Hello from Albania

Hello again. Its been over a year since I last posted here. I want to say something like “I can’t believe its been so long” but really I can believe it. I’m a terrible procrastinator and I get caught up taking and hoarding photos instead of sharing them.

Hopefully I can make this become part of my routine again and share some great thoughts, stories and images from my time abroad in a totally different culture. I still have lots of amazing photos from Japan and maybe I will write and share some more of those, but for now I will just try to get you caught up on my last year.

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Farewell party with my teachers in Japan

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View of Osaka from my hotel on my last night in Japan

I moved back to Portland in August 2016 with the general idea that I would be moving to Albania in March 2017 to teach English. Leaving Japan was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do emotionally. Just looking back through the pictures of the weeks leading up to me leaving trying to decide which to post on here, brings me to the verge of tears. When I got back to Portland, I got a part time job at a high end Japanese restaurant in business district of downtown. Since I speak decent Japanese, I was the first non-Japanese waiter they had hired in their 30 years of business, something that their long time regulars awkwardly commented on constantly. It was a great experience with lots of tasty perks and a nice way to ease back into America. It also reminded me of why I left Japan and what I truly did not like about Japanese work culture. I was ready to move on. I love Japan and will always have a huge place for it in my heart, but I was excited to Try something new.

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Dinner from Murata Japanese restaurant

So in March, after eating my way through Portland and spending time with family and friends, I set off to Albania. I knew little to nothing about this country and its language and I was excited to get started learning all about it. I was also terrified, nervous and felt like I was moving farther away from Japan and the home I had spent three years making, which terrified me the most.

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First images of Albania in the capital Tirana

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Sunset over the town of Belsh

My first two months were spent living with a host family in a little town called Belsh. It is a beautiful town and was great for adjusting to life in Albania. There were nine other Americans training in Belsh with me. We grew together quickly like you usually do when you’re shipped off to a foreign country with a bunch of strangers who also speak the same language as you. We spent hours each day in intensive language and culture training courses and spent our afternoons and evening adjusting to the Albanian lifestyle. Whether we did so successfully or not is beside the point. We sat at cafes, drank coffee and raki, and played dominoes.

Raki is the traditional alcohol of Albania. It is a hard liquor distilled from various fruits such as grapes, strawberries and plums. I had heard a little bit about it before coming to Albania and assumed it might taste something like plum wine in Japan. I was terribly mistaken. It takes like vodka or some other strong, clear hard liquor whose only flavor is alcohol. It is very strong and is usually sipped not taken as a shot. I don’t really enjoy casually sipping on glasses of hard liquor but it was cheap and it came with a glass of water. To me this meant it was cheaper to buy a shot of raki and get a glass of water than to pay for a bottle of water. And so the raki flowed.

Fast forward ten weeks of daily language class and hour long furgon (minibus) trips to Elbasan for technical training and we arrive at site placement day. The cities we would be moving to and living in for the next two years were presented to us in envelopes. Everyone was very nervous and excited. I was really looking forward to finally getting to my destination and being able to start. I opened up my envelope and saw “Berat” on the top of the page.

Berat was one of the only places in Albania that I had come to know in my two months of training. We had watched a communist era movie called “Tomka and his friends” in our culture class that was filmed in the old town of Berat. I knew some friends who had traveled there and had told people how much I really wanted to visit. I was so happy when I saw that this amazingly beautiful and historic city would be my home for the next two years. A few days later we were shipped off to our new sites. I arrived at my host families house and immediately felt more comfortable than I had all throughout training. The house was warm, inviting and spacious while my host family was shy and wanted to do everything they could to make me feel comfortable.

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Looking over Berat from the castle

Berat is a great city and I am so happy to be here and to explore and get to know it. It feels like a city but isn’t too big or overwhelming and has lots of history and culture that keeps it from being just a “city”. There is a lot of potential here and I cant wait to see what happens.

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View from the new bridge of the stacked windows of old town Berat

Overall I am very happy to be here in Albania so far and it has been a great adventure. Before coming here, all I had to compare it to was moving from Oregon to Japan. So I assumed that the first 6 months in Albania would be the most difficult, like they were for me in Japan. That hasn’t been the case so far which has been great but also makes me nervous that things could get bad later. But if everything continues to go as its been so far I think I will like it here very much.

I have so many stories to tell from my time here so far but those will have to wait for another post. Hopefully coming with a much shorter break from this one than with my one year break before this post.

Rainy Season

June in Japan means rain. The rainy season here is called 梅雨 (tsuyu) in Japanese and comes with a lot of mixed feelings for me every year.

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View from my school out over the rice fields and mountains

 

 

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Takeda castle hidden in most across the street from my apartment

On one hand, being from the Pacific Northwest I like some rain. Seeing the cloud covered hills reminds me of Oregon and gets me excited for summer for a visit. I like to remind my self of Portland around this time by being super cheesy and watching the Twilight movies. Not because I like them that much but because they were filmed around where I grew up so they remind of home. Watching the scenes of cloudy Oregon paired with the misty rain in the mountains in Japan is extra special.

On the other hand the rain here is hot and the humidity is torture for me. It’s currently about 75 degrees  Fahrenheit and the air is sticky. Everything is most and warm but in my mind looks like it should be cool and chilly outside. It’s hard for me to dress in this weather because back in Portland rain means a north face jacket, but wearing one in these temperatures is like trying to wear a garbage bag in a sauna. This feeling usually adds to my excitement to escape Japan’s humid summers for the dry heat or an Oregon August.

This being my last year however, means I won’t be returning to Japan to enjoy their beautiful fall. Instead of going home to visit for a few weeks I will be making a more permanent transition. The rainy season is a constant reminder that my time here is ending and I will have to say goodbye to so many amazing friends I have made in my time here, possibly forever.

These days, every now and then a wave of realization hits me that whatever I’m doing at that moment might be the last time I will be doing it. In the middle of class or going to the store I get overwhelmed by the feeling that the end is rushing towards me.

Once a year, the school that I work in with Japan hosts a group of middle school kids from Oregon. I get to tour guide them and translate for them their whole week of visiting Japan. I have unique position to show thus place that I love to a group of people from my home area. They left yesterday morning for Oregon, and while translating for them at the Farewell ceremony I almost lost it watching the American students teach a dance to my Japanese students. The itself is so corny and ridiculous but watching the kids enjoy their time together so much and realizing that this was the end of my experience working on this program hit my like bus in the face. I had to try to hard not to start creating infront if this room full of people.

Those little moments that the students got to experience for one week are like the moments I have been lucky enough to have for three years. It’s going to break my heart to leave but I’m so glad I was here and got to have so many great experiences and meet so many wonderful people.

So with the rainy season in full effect, I’m packing up my apartment and preparing to say goodbye.

 

Slacking

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Himeji Castle with cherry blossoms

Wow I really slacked off on keeping this blog up. After my initial decision to not renew my contract in January I ended up getting pretty busy. Not really from anything at my job but with the countdown to the end of my time in Japan was on the horizon, I started traveling and going to as many events as I could. I need to finish off as much as I can from my Japan bucket list before I leave. The hard thing about that is that the longer I live here, the more things I find to add to my list.

 

Since I last updated I have traveled to South Korea for spring break, explored some of my local sights during the hanami season, had a friend from America visit and took her around to Kyoto and Tokyo for a week. Aside from traveling, I helped plan several events in my area. I planned an overnight party at a huge cabin and a pub quiz. Basically I have been filling up every weekend alternating between doing something local with my friends from my town or traveling to some other destination. Last weekend I went swimming in a local waterfall/swimming hole and then went to a friends BBQ. This coming weekend I’m headed to Naoshima the Art Island to explore some famous art. Hopefully I can keep this blog updated a little more regularly, but for some reason it was starting to overwhelm me.

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Korean BBQ in Seoul

 

My time in Japan feels very close to the end now. I’ve started sending boxes of things from my apartment back to Oregon, and I have started to hit the wall of the “last” of things. For example I had my “last” english conversation class that I have been teaching for 3 years. There will be a lot more “last” moments coming up soon and its hard to look past those right now to what might be some more upcoming “first” moments.

Naked Festival

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Okayama prefecture to experience the Hadaka Matsuri (裸祭り) or “Naked Man Festival” as it is commonly referred to by foreigners.

The naked festival takes place at Saidaiji temple outside of Okayama city. It is one of the oldest festivals in Japan and one of its most eccentric. Roughly 9000 near naked men will pile into the temple grounds and battle for lucky sticks that are tossed into the crowd. If you catch one of these bundles of lucky sticks (called shingi) and make it out the temple with it, you will be lucky for a whole year.

Although this is called the naked festival, the men aren’t technically naked, but they are pretty damn close. They wear traditional Japanese undergarments called “fundoshi”. The fundoshi are kind of like a thong in the back and loin cloth in the front. I haven’t personally worn one but they look pretty uncomfortable.

This festival also takes place in the middle of February, so it is freezing outside. I was bundled up in a hat, big coat and gloves and I was cold. On top of being outside in your underwear  in the middle of winter, you are also having water tossed on you by priests or festival workers the whole time. The groups of naked men run around the streets near the temple for several hours before the actual lucky stick toss takes place. Since they will all probably be cold and naked a fair amount of drinking takes place, although your aren’t technically supposed to drink if you’re in the festival.

After the men have run around the streets outside the temple for a few hours, they go into the temple group by group and take a dip in a special pool. This is supposed to cleanse them while entering into the temple and also again looks very cold.

Group by group the men enter the temple and push and shove their way up the steep steps of the main temple. Here is a photo of the temple as the first groups of men are entering.

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They all try to get in the best position to catch the shingi and things can get a little violent during this time. This is also when it’s most exciting to watch because people will tumble down the huge steps. Here is a photo when the temple is almost to capacity of naked men all pushing and shoving their way to the best spot.

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Once it gets close to the shingi throwing time all the lights go out and the flashes of lights from the cameras make it look like a rave minus the music. Once the sticks are tossed they are caught very quickly and the whole things finishes in about ten minutes.

Overall it’s a great, unique festival that is totally worth standing outside in the cold for. If you’re ever in Okayama around late February I highly recommend this festival.

Hokkaido Food

One of the best parts of the Snow Festival, in my opinion, is the food. Hokkaido in general is a food paradise and is famous for a variety of great foods. Being a relativley large island that is much more sparsely populated than the rest of Japan, Hokkaido is used primairly for farmland. Most dairy products in Japan come from Hokkaido such as butter, milk and cheese. When I buy dairy products in Japan I almost always choose ones from Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is also famous for lamb, which is usually eaten in the “Mongolian” style. In Japan the stlye is called “ジンギスカン”(pronounced Jingis-kan) coming from the name of the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan. So you know its Mongolian right?

Here are some pictures of the food stalls around the main Snow Festival location in Sapporo. Signs featuring potatoes, crab, corn, and grilled meat on sticks are all over the place. Since Hokkaido is such a cold place, I find that the food is much more hearty than other traditional Japanese food, to the point if feels like North European food. Hefty meat and potato bowls covered in cheese fondue, sausage on sticks and grilled corn on the cob certainly don’t come to mind when I think of Japanese food, but it’s a different story in snowy Hokkaido.

 

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Hot spiced wine seems to be getting very popular. You could buy hot wine at almost any of the food stands at the festival, and some local bars also started selling it too.

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Hokkaido potatoes and crab legs

 

Hokkaido is also well known for potatoes and corn, so there is usually a lot of varities of the two available at the snow festival.

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Hot spiced wine and fried potato balls with cheese fondue sauce.

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Of couse, like most of Japan, Hokkaido is famous for seafood. Specifically Hokkaido is known for scallops, sea urchin, osyters, crab and other kinds of fresh seafood. Here is a a picture from one of the food stalls at the festival. This guy is grilling an assortment of scallops, sea urchin and osyters, cooked in butter and grilled in their shell.

 

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grilled scallop

 

Moving on from Sapporo to Otaru where I was staying. Otaru is very well known for freash seafood. One of my favorite Japanese dishes is “海鮮丼” (kaisendon). Literally means fresh bowl and its usually an assortment of fresh raw seafood on top of a bowl of rice. You top it off with wasabi and soy sauce and its perfect. I can’t remeber exactly what this one had in it but a general idea is raw shrimp, salmon, tuna, squid, salmon roe, crab, octopus and a few other things. They can get a little pricy in Otaru since this is one of their most famous foods but I think its worth it.

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In keeping with its hearty meat and potato image, Hokkaido is also famous for beer! Here is a Pilsner from a great german style brew pub in Otaru called “Otaru Beer”. This pub sits right on the canal so you can enjoy looking at the lit up snow lanterns while drinking some good beers and munching on some tasty german food.

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Otaru Pilsner

Hokkaido and Sapporo Snow Festival

So I’ve been a little busy since I got back from my trip to Hokkaido. Sorry it took me so long to get this post and pictures up.

I think I’m going to break this post up into two parts. One that is just about the snow festival and the other part being about Hokkaido food.

So here we go. Like I said in my in my earlier post its hard to explain exactly what goes on at the snow festival. Calling the giant ice and snow sculptues or staues never really does them justice. The main attraction snow sculptures are massive and are in the shape of buildings or giant size anime characters.

 

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Each year a different country is selected to build a statue representing their country. This is a Portugege influenced facade of a church from Macao. Made of snow!

 

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Probably one of the most popular sculptures this year was the massive “Attack on Titan” takes on Sapporo. If you dont know “Attack on Titan” ( 進撃の巨人 in Japanese), Its a super popular anime about human-eating giants who push mankind to the brink of extintion. Its a very graphic and bloody anime with lots of giants biting off people heads. So this year the scultpure depicts two of the giants destroying Sapporo landmarks.

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At night, all the scultputres are illuminated and they do some light shows on them. Here is the Attack on Titan sculpture at night. For scale all those little black lumps at the bottom are people heads. The statues look so good lit up at night. You can see a lot more detail on them with the brite lights.

Those big ones are part of the main attraction sculptures and each on gets in own park block. There are smaller scultpures done by local groups and companies on the other park blocks. Each year there is one sculpting event where different countries from around the world compete against each other to sculpt a snow statue in 24 hours to represent their countries. This year some of the countries included Macao, Singapore, Malaysia, Poland and The US among a few others. Since Sapporo is sister cities with Portland, Oregon in The US (my hometown) a team from Portland competes every year.

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Here is this year competition piece from Portland. So its a bunch of roses because we are called the city of roses.

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Finland had some bears.

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Then here was Macau making everyone else look bad with their Chinese dragon.

Also these pictures were taken the first night of the festival so the statues were only about half way through being finished.

So after my first day of exploring the main snow festival site in Sapporo, I took the train to the town I was staying in called Otaru. Otaru is a small port town on the coast about 30 minutes outside of Sapporo by train. Its a very quaint town with a lot of traditional style buildings that are very different from most of Japan. Since Hokkaido wasn’t really inhabited heavily until trade between Japan and the west started in the late 1800’s, many of Otaru’s buildings are from that time. Many of the ports and cargo buildings near the docks are very old and look like something from industrial revolution era England and not what you typically associate with Japan.

Otaru is famous for several things including fresh seafood like scallops and sea urchin, as well as hand-made glass goods, music boxes and high-end sweets.

 

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This is one of the famous high-end sweet shops in Otaru. I went in to buy some cakes from their as gifts for people but it was way too crowded so I left. I’m not willing to wait in long lines no matter how famous something is.

 

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At night Otaru has its own cute snow festival featuring thousands of snow lanterns. The snow and ice lanters illuminante a trail about 1 km down some old train tracks. Its pretty romantic so there are a lot of couples walking down the lit up pathway.

One of my favorite things about Otaru is the old canal. During their snow festival the path along the canal is lit up with more snow lanterns, as well as glass lights that float on the water of the canal. Its very beautiful  and one of the best parts of the snow festival.

 

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Pictures just dont do it justice. I have some other photos I took with my xlr but I haven’t uploaded them yet. I’m sure they look better than the ones from my phone but that’s all I have right now. You can see some of the old shipping warehouses on the left side of the canal. Now days many have been turned into restaurants. One of my favorite breweries in Japan called Otaru Beer is in one of those buildings.

I will add more photos about all the delicious Hokkaido food and my ski trip to Niseko soon.

 

 

Snow Festival

 

Time for another trip! One of my favorite things about living in Japan (and having a good paying job) is how easy it is to travel. Not only can I travel all over Japan relatively easily but I can also get to other Asian countries as well. Outside of Japan I have traveled to Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Cambodia. I am in the midst of planning my trip to South Korea in March, which will probably be my last international trip before I head back to America. But i have a lot more small trips within Japan I need to check off my list before I leave.

Tomorrow afternoon I’m flying to Sapporo city on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. This time of year a huge snow festival (yuki matsuri in Japanese) is held in Sapporo. Winter is my favorite season for several reasons such as snow, warm winter food and snowboarding. These three things are in abundance during the winter months in Hokkaido. This will be my second time going to the festival and I’m just as excited as the first time, possibly even more.

The main parts of the snow festival are the giant snow and ice sculptures the fill up the cities central park blocks. Simply calling them sculptures doesn’t really do them justice. Many of the main sculptures are building, people or characters. They are easily 20-30 meters tall if not bigger. There are smaller snow sculptures around the parks as well and some are made to compete and be judged against each other. My hometown Portland, Oregon is sister cities and usually has a sculpture at the festival, but it’s not one of the giant ones.

I will hopefully be able to post some pictures of the snow festival and of my day of snowboarding at Niseko.

Mountain Time

This weekend I helped host a ski and snowboard event in my area. I live in a region of northern Hyogo prefecture called Tajima. Every year we have an event where other foreign English teachers from the prefecture can come up to Tajima for a day of skiing at are local mountain. After that we have a bath at some local hot springs called onsen, then have a dinner and spend the night at a traditional Japanese Inn called a ryokan. The ryokan is very old and has beautiful architecture. Its style is very traditionally Japanese with lots of sliding paper doors and great wooden detailing. This is the second year we have stayed at this ryokan and the owners are so nice. This is a view out of the window from the Ryokan while it was snowing.

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In the morning we all had a traditional Japanese style breakfast. This one was very nice since we were at a ryokan but a geneal japanese breakfast will have usually some fish, rice, miso soup, various pickles like pickled plums (umeboshi) and pickled daikon, as well as tea. This one we had also included some other local vegetables like sweet black beans.

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The weather at the mountain was so amazing in the morning I couldnt believe it. I took this shot at the very top of the mountain while the weather was nice. I love how the Japanese mountains look in the snow.

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Because of El Nino this year the weather here as been very strange and we didnt have any snow at all until just a few days before the event. Then out of nowhere a huge cold front moved in and dropped we got a ton of snow in just a few days. So having the event at all let alone one that happened on a beautiful sunny day with tons of freash powder was amazing. But at around noon a big snow storm came in and the weather got ugly really fast so we didn’t do too much in the afternoon and went to seek shelter and dinner at the restaurant in town. According to the news there was 30 cm of snowfall in 24 hours for the area we were in! Overall it was another great year and I was so happy the timing worked out perfectly for great snow.

School Lunch

Well, I’ve already fallen behind on my goal of writing something every day. I’ve at least been taking pictures daily, but my internet at home is broken right now. Hopefully it will be fixed in the next day or two and I will be able to write posts daily. Until then I can only post using my work computer.

Today I wanted to post a picture of a typical lunch at a Japanese public school. I eat lunch with the same group of students every day and have eaten the school lunch since I came to Japan. It can be one of the biggest challenges for foreigners living in Japan to get through the school lunch. No matter how much you love Japanese food, your’e still eating a public school lunch, so the quality isn’t always like that at your favorite sushi restaurant. With that being said, I think Japanese school lunches are much healthier and better overall than school lunches in The US. I wasn’t even allowed to eat school lunch growing up in the states because the lunches were so unhealthy. Here in Japan, as a student you don’t have the option to just bring a lunch from home and not eat the school lunch. Every student and teacher is usually supposed to eat the school lunch and under very rare circumstances can people opt out of eating it. I have some other foreign English teacher friends here who are vegetarians and they have been able to opt out of the school lunch situation. But other than that there is a strong social code that you will eat the school lunch.

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Here is a picture of a pretty standard school lunch in Japan. Every day we get one carton of milk, one bowl of rice, one bowl of soup, a portion of salad, and a protein of some kind. The salads are mostly cold and vinegary steamed or pickled veggies. I like them for the most part but some people have trouble with them. The protein is usually some kind of fish or chicken, sometimes pork. The soups are often a basic veggie soup or miso soup with seaweed, tofu, pork, potatoes and carrots being the main ingredients.

In general I think they are very healthy, well balanced meals. Occasionally after a big test or something as a treat we get some fun desserts like “Age-Pan” (pronounced like awgay-pahn) which literally means fry bread. It’s basically a small loaf of white bread that had been lightly deep fried then covered in sugar. It is amazing.

Let me know if you have any questions about the school lunches and I can write more.

 

Contract

I put off sending in my signed contract for over a day. I texted and called friends and family and asked what I should do. The easier thing would be to stay here in Japan, but I finally decided to take the plunge and leave after finishing my third year. It was one of the hardest things I`ve have to do. Choosing to leave something that I had worked for and dreamed about for years and knowing that it will be coming to an end is very difficult. This post and this blog are helping me get my emootions and ideas out of my head so I can feel better about my decision.

I know there are other people in similar situations not only in Japan but all over the world. If you see this and you are someone who has left your home country for an extended period of time to live abroad and have returned home or are going to be returing, what things helped to make your decission and how have you readjusted to life back in your home country?

The thing that scares me most is how afraid I feel to go back home. Its worries me because when leaving home I wasn’t scared at all. Just excited and happy to be leaving and doing something new and different. Going home is far more terrifing than leaving ever was.

Hopefully my posts later will get more exciting and happy after these first few sad ones. Thank you for letting me get out my questions and ideas.

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I took this picture as I was drivng home from work yesterday afternoon. I know not very safe but I was sad and the sky was beautiful, and I momentraliy was in love with tiny K-truck in front of me. Its not the best picture but it captures the view of my daily commute. These are the things I will miss about living way out here in the countryside of Japan.