Apple Country

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

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After the bunkasai, I was invited to an enkai to celebrate the end of all the hard work put in to organising the festival.  An enkai is essentially a drinking party with food.  Normally the food is not chosen from a menu, and it’s fun to see what kind of things will be served up next.  Usually the main dish is cooked at the table, so we can all help ourselves.

Earlier the teachers told me the name of the restaurant we were going to, which was in the city, and I assumed I’d be able to find it using the map on my phone.  I followed the directions and ended up in some shady part of town behind the train station.  I was about to give up when a nice-looking restaurant came into view, but when I went in there was no reservation under my school name…

“What is the name of the restaurant you’re looking for?” the owner asked me.

“Rokkaitei..?” I said hopefully.

“Oh… this is Hana *something something*…”

I told her I got the feeling I was in the wrong place when I saw how nice it was inside!  She laughed and called a taxi for me, chatting with me the whole time before it arrived.  I still had ten minutes before I was supposed to be at the actual restaurant, so when I arrived and the teachers asked me if I found it okay, of course I told them I had no problem…

I had such a fun evening, not only because I could actually drink alcohol this time instead of driving home, but because I got to know one of the other teachers whom I hadn’t really spoken to before.   I was a bit worried when he sat next to me, because even though he’s friendly, he’s REALLY quiet, but after a couple of minutes I asked him my favourite question:  What music do you like?

I like a lot of different music so this question always gets the conversation going, unless my partner says they’re not interested in it, in which case I am immediately suspicious of them.  However this teacher, Mr. O, said he liked “older music”.  Off to a good start! I thought, and encouraged him to go into more detail.  He said he liked artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Radiohead and Deep Purple.  On top of that, he was a die-hard metal fan.  I’m probably not as much of a metal fan as he is, but I like nothing more than finding out I share similar music taste with another person, especially if they haven’t heard of any of my favourite bands, because I get to make them mixtapes!!  Then we can fangirl/fanboy over the same stuff.  He said I was the first girl he’d spoken to that liked that kind of music, which I was really surprised about.  But then again when idol groups and bands like One Direction dominate Japanese girls’ music preferences, maybe it’s not that surprising from his perspective.  In my opinion Japanese music is very… bland.  And even Mr. O said so (but I didn’t mention it until he did!!).

I pretty much only talked to him and my JTE all evening, and even she was surprised that someone as gentle as him was such a metalhead.  I mentioned that they always seemed to be the ones that sat in the corner being quiet at my school.  When I went to work on Tuesday, he lent me some CDs he’d picked up from his parents’ house that weekend for me.  They were 80s/90s power-metal bands he’d listened to at school, including Gamma Ray, Impelliterri and Fair Warning; not the kind of metal I’m really into, but I enjoyed imagining being a 15-year old Japanese high-schooler listening to these foreign artists for the first time.  I gave him a CD I’d made in return, which included all my own high school favourites like Muse, Queens of the Stone Age and the Pixies.  After lunch he told me he was half-way through listening to it, and that he was really liking it so far.

It probably seems like music is the only thing I want to talk about, which is partially true, but I like it as a topic mainly because it helps me get to know people better and use it as a base to move the conversation off into other directions.  But if I come across someone as nerdy about it as I am, we’ll probably never need to.

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Bunkasai – school culture festival

All my junior high schools had their culture festivals the other week, which is a chance for them to proudly display their recent work around school and put on a variety of performances on stage for their family and friends to see.  Every year a theme is chosen, and the students and teachers transform the school with decorations accordingly.  Each classroom has a different display.  The pictures below are of the display to find out about your personality.  I did my best to translate the description for people who like green i.e. me.  If you know me well, I wonder if you agree with it!  I thought it was pretty accurate…

“Find out your personality and psychology based on your favourite colour”

“People who like green: Fundamentally calm and has a steady way of doing things. Is also very patient. Strong endurance, kind personality, dislikes fighting and seeks ordinary calmness. Behaves properly and doesn’t cross others’ paths. Wants to cooperate with people, so lacks self-assertion. “

Last year one of my schools chose “Frozen” as their theme, and even though I can’t stand that film it was pretty cool to see the classrooms covered in paper snowflakes and icicles.  This year, the schools’ themes included “Grow up” (with Alice in Wonderland decorations) and “Infinity”.  Motivational expressions are a thing in Japan so they usually go with something like that.  My favourite school had the “Infinity” theme, and began their opening ceremony with a white canvas lying flat on the middle of the floor, with only the symbol for infinity painted on it in red.  The music started (One Direction, of course) and a group of students dunked their hands in some paint and started making prints all over it.  Another student wrote the Japanese for infinity 無限 (literally “no limit”) inside the symbol.  She used what looked exactly like a mop, but I’m sure it was much more sophisticated than that…

Then the music changed and the Vice-Principal entered from the back, in this badass blue hakama, carrying a long red sash.  I really liked the song they chose because it sounded like the beginning of Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve, and I looked it up later and it was One Direction, AGAIN.  I don’t like it anymore.  Anyway, the VP knelt down at the edge of the canvas, tied one part of the sash underneath his arms and around his shoulders, then tied the other part around his head.  He then proceeded to elaborately write calligraphy from the top to the bottom of the canvas like a true expert.  It was one of the most kakko-ii things I have ever seen.  I just asked the lovely janitor at my school what the sash is called and why they wear it, cos I wasn’t having any luck with Google… but it doesn’t have a special name, just the Japanese equivalent of “sash”.  She said people wear them to keep the sleeves out of their way when they do stuff like cleaning and calligraphy.  If you’ve seen Spirited Away, it’s like what the bath house cleaners wear with their pink overalls.

He tied it sort of like this...

He tied it sort of like this…

I was asked to help judge the chorus performances in the morning, and got free tickets to get noodles and a chocolate banana from the canteen room.  After I ate with the students, I was challenged to an arm-wrestling match by a sumo-loving first grader.  She looked pretty strong so I didn’t hold back, but she lost to the surprise of her friends.  Then the third grade boys wanted to have a go, and the competitive side in me came out… I beat them all until I taught them a few techniques and the tables drastically turned!!  It’s because my arm was tired, ok?

Being part of the chorus is compulsory, which is a shame because it means the quality of the singing is compromised… but at least it gives them a chance to try it out.  All students sang the same song at the beginning, then each class took it in turns to sing the song again, followed by another song that they’d chosen.  I wanted the first years to win, but it seems like the third years just won by default from being the most senior year.  My opinion was denied (even though we agreed 1A was better than 2A in the beginning) and the music teacher changed her mind, putting 3A in first place, then 2A, then 1A.  She agreed that 1A were very good for first years, but it was the “team effort” that counted.  Fair point, but that doesn’t make 2A better singers…

When I arrived at school on Tuesday,  bags and bags of stripped-down decorations lined the corridor, waiting to be thrown away.  It made me kind of sad that they didn’t keep them up longer, but it seems that’s the way with most celebrations in Japan.  Even at Christmas, come the 26th December, there isn’t a strand of tinsel in sight.  At least it means you don’t get those weirdos who leave their Christmas trees up until March.


Language exchange organising success!

(I meant to post this last week, oops!)

I began volunteering as the vice-president for the charity Everest of Apples (run by myself and two other Aomori ALTs) in June, and last week I finally got to host my first event.  Previously I had only contributed to a large-scale event, which was really an AJET event to welcome this year’s new JETs to Aomori.  We set up a bar and made cocktails in exchange for donations at the party, which was fun but meant I had to spend a lot of time making people drinks instead of getting to know the new JETs.

This time my friend Alyssa, who is the president of E of A, and I decided to have a language exchange fundraiser in two separate locations in Aomori.  People paid 1,000 yen entry (500 yen donation plus 500 drink ticket so the kind guys who own the bar get some money) and spent the first hour talking in English, the second hour in Japanese, and the half-time interval tackling a quiz I made.  We wanted to make it like an East vs. West kinda fundraising competition to see who could raise the most money.  (Hirosaki won with about 31,000 yen in donations!)

I hosted the event in Hirosaki on the west side, and Alyssa hosted one in Hachinohe on the east side.  I was anxious that not many people would show up as we only had 20 people RSVP on Facebook, but we had a grand total of 52 attendees!  I was intrigued to find that a lot of the Japanese people who came found the event by searching for it on the internet, as well as one British guy living in Nagasaki who was travelling solo around Aomori.  Some people saw us standing outside the bar having fun and decided to join right then.  I had an interesting conversation with a Japanese professor who found the event online; he had done fundraising in Uganda and was keen to stay in touch.  I didn’t realise the internet had the power to passively advertise such a small event!

Even though I was a little flustered at the beginning, as I didn’t expect so many people to ACTUALLY arrive at the start time, I ended up really enjoying myself and having zero cock-ups.  Hurray!

Our next event is even bigger – the Halloween party in Aomori City.  It’ll be me, Alyssa and our treasurer Kyle working together so I’m looking forward to partying in my spooky vampire threads.

Taking from the rich…


Listening attentively

Quiz time!

Chatting outside the bar

I have no idea




Busy being happy

For some reason, since I can remember I’ve always associated October with the colour blue.  Maybe it’s a form of synesthesia?  All the other months have colours to me as well.  Just in case anyone can tell me why I perceive these colours in particular, here they are!

January, March, June, July and September are yellow

February and October are blue

April, August and December are green

May is dark pink

November is brown

Anyway it’s October now, so my thoughts are tinted blue.  Adverts for snow ploughs and electric heaters are cropping up on TV, and the students are transitioning from their summer uniforms to winter.  The boys look smart in their gakuran (a black button-up jacket derived from French army uniforms), but I still think the fact that they all have to wear white trainers ruins the look a bit.

I went to Okinawa with three friends for Silver Week (three national holidays in a row!) and it was a great chance to stock up on some Vitamin D before winter sets in.  I’ll post about that later when I’ve stolen some of Harrison’s photos (mine are alright but he took way more than me and also has a really nice camera!!).

Compared to last year I feel like I’m really on the ball and getting shit done, not just with school-related things but what I’m doing outside work too.  There are still some days where I have a floppy lesson (usually from last-minute preparations on my part or miscommunication with my JTE) but I now feel like I get how this teaching thing works.  When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing, had no teaching experience or qualifications, plus I had no idea what the Japanese school system was like, so it wasn’t particularly smooth sailing.  But now I know my students, I know what interests them, and lately I’ve been having a blast in class with them.  I played Fruit Basket with my third years yesterday after they’d been requesting it for a few weeks, and this time I persuaded my JTE to join in as he usually just watches us play.  It was a great way to end the day with everyone still giggling about it when class was over.  It also makes me feel ridiculously happy when a JTE tells me they liked my lesson or want me to repeat it with another class.  Yesterday at the same school, I did a lesson with the first years on “What’s this?” where I made a worksheet with pictures of various British things like a kilt, a badger, a robin, Marmite, porridge and a crumpet.  The students had to match the picture with what they thought was the correct description, then ask their friends what each picture was.  My JTE surprised me by saying he wanted to know more about British culture and could I do a full lesson on it next week.  I was really happy because he usually doesn’t give me any feedback after lessons, and of course I’ll take any opportunity to share my culture, cos that’s what I’m here for!

Aside from classes, I’m actually keeping myself busy enough that I don’t have time to stare into space anymore.  Hurrah!  That’s probably why I don’t blog so much anymore.  I go to English conversation club once or twice a week after work, I have my Tuesday dinner dates with the new ALT in Ajigasawa followed by Japanese practice with Toshiya, and I have an hour of Japanese on Skype once a week too.  I went to calligraphy practice yesterday for the first time since July, because I just got bored and fed up with the teacher not giving me any direction.  But I suddenly had an urge to do it again, and yeah it was okay even though I still find it about as frustrating as it is enjoyable.  And even though I’m disappointed I didn’t get asked to take part in the town hall taiko group again this year, at least I have other stuff to do.  I even sacrifice PS3 time so I can draw on my graphics tablet in the evenings or ride my bike… which reminds me, I do have a cartoon in progress but I’m still getting to grips with the tablet and it’s taking a little longer than I thought!

I’m keeping my weekends busy too, with the beef and garlic festival coming up this Saturday and a really cool craft fair on Sunday, which I also went to last year.  It still amazes me how willing I am to drive three hours to a place just to hang out with people.  Of course the garlic is also a huge incentive for me.  I’ll just make sure not to get too close to people the next day…

I’ve just finished planning a charity language exchange event that’s happening next week.  There will be two events happening simultaneously on either side of the prefecture, and I’m hosting the one in Hirosaki.  I’m excited but a bit nervous to be in charge of my own event!  This kind of work is something I’ve been interested in for a while, so if it goes well, I’ll keep organising them in case I decide to do some sort of events management as a career.

Japanese studies are going okay, I finally got round to paying for the exam so I’m officially taking N2 on 6th December.  With only two months to go, I’m feeling a little uncertain about how I’ll do as the grammar I have to learn is still a bit overwhelming and isn’t completely sticking in my head when I do the review tests in my textbook.  But the only real reason I’m taking it is to boost my CV, so honestly as long as I can just remember it on the day, I don’t care how useful it is in my daily life!!  Ahhh the futility of language exams.  I think I’m progressing though anyway.  It’s weird because if I’m caught off-guard and a teacher starts talking to me in Japanese when I’m not expecting it, my mind goes blank and I fluster and can’t say what I want to say properly.  I went out for dinner with some teachers the other week, and they made me make a speech out of the blue about nothing in particular.  I ended up accidentally thanking the vice-principal specifically for looking after me when I actually meant all the teachers in general… but by the time I realised what I said it was too late!  I told my JTE later what I meant and she laughed and said she’d tell the others.  I felt kinda knocked down though, like it was this realisation that I still wasn’t able to speak Japanese well.  My confidence constantly fluctuates though, and it wasn’t long until it got boosted up again.  Toshiya said that I’m creating complex sentences a lot more naturally and quickly than when we first started meeting.  I feel it too, and I still get those ‘a-ha!’ moments when I no longer have to pause and work out how to conjugate verbs a certain way, then decide on the best place in the sentence to say them.  I will not be beaten by the plateau!!