japan

Engagement: Peter & Abi

While I was in Japan I got to share half a desk with Abi; she and Seth made me sit at the crack! We got to talk quite a bit while we worked, and through our conversation I learned what a beautiful soul she is. She cares deeply about people and loves God with her whole heart. She is also a very hospitable person and helped make the interns feel welcomed and comfortable a world away from what they were used to.

So I knew Peter had to be someone special too, and he is! He is funny and kind, and together they make a wonderful couple. Hanging out with them for a couple hours to shoot was full of laughter and joy for the journey they are taking. 

Allowing Sadness

I wished I hadn’t watched Inside Out when I flew back to the States on Sunday. It is about a little girl’s emotions as she grows up, and at age 11 moves from Wisconsin to California. Her emotions are depicted as the characters Sadness, Joy, Anger, Pain, and Disgust. [If you haven’t watched the movie yet, I would do so before continuing to read.] At first the movie really frustrated me. The idea of someone being controlled solely by their emotions does not sit well with me. Sadness, in particular, annoyed me as she had the habit of touching joyful memories and making them sad memories. As the story progresses you see Joy and Sadness get lost recovering some joyful core memories, leaving the other three emotions to control the girl. The girl acts out to her parents and slowly she loses her love of friends, hockey, and even family. Eventually it gets so bad that she decides to run away from her new home. But just as she is leaving on the bus, Joy and Sadness return the core memories. Joy realizes that Sadness needs to touch some memories with sadness so that her girl can move on. This way the girl can still remember her previous home in a healthy way while looking forward with a positive attitude to her new home. The girl gets off the bus and returns home to realize that she can move on.

Grieving is not fun but it is a necessary part of life. The Friday night before I left was a rough night; I just wanted to watch Netflix and set aside my feelings for awhile. But I had read enough TCK blogs about how TCKs lock up their feelings to know what I was doing. So I closed my computer and started journaling and asking myself the hard questions. I hate to admit it, but those emotions sure came out! I allowed myself to cry about what I was losing in Japan, the friendships and work I had come to love. It was still hard to say goodbye, but I knew I had said a healthy goodbye. Now I can remember Japan with joy and a little sadness and allow myself to move forward with life. It’s more difficult now but in the long run it is healthier.

I would love to hear how you have learned to handle saying goodbye, whether to someone, someplace, or even something! 

Volcano Yakedake as seen from Kamikochi

Volcano Yakedake as seen from Kamikochi

Week 9: Cool People

There are some people out there whose stories are cool and humbling all at the same time. They have done things some barely dream of doing. Sometimes they do them for themselves, sometimes for others. But they do not give up and accomplish what they set out to do. Over the past couple weeks I got to meet two very special people with cool stories.

 I met Heike Pirngruber when a bunch of us decided to climb Mt Norikura. She was just starting to take her camp down when we arrived at the hiking starting point. We said hello and thought nothing more of it. During the hike up we crossed the main road several times. At one crossing we were taking a breather when Heike comes around the bend on her bike. A little surprised, we stopped to chat for a little. Obviously not Japanese, we asked her where she was from and she said Germany. As we got acquainted we learned that she has been to 29 countries over the course of 28 months! She had cycled through mostly Eastern European and Asian countries to finally arrive in Japan, her last Asian country. I wanted to share about her because she set her mind to doing this adventure and has not looked back. There were months at a time when she could speak to no one, yet she pushed on. Her blog is very well written and I highly recommend reading it. Her writing is insightful and honest, something I have come to appreciate in Japan. Link to her blog is at the end of this post.

Photo: Abi Erickson

Photo: Abi Erickson

I met Asa Yuki, Morning Snow, while taking onsen. Ty and I had gone to the free onsen, a short walk from NORTHSTAR, after our Yarigatake hike (post about that coming this weekend!). We spent around 30 minutes relaxing our very tired muscles. We were just thinking of leaving when an older gentleman came in. He spoke to us in broken English, asking us where we were from. When we told him we were from the States and Mexico, his eyes lit up. He told us that in 1979 he spent 8 months in the US, Mexico, and Guatemala. Then, we understood him to ask us if we would take a picture with him. Confused, we started to leave. He got out with us and we went up to the road where his SUV was. To my surprise, instead of pulling out an iPad to take pictures, he had a photo album. Inside were over 50 pictures of his time in Guatemala, mostly of people and Semana Santa (Holy Week). As I was flipping through he told me his favorite place in Mexico was Oaxaca, where I’m from! It was so great. After I finished looking through his lovely photos he told me that he wants to go back to Guatemala and give the photo album as a present to the families he photographed. I think it is wonderful how he thinks about these people often and wants to give back. He is from Tokyo and was visiting Norikura for the third or fourth time. Yet he kept this photo album from 1979 in his car, to remember.

Sometimes it takes specific circumstances to meet someone, sometimes it’s a casual meeting in an onsen Either way, it is important to take advantage of the situation, you never know what cool people you might meet!

Heike Pirngruber’s English blog

Week Eight: A Next Act

My heart is learning to love Japan, both its vistas and its people. I am captured by the dreams of the people here and feel unprepared to leave. I have never dealt with living someplace so intensely then quickly leaving. It is unsettling, especially once I think how I may never see these wonderful people again. Sure, Facebook and Instagram create digital, artificial, forms of communication, but do not take the place of living close to each other. For all I know I could be in Paraguay next and stay there for the 17 years.

I believe God gave me the gift of commitment. Once I choose to be committed to something it is very difficult for me to un-commit myself. So I committed 90 days of my life to Japan, but to leave feels like breaking a promise. It feels like I have only gotten started. There are so many things that could be done, that I could help with. But maybe it is not my place to have a physical role in them. In some ways, my coming to Japan was a key step in developing a dream. But a step is for supporting those who come after.

I have to believe that God’s plans for me and for Norikura are true, and that they may not coincide. Seth and I have been working through Donald Miller’s “Creating Your Life Plan.” The point of Donald’s book is to jump start your life and bring clarity. We are about half way through the plan and getting to the good part: seeing what you should focus on and how to achieve your goals. It has me thinking about what I really want to come next in my life and brings up some tough questions. Am I a photographer or designer? Or both? What is my goal in life? What steps should I take to achieve that goal?

Obviously I do not have answers yet but I know being in Japan has been a big part of God’s plan for me. I have to be ok with accepting the idea that God may have someplace else for me. I love Japan and will do my best while I am here. I believe God is already preparing me for the next step, and I am very thankful for the experiences that have brought me where I am today.


If you have heard of any photography or graphic design positions, I would love to hear from you! The next stage of life is exciting but also a little scary. Thank you for praying for me as I start taking my next steps! 

Week Seven: Beach Trip!

Thanks to everyone who has supported me so far! I cannot say it enough! I really appreciate everyone who is praying for me and the other staff at NORTHSTAR.

Two weeks ago I went off the grid for a few days. It was our fall break so we had four days off to do whatever we wanted. Brad and his wife Michie were planning a camping trip to the beach as well as visiting Michie’s parents, and they invited us interns to go along. We accepted, so on a rainy Tuesday morning we drove down the mountain and toward Michie’s home town. Our route was as follows: Norikura > Ueda > Toyama > Norikura. If you start at the red pin and go counter clock-wise that is the way we took.

Michie told us that Ueda was a pretty standard city for Japan. There was nothing really exciting or historical about it, but to me, it was wonderful. It was great to get away from the more touristy feel of Norikura and Matsumoto and go to a regular Japanese city without all the extras. As we got to Ueda we stopped at the castle ruins near the center of the city. There was only one tower left standing as the rest had been destroyed. But the rest of the grounds had been turned into a beautiful park, which we all enjoyed.

Later we went to Michie’s parent’s house. Ka san (Mom, in Japanese), and To san (Dad) were the most welcoming hosts we could have asked for. To san was very enthusiastic about practicing his English and I was more than willing to help him and practice my Japanese! He took us out for sushi, which was delicious. This sushi was not wrapped in seaweed like I often picture it. It was rice with a piece of raw fish or squid laid on top of it. Picking it up, dipping it in soy sauce, and getting it into my mouth with chopsticks without it falling apart took some skill. Squid meat is white and very soft and smooth, with almost no taste. I really enjoyed it!

2015-08-31-Fall-Break-Beach-Trip-04632-1200.jpg

After spending the night on traditional futon we had breakfast. What a breakfast! There was fruit, rice, miso soup, and pregnant fish. They were crunchy, kind of like Mexican grasshoppers. After breakfast we packed the van up and headed out to the beach! It was a pretty long drive to the beach so we drove directly to our site, set up camp, and went in search of dinner. The water was still warm, but since it was late we did not play in the water. Instead we set off fireworks!

The next morning Brad made French toast for breakfast, then we played in the Sea of Japan for a few hours tossing the Frisbee. It was a wonderful de-stressor and none of us were ready to leave. But we had some more sites to see! Our main objective was the Glass Art Museum in downtown Toyama, but on the way there we stopped for lunch at a rest stop right next to the ocean. The food was good, but the main attraction to us was the foot bath. The bath was around 40° C, which is well over 100° F. But it was so relaxing and really good for circulation, plus there was a great view of the ocean.

The Glass Art Musuem had opened just a few weeks prior and only cost ¥200 to get in, just under $2. It was a beautiful construction made of glass and wood. The exhibits were full of artists from all over, including one main exhibit by Chihuly.

Our final stop was something I wanted to do just because: McDonalds! Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, it was pretty much like any other McDonalds. I had a teriyaki burger, but it was still McDonalds. We made it back Thursday night, and it was still raining in Norikura. And a fantastic road trip was had by all!

Week 4.5: Photo Essay - Climbing Mount Norikura

Welcome to a new series, the XX.5 series! So far my weekly posts have been mostly words with no pictures (check out my Instagram for daily posts). But this week I wanted to share something a little extra, with more pictures and fewer words. My most recent adventure had too many pictures to share on Instagram, plus they work better together anyhow.

On Friday, our day off, I was definitely hoping to rest. After all we had just had a great boy’s camp and all the staff was tuckered out. But Seth, my boss, was photographer for another camp which was going hiking to the top of Mount Norikura. He had an extra spot, invited me to go, and I accepted. After all, how hard can hiking with a bunch of 7th graders be?

We drove 40 minutes up the mountain to our drop off point. We had about two hours hike ahead of us to the peak. The trail was stony, but well marked, and we had an experienced guide, Mine, to take us up.

The clouds kept rolling in and out, making for some pretty spectacular views. Am I crazy for expecting an Orc to come out from the mist?

Seth was shooting the whole time. Guide Mine pictured below as well. 

As we walked up the ridge to the peak, the clouds cleared for a few minutes and we were treated to a spectacular view of the crater and the lake. The volcano has not erupted for thousands of years, however there are two volcanoes within 20 miles which have the possibility to erupt; one erupted last fall.

Finally made it to the top! All clouds so only me. 3026 meters! (9,928 feet for you English people)

On the way back down we could see the ridge we had climbed up, dividing the inside of the crater and the face of the mountain.

Once we came part way down the mountain we came on another lake, still with plenty of snow and ice! About 20 minutes before this picture I began to feel very sick. I had a stomach ache since that morning, and it had been compounded by altitude sickness. Yes, I vomited what little I had eaten, breaking my record of around 10 years of not vomiting.

Our last sight was a beautiful meadow with random boulders strewn across.

I didn't feel well for the rest of the day, but it was so worth it! 

Look for more XX.5 series coming soon!

Week 3: Communal Bathing & Other Cultural Curiosities

As I mentioned in my previous post, NORTHSTAR is a very international lodge with different nationalities working together. It is easy to forget that I am actually in Japan when the way we do a lot of things seems relatively normal. Japan is undoubtedly a modern nation, but Japan’s rich history goes so far back that tradition is a staple. After all, the Japanese have had thousands of years to figure out the best way to do things. Many of the houses in Japan are built with the traditional look, high roof and creased and pointed corners. At the entrance to just about every Japanese establishment there is a step up into the house. To step up and into the house with your outside shoes still on is considered very rude and dishonorable. At first for me it was not a big deal, just a small inconvenience. I took the time to tie and untie my shoes every time I walked between my dorm and the lodge. I learned very quickly how time consuming it was to go through every action and learned to just slip on some flip flops. But wait, there is more! Every time you go into the kitchen you have to wear shoes designated to the kitchen. They are communal, Croc styles shoes shared by whoever is working in the kitchen. And then there are special shoes for the bathroom as well! I was so fed up with changing shoes all the time. Totally unnecessary. But as I thought about it I realized how nice it was to not have to worry about grit inside and know that the areas were being kept free from outside dirt. Now it comes as second nature to quickly slip shoes on and off depending on where I am.

The Japanese have a deeply seated sense of politeness. It is very important to keep the boat from rocking, and is communicated through body language, actions, and the Japanese language. The Japanese have customs for everything to be polite, down to paying for something. When I paid for my ice cream the other day I forgot that the polite thing to do is set the money on the table and allow the cashier to pick it up. Money is considered “dirty” so should not be handed. I promptly dropped the coins into the cashier’s hands without a second thought. It seems inconsequential to Westerners. The French, Americans, and Mexicans have no such customs so it seems unnecessary. But when in Japan...

Speaking of Japan, one of the most popular things to do in Japan is to visit an onsen, a hot spring. Japan is full of volcanoes making hot springs plentiful, especially up in the mountains where NORTHSTAR is located. On Monday, our day off, ten of us took a drive over the mountain to a nearby village to visit a really nice onsen. It is part of a hotel and restaurant with delicious food. Coming from the Americas where privacy is valued I knew I would have to get over some discomfort when it came to bathing like the Japanese do. At this onsen the men bathe separately from the women. There is a changing room to leave your clothes and a shower room. Everyone must shower and wash before getting into the hot spring tubs. Then you just get in and talk with people. The French guys and the full time staff had experienced an onsen before, but for me it was a totally new experience. Of course you have to get over some discomfort but it was a very enjoyable experience. I felt refreshed and very relaxed, a wonderful way to end a very busy time here in Norikura! 

Week 1 in Japan!

Week 1 in Japan!

As of this morning I have been in Japan for 1 week. It has been a really good week of acclimation to the Japanese way of life and getting used to my schedule as a whole. Over the past weekend I hung out with a kid’s camp and photographed their activities as part of my job. This included going on a hike with them, going bike riding, and zip lining! I also got started on sketching icon ideas for Northstar’s new website.

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