Nikko: Uphill Preface


This photo is from my second day in Nikko, when it was still light. I’m uploading from my first night as opposed to my first day, because this story overshadowed my afternoon. And because it was so dark, I have no photos to accompany it, save for this one I took later in my journey.

2km according to Airbnb. 3k according to the message I received from my host and a second Google map search.

What my host failed to mention in any of our correspondence is that however many kilometers it is from the Tobu Nikko train station to his rental, 95% of the journey was uphill. Nikko is a mountain town, but I passed my afternoon on a relatively gentle slope, and the town itself seemed more in the basin than on the inclines.

Not so my accommodation, I realized. I passed the rental one of my fellow teachers recommended (sold out), and kept climbing. I passed the rental that I had cancelled (too many negative reviews), and kept climbing. I ran out of sidewalk, and light. I passed inn after inn, pausing for a moment at each opportunity to stand in a light source and check my photo map. And I kept climbing. I had not stretched or prepped in any way for such exercise. My legs eventually stopped feeling the good kind of tired. I could feel it in my quads – 2 miles uphill was a lot to ask after a day of hiking. They are going to hurt tomorrow.

In the darkness, I could still see the occasional silhouettes of the tall trees around me. It made for a moody walk, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisonous spiders, leeches, and other dangerous things that I had recently read live in Japan. I tried not to get too close to the trees and bushes, while also not wandering into the road. And then there was the rain, which I had not minded until I was going solidly uphill in the dark with my poncho draped over my bags to keep them dry. By the by – my poncho is my hero, but also the dumbest inanimate thing. It kept sliding to one side, or getting caught under the front wheel without actually draping over the bag itself. Ugh.

Anger kept me going after the halfway point. I was pissed off that there had been no mention of climbing a mountain in the description of the property, nor in the reviews. A pleasant place, the reviews had said. Beautiful location, the reviews had said. I drafted my own Airbnb review, scathing and full of really beautiful but negative vocabulary. I started wishing horrible things upon the owner for his omissions. Eventually, I lost the anger, and I could feel real fatigue eating at my edges. The closer I got to where I thought I was going, the more I felt like I was going to turn into a blubbering mess from sheer exhaustion. Why had I been so stupid as to hike all day and then go to my lodgings? Why had I not planned better for this?

I passed the house altogether at first because the rain hid the faint Christmas lights. I mistook my rental house for another. Luckily, the second house had a loud, sturdy akita who let me know that I was mistaken. As I tried to leave the stairs, an old man came out to the balcony and asked me something in Japanese – my Japanese is still so weak that I mostly guessed at what he could be asking. I must have cut a pretty pathetic figure – my rain poncho was ineffectively tied around my bags, I was wet, my legs were a little trembly, and I spoke atrocious Japanese.

“Pension?” he asks.
“Airbnb,” I reply, but I recognize the word. For some reason it’s on almost all the hotels I’ve seen thus far. They really like using French here apparently. He disappears and his wife (I assume) comes out. She looks at my phone, and the pair start arguing about the address. In desperation, I turn on my phone’s cellular service. I will pay the (probable) $20 in extra fees for one minute of functioning google translate and a working map.

“Is that address near here?” I put into the phone.
“Ok,” the woman says after reading the translation, and takes off walking in the rain. She is still in her house slippers, and the old man follows. I try to stop them, but I don’t have the words, and when I show the man my google translate for “You don’t have to walk with me, sir. Just point.” He nods and keeps walking.

So there we are, one wet, confused American in a red knit hat, and an old Japanese couple dressed like my great uncle Tom and aunt Dorothy (bless them), each under an umbrella. They get me to the gate of my rental around the block, and I bow as low as I possibly can. I can’t tell, but I bet they were relieved I knew the place. We all reached near epic levels of confusion.

They’re going to be even more confused tomorrow when there’s a bouquet of flowers waiting for them. I passed a florist earlier today, and I’ve been wanting to get flowers for someone lately.

Soaking in the tub, drinking very hot ginger tea, I can feel all my swear words dissipate. I was about ready to quit the whole trip, suck up the financial loss and pay to stay at one of the faux “Euro-style” inns I passed somewhere on the unending incline. The sort that charges hundreds of dollars a night. And I know I’ll be peeved in the morning, as there are no combini around here, and I don’t have wifi so I can’t just go online and do some research. But right now, in my comfortable and warming up rental, I’m simply happy to not be climbing anymore. Tomorrow, I know I’ll get a taxi up here, and walking downhill is going to be so much easier.

Good thing too, as I’m planning to hike up the neighboring mountain…

MVPs of the day:

My red knit hat: I bought it 50% off at a 300 yen shop this morning because it was unexpectedly nippy. It kept my head nice and warm, and though I was only dry because of the umbrella, the hat made me feel quite comfortable.
My flashlight: An LED light from my True Dungeon volunteering, this little guy was a light for me when all other lights went out (yeah, it’s my Elendril light)
My legs. God bless my legs, and forgive me for not stretching them. May they not tense up too much overnight. They did such a good job getting 3k up an unplanned mountain.

First Impressions can be Rough

NOTE: This post never got published – WordPress accidentally sent it to drafts. This post is from the beginning of September, and I only just realized it now. This means that references to this post in those earlier posts would not have made any sense. I’m not sure I’m making sense now….Anyway, on to my small initial breakdown!

To be fair, I really did hit all the buttons on the remote.

I tried every one, both with the cable plugged into the television, and with it removed. I moved the tv to a different outlet, just in case. And I fiddled with the back, checking the input options. I know televisions, and this one wasn’t turning on. I don’t mean I was getting static, or a black menu screen. I mean that the power light didn’t even turn on.

So I called the main office. I assured them I checked the circuit breakers. Within twenty minutes my…landlord (perhaps) showed up. I showed him the errant television, now unplugged in the corner. He plugged in the very same cables I did. He hit the same buttons I did on the remote. And the television turned on.

I stood dumbfounded, staring at the screen. He stared at me with what might have been pity. I apologized in English, which I’m not sure he understood. Then I escorted him out, and had a little cry. Nothing major, just a small, “Oh, I’ve been in this country two days on my own and I’ve already made a total ass of myself. I’ve brought shame to the whole of the United States. Stupid television. Stupid buttons. Stupid American.” Three minutes later, sniffling, I cleaned off my face and stood in my room. It didn’t do me much good.

This is my room (the jinxed television is offscreen to my left):


It’s just as cozy and unfurnished as can be. I did get a futon and duvet, which I moved to the “loft” space on day 2. Admittedly I love the loft space, even if the air conditioner doesn’t quite reach it. My pillow might be filled with corn kernels, or dried beans; I haven’t investigated, but it doesn’t cradle my head so much as rebel against it. Right now I’m trying to figure out where I’m supposed to store anything. I have two small closets for clothes, as well as two small closets that I can’t really access without the aid of a provided hook/pole (you can see it by the mirror). I have two small cubby-holes above my microwave/fridge, and one small cabinet above my sink. I have space under my sink, but I won’t be storing food there. I have a good sized shelf in the bathroom, and a large cubby in the loft space (where I put my books and crafty things).

I think that’s what fueled my little crying fit. This is such a stark space. It really makes an impression. I have one table that is to serve as my desk, dining room table, and kitchen prep area. My walls are white and bare. I have no bookcase, no dresser, no oven. I can sit on my floor, or on one of the two hard chairs provided.

I wonder if that’s why they recommended bringing money with us as a cushion before we get paid – so we could buy furnishings. I won’t, as I don’t have the money to do so. But a couch would make this place infinitely better. Hell, a beanbag would at least give it the semblance of a residence.  It’s not the size that bugs me. I’ve lived in small spaces and made them cozy and my own. And I know that Japanese spaces are small in general. If I had to define it, I think it’s just the blankness, and the unfamiliarity. I realize this as I lay on my back on the floor, staring at nothing.

But it’s only been two days, I remind myself. It’s been two days. I’m being unduly hard on both myself and the residence. At least I know that it’s my pattern to do so. I break hard with first impressions, usually skewing towards negative. And then I take a deep breath and make it my own space, my own environment.

One of the rules here is that I’m not to affix anything to the walls via pushpins, tape, nails, etc. So lawyer-trained as I am, I’m putting things up with sticky-tac because it doesn’t stain or leave a mark. I refuse to spend the next five months living in a bare white room.

One step at a time, I shall give my tiny rebel yell. I will make this place my home. I will master the television.


Enoshima: Dragons and Goddesses

img_9005This is the “island” of Enoshima, southwest of Yokohama and Tokyo. I say “island” because there is a wide road and bridge that cover the narrow strip of sea between the island and the coast. It feels very connected to the mainland.

I’m writing this as a quick aside, since I have a lot to write and I don’t want to forget about my first real “touristy” jaunt out from Yokohama.

Before I elaborate on the island itself, let me encourage any tourist going to Enoshima to buy the Enopass, or island pass. It’s 1000 yen (about $10), and it lets you on all the island’s “special” attractions, including the sea candle and gardens. It also lets you take the escalators, but more on that in a moment. You can buy it from the tourist office before you go under the overpass and cross the bridge. Facing the island, it is on the right hand side of the road.

Enoshima houses shrines to the sea goddess, Benten (or Benzaiten), and the five-headed dragon that she tamed and/or married, depending on the story. Benten is the goddess of music, wealth, knowledge, and good fortune (small wonder she is still very popular), and to the best of my knowledge she is one of a small handful of deities that is depicted naked – at least one of her forms is (Benzaiten Myoon).


Ancient history holds that Enoshima itself was formed upon Benten’s arrival to earth, marked by an impressively long earthquake. She came to earth because a monstrous five-headed dragon was terrorizing the Japanese people. Benten is no Artemis, however. She did not destroy the dragon.  Upon her arrival the dragon was so taken with her that he wanted to marry her. Benten refused because the dragon was being a total prick to the Japanese people, and so the dragon ceased terrorizing, and changed his ways. And Benten maybe married him after all. As a story, I like the easiness of it. I preferred this version to the second version I heard, which made it sound like Benten sacrificed herself and married the dragon to save the people.




And I liked Enoshima. It reminded me of all the ancient shrines I climbed in China, in many ways. Packed streets, vendors lining the walkways, steep stairs – this is an “easy” island to navigate, but in order to see everything, you have to climb up, then down, then up again. There are temples and shrines, though they’re on the modest size. You can watch tourists wash their money before offering it to Benten. The line to pray at her shrine was long, but her sanctum, which houses her sacred statue, was deserted. The Enopass gets you a discount on entering that latter shrine. It smelled of sandalwood, and there were oranges set in front of her statue (photography is strictly prohibited). Though small, it carried a great deal of spiritual weight – perhaps more so than the giant money bag shrine with the line, because it was a more intimate space.



To get to the different levels of the island, you have to climb. This is where the escalators come in handy. They’re only one way – up – but they get you all the way to the top of the island. From here, you can go through the gardens and climb the Sea Candle (it’s a lighthouse). The line to get to the top of the Sea Candle was modestly long, but the Japanese are very efficient about getting into and out of elevators, and we only waited around twenty minutes to get up. The view is pleasant – not spectacular, but then you need pleasant views or you wouldn’t know the spectacular when you saw it, right? On a good day you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was cloudy on our visit, and there was a powerful, terrific wind blowing. I felt a small rush, standing up in the wind overlooking the Pacific coast. It’s such a vast expanse of inhospitable salt water, but it’s beautiful because it’s remote, despite our best efforts.


After some climbing down, and down again, we found the two primary caves that house the ancient holy statues. In the back of one of the dimly lit caves is a statue of the formidable dragon who had a change of heart. There is a sign there that says when you toss money and bow, if you see a specific number of “flashes” your wish will or will not come true. I offered my money, made my wish, and bowed, and no matter who disputes it, I definitely saw two flashes – one from a camera, one from a light bulb. It counts, and my wish will hopefully come true now. Rules are rules, otherwise I’d post my wish here.

Food wise, I say skip the “pickles” offered along the way – they’re not real pickles, and they’re not cucumbers. They’re some strange halfway thing that was neither briny nor crisp enough. If you’re into seafood, there are plenty of shops offering fish crackers, in addition to the many squid-on-a-stick vendors. And even in the wind and bluster, I enjoyed some soft-serve ice cream. I heartily endorse buying weird soft-serve. Here, I’ve seen some odd flavor choices (mustard seed comes to mind). I had black vanilla, and it was delicious.

I don’t know how many more shrine trips I’ll be taking. Not only is my workweek shaping up to be busy, but I’m hitting a saturation point on shrines. I know I’ve written about this before, but I think the temples and shrines become a little bit like churches back home. This is not to say that they are not beautiful, or that they all look the same. But when there is a shrine or temple in every town, it takes something a bit more to really make a trip worthwhile. Something like dragons and goddesses, maybe…


Here is a useful page about getting to and from Enoshima, if you’re so inclined.


Be afraid, Have fun

Quick update: I’ll be uploading several posts within the next few days. I got behind on posting, but I have been writing.

Thus far, orientation appears to be 95%:

  • If you do any of the following, you’ll be fired
  • How to handle low motivation students who don’t want to be in class

And 5%:

  • Have fun and be enthusiastic!

It’s…well, I’m really susceptible to authoritarian language for some reason. I recognize that I don’t want to obey as much as I did when I was an uptight, stalwart teenager, but the vestiges of that are still alive in me. So, when I’m told over and over again that if I lose my red folder I’ll be terminated, the only thing I want to do is lock that folder away and never touch it again. Unfortunately it is the most important thing I need for my job as well, so I feel like I have to carry around a bit of radioactive material with me every day.

The language is interesting – there’s a hard edge to everything, yet it’s all smothered in giggles. Everyone should have fun and never step out of line. I haven’t been here long enough to put my finger on it, but there’s this odd cultural back and forth. I’m watching the veteran teachers shrug off inconsistencies and hard redundancies as “very Japanese.” I don’t know what that means yet, but it’s making for some language that is very at odds with itself. We get rules that are described as both ironclad and unnecessary.  Be afraid. Have fun.

Does this mean the stereotype about Japan having rules for rules sake is not a stereotype?  So far, all I’ve been given are rules I must not break. And they give them repeatedly, and couple them with stories of who got terminated for breaking said rule. Today, for the third day of orientation, I’ll be given a list of classroom procedures that I must do every day…or else? I thought it would be a little more lax – that the unyielding wall of procedures was a smokescreen to weed out those looking for a free trip to Japan. It’s looking less and less like that is true. As our teacher contact put it, “If you can find happiness here, you can survive anywhere.” Yeah. I couldn’t tell if that was a translation issue or not.

I’d say it’s also difficult being the new person. My fellow “new” teachers have all at least taught for my company before, or have taught in Japan. And the veteran teachers say, “But we all know already…” a lot. I stop them every so often, but it’s intimidating, feeling like I’m the one person who doesn’t know what everyone already understands, especially as concerns the cultural divide. I have the least amount of experience teaching ESL, and the least amount of experience teaching in Japan. I keep worrying that I’ll get found out, even though I’m perfectly qualified.

I’m writing this to find a silver lining – like, if I can make this work, then really I can do any job out there. Not just ESL – any job. I’m not going to let all this doom-and-gloom get the better of me. So what if one teacher solemnly looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re working at [redacted]? Good luck, you’ll need it.” I mean, that’s how all the best stories start, right? Going into the break, the wormhole, the maw – that’s how you become a protagonist.

I’ll be happy to get out of here for a day – I’m going to go sightseeing this weekend with one of my new compadres. I need a reminder that I’m across the largest ocean again. The daily sushi simply isn’t enough…



One Fork. One Spoon.

Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Instant Coffee

When my family got stationed in Greece, I remember walking into our house on Kolokotroni Street, taking in the old amber lighting, the brown linoleum floor in the kitchen, and my small white twin bed, and feeling thoroughly overwhelmed. The pieces were there, but it did not feel like my home.

Our shipment of household boxes from the States wasn’t expected to arrive for at least a month, so in the interim we were given a “care package” from the Embassy. It had movies, pots and pans, cleaning supplies – basically everything that one needed to quickly acclimate and get to living (except the movies. The movies were not helpful – they weren’t even that good as I remember). Our embassy contact took us to the sprawling Carrefour, and walking us through the Greek foods, showing us how the coin-operated shopping carts worked. In essence, there was a system in place to help us with the culture shock of being in a foreign environment.

To some extent, my Japanese company does the same thing. We had a corporate representative take us to the municipal office to get our residence cards (so we can pay taxes), and then to the post office to set up bank accounts. I have no idea what is going on, much like when I was in China, so I’m grateful for the hand-holding. There is so much trust required – you give all your details over to strangers, who begin integrating you into their system. I wonder how my identity web stretches over the world…

Paperwork is one thing. Living, however, is another.

Last post, I lamented my blank canvas apartment on which I was not to paint. But I was assured that we’d get a care package box that would help us through that initial hurdle of living. Here is what was in the box when it arrived:

-one fork
-one (soup) spoon
-two plastic bowls
-a plastic mug
-one chef’s knife
-cutting board
-laundry hanging device
– five hangers
– trash can
-toilet paper

And that’s it. It goes a long way towards explaining why the company recommended bringing about half a month’s salary with us before we arrived; they give us very little to help with the transition. Let me be clear: I was not expecting a second embassy experience. Naturally, things are going to be different not only because of the country, but also because I’m working for a private Japanese company. I’m independent now (whee!), not my Mom’s dependent. And I’m just one person, not a family, so I don’t need as much.

Still. I brought two suitcases with me – one with clothes, the other with supplies. But I did not bring coffee mugs, plates, etc. When I moved in the States, I filled my car with the things I felt I needed, some of it necessary, a portion of it decorative. When I went off to college, I had a similar set of supplies. It’s not the same thing, starting from the contents of that one box. One spoon. One fork.

This is a good thing, I tell myself. This will teach me to live with less. This will help me figure out what I really need.

What I really need, it turns out, is a butter knife.

You don’t know what you miss till it’s not there. I use my small frying pan as a strainer when I boil vegetables or make ramen. The small pan also serves as a sort-of lid for the pot when needed. I toast bread in the pan as well. I boil water for tea and (instant) coffee in the pot. I make all my sandwiches with an eight-inch chef’s knife. I have to wash everything immediately because I only have one of anything.




I’m saying this a little out of order. I’ve been to a grocery store and bought some basics – ramen, eggs, miso paste, etc. (I didn’t know about miso paste. One of the teachers showed me where it was). I went up the 100 yen shop and bought a water glass and a proper ceramic coffee mug. I picked up some chopsticks and a tiny teaspoon (I realized I couldn’t eyeball instant coffee with a soup spoon). I don’t know what I need until I need it, and then I have to decide if I really need it. For example, I keep wanting to make carrot sticks, but I have no peeler. I opted to buy a smaller knife instead, because I can do more with the knife than the peeler.

There is also the time factor. Whether I choose to renew my contract or not, I most likely won’t be staying in the same place. The company moves teachers each contract, so whatever I buy I either have to sell, take back home with me, or pay to have removed. It means that every purchase has to be weighed on a timeline. It’s why I only bought one glass instead of four – I’m not going to play hostess here if I have to get rid of everything in five months time (especially if I have to buy it again). So do I really need it? Will I use it for six months? What will I do with it once the contract is done?

Finally, there is money. I won’t get paid for several weeks. Do I really need item A, or can I wait? If I can wait, how long can I wait? Can I wait long enough that I don’t need it? These are the “positive” questions I ask myself – questions that force clarity and make me face my inner drive to accumulate things.

We have a small lull before work starts, which is why I have the luxury of complaining about having to start from scratch. I imagine once this whole teaching things kicks off I will be properly distracted. That is my hope. Because I hate mooning over mixing bowls.