I’m just now passing the one year mark on my time here in Tsuruta, and how vastly different it is this year than last.
 
Last year, I arrived with little to no knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, no car, one friend in the whole country and most of my loved ones being halfway around the world. What I did have was curiosity and a desire to make the counsel that hired me look smart.
 
I suppose the latter is still up for debate, but I am doing my best.
 
One thing I really like to do wherever I am at is to take recommendations from the locals. I have done just that. Although at first it was difficult due to the language barrier, Google translate does just well enough to get the job done. Through these recommendations, I have been introduced to great people, fun activities, delicious food and incredible sites. Many of the experiences I could only really have here in Japan.
 
Two of my favorite events where both held at one of my favorite locations in the area. They were the fall foliage and spring cherry blossom festivals in Hirosaki Park. Hirosaki Park is roughly a 40 minute drive from Tsuruta and well worth it. The colors of the leaves during both times are incredible — it almost looks like someone just came and painted the colors on. Everything is so vibrant. There were food vendors and live music being played with people coming from all over Japan to see the event. I am really excited to be able to see both of these events two more times.
 
I was also able to see and be a part of a festival home to the Aomori prefecture here in northern Japan, where Tsuruta lies. The Nebuta festival is probably my favorite festival I have ever been to. Everyone got dressed up while dancing through the streets doing traditional chants while either pushing or pulling on giant floats. I actually got to help make one of these floats and it was really difficult but fun. It made me appreciate how great they all are. The floats in the town next to us are seven stories high and take at least a year to make. I also got to be a part of the festival here in Tsuruta, where my friend Rio and I pulled the town mascots float together. It was a great time and I cannot wait till next year.
 
I’ve also been lucky enough to join the basketball and baseball teams in the area. The baseball team is made up of players from the town office that I work at here in Tsuruta and is typically on Wednesdays before work. Yes, before work. The games start at 5 a.m. and then afterwards, we go home for about an hour and then go to work. I and many others on the team fall asleep during lunch. But this last year was the best our team has done in 10 years or so. I hope next year to play again and help our team win. The basketball team I play on is the town’s adult traveling team. We practice two times a week and have tournaments every month or so. I didn’t know what to expect skill-wise, being in Japan, but I am happily surprised as it’s really good basketball. It has been made a little harder due to language barrier, but it’s been a great challenge and I’ve diffidently gotten better skill wise and language wise by playing with all of them.
 
My favorite place to travel to in the area is a place called the Oirase Gorge about two hours south of Tsuruta. It really feels like home in the Gorge there. 
 
It has a different look then the Columbia Gorge but that’s mostly due to being much smaller. It took me about four hours to travel through it all, taking stops every 10 minutes or so to see waterfalls or famous landmarks along the way. I really didn’t know what to expect as I was told to go there by some total stranger, but it was well worth it and I have gone back many times now.
 
The last place I want to talk about is Mount Iwaki, which you can see from Tsuruta. It is a huge mountain where I went snowboarding twice last year.
 
I also went during the summer to go hiking. Hiking the mountain was one of my favorite experiences in Japan so far. It was about a five hour hike up and down, where you take a gondola about three-quarters of the way up the rest of the way. The views from the top where great and seeing all the shrines on the way up and down was my favorite part.
 
This year, I am now able to communicate in Japanese fairly well, I study often and I have many Japanese friends where all we do is speak Japanese with each other. I have a car, so I am able to travel to places in the north that I want to see. I am a part of many groups throughout the community, which allows me to do a variety of things. My family is still halfway around the world, but they are going to come to visit in January. I typically judge how much I liked a place not by how much I liked it when I was there, but by how difficult it is to leave. And I can tell that this will be the hardest place for me to leave yet.
 
Thank you, Hood River and Tsuruta-Machi, for having such a great relationship and allowing me to be a part of it. 
 
I would also like to thank Matthew Harris for telling me about this opportunity. This has been a chance of a lifetime for me and it wouldn’t have happened unless you told me about it. I hope all is going well for you.

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