Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Kanazawa and Kobe

After five leisurely hours on the Shinkansen, I arrived at my first stop, Kanazawa.  I have always been drawn to this city for some reason, maybe because I’ve heard it being compared to Kyoto a number of times, and I love all that cobbled streets and teahouse district stuff.

Upon leaving the station, I immediately felt like I was in some kind of small but refined European city.  The buildings were glassy and sleek, cobalt and mahogany.  Sharply-dressed businessmen chatted in pairs as they walked down the street.  The thing that struck me most though, was how quiet it was.  There was hardly any traffic, and everyone went about their way in a composed manner.  I’d heard that Kanazawa was a reserved city, due to it being so hard to access from other parts of Japan until recently, which would also explain its traditional feel.

Not wanting to waste my first evening, I got a taxi to drop me off at Higashichaya district, where all the old teahouses are.  Unfortunately all the shops were shut, and it was extremely quiet, which in a way made my stroll around the area more pleasant.  The hustle and bustle of Kyoto wasn’t there, but the soft glow of light against the sliding front doors created a lovely quiet ambience.

The next day I rented a bike and immediately set off looking for a French toast place that one of the hostel workers recommended to me to have breakfast at.  (I went for the lemon curd French toast, although was intrigued by the potato salad with walnuts and honey one, which the menu assured me was “a surprisingly delicious combination”…)

Kenrokuen was next on my list, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (another of which I’ll see in Okayama this weekend).  Midday probably wasn’t the best time to go as it was absolutely sweltering, but the trees created a welcome shade and I had green tea flavoured kakigouri (shaved ice with syrup) so that cooled me down a bit.

I hopped back on me bike in search of the sushi place the guy on the train told me about.  It was a take out place with an old lady watching TV inside while she waited for customers.  I called through the glass hatch and asked for eel with cucumber, and it seemed a shame to only order one, so I got one filled with octopus and tartare sauce as well.  Maybe I should open my open shop at home?!

I pedalled off to a different teahouse district, wondering if it would be any different.  Nope, just smaller and fewer shops.  I thoroughly enjoyed riding my bike on the way through the residential areas, as there were so many streams that the houses had been built so that little bridges connected the main road to their front doors over the water.  I went to a tiny museum about a Japanese author I’d never heard of, who wrote an extremely succesful book when he was about 21, went insane from the fame it brought him and died in his early thirties.  The museum worker was very keen to take my picture sitting in the author’s living room, so that was fun.

I got severely judged when I bought a chocolate soft serve ice cream from a very posh chocolate shop where three ladies in black suits were working.  Probably because I was wearing a Marvel T-Shirt and demin shorts, also looking a bit sweaty from being out in the blazing sun, but I didn’t let their cold service ruin my enjoyment of demolishing the ice cream.  It did make me miss friendly Aomorians a little, though.

Finished the day at the 21st Museum of Contemporary Art, which I only really wanted to go to because of its exhibit, The Swimming Pool.  I made the mistake of getting a ticket for the temporary exhibition, which was about three artists from Korea, China and Japan, who created a fictitious state where people who love art could live, called Xijing.  Some of the installations were quite fun, like their Winter Olympics room, where a video showed two of the artists having a fencing match with feather dusters.  Some of it was a bit too weird though, like the room where a man in a bunny costume was lying down on the floor.  The sign said he was an illegal Korean immigrant and was being paid to lie there for seven hours a day.  I enjoyed the Swimming Pool though, both looking over the surface at the people “swimming” underneath, and getting to go under it myself so I could feel like a mermaid.

Click on the link for photos as I don’t have any room left on my WordPress account 😦

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On Wednesday I headed for Kobe where I just had one night planned.  I got there in the evening, and went off to find somewhere to eat Kobe beef.  I got to a restaurant, the first customer of the evening, sat down and looked at the menu.  There were two options: 8,500 yen (£64) beef or 10,000 yen (£75) beef.  There’s nothing more awkward than having to apologise and leave a restaurant because you’re not carrying enough cash.  I opted for a safer-looking Italian place and ordered the nicest beef they had there, with garlic butter sauce.  I had summer vegetable and eel fritters with miso sauce for starter, which was absolutely delicious.  The beef was a little disappointing; it was very fatty and took me about five minutes to chew each piece.

Eager to experience some nightlife, I walked over to Harborland to see the pretty lights and stuff.  It was a lovely area for a stroll, with lots of little shops lining the deck and the reflections of the Port Tower and other illuminated buildings reflected in the water.  As I was sitting on a bench with my iced tea, Queen’s I Was Born  To Love You suddenly began playing over to my left, and bursts of water shot up into the air in synchronisation.  There were lasers, coloured lights and pyrotechnics, all jumping out of the water to the beat of Queen like performing dolphins.  I have no idea why it was happening, and one of the workers at my hostel said she’d never heard of something like that either.

I was going to go back the next morning, but the beef didn’t agree with me during the night and I was a bit sick in the toilet of my shared hostel dorm.  I decided to have an easy morning, but it was so hot and I forgot it was a national holiday, which meant by the time I got near Harborland you couldn’t move for people.  I had a quick lunch, got my stuff at the hostel and headed to my next stop, Takamatsu, a little earlier than planned.

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Despite the people on the Shinkansen from Kobe to Okayama being packed liked sardines, I managed to get a seat at my transfer and felt a sense of relief as I watched the scenery change to rice fields and trees again.  Crossing the bridge over the sea to Shikoku, seeing all the little islands and fishing boats dotted around, I realised how much big cities stress me out.  I’m so glad I got to spend two years in the countryside, even if it did seem boring sometimes.

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Let’s enjoy travelling!

The stress of leaving is over and I have started my solo travels of Japan!  My last few days in Aomori were spent getting burnt and having fun on the beach, furiously cleaning and gutting my apartment, meeting the new guy taking over my job and helping him sort out his phone and bank account, trying to sort my own bank account out to send money home, chilling at Lauren’s and trying to savour the time I had left with my friends.

I went to Goshogawara on Saturday to see Tachineputa, and couldn’t really believe it had been two years exactly since I arrived in Aomori and got the train by myself to see it.  The highlight was seeing my favourite student, who graduated to senior high school in April, dancing with his classmates in the parade.  We were on the same train from Goshogawara the day before, and he told me he was going to be in it, and I said I’d keep a look out for him!  During the parade we saw each other and waved like mad, and he kept waving whenever he turned around, then danced away with a huge smile on his face.  Another highlight was seeing Lauren and some other ALTs who were taking part, playing the hand cymbals and getting the crowd hyped up.

My last night in Aomori was spent watching the biggest most spectacular fireworks I’ve ever seen, as in to the point where the fireworks turn into multi-coloured hearts.  I got ready with Yuka at her place, and we wore our yukatas which were maybe a bit louder than most designs, but we thought fireworks were an appropriate occasion to look flashy!

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Yuka took me to Shin-Aomori station the next morning, and it was only when we were saying goodbye that I started crying.  I thought I’d cry when I said goodbyes to my other friends, but having them so spread out made it feel less final, until I was actually leaving.  I got on the train all teary-eyed, but then a nice-looking Japanese couple sat in front of me and smiled when we made eye contact.  A few minutes later they turned around and struck up a conversation and it turned out they were visiting from Tokyo to see Nebuta.  The man was from Kanazawa and recommended me his favourite take-out sushi place, and we exchanged emails.  I felt a bit better then.

This is the rough route I’m doing over twelve days with my rail pass until I go to Summer Sonic in Tokyo, then fly home on the 22nd. (Kanazawa – Kobe – Takamatsu – Okayama – Hiroshima – Hamamatsu – Kawasaki – Chiba)

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I’m in my hostel in Kanazawa now, and the (foreign!) guy sitting opposite me is eating cup ramen, but kind of quietly lapping the noodles up with his tongue rather than slurping them up in one go and it’s driving me nuts.  Have I turned Japanese?


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あっと言う間

When people have asked me how I feel about leaving Japan soon, this was a phrase I quickly learned – a tto iu ma – “a blink of time” or literally, “the time it takes to say ‘Ah!'”

Two years feels especially short when I think about how other JETs have stayed as long as five years.  But as I wrote in my last post, the longer I stay here, the harder it will be to return home.  I guess I chose to sacrifice the short term for the long term.  I said goodbye to all my schools last week, and I was surprised how appreciated the students made me feel.  I never thought only seeing them each once a week would have that much of an impact, but when some students gave me lovely personal messages, drawings of me and even asked for my UK address so they could write to me, I realised how close we had actually got during that time and how much I’ll miss them.

On Monday night, the shock of leaving hit me really hard and I couldn’t sleep at all, thinking about how difficult it will be to see the friends I made here again.  It will be relatively easy to see my Japanese friends as I know they’ll always be here, but sooner or later, my JET friends will all move on with their lives and end up scattered around the world.  However this does mean I have a good excuse to go travelling and see them!  When I’d finally managed to get to sleep, about two hours later, the man living across from me decided 5am was a good time to start hammering away at something in his shed for an hour.  I stuck my head out the window and yelled at him, because I didn’t care about being a nice neighbour anymore with only a week left, but he didn’t hear me anyway.

Clearing out my apartment is really tedious and I hate it.  Especially when it’s hot and humid and all I want to do is lie on my sofa and eat watermelon.  I’ve also amazed myself at how much crap I managed to acquire in two years, and the CARDBOARD, oh the cardboard.  But it must be done, and I tell myself everything will come together in the end, because it always does!

Last Saturday we had a taiko performance and then a party afterwards which one of the group leaders organised for me.  I nicknamed him Boss a while ago and he was so chuffed that now he makes everyone call him that.  We decided that the guy who sort of oversees us as a group, but doesn’t really play with us, needed a nickname too, so I suggested Chief, which also turned out to be a big hit.  We got very drunk and I was serenaded at karaoke with a powerful rendition of Queen’s I Was Born To Love You featuring some hilarious backing dancers.  They are all such a fun group of people, I’m sad I only got to know them proplerly in the last six months.  I could see us hanging out together more often outside practice, but obviously that won’t be happening 😦 But I’m glad I did have those six months!  I remember how hard it was to feel like I had a place in the Japanese community, as I just didn’t click with anyone in my own town.  I’ve been so lucky to have Lauren in the next town, who’s not only been an amazing friend to have, but without her I wouldn’t have had met the taiko group and made such good memories.

I met up with my friend in Aomori city on Monday, as I had to change my visa so I can use the JR Pass to go travelling.  We went to the fish market where you buy 10 stamps and can choose whatever seafood you like to put in your ricebowl.  I got all my favourites, including ikura, unagi and a huuuuuuge juicy raw scallop.  Then she took me to an old-fashioned looking ice cream sundae place where she used to go as a teenager.  I had a “B.B.” which was apparently a “big black” sundae, with big scoops of chocolate ice cream, an oreo, chocolate covered cornflakes and sliced banana.  I couldn’t finish it though…  We looked at the UK guidebooks she’d rented from the library because she wants to visit during spring next year.  Looking at all the nice photos of English gardens and pretty shop fronts in London actually made me feel a bit better about coming home, and even more so at the prospect of showing it around to a friend.


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Floating on through July

There are currently five abandoned blog posts sitting in my drafts.  Every time I try to write something, my thoughts start drifting in a completely different direction and I can’t focus on what it is I’m trying to say.  I feel bad because I have hardly posted anything in the past few months, and now that the realisation that I have such little time left in Japan is finally hitting me, I’m cycling through feelings of excitement, sadness, relief and regret.  It’s also because I’ve run out of free space for photos, which is a bit boring.

In some ways I wish I had posted more about the little things that happen every day.  Like today when the student who’s a bit of a troublemaker and hates English told me I was good at drawing, in Tsugaru-ben, I replied also in Tsugaru-ben she got really excited and proceeded to teach me more phrases in the dialect.  Or how I tried on a yukata in a shop two months ago and didn’t like it because it was a bit drab and old-fashioned (like the rest of the patterns there) so I didn’t buy it despite the sales assistant really going for the hard sell, then asking me for my phone number and address “just in case I changed my mind”.  Since then she has sent me handwritten letters asking me to come to the store and get a yukata, along with promotional leaflets, and she’s even called me twice asking me if I’m free to come into the store.  Seriously?  I couldn’t believe she was being so persistent.  I was polite the first time she called, and told her I wasn’t interested and not free that weekend anyway so I couldn’t go to the store.  Then I got another call tonight and as soon as she started talking about her effing yukatas I told her to stop harrassing me and calling my personal number, and then hung up.  I actually got a yukata the day after I first went there at a different shop.  It’s cerulean blue, printed pink all over with big slices of oranges, and I got a yellow obi to match!  I may have got the least Japanesey type pattern just to spite annoying Yukata Woman… but I actually got it because it’s so goddamn funky fresh.

When I was finishing university, all the good stuff seemed to happen at once just as my final year was coming to an end, and it feels the same way this time, except a million times better.  I’ve built some amazing friendships here and finally got to the point where I feel like I have a place in the Japanese community and enjoy hanging out with Japanese people instead of just other JETs all the time.  I love the social life I have here, and the fact that there is always some kind of event going on in Aomori that I can go to or join if I want.  I feel like I’m getting better and better at Japanese, still far from fluent, but to the point where I can spend six hours drinking with people from my taiko group and chatting about anything and everything with no struggle, then not being able to sleep because my drunk brain won’t shut up thinking in Japanese.  I am going to miss everyone so badly, and sometimes wonder if I made the right decision to leave when all my friends are staying for another year.  Then I remind myself why I did, and realise that it all comes down to making compromises.

Firstly, I CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING.  This has been my mantra for the past few days.  I had legitimate reasons to leave, and when I think about them, I know a third year here would have dragged.  I’m ready to move on from being an assistant teacher and I’m ready to leave the remoteness of where I live, even if it is ridiculously beautiful and I’ll never get to live with this kind of scenery again.  I am also extremely ready for a winter where I get to live somewhere with actual insulation and I don’t spend half the year worrying that I’m going to crash my car in the snow.  (How’s that for first world problems?)  Even if it makes me sound like a wuss, I’m looking forward to snuggling with my dog in front of a toasty fire again.

Maintaining friendships from the other side of the world is hard, too.  Tecnology has been amazing for keeping in touch, but it’s not the same and I miss my friends from school.  I know another year away would put a bigger strain on that, and even though most people have moved away from home now, I can’t wait to see everyone again.  At some point my friends in Japan will have to move on too, and it would be just as hard, if not harder, for me to say goodbye a year from now.

Two years doesn’t feel like a long time until I think back to what I did when I first got here, and suddenly it seems like I’ve been here a decade.  I feel like I’ve done a lot during my time here, and sorry for getting a bit clichéed, but I also feel like I’ve changed a lot as a person and really discovered what I’m capable of.  I’m singing and playing bass in a one-off show with three friends tomorrow in a bar… I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have done that two years ago.  I moved halfway across the world at the age of 21 and survived – thrived – for this long.  I admire the ALTs who stay longer, even up to five years, but for me the work would feel stagnant way before then.  I love who I have become and I’m excited to see where my new-found confidence and fresh perspective of the world (I have learned just as much about other cultures as I have Japan, thanks to 99% of my friends here being non-Brits!) takes me.  University was a bit of a disappointment socially; I didn’t make any lasting friendships and I regretted not joining more societies and clubs sooner.  Maybe that’s why I knew I had to make the most of it this time, because I didn’t want to close myself off to good opportunities again.

Next week is my last week at school, so I have to give a farewell speech in front of everyone.  I’m nervous because I hate giving speeches and I’ll probably get a bit teary-eyed, but I have some fun things planned for my final classes and I’m going to make lemon drizzle cake for the teachers.  One teacher has been particularly kind to me since I’ve been here, and hinted that she wanted me to draw a picture of her dog, so I’m going to do that for her too.  She took me to do a glass-blowing workshop with some other teachers, and they paid for me!  I chose to make a small vase with blue and white colouring.  I don’t get to see how mine turned out yet, because she’s making it into a “which teacher made which item?” quiz at my leaving party.

It will be hard to say goodbye, but I still have some more drinking parties,  Nebuta matsuri, then two weeks of travelling and Summer Sonic to look forward to.  I have to keep reminding myself that I won’t be able to go home until I’ve seen Radiohead, and that makes me feel a lot better.  Plus, I might even bump into them at the airport the next day…


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An Introduction to Rice Planting

Well, it was really just fifteen minutes of the mayor of Inakadate praising the crowd turnout and good weather, followed by lots of motivational rice-themed dancing with the town mascots singing “kome kome kome kome” (rice rice rice rice) before all 1200 of us were unleashed into the fields.  We had no idea what we were doing, then someone chucked us each a slab of rice seedlings, and away we went pushing them into the lines of holes that had been marked out for us.  The mud was lovely and warm and squishy on my bare feet, but unfortunately gave me hobbit feet for nearly two weeks after, no matter how hard I scrubbed.

When the rice grows, it will become a lovely piece of art!  We didn’t plant the coloured sections because I suspected we as volunteers couldn’t be trusted.  Suspicions  confirmed when teenagers started throwing the mud at each other and got a telling off from sensei.  The tradition of rice art started here in Inakadate about twenty years ago, using different coloured rice strands to create a picture which is viewed from the top of the building next to the fields.  Last year the rice art theme was Star Wars and Gone With The Wind (bit of a random combination), and this year it will be two characters from a Japanese drama I have no idea about, and Godzilla!


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Cultural challenges

Occasionally I’ll come across misspelled gems when I’m marking students’ work or looking over their shoulders in the classroom during a writing task.  This week has been particularly amusing, starting with Monday when I was marking writing exercises using the passive tense.  Conjugating verbs into the passive is a pain in the arse for anyone learning English thanks to all the irregularities, so I sympathise.   I asked the students to think of a person or object and write three hints about it so others could guess what or who it is.  I’m glad I put my coffee down when I read the last one from my pile of papers, which said, “He was boned by my mother.”  It took a while until my JTE and I realised he was trying to say “borned by”.  The logic was there at least.  やっぱり英語って難しいな~。

Yesterday we were making sentences like “I (do ~ ) when I’m happy/sad/bored etc”.  One student wrote “I crap when I’m happy.”  Of course I never actually laugh at the students, but I can’t help having a quiet giggle to myself.  I feel for them though, R and L are really hard to distinguish from a Japanese perspective.

There’s one 2nd grader (13 years old?) who is hilarious and will always beckon me over for a chat when I’m walking around the classroom making sure people are getting on ok with the task.  He is so determined to speak English even though most of what he says is one word questions or mostly gestures, but despite this we end up having some pretty interesting conversations that usually just result in him asking in Japanese and me replying in English, so at least he can use his listening skills.  Yesterday he asked me what surprised me most about Japan when I first got here, and I said the level of customer service.  Japanese shop assistants treat you like a VIP, from the precise way they handle your money to the honorific language that they use.  In contrast, I told him that shop assistants in the UK might have a little chat with you and ask about your day or even compliment you on something you’re wearing.  Both countries have their negatives though; in Japan I feel like I’m being served by robots because everyone says the same few set phrases, and in the UK sometimes I just get completely ignored throughout the whole transaction.

I love these little exchanges of culture because it makes me appreciate both sides instead of just taking one for granted.  It still makes me sad though how most Japanese people I’ve met, including the students, have never left the country or just have no interest in going abroad.  We actually did a lesson on opinions the other week, and one question was “Do you think English is important?”.  I was a little disappointed to see that over half the class wrote that they didn’t think so.  The majority of the reasons were along the lines of just not wanting to go abroad, but one student simply wrote 日本人だから。 (because I’m Japanese.)  Cue eye roll.   This lack of open-mindedness does make me realise why foreigners get such bizarre treatment a lot of the time in Japan.  Yes, Japan is a special country full of interesting food and culture, but internationalisation is a thing, even if it happens more in other countries than here.  One thing that stands out is the NEVER ENDING COMMENTS about how amazing it is that foreigners can use chopsticks or eat sushi.  One of my principals spent half the evening at a teacher’s gathering asking me if I could eat such and such Japanese food, then practically wetting himself when I said yes.  He couldn’t believe it when I said we could easily buy soy sauce, noodles and tofu in UK supermarkets.  He leaned over to the other teachers and exclaimed how miraculous it was that I could eat rice.  He brought a bowl of a variety of spinach to school once, slapped me on the shoulder instead of using my name and told me to try it.  He stood behind me as I ate, saying “How crazy is it that foreigners can eat this stuff?!  She probably won’t like it.” while the teacher next to me said, “Actually, I’ve never tried it either.”

Of course not everyone is like this, and this is probably a more extreme case of alienifying foreigners, but even in a subtler form it puts me off staying here long-term.  I love my life here, but I’ll be relieved to be back home when I can blend into the crowd again and not feel like a special snowflake.


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Golden Week in Bangkok and Chiang Mai

Praise Japan and its generous number of public holidays.  This year’s Golden Week had a total of four holidays, which worked out that if you took two days off work as paid leave, you ended up with a rather tasty ten-day break!  Eager to cross off the next country on my travel bucket list, I rounded up three friends and began planning a trip to Thailand: three days in Bangkok and four days up in the mountainous city of Chiang Mai, with a day in Tokyo and two days travelling/recuperating at the end.

In March I posted about the plum blossoms in Kameido Shrine and how I wanted to go back for the wisteria festival – so that’s what we did in Tokyo!  It was significantly busier, but the weather was superb for a spot of terrapin-watching and gorging on freshly baked sweet potato chips and mochi.

As our other friends booked the wrong plane tickets, Lauren and I spent the first morning wandering around town.  We had a bit of a hectic arrival at 2am when the taxi driver couldn’t find the apartment we were staying at.  We ended up getting a different taxi who tried to rip us off at the end, which I was having none of.  The first taxi cost us 350 baht from the airport, despite dropping us off in the completely wrong location, and the second didn’t put the taxi meter on so he decided to charge us 500 baht instead of the 80 or so it should have cost us.  Luckily I’d done my research and knew about this habit of theirs, so after suggesting we give him 100 baht and being consequently laughed at, I gave him 200 and an angry rant about how we were tired, annoyed and not in the mood for his shit.  Whether he understood my English or not, he got the message.  Lauren said she was going to just cough up the 500 and leave, but decided from then on she would definitely leave the haggling to me!  You don’t mess with a Fraser.

I feel like I’m going to write too much so I’ll aim for a quick summary of each day!  EDIT: Oh well I tried.

Day 1: Tried to find a cafe from Tripadvisor – failed.  Tried to find the place where you get a massage from a blind person – failed.  Someone yelled “ELLEEEEEN!” from the middle of the road, it was Mina (another Aomori JET friend) who was standing next to a car with its hazards on, parked dubiously in the middle of a roundabout.  We ended up driving over an hour north of Bangkok with her Thai friend to Ayutthaya to see an awesome temple.  It rained and the roads were flooded, which was scary, but we got to see a floating market and some weird stunt show depicting the battle between Myanmar and Thailand.  We finished the evening with a Thai massage, where my body was pulled and stretched in ways I never knew possible, then tried to find some street food for dinner.  We stumbled into a bit of local territory and couldn’t read any of the signs or menus, but luckily we came across Mina’s Thai friend who had just bought some dinner for his parents.  He ordered us all Pad See Ew for 40 baht each (about 80p), which was cooked at the front of what looked like someone’s garage and served on plastic plates from Tesco, and it probably remains the best thing I ate all week.

(The first four photos are from our day in Tokyo.)

Day 2: Sam and Alex arrived in the early hours, didn’t get off to a great start when Sam realised she left her phone in the taxi and we had to sort that out.  We got it eventually though!  Spent the day at Chatuchak market, which sells EVERYTHING, but we probably spent the most money on food and fruit smoothies.  I am in love with Thai food.  There is such a variety of dishes, everything is so sweet and spicy and fragrant, which is a wonderful change from the same dishes that get repeated over and over in Japan.  For our first lunch of the day, I ordered a spicy crab and green mango salad and shared a coconut ice cream in its shell with Lauren.

Day 3: Had a lazy morning while we packed up to go to Chiang Mai.  Decided to hit up Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha, which was too long to get a decent photograph of!  He was sort of lying behind all these pillars, so you got to see different sections of him as you walked down the side.  It was ridiculously hot, and we took shade under the trees in the temple courtyard. Caught the plane that evening and had a nice dinner at our hotel, the Rainforest Boutique.  It really felt like a holiday when we started drinking coconut rum out of a coconut with a cocktail cherry on a stick.

Day 4: Lauren suggested we go to the Royal Gardens in the morning.  We were probably the first ones there, so it felt a bit eerie walking around with the loudspeakers playing instrumental versions of Kiss From A Rose and November Rain.  We got a taxi back, which was more like a red truck with no door on the back that you just hopped in through and sat on the bench inside.  We soon realised these were the norm in Chiang Mai, and to hail one you have to ask the driver if they are going in the same direction as you.  If not, try a different one!  For lunch we all tried the Chiang Mai speciality, Khao Soi Gai, which is noodle curry soup with crispy fried noodles sprinkled on top.  Back at the hotel I got an aromatherapy massage, but wasn’t feeling great and thought I was coming down with something.  My fears were confirmed when the masseuse looked at me worriedly and said she thought I had a fever…

Day 5: I woke up feeling like crap on the day we were due to see the Elephant sanctuary, the day I’d been looking forward to most.  I almost didn’t go, even put my pyjamas back on and resigned myself to bed feeling a bit sad about my predicament.  Then I thought “fuck it” and got up and went.  Who knows if I’d be able to get this opportunity again?!  I could just sweat the fever out!!  It must have worked because when we were outside my back felt like a waterfall and I didn’t feel as bad later.  (Also probably due to it being 38 degrees.)

The Elephant Nature Park was for elephants who had been rescued from a lifetime of pain in the circus, at tourist attractions where they were forced to “paint” pictures, carry people on their backs for treks and carry logs through the forest.  We were shown a very disturbing video on the way there in the minibus of the elephants’ previous lives – I was a complete emotional wreck and couldn’t watch!  I suppose I hadn’t really considered how badly they were treated in order to become submissive enough to let tourists ride on their backs or do stunts in a show, so to know the whole truth was very overwhelming.  It made me glad I chose to see them enjoying their lives in peace, with endless supplies of watermelon and pumpkin to keep them happy.  Some were blind, some had missing ears, some had broken legs that had healed badly so they had to limp.  One poor thing had stepped on a landmine and had her foot blown apart.  There were many dogs at the park too, most of which had been rescued during the floods after the earthquake five years ago.  We were allowed to feed and touch some of the friendlier elephants, which was amazing.  We held out halves of watermelon at the beginning of the day for the elephants to take from us with their trunks – they were so rough; it was the strangest feeling!  I loved the sound their trunks made as they curled the food away into their mouths, like a huge sheet of sandpaper being swept over a smooth rock.  I loved watching the other elephants eating huge stalks of grass, lifting it up with their trunks and absent-mindedly stuffing it in their mouths at all sorts of awkward angles, then just letting it fall to the ground if it didn’t fit in properly.  We got to see a three week old baby elephant and its mum too, which was gorgeous.  At feeding time, another young elephant ran over and trampled all through the watermelon, closely followed by one of the dogs who had come to investigate.  We had an amazing vegetarian buffet lunch, then finished the day giving the elephants a bath in the river and relaxing on the viewing platform to see them play in the mud.

Day 6: Sam and Alex had plans to go to Tiger Kingdom to see the tigers, but Lauren and I didn’t fancy it (paying to see tigers in cages had us suspicious for a number of reasons) so we enrolled in a Thai cooking class (it was called Thai Orchid cooking school) for the day instead.  Our teacher was lovely and let us choose from a number of dishes.  I made fresh spring rolls, Tom Yum Kung, Penang curry, Pad Thai and a steamed banana cake with cocount.  During the break the teacher took us down to the market, where she told us about traditional Thai herbs and spices, let us try unusual fruits and have a wander around.  We tried durian, which tastes better than it smells… The texture was creamy like an avocado and it tasted like a ripe papaya with a strong hint of garlic.  Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten!  My favourite was the mangosteen, which tasted like lychee.  That evening we explored the night market and stocked up on more elephant trousers and souvenirs.

Day 7: We had no plans for our final day in Thailand. so we found a nice cafe on Trip Advisor to go to for lunch.  It was too early to eat when we found it, but we happened upon a beauty salon and decided to get our nails done while Alex went for a wander.  Our sleeper train to Bangkok left at 5, so we said our goodbyes at the hotel and headed to the station.  At about 7:30, the train guard came to make our beds, pulling out seats and compartments to make bunk beds on either side of the carriage.  It was surprisingly comfortable!  I would’ve slept better if the train guard hadn’t been in the next bunk over, making the weirdest snoring sounds I’ve ever heard in my life, like hundreds of farting butterflies were being expelled from his mouth.  12 hours of travelling down and 24 to go, we hung around at the airport until our flight back to Tokyo was ready, then when we had safely landed it was straight to Shinjuku to catch the night bus back to Aomori.  I was dreading it, but I thankfully I slept like a baby and felt only a bit gross when I finally got home.

I’m really keen to explore the southern parts of Thailand, definitely need to visit a few beaches, so I’m sure I’ll be back.  Wouldn’t mind if I missed Bangkok though – it was fun, but a typical touristy city.  I just want more mango and sticky rice.