Stepping outside the terminal in Lisbon, I noticed first the sunlight. Late afternoon, clear and creamy, it shafted between buildings and spilled all over the station platform. I had almost forgotten what I was missing back in England. If I stood on tiptoe, I could spot the sea peeking on the horizon. Europe, but shading nearer my island home of the past two years — I prayed in fervent gratitude for a long weekend in a new land.
After two solid months of fifteen, sometimes twenty hour days, zooming back and forth by bike between my home outside the city to the university center, I had determined to prioritize resting on this trip. To make good on this resolve, I booked a room outside the capital, in a little town most tourists counted worthy of a day trip, for three nights of absorbing its beauties at a tranquil pace.
Last year I scanned countless Indochina tours, weighing the prices and musing over the itineraries. When Cambodia made the menu, I spotted the same key ingredients popping up: Angkor-Wat, Phare Circus, zip lines … but never all together in one recipe.
I settled on a simple solution: concoct my own tour.
The day after church and wandering in Bangkok, I chased this ambition to Siem Reap: a city with its own dedicated airport that welcomes visitors to the ancient temple complexes.
After the dearth of English-speaking churches on Japan’s remote southern islands, I determined to steer my Indochina circuit around Sunday services. Thus I dedicated the weekend after my Thailand tour to Christ Church Bangkok: a lofty Anglican establishment with a promising website. Once the 7:30am “traditional service” concluded, I would venture forth to sample more of the city’s attractions.
As soon as I parted from my guide in Kho Pha-Ngan, though, the logistics tangled. My cushy airport bus broke down on the highway, relegating us to a dusty half hour under an overpass before a van pulled up. I landed uneventfully in the capital, but then the route from the airport to my hotel cowed me with a labyrinth of transfers. I resorted to taxis – turned down a VIP service asking triple the going rate, passed on an opportunistic haggler just outside the official taxi stand, and at last entrusted myself to a driver with a meter and receipt book.
He deposited me on my hotel doorstep, where I discovered that the fare exceeded my supply of cash.
Thus commenced the first activity of my adventure tour from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, a nine-day package aimed at twenty-somethings abroad in Asia for the first time. I had booked it partly from curiosity, partly to benefit from professional guidance in the wilds beyond Japan. The prospect of a restful trip had allured me, spiced with excursions I might have chosen for myself, without any of the logistical effort.
I hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic welcome to the religion of Thailand.
After our race through Tokyo, my sister and I settled in for a week of life on a small island in the Pacific.
I had eagerly anticipated introducing her to what have become my everyday scenes: the sushi lunch cafe that’s hopping during business hours, the formidable sea walls flanking the coast, the memorial library where I delight in abusing the grand piano with my fumbling fingers.
From Tokyo, we caught a Pokemon-themed plane to the southernmost tip of the main islands: Kagoshima-shi, the city center of my home prefecture. We checked in to JR Kyushu, a suave business hotel set inside the train station itself.
Then I conducted my sister on a twenty-four hour tour of Kagoshima’s culinary champions: tonkatsu (the Japanese version of schnitzel, or breaded pork), cherry blossom pastries, chestnut cakes, and – of course – shirokuma: the iconic shaved ice of the region. Drenched in sweetened condensed milk, studded with fruit, it had topped my list since November 2021 for treats to delight guests. My sister opted for the red beans variation, while I bought the classic.
We scooted downtown for a late night stint at the nearest onsen, a public bath with piping hot mineral waters, powered by the city’s neighboring volcano. On the way home, we paused to purchase a bulk pack of frozen dumplings from a vending machine (a vending machine!) before retiring for a long-awaited rest.
Sunday morning brought us amidst a relentless downpour to my first English church home in Japan, the dauntless Calvary Chapel. As ever, the congregation welcomed us warmly – with a hearty brunch and many invitations to return soon. The assistant pastor’s wife even accompanied us back to the station, where she saw us safely aboard the bus to the airport for our final flight of the week: home to Tokunoshima.
We invested in recovering for most of the day following our Disney extravaganza. Stephanie foraged for breakfast at the FamilyMart convenience store around the corner, returning with a bag bulging with salmon rice balls and melon pastries. I tapped through maps and metro schedules, charting our course for the time remaining in Tokyo.
I had deliberately decided to revisit my tour of the year before, at the same time of year to minimize surprises, with many of the same destinations at mind. It didn’t try my imagination much to consider places I would willingly wander again, and SkyTree topped the list. A fabulously elongated mall, it attracts most for its city view, but that afternoon we sought its mix of unique treats and quirky shops.
“Did you make it back home?” a friend from the Christian retreat asked me.
My secondary school had asked me to teach the week immediately following the holidays — so instead of taking a 15 hour ferry home, I sailed for 20 hours to Yoron Island. Thankfully, my itinerary allowed for one night’s stopover in Kagoshima City, where the international Calvary Church welcomed me warmly as ever.
Japan, it surprised me to learn, gifts its citizens with more national holidays than any other country. Perhaps these enforced rest days present a remedy to the workaholicism? Unlike USA holidays, they do not confine themselves to long weekends but pop up unashamedly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with nothing but paid leave to make up the difference.
Facing one such holiday in the middle of the week (in honor of the Emperor’s birthday), I decided to test the island bus system on a day trip to the opposite shore. Living minutes from Tokunoshima’s major port, I drink in first-class views of the surf on my daily commute, but trundling north soaked me in our magnificent mountains.
Returning to the mini-series covering January to March 2022…
After our Valentine’s Day photo session in Boma, we drove to a bed-and-restaurant overlooking the coast. Dining delights awaited.
A student amused me once by reporting that most people visited Japan for the food. Though I suspect the survey results may have misled by allowing respondents to select multiple answers, I would have to admit that my name would have added to their number. Friends persuaded me to risk another overseas move in part by singing the praises of Japanese food.
This restaurant did not disappoint. “That’s a lot of raw,” one of the other JETs remarked as I gleefully welcomed plates of local sashimi and wild boar carpaccio. Japan’s stringent hygiene standards have indulged my weakness for undercooked things (as my brother calls it): not only sushi, but raw eggs and red meat abound. In Amami I tasted horse sashimi, and at the local grocery store I picked up a prospect that had fascinated me ever since I first heard of it from a friend — chicken sashimi.
Three weeks of holiday delivered a treasure trove of fellowship opportunities in June and July.
The weekend after schools closed, I joined a local Christian ministry for hosting a short-term mission, or “outreach” team. Our guests, fifteen young men from Pretoria, made even the typical Peace Corps accommodations look glamorous: They pitched tents on the hillside in front of the Youth Center, with nothing but the spigots on jojos (massive rain water barrels) for showers.
Introducing them to the wonderful world of my local community brought back memories of my early days here, when I was still puzzling out and goggling at the mind-blowing ministry and development work unfolding around every corner.
School has started, and I’m teaching English and Creative Arts to 140 students! It is an overwhelming task–the first two weeks, I don’t think I would have made it out the door without praying for God’s strength and support.
As I struggled to create a classroom environment of discipline and positive reinforcement, the Lord blessed me with an outpouring and kindness and hospitality from the surrounding community. Their generosity gave me the strength to push through the hard days until my efforts at teaching with a counterpart began to bear fruit.
Peace Corps doesn’t stint in girding trainees for living life in the country with no corrals, no bumpers, no training wheels.
That included showering us with handbooks and booklets, packets and pamphlets: from safety and security, medical, community development, policies and procedures… Every time another stack circulated, grumbling would arise: ‘How are we going to carry all this to site?’ ‘I’m gonna have to hire a truck for my extra baggage.’
If you recall from my triumphant departure post, I had squished the sum of my possessions into two backpacks. I pride myself more than is merited on traveling with as few bags as possible–but this time, it wasn’t to be.
I cracked and bought a duffel bag. It was some consolation that a third piece of luggage would doubtless come in handy if I were to realize my visions of holiday hiking trips. Even better, the suitcase sufficed for piling in everything Pre-Serving Training had loaded us.
Everything? No, the stacks of books weighed little in comparison with the intangible gifts that came full circle in my final week at Bundu.
“This place is burgeoning with life,” a friend marveled last week. “Chicks, kids, children… there are babies everywhere!”
My language classmates and I are particularly gleeful about the goat twins growing up in our schoolyard. My friend Lexi has christened them Maple and Moose.
A couple of weekends ago, we celebrated another year of life for one of our trainees with a backyard bonfire! Safety concerns after dark mandated that we burn our sticks during daylight hours, but we made the best of it by introducing the neighborhood kids to an all-important facet of American culture: s’mores.