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!

Aspasea


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

Aspasea

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

Aspasea

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.

Aspasea

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.

Aspasea

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:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=fvwp&v=sByXV1J5wWQ&NR=1

A crazy outdoor public toilet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=km3xt49fHq4

Some nice scenery: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpSa1rbvYdA

A stereotyping vending machine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZiGt9Fshz0

Enjoy!

–Aspasea

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

Aspasea

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.

 

–Aspasea