Thursday, April 2, 2015

Leaving Japan

A week ago I said goodbye to my students. Through the amazing translating skills of Keiko, I gave a speech in Japanese to both of my schools. I thanked them for the past three years. The theme of my speech was embracing adventure and new experiences. 

Tuesday, I finished cleaning my apartment, biked across town on the roads I know all too well and turned in my apartment key and said goodbye to my country-side town of Uchihara.

I'm staying at the home of Keiko and Kazu Hirashima this week (Rich Little appropriately deemed it Hilton-Hirashima). Tomorrow we'll fly to Okinawa, a tropical Japanese island. I'll come back to mainland Japan and will return to America on April 8th. 

As I say goodbye, I have wondered how I can continue a life of adventure after Japan. Japan has offered me a platform to explore new things and new places, just as I encouraged my students to do. Of course, there are moments, even days, when I have made the easy decision to stay comfortable and not lived out the best life I could. The most recent example being yesterday morning, when I woke up on a tatami mat at The Hilton Hirashima and struggled to simply get dressed and be productive at all. A simple run would have helped, as it did today in the park amidst the beautiful cherry blossoms. 

I'm so conditioned to make the comfortable decision. I imagine we all are. Coming back to the States was a fairly easy decision back in October, if I were given the choice again now, it would be more difficult to pull the plug on Japan. But I'm glad I did decide to return to the States. It came down to whether I wanted to be comfortable for another year in Japan or to struggle in my growth in the States. Returning will give me new opportunities to grow, just as coming to Japan three years ago provided ample opportunities for growth. For this difficult transition I am grateful. I am especially grateful for the last three years and the people who made it so enjoyable. There are too many to list.

I'm currently reading a book called Resilience. It is comprised of a series of letters between two former Navy Seals. One former Seal has hit rock bottom and is dealing with extreme depression. He calls his former companion, Eric Greitens, for help. The call for help becomes a long line of correspondence between the long lost comrades. I loved this line from Greitens to his depressed friend, "We all need something to struggle against and to struggle for. The aim in life is not to avoid struggles, but to have the right ones; not to avoid worry, but to care about the right things; not to live without fear, but to confront worthy fears with force and passion".

I'm looking forward to finding the right struggles in America. Nothing stays the same in life and I'm anticipating a lot of painfully rewarding growth as I return to the States. 

I'll fly across the Pacific to Portland, Oregon on April 8th. Stay for a week. Fly to Oklahoma April 15th, drive to my cousin Hannah's wedding in Houston, stay in Oklahoma the last week of April and drive across the country to Oregon with my mother at the beginning of May. Are you confused? Yeah, so am I! but I'm looking forward to embracing the journey. I hope to see you on it soon!


A few of my favorites these last few months:

Last trip to Tokyo with some amazing friends 

Best Kaiten (conveyer belt) Sushi I've ever had, in Omotesando district of Tokyo. The price matched the taste though.

I Went out to dinner with (Yasushi) Tahara Sensei several weeks ago. He's a special teacher. I hope I retain my athletic pursuits at the age of 50 like Yasushi, he's an especially good tennis and softball player.

Met some new friends on the Mountain

Got my picture on the wall for eating a huge portion of "Stamina" Ramen, along with a few other good friends.

At a goodbye party with my Uchihara Elementary teachers. It's a group of characters.
Satomi has beautifully translated most of my talks at church the last three years. I love her sincerity and depth of thought. I'll miss her greatly.

Played at the park on a recent crisp, spring night. with several friends. Way too much fun than kids this old should have! 
(6th grade graduation) Ryouta is going to to a soccer boarding school at the age of 12! It's several hours north of home. I'm pretty excited for him. He recently traveled to Spain on a soccer trip and was sharing with me all the Spanish he had picked up. 

Katsuta 10K, the most fun I've had running a race. I love running and the way sweat seems to reignite my passion for life! I'm looking forward to doing a lot more running in the States and meeting new friends through the sport.

See you soon America! I'll miss you Japan!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coffee on the Otherside

"David... my urine still smells like coffee"- Daniel, the day after our trip

I hail from Portland, Oregon. Portland is known for it's majestic green landscape with gorgeous snow-capped mountains outlining the horizon. The splendid beauty come at a price though, rain and gloom doom from November through May. How do Portlanders cope? The finest way possible: coffee. In fact, Portland is the second highest consumer of coffee in the United States, only behind Seattle, Portland's lovely friend fiend up north.

But truth be told, Portland doesn't just cope with coffee; Portland thrives on the stuff. One of Portland's distinguished cultural building blocks is it's love for the art of coffee.  

Portland has been fueled by stellar coffee shops such as my personal favorite: Jim and Patty's

It's been fun learning more about the coffee culture in Japan too. This past May, when an opportunity arose to help create an open mic, cafe night at our local church, My good friend and fellow coffee connoisseur Daniel Wheat and I jumped at the opportunity to provide the coffee. It immediately became my favorite activity at church. The goal is to make everyone feel warmly welcomed. I think it's been wildly successful. Every time we get newcomers to cafe night, people come who either heard about it online or others who come with a friend. The demographics are diverse as well. In a Japanese culture which can tend to stay insulated and busy without a real purpose, the cafe night has filled a need for the community to enjoy relaxing together. Providing high quality coffee has further enhanced everything good about the event. Before every cafe night, Daniel and I walk down to our favorite little coffee roaster, Maruni Coffee, located just north of the Church in Mito, to provide the best beans possible.

Maruni Coffee

Daniel and I at Cafe night

Admittedly, I hadn't explored the coffee scene in Tokyo. With my time in Japan winding down I wanted to make this happen. I asked Daniel to join me and the trip was beautiful.

The night before our trip, I researched as many noteworthy coffee shops as possible. We hoped try out about five. Of course, five shops is only skimming the surface of the possibilities in a huge city like Tokyo. We compared our collected notes on the train and rather easily arrived at a consensus. Our pursuit was not only great coffee but special coffee shop environments. Daniel had been to critically acclaimed Omotesando Koffee before and highly recommended it. Visiting brand new Blue Bottle Coffee was at the top of my list and that's where we began.

Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle Coffee opened a brand new shop in Tokyo the day before we visited. It is Blue Bottle's debut in Asia. Blue Bottle is a hip American coffee brand from the Bay Area. It's located in the affluent district of Tokyo called Kiyosumi. I was especially interested to see the culture of the Bay Area shop in Japan. How would the company blend it's American heritage with a new store in Japan? Would the staff be quick and efficient like the Japanese are known for or more laid back but genuinely friendly like American coffee shops? Unfortunately upon arrival we were welcomed by a two hour line just to get in the door. We should have predicted the wait; the Japanese have an affinity for brand new, high quality and most remarkably, long lines. Daniel offered me a wry smile, thinking to himself, "You're not gonna be so stubborn as to make me wait this out are you?" After taking a few pictures we easily decided to forgo the craziness and find another cafe. 

(Daniel's picture)

Arise Coffee

Without any trouble, we stumbled upon a small coffee vendor just a block around the corner called Arise Coffee. The barista (called a master in Japan) was super friendly, despite some visible anxiety, overwhelmed by others who had also forgone the Blue Bottle wait. All the customers inside the small shop were so friendly and interested in the two white guys. A few spoke English fairly well and wanted to hear about what brought us to Tokyo. The Japanese are typically timid, but everyone at Arise was so friendly. While waiting for my pour over coffee, it struck me that some of my favorite activities in Japan, such as exploring the outdoors and coffee, are also the mediums in which I've encountered the friendliest, most gregarious Japanese. The timidity around non Japanese speakers dissipates in the midst of a common love. Do certain activities lead to more gregarious personalities or do these Japanese people already have a more friendly, gregarious persona? I'm not exactly sure. Japan has taught me how fearful we can be of the unknown, of things different from us. The friendly Japanese in the coffee shop or on the mountain may be more comfortable being uncomfortable and more keen on the little adventures of life, even something as small and beautiful as finding interest in the two foreigners. 

Daniel's picture inside Arise
photo credit: arisecoffeejp

My pour over coffee was delicious, the wait for my first cup was worth it. It was a light dominican roast with definitive blueberry notes. I was pleased I agreed to take the Barista's recommendation; a light dominican roast with distinctive blueberry notes. The cost of the coffee was just 350 yen, (about $3). I felt sorry for all those waiting in line around the corner at Blue Bottle.

After steadily enjoying the quaint and friendly environment at Arise Coffee, Daniel and I headed out for the next cafe by train: the legendary Omotesando Koffee stand.

Omotesando Koffee

Daniel's picture

Once we maneuvered through the back alley neighborhoods of Tokyo's affluent Omotesando district, we came across the legendary coffee stand, tucked in by a beautiful Japanese garden. The famous cafe is anchored by a man in a white lab jacket. A scientist, both in appearance and manner, the barista was honed in on his craft. 

It was about a 15 minute wait to order our cappuccinos. Omotesando Koffee is a take out stand. Within the small garden outside of the stand, if there is room you can sit down to enjoy your drink. Daniel and I enjoyed our drinks to go as we walked around the ritzy Omotesando neighborhood.

The cappuccino was fantastic. Perfectly balanced, smooth, creamy foam, sweet and acidic notes, but not bitter. The barista balanced the art and science of his craft. It would turn out to be my favorite drink of the day. It was small, only 6 ounces (there are no size options on the simple menu) and cost 420 yen (a little under $4). 

Sweet business cards

Daniel's cappuccino

Content with our drinks in hand, we took a train and made the 15 walk to another fabled Tokyo coffee spot, Streamer Coffee in the middle of Harajuku, a district in Tokyo famous for it's shopping and fashion. Streamer Coffee's owner, Hiroshi Sawada, won the Seattle latte art championship in 2008 Streamer had the most room inside of any shop we would go to. It would be a perfect spot if you wanted to take a break from the busyness of Tokyo, read a book and relax. The atmosphere reminded me of a trendy American coffee shop, upbeat, easy going with a vibe that encouraged creativity. The barista was from Quebec and spoke great Japanese. Daniel and I both ordered Streamer's specialty: cappuccinos. Our cappuccinos were as massive as they were beautiful. They did cost the most of any cappuccino we had, coming in at 550 yen (just under $5). But they were definitely worth it. Again, we encountered some warm and friendly fellow customers at Streamer. 

Sawada, the owner of Streamer is on the right.

Photo credit to Daniel

After Streamer, we had the option to stay in the area or travel by train to Ebisu, another district of Tokyo with a couple of coffee shops on our list. We decided to stay in the area. We walked to Paddler's Cafe just a few minutes away and would then make our last stop at Bear Pond, also within walking distance.

Paddler's Cafe sells only Stumptown Coffee, a Portland, Oregon originated brand Paddler Coffee is located in Shibuya, a famous district known for upscale shopping, adjacent to Harajuku. We had to find our way through a dress shoe store, climb up the stairs and go through another detour of the dress shoe store before finding Paddler's coffee inconspicuously tucked away in a small corner of the building. 

Paddler's decorated their interior with a surprisingly high volume of Portland memorabilia, including a Japanese magazine dedicated solely to the City of Portland and all the hipsters who live there (apparently only hipsters live there). While the reading material and some of the Stumptown memorabilia was a nice Rose City touch, it lacked the energetic, freeing, and easy going atmosphere found in a typical Portland coffee shop. It felt like a corner of a shoe shop to provide increased revenue for the dress shoe store. It was 4:00 pm by this point. There was one other couple in the small store. While the vibe lacked the vital atmosphere Daniel and I were looking for, the coffee was really good.

Daniel and I both ordered the Honduran pour over. It was really good, a much darker blend than the light blend at Arise Coffee. This coffee stop was the most expensive, selling for 600 yen a cup (just over $5). There was also a 1000 yen cup we were tempted to try. It was tasty, but put us over the top after enjoying our fourth coffee in the span of four hours. Daniel's minor headache got a little more noticeable. My body was asking for anything but more coffee. Leaving Paddler's, my prevailing thought was the lack of atmosphere. The coffee didn't disappoint, but the atmosphere certainly did.

Bear Pond Espresso

Our last stop was Bear Pond Coffee at about 5:00 pm. The cappuccinos were terrific, although the cream was a little too bitter. But the service left a more bitter taste. One of the workers was visibly upset and stern with me when I tried to take a picture. Originally, I thought the lady was a westerner, but after talking with Daniel while writing this post, he disagreed. Daniel thought she was Japanese. Maybe her crankiness built up stress, visibly evident by her accumulated wrinkles, just made her appear as an entitled, jaded New Yorker, rather than the typically, well aged, beautiful Japanese women. Inside the small, cramped confines of Bear Pond, the seats were not comfortable. Bear Pond was bigger than Arise Coffee, but the unfriendly environment made it feel more cramped. Despite the excellent cappuccino, neither of us will return, there are plenty of other places in Tokyo with great coffee and more inviting environments. Bear Pond left bitter vibes despite a delicious cappuccino.

The drinks were just right, but Bear Pond was too small, the chairs too hard and the Bears much too cranky

Some heart on the outside, little where it counts

Final thoughts:
1. If in Tokyo, make Omotesando Koffee a priority. The incredible Japanese atmosphere, and the amazing quality make it my top recommendation. Omotesando is also located in an quiet, affluent neighborhood which may give you a new perspective on Tokyo.

2. If you're looking to find a place to rest your feet while in Tokyo and want to enjoy it with a delicious drink, my top recommendation is Streamer Coffee in Harajuku. Spacious cafes are a luxury in Japan (one reason I think Starbucks thrives in Japan). Streamer is spacious with comfortable seating and offers a rejuvenating atmosphere. Starbucks is the lazy choice, easy to locate, and known but discover something new and better at Streamer's Coffee instead. You'll be happy you did.

3. Explore. Make your time in Tokyo count. You're sure to run into handfuls of Starbucks and McDonalds, often in the most convenient locations. Bypass these giant, known, cheap commodities and explore something fresh and new. There's a story behind each of these cafe's and it's worth discovering, if nothing else than for the adventure of exploration.  

4. After the day trip, I returned to my apartment by 10:00 pm on Saturday night and fell asleep by 10:30. Daniel was up later and apparently felt the caffeine streaming through his veins the next day. 

Capping off the night at a rare, great Japanese hamburger shop. Thanks to Daniel for making the journey so enjoyable.

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 New Year: Spending time with two amazing Japanese families

I spent the new year in Japan. My plans for the first week of 2015 consisted of watching basketball, and football, reading and running. The spontaneous invitations by two special, dear Japanese families became instant highlights of my time here, as memorable as my exceptional trip to Niseko the week prior.

The New year is the most celebrated holiday in Japan, and a much bigger deal than Christmas. In general, Japanese kids are aware of Santa Claus but not of the Christian concepts behind Christmas like the majority of American children. Christmas day falls during winter break, so the kids are on vacation but December 25th consists of long meetings for teachers (thankfully I was flying to Hokkaido this day). As much as the Japanese are dedicated to their work, January 1st, 2nd and 3rd are the sacred days reserved for holiday.

This year was the first of my three years to be in Japan on January first. I spent New Year"s eve, content, reading a book in solitude, hearing my apartment neighbors casually proclaim "Ha-pi New Yeea" through my thin apartment walls, shortly thereafter I turned out the lights.

My acupuncturist had invited me to spend New Years morning with his family. Their family is tremendous. His family is the most traditional Japanese family I know. His father is a well known veterinarian in the area. His wife is a former Japan Karate champion, later demonstrated body slamming her eight year old son as he was being obnoxious (can't imagine I will soon forget this moment). Her father is a Judo martial arts master. We had a delicious and traditional Japanese breakfast. They patiently explained what all the different dishes symbolized, and they all symbolize something. The explanations of the exquisite food fascinated me.

Tanemura, already wearing a traditional kimono, dressed me in similar fashion, We then went to a Japanese shrine which was an interesting experience filled with lots of Japanese. The Japanese sure love crowds, it does make for some great people watching. (I'm convinced if you want to see true Japanese culture and for some reason only have 2 hours in the country, find the nearest Costco and people watch)

At the end of of the afternoon, as is custom, the parents and grandparents gave money to their children. They even gave money to me! Enclosed in these small envelopes with my name in Japanese. So kind and thoughtful.

Keiko Hirashima, my beloved Japanese teacher and best Japanese friend invited me to her house the next evening January 2nd. A few paragraphs can not do justice to how incredible Keiko is. Her faith journey, sincerity and generosity of her entire being, is a testament to her character. I've been over many times but this occasion was noticeably different, Keiko's entire family and lifelong family friends attended. (after one families father tragically passed away twenty years ago, Keiko and Kazu became mother and father figures for the young children). I was grateful for the invitation especially because the whole family welcomed me, despite my lack of Japanese and having never met any of them. We feasted on amazing Japanese cuisine (this is always the case at Keiko's) . I ate so much, I had to lay down, finding my inner Michael Hinds after huge family meals growing up.

The rest on the couch didn't last long as Keiko's two adorable grandchildren, Ryo and Otto. interrupted my food induced slumber. I had a blast with Keiko's wonderful family!

I'm so grateful for both of these Japanese families and their tremendous hospitality shown to me over the new year.

With Keiko's grandchildren, Otto on the left and Ryo on the right.

The entire gang at Keiko's. Oh to be 6 and take off your shirt when ever you want...

Hangin with Ryo
Tanemura, demonstrating a core exercise Ichiro practices on a daily basis

dressed in a traditional kimono with Tanemura's father, wife and daughter

At the Japanese shrine

traditional January 1st food. (this was breakfast but they eat the same food over the 3 days)

Gift envelope in hand, what a kind family

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Niseko, Hokkaido ski trip

Because I'm returning home in just a few months, this Christmas it made sense to stay in Japan. It marked my first Christmas separated from family. I wanted to make my only Christmas in Japan memorable. Skiing Hokkaido, specifically Niseko, topped my bucket list. This summer, in a Perth, Australia bookstore, I picked up a ski tourism book detailing the best spots around the world. Flipping through to the page dedicated to Niseko, Hokkaido immediately hooked me, and jetted Niseko (along with Korea) to the top top of my bucket list. So ironically, during my trip down under I was convinced I needed to check out the most northern island of Japan.

(To give you better context, Japan is about the size of California. I live in Mito, about 70 miles NE of Tokyo. )

While my family indulged in my beloved family tradition of Christmas eve Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches with milkshakes, two friends, Josh Huggins and Casey White, celebrated Christmas morning with a flight out of Tokyo's Narita airport.

After making a couple Portland friends riding the bus to Niseko from Sapporo, we arrived at Moiwa Lodge, a four story private, wooden lodge with it's own unique and beautiful mountain powdered with snow within a five minute walk.

Two summers ago Hakuba, Nagano stapled itself in my memory and Niseko, Hokkaido will also forever remain a blissful experience.

The elevation of the area is only around 1,000 meters, the frigid cold front of the Siberian tundra directly to the west of Niseko creates the dust light snow powder. The low elevation surprised, especially because I grew up skiing on Mount Hood in the Cascade mountain range, where the elevation must be a lot higher to produce a much more damp and heavy powder product.

We skied four days. After skiing renowned Hirafu ski resort on the second day, we planned to return on our fourth and final day to the popular Hirafu resort. But skiing the luscious, vacant backcountry tree runs of Moiwa changed those plans. Josh, Casey and I decided to ski Moiwa again on the final day. Niseko offered powder you see in those famous Warren Miller ski films.

The kindest, most friendly people are found on the mountain. The cordial Moiwa lodge staff and fellow backyard mountain explorers added to the adventurous experience. The melting pot of global travelers made the adventure all the more fascinating. The interaction with world travelers further enforced the idea that maybe we truly were experiencing one of the greatest ski locations in the world.

Checking Niseko, Japan off my bucket list conveys distorted impressions of a contentment with closure. I would jump at any future opportunity to experience Niseko again. If you live in Japan, I implore you to make it up to Niseko.

Niseko, Hokkaido, Warren Miller Photography (not my own)
Josh below

Josh, Casey and I enjoying a delicious Japanese/American appetizers restaurant called Lucky Fingers

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Coming home

Every October in our English program, we must make the decision to either remain in the AET program or go home beginning next April, in the upcoming fiscal year. The first and second years were personally fairly simple decisions. The saddest aspect of remaining was informing my brother Michael. Meeting my family in Hawaii during Christmas my first year and returning back to Oregon for Christmas in my second year made me wonder if I had made a poor choice to remain in Japan another year upon my return to Japan.

I imagined pulling the trigger to return home this year would be difficult. On the contrary, it also proved to be a fairly simple decision. An ever so quiet, but clear and confident voice, whispered to come home. I have been here three years, I'm not new to Japan anymore. I remember when the new English teachers came last spring, I scanned through their pictures of the iconic places in the area, traveling to Tokyo and seeing the monkeys in Nikko. I was excited on their behalf but knew those experiences were not fresh personally, I had already experienced those things.  I have had the opportunity to do the things I wanted to do in Japan and it seems like the best time to leave.

I never imagined I would embark on this adventure in Japan. Once I did make the leap, I always told myself I would not remain in Japan in order to retain my security; my sense of adventure led me to Japan, my continual grasps at comfort would not be the factor keeping me in Japan.

This was the overarching thought perusing through the back of my mind as the time for a decision crept up on me in my third year; to stay would be desperate attempts to hold onto security in Japan. To return would be to embark on a new adventure filled with new challenges, the opportunity to adapt, perhaps painfully, in my journey of faith.

It's the process of returning, not the decision itself, I know will prove most difficult. Never have I been in a situation quite like this and part of that aspect makes it so beautiful. It's always been a family member or a friend, and now I'm faced with the opportunity to make major adaptations as I return stateside. 

I am confident my last four months in Japan will be the best yet, and also the most bittersweet as I say goodbye to Japan, and the most importantly the dear friends who have made it such an compelling ride.

I plan to return to the Great Northwest. I'm sure there will be immense challenges and struggles finding my place again Stateside, along with the stressful transition process these last few months in Japan. At this point, I'm still determining what I want to do in my career. I would love to find a part time job to keep me productive as I explore my future career options (my work at Red Coyote Running in Oklahoma City was a huge blessing in this way).

It's another challenge, another leap of faith as I let go of the work I've enjoyed as a foreign English teacher. But three years is an appropriate time to return home, to faithfully and boldly pursue a new passion. I'm so grateful for the ride.

As a kid I was just happy when my PB & J wasn't smashed..

At Keiko's house for dinner. Where would I be without Keiko?

Happy Birthday Carmon!! Her and Mason are the best, 

flyin around the stretch bend at the cross country meet (6th grade)

Mason preached at Mito Church last week. He did a tremendous job. So grateful for his friendship.

One of my favorite pictures. Rice harvesting at school. Yes, I really do live in Japan.

Cousin Scott came to Japan a few weeks ago. What a pleasure it was to carve out an hour of his crazy, jet lagged, meeting overdosed schedule for some coffee together!
The beautiful run yesterday.

I've never journaled until this fall, it's been a great time to reflect and a time to look back in gratitude in this last season here.