Today marks the end of my 4th week in Japan. This month has gone by very quickly, especially when I think about the fact that my contract is only 1 year long, so it’s really easy to see why so many JETs stay in Aomori for at least another year. This time two years ago I was just starting my second year of university… so that does feel like a long time ago. I miss my lovely friends and family every day but the brilliance of technology means we can talk whenever we want. Unfortunately I still have no one to cuddle/abuse/lie all over on the sofa while I’m watching TV… Martha get over here.
So this week we had an orientation in Aomori City from Wednesday to Friday. I gladly welcomed a few days away from the countryside and spend the few days hanging out with the wonderful Aomori ALTs and getting more information about living and working here. On Wednesday the organisers had arranged a nomihoudai (all you can drink!) at a rooftop beer garden.
View from the rooftop
We paid about 20 quid to drink as much as we liked within two hours, which I seemed to manage with great success. It got to a point where I decided it would be fun to get an arm-wrestling tournament going, and there were a few unexpected wins! Afterwards we went to a nice little square of bars and took the opportunity to chat to some locals who taught me Tsugaru-ben, the regional dialect that probably sounds like the Japanese equivalent of a very broad Yorkshire accent.
One of the waitresses challenging Ashleigh haha
My Tsugaru-ben teachers
On Thursday morning I went down for breakfast in the hotel feeling a bit delicate, so when I saw the traditional Japanese breakfast buffet consisting of things like soup, spaghetti, pickled vegetables, meatballs, fish and rice, I decided I probably wasn’t ready for it that morning and played it safe with a delicious bowl of cereal. I tried the buffet on Friday though and it was actually quite nice! Like Japanese brinner…?
For lunch on Friday a group of us went to a restaurant which looked very traditional, and we had a big room to ourselves where we sat on cushions on the floor. It was hard wearing business attire and trying to find a comfortable sitting position! We only had an hour for lunch however, and the food didn’t arrive until 10 minutes before we were supposed to be back… it was amazing and totally worth the wait though. I can’t believe how cheap the food is here… this was the set meal of the day – some kind of charred mackerel, rice, miso soup, fried shrimp, pickled vegetables and seared tuna. In England this would probably have been about £15 maybe? Here it was 700 yen – £4!! Best lunch ever… even if we had to sneak back into orientation 15 minutes late. I don’t believe anyone who says food in Japan is expensive anymore!
SO. GOOD. Forgot to take the lids off the rice and soup for le photo.
I was sad to leave everyone on Friday but we were not parted for long! It was an older JET’s birthday yesterday so a group of us from the Tsugaru side went out in Hirosaki to a club called Lavish. It was tiny inside which just made it more fun and at various points during the night there was a row of Japanese guys standing on the raised bit, staring at the group of foreigners tearing up the dance floor. We were frequently approached by the bouncier ones for mini dance-battles.
It was such a fun night, made even better this morning by watching Aladdin and eating an AMAZING breakfast of French toast and scrambled eggs by the lovely Kyle and Tori. This week was probably the most socialisation I’ll get for a while!! Starting calligraphy class tomorrow so maybe I’ll find a nice old lady to make friends with.
Yesterday, for the first time since arriving in Aomori, I went to the CITY! I’d forgotten what shops and restaurants looked like. I know I’m exaggerating a little bit because I have been to the mall a few times in the bigger town an hour away from me but it’s really just a huge shopping complex on one of those industrial estate things. I also went there on Saturday and raided Uniqlo for more business-casual clothes as everything I brought is really formal and it seems that most of the teachers just wear tracksuits so I look a bit overdressed… When I visited one of my schools last week, the English teacher told me I looked too sexy, which is not something I get told very frequently so I was a bit surprised! , so now I’m working on getting the level of conservative-ness just right.
Yesterday I left Fukaura for a meetup in Aomori City in a Mexican-style restaurant called Pent House. It was really relaxed and everyone was sitting on cushions on the floor or the amazing hammock swing-chairs they had, talking and eating chicken tacos. I appreciated eating something that wasn’t rice or noodles, although having said that, I haven’t actually eaten something I haven’t liked yet since being in Japan. This may change once I get round to trying natto. Sometimes my colleagues in the BOE bring snacks in to work which is fun. Today Mr S brought me vanilla tea from Hakodate, and some unusual soy-sauce flavour squid nibbles. Last week it was Mr K’s birthday and the cake was AMAZING so I’m glad my birthday this year is on a day where I’m working at the BOE. I want to make biscuits but I don’t have an oven… Might have to borrow Bridget’s next door.
Inside Pent House
Afterwards we walked to the port area and sat on a grassy bit by the sea. Aomori City is much more Western/modern-looking as 88% of it was bombed by the Americans during WWII, so it doesn’t really have such a Japanese feel. Hirosaki is said to be much more traditionally Japanese, and most people visit Aomori prefecture specifically to go there rather than the capital. Still haven’t been there yet though. Saturday is looking like a possibility!
Facing the Aomori Tourism Centre
Although I didn’t get to explore much of the city, it was nice to meet and hang out with other JETs for a while and speak English. I think my Japanese is getting better, but my speaking is still a bit caveman. I’ve ordered a textbook but I have to pay for it at a convenience store using an ATM, and I haven’t psyched myself up yet for all the kanji I’ll have to decipher on the screen in order to do so… I impressed myself the other day by managing to successfully follow the instructions to make Japanese curry. (Can’t go that wrong when adding curry cubes to boiled vegetables.)
Today my supervisor helped me sign up for a Shoudo (Japanese calligraphy) class in Fukaura which is every Monday evening. It’s a little expensive but I need all the tools and stuff to get started with, so hopefully it’ll be a good investment! I need a hobby as I’ve just been going home after work every day and it’s not very exciting. The schools asked me to get involved with some clubs as well but they’re mostly team sports so I’m not sure how that will work out for me… Ski season starts around December so I’ll definitely be getting a season pass for that. I’m leaning towards snowboarding at the moment just because I’ve already tried skiing and snowboard boots look so much comfier in comparison to the shin-mutilating ski boots. Also I want to look cool. I don’t want to break anything though…
After work today I’m going back to one of the schools to help with some students practise for the speech contest. They have to memorise a text (usually taken from their English textbook) and recite it, but I’m finding it difficult to help them as they’ve already learned their speeches off by heart, so it makes improving their pronunciation a bit of a challenge. However the teacher has said she’s noticed big improvements since I’ve helped so that’s reassuring at least!
Going back to Aomori City on Wednesday for a 3-day prefectural orientation. Hopefully I’ll get some karaoke in there at some point. And alcohol! Can’t risk the super strict drink-driving rules here, and I have to drive a lot, so it’s been a while.
I keep having to remind myself that I live in Japan. This is the country I’ve wanted to visit more than any other since I was about 12, and the thought of actually living here still hasn’t really sunk in! It’s hard to describe what it feels like… when people have asked me how I’m settling in, the best way I can put it is that in my head it feels no different, I’m just in another place now. So far nothing has really fazed me or made me feel uncomfortable – I wonder if it’s because I’ve read and learned little bits about Japan on and off over the years, I’ve unconsciously grown used to the idea of it in my head?? It also probably helps that everyone I’ve met has been really friendly and the transition has been almost completely stress-free.
View of Mt. Iwaki near my apartment
My favourite thing about being here so far is noticing the little things that happen during the day that don’t happen at home:
People bow to each other, A LOT. They even bow when driving to say thank you. I’ve had to learn to bow when someone lets me out of a junction instead of raising my hand to say thanks, as I realised they haven’t got a clue why I’m waving at them. Even on roadworks signs they have a diagram of a man bowing to apologise for being such an inconvenience.
Every time you enter a shop you are warmly welcomed with “irasshaimase!”, and it continues around the shop whenever you walk past another member of staff, which is a lot when you’re in a supermarket. They obviously appreciate my custom!
I’ve had strangers come up to me a few times now to put their English skills to the test, most recently on Sunday when I was looking for a mop in the supermarket and I heard a little “Hellooo” over my shoulder and there was a lady beaming at me from behind her trolley. We chatted for a bit until she used up all her English phrases and offered to lead me to the mop section.
On my way back from the beach on Saturday I stopped off at a roadside fruit stall to buy a watermelon (they were huge) and the lady was so lovely and gave me a different kind of melon for free! I have so much melon now.
My drive to work is kinda long, but on one side is the Sea of Japan’s rocky coastline, and on the other are mountains and forests shrouded in mist. There are no traffic lights or traffic jams either so it’s actually quite a nice commute, especially now that the sun is setting earlier.
I actually really appreciate the concept of never wearing shoes in the house and putting slippers on instead to pad about in. My feet stay so clean! It makes me feel so Japanese.
I like their way of eating – everything is served separately in little bowls or plates so you can have lots of different things at different times. I’m enjoying learning how to cook Japanese-style. On Saturday someone gave me some octopus that they didn’t want so I made this in my rice cooker. You can cook anything in it and the rice always comes out yummy and fluffy. Apparently you can make cakes in it too so that’s next on my list of things. I also tried dried squid which is AMAZING, so if you ever see any, buy some.
Even though so far there is a lot I like about Japan, there are a few things I do miss about the UK. I’ve had to get over my fear of using a Japanese washiki squat toilet, but I would much rather use a standard Western any day. Slurping noodles here is actually considered a compliment, so at lunchtime in the office this is mostly all I can hear. They try to encourage me to slurp but it just feels too wrong. I do like getting lunch delivered at work though. Everyone is also amazed that I can eat and enjoy Japanese food. Today I ordered noodle soup with deep-fried tofu and they were like “ehhhh sugoi-na”. I miss straight-forward recycling. I miss good adverts on TV. Japanese adverts are kind of bizarre… and mostly advertising different kinds of liquid vitamins because it appears everyone is too tired to go about their daily life without them.
It was Obon this week (a festival where people return to their hometowns to honour the spirits of their ancestors) so there was a small festival in Fukaura. I had Kakigouri which is shaved ice with a flavoured syrup of your choice on top, which was an instant hit with me obviously as I am in love with frozen dessert.
Fukaura summer festival
Firework display in Fukaura on Friday
The shops here are like my dream come true. Yesterday I went into Goshogawara with my nearest JET neighbour and got a manga book about Beethoven and a lunchbox shaped like a gummy bear. We also found a foreign food store so we stocked up on tea and biscuits 🙂
That is all for now! Off to do some yoga to try and counteract all the tasty things I’ve been eating.
The horrible typhoon weather has finally finished and it’s gonna be hot all week yaaaay! Yesterday my supervisor and I drove round the town visiting the three junior high schools I’ll be teaching at, starting in a couple of weeks. The furthest is an hour’s drive away, in the serious inaka and only has 40 students in the whole school! When I met the principal in the staffroom, there was a poster that said 小さな学校、大きな夢 ｗhich means “little school, big dreams” so I thought that was sweet. The other schools seem really nice too, and we also visited all the elementary schools just so they know who I am. And of course I had to give my self-introduction again each time we went round.
On Sunday I ventured into the city to meet another ALT who is my “big sister” in Aomori, except I got drastically lost and it took me 2 hours to drive somewhere that should only take 50 minutes, thanks to the satnav taking me to a field in the middle of nowhere. There also happened to be a magnitude 6 earthquake at this time, and my phone made a scary alarm noise and warned me “jishin desu!” but I was too stressed out to care at this point and just ignored it as I was driving and couldn’t feel it anyway! Disappointed. I found the place eventually and we went for a curry (Indian!) for lunch which was actually really good and probably the first time I’ve had one in another country. We went to the mall which was totally different to the ones in the UK – there are arcades and games everywhere, everything is really colourful and there are girls who stand outside the stores holding signs and calling out in a really annoying voice for you to go inside. I didn’t really do any shopping as we were in a group and I like to take my time, so I’ll be back on my own on Sunday! I did do purikura though, which is a photobooth that makes you look like a Barbie and you can decorate the photos with stickers on a screen afterwards, and there are some funny mistranslated English ones saying things like “I will! My very very must” and “You should regard us as wonderful!”
I did buy a nice new throw and cushions for my sofa, pretty bedsheets to replace the less-than-appealing brown ones, so now all I need is curtains as at the moment the windows are covered in stained blankets and it feels a bit like a squat. But other than that the place actually feels like mine now! I have had the occasional unwanted visitor though… Before I went to bed last night there was quite a big spider on the wall and I couldn’t be bothered to move it so I just left it and hoped it’d go away, which I noticed it had done before I went to sleep… During the night I felt something tickling my arm but I ignored it and brushed it off because usually it’s just my imagination. Then it tickled my other arm so I sat up to see this black thing crawling across my chest. I screamed, launched myself out of bed which caused the spider to fall out of my pyjama top and scuttle away into the shadows. I didn’t sleep again for a while and jumped out of my skin every time I thought I felt something touch me. Lesson learned: get rid of the spiders.
I think for the rest of this week and next week (apart from another introductory trip to each school) I’ll be in the BOE doing whatever I want with my time, which will be studying Japanese and preparing some lesson plans, my introduction lesson and occasionally blogging when I need an escape! This morning I’ve been exchanging notes in English and Japanese with the lady across my desk which was fun, it feels like I’m at school again… She said there’s a piano on another floor in the building so tomorrow I’m gonna try it out. I just ate a little packet of Japanese peanuts which had lots of tiny dried fish in it… it was weird but definitely good. Dad you would’ve enjoyed it.
It’s been a week since I left home and even though I’ve only spent 3 full days in Fukaura, it feels like I’ve been here for ages (in a good way!) Everyone at the BOE has been really kind and helpful to me since I’ve arrived, as well as my predecessor who left me lots of nice things in my apartment. It’s bigger than I expected! I remember hearing that many JETs only get one small main room and a bathroom area so I’m really happy with it. I’ve just put up lots of cards and pictures so it feels a bit more like mine now rather than someone else’s place that I just took over.
A quick update on Tokyo Orientation: the talks themselves were very interesting but I found that lack of sleep + jet lag + listening to people tell me what they expected of me for 8 hours made it very difficult to keep both of my eyes focused on the same place and to stop my head from violently jerking upwards every time I realised I was falling asleep. But other than that it was nice to get to know the other JETs from other countries, checking everyone’s badges to see if they were going to Aomori and squealing excitedly if they were. We had Monday evening free and I was desperate to try karaoke so a group of us went down the road and found a place near the hotel. I had SO MUCH FUN and can definitely see why it’s such a big thing in Japan. My voice really hurt the next day…
Highlight of Tuesday was getting ice cream with Sasha as the orientation that day was sooo tedious and we were all tired and fed up by this point of being told how to bow properly and not to drink and drive. In the evening we went to the British Embassy where we were served drinks and canapes – so civilised! They also had Taiko players who were ok, but nothing on Norwich’s Taiko Centre East! We all had a go at playing after their performance and it made me realise how much I miss it. After we got the subway back to Shinjuku we went to the top floor of the hotel to see the amazing view of Tokyo at night.
Too much wine
I think I prefer it at night!
Arrived in Aomori at lunchtime on Wednesday and was met by my supervisor, head of section at the BOE and my predecessor. My supervisor had made a lovely big sign saying “How do you do Ellen Fraser” which he was dead proud of. The scenery in Aomori was such a contrast to Tokyo. There were huge forests and trees obscured by mist at the back of the shabbier-looking houses lining the road, and I could definitely tell we were in the middle of nowhere! As Fukaura is about 1:30 away from Aomori airport, we stopped off at its nearest city Goshogawara for lunch then went to a supermarket, even though I had no idea what I needed. I got some odd looks as I was all in business attire and as a foreigner it’s not hard to attract attention to myself in a normal situation anyway… They dropped me off at my apartment and I unpacked, met my lovely neighbour (who also went to UEA!) and her two young children who are hilarious and very cute. I then fell asleep to the sound of cicadas and other weird creatures…
Thursday was the first time I met the rest of my colleagues at the Board of Education, who are all incredibly nice and welcoming. I had to go around the building and give my self-introduction in Japanese to each section, which was probably somewhere between 10 and 15 times? It took a long time… everyone is really respectful of each other here and it was nice for everyone to know who I was rather than have them think I was just some random foreigner that started working there. Which I am but oh well! I also met the mayor of Fukaura and he gave me some kind of tuna curry-making kit which I haven’t tried yet… A lot of the people at the BOE seem to keep getting me confused with another ALT who was here about 4 years ago, as our names are very similar!
View from the office
After getting my bank account and phone sorted out, we went to the Shirakami-Sanchi site which is where Lake Juniko is, and had a joint party to welcome me and say goodbye to my predecessor. The food was amazing and there were about 5 courses, all of which I ate thinking it was rude to leave it even though I was stuffed, then realised that everyone else had left half of theirs. Oh well!
I spent most of the night speaking in Japanese as no one really speaks English there, and I felt like I’d improved a lot even after one day of being there and found I can make sense of the majority of what people are saying as well as when I’m watching TV, which is a really good feeling. It was great to get to know the people I’ll be working with more and they even said they were relieved that I could speak some Japanese; it definitely made things easier for all of us! I had to stand up and make a speech in front of them on the spot which was scary but apparently I did ok! Speeches seem to be a big thing here… It’s a nice way of showing appreciation for something.
When I got my phone that day the salesman chose a really simple number for it, and my supervisor could not get over how easy it was to remember… he spent half the night showing everyone and calling me on Face Time haha. I’m worried that if I call someone they’ll think it’s a dodgy caller as it only has about 3 different numbers in it!
Yesterday I spent the morning at the BOE not doing very much, then went for a test drive in my car. I’d never driven an automatic before but it was pretty easy to get used to. Later I got the train to Goshogowara for the Tachi Neputa, one of the major festivals in Aomori with huge lit-up floats hence the name ‘tachi’ which means ‘standing’.
Other side of the station at Kitakanegasawa
The festival was really amazing, I have never seen anything like it. The main street was filled with dancers and performers wearing happi and playing flutes and mini cymbals, with others hitting taiko drums and pushing the floats along, occasionally twirling them round to the crowd’s delight. The side of the road was lined with different stalls selling street food like yakisoba, takoyaki and chocolate bananas so it was really hard for me to choose what to get!
The floats are made of washi (hardened paper) and are about 72 feet tall, depicting scenes from Japanese and Chinese legends. Photos don’t really do them justice!
This isn’t a very good video but you get the idea.
When I was waiting for the train home a Japanese man approached me and we had an interesting conversation for a while, which I enjoyed until he started holding my hand so I told him to bugger off. I got home and slept for 11 beautiful hours! I dreamt that I was meeting one of my schools’ principals and I had to stand up and bow, and realised that I had got out of bed during the night and actually bowed in my sleep… It was so nice to have a day to myself today though. I decorated my apartment a bit and made the 30 min walk to the convenience store along the highway and got many strange looks from people driving past. All along the road there were these little pathways that went off into the forest leading up to various different shrines. It was kinda creepy as it seemed that hardly anyone walks up there, and the fact the pavement was overgrown with grass and bushes a lot of the time. On the way back I walked through the town and realised how beautiful Fukaura actually is, having had this image of it being a dreary ghost town, but really it’s just a quiet little place by the sea. I’m yet to see one of its famous sunsets properly, so that will be my plan for tomorrow evening. So overall, first impressions are pretty good! I’ll make sure future posts aren’t as long as this one… I’ve basically just written 15% of a dissertation. Sorry.
Finally landed in Tokyo at 8:30 yesterday morning after a smooth but sleepless 11-hour flight from London. Can’t believe Dad cried when I left, which made me cry too but also secretly pleased that he got emotional about me leaving haha.
Checking in les baggages.
Not sure my body enjoyed being given an overly processed cooked breakfast at 10:30pm (6:30am Japan time), it felt really wrong but when do I ever turn down free food. Even though I’d heard about the extreme heat and humidity that slaps you in the face as you leave the airport, I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for that, and I promise never to complain about it being ‘muggy’ when I’m in England ever again!
After arriving at the Keio Plaza at midday I ventured out into Shinjuku in search of food that didn’t taste like death, and after deciding we weren’t quite ready to attempt ordering anything in a restaurant, picked up a salad at a combini (convenience store). It was beautiful. We also remembered that in Japan there is a rule that you don’t eat and walk at the same time, so we had to awkwardly eat the ice cream we’d just bought standing in one place and examining the plastic food on display outside one of the restaurants. Also, there are NO BINS. Are Japanese people so neat that they don’t actually create litter? Where are you supposed to get rid of anything?? We walked past a pachinko arcade (kind of like pinball) and wanted to go in, but as soon as the sliding doors parted it sounded absolutely terrifying and there were all these pink flashy lights so we ran away.
We made our way back to the hotel and got our room keys, had the best shower ever and a power-nap for 30 mins before I met Yuki in the lobby. We went to the observation tower which gives you a spectacular 360 view of the city. The Tokyo landscape is a lot different to London in that there aren’t many particular buildings that stand out as much, but the colours are pretty and of course it has Mount Fuji in the distance… but it wasn’t clear enough to see it when we were there.
View of the shrine from the observatory
We took the train to Harajuku, and went down a street which was very crowded and full of stores selling frilly clothes and weird t shirts. I think it’s a good people-watching place!
Apparently this is where everyone takes a photo so I felt obliged
We walked on to a shrine across the road (the mass of green in the Observatory picture) which was in the middle of a kind of park with huge trees either side of the pathway. On the way in there were these barrels of Sake but I can’t remember why! I think they were blessings…
Before you enter the shrine you can purify yourself with the water using wooden ladles so we did that. Then made an offering where you bow and clap and make a wish but I forgot to make one at the right time so it probably won’t come true!
Wishes. Quite a lot of them were about girls.
Next stop was Shibuya! Walked over the famous crossing and it was getting dark by this point so all the lights and adverts were lit up and the atmosphere was really lively. There was a constant buzz of electronic noises and excited Japanese announcements.
We went to get dinner at an izakaya which was tucked away up a flight of stairs inside a building on the street which I would never have known existed, and were greeted by all the waiters yelling IRASSHAIMASEEEE! (“Welcome”) which I loved. Japanese waiters/shopkeepers are so enthusiastic and friendly and they all yell at you again as you leave which sounds kinda terrifying but it made me laugh a lot. They should totally do that in the UK…
You could get unlimited cabbage there ♥ The food was really yummy.
Finished the night by getting mini fireworks and setting them off in the park and climbed a tree and went back to the hotel and had SUCH A GOOD SLEEP. Sorry if my writing is rubbish, I’m quite tired!
P.S. Martha I remembered your note, it was lovely 🙂