Reverse, reverse

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I feel like I am again apologizing for my absence posting to this blog. I had all intentions to get it up and running again but then we found out we were moving back to Japan. Hence the title “Reverse, reverse.” 🙂

I am a child of the 90s and therefore, Cha Cha Slide was all the rage. I just had that one line on repeat in my head as I went through the motions of cleaning up and passing off job duties, prepping the house for moving, pack out, temporary lodging, flight, getting settled in temp lodging, finding a new house, getting settled, etc. Didn’t I just do this a YEAR ago?!

The upside is we are now back in Japan and here for at least three years! It means I can pick up where I left off with exploring Japanese food and culture, traveling Asia (several countries that I didn’t get to visit on our last stay here), and experiencing Japan through the eyes of my daughter.

xxCourtney

Happy Japan-niversary!

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Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto

We’ve lived in Japan now for three years. Three years? Really?

Time truly does fly! Three years of exploring this beautiful country which has become our home. Here’s a few things we’ve learned during our time here.

1. Customer service is AMAZING! You are cheerfully greeted as you enter any store. Workers are quick to help you find what you want. And they bow after every purchase. But the best customer service innovation is a buzzer found on the tables of many restaurants Perfect solution for having a waiter there when you need them and no mindless chitchat about how your food tastes when you don’t.

2. I will never learn to read this language. Yes, it’s sad but I’ve just resigned myself to that fact. The challenge is it isn’t one written language but four! You have hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romanji (Japanese words written in Roman alphabet). To be honest, the hiragana, katakana, and romanji would be do-able but kanji is straight memorization…and my brain just shuts down!

3. Homes are fragile. This is possibly one of the few dislikes I have about living in Japan. The homes are cold, cold, cold in the winter because they are built to “breath” during those hot and humid summers. The floors are impossible to keep clean and glossy because even though it’s wood, there is not durable wax to protect it. The redeeming factor is most homes have heated toilet seats. Best invention ever! I want one in my American home.

4. Food is diverse. Most Americans seem to think only of sushi and teppanyaki when it comes to Japanese cuisine. And now, ramen is starting to make a splash! But this is barely scratching the surface of Japanese cuisine. It’s varied and diverse from curry and yakitori to nabe and kaiseki. And once you’re finished sampling Japanese food, you can move onto basically any cuisine in the world. French, Italian, Moroccan, Chinese, American BBQ, or whatever your stomach desires!

This list could go on and on because we are always learning and growing. Living in a foreign culture is not only challenging, but forces you to growing as a person on a daily basis. You have to step outside your comfort zones, embrace the adventure, and make the most of the time you have here. We’ve enjoyed our three years of experiences, the friends we’ve made, and personal growth. Here’s to another two years in the “Land of the Rising Sun”!

Enjoy some photos of our first three years!
xxCourtney

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Day 2 in Japan: Iwakuni’s Kintai-kyo Bridge

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Miyajima Island and its famous floating torii

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Making momiji-manju on Miyajima island with my work group

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Hiking Mt. Fuji with my sister and brother-in-law

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Birthday weekend to the art island of Naoshima

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Festa de Rama with friends

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Cooking class in Kyoto with visiting family

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Backpacking Shikoku with Zion

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Hasu-chan, Iwakuni’s mascot, at a Lotus Root cooking class

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Learning to make a character bento

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Trying cross-country skiing on Nagano’s Olympic course

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Meeting up with old friends from my BGSU years

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Performing tea ceremony

St. Jean Pied de Port: Gateway to the Camino de Santiago

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View over the countryside surrounding St. Jean Pied de Port

It’s taken me awhile to get to this point in our adventure. It’s probably because in some way, I’m still mourning our time and adventure along the Camino. It has truly been one of the best experiences in my life. We plan to walk again someday. Not sure when…maybe before the next big job move, or maybe after retirement. All we know is we will join our fellow peregrinos on the Camino de Santiago again.

Our journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was a long one! We left San Sebastian early in the morning for Bayonne, France. Upon arrival, we had two hours to explore the city before catching our next train. We wandered past the cathedral and walked inside to find a chapel for St. James. We both lit candles at his alter. Tensions, emotions, and stress were high at this point. We were embarking on one of our dreams, and our only regret from our time in Spain. We just asked to finish.

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Alter within Bayonne’s Cathedral

The small train to St. Jean Pied de Port was packed with pilgrims as we headed to our first stop on the Camino. Age, fitness level, and equipment were as varied as the countries we came from but one thing was constant, the anticipation. The anticipation was palpable as several pilgrims chatted about how long they would walk, why they were walking, and other small talk to kill time. The closer we drew to St. Jean, it increased. People began to fall silent. The shudders of the cameras slowed. People removed their earbuds and turned off their iPods. We all sat transfixed on the mountains and valleys as we inched closer to the village and seemingly farther back in time.

When the doors finally open, hundreds of pilgrims swarmed into the sleepy town of St. Jean. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go; you only needed to follow the stream of pilgrims as they headed up through the arch and into the inner city. Immediately, I fell in love with this village.

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St. Jean Pied de Port

I have long been a fan of small, mountain towns (the pueblo blancos of southern Spain are some of my favorites) but the timeless feel of this village. Oh my! You suddenly felt as if you were a medieval pilgrim walking the streets, though we are afforded far more comforts today. There’s a surreal feeling about doing something that has been done for hundreds of years. You feel as if the energy of those that walked before you, and those that will come after you, are linked and you’re all connected. This energy breathes a sense of vibrancy, compassion, and camaraderie to the village. The streets were lined with shops selling outdoor gear, the famous pilgrim shells, knick-knack souvenirs, and foot care. In between all the shops were albergues, or pilgrim hostels, hotels, and restaurants.

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Items within the Pilgrims Office in St. Jean Pied de Port

We made our way to the Pilgrims Office where we completed the paperwork, paid our dues, and received the first stamp in our pilgrim’s passport. We were official. We were peregrinos! Our happiness didn’t last for long as we were also informed that the mountain route (also known as Napoleon route) was closed due to snow a few days prior. This is truly the downside of planning outdoor adventures with little room for adjustments; you never know what Mother Nature has in store for you!

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So how do you fully prepare for a hike like this? I was up most of the night pondering that and the thousand other questions racing through my head. Had I trained enough? Was I mentally strong enough to power through those moments of physical and emotional pain? Would I complete my journey? Would it transform me? Nothing was known, or certain, at this time. This was the first and most basic lesson of the Camino for me. Just wake up and put one foot in front of the other. Forward progress, not matter how fast or slow, was all that was needed or required of you.

Join me on my next post where I’ll review our first five days on the trail as we walk from France into Spain, into Pamplona, and through the beautiful countryside leading to Puente la Reina.

We’re so done, Fuji!

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Mt. Fuji from the parking lot on Saturday morning. Within the hour, we were unable to see it and the parking lot had clouds rolling through it.

That’s it! I’m done!

We attempted another summit this past weekend on Mt. Fuji. She’s been angry this year. Like real angry! (All the extra climbers due to its new status as UNESCO World Heritage site??) As most mountains go, the weather is hard to predict and can change quickly. This year has just been particularly bad on Fuji. I swear that most friends have reported windy, wet, and white-out fog for the majority of the summer. It’s not exactly a pleasant hike on the best days; add in less-than-ideal conditions and it can become downright miserable.

This climb was my first attempt at night. I really wanted a gorgeous sunrise from the top of the mountain. After about 4 hours hiking in the dark with headlamps, we reached station 9…in rain, howling winds, and freezing cold. We huddled along a wall that blocked the wind as we discussed our plan. On our current pace, we would reach the top in an hour, or by 3 AM. There was no way, we’d be able to hang out at the top for the 2+ hours until the sun would rise. And that’s IF we could even see anything!

So with that, we parted ways with our friends. They headed to the top because they needed to conquer Fuji. My husband and I headed back down since we’ve been to the summit before. The plan was to meet at our car later in the morning. Heading down earlier would also mean that we could get some sleep in the car before the drive back home.

We hiked back down to a lower spot where we were out of the clouds and wedged ourselves between some rocks to make some tea and instant ramen. Fighting through fatigue and the cold, I sat in awe of our view. At this level, the night sky was clear with twinkling stars. More stars than I’ve seen in years! Down below, the cities were gorgeously lit up and lining the lakes which mirrored back a brilliant crescent moon. The hot, salty ramen and green tea was just the icing to that beautiful view. The tea warmed my frozen, gloved hands. The salty broth of the ramen gave me the energy to continue pushing on.

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Morning light on Mt. Fuji.
Taken with my iPhone

We continued down and were nearing station 6 when the early dawn light started to peek around the sides of Mt. Fuji. At times, we were still above the lower clouds which captured the light to make an absolutely breath-taking view. The quiet of the mountain as it basked in the early morning light was inspiring. I just wish it had been like this the entire time!

This hike was possibly the hardest attempt up Fuji. It’s usually an early, and long, day but night hike took it to a whole other level. The exhaustion added with my apparent limited depth perception when using a headlamp made for a slow, slow descent. I had hoped this would “check” the box to seeing the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji but guess she had other plans. I think in the future, I will just resign myself to hiking another peak to get views OF Fuji and not FROM Fuji.

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View from Station 6 on the descent.
Taken with my iPhone

Final tally: Mt. Fuji –  2  & Courtney – 3.   So with that Mt. Fuji, we’re done!

Food Memory: Arranque Roteño

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Arranque Roteño served with green pepper slices

A cool breeze blows through the covered courtyard providing some relief to the August heat. It’s way past sunset in a country where it doesn’t get dark until after 11PM. A Spanish guitarist strums his instrument with an overgrown, gnarled fingernail that doubles as his pick. To his side is another man who is keeping beat by clapping as his voice wails a sad, haunting song. There are others on stage as well. Many women dressed in colorful dresses with plenty of ruffles. Their dark hair pulled tight by brightly colored, ornate clips that glisten in the moonlight. We are deep in the south of Spain, in Andalucia.

Suddenly, one of the ladies stands up with a determined look on her face. She has begun to feel the music and wants to dance. She stomps and moves across the floor. Twirling and clapping and stomping some more. She’s dancing as if all the pain and suffering in her life will be released in these heavy steps. She continues this maddening dance until she suddenly returns to the current moment and moves back to her seat.

In flamenco, this would be called an arranque, or an outburst.  But for me, arranque is also the best term to describe my culinary experience during my time in Spain.

My love for cooking and baking started young. Each day, I would rush home from school to try a new recipe or help my mother with dinner preparations. During college, this passion continued to build by trying new recipes, cuisines, and ingredients on willing roommates. By senior year, we were hosting a weekly “family dinner” for friends who wanted to enjoy good food and company. I graduated and had more time (and money!) to spend in the kitchen so I continued to hone my skills.  By the time I moved to Andalucia, this passion had met a fevered climax. But all the newness of my new home was overwhelming so I retreated to a space that had always brought me comfort, the kitchen.

I began to explore Andalucia through its ingredients, spices and markets. I learned to cook local and in season. I wandered the grocery stores, drove through the pueblos blancos mountain villages to find the best olive oil and sampled sherry wine. I tried dishes I never thought I would, learned the language (my Spanish food vocabulary is still stronger than any other area!), and began to grow into a confident cook.

My husband and I started to travel outside of Spain to Italy, France and Morocco.  Traveling with our stomachs quickly became our favorite way to explore each new location. We did cooking classes, sought out local specialties, and shared wonderful meals along the way. Our most common souvenirs were inevitably food-related items such as Parmigianino cheese, hefty red wines, spices, and local cookware. When we returned home, we would recreate these dishes in our kitchen and invite friends over to share in our travel memories around the dinner table.

We have since left Spain but I still look upon that time fondly. The heat of the sun, the refreshing sea breeze at night, the long nights spent on a tapeo (tapas hopping) with friends, the loud and boisterous Spanish, and the closeness I felt with the people through their food. I can’t think of a better place to have my culinary “arranque.”

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Basic ingredients creates a dish that transports me to Andalucia every time!

Arranque Roteño

It seems fitting that one of my favorite recipes to make when I’m missing Andalucia also has arranque in its name.  This recipe was from my “hometown” of Rota. A close relative of gazpacho or Cordoba’s solemero, this dish is served as a dip. I loved the simplicity of this dish and how it takes me back to sunny Andalucia every time.

4-5 red medium-size tomatoes
3-4 garlic cloves
3-5 Italian green peppers
Olive oil, to taste
Salt, to taste
½ lb. breadcrumbs (preferably baguette, 2 days old)

Blend tomatoes, green peppers and garlic cloves in a food processor. Next add breadcrumbs, olive oil and salt to taste until the texture thickens to your liking. Chill in fridge for 45 minutes before serving.

Use sliced vegetables (green pepper slices are my favorite), picos or bread to dip. Serve with jamón serrano, Manchego cheese and olives. Serve with sherry wine for an authentic Andalucian experience.

 Note: This piece was originally created for Food52’s weekly “Food Memory” segment. I waited too long and they discontinued it so I thought I’d share here. 

10 Years Later

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Standing by my college’s sign at BGSU after graduating.

Last night, I was feeling reflective. Probably because I realized that ten years ago, I was in this same spot. Not life point, but location. Currently, I live in the Kanto Plains of Japan and in 2003, I also spent a summer here. During that summer, I was completing my final internship with MWR. It was my last adventure before entering the “real world” to find a job, home, and possibly a husband. That summer, however, was all about being young and having fun!

10 years ago…I was at the start of my career. The world was full of possibilities. I was single. I had spent the majority of my life in America. I wanted to live overseas and travel. I didn’t have a full-time job. I worked insane hours but loved every minute of it.

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Summer 2002 internship in Souda Bay, Greece

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Summer 2003 internship in Atsugi, Japan. Hiking Mt. Fuji

Now 10 years later… I am married. I have a dog. I have lived overseas for the past 8+ years (At this point, Ohio is more of a travel destination to me than “home.”) I have worked a variety of jobs. I have lived in Europe and Asia. I have climbed peaks in several countries. I am always trying new recipes. I speak in a jumbled mix of English, Spanish, Japanese, and other languages. I’ve tried backpacking and loved it. I have experiences the good and bad of living in other cultures; I have experienced the good and bad of America when I return. I walked the Camino with pilgrims from around the world. I spend plenty of time in my kitchen, writing my blog, or researching upcoming travels. I’ve made friends with several like-minded people around the globe. I became a foodie.

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Kyoto, Japan

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Backpacking Grand Canyon in 2004 with friends.

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My husband and I on a carriage ride around Sevilla only a few short days after getting engaged!

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Enjoying Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, Japan

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Our little “Spanish” dog who loves hiking as much as we do!

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Cooking class in Seoul, Korea

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Learning the chado, Japanese way of tea, and performing for others

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Cooking with Annie B in Andalucia, Spain

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My husband and I along the Camino de Santiago, Spain

And I have made my way back to Japan. I realize I’m pretty lucky to be able to come back to a place that had such an impact on me years ago. This time however, I feel that I appreciate it more as a world citizen than just an American living in Japan.

xxCourtney

Missing Mommy Day

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Visiting my sister at Bluffton College during her freshmen year

That’s what I will always call her, my mommy. In the later years I had called her “mom” because mommy seemed too childish. Our relationship was evolving from one of mother-daughter to also being good friends. She was the kind of good friend where she understood everything about my past, my dreams, and me. I only wish that we could’ve grown more in that role. She was my world and when she died, my world crashed.

Young Courtney and mom

My mom was always my biggest supporter

Nine years has passed since that life-changing day (June 22, 2004) but the pain at times feels as raw as the day it happened. The uneasiness of not having your “rock” to hold onto for comfort and support. The unknown of facing life’s challenges, successes and joy without your biggest supporter by your side.  So this is my Missing Mommy Day. I allow myself to do whatever I feel fit to honor my mom’s memory, celebrate her life, or just plain cry. It doesn’t matter. It’s Missing Mommy Day (in case you’re wondering, I chose to enjoy lots of cookie dough today while thinking about her)!

It has been some rough years full of tears, love, pain, and laughter. But we (my dad, sister and I) have managed to move on, grow and continue to find joy in life. It’s what she would’ve wanted. She always focused on the positive and would’ve wanted us to move forward. In her short time here, she taught us many valuable lessons.  Here are just a few of those lessons.

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One of the last photos of my sister, mom and I. Sequoia National Park

1. Be grateful. There were times in my childhood when my mom would make us write down (or go round-table at the dinner table) three things we were grateful for. It could be anything from “a beautiful rainbow” or “playing with a friend” to “cooking in the kitchen together.” It didn’t matter what we were thankful for but that we realized that even on the worse days, there’s usually some good.

2. You don’t have to know your life’s passion immediately. I was the ultimate planner. I loved to have my life planned out but it was hard determining what I wanted to do after HS graduation. My mom simply said, “You’ll figure it out as you go.”

She was speaking from experience because it was not until her 30s that she found her dream job. Prior to having me, she had worked at a bank and as a LPN nurse but then she took time off to raise my sister and I. When my little sister started kindergarten, she began working at our school’s library. The library became a media center with the addition of a computer classroom. She learned how to trouble-shoot computers, research new computer games that engaged children, and set up computer labs. At the time of her death, she was assistant technology coordinator for the school district. She had finally found her dream job!

3. Life is not all about your career. Anyone who knew me before the accident, knows that I would almost inevitably only talk about my career goals with very little thought going to other aspects of my life. I just remember my mom always sighing and say “Courtney. Outside of your career, what will you have in 5 years?” I would look at her crazy…like working insane hours at a big advertising firm in Chicago wasn’t enough!  I guess it’s safe to say I learned that there was more to life. This was the most profound lesson because I didn’t get it until after she died. It was only then that I realized there were so many things to life and let’s be honest, a career does not provide as much joy, happiness and love as those special people in your life.

So nine years down. Next year will be a big one…ten years! Still trying to figure out how I will properly commemorate so much time without one of my favorite people. Thankfully I have a year to figure it out!

Courtney
Going to a Broadway play with mom BG 1999 - Court, mom and dad Mom court and Dad Christmas 1982? Family photo with AprilCourt & MomBG graduation - toasting with Steph and mom