Monday, March 31, 2014

One year came fast!


It’s been a year now. Well, almost. Next Monday is the start of our second year here and probably our last. Mom, Dad (especially Dad), I say probably because you just never know… but we’re like 98.7% certain we’ll be headed home home this time next year.

And by home home I mean New Zealand. 

So, going off the stats, Carmon and I are nearing our halfway point of living in Japan. Let me take this opportunity to look back on what’s happened, how we’ve changed, and what we tentatively want for the second half of our adventure here in the land of the rising sun.

Travel


The city we live in is considered country and has a less than enthusiastic vibe about it. Mito is sort of the Bartlesville of Japan. By Japan’s standards, it’s kind of just out there with not much going on. Of course to two Okies it’s quit a different story. We’re roughly in the center of Japan on the East coast, which means were two hours by train from Tokyo (the same amount of time it takes to make a trip from OKC to Tulsa by car) and 30 minutes from the Pacific. Add another two hours west or north and you’ve got gorgeous mountains and forests. To say that we’ve had a change of scenery is an understatement.


Don't worry, in 40 minutes there's a McDonalds!


Although we miss the plains of Oklahoma, we’re doing our best to make the most of our time here in this beautiful country. In addition to our surrounding locations, we’ve been able to experience the more distant settings of Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka, Niigata, Nikko, Daigo, Sado Island, Arashiyama, Sendai, Fukushima, and, thanks to the Dudley’s, Tokyo Disney!


Japan has so many places to explore and we plan on hitting Hokaido (the northern Island- pretty much Japan’s Alaska) and Konshyuu (the southern, more tropical islands) later this year. During Japan’s nation-wide holiday “Golden Week” we’re headed to Seoul in South Korea. Don’t have much of a plan for that but it should be interesting. Oddly, we’ve just realized that tickets to Okinawa will only run us around $100 so perhaps we’ll make some weekend diving trips there if we can manage to schedule it.
...or $7.50 for first class with Malaysia Air. 

One great thing about this past year is that, amidst all our travels, I’ve grown to really appreciate and study the art of photography.



Before we left the States I already enjoyed taking photos but I had a rather shallow knowledge of it, and I didn’t understand the mechanics behind producing wonderful images.
I always wanted to know what masp meant.

Being in such a beautiful country has spurred me on to practice photography in a more intentional way. I’ve also been afforded a special opportunity to be an official photographer for one of my favorite bag companies, although I feel super uncomfortable calling myself a photographer!

At best, I’m learning everything I can about the craft and I’m aspiring to be such. Anyway, I don’t want to go into details about that yet (I’ll save that for a separate post). Ultimately, this year has been a huge learning and growing experience. I’m shooting as often as possible and soaking up everything I can from books, articles, podcasts and anything else photo-related. And through out it all, my wife has been cheering me on the whole way, even through the expensive process of upgrading cameras.

RIP
2011-2013
Speaking of Carmon, we celebrated our first year of marriage last May! Being newlywed and young, making the decision to move to Japan was going to have its effect on our marriage for better or for worse. I can happily say that moving here was most certainly for the better. Japan is awesome, but it definitely will give you your fair share of culture stress. Luckily, at the end of the day Carmon and I have had each other to come home to and rely on. If anything, this experience has brought us closer together, and as corny as it sounds, I’ve grown to love her even more than when we left.



I’m really looking forward to next year.
First year, you kind of don't know what’s going on. I didn’t really have any grasp on the language.  Everything’s just so new and potentially overwhelming. Going into the second year I can see that things will be smoother.


lesson 1. T-shirts don't have to make sense. 

Carmon is changing to an elementary school and pre-k, which is a big change from junior high kids. She’s going from flirting boys to flinging boogers. She's a bit nervous about the change up but I think it'll be a wonderful new experience!

Finally, relationships at the church and with our Japanese friends (and other AET’s) will continue to develop over the next year. I'm doing my best to be intentional about building relationships and sharing my faith with others. As of recently, the relationships we've established so far are beginning to stretch into deeper waters. Talking about things like faith, struggles, God and grace are beginning to happen. Spiritually, God has blessed our time here so much. I say “spiritually” because he’s obviously blessed our time here with travel and most certainly friends and building relationships, but God has been even more gracious to us in that he’s clarified and affirmed some things in my life and in my understanding that was very needed. We’ve been fortunate enough to have people enter into our lives that have blessed and encouraged us in so many different ways. This short paragraph won’t do justice in telling our faith walk this past year so I’ll save it for another post sometime.

Ok, so that was a bit short and rather rushed but till next time...

MattaNe!








Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Goodbye Graduates

Goodbye notes written by 9th graders (in English). Can you see the little birds?

(Disclosure: If you have trouble reading the images please click on them to make them larger.)

Soon, my 9th grade boys and girls will be moving on to high school. I haven't had the pleasure of teaching them much these last couple trimesters. They have been SO busy with entry tests for high school. I've already begun to miss those crazies.

Last Friday, February 21, was officially my last day in class with them. Their main English teacher was very kind to give me a special project to do with them as a final lesson: goodbye notes.

They were asked to write two or three sentences saying goodbye to the school, teachers, and/or their friends. It was a touching experience. I did my best to turn this project into a display that would attract the students to read each other's notes.
The spring season is a big deal in Japan. First the plum trees will blossom, and they are soon followed by the cherry blossoms. Therefore, I decided to design a tree for every 9th grade class (pictured above).



the Special Education class' own tree. 



At the end of each class, I was given the opportunity to give them my own goodbye. Above all, I wanted them to know how they are cared for by their teachers and how they have forever changed me for the better. I told them that I know I won't be the only life they touch and how I hope they'll always remember that they are valued. I encouraged them to enjoy life; not just work it away. They couldn't understand everything I was saying. Nonetheless, they could sense my emotion.

Their English teacher arranged for them to write me goodbye notes as well.. here are a few.





(Side note: I think Mrs. Erica Berry deserves some credit for the kids who have changed their minds about English over the years. They studied with her for two years before I came along. I'm sure she influenced their liking English more than I did.)

And finally, a few boys decided to write poems/letters to me. These guys were making it hard not to cry. They're just too cute.



It will be sad to see these kids go. I love them and pray for them often. My heart is heavy with a desire for them to have a full life. I really hope that I will run into them every once in a while. 





Monday, January 20, 2014

THE GUIDES PACK - A REVIEW


Sporting an outdoors aesthetic, the Guide's Pack differs from most other Tom Bihn bags while maintaining the quality craftsmanship and functionality inherent in all their products. It's got a classic hiker feel with a practical, modern design. So, if you're in the market for a hiking bag, day pack, cross country trek gear or anything inbetween, keep reading and we'll walk through everything this new pack has to offer and find out just who it'll fit on best. 


My wife and I live in Japan and, with the exception of my mother's letters, we don't get much mail. So as you can imagine, I was even more beside my self than usual when the much anticipated Tom Bihn package arrived at my door.

Cardboard has never looked so pretty


Like usual, I wanted to review the pack the minute I got it, right there in my living room.

But I didn't, and over the last two months I've traveled across Japan with it on my back.
It's accompanied me on a tour of 4 of the largest cities in the country, hiked the mountains surrounding the prefecture I live in, and I've periodically used it as my day pack and for getaway weekends with my wife.









The New Diggs...

The first thing I noticed upon unpacking it was the brand new material the packs constructed of. 420d HT Parapack fabric -that's 420 denier High Tenacity 6.6 nylon. Literally the stuff Parachuters used. Now, I'm all for going into in-depth material reviews but Tom Bihn himself does a pretty good job covering everything (and more) you'd want to know about the fabric. You can check it out HERE.

Facing the morning sun, the Guide's Pack in Olive.
What do I think of it? 
Well, it put off a much brighter and reflective sheen than I was expecting. Keep in mind this is a synthetic material -so don't expect some cotton or cotton blend type of cloth. It's lighter then the 1020d the company offers for most their products but do not fear - there's no gain in vulnerability. It's still as strong as anything else they offer. Before seeing the bag in person I was expecting something with less of a shiny surface and more of a canvas-esqu feel. Depending on what lighting your in, the pack can fool you to thinking it's either one.








"In addition to our 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack simply being a beautiful, densely woven, tough-as-nails fabric, its smooth surface entirely lacks an affinity for pet hair, lint, sweater fuzz, and snow. "

-Tom Bihn 










The Back Bone

Besides sporting all new material the Guide's Pack steps into hiking territory with the inclusion of an internal frame. A removable internal frame actually...



With a 1" wide stay of aluminum running down the middle, the black polyethylene frame sheet fins slide neatly into 6 slips on the inside of the pack. Designed to make carrying a fully loaded hiking pack less of a burden, the internal frame helps with weight distribution and keeps the back of the pack  in line with your spine. 



The frame also keeps the bag from caving in. If you'd like your pack to always maintain its shape then keep it in. But if you're like me, you'll use the frame on hikes and keep it frameless the rest of the time. I love being able to toss my backpacks around, stuff it in my closet or throw them in the trunk. With the frame out, it feels more like an everyday carry sort of bag. And I love that I have the option to do both. 

With the frame in. 






















With the frame taken out. 
ALSO: Notice the dramatic difference in the color of the packs as the light settings change. They should have called it the Chameleon.

ACCESSORIES
It wouldn't be a Tom Bihn product if there weren't any optional accessories. The Guide's pack has a couple different options for you. The "Lead's Pocket" and "Side Pockets".  Let's look at a Side pocket first.




You have the option of choosing either a right or left side pocket. These pockets are essentially open pouches that could easily hold two 16oz bottles of water and a pair of gloves. In the picture, I have a 16oz Thermos and, as you can see, there's plenty of room to spare. There's also an "o-ring" inside, incase you want to strap in your keys or some organizational pouches.


Pockets attach via a clipping system that is no doubt secure but a bit annoying to get on and off.


NOTE: My pack and all the accessories came with red and tan colored tie strings. You have the option of where and which color ties you want to connect with your zippers.

Speaking of zippers, both side accessories feature #8YKK zippers and a zipper flap covering the zipper.




With the side pocket placed on my right side, it's easily accessible to grab whatever I need. 











Here on the left side of the Guide's pack is the "Lead's Pocket". For a guy who is kind of obsessed with organization and compartmentalization, I have to say I adore having this addition to the pack. 
The Lead's Pocket




First off, both the "Side Pockets" and the "Leads Pocket" have a sort of 'secret' zippered section on the underside of the pocket. Inside the hidden slip you'll find a small section for your wallet, keys, Cell phone or whatever. There's even an "O-Ring" inside.











Again, this little hidden gem is on both pockets available. 








Pulling back the flaps reveal #8 YKK zippers. 

Inside the Lead's Pocket you'll find a variety of ways to store and place all your hiking and day-outing needs. Pens, pencils, knives, memory cards, city guides, bus tickets, flashlights, wallets, lighters, cell phones, batteries, cords and cables, whatever you might need to bring along... it'll take it.

There's even a way for you to attach waist straps to the Lead's Pocket that'll enable you to carry it around like a fanny pack. ...Or a satchel, if fanny packs aren't your thing.

Back to the Pack!

The Guide's Pack without the optional side pockets (above)
Hiking Mt. Tsukuba in Ibaraki Japan
The top flap of the pack allows for further storage, but before we go into that let me take a moment to complement the accessory strap holders. In my opinion, the diamond shaped leathery-looking strap holders are what really make the feel of this pack complete. I love it. It really gives off that old-school back packer, hitch hiking across the country, sleeping under bridges vibe. Ok, that might be over the top, but seriously, if it was a softer material I'd be sewing patches all over this thing.

Nylon webbing fastened under synthetic felt. 


The top flap that covers the main compartment of the bag also features a rather large storage section. Like the side pockets, the top flap features O-Rings inside the storage area and the zippers are covered by flaps to give some added protection from the elements.
The top flap is held secure via two buckles that can be tightened as desired.


There's easily enough space to fit a light rain jacket or sweater inside.



Flip the top flap over and hey! Guess what! More organization options! The top slip fits my iPhone 5 perfectly while the one below gives a bit more space.  Of course there's O-Rings too.

Two mesh pockets provide easy access to your electronic goodies. Or some Snickers. 
Just underneath the top flap is a grab loop to help with packing.



This is a ruck sack which means you'll be accessing all the contents of the bag via a draw string.  Like all Tom Bihn products, the draw string and cord lock don't seem like they'll ever wear out and I can hike assured that all my crap will stay put and (probably) bug free.









The inside of the pack is quite simple -nothing special. Just one large unobstructed open compartment ready to be cram packed.





With a higher chance of being drug along and worn down, the bottom of the pack features a tougher 1050d ballistic nylon. With two accessory straps on the bottom and an ice-axe loop, you have the ability to carry along your sleeping bag, (yoga?) mat, tripod or whatever.  If you'd rather not attach them to the bottom of the pack then you could strap it to the top.




The back of the pack features a quarter of an inch of closed cell foam padding covered with some type of special breathable mesh. The shoulder straps are second to none. Seriously, I've used all sorts of shoulder straps... from the Redoxx fluffy felt to the Patagonia pillow pads, and the shoulder straps on this pack (and all other Bihn bags) are my preferred choice.

The pack comes with a removable 1" waist strap.
Now, here's where I want to give some constructive criticism of the pack.
This bag has everything I want in a hiking pack. Quality material, internal frame, options for external storage and organization, comfortable shoulder strap and... a 1-inch waist strap?
If a waist strap is going to give any real relief then it's got to provide more coverage then an inch of your hip.
Now, I know I'm being a little difficult here because the thing is, if the bag featured big 'ol fat padded waist straps then it would have instantly lost any and all appeal to the casual backpacker (like myself). While extremely practical for hiking, padded waist straps would be an annoyance to the every day carry routine.
However, I have to say that big 'ol fat padded wast straps are, in fact, practical, and it's a bummer that the pack can't boast the benefits of such. It's the only thing I find lacking...

So here's my idea...

I've noticed that at the bottom of the pack you have the option of placing your 1" waist strap on one of two hoops.
The 1" waist strap, connected to the lower hoop. 










Perhaps this is already in the works, but I don't see why Tom Bihn couldn't make a padded, heavier-duty waist strap accessory. I think the two hoops could serve as a dual support system for a more serious waist strap that'd be of use to anyone wanting to go on extended hikes or would appreciate a bit more weight distribution.  I've drawn up a rough draft of what it could look like below.
"So where can we put an 'O-Ring' on it...?"  

Anyway, back to the review.

 Who is this Pack for?

The Guide's Pack is a rare breed of outdoor backpacks that caters to a few different crowds. For those who are looking for a dedicated hiking pack and want to stay away from mass produced name brand products, then the Guide's Pack could be a good fit for you. It's got everything a general purpose hiker/outdoorsman (or woman) would want but isn't so intimidating that us non-Everest'ers would be too afraid to use it. 
There's a charming, old school vibe about it that really makes it an attractive pack. For those who are looking for something to easily stuff your weekend belongings in for a quick getaway, I can imagine the Guide's Pack serving you well for many years to come. 
So to both the avid outdoor enthusiast and the casual backpacker, I highly recommend the Guide's Pack. With the large carrying capacity, its ability to remove the internal frame and to add and take away all the accessories, you have one pretty flexible pack that also happens to look really cool. 

The Guide's Pack
Cons
  • for a pack largely geared towards outdoor excursions, there needs to be a more useful waist strap. 
  • parachute sold separately 

Pros
  • awesome aesthetics 
  • fantastic quality and craftsmanship 
  • plenty of organization and expansion options
  • comes in a variety of colors
  • made in the USA


Let me know what you think of the Guide's Pack Review. I'd love to hear your comments or questions. Thanks for reading.