Life List Item #73- Scuba Dive

For years now I've been interested in trying scuba diving. I've always been curious of what it would be like to "breathe" underwater and if I would easily have the ability to trust the tank.

When Megumi and I decided to go to Okinawa (more on this later), one of my first requests was to try scuba diving. Being a tropical island and a tourist hot spot, I knew this had to be a possibility. Turned out, it was and Megumi got to work finding a location for us to do this at.

On our second day in Okinawa, we awoke, had a filling buffet-style hotel breakfast, and walked the quick 10-minutes to the nearby beach to have our diving experience. I was most excited that the experience was super affordable at only 6,000 Japanese yen or about $54.00.

First things first was to suit up in our wet suits. Being the very first time I was donning one, I didn't realize how labor intensive it was to get into. Japanese people are typically standoffish and keep their distance. But the Okinawa-born woman helping to dress us made herself comfortable in my personal space, hiking the pants up far on my thighs to I could pull the thing up. With the final zip I posed for this picture.
Next Megumi, myself, and the one instructor who would be leading us sat cross-legged on the ground near where the above picture was taken. The man quickly assessed my Japanese ability, which was small, but felt better knowing that Megumi could translate. To be honest with you, his body language was so animated that I understood about 70% of what he was saying by it alone. Megumi's translations helped to confirm and fill in the details. 

Once the 30 minutes of instruction were finished we got strapped into the rest of the equipment which was a weighted belt, oxygen tank, goggles, and flippers. We sat down on the ground as we were helped into the 40 pounds of extra weight. When told to stand up, I exclaimed I CAN'T! I was lifted up in one big heave. 
We entered the water and I finally learned what a wet suit actually did. I got wet immediately. I also became weightless and thus ended my burden in carrying the tank. We were taught how to unplug our ears underwater, drain water from our goggles, and retrieve the oxygen mask if it were to come out of our mouths underwater. I wasn't too good at the practice of this, so I truly was hoping it wouldn't happen to me. We were told to take long, smooth, deep breaths into the oxygen mask. This is the part I was most nervous about. 

Turned out, I was great at this! Years of yoga and meditation helped me to take deep, filling breaths which were ideal for scuba diving. I also learned, once fully submerged that I had to remain completely calm. If at any moment I got scared or nervous of my surroundings I might lose my wits and start breathing erratically and get into trouble. Being an introductory dive, we were never far from the beach or the surface of the water, but I didn't want to lose one minute of this unique experience.  

It was a great exercise in remaining extremely calm and this notion paired with the full deep breaths soothed and relaxed me like I hadn't felt in a long time. I enjoyed the sinking feeling, upon exhalation as my body went deeper into the water. We swam around for what seemed like 15 minutes, but turned out to be 40. Our instructor took us to see "Nemo". He had many of his friends were living in what looked like a fish condo to me, but of course was a living piece of coral. 

I was also calm because under the water of course we couldn't talk. This removed the pressure for me to understand anything, and put us into the world of universal gestures for communication. However, I did learn in the lesson portion of the experience that thumbs up means "I need to go to the surface", not I'm good! The OK hand gesture is reserved for that. 

On our last minute or so of the dive I really put my flippers to good use, kicked hard and strong, and felt my body propel forward surrounded by the comfort and protection of the water. Above and around me, the suns rays were making wavy lines on the sand below. It felt majestic being weightless and swimming among the fishes.

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Consumerism and Spending Money in Japan

This post is not meant to talk about the general state of consumerism in Japan, but rather my own experience with it. The former is a whole different beast!

In my American lifestyle I consider myself a frugal person. I have developed a good gauge of what my needs vs. my wants are which leads me to being a good saver and a pretty conservative consumer. I rarely used shopping as therapy and I would go days and days without spending a dollar.

However, that changed  when I moved to Japan. Much to my discomfort, I find that I spend money just about every single day here. I know this because I have a habit of tracking all my spendings. Each day I hand write what I spent on what, just to keep myself accountable for where my money is going. I hate looking back at this log and seeing nearly every single day have an entry.
I attribute these reasons to this habit:
  1. Food and other groceries are sold in small portions here in Japan. This means that people make daily or almost daily trips to the supermarket, thus spending money frequently.
  2. Convenience stores and vending machines are absolutely everywhere. Want a quick snack? Something to drink? Those things are never far from your reach. The temptation for things like these is never far.
  3. For the first several months I was shopping as entertainment. Even frequenting the nearby drug store offered a fun time. Seeing and trying different products had an exotic feel to it.
  4. I am missing several elements of a life that fill me up emotionally. Easy and frequent access to close friends, family and familiar places that give me peace and joy began to be replaced by consumption.
  5. New and different foods are still novelties to me. I enjoy buying and trying new things while I have the chance.
  6. Japan is full of consumer goods. I've never been surrounded by so many high quality malls before. 
 All this being said, I am still saving more money here in Japan than I was saving in the U.S. It didn't seem so at first, because of the high cost of food, but not owning a car and my low rent costs means I have more money left over at the end of a pay period.

In this way it's less about the money being spent, but rather the hold that the need to consume has over me. I keep saying that once I am out of Japan I think this will stop. I hope that it does. I think I can easily return to my grocery visits that will last me a week to 10 days and getting by with the same basic foods that I enjoy.

What this has taught me is that consumption can sometimes fill emotional gaps in a person's life. This is the first time I've felt empty and lost enough to try and fill those spaces with consumption. What I know to be true is that consumption will never fill me up, but at times I still find myself doing it.

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Japan Life List-Have Picture Taken with a Shiba Inu

Shortly after my admiration of Japan started I added the Shiba Inu to my list of favorite dog breeds. It would be joining the short list with the Corgi, Irish Setter, and Australian Shepard. 

The Shiba Inu (Shiba dog) is pretty much the Labrador Retriever of Japan. Everywhere you look, they are there, much to the pleasure of my heart and eyes. 

I quickly added this item to my Japan life list because I wanted to be able to actually interact with one of these dogs. Sadly, I didn't know anyone who had one and since Japanese people aren't overtly friendly I wasn't quite sure how this was going to happen. I thought that during my parents' visit, having a build in camera person and a wing man for courage I might somehow finally get this opportunity. 

It took seven months but it was worth the wait. During our day trip to Shirakawa Village I came upon some of the friendliest Japanese people I've met, and of course their Shiba Inu, Happy. 

I thought I spotted the dog out of the corner of my eye. In mid-stride and mid-sentence I had to cut dad off to say, "please follow me over here for a second, I need to do something."

I made a B-line toward the dog and as I approached I quickly noticed the small pup was wearing a USA sweatshirt. Are you kidding me?! This was destiny! Full grown, it was one of the smallest shiba's I'd seen, which made it all that more adorable. I started with the tiniest bit of Japanese I knew. Inu kuawii desu! "Your dog is cute." I asked his name in English and they proceeded to explain that his name meant "happy" in English and that day was his birthday! Dad was within earshot and I didn't think he was fully understanding how big this moment was for me, but I roped him in and asked them if I could take a picture. 

The woman gave me treat after treat to feed to Happy as she showed me how he could sit and shake. They taught me these simple commands. You could tell how much they adored that dog and were happy to share their pride and joy with me. It was something that I couldn't quit talking about for at least a couple of hours. 

I had a similar experience in Morocco when I met some monkeys. 

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Up North Ishikawa

The prefecture that I live in, Ishikawa, is known for it's beautiful countryside views. Since my arrival here, I had been wanting to explore "up north" Ishikawa but was continuously told I needed a car to do it. No public transportation would take me there. I listened for a while, but then I finally started digging. I thought my parents' visit was a perfect occasion to explore the rest of the prefecture, something that would be new for all of us. 

I ended up finding a sightseeing bus that went two hours north to the city of Wajima. It isn't quite as far as you can go in the prefecture, but it's pretty close and it's the farthest north I've been. Ishikawa is a peninsula that juts out into the Sea of Japan. Around here, we can get mountain views mixed with seafront ones. 

Our day trip to Wajima started bright and early, but with dawn being so early in Japan this was no problem for us. We boarded the tour bus at 7:50 a.m. and we quickly learned our tour guide was going to talk the entire way up, scarcely coming up for air. Now my parents understood 0.00% of her Japanese and I understood a whapping 1.00%. Too bad because I knew what she was saying was likely very informative about the area, but I guess that's the breaks. She was talking at a speed that would rival any teenage gossip girl that dared to challenge her.

We sat back and enjoyed the beautiful views as we drove north, up the Sea of Japan coast. As always in my life abroad, I wasn't 100% sure what to expect. I was pretty sure I knew roughly what was going to happen, but I'm always mentally prepared for some surprise I didn't see coming. 

The bus was set to take us to various locations in Wajima and the immediate area in order to explore them. The first stop was the Asaichi Morning Market, famous for fresh fish, beautiful lacquerware, and produce. This is where the only challenge to my intellect happened. The bus parked about a five minute walk from the market and though we knew what time we had to meet, we weren't sure where. Of course, because I didn't understand the tour guide's instructions. It left my parent's in a bit of panic, but I wanted to remain calm because I'd been through worse before. Mom's logic was, they wouldn't leave us behind. I wasn't convinced I could get us back to the bus, but when our time grew short I just relaxed and knew I had to. Turned out we were supposed to meet back at the bus, and I found it just fine. Crisis averted. 

We traveled along to several more stops including the Shiroyone Semaida rice terraces, the Wajima Kiriko Lantern Museum, and the Chirihama Beach Driveway.

I knew lunch was included in our tour, but again not sure what to expect. I was squealing with joy as I saw we were being ushered to a lovely restaurant with a beautiful sea view and being served a gorgeous Japanese set lunch. I was glad my parents got to experience this.

Typically I'm one for finding my own way and I don't take part in tours like these. However, this was a perfect way for me to see more of my prefecture, have a comfortable ride for us all, and for me to show my parents someplace far away without having my own car. At ¥7,500 per person or $67.00 it was well worth the money for this full experience. Now all we need to do is learn Japanese so we can finally understand what that woman was saying! 

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The Village of Shirakawa

For our first day trip, I took my parents 90 minutes southeast into Gifu prefecture to the historic village of Shirakawa. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was a place I had been wanting to see. With a bus going directly there just about every hour, I thought this would be a perfect little day trip for us to enjoy. 

Our bus took up winding around mountain roads and through what seemed like a dozen mountain tunnels. We arrived to Shirakawa around 12:30 and I quickly got the lay of the land in this small village from the English map. This tiny village of 137 square miles is known for it's unique houses that are built in the gassho-zukuri style. This literally means clasped hands, because the roofs resemble hands put together in prayer. Others among us might call them A-frames. They were historic buildings of farmers, artisans, and merchants, though these social and class distinctions no longer exist in Japan. The village is preserved and is still home to 1,700 people. The roofs are covered in thick bundles of straw, thicker than I would have imagined. They'd have to be because the village usually gets covered in snow in the winter, remnants of which we saw on our visit. Though there was snow on the ground, the temperature was a comfy 55 degrees. 

We explored the village on foot, drank mountain water, and we enjoyed a little rest inside a restaurant where I ate soba for the first time. 

Tourism has helped this small village to survive and many homeowners have turned their houses into gift shops, cafes, and museums. Those this is delightful for the public at large, it comes at a cost of sacrificing the simplicity and tranquility of this part of the Japanese countryside. It was a lovely visit and I'm glad we got to respectfully enjoy it. 

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