Friday, July 24, 2015

Being an ALT in the Classroom

July is an exciting time of year in the JET world. We're saying goodbye to old friends, and getting ready to welcome new ones in the coming weeks.

Nestled in among all the excitement and vigor are the usual fears of starting a new life and job, chief among them just how the actual job will go. As most JETs will hear ad nauseum, every situation is different, but here I'd like to describe how a typical class goes for most ALTs working with the Sunshine curriculum as of spring 2015.

Physical Space:

Let's start with the space you'll be working in. Here's a typical Japanese-style classroom:


You'll spend most of your time in the lower third of the space, but feel free to walk around the room during free activity, tests, projects, etc. Teachers will usually stand on the right of the chalkboard (facing the students) with you on the left. 

DON'T feel like you have to stay in your little corner of the room though. It is team-teaching after all! Try to stay just left of center as much as possible unless the JTE needs the room to write or your students are trying to copy things down.

Always be aware of your JTE's movements. Some will write only a few key points, but some (especially third-year) will fill the entire chalkboard with text. Often, you'll find yourself moving farther and farther to the left as the period progresses. Sometimes they will need to reach for a piece of chalk right behind you or demonstrate a key point with actions. Depending on the classroom, it can feel a bit cramped so it's important to be constantly aware of where you both are and where you're moving.

If you get there before the period starts, chances are you students will be bustling around handing back assignment and tests and preparing the blackboard for class. Considering they will be wandering around and going back and forth to and from the front desks and the blackboard, it's best to stay out of their way until they've finished (or offer to help!).

A Typical English Class:

-Greetings- Japanese classes always begin with a declaration of the beginning of the class. In other classes, the students call everyone to attention (the students will stand) and declare the beginning of class after which the teacher will start the day's lesson. Your English greeting may follow this mold exactly or be entirely different depending on your JTE. My JTEs simply initiate it with a "Good afternoon, everyone!" to which the students reply, "Good morning Ms. [   ] and Ms. Tierra!". My schools also like to ask them, "How are you?" after which they reply "I'm [fine]! And you?". After you and your JTE reply, they will be asked to sit and then the lesson will begin.

-Day, Date, and Weather- these will always be on the board in some form and the lower years will usually have you ask the students before writing them on the board.

-Today's target- the JTE will go over the day's topic and possibly the agenda for the day's lesson.

-Warm-up- Many JTEs will start with a small game to get their brains on track. These can take many forms such as Hangman (using a different object since the hangman is bad juju here in Japan), telephone, bingo, etc.

-Any short tests/quizzes

-Main lesson- again, your JTEs may very loosely follow the textbook, but at the very basic level will consist of two main parts: learning the grammar point and vocab, and reading a brief passage. Some JTEs can stretch everything to cover two days while some may rush through both parts in one class. Needless to say, if you have any control over lesson planning, the longer they can study each grammar point and practice the vocab in a variety of contexts, the better.

Let's take a look at an actual page out of the first-year textbook:

  • Basic Dialogue
As you can see, first we start with a basic dialogue passage. This serves as a model of the grammar point in the lesson. Some JTEs will simply read it with you to the class while some will come up with their own version or get really creative with it. After the model reading, JTE will translate the meaning onto the blackboard and explain the grammar. Then the students will repeat after you and the JTE for practice.

  • Vocabulary practice
Students have a special notebook that corresponds to the Sunshine curriculum with pre-drawn tables to write down each vocab word and its meaning in Japanese. The words appear in the textbook activities and the reading passage on the next page. Games can be used to reinforce memory.
  • Practice Activities
After basic dialogue practice, you'll usually do some sort of activity to reinforce the grammar and practice communication. There are three sections underneath the basic dialogue: listening, speaking, and "let's try!". Many JTEs like doing the listening section because it is good ear training. The other two activities can be a bit on the boring side, so it's a good opportunity to come up with something fun and interesting.

***This should conclude day one of the section**

  • Reading the Passage
Hopefully in the next lesson, you'll get to reading the main passage on the right-hand page. If there is no dialogue, the JTE should have you read the entire passage (unfortunately, some may use the CD even while you are there). If there is dialogue, they'll split the roles between you. Again, the JTE will go over the meaning of the passage and point out where the key grammar point appears. After that is more reading practice.

Good JTEs will have a more engaging way to practice the reading For example, the students can do a reading relay race with their rows where the front pair will stand and read the passage and then the next will start when the front is finished and sits down. Or you can go around the room having each of them read a sentence and time how fast it takes them to get to the last student.

Supplemental Activities

In the back of each Program are extra activities to enforce and expand on what they learned. These take the form of Speaking where the book presents a common situation and corresponding dialogue such as shopping or asking for directions, Writing such as writing a diary entry or self-introduction, or Listening where students listen to a passage such as a commercial, public announcement or some other common dialogue and answer comprehension questions, or a My Project where students may take two or three lessons to complete and perform a more presentation-oriented project. Chapters may have a special activity or reading unique to that chapter as well.

In all of the supplemental materials, students should be encouraged to produce their own original work and make it relevant to themselves.

Corresponding Materials

The Sunshine and Hi Friends! (elementary school) curriculum come a plethora of visual aides and other materials such as flashcards, the aforementioned notebooks, and huge picture cards to go along with all the chapters. These can usually be found in your school's 準備室 ("junbi-shitsu") or prep room where all school materials are stored.

Making it Work for You

There are many viewpoints on the English curricula in Japan, mostly negative. While many aspects of the textbooks can seem outdated (even though the Sunshine series was last published in 2012!), have questionable phrases and grammar, and straight-up spelling and pronunciation errors (it's tur-"bine", not tur"bin"!), you can still work with the material and use whatever you deem useful and make things up in places where the book just isn't up to snuff.

Also keep in mind that these books were designed to correspond with Japanese standardized tests and entrance exams. If it seems like the book or your JTE is teaching some strange phrase that no one uses, check the tests your students take; chances are it's on there. For example, I saw on one test that one of the correct answers was "make a trip". Thankfully, my JTEs are nice and will give them a point if the student actually wrote something that makes sense ("take" a trip).

It Is What it Is

Japan's unrelenting exam system has been the subject of controversy for a long time now. As Japan continues to revise it's English curriculum, it's going to have to come to terms with the fact that language-learning less about testing and more about the organic flow of communication. This isn't just an English problem either; pretty much every foreign language is taught with this same paradigm and students can ace every test and still have no communication skill.

Until Japan comes up with a system that can teach students to actually communicate in a foreign language and work around the test system or throw out the exams altogether, we're stuck with a typical culturally Japanese phrase: しょうがない("shou ga nai") or "there's nothing to be done" or in a broader sense, "That's just the way things are." This a concept that can be very frustrating for foreigners, but it's a way of coping with things beyond your control.

A mere ALT in a sea of Japanese beauracracy isn't going to change the way things work. In my mind, ALTs are here not to "teach English", but to facilitate an atmosphere of interest in foreign cultures and a broader world-view in not only your students and teachers, but your community as a whole. Your mere presence is enough of a spark to ignite that interest. Use that to your advantage, and you'll be able to create an enjoyable learning atmosphere for your students.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ten unexpected things about living in Japan

I remember the first time I looked out the plane window thousands of feet in the air and saw the graceful curves of Hokkaido's Eastern coastline. The sense of awe I felt reminds me of a dream I once had of floating in space gazing at the Earth's surface from above. Looking at the world we inhabit from a different perspective both literally and metaphorically is a mind-shifting view.

Fast-forward to a few days later, and I'm standing in a supermarket with no idea what to do with my recent purchases without any bags to put them in. The next day, I'm staring at a Japanese ATM wondering how the hell I'm supposed to get cash out of it.

After the so-called "honeymoon period"in a foreign country, life comes crashing back and it hits you unawares like a ton of bricks, and there are always plenty of things to trip you up no matter how much preparation you did beforehand. You will end up asking yourself, "How do you work this thing?" so many times, you just might grow a beard and start singing folksy songs about earth sandwiches with a video blogger who has a disturbing fondness for little duckies.

Welcome to your new life.

In a futile attempt to prepare future expats for the strange situations they will inevitable find themselves in, I would like to now share the top ten most unexpected things I wish they would have told me about Japan before I came here.

10. Furniture

It stands to reason that what people find comfortable will differ between cultures, but it's not something you really think about until you sit/lay down on a piece of furniture and realize from experience what the standard is.

A couple months before I moved here, I had a pleasant Skype chat with my predecessor. From the camera angle, I could see that I was going to inherit a blue leather couch. "Alright," I thought, "Not too fond of leather, but I can deal with that." It also turned out that my pred had replaced her futon (the thin mattress on the floor kind, not the thing graduates insist on sleeping on because they refuse to let go of college) with a western-style bed. "Great!", I thought, "I didn't want to sleep on the floor anyway."

A month later, I was checking out the place in person for the first time and was pretty happy with everything. Then I sat on the couch. The first thing you will learn is how damn LOW Japanese furniture is. People with questionable knees will not enjoy getting up from or sitting down on these things. In fact, my husband who is currently suffering from osteoarthritis usually says to hell with it and sits on the floor where he can sit with his legs straight.

Another annoying thing about furniture you never realize until you have to deal with it is that if you want to replace one piece of living room furniture (such my crappy couch), you have to adjust and/or replace almost EVERYTHING else. For example, I could replace my couch, but then the monitor we use to watch TV and game with would be too low. I'd have to get a new stand and what I had been using as a table to actually do work on would probably be used more as a coffee table to keep all my clutter completely useful and necessary things.

But wait, you say, you could go the opposite direction and either have one of those couches that sits completely on the floor or use zabuton (literally "futons for sitting". I fondly call them "ass cushions")! Not so fast: now the monitor is too low and I have nowhere to go with my legs. Like many lazy Westerners, I need something to lounge on.

Japanese furniture is also HARD. Again, this is a personal preference, but I don't understand how anyone can find a hard surface comfortable. Do an experiment for me- go cuddle a kitten. Give it a good hug. Now go cuddle a rock. Which do you prefer? That's what I thought...

Anyway, I don't know about you rock cuddlers out there, but I do know my own body. I have very wide hips and shoulders. Laying on a hard surface gives me massive hip pain in both my spine and where the bed puts extreme pressure on my hip bone due to how my weight is distributed.

Also, Japan hasn't managed to move on from using springs in their western mattresses.

The height and hardness difference between Japanese and Western furniture is so great that Japanese furniture/home decor stores such as Nitori separate their furniture floor into western and Japanese-style sections.

9. Pillows and Bedsheets

Lastly, we have what you put over your furniture. Pillows have the same challenges as furniture in that they tend to be thin and hard. With my aforementioned wide shoulders, I tend to wake up with terrible shoulder cramps if my pillows are too thin.

However, one additional aspect to pillows is their stuffing. Most pillows I've encountered in Japan that come in ryokan or even some Western hotels are filled with these weird plastic beads or foam pieces. I have no idea how these are supposed to be comfortable. I've also had pillows with huge, pokey feathers that make the pillow feel really lumpy. The closest I could ever find to a large pillow with soft, non-lumpy filling is a super-thin variety with a mesh section sewn over the middle filled with the aforementioned plastic tubes.

Thankfully, there are many other options in stores like Nitori or even Ikea if you're lucky enough to live close to one where you can find more western-style pillows from synthetic stuffing to memory foam. I managed to find a nice memory foam topper to help with hips and back.

Japanese bedsheets are something you just have to get used to, unfortunately. Even with a Western bed, Japanese sheet sets are sold to include a fitted sheet for your mattress, one or two pillow cases, and a cover for a futon blanket (think of it like a "comforter"). There is no sheet to have between your body and the blanket. This can seem really inconvenient during the hot and humid Japanese summer months, but I usually end up using the blanket cover as a sheet and it works just fine.

Lastly, be sure to check the size of your bed before venturing out to buy sheets since Japanese mattress sizes are different from Western ones. I found this website to be very helpful (Japanese), but here are the most common type of bed sizes in Japan:

シングル- single (S): 970mm x 1950mm
more like a twin size in the US. Intended for one person.

セミダブル- Semi-Double (SD): 1220mm x 1950mm
close to what Americans call a "full". Many Japanese newlyweds go with this size until they can afford a double. Luckily, this was the size my predecessor chose and it works fine for me and my husband for now (and coincidentally, we were newlyweds when we moved here!).

ダブル- Double (D): 1400mm x 1950mm
as the name implies. Standard for married couples.

クイーン- Queen (Q): 1700mm x 1950mm
as the name implies.

キング- King (K): 1940mm x 1950mm
as the name implies.

There is also a "small" version of the single, and "wide" and "long" versions of everything else.

8. [insert region here] Food

The US is such a mish-mash of cultures that the typical American of European heritage doesn't really have a good idea of what real "Chinese food" or even "Mexican food" looks or tastes like. "Chinese" and "Japanese" restaurants will have Americanized versions of "ramen" (Chinese), "sushi" (Japanese), and "bubble tea" (Korean) all in the same menu and can be managed by a person of any Southeast Asian ethnicity. There are authentic Japanese restaurants run by people of Japanese decent, but they are fewer and more expensive where the ingredients have to come from.

There are no California rolls in Japan (though most Japanese people have heard of them). There are no sushi rolls deep-fried in tempura. Sashimi is considered more high-gourmet than sushi rolls and you'll never find the latter at your pricey enkais. There is no sesame chicken or orange chicken to be found.

Of course, this works both ways. Japan has "pizza", but it is not PIZZA. Japan has "hamburgers", but not American hamburgers. You can even go to Pizza Hut and taste the difference and find toppings that we would find, well, strange: corn, mayonnaise, tuna, eggplant, etc. This isn't by accident, either- companies such as Coca-Cola change up the recipes for there beverages depending on where they're being sold in order to appeal to the tastes of different cultures. For example, Japanese people tend to find Western food to be too sweet and sugary so the formula is adjusted accordingly to make the flavor milder. Another factor is the quality of ingredients- Japan has to work with what it can get and adjust their prices accordingly (pizza, even the Japanese version, is ridiculously expensive).

One last point of view to consider is that even in Japan, a country much closer to Korea and China still has it's own Japanified versions of Korean and Chinese food. Japanese ramen isn't exactly like authentic Chinese ramen.

7. No Over-Attentive Waiters

I found this to be a huge plus. One of my pet peeves in the US is a waiter that can't seem to just leave you alone and let you enjoy your meal. They always seem to be there to interrupt your conversation, but never there when you actually need them.

Introducing the pin-pon button! No need to wait around: just push the button when you need assistance.

Of course, this could pose a bit of problem to those who come to Japan for the first time and don't know enough Japanese to understand the waiter when they tell them to push the button when they're ready to order. But once you know of it's existence, it's like getting a wand on your eleventh birthday and the first few lines of Rush's "Discovery" play in the background. What can this strange device be? When I pluck it, it gives forth a sound...

6. Drink Bars

Even though most Japanophiles know about the small serving sizes here, they may find themselves  stare around in bewilderment looking for the soda dispenser in vain after finishing a drink at McDonald's. It's kind of a blessing in disguise if you think about it...

There typically aren't free refills at fast food restaurants, but there will be a "drink bar" at family-style restaurants like Seizeriya or Gusto. For a fee, you can drink to your heart's content and tend to offer a much bigger variety than a typical soda dispenser. There are cold beverages such as tea, Calpis, and Fanta and hot beverages like hot cocao, french vanilla, and hot teas. Most menus will include a drink bar at a cheaper price with a meal as a combo. Restaurants with drink bars are really popular near universities and high schools where students tend to spend their time there studying late into the night. Most karaoke boxes also have drink bars available.

5. Grocery Bags and Purchase Tape

Japan has an interesting relationship with plastic bags. Whereas the famous California bill to ban the proliferation of free single-use bags is stuck in typical Capitol Hill Purgatory, Japan has been enforcing it since 2007 under the Revised Containers and Packaging Recycling Law. In a nutshell, most Japanese stores will impose a fee for the use of plastic bags. Unfortunately, many clerks won't explain this to you either because they aren't aware of your ignorance or they just suffer from "I'd-rather-not-talk-to-foreigners" syndrome. In hindsight, it was probably a bit of bad luck considering every other store I've been to since will charge you the bags by default.

The other half of the reason I ended up nonplussed in a grocery store when I first arrived in Tokyo was because clerks in Japanese grocery stores don't tend to bag your groceries for you. Not only did I not have any bags, I had a basket I was sure I wasn't supposed to take home with me. Most of the time, you'll end up bagging your own groceries after the purchase and there are small tables beyond the registers to get your business done. Whether they bag it for you is dependent on the store, but if it's a moderately slow day, they will do it for you especially if you bring your own.

Lastly, we have the mysterious proof-of-purchase tape. Its origins are a bit murky, but one Japan Times writer did some digging. Basically, this is proof you didn't steal the item in question (because receipts aren't sufficient for some reason). If it doesn't go in a bag, it gets the tape. After bagging my items one day, I found that everything didn't quite fit and I decided to just carry one of the big bottles. On my way out the door, a clerk ran up to me saying that it was "dame" (not good/unacceptable) and slapped some tape on the bottle. Lesson learned.

On the flip-side, since everything needs proof of having been purchased in some form, I find that convenience stores especially tend to over-bag. On top of that, they separate cold and hot items with different bags. For example, I could end up with a hot dish they just warmed up for me in one bag, and a single bottled beverage in another. It's even worse when you end up with a bag for just one small item. Again, it could be the ole "I'd-rather-just-do-something-than-ask" phenomenon, but whenever I go in for a drink, I just ask for the tape so I can carry it out.

4. Household appliances

Ah, the washing machine. One of a household's most taken for grated appliances. It's not one of those things you'd think about before moving to a foreign country, but absolutely necessary after sweating your ass off in your suit jacket for three days at the Tokyo Orientation and need clothes for tomorrow. So you dump your clothes and laundry soap in (if you have any) and then take a look at the console and slowly start to panic. 

The same thing will happen with your microwave, rice cooker (you've probably heard of them before, but not how to use them!), and your vacuum cleaner if you're unfortunate enough to have one with the antiquated disposable bags instead of a removable dust receptacle.

A couple other things about laundry: considering you're probably living in a tiny LDK apartment or "one-room mansion", you're laundry machine is probably going to be smaller than you're used to (especially if there's more then one person staying there!). Also, you won't have a dryer so be prepared to go to a laundromat or hang your clothes in creative places.

3. Healthcare and Available Medication

I'm a full supporter of socialized medicine, but it does have it's pitfalls. Widely available healthcare and an aging, overworked population results in people trying their best to stay healthy and nip any impending illness in the bud so they don't have to miss work and use their sick days. Add into the mix a lack of effective, over-the-counter medicines like sudafed and ibuprofen, and you end up with a lot of people going to the clinic at the same time. You will be waiting a long time to see a doctor.

When you find yourself feeling under the weather, you have a couple options: the small clinic just down the street, or the hospital in the next town over if you live in the countryside like I do. Smaller clinics are great since they're usually open until 6pm-7pm and offer much shorter waiting times. These clinics tend to specialize, though, so check to make sure the place isn't limited to one department.

However, you might find the doctors there a bit less attentive and more abrupt. For example, I went to my local clinic for a mysterious stomachache I'd had for about a week. For some reason, clinics in Japan don't take preliminary measurements like height, weight, and blood pressure beforehand so they showed me right into the doctor who asked me the usual questions ("When did it start?", "Any diarrhea?", "Any blood come out?", etc.). He then asked me to lie down where he felt my stomach a bit and asked where it hurt. Then he wrote me a script, told me the meds might affect the color of my bowel movements and that was that. The whole thing took less than five minutes. No explanations of what was wrong with me or anything.

Hospitals offer the usual fancy machines like x-ray and MRI, but they also offer a wider range of doctors who specialize in their particular field. I also find the doctors a lot more conversational and attentive. Unfortunately, each department has it's own set times when they except patients and they usually don't take anyone after noon. This means taking time off work. These hospitals are also independent from each other and that means there is no universal system to keep patient information. I recently took my husband in to get his knees looked at and they took x-rays. After a recommendation from my teachers, we went to a different hospital to get a second opinion and they had to take yet another x-ray since they don't share information with each other.

Like I said, most of the OTC meds here are weak-sauce and won't do you much good. Tylenol was just brought into the Japanese market in the past few years, but it's expensive. The upside to getting it through a doctor is that insurance will cover it and effectively make it cheaper than buying painkillers outright and it's not too hard to get a script from any doctor for simple things like painkillers or loperamides. There is also a plethora of pharmacies, and you can fill your prescription at any of them. Take care though: sometimes smaller stores will not have one of your meds in stock and will need time to order it from the closest major city.
I absolutely love one of the pharmacist at my local place, though. He always tries to speak in English and explains everything as best he can.

Huge downside: birth control is not covered by health insurance. You will end up dropping $30-$40 a month for the pill. The only semi-permanent option is the IUD and good luck convincing anyone to give you one if you're single and/or childless. I've said it before and I'll say it again: get a long-term method in place and do it BEFORE you come to Japan.
Also not covered: psychoactive and stimulant drugs used to treat psychological disorders.

2. ATMs and convenience stores

I'm lumping these two together because they have one big thing in common in that they are both super convenient and helpful, but only after you've mastered how to use them.

The only convenient stores I usually encountered in the US were housed in gas stations and usually only provided terrible snacks, drinks, and maybe a movie rental service and a few basic drugs. In fact, I find that a Walgreens is more like a convenient store than actual convenient stores because of their wide variety of services.

Japanese stores really put the "convenient" convenient store. They offer everything from printing/copying to package delivery. Many even have kiosks where one can purchase tickets for a plethora of things such as concerts, amusement parks and highway bus fare. Another great feature is the ability to pay for online orders in cash (using my American debit card incurs bank fees and the terrible exchange rate). Most importantly, they aren't stingy with their bathrooms. That's what they're there for, after all!

And of course, we have Japanese atms. I've mentioned that Japan is a cash society before, and that means more trips to the atm than most foreigners are used to. The good news is that there are atms (and convenience stores with atms) everywhere. You usually can't drive for more than five or ten minutes in the countryside without finding one. In the city there seems to be at least one on every block.

One of my favorite functions of the Japanese atm is the automatic transfer of funds from one account to another. Since Japanese banks don't use checks at all, most people transfer money through the atm. All you need is some basic info like their name, bank and account number. And if that seems rather inconvenient to have to input all that information every time, you can have the machine make card for you so all you have to do in the future is swipe the card.

Another big boon to money transfers in Japan is that an atm from one bank can transfer to another of a different bank with no fees or hassle. In the US, a person usually has to go the bank the payee belongs to in order to deposit money in their account. In Japan, you only need to do it from an atm where your account is held and can send money anywhere.

1. Lines

There is a Japanese word that is typically hard for foreigners to deal with if they haven't assimilated yet: gaman. Japanese people have a reputation as being very stoic and patient. I'm not a big fan of stereotypes, but this generalization does stem from a kernel of truth: waiting is a fact of life in Japan. This will not become truly clear until you have to deal with tedious procedures like opening a bank account, applying for cheaper health insurance payments, or waiting to see a physician. As much as I love atms, there always seems to be a line since most people prefer to deal with finances closer to home than go to the bank.

Going to a festival? You will wait in line. Riding the train at rush hour? You will stand on the train waiting for an open seat. Checking out at the grocery store on their big sale day? More waiting in line. You will no longer wonder how handheld gaming became Japan's biggest gaming industry when you've rode the trains long enough.

Oddly enough, when waiting in lines becomes such a large part of your life, you begin to assimilate it. Eventually, instead of it being a huge inconvenience, it's just another part of your day like making breakfast or driving to work.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ginzan Onsen- Northeast Japan's Living Snowglobe

Step back in time with me. Come crunch and slide down ancient paths where all signs of life are constantly eroded and white-washed over with snow. Where time freezes in a snowglobe of serene calm. Such is Ginzan Onsen, one of Japan's truly well-hidden treasures.

We drive through an endless maze between towering walls of white beckoning us forward. Soon, soon, they whisper. My 2001 Toyota Vitz cranks through the powder, also desperate for respite from the 2 and a half-hour drive from the coastal town of Nikaho in Akita prefecture. The drive had been pleasant with warm sunshine cascading through the windshield and glistening off blacktop roads. Tires hummed over smooth asphalt as easily as on a spring day. Once we turn off the beaten path, however, things got a bit interesting.

The road narrows and the snow spilling over into the middle of the street make for precarious passage. Orange mechanical giants whir down the street in a desperate attempt to clear away the white menace. Old buildings and houses line the way forward, not a conbini or supermarket to be seen. It's not the out-dated nature of the architecture or the utter lack of any signs of life besides old men and women wandering the street. It's how long the street seemed to continue forward. GPS and street signs desperately keeping their heads aloft above the drifts promise our destination is ahead, but my belief soon begins to fade as do the houses and other dwellings. Farther and farther back we go through time in a wormhole of ice and snow.

Finally, curving around one last bend, we breath a sigh of relief as a tiny hamlet materializes out of the valley. As we try to get our bearings and locate our ryokan, we are told that only foot-traffic is allowed down there. We're directed to go back up the hill to the parking space around the corner and wait for the van they will send for us. Back to the parking lot we go, gather our luggage, and the van arrives shortly as promised.

Down the hill we go, into the snowglobe where only feet and designated vehicles are allowed to tread. I'm reminds me of Disney Land and how all efforts are made to maintain the feeling of a self-contained universe completely separate from reality. Indeed, the only modern technology I see there outside the buildings are the occasional cellphone (which miraculously still get a signal way out there).

Kosekiya Bekkan
We arrive at Kosekiya Bekkan (古勢屋別館), one of the many gorgeous buildings lining the edges of the valley. The interior is warm and inviting with a golden glow. A professionally dressed smiling face is there to greet us. We are invited to take our valuable items with us and leave our luggage there so we can freely explore until check-in at 3pm. Finally, we've arrived at out home away from home.

Eager to stretch our cramped legs and start our adventures, we go to meet up with fellow JETs outside. We call out to greet them, but the perpetual thunder of the crashing river below drowns our voices. Thick, fluffy whiteness falls softly and gently to constantly remind us we are in true snow country. It covers everything, clinging to hair, melting into fabric, coating the bridges and windowsills in garland. In  Nikaho, the icy wind rips into your flesh and chills to the core. At Ginzan, it settles slowly and gently onto the skin and vanishes.

snow falls gently on Ginzan Onsen
There are many dining options ranging from little cafes specializing in sweet manju filled with red bean or edamame paste or curry bread and coffee sets to places with more hearty offerings such as soba noodles. Unlike the interior the of the hotel which is actually very modern, the cafes and shops maintain a preserved antiquity. We are directed to the second floor in our cafe of choice and find a few seating options despite its small size. There are tiny private booths separated by walls and curtains while the rest of the room opens into a more free and less intimate space with low tables and zabuton. Along the windows facing the town, there is a long, low bar where one can gaze at the falling now while sipping hot tea.

the foyer in Ginzan-sou
Travelers planning to arrived early can hit up any other hot springs in the area before they close shortly after noon. Fortunately, Kosekiya has a sister relationship with another onsen, Ginzan-sou (銀山荘). Guests at either ryokan are allowed to enjoy both onsen until guest closing time at 8:30pm absolutely free! Clerks in the lobby at reception will recognize sister-patrons by the provided yukatas (and jackets during winter) unique to each onsen and allow them entry. The shuttle can also ferry people to and from the onsens

Kosekiya offers rooms for up to six people with 4 futons and 2 western-style beds in separate rooms. Our room was very clean and spacious. After our guide admits lets us in, he explains the features of the room and their sister-relationship to Ginzan-sou.

Our package deal came with both dinner and breakfast served on the second floor. A little pamphlet introduced us to each dish served in Japanese and which order to eat them in. Ours started with the oh-so-necessary kampai with cherry-flavored wine in little heart-shaped cups. Dishes ranged from delicious steak pieces seared on your own little hot plate to fresh morsels of sashimi. To top it off were little cherry and pear-flavored offerings showing off Yamagata prefecture's specialty. Everyone left feeling full and ready to lounge the night away. Breakfast proved to be just as delicious and satisfying and endless refills of rice ensured everyone was prepared for the long journey home.

Renowned as an "onsen town", there are many options to choose from large outdoor "rotenburo" to a little footbath built into the walkway through town. Ginzan-sou offers a sizeable indoor bath in case of foul weather, but also connects to a bath outside the building wear you can sit in the hot water (and trust me, it will be HOT no matter what the ambient temperature) while snowflakes dot your skin with cold. To top that all off, another bath is connected via stairs with wooden seats built into the floor to lay back and lounge in to take in the the snowy vista. There is also a roof over this part of the bath in case you've had enough snowflakes falling on your head.

The other onsen I recommend is Takimi (瀧見) onsen. Like the name implies, this one boasts a stunning view of a waterfall! The building is located in the very back of the town and up quite a long,
but beautiful trek up a winding hill. Your best view of the waterfall will be on the way up. It's actually quite hard to spot from the actual bath unless you lean way out (which is very dangerous since it's on the edge of a cliff!). But after the arduous hike you'll be rewarded with a hot bath that also includes an indoor and outdoor area. The outdoor bath at Takimi is a little more "outdoors-y" in atmosphere since rotenburo at Ginzan-sou are still part of the main building while the outer wall of the pool in Takimi is made of rocks and stones giving it a more natural feel.

Fans of the world-renowned and award-winning Ghibli film Spirited Away will be delighted to know that Ginzan Onsen was one of the inspirations for the movie's mysterious, majestic setting at an enormous bathhouse along with Dogo Onsen (道後温泉) in Ehime prefecture. When the suns sets over the mountains, and the gas lamps cast soft shadows over the ancient buildings, you'll know you've entered the realm of the spirits.

Tohoku winters can be harsh and a pain to get through with lack of sunlight. Onsen are one of the best ways to keep your spirits up and your body warm and healthy. If you find yourself unable to flee to the tropical climes of Okinawa, why not look a bit closer to home? Great service, a fantastic setting, and hot, soothing waters wait for you at Ginzan Onsen.

See you there!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year, New Beginnings

I've never set New Year's resolutions before. I've never made a point to set long-term goals and start the clock on New Year's Day. Reasons include the widespread, self-defeating mindset that people can't keep their resolutions longer than a month, not really having any goals to set at the time, and not having the time or resources to focus on anything other than finishing school and not getting fired from my part-time job.

I'd like to give this formal goal-setting a solid try now that I have the job security and free time to focus on other things, but the perpetuated outlook on resolutions has instilled in me a fear of giving up prematurely.

A recent post by a Facebook friend of mine inspired me to think about how we set goals and ways to increase the chances of accomplishing them.

While not official in any way or exhaustive, here is a list of things I think should be considered when setting goals:

-Beware hard deadlines.
The nice thing about New Year's resolutions is that there is a built-in start time. Having a solid time to start working on goals is much more motivating than "sometime next week" or "I'll get around to it".

However, keep in mind that setting a solid end can do more harm than good. Deadlines are infamous for squandering artist creativity. Committing to do something by a specific time can facilitate structure and order, but the increase in pressure can also be demotivating. Eventually, not doing anything at all is much more appealing, and people either quit, rush to get a project done resulting in inferior work, or procrastinate.

-Goals are rarely "accomplished"...and that's okay!
The problem here is that most equate not accomplishing goals with failure.

Let's say you set a goal to find your lost car key. Found it? Great, mission accomplished. Failed to find it? Mission not accomplished. pretty simple.

However, most goals aren't that black and white. Resolving to lose 30 pounds in a year is a concrete goal, but even if you only lost 25, you still accomplished something! Even a single pound is an important step in the right direction.

-Certain goals are a life-time commitment

Skills and healthy lifestyles need to be maintained.

Weight loss. Drug cessation. These are among the top-tier most daunting goals because they imply major lifestyle habit changes that need to continue for the rest of a person's life. Most people go into things like weight loss thinking about the short-term goal of losing the weight and don't think about how to maintain the new weight in their daily lives.

There are also certain skills that have no end-point. Language learning is one of these. I will continue learning Japanese (and whatever other languages I decide to learn) for the rest of my life. Hell, I'll be learning English the rest of my life too. Languages are organic and change over time which means I need to strive to keep up. There's always more to learn.

-Setting goals is a skill in itself.
Skills need to be developed and goal-setting is no different. As you experience progress and failure, you'll learn how to adjust your habits and schedule according to how you operate best.

-Goals need to change over time
This is why having an end time set in stone is generally a bad idea.

You are setting goals to develop yourself in some way which means you need to expect and accept change in a variety of areas including the goals themselves.

Expand your time-frame. Set smaller, more attainable goals. Or throw out the rule-book entirely and start over.

-There is no right answer
Italian electronic, disco musician and producer Giorgio Moroder has a documentary song in Daft Punk's most excellent album, "Random Access Memories" called "Giorgio by Moroder". At one point, he states, "Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being 'correct', you can do whatever you want.".

It's your life and your rules (or lack thereof). The only right answer is the answer that's right for you.

-And finally, patience

My last item on this list is probably the most important. People are human and humans have limitations. Don't treat those limitations as barriers, but rather as starting points. As you learn and grow, you'll begin to expand on those limitations.

Objects at rest want to stay at rest and objects in motion want to stay in motion. This law permeates all aspects of life. The hardest part will always be that first trip to the gym, or putting that first pencil to paper, or typing that first word. Know that once you begin to build momentum, it'll get easier and easier to keep going.

Learn to celebrate yourself and the small accomplishments. Reward yourself. Allow yourself some wiggle room and know that failure is normal and healthy. Allow yourself to quit if you need to.

The past year has been unforgettable and amazing and I can't wait to see what 2015 brings.

Happy New Year!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Inaka != Isolation

Three years ago, I spent an amazing year studying abroad in Tokyo. I met friends and had experiences I couldn't have had anywhere else and after I returned to the US, I was convinced I wanted to live and work there. One of my reasons for joining the JET Programme in the first place was to use it as an opportunity to gain experience and a high enough Japanese skill to get a job in Tokyo or Osaka.

Lately, I've been wondering if I was aiming for this for the wrong reasons...

I fell in love with Tokyo the moment I stepped out of Shinjuku Station and saw the sleek, elegant skyscraper buildings balanced with beautiful parks and shrines. Walking through the city at night was like walking through a fever dream. So many sights and sounds and things to do and so little time to do them in. Tokyo was a great distraction from my crappy part-time job and trying to pull the credits together for a diploma I wasn't sure how to turn into a career. And Tokyo is the grand metropolis of distraction. Karaoke bars everywhere, events and concerts going on every day, huge museums, expensive clubs, and one of the best railway systems in the world. "I could walk these streets for days and know not even half its wonders." (Yes, I just quoted Assassin's Creed, don't hate...) Compared to reality back home, getting lost in the city with a generous stipend from the government was paradise.

Yet whenever I had time to myself or walked down the crowded streets alone, I was amazed at how lonely one could feel among so many people. Besides the usual stare foreigners get every once in a while, people just pass by. No one cares. They had their own lives to worry about. The problem was that I didn't really have one.

Even in Milwaukee, I had started to feel that way. My close-knit circle of friends were graduating and moving on with their lives. And now it's happening again: my friends at Seijo are graduating and moving on. One of my best friends now lives in Nagoya and most of my international friends are back in their home countries moving on with reality. My social group has all but scattered and my social safety net is left in tatters.

There comes a point in our lives that we realize that nothing is truly permanent and that's hard concept to get used to. Most of us grow up in the same neighborhood with the same kids, the same neighbors, the same teachers. But all of that changes when you leave home to build a life apart from that safety net. Even those who stay with their family find everyone else going away. This cycle has repeated many times for me now and it doesn't seem to get easier.

However, when the dust settles on your social situation, you get to look back and see which relationships are still standing. You did have true friends all along, but you couldn't see them among the multitude of people you were trying to maintain connections with until people started moving out of your life. These are the people that are there for you no matter how far apart you are. The ones you can go months without speaking to and then strike up a conversation as if no time has passed at all. And it's worth the pain of losing those you thought were good friends.

Each time you repeat this process, the weak ties break, and you weave new, stronger bonds into your safety net.

Starting your life in Japan on JET is another iteration of this process. Most of us are recent graduates leaving the college life behind when we leave our home countries. We leave friends and family behind to start a new chapter and this can be especially challenging for us big-city folk since most us are placed way out in the countryside.

The abundant landscapes and mountains are gorgeous. I don't think any JET can deny that. However, after a whirlwind month of introductions, classes, conferences, eikaiwas, and other obligations being thrust upon us, we take a look around and think, "Is this it?" Let's be honest- the countryside isn't known for it's thriving nightlife or other such distractions. There aren't a whole lot of people your own age besides your fellow JETs.

Then the boredom sets in and the stage two culture shock takes hold and all you want to do is stay inside and re-watch The Office over and over. You feel a bit resentful because there's no one at work that understands what your going through and you have to carry on like nothing's wrong. You crave real pizza and burritos the size of your head, but there's none to be found.

But then, when you feel up to it, you start to reach out. You start that martial art you've always wanted to for the first time. You share a nice conversation with a fellow teacher and find you have things in common. You start to realize that there are people out there who care and want to help. You stop seeing events and enkais as obligations and more like opportunities. You take hobbies back up you didn't have time for before or start new ones. Slowly but surely, your social calendar starts filling up again.

We look inward and realize that while we can't do much to change anything outside, there is something inside that we've been ignoring for a long time. They say that the hardest person to live with is yourself, and you'll experience this firsthand on JET.  Because when there are no lights and sounds and crowds of young people to distract you, all that's left is yourself and you'll be shocked to feel like a stranger in your own skin.

One of the fifth-year JETs who left this year told me something that had to do with "creating a version of yourself you can take anywhere". Many people come here to leave behind a dreary life, but remember- you'll always have to live with your own demons no matter where you are. Escaping from them to a hedonist's paradise like Tokyo is just that- escapism. If you're looking for a brief distraction, great, but don't let distractions become and control your life. Don't become a hollow shell of a person that's only working for that next buzz alcohol and club music will bring.

One of my remaining close friends in Tokyo Skyped with me recently and she always asks me every time: "What is there to do there? Isn't it boring?" I laugh and agree there isn't much "to do" here. The problem is she means clubs, restaurants, amusements parks, etc. The truth is that I have a ton "to do" here in a different sense: I have kyudo, kendo, knitting, gaming, a mountain to climb in summer and ski down in winter, cultural events to see, community English events to participate in and I could go on. And if I do need more of a distraction, there is a huge Round One in Akita City...

And I've been surprised to realize that I'm just fine with the way things are. It may not be the most exciting, but life is pretty good. I've never felt more at peace with myself. Most of them may be over the age of 40, but I do have stable friends who won't be moving away. I've lost over 20 pounds and have never felt better about myself or my body. My relationship with my husband is the best it's ever been. He seems happier than he has in a while and we both have our share of issues.

JET is an opportunity and you have to grab onto and make the most of it if you want to get anything out of it. Don't waste away inside your apartment praying for time to accelerate to next summer so you can get the hell out of here. Try new things. Explore the area. Talk to people. Spend time with yourself. Take a mental inventory every once in a while and think about who you are and who you want to be when you leave the programme.

If February comes around and you decide it's time to go, make sure you can look back and say with satisfaction that you made the most of your time here. The countryside can be an experience in despair and isolation or magnificence and community. There are no obstacles, only challenges and learning experiences. Walking away and hiding from your problems doesn't solve them or make them go away. Don't hide away from the boundless opportunities in front of you. Don't hide away from yourself.

Break out of the cocoon and fly from the JET programme a better you.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Things I'm Just Beginning to Understand at 25.

I still can't believe it. I'm 25 years-old. A quarter of a century. I'm about a third through my lifetime if I'm lucky. It's come to my attention that I am not the same person I was in college and I'm starting to realize how much I've done and changed. There are mindsets and beliefs that have changed drastically and I feel like a more complete person for it. I'm sharing only a few of them here and I wholly expect to continue changing as I finally start to feel the weight of adulthood. So here are some things that I'm finally starting to figure out at 25.

Being "Fit"
I touched on this one a bit in Physcial Wellness- What I Wish They Would Have Told Me, but I think this is the one concept related to health that still eludes me. We're all told that being "fit" is the ideal, but no one ever bothers to provide any clues as to what it actually is besides images of thin, lean people working out. When I worked at a Subway restaurant in Milwaukee, one of my more memorable customers always came in on break from a run. I swear this woman had no body fat. No curves, no boobs, nothing but lean muscle. Is she "fit"? Is she the pinnacle of "fitness"?

A quick google search of "fitness" will provide this definition:

1. the condition of being physically fit and healthy.
Gee, thanks- had no idea "fitness" had anything to do with "being physically fit". Also, being "healthy" is a separate thing. Even when I was 195 pounds I could go to my physical and get a clean bill of health (after which my doctor will say, "Now about your weight...").

The West Virginia University Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences center has a pamphlet on healthy living which provides this explanation:
Fitness means being in good physical condition or being healthy. Fitness means
having more energy and better sleep patterns. A person who is fit is also able to
carry out tasks more easily.
"More energy", "better sleep patterns", "able to carry out tasks more easily". Now we're getting somewhere. Of course, these are different for every person which means fitness is going to be personal as well.

The global increase of depression is well-known and according to the National Institute of Health, there is a strong correlation between depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders and insomnia. There is no clear evidence to suggest whether the psychiatric disorders cause insomia or vice versa, but they do make each other worse. This creates a vicious cycle that's hard to break out of since exercising will give you more energy and better sleep, but it also takes some energy to get started in the first place.

Since physical fitness is such a personal measure of health, I've learned that gauging it should involve certain personal benchmarks. For example, I decided that being able to go up the two flights of stairs at work without by heart racing and being winded was my first step. With the 15 pounds I've lost and my increased activity level, I can definitely say I'ved mostly achieved that and I sleep better and feel better during the day. I am by no means a paragon of fitness, but I am well on my way.


Closely linked to fitness, we have self-esteem. This is probably the topic on this list that surprised me the most. About a month ago I had in epiphany of sorts. I was standing in front of the mirror and came to a realization: I like my body. More surprising was the realization I didn't really like it before.
My usual reactions before included "Meh", "I'm alright", and "Could be worse...". I considered this to be good self-esteem because I thought it was the best I could do both physically and mentally. Now when I look into that mirror, I think, "I actually LIKE my body!"

The confusing part was my body hadn't really changed. I'd dropped a few pounds developed a few muscles, but they hadn't made that much of a difference in the broad scheme of things.

Considering my body hadn't changed all that much, I tried to think what had: I'd started working out and keeping track of my calories. I'd started archery and kendo. It seemed like the results of what I was doing wasn't as important as the fact that I was doing them. Just trying and pushing myself raised my self-respect and self-worth. I found out I was capable of so much more than I thought.

As kids we're told to look in the mirror and say to yourself, "I'm beautiful", "I'm awesome", "I can achieve anything I want", but there's a difference between saying these things and actually believing in them and making them a reality. Telling someone with low self-esteem to just start loving themselves is like telling a person suffering from depression to just be positive. You can't wish feeling and emotion into existence. The only thing that can change anything is action.

Don't like your body? DO something about it. I'm not saying lose weight and get thin. I'm saying work your ass off for something you truly want. Don't settle for anything less than what challenges you. Does it suck? Good- it means your learning and improving. Take that anger and frustration and throw it into the face of what's in your way. Your body and mind will thank you for the work you've done and you'll love yourself for it no matter what the outcome.

"Getting a Life"

Let me be clear here: "get a life" is an insult. It's a veiled attempt to assert your superiority complex over someone.
I only use this phrase because I assume most people want "a life", but don't know exaclty what that is nor how to "get" one. Unfortunately (like almost everything on this list), it's too personal to have a cut-and-dry answer.

Here is what I thought a "life" was at 18: graduate high school, go to college, graduate college, career. I thought that was the natural progression of a successful individual. Any step outside it was a fast-track to loserdom. It shames me to think I used to look down on those that deviated from this path, but the truth is that I did. Things had been pretty smooth sailing for me. I was a good girl, kept my head down, flew through high school, got into my private, expensive, university of choice, and met the love of my life when I got there.

Then I started failing classes. I started seeing the possibility of not being able to make it through. It terrified me, and when I finally threw my hands up and admitted defeat I was at a loss. I knew I wanted to transfer somewhere else, but I didn't know where or what for or how to pay for it. I didn't know where I was going to live. I didn't know where my relationship with my boyfriend whom I was very much in love with was going to go.

Looking back, I think that's when my true "life" started. That's when I started to have to actually work to survive and get what I wanted.

After I left the Milwaukee School of Engineering, I fought to get into UW-Milwaukee (which is ironically easier to get into than MSOE), moved into my first apartment, and made the unwise choice to let my boyfriend move in with me and kept it from my disapproving parents. From that moment, I felt like almost everything I did was against their wishes and expectations. It was like all the angst and rebellion I'd suppressed as a teenager had festered and burst open. I started doing things because it was what I wanted and not necessarily what others wanted from me. I learned that I'd been mentally trained to feel guilty about doing so. Sometimes everything seemed like a fight whether at school, in my crappy job making subway sandwiches, in my relationship, or with my family.

But you know what? Between the challenges, between the frustration and tears, I was happy. I was finally "living". Fighting the tide instead of letting it take me wherever it was going made me feel alive and more like myself (whatever that meant at the time). With every challenge I faced, I built up pride and self-respect.

I met some of the best, the worst, most-interesting, most terrible people at my job. I met artists, I met hippies, I met drug dealers, I met homeless people, artists, musicians, hair stylists. I realized that a "life" can just be exactly that- life. Shaping it into whatever you want it to be. And unless you're causing harm to other people, who is anyone else to judge? The only judge that matters in life is you.


This one's hard to think about even now because I feel like I've lost many friends in my lifetime and I can't figure out where the relationships went wrong. It's not like I ever start a friendship with the thought that it might end. Sometimes a person you thought you were getting along with for a while starts ignoring you in passing while others you met only once in real life end up becoming good facebook friends.

Somewhere in life we start to separate aqcuaintences from friends, but I still have trouble understanding why I can't be friends with my aqcuaintences too or why friendships fade with time. In Girl Scouts there's a song that goes,

"Make new friends, but keep the old.
One is silver and the other's gold.
I used to think, "Why can't they all be gold?".

When I left MSOE I still hung out there regularly. But then time passed, and friends graduated and moved on until I had only a few left in Milwaukee who became understandably busy with their own lives and careers. I realized that someday I'd have to move on too. People change. They never stop changing. Some people grow together while others grow apart.

I didn't start getting a feel for who my "gold" friends until after I left college. I've learned the best friendships are the ones that endure through distance and time and it's worth the pain and loss of finding them.


 There are people I've met that seem almost too happy. You know the type- the bubbly, smiley ones that have an unbeatable zest for life and their facebook statuses are nothing but sunshine and rainbows.

These people bug me. It's not like I don't like them, but something about them rubs me the wrong way. I used to think it was because I felt resentful and jealous. I believed that level of happiness was the baseline for "normal" people and if it wasn't you were doing something wrong.

Now I know it's the inherent insincerity. These people aren't as happy as they portray themselves to be. It's nothing I hold against them- it's just the persona they've learned to present no matter how they feel. As a person who wears her heart on her sleeve, I hold emotional honesty in high regard.

And if I'm being honest right now, I'd say I'm mostly happy. I've learned that money can't "buy" happiness, but not having enough to survive certainly lowers your baseline. I've learned that putting yourself first is okay. I've learned that you can have great relationships with people even when you disagree with them (or even because of it). I've learned that the highs aren't a baseline and we wouldn't even appreciate the highs if we didn't have a baseline or the lows.

I've learned that when people talk about "happiness", they're really talking about "contentment". If you can say, "Yeah, I'm doing just fine.", I'd say you're happy. You have enough highs in your life to off-set the lows. You have enough to get by. You have a little more than enough so you can enjoy things beyond mere survival. You have an emotional safety net of people you trust and care for. You're body and mind are functional in a way that allows your daily life to run smoothly.

Most importantly, I've learned that happiness is different for different people. This goes back to the whole "having a life" thing a bit. If your current life is happy for you, than don't let anyone judge you for it. Love who you love and do the things you love to do.

And if you're not happy, DO something. Anything. One little change can make all the difference. If you need a big change, break it into small, less intimidating changes. It's hard, I know. Breaking out of the vicious cycle of a negative mindset is difficult. If you need encouragement or help, don't be silent. Reach out. Know that failure is a natural part of the learning process, not a stop sign.

After writing this, I'm amazed at how different I was ten or even just two years ago. As a quarter-of-a-centurian, I've experienced a lot of things and it's good to know I've actually learned a thing or two from them. If there are any other mid-twenty somethings out there, I encourage you to take a moment and think about what these things mean to you. I have a feeling that all too many people watch life pass them by and not take a second to fully appreciate exactly what and who they are. You're the only one in the entire universe and are here for only a brief time. Wouldn't it be nice to get to know yourself while you're here?

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Hair"rowing Tales

Like many fans, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden announcement that Ghibli studios would be closing down and then relieved when a friend informed me mere hours later that they were only restructuring, and then sad again when I learned it was due to Miyazaki retiring (for realz this time). Ghibli has touched the hearts of many the world over with their stunning visuals, masterful storytelling, and progressive, believable, characters.

One could write multiple essays about just one movie let alone all of them, but there is one theme that has become especially relevant in my life recently. I will describe it thusly:

The pattern is very apparent: main characters with long hair tend to lose it by the end of the movie. The metaphor for character development and loss of innocence and childhood is made stronger by most of these characters losing their hair by force: the above character's braids are literally shot off with a pistol, Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle has to sacrifice her long hair in order to find Howl, and Prince Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke cuts off his hair in a more ritualistic fashion before starting his journey away from home. However, the change is almost always taken in stride. By the time the hair is removed, the characters have already acquired the attributes befitting the symbol: self-confidence, maturity, and courage.

It wasn't until recently that I realized how much I thought of my hair in this way. My hair has been long as long as I can remember. I considered it the thing about myself I liked most and took great pride in my long, brown-golden locks that shined in the sun. I never in my life thought I would ever cut it short. I thought it was the thing that made me beautiful. No matter how hot the summer, how much shampoo and conditioner it took to keep it clean and oil-free or how much brushing it took to keep it untangled, I stubbornly refused to let more than an inch or two go at each trimming.

Sometime in High School I dove headfirst into the popularity explosion that was Japanese pop culture. Spirited Away moved me to tears. I'd never seen anything like it (although after watching Totoro I realized I'd actually seen it a long time ago in elementary school!). Around this time I became engrossed in a rail-shooter game called Panzer Dragoon: Orta- a game highly lauded as the best game of the year that no one played due to poor marketing and the stigmatizing of rail-shooters in general (Starfox forever!).

Seriously, why didn't anybody play this game?!
As a teenage girl vulnerable to romantic flights of fancy, I was drawn to the main character Orta- a girl chained up in a tower for an absurd reason who is soon rescued by one of the most bad-ass dragons ever. They then fly off together to destroy the evil empire that hunted her.

This next time I went for a haircut, I brought of picture of her along with me and asked the stylist, a friend of the family, what she thought. It was a reverse bob (front in long tapering to short in the back) with a tad sharper angle than the usual and I didn't think it was too radical. However, she thought maybe it wasn't such a good idea and I instead got my hair cut to just below my shoulders. I regretted it later. I didn't even think that maybe I wanted that hairstyle so much because it was worn by a person who fought for her freedom to reject her past and choose her own destiny.

The next radical thing I tried was to dye it blue when I was in college. I loved it, but then had to face the realities of a possible career after graduation and let it return to normal.

Recently, I've been working vigorously to lose weight and have noticed a rise in my self-esteem and self-confidence. I decided I was finally ready to appease the thirteen year-old me and get the haircut that had since nagged me in the back of my mind.

As I sat in the chair waiting for the snipping to begin, I couldn't believe how nervous I felt. There was no going back once it started and I'd have to live with it for a long time. I kept convincing myself I was ready for this change. I finally felt ready to join the ranks of Sheeta, Sophie, and Ashitaka. I didn't need my long, thick hair to hide my face and body or feel beautiful anymore, and I was sick of how it was always in my way or pulling on the back of my head like a chain.

With the sound of metal-on-metal, my hair began to fall to the floor. Pieces of my life interwoven with guilt, shame, timidness, and uncertainty were severed and swept away. As any other part of a person, I can still feel it's absence, but I'm better without it and I don't need the safety net it provided anymore.

I walked away from the salon a carefree women. I feel lighter and more like myself. I didn't get to fly with dragons or befriend a totoro, but I got there nonetheless. When I see old pictures of myself with those long, beautiful locks, I'll look on them fondly, but with no regrets.

*All screenshots belong to Studio Ghibli and Panzer Dragoon: Orta is a property of Sega*