Houston 2.24.17

My Dearest Friend,

I’m so glad I got to come home and see you and others these past couple weeks. Last semester was long and I needed my time at home resting more than I can say. However, as I sit here on the plane headed back across the Pacific, I’m more excited than ever to resume my adventures in Japan. I have so much left to see and do, and I don’t want to waste the rest of my break or the upcoming semester. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I want to fully enjoy it.

While I was at home visiting, I had a frustrating realization: I don’t have many stories from my time here so far. I could talk a bit about my classes and how difficult they were. I could also talk about my general impressions of Japan and Japanese culture. Outside of that, however, I didn’t have much to say. Most of my stories ended up being stories about other people, some of which I hadn’t even witnessed. How did that happen? I know a few reasons. First, experiences don’t usually make good stories without other people in them. I’ve explored a bit and seen some places, but I usually end up going by myself. This is excellent for collecting pictures but isn’t great for stories. Also, a lot of the time people are hanging out together, there’s alcohol involved. We’re all legal, so it isn’t a problem, but the party nature of most international student interactions decreases my chances both of being involved and recounting stories of it later.

I’m not really sure what to do about this dilemma. As much as I’d rather travel Japan with a few close friends, I don’t always feel like I have that option. I don’t tend to have much success planning excursions or events, and I can’t control whether or not I’m invited to come along when someone else has planned the trip. Most of the interactions I am invited to are nights out and the like. These are fun and I try to go occasionally, but allowing them to make up all of my stories paints both my time here and myself in a bad light.

I’m trying to find opportunities to make memories that I can share, but it’s difficult. Hopefully I’ll do better this semester than last, but that doesn’t set a very high bar. Wish me luck. I’ll try to write again soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Kyoto 12.29.16

My Dearest Friend,

Merry Christmas! I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner, but we’ve only been off school for a couple days now. I even spent Christmas studying for a test. But I’m alright. I have another week of break and then only a couple weeks left of the semester. It’s been a really long semester, so I won’t be too upset to see it end.

Although Christmas itself wasn’t particularly special, I’m enjoying my time off. I’m trying to do a full detox from stress, drama, and worries. So far it’s gone well. I’ve spent a lot of time relaxing, sleeping, catching up on housework, and trying to get into a good habit of doing yoga in the mornings. I’m also trying to work on my overall health a bit. I’ve spent the majority of this semester sick with one thing or another, so I’m trying to improve my nutrition and general well-being. I want to be healthier and better able to focus next semester so I can make the most of my time here.

This semester I haven’t done a lot of the things I meant to do and said I would do. Part of that was justified, part of it wasn’t. Now my goal is to figure out what I need to do differently so that I’m able to explore Kyoto and the rest of Japan before I leave. I don’t want to waste this chance. I’ve gone a few places and done some cool things, but I’ve created a new comfort zone here in Japan, which almost defeats the point of coming. I broke a barrier when I got on the plane alone to come here, but I built more as soon as my feet hit this soil and the culture shock swept over me. It’s about time I dismantled those.

I have a lot of regrets from my life thus far. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past or the future or simply just a different place. I don’t want to lose my time in Japan to those same snares. I want to live these days to the fullest so that, at the end of the day, there’s nothing I wish I’d had the courage to do. If I were to leave today, I don’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for how I’ve handled this time. Which means that I instead need to spend today out, doing things I may never get a chance to do again. Today’s the only day that matters, so I won’t spend it in a way that I’ll regret.

I hope your Christmas break is relaxing. I miss you a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing you, hopefully before too much longer. Please write soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Kanazawa 11.27.16

My Dearest Friend,

I write to you now from the train home from Kanazawa where I just spent a wonderful weekend with one of my friends. We spent the day yesterday enjoying the sights and food of this historic city. It was an amazing experience.

We began the day bright and early at the fish market. Snow crab season is a few weeks in and yellowtail has just begun, so the market was bustling and full of the wondrous aroma of a fresh catch. We had an early lunch at one of the many small restaurants scattered amongst the stalls. Despite being the specialty of the region, a bowl of raw fish didn’t really appeal to me, at least before noon, so I opted for tempura. It was excellent.

From there we picked up coffee at a local shop and made our way leisurely to Kanazawa Castle. The old architecture was beautiful, but paled in comparison to the elegant gardens surrounding the castle and nearby shrines. The morning’s activities would likely have taken half as long without the multitude of pictures we both were taking. I sincerely doubt you will complain, though, because I am enclosing a few in this letter.

After the castle we proceeded to the Higashi Chaya district, an old part of town that is maintained to look as much like it did in the Edo period as possible. There we looked through shops and had our afternoon tea in an old geisha house. Obviously one of the most luxurious structures in the area, the geisha house made for an excellent respite from walking the crowded streets. Before we left the district, my friend and I bought ourselves each a cone of shoyu soft serve, a specialty in the region. Although one wouldn’t expect soy sauce flavored ice cream to be particularly good, it was excellent ice cream that tasted vaguely of salted caramel. We both thoroughly enjoyed it.

By this point we were exhausted, so my friend and I concluded the day with a nice dinner and a pleasant walk through Kenrokuen. The gardens were lit up beautifully, and we enjoyed the walk despite the late November chill. However, it was late, so we soon began our walk back to our lodging and bed. We rose early this morning to catch the train home.

It was a wonderful trip, and I’m quite glad I had the opportunity to go. Perhaps you’ll be able to come with me next time. I think you would enjoy Kanazawa. I hope your own adventures these past few weeks have been equally enjoyable. I look forward to seeing you, though it is still so far in the future. You will hear from me again soon. I look forward to your next letter as well.

Forever yours,

Kestrel

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Kyoto 11.06.16

My Dearest Friend,

I regret that it has been so long since my last letter. My classes are quite time consuming, and I have twice been sick since I arrived here in Japan. Don’t mistake me, I’m having a wonderful time and I love Japan, but I’ve done a very poor job of keeping up with friends from home. I wish I were doing better, but I apparently am worse than I thought at keeping up with people I don’t see daily.

Since my last letter I’ve had better luck finding my place in the group. I have more friends to spend my time with and no longer feel so alone here. Time has started to fly by as my time is split between fun times with friends and my never ending studies. I have had time to enjoy Japanese culture though. A couple weeks ago I attended the annual Fire Festival in Kurama. The townspeople dressed up in traditional garb and carried huge torches throughout the city. It was fascinating to see. Unfortunately, the city was extremely crowded due to the popularity of the festival among tourists. Afterwards, a couple of my friends and I went to Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi, home of the best gyoza in Japan. The restaurant is in a tiny shop, seating maybe 20 people, and has for several years in a row received the award for the best gyoza, the Japanese version of Chinese dumplings, in the country. The award is well given. The food was incredible. The evening was one of the best I’ve spent in Japan so far.

Besides traditional Japanese festivals, I’ve also gotten to experience a Western holiday in Japan. Halloween in Japan is definitely an interesting experience. The shops and restaurants all take advantage of the holiday to decorate and put out special products. Meanwhile, students, both local and international, jump at the opportunity to dress up and celebrate. Our dormitory had an awesome costume party. The creativity of some of the costumes was utterly inspiring. It was a wonderful time with friends and a great memory from the trip.

I certainly will try to write more often from now on. Hopefully my next letter will include even better stories than this one. I’m almost well again though, so that should help. On the other hand, I’m only a couple weeks away from my midterm projects coming to a head. So my next letter may be little more than literature analyses. I hope your year is going well also. I look forward to your next letter.

Forever yours,

Kestrel

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Kyoto 10.13.16

My Dearest Friend,

Time seems to fly by while I’m here. I’m already three weeks into classes and my birthday is on Monday. I don’t mind though. The first month here was difficult, but I’m starting to get into a routine. After I wrote you last I was quite sick for a week, but now that I’m well I’m ready to try facing Japan again. I’ve made some wonderful friends here, and every week I seem to make a few more. I still haven’t seen much of this city, but I feel comfortable taking new routes around my part of town.

I truly wish I had lots of wonderful stories to tell from these last couple weeks but, to be honest, I’ve mostly been studying. My Japanese classes are really hard. I can tell I’m getting better though. The quizzes are a little easier to cope with and the homework goes faster than it used to, but that doesn’t mean I can slack off. The balance between succeeding in my classes and successfully enjoying Japan is really hard to find. I don’t know that I’ve done it very well so far, but I’m going to keep trying.

Last weekend I had one particularly fun break from studying. A group of the girls in my dorm had an international potluck. We all brought food from or inspired by our own countries and got to take a trip around the world on our stomachs. I managed to make passable nachos in a country that doesn’t really have cheese. It was difficult, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed real, Tex-Mex style nachos. The best part is that now that I know how to do it, I can make more that I don’t have to share.

The topic of food is actually an interesting one. At school in America I find it really hard to get enough vegetables. I don’t always get enough here either, but whenever I cook there are lots of vegetables. Veggies are fairly cheap here, at least to me. On the other hand, many of my friends are forever being shocked by how expensive the fruits and veggies are here. It makes me realize once again how difficult it is to be healthy in America. I’m so used to having to pay a premium for a healthy diet while, in many parts of the world, college students are unofficial vegetarians because that’s all they can afford. At least here in Japan it’s fairly even. You don’t pay a premium for health, but it’s not discounted either.

There are many things here that I’m sure you would enjoy. I think I’d enjoy them a bit more if you were here with me. I know you want me to put you out of my mind and embrace this opportunity, but it’s hard. I am having fun though—I promise. And I’m still taking pictures and making memories to share with you when I return. I look forward to reliving all of them with you.

Forever Yours,

Kestrel

The Sands of the Hourglass

I can’t believe it’s been a over a month since I returned from China. It doesn’t feel that long. At the same time, my summer is almost up–25% of my time in college has disappeared, running like sand from an hourglass. It can’t have gone by that fast, can it? My time as a teenager is almost up. My time in college will quickly follow. Life passes so fast that it’s really a wonder anyone can ever manage to be bored. And yet, I’m guilty of it too. I’ve wasted time being bored before. It’s folly. Every second, every grain of sand, is precious. I’m starting to understand that.

Despite my worries that I’ve wasted my time, this past year has really been incredibly productive. If you’ve been following my journeys, you know about China and the Enactus National Expo. You’ve traveled through memory palaces of Cordoba and seen the flying silks of Bangladesh Night 2015. Whether you can tell or not, I’m not the same person who began this blog almost a year ago. That girl was, at once, both supremely overconfident and extraordinarily insecure. She worried so much about what people thought of her. She didn’t know what she wanted to be or how hard she could work for something she loved. I’m not saying I’ve finished the journey to become the best me, but I have taken a few steps forward. I’ve traveled far enough, at least, that I can see a difference in who I am versus who I was.

The last thing I should mention in this moment of quiet reflection is my friends. I have significantly more amazing friends than I usually recognize. I just found out one of my good friends from high school is going to Yale. How awesome is that? It’s not all about getting into fancy schools though. One of my friends is studying Chinese in Shanghai, the beautiful city I left just a month and a half ago. I also have friends from college who graduated at the end of the school year. They’re moving on. Some are going to grad school (one is even going to William and Mary!) while others are finding jobs. Such is life. When this stage in my life ends and my hourglass if flipped, I don’t know where I’ll go. I suppose the mystery is half the fun. I also don’t know who will be beside me. Even if my next stage in life is one I must walk alone, I know that the friendships I’ve built are real. Even if we lose contact, those people helped make me into who I am today. For that, I am grateful. I wish the very best for all of my friends who are beginning a new stage in their journeys. I wish the same for you, whoever you are, and wherever you’re going. You’ve followed me thus far, and so I count you a friend. I hope you’ll join me as I begin my Sophomore year. I wonder where I’ll go and who I’ll meet. In a month it will begin. I’ll be back on the road. I’m not worried though; I’ve always felt most at home on the road and at the little inn that awaits me in Norman.

A Grand Adventure

I’m home. It’s so weird to be back after the three weeks I just spent in China. I’m actually quite relieved to be home; it’s just a bit hard to comprehend still. I loved China. I loved getting to meet people, and eat good food, and see pandas, and visit relics of a world older than my whole country, but I’m glad to be back. I guess I never realized how different China is from the U.S. I was ready for chopsticks and had been warned to bring my own toilet paper, but I didn’t really get it. China is a middle-income developing nation. I guess I always saw either the economic wonder or the ancient civilization. In reality, however, China is somewhere in between. China is a country in transition. The old lingers, both the good and the bad, while the new is working to implement itself in a sustainable way. It was the elements of transition that I liked least about China. The air I couldn’t always breathe. The food off the streets that, as often as not, wasn’t safe to eat. The lack of dependable wifi that limited my efforts to keep my blog updated throughout. China has grown incredibly over the past thirty years, but its journey is not yet complete. I’m sure when I get home people will ask me, “what was your favorite part?” Well, that’s a hard question. The easy answer would be pandas. I got to see giant pandas and take pictures and videos of them. (I may upload a few here for anyone who’s interested.) Seeing a panda was a lifelong dream of mine. It was something I had always wanted to do. However, if you told me a decade ago that I would one day go to China and see pandas, I doubt I’d have believed you. Now it’s actually happened. But was it really my favorite? I also got to walk on the Great Wall, see the terracotta warriors where they were discovered, and try ridiculously good dumplings filled with soup. I did tai chi with a host of elderly Chinese people, petted a silkworm, and had a discussion with a pro-capitalist think-tank. This trip was a dream come true, despite my joy at returning home. Now that I’m back, my thoughts have turned to my next journey. Japan. I saw the lights of the region around Tokyo as we flew over it on my trip home. I want to really see it. I want to walk the streets and meet people. I want to travel around Japan, just as I have around China. I’m excited to see where life takes me. So far, it’s been a grand adventure. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but never boring. What else can I ask for? The skies beckon me ever higher, ever farther. I will fly again soon. My journeys have only just begun.

Reflections by the Fire

I sit here in this place that has become my home and think. I’ve become so accustomed to this inn and these friends and the laughter and stories that we’ve shared. A lot has changed over the months here though. Many friendships have grown, though some have faded. Some paths have converged, while others have split, leading us apart. I’ve met some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and also lost contact with some of my friends from childhood.

It’s not just the group that has the changed though—I have changed. I have been assured by my friends that I’m very different than the girl who came to college last semester. The months have worked their magic and aged me. I have become more relaxed, more open to others, and more cautious with my words. I have learned more than I could have dreamed. Topics I once knew nothing about, I can now hold an intelligent conversation concerning. This semester I was involved in another political discussion group, again joining with other students to watch the weather of the world. After the first few weeks, I noticed that my fellow group members, knowing my field of interest and study, would ask me about economic issues in Asia. At first, I really didn’t think I was qualified to give any sort of response. However, I began to see a change in my answers as they became tolerably informed. I am by no means an expert, but I know enough now to analyze and think critically and give informed opinions.

The opportunities I’ve had this year have been innumerable. I’ve gotten to sit down and talk to academics and business executives. I’ve traveled to new parts of my country, while preparing for my first flight abroad. I’ve made friends from throughout the world, even from my own corner of it. As much as I’m excited to fly next week and start my journey abroad, I’m a bit sad at the thought of leaving this inn and this fireplace. However, I know I will return. And when I do, I will be a bit older and a bit wiser than I am now. Such is life. Even returning to the same place, I’m not really the same person who left. But I don’t believe that’s a bad thing.