We Day!

I spent my day listening to inspiring speeches, fangirl-ing hard over awesome celebrities, rushing the stage for even more awesome celebrities, and dancing and cheering with over 20,000 other people.

Welcome to We Day!

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We Day started at the crack of dawn (6:30am) for me as a volunteer Crowd Pumper Champion.  And yes, the role is as snazzy as it sounds.  Essentially, I lead a group of Crowd Pumpers and we helped to keep the energy high at Free The Children’s signature empowerment event and concert for social justice: We Day!

This was actually my fourth We Day.  I attended the first ever We Day event in Toronto (way back in ’07) as a high school student.  I remember being packed into the Ricoh Colleseum (it’s now held at the ACC) and furiously trying to take down notes from the motivational speakers who took to the stage.  In 2013, while working as a co-op student with Free The Children Vancouver, I got to work We Day Seattle – the first We Day in the US! It was crazy to see how much prep went into the event.  But one of the most inspiring moments of my life was watching that arena fill up with students I had worked so hard to get there (dancing along to Macklemore’s performance wasn’t too bad either).  And this spring, I arranged my travel schedule so I would be able to volunteer at We Day UK (the first We Day outside of North America and my third We Day “first”).  The day was insane and I was blown away by Ellie Goulding, Malala Yousafzai and, of course, Prince Harry!

This year as a Champion volunteer, I had a little more responsibility.  I got to be in charge of a group of volunteers, wear the world’s largest headset and rush to the stage for our special guest! It was awesome to be more involved and watch my group of Crowd Pumpers doing just that – getting the youth excited about We Day and excited about making a change.

Training our awesome volunteers!

Training our awesome volunteers!

One of my favourite parts about every We Day is just the infectious energy in the room.  These students come running into the arena in matching shirts, holding handmade signs and screaming their heads off.  When we all do the We Day dance, as cheesy as it seems, I can’t help but grin.  The power of 20,000 people doing the “traffic controller” (as cool as it sounds) is not to be underestimated!

This is what 20,000 inspired youth look like!

This is what 20,000 inspired youth look like!

With each new We Day, I find myself connecting to different stories and speakers.  Today, I was particularly blown away by a young girl named Ashley Murphy, who shared her experience living with HIV.  She was incredibly well spoken and her passion and sense of self was so evident.  I also loved hearing from the girls who attend Kitsaruni School in Kenya and Mama Helen from Me to We artisans.

Of course, the celebrity guests weren’t too bad either :) Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were awesome to see.  Unfortunately, they didn’t perform.  But I was impressed with how often they got on stage and shared with the room.  Orlando Bloom (or his shoes, which were all I could see of him from behind the stage) was also pretty impressive.  Other guests who got some big screams: Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas, Debby Ryan, Kardinal Offishall, Shawn Mendes and Mariana’s Trench.

I spot Macklemore & Ryan Lewis!

I spot Macklemore & Ryan Lewis!

There were a few moments I didn’t love.  I didn’t love how obvious the teleprompters were to read from my section.  It certainly takes away from the sincerity of the event if you can read the speaker’s heartfelt words before they say them. And at times, the Crowd Pumpers seemed really disorganized, weren’t staying in their spots and, worst of all, weren’t pumping anyone up! It was a little discouraging, but, luckily, it wasn’t the norm.  At the end of the day, everyone left the arena having received a huge influx of positive energy.

Speaking of the end of the day: to close the show, Free The Children brought out……JENNIFER LOPEZ! We had heard her rehearsing the night before and I was so giddy.  Luckily, us volunteers on headsets got some advance notice and booked it to the stage in time for her reveal.  I was only a row or two back from JLo! Jenny from the freaking block! And, she was phenomenal.  The dancing, the outfits, the music – blown away! And add to that the fact that she is a 40-something mother of twins! I’m sure some of the Catholic elementary school teachers will disagree with me (given some of the dance moves), but I thought it was SO GOOD!

JLO!!!!!

JLO!!!!!

Yup, I took a selfie with Jenny from the Block

Yup, I took a selfie with Jenny from the Block

JLo & Selena Gomez!

JLo & Selena Gomez!

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Well, that’s We Day for you! It was amazing and exhausting.  I got about 2 hours of sleep last night (after a day of school, a midterm and volunteer training) so I am so ready to pass out.  Thanks for a wonderful day FTC & friends!

Where are you headed next?

I used to love that question. For the last 4 years, there has always been an upcoming trip for me.  From interning in the Dominican Republic after graduating from high school, to my most recent summer month working in Tokyo, Japan, I’ve always had some new locale marked in my calendar.

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But for the first time in a long while, I’ve had to answer that question with, “nowhere.”  I don’t have any upcoming trips, exchanges, volunteer or work opportunities scheduled anywhere around the globe.  Most people get anxious when they have a big trip coming up; I find myself getting anxious that I don’t have one. 

I’ve settled into a pretty good routine here in Vancouver with work, school and social things.  I go to church. I visit the library.  I have a neighbourhood grocery store, and an infinitely cheaper grocery store a short bus ride away.  It would be more than fair to say I’m comfortable with my Vancouver life as it stands.

And usually when I get comfortable, I get that itch to go somewhere new and try something slightly uncomfortable and unknown.  I usually scour travel deal websites with abandon and don’t stop until I’ve found some obscure contest or job posting.  I’m usually open to that next adventure.

But this time, I’m not feeling the itch to leave.  I’m not on travel websites or scrolling through (too many) destination guides.  I’m not blindly applying to jobs I’m unqualified for, just because they happen to be set in insert cool city name here.  And I think it’s because instead of going somewhere new, I’m trying something new.  I’m committing to live in an awesome city for at least two years.  I’m starting a full time job.  And I’m going to be signing a proper lease on a new place.  A part of me is scared that I’ll get too comfortable and forget to leave again.  But honestly, I don’t see that happening.

So for now, I’ve traded in Lonely Planet guide books for the IKEA catalogue and weekend breaks to the cheapest European cities for new restaurants and gorgeous views around Vancouver.  I’m excited to try this “settled” thing for a while, knowing my version of settled will probably still involve a few globe-crossing trips whenever I have the time (and excuse).

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Okay, I lied.  I do have a family trip coming up this Christmas, so I guess that counts as where I’m headed next.  I’ll be back in Toronto mid-December for job training and then take off with my step mom’s side of the family for a week in the Dominican.  We had a few awesome days together at the cottage this summer and I’m excited to do that again but with more sun and more open bars :) 

Big News!

Last Thursday I received some BIG news.

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After 3 rounds of interviews, I was informed on Thursday morning that, as of December 1st, I will be Free The Children‘s new Educational Programming Coordinator (EPC) on their Washington State team! YAY!!!!

Securing a full-time job for immediately after graduation with a Bachelor of Arts is reason enough to celebrate these days.  But securing that job at an organization I so deeply admire, with a fantastic workplace culture and exposure to awesome organizational activities makes me ecstatic! #dreamjob

I had the pleasure of doing a co-op term at Free The Children’s Vancouver office last winter.  I got to work with an amazing team to help pull off Free The Children’s signature event, We Day, for the first time in the United States.  We ended up packing the arena in Seattle with thousands of kids and brought a whole new wave of inspiration and change to youth in Washington.  Standing in that full stadium and watching it light up with the enthusiasm of 3000+ youth inspired to make a difference in their world was one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.  To be able to do that on a more permanent basis as an EPC is going to be awesome!

My new role as EPC for Washington State is going to be based out of the Vancouver office, with lots of cross-border communication with schools in Washington.  However, it does mean that I’ll be living in Vancouver for the foreseeable future (or next 2 years, as per my contract, at least).  Well I have been living in Vancouver off-and-on for the last four years, I’m really looking forward to the adventure of living here permanently.  I’m going to sign a lease that isn’t just for four or eight months.  I’ve already invested in some heavy duty rain boots (a rain jacket still needs to be purchased).  And I might even consider finding a local doctor/dentist to make the transition complete.

So to sum up my big news: I got a job! I got my dream job.  And I get to do my dream job in one of my favourite cities: Vancouver.  

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PS: Thursday was also the day that I finally had it with my BlackBerry (which I’ve had since 2010).  When I got the good news from Free The Children, my phone decided to drop the call twice and completely shut down the second time.  So I marched down to the mall after school and got myself all set up with a new phone and plan.  So far, no calls have been dropped and I’m slowly learning to type on a touch screen.  Yay for modern technology!

The little things

One thing I’m trying to do more often is to take note, and be grateful for, the little things.  The last year+ of my life has been about a lot of big things: new school, new jobs, new friends and new countries.  But now that my life is settling a little bit more into a routine, I think it’s important that I still have those things that make me smile when I get up in the morning.  My life has always been filled with a lot of wonderful, and now it’s time to appreciate it all!

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Flowers

Bring on the bloom!

Bring on the bloom!

I love fresh flowers! They instantly brighten a room and brighten my mood.  My friend, whose room I’m subletting, welcomed me back to Vancouver with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers and I’m vowing to keep that vase full until her return.  So every week or two, I treat myself to a small bouquet and watch the petals and pollen fall onto my dresser.

Candles

I’ve always loved candles but that love grew to obsession during my months at Bath & Body Works.  While I (somehow) resisted buying the entire candle inventory, I do have a few great smelling ones on hand.  Currently burning: Winter Cranberry (delicious, I highly recommend you sniff it, if given the chance).

Tea

So after trying for about a year to get into tea, I finally made the conversion! It took living for 5 months with two tea addicts in Amsterdam to get me into the routine of brewing (almost) nightly.  I stocked up on some delicious flavours from David’s Tea (my favourite: Forever Nuts) and get to feel a touch more sophisticated when I sit down in front of Netflix with my loose leaf cup of heaven.

Snail Mail

Yes, it’s dated and practically useless but I LOVE snail mail! I love sending letters and I love receiving them (hint hint!).  If I ever won the lottery, a good chunk of it would go to stationary and cards so I could send to my heart’s delight.

Photos

My Amsterdam wall :)

My Amsterdam wall :)

If you’ve ever seen my room, you know it to be covered in photos.  I still haven’t graduated to a more adult sense of interior design so my walls currently have about 50 photos and postcards lovingly taped and sticky-tacked to them.  I love reliving my best memories and seeing the smiling faces of friends and family who might be quite a few miles away.  Eventually, I’m hoping to refine this habit with some fancy frames and artistic lay-outs, but for now it’s mainly a smorgasbord of smiles and very little bare wall space.

Library Books

I’ve always been a huge reader.  Having so much reading to do for school has put a bit of a damper on my leisure reading these last few years but whenever I travel, I love having a book in my bag.  So I decided to continue that tradition here in Vancouver by getting my own library card and becoming a regular at my local library (just 2 blocks away!).  Currently reading: Three Cups of Tea.

Church

I was first introduced to Coastal Church way back in 2011 by a UBC friend.  I immediately fell in love with the passionate worship, uplifting sermons and beautiful people.  While my attendance has been spotty (at best) over the last few years, I’ve committed to making the Sunday trek to Coastal a part of my life this year.  I enjoy it every time I go and am hoping to get more involved with the church once school lets up.

And…everything else! 

Of course, there are many more awesome things in my life: a line-up of new TV shows, wonderful friends, a new workout, interesting classes and lots to learn at work.  But when I get stressed, for example by a midterm and essay due on Thursday that have gotten very little attention, it’s the little things above that keep me smiling.

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Week 3 – I’m not doing too bad so far!

Those first few weeks…

Those first few September weeks in Vancouver are my favourite time of year.

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The sun is still shining. The mountains are uncovered from rain or fog.  The sea is sparkling.  And the leaves are just thinking about changing colour.

There’s an excitement in the city.  An influx of new people, new students or just year-long Vancouverites, trying to hold onto the last bits of summer. The energy that comes with a new school year, a homecoming and a fresh start palpitates throughout Vancouver.

The sunset view from my friend's 17th floor apartment

The sunset view from my friend’s 17th floor apartment

And in these blissful few weeks, before midterms and the rain catch up with us, I remember just how gorgeous this city is and how lucky I am to live in it.  Sadly, in my four years of attending UBC, I haven’t done nearly enough Vancouver-exploring.  This year, I’m hoping to change that.

The 2010 Olympic torches. Can you believe I haven't actually seen these before?

The 2010 Olympic torches. Can you believe I haven’t actually seen these before?

The last few weekends here have been gloriously sunny.  And Vancouverites have been soaking up that sun like it won’t last (because it never does).  After church, I’ve taken to walking down to the sea wall and just marvelling at this perfect mix of city, water and nature.  I’ll sit with my book and find myself looking up every few pages just to appreciate the insane view and try to ingrain in into my memory before the weeks months of rain inevitably hit.

City, water, sky and me relaxing with my book = bliss!

City, water, mountains and me relaxing with my book = bliss!

Wait, I have a blog?

Oh, that’s right. I do. Whoops!

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So writing on this blog of mine has been intermittent, at best, over the last 3 years. At one point, I was blogging daily during my first solo trip to Europe. And at other points, I’ve gone so long without writing that I’ve forgotten my WordPress password!  But I guess it makes sense that a travel blog (or an amateur version of one) is only updated when I’m travelling.

But I didn’t create a blog purely as a travel diary. In fact, I had no travel plans when I published my first (kind of depressing) post. This blog was a place to escape. It was a place to dream. It was a place to create the fulfilled, exciting and adventure-ish life that I wanted. This blog was for me.

And that’s what I want to get back to. While this blog has worked out great for sharing travel photos and stories with friends and family back home, I don’t want to completely ignore it whenever I’m not travelling.  Because I think there are quite a few teaspoons of adventure to be had on home soil too!

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My new vow: Write on this blog. Write regularly. Write once a week.  Write for me. I’ve always loved to write, and this is a wonderful platform to do it on. It might not always be travel related (though, knowing me, it often will be). And I’ll probably experiment with different styles. And I don’t assume or expect a large following of readers because of it. But writing weekly will keep me accountable, give me a chance to flex some writing skills and remind me how grateful I am for the wonderful adventure-almost-full life I am currently leading!

Seen in the basement of UBC's Student Union...and a wonderful statement about my old haphazard blogging commitment

Seen in the basement of UBC’s Student Union…and a wonderful statement about my old haphazard blogging commitment

Week 1 and done! See ya next week :)

Adventures with the Kosekis

Besides feeding me, housing me and putting up with my inability to speak Japanese, the wonderful Koseki family has also been touring me around some of Tokyo’s hot spots.

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Festivals & Fireworks
My first weekend with the Kosekis coincided with the annual Plum Festival.  Our local shrine in Fuchu hosted a series of stalls and a boat-load of people.  There were a few stalls dedicated to plum sales and the rest sold other Japanese foods.  There were even game stalls for the kids.  And all of the people were flocking to the shrine to get in their prayers/wishes.  There was a scary long line of people but Mrs. Koseki showed me a short cut: we just did our prayers off to the side of the shrine!

Celebrating the festival at the Fuchu shrine!

Celebrating the festival at the Fuchu shrine!

Sword demos at the festival

Sword demos at the festival

That same weekend, Fuchu put on a huge fireworks show.  Most people headed to the Tokyo Racehorse Track for good views. Mrs. Koseki walked me around the track that afternoon and by 4:00pm the place was already packed with people and countless picnic blankets to reserve spots.  Lucky for us, we had the best seats in the house: our balcony! We decided to have a BBQ out on the balcony and then stay up there for the fireworks.  At the same time, Mother Nature decided to throw down her craziest rain, thunder and lightning storm! Fortunately, all we had to do was roll out the awning but I felt awful for all the spectators, including my friend Sean and his host family, sitting out at the uncovered racetrack.  For a while it looked like the storm was going to cancel the fireworks, but the show went on, with only a 20 minute delay.

And it was the coolest fireworks show I have ever seen! Not only were the fireworks themselves impressive (there were even ones with letters and numbers!) but they were accompanied by great music (including “Let It Go” in Japanese) and LIGHTNING! It was so cool to actually be able to see the bolts of lightning in between the fireworks; I have never seen anything like that before! The whole sky was going crazy.  My host sister Yuko was trying desperately to capture the lightning on camera but was never quite quick enough.  I guess some things are just meant to be enjoyed technology-free.

All Aboard the HATO Bus
The next weekend started early with a 7am wake-up on Saturday.  We had to rise early in order to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market before all of the action was over.  The real action begins at 5:00am with the daily tuna auction.  Members of the public can attend the auction, but that involves arriving at 4:30am (or earlier!) to queue for tickets.  So we went with a casual stroll of the stalls around 9:30am.  Tsukiji is giant! It also reeks, being a fish market, and is boiling hot since it’s covered but not air conditioned.  Despite the heat, and the smell, we trekked around the stalls and were able to take in all manner of seafood and sweaty men running around in galoshes, hacking at fish parts or riding on motorized carts.  It was quite the sight!

Just casually straddling a giant fish

Just casually straddling a giant fish

After taking in the business side of the market, we walked around the even hotter vendor stalls where we stopped for some mid-morning sushi.  We stood outside one of the restaurants on a street filled with market-goers waiting for their chance to taste the catch of the day.  Finally, we entered the ten-seat restaurant and feasted on the most delicious, fresh and filling sushi I have ever tasted!  The fish literally melted in your mouth.  It was amazing, and had a price tag to match.  Fun fact: I just found out that Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, who are in town shooting a movie, ate at the exact same restaurant a few days ago!

BEST SUSHI EVER!

BEST SUSHI EVER!

From sushi to skylines: we headed up to Tokyo Tower to take in the views.  This would be my 2nd of 4 tower observatories I got to visit in Tokyo; that’s a lot of city views to take in.

The Tokyo Tower

The Tokyo Tower

All of the fish and towers were just to fill our morning before our actually sightseeing adventure: a HATO bus tour! Now, I am usually not a big fan of tour buses.  And when our guide began the tour by handing out (mandatory) stickers we had to wear on our person, I had to suppress my eye roll.  But, my host mom had done a lot of planning for this and had never been on a HATO bus herself.  Plus, my host parents had even signed us up for the English tour despite their difficulty with the language.

Our HATO bus (air conditioned, thank God) first dropped us off at the pier where we took a ferry up the river to Asakusa.  The views from the boat weren’t too spectacular, but it was fun to be on the water.

Tokyo by water

Tokyo by water

At Asakusa, our guide explained that the place would be packed due to the fireworks scheduled there that evening.  But we pushed through the crowds and made our way to the oldest shrine in Tokyo!  The Shinto shrine was built back in the 600s and our guide walked us through the traditional shrine procedure.  First, you wash your hands (and possibly drink? Though whether you actually drink or just fake it seems to be debated) from a fountain in front of the shrine.  Next, you approach the shrine and throw a coin (usually 5 yen) into a large basin.  This offering is followed by two bows, two claps, a moment to introduce yourself to the god(s) and make your wish, and one final bow.

Asakusa

Asakusa

After visiting the shrine, we had a bit more time to explore Asakusa.  I particularly loved the five-storey pagoda and giant lanterns.  The main shopping strip was filled with people but I weaved my way through and managed to snag some delicious Japanese pastries.

Check out that pagoda

Check out that pagoda

The next stop: the Imperial Palace!  En route our guide explained that the current emperor, who is symbolic and has no real political power, is eighty years old and had married a commoner (the first to do so).  His eldest son, in his fifties, will inherit the emperor-ship (I’ve decided that’s a word) once the current emperor passes.  However, this eldest son only has one child, a daughter.  Women are not allowed to be emperors (boo!).  So after the eldest son, the crown (do emperors wear crowns?) passes to the second eldest son’s son…who is four years old at the moment! Of course, he’ll have lots of time to grow up and get ready for his role, but it was pretty comical when the tour guide passed around photos of a buck-toothed toddler proclaiming him as the future emperor of Japan!

With my host parents outside the palace

With my host parents outside the palace

Unfortunately, all we did at the Imperial Palace was walk a number of sweaty paces around the perimeter.  I thought we’d be going inside! But after reaching the front gates, we were herded back onto the bus for our final stop: (another) observatory!  Our guide walked us around the top floor of the World Trade Center Building (way too eerie to be in that elevator) for another crazy view of Tokyo.  Finally, after 4+ hours of touring, we were dropped off at Tokyo Station.  Mr. & Mrs. Koseki hailed a cab and I slept soundly in the back the whole way home.

And All That Eating
I honestly don’t think I’ve eaten better than these last three weeks in Tokyo.  Mrs. Koseki is a wonderful chef; every night is a delicious Japanese dish and she has yet to serve the same thing twice! But sometimes we take our eating adventures outside of the house.

After hearing about my love of sushi, Mrs. Koseki found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant nearby and we all headed there for dinner.  Conveyor belt sushi, which has a much nicer name I’m forgetting in Japanese, is literally a conveyor belt that surrounds the sushi bar from which diners can pick up plates of sushi.  It was fun to watch the delicious plates slide by our table and dive in to pick up the ones we wanted.  But, being serious sushi people, we could only put up with the conveyor belt for so long before we just ordered directly from the waitress.  And, at the end of the meal, a waiter came by with a scanner gun and quickly scanned our mountain of 30+ plates.  And with that, the price was determined!

Yuko & Mr. Koseki chowing down!

Yuko & Mr. Koseki chowing down!

All that sushi!

All that sushi!

The Sunday after our crazy HATO bus tour, the Kosekis and I journeyed to their family friend, Keiko’s, house for dinner.  Keiko’s husband is actually Mrs. Koseki’s English teacher, and was eager to speak English with me.  It was nice to have someone to communicate with but awkward to have so much attention put on me.  He kept insisting that everyone practice their English and interrupting conversations to translate for me.  But, the entire family was so lovely.  Their daughter, Mari, and her husband, a famous Japanese chef, joined us for dinner as well.  They were both very well-traveled and spoke great English.  Later, Mrs. Koseki showed me a cookbook she had that was actually written by Mari’s husband! But that night Keiko did most of the cooking.  We ate outdoors, enjoying a BBQ of ribs, corn, fish, potatoes and a few other items I’m forgetting.  At first, everyone was trying to eat the items with chopsticks (including the ribs) but eventually most of us gave in and used our hands.  A few hours later we finished the evening with peaches, cake and coffee indoors.

Dinner party gang

Dinner party gang

During my last week here, we went out for dinner twice.  Once, with some LABO ladies and a second time for my host-sister Yuko’s birthday.

We met up with our local LABO tutor and a few LABO moms for a traditional Japanese girls’ night feasting on traditional Japanese foods.  It was really fun to hang out with these kind women and eating as well as we did.  The meal consisted of 8 courses which included sashimi, lettuce pork wraps, teriyaki fish and soba.  Everything was so yummy!

And the next night, we walked over to same area and settled into an Italian restaurant for Yuko’s birthday.  Suffice to say I didn’t think I would ever be going to an Italian restaurant during my 3 weeks in Japan.  But overall, the food was actually quite good….I just don’t know how authentically Italian it was.  Instead of ordering individual dishes, Mrs. Koseki ordered a series of dishes for the table.  We had appetizers, salad, steak, fries and, of course, pasta.  The homemade lasagne was probably my favourite.  At the end, our waitress brought out a cake for Yuko and we all sang to her before diving into the chocolate-y goodness.

Happy Birthday Yuko!

Happy Birthday Yuko!

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And today marks my last day with the Kosekis :( Last night they gave me a mini photo album to document some of our adventures together.  It was very sweet and I’m sure I will never forget the Kosekis and how kind they have been to me.

Tea & Calligraphy

One of the best parts about my Japanese lessons in Tokyo are our field trips.  Most days we go on mini-field trips in the afternoon: we visit the hyaku (100) yen shoppu (aka the dollar store), department stores, the local jinja (shrine), the post office and wherever else we can walk without melting away in the heat.

But some days are solely dedicated to big field trips.

On our first week, a group of us set off to take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  The journey began with a very long series of subways, waiting and trains until we finally found this little house out in the suburbs.  We were greeted by three older Japanese women dressed in traditional kimonos.

The first step of the tea ceremony is to put on clean white socks (which many of us had purchased the day before from the hyaku yen shoppu).  Next, we took turns entering the tea room doing the prescribed motions: kneel, scoot (literally, push forward on your knees) into the room, walk over to the wall, kneel & bow, walk to the corner, walk to the tea, walk somewhere else and, finally, sit along the wall in a kneeled position.

Waiting her turn to scoot into the room!

Waiting her turn to scoot into the room!

Unfortunately, this position grew extremely painful very quickly.  So painful, that one of the students could barely stand, let alone walk across the room, to get her tea.  Thankfully, the women let us shift and sit sideways when we weren’t drinking tea.

The actual tea drinking was even more complicated than the walking.  We had two types of tea (thin and thick) as well as an assortment of sweets before each tea tasting.  With each tea, there was a procedure of bows and bowl turns that had to be done correctly.  Overall, the entire experience was very cool.  I doubt I will ever again be able to take part in a traditional tea ceremony in Japan…though my thighs will probably thank me for that!

After our tea ceremony

After our tea ceremony

The next week, our group took on Japanese calligraphy.  The sensai showed us how to use the brush properly and demonstrated her skills.  Unfortunately, those skills didn’t quite transfer to me.  I had wanted to write the kanji characters for “adventure” but after another student chose that I settled on “travel”.  And we spent the next couple of hours (aka way too long to be attempting calligraphy) working on our pieces.  It was fun at first, using the brush and ink and throwing bad attempts onto the ground, but it quickly got old.  I don’t think I have much of a future in calligraphy.

Celina hard at work

Celina hard at work

Showing off our "masterpieces"

Showing off our “masterpieces”

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Getting a taste of the traditions of Japan during my three weeks in Tokyo – how lucky am I?

Learning Japanese

If you told me at the beginning of this year that I would be spending 3 weeks learning Japanese in Tokyo this summer, I wouldn’t have believed it.  Not that Japan wasn’t on my list, but the idea of visiting Japan this summer (after 5 months away in Amsterdam) and trying to get a grasp on their language (when languages are not my strong point) still seems surreal.

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Japanese is a beautiful language. Beautifully complicated.  From what I understand (after 2 weeks of learning), there are three “alphabet” sets.  The first, hiragana, is comprised of 46 individual characters each with their own sound. Combining the characters, and sounds, makes words.  The second set, katakana, is 46 DIFFERENT characters with the SAME SOUNDS as hiragana.  Katakana is used for foreign words, aka words taken from English.  So for example, “intaanetto” is katakana for “internet” and “aisukuriimu” is “ice cream”.  And here I was thinking Japanese people were just speaking English with an accent – turns out, they’ve made English their own!

Lastly, there’s kanji.  Kanji are the same characters used in Mandarin, Cantonese and probably a bunch of other Asian dialects.  But, there’s a twist: these same characters I might be familiar with from my years taking Mandarin are now pronounced differently in Japanese!  And, to make it even harder: hiragana, katakana and kanji are all used together in any given passage of Japanese.  So to say tackling this language is tough would be a HUGE understatement.

Luckily, there is no better place to learn than where I am right now.  Every day I trek into the city and meet my classmates for our Japanese lessons.  There are only 8 of us in the beginner class and we spend most mornings learning new vocabulary, grammar, characters, etc.  In the afternoons, we often go on mini-fieldtrips around the Shinjuku area.  It gives us a chance to practice what we’ve learned (like the time we practiced ordering in Japanese at McDonalds), get outside the classroom and grow an immense appreciation for our building’s air con.

After class we usually spend some time exploring new areas of Tokyo or grabbing a snack before heading back to our respective host families.  It’s cool to see how much Japanese we can use outside of the classroom and away from our always-correcting sensais (teachers).  For a city as big as Tokyo, it’s still strange to me that it seems so isolated from foreigners.  Of course, there are a good number of tourists, but non-Japanese expats don’t seem to account for much of the population.  And, accordingly, English is not commonly spoken, seen or understood.

Finally, we start and end everyday with our wonderful host families.  What better way to absorb a language than to live in a house where it is spoken all the time? To see the language in the daily newspaper, hear it on the TV and watch it come to life across the kitchen table.  And while most of it goes over my head, I’m always excited when I understand a few words or have a chance to use one of my well-rehearsed greetings.

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With our final week upon us, I only have a few days left to soak up as much culture, sight-seeing, delicious food and Japanese language as I can.  Wish me luck!

 

Tokyo Twenty-Two

On July 17th, I turned 22! (cue Taylor Swift’s lyrical interpretation of this new milestone)

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I’ve gotten to celebrate my birthday in some pretty cool places: I turned 14 at a beachside resort in the Philippines, 18 on horseback in the Dominican Republic, 21 squealing over penguins in Cape Town, South Africa and now 22 in Tokyo!

On my actual birthday, I didn’t do much outside of my usual routine.  I still woke up at 8am, ate breakfast with Mrs. Koseki and headed off for school by 9am.  At school, the students wished me a happy birthday and the rest of the day continued with lessons as planned.  Of course, spending all day learning Japanese wouldn’t be my first choice for a birthday celebration, but I had been expecting it.

After class I took the subway to Tokyo’s Ginza district.  It was a lot like Toronto’s Yorkville, filled with fancy shops and things I couldn’t afford.  But it was fun to window shop and check out another part of this giant city.  I even stopped to treat myself to a few pieces of delicious sushi.  It doesn’t get much better than sushi in Japan!

Checking out Ginza's famous clock tower

Checking out Ginza’s famous clock tower

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My host family had let me know that we would celebrate my birthday on the 18th, since Mr. Koseki and Yuko were both away on the 17th.  I wasn’t sure what the celebration would entail, as I’ve heard birthdays aren’t a huge deal in Japan.  But I was so touched and blown away by what they had planned.

On the 18th I came home to a dinner of homemade sushi.  Except, this sushi looked just as good, if not better, than restaurant sushi! And, it was accompanied by a bottle of champagne.  They made me pop the cork and then the whole family tucked in to some delicious food!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

After sushi, they pulled out a cake that had my name written on it and candles bought just for me.  Everyone sang and I tried not to laugh as Mr. Koseki, who actually has a lovely singing voice, struggled to pronounce my name in time with the song.  Pictures were taken, candles were blown out and cake was stuffed into our already full stomachs.

Yuko & I

Yuko & I

"I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22!"

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22!”

The family then presented me with gifts.  I wasn’t expecting anything, but really appreciated the tokens of Japan they gifted me with.  Mrs. Koseki’s aunt gave me a beautiful handkerchief that had Mt. Fuji and two little cats on it.  Mrs. Koseki bought me a traditional fan decorated with Japanese goldfish.  And Yuko gave me the coolest card depicting a Japanese festival.

Beautiful host family gifts

Beautiful host family gifts

After all that, the family took me out to the balcony where we lit sparklers.  I’ve never been one for pyrotechnics, but I really enjoyed watching the sparklers go off, especially when Mrs. Koseki’s aunt seemed almost afraid of hers.

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Sparklers!

Sparklers!

The next day, Mrs. Koseki took me to a LABO party.  LABO is the organization hosting us here in Tokyo and teaching our Japanese lessons.  They also run English clubs for Japanese families and facilitate homestays for Japanese children in English-speaking countries.  At the LABO party I watched a few skits and speeches by the kids, participated in a game of human knot and even gave a speech myself about all of the places I’ve travelled.  I pulled out my pictures, when one kid asked what kind of animals I had seen, and was immediately swarmed by all of the children (and their parents!).  It was a really fun event!

Towards the end of the party, the LABO organizers surprised me by getting everyone to sing happy birthday.  One of the high school girls then presented me with a handmade card she had drawn and gotten her friends to sign.  And one of the moms gave me a package of chopsticks that she explained the LABO moms had handmade for me.

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

From my host family to people I had just met; I still can’t believe how sweet and kind everyone has been.  22 will definitely be a birthday to remember :)