The Road Back Home

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When I think about the place where I am from, the thought of the Rocky Mountains instantly pops into my mind. Ask anybody who grew up in Colorado, and they will tell you the same thing. There is a purple outline of them always stretching out in the distance any time you look to the west. Even at night, when you cannot see them, their comforting presence is there. It is something that you start to take for granted the longer you live in the state. Even a visit through its winding path and majestic grandeur doesn’t always impress you the way it once did when you first were able to witness them.

But you should never take those stalwart things in your life for granted. You should treasure every minute that you have with them because you don’t know how it will make you feel when they are no longer there. I recently had lost the luxury of staring at these mountains for a whole year, and I was lost because of it. I know Coloradoans will joke that is because I could no longer find west, and there is some truth to that. I have spent my whole life relying on this natural compass to help guide me through the streets of Denver, so now, when I look for west and can no longer see the mountains, it leaves me a little disoriented. But it is something more than that. It was that sense of have something strong and immovable suddenly no longer there; it was that sense of loss; it was that sense of being some place out of my comfort zone that caused this pain in my soul. So when I realized at the end of last school year that I would be heading home again, the longing in my heart grew stronger and I desired to see those mountains again to set it at ease. In my mind’s eye, I could see that purple outline in the distance and I desired to be back among its rocky grandeur.

But the road back home is never short and many adventures needed to happen before I returned.

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My voyage home took me through Japan first. The hills there were beautiful and they reminded me of home, but the tree capped tops of these mountains were not the Rocky Mountains that I longed for. They made the longing for home even larger, but I needed to put that behind me and enjoy the sights of Japan instead. I always talk about how you should enjoy the moment in life and not worry about where you will be tomorrow because you will lose something with the experience, and here I was not listening to my own advice. But when the heart longs for something that advice is hard to follow.

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But whether I wanted to or not, I still had to follow it. I was not alone on my travels. My wife, Christine, and her parents were also along for the ride. Christine felt much the same as I did. She wanted to get back to the states and the thought of returning home excited her, but her parents were in a part of the world that they had never been in before, and they were looking for us to guide them through the experience. We had traveled to Japan eight years earlier and many of the places we were going to were the same places we had traveled to in the past. Though we couldn’t remember everything from that first trip, there was enough there that allowed us to show them some very exciting places.

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Kyoto was our first stop on our trip and it is an amazing place to start on the road through Japan. Every turn you take in this city is a cultural experience. You know you are in a part of the world that has preserved its ancient culture to remain true to its past. The cobblestone roads are clean and lined with shops, and restaurant house themselves in old buuildings. Some might think this is done just to help support the tourism needed in order to keep the city on the map, but that is not necessarily true. image

There are many times when I turned the corner and find myself staring at a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. They are all over the place, and they are not just there because they were built years ago and it still brings people to the city to witness its culture. People come to these places to worship and connect with themselves spiritually. The Japanese possess an amazing ability to blend together two ancient religions into one. You see in many Buddhist temples and their surrounding grounds the shrines to nature that is connected to the Shinto belief.

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A great example of this is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The grounds for this place is found on the mountainside on the outskirts of Kyoto. It is an extremely popular tourist spot and thousands of people can be found walking around. The grounds have the Buddhist bell, and drum, and there is definitely a place where worshippers can pay their respects to his teachings. But there are many other natural connections that found there as well. A great example of this are the two rocks placed thirty meters away from each other. The story goes that if someone touches one of the rocks and close his or her eyes, they travel across the busy walkway between the two stone. If they find the other one without the help of anybody else, it then that means that they will someday find their true love.

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A spring running behind the grounds is another example. People line up to drink water from one of the three different spouts coming from the stream. Each one holds a certain power behind it that helps a person gain success in a certain part of their lives if they drink from the spout. I can’t remember what exactly the three different aspects of life are, but I believe they are health, wealth, and love. I was told what they were eight years ago when I first visited this place but have since forgotten them. The first time I was here, Christine and I were walking through the entrance to the grounds when we were stopped by a young Japanese girl. She was working on her undergraduate degree in English at one of the local universities and she wanted an opportunity to practice communicating in this language. So she looked for English speaking tourists and asked if she could take them around to explain everything to them. We happily obliged and the experience was great.

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The same thing happened again on this visit except I was asked for an interview from a local girl in a middle school. She wanted to practice her English as well, and she had a script to help her get with the questions she needed to ask me. I told her all about where I was from, what I did for a living, and what I thought about Japan. It was a fun experience for me, but I believe that it was terrifying for her. The funny thing is I will probably always hold this moment dear to my heart; whereas, she will forget about it soon after and think about it only as something she needed to get done to complete an assignment for school. It is funny how people take for granted all of the things that they see on a daily basis while a different perspective will give it a greater value.

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It would always blow my mind when any of my relatives would visit us from out of town and we would take them up into the mountains. They would gape at them as we drove through. I couldn’t understand why they would be this dumbfounded by something I had grown up with. When I was able to drive myself, I would get mad at the tourists that would slow me down as I drove I-70 into the mountains because they were too busy rubbernecking to see all of the sights around them and did notice the awful job they were doing driving these dangerous roads. But the more I travel on my own road around the world, I start to understand why they did it. My heart may have longed to be back in Colorado, but there were times along the way where I needed to turn my head to see something I missed the first time around.

The first time I went to Japan we took a trip to the edge of Kyoto to see its Imperial Palace. We went there because we were looking specifically for the bamboo forest used in the filming of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We thought it was held on the grounds of the palace and we did find a small corner of a bamboo grove, but it was not the impressive place I had thought we were going to find. That was because we had actually missed it. We needed to travel down a path outside of the palace and this expansive grove would have spread out before us. I don’t know how we missed it the first time because it was huge and packed with people as they explored it. It took the second time going to Japan to be able to find it. This is when I felt like one of those tourists that annoyed me so much from my home state. But I was able to gain some clarity from the experience.

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When I get out of my comfort zone and see something I have never seen before I can appreciate it for what it is. When I see something on a daily basis, it no longer holds that special quality of something new and exciting. It is not until it is taken away that I will start to appreciate it again with the quality of a child looking at a forest of bamboo trees for the first time. When I had found the bamboo grove, this idea was tickling around in the back of my mind, but I hadn’t formulated a stronger connection with it until I arrived in Nara.

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This smaller town in Japan sits on the edge of the mountains. People flock there for a couple of reasons. One, it holds the largest wooden building in the world, a Buddhist temple, and secondly because of the deer.

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And let me tell you, there are a lot of deer.

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They roam the streets, and they are not afraid of humans. A lot of this is because of the attitude the Japanese take towards the animal. They believe that it is sacred, and should not be hunted, and definitely should not be eaten. With this being the case, there are many generations of these creatures who have never felt the cruel side of the human race, so why should they fear them. It also doesn’t help that there are many carts in the area selling cookies you can buy to feed the deer with. Of course, they will hang out in the area for the free meal. Some of them are big and a little bit of a bully, but for the most part, they are gentle and looking for the handout. It is funny to watch them as they walk around after people because it looks like every individual is out walking their deer. That is until the deer realizes that they have no food and they go off looking for a different person who might feed them.

I had to walk through these herds of deer and people to get to the Todaiji Temple. I started to wonder if people even get there because of the distraction of the deer, but when I finally arrived, I saw that people had put aside playing with the deer to check out this world heritage site. It is an impressive place that is filled with school aged children who are taken there by their schools so they can connect with their heritage. They are a lot like me with my mountains. The interest I would think that they would have at the site is just not there. This is something they have seen on a daily basis and they didn’t find it exciting enough to pay attention to where they were so they could gain a new perspective on their lives. In fact, they were more interested in yelling hello to the English speaking tourists to see if they could get the English speakers to say something back to them. There were many times I obliged them by waving and saying hello. It was kind of fun but I guarantee that their teachers hated the fact it was going on.

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A lot of it had to do with what the students were not taking from the experience. At this place, the children could find huge wooden statues carved centuries ago to guard the entrance to the grounds. It blew my mind that these statues existed. I had no idea where they would have found a tree large enough to carve such a masterpiece in the first place, and there were not only one of these giants to look at, but two. How could these kids miss these behemoths as they walked by? But then I would remember the fact that I would no longer pay attention to my much beloved mountains when I was back in Colorado unless there was a way I could have some sort of fun while I visited them.

The kids of Japan were the same way. It wasn’t until they made it inside the temple that they started to enjoy the place. First off, there is one of the largest Buddha statues inside. There are smaller replications of the building showing how the design process was made and it isn’t until I made it to the back corner of the building that I found the area that help the children’s interest. At the bottom of one of the columns holding up the roof, there was a large hole carved in the middle of it. Legend had it that it was as large as one of the nostrils of the Buddha housed in the building. If you could wiggle your way through the hole to the other side of the column then you would be able to find true enlightenment in your life. It was fun to watch these students line up to have their try at squeezing their way through the hole.

There was an older Buddha on the outside of the building that was not viewed as much though. If the students had paid attention to this, there was magic within its wood they would have appreciated as well. Apparently if you rubbed the part of the Buddha’s body that ailed you and then rubbed that same place on your body you would find relief from the pain. I can sort of see why that many of the children would not pay attention to this Buddha, but it was one appreciated more by the older generations.

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The path through Nara prepared me for the next stop on my road trip back home. It was a place I had been to before, but I was excited to see again because I remembered the profound effect it had on me the last time. In fact, I can’t imagine anybody who would venture to this location without feeling its significance. Hiroshima is one of those places that holds that much power in this modern age.

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Just wandering through the Peace Park is enough to make people feel the event that happened here on August 6th, 1945. You might not be able to see it because of the beautiful modern city that surrounds you, but the quiet respect that surrounds the eternal flame reminds you.

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And if that is not enough there is the shell of the building left behind. It was right under the blast of the atomic bomb that fell on that fateful day, and even though the tiny sun that the explosion created leveled the city, it was not enough to destroy this skeleton. At one time, the people of Hiroshima demanded to tear down this eyesore, but more forward thinking folks won out. The structure remained to remind visitors of what happened that day so we could avoid repeating the same mistake in the future.

Just going to this place, I wondered how people couldn’t help but be affected by what they saw. That was until you looked across the street from the park. Office buildings sit there. There is a hospital just down the road from it. Men and women dressed for business move about their days without ever looking over at this building. Why should they? The impact it had on me loses its effect when you see it every day.

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I guess that is the joy of being a tourist. You get to notice the things that the people who live there take for granted.

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They can range in size from monstrous to minimal.

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They can be displayed proudly.

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Or you may have to wander through the woods to find their special location.

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The point being that these places are in all great cities in every country on the world. They bring thousands of people away from the comfort of their living rooms every day just for the chance to see them. Yet, you might live right next to one and you might have forgotten about its existence or may not have ever noticed in the first place.

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Just by being more aware, these little things become more spectacular every time you take the time to notice them. My trip through Japan became one moment after another that sparked within me awe. And even though I was able to look at my trip through this lens, I still longed for the thing that I had once taken for granted, Colorado.

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I marveled at the mountains that presented themselves wherever I went, and even though their green majesty was a sight that I enjoyed, it wasn’t the same kind of mountain you would find in the Rocky Mountains. Growing up, I always thought that there was only one kind of mountain, and if you had seen one, you had seen them all. But this is not the case. Throughout my travels, I have come to realize that each range of mountains holds their own contours. The science teachers have worked with have explained to me that this is because of the way they are formed. Even though the Rocky Mountains do have some of their formation due to volcanic activity, it is more the pushing together of two plates that has created this rangge. This is completely different from the mountains in Japan. They are definitely on the ring of fire, and because of this, each one of their hills were formed due to some form of volcanic activity. Because of this they look different, and the ecosystem they belong to allows for a different type of flora, and a different kind of animal inhabits the wilderness.

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The hills are greener. The rivers are wider and deeper.

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The animals we found would be considered more exotic. It is not everyday in the state of Colorado that you can take a short twenty minute hike up to the top of a mountain to feed monkeys peanuts from your hand. While we found this an amazing activity, it was still only something mainly done by the tourists of the region, just as there are people who travel all the way to Colorado to watch the elk at Rocky Mountain National Park. I would never think of an elk as an exotic animal, but then again there are probably a lot of Japanese that don’t find the monkey to be that exotic either.

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If it hasn’t become evidently clear yet, everywhere I went I saw scenery that would have, for most people, been place in their most spectacular vacation ever, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed because I had been long away from the place that for so many years had been my home that all my thoughts would drift to that place.

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The next stop on my journey did not help to quell this longing for home. For the casual observer, it should have though. The scenery was dramatically different from anything I could have found in Denver, or even Colorado for that matter.

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And even though herons may be found in the United States, they don’t venture so far inland to be seen in the Rocky Mountains, and when they do, it is not in a place that is as much of a dessert as the landscape that can be found in my home state.

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The artwork that I found on the streets was foreign as well. But for some reason, the vibe I felt here made me feel like I was back in Denver. Of course, I knew why, but for many people who travel here they don’t. The place we had arrived in was Takayama. It is a small mountain town that loves their dogs, and gets cold and snowy during the winter. The good folks of this town know that they are so similar to the city of Denver that they got together with the good people of my home town and all of these good people decided to become sister cities. Sadly, the good people of Takayama celebrate this fact more than the good people of Denver do, but Denverites should start to pay attention more because this is really a wonderful place to visit.

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The streets are fun to wander around, and even though they do not brew as much beer as Denver does, they are one of the major producers of sake in the world. There is an old-town area whose alleys have many buildings with large rice balls hanging from the front of the door. When you find one, you know you are the place where they make the traditional Japanese liquor, sake. After a couple of sips, you start to understand that sake can be just as complex and varied as either beer or wine. It makes for a fun day to go from place to place and sample all that they have to offer.

Many of the sake breweries have these foxes in front of them as well. It is a common accompaniment with many businesses in Japan. The spirit of the fox is believed to bring good luck to the establishment and to protect it from any enemies. The business needs to satisfy the fox with food and in this case a bottle of sake. It also helps the business as well to know that the protector of the establishment also enjoys the product.

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If you are looking for the more traditional kind of Japan landscape, Takayama is also the place. On the outskirts of town there is the Hida Folk Village with its traditional houses and thatched roofs. These structures are the perfect buildings to house the people that inhabited these hills. They would keep them warm in the snowy winter months, and cool in the hot, humid summer days. It is also the perfect place to breed silk worms. Many of the attics of these homes held apparatuses that would house these creatures as they produced the thread that is so coveted by many of the people in the world. The folks who work in the village still take that thread and weave it together by hand into beautiful pieces of cloth. It is one of the reasons that makes Takayama one of the more special towns in the country of Japan.

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But the main reason that this place made me feel like I was at home was the people. They were friendly and took joy out of just being alive. We went to one of the traditional bar-b-q places in town one night. It is a fun experience. They have grills right in the table that they heat with briquettes of hard wood. You then order the vegetables and meat you wish to eat. If you ever go there, I would suggest that you order some of the beef. Hida beef may not be as famous as Kobe beef, but it is just as tender and it melts in your mouth the same way. You will not regret the experience.

The night we went, we were being given a demonstration by the owner of the restaurant who asked us where we were coming from. Of course we told him that we were originally from Denver. It was amazing how much this one word excited the people of this town. The owner started talking about the Nuggets, and the people sitting at the table next to us started to ask us questions about my home town. It turns out that the person at the table next to us was the main coordinator from Takayama who promoted the sister city aspect between the two towns. The conversation that ensued made me feel like I was at home again. There was talk of the Broncos, Michael Hancock, and the Rocky Mountains. If this was to help with my homesickness, it did not. It just made my longing for the place I called home even stronger. And even though the road I was on took me closer to the place my heart desired, I was still a ways from getting there.

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There was still one more stop on my trip through Japan, and that was Osaka. We had not planned to do a lot in this town. In fact, it was just a place to lay over until we were able to catch our flight back home, but I caught enough of the flavor of the city that I wished to learn more about it if I ever found myself here again. There is a vibrant energy running through the people who live here. Whether you are in the numerous shopping districts, walking around the back streets with their punk-rock attitude or watching the tourists as they wander by the waterfront, you can feel this vibe.

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This only problem was, we did not participate in this feeling. Instead, we ventured to the one place that felt the most like home. Osaka is home to one of the world’s Universal Studios. As soon as we heard this, we knew that we had to by tickets to the amusement park, mainly because Harry Potter’s World. I know this is not the cultural experience you look for when you travel to the exotic places of the world, but we had spent over two weeks soaking up the culture of Japan, and it was time to see what their take on this iconic story was like. Of course, it was like any other Universal Studios in the world. You could taste a butterbeer, take a ride on a broom with Harry and Ron, and shop for a wand at Olivander’s. The only difference was these characters that I had fallen in love with both in literature and film now spoke fluent Japanese. I knew I was nowhere near home when I saw the sorting hat tell me important details about the wizarding world in this foreign language. I still did not let this bring me down because there was enough things in this place to distract me from the fact that I wasn’t in my home town that it didn’t really matter. It was the perfect distraction on the last day away from the United States.

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We were so excited about returning back home the next day, that we packed up our bags on rushed to the airport. It was our last leg on the long road back home. This was the longest of the legs, and it ended up being an exhausting day. I won’t even go into details, but just know that it involved a lot of delays on airplanes on tarmacs that made the travel of getting back home that more painful.

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We knew we were close when we landed in Vancouver, and for the first time in a long time we were able to hear English again from the conversations around us. I felt a little bit of a heal  when I would listen in on people’s conversations. I wasn’t doing it to be a jerk, but because it was one of those little things I missed so much. If you have ever lived for a long time away from your native language, you know what it is like. Any opportunity you get to listen to the words you are familiar with, you just soak it up. You will eavesdrop. You will talk to complete strangers. You will read every word you see on a bathroom sign, not because you need to know about the blowers, but because you can the language. It was just a short hop from this airport to the place I longed for the most.20160710_020024

The next morning, I was able to wake up to this site, the Rocky Mountains. I was home again. Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to talk to many people from many different corners of the world. They have told me all about their experiences of living abroad, and talked about how each year they adjust to the changes around them. They have talked about missing their home towns, but they have also told me that this longing for familiar places gets smaller every year they live abroad. It might be true, but I do know that I had a strong desire to see these mountains again because this was the first time in my life I had lived without them for so long. It was one of the most welcoming sights I has ever seen.

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I even started to appreciate the small things I did not notice the first time as much while I was living here. I knew about the wild flowers that grew in the mountains, but I never knew how amazing it was when you were to come across a group of columbines in bloom in Colorado. It made me know that I was home.

There were other things I got to see in those first few days that made me excited about this trip home. Many people who live  in the United States would take these things for granted. I remember walking into a grocery store the first day back and being blown away by all the various types of food I saw on the shelves. If I wanted to I could find all the stuff I needed to make a delicious meal, and I wouldn’t need to travel all over the city to obtain each item. Visiting Target had the same kind of appeal to me. Not only was there food, but I could find music, movies, clothes and games there. It was pure heaven.

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A vibrant, colorful world was all around me. Wherever I turned on my trip back to America, I was greeted by things that I, at one time, had taken for granted, and it was like viewing them for the first time. But there was something I came across on my long road back home and throughout the trails I traveled through while I was there that I discovered was more important than anything else.

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It was always in the background. Sneaking into the photos being taken of me. It was something I missed more than anything else during my year away.

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I would run into it on backwoods trails in the Rocky Mountains. They were always there with a smile, and great conversation.

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It was the greatest part of being back. Its strength is more powerful than the Rocky Mountains, and I will take it in my heart as I travel back to my job in Seoul. It is my family.

I know that a lot of people take their family for granted. They expect them to be on their beckon call at all times, and my family would be willing to do anything for me as I would for them. But you learn as you make your way out into the great big world that distance might make that harder to accomplish on a regular basis. That still doesn’t mean they are still not with me as I travel from country to country. The experiences I have had with them combine together to create who I am now. And as I meet and get to know other people in this vast world, they are really getting to know my family better. It took me a year away from them to figure this out, and more importantly, to figure out what they mean to me. It is this new understanding of the importance of family that I take with me as I go off into my second year of teaching abroad, and I will never take them for granted again. I will treasure every moment I get to spend with them from now on.

(42 pictures were used to tell this story.)

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