Apple Country

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


Climbing Shirakami-dake

Japan has a generous amount of national holidays, one of which fell on Tuesday this week.  Rather than spend the day travelling back and forth between my sofa and the fridge, I actually did something impressive/physically demanding!  I am fortunate enough to live an hour away from a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of four natural sites in Japan) called Shirakami-sanchi, which means “white god mountain area”.  It’s a huge mountainous expanse of virgin forests and beech trees, with Shirakami-dake being the highest peak in the area at 1,232 m (4,042 ft).  My neighbour Bridget had already suggested that we climb it at some point, so we decided to go ahead and do it.  She usually does it three or four times a year, but she hadn’t done it for over three years since having her kids.  I didn’t really think much of the climb until she was briefing me the day before on what to bring, what to wear, and to make sure I’d be ready to leave at 6am so that we could be back before nightfall.  I suddenly realised that I would be climbing an actual mountain and not the nice, gentle Surrey hills that I’m used to.

On the way there Bridget explained that if there were no other cars in the car park when we got there, we wouldn’t go ahead with the climb because her husband didn’t want her doing it without anyone else around.  This was because a) there are BEARS roaming around and b) it’s very possible that something could go wrong when climbing a mountain!  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly hoping that there wouldn’t be any cars when we got there, but alas there were four of ’em.  So we set off, me with my rucksack full of snacks and Bridget looking much more like a pro, with her bear-bell softly ringing and her backpack leaving a smokey trail of incense to keep the mozzies at bay.

From the car park to the hut where you sign in (for obvious safety reasons) there was a very steep hill.  This wasn’t even part of the hike, but we were already breathing pretty heavily before we’d even got to the top of the road.  I could tell we were both silently panicking about being able to last a whole day of climbing.

The registry hut thing

The registry hut thing

The journey begins!

The journey begins!

We officially set off into the forest at 7:45, tracing the narrow path that wound along the edge of a sheer drop into the trees below.  An hour into the walk, I realised this mountain was no joke – it was really steep and rocky, and we were constantly having to haul ourselves over giant branches and uprooted tree trunks that lay sprawled over the pathway.  I was immensely grateful for the walking stick Bridget lent me!  When she told me she’d been training for this by walking an hour up the steep hill near our house every morning for two weeks, I suddenly realised why… but I still managed to be fitter than her, hurrah!  Daily yoga practice is paying off.  (It’s surprisingly hard work!)  We were shown up a few times by other hikers though, one of whom was actually RUNNING up the bloody mountain!!  Insanity.  He wasn’t even breaking a sweat.  We saw him on the way down again before we’d even got to the top, and then AGAIN when we were coming back down, he was going back up again!  We stopped to talk to him, and he modestly explained that this was his 2nd time coming down that day and it takes him a mere hour and a half on the way up alone… NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T DO THAT.  The man was a machine with calves of sinewy steel.


Scaling one of the many obstacles

Scaling one of the many obstacles (this was on the way back down)

Because I was constantly looking at the ground to watch my footing, it was easy to forget to look up and admire the incredible scenery that surrounded us overhead.  (I think I just devised some kind of metaphor about life?!)  It was definitely worth the risk of falling over to catch glimpses of the distant mountains in between the trees.


We finally made it to the top four and a half hours later.  The last hour felt like it went on for ages… we kept seeing people on their way back telling us we were nearly there so it was  nice to have some encouragement.  This part was so steep we had to actually use our hands to climb up the path, but I could see the little cabin at the peak of the mountain getting closer and closer.

The misty cabin

The misty cabin

I thought it was weird that there was so much mist around but then I realised it was the clouds.  It was amazing to see a whole load of them rolling in and obscuring the top of the mountains one minute, and then completely disappearing the next.



Getting closer!

Getting closer!

It was such a relief to finally get to the top.  Even though the sky wasn’t very clear, we could see layers and layers of the mountains’ blue silhouettes fading into the distance, and it looked like Autumn had singed the forests with warm shades of red and yellow.  It was at this point Bridget confessed that she had been really close to turning back about an hour into the walk, but we stopped to rest frequently and it actually got easier the more we walked.  And it was all worth it in the end!





Unfortunately a lot of my photos came out blurry as I tried to use the fancy settings on my camera but ultimately didn’t do a very good job of it!! Got some learning to do.


I actually found the hike on the way down much harder than on the way up – I can climb upwards pretty fast but I really struggled getting down the steep rocky parts and had to go down on me arse a lot of the time!  When we reached the end at 16:00, over 8 hours after we started, I was more than ready for the onsen.  On the way there however, we drove past two of my favourite eikaiwa ladies, and they invited us in for tea!  One of them had a little dog who kept sitting on my foot under the table.  I was so tired though I could barely stay awake talking to them, but we didn’t stay too long thankfully.

The concept of onsens in Japan seems quite strange when it’s considered inappropriate here to wear something that reveals part of your back, but going to communal baths with a bunch of naked strangers is actively encouraged and a perfectly normal thing to do.  I decided that being embarrassed about it would just be pointless, so I just went with it!  There was a big bath in the middle that was about 45 degrees and was apparently good for muscle ache.  It was amaaaazing, even if I had to force myself to stay awake…  I can definitely see why onsens are so popular, and they’ll probably save me from a wintery death when it gets really cold.

The next day I had muscle ache in places that I didn’t even know existed, and I had to walk like John Wayne for the most part.  Maybe if I do it enough times I’ll be like the crazy running man… Not sure I want legs that look like lego bricks though.

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Boredom threatens

With only an hour left before I go home, I have successfully wasted the majority of another day at the Board of Education.  While the novelty of being in Japan hasn’t quite yet lost its shine, the days where I have nothing to do at work are really starting to wear on me.  I am in the BOE two days a week, whereas nearly all other JETs either just have one day or none at all and spend the rest of their time teaching in schools.  At first, two days didn’t seem like a problem to me – I thought this would give me plenty of time to create fun activities and lesson plans, then spend the rest of the day studying Japanese when I’d finished.  However I have found myself with very little to do and because of this my motivation to do anything has completely vanished.

Only one of my schools gives me full control of planning the lessons and leading them, which is great because they actually trust me and don’t just use me as a human tape-recorder, so it gives me the opportunity to try things out and steer away from the unimaginative exercises in the textbooks.  However the other two schools are a little tricky – at one of them my JTE  plans the lessons herself and then quickly tells me what we’re doing on the way to the lesson, which I can cope with… and the other JTE told me he usually plans the lessons on the day.  I haven’t actually taught a proper lesson with this teacher yet but I’ve got a feeling he’s going to ask me to make a lesson plan off the top of my head, so I’ve printed off a load of general activities just in case!  I’ve spent the least amount of time at this school so I still need to get a better idea of how the lessons work there.  The first time I went there I was about to do my first introduction lesson but he went off to class without me, and when the bell rang I realised he wasn’t there, so I had to find the classroom by myself.  This made me a couple of minutes late, and when I eventually found the right room, I was greeted by applause from the teacher and the rest of the class.  It was a bit embarrassing… he was probably just trying to be funny but I think he felt bad after I told him I had no idea where he’d gone!

Anyway this leaves me with just one school where I actually know what the structure of the lesson is so I can prepare for it effectively.  This week there is a national holiday on the day I’m teaching there, and next week I’ll only be teaching one lesson.  So I basically have 3 whole days at the BOE to prepare materials for 45 minutes’ worth of teaching.  This doesn’t include the 5 extra hours per day I have at the other schools during my free periods.  To sum it up, I’M BORED.  I tried to study Japanese this morning but got fed up after trying to learn a grammar point which had 5 different uses and I couldn’t tell the difference.  There is only so much textbook studying I can do before my brain gets completely fried.  I have a meeting with my supervisor next week to discuss my personal aims while I’m on the JET Programme, so I’m going to ask if I can use one of the BOE days to alternate between the schools, as I really feel like I’m wasting my time here.  I do want to stay another year, because apart from this particular issue I’m having an amazing time and want to get the most out of living in another country as much as I can, but I may have to sacrifice some of this experience in the interest of my sanity!  I hate the feeling of knowing I’ve done nothing productive all day.  My aim from now on will be to create a list of at least 3 things I could do during the day so at least I’m not aimlessly looking things up on the internet and staring at the same page of my textbook for hours.

At least I have a day off tomorrow!  I’m going hiking up a mountain with Bridget (we’re leaving at 6am waaah) so it will be a good opportunity to take my mind off things and stretch my legs.  Apparently it takes 4 hours to get to the top, but we’re going to an onsen afterwards which should be an interesting experience seeing as it’s my first time!! Anyway it’s 16:30 now so I’m off to calligraphy class.  Hopefully I will reach zen if there aren’t too many kids running around the tables next to me!  You have to sit in seiza (kneeling) position the whole time, which is PAINFUL.  I promise my next blog post will be significantly more positive than this one!!

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Juniko and Matsuri

10:30am is a difficult time for everyone in the office: we’ve passed the halfway point towards lunch, but there still remains an uncomfortable hour and a half of stomach rumbling and procrastinating until the town bells ring at 12 and we flock to the table to pick up our freshly prepared bentos.  It’s especially hard for me as my body isn’t used to being starved for longer than 2 hours at a time.

It was approaching 10:30 on Thursday and I could feel the energy in the office rapidly waning, so I decided it would be a good time to unveil my culinary efforts.  As soon as I produced the tin of cookies, everyone got very excited and I could hear my popularity points 1-up as I handed them round to each person.  They seemed to do the trick as we had a laugh and a nice chat, feeling more relaxed now that hunger had been staved off for a little while longer.  Food is a wonderful thing.  The cheery mood continued into the afternoon, when my supervisor suddenly suggested that we take the afternoon off to visit Lake Juniko.  I had nothing to do so I happily obliged!  Even though I looked a bit strange going to a hiking trail in my work gear.

Juniko translates as 12 ponds, but I think there are actually something like 33.  We were only making a short visit so we just walked to the two main ponds.  The first was the most famous called Aoike, meaning blue pond, and even though the water wasn’t at its clearest that day, it was still remarkably beautiful.  I have never breathed such pure, refreshing air!  Unfortunately the mozzies seemed to like it too, and I spent half the time neurotically swatting the air around my exposed ankles.



We then walked to the next pond, which I actually preferred.  The blue was a lighter shade and I thought you could see under the water a bit better.


Of course it’s quite hard to see what it’s really like from a photo and there are much better photos out there than mine, but it was really magical!  I felt like I was in a Ghibli film.  On the way back we got Aoike flavour ice cream (it was blue and tasted like pear) and stopped off at the other town office for a chat with the other workers.  One lady gave me a carton of juice and said it was a bit suppai (sour), but that was a complete understatement.  I smiled and mmmm-ed politely as I took a couple of sips but it might as well’ve been a carton of vinegar and I did not feel especially great afterwards.  Meanwhile she was happily slurping away through the straw of her own carton.  I’ve noticed a lot of drinks are advertised as “suppai” but I have no idea why people drink them so much as they taste horrible.

So Thursday was a really good day; however today is not such a good day as I’m back after a 3 day weekend, I’ve finished all my lesson plans and cannot face studying anymore Japanese.  I’m starting taiko this week though and there is a sumo tournament at one of my schools on Thursday which I’m really looking forward to.  I think I could really get into sumo!  There was a match on TV which I watched a bit of yesterday.  I don’t know a lot about the rules but when the wrestlers enter the ring, they do this Haka-like performance of clapping and lifting each leg high into the air and slamming it down.  The enthusiasm of the audience’s roar grows with the height and force of the wrestler’s leg lifting.  It’s quite impressive really!  The fights themselves are fierce, with wrestlers often emerging splattered in blood, and I noticed most of them had a cauliflower ear.

On Saturday I went to a squid festival in the next town with another ALT, where there were squid curtains all along the edge of the port and people cooking them over charcoal barbeques.  The fresh squid looked a bit weird flapping in the breeze.  I asked to take a photo of a man cooking some, and he let us have a go and then very kindly gave us the squid as a present!  We bumped into him again later and he insisted on buying us cake.  Foreigner advantages.  On Sunday there was another festival in Hirosaki which was much bigger, and displayed a float from the major festivals in each town in Aomori.  My favourite was Hachinohe’s Sansha festival float, which is huge and covered in colourful ornaments which gradually emerge out of the float during the procession.  The highlight of Japanese festivals for me though is probably the food stalls… There are so many tasty things on offer and it’s hard to be disappointed with what you get, unlike when you go to some kind of outdoor event in the UK and find yourself paying seven quid for a crap hotdog.  Someone recommended that we try ika menchi, which is a kind of minced squid fritter, so we did, and it was heavenly.  Afterwards we decided to check out Hirosaki castle as it was a nice day, and took a stroll towards the park.  The park is huge and famous for its cherry trees which are everywhere, so I can imagine it’ll look really impressive when Spring arrives.

I sent some postcards out the other day, and I just overheard my supervisor on the phone to someone from the post office… apparently I got the wrong stamps (I asked for postcard stamps but the lady in the shop gave me domestic ones instead of overseas, oops) and the post office found all seven of my postcards written in English and obviously knew they were mine!  A bit embarrassing.  Well hopefully they’ll get delivered soon… Anyway I should probably do some work now.  Here is a wee gallery of photos from the weekend:

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I’m also quite scared for the referendum tomorrow.  Obviously I’m completely against the idea of Scotland becoming independent, but if it does happen, it will be very interesting to see how that turns out – but probably not in a good way!  Fukaura reminds me of Broughty Ferry a lot and I’ve actually dreamt about being there a few times since I’ve lived here.  I’m getting quite nostalgic for Dundee!


I miss my piano.

Since leaving home over 5 weeks ago I have played the piano once, which was on the grand in the town office’s ceremony hall and it was SICKENINGLY out of tune so it kinda ruined my reunion with Chopin.  There are pianos in all the junior high schools but I can never use them.  Sigh.  Maybe it’s time to invest in a keyboard? I think I’ve forgotten how to play.  I’m also missing proper coffee when I’m at work… They don’t have it with real milk, only that weird white powdery stuff or the tiny milk capsules that are actually 5ml of cream.  WHERE IS THE MILK.  I’m worried that the teachers I brought teabags for have been unwittingly drinking it without milk and are wondering what the fuss is all about.

I am currently waiting for my chocolate banana cookies to cook in my new oven!  I can’t believe how efficient the postal service in Japan is – I ordered the oven off Amazon on Saturday, but got a missed phone call when I was at work on Monday and came home to a missed delivery notice. Booo.  Thought I was going to have to go through the hassle of arranging redelivery, but then the number rang again and I was like oh god how do I speak Japanese on the phone??  Turns out it was the postman and wanted to know if he could bring my package in half an hour!  What service.  Sure enough I heard a car engine outside my door exactly half an hour later and I opened my front door to the happiest postman in Japan.  He handed me my package, we laughed together for a moment, then he tipped his hat and skipped back to the van.  The joys of internet shopping have been taken to a whole new level.

I’ve just taken the cookies out of the oven and they have been a partial success… there’s not very much space so they’ve all kinda squished together.  And the underneath bits aren’t as cooked as the top… I had a vision of Paul Hollywood flipping one upside down, turning to me with his horrible blue eyes and declaring “That’s under-baked”.  I put them back in the other way round so hopefully they’ll be ok!  My apartment now smells like a delicious warm banana.


Ahhh yeaaaah

Ahhh yeaaaah

Just tried one of the rejects as I’m bringing the good ones into the office tomorrow in an attempt to get the other workers to like me more. I realised no one enjoys having a newbie around and I always like people more if they give me food, so maybe it’ll break the ice a bit better.  Anyway the reject cookie was delicious, even if they are a bit of a splodge shape.  I will tell them it is the true British way.

Mid-sample.  Despite my face I am actually enjoying the cookie. UMAI!

Mid-sample. Despite my face I am actually enjoying the cookie. UMAI!


Last night I went to help Bridget with another English conversation club (eikaiwa), this time in Iwasaki which is about an hour away.  When we got out of the car two of the ladies were just going in, but they stopped when they saw me, linked arms with each other and edged towards me (it was dark) saying “Are? Eh!! Are?” (pronounced like ah-reh, kind of means “huh, what’s this?”) and giggling.  I introduced myself and instantly knew they would be my favourite eikaiwa ladies.  The lesson was very amusing and they asked me lots of funny questions, but the highlight was when they tried to spell my name and one of them ended up with this:

I just... don't know

I just… don’t know

Went to a nomikaiwa in Hachinohe at the weekend, where we had to speak for one hour in English and then one hour in Japanese, but it was SO LOUD it was impossible to hear anybody.  Thank god there was free pizza.  It did take us about 4 hours to get there (we got slightly lost) so probably won’t do it very often!  Had fun though.  It’s a national holiday on Monday so yay for three-day weekends!  There’s a festival on in Hirosaki which I’m gonna go to and then probably do some hiking on Monday.  Aaaand now I need to clean up the pile of bowls in my kitchen sink and get rid of the floury mess on the counter.  But a yoga session is waiting for me afterwards 🙂  Nighty night!



Bow to your sensei!

I hope everyone got my Napoleon Dynamite reference.

Yesterday was my first day of proper teaching i.e. not just doing my self-introduction power point presentation and going through the terror of having them guess my age and thinking I’m 5 years older than I actually am, and that Lindsey is younger than me!!  They also think mum and dad look young and cool, so not sure what’s going on there.

I had a laugh when I gave the lesson plans I’d prepared to the English teachers, who returned 5 minutes later to ask me what the acronyms I’d written meant – TLW (the learner will) and DOTW (days of the week).  Their eyes widened with delight as I revealed the meaning, and they let out a lengthy “Ehhhhhh! Kakko-iiiii!” (“cool”) then went around the staff room with the lesson plan, whispering to the other teachers what I’d written, which led to another series of fascinated “ehhh!”s and “kakko-ii”s echoing around the room.  I was just being too lazy to write proper words but I’m glad they got something out of it!

The teaching itself went pretty well for my first day of actually standing up in front of a classroom and leading the whole lesson.  I have three lessons per day as there are only three classes in each school, so I didn’t find it too tiring.  Pictionary was a big hit with the first years, the second years didn’t really get my worksheet about ordering in a restaurant (I gave them too many options of things to say when ordering so it got a bit confusing) and I tried Simon Says on the third years which was a partial success…  But overall my first day could have gone a lot worse!  I also found it took a lot longer to do the activities than I had planned, but I made sure we got the main ones done at least.

Today it was the speech contest so I didn’t have to go to school, yaaay!  I watched all the kids from the West-Tsugaru region taking part, with some other ALTs so that was fun.  Three of my kids got placed 2nd or 3rd in their sub-categories, so that was a nice moment, even if they didn’t get through to the next round.  We got ice cream after, and I tried soy sauce flavour, which thankfully didn’t taste too much like soy sauce.

This evening I’m going with my neighbour to help at an Eikaiwa (English conversation class).  She said it’s really just a group of ladies who use it as an excuse to gossip so it could be a laugh!  I will leave you with this photo I took on my way home from calligraphy class on Monday.  Next time I will take one from Senjojiki, where there’s an awesome jagged rock jutting out of the water which makes the sunset look even more fantastic.