travel

Week 12: 86 Days Later

86 Days ago I was sitting in Narita airport writing my first Japan blog post. I was a little nervous, pretty excited, and a little lost since I knew no Japanese. 86 Days later and I think I have more questions than when I started. I believe transitioning to Japan for three months went way smoother than I expected it to (thanks for praying!). But in the process of transitioning in and now transitioning out I am discovering more and more about myself. I am rediscovering the unhealthy way I have of saying goodbye as well as having more questions about the possibilities for my future. So many of my thoughts are only half formed I am struggling to say what is rolling around my head.

I stumbled on a blog by an MK named Taylor, living in Hiroshima, Japan (link at the bottom). Even though I am 21, graduated from college, and slowly moving on with life, her writing reminded me so much of who I am, something I think I had started to lose while in the US. I am a Third Culture Kid and I cannot lose sight of how important that is to me. Sometimes, ok, most of the time, I try really hard to fit in and be a part of the group. Often that means being careful of how I present myself and only allowing certain parts of me to be visible. But thanks to Taylor I was once again reminded that I need to be aware of myself and realize that I can have meaningful relationships even over a short period of time.

I am very thankful for my time at NORTHSTAR. I might be just as confused as when I first landed but It has been a worthwhile experience.

Thank you all so much for sticking with me during this incredible journey. This is my last blog post while in Japan, but I am sure it will not be my last about Japan. I pray God blesses each of you who prayed or gave for me to be here!

Taylor Joy Murray Blog

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: Complexities of being a Millennial Traveler

I skyped with my family the other night for almost two hours. It was perfect timing, right before my brother went back to college and my parents started their trip back home to Mexico. It was really nice to be “all together” again after three weeks without talking. What struck me during that time was that I have never really been homesick for everywhere. Part of it is, of course, that I have had several different homes in the past few years so pinning one down as “home” is difficult. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized what an impact technology has on my life. We have wifi here at NORTHSTAR, as does much of Japan. So at any moment during the day I can slip out my phone and check my Instagram feed, tap Facebook and see what my friends all over the world are doing. When it comes down to my use of technology, nothing changed since I left Indiana. I am physically present in Japan, yet I can mentally take myself back to Grace just be scrolling through my friends’ social media posts.

My friend Emily travelled all over Europe this summer, eventually ending up in South Korea for a semester of study abroad. It was so cool to keep up with her through her photography. She captures special moments which help you feel like you are there. And with real-time updates in any social media, you can partake of that moment almost as soon as the pictures is posted. I can mentally transport myself to any number of the places she visited, like the picture, and move on. In an instant I am back in Japan.

As a millennial traveler sometimes it is really hard to stop experiencing other’s experiences and get outside and make my own experiences. Japan has wifi everywhere which is very convenient. It also means during a meal at a restaurant you can get out your phone and stop experiencing Japan and experience Vienna or Indiana instantly. There is a beauty to our teleportation, but it makes me a little sick too. I firmly believe in experiencing the now as often as possible. Yet too many afternoons I sat in front of my computer instead of taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity I was blessed with. I encourage you to interact with others online, and open your eyes and mind to other vistas and ways of doing things. But do not get so caught up you forget to leave the house all day. Scroll through Emily’s Instagram for a few minutes, then go outside.

Emily Musser - @ejmuss12  

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! 

In Japan!

Hi! This is my first official blog post and update for my Japan trip! I had quite an uneventful flight over. Since I flew west from Toledo I kept up with the daylight so time seemed to move really slowly. I'm not even sure how long it has been since I left, otherwise I would figure out how long I've gone with only three hours of sleep. I did have the idea of looking for celebrities while in LA but all the terminals are separated by buses. It was too time consuming to go everywhere so I just went back to my gate. 

The flight from LA to Tokyo was long, but I was not prepared for how boring it was! The food was ok; they fed us three times. I watched three and a half movies over the course of the 11 hour flight, none of which I'd watched before. I was particularly happy that the new Cinderella was available. Once I landed, immigration and customs went by like a breeze, much different than trying to get into Mexico. I had a little time so I did a currency exchange where I was made to fill out a bunch of paperwork. The man behind the counter took counting money very seriously. 

Now I am waiting for the taxi man to come back after picking up other passengers. In the lobby there is a TV crew with reporter interviewing a white guy (is that politically correct?). I don't want to be interviewed. 

Thanks to everyone who has prayed for me on this trip already! I so appreciate it; I know Father's already working before I even got here.

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