Home, but in America

Hi all,


Taken on my last day at Nagaokatenjin, the shrine by my house.

I’m back in America. I’ve actually been here since Friday. The past week has been half tying up loose ends in Japan, half traveling, and half getting started back here in America. All together that adds up to a pretty full week (about %150 full).

This will also be my last blog post. I appreciate you all tuning in once in a while to give my blog a read. It’s been fun to write and update.

Let’s wrap it up.


A picture of the beer vats at Suntory Beer Factory.

Thanks to Japan’s easy-access beer vending machines, I’ve had many opportunities to compare all the major Japanese beers and come up with various opinions about them. Throughout my stay, my favorite was consistently Suntory.

Suntory actually has a pretty interesting history, starting almost 100 years ago by making Western-style liqueur in Japan (originally just Port). Since then they’ve created lots of different kinds of alcohol, including vodka, wine, one of the world’s best whiskys, Jim Beam bourbon, and beer.

I just recently found out that Suntory actually had a famous factory in my suburb of Kyoto: Nagaoka-kyo. So I had to go.

The factory was actually a 5 minute ride or 10 minute walk away from the station I used every day. The admission was free, and I went with a friend and her hostfamily.

We were only given a tour of where they made their flagship beer (The Premium Malt’s), but it still took us at least 3o minutes and two bus rides.

Felt like I was on How It’s Made.

All this was especially interesting to me because I’m far more familiar with how sake is made. I knew very rudimentary stuff about beer, but I was also surprised how far my vocabulary I learned from sake helped me understand the brewing process.

After the tour, there was a free tasting.

During the tasting I was finally taught how to pour a beer properly. At that point we were all easily impressed, but regardless I’m sure we all saw our tour guide in a new light after her demonstration. Halfway through I was also asked, as an American, to talk about any differences between American and Japanese beer. I wasn’t really a pro at either, but I gave it my best shot. I basically said that on the whole, when compared to American beers, Japanese beers were “very easy to drink.” This made me friends.

It’s funny how incredibly representative food and drink can be to a culture. I’ve experienced this first-hand selling sake. When you insult a country’s food/drink, it feels like you insult the entire culture. And when you compliment it, praise is carried along to the culture at large as well. Even if the Suntory prides itself on being a European-style beer brewed in Japan, this still definately holds true. Food and drink should never be underestimated.

By the time I got home I was still pretty happy from my tour, but I had to start packing.

I ended up shipping quite a lot home. What with accumulating a lot of things like bowls and clothes while in Japan and having things like winter clothes and books sent to me, it was too much to fit in one suitcase.

By Wednesday I had finally fit all my extra things in my last box. It was a big one. I would rather have sent two smaller boxes actually, but last time I went to the post office I was flustered and accepted the box they gave me when I told them “I would like to buy a box…,” regardless of size.

It ended up weighing about 20 kilograms. I feel like there’s no need to convert that, since 20 is a lot of kilograms and I feel like anything measured in kilos already has a sense of seriousness. Because my hostparents were out and my friends were busy, I walked it the mile-or-so to the post-office.

Or I tried to at least. 20 kilos is pretty heavy already, and add the fact that it’s an awkwardly-shaped 20 kilos–near impossible. So I decided to wait and rest my box at one of those concrete traffic control poles while I gathered up enough energy to get to the in-sight post office. While I was waiting there a car passed by and then stopped in front of me. An older woman called out “Oi! Oniichan! You alright?” I said I was, but she didn’t take that for an answer.

“You going to the post office? Come on, get in. That looks heavy.”

She got out and started to clean the back seat of her car for my box. She also wanted to take the box from me, but I was afraid it was a bit too heavy, so I put it in the back myself.

She drove me the 1 minute or so to the post office and chatted up a storm the whole way. It probably took 2 minutes longer than it should. The TV was on in her car (as it often is in Japanese cars) and the news coverage of the earthquakes in Kumamoto was playing. “Pretty scary, huh?”


“Yeah, lots of earthquakes in Japan. So sad. Do they have a lot of earthquakes in America?”

“Well, not like Japan really…”

“No I guess not. But you know what is scary in America? Shootings. Boy, shootings have been happening more and more lately. Very scary.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

She dropped me off at the post office and told my goodbye.

“Well, I hope I see you around here again. You staying in Japan for the long run?”

I told her yes because I didn’t feel like saying otherwise.

“Good! Your Japanese is great! Keep it up! See you around!”

And she drove off.

Last Tuesday was my last day at kyudo.

To be honest, it was a lot like any other practice day at sensei’s house. I don’t really remember how I did, and I suppose that’s not too important. The fun part was afterwords.

First, my friend brought her whole computer to practice just so she could give me the video she took of me on my last day. I didn’t ask for her to come or anything, but it was worth it. Check it out:

Those were my last two shots in the dojo. It was crazy to see how far I had come.

But the funnest part was actually wrapping up the bow for travel. After asking the Japan Post if they could ship my bow home (denied; too long), private companies (decided against it; shifty), and Canada Air if I could carry it on the plane (sensei’s recommendation–denied; it’s a weapon that is too long), it was decided that I would check it with my baggage. This meant of course that it had to be extensively packaged to prevent damage. All throughout, it took about 4-5 people at one time to pack everything correctly.

So, the first step. Wrapping it up the way I bought it.

  1. Unstring it and put it in a long cloth bag.
  2. Put that bag in another longer, fancier cloth bag.
  3. Wrap that bag with foam wrap and tape at the ends.
  4. Wrap everything with twine in a spiral from the top to the bottom.
  5. Zip-tie two strips of bamboo to the belly and back of the bow.

That was pretty good as it was, but Air Canada said that it needed to be in some kind of box or tube. Hearing this, sensei got a cardboard box and cut wide, 2-foot long strips, wrapping the cardboard around the bow one after the other until we reached the top.

Done. We congratulated ourselves and relaxed a bit. Then sensei said, “What about your arrows?” There was a brief silence.

“Well, I was going to send those tomorrow, since they’re not too long…”

“Doesn’t that take money?”

“Yeah, but it would also take money if I brought on another piece of luggage, since I’m already bringing on one piece of luggage and a bow.”


Here’s a picture of the finished product, on the floor of my hostfam’s dining room. Almost 8 feet long.

“Well, if we tape the arrows to your bow, wouldn’t they become one piece of luggage?” He had a point.

So we all got back up, taped my quiver full of arrows (after stuffing it with newspaper so it wouldn’t rattle) to my cardboard-wrapped bow, and wrapped a shell of cardboard around that as well.

Then we relaxed again. We measured it and labeled it (“So that they don’t ask you how long it is”), and sensei put the character for “bow” on it: 弓. It was very small. So small that hostmom cracked up when she saw it at home.

It was time to leave. On my long way out, sensei and other students made sure I was set if I wanted to practice in America. 6 extra strings, 6 extra nocks and arrow tips, a chest protector, a tube full of hand powder, and a piece of wood I could screw into the wall to help me string my bow.

And then I said goodbye. Sensei didn’t make too big of a deal about it and just said, “Well, see you next year. Or whenever you make it back. Keep it up.”

The others had a similar attitude. I shut the door and walked to my usual station. It was a bit of a chore, not because the package was heavy (it was actually really light), but because it was so long. It was just a bit to tall for the train. I got lots of looks but I just wanted to direct them to sensei’s “弓.” Not that they could have seen it.

My second-to-last day, I went to the Raku Museum. For about 500 years, the Raku family has been making amazing teabowls. I’d been wanting to visit there for months, but finally decided to do it two days before I left.

Absolutely breathtaking. Unfortunately, I can’t find a video of the process on youtube–only videos of American raku-workers or other derivatives. I won’t go into detail here. I recommend looking at the slideshow of pictures on the link above and exploring the museum website.

I ended up making a memory not advertised on the website, though. There was an American couple in the museum trying to ask questions to one of the staff members in English. I was nearby so I tentatively offered to help. I ended up helping quite a bit, although my vocabulary wasn’t quite there.

After the couple left, I talked to the staff member a bit. He was very thankful for the help, even if it was a bit clumsy in places. He asked me a few questions and I told him that I was a Doshisha student. One of the last times I’d be able to do that. I also told him that I practiced tea–specifically Yabunouchi, a very Kyoto-centered school. He was impressed and told me to please come back to the museum whenever I was back in Kyoto.

It really made me realize that out of all the things I’ve enjoyed most in Kyoto, it’s the personal relationships that are the most memorable and the most treasured. I’m not sure why it happened so much while I was in Japan, but it’s one thing that I’d like to try doing back in America.

My last last day, I went to the Toji fleamarket. I needed to see it one last time. I also wanted to check out the booths again to see if there was anything that I needed before I went home. After much wandering, I ended up picking up a red natsume and a cheap chashaku.

I also filled up the last page in my goshuincho! It worked out perfectly. Also while I was waiting I bought a pocket-sized, readable Heart Sutra (which I had been wanting for a while) and a cool towel that was an illustrated version of the Heart Sutra, with pictures rather than characters.

It was raining, so there weren’t too many people and I could look pretty freely from booth to booth. I just had to be careful of umbrellas. On the way out I wanted to sit down a bit and gather my things. I sat down on a bench inside one of the gates.

There was a lady who was selling drinks nearby. She saw me sit down and asked me quickly if I wanted to drink. I didn’t quite catch her, so I asked her to say it one more time. “One drink?” she said in English. I was a little surprised, and she had a pretty strong accent so I just said “sorry” in Japanese. She said “One drink?” in English again. This time I understood her, but I didn’t want a drink, so I just said “sorry” again and waved my hand. She heard this and gave me a disgusted look, turned away, and said to herself (pretty loud), “Ug… Doesn’t have a clue.” That hurt.

That had to have been one of the first times, if maybe the only time, I’d been dismissed like that. I guess it had to happen sometime. I took my stuff and walked out.

I walked around a bit, and I have to say I really appreciated how few people there were and the smell of the rain on concrete.


Later on my last day. Nagaokatenjin.

Later that day I did something I’d been planning on doing since the beginning of my time at AKP. Finally get rid of all the 1 and 5 yen coins that I can’t use for vending machines, public transportation, and even pachinko parlors (not that I went to any).

I did it in the best way I knew how: donating them to my local shrine as offerings. In the end it probably wasn’t that much, maybe 2-3 dollars worth (about 200 coins/enough to fill a small jam jar), but considering most people donate on average 5 cents a visit, it wasn’t a bad offering overall.

It was still raining, and because of that there weren’t too many people at the shrine. This was good for me, since tossing hundreds of coins from a jar isn’t that common. I walked up to the big shrine (pictured above), put my umbrella down and took out a big handful of coins. I tossed them in, said my prayer, and realized I still had like 5 or 6 handfuls left. Luckily, there are mini-shrines to other deities around the side of the main building, so I went around to the left and put a handful in each of the the three other shrines I found, giving a small prayer each time. I realized there were still a few handfuls left so I took a small walk around the shrine grounds.

Nagaokatenjin really is my favorite shrine in Kyoto. It was one of the first ones I went to, and it was where I stumbled across a local music festival early-on. That was a good day. That was actually the first time I found Nagaokatenjin. That meant I was able to see it during each of the seasons. I even went to it to ring in the New Year. It has a beautiful park as well. It’s truly a wonderful example for other shrines in Japan. Many shrines are suffering a bit trying to find their place in modern Japanese society, but Nagaokatenjin has turned into a massive public space. A place for festivals, walks, running–there are even tennis courts and a baseball field.

I walked all the way around the park and came around the other side of the main building. Luckily, there were two more mini-shrines on the right side as well. I had almost exactly two handfuls left. I dropped my coins in the boxes, said my prayers, and left.

It was a good day to visit and I hope I get to come by again. Maybe I’ll get there in time for another festival.

My last night was spent cleaning and packing.

While cleaning up my closet, I realized that I still had a few things from Christmas that my mom sent me; I just never pulled them out. Among them were a light-up Rudolph nose and a toy sheep that pooped out jelly bellies (luckily I found a video of the exact sheep here). I wasn’t sure if hostmom wanted them, but I decided to ask just in case. Great idea.

I walked downstairs after dinner and hostmom was writing in her diary at the dinner table. Hostdad was asleep on the couch with the TV on. First up was the Rudolph nose.

Hostmom was a little confused about what it was at first, but after I explained a bit and demonstrated she said it looked fun. I handed it over and she tried it on. Unfortunately, I guess those Rudolph noses just weren’t made for Japanese noses. It smooshed hers right down, and when she tried to talk all that came out was a high, nasal voice. She laughed and then got serious and explained, “you know, it seems like it just might not be made for Japanese noses,” with the nose still on. She continued to talk like that for a little while. It was absolutely hilarious and I couldn’t stop laughing. She cracked up once or twice too, but she kept her poker face pretty well throughout, which made it funnier. She said she’d keep it for the kids.

Next was the pooping sheep. It took a little while to unwrap, but when we finally did I showed her how to open it and how to put the jelly beans in. Then, in a moment of glory, I pushed down on the sheep and out pooped a brown jelly bean. Hostmom’s eyebrows furrowed in slight confusion.

There was a slight pause.


And then we both laughed.

“Wow, that’s awesome. You can’t eat them though, right?”

“No, check this out!” And I ate one. It was good.

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

She tried one.

“Oh! These aren’t bad.”

I’m not sure if hostdad will understand it, but she said she’d save it for the kids too. Actually, he’ll probably love it. It was a good last night.

I woke up early the next morning to pack a bit more, clean, and say goodbye to hostdad.

He was headed off to his job early that Friday morning as usual, and I woke up just in time to see him go. No speeches, just goodbye and a hug. He left and I remembered that he was actually the first one to welcome me in to the house. Pretty crazy.

I packed up a bit more until I was ready to go, and then I gave hostmom a note I’d written her earlier. I didn’t really have anything else to give her, and I didn’t really know what they would want from me anyway, so I just concentrated on writing a nice note. I think the Japanese was a little shifty, but I felt that the meaning was there. I didn’t really intend for her to read the note while I was there, but when I came back down from the bathroom, she said she’d read it and that she understood it. It looked like she did. Then she gave me a letter. Honestly, even now I haven’t had the heart to read it yet. Soon, though.

We walked to the local train station together, her holding my bowpackage and me with my suitcase and backpack. We didn’t talk about too much, but the mood was light and it was very cute to see her barely 5′ frame carrying something so disproportionately long. She walked to all the way to the ticket gate, and then we hugged and said goodbye. I may have teared up a little bit. She was fine, though. I think she’d gotten it out the night (or weeks/months) before. I couldn’t get through the gate carrying all my luggage, though, so I went through first and then hostmom fed the bowpackage through to me afterwords.

I waved goodbye and set off, on the Osaka-bound train.


Waiting for the first train.

My luggage situation was rough. It later turned out that my suitcase was 32 kilos (70.5 lbs), and that coupled with my 8-foot long bow and bulky backpack, I got a lot of looks. Also because of this, I decided to take only local trains because they were less crowded. I would have taken a taxi or a shuttle, but they wouldn’t accept my reservation because of my bow.

After eventually arriving at Osaka Intl. Airport and waiting for the International Connections desk to open up (I got there an hour early at 11pm), I finally was able to check my bags. I was a little worried about the length/content of my bowpackage and the weight of my suitcase, but everything turned out totally fine. They took my bow and slapped a “Fragile” sticker on it and told me it would be fine. As for my baggage, the clerk leaned real close and told me quietly, “You know, just today, I’ll cover that bag for you.” The fine for a bag above 23 kilos was about $100 dollars and 32 kilos was the absolute limit, so I was very thankful.

They also told me that the bow was free because it was archery equipment (sports equipment is free on Air Canada), but as I was waiting to board the same woman who checked me in came running up, all the way across the airport, and told me that there was a slight problem. They had contacted Air Canada and were told that a kyudo bow wasn’t accepted as archery equipment and therefore wasn’t considered sports equipment. It was still fine as a checked bag, but she just needed for me to pay for it. It was 8,000 yen and I didn’t have anything other than 10,000 bills, but she said that was fine. She took my bill, ran all the way across the airport and back, and gave me my change in a white envelope.

A great sendoff from Japan.

My trip back to Boise, Idaho was: 1. Osaka to Tokyo, 2. Tokyo to Vancouver, 3. Vancouver to San Francisco, and 4. San Francisco to Boise. Here are a couple thoughts and experiences I had while traveling:

  • On my first flight I was next to a scratcher. He sometimes literally lifted his left arm high in the air to reach under his shirt and vigorously scratch his armpit with wide, wide strokes. He also sniffed really loudly and wiped his nose with the entirety of both his forearms in quick succession, frequently and violently. He was not Japanese. It was unsettling.
  • The second flight I was next to two small, quiet people. Luckily. It was the 8 hour-ish flight. However, it was also unsettling how rude the flight attendants were to Japanese passengers. I remember a Japanese passenger asked a flight attendant politely in Japanese, “Could I open this?” referring to a compartment. The flight attendant’s response: “Honey, I don’t speak Japanese.,” with a dry smile on her face. The passenger eventually got her luggage to fit into the overhead compartment, but only after the flight attendant made many faces at her effort while watching her. The other flight attendants continued to scuttle around the plane, wide-eyed and huffy saying things like, “Jesus, the language barrier is real.” It might be, but you don’t need to know a language to understand a person’s simple needs. Besides, most of the Japanese passengers were speaking English fine. The other Anglo passengers didn’t take kindly to their Japanese seat neighbors, either. Much rolling of eyes and sighing. Grow up, people. People say that Japan is difficult for foreigners, but jeez. Can’t see past their own noses. Made me worry for all my Japanese friends, eager to visit America or study abroad. Hang in there.
  • Vancouver was weirdly quiet at 11am. As I was walking through I had flashbacks of sleeping there on my way to Japan.
  • I got randomly selected for an agricultural inspection at customs in Vancouver. The customs official was very nice. He looked over my customs declaration that said I was carrying about 3.4 liters of alcohol into the US (the limit is one), looked through my baggage and saw all 10 bottles of sake, schochu and plum wine. Then he thanked me, and told me to have a nice day. Didn’t ask for any money and didn’t even bat an eye. He sent me on my way and said wished me luck with my studies and any future career plans.
  • Trashcans! I even took a picture. Throwing away garbage was glorious.
  • On the last flight, I was sitting down and settling in when I saw my friend’s mom get on the plane as well. I actually went to high school and currently go to Whitman with her daughter. I grabbed her water bottle as she passed by and we touched base really fast. Crazy stuff. I guess I was headed back home.

I had been feeling something as I’d been traveling all day. And it wasn’t culture shock, necessarily. It was a distinct lack of it. I walked through Vancouver, San Francisco, and finally Boise and I realized that it felt reasonably normal. It was a little disappointing. Sure, there where a few things that shocked me, like trashcans and unheated toilet seats (MY GOD). But ordering at a restaurant was the same and asking for directions was the same. It almost felt disrespectful, after spending about 8 months in a totally foreign country, to return to America unfazed and seemingly unchanged. There wasn’t anything, really; no disappointment, no relief. I felt like I wasn’t even able to carry Japan back with me through my mannerisms, experiences, and general “self.”

Even when I met my family, I was more or less unfazed. We hugged and said hi and then went down to get my luggage. It was at that moment, for some reason, that I kept wanting to talk in Japanese. Just little interjections even. In fact, I did once or twice. It was sudden, and amusing. I had been expecting ‘culture shock,’ but I ended up with more of a language barrier. I pretty much kept it under wraps, though. And besides, we were preoccupied with finding my luggage, and I in particular was preoccupied with worry that they didn’t make it.

Here's proof. I wrote "Archery Equipment" before I left hostfam's house in an effort to expand sensei's "弓" idea and in hopes that they'd count it as sports equipment.

Here’s proof. I wrote “Archery Equipment” before I left hostfam’s house in an effort to expand sensei’s “弓” idea and in hopes that they’d count it as sports equipment.

But they did. Both my overweight suitcase and my bowpackage. Not a single thing went wrong. When I went back to my Mom’s house I unwrapped my bow and arrows right away. It was clear that security had opened up both the bow’s cardboard wrapping and the quiver’s added-on compartment. But what was funny was that it looked like on both, they didn’t bother to open the whole thing. Just a bit of the tops of each to see inside. Good for them. Even when I had scissors I had trouble battling sensei’s duct tape job.

And yes, it still felt normal unwrapping and unzipping my packages on the kitchen floor. But I realized that although it may have been a bit disappointing at first, that was actually kind of amazing. I had so acclimated to Japan and become so comfortable there that moving from one “normal” to another “normal” was hardly a big deal. There weren’t any foods I was really craving, or places I needed to see. Ordering at a restaurant in the US felt just the same as in Japan because, well, I was used to both. It just felt like home. But home, in America.

But in reality, there have been a few bumps since then.

One of the things I’ve had to do recently was to go to the DMV. If there was going to be anything that gave me a bit of culture shock, it was going to be that. And it honestly didn’t really disappoint.

Maybe “shock” is the wrong word after all, since it really is more of a dull reminder that things like these are just different in America. The guy in the DMV with the Hooters hat on backwards in particular was a nice reminder that I was back in Idaho.

And later at the bank, there was a long line for the next teller. There was an awkward employee standing next to us, shifting from leg to leg, telling us in a stuttering voice that she was very sorry for the wait and that she appreciates us standing here. Also that there was “coffee for you guys, if anyone wants any.” I somehow felt much less comfortable with this person hovering over me (actually, she was quite short but that’s beside the point). I don’t need someone to be my friend or pretend to be my buddy. You’re my company and I’m your customer. No need to pretend like it’s anything more than that. Sure, I appreciate the odd personal touch here and there, but if you mess up, apologize properly, take care of my business, and do better next time. That feel far more welcoming and personal to me. I guess Japan has changed me a bit.

There have been a couple other things I’ve noticed. Things about the US I’d forgotten about or things about Japan I didn’t know I’d remember.

The smells. Stepping onto the first airplane headed to the US I suddenly remembered how somebody else told me the US smelled: “like bubblegum.” I disregarded this at first in the plane, since people were probably chewing gum in the plane anyways, but smells have continued to remind me I’m back in the US. Mostly people smells, to be honest. I’ve already mentioned the cold toilet seats, but I feel like I need to mention it again to really get the point home.

I also am used to more pauses and quietness in conversations. I thought that it would be difficult for me to shut up while someone else was talking, since its an integral part of Japanese conversations to respond to your conversation partner in-time. But I didn’t think about the time between thoughts. When I’ve been talking to my friends, I feel I sometimes have trouble keeping up a bit and find myself lingering a bit in the silences.

There is so much space. On the streets. On the sidewalks. In ‘tiny’ houses. Where is everyone? Is everything ok? I’m actually less affected by this than I thought I would be, but it still pops every once in a while.

I’m totally oriented to the left. In Japan, cars drive on the left, trains run on the left, and people walk on the left. It’s the opposite in the US. This may be a small thing but has surprisingly big consequences in everyday life. When you come to an obstacle with a friend, do you go to the right or the left? The other day, I went far to the left, since I was on the left, to make room for my friend who I thought would be turning with me. But no. She went to the right. I was left far away from her and on the other side of the aisle. And when you accidentally block someone’s path, do you slide to the left or the right? I’ve learned to just stay still now, because I’m bound to mess up.

Yesterday I saw a bee and thought, soon it’ll be the season for Giant Hornets. Very thankful that’s not true. Praying for my friends back in Japan.

On the plane back I had a thought that made me smile as I looked out the window, headed towards the runway.

I’d been too caught up in my experience in Kyoto to realize how amazing it was. How much it had changed me. I started to realize right then how crazy it all was. But that didn’t make me sad. I wasn’t sad that I hadn’t realized how wonderful it was until then. that For some reason, I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt excited.

I would finally be able to appreciate it. Coming back to my friends and family, I’d be able to see how much I’d changed and how much I’d experienced. I had no gauge on that while I was in Japan.

Right then, it really felt like things had only just begun.

I’m still smiling.



Late spring in Kyoto. Taken at Ryoanji on my second-to-last day.

A few parties and goodbyes

Hello everybody,


Taken at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

I just got done with another one of my & hostmom’s long late-night chats. I’m going to miss those, I think. It’s spring still in Kyoto, although it’s definitely changed since I last posted. I took the picture about about a day after my last post. Since then, all the sakura have fallen.

It was absolutely breathtaking though, walking through the gardens with all the sakura in bloom. I suddenly felt like I was in winter, and all the trees were laden with snow rather than petals.


Walking into sakura in the botanical gardens.

Yes, it truly is everything you hear about. No, other places really don’t compare.


Everyone enjoying the sakura.

Going for a flower-viewing or picnic under the trees is something that’s almost a given during springtime in Kyoto. I must have seen upwards of 4 separate wedding photo shoots.

Turn to the left or right in Kyoto and you see blossoms lining the streets.

Turn to the left or right in Kyoto and you see blossoms lining the streets.

This past week or so was full of goodbyes. They started just about when the sakura started to fall.


Yasaka shrine’s famous weeping sakura, lit up every night during sakura season.

I suppose it was a little bit of a bummer to make such a good friend right before I left. I had dinner and a night out with Yui the other day, who I met though another friend.

After meeting at my sake shop, we walked to Yui’s favorite bar/restaurant. All you can eat cabbage! Plenty of other things too, though. I realized that cabbage is actually just right if you want something to eat while talking for a while. We must have talked for an hour or two.

I was just talking with another AKP student with other day about the differences between dinner parties or get-togethers in Japan versus the US. Although in some Japanese textbooks we were taught to expect a bit more silence in conversations with Japanese friends than in conversations with American ones, this hasn’t exactly been the case in my experience. Nor has it been the case that this means ther’s less talking overall. I had a wonderful time with Yui, and the food was actually great, but to be honest the food truly was just an excuse to get together and chat about things.

Yui taught me some slang from his part of Japan (Miyazaki), and I taught him a bit of regional slang too. We were both amazed at what we didn’t know. We also talked about the usual: friends, jobs, school, and dating. But also alcohol! I sell sake right now for a part-time job, but Yui’s family makes shochu (made from sweet-potatos). We bonded over the trials and rewards that is selling regional alcohol.

After eating and drinking and talking enough at the restaurant, I thought it might be nice to go to Yasaka shrine which was just a short walk away. The whole shrine was alive, as well as the huge park behind the shrine. Booths and food stands everywhere. There was also a huge courtyard underneath the sakura trees that had tables on small platforms laid out for people to sit and drink at.

All in all, I must have hung out with Yui for 3 or more hours. It’s crazy how far I’ve come, if I think about my confidence in Japanese even at the beginning of October.

As part of a sort of going-away dinner, I was invited to one of my coworker’s houses to eat okonomiyaki with her. She heard that it was pretty much my favorite Japanese food, and she claimed that she made some real good okonomiyaki. Backed up by positive reports from friends and family, of course.

I was accompanied by my friend and coworker Hirota, and although we both had a great time, we both agreed that we were happy the other had come along.

Our mutual friend and coworker’s house wasn’t too far from my own station, and Hirota and I walked together with her husband to her house. Her husband had come to meet us and talked with us about the sakura in the neighborhood on the way to the house.

I have to say, her house floored me. There was a little winding cobblestone path that lead up to her side-entrance. It was dark, but I could tell flowers were everywhere. The inside was, if you combine my and Hirota’s impressions, modern Russian-Canadian log cabin. A truly great aesthetic. And one that made sense; our host’s daughter currently lives in Canada.

It was an amazing meal. Two salads, three okonomiyaki each, bamboo shoots seared in butter, yakisoba, and ice cream. And of course, Hirota and I managed to finish the last half of a bottle of sake and half of another. Both are sold by our brewery. It was a great experience to drink this sake I’ve been selling the way it was intended, and I ended up gaining a new-found respect for one of the bottles.

All throughout the night, classical guitar music was playing on the stereo. It turned out that our host’s husband was a classical guitar player back in the day. One of the CDs was actually him playing! He played primarily Spanish classical guitar before he became a banker (he’s retired now). Because of this, they’ve been all over the world for recitals and performances. Her husband and I bonded over a mutual love of Segovia. It turned out he also used to be an English teacher.

Hirota then asked a question about English it seemed like he’d been wanting to for a while: “So, if you compare the two, Japanese seems unique to me because of how may words there are that sound the same but have different meanings.”

“Well, that’s not really true. There’s quite a lot in English as well. Like wright and right, or left and left.”

“Oh, I guess you’re right. I always had it in my head that Japanese words had lots of different meanings per word, whereas English had lots of words that really meant the same thing.”

I wonder if that’s how most people relate to foreign languages, or to their own languages.

They also talked about how I’d helped the shop out. It turns out that the shop’s revenue has actually increased a considerable amount since I started. I pointed out that sakura season had also started, but they dismissed that. Furthermore, they said that I’ve actually improved the atmosphere of the place.

“Whenever customers come by that look like they would normally be trouble, they might start talking loudly or impolitely, but as soon as they see Jesse they shape right up and listen to what he has to say. I don’t know what it is; it’s like magic.”

It’s true, I’d noticed that a bit too. But I didn’t realize that they may have been quietly shepherding the trouble customers over to me. It’s funny; I must seem pretty innocent to them. A foreigner who doesn’t know about the rougher side of Japan. They almost seem embarrassed if they’re mean to me.

Hirota stepped in a bit. “Well, that’s just because he’s a nice guy to start with. You know what? Before I met you my image of Americans was totally different. Before I met you I thought they were all rough and loud. That was the image, at least. You changed that. Yeah… You’re not like that at all. Congratulations, man.”

By about 11, we had finally eaten enough and talked enough and Hirota and I decided to go home. Our hosts showed us to the right street and let us go on our way. The walk back to the station was nice. It was quiet and although it was late, it wasn’t all that cold. Hirota expressed that he was happy that I came along and I told him I felt the same. We talked a bit more on the way and then parted at the station ticketgate.

I didn’t really separate from him until 10 minutes later though, because he was waiting on the opposite side of the track for his train. Mine ended up getting there first and I truly waved goodbye from inside the train as it pulled away.

About 3 days later, I said my goodbye to Hirota since he would be working elsewhere my last 3 days on the job. Maybe it was better that way, since it staggered my goodbyes.

My last day of tea was this past Tuesday. It was a surprisingly good last day.

Recently people haven’t been coming quite as often for whatever reason (jobs, the nice weather, vacation, injury). Nearly everyone came on Tuesday though. In fact, I can’t really think of a person who wasn’t there that I didn’t get to say goodbye to. All unplanned, too.

This meant my last practice was truly a proper sendoff; because there were so many people that came, I had to wait before I practiced for a while. When it was my turn to drink tea, I was happy to notice that my server was preparing me thick tea, which meant I could use my ornate tea napkin for the first time (and the last time, at least in Japan). I finally got all my tea utensils about a week ago and I’d had a chance t use all of hem but that napkin. I don’t think she did it on purpose, but I was secretly very thankful that she made thick tea instead of the thin tea everyone else made. By the time it was finally time for me to practice, my legs were in quite a lot of pain. Well, it was less pain and more a total lack of feeling. It had been a while since I’d felt like that and I have to say it felt good.

I still made lots of very basic errors throughout my practice, but it wouldn’t have felt right if I hadn’t.

On my way out I said my first goodbye speech. It was approximately 3 sentences, but it was enough to do the job I think. I’m not sure what they thought of me throughout this time, and I’m not sure I could express how grateful I am of them–but I think I came close. Maybe it’s because my vocabulary and phrases are so limited that my thank-you or goodbye speeches are so much better in Japanese. Well, in my opinion anyways.

That was just the beginning of goodbye addresses, though.

Friday night was the AKP farewell party. We all gathered in the ballroom of the Kyoto Garden Palace Hotel, AKP students and host-families as well. It was the typical sort of farewell party, with fancy-looking food, various musical entertainment (performed by students as a sort of talent show), and lots of speeches. Except of course it was all in Japanese. Everyone had a good time, and it was especially impressive to see a few of them dressed up in kimono for the event. I had to give a short speech along with everyone else, a sort of “favorite moment.” I ended up saying something generic about working at Nishiki. I suppose it was more for the experience of getting in front of hundreds of people and speaking in Japanese than anything else.

It was fun to see peoples’ hostparents, as well. I’m not sure if people realize how much we really draw on our parents. I saw that many of us had picked up traits and quirks from our families. I’m so thankful for that. I’m not really sure you could enter into a society without something like a family or even a community to come from. When we came into Japan, and when most people come into a foreign country, we were coming out of nowhere. We didn’t have any base or origin here in Japan, and our language and mannerisms reflected that. We had no quirks that made us into individuals, except for those quirks we all had from being foreigners. No, we didn’t have those special quirks that come from being brought up in a family. Some families say particular phrases a lot while others may be very passionate about trains. At the beginning, we were all pretty much as bland as could be in Japanese. A very broad, shallow familiarity with Japanese and Japanese culture in general. There wasn’t really anything that made us us. But thanks to our families, we’ve acquired these quirks and specialties–be it verbal ticks or a deep understanding and handling of train vocabulary. They really allowed us to enter into Japan like nothing else. Because of them, we were all reborn in Japan as children and members of their family. All this was easy to tell just from the mannerisms and language that everyone clearly picked up from their families. We really owe them. Whether they know it or not.

After the farewell party, we all went en masse to the Kamogawa river, stopping at a Lawson convenience store on the way for snacks and drinks. We must have walked for about an hour along the river. There were some good talks and good memories. We eventually found another group of exchange students standing around and talking, so we stopped as well. Some of us talked with the other students, some of us didn’t. It reminded me a bit of college life back in the US and I realized that I’d be starting that up again soon.

In order to catch the last train home, I had to leave around 11. A few other people came with me. There was talk about staying out all night but I think the latest people stayed out was around 3. They ended up sleeping at some kind strangers house. I sort of wanted to do the same, but I had my last day at the kyudo dojo starting the next morning, so I wanted to be rested. In the end I wasn’t all that rested by the next morning, but it was good enough. I was glad I got home when I did; I knew that Saturday was going to be another big day.

My last day at the dojo wasn’t technically my last day at kyudo, since I go to sensei’s house on the weekdays, but it was the last time I’d be able to practice at the Budo Center and see most of the people at the dojo.

A few days before, sensei said that he’d throw a party for me on my last dojo day. He doesn’t mess around with parties (nor do any other of the kyudo people), so I was expecting a full day.

When I met him at his house and said good morning to him as usual, he told me to not wear anything under my practice gi. I was pretty sure this meant there would be pictures, and I wasn’t dissopointed.

“It’s warm today, so you don’t have to worry about being cold. Besides, if you’ve got something underneath your gi it’s not cool-looking.”

This last day of practice was truly wonderful. It was actually my best yet. I hit the target 3 times, which is pretty difficult just in itself. Two of them were twice in a row! But more than that, I’ve finally learned how to make to bow spin around and return in my hand when I release the arrow. It’s kind of hard to explain, so here’s a video.  A friend also took a video of me without me knowing–my last two shots at the dojo! She’s still getting it to me because it was a large file. I’ll post it here eventually.

I really love my bow. Sometimes I think of it as an extension of myself and sometimes I think of it as a separate entity. I think if I believe in either of these poles too much for two long it’s a bit dangerous. It’s really both and neither of these things. Anyway, it just felt so good.


Here’s [nearly] everyone. Sensei is to the left and my other sensei who I only meet at the dojo is to the right in the green jacket. The two other foreigners to the left of sensei also come by every Saturday or so. His dad is actually the one who took this picture for us.

I ended up not saying a goodbye speech that day at the dojo, but I did give individual goodbyes to may people. Especially those I wouldn’t be seeing later on. One person I wanted to say goodbye to but didn’t really get the chance to was my other sensei I meet at the dojo. The last time I saw him, he was walking by me pretty fast and he said something quickly, and then chuckled as he punched my butt on the way past. I didn’t realize that would be the last time I might see him. But it somehow felt right.

We all returned in the car as usual. The other day I realized that we had $6000 worth of equipment in bows alone that we lugged around every Saturday in sensei’s tiny Prius. We shove them all in between the two front seats till the back can close.


One full table.

When we got home we decided that we would make temakizushi for my party that night, which is where you have all the ingredients for sushi laid out and you all just make it yourself. We all went grocery shopping and then I went to my job for about two hours.

I came back around 6:30, and most of the food was made and on it’s way up to the dining room. It was quite the spread.

Sensei was a little late, but we all sat down and started to eat because it all looked so good. There seemed to be a slight opening at the very beginning of the meal for a thank-you speech, but I didn’t want to say anything until sensei would be there too. So I waited.

But when he got there, he immediately became the life of the party (as usual) and left no room for me to say anything in the space after “Kampai!” and “Let’s eat!” So I waited a little longer.

With sensei there we could all eat and drink freely. Plus, he’s always great entertainment.

A proper picture of everyone, now that sensei had arrived. It's a nice pair with the dojo picture, I think.

A proper picture of everyone, now that sensei had arrived. It’s a nice pair with the dojo picture, I think.

He sat next to me the entire night and punched/slapped/shaked my shoulder more times that I remember. Good conversations too.

“Hey, you know the things that you always share when you meet someone you’re interested in for the first time? Hair color, bloodtype, eyecolor, and number of folds in your eyelids.” He concluded that I was a twofold, and everyone went quiet for a little bit looking at each others’ eyes and trying to find out how many folds their neighbors had. All throughout, sensei made sure my glass was never once empty.

Eventually, though, it was time for my thank-you speech. It wasn’t the best or the most thought-out, but it was honest and I held everyone’s attention of a good minute or two. By the end of it everyone clapped and praised me. It was a great feeling. My first real-ish speech in Japanese that went over well. Actually, it was pretty much one of the first dinner speeches I’d ever done.

Sensei didn’t say much, but what he did say was, “Alright! Now let’s go practice!”

And that’s how I ended the night. We all went down and shot a few arrows. Some of us more than a few. Everyone giggling and having a great time. But it was also another great practice session. Even sensei shot a few. Just like last time, it was beautiful. What was different was that his aim was totally off. But he didn’t show it or crack a smile till he was finished.

“Damn, that was horrible! It’s because I’m drunk.”

We reminded him that earlier that night he had said that being drunk improves your release.

“Ha! Yeah, that’s right. You know, when I was taking the exam for the 5th level blackbelt I had this bottle of whisky in my pocket. Right before I went out I took a big swig. My release and follow-through were huge; it was awesome. But yeah, maybe it was a little too much tonight.” Chuckle.

I stuck around and shot a few more arrows, talked bit more, and even answered a few questions about American football now that people had truly loosened up.

I left with a few people still there and said goodbye to everyone again. I closed sensei’s sliding backdoor and left with cookies and good spirits.

The next day, Sunday, was my last day on my sake job. All in all, it was a pretty normal day. Had some good customers, had some bad ones. No one spit it out, which was good (yes, that’s happened). Someone asked me where I was from in Europe and was surprised to hear I was from the US (second time I’ve gotten that for some reason).

It was really the end that was the memorable part. The daughter of the owner brought my last paycheck, along with a few other gifts like sake and candy and a jacket to take home. That was all wonderful but not exactly unexpected. I figured they’d do something nice for me at the end, since they were so good to me at the beginning. But what really got me was what the people in the shop did for me.


The book they made for me.

They made me a book with pictures of me and everyone I’d worked with. All labeled so that I wouldn’t forget anyone’s name or where they were taken.


My plaque!

But not only the book; they also made me a plaque/card with my picture, and everyone signed it.

I don’t feel like there’s much need to expand on this really. I thanked everyone, gave a mini speech, and said my goodbyes.

It’s all really simple, actually. In the end saying goodbye felt pretty much just like every other day. I even forgot my water bottle I’ve been reusing a lot lately. I didn’t go back for it, though. Maybe that’s what was different.


Laying under the sakura at the Botanical Garden. Photo credit to Kayla.

Just a few more days left. Tomorrow will be my last day of kyudo, and then I’ll start packing and shipping in earnest. I’ll leave on the 22nd and arrive on the 22nd, because that’s just how time zones work.

I’ve done pretty much everything that was on my to-do list, and then some. There’s still one more fleamarket the day before I leave, and I still want to visit the Raku museum. Maybe go to a few more temples. I only have one more page left in my goshuincho! I filled up both the front and back.

Finally, I need to do something with all the 1 yen coins I’ve collected. I suppose I should have been using them all along, giving exact change when I could. But I haven’t. And now I’ve probably collected 100-200 of them in a jam jar. That’s like $2! You can’t use them in any machines (not even pachinko), so I was thinking about just giving a temple or shrine all my coins a few days before I leave.

Till next time,



Springtime in the Old Capital



I had to take a picture as I got off the train to walk home today. Beautiful. No editing or anything.

It’s sakura season. I didn’t believe it until a few weeks ago, but now I can truly say that the cherry blossoms live up to the hype. This past weekend was supposed to be the peak of the blossoms (there’s a website with sakura forecasts, and the TV runs sakura forecasts along with the weather every morning). Judging by the crowds in the market where I work, I’d say everyone else knew it too.

Actually, according to the forecast, today was the peak bloom. After this, the trees will slowly start to shed their petals. I was walking along the Philosopher’s Path the other day, and I saw a few petals falling and hitting the water in the small aqueduct next to the path. They really do float like little boats. It’s amazing.

It’s a little bit dramatic, but I’ve been reminded of this poem we had to memorize before coming to Japan ever since the sakura started blooming. Well, I’ve been thinking about it ever since we landed in Japan, but especially recently. It’s from the Heian period, and uncredited.


Here’s a translation from professor Abe Ryuichi:

Although its scent still lingers on

the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory

of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side

of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away

intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

I promise it sounds much friendlier and playful in Japanese, but you get the picture. Another fun fact: the poem uses exactly all the sounds in Japanese exactly once. It’s very much like “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” but more poetic and more impressive, since it doesn’t reuse any characters. Well, to be honest it does reuse a few characters when printed in modern Japanese, since there are less sounds in modern Japanese. But you can count the characters up there (it’s in older Japanese); not a single one is repeated. Some people still use it to remember all the characters, like the ABC song. Well, all this is a bit off topic, but that’s no big deal I suppose…

Today I sat on the Kamogawa river with a friend and ate mochi from a famous nearby sweet shop. The line was three layers thick with two switchbacks, but it was actually a nice experience waiting in line for a little bit with all the other customers.

I got 6; two for me right then and for for me and hostfamily later. We found a bench and I unwrapped my parcel. The mochi were all so soft and actually still warm. It felt like a baby’s butt. It was a bit chilly and the clouds kept things a little dark and wet today, but everyone was out underneath the sakura having picnics and/or playing card games with friends. We had to be sure to guard our mochi from the hawks that kept circling overhead. At one point I counted at least five.

I took the mochi home later and since it was just me and hostmom we had four all to ourselves. As we were eating I started telling her all the phrases I’ve started to write down. Because I’ll be leaving soon, I won’t really have access to these everyday idiomatic phrases I hear all the time in Kyoto, so I’ve decided to write down the ones I hear the most as I hear them. We don’t really learn this stuff in class.

Between the two of us and several dictionaries, hostmom successfully explained nearly all of the phrases I heard, and then we had some fun exchanging Japanese and English sayings. Turns out the funniest sayings are exactly the same in English and Japanese (not counting ‘two birds, one stone): “Pearls before swine” (豚に真珠); and “Blood is thicker than water” (血は水よりも濃い).

Kyudo sensei and I, along with another kyudo student, went to get me a bow and arrows this past Sunday. I met up with him early in the morning at his house and the three of us set off to the kyudo shop. It takes about thirty minutes to get to the shop by car, and on the way up was a wonderful opportunity to see all the sakura trees blooming in the mountains. It really was breathtaking to see these bright, bright, pale pink ploofy explosions all over the green mountains. Even one tree changes the whole landscape.There was usually a ring of sakura trees around each of the mountains. Sensei pointed out that each day, trees a little bit higher up on the mountain bloom. The people who have lived there forever know when each of the trees will bloom, and if you ask them they can tell you when the sakura blossoms will reach a certain place.

On the way there we listened to one of sensei’s 6-or-so enka (Japanese balad) CDs, like we always do. I’ve really started to like them. It’s the only kind of music that hostmom and dad listen to, and they turn on the TV for a few hours every Tuesday and Sunday to watch enka specials. I wasn’t so sure about it at first, but I have to say I’m hooked now. I’ll have to get a few CDs or something before I go.

The buying of the bow and arrows wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It felt just like Ollivander’s, but I suppose that’s how these sorts of things always go. It really does feel like it chooses you, not the other way around. I bought my things and we left. As always, I got lots of freebees. For my own reasons I think my favorite by far was a small towel with the name of the place printed on it.

For the first time ever on Saturday, I saw sensei shoot. I think it was a big deal for everyone else too, since all the students, young and old, rushed out of the practice area and onto the viewing stage. Only two people other than sensei were left practicing. They were both infront of him, so they couldn’t slip out to the viewing stage so easily.

“Damn it, I want to see!” They both tried to shoot their arrows as fast as possible without seeming hasty and joined us when they were through.

For the first time since I’d met him, sensei was serious. Not down and gloomy–but serious, and centered. I watched him standing there before he even took a shot, looking at the target. Something strange happened. I suddenly saw the sensei I’d seen in all the photos around the house next to plaques and trophies. He looked suddenly very young. And strangely, at the same time, I realized how old he was. It was like someone had taken a picture of a young man and sharpied all of his hair white. While they were at it, they added a few lines on his face. He suddenly became much younger than I’d ever seen him, and much older.

After not practicing for the entire day, he hit the target on his second shot. While I heard the second arrow hit, I wasn’t watching the target. I don’t think anyone was. It truly was a very moving experience, for whatever reason.

When he left the practice area and I came back around to praise him, he was already back to joking and jeering with the students and other teachers.

“Hah, yeah damned if I missed the first one. Oh well, shit happens, huh.”

I would have posted this a few days earlier, but I accidentally deleted all of my sakura pictures from my phone. In the end I suppose it was alright, since they really reached their peak the past few days. But it was a little disappointing. I started taking pictures again three days ago. One of my first was of the tree in my neighborhood that I pass every day on the way to school.


I was already cutting it pretty close that morning, but I had to take a picture.

I never knew it was a sakura.

People have already started to say goodbye to me. My scheduled flight day is the 22nd, so I still have a few weeks to go. I have a feeling they’ll go by quickly, though.

This upcoming week the Imperial Palace grounds will be open to the public again. My sake brewery actually sells sake there during that time, so I’ll be selling there from Friday to Sunday. Not really sure where I’ll be or what it’ll look like, but I bet it’ll be great business. This was something they asked me if I’d be able to do since the very beginning, so I bet it’s a busy time for them.

Tomorrow is my third to last tea class. Still don’t think I’ve gotten too far, but I suppose it’s difficult to tell. I think I’ve finally found pleasure in it, though. I always liked doing it, but it’s never really been relaxing. I’m still concentrating pretty hard but I’ve found I can relax into it now. We’ll see what happens I guess. Just as I’m starting to relax into Spring, the cherry blossoms will fall.