often, I would catch a glimpse of clay build­ings and tin garages branded with Coca Cola and Pepsi signs, an occa­sional stray dog, and street ven­dors cook­ing food for the late night snack­ers. After a few exchanges with the boy at the front desk, Olivia and I climbed into our beds and putting our heads down onto the pil­low, passed out from a long day of sight­see­ing in China, wait­ing aim­lessly for our delayed plane and the tir­ing effect trav­el­ing can have on you.

The fol­low­ing day, after meet­ing the vol­un­teers for the first time, we walked out of Shangri-la Guest­house and made our way into Thamal street. If by night Kath­mandu was as silent as the desert, by day, it was as chaotic as a war zone. In the nar­row road of Thamal, motor­bikes, taxis and rick­shaws flew passed us unnec­es­sar­ily honk­ing their horns, weav­ing in and out of  traf­fic as store own­ers tried to lure us into their stores. Mean­while, we hopped around the street as we tried to avoid the mud pud­dles col­lect­ing from the rain. Deli­cious smells of curry and chicken momos ooz­ing out of the restau­rants, vibrant col­ors and knick knacks spilling out of the shops, and Nepalese music stream­ing down the streets, all of my senses were stimulated.

No bet­ter way to remind me that I’m not in the U.S. any­more. And no, I’m not in Japan either. This place, is an entirely new terrain.

Home Is Where Your Heart Is

Home Is Where Your Heart Is

As I sit in the hotel lobby eat­ing my all-inclusive break­fast of pack­aged mar­malade pas­tries and drink my apple yogurt juice box, it has finally sunk in that I’m not home any­more. But then again, where is home? I’ve been liv­ing in Japan far­away from my home coun­try for 10 months, but could I really call that coun­try my home? Today I’m in Guangzhou, China, where I will be spend­ing a 24-hour lay­over on my jour­ney to Nepal. Although close in dis­tance to Japan, this fel­low East Asian coun­try could not be more dif­fer­ent. Stand­ing in line at the air­port, I got the feel­ing that every­one behind me was plot­ting some sort of devi­ous plan to cut me in line, of which a cou­ple suc­ceeded. My first expe­ri­ence with the Chi­nese cul­ture and I hadn’t even left Tokyo Narita air­port. Get­ting off the plane upon my arrival in Guangzhou last night, the smell and feel­ing of the dense humid air, the noise of the peo­ple loudly chat­ter­ing away in the shut­tle bus, I strangely felt very much at ease in my host coun­try. For the next five weeks I will be away from this place we call ‘home,’ but I’m now real­iz­ing that home is not where you reside or where you spend the most time in, but home is where your heart is, wher­ever it takes you. So from tonight on, for the next five weeks, Nepal is my new home, and what­ever changes that entails, whether it be new food, new lifestyle, new cus­toms and beliefs, new LANGUAGE, I could not be more excited!


An Unexpected Outcome

An Unex­pected Outcome

As you know, I came to Japan in Sep­tem­ber of last year in the hopes that while away from home I could do some soul-searching. Why I needed to go all the way to Japan you ask me? I had the belief that by get­ting in touch with my ances­tral roots I would be closer to fig­ur­ing out what it is that I wanted to do with my life. But what I found and where I found it was not what I had expected.

In Novem­ber of last year, I vaca­tioned to one of the many thou­sands of islands in Indone­sia. Lom­bok is a beau­ti­ful island in Indone­sia that has yet been tainted by the tourism and mod­ern­iza­tion like that of it’s neigh­bor­ing island Bali. Lost on a motor­bike in a city where very few speak Eng­lish, look­ing aim­lessly for a water­fall, my friend and I ran into a very help­ful boy. I told him where we were try­ing to go and he pro­ceeded to tell us that he would take us there him­self but that first, we should come to his home and enjoy a coconut together. We fol­lowed him a far dis­tance through rugged ter­rain and into a small vil­lage where neigh­bors and chil­dren came out and greeted us with friendly waves. I remem­ber think­ing to myself that I had never felt so part of a com­mu­nity, and one that wasn’t even mine. When we pulled up to his home, or rather a small hut shared with seven fam­ily mem­bers, a stray dog and some chick­ens, he invited us in for some lunch that his mother had pre­pared. Over some cof­fee and a meal of rice and lentils eaten with our hands, he began to tell us about himself.

His name was Aman*, a 16-year old boy with so much ambi­tion. He had won 2nd place in Lombok’s Eng­lish speak­ing con­test and he had an aspir­ing dream to attend a uni­ver­sity and become a busi­ness­man to bet­ter his family’s sit­u­a­tion. Although in the eyes of my biased privileged-American self his fam­ily did not have much, the biggest con­cern on his mind was find­ing a girl­friend that liked Aman, for Aman. Not once did he com­plain about his sit­u­a­tion and not once did he come across as unhappy. He made me real­ize that no mat­ter where we are born and into what­ever cir­cum­stances, we are all the same. We are all human beings striv­ing for the same ulti­mate goal of hap­pi­ness. Yes, some of us in the devel­oped worlds have more toys, cars, clothes, houses, but in an increas­ingly mate­r­ial world, we are start­ing to real­ize that even with all of this ‘stuff,’ we con­tinue to suf­fer from unhap­pi­ness, vio­lence and crime. In Bhutan, the nation’s wealth is mea­sured by GHP, Gross Hap­pi­ness Prod­uct. Although it con­tin­ues to be one of the world’s most poverty-stricken nations, they still main­tain a level of GHP that is much higher than that of the devel­oped coun­tries. How­ever, it is not to say that the con­di­tions in coun­tries of such eco­nomic scale should be left the way they are sim­ply stat­ing that they are mea­sur­ably ‘more happy.’ There are still those that do not have access to the basic human rights that I have taken for granted all of my life. In short, this boy’s warm-heart and abil­ity to make the best of his sit­u­a­tion inspired me to pur­sue what it is that I want most in life: to help those in sit­u­a­tions like that of Aman by uti­liz­ing my net­work in help­ing to increase their own oppor­tu­ni­ties for a fuller life.

I’ve grown up in a very priv­i­leged envi­ron­ment where I am encour­aged and more impor­tantly, able to reach for my biggest dreams. I feel that it is my duty and oblig­a­tion to take advan­tage of my sit­u­a­tion and help those that need it most in any way pos­si­ble. I am now work­ing for a non-profit called Inspire a Child that com­bines sport and schol­ar­ship to increase edu­ca­tion atten­dance rates, and in two weeks will be trav­el­ling to Nepal to imple­ment our first project of build­ing an envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able soc­cer field. I am absolutely pos­i­tive that with­out hav­ing stud­ied abroad, I would never have had these expe­ri­ences and self-realizations, let alone meet the peo­ple I have or opened the doors that I wasn’t even able to see before I left. It is in get­ting lost, whether it be lit­er­ally on a motor­bike look­ing for a water­fall in Indone­sia, or fig­u­ra­tively, when falling into feel­ings of iso­la­tion and ques­tion­ing your own moti­va­tions, that you find your­self in an ever clearer light and in so doing, get a few steps closer to fig­ur­ing out who you are what your pur­pose in life truly is.

*Name has been changed


Anything is Possible

Any­thing is Possible

A year ago today, com­ing to Japan still felt like a far­away dream to me; one that I was ecsta­tic beyond words for, but also one that felt unreal. How could a nor­mal uni­ver­sity stu­dent like me have received a chance to cre­ate a new life for myself abroad? Hell, I was just get­ting used to the idea that some­times, and only some­times, life does play in your favor. And now I’m here. My one-year pro­gram has quickly dis­ap­peared and I am left with my final three remain­ing months. Where did it all go? The nine months I have had with Japan have been amaz­ing ones. I have trav­elled up down and around within the bor­ders of Japan, vis­it­ing Bud­dhist tem­ples in the tradition-packed city of Kyoto; gone snow­board­ing in the moun­tains of Niigata Pre­fec­ture where there was so much snow that mul­ti­ple times I had to get out and push a stuck car loose; hit all the famous onsen (hot spring) spots in Kyushu, the south­ern island of Japan, includ­ing a hot spring resort hotel with an infinity-style onsen and gourmet buf­fet; spent six­teen hours walk­ing the length of the famous Yaman­ote train line in Tokyo (of which my feet con­tinue to suf­fer from); karaoke-d my heart out time and time again; and not to men­tion par­tied with mod­els in the Rop­pongi dis­trict of Tokyo on a reg­u­lar basis.

I wasn’t jok­ing when I said I Karaoke my heart out.

Kinkakuji: a famous tem­ple in Kyoto

Towards the end of our long walk

One of the best addi­tional ben­e­fits of being in Japan is that I have eas­ier access to all the neigh­bor­ing Asian coun­tries. Every chance I got, I trav­elled out­side of Japan to expe­ri­ence every coun­try and every cul­ture I could. I hung out on pri­vate beaches in Indone­sia, crawled on my hands and knees through a 100-meter long war tun­nel in Viet­nam, vis­ited an orphan­age in Cam­bo­dia to spend the entire day play­ing with the chil­dren, rode ele­phants in Thai­land, and jour­neyed to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which enshrines four of the Buddha’s hairs, to make water offer­ings to the planet cor­re­spond­ing with my birth­day. I am fre­quently asked: “Do you even go to SCHOOL?!” And I assure you, I do. After I fin­ish school in July, I will be vol­un­teer­ing in a rural vil­lage in Nepal for four weeks with no run­ning water or elec­tric­ity, and then trav­el­ling on foot to India for ten days.

Feed­ing the ele­phants in Thailand

Motor­bik­ing in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam












The stun­ning Shwedagon Pagoda

A year ago today if you told me that I would have done all of these things in this short amount of time, I would have laughed in your face and I def­i­nitely would not have believed you. Reflect­ing on these expe­ri­ences, I have learned that any­thing is pos­si­ble. It started off with a dream to study abroad. If I hadn’t applied to that pro­gram and had the guts to say good­bye to my home and hop on that one-way plane to Japan, these expe­ri­ences would have been deemed impos­si­ble. Even more than I am excited for my upcom­ing jour­ney to Nepal, I am ner­vous and scared. No expe­ri­ence, no lessons learned could pre­pare a priv­i­leged Amer­i­can girl for a month devoid of basic ameni­ties that for twenty years she had taken for granted. But with­out tak­ing risks and push­ing your­self into uncom­fort­able ter­ri­to­ries, its impos­si­ble to live a life that you would look back on in ten, twenty, fifty years and feel that you have lived it to the fullest. Study­ing abroad made that pos­si­ble to me. See­ing dif­fer­ent coun­tries, cul­tures, meet­ing peo­ple from all walks of life, it has expanded my world but also in some ways, shrank it. If trav­el­ling has taught me one thing, even if indi­rectly, it is that as long as you set your mind to some­thing and believe in your­self, there is no way that you could not attain it. Every object, dream, goal, coun­try, is at your reach. But it’s the steps that you take from this day for­ward in grasp­ing it that are the most impor­tant. Just remem­ber, that any­thing is possible.

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand


Vis­it­ing the chil­dren at the Light House Orphan­age in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


A Japanese Wedding

A Japan­ese Wedding

Expe­ri­enc­ing tra­di­tional cer­e­monies in a for­eign coun­try are always some of the more sig­nif­i­cant mem­o­ries of my time abroad. You not only wit­ness a rite that is such a momen­tous occa­sion for those involved, but they also draw you deeper into the cul­ture of your host coun­try. So I was stoked when invited to a friends’ wed­ding here in Japan, and even more stoked when I found out that it would be held in a tra­di­tional Shinto style, which these days, has con­tin­ued to become more and more obsolete.

A Japan­ese wed­ding is so dif­fer­ent from many coun­tries’ because they have a smor­gas­bord of rit­u­als from which they can pick. You could have a Chris­t­ian chapel wed­ding, Bud­dhist, Shinto, or even choose mul­ti­ple styles if you so wish and it does not nec­es­sar­ily have to cor­re­spond with your beliefs. As the West con­tin­ues to have a big­ger impact on Japan, the Shinto and Bud­dhist style wed­dings are grad­u­ally declin­ing and con­tin­u­ally becom­ing a rare sight as the west­ern style becomes increas­ingly popular.

It was a beau­ti­ful sight to see. Dressed in extrav­a­gant wed­ding style kimonos (the bride head-to-toe in white, groom in black), the bride and groom, fol­lowed by their fam­ily mem­bers walked a cob­ble­stone path, lead­ing to a shrine where together, they took part in sake drink­ing rit­u­als; prayers of good luck, hap­pi­ness and pro­tec­tion; and watched sacred dances per­formed by a miko (a fig­ure that was once looked at to be a shaman). What’s inter­est­ing is that by tak­ing part in this cer­e­mony, I real­ized that even wed­dings are a direct reflec­tion of the fact that Japan­ese soci­ety is divided into an in– and an out-group. As the rel­a­tives all sat together in an under­cover area behind the bride and groom and took part in the cer­e­mony, us friends, sat and observed from the side­lines. I almost felt as if I was an anthro­pol­o­gist observ­ing human behav­ior. This dis­tinc­tion is made in all aspects of the Japan­ese cul­ture. Even lan­guage is set up on an “uchi-soto” con­text (uchi-inside and soto-outisde) where tense and polite­ness change dra­mat­i­cally depend­ing on whether you are speak­ing with some­one in your in-group or out-group. By see­ing this reflec­tion of social behav­ior in the Japan­ese tra­di­tional Shinto wed­ding, it allowed me to look at wed­dings in my home coun­try more objec­tively. It is com­mon at an Anglo-Saxon wed­ding that the rel­a­tives and friends sit and watch the cer­e­mony together, which shows that the dis­tinc­tion between rela­tion­ships are not as separated.

The beau­ti­ful bride and groom and their clos­est relatives

Of course rit­u­als are expected in the union of two souls, but what I was really sur­prised upon was that there are also many cus­toms the guest must fol­low. As a guest of the newly weds, its cus­tom­ary to bring a gift of 30,000 yen (roughly $385USD). But these bills have to be han­dled in a very strict and del­i­cate fash­ion. On a trip to the bank to pull out this lump sum, you have to specif­i­cally inform the teller that you are going to a wed­ding and in so doing, they will hand you three very, very crisp bills. So crisp, that it feels like they could slice through a wed­ding cake. After that, you have to put them in a spe­cial wed­ding enve­lope adorned with intri­cate threads.

I’m sure some­thing along the lines of this thought may have crossed your mind: “$385?!” But what you receive in return for this lump sum makes it well worth it. The din­ner alone, with the sim­ple and yet elab­o­rately detailed pre­sen­ta­tion is so beau­ti­ful to look at that it’s almost dif­fi­cult to eat. At the end of the recep­tion, after food, cake, speeches, etc., you reach under your seat to find a bag full of gifts (expected to be half of the value of the con­tri­bu­tion) rang­ing from desserts, flow­ers, Japan­ese pot­tery, and var­i­ous other good­ies. Recently, many cou­ples have been offer­ing a cat­a­logue of var­i­ous items and hotel pack­ages that the guest can later choose from. But of course in my opin­ion, the expe­ri­ence itself is even more amaz­ing then any­thing a cat­a­logue could offer me.


Lessons From Fukushima

Lessons From Fukushima


On March 11th of last year, 2:46 pm Japan local time, a mas­sive 9.1 mag­ni­tude quake shook the sur­face of the earth. An earth­quake so big left build­ings and homes uprooted from their foun­da­tions in the Tohoku area of Japan, and could even be felt by civil­ians 350 km south in Tokyo. Min­utes later, the ter­ri­fy­ing earth­quake was fol­lowed by an even more death-defying tsunami of up to 40.5 meters in height, tak­ing with it the homes of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple in the Pre­fec­tures of Iwate and Sendai. The sheer mag­ni­tude of this dis­as­ter took the lives of 15,854, injur­ing 26,992 and 3,155 more were dis­placed and left miss­ing for days on end. If we thought that it could not get any worse for the Japan­ese, we were soon proved wrong. The fol­low­ing day, the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Power Plant received severe shock from the tsunami caus­ing an atomic melt­down of three reac­tors and high lev­els of radi­a­tion to seep out into the air. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of fam­i­lies were forced to evac­u­ate their homes within a 100-mile radius.

Today when we hear the name Fukushima, we are all reminded of this ter­ri­ble dis­as­ter that occurred more than a year ago today. The inter­na­tional com­mu­nity reached out and was by Japan’s side in this time of cri­sis, but noth­ing could be more inspi­ra­tional than the com­mu­nity coop­er­a­tion and strong indi­vid­ual lead­er­ship that the Japan­ese took on to help their own peo­ple. Cur­rently, there are still many fam­i­lies (approx­i­mately 340,000 peo­ple) in the Tohoku area that are unable to return to the city that occu­pied their homes, whether it be because of the earth­quake, tsunami or due to the dan­ger­ous lev­els of radi­a­tion. And yet, the affected com­mu­ni­ties con­tinue to keep their heads held high. Uplift­ing mes­sages of “You can do it, Japan!” are posted on build­ing walls, strung up on poles and hung all around cities through­out Japan.

This week­end, I was invited by my friend Olivia to go to Fukushima dur­ing the city’s annual Earth Day fes­ti­val. Here, a col­lec­tion of NGOs, NPOs and pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions gath­ered to cel­e­brate the day of the earth through tap danc­ing lessons, toy dri­ves, numer­ous games and arts and crafts for chil­dren. Home baked cook­ies and snacks and a num­ber of acces­sories were being sold to raise funds for var­i­ous causes related to the strug­gling fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties in the Fukushima area. Con­sul­ta­tion ser­vices were also offered for those locals and vis­i­tors want­ing more infor­ma­tion that can often be hard to retrieve.

Peach Heart was one of the many orga­ni­za­tions par­tic­i­pat­ing in this Earth Day gath­er­ing. This orga­ni­za­tion was founded by women for the women; A net­work for 18–30 year-olds from Fukushima Pre­fec­ture or liv­ing as refugees out­side of the area to gain com­mu­nity sup­port and unite over the shared goal of dia­logue to keep their sto­ries and events of Fukushima alive. Peach Heart is involved in mak­ing and sell­ing hand-made masks out of var­i­ous fash­ion­able pat­terned cloths with their pro­ceeds going towards fund­ing their orga­ni­za­tion. I thought this was such a great idea because masks are com­monly worn by peo­ple all through­out Japan, for var­i­ous pur­poses such as dur­ing a com­mon cold, aller­gies and pro­tect­ing one­self from harm­ful pol­lu­tants (and accord­ing to some girls, when they are too lazy to put on makeup in the morn­ing). Olivia and I were so impressed, we stocked up on sev­eral of these masks to give away as gifts and even for our own use.


Pos­ing for Peach Heart

You Can Do it Fukushima”

Many of the vol­un­teers head­ing the booths were those directly impacted by the 3.11 cat­a­stro­phe. To see them there with their smil­ing faces, help­ing their neigh­bors in any way pos­si­ble, left me with an inde­scrib­able feel­ing of joy to know that our fel­low human beings were not defeated in times of such cri­sis. Upon speak­ing with the vol­un­teers, I learned that many of them had lost their homes from the tsunami. My heart imme­di­ately felt for them, know­ing that they have gone through more mis­ery and strug­gles in the past year than I could even begin to contemplate.

The Girls From "Gambappe"

That night we fol­lowed the fes­tiv­i­ties to a newly built cen­ter, pro­vided by Japan NGO Cen­ter for Inter­na­tional Coop­er­a­tion (JANIC), where aid groups can meet and col­lab­o­rate through ideas and projects. JANIC is an NPO that col­lects and dis­perses funds from out­side donors to reg­is­tered Japan­ese NGOs and NPOs, and was founded from the neces­sity of an orga­ni­za­tion to help bet­ter coor­di­nate the activ­i­ties in Japan­ese soci­ety and to facil­i­tate coop­er­a­tion with groups over­seas. This event was an oppor­tu­nity for Olivia and myself to net­work and meet many amaz­ing indi­vid­u­als all work­ing towards the com­mon goal of eas­ing the pain and dam­age done to the Tohoku area and inhab­i­tants. Many per­for­mances were put on includ­ing singing, lyri­cal danc­ing, and even tap dance. A com­bi­na­tion of food, good music and awe­some peo­ple, made the envi­ron­ment so warm and invit­ing. When the lyri­cal dance group per­formed, I could not help but be moved to tears. Each move­ment and sway of the body pos­sessed so much energy, so much vigor. The pain on their faces and sor­row in their eyes was a cul­mi­na­tion of each and every one of their strug­gles and it was expressed through their danc­ing in such a way that I could feel their agony to the core of my being, giv­ing me goose bumps.

My expe­ri­ence of the 24 hours I spent in Fukushima can be eas­ily summed up in one word: Inspi­ra­tional. It was inspir­ing to see so many youth tak­ing charge, inspir­ing to see so many groups ded­i­cated to bet­ter­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Fukushima and even more inspir­ing to see the locals pos­sess such strong spir­its and self­less ded­i­ca­tion to improv­ing the lives of their neigh­bors. When ask­ing our new Fukushima friends what the one mes­sage is that they would like to state to the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity, many replied by say­ing, “Never for­get about Fukushima.” There are so many lessons that the world can learn from this abysmal dis­as­ter, whether it be the ever-increasing need in the dis­man­tling of all nuclear power plants and con­vert­ing to a bet­ter, safer method of energy, or even from the incred­i­ble uni­fi­ca­tion of the com­mu­nity through relief efforts in restor­ing their home. I’m blessed to have had the oppor­tu­nity to meet such peo­ple and it has truly been a reward­ing expe­ri­ence that I will hold dear to my heart forever.


A Taste Into The Hyper-Efficient City

A Taste Into the Hyper-Efficient City

Although I couldn’t say the same for my cul­tural adjust­ment to liv­ing in Japan, the act of actu­ally liv­ing in Tokyo is one of great ease. I men­tioned before that the hyper-efficiency of Japan like that of no other coun­try, (although Ger­many may be a close con­tendor) left me in some­what of a robot-fantasy like trance. The belief that tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment is aimed to accom­plish higher and eas­ier stan­dards of liv­ing can be proven by spend­ing a day in the big city. The well-organized, prompt, and tech­no­log­i­cally advanced cul­ture and infra­struc­ture is a proud point for the Toky­oite, and for vis­i­tors, a real­iza­tion that their home coun­try has much to catch up on.

The first thing that sticks out for many peo­ple upon arrival into a new coun­try is their first encounter with a toi­let. Maybe because what you do in the con­fines of the closed stall is a very pri­vate exe­ri­ence and with the dif­fer­ences among toi­lets across coun­tries, it allows many oppor­tu­ni­ties for con­fu­sion. For west­ern­ers, when fac­ing a squat toi­let or bidet for the very first time, many are left in a state of com­plete and utter con­fu­sion. In what­ever case, it is in my belief that the san­i­tory state of a toi­let is a direct reflec­tion of the hygenic level you will be expe­ri­enc­ing in that coun­try. After not hav­ing vis­ited Japan for 4 years, I can still remem­ber that first trip to the restrooms after hav­ing arived at Narita air­port in early Sep­tem­ber when I smiled to myself and thought, “Yep, I’m back in Japan.” Japan­ese toi­lets are like R2D2 meets quar­an­tine. Some­how the Japan­ese are able to keep every bath­room and toi­let spit shin­ing and toi­lets are adorned with but­tons that can con­fuse the liv­ing day­lights out of a tourist.

Let me walk you through the aver­age bath­room expe­ri­ence in Japan (I know, a bit embarass­ing, but bare with me). As soon as you enter the stall, you are kindly greeted by a sen­sor that catches your pres­ence and turns on the sound of run­ning water to mask any noise you might make dur­ing your busi­ness (Appar­ently, this fea­ture is only in the women’s restrooms, a fact that I can­not quite dis­cern). Then, another sen­sor will acti­vate the toi­let seat to be lifted so there is no need to worry about strain­ing or dirty­ing your fin­gers. In case your bare­ness gets a lit­tle too cold to bear, a heated seat is fash­ioned. If nec­es­sary, there are many but­tons that offer options of vary­ing inten­si­ties of spray. Upon stand­ing up, the toi­let seat shuts and presto, it flushes auto­mat­i­cally! You barely had to lift a finger.

It is not just toi­lets though. The train sys­tem is impec­ca­bly prompt. For those of us liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, we are aware that the pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem is ter­ri­ble! And if you aren’t, a trip to Tokyo will set you straight. Each town within a sub-prefecture within the larger pre­fec­ture of Tokyo has its own train sta­tion in which most peo­ple live within a 5–10 minute walk. Upon enter­ing the train plat­form, there is a line that marks exactly where a door will stop and I’m telling you, its accu­rate 100% of the time; and you can always be sure to get to work or school right on time as the trains come about every three min­utes on the dot.

And the Japan­ese smart phone is in a league of its own. Cam­era, video, email, and inter­net is now a stan­dard. The Japan­ese cell phones have turned into Osaifu-keitai, lit­er­ally mean­ing wal­let phone. They can act as key­cards, per­sonal I.D., tran­sit passes, air­line board­ing tick­ets and credit cards, to name a few. With the Fel­iCa sys­tem devel­oped by Sony, you can now pay for any­thing from vend­ing machines to taxis to con­ve­nient store goods with a touch of your cell phone! And because of the fre­quency of earth­quakes here in Japan, phones are also now being reg­is­tered to send you text messeges when an earth­quake is about to hit. Crazy right?!

But it gets bet­ter. How, you may ask? A recent addi­tion that I have noticed pop­ping up in some train sta­tions is 47-inch touch screen VENDING MACHINES!! This hi-tech vend­ing machine comes equipped with a cam­era that reog­nizes your gen­der and age and rec­om­mends drinks based on what­ever stereo­type is attached to your traits. That’s right, we are now being judged by machines! It can also store a per­sonal his­tory so you can be bom­barded with tai­lored ads when fre­quent­ing that vend­ing machine. After choos­ing your drink, a huge smi­ley face appears on the screen thank­ing you for your kind pur­chase. Although this inven­tion is a bit unnec­es­sary if you ask me, its still nev­er­the­less, amazing.

Need­less to say, life here in Tokyo is very com­fort­able. I can­not imag­ine how much eas­ier life can get, but some­how the Japan­ese always seem to come up with a new inven­tion that man­ages to blow me away. How­ever, with how fast tech­nol­ogy is advanc­ing and how smart com­put­ers are becom­ing these days, I do hope for the future of human kind that we do not have a reen­act­ment of the Ter­mi­na­tor. With that said, I invite you all to watch these videos:

A con­fused west­erner in for­eign ter­ri­tory:

A crazy out­door pub­lic toi­let:

Some nice scenery:

A stereo­typ­ing vend­ing machine:



Climbing Mt. Odake

Climb­ing Mt. Odake

This Sun­day, I became aware of the fact that ojichans and obachans—mean­ing grandpa and grandma, but are terms used in ref­er­ence to any old man or woman—of Japan are in bet­ter shape than I am. I came to this real­iza­tion on my trek to Mitake, Tokyo, Japan where I climbed and con­quered Mt. Odake. (Yes, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, there is nature in Tokyo) I am proud of the fact that I am a pretty active per­son, I fre­quent the gym, take yoga classes to relieve stresses and zumba classes when I’m in the mood to move my hips a lit­tle. I like stay­ing in shape and eat­ing healthy! (okay, now I just sound like I’m try­ing to prove some kind of point) But maybe I am just sub­con­sciously try­ing to tend to the wound of my hurt ego because I was with­out a doubt ‘owned’ this week­end by peo­ple over 3 times my age. So I’ve climbed a few moun­tains in my time, but sur­pris­ingly this hike was one of the harder ones I have encoun­tered, and already 30 min­utes in I was beat red and break­ing a sweat. The ojichans and obachans pass­ing us in their descent would offer words of encour­age­ment to us, four 20-something year-old west­ern­ers. The pop­u­lar response to our obvi­ous bat­tle with the moun­tain was: “You can do it! After all, you are young.”

Japan­ese elders show­ing us how its done

At one point, my friends and I were dis­cour­aged from fol­low­ing an old man and his two old lady friends in the route they were tak­ing up the moun­tain because, as they put it, it “would be too dif­fi­cult for us and our feet.” But I think we all know what hap­pens when you tell four 20-something year-old west­ern kids that they can­not do some­thing; that’s right, we waited around about 30 min­utes to make sure they were ahead of us a good enough amount, and pro­ceeded to make our way up that rugged un-paved moun­tain ter­rain. Not even five min­utes up the moun­tain, and we came across a mass tree-logging site. We had no idea which crazy route these elderly folks had taken or how we could pos­si­bly go any fur­ther, so we had no choice but to take our butts back down the slope. At which point we con­vinced our­selves that we had in fact seen ghosts and not real peo­ple. Deep within our bub­bling pot of self-pity, it was quite a humor­ous day.

Four 20-something year-old west­ern­ers after hav­ing con­quered the mountain

From this expe­ri­ence, the big les­son I learned was that I should never under­es­ti­mate my Japan­ese elders. They may look small, but under­neath that frail exte­rior, there is a flam­ing ball of bound­less energy. I also came to a real­iza­tion that if I can stick to the Japan­ese diet of mostly rice, fish, and veg­eta­bles, I may one day end up with half the amount of vigor. To all those ojichans and obachans stay­ing active well into their golden years, you make me proud!

The route that defeated us

For­tu­nately, any shame in our ath­letic abil­ity that may have devel­oped was all but for­got­ten when we reached the top. On a clear day you can look Mt. Fuji right in the eyes from the peak of Mt. Odake. Unfor­tu­nately, there was a lit­tle too much fog, so I will have to come face-to-face with Mt. Fuji another day, but nonethe­less, the view of Japan’s nat­ural beauty was breath­tak­ing. Spend­ing day after day in the big metrop­o­lis of Tokyo, you some­times for­get what it feels like to be reunited with Mother Nature. It pro­vides you with a warm feel­ing that you can­not get with tall sky­scrap­ers, bright lights, and the invad­ing noise of traf­fic. After such a labo­ri­ous uphill strug­gle, I felt like I was wrapped up in the com­fort­ing arms of Mother Nature and renewed with her peace­ful tranquility.

The peak of Mt. Odake


Flower Viewing In Japan

   Flower View­ing in Japan

Every year around the begin­ning of April, just when you think win­ter is over, Japan is cov­ered by a final blan­ket of white seren­ity. But instead of snow, Mother Nature blesses the coun­try with an abun­dance of sakura flow­ers as if to reward the peo­ple for mak­ing it through the cold win­ter. You may know the sakura flower by the name of cherry blos­som, and you may have seen them lin­ing the quad at the Seat­tle cam­pus. The sakura flower has become the unof­fi­cial national flower of Japan. Dur­ing the Heian Period (794‑1191) sakura trees were planted all through­out Japan for their beauty, and oh, how they grew!

It is a beau­ti­ful time of year, the sun begins to peek out from behind the clouds and warms up the cold soil beneath us, the birds seem to be chirp­ing ever more cheer­ily, and the girls bring out sun dresses that have been col­lect­ing dust in clos­ets. It is quite pos­si­bly my favorite sea­son of Japan, defrost­ing our bones from the winter’s cold and right before the excru­ci­at­ing sum­mer humid­ity hits. Although I have been vis­it­ing this coun­try since I was a child, this week­end was the first time I was able to expe­ri­ence the truly mag­nif­i­cent sakura bloom­ing first-hand. After hear­ing so much about this event in the pre­ced­ing months, my stan­dards were set high, yet noth­ing could have taken away from what I was about to see. All through­out Japan, peo­ple flocked to parks, shrines, and tem­ples to hold Hana-mi (flower view­ing) pic­nics with fam­ily and friends beneath the sakura trees. Every­thing from drinks, snacks, tra­di­tional Japan­ese ben­tos, and even deliv­ery piz­zas were enjoyed through­out Ueno Park, where I hap­pened to gather on this occa­sion with my friends. You could also find many booths sell­ing heaps of fes­ti­val food.  Laugh­ter and smiles filled the air and every so often a gust of wind would send petals fly­ing my way. I thought to myself—How could I pos­si­bly be in any­thing but a great mood? A walk through the crowded park and I also dis­cov­ered many forms of entertainment—magicians, musi­cians, strange-costumed men (odd, I know)—but noth­ing could dis­tract me from the incred­i­ble beauty of these flow­ers, I was truly awe-struck.


But as fast as they arrived, they departed even quicker, until all I had left to remem­ber that they were even here are my mem­o­ries and the traces of petals left lin­ing every nook and cranny of Japan. The sakura flow­ers stay in full bloom for about 5 days and the petals slowly start to fall. But the fact that they are so short lived is what makes them so spe­cial, I think. If they stuck around any longer, peo­ple would not appre­ci­ate them quite so much and there surely would not be a fes­ti­val held specif­i­cally for their viewing.


Walk­ing through and being sur­rounded by end­less rows of sakura trees, I was reminded of the fact that noth­ing lasts. We are for­ever chang­ing, matur­ing, age­ing; but instead of always look­ing towards the future that may ful­fill that cur­rent goal of ours, its impor­tant that we rel­ish in each beau­ti­ful moment that we have here on earth. We need to have a Hana-mi for our own lives some­times and rec­og­nize and appre­ci­ate how amaz­ing this life is that we were blessed with. Because if we don’t, our lives will flash before our eyes and come and go just as fast as the sakura flow­ers do each spring.