The Big 3 0!

Can't keep calm, it's my birthday weekend! #2daystogo #30

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Yes, I am thirty today. Where did my 20s go? One moment I am joining JKUAT (See blog) as a fresher at 19; I blink and I’m 30 and halfway across the world.

I have spent most of my 20s in school. Undergraduate at JKUAT, Master’s at Strathmore University, and a PhD at JAIST. Finally in my final year and I hope to graduate in September. I have to submit my thesis in two weeks so this post will be brief. I have ignored this blog long enough because well, thesis.

I guess apart from schooling, one thing that had a  profound effect in my 20s was becoming a mother. It’s a continuous journey because he is growing, and I am just hoping I can keep up. So far so good. I am lucky I had the support of my parents for the first couple of years and I have found a support network of friends and Japanese “parents”.

I also had the pleasure (mostly) of working at EY for about 2 years before quitting to pursue my PhD.

I have traveled quite a bit.. from Rwanda, Uganda, to Canada and New Zealand. I hope to see more of other African countries in my 30s.

I am really looking forward to what life has in store for my 30s. I have a feeling that there is so much more to see, to feel, to experience, to do.

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JAIST in Spring

Could this be my last Spring in Japan? I don’t know yet, but tell you what, I am enjoying the sunshine after the cold and very snowy winter we just had. Plus flowers are blooming everywhere, especially sakura (cherry blossoms) that have a somewhat cult-like popularity in Japan!

Here are some pictures, I took in the campus yesterday. No filters. (and a very average Samsung phone)

 

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Sending Money from Japan to Kenya

When I first came to Japan, I left Jeremy in the care of my parents for about  a year. Naturally, I needed to send money for his upkeep from time to time. I also needed to deposit money into my Kenyan bank account to repay my credit card.. etc. Here are the options I have used before (I saved the best for last- WorldRemit, so keep reading until the end):

1. EFT Bank Transfer (using JP Post Bank)

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Image, courtesy

You have to physically go to the bank to fill the request transfer form, although you can set up a monthly standing order. This is by far the most costly option I have ever used. The minimum transaction cost is 2,500¥ for any amount (up to 500,000¥, I think). In addition, the currency conversation rates are so bad.. you lose money when converting from Yen to Dollars, and then again from Dollars to Kenyan Shillings. Furthermore, Standard Chartered Bank charged me Ksh. 1,000 to “process” the dollar transaction. It also took up to 4-5 working days for the money to arrive in my Kenyan bank account. I needed another option.

  • Pros: can send directly to a bank account
  • Cons: Extremely expensive transaction costs, terrible currency conversation rates, takes a long time to process, cannot send to mobile money e.g. M-Pesa

 

2. Western Union Transfer via 7-Bank

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7-11 ATMs at the convenience store in Narita Airport. Image, courtesy

A friend told me about 7-Bank, under the same corporation that runs the 7-11 convenience stores. It basically works by sending the money to Western Union agents anywhere in the world, and your recipient can pick it up from there. The transaction costs are way less than that JP Post Bank and the currency conversation rates are friendly. You can also send money online, or via the ATM at the 7-11 convenience stores. The money is received almost instantly.

First though, you have to sign up and be verified and this can take up to 2 weeks. I think you may also need to be in the country for at least 6 months, but I’m not sure.. just check the terms and conditions when signing up. It’s been 3 years and I don’t remember very well.

Another option is to just go directly to Western Union agents and send the money; but I live in rural Japan and the nearest agent is a 45-min drive away. So 7-Bank was very convenient for me. However, I could not send directly to a bank account (you can if you’re sending to the Philippines and China, but not any other country). I would send the money to my brother and have him deposit it into my bank account in Kenya.

I used 7-Bank for quite a long time, almost 3 years. I knew it wasn’t the cheapest option but I had become complacent, sticking with what works. It costs 990¥ for transactions of below 10,000¥, 1500¥ for transactions above 10,000¥ but below 50,000¥ and 2,000¥ for transactions above that.

  • Pros: cheaper transaction rates than EFT, better currency conversation rates, near-instant money transfer, ubiquitous 7-11 ATMs for sending money, online transactions possible
  • Cons: cannot send money directly to bank account or MPesa, transaction rates are still high especially if you’re sending small amounts of money

3. World Remit- You can send money to Mpesa from Japan, for free!

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Image, courtesy

You guys, I am not exaggerating neither am I getting paid to advertise WorldRemit, but I found my remittance solution. Just like 7-Bank above, it takes about one week to verify your account after you send your initial money (it is because of tough anti-fraud laws in Japan). After initial verification, subsequent transactions are handled immediately.

Let me just list the pros:

  • Transaction costs for any amount: (virtually zero!) 1¥ 
  • Can send to MPesa, Bank Account (KCB, StanChart, Equity, Barclays and National Bank), or Agent (Upesi Money Transfer, KCB, National Bank), or even airtime top up
  • Fair currency conversation rates: I find them comparable to 7 Bank/Western Union
  • Time to complete transaction: about 2 hours for MPesa, about 1 day for bank transfers
  • You can send money online (only online)

I cannot find any cons!

  • Alright, except for the initial verification which is required by Japanese law. This verification is only activated not upon signing up, but after you send them money for your first transaction. It would be better if they just verified you immediately after you sign up so that when you are ready to send money, you’re already verified but maybe they don’t want to waste resources on people who sign up but never use the service. So just be patient after that first transaction.
  • You need to sign up for online banking from your bank if you haven’t already. When sending funds, you need to go to your online banking and send cash to the WorldRemit bank account. It’s easy to sign up for online banking, use Google Chrome to automatically translate the web pages into English for you if your Japanese ability isn’t up to par.

I hope this post will be helpful to someone!

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Ishikawa Speech Contest

On the 27th of January, I participated and won 3rd place in the 36th Annual Ishikawa Speech Contest for Foreign Residents! By being 3rd place, I was awarded the Executive Director’s Prize, Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange. I also got a trophy and certificates, and a generous bookshop gift voucher.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting it because I don’t have confidence in my Japanese ability. However, I can tell a story in 5 minutes (in 4 languages now) and that’s what I did.

One thing I can say that helped my confidence was practice. I actually got inspired by this post written by Mbithe Nzomo. She won the annual speech contest in 2015 and got a chance to visit Japan! So if you are thinking of giving speech contests a go, check out the website of the Embassy of Japan in Nairobi (or just Google, you’ll find the appropriate info). In the post by Mbithe, she says that the first step is to give it a shot. Literally, half the battle is won by making the effort to apply. I had some help correcting the grammar from my Japanese teacher, my friend Harumi and also my academic supervisor (he’s cool like that) and then it was up to me to practice. We were allowed to read from the script so it was cool that I didn’t necessarily have to cram it.

Here is the speech I gave. The English translation is below it.

日本にきてから、もう三年が立ちまして、今年は四年目です。この三年間は日本人と会話をしている時に、色々な質問を聞かれました。その中でよく聞かれる質問は「好きな言葉は何ですか。」それで、今日は答えます。夏の一日の話をしながら、十の好きな言葉を伝えたいと思います。

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2018 Goals

We’re already 3 weeks into 2018, how did that happen!

I have really simple but all-time consuming goals for 2018. I’m listing them as 2018 goals but I have actually been working towards achieving some of them for many years, and some are lifetime goals. Some will come to fruition in 2018 but months and years have been spent in the making. So without further ado, *drumrolls please*, these are the 6 things I want to achieve in 2018.

1. Take care of J

This is obvious, right? I’m a mother, it’s what we do. Yes it is, but I just want to acknowledge that it is important work that I do. Teaching, feeding, clothing, cleaning, entertaining, loving, bathing and dressing, nursing, shaking loose teeth, comforting, doing laundry, buying toys and books, reading to.. you get the picture. At the end of 2018, I shall celebrate and toast to a healthy and happy Jeremy.

2. Write my thesis, defend it and graduate
#EnoughSaid

3. Do Japanese Language Proficiency Test (N2 Level). Yes, N stands for Ninja 😀
I enjoy learning Japanese. I wish I had more time to immerse myself in the language.

Just got these books today #JPLTN2 #頑張ります

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4. Go to Las Vegas
I know it sounds random but my final conference as a PhD student might be at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.
This scene in The Hangover remains one of the best scenes in that movie haha

5. Get a job
I’m about to hit the streets tarmacking. I really want to get into Machine Learning/AI/Big Data/IoT Application Research. Fingers crossed.

Gotta get ready for the interviews!

6. Take care of myself
Sometimes I have to remind myself to get a little exercise and some sleep.

Bonus
Read 12 books. A book a month.

Here’s to 2018!

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2017 in Review

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2017 began with me planning to retire from blogging (No kidding!). But I’m still here, I don’t know what happened. Can’t stop writing even when I can’t seem to find the time. When I wrote the last post that wasn’t really the last post, I had just arrived back in Japan from Christmas/New Year vacation in Kenya.

No sooner had I arrived than I began to plan a conference trip to France. Being from a shithole country means I need to apply for visas way in advance before I can visit virtually any country, including fellow shithole countries. I got the visa and spent a week in the South of France, Nice to be specific. The views of the French Riviera were fantastic. Someday, I will return to cruise the Mediterranean. Jeremy and I also spent a few hours across the border in Italy, just because we could. And also to tick it off our list of countries we’ve visited. 2017 was the year I Went to 5 countries – France, Italy, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to go to Kenya for Christmas.

Countries I have visited. I'm hoping to colour more of Africa blue.

Countries I have visited. I’m hoping to colour more of Africa blue.

In March 2017, Jeremy turned 4 while I turned 29 in April. I couldn’t believe I really was a parent to a whole 4 year old. Spring brought forth new friends with whom we shared many happy times having picnics in the park, hanging out at the butterfly museum and having barbecues and beer in the summer. We swam in the oceans and pools, visited the zoo and aquarium and had some more BBQs. It is no wonder I gained 4Kgs that have since stuck. We watched fireworks explode in psychedelic patterns in the sky. We made new, and beautiful, and hopefully everlasting friendships.

I went to an English camp for kids that same summer, mostly for Jeremy’s benefit. The heat was unbearable, I’m thinking I actually prefer Japanese winters to their summers. I also drove for about 9 hours to Niigata to apply for a visa to South Korea, and drove another 8 hours back. That was the straw that broke my Suzuki Wagon R’s back. It already had over 220,000Kms of mileage logged. In September that year, I had to let it go and acquired a second hand Nissan Note.

View from tallest building in Niigata

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The summer ended on a high note, with a visit to VISA-FREE Malaysia. Yes, I will shout about NO-VISAS! Earth belongs to all of us Earthlings. Only an accident of birth led to where we were born, we are privileged but it’s not a right. We need to learn generosity and love towards one another. Do the best you can. Be nice.

Malaysia is lovely. I’d go back for a holiday any time. But really, any country on Earth is beautiful and lovely if you’re just visiting for a few days. So I don’t know what real life there is like.

Autumn came around, the leaves turned red and golden and we went for drives, searching the mountain raods for crimson leaves. Only to encounter snow. It was definitely a foretaste of the coming coldest winter that I have experienced.

Instead of #autumn foliage, we found snow! #雪 #ゆきだるま

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I attended another conference in New Zealand. Again, it was a lovely country with friendly people and cute, fluffy sheep. I didn’t actually see the sheep but I did buy Jeremy a fluffy stuffed sheep, and if it’s anything like the real thing..

I read books in 2017. I was reading Cold Fire by Dean Koontz when I missed my flight back to Japan in January. I don’t remember much but it was quite the thriller. My aim in 2017 was to read a book a month, which is also what I hope to achieve in 2018. In February, I read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on The Shore. I’ll definitely never forget the book. Highly recommended. On a high from Kafka’s adventures, I read Norwegian Wood by the same author, a more subtle but still highly enjoyable read. It drags a bit though, in the middle. I think. I would have to re-read it to be sure. I was beginning to enjoy Japanese writing and presumably thought Kazuo Ishiguro is Japanese too. His writing is as British as can be, because well, he is British. I enjoyed The Buried Giant, but it wasn’t an easy read. He won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature so I guess my reading tastes are validated. I followed that with The Great Gatsby, an American classic. I wasn’t reading it for study purposes so I enjoyed it for the novel that it is.

This is my Golden Week plan.. #holiday #goldenweek

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In August and September, I finally finished reading the last book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. It is a young adult novel and I really struggled with it because I am now an adult adult. A teenager (boy) would love the books. I was up for light reading in October, with only “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie. It took about an hour. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari was my book of the year, and I saved the best for last: Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

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I’ll probably won’t get time to review all the books I read so this post serves as a book review post as well.

2017 was quite busy, but 2018 will be the defining year for me and not just because I turn 30 while Jeremy turns 5.

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Dec 2nd – 10th: Sunny Days in New Zealand

Day 1- Saturday 2nd Dec: Flights – are all Men Created Equal? 

I am not sure how many hours it took from Komatsu, Japan to Christchurch, New Zealand, because of all the transit. We  (Jeremy and I) flew from Komatsu to Haneda Airport in Tokyo, then from Haneda to Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. After that, it was another flight to Christchurch. It was a long journey down South.

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While in this day and age, we seem to abhor that anyone should be descriminated against in terms of age, gender, race, sexuality, colour or creed, we seem to accept the reality of discrimination against nationality as well as economic status. At Auckland, the immigration queue was long by any standard but when you have a 4 year old who can’t stand still, it’s not an exaggeration to say it feels like the queue stretches to infinity. However the announcer came on to say that UK, US or Canadian residents could go to the fast track queue. Luckily, when those were cleared, we parents with young children were shepherded to that fast track queue so I guess all’s well that ends well?

We had like a 4 hour layover at Auckland so we had lunch at McDonald’s before proceeding to the domestic terminal. When we arrived at Christchurch, I couldn’t find an Uber to take us to the hotel. The other option was to take a cab – I had been warned that prices are expensive in NZ – or to take a bus. Google Maps said I could take the Purple Line at a bus stop 1 minute away. It was around 7pm but it was still light out and I didn’t have much luggage. So I took the bus and met this friendly bus driver. She had slightly purple hair and sang along to all the songs on the radio. The bus ride cost 8 NZD. Jeremy rides free because he’s 4. The paying age in NZ  buses is from 5 onwards.. in Japan it’s from 6, even for trains.

Oh, before I forget, I cannot describe what it felt like seeing New Zealand from the air. So I’ll just leave a picture.

New Zealand is so beautiful 😍😍

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Day 2, Sunday 3rd Dec – The Christchurch Botanical Gardens, Christchurch Gondola

Okay I admit my choices of what to see and do in ChCh were heavily influenced by the search “Top 10 things to do in Christchurch” on TripAdvisor. But the gardens are really beautiful and worth spending a morning or afternoon. It’s a botanist’s dream I guess, with plants from all over the world. Jeremy and I had a guided tour, so that’s how I know. We saw trees, flowers including roses, there was a restaurant where we stopped to get snacks on our tour etc. The weather was just beautiful.. sunshine all over but it wasn’t that hot or humid, it was like 24 or 25deg Celsius. So when the driver of the “caterpillar” commented “this must be comfortable for you”, I was like, “yes, yes it really is.” (See previous posts about some people in Japan saying the same comment to me in 38deg Celsius, humid weather)

#Chirstchurch #botanicalgardens

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It rapidly got hotter as noon approached and it wasn’t so comfortable anymore. Luckily, there was a playground and a paddling pool. Unfortunately, I hadn’t carried J’s swimming shorts so I let him swim in his underwear – hey, there were plenty of fully clothed kids in there and some adults too.

The Uber Story

Uber in NZ really is uber expensive compared to say, Uber in Malaysia. I didn’t know that until I got impatient waiting for the bus to the Gondola base from the botanical gardens. It was hot, we were thirsty and hungry, but I wanted us to eat at the restaurant at the top of the hill (mountain). The main reason I couldn’t wait was because I was with Jeremy, and no one seemed to know the exact bus schedule so I decided, why not uber. This time I found a cab and uber just states the *price range* where the final price is calculated after arrival. It cost me 44 NZD instead of the 5 NZD it would have had I waited an extra 20 minutes.

Anyway, our driver turned to be an Ethiopian! He said he was there mainly for missionary work. There is this thing Africans in the diaspora do when they meet: comparing notes on the livability of our host countries. We all agreed NZ is beautiful and friendly (to visitors); but that’s the same of any country. He said living there wasn’t so easy though and advised me to go back to Kenya after my graduation. I nodded because..  Growth in Nairobi seems unstoppable if we judge by the skyscrapers coming up. I mean, look at Upperhill! It wasn’t like that when I left 3 years ago..

Upperhill rising

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As is typical of the friendliness of many Africans, he invited me to his house to meet his family if I got the time. Sadly, I never did get the time because I would only be in NZ for 6 days.

Christchurch Gondola

Sorry for the digression. Where were we? Yes, Day 2. Went up Christchurch Gondola to beautiful views of the bay and of Christchurch city. Lunch up there was good too. Went a bit crazy at the shop, buying souvenirs for friends back in Japan. (By the way, for a moment there, I had a really hard time trying to remember the English word for souvenirs. Omiyage, the Japanese word, kept popping up in my head. My stay in Japan may be having a negative effect on my ability to think and write in English. I literally had to type into Google “omiyage in English”)

Below is a view of Lyttleton Harbour from the top of “Gondola” Hill.

#lyttletonharbour

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Jeremy and I going up the hill in a gondola

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Day 3, Monday 4th Dec – Chilling, Conference Registration, Beach

The main reason for going  to New Zealand was to attend and present at a conference (ICCE2017). The actual conference wouldn’t start until Wednesday but I wanted to check out the venue, register for the conference and check out the room I would do my presentation in.

That day was particularly scorching and we went to the beach only much later in the evening. Luckily, the sun didn’t go down until around 10pm so we did enjoy some beach time.

Observe the subtle colour changes in subsequent photos..

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Day 4 Tuesday, Dec 5th – Lunch, Shopping and the Container Mall

We stayed in the room all morning because I had to make some final changes to my presentation and also just to rest. In Japan, we’ve been relying on Weetabix cereal for a quick breakfast and I found an equivalent in a convenience store next to our hotel. Only, the name wasn’t Weetabix but Weetbix. Did the job though!

Later, we walked through the town admiring the street art, sampling the food (okay, I lie. We did no sampling. Except for the days we had lunch at the conference, we basically survived on burgers and fries. Ugh, if I never have another burger again, it will be too soon. Another lie, I am already back to eating burgers).

So sunny and hot here #containermall #christchurch

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Day 5 Wednesday, Dec 6th – Conference and the drama at the Margaret Mahy Playground

Attending the conference with a young child is quite tricky especially if you didn’t bring along someone to mind him. But Jeremy has these moments when he’s focused on watching Cartoon where he is literally in that cartoon world. I took advantage of this to catch a few talks ( he was also plugged in during my presentation). After a free lunch at the conference, I decided to skip the afternoon talks – I can always read the papers online later – and took him to the famous Margaret Mahy playground. It was just a 5 minute walk away. Jeremy enjoyed running around, climbing up, sliding down, while I watched and tried to keep an eye on him.

Helps that our hotel is near a famous playground

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So there is a tall slide, and a kid has to go up using climbing nets. I kept warning Jeremy not to go so high up because he’s kind of scared of heights. Of course he didn’t listen so up and up he went, until he was halfway through and got scared.. he didn’t want to go up nor come down. This lovely girl from Australia who was also visiting with her family offered to go help him (I was in a dress and it wasn’t really suitable for climbing). She thought it was easier to just get to the top and slide down rather than come down the same way he went up. Just as they got to the top, Jeremy refused to step into the slide and started crying.. he literally froze in place. I had to abandon all decorum and go up there and coax him down. Two days later when we went back to the playground, he wanted to go back up again! Kids forget so easily!

Day 6: Thursday, Dec 7th –  Botanical Gardens (Again) and Christchurch Tram and a Missed Banquet

At the conference, I ran into friends from JAIST who had already gone back to their respective countries (Indonesia and Thailand). We had lunch together and talked a bit. I also ran into a Kenyan studying at Canterbury University.  In the afternoon, I joined my supervisor and another alumnus from our lab in another tour of the botanical gardens, this time no guided tour but a lovely stroll around it. We combined the tour with a tram tour as well, just going round the must-see spots in the city center.

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Image, courtesy

That night, probably from fatigue (trying running after a 4 year old around all day), I was feeling a bit under the weather. I ended up missing the conference banquet  that I was really looking forward to attending (would probably have been my first banquet).  I heard from reliable sources the following day that traditional dancers performed the haka. But my presentation was also on the following day so the more reason for me to take it easy and rest.

Day 7, Friday 8th Dec – Presentation and back to the Margaret Mahy Playground

I presented my paper at the conference. It really went well, the audience even asked me questions I couldn’t successfully respond to (that’s when you know it’s a good conference because it challenges you and gives you an opportunity to learn more).

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That’s me doing my presentation at ICCE2017. Yes, there is an audience I promise, from the 2nd row backwards!

After lunch, I took J back to the playground, we had one last walk around the city, and then I packed our belongings. Our flight on Saturday morning was to depart at 6am(!) so we had to leave the hotel at 4am! I decided not to sleep (big mistake!) for fear of missing my alarm. I spent the night finishing Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

Day 7- Saturday Dec 9th: No Flight Out? Plus a Night at Auckland

At 3:30am, the alarm went off. I hadn’t slept a wink. I put a book in the book, rose up, washed my face, dressed Jeremy, got our luggage downstairs.. you get the picture. I got ready for the airport. Once at the airport, we checked in, got onto the airplane, slept through a 30 minute delay for some mechanical reason, taxied to the end of the runway ready for take off, only for the captain to announce that the engines weren’t turning on so we had to go back to the terminal and disembark.

I took that time to take a nap while jerking awake every few minutes to check on J. He managed to take this photo of me.

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After a 3 hour delay, we arrived in Auckland to find our flight for Japan had long left. We were put up at a nearby hotel and given meal vouchers as well. The hotel was so lovely, I even wished we were staying longer. I slept for almost 12 hours!

Day 8, Sunday Dec 10th: Back to Japan

Finally, at 9:30am, we departed from Auckland and landed at Haneda in Tokyo that night. We went from 28 deg to -2deg in 24 hours. Took a few days to adjust but now that I have resigned to the cold, you will see me rejoicing whenever the weather is sunny at 6deg. I will even go outside without a jacket (for up to 5 minutes!).

Happy New Year Loyal Readers! It’s gonna be an exciting one for me (and you of course, by extension.)
Here’s to more travel adventures in 2018!

 

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