Week 5: Tokyo Drifting

(Suica – your best friend for using public transit while in Japan. It will get you anywhere, no problem.)

I’ll give you three guesses where we went this weekend, and the first two don’t count! But before you put your answers in, I should apologize for the delay in my posting schedule. the last few weeks have been full pedal to the metal, and i’m only now getting a chance to proofread and publish these. So thank you for your patience! it is greatly appreciated!

Now, if you guessed that we wen’t to Tokyo this weekend… you’d be incorrect.

(I’m kidding of course. That’s exactly where we went)

And oh goodness gracious me, did we have an interesting time while we were there.

To begin, all the trains we took to get to and around the city had electronic monitors with scrolling news on them along with list of the stops the trains would take. Every single one had the same warning displayed on it every ten minutes or so: ”The police departments are all now on a high alert.” If you’ve been keeping up with current events, then you know why they’d be showing this. In all honesty seeing that as a foreigner in an unfamiliar country did make me nervous, But I put those nerves aside for the time being to focus on other more travel relevant matters.

Before we even got to our hotel the first night, we’d already been asked to go out drinking by two different strangers (which we declined as politely as possible). Thankfully this did not set the tone for the rest of our trip, but that’s not to say that our visit was uneventful.

Beginning with our visit to the Pokemon center to getting stranded in Akihabara to seeing dogs in sunglasses in a cafe in Harajuku, we had no shortage of adventures while in the city. For educational purposes, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the most useful things we learned while in Tokyo for anyone planning to visit.

1.) Download Suica to your phone

I kid you not, this is a lifesaver. Suica is essentially a digital public transport pass that runs via your phone. Simply load a couple thousand yen onto it – or however much you think you’ll need for your journey, and scan your phone at any train station or bus stop to board. Your phone doesn’t need to be unlocked, it picks it up the same way it would if you were to pay with Apple Wallet or the Android equivalent.

2.) Use Apple Maps or Google Maps to figure out what trains to take

The Tokyo public transit system is incredibly complicated if you don’t know what to look for or how to read the signs. Map apps can act as a sort of cheat sheet to figure out how to navigate the stations. More often than not, entering your destination in and hitting transit route will also give you instructions for which exit to take when you disembark (a very important detail, as the wrong exit could spit you out somewhere completely different), platform numbers, line colors and symbols, and anything else someone well-versed in the transit system would already know. And another tip: If you’re trying to pull up directions but your phone can’t pinpoint where you are in the city, don’t chart a route from ”my location”. Instead, look for any convenience stores, restaurants, shops or establishments that you recognize and set your directions with that as your starting point. You are much less likely to get lost this way.

3.) Stay to the left side of the sidewalk

Sidewalks and streets here are reversed from the point of view of someone coming from America. Stay to the left hand side to be polite, and always keep an eye out for cyclists. They usually do a good job of minding pedestrians, but always check your surroundings just to be safe. Additionally, the stairs and hallways of many train stations will often have arrows and labels along the floor to indicate which way you should walk, depending on the line or platform you’re heading to. Follow these guides as best you can to avoid confusion, even if they may seem contradictory to the ”stay to the left” rule. They are there for a reason!

4.) Tokyo is very pedestrian friendly, but be conscious of the time

Always check when the trains and buses stop running in the part of the city you plan to go to. If you don’t, you could end up stuck an hour’s walking distance away from your hotel, like we did (Don’t be like us). And while our situation may not have been ideal, this does bring up a good point; Compared to the infrastructure of many American cities, Tokyo is very pedestrian and cyclist friendly. So if you can stand the heat, walking is always an option.

And that’s about it for any useful tidbits I have left to share. But, be aware that we only spent three days there at most, and our observations of the city are definitely not comparable to those with more experience. So remember to do your research! And if you need help there, most people are very friendly and willing to help you out. Just remember to be kind, courteous, conscious and use common sense, and you’ll do just fine.

Week 4: Dirty Paws

(あつい – Translation: Hot. A word that, when combined with the correct descriptors, can begin to capture the blistering heat that is 1,230°c)

Everyone seems to dislike mud on a very personal level. But for me, I don’t see what all the hate is about. Is it dirty? Yes. But so is almost anything else you touch, the only difference is that mud is liquid and can get into more places. Hence why cars get stuck in it. And maybe this is just a “me” thing, but pushing a stuck car out of the mud, in the dark, in the rain, on a mountain, is actually pretty fun once you get into it.

So no, this is not my over-dramatic Anakin Skywalker monologue about how much I hate mud. I actually like it quite a lot – otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten a summer job that involved working in it all the time. But here’s the thing; The Anagama kiln is surrounded by mud. I don’t mean this as hyperbole, I’m completely serious. Save for a few patches of grass, it’s all wet soil up there. And for as much as I appreciate mud, even I have my limits.

It’s not so bad at first, when all you’re handling is fire wood and the occasional lawn chair or bag of snacks. But as the night drags on, the cicadas insist on being as loud as insect-aly possible, and the lack of anything to do truly sets in, that’s when it becomes… a little less pleasant.

Each shift to monitor the kiln last six hours, from 12 to 6, or the other way around. We must keep tabs on it at all times during the firing, lest something go wrong. The kiln is constantly changing, and any deviation in temperature that isn’t within our predicted range can mess up everything in there. During the first few days, it’s slow. Very slow. Almost painfully so. And during the night shifts, it’s even worse. The comfort that company provides is small when you tame into consideration that everyone there is tired, bored, hungry, and staring at the clock willing it to go faster. Siting still the entire time is also not an option if you want to stay healthy, so one has to get up and walk around the area at least a few times to regain proper circulation and keep themself alert and awake.

This is where the mud comes in.

The mountain is dark. the lightbulb and campfire in front of the kiln is the only real source of light around, and since there is no ambient light due to tree cover, it is pitch black.

So slipping in a patch of mud and falling on your behind is bound to happen eventually.

That aside, once mud dries it’s very easy to remove from clothing. You just shake it out and it comes off easy (my boots still need some work, but we’re getting there).

But the best part of working a might shift at the kiln, in the mud, with the bugs and the trees, is seeing the sunrise. The sun rises early here. Very early, but that’s a good thing for us, because then we have something to watch instead of the kiln. And what a sight it is. Rising over the trees, painting the forest in shades of deep blue, then pink, and finally cresting over the horizon and burning away the lingering mist and dew that clings to the fauna around you, bringing with it the promise of another scorcher that afternoon…

There’s nothing quite like it.

(Well, I take that back. The nap you get to take when you finally get home that morning is pretty spectacular).

Special Post, Week 3.5: Wisdom

I’m almost at the halfway point for my internship, so that makes this blog post a special one! It also means that it’s time for me to talk about an important topic regarding my time here, but that I have put off in favor of recounting happier stories – who wants to read a blog post that isn’t fun? Regardless, I’ve been giving some serious thought as to how I want to approach this, but given the state of events back home (and here for that matter), beating around the bush seems counterproductive.

So, with that being said, our topic for today is mental health, and our post begins with a confession: I have depression!

Major Depressive Disorder to be specific. I was diagnosed when I was in grade school and have struggled with it for most of my life. I’ve had to work on myself a lot to be able to talk about it this freely, but in times like these (you know… “unprecedented” ones) I feel it is unfair to both my readers and myself if I don’t talk about it.

This week in particular has felt rather slow now that the workshops are mostly finished, which means I’ve had more time to myself to spend worrying over pointless things – an incredibly exciting hobby, I know. With our exhibition flyer finished and most of our pots made, the artists decided to take a trip to Tokyo for a couple days this week, leaving me and Luisa by ourselves for a period of time. We’d worked hard over the course of the last few weeks, we’d earned the time off. But my brain decided to use my time off for other reasons, and instead of biking around town or trying different shops or restaurants, I stayed in my room nursing a nasty anxiety induced stomachache for the majority of the day. This is not an uncommon occurrence for me, but I’d hoped I’d have the energy to push through it regardless.

One of the biggest things I’ve focused on since getting here was appearing “professional.” I wanted my internship supervisor and the other artists to see me as capable and reliable despite turning 21 not four months ago. I am one of the youngest here, and I want to prove that I can do what needs to be done with a degree of efficiency and quality that will prove I am just as much of an adult as the rest of the people here. That means forcibly putting my mental illness to the side, or “masking” my symptoms as others call it.

And that is hard.

When I keep this up for too long it will eventually let itself out like it did when everybody left for their trip, and I will deal with the repressed symptoms by myself where it won’t inconvenience anyone else.

But here’s the kicker: Despite how hard I work to mask my symptoms, I’m never going to be perfect. Things will slip out every now and then and trip me up, but it’s hard to determine if my shortcomings are due to lack of experience, or my own brain trying to sabotage me. What’s worse is that I often times forget that I have a brain that actively tries to sabotage me, leaving me frustrated, disappointed, and confused as to why I feel as though I’m falling behind. Combine all that with the current state of events around the world and back in my home country and it’s impossible to tell what’s what. “Am I reacting normally to very bad news, or is my mental illness creeping up on me again?” Answer: I don’t know! And that’s the most frustrating feeling in the world.

But the biggest struggle I’ve had with this has been convincing myself that it’s normal. Correction: my normal. Mental illness is tricky to treat, and mine has been no exception. “Expect something to go wrong, and when it inevitably does, you won’t be caught off guard.” I admit, I’m tired of my “normal” being dealing with the inevitable things going wrong all the time, but that’s as much a part of me as any other characteristic I have. Even if it were possible to, I couldn’t remove it without fundamentally changing who I am. I can only work around it, and do my best. And sometimes my best is pretty flipping good when I have the right tools.

So this is my confession. I haven’t talked to the other artists or my supervisor about this since it’s still rather personal, but the added layer of security that a screen gives me is enough that I feel content to post this here, where others can see it and understand. I have depression. It is an unchangeable fact about who I am, and it can and does change how I interact with this internship. It makes my life a bit harder and a lot more frustrating than others, and by admitting that out loud I am helping myself to reconcile with that fact. I have depression, and that is okay! My hope is that other students will see this too and not talk themselves out of pursuing their goals due to fear of self-sabotage. I’ve waited years to get a chance like this, and while my mental illness is a factor in how I operate, it doesn’t have to be a hindrance.

And if anything, it’ll give me one hell of a perspective to write from for my next post!

Week 3: If Only

(袋にお入れしますか?Translation: Would you like your items in a bag? This is usually a phrase you’ll hear at convenience stores or grocery stores since they charge extra for plastic bags in order to eliminate waste. It may be hard to catch for newbies – like myself – since the clerks wear masks and speak quicker than I can understand, so just do your best and be polite)

Being allergic to mosquito bites sucks. Being allergic to mosquito bites in Japan? Forget about ever knowing a day’s peace again. The bugs here are no joke, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many centipedes in my entire time living in the U.S. than I have within three weeks here (they’re terrifying, and they bite, so leave them alone). Alas, they are an inevitable occurrence that one must face if you want to go anywhere in town past 5pm.

We started firing the kiln yesterday. The small kerosene one out back, not the wood-fire Anagama. The initial bisque fire shouldn’t have very long, but as the temperature rises, we have to go and check the gauges to be sure that it’s not heating up too fast or too slow. This means that every hour, usually around the twenty minute mark, someone has to go out back to the shed and record the temperature difference and make sure everything looks to be in working order. This means staying up late – a skill I used to pride myself in having mastered, but has since disappeared while living at the residency. I have become, to my abject horror, a morning person.

(Even writing it out gives me chills.)

But with the kiln now firing, I have to work with the rest of the artists in staying or getting up in the middle of the night to check on the progress of the kiln. Because the sun seems to rise and set so early here, my sense of time has been thrown off in a way that has nothing to do with jet lag. So going to the 7/11 down the street to grab dinner past 7:30pm or later means walking in darkness, as if it were already well into the wee hours of the night.

A small part of me wonders if the employees at the 7/11 remember us now, and what they think of us if they do. I can’t imagine the awkward American with brightly dyed hair and an undercut not drawing attention, but considering that the majority of my interactions with the staff include awkwardly charades-ing my way through understanding that they’re asking if I want my food in a bag and then thanking them profusely for fear of any inconvenience I might have caused, I hope the general consensus is that “they tried their best.”

I found myself getting into a routine though. And then, within the last few days, breaking it. I’d wake up early enough that I could shower and get ready uninterrupted before going to the convenience store by the time the sun was fully up and getting myself breakfast. Now, I’ve found that the majority of the artists here don’t turn in nearly as early as I do, so I’ve changed my routine to picking up breakfast the night before in order to hang out in the common areas a little later. There is a significant age gap between some of us, meaning that our interests seldom align – but I still don’t want to seem rude. Everyone here is so friendly and easy-going, I don’t want be the ball of stress someone trips over.

Let’s be honest, “Stressing about not being stressed” is completely on brand for me.

The biggest help thus far seems to be the schedule I’ve given myself. Even though Luisa and I are technically here as artists too, we’re still interns, and that means office work. I can do that, and I can do that well, so when I’m not sure where I fit in amongst the occupants the household, I put myself back into my work. Archiving, data organization, designing posters, spellchecking, and translating. And yes, I fully recognize that feeling like I fit in only when I’m being “useful” isn’t healthy, but I like being useful. I like knowing what I’m good at and doing that to make other people’s jobs easier. Doesn’t matter that I’m barely an adult and still in school; I like helping!

Just so long as I remember to help myself too, I’m happy with that.

Week 2 – Heat Waves

(すみません、写真を撮ってもいいですか?Translation – May I please take your photo? Use this phrase when taking pictures anywhere that might include locals or other people. More often than not, you will get an enthusiastic “yes!” In return, and they will allow you to take their photo)

Japan in the summer is hot: full stop. There is no real way around this fact, and unless you live in or nearby a building with regular A/C, you’re on your own with how you cope with the temperature. I’m still teaching myself how to translate from Fahrenheit to Celsius so I can understand what the other artists here are referring to in terms of temperature, but both are just numerical ways to say that it feels like you’re melting into the floor on a daily basis. We have fans placed all around the house to help with the heat, but after a certain temperature they just push warm air around and do little to actually cool down the house itself. As a result, work has been slow. As in actually slow to complete due to not wanting to exert ourselves more than is required – baking into your laptop keyboard is not conducive to productivity – but the inevitability of running the workshop we hosted this Sunday meant that we had to go out and get things done ourselves lest we be behind schedule.

The ceramics workshop is our first step in the Anagama kiln firing project we are assisting with during our internship. The workshop allows for locals to come in and sculpt a small piece with some clay for a price of ¥3000 per person. We ran it for about six hours on Sunday, from 9AM to 3PM. And the warehouse that we hosted the workshop in? You guessed it – No air conditioning. It isn’t hard to tell from the photos we took during the first four hours, but aside from the requests for cold tea and the towels around people’s necks, the participants seemed like they couldn’t care less. The entire time we were there, the room was filled with friendly chatter, laughter, the sounds of wet clay being molded into balls for distributing, childish squeals and cheers of excitement, and the clicking of camera shutters to preserve the moments happening there.

The turnout was larger than we expected, especially during the morning hours. By the time my partner and I arrived, the building was already full, and there were guests waiting by the check-in desk for spots to open up so they could participate. It was a very encouraging sight to see after all the prep we put into making sure the workshop ran smoothly. And run it did – there were people coming and going constantly for the first three hours we were there!

And then the rain started.

Right now, there’s a typhoon forming to the southwest of us – plenty far away for us to be out of danger, but the bands of rain coming off of it are forecasted to hit us intermittently for the next three days until the storm itself arrives on the sixth of July. By that time, the surrounding mountains will have likely taken most of the wind out of its sails, leaving us relatively unscathed. But don’t be fooled, dear readers: These thunderstorms still pack a punch.

We had to pull the large wooden doors to the warehouse shut after we realized that the wind was blowing sheets of rain right into the work area and putting the guests and the clay at risk of being drenched. Without the reprieve of the breeze from outside and the fields for the younger kids to run around in, we were left with not much else to do but occupy toddlers and take photos. So we got to work.

The workshop was hot, sweaty, full of residual clay and muggy from the rain. Add that to the myriad of children running around and lack of any true respite from the heat, and you’d have a day that most would consider to be unpleasant enough to avoid. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Besides – where else are you going to get smiles like those?

Week 1 – Cash Only

(カードでいいですか? – Translation: Can I pay with card here? Always ask this before buying anything if you’re not sure what payment type is accepted. In small towns, it’s safer to assume that it’s always cash only).

The current exchange rate from U.S. dollars to Japanese yen is 135.21, so grocery shopping here has been a delight compared to back home. The labels are tough to understand, yes, and many products I’d expect to see on the shelves are not commonly found here. But that aside, grocery stores are still grocery stores, and even a small sense of familiarity in a place where everything is all so different is far more reassuring than I thought it’d be (I may not know all the different types of produce yet, but I know peanut butter!).

I do plan on cooking for the group eventually, once I know everyone’s food preferences, allergies, and where I can find everything. My mom has been a great help in that regard, responding to my less-than-timely messages with the recipes she makes back home and then some. I don’t fancy myself an awesome cook, but I used to bake for my residents every Wednesday night back at the dorms. To be fair, cookies are quite different from gyoza. But even then I challenged myself to try new recipes every week with different ingredients, and anything is easier than cooking in a dorm kitchenette.

On our days off however, we try to explore the surrounding area and find other places to eat. It’s a small town, but there is no shortage of restaurants. Additionally, the house has a book containing all the menus (with translations) of the places in town. Our first outing- while still charged with nervous energy at making a good impression -took us to a small restaurant that had possibly the best torisosu katsudon (fried chicken cutlets over rice) I have or will ever try.

(This, my dear readers, is where the title of the post becomes relevant)

We were fortunate enough to find an ATM just next door to the restaurant and saved ourselves from any extra stress. Still, I do not recommend scrambling to get cash before you pay for your food. It’s not worth the anxiety, nor is it worth the fear of disappointment. But let this be a lesson, both to my readers and to my future self; Expect that something will go wrong, and when it does, you won’t be caught off guard. Take stock of your surroundings. What do you have with you/on your person? Who is with you? And what can you do with those things combined?

Nine times out of ten you’ll find what you need to get yourself through any predicament you may be in, whether that’s getting train tickets, directions, or, in our case, cash. You can thank my mom for that bit of advice, by the way. It’s come in handy more than once, and thus far, it has yet to let me down. Panicking is never your friend, and more often than not, the solution you need is easier to find than you think- you just need a clear head to find it

Winner winner chicken dinner.

Preface 01: The Garden

I have just under twenty three days left until I depart for my internship. Twenty three days into which my family has packed as many doctors appointments, get-togethers, work hours, weekend outings and schedule-able emergencies as humanly possible. Surprisingly, I seem to be the least nervous about my situation within our household. I’ve been biding my time with podcast episodes, planting flowers and trimming the grass in the formal gardens of my old high school in preparation for their graduation ceremony – which took place today.

It was strange to watch as it took place, if I’m being perfectly honest. I’ve only ever experienced it via participating, when I walked down that same neatly trimmed grass walkway three years ago in ill fitting wedge sandals and a white romper to receive my diploma. And for the first time since that ceremony three years ago, I watched another class graduate – albeit from a safe distance with the rest of the grounds and maintenance crew (we put a lot of hard work into making that ceremony possible, we certainly weren’t going to miss it).

As I suspected, many things were the same; The orange rose corsages and boutonnieres, the student orchestra making their best attempt at pomp and circumstance as names were called out, and the shrill sound of bagpipes to announce the arrival of the senior class in the gardens. I watched as every student waited the allotted time to begin their procession so as not to walk faster than the one in front of them, and then I watched as they took their seats and tried to stay still for the hour and a half ceremony that was just about to begin. Then, my father stepped up to the podium to begin his commencement speech, and I stopped watching in favor of listening.

The commencement speech is a source of unparalleled stress for my father. Every year, around this same time, he grinds away at his laptop through the evening, often times coming to dinner later than usual or with a little more prompting from my brother and I. Afterwards, we offer to listen to him read it to quell his worries of making some mistake he’s certain will happen when he addresses the graduating class. There never are any, it’s a wonderful speech, and we tell him this every year.

(I often feel like he doesn’t really believe that).

Yet when I heard him give his speech this afternoon – despite knowing and remembering almost every word he read to us from it last night – I was struck with an odd sense of finality. Not in a negative way, but in the way that you feel when you finally close the cover of a book, or put the lid back onto a box full of freshly separated puzzle pieces. Despite my love for my job, my crazy family, and my wonderful dog, I’d finally accepted that I would be entirely cut off from them for six weeks. And that was okay. Was it scary to think about? Of course it was. But for the first time since I got home, I truly felt like I was starting to get ready for the next phase.

I have just under twenty three days left until I depart for my internship. In that time I still have questions that need answering and anxieties that need soothing. But I am ready, and I’m excited to see how this will change me.

Hello world!

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