Thoughts on returning home

We’re home! It’s actually hard to believe that just a short time ago, we were going about our daily lives on another continent. Life here is so normal again that Japan hardly seems real – maybe it was just a strange dream. Our household goods shipment is going to arrive later today, though, so perhaps being reunited with our stuff will help to remind me of where I spent the past 9 months.

I almost didn’t get to leave Nagoya Airport. Oops. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, it wasn’t easy to leave Japan. Not just because of the friendships and fond memories that I wrote about in the previous post – I mean, it was literally challenging to leave the country. This is because I had some kind of a brain malfunction when I was packing, so I ended up with two knives in my carry-on. I of course would never be dumb enough to do something like that (right), so when the security scanner asked me about them, I swore I didn’t have any in my bag. Right until he produced them in front of my very eyes. This earned me an escorted trip out of the security area back to check-in… nothing makes you feel like a fugitive quite like having a personal security escort taking you out of line at the airport. Then, at the gate, Joe’s checked lighter earned us an additional meeting with the security personnel (it was eventually determined that he could carry it on the plane but not check it into the baggage compartment – no, it makes no sense to me, either). Finally, at our connection in South Korea, the scanner found squid jigs in a forgotten pocket of my backpack (for the uninitiated, these are intimidating little devices with very sharp hooks all the way around). I don’t know what you would use them for in an assault situation, but any squid on the airplane wouldn’t stand a chance. Needless to say, they have been donated to the security team at Incheon Airport. I hope they catch some good squid with them. I had never been “caught” with anything in any airport security line before, but here I had three strikes in one day. Maybe my subconscious really didn’t want to go after all.
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Full Circle

Home Sweet Hotel

It’s hard to believe that the end is in sight. Our belongings are being loaded onto a Seattle-bound boat and we’re in the much-maligned state of expat limbo: living in a hotel. I’m sure the maid wonders about our odd assortment of luggage, which is mostly souvenirs and fishing poles at this point. We’re in the same hotel that we started this whole adventure in back in December, so it’s a rather fitting way to neatly tie up this whole experience. I’ve had a lot of time for reflection this past week as I took up the role of professional appointment-sitter, waiting for movers and couriers and inspectors to make the rounds through our apartment. It’s fun to look back and see how far we’ve come in such a short time.
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Planes, trains, automobiles, and a voyage on the high seas

Being car-less for the past 8 months has forced us to be creative in selecting our modes of transportation to get around Japan. While trains and bikes are the go-to options for daily life, neither was very practical for a week in Hokkaido. The train system on the north island – particularly the east side – is relatively sparse and infrequent (though I feel silly for writing that, because Japan’s lousiest train system still puts Amtrak to shame). It worked out to be much more efficient to rent a car and to take advantage of frequent regional flights that operate between the handful of airports.
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Journey to the Great North, kind of

The island of Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is viewed much like the Alaska of Japan: a mountainous frontier populated with wild animals such as foxes and brown bear. In winter, Hokkaido transforms into a legendary winter wonderland when the cities host snow festivals and the northern coast along the Sea of Okhotsk develops sea ice. That’s right, I said sea ice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that Japan’s Great White North was at a mere 44 degrees North latitude, which puts this drift-ice-laden island south of Portland and even Rome. It’s not exactly the North Pole.

The other remarkable thing is that Hokkaido wasn’t developed by the Japanese government until the 1800s, though there was of course a native population and remote outposts long before then. This means that the island doesn’t have the 1,000+ year old temples and other historical sites typical of Japan’s other islands. Instead, Hokkaido has farms and cities that are modeled after western countries, due in part to American agricultural consultants that were hired during the formal development years.

All of this gives Hokkaido a flavor very unlike the rest of Japan – and we had to go see it.
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On friendship, the drugstore, and another weekend trip

I consider myself to be somewhat of a self-reliant introvert, a dangerous classification that manifests itself in a “just let me figure it out by myself” mentality. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in a foreign country; whether traveling or just taking care of business, it’s always preferable to work things out on my own. Ask for directions? No way, just give me a map! Ask someone else to take our picture? Nope, I’d rather devise an acrobatic/engineering feat of epic proportion to steady the camera and propel myself into the picture a split-second before the self-timer releases. I’ve got it, thanks.

This past week, though, I was reminded of just how great it is to rely on the help and expertise of others. This may not sound like rocket science to you, but believe me… it’s a real revelation to me.
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The fish market

Not long after moving here, I stumbled upon a gem tucked in some back alleys and warehouses near Nagoya Station. I’ve been around Seattle long enough to know what it means when you see men running around in rubber boots and carrying Styrofoam boxes full of ice: it must be a fish market. After a few days of walking past and trying to catch a glimpse inside, I finally worked up the courage to venture into the fray. Hanging around Pike Place Market in Seattle doesn’t prepare you for the utter chaos that is a high-volume wholesale fish market in Japan. Restaurant buyers are placing huge orders, men are carving tuna with 3-foot-long “knives”, and orders are being rushed to and from trucks on speeding carts.

Visits to this morning market have become a real treat for me over the past six months. I always make a point of taking visitors there, since it is such an “authentic” experience. I’ve grown from being too nervous to check it out to becoming a regular customer… I even have “my guy” that always gives me a discount on a small package of tuna from that day’s fish. I love it.

Today I visited the market with my camera in hand, hoping to capture some of the experience in order to share it with you. Warning: there are a lot of dead animals in the following blog post. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
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