The End of My Japanese Life

I’m writing this sitting in a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam, after leaving Japan yesterday.

The last few months in Tokyo have been amazing. I feel so wowed that I had the chance to spend some time in such an incredible city, and I was so lucky to meet the wonderful people that I did.

My last night, a group of the wonderful people at the guesthouse took me to a restaurant in Shibuya called Lock Up, a themed restaurant with a mishmash of prison wardens, zombies, monsters and punk covers of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. The service was terrible and once an hour they turned all the lights out so we couldn’t see the strange, themed food we were eating, but we had so much fun, and it was a great last night with the people who were the heart of my Tokyo life.

My last morning I was, predictably, scrambling to finish my last minute packing. I had to finish cleaning my room, give away most of my possessions, go to the post office and get on a train by 11:38am. It was a little giri-giri, but being so stressed out stopped me from thinking about the reality of what was happening.

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I said goodbye to a small group at the door, and couple of very lovely people walked me to the station and I said my last goodbyes. I slept most of the way to the airport, and went straight to check in when I arrived.

I was being very stoic and grown up about the whole process, and hadn’t cried at all, or even thought too much about what I was doing, and then I got to customs.

As I signed a form rescinding my Japanese residency, it suddenly hit me. That was it. The place I had called home for more than two years was no longer my home. Simple as signing my name and punching a hole in my identity card. There was a lump in my throat, and my eyes prickled.

“I’m sad,” I told the man at immigration as I handed him the form.

He looked at me for a second and smiled.

“Me too. Take care, okay?” He gave me back my identity card with its new hole in the middle. “Here’s a present.”

I walked in circles around the terminal  until it was time to go to the gate. I ate a last onigiri sitting in a corner, and wondered how long they would last if I bought heaps of them and stuffed them in my backpack.

And as the plane took off I closed my eyes and tried to think of the adventure ahead, rather than what I was leaving behind.

I love they way I live my life, but every new adventure brings a little bit of heartbreak. I leave pieces of my heart everywhere I go, and there’s a big piece in Japan.

I’ll be back one day, for sure, but right now I’m looking forward; through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and, most importantly, home to New Zealand.

And who knows what magic will come next in my incredible life.

Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can confuse the hell out of you!

 

Luxury confuses me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the odd encounter with luxury, but I do usually find it quite bewildering.

I mean, this hotel room is mind-blowingly incredible, and I’m so relaxed, but I can’t figure out how to use the toilet. Every time I just stand there looking at it until it flushes. Sometimes it takes a really long time so I go looking for a button, but then it catches me off guard and suddenly flushes. Why can’t I have a normal toilet that doesn’t make my toilet experience so confusing?

A few days ago, there was a dish of tiny bacon bits next to the dishes of cereal at the buffet. I assumed it was tiny pieces of dried fruit and put it on my coco pops and yogurt. I wasn’t mad when I realised, just confused. Is bacon on cereal a luxury thing? Or perhaps both the cereal and the bacon bits were meant to go on the salad nearby?

The next morning at breakfast, my waffles arrived with icing sugar, maple syrup, sausages and salad. What? Then I ended up with syrup on my salad, which was quite a perplexing taste experience, because there was salad dressing on there too, and really that’s too much.

Add to that the tiny, two pronged forks with which you are meant to eat your salad-in-a-shot glass, and breakfast left me with a stunned expression and cake in my hair.

On the subject of food, the room I’m staying in now is amazing (as I mentioned), with a really incredible wooden bath that fills itself to the perfect level and then stops. Which has nothing to do with food, except that it comes with apples to put in the bath. Yes, apples. I would rather just eat them, but apparently when you’re wealthy, you bathe in fruit. So, that’s a thing…

Is it a food or is it a bath product?
Is it a food or is it a bath product?

Also, it seems like when you’re wealthy, you either indulge in luxury by wearing expensive designer clothes and shoes, or pyjamas. There’s no middle ground here. I can either go to dinner in my evening wear, or the comfy cotton ‘leisure wear’ (read: pyjamas) they provide. Because, you know, jeans would be weird.

All in all, it’s probably a good thing that I’m not wealthy. Partly because the constant struggle between confusion and relaxation might eventually make my brains come out my nose, and partly because I might starve to death while bathing in bacon bits.

Guesthouse Life

When I’m in Tokyo, I stay in a guesthouse called Oakhouse Kamata.

I think it’s great; it’s very new and clean, it’s got plenty of amenities (like the massage chair I’m currently sitting in), the people are really fun and it’s close to useful things like a train station and shops.

However, in a lot of ways it feels like I’m living my first year of university all over again.

  • My room is tiny and I sleep in a single bed. Unless, of course, I fall asleep on the couches in the common room.
  • There is always someone ready to get drunk and stay up talking until four am. Which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time.
  • I’m broke. The only difference is that this time the government isn’t slipping me a little bit of money every week.
  • My sleeping habits are very weird. Like, really weird. I hit snooze on my alarm for three hours yesterday. The day before, I accidentally took a four hour nap in the evening then stayed up all night.
  • My eating habits are very weird. I had pasta for breakfast, a meat bun for dinner, and a bunch of mini chocolates at 1am.
  • My work habits are very weird. I can do absolutely nothing for four days, then bang out a week’s worth of work over two days.
  • I spend a lot of time squinting at my computer and tapping away at the keys. Then deleting everything I’ve written. Then typing it out again. Then deleting it, closing my computer and going for a beer.

I guess the big difference is the bit of paper I get at the end.

When I finished university I got a degree. When I finish here I get a plane ticket to Hanoi.

The plane ticket was a LOT easier to get.

Yamagata Days

From Tokyo I was sent to Yamagata, to find out what great stuff there is to do up there. I was told that Yamagata is in the “top ten prefectures that nobody cares about” so I figured it would be a pretty quiet two weeks.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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This was the first thing I saw when I jumped off the bus, and even though it was 5am, I felt pretty good about it.

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I was homestaying with this cool family; Kaz, Ayako, and Anna.

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On only half an hours sleep, I climbed a mountain with a super cool crater lake at the top.

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The north of Japan eats a bit of lamb, so I FINALLY got my hands on some and I was a very happy lady.

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Last on the agenda was a pottery school and shop, which had some beautiful pieces that I was very tempted to buy.

Bed was amazing that night.

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Day two saw us heading out to an orchard and eating a ton of delicious fresh fruit. Research, you understand.

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Then there was a castle and foot onsen.

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Then off to an onsen hotel for one of the fanciest lunches I’ve ever had…

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…and an onsen, of course. Life’s hard when you’re a travelling reporter.

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On my last day in Yamagata City, we took a bus tour on these jazzy little buses.

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Yamagata is small, but it’s a really nice little city.

DSCN4679 DSCN4715We ended the day with a walk up Yamadera, a temple built into the side of a mountain.

Next up was Haguro and Tsuruoka, on the other side of the prefecture.

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I stayed with this lovely lady, Yui, and her boyfriend Dan.

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We drove out to see a field of a million sunflowers.

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And checked out a museum and traditional Japanese garden.

But the best bit was eating s’mores and watching a movie that night. Much needed chill out time!

DSCN4982The next day we visited a samurai school…

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A shrine with plenty of turtles…

DSCN5024A Catholic church famous for its black Mary…

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And a candle shop, where I got creative and painted a candle.

Dinner was a Mexican food night with a group of Yamagata JETs. Very weird having some of the same conversations in Yamagata as I did in Kagawa.

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The next day was kind of a Yamagata orientation with the JETs and we did some fun stuff! We took a boat ride down the Mogami River with this cool singing guide.

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Then, after a rushed lunch at a fancy restaurant, we went to a very old Japanese restaurant to see a traditional Maiko (geisha trainee) dance.

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That night we drove to Shinjo for their annual festival of floats, and I stayed with the very awesome Kristin and Jeff.

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I spent a whole day hanging out in Shinjo, seeing the festival and having cocktails in the boot of a car with those crazy kids, and it was great!

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The next day I was in Tendo, a city that’s famous for shoji (Japanese chess), and they really ran with the theme, with shoji pieces all over the place! I got to make soba noodles and paint a giant chess piece with Derek, a Yamagata CIR, so I was pretty happy.

DSCN5948After that I headed to Ginzan Onsen, a small onsen town which is named for the old silver mines nearby. I did a tour of the city with Derek, and the lovely Nao from the tourist office.

DSCN5996I spent the night in a really nice, old ryokan which meant a hot bath, a fluffy futon and this amazing dinner in my room.

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Next was Obanazawa, a city famous for the Hanagasa festival in which people dance with these flower bedecked straw hats. I spent the whole day at the festival taking photos and hanging out with Nao, and slept in another gorgeous ryokan.

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Finally, the last leg of my journey was back to Haguro, where I got to sleep in the most amazing hundred year old Japanese-style farmhouse and climb a mountain.


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Yamagata, you’re in a whole different top ten for me!

An Extraordinary Two Weeks in Tokyo

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This is the first thing I saw when I got off the bus in Tokyo, and all I could think was “And this is an extraordinary life!”

IMG_4010With a new place to live and a new way to occupy my time, Tokyo didn’t give me a chance to breathe before the excitement started.

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One of the best parts of Japanese summer is the festivals that pop up everywhere. Out on an evening stroll, I came across a tiny local festival in a park.

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Out on a mission to find some great stuff going on in Tokyo, I met these guys in Yoyogi Park.

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Tokyo is a fun city to be in in the summer!

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I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with these cool cats and the new Kagawa JETs for one last big Kagawa-style drinks and karaoke shindig one night.

IMG_4034The guest house in Tokyo is full of great people. I made friends the night someone’s birthday turned into a cake fight and I ended up with cake all over my face.

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One ‘work day’ consisted of me taking a train all the way down to the bottom of the Miura Peninsula and checking out beaches all day and fireworks all night.

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I headed to Yokohama with friends one night for wine and a spin on the ferris wheel.

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Then I stayed up all night to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, where they auction off the biggest fish I’ve seen in my life!

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Afterwards we had sushi for breakfast which was unusual but I could eat sushi any time of the day!

DSCN3184I met up with my JTE from Kagawa for a yummy French lunch and all the gossip from school.

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With the help of a friend, I managed to get a last minute ticket to the Sunday of Summer Sonic, where I saw Imagine Dragons, Carly Rae Jepsen, Cyndi Lauper, Mr Children and Muse. Amazing!

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Drinks with some friends and roadies afterwards started off in a shot bar in Roppongi…

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…and ended up like this.

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I was invited on a road trip down to Zushi Beach with these cool kids from the guest house. We spent the whole day on the beach in the sun, then headed to a house party nearby where we grilled a ton of food and drank some nice beer.

IMG_4087Kazu and I spent a day at a theme park!

DSCN3129Where I rode a panda. Because, you know… a panda…

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When you have a heatwave in Tokyo, the logical thing to do is to put a paddling pool in your carpark and throw a big barbeque party. We could tell it was a good party, because the police were called three times. In the middle of the day.

IMG_4093We followed that with a fireworks festival, and I tied my own obi!

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I went  on a road trip to Gunma Prefecture with these gorgeous girls, Megu and Kiyomi, from my guesthouse.

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One day I headed up to Saitama Prefecture to meet the vice-principal of Takamatsu Daiichi in Kawagoe.

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She treated me and her sister to an exquisite lunch.

amiryoAnd on my last night in Tokyo I was able to celebrate Ryo and Ami’s wedding with them. What a beautiful couple!

Tokyo, see you in a month. Next stop, Yamagata!

Goodbye Kagawa

I have had complaints from some of my regular readers about my silence on here recently and I know you’ve all been perched on the edges of your seats waiting to hear what madness I’ve been up to the last few months, so I’ll try to do a bit of a summary.

So my last few months in Kagawa left me absolutely drained physically, emotionally and financially, but also feeling incredibly, super blessed. I was so overwhelmingly sad to leave, but I realise that the reason it was so hard for me to say goodbye to my life there is that I was lucky enough to have the most wonderful, beautiful friends, colleagues and students who made my Kagawa life such a magical experience.

It was difficult for me to write about because my usual style is pithy, amusing anecdotes, and it’s really hard to be witty about trying to explain to a room full of teary students exactly why you’re leaving and not coming back, or hugging a friend goodbye and realising that it will be the last hug for a very long time.

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At school, I was absolutely humbled by the outpouring of generosity and love that I experienced in my last weeks; from the fifth grade class that taught themselves the New Zealand national anthem so they could sing to me on my last day at their school, to the standing ovation I got as I walked out the door of Daiichi on my last day, almost every single person I came into contact with as an English teacher made an effort to thank me in some way.

My school bought me a beautiful yukata as a leaving gift and even arranged for me to have lessons in how to put it on.

My school bought me a beautiful yukata as a leaving gift and even arranged for me to have lessons in how to put it on.

The sheer number of letters, gifts and messages I received not only doubled the weight of the boxes I sent home, but let me know that I meant as much to my kids as they did to me.

I got so many letters and cards, but this is definitely one of my favourites.

I got so many letters and cards, but this is definitely one of my favourites.

Then, of course, every second that I wasn’t in school was spent making the absolute most of my remaining precious time with my incredible friends. We did road trips to the beach, sayonara parties, Mexican food nights, party weekends in Osaka, dinners, lunches, McDonald’s breakfasts, nomihodai, karaoke, desperate last-minute clothes swaps, sleepovers, and one weird night that involved three hospitals, a blanket fort fail and high-stakes janken in a convenience store carpark.

Last dinner in our favourite izakaya.

Last dinner in our favourite izakaya.

The last month was absolutely jam packed with fun times, all tinged with sadness, and by the time I got on the bus to Tokyo I was exhausted, all out of tears, beyond hungover and broke.

I was amazed at how many people showed up to the bus stop to say goodbye.

I was amazed at how many people showed up to the bus stop to say goodbye.

My time in Kagawa was over, but where one door closes, another one opens, and the next adventure was waiting for me. So, with a handful of damp tissues, and an overweight backpack, I headed north, to the bright lights of Tokyo.

Japanglish

I realised the other day that one of the hardest things about returning to foreign countries (anywhere outside Japan) is going to be the language barrier.

I now speak a language that is incomprehensible to all but a tiny subsection of the world’s population; Japanglish, a language only understood by English-speakers who have spent a decent period of time in Japan.

English speakers who have never lived in Japan can’t understand it because of the large number of Japanese words and cultural references, and Japanese speakers can’t understand it because it relies largely on English grammar and badly bastardised Japanese.

For the most part, this language can only be learned through an extended exposure to Japanese, but there are a few basic rules that can be applied to your English which can help to leberu-uppu (level up) your Japanglish.

First, you must use “let’s” as often and as inappropriately as possible. Ideally it will be used with a noun (let’s Osaka!) and I like to use it with gerunds (let’s running!) and abstract nouns (let’s Christmas Merry!). It can also be used effectively with adjectives (let’s happy) and adverbs (let’s quickly!).

Second, replace as many verbs as possible with “enjoy”. You should never eat a cake, watch a movie or drink a beer. Instead, try to enjoy a cake, enjoy a movie and enjoy a beer. You can also use it in conjunction with gerunds and enjoy eating a cake, enjoy watching a movie and enjoy drinking a beer.

Third, learn the basics of katakana English (the art of Japanesifying English words), and apply them to whichever words you like. The simple rules are; insert extra vowels so that two consonant sounds never sit next to each other, and never finish a word with a consonant sound (‘n’ is the exception to these rules). For example, instead of eating at McDonalds, you should eat at “makudonarudo”.

Fourth, a small selection of adjectives will really pad out your Japanglish. I find that the most useful ones are “kawaii” (cute/ pretty), “oishii” (delicious), “genki” (in good health/ energetic), “nemui” (sleepy), “natsukashii” (making one nostalgic), “atsui” (hot), and “samui” (cold). Use them in the same way you would use English adjectives. “It’s so atsui today! I’m getting really nemui…” or “this song is so natsukashii”.

I encourage my friends and family back home to start following these basic steps in their everyday lives, so I’ll be able to actually have a conversation with you when I get home.

Or in other words, “lets enjoy Japanglish!”

Sometimes I really miss being a teacher.

Sometimes I really miss being a teacher.

 

 

It’s the little things

I love Japan. Like, really love it.

And obviously, I love all the big stuff that makes up Japan; the people, the manners, the food, the beautiful landscape, the two distinct cultures (ancient and contemporary), but I find it’s all the little tiny things filling the cracks between the big ideas, the things you don’t read about in travel books, that make Japan as special as it is.

So here’s a list of just a few of the little things that I really love about this country.

1. The damp towels.

When you go to restaurants and bars you get a small damp towel to wipe your hands with. In summer they are nice and cold, and in winter they are steamy hot. Even the cheaper food and drink places will offer you little wrapped disposable wipes.

I use the damp towels for my best party trick--the chipkin.

I use the damp towels for my best party trick–the chipkin.

2. The onigiri.

These little rice balls are the single greatest fast food I’ve ever encountered. I like the ones with the seaweed or the salmon inside, though when I first arrived and couldn’t read any Japanese it was a fun surprise every time…

3. The easy-to-open-packaging.

Every single packet in Japan is easy to open. It’s magic. There will always be a tiny split in one corner from which you can tear open any packaging. If it’s not easy to get into, you can safely assume that it wasn’t made in Japan. Or you’re an idiot.

4. Watching people bow into the phone.

This is by far the best part of working in a Japanese office. I now consider bowing in all situations very normal, but watching people bow deeply while they talk on the phone still cracks me up.

5. Yuzu flavoured everything.

Yuzu is a kind of citrus fruit that is amazing in every form I have encountered; yuzu tea, yuzu marmalade, yuzu soda, yuzu alcohol, yuzu sweets, yuzu salad dressing…

6. Decorated trains.

Why should trains be boring? Why wouldn’t you whack a cartoon mural on your train?

7. The school garden

My base school (and probably most of my other schools) has a garden on the roof of the main building, where they grow vegetables in spring, summer and autumn. Every so often these vegetables are harvested and a little tiny vegetable market is set up in the staffroom where we can buy fresh vegetables or plant cuttings.

Just now, a teacher on her way down from the garden handed me two cucumbers for my dinner.

Oh, Japan.

A broader education

I don’t feel like I’ve taught a huge amount of English today.

However, I have taught people how to sing the American national anthem, how to count to ten in French, what shape Australia is, how to do the Macarena and how to impersonate a koala using a school lunch spoon.

I’ve also shot some students with a water pistol.

I’m giving these kids a very broad education.

This is how I teach.

This is how I teach.

 

Helloooo Kitty!

I have a bit of an embarrassing collection, and I think it’s time for me to talk about it.

I collect Hello Kitty phone charms from every single prefecture I visit, which means I currently have 26 tiny, ridiculous Hello Kitty charms hanging on my bedroom wall.

It’s the kind of thing I would never have imagined myself doing before I moved here, but now it’s kind of an obsession.

When I was told I had been accepted for the internship at Metropolis Magazine, I thought “Yes! What a great opportunity to learn about magazine publishing!”

When I was told that part of that internship period would be spent in Yamaguchi Prefecture, I thought “Yes! I can get the Yamaguchi Kitty!”

The Kittys are silly, I know, but each one that I get says something about the prefecture or city I buy it in.

This is the first one I bought, the Hiroshima Kitty, holding the little origami crane which has become the symbol of Hiroshima and its peace movement.

I blame Hiroshima Kitty for the addiction

I blame Hiroshima Kitty for the addiction

Ehime Kitty is inside a box of the oranges for which Ehime Prefecture is well known.

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Osaka Kitty is dressed as takoyaki, the octopus balls for which the city is so famous.

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Beppu, in Oita Prefecture is known for its active geysers, called the Hells, so Beppu Kitty is dressed as the city’s little devil mascot.

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Tokyo Kitty is photographing an extremely out of proportion Tokyo Tower, and Nagano Kitty has a wee snowboard and woolly hat.

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The Kittys are usually very easy to find, most souvenir stores, airports, train stations, and some convenience stores stock a range of the region-specific Kittys, and the hard part is usually deciding if I want Nagoya Kitty dressed as a chicken wing, or perched on top of Nagoya Castle.

I’m pretty sure that this is the only country in the world where a collection like this is cute; in the rest of the world it’s probably just embarrassing.

But I love my Kitty collection, and I when I leave Japan later this year they will be coming with me to my next home.

Along with my Hello Kitty phone cover, my Hello Kitty sequinned ugg boots, my Hello Kitty earphone jack charm….