The Sun Will Rise (Welcoming in the New Year)

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Happy New Year!  I have been a terrible writer this past year.  I have barely written at all, so first and foremost, one of my New Year’s resolutions will be to write more!  

I can’t believe 2013 has ended already.  So much in my life is changing; I’m getting transferred to Hawaii for my job and will be also working out of Okinawa.  My apartment looks like it’s been ransacked due to packing up all my belongings.  As I look back over my pictures from the year I am reminded of all the things I accomplished and was able to experience.  I did quite a bit of traveling, both locally and abroad.  I went to mainland China and Hong Kong, visited Kyoto twice, caught up with high school friends from my time in Shizuoka, ran my first sprint triathlon and first full marathon, and secured a competitive and coveted position at work.  I met a good deal of people, made some new friendships, rekindled some old, and entered into a relationship.

2013 was a year that allowed for growth; there were some truly positive moments (being selected from a large pool of candidates for a very competitive position, crossing the finish line at the Mount Fuji Marathon), and there were also some very difficult times, regarding friendships, relationships, work, and life in general.

I was skyping with my mom recently and I was talking about some of the difficulties I was dealing with in regard to certain relationships and I think the overall sentiment for the New Year will be her advice:

Do good and have faith that good things will happen to you.

So my New Year’s resolutions are as follows:

1. Write more.

2. Be a more dependable person.

3. Be better at keeping constant communication with friends and family.

***

Two years ago I found a local shrine near my home that was up a small hill; the pathway was illuminated by lanterns.  After walking past the main shrine area a bit there was an opening and I could see out across the bay to Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Tokyo.  I could see the ships sitting there, too.  The lights shimmered against the darkness of the night and I remembered the opening of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.”

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I looked out on to the black ocean as a child, watching the ships sit against the horizon in the night, and I looked out on to that same darkness this night and thought of how my life has changed over the past two and a half years.  Although I am proud of the person I am continuing to grow into, I do not forget that it has taken some very difficult lessons.  

Here’s to another bountiful year!

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What I Learned from Running a Marathon

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My coworkers are probably sick of hearing me talk about running a marathon.  Look, okay, running a marathon doesn’t suddenly make you a better person, you’re not “holier than thou.”  I will tell you this, though–it teaches you an incredible amount about YOURSELF and what YOU are capable of.  Sometimes it takes 26.2 miles of pain to figure sh*t out.  Oh yeah, there’s a little bit about running that you learn about thrown in there too (like don’t wear gear you’ve never worn before on race day, don’t forget to bring warm up sweats when your race is at the end of November and you’re the only idiot walking around in shorts in 35F weather before the race actually starts, and don’t just “wing it,” your body will thank you later), but mostly, it teaches you about life.

1. COMMITMENT AND DEDICATION ARE THE PILLARS OF SUCCESS.  You have to really be committed to the goal of finishing a 26.2 mile race.  I love the quote, “Do or do not, there is no try,” because you are either going to finish the race, or you aren’t, plain and simple.  Who the hell gets satisfaction in walking away saying, “Yeah, well, I tried to run a marathon.”  Injuries aside, you are going to be the one to ultimately decide whether or not YOU are going to cross that finish line.  Can you envision it?  Is the goal greater than the momentary doubt or pain?

2. YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK.  I have NEVER felt so much continued pain in my body before.  Hours of pounding pavement is absolutely killer on the joints.  By the time I reached mile 20, I was really, really spent.  I thought about giving up so many times, but I kept thinking about crossing the finish line and about why I was even running the race to begin with.  Wasn’t it to prove a point to MYSELF that through willpower all things are possible?   And if that’s not enough, think of all the people, good and bad, that were there along the way–the naysayers, the people who supported you, the people who hurt you, and the people who ran alongside you through the pain–think about them too.  

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3. DON’T SETTLE FOR LESS THAN YOU DESERVE.  This is perhaps the most important lesson I learned. Since YOU have put in the time and the effort, you have pushed past the pain and torn down the walls of doubt, you know what it takes to be extraordinary, you know that success means being better than you were before, and we all have the ability to be better within us.  Don’t make excuses, don’t accept excuses.  You will never succeed by taking either action, you will only be holding yourself back..

4. CHANGE IS POSSIBLE.  If after touching down in Japan 2.5 years ago, someone would have come up to me and said, “You’re going to run a marathon 2.5 years from now,” I would have laughed in their face.  I had never run more than 5 miles in my entire life.  Why would I even waste my time doing something ridiculous like that?  Well, because sometimes the things we once see as “ridiculous” and “impossible” suddenly become important to us, and as I learned how to push past pain I understood what it meant to change.  It was a long, slow process from within that required the aforementioned commitment and dedication.   Change isn’t easy, but it is possible, and it allows us to grow.

5. BE GRATEFUL.  You have a body that allows you to absolutely feel what it means to be alive–everything that you are made up of is working together intricately, allowing your body to run the race.  Be grateful you have the opportunity to do so.

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Run for those that matter, run for those that don’t, because in the end you are going to have made the good ones proud and you will have left the bad ones 26.2 miles behind.

***

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” -Da Vinci

Kamakura Again and Return to Shizuoka

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These past two weeks have been quite busy at work, but definitely not busy enough to stop us from enjoying the good weather and traveling a bit.  To catch up, last weekend we traveled to Kita-Kamakura to visit some famous Zen sites.  We started the day at Engaku-ji, one of the most important Zen Buddhist complexes in Japan, and ranked 2nd among Kamakura’s “Five Mountains,” or state-sponsored Zen complexes.

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This temple was founded in 1282 by a Zen priest at the request of the Regent Tokimune Hojo.  It was built to honor those killed in battles against the Mongolian Invasion between 1274 and 1281, obviously as well as to spread Zen thought.  There are 18 temples on the complex, and it is home to 2 national treasures: the Shari-den (the Reliquary Hall built in the sixteenth century Chinese style, said to house the tooth of Buddha), and the Great Bell (said to be the largest in Kamakura).  You can read more about Engaku-ji here.

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After walking around Engaku-ji we made our way over to Tokei-ji, founded in 1285 by the wife of Hojo Tokimune, who then became a nun after his death.  In memory of her husband’s death, she opened the temple, also making it a place for battered women to take refuge.  If a women stayed at Tokei-ji for 3 years, the state recognized her as officially divorced.  It is estimated that 2000 women took refuge there.

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This weekend I visited my favorite place in Japan: Shizuoka.  A few weeks ago my friend S. came up from Shizuoka to visit me.  We were classmates in Shizuoka Johoku Girls High School (now co-ed).  We met up with a few of our other friends and went to Muse Cafe, which is full of stuffed pandas, chandeliers, and American pop music playing in the background.  For 3000 yen per person you can do free time, with quite a good deal of food and unlimited drinks.  The only caveat: sorry, gentlemen, men are not allowed to enter.  I’m not completely sure why; I think it’s to provide women with an atmosphere to chat and eat together in without the noisiness of men.  In Japan, genders are more segregated than in the United States, so it isn’t that unusual.

Quite a few of our classmates are getting married; we made a video for our friend, wishing her luck and happiness.  Mostly everyone is busy working, buying apartments, and the like.  Some of our teachers are still at Johoku; we reminisced about our English teacher’s class, having to memorize idioms (they memorized the English, I memorized the Japanese).  Everyone seems to be doing well, and it was lovely being able to see them all.  I love Shizuoka City, too, walking down all the old familiar streets I used to ride my bicycle to school on.  Things have changed but somehow still remain the same.

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This is not my Story.

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Photo: from CNN.com

Today is March 11th, 2013.  Two years ago I was granted a job in Japan.  My career in diplomacy was beginning to blossom by the promising connections I was making, and the points in my life that had brought me to that place were beginning to align like ducks in a row.  And then one early morning as I readied to board a flight to Seoul, I saw pictures of Yokohama on fire and one of my Japanese friends had written on facebook, “My grandmother’s house was wrecked from the waves of the tsunami.  I can’t stop crying.”  Suddenly we were all in limbo; I frantically tried to contact all my friends and family in Japan.  Most of them live in the central portion of the island and some live even further South, so they had been spared.  The earthquake had been strongest in the Northeast; and consequently the tsunami as well.  One of my good friends who had gone on the same exchange program as I in high school was living and working up North and had not fared so well; her town was devastated by the disaster.  Months later after I had arrived, we sat in a cafe in Shibuya and she recounted her story to me, and it seemed incredible, with so much death and destruction, no heat, no water, no electricity.  She was contacted by various press sources looking for a “Story of an American girl living through the destruction,” and she said it was kind of disgusting, how they were trying to sell it on some angle.  She said, “I lived through it just like everyone else did.  I’m not special.  I was getting by just like all the rest.”  

The Great East Japanese Earthquake both is and is not my story.  I was not here, I did not live through the death and destruction like my friend, or like my Japanese friends and family.  I was in a 5-star hotel overlooking the city lights of Seoul on spring break with my college choir.  I don’t claim it as my own, but is it possible to be so removed and so attached at once?  Suddenly everything changed in a time span of 2 minutes or so.  Suddenly the world took on a new shade of colors and a new sensation of unease; and I can’t get Murakami’s words out of my mind:

“And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little.          Things may look different to you than they did before.”

I was in Lisbon just months earlier listening to Fado music floating in and out of the alleyways of the Bairro Alto and I sat with a young officer who flew helicopters and I dreamed of this life that I had carved for myself up until that point.  Somehow Portugal and Japan were intertwined and there was an illusion I had and at 3 A.M. on March 11th, 2011 it shattered  completely.  I don’t know how to explain it; I don’t know how it all fits together, but it was there and then it was changed.  I don’t claim any of it as my own, only that I knew of it somehow and in a distant way it was connected to me, I suppose in the same way that an observer of a crime is both tied and separated from the events simultaneously.

We sat in the tea room at school and I remember we were having a luncheon; my mentor was sitting with us and I remember her saying, “I wouldn’t be surprised if things are completely changed by this.  The manner in which we do business over there is going to change.  It’s going to be unprecedented.”

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Ghosts of Kyoto

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This past weekend we traveled down to Kyoto.  It is an absolutely ancient place, with human civilization having been established there as far back as 10,000BC.  The prosperous city that we see today is the modern-day version of Heian-Kyo (peace and tranquility capital), seat of the Imperial Court in 794.  It is absolutely full to the brim with culture–tourists are numerous.  Kyoto is magnificent because one can truly see so many different cultural aspects converging; the city itself was built as a scale replica of the Tang Dynasty’s capital, Chang’an.  I will do more features in this blog on Japanese history and the significance of the Chinese and Japanese relationship over time, but for now, just a brushing on Kyoto.  It is very Nihon-rashii (Japanese-like), and another interesting thing is that the people in the region speak Kansai-ben.   I recognized it instantly as I heard a few older gentlemen conversing in the train station.

What in the world is Kansan-ben? you might ask.  In Japanese, many different dialects are used; with the exception of the extreme north (Aomori, Akita) and Okinawa, most dialects do not largely differ.  The standard on television and the news, of course, is the Tokyo dialect, “Tadashii Nihongo.”  Kansai-ben changes some words and emotion-enhancers, and is super noticeable to Japanese people (and for some reason, really entertaining to them).  So Here is an example of standard vs. Kansai dialect:

Standard: “Hontou ni?” (Really?)

Kansai: “Honma ni?” (Really?)

Standard: “Kyo, hontou ni samui da ne.” (Today is really cold, isn’t it?)

Kansai: “Kyo, honma samui ya ne.” (Same meaning as above)

I don’t know why, but this sounds really funny to Japanese people.  Most big comedians are from the Kansai region.

Friday evening we tooled around Gion and were able to spy a few Geisha running here and there to appointments; sadly, as I frantically tried to snap photos with my camera, I didn’t realize I had turned it off and somehow couldn’t manage to turn it on.  My friend was able to steal a lovely photo; I’m honestly surprised we saw so many (2 or 3), considering there aren’t many left.

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We sung karaoke, walked around, visited a temple in the snow (too dark for good photos), and ate at a delicious ramen spot called Ippudo.  

The next day we headed out early so we could get in as many sights as possible, starting with the famed Fushimi-Inari shrine.  

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The shrine is dedicated to the deity, Inari, who is sometimes male, sometimes female.  Merchants pray to Inari for wealth; hence the famous “thousand torii gates” (they are dedicated by businesses and merchants).

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After we left the Shrine, we made our way toward Ryoanji Temple.  Ryoanji is known for its zen rock garden, which may imply a deeper meaning behind the arrangement of the garden.  You can read more about it–> here.

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Finally, after Ryoanji, we headed up to the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion complex.

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Kinkaku-ji originally served as a villa for a wealthy statesman, and eventually was purchased by the Ashikaga Shogunate and transformed into the complex.  It has a somewhat odd history; in the 1950s a mentally unstable novice monk burned down the pavillon and unsuccessfully attempted suicide.  The structure that stands today is from 1955 (the original was not actually gold).  The gold was added to the current temple as a physical symbol of purification from any negative thoughts toward death.

Visiting Kyoto felt like going through an old photo album; I was there in 2005 with my classmates from Johoku High School on our class trip.  At first it seemed like an unfamiliar place, and then slowly, as I went to these same places–through the streets of Gion, in front of a school for young Geisha, walking on the cool wooden floors of the Ryoanji Temple, standing before Kinkaku-ji with the sunlight illuminating its golden walls, the memories came flooding back and it was familiar once more.  There is an imprint with everything we do; these ghosts that roam the streets remind us of who we once were and how far we have come.

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The Things that Happen In-Between

Today I met with a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in 7 years.  Back in 2005, I was an exchange student in Shizuoka, Japan through the American Field Service.  I was a high school senior, and having won a 6 week study abroad to Japan the previous summer, my parents decided it was a good investment to send me for a gap year.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life yet (what to study, where to go to university, etc), so a gap year seemed appropriate.  I would have to say that both my stays in Atsugi and Shizuoka were major milestones in my life.  I know a gap year is common in Europe, but it really isn’t in the States.  I think it gives young people a chance to really grow (living in a completely different culture doesn’t necessarily come easy) and to figure out what the next major decision might be.

I went to Shizuoka Johoku High School, which was originally a “Joshiko” or “All girls school.”  When I was an exchange student there they were transitioning to co-ed, which was most likely due to a decline in popularity of same-sex schools.  At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about attending a same-sex school, but as time went on I realized it was actually a really good thing (and it makes a lot of sense in Japan, where young men and young women rarely even eat lunch together in the same group; it’s much more gender-segregated here).  I have spent time in two universities; one all-female, the other predominantly male.  While my second university was larger, more prestigious, and landed me my current job, my first year at the all-female university had its own positives.  Women feel more comfortable engaging in dialogue with teachers and asking questions in all or predominantly female classes.  

Columbia University points out some key issues in co-ed classes–> HERE.

Anyway, my friend S and I talked about our lives, where we’ve gone and what has happened to us in the years that have passed.  It’s funny, I don’t feel like we’ve aged, except now our hair and clothes are styled much, much better and we’ve outgrown that certain teenage-awkwardness.  We both discussed careers, relationships, family, travel, mutual friends.  It was wonderful and I go back and think how lucky I was to have been able to study abroad and to have made friends with people who I can still talk to today from that experience.  When all comfortable barriers are taken away and suddenly you find yourself at a loss both linguistically and culturally, I think you are presented with the opportunity to truly see yourself–and to have others see you–without the rose-colored glasses of your own culture.

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Shizuoka, 2005.

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With S, 2013

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Harajuku + Asakusa

Although it has been cold here, it was sunny all weekend, and so the perfect time to do a little sightseeing. To be quite honest, we’re running out of places to go in Kanagawa, so once work permits I think we’ll try and take some trips down to Western Japan.

Saturday I went up to Harajuku for a little shopping, but before that I made a stop at Meiji-Jingu. Built in 1915 to honor the Emperor Meiji and his wife, it is located in Yoyogi Park and is a pleasant break from the surrounding city.

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Just as I was about to leave the main complex a wedding procession entered:

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After leaving Meiji Jingu I headed into downtown Harajuku for some sightseeing and shopping. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Japan, Harajuku is a quite fashionable–yet highly eccentric–area in Tokyo. On Sundays (and I still have yet to go) many young men and women who are into the quirky fashions get together and hang out near the station, readily providing eager sightseers and onlookers photographs.

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Today we headed up to Asakusa to visit Kappabashi-dori, aka “Kitchen Town.” It’s an area in Tokyo where one can buy restaurant items wholesale. From the famous plastic food items found in Japanese display cases to the hanging red lanterns outside ramen shops and izakaya, if it’s for the food business, chances are you can find it on Kappabashi-dori. All over Kappabashi-dori are images and figurines of Kappa, water nymphs of Japanese folklore. Kappa are creatures which can have natures ranging from innocently mischievous to outright cruel.

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Famous plastic food found in display windows:
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Taiyaki maker
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All the ketchup and mustard bottles you could ever need!
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With the Tokyo Skytree and Asahi Beer Hall behind me
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Until next time!