Hita Gion Festival

Today I was going through some older pictures and I found this gem. We were pushing our bicycles through Mameda Town and got trapped between Yamaboko. And here is four minutes of raw energy from that moment.


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Yakushima Travel Log: Day 1

IMG_7350A ways back I had a conversation with some people about where to visit in Japan over coffee and chocolate. There were the usual suspects: Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo. None of them places I wanted to go. I’m sure there is plenty to do and see, I just don’t have the interest or the drive to make it happen. I wanted to see natural destinations rather than the man-made ones. Luckily, I live on Kyushu, which has numerous natural destinations to visit.

The places to see came pouring out. Mount Aso, Takachiho, then Yakushima.

What’s this Yakushima?

At it’s most simple it is one of Japan’s UNESCO natural heritage sites. There are mountains full of ancient trees, primeval forests and turtle nesting beaches. One of my friends worked there studying turtles. It reminded me of Isle Royale in Lake Superior and sounded like the right place for me. Thankfully, another person in the area wanted to go, and it would soon become a reality.

IMG_7294It took two busses and a jet-foil boat to reach the island, about ten hours of travel.

Mountains rose out of the ocean as we approached the island. The sky was overcast and the dark clouds threatened rain. I was told that it rains 400 days a year on Yakushima, so I wasn’t exactly surprised.

The boat slowed down and I was able to finally feel the reality of it all. For so long I had looked at pictures and talked with people about the fabled island.

IMG_7299It’s the home of Joumon Sugi. A 4,000 year old cedar tree. It’s the type of thing where stories begin and become legend. There’s the Shiratani Unsuikyo area. That’s the place where the Princess Mononoke story originated, not to mention the place where Studio Ghibli went to do research for the movie. Apparently, there are landscapes in the film that were directly inspired by reality. These stories and more framed my perception of the island. Even with all that I was given, all that was shared, the reality was much different than anything my imagination was capable of, especially since my last two years was influenced by my time in convenient Japan where you’re never far from a convenience store or vending machine.

But first, a little backtracking. As my feet landed on the island I began to realize that I had never done this before. Not the island. Of course I had never been there. It was the first time I had ever been on a trip specifically to sightsee. I’m almost 36 years old and I’ve never gone on a sightseeing vacation. Almost daily I hear stories about it but it was something I had never experienced.


I should have been excited but all I could think about was the commercial nature of such a place. I was torn between the pure nature and the string of omiyage shops. But enough of this existential nonsense. I pushed away my over-analytical brain so I could focus on enjoying the experience.

IMG_7313Yakushima is a fairly small island, coming in at around 500 square km and has a population density of 26/km. To compare, my home county, Houghton, is 3,339 square km and has a population density of 14/km. It is arguably the smallest piece of land I have ever been on separated by open ocean. It made me feel good. My primal instinct kicked in, prepared for hard effort that is so far removed from the everyday sedentary life that plagues so many in our modern world. Memories of Deer Camp flooded my brain. Two weeks of no electricity, no running water, and nothing but the wilderness to keep company. The struggle for life and death, starvation and survival, welled up inside my guts. I could almost feel the hair on my legs and arms rise in response. The tree-covered mountains pulsed a slow invitation to me. Mist crawled over them. I had to be there.

IMG_7457We caught a bus that took us up to Shiratani Unsuikyo. It wove its way through mountain roads that got thinner and thinner as we ascended. At some places the road was washed out and the mist became thicker as the altitude increased. If the bus went off the edge, it would end up being the trip of a lifetime, most likely the last one for us all.

It can be frightening to place your well-being in the hands of total strangers. On the surface it isn’t really anything. Millions of people everyday do it without a second thought. Airplanes, boats, taxis, busses, trains, and so on. Those professionals have great responsibility. I thought about this because of the recent ferry boat disaster in South Korea. The news playing on the ferry we took to the island covered the sad event non-stop to the dismay of many passengers. I was just another passenger to the driver but he held my life in his hands.

We met a few cars coming down the hill but everything went well. Shiratani Unsuikyo sits at around 650 meters or so above sea level. The mist we had seen covering the mountains disappeared from sight, instead invaded our skin deep into our innards. It wasn’t so much cold as sharp. Maybe sharp is the best. Not warm. Not cold. Just sharp.

IMG_7321As we walked from the bus stop I noticed what appeared to be a small hydroelectric generator behind glass in a small building. I learned later that it powered the area. Not only that but a large portion of the island is powered by hydroelectric. Cool little factoid.

The generator was powered by a crisp mountain stream. The water was bitter cold and clear to the bottom full of magnificent colors. Near the stream was the entrance cabin. A map of the area laid out some of the basic hiking paths along with the average time. We didn’t have much time to explore since the last bus back to town left around six. We decided to play things safe by spending more time exploring one of the shorter paths and then branch out from there.

IMG_7323We followed the path up the rushing river. Huge stones were bashed by the unforgiving water. Water flowed into caves and spit out the other side with falling vengeance only to rest the next moment. The huge rocks were patient, stoic, at the unending onslaught. I felt compelled to jump in but my logic thankfully won out. It would have resulted in an incredibly uncomfortable time. We enjoyed the water and the moss covered trees.

After a while we found ourselves led away from the river up the side of the mountain to Yayoi Sugi. It’s the easiest to see of the named trees and the third most famous. Things are done like that in Japan. Everything is rated and you have to go somewhere to see a specific thing. Or maybe it isn’t just a Japan thing and it’s just something I notice now that I’m considered a traveler.

DSCF2337As the path led higher up the mountain there were no other hikers around and a comforting, misty rain began to fall. Moss covered everything. Trees, rocks, an old bench, nothing was safe from its touch. Moss crept up trees that wrapped around and into each other, creating a symbiotic relationship that reminded me of the basic tenants of pluralistic society. It seemed as though everything was thriving. It was pure beauty and infused me with a cleansing power I hadn’t felt since I came to Japan two years ago.

IMG_7398But I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of unease. Or was it discomfort? Anyway, it was a feeling deep inside me that I couldn’t put my finger on. As we continued our ascent up well-traveled paths, sometimes cordoned off from the forest by the wooden look concrete fences Japan is so famous for, stone pavers created an easy to traverse path through the pristine, almost primeval, forest. My unease suddenly dawned on me. We were in a forest but we weren’t IN it. Barriers stopped us and told us where to go, subtly forcing us to fall in line and have a uniform experience. It is something I’ve been battling with for a long time since I arrived in Japan. A core feature of Japanese Zen is the concept of balance. It’s a wondrous concept that I struggle every day to find. Japan has an uncanny balance with nature. It can be difficult at times to draw a hard line where buildings end and nature begins, and vice-versa. It is awesome.

DSCF2282But as I traversed that path through the forest I felt I was seeing the ugly side of Zen. The hand of man infiltrated this place and I couldn’t unsee it. It was the same feeling I experience in zoos when I see proud animals crushed under the oppression of cages. This forest was a zoo. I felt guilty. I was part of the problem. Now bear with me. This was the particular line of logic I used to explain the unfamiliar sensations rumbling inside me. Maybe I was as simple as me being overcome by the pure power of nature.

IMG_7370The rain continued dribbling through the thick canopy as I struggled to make sense of my feelings. We kept walking until we finally came upon Yayoi Sugi. A steep climb up narrow wooden stairs brought us to the majestic monster. Twenty-six meters tall with a surprising girth and said to be 3,000 years old. It is perhaps the most ancient living entity I’ve seen. It’s made its home for all those years on a steep mountainside. I’m afraid my words can’t do it justice, just as photos can’t quite capture it. It stands majestic in so many ways, rising through the canopy with no thought about who or what surrounds it. The root system is particularly magnificent, flowing down the side of the mountain like a wooden waterfall. I felt an insatiable urge to touch it. So I bent down and stretched my arm through the fence. I know it was wrong because if every person that walked by touched it, there wouldn’t be much left. I am only one, and I don’t make much of a difference, but one turns to two and two turns to four and so on. I was wrong but I had to contact that magnificent creature.

DSCF2364I am not ashamed.

I didn’t feel any massive boost of power.

I felt no insurgence of new meaning in my life.

I did feel calm.

Nature is like that. There is incredible power in Mother Nature, but I find it to be a raw, calm power. One with absolute empathy for the whole but not a care for the individual. The tree didn’t care that I touched it. In the grand scheme, my touch was completely inconsequential. Three seconds compared to the many centuries it’s been watching meant nothing.

DSCF2369But it meant something to me. What? I’m not quite sure. Maybe I just explained it. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I’ll never understand. It doesn’t matter. I won’t say it changed my life. It did. Every second changes our life. I won’t say it infused knowledge or understanding. It did. Every moment our eyes and heart are open is good.

That moment will live on inside me. The drizzling rain that permeated the air. The smell of fresh air infused with the aroma of rich soil and cedar. The love of my wife as she absorbed the scene in her own special way. Droplets of water dripping from the canopy overhead. The snap of a digital shutter and Japanese being spoken nearby. My breathing. The ache in my right groin. Blood rushing through my body from the recent climb.

It was only a few moments. Gone. But not forgotten.

We circled up and around the tree along the path. It felt like our mission was complete but we still weren’t satisfied. We talked about our feelings as we descended the path. This natural “zoo” was prohibitive. People are brought to and ferried along the correct path. The only way to look at things. It’s at once beautiful and sad.

DSCF2307Everywhere humanity has made a mark. I don’t think it is bad. It just is. But I still struggle with it. I see nature as a magnificent space where humanity has struggled for eons to carve out a special space. Humanity has created some of the most amazing things but they still pale in comparison to the accomplishments of nature, which humanity tries to take partial credit for by creating paths and other natural zoos or parks.

Please forgive me. I know I am being overly cynical. I am grateful that me and countless other people are able to see nature in a comfortable way. I guess I’m a little selfish that way. You see, the guided/preferred/manipulated/coaxed experience is not unique. Perhaps it is because I am from America and we are supposed to be all about individualism. Perhaps I’m insatiable in that respect and nothing is ever good enough. Maybe it’s my hometown that is buried even further in the bush. But, I now have a shared experience with all those other people that have seen Yayoi Sugi. We can talk about it and have relatively similar experiences. It’s a good thing. It is. It is in how we interpret that experience that makes the difference.

IMG_7382But it lacks a certain passion.

The experience is homogenized, McDonaldized, manufactured for the masses. One size fits most and the rest are subtly coaxed into submission. I know. I know. Anti-establishment rhetoric. Blah. Blah. Blah. Yakkity-Schmakity.

The fact that I had such a soul-rending experience proves the value of the experience. I was able to see a magnificent natural creation, be guided there by the hand of man, and feel the irony of it. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the experience was because now I can explore these feelings of misbalance that I’ve been struggling with since my landing in Japan.

IMG_7423The balance between man and nature is defined uniquely be each culture, or (shall I even say it?) each individual. A core part of me wants to understand. It’s my natural curiosity. In the end it is useless in the larger picture. But even a small sliver of understanding is an improvement from nothing.

Stay tuned for part two of Yakushima.

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Wakuwaku Japanese Language School

If anyone is interested in learning Japanese or traveling to Japan, I highly recommend Hita as a place to see. It is full of wonderful sights and things to do, particularly the incredible festivals like Kankousai and Gion. I’ve really enjoyed my time here and I’ve wanted to figure out a way to get more people to visit this great city in the heart of Kyushu.

Then along came Wakuwaku Japanese Language and Culture School. I know this sounds like a sales pitch but I am really excited about their program. The people are close friends of mine and are wonderful. You can learn Japanese as well as participate in a variety of traditional Japanese cultural activities. If you’re interested in that type of experience, check out their website at http://wakuwaku-japanese-school.com/

Hope to see you around!

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The Alcoholic Lie

Let’s talk about addiction.

It’s been on my mind for a while, floating like a misguided salesman hell bent on selling me a product I don’t need. Don’t get me wrong, it could be a great product for somebody else; it just isn’t for me.

I’m angry.

I’m frustrated.

I’m confused.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but hearing about someone’s “experiment” with quitting drinking for a month or even a year doesn’t even get close to what it’s like to be an alcoholic.

At times it is offensive to read them. Their words sound so dispassionate about the experiment, analyzing how their body reacted and how they thought about it. It’s no big deal. They can quit whenever they want. I know I’m supposed to feel relieved that others are trying to understand what I’m going through, it is appreciated, but they don’t understand. Just as I don’t understand them.

I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just trying to be critical. It’s easy to tolerate something when you know there’s an end to it. Work ends. The school day ends. The movie ends. It’s the basis for daily life and setting goals.

“One Day at a Time” says my beginner’s chip in AA. One day turns to two, turns to three, and hopefully so on. There is no end except the real end. Alcohol, any addiction, is a powerful force in a person’s life. It cannot be controlled except by pure force of will. Every day. It never ends.

For many addicts there is no redo. We hear stories about famous people and criticize them. Fine. Everyone deserves criticism. But everyone has moments of weakness, some of those weaknesses are more serious than others. A relapse for an addict can mean the end of everything. It is utterly frightening. Freezing. The ultimate weakness. I seriously believe that if I drink again I will die. I don’t want to die. I also don’t want alcohol to have control over me.

These types of thoughts wrangle my brain every day. They sneak up when I’m unaware or just enjoying something.

You think this person is weak.
You think this person is sick.
You think this person isn’t normal.

Maybe you’re right.
Maybe you’re not.

I thought all of these and more. I still do. In the end. It doesn’t matter.

Addicts have to live every day with their addiction.

It is now nine years sober and counting for me. It is harder now than it was at the beginning.

I’ve struggled with alcohol for a relatively short time, 18 years now. I started late by many standards, age 18, but it took over my life. I would drink at any time I wanted to. It didn’t matter if I had any responsibilities. I was a high functioning alcoholic so I could still get things done. As I got older I became confused and frightened of alcohol. So I would quit for a few weeks, a month, six months.

It was easy and it made me feel good. Gave me a feeling of control over alcohol. I knew there was an end to my sobriety. I marked the day on the calendar and waited with baited breath and big plans. New drinks to try. New places to drink. That day. That day. It was something to look forward to. I could drink again.

A few cycles passed. Drink. Don’t drink.

I was an on again off again drunk.

An alcoholic.

I just didn’t know it. Each time my drinking cycle came around my drinking was worse. It was as if I was making up for the time I missed. I drank more. I drank harder. But it was okay because I had a dry cycle coming up soon.

Maybe it was my fault in the first place. Maybe, if I had just kept drinking without worrying about my planned breaks I would have been fine. Moderation, they say. Drink in moderation and everything will be okay.

It won’t.

I know there are people out there who can control their urges. You are lucky. You are not addicted. I envy you. But are you absolutely sure? That’s the funny thing about addiction. It doesn’t tell you. It hides in the shadows, encouraging you that everything is okay. You don’t have a problem. You are not weak.

Now, having said all of this. Moments of cleansing and experimenting into things that are outside your experience are wonderful things to do. Please, go ahead and write about it. It’s a magnificent reflective learning experience. You can quit for good whenever you want. I truly hope it is true.

Remember, there is no going back. There is nothing to look forward to. There is no light at the end. Addicts are always running. Some days addiction nips at your heels, other days addiction is far behind.

But addiction never gives up, and neither can you.

Previously Published at Medium.

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For Those that are Curious

Hello all!

As you know, I recently stated that I have no more to say about Japan.  That is true in some aspects and not so much in others.  Japan is a wonderful place with so much to experience and explore.  It will take a lifetime to even begin to understand the intricacies of the culture and everyday life.

But I’ve realized a few things about myself during my time in Japan.  I want to do things that don’t quite fit into the whole Japan theme.

That thing is writing fiction. We all come to a point when we have to jump ahead no matter what.  It is frightening and downright intimidating, but I have created a new place to share my writing process.

If you’re interested in that sort of thing, join me at Cultivating Creativity. There I will share my Works in Progress and some of the anguish, blood, and other generally unpleasant yet gratifying details that linger uncomfortably throughout the process.  My first project is “Life With a View”.  Wish me luck!

This doesn’t mean NihoniGo will disappear. I have a special place in my heart for Japan and this blog. I will continue to update it (not as though I have been good at that) as I reflect on my time in Japan. I would love to hear from you and your questions about Japan. I’ll do my best to answer them. I don’t know everything, or anything at all, but I know my experience.

Thank you!

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A Marshmallow Marathon

It was a long time coming. I failed once but it wasn’t going to happen again.  The fated day finally arrived. Thankfully, it was a sunny 20 Celsius spring day. Perfect for a 5k marathon along the river.

Running is a recent addition to my life. At least that is what I thought while reflecting on my first 5k. But then I began to dive deep into my past. Deep, deeper than I ever thought before…

IMG_6528Thirty years melted away. A small red berry grabbed my attention while exploring the Lake Superior shoreline. I was six or seven, somewhere around there, and my curiosity in the world instilled absolute awe and wonder at everything. Those berries made me sick. I threw up soon after with no other ill effects. Still I wandered through the thick underbrush discovering the mysteries of the world.

Part of it was curiosity, but there was a good deal of imitation involved as well. From before I was born a family came up during summers to vacation in the pristine wilderness that was my hometown. The patriarch of the family was a tall, slender man. By trade he was a teacher. He seemed to enjoy exploring the forest and possessed a natural curiosity. He would disappear for hours at a time. Turns out that he would go for runs in the morning.

That wasn’t all there was to this man. He could also make mean S’mores. During one particularly pleasant July evening the training began.

IMG_6533Like any July day situated in or around Lake Superior, it was hot. I was a little kid creating a highway system for Tonka trucks to carry out their tasks. The End-Loader was the workhorse of the bunch, helping create the hills and valleys needed to make the roads interesting. My brother dug a huge hole in the black stamp-sand. He was a big guy and he disappeared into it. My sisters swam in Lake Superior and explored the nearby ruins of the old Champion Copper Mill.

As the setting sun fell on that perfect day we had a barbecue of steak, hot dogs, kebabs, you know, all the good stuff. For dessert, S’mores. The master was hard at work toasting the perfect marshmallow. I was enraptured by his technique. He chose the perfect stick and stripped one end to a sharp point. Then he singed the raw tip in the glowing embers of the fire.

Then came cooking.

Two marshmallows on the end, patience, and a discerning eye were required next. Marshmallows can ignite in a fraction of a second. Any moment, any lapse in concentration can spell disaster.

I absorbed every twist and wave, every breath and slight adjustment, nothing existed except his technique, those slowly browning marshmallows, and the dancing flames. I watched with attention that only a young person could.

IMG_6539Once the marshmallows begin to droop and an even toasting colors their fine exterior comes the next crucial stage. Stacking the cookie. Any master requires an apprentice to complete the project. Two graham cracker squares and one chunk of chocolate bar. You have to be quick. Place the chocolate on the bottom square and use the other square to capture the marshmallowy perfection with a smooth twist. Squish them together for the perfect S’more.

I’m hungry.

I realize everybody has their own preference for the perfect S’more but this is mine and I’m sticking to it.

Back from my reverie I realize that this man means a lot to me. I would only see him once a year while I was young but it is crystal clear. I still remember his laugh. I still remember his nasally/gravelly voice. I still remember the way he jogged along dusty tracks through the woods. But most of all I still remember his knowledge. He taught me so much when I was so young.

I guess you could say he is a mentor.

Many of the decisions I’ve made in my life have been because of him. Because of the experiences we shared all those years ago on that black stamp-sand beach on Lake Superior.

Running may seem to be a recent addition to my life, but I think it was always there, hiding behind childhood fog full of trucks and sticks and video games. There have been many obstacles but it always comes back.

So now I run and I will run.

Thinking of marshmallows the whole way…

Why do you do what you do?

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Find your passion

Looking out the window at all the concrete here I’ve begun thinking about the next step in my life. Passion came to mind. What is my passion? By nature, by definition, I should know. Right?

All the books. All the experts. They all say to find your passion.

What does passion mean?

The definition says it is a strong, powerful, compelling emotion. Desire or fondness towards someone or something. Lust.

What does that mean?

IMG_1696I mean, I understand what the words mean, how they work in context with each other, how they jump off the page and infiltrate my skull and bounce around the mysterious inner workings, looking for connections to make sense. I know what passion means.

I don’t know what passion is.

Recently, I discovered the curiously compelling world of Criminal Minds. I’ve always appreciated an interest in abnormal psychology and the show illustrates that to great effect. I found the writing quite good and the characters engaging. Traits are doled out slowly and begin to reveal motivations for doing what they do. In essence, there was something during their childhood that drove them towards their occupation as FBI profilers.

Something makes them tick. I don’t want to delve into any more details because I don’t want to ruin the show. It’s a great example of character driven crime drama.

IMG_4118Then I read a book; the main character has clear passion. Her motivation is a defined and monumental moment from childhood. Another television series comes up. Passion defined. Passion everywhere.

Passion began to look like obsession, even addiction. It sure is a fine line, to be sure. Passion has a healthy connotation full of positive encounters and productive enterprises. Obsession and addiction, on the other hand, lead down a pit full of sharp spikes.

So I started searching my childhood for that one thing, that special motivation that changed my life and pushed me toward and inevitable conclusion. Passion.

Nothing. There is no defining moment in my life. No motivation to push me towards that clear goal.

Then it made sense.

IMG_2192I’m an alcoholic. I have addiction. That’s passion. The problem is that I’ve been sober for close to nine years now. Those nine years have been spent controlling my passion, staying away from it at all costs, acting paranoid because it could creep around any corner without warning. I’ve been living in fear since that decisive, chilly day in April.

Consciously, I want to redirect that negative passion into positive, productive endeavors. But perhaps there is a part of me that fears the power of passion. Because it is powerful. Releasing myself to it could lead to another detrimental experience; a deeper, darker hole that I might not be able to crawl out of.

I must admit, sharing this is very difficult. I’m not looking for empathy, pity, or sadness. I made my decision and I’m sticking to it. I’m just exploring a concept that has become central to our modern time and how it relates to me. Finding passion is the new American Dream. It permeates every aspect of our culture from popular entertainment to education to religion. Passion is everywhere and has become a homogenous entity expected as a recognized privilege. Well, not a privilege, an entitlement. We deserve to find our passion.

Be careful what you wish for.

As I near the end of my blathering tirade, George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” came up on my random playlist. The outlook looks bleak, but it isn’t all bad.

IMG_4246The very nature of passion makes it uncontrollable, but if we can manage to redirect that thing, convince it, if you will, to find positive and productive endeavors to focus on, we will be able to walk out of that pit with our heads looking ahead and all around. To finally seize life rather than be manipulated by it.

Is it true passion?

I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s all I have.

“Follow your bliss.” – Joseph Campbell

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Breathing is a good thing

I have nothing more to say about Japan.

IMG_6289That’s a lie. I have plenty to say. I’m just more interested in pursuing new venues to express myself. NihoniGo has begun to feel limiting. It’s funny, because my initial concept was to make sure I created a tight enough focus so that it wouldn’t get away from me. Instead, I ended up getting away from it.

To put it bluntly, the last few months have been an extremely trying time in my life. Have you ever noticed that you’ve been holding your breath for a very long time? Like three months?

I did.

Somehow I managed to survive so long without oxygen without too many ill effects. There’s probably a little brain damage but I’m sure that was already there.

IMG_4606The thing is, it is very difficult to do things when you are holding your breath. It is important to stay as still as possible so as to use the least amount of oxygen. So you see I had to let life pass by. Maybe Guiness will get a hold of this and I’ll get a blurb in their interesting book.

The problem is that I’m sure that there are plenty of others out there that have held their breath for much longer.

But I don’t want to talk about other record holders.

I want to talk about me.

Now that I’m allowed to breathe again I find that life has taken on a new hue. Flowers are blooming. Colors infest the landscape. Smells infiltrate every pore in my body. Wait a second! That sounds like spring!

In a way it is.

Spring is a time of renewals, rebirth, new dawns and new ideas.

New beginnings.

During my record breaking attempt I began to notice slight changes taking place. Metamorphosis, if you will. I morphed from a pudgy caterpillar into a beau… um… pudgy caterpillar with brain damage.

IMG_6352It’s like that time I captured a large green caterpillar when I was about ten years old. I was sure the funny looking creature would turn into a spectacular Luna moth. I nudged it carefully into a large jar and let nature take its course. I fed it leaves and put a stick in there to walk on. Then one day it began to weave a silk cocoon around itself. Real nature was happening in front of my eyes! Soon after, it was fully enclosed and there was nothing new to see. My ten year old mind lost interest. Other things were more exciting.

One month. Two months.

I don’t know how long I waited but one day I began to worry. What if I captured it and it wasn’t able to perform its incredible feat? I was a killer. Guilt took control and I unscrewed the cap and set the bottle outside in a safe place to let nature take its course… naturally.

Look at that. I wanted to talk about me but instead I talked about a fat green caterpillar from twenty-five years ago. Yes. I must have brain damage.

Oxygen sure is an amazing thing. My freedom to breathe again has let the axioms and neurons and other tidbits of brain material to begin firing again.

So, that is to say, I have nothing more to say about Japan at this time. I do, however, have a lot to say.

Maybe too much.

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Sorry, that was me

It could happen in the lunchroom, at a café, walking down the street, in your home. You never know when it will strike. It begins innocently enough. Eyes meet, eyes dart secret whispers, dramatic laughter, fingers point.

They are laughing at you.
Not with you.

Your day is destroyed.

Well, it’s not that bad, nor that dramatic. I think we’ve all experienced a time when our paranoia kicks in and we think we’re being laughed at. It can be humiliating.

20131125_MothIn order to survive, I’ve had to brave the sometimes scary, always foreign, world of shopping. It is in this space, this folk space, where I’ve experienced a slew of cultural interaction. The service industry is where I’ve experienced the down and dirty secrets of culture. Such an intriguing space.

Most of the advertising we receive about other cultures is either the romanticized depiction of royalty and upper class, or the empathy inducing portrayal of the downtrodden. Even within our own culture most popular media focuses on the financially secure. Rare are the examples we see of people or families struggling to get by. It is too depressing. But this is the majority. Struggle is the majority. Instead, we are fed the dream.

Japan’s service industry clearly illustrates the hierarchal rules the society is based on. Everybody knows where they stand on the ladder.

Except me.

I have no idea where I belong. There are good reasons for this. I’m not Japanese. I’ve also never known my place. So there’s that. But there’s more.

As a core ideal, I believe that everybody deserves respect. Unless they actively try to destroy it. Status does not determine the amount of respect I give. Although, I am particularly respectful when someone helps me. The people that just so happen to help me the most are cashiers. They are the front lines of culture. They are the people, the folk, I remember. I don’t even know their names. But still, they receive my respect.

Apparently this can lead to problems.

20131125_ShrineSince Japan is so hierarchal and everyone knows their place, if I give a lot of respect to someone below my rank, they have to go even further than normal. This may be seen as an annoyance caused by me. I disrupt the flow. Throw a kink into the mix, if you will. I’m like a car wreck you never see that disrupts traffic for miles. Sorry, that was me.

I wonder at which point I have to resolve this issue. Pretty soon, my cultural identity begins to get confused.

In my experience, some groups are better than others at preserving their cultural identity. Take my family, for example. Within three generations we have lost our immigrant cultural identity. Finnish was spoken in my mother’s household when she was growing up, but there was no Finnish during my childhood. I’m not making any judgments, just an observation.

I didn’t know my Finnish grandparents but I can imagine they held a strong attachment to their Finnish cultural identity. I do too, but it was something I had to actively seek out as I struggled through identity issues during my formative years.

And now here I am in another new culture. I don’t know my place. How Japanese should I become? I am here and I will do my best to learn and understand. But I will never be Japanese, just as I will never be Finnish. I can, however, appreciate and learn from those cultural heritages, even ones that I don’t have an ancestral link to.

I think it is important for us to maintain a strong link to our cultural heritage. There are so many beautiful things that we shouldn’t forget about.

20131125_BridgeI am the awkward foreigner.
I am the awkward native.

I throw, monkey wrenches, kinks, and a spectacular collection of other damage causing implements into the metaphorical mix.

Your way is beautiful.
My way is beautiful.

Let’s appreciate and learn from the beauty of each other.

Sorry, that was me.

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The Awkward Elephant
Oh my!!! What was that?

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Reflecting on Concrete

Photos taken at a shrine in Hita, Japan.


Nature and Civilization meet hand in hand.


Clear borders tell you where to go.


Choices, choices, choices.

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Bold edges blur civilization

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