Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A True Pioneer

I had the honor and pleasure of meeting an incredible woman last week. I will do my best to convey her story.

Meet Kazuko-san:

Kazuko-san has a 45 year old son with Down Syndrome named, Koji. About 30 years ago, when Koji was in high school, Kazuko-san saw a desperate need to create a place for individuals with disabilities to go after graduating from high school. She knew her son needed to stay busy. She knew that stimulation and interaction with other people was important for her son's well-being and quality of life. But 30 years ago, facilities (like the workshops described in the previous post) were rare. So, Kazuko-san and a group of other mothers in her area started their own organization.

What she did was unprecedented at the time. Not only was it innovative for people to start their own organization of this kind, but for it to be done by a group of mothers in a patriarchal society was remarkable. Kazuko-san applied for numerous grants from both the city and national governments. Amazingly, she found the government to be supportive of her efforts and was awarded several grants. It took some time to obtain property, but finally she was able to secure a building from the city that wasn't being used at the time.

Kazuko-san shared that for many nights during a 6-month period she only slept 3 hours a night. She was traveling around a great deal during this time period as well, spending quite a fortune on taxi fees. To avoid this cost, Kazuko-san learned to ride a bike in her late 40's. She comically recalled that first she purchased a tricycle, but was encouraged to learn to ride a two-wheeled bike soon after.

Kazuko-san appeared on television and radio programs shortly after the organization was started. She was rightly recognized for her incredible drive and innovation. Today, the organization, known as Sakura no Sono or "Cherry Blossom Garden", is a thriving workshop for people with disabilities.

As I listened to the details of Kazuko-san's story slowly unfold with the help of my kind translator, I was in awe of her hard work and passion. She saw a need and did something about it! She brought together parents, government employees, and psychologists to complete this project and was fabulously successful. It was such a privilege to meet this amazing woman and I will cherish the memory of her beautiful smile and genuine laugh.

As we finished our conversation, Kazuko-san said that Koji and others like him are a gift from God. "They change our perspective on life forever. We are not surprised by other kinks in the road. We get strong and tough." Wise words from a woman who accomplished a great deal and continues to provide immensely for her son.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I've been busy! I can't believe I have only been in Japan for two weeks, it feels much longer! Especially considering all that I have done so far! I have already learned a great deal about what life is like for people with disabilities and its fascinating. There is so much to talk about, but in this post I will begin to answer the question: Where do people with disabilities work?

First, I must explain that individuals with special needs in Japan usually stay in school until they graduate from high school. Some kids are successfully mainstreamed in the education system, others are placed in a special ed class, and others may have some hybrid of the two options. For instance, many students with disabilities are mainstreamed in elementary school, where the learning gap is smaller. This allows kids with special needs to be stimulated by "normal" social interactions and equally allows their typically developing peers to be exposed to a special needs child's unique perspective on life. As the academics become more challenging and it becomes more difficult to adapt the curriculum, a child with disabilities might enter a special ed class around junior high. Regardless of the situation, they graduate from high school and their parents ask, "Now what?"

Well, one option for these parents and their child, or rather adult, is something I will call a "workshop". These facilities are places for individuals with special needs to work during the day, a normal 9-5 working day. And as far as I can tell, there are a lot of these workshops all over the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Many of them are private organizations, often started by groups of parents as they saw the need to establish facilities where their children could go after graduating from high school.

And what kind of work do people do at these centers? The first workshop I went to, individuals were decorating dishes. Some paint, some cut out small paper shapes for other to glue on plates and bowls, some polish the dishes before they go into a kiln. So artistic! There was one room for the "professionals" who had been working there for a long time and another room for people in training, learning the techniques. These dishes are then sold at various shops and festivals in the city.

For my Mudder friends out there, other workshops are bit like clinic. Companies have various "projects" for the workers to do. These are mostly simple and repetitive tasks like putting plastic handles on paper bags for a famous cookie company or placing labels on postcards for Ralph Lauren mailings. It's all very interesting and I plan to visit more of these workshops in the coming weeks!

Every time I enter one of these workshops, everyone looks up from their work and turns their head toward me. They know I'm a foreigner and they are quite curious. I smile, wave, and greet them, "Konnichiwa!" In return, I get a whole room full smiles, waves, and konnichiwas! It is absolutely endearing and never fails to warm my heart. As I walk around and admire their work, they polish harder and glue shapes more diligently, eager to show me how well they are doing. A smile and simple thumbs-up from me and they beam with pride. I know, my life is rough isn't it? :)

(I do apologize, I haven't been allowed to take pictures in the facilities I have visited so far. Sorry!)

Other random tidbits from the past week:

  • I burned through about $22 on transportation in two days. It's not hard to do.
  • I'm still loving all the food here! Except for raw octopus and this weird fermented soy bean stuff Etsuko made me try.
  • I feel really underdressed in my stereotypical travel clothes, lightweight and wrinkle free. People here dress so well, even in the heat!
  • Heated toilet seats surprise me every time.
  • You know how in LA you have to take five different freeways to get anywhere? Well in Japan, you have to take five different trains to get anywhere.
  • Zumba PE class did not at all prepare me for the Japanese Bon Dance. I think the locals were amused to see my attempt at the very traditional dance at the small neighborhood festival.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Take a Walk With Me

I have been taking walks as a way to get my bearings and learn my way around a bit. This is a good way to give a glimpse of what life is like for me in Japan, too!

First, Etsuko and Akira's house, where I'm staying. Japanese homes are quite simple, not too much furniture cluttering the rooms. I love it! I have a very pleasant room that I try to keep clean, which isn't too hard given I don't have much stuff.

Of course on my first day here I committed a huge cultural faux paux. I walked down the stairs in my shoes, big no-no. In Japan, you always take your shoes off at the front door, never wearing shoes inside the house. Etsuko immediately noticed my mistake and thought it was sooo funny... so hilarious that the story was retold to Akira at the dinner table that evening. 

Next on the walk. There is a cute park about two blocks away. In the morning there are a bunch of older people playing a croquet-type game and I love walking past the adorable Japanese children.
Ok, so it was kinda hot when I walked past and there weren't any cute kids for the picture...

Another block from the park is huge shopping mall.

I came here to get a few things my first day in Japan. As I was feeling overwhelmed by the language barrier and other new things going on around me, I became aware of something very familiar. Yep, a Miley Cyrus song was playing in background. As I walked past other stores I was greeted by "Call Me Maybe" and even a couple great country songs. Never thought I would be comforted by Miley Cyrus, but in the midst of the chaos around me, it was oddly calming.

Back outside, I have to explain that there are vending machines of drinks everywhere. In fact, there is one right outside Etsuko's house! One of Bailey's first questions for me when I skyped with the family after arriving was, "Is there pop in Japan?" (Her priorities are always quite clear.) So I checked the vending machines and...

As I continue to walk through the streets on this warm day...

... I will inevitably take out one of the many towels and handkerchiefs I have acquired to wipe the sweat off my face and neck. I did this when I was skyping with the family too only to see Bailey on the other end wipe her face and neck with her napkin in imitation. Nice try, Bailey! The climate in Oregon is no comparison to Japan.

Well, that concludes the walk for now. There is so much more I could talk about, like the food. Oh my goodness, the food is amazing, it may deserve a post of its own in the future.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Impossible Is Not In My Dictionary

"Impossible is not in my dictionary!" I wish I could take credit for these wise and spirited words, but they belong to my new friend, Etsuko. Etsuko and her husband have so graciously opened their home for me here in Japan, the first stop on my Watson adventure.

To give some context for this declaration, which has since become my mantra, I must say first that culture shock is a real thing, my friends! A very real thing...

I will be honest, I was unprepared for how overwhelming this whole experience would be. I was near tears in the morning on my first full day in Japan, and I hadn't even gone anywhere or done anything yet. There is just so much to take in! To be in a place where you cannot understand the language or read any of the signs, the food is different, and your body is utterly confused because of jet lag, it is a lot to handle.

With the help of Etsuko, who I am incredibly grateful for, I did successfully run some errands on that first day. But it was the last straw when my ATM card refused to work. I tried about five different ATM machines, even one that explicitly stated it accepted foreign cards, but to no avail. As the tears forced their way out, despite my inner pleading to remain strong and calm, I called my bank. This of course required me to figure out how make international calls, a challenging task given my fragile state. Nothing was wrong on the bank's end, my card should work, no problem! I felt helpless and it was then that Etsuko said, "Impossible is not in my dictionary!" I smiled. She was right, of course. And sure enough after a trip to two more banks, we finally found an ATM where I could get cash. Whew!

This seems like such a small thing and I'm embarrassed that I broke down in tears over it. I knew deep down it would work out, but this culture shock thing... it's rough! Of course things won't go smoothly all the time and this incident was my first of many lessons in being flexible and dealing the inevitable roadblocks I will encounter.

Not to worry though! Despite my battle the ATM, I am absolutely loving all the new things I am experiencing in Japan! I will post more soon, with pictures too!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Practicing Packing

I decided to travel light! What does that mean, you ask? I'm only bringing a carry-on sized backpack... Crazy, right!?

As I accumulated things for the trip, I placed it all in one corner of my room. A couple days ago I looked at the piles a bit nervously. It was a lot of stuff, despite my careful thinking about only packing what is absolutely necessary. So, I practiced packing. And it all fits!

All I can say is thank goodness for packing cubes. They are magic! All of my clothing is in those two orange cubes. Granted, my first stop is Japan, where it will be HOT and HUMID. So, I didn't have to pack any bulky cold weather clothing.

Here it is! My travel companion for the next year.

Of course, Bailey had to try it out too.

It is quite freeing to be without the burden of a lot of luggage. All part of the adventure!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Entering Unstructured Territory

I think I chose not to think about it. I chose to ignore the fact that I'm leaving the country for an ENTIRE year. Now, that's not to say I neglected things that needed to get done. For the past two months, I have slowly but surely been buying clothing, selecting luggage, and researching things about different countries. (Read "I've been spending a lot of money...at REI...")

But this week it has started to hit me. While I am so incredibly grateful and excited about this opportunity to travel and learn and experience, the anxiety has kicked in. It took me a while to pinpoint exactly what was causing my anxiety, but it comes down to the fact that I am entering unstructured territory. A territory I have left wholly unexplored, until now.

There are just so many unknowns. Where will I live? Who will I meet? What will I eat? Or perhaps more importantly, what will I snack on...? I like to be in control and this trip challenges all the security I place in my ability to be in control.

I have also been thinking a lot about defining my own success this year. For the most part, throughout school, success has been defined for me. I am so used to doing what I HAVE to do, but this fellowship is all about asking yourself "Hmm, what am I going to do today?" I get to set my own agenda and guidelines. I get to define the success of my project and the trip as a whole. This is awesome and daunting at the same time.

I'm learning to be excited by the challenge of the unknown instead of feeling overwhelmed by it. Instead of craving structure, I am looking forward to being stretched in so many different ways. And I am working on letting God go before me on this journey. His path and agenda far exceed any planning I could do.

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.
~ 2 Chronicles 20:12 

I will end this post with a link to a song I have been wanting to share since I found out I got the fellowship! I heard the chorus and it instantly became my Watson theme song:

We are far from home, but we're so happy
Far from home, all alone, but we're so happy
~From Finner, Of Monsters and Men