Certified Country Girl: Enjoying the Longest Golden Week in Japan

It’s one of the longest Golden Weeks I’ve had while staying here in Japan, and possibly the longest in the country, thanks to ascension of a new Emperor. I heard that some people are not happy about it, what with the lack of childcare and the reduced salary of some. But I’m not complaining.

It feels like the longest vacation I’ve had in years, and I’ve long been waiting for a real vacation. Even though I had high hopes for last year’s summer vacation, I ended up working almost everyday, coaching for the speech contest and participating in summer events. Winter vacation was no different as I had more than a dozen visitors.

But this time was different. I had my apartment all to myself and I almost had zero appointments, except for the occasional meeting with friends. I played tennis with friends on the first day of vacation.

Tried to play is probably more accurate. The wind was blowing so strongly that before long, we decided to quit. We decided to go to karaoke right then and there, and we didn’t regret it. I got to try singing some of the newest Japanese songs I’ve heard, as well as some English, Tagalog, and Korean favorites.

My friends enjoyed rocking to their kind of songs, most of them Japanese and I too thought it was interesting to learn what kind of music they appreciate. For a moment, I asked myself why I decided to schedule something the first day of vacation because normally when I have a chance to rest, my first priority is to get some alone time. This might sound weird to some but I’m an introvert after all (believe it or not!) and whenever I say I have to visit 21 preschools until the start of summer, they understand.

I’m in the countryside where people normally assume things are more laid-back but in my almost five years here, I never felt that way, except perhaps during my first summer here. But then, I ended up visiting a family friend and boredom was quickly replaced by new experiences and additional acquaintances.

Most of the people I know have some sort of plan for this Golden Week – a trip, a family outing, going back to their hometown, etc. I didn’t have one. I figured I didn’t want to expect a lot and add even more to the traffic on the road and to the crowd on the trains.

I didn’t go out for three days starting Sunday. I slept in, and organized papers and documents that I put off doing for the last few years. I didn’t realize it would be a lot of work. By the third day, I figured I should schedule something, anything that would require me to go outside the apartment.

That is why I found myself in one of my favorite hang outs – Dotonbori in Osaka. It seems I and my family never get tired of going there. A number of Americans have told me they don’t like it much because it seems to lack culture compared to Kyoto and other places. But for me, the hustle and bustle in this strip is somewhat comforting. It’s a tad different from where I live in the countryside and yet familiar because you can see different kinds of people, including Filipinos and Chinese, which reminds me of Manila.

It would probably be nicer to go there when it’s not a holiday, though there weren’t as many people as I expected. Still, after one hour in Osaka, I was raring to get home. I felt a sense of relief that I have a different place to go back to where there are fields nearby and there aren’t nearly as many people. I felt thankful that I can walk to work most days of the week and that getting to work and going back home isn’t like the battle it was like when I was staying in Manila. I guess I’m a country girl after all.

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Life Lessons from the Tamaru ES Staff Dinner Party

It’s been more than four years since our last dinner party and it struck me how many things can remain the same and at the same time how much can change.

This dinner party that has become tradition was started by our then Principal at Tamaru Elementary School. I saw it as his way to reach out to the people he works with and encourage bonding among teachers and staff both Japanese and foreign ones.

It was nice being invited and I felt excited about the possibility of gaining friends or at the very least, enjoying the food and chitchat. I remember how difficult it was to make friends in Ise on my first year. I suspect it might be the same for most areas in the Japanese countryside.

There seems to be a general rule in Japan to not talk to strangers. It seemed impossible to find a friend without first being introduced by another Japanese to one of his.

Our recent gathering in late January reminded me of how much my life has changed in Japan and how much my feelings about Ise and living in it has. From struggling to find an apartment to suffering during winters not knowing how to properly dress for it and to heat the apartment, I now think of this place as home and recognize that when I go back to my hometown in the Philippines, it would only be for a short time and pretty soon, I would be back to my daily work routine here in Ise.

Don’t get me wrong. I still feel cold and I still long for the warmth and friendliness and people and co-workers back home. I have just come to accept the way of life here and the general attitude of the Japanese people I interact with daily. They have a lot of good things going for them too, something that I have mentioned in previous posts and in other SNS outlets.

This dinner party brought back a lot of memories and it was like looking through your photo album over the years and updating it with the freshest one. Along with it came a lot of realizations about life, people, and work.

Here are some of them:

1. No matter how difficult or unfair your current situation is, focus on giving it your best and putting your best foot forward. You can never go wrong when you do good even if only bad things seem to be happening to you. You never know who’s watching. When you slack off work and try to get even when you seem to be taken advantage of, people will see that and what do you think they’ll think of you? You can never choose your situation but you can always choose how you respond to it.

2. In difficult times, we’re tempted to take drastic measures but there is a special blessing for people who can endure and wait for God’s timing. I’m reminded of this verse:

“For there is a right time and procedure for every purpose, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.” – Ecclesiastes 8:6

Some people take desperate measures to end their misery. Unfortunately, some wouldn’t have a chance to know what they’ve missed out on. Some people think that they don’t deserve to be in such a bad situation or they don’t deserve to be treated like that by someone.

My closest friends would know how much trouble and difficulty I’ve endured in my life here and even during my teenage years. It was normal to be tempted to take the easy way out and accept solutions that might cast a doubt on your integrity but when you know that nothing is secret to your Creator and He will repay each person according to what he has done, good or bad, you’ll be reminded to choose accordingly.

3. Circumstances change. Sometimes, it may seem like forever, esp. when you’re going through adversity. Sometimes, it could happen in an instant.

Many of the attendees of the gathering have been reassigned to new schools. Some of them now belong to a Board of Education (BOE) in a different town or city. Our then Principal, the mastermind of the gatherings is now the head of the BOE in the town where I used to work for. It was only upon asking him why he said he’s so busy nowadays (which was weird to me since he retired on my last year) that I found out.

Before coming to Japan, I also taught Business English, training Amazon and Microsoft customer service agents. I remember some fellow trainers and the supervisor saying they’ve had their share of crazy bosses but they outlasted each one. Again I’m reminded of the story of Mom’s acquaintance. She had an impossible boss but instead of wishing him evil, she prayed that he would be promoted and so he was. Gone was the crazy boss!

My point is, it’s human nature to dislike pain and avoid suffering. But when you recognize that while it may not be pleasant, it can lead to developing a stronger, more God-like character, you learn to wait until it has done its work on you.

4. One of life’s joys is enjoying the present and building good memories. Many of us have been trained by our parents and authorities to always strive for the next goal. While it’s important to keep on improving, as Michelle Obama writes on her autobiography, it’s also just as important to recognize that today is a gift and we can never get it back so we might as well enjoy it.

I must admit there were a lot of times in my teenage years and up until recently that I was too focused on paying off debts and all of those problems that I think need to be solved. If I could go back in time and talk to the younger me, I would advise her to lighten up and smell the flowers.

5. It’s a small world and don’t make it smaller. Sometimes we think that there’s not a chance we would see or meet a co-worker again so we don’t care much about the impression we leave. But the truth is, it’s hard to tell. Most industries are small enough so that people keep on getting reshuffled and moving somewhere else. It always helps to be seen as a person of integrity and not be left out of a job or a project because you’ve proven yourself unworthy before.

6. “Leave people better than you’ve found them.” Marvin J. Ashton said this. We don’t know what other people are going through. We only see how they treat us and unfortunately, when someone offends us or does something bad, it’s hard not to react negatively. But I think you’ll agree that everyone has his own pain and disappointments. Instead of adding to it, why not be the one to build them up?

It was humbling to come up with these realizations as I enjoyed good food with my former colleagues. I can only hope that God will give me the wisdom and fortitude to apply these lessons in my life.

Of Friends & Family in Ise

About a year ago, I was struggling to make friends here.  It didn’t help that I can hardly speak Japanese and that I lived in a condominium unit (which the Japanese call a mansion) with a friend.  Living in a condominium is good if you want to have some privacy.  It’s ideal for those who have their own families, or those who already have a big network in the area.

The view from the balcony of the condo unit where I used to live in.

However, if you’re a foreigner who’s hoping to make friends and connect with the community, living in a condominium can be counter-intuitive.  The way the units are constructed, you will rarely see your neighbor.  And even when you do, they’ll quickly disappear into the elevator, the stairs, or into their own units.  Rarely will they make an effort to talk about anything other than the weather.

During the first several months, I almost felt like Rapunzel, only without the wicked witch and the silken hair.  I felt like I was stuck in a tower and isolated from people.  I received letters from my mobile company and my bank, and I could understand none of them.  So it wasn’t quite surprising that I dreamed about moving to Tokyo or Osaka, where I already have good friends.


But all of that changed when I met someone who would become one of my closest friends in Ise and who’s like a mother and friend.  One thing that truly amazed me about her is how genuine and deep her concern is.  Ever since I met her, she became involved and concerned even about the smallest details in my life.  In spite of her busyness and crazy workload, she managed to accompany me in all three instances that I had my address changed in the span of a year.


I feel doubly blessed that I met another friend who took care of my basic needs like a loving mother would.  Thanks to this friend, I found my own apartment which I would have no way of finding on my own.

As orderly and efficient Japan is, it makes me feel sad how people have prioritized work or making money over relationships.  So it’s encouraging that there are some people who actually invest time regularly (at least once a week) and who is accessible during the most crucial times.

The Japanese work ethic is admirable.  But I wonder how they would feel if one day they wake up and realized that their kids hardly know them, or that they’ve let go of friendships for the sake of their career.  Will they think it’s worth it?

This is one question that played in my mind a few days after Mom arrived.  She’s been wanting to visit Japan for years and I also wanted her to come.  But at the back of the mind, I thought we still have lots of debts and obligations to settle so it might take years.  However, during my last few days at home last year, Mom fell ill.  We were in the local market in Baguio when she told me that she suddenly felt sick and could not walk.  If you know Mom, you’ll know that she’s not the time to exaggerate or complain about being sick.  She could be suffering from a terrible migraine but you wouldn’t know.  So this alarmed me.

That incident reminded me that life is short and that as much as we could, we should set our priorities straight.  From then on, I was determined to get her to come.

I wanted her to meet my second family here in Ise.  I think all of us wherever we go, we’re always looking for a place to call our home.  Often, it’s not about a physical place but it’s about the connection we make.  It’s about relationships – how we value certain people and how they value us.  And while my earnings mostly go to debt payments, I definitely feel rich here because of the friends I have.

Marching Ahead

Just 10 days ago, I celebrated my birthday. It’s nice to be home and to be with the family to celebrate your special day.

It’s been my practice to look back at the year that has passed (May 2014 to March 2015). Here are the highlights:

May

Enjoying Indian food with Phinez somewhere in Tokyo

Me and Phinez enjoying Indian food somewhere in Tokyo. Our trainer, Cedric, treated us to lunch.

June

Me and Satoko in a phone shop.

Satoko accompanied me to my schools and helped me get a phone. It has been very helpful for me as I was very poor at directions and also didn’t have enough Japanese to ask around.

July

The first time I had a car accident.

A picture of my car parked in the Sun Mansion Attrait Lot

My first car accident! An old man hit my car and tried to intimidate me.

I also had a chance to wear a yukata (it looks like a kimono but is worn during the summer and is much lighter and not as complicated to wear) for the first time

Wearing a yukata (traditional Japanese clothes for women during summer) is much less complicated than wearing a kimono

Wearing a yukata (traditional Japanese clothes for women during summer) is much less complicated than wearing a kimono

August

After a week of staying indoors, I got bored out of my wits. I was lucky enough to be invited by my friends in Kobe to spend the summer with them. I went to Minoh Waterfalls and enjoyed hiking.

They also brought me to Tokushima. I enjoyed the long drive and was able to stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for the first time.
Sitting near the TV in a ryokan

We visited a flower shop famous for its orchids. It reminded me of my grandmother who loves orchids and has been growing them for years in her own garden. I just had to take a picture of the flowers so I can show her.

In front of the flowers

Loved the flowers in this shop! They’re quite pricey, though.

September

After a few months of driving, I started having more confidence in exploring and driving to nearby places.
Wading in the water before exploring the wedded rocks

Posing in Meoto Iwa

Amused by the Gigantic Pillars in Meoto Iwa

October

I enjoyed watching the Peace concert organized by the International Community Center in Ise.

It was great to work with the volunteers and performers.Group picture in front of Misono Heart Plaza

November

The colorful leaves outside Tamaru's English room

Experienced autumn for the first time. Loved the colorful leaves

December

I started to feel I’m making progress in building relationships at work. One of the teachers I worked with invited me to her dance performance.

It was awesome to watch the (flamenco) dance performances. I was surprised that my co-teacher is an excellent dancer

It was awesome to watch the (flamenco) dance performances. I was surprised that my co-teacher is an excellent dancer

Starting to feel like one of them. I was greatly impressed by Kato-sensei's (the one holding the orange paper bag) performance

Starting to feel like one of them. I was greatly impressed by Kato-sensei’s performance

To add to my list of many firsts, I was able to drive to my friend’s house for more than two hours. I finally met her baby and her family members. It was good to be able to attend a church in Japan with my family in Shiga.

Me and my friend's family members in church

My confidence grew after being able to drive for more than two hours. I didn’t feel as lonely during winter break because of my friend and her family members

January

I thought I’d be spending New Year’s Eve at home so I was pleased when my friend Satoko invited me and another ALT to her house. I enjoyed eating crab claws and nabe. It definitely beat staying home.

Dan & I enjoying dinner at Satoko's house

Dan & I enjoyed spending New Year’s Eve with Satoko and her family.

We then went to Ise Shrine to welcome the new year. Imagine my surprise when I learned how Japanese people celebrate New Year. There were no fireworks, no gun shots, no noise. It was even quieter than most evenings and the whole affair seemed serene.

For some time, I’ve been dreaming about going to Nara. So it was like an answered prayer when my friend suddenly invited me to a JET event. I decided to drive since there will be two of us and it will be cheaper to drive than to take the train. It was perfect because I didn’t have much money and I also needed to practice driving.

Posing with Nara's Mascot. Isn't he cute?

Posing with Nara’s Mascot. Isn’t he cute?

February

For one month, I lived with a friend from Seattle. I’m blessed to have very helpful and generous friends. At the same time, I learned about the challenges of having to move very often.

When we get busy, we easily get distracted. But He's always there to remind us that He's in control and He cares deeply for us

March

I love this month!
The kindest principal I’ve met and some of my co-teachers in Tamaru organized a gathering before spring break. He even gave me some snacks to take home to my family.

With my two favorite Japanese teachers. They're the sweetest!

With my two favorite Japanese teachers. They’re the sweetest!

Blowing the candles

Who doesn’t love their birth month? It’s all the more special when you celebrate it with the ones you love.

Now, who’s afraid of getting old?

True Life

Last Saturday was a life-changing experience not only for my siblings and I, but also for the 13 other people from Bataan who joined the True Life Central Luzon retreat.  

It was a time for singles from Bataan, Pampanga, and Bulacan to get away from life’s busyness and think about what’s important in life.  There were fun games, singing, a lot of break out sessions, and special programs.  We learned about:

1. True Love

2. The True Colors of Sin

3. True Redeemer; and

4. True Change

I was surprised that I was chosen to share my life story for the last session.  It was such a privilege to talk about my journey and what I’ve been learning from happy and trying times.  I’ve received so much encouragement from friends and participants from different cities.

I realized how important it is to periodically drop everything.  Staying put and doing nothing might sound crazy, esp. for many of us who have so many responsibilities and tasks to carry out.  But trust me, it’s necessary for you to make sense of everything going around you and to see what is truly valuable.

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A few days after the retreat, I heard about the changes in the lives of the participants straight from their parents.  One became extra sweet and more appreciative of her parents, another one started to volunteer to do household chores, and the others became more inspired to work.

In those two days, I learned a lot about my group mates.  I was touched by their courage in sharing their struggles and their painful experiences.  But more than that, I was amazed at the mercy and grace of our Creator.  Only He can turn beauty into ashes, as evidenced by the transformed lives of the participants.

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Our siblings and I prayed for each one of the participants from Bataan.  We did our best in inviting friends and telling as many people as we can about this event.  But we know that only God can touch hearts and change lives.  He is in the process of working in the hearts of those who made a commitment to follow Him.  

Deep down, I’m excited.  There will be storms but it’s never an issue of how strong the storm is but Who is for you.

Bicol – A [Philippine] Province That’s Truly Magayon Part 1

– A guest post by Pia – 

“Magayon” is a dialect in a region south of Manila called Bicol which means “beautiful.”

More than two years ago, I had been fortunate enough to be asked to teach in Camarines Sur, one of the towns in Bicol. The region is roughly an eight-hour bus ride from Manila – of course one can always take the plane, but since I was sent there by a company, it’s pretty understandable that they took the more cost-effective way of sending me there.

I couldn’t complain. It was, after all, a free trip to Bicol.

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In my last article, I mentioned that I was born and raised and Manila – but Bicol holds a very special place in my heart. My favorite grandmother (she is my father’s mother) was from Bicol. She died when I was twelve years old, and never had I gotten the chance to visit the province she hailed from.

I didn’t think twice, and I immediately agreed to teach there for 10 days. In the place that I am freelancing in, English training usually happens for 10 days. This means the class is on weekdays, from Monday to Friday, with Saturday and Sunday being the days when we’re supposed to rest. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I was sent to Bicol on a Wednesday, I started teaching the following day, and because we were all in a hurry to make sure that the training would end the following week, I agreed to lengthen the training hours per day so that we can make up for the lost days. 

The sad part was I only had Sunday to go around the region – but it was a day that I tried my hardest to be as enjoyable as possible.

My grandmother's ancestral home

My grandmother’s ancestral home

Before Sunday came, I was decided that I would go to Camarines Sur’s neighboring province called “Albay.” It was an hour bus ride from the place that I was in, so I had to wake up at 4 in the morning to catch the bus. I chose this province because one of its municipalities, “Daraga” (which means “young lady”) was my grandmother’s hometown. Besides, the famous Mayon Volcano is in this province and that opportunity was too good to just ignore.

 

 

A Classic Filipino Ballad – Kahit Maputi Na Ang Buhok Ko

I stumbled upon this video of American singer-songwriter David DiMuzio and his Russian friend Anna Rabtsun. I thought it was interesting to hear a classic Filipino being sung by two foreigners.

I was amazed at how well David sang his part – no weird accent and he sounded great! Many comedians have and continue to mimic and make fun of how Americans and other nationalities speak Tagalog. So it’s certainly very impressive to hear an American speak or sing like a Filipino.

I love this song!