Big in Japan


I spent Independence Day plotting to leave the country.

So maybe it’s not so dramatic.  And it was less plotting and more signing documents.  I have no ill will against the United States, nor must I leave under cover of darkness. But today is Independence Day, and today I accepted a job in Japan.

It has been a long time coming.

I was in the last days of my CELTA course when I began applying for teaching jobs.  We all had started looking, of course, but some of my classmates were looking closer to home, and one already had a job lined up in their home country.  I knew the application process would take longer since I was in the US.  To be honest, though, I hadn’t expected it to take months.  I haven’t talked to my former classmates.  I don’t know how their search is going.

My job starts in November.  Four months to save money, get in shape, figure out which possessions I love the most.   Ironically, my koto will probably stay behind.  It would be too complicated to move.  But maybe I’ll take my ukulele. To play at the park, so the neighbors don’t hear.

My cats will stay with my mom.  I’ll miss them.   Maybe I’ll get some fish, once I’m there.

I need to learn Japanese, but also, I need to learn the metric system.  And Celcius.  And 24-hour time.  There’s a lot to do.

I am going to Japan.

No, I am moving to Japan.

I am living in Japan.


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“Sorry,” I panted as I climbed into the back seat.  “Last time I was here they didn’t have Uber.”   I’d just lugged my suitcase from lower level baggage claim to ground floor arrivals while my driver drove in circles around the designated rideshare pick-up area.  I’d been in transit for at least 20 hours.

“Where are you going?” The driver asked, expecting, I assume, a hotel in Waikiki.

“Beretania.”  I said.

“You’re staying with friends?”

“A dormitory.   Up there, on the left.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yeah.  Years ago.”

I hauled my suitcase up the entrance stairs.  The dormitory manager met me at the door.  “You look familiar.”  Did she remember leading a caravan of students to the Windward Coast years ago?  Her husband caught an octopus, and they sealed it into a plastic container to take home and cook.   Before we’d even left, the octopus had squeezed out of the smallest crack and was swimming freely in the cooler.  But I guess he never escaped that, because the next day they were grilling octopus.

She led me to the kitchen to assign my storage bin.  They’d moved the giant refrigerator into a different corner — or did I just remember it that way?   The dining area was the same.  Same ping pong table.  Same drinking fountain.  Were those the same vending machines?

After paperwork she showed me my room.  316.  I was 317 before.  Just across the hall. This room didn’t have a balcony.   The bed was in a different place. But the windows were the same, those same jalousie slats that I never saw outside Hawaii.

I left my bags on the floor.  Unpacking would come later.  With zombie speed I changed into my pajamas and wandered downstairs to fight futilely with the soda machine.

“We never use that,” a girl called as my money shot out of the coin slot for the third time.  “It doesn’t work.”

“Oh,” I sighed, wondering if I should bother going to the store.

“You can have some of ours.”   A boy held up a 2 liter of Coke.  There was a group of them sitting around the table, eating a late dinner.  They invited me to join them.  I declined food, my stomach queasy from exhaustion, but took the offer of Coke and sipped as they chatted with me and with themselves.

I was a resident at this dorm in 2010.  I cooked my meals here.  I stayed up all night studying here.  I made close friends here.  Those friends have moved on, to other cities, to other countries, to other lives.   I’ve been here five days, and I’ve slipped right into place.  It’s not like I never left, but rather, like that gap of time doesn’t exist here.  My dorm mates greet me when I enter the room, ask how my day was, offer their help, as if we’ve known each other for ages.  I walk to class, and the streets feel familiar.  Some places have closed, or changed, or opened anew, but it still feels the same.

I had several options of where to take my CELTA course.  Chicago would have been closer to home.  Japan would have put me more in touch with the market I hope to enter after graduating.  But I’m glad I chose Hawaii.  It’s comfortable.  I’m not wasting time and energy stressing about how to get around, dealing with culture shock or navigating in a foreign country.   I can focus on my course.


For Ryan, who helped me find home.


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I Think It’s Time


I wonder if normal people worry this much.

I’m standing at the mirror, staring at the gaping hole that used to be my second molar.  You can’t see really see it at all, and yet I still cover my mouth when I smile.  It’s been three days.  I’ll get used to it.

The dentist says my teeth are being worn down by acid reflux.  I feel guilty for stopping the Prilosec my doctor prescribed.  I don’t feel old enough for heartburn medicine.  The commercials always show balding overweight men belching at the dinner table.  It was just another pill to take.   I’m trying to cut back.  Maybe I can cut back on something else.

I’ve been toting around my tray of pills for a few decades now.  From Ohio to Hawaii to Japan to Kentucky and all the little trips in between. The contents have changed a bit but the hassle remains the same.  When I studied abroad in Kobe, I had to submit a Yakkan Shomei for permission to import prescription medication into Japan.  It was a huge ordeal involving documentation, long distance phone calls, and a personal visit to the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu.  (I’m lucky I lived in Hawaii at the time; the closest Consulate to me now is 300 miles away.)

I wonder if normal people worry about these things when they’re planning adventures.  Do they scrawl a list of  foreign medical terminology in their travel journal? (喘息が起こっていますよ!Do they know the regulations for bringing a CPAP machine as carry-on baggage?  (It doesn’t count toward your free baggage limit.)

Maybe normal people have normal worries.  Like, maybe the plane will crash.  (I’ve only worried about that once, when we had to make an emergency landing at Dallas/Fort Worth.  I’ve never really cared for Dallas since.)   Do they worry about losing their passport, or losing their wallet, or losing their way? (I highly recommend Japan for losing things, I’ve done all three there.)

And maybe normal people worry about the acid wearing away at their teeth, and how their speech will change when they get dentures.

And maybe normal people worry that their dream of teaching English in Japan will fall apart the way their teeth have.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe I should have gone to the dentist more often.  Maybe I should have eaten better.  Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to pursue a teaching career.

Maybe I think too much.  I think it’s time to go.

My teaching course starts in two months.



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The Art of Dog Touristing


I have never been much of a conventional traveller. Sure, I’ve done the family vacations in Michigan and South Carolina, the school trips to Chicago and New York City; but even then, whenever I could, I’d break away from the group to explore on my own. I like to set my own pace, to wander without purpose, to become purposely lost. I long overcame the fear of eating alone in a restaurant, of sleeping alone in a hostel, of walking down the streets of Manhattan, Akihabara, Waikiki, alone.

Sometimes it’s lonely. I have never been much good at talking to strangers. And so many trips have gone by without a single photo of me, not a glimpse in Central Park, just a shadow at Tokyo Tower, because I haven’t anybody to take them. Without any proof my memories start to fade; were these really my trips or just snippets from Travel World News? Remember the time– The words fall futilely; there was no one else there to remember.

Last weekend I flew to Oklahoma to visit someone I’d never met, which I sometimes forget is an unconventional way to travel. I’ve been cultivating online friendships since I was eleven; it’s not much different than making friends at school. Sometimes the relationship is deep, sometimes superficial; sometimes you drift apart; sometimes people lie about who they are; sometimes people get hurt.  This friend was pretty much what I expected after five years of virtual friendship (albeit a bit taller).  In any case, she never murdered me in my sleep, but invited me to make myself at home.

“Eat anything you want,” she said.  “Play video games, walk the dog.”  She apologized as she headed off to work, leaving me alone in the house.  Just me and the dog, a terrier mix that had pounced upon me as soon as I’d entered the yard.  We curled up on the couch together, watching 90s sitcoms and Disney animated movies.  It was a bit like what I do at home, only with better snacks and a nicer tv.   The day was half gone before I finally pushed myself off the couch.  Leashing up the dog, we set out together.

I’d never really thought much about Oklahoma (except for that stupid song that always gets lodged in my brain).   My trip was planned rather last minute, opportunity colliding with that continual promise of We really should get together sometime.  My friend had given me a quick briefing before heading off to work; food is here, there’s a park up there, stay away from the tracks at night.  Now, with my friend gone until late, I was left to my own devices.  Just me and the dog.  I let the dog lead.

There is something magical that happens when you are with a dog.  You stop being an awkward lone tourist, out of place; you stop being invisible, or even trying to be invisible.  No matter where you go, broad streets or back alleys, a person with a dog always has a purpose.  Just out for a walk.  And people in turn, perfect strangers, have a reason, now, to approach.  That’s a beautiful dog.  May I pet your dog?  I smile and don’t bother to correct them.  For now, the dog and I are a team.

It’s a different way of doing things, dog touristing.  You become a bit of a local, casual strolling, and yet you still see so much more than the walked-this-street-a-million-times resident, quick-walking to their destination with nary a side glance.  Yes, it’s harder to pop indoors, to shop and explore inside places.  Everything has its tradeoffs.  But the weather was beautiful, sunny and warmer than I’d seen from Ohio’s meager springtime.  A perfect day for a walk.

As evening approached, I scouted out a restaurant with outdoor seating.  A family at a nearby table promised to watch the dog while I ducked inside for food.  The dog settled down patiently beside my chair, never begging, occasionally sniffing at passerbys.  She gulped water from a paper cup as I dined on buffalo tacos (not bad, like ground beef with a bit of spice).   The shadows stretched as the sun fell.  I cleared the table and we headed home.

Back on my friend’s couch, watching Netflix on the big tv, the dog and I, worn out from our day, waited for my friend to return.  I flipped through pictures on my phone, sorting out the best to post online.  Myself and the dog, posing on campus.  Walking along the railroad tracks.  Remember the time— She doesn’t reply.  These memories too will atrophy, but for now I know we were there.

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I can hear the rumble of the freight trains from two blocks away, sending ripples through the water of my startled goldfish.  One block to the east, the fire engines scream a steady song as they pass to and from the station.  “This is a quiet place,” my landlord told me when I moved in.  The dogs bark nightly, and their owners yell at them.  Children scream daily, and their parents scream at them.

I find the sounds of civilization comforting.  I’ve always said, I prefer noisy neighbors over quiet ones, because it means I can be noisy in return.  That didn’t stop me from seething over drunken college students in the dormitory halls at 3am, but it allows me to be less insecure about playing the piano at 9pm (or violin at any time).

I feel so urban popping into the corner market on my walk home from work, cold cuts wrapped in butcher paper for my evening meal.  The owner greets me cheerfully and bids me come again.  There’s a strange small town feel to this urban life.  The people at the pizza shop welcome me by name.  I ride the bus alongside familiar faces, known not by name but by trait: Aloha Bag Lady; Badass Long Coat; Girl Who Talks Too Loud at 7am.  There are the people who ride only on rainy days, and the people who always seem to be everywhere.

Walking the street, I’ll think I see a familiar face, and I have to stop and think; where did I know them from?  Hawaii?  Japan? Or here, Ohio?  My memories lack geolocation.  And then the person passes, a stranger, and I’m left disappointed and wondering where all my friends disappeared to in the years I was away from the city.  Still, I keep searching for that familiar face.  Anyone.

I left the rural, the place where nobody ever leaves, for a place where no one would ever stay.  In the night, I hear the trains rumble toward anywhere, and I want to go with them.

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I once had a love affair with socks. Striped socks, colored socks, socks with patterns and puppies and poofs. I requested socks for Christmas and birthdays, assuring my family that yes, I really did want socks, but more often than not I was disappointed and received books and electronics instead. One year I finally received an entire box of them, and I jumped up and down squealing “Socks, socks, I got socks!” thoroughly exciting my mother’s dog Soxx in the process.

When I moved to Hawaii I found myself wearing sandals almost exclusively.  I’m not a fancy shoe person despite my love of decorative socks, and sandals were the shoes that made the most sense.  In the tropical weather you didn’t need sneakers or boots to keep your toes warm, but then there is also the fact that in Hawaii it is very common to be asked to leave your shoes at the door.  (“Shoes,” my uncle would say when I’d come to visit, “Shoes!  Shoes!” until I realized he meant I should take them off.)  The cultural aspect traces to the Asian custom of removing your shoes at the threshold, but it’s really rather practical– after you’ve been tromping through the dirt and mud, who wants to be tracking that through the house?

So in Hawaii I stopped wearing real shoes, and thus, I stopped wearing socks.  I still kept them in my drawer, the ones with the poofs, and the stripes, and the holiday prints.  Sometimes if it got chilly (those 60 degree winters) I might wear a pair of socks to bed.   And whenever I traveled to somewhere cold I would gather up my socks along with my lone pair of sneakers — though I’d inevitably grow weary of shoes (my feet are claustrophobic, I’d claim).   And I’d tromp through the snow in my sandals, only to receive odd looks from locals and scolding from my elders.

I’ve been gone from Hawaii about five months now, long enough that I no longer find splashings of sand among my belongings.  The seasons are turning, the wind turning harsh, the skies growing stormy.   In Hawaii I tromped obliviously through the puddles in my sandals, but here the water is frigid and painful.  And every time I go out in the rain I say to myself, I really ought to get myself some nice boots, some galoshes.  And every store I visit, I say, these boots are too expensive, these galoshes aren’t my style.  So I continue about in my sandals, toes shivering in 40 degree weather, stubborn and sockless.

We find the strangest habits hard to break.  But winter is coming and I am a mainlander.

I am a mainlander.

I am not fancy free on the beach, my toes in the sand.  There is no surfing in October, no New Years picnics on the shore.  It is cold here, and it is getting colder, and it is time to put on real shoes.

Maybe for Christmas.

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Free Bird

My parents met in a band.   Mom was working lights at the time and my dad played rhythm and lead guitar.  He had long wavy hair; Mom said he looked like Robert Plant.  She calls him a brilliant guitarist, a perfectionist dedicated to getting every single note right.  Mom remembers him sitting cross-legged in front of the stereo, rewinding and fast forwarding for hours until he could get a certain measure right.  My dad doesn’t talk much about those days.  I hear it mostly from Mom.

I remember his band mates.  I’d go along to practice sometimes.  Dad had a group photo sitting on the living room side table and I’d point to each member in turn while announcing the nicknames I’d given them. “Funny, Cutey, Baldy and Daddy!”  I had a crush on Cutey with his long curly hair, then one day he cut it off and I was dumbfounded.  I must have been eight or nine.

Dad had three guitars: the Fender Stratocaster that he proudly played on stage; his main acoustic that he’d play at home; and another acoustic that I was allowed to play (I suppose he didn’t care if I broke it).  In my teens I started learning semi-seriously, and Dad would give me little lessons; he’d play a riff and I’d try to repeat it, dueling banjoes style.  I never amounted to much on guitar but the lessons were always worth it.  Long after he left his band, Dad would still bring out the acoustic in the evenings, sitting cross-legged on the couch to strum a few songs.  He liked to play the classics but he rarely ever sang.  (It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized The Rain Song had lyrics.)

A few years ago, maybe five, Dad stopped playing guitar.  It was a gradual process, and it probably started long before I’d even begun to notice the dust covering the fret boards. He’d been struggling with a skin condition for a while that had left his fingertips cracked and painful; he could barely do everyday activities, much less press the strings.  It was eventually realized that he has a severe cobalt allergy that he continues to struggle with on a daily basis.  The little things that you wouldn’t think of — not putting your arms on the restaurant table because you don’t know what cleaning supplies they’ve used; that your daughter’s laundry detergent might make you break out if she hugs you — these are the things he deals with every day.  I can’t imagine.

Dad doesn’t play acoustic in the evenings anymore.  The guitars stay stored away in their cases, out of sight and mind.  Last year he sold his Stratocaster.

Riding in the car the other night, Free Bird came on over the radio.   “Your dad used to play this,” Mom said, smiling fondly.  “He was amazing.”

I cried.

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