29 March 2013

Adventures in Hokkaido | 北海道 ・札幌市・ ニセコ・ ひらふ

Now that it's almost the end of March, maybe I should catch you up a bit on my February? Yes and yes. Amos and I went skiing and sightseeing in Hokkaido (北海道), the northernmost island of Japan. Ever since we found out we were moving to Japan, Hokkaido has been on my "must do" list (otherwise known as the "things-repeatedly-and-obnoxiously-mentioned-to-Amos" list). The skiing is the best up there, and the island has only been owned by the country for about 200 years, so it feels much different than Honshu, the main island. And when I say it feels different, I mean that it feels Australian. Everyone there is from Oz (Aus?). It's full of adorable accents and vegimite, and they take your drink order before your dinner order, which was a decidedly nice change of pace.

We skied at the Hirafu Niseko (ひらふ・ニセコ) Resort. Japan is supposed to have world class skiing, and it wasn't hard to see how, on a bluebird day with great conditions, the resort would be a ton of fun. It's actually 4 resorts on one mountain, and you can resort-hop, if you will, above treeline. Easy to access backcountry, big powder bowls, open tree runs... it could be fantastic. We experienced it with rain (yup), fog, and high winds that shut down the top of the mountain for 2 of the 3 days we were there. Without the top lifts and without good snow, the resort feels a little small and boring. That said, the ski town itself was really fun, as evidenced by the number of pictures I took of bars, for goodness sake.

We toasted our one year in Japan-niversary with hot cocoa.
My new Japanese ski pants. すごい!

I would absolutely go to Niseko again if I was in Japan, or if I was hoping up from the South Pacific. However, if I was in North America, I'd head to Colorado and call it good. Or Whistler. Or Park City. I will say that Japanese skiing does have curry and onsens, though, in its favor. American and Canadian skiing just can't compare in that regard.

Our neighborhood ski in-n-out yurt bar
"schnappy" hour at said yurt bar.
The walls of this egg-shaped bar would change every five minutes. It was mesmerizing.
A bar made (almost) completely of ice. 

We then headed to Sapporo (札幌市), the capitol of Hokkaido and most well known for their beer (for Amerika-jin) and their spectacular snow festival (for Nihon-jin). We were there for the opening of the Snow Festival, where the central promenade of Sapporo is loaded up with extra snow and the army builds up massive snow sculptures. This *may* be what your military does when you can only have a self-defense force. The snow building was impressive; We spent a couple days looking at all the art and eating miso ramen and the best seafood I've ever had in my life. I also drank lots of hot cocoa and went down an ice slide. Don't say I don't know how to party. I DO.

Sapporo Brewery
Ski helmets do wonderful things for your hair.
This woman played the theme from "Super Mario Brothers" while in a glass bubble.
While wearing gold sparkly high heals.
It might be the best thing I have ever seen while in Japan.
Children smoke elsewhere, please.
Butter Corn Miso Ramen.
Not Small. おいし そ です ね!

It was a lovely, lovely trip, and I'm so glad we went. If you are wanting to head up to Hokkaido -- which I completely recommend -- make sure to book early. Ski areas and hotels during the Snow Festival book up like woah. We booked a package through a local travel agency that included flights, hotels, and bus rides, and it made things so easy (and when I saw "we" booked it, I mean our friend Yumi booked it for us. Thanks Yumi! To say that we would have found our Japanese limiting if we tried it ourselves would be the understatement of the year.)

21 March 2013

On Saying No to Grad School (and the unpredictability of expat life)

Last week my mother-in-law sent me a very nice email with the subject line "What's in the box?" Oh. Right. I didn't even realize that posting a Tiffany's box without showing you the goods inside was a disappointing tease. I've now attached incredibly awkward photos of my sternum to show you the necklace. Excuse the hair -- my new thing is natural "hippie" hair, which looks kind of terrible. I'm letting myself remain in denial of it for at least another week.

On one side there are some lily-esque flowers and on the other side it says "Go Women 2013," which was the slogan, with the go from Nagoya. Huh. But it's a nice necklace, and I've been wearing it way too much. I'm really into layering necklaces right now; I learned it from watching Sarah Palin, who layers necklaces like a BOSS. (This is the first and last thing I'd like to emulate from the former governor of Alaska.)

- - - 

It's been a week since the marathon, and in spite of my bling-ing necklace, the days have been... heavy. When I signed up for the race, it was a risk since our contract didn't extend all the way to March. I signed up anyway, high entrance fee be damned, because I needed to make plans, to live and to BE here. It's hard to do that when the are-you-going-to-be-here-or-not? question is, quietly, always present. 

The mutability of our assignment isn't a black and white issue, and it's not all terrible. While Amos' company has discretion on when to end our assignment, we have discretion on when we need to return home. It's a two way street, and the communication isn't as bad as it could be, given the difficult nature of international assignments, the inherent complications of large company budgets, and the relationship between employers and employees, especially when you have an international date line smack in-between. But it's hard, and sometimes I beat myself up on how I handle it. I wish I handled it better.

Last week, I was accepted to an International MBA program at the Nagoya University of Commerce and Business (NUCB for short). It's a fantastic school, taught in English, with a large and internationally diverse student body. I was impressed up-and-down by the faculty, the campus, the materials, the course schedule, the syllabi. It was only one year, running from April to April, 2013 to 2014, and I was absolutely thrilled to have gotten in.

I had to turn it down. 

Amos and I had to come to the conclusion that we probably wouldn't be here long enough for me to complete the program. Maybe we could have stretched it; Maybe Amos could have fought a bit to get us budget to stay those couple final months; Maybe this, maybe that... maybe, maybe, MAYBE. It seemed too big a risk. This was graduate school, not a marathon, with a graduate school tuition. MBA programs don't transfer like undergrad programs, and I didn't want to be almost done (or halfway, or a quarter-way) complete and need to either pull up roots and go home, or move into the dorms and wave goodbye to my husband as he headed back to Seattle. So I said no.

I am really, really sad about it.

I turned in an application of which I was quite proud. An application that, for the first time ever, completely and accurately captured who I am, what I know, and what I want to learn. I wrote about my journey as I figured out that accounting wasn't right for me. I wrote about the risk that I took as I jumped into digital marketing. I wrote about the bullies that I have encountered in the tech world and how important I think it is to be nice. Yup, I wrote that being nice was the most important value I've learned in my career, and, yup, I wrote that on an prestigious international MBA application. MBAs are many things, but I don't think being "nice" is a commonly associated trait.

During my interview, the most positive feedback I got was for that third essay. 

I've got a little bit of hurt, a little bit of pride, and a little bit more trust and self-acceptance of what I can bring to the table. I think that, sometimes, that's what you get for being honest and putting yourself out there. 

If I sit and am quiet, I don't think this program was perfect for me. I feel the limitations of my knowledge most acutely around technical topics: coding, photoshop, mobile and web analytics. When I was back in Seattle, I never once thought to myself, "I need to better understand Asian markets." Now, I think learning about Asian markets and Japanese business would be utterly fascinating, and I am fully confident I would never regret the time I took to understand different people and different perspectives. One day, I might really need that information.

But if I'm honest with myself, I think I need to learn other things first.

It's hard guys. I was so looking forward to school, to having something to do, to using my brain, to being busy enough to let go of the angst that seems to follow me around, no matter how long I live in Japan. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and being a trailing spouse is very, very difficult for me. It's a cush life. My passport is almost full with stamps from places like Nepal and Korea and the Philippines, and I should have no complaints. But if you ask Amos, woo-ee, I have complaints. Lots of them. It's tough for me to sit still. I'm really working on it, but it's not easy. I'm plagued with doubt and the desire to do something, but at the same time, I keep looking around and knowing that the right thing for me to do hasn't come around quite yet.

So I'm trying to sit and wait. Focus on the end goal, as they say. My end goal isn't to be working every day of my life. It's to have a life that is interesting, adventuresome, and where I learn things right and left. To that, I think I'm doing okay.

I just finished reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, and in it, he quotes passaged from books he and his mother read while she was dying of cancer. Most of the quotes, especially the good ones, were long. And heady. I found myself rereading them multiple times to suss out exactly what the author was saying. I realized that's a good thing, and that's something we don't often see these days. We have cute and pithy quotes, fashioned together in beautiful hand drawn text on a collaged floral background and uploaded to Pintrest. There's something lost in these short quotes. Sometimes the longer ones, the ones that are paragraphs and sections, they say more. I know -- it's ridiculous that I'm auguring about the length of quotes here -- but what I'm saying is that sometimes life is complicated. Sometimes it's not snippy, and it's more nuanced, and it takes a couple of reads. Sometimes the meaning will smack you on the back of the head hours or days or years after. That's what I'm hoping for Japan: that the reason why I'm here, the reason things haven't worked out as I wished they would have (from marathon times to grad school to good friends leaving way too early), that the reason becomes clear to me one day. Maybe it'll just take me a couple reads to figure it out.

13 March 2013

The Nagoya Marathon [& my left knee's revolt.]

My alternative title: Woah, the Last Time I Posted Was January 29th and It's March 12th, And Shoot. However, I'm not into the blame game, and we all know that title isn't SEO optimized for shiz.

Where have I been? I'll let you in on a secret: the way to beat the late winter blues is to travel every day in February. Works like a charm, and I promise to catch you up soon on the fun times that were.

I'm back, and in my procrastination, I have made a wedding photo album (2 years late), applied to grad school (BAM), figured out that Amos and I should probably save for retirement (yeesh), and ran a marathon (owie).

I now cannot move my left knee and have laid on the couch long enough I feel compelled to blog. So: hello. Let's abruptly jump in, shall we? It's completely narcissistic and Sarah-focused, as alwaysssssSSSS, only this time, I'm including blurry iPhone pics. You're welcome.

MARATHON. I ran it. It was my second one; my first being in Chicago, circa 2008. That race was my first foray into long distance running, and while I had a blast and ran an okay time (4:30-ish), I've come a long way in the running department. Nagoya has a marathon that runs, literally, in front of my house, and I signed up on a I-have-nothing-going-on-in-my-life whim. There was also an element of woah-you-are-getting-to-be-a-chubby-little-housewife thrown in there. (We're all friends here; I'll speak 'ze truth. I have an inner chubster who is always dying to get out, and I spent my life trying to keep him in. Yeah, my inner chub'r is a man. What of it?)

I trained my little heart out, using Hal Higdon's intermediate program, which does two long runs back to back. I was feeling good; I was feeling fast; I was consistently beating my 9-min mile pace.

Then I spent the last month and a half of training skiing, traveling internationally, and contracting bronchitis. Oh, brother. I ran anyway because that is what you do when you are deeply masochistic. Also, that is what you do when the race cost $225 and you have some major guilt about that.

I man'd up, put on the cutest cleanest running outfit that I own, grabbed my iPod, and tied up my huh-these-shoes-are-kinda-old Brooks. I got to the start line and realized that I was not cute by Japanese Women Running Standards. I missed the memo on voluminous and curled hair, full blown make-up, and multicolored fanny-packs.* Regardless, I got swept up in the fun of being one of 20,000 women who are about to do something BIG. (Next time I know to either wear the Minnie Mouse costume, the bunny ears, or at least dress identical to my BFF.)


Marathons here are counted in kilometers, which means there are 42.195km, which can be a long countdown compared to the 26.2 miles. I broke it up into 5km segments to try and keep some degree of sanity, and for the most part, it totally worked.

My first 5K was a bit slow, given the crowds, but totally manageable. The course was a very disappointing out and back, with the only perk being seeing the elite runners sprint by 10K in. So inspring. My little endorphine happy heart was so overwhelmed, I got tears in my eyes. I know; emotions are gross.

The next three 5K segments were right on pace, and the halfway point came fairly quickly. Right before I got there, my left knee decided to start talking, and by talking, I mean aching. I remember distinctly thinking, "This should not hurt like this for at least another hour. I may be screwed." What went through my mind at this point? I can't say it here, but it's a bad word, and it began with the letter F.**

By 18 miles in, my left knee had decided it had enough. It was done. I have no idea what happened: maybe it was my shoes (they were getting old), maybe it was the two 20 mile runs I did training (no knee pain on the first, noticeable on the second, and by the third time over twenty, the actual race, my knee was pissed). Maybe a marathon is a stupid distance to run, or I have genetically not-long-distance-lovin' knees. Moot point. I inz pain.

So much of the sad.
27-28 min. splits until the dreaded last 12K.
Goodbye sub-4:00.  I hate you, left knee. So much.

It was a very, very long last 12K. More like a shuffle... my times skyrocketed (see pathetic screenshot above). I knew I was royally cornholed when I stopped to walk and that hurt worse than running. I kept going, sadly cursing the fact I wasn't going to run sub-four hours, and more than that, my finishing was in jeopardy. I honestly don't know how I finished, and in spite of my disappointment over my time, I'm really PROUD my body made it. It wasn't the most painful experience of my life (a ruptured ovarian cyst gets that honor), but it was up there. And, no I have not given birth yet.

I crossed the finish line and immediately grabbed the handrails for support and slid/fell down into a crouched position. It was a super festive finish line, complete with dashing men in tuxedos who handed out Tiffany boxes and deeply bowed to each finisher. I stumbled through and mumbled something incoherent, and I really wish I could relive that moment because what are the chances another tuxedoed, Tiffany's bearing man is in my future? (Dang.) I also got a sweet t-shirt, a towel, half a banana, and a bottle of water. I can tell that I was out of it because I was really excited about the banana.

I found Amos pretty quickly, but this was Japan and I therefore had to go through the elaborate and needlessly long finish course to grab my bag and food, and - of course - he couldn't come back with me. The problem was I couldn't walk, so I ended up in a wheelchair with two really kind women pushing me around as we tried to find my husband. (The walk may have involved a ramp and a marathon runner the age of my mother who helped pull the wheelchair up said ramp with my pathetic half-her-age ass in it. I about died.) It took 40 minutes to finally arrive to Where The Men Are Allowed, then a long walk to the train station, then a cab from the station to our house because I was not so much capable of walking.

A hot bath, 4 Aleve, some Icy-Hot, and several beers later, I felt much better. Annoyingly, my muscles aren't sore at all, so I seemed to be in decent shape except for the bum knee. While in the race, I was convinced it would be My Last One Ever. Less than 48 hours later, I'm contemplating a third. I tell myself that I need one more to get a sub-4:00 time. Which only goes to show you, my friends, never doubt the power of delusion, masochism, and stubbornness. I got all three in spades.

This time, I will get new shoes, though. I'm not a totally dummy.

Also, because I'm always curious, my running playlist: Florence & The Machine, Macklemore, ZZ Ward, and Britney Spears. I'm a whole-album at a time marathon runner. You got good tunes? You let me know, and right now. I'm tapped out.

Also, Also: one of the food stations on the marathon had boxes of MUSHROOMS for runners to grab. Japan is weird.

*Confidential to British friends: Fanny Pack. HAHAHAHAHAHA.
** JLaw for life.
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