Apple Country

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


Stop! Hakama Time.

March is the end of the school year in Japan, and unlike in the UK, graduation ceremonies are a really big deal. I had three days in a row of JHS graduation ceremonies, which was probably enough.  One of my teacher’s asked me if I was going to wear hakama, which is a kimono with a dark skirt worn over the bottom half.  Hakama are worn by teachers instead of normal kimono so that they don’t draw attention away from the students’ jazzy-looking mothers.  I said I’d think about it, but I don’t think she expected me to actually wear one.

Wrestling with my giant foreign feet

Wrestling with my giant foreign feet

Luckily I know a lovely lady from my English conversation class who used to dress people in kimono for a living, so I asked her if she would kindly lend me one for one of the ceremonies.  She was more than happy to oblige!  She has a room in her house dedicated to her kimonos, and kept saying how much fun she was going to have dressing me as she never gets the chance anymore, and has all these kimonos with no one to wear them.  She and her husband spent about an hour showing me all their old photo albums and telling me about their family, who’ve moved to other parts of Japan so they don’t see them very often.  After I tried on a kimono, they gave me tea and fed me and said they wanted to be my adoptive Japanese grandparents!  She had to buy zori especially for me as my feet are so big, and even then it took a good deal of effort to get them on.  I made her some scones as an apology/thank you.

I tried to get a video of my Japanese granny dressing me up, but it was a bit difficult and this is all I could manage in between her turning me this way and that, and giggling as she gleefully slapped my stomach with some force after putting the different belts on.  I loved the whispery sound the silk fabrics made as she expertly folded, tightened, pulled and wrapped it around me, muttering to herself in Japanese.

It wasn’t easy to breathe once I had everything on, and I suddenly felt great sympathy for women who had (or still have) to wear these every day, especially in the hot Japanese summer.  It slackened a bit and didn’t feel too bad until I tried to eat lunch later on!!  I imagine wearing a corset is even more uncomfortable.  I absolutely loved wearing hakama though!

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It was just me and another teacher wearing hakama for graduation, as everyone else wore business suits, but they seemed to really enjoy seeing me in traditional Japanese clothing!  Japanese ceremonies are very formal and polished so even the way the students march, turn and bow has been rehearsed to perfection.  When the teachers asked me what I thought of the ceremonies, I told them I thought they were very serious, and they were a bit shocked when I said we don’t really have graduation ceremonies for school in the UK.  Then I was shocked when I asked the students if they were going to a party to celebrate, but they said they weren’t doing anything, except one girl who was going to practise table tennis.  We may have not had a ceremony when I graduated, but getting all dressed up for prom and dancing away the last evening with all my classmates was so much fun.  The ceremonies were very emotional and pretty much all the students were crying as they moved down the line of teachers to shake our hands.  I was just thinking… you’ve still got three more years of school!!  But they really are like one big family to each other, so it was sad to think they’re all splitting up to go to different high schools.



The weekend before last, Aomori AJET organised a cabin party at Hakkoda, a ski resort in the centre of the prefecture. There were about five cabins, with up to nine people staying in each one.  It was basically an excuse to drink, play games, have snowball fights and have an AMAZING breakfast the next day, thanks to the organisers who went to the American air base to get supplies.  We had bagels, peanut butter, bacon, BROWN BREAD!!!, eggs, waffles, nutella, Tropicana, cinnamon rolls… I love my daily porridge and banana but this was a very welcome treat.

The majority of people spent the next day skiing and snowboarding, seeing as we were right next to a ski resort.  Some people went a little further to Hakkoda, a slightly more notorious mountain known in particular for being covered in ‘snow monsters’.  The friend I came with had decided not to snowboard that day, so we headed over to Hakkoda to get the ropeway cable car to the top of the mountain.

It took about five minutes to get to the top in the cable car.  My friend and I were at the front of the queue to get on, so we nabbed the space at the front of the car and gazed out of the window as the trees receded into the distance and the glistening bay of Aomori gradually came into view.  It’s clear how Aomori got its name!! (Ao(i) = blue, mori = forest)


Gooooing up!


When we got to the top, we just stood and stared out at the 360 view of rolling hills and snowy forests.  I felt very at peace with the world.  Behind us, others were getting ready to ski down the mountainside.


Skiing through the snow monsters

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In contrast to the huge drop down in front of us, we turned around to see an expanse of white that seemed to stretch for miles into the distance.  Some people had strapped on mini-skis and were shuffling off for a snow hike.


The snow monsters were impressive, but up close they were beautiful.  The wind had frozen the snow into jagged crystals, which were beginning to melt in the sun.  It was so gorgeous that I joked about taking my coat off and lying down to sunbathe.  It didn’t sound as stupid once I said it out loud, so I went with it and it may have been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I found the perfect slope and lay out my coat.  Lying on the snow in my t-shirt, on a mountain, soaking up the sun in its beautiful blue sky, the only sound being the whisper of melted snow falling to the ground… ultimate bliss.  We stayed like that for at least half an hour until a cloud lurked over and it felt like the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees.  But it was lovely while it lasted.

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Scone-making class

The school year is nearly over, so my JTE and I thought we could give the kids a break by doing a cooking class.  He wanted me to teach them to make something traditionally British, as long as it wasn’t rice pudding.  Another ALT made rice pudding at school once and it didn’t go down well at all; rice for dessert is a huge no in Japan!  It’s something that I actually find quite confusing because they have loads of sweets made of rice, although it’s usually pounded and not cooked like normal rice.  So I opted for scones as they’re really easy and exceptionally British and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like scones.

Baking is not a thing in Japan at all.  I realised this when shopping for ingredients and found that self-raising flour and caster sugar don’t exist.  There is not nearly as much variety in cake decorating things either… no jelly diamonds or silver balls?!  What on earth.  Managed to get my hands on some baking powder though so my scones still had a future.

They faced another hurdle however due to Japan’s minimal baking habits: ovens.  I think the majority of Japanese homes are equipped without them, and instead people buy toaster ovens for heating things like pizza and bread.  I actually bought a small conventional oven when I got here and it’s awful but at least I have the option to cook things without frying or boiling them.

Because there aren’t any ovens in school (only a micro-combi one) my JTE asked me to bring mine, and he’d bring one too.  I got to school and he’d brought a toaster oven.  “How many scones do you think we can cook in it? Ten? Twelve?” he asked hopefully.  The tray was big enough for two slices of bread, so we decided to make the scones a little smaller than normal.  The second and third years gathered in the home economics room, and we got started.  The easiest part was just mixing everything together, and I had fun showing them how to make the flour and butter into breadcrumbs using their hands.  They were very unsure at first but once they got stuck in, they did a good job!  However when we started putting the scones onto the trays, they started rolling doughballs in their hands to make neat little spheres.  I quickly explained that you can just tear a bit off and plop it on the tray and they were amazed that such little effort went into its presentation.

The actual baking was the most stressful part; we ran over time as I expected, so for the next hour I ran back and forth between 3 “ovens” located at different ends of the school (I have no idea why we couldn’t have just moved them to the same place) making sure that the scones didn’t burn while the kids were in class.  Only being able to cook a few at a time was a pain as the baking trays were so small.  But we did it!  The toaster oven was a bit precarious though and I wouldn’t recommend one for baking!  I heated up the top and bottom bulbs but the top one got hot VERY quickly and the baking paper (and scones and possibly the school) would’ve died a terrible death if I hadn’t been watching it.

The students came back just as I was setting up the tea table.  I put cream and jam out but the cream wasn’t quite what I thought it would be when I bought it.  It looked a bit like clotted cream, as it was kind of solid but soft enough to spread, and it had “milk cream” written on the lid.  I tried a bit off the spoon and it was overwhelmingly sweet and more like buttercream than anything else, but the kids didn’t seem to mind!

Some of them tried their tea the English way as everyone drinks it black here, but they weren’t exactly overwhelmed by it and I don’t think they’ll be converting anytime soon.  Probably because I used Japanese “breakfast” teabags and (unintentionally) low-fat milk… Not quite the proper cuppa.

I was just glad they enjoyed them!  I told them to slice the scones lengthways and spread the cream and jam on each slice (I didn’t say in which order as I’ve heard convincing theories that support both).  Some ate them like a sandwich.  I’d occasionally seen scones in bakeries in the bigger cities but they didn’t look the same as English ones.  I don’t know what they tasted like because the buggers didn’t even save me one!  I had a burnt one earlier, which didn’t actually taste too bad, so hopefully the non-burnt ones were okay.  They ate them all too, which can only be a good sign.  As I was clearing up, one boy took the jam dish before I could and tipped the remains into his mouth.  Ugh.

But hurray for baking success!  Next time I’ll probably just make flapjacks though…