Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the four days since I crossed the Russian border, I've peed in a cup, missed a train, hurtled across Siberia in a taxi to catch the aforementioned train, hung out with a bunch of drunk Russian teenagers, swam in the world's deepest lake and been stalked by a man named Vladimir.

It all started when the train left Mongolia and arrived at the Russian border for a two-hour stop. Once again, the toilets were locked while we waited for our passports to be stamped. Every time the train stops at a station, the attendants lock the toilets to avoid dumping waste all over the tracks. Unfortunately,I had a full bladder by the time we reached the border and it was close to bursting an hour later.

Some of the men on the train were peeing into a bucket between compartments but there wasn't much privacy because people were constantly walking in between the cars. It's one thing to be a guy and discretely pee into a bucket in a corner. It's quite another thing to be a girl. There's no such thing as discretely peeing into a bucket in a corner.

I was in so much pain from holding it in that I had tears in my eyes and I couldn't stand up. So I did the only thing I could do. I kicked my cabin mates out of our room, closed the blind and squatted over a cup of instant noodles. It was an inauspicious start to my time in Russia.

An hour later, the attendants finally let us off the train. They told us we had an hour and forty minutes before the train left the station. So Tanya, Graham, Rebecca (my Australian friends and cabin mates) and I decided to wander into town and buy some food. We returned 45 minutes later, with lots of time to catch the train. Or so we thought.

We were shocked to find the platform completely empty. Our train, which was sitting on the tracks when we left, had suddenly disappeared. The train had actually left without us! We were stranded in Siberia and not one of us could speak a word of Russian.

Luckily we found a girl at the station who spoke Russian and English and she ran inside to find out what happened to our train. It turned out the attendant had mixed up the train schedule and it had left an hour early. None of the other passengers had left the station so they were able to jump back on the train.

Our only option was to catch a taxi and try to beat the train to the next stop almost 200 kilometres away. So we ran outside and jumped into a cab. The Russian girl told him where we were going and we were off. Our driver didn't speak a word of English. We crossed our fingers and hoped he knew where he was going and that he would get us there ahead of the train.

Our driver drove like a madman. It was a white-knuckle ride the whole way. I was too scared to look at the dashboard because I didn't want to see how fast we were going. It felt like we were driving 150 km an hour. The road was narrow and in horrible disrepair. The cab driver would drive on the left side of the road to avoid the potholes on the right but he would do this on blind corners and up hills. I kept saying "nyet, nyet, nyet!" whenever he drove on the left or overtook another vehicle on a dangerous stretch of the road but it didn't seem to do much good. I'm not sure he heard me over the loud Russian dance music pumping out of the car's speakers.

Two hours later, we pulled up at a train station in the middle of nowhere. We paid $20 each and hoped that we had made it in time. The train pulled into the station half an hour later and the attendants wagged their fingers and shook their heads at us, which was ironic considering they were the ones who mixed up the schedule at the last stop. I didn't even mind being lectured at in Russian. I was just happy to be back on the train and reunited with my luggage. It was a wild welcome into Russia and not one I'd ever want to repeat.

The next day, we got off the train in Irkutsk and took a bus to Listvyanka, a village on the shore of Lake Baikal. I was hoping we could just relax and enjoy the lake, especially after the previous day's out-of-control cab ride through the wilds of Siberia. But that's when we met Vladimir.

Tanya, Graham, Rebecca and I had gone down to the lake for a swim. Because Lake Baikal is freezing cold, there was a lot of screaming after we jumped into the lake. This attracted the attention of a huge Russian guy who decided to plunge in after us. Eager to impress us with his English, he started chatting us up. Vladimir was in his early 40s, balding and had a beer gut so big, he looked like he had swallowed a yoga ball.

Vladimir kept talking to us while we were swimming, after we got out and when we were lying in the sun to dry off. After Tanya and Graham left, Vladimir asked Rebecca and I where we were staying and what we were doing later that night. We remained vague and eventually got dressed and started walking down the road to our B&B. A few minutes later, we noticed Vladimir slowly following us in a white car. Once he realized his cover was blown, he started honking and waving at us before speeding up and driving away.

Later that night, we decided to hike up a hill to watch the sunset over Lake Baikal. The only other people up there were a bunch of teenaged boys drinking beer and listening to dance music on a laptop. Eventually, one of the braver kids approached us and started speaking English with us. We learned that they were all university students and had come home for the summer. The youngest of the group was 17 and the oldest was 23. They seemed to warm up to us pretty quickly and the next thing we knew they were sharing their beer and impressing us with the English they had learned from watching Hollywood movies (mostly things like, "motherfucker" and "fuck you"). They were absolutely adorable and reminded me of my Japanese students.

Halfway through the night, Vladimir showed up. I have no idea how he knew where we were but he found us. It turned out he was friends with the kids. Or at least they all seemed to know him. Our impromptu party got a little rowdy because a security guard from a nearby hotel showed up. But when Vladimir handed him a beer, he joined in the fun. I love Russia.

Yesterday, we left Lake Baikal and returned to Irkutsk. Today, we're hopping back on the train for four days until we get off again in (ironically) Vladimir and catch a bus to Suzdal. Until then . . .

Saturday, August 25, 2007


I'm happy to report that I survived the first leg of the epic train ride that will take me all the way from Beijing to Moscow. It took 34 hours to get to Mongolia from China but the time just flew by.

I spent most of the train ride staring out the window, listening to music, reading, sleeping, eating and playing cards with my Australian cabin mates. The great thing about being on the train is that there's nowhere to go and nothing to do. No television, no computers, no phones. No distractions aside from the gentle rocking of the train and the clack-clack-clack sound of the tracks.

On the downside, there was a lot of cigarette smoke (despite all of the non-smoking signs posted everywhere). People were chain-smoking in their rooms and the train attendants, who were supposed to be enforcing the rules, were smoking in the corridors. I would have said something but the people doing most of the smoking were big, burly Russians and Mongolians and I wasn't about to pick a fight with them. At least we could stick our heads out the windows for some (relatively) fresh air.

Crossing the China-Mongolia border was a bit of an epic production. It took five hours and it all happened in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the train attendants locked the bathrooms during the border crossing. The train stopped for several hours while border officials checked everyone's passport and they didn't want all of the crap piling up on the train tracks and stinking up the station (the toilets flush right onto the tracks). I stopped drinking liquids at about 4 p.m. just so that I wouldn't have to pee during the border crossing.

Because we crossed into Mongolia in the middle of the night, it was too dark to see anything. Early the next morning we were greeted by dramatic scenery outside the window. There was nothing on the other side of the glass but wide-open space, rolling green fields and big skies. The air blowing in through the window was crisp, clean and cool. It felt like the train had rolled into another world.

I got off the train in Ulaan Baatar four days ago. It's not a particularly attractive city and it's filled with Soviet-style buildings. But it's a good jumping-off point to get out into the hills. So I left the city behind and headed out into Terelj National Park for a couple of days.

I went hiking in the hills. I slept in a ger. I drank fermented mare's milk (it sort of tastes like vodka mixed with sour milk). I ate dried curd and steamed dumplings.

I also went horseback riding, which unexpectedly turned into cattle herding. As we were riding along the road, some woman came running out of a ger and shouted something in Mongolian at the guide, which sounded like, "Hey, Bob. Since you're going down the road would you mind taking my cows out to pasture?" He shouted something back and the next thing I knew our horses were going up a steep hill towards a pen with a bunch of cows. The woman let her cows out and we herded them along ahead of us.

It was surreal to be riding on a horse in a national park, herding a bunch of cattle into a nearby field. It was amazing to watch the guide ride in and around the cows and make sure they followed an orderly path, yelling and whipping at the ones that veered off course and dropping back to herd in the cattle that were falling behind. It was the highlight of my short stay here.

I'm now back in Ulaan Baatar to do some laundry and catch up on my email before hopping back on the train later tonight. After about 60 straight hours on the train, I'll be jumping off again for a few days in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

To be continued in Russia . . .

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Ni hao! That means "hello" according to my Mandarin phrasebook, which I had to buy because almost no one speaks English here. Also, "wo ai ni" means "I love you" (some Chinese dude taught me that on the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai. I think he was trying to seduce me).

Anyway, I arrived in China 10 days ago after 53 turbulent hours at sea. Now, I have been known to get seasick a lot. I usually feel like vomiting during the ferry ride between Vancouver and Victoria. So I'm not sure why I didn't consider this fact when deciding to travel to China by boat. And not just any boat, but a boat that takes two days. I think I'm a masochist at heart.

I boarded the ferry in Osaka and the first day was great. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese people on board. Everyone was talking and playing cards and drinking beer.The water was very calm and we all enjoyed watching the sunset over Japan. I was in a cabin with three other people. Two girls from China and one girl from New Zealand. So things were fun that first day. But it was the proverbial calm before the storm.

On Saturday we woke up to an angry, roiling sea and torrential rain. Our path across the China Sea collided with a typhoon. The party boat suddenly turned into a ghost ship. Everyone stayed locked inside their cabins because it was too dangerous to go outside. It was horrible. I was taking a gravol every four hours to keep the nausea at bay. I couldn't keep any food down. I spent the entire day and night in bed just sleeping or listening to the Chinese girl in the bunk above mine vomiting. At least she was able to contain her vomit in her plastic bags and nothing landed on me.

It was awful. The waves were so high that I kept bumping my head. By Sunday morning we had weathered the worst of the typhoon and the water was nice and calm again. Everyone was trading war stories about the previous day's rough seas. Unfortunately, the typhoon meant we were five hours behind schedule so instead of arriving in Shanghai at noon, we were arriving at 4 p.m.

As we pulled into China, the scenery was remarkably different from Japan. The water was brown. The air was hazy. The land was overrun by industrial development. But it was exciting! Wow! China!


The Shanghai skyline is very futuristic with big skyscrapers and more neon than Tokyo. It is an exciting, bustling city. But three days in Shanghai was more than enough. It's just another big city and dealing with all of the "art students" was starting to wear me down. I would walk down the street and some random person would sidle up next to me saying, "Hello lady! I am an art student!" I didn't make eye contact and just kept walking. My friend Steve warned me about Shanghai's infamous art students. Most of them are scam artists who pretend they want to speak English and end up taking you to a teahouse and won't let you leave until you pay $1000 or something.

Still, I feel perfectly safe here. It's pretty easy being a single female traveller in China. Having said that, it has been hard adjusting to the culture in China. I think it's a bit of a shock coming to China after spending a year in Japan. I've gotten so spoiled living in Japan. I don't think there are more friendly and polite people on earth. You walk into a store in Japan and the salespeople bow and smile and welcome you and even when you leave without buying anything they still bow and smile and thank you profusely. Even at the post office, they will bow and say thank you at least five times just for buying a stamp.


After three days in Shanghai, I took the overnight train to Beijing. The train took 12 hours. It left at 7 p.m. and arrived at 7 a.m. so all you had to do was sleep. Sounds great, right? Well, it would have been perfectly relaxing except for the cigarette smoke.

The cars were technically "non smoking" but everyone smoked in the corridor and all of the air got sucked into the room. The "air conditioning" system was basically blowing cigarette smoke into the rooms. The train was so thick with cigarette smoke I had trouble sleeping.

Anyway, my friend Steve met me at the Beijing train station. (For those of you who don't know him, Steve and I have been friends for 14 years going all the way back to our salad days at Carleton University. He now lives in Beijing.)

Steve met me at the train station with his driver (note: normally I am not the kind of person who hangs out with people who have "drivers" but I will make an exception for Steve). Steve's driver took me to my hostel to drop off my bags. It was a nice gesture but it ruined my street cred with the other hostel residents when they saw me pull up in a big SUV with two Chinese who was driving me, the other who was hauling my luggage. This "princess" reputation seems to follow me everywhere I go).

After Steve's driver dropped me off at my hostel, I spent the rest of the day walking around taking in the sights. I went to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Very exciting and surreal to actually be standing in Tienanmen Square. Of course, it would have been more profound if it wasn't teeming with billions of tourists.

I also decided to check out some of the Olympic venues (Olympic fever is alive and well in Beijing! It's all over the news. There's a countdown clock in Tienanmen Square. It's all people seem to be talking about. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement).

Being the swimming nerd that I am, I wanted to check out the new Aquatic centre that is being built just for the Olympics. Steve's driver (who I will call by his name Shao since it feels kind of weird to keep calling him "Steve's driver" now that we're friends) drove me out to the Olympic Tower in the morning.

Rush hour traffic in Beijing is a nightmare. Shao told me there are 3 million cars in Beijing. But during the past four days, Beijing held an experiment to get 1.3 million cars off the road and test the air quality leading up to the Olympics. It actually worked and the air even seemed cleaner. It was pretty amazing to see that happen. Still, it took us over an hour to get out to where some of the Olympic venues are. Beijing is huge and it's sprawling.

After Shao dropped me off at the Olympic Tower, I found some Olympic volunteers. Not hard to spot them with their orange shirts and while ball caps. I tried asking them where the pool was but they didn't speak English. So I started pretending I was swimming and then pointed around. Some mysterious English speaker suddenly appeared out of nowhere and said I should take a cab there. He wrote down the word for pool in Chinese characters on a slip of paper and told me to give it to a cab driver.

I was originally planning on walking there but I had no idea where I was and one city block in Beijing is about the equivalent of 15 city blocks in Canada. Everything looks really close together on the map but in reality everything is miles and miles away.

So I hailed a cab. Handed him the slip of paper and 10 minutes later he dropped me off in front of a fenced-off construction site. I walked around until I saw an entrance to the pool. It was very blue and very square but plopped down in absolutely the middle of nowhere off a busy highway. I tried to walk into the pool but two security guards wouldn't let me in. I figured China wasn't the kind of place where you want to argue with authority figures so I had to stand on a dusty gravel road and take pictures of the pool from a distance.

Speaking of the Olympics, I was watching CNN at the hostel the other night and they had a special report on the Olympics. Sort of a "one year to go" type of report. The story got to one section where the journalist was talking about some great exciting things about the upcoming Olympics. Just as she uttered the words "but according to critics...." the screen suddenly went black. I thought something was wrong with the TV but the other channels were working. When I flipped back to CNN, the report was back on. But other sections were blacked out. And it hit me that the story was being censored. It was an amazing thing to see after reading about this type of stuff in books for so long. Seeing censorship in action was one of my most exciting moments in China!

Another highlight was hiking a 10 km section of the Great Wall of China with Steve. There were very few tourists on the wall and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.

Tomorrow is my last day in Beijing. I'm taking the train to Mongolia on Wednesday morning and I'm due to arrive Thursday afternoon. This will be my first test to see how I do cooped up in a train for a long time! But I'll be in Mongolia for four days so it will be a nice break from sitting on a train.

Overall, China has been great. It was really interesting (and exciting) to see all of the Olympic preparations. I had a lot of fun with Steve and my friend Brian (another friend from Carleton University). There have been some minor annoyances and some of the worst traffic congestion I've ever seen but I suppose if it wasn't like that then it wouldn't make China what it is. Plus, China is one of the most fascinating and interesting places in the world right now and I feel pretty lucky to have seen a small glimpse of it.

For now, I'm looking forward to getting out of the city and into the wild areas of Mongolia. Until then . . .

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Leaving Japan

I've been in China for eight days now. It's been fun and exciting and I have lots of stories but it feels wrong to write about China without talking about Japan first.

I left Japan last Thursday. Word got around that I was taking the 12:32 train out of Sakawa and the whole town turned out to see me off.

Friends, teachers, students, the mayor, my tea ceremony teacher, the vice-principal. Almost everyone who meant anything to me during the past year was there.

My friends.

My tea ceremony teacher.

My supervisor and her daughters.

Everyone crowded out on to the platform as my train pulled up to the station.

I took this photo of my students waving goodbye on the other side of the glass.

When the train pulled out of the station, they started running after it. And then they were gone.

There were tears. Lots of tears. I cried at the train station. I cried on the train. I cried all the way to Osaka. It's still really hard for me to write about it or even look at pictures. I feel like I'm in mourning. Not a day has gone by when I don't think about Japan and the people I've left behind. And yet part of me feels like I'm on vacation and that I'll be going back to Japan after it's over. I'm not sure it's really going to hit me until I'm back in Canada . . .

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The long way home

It’s hard to believe a whole year has come and gone. But it has and now it’s time to move on. Back to the place I left one year ago.

I’m not ready to leave Japan. I feel like I’m going home way too soon. And so I’ve been packing my bags and saying my goodbyes with a heavy heart and deep regret.

I’m not ready to get on the train tomorrow and leave my life here behind forever. To look out the window and see the people I’ve grown so attached to waving goodbye on the other side of the glass. To watch them get smaller and smaller as the train pulls out of the station and picks up speed. To know I may never see them again.

It doesn’t get much sadder than that.

At least I can take comfort in knowing it will be almost two months before I return to Canada. Taking the long way home will give me time to reflect on my year in Japan and help lessen the pain of leaving.

So I’ve decided to finally take the trip I’ve dreamed of taking for the past 10 years. I’m taking the train clear across the world’s largest continent, all the way from Beijing to Moscow.

To get to China, I will take the two-day ferry that runs between Osaka and Shanghai. After a few days in Shanghai, I will take the overnight train to Beijing.

Normally, the journey between Beijing and Moscow takes about six and a half days. But that’s only if you don’t get off the train. I’m stretching the ride out to about 25 days by stopping in Mongolia, Siberia and Russia along the way.

Afterwards, I’ll spend a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg before flying to Paris, where I’ve rented an apartment for two weeks. It will be nice to stay in one place for a little while after more than a month of constant traveling. Especially when that place has an abundance of bread and wine and chocolate and cheese. Assuming all goes well, I’ll be back in Vancouver on October 1st.

So this is it. My last post from Japan. I can’t believe it’s really ending . . .

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A few of the things I will (and won't) miss about Japan

With my year in Japan quickly coming to an end, I thought I’d make a list of some of the things I’ll miss most about living here.

Of course, I don’t want to overly romanticize the experience so I thought I’d make a list of some of the not so great things too.

This isn’t meant to be a definitive overview of Japan. It’s simply my own personal reflections and observations based on a year spent living in a small rural town on Shikoku Island.

Japan is a tough nut to crack and it seems pretentious and arrogant to pretend that I have the entire country all figured out after only a year (especially when I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface). So I’m only going to write about what I know and leave the in-depth analysis to the experts.

Some of the things I won’t miss about Japan . . .

1. The bugs: Giant flying cockroaches, poisonous centipedes and hairy spiders are a fact of life in rural Japan. They slither down from the mountains at night and crawl in through the cracks in the walls. My apartment was infested with cockroaches and there was nothing I could do about it. I spent a good part of the past year living in a near-constant state of paranoia. Not fun.

2. The cold: From the beginning of December until the end of April, there was no escape from the cold. Winter in Japan was a misery unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It never snowed and the temperature rarely dipped below zero but there is no insulation and no central heating in Japanese homes and buildings. As a result, it was just as cold inside as it was outside. At school, I wore long underwear under several layers of clothing and I still spent most of the day shivering. My apartment was just as bad. I had a kerosene heater but I couldn’t run it while I was sleeping due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. It was so cold I could actually see my breath inside my apartment. On the upside, at least there were no cockroaches in the winter.

3. Cigarette smoke: Japan is still very much a country of smokers. People can, and do, light up just about anywhere. The teachers at my school smoke in the staff kitchen. There are smoking cars on trains. People smoke in bars and restaurants. Half of my volleyball team lights up during breaks. It’s gross.

4. Concrete: I hate to say this but parts of Japan are ugly. Really ugly. Almost every riverbed, cliff face and coastline is encased in concrete. Almost every mountain has a massive electricity tower erected on top of it. Beautiful views are ruined by a mess of power lines and patches of hills are scarred by clear-cut logging. Japan is a nation that claims to love nature and beauty, but there isn’t a lot of unspoiled natural beauty to be found.

5. Fluorescent lighting: When I first moved into my apartment, I was dismayed to discover every room in the place was lit by harsh fluorescent light. I spent two weeks looking for some rice paper lamps to make my place feel more like a home and less like a hospital operating room. But I came up empty handed. It was almost as if soft lighting didn’t exist. Then I started noticing how ubiquitous fluorescent lighting really was. Every house, every apartment, every bar and every restaurant was lit up inside like the fourth of July. There was not a shadow or a hint of darkness in sight. I’m sure there’s a reason for all of this fluorescent lighting; I just haven’t figured it out yet.

6. The roads: It didn’t take me long to realize that not only do cyclists and pedestrians not have the right of way, they don’t have any rights at all. There are no sidewalks in this town and the roads are barely wide enough to accommodate one car, let alone two cars going in opposite directions. Drivers have to veer off to the side to let an oncoming car pass or, on a really narrow stretch of road, throw the car in reverse and back up until they find enough room to pull over and let the other car squeeze by. Unfortunately, the same courtesy isn’t afforded to cyclists or pedestrians. I’ve had cars brush past me with barely an inch of space between us. One driver got so close that he nicked my right shoulder with his passenger mirror.

7. Earthquakes and typhoons: In the span of one year, I’ve lived through one earthquake and three typhoons. Nothing major but enough to scare the crap out of me.

8. Karaoke: I am so over karaoke. Oh, sure. It was exciting at first but once the novelty wore off I realized I wasn’t having much fun listening to drunk people with zero musical ability sing the same tedious songs over and over again.

9. The language barrier: I feel like I missed out on a lot by not being fluent in Japanese. I would have been able to communicate with the kids, my coworkers and my friends on a deeper level. I wouldn’t have spent my first few months feeling like a helpless child unable to figure out the simplest things on my own, like buying a train ticket or ordering food in a restaurant. Being fluent would have made life a lot easier and my experience a lot richer.

10. Being an outsider: I have already written an entire post about feeling isolated so I don’t want to repeat myself here. But it was tough always having my identity tied up with being a foreigner. I was a gaijin first and a person second. I’ve been here a year and people still ask me if I can use chopsticks or eat raw fish.

11. Lack of anonymity: Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a fishbowl. It seems like everyone in this town knows everything I do and everywhere I go. At the grocery store, one woman followed me around, clicking her tongue and making comments about everything I put in my basket. Kids would show up at school on Monday morning and ask me who was the guy I was out with on Saturday night. Teachers would tell me they saw me jogging past their houses and that my face looked particularly red. They tracked my every move and reported it back to me in breathless detail. Seriously, people. My life is not that exciting.

12. Right-wing lunatics: Canada has its fair share of right-wing crazies but nothing like the ones in Japan. The right-wing loonies in Japan drive around in big black vans with loudspeakers blaring out nationalistic nonsense. These vans usually drove past my apartment a few times a week with the speakers cranked up to ear-splitting levels. One of their main messages? Get the foreigners out of Japan. Thanks for the warm welcome, morons.

13. The lack of male attention: I would like to report that I got absolutely no action in Japan. Zip. Zero. Not even a kiss. Never have I felt so invisible and unattractive in my whole life. I gave up on finding a boyfriend after the whole art teacher debacle. But he ended up getting transferred to another school 200 km away so it wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Some of the things I’ll miss most about Japan . . .

1. My students: If you were to ask me what the most rewarding part of this whole experience was, I’d say it was getting to spend each day surrounded by some of the most loveable kids I’ve ever met. I always knew I liked kids but I had no idea how awesome working with kids could be. They made me laugh on a daily basis. I only wish I could stick around a little bit longer to see some of my favourite students grow up and graduate.

2. My friends: I’ve met so many wonderful people during the past year that it would be impossible to list them all. But there are a few I will miss more than others. Hamasaki-san is technically my supervisor but I think of her more as a friend. We went hiking together. Played volleyball and tennis together. Went swimming together. Ate dinner at each other’s homes. I played video games with her older daughter and shared a bed with her younger daughter whenever I slept over. Her English is about as good as my Japanese so we communicated mostly through gestures and a lot of laughter. We were driving to tennis practice one night and Hamasaki-san was unusually quiet. I could tell that she wanted to say something in English and she was rehearsing it inside her head first. Then she blurted it out, “I’m very happy I met you. You are not afraid to try anything. I want to be like you.” I was so touched I almost cried. I told her she shouldn’t want to be like me. I’m a mess! If anything, I want to be like her. She’s one of the most kind-hearted, generous and honest people I’ve ever met. She has two beautiful daughters and a wonderful husband. She is someone I will probably keep in touch with for the rest of my life. Same goes for my friend Sachi, the Hashimoto family and the vice-principal.

3. Small-town life: I used to think I was a big-city girl but I’m not so sure anymore. I really like living in a small rural town. Life is simple here. It’s quiet and peaceful and safe and I can get everywhere I need to go by bicycle. The pace is unhurried. The people are friendly. Almost all of the food I eat is grown just outside of town. I can’t leave the apartment without running into someone I know. People stop by to drop off vegetables from their gardens or just to say hello. It’s nice. There’s a real sense of community in a small town. It makes me think that maybe I’d like to settle down in a rural area someday (just not a place inhabited by right-wing crazies).

4. The culture: Japanese culture blows me away. The food, the language, the music, the art, the architecture, the religion, the customs, the traditions. There are so many things that are uniquely Japanese. Whether it’s traditional culture (tea ceremony, kabuki and flower arranging) or pop culture (Hello Kitty, love hotels and manga), it’s all fascinating.

5. The language: Even though I am far from fluent, I will miss speaking, reading and writing Japanese. I loved speaking Japanese. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment. It was a small thrill to (occasionally) understand and to be understood in another language.

6. The efficiency: One of my favourite things about Japan is that everything starts on time. Trains come at exactly the minute they’re supposed to. If the train is scheduled to arrive at 12:32 p.m., it will arrive at exactly 12:32 p.m. If a party is supposed to start at 6 p.m., it will start at exactly 6 p.m. Showing up on time means arriving 10 minutes early. Weekend plans are made months in advance. As an extremely punctual, meticulously organized and pathologically reliable person, I was in paradise. Finally! A whole country full of people just as anal as me!

7. The food: I love Japanese food. It’s all about presentation, variety and seasonality. Not to mention the fact that it’s damn delicious. My favourite dish is katsuo tataki, which is lightly seared raw tuna served on top of shaved radish. The fish is drizzled with soy sauce and eaten with chunks of raw garlic. I’m also a big fan of udon, fried tofu, okonomiyaki (a type of pancake), onigiri (rice triangles wrapped in seaweed) and raw octopus. Still, I would kill for a falafel or a burrito right about now . . .

8. Volleyball: I used to hate volleyball before I came to Japan. Now it’s one of the highlights of my week. Who knew?

9. The sounds: I love listening to the frogs in the rice fields outside my bedroom window at night. In the morning, I love hearing the scream of cicadas. I love the sound of the train rushing past my apartment. I love hearing the weird song the town plays over the loudspeakers at 6:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. every single day. But most of the time, I just enjoy the sound of silence. No car alarms. No sirens. No honking horns. Just bugs and birds and frogs.

10. Tea ceremony: I took tea ceremony classes twice a week. My teacher was a fiery, stubborn and strong-willed 80-year-old woman whose students called her “Tiger” behind her back. I fell in love with her right away. Classes were held at her house, nestled in the mountains outside of town. She lives in a beautiful old house, with a traditional Japanese garden and tearoom. I was her only student under the age of 40. I think she liked having a young foreigner as a student because she refused to let me pay for lessons and our classes usually stretched on for three hours. I like everything about Japanese tea ceremony. I like its rustic simplicity. I like the natural architecture of my teacher’s teahouse with its unpainted wooden surfaces, tatami-covered floors, sliding screen doors, simple flower arrangement and hanging scroll. The tea bowls are rough and imperfect. The ceremony itself is quiet and reflective. It’s both incredibly complex and beautifully simple. Kind of like Japan itself.

11. The little things: Heated toilet seats, vending machines on every corner, polyester track suits, mind-numbing variety shows, cold green tea in summer, hot green tea in winter, service with a smile, bowing, hanging laundry to dry on the balcony, not saying “bless you” when people sneeze, the view of the mountains from my window, Hello Kitty toilet paper, walking past rice fields on the way to work, fall leaves, cute cartoon characters, cute everything, getting drunk on sake underneath a cherry tree, butchered English on t-shirts and billboards, weird TV shows, salarymen, bullet trains, cell phones, pachinko, purikura. There’s too much to mention. I love it all.

Overall, this past year has been one of the best years of my life. Japan is an amazing, complicated and fascinating place. I was hoping to leave Japan with a husband but I guess I’ll have to settle for a lifetime of memories instead.

Nihon ga daisuki desu. Domo arigato gozaimashita.