Apple Country

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


Snowy morning walk

Last night I went to my next door neighbour’s for dinner and she invited me out for a walk she was going on the next morning.  She said they were leaving at 8am, but I had nothing else planned and knew I’d just bum around in my pyjamas all day if I stayed in, so I decided to tag along.

We met up with two of her friends: the mother of one of my favourite students, whom I’ve met a few times already, and a lady who used to be the head of the local kindergarten (Mrs K).  I’d never met her until today, but I immediately loved how animated and chatty she was.  She’s very well-traveled, which apparently is rare for a lot of Japanese people, especially those who grow up in the countryside, and it’s amazing how different people are when they’re in tune with the rest of the world.  I’ve found that the people I know who have never left Japan, i.e. everyone except one guy at the BOE, appear to be amused by my presence and rarely get past topics such as whether I can eat certain Japanese foods or how the weather in the UK compares to Aomori.  I know they’re just trying to make conversation, but it’s really hard to just have a normal one that doesn’t involve what I think about such and such special Japanese thing.  So it was really refreshing to just talk about stuff that’s happened in the news, and she told me about an awful bus crash that happened in Nagano, killing 14 passengers on a ski trip.  Not the most joyful topic of conversation, but a welcome change from talking about how skillfully I can use chopsticks!!


It was a gorgeous morning, cloudy but calm, and the falling snow just made it more beautiful.  We went round the back of Mrs K’s house, trudged up a steep hill and suddenly we were in the middle of the mountains.  I would never have known this was a 15 minute walk from my apartment!  They said the last time they took this route they encountered a 30-strong family of monkeys, and had to make a hasty U-turn to avoid any trouble… Luckily this didn’t happen when I went!

Mrs K invited us back to her house, and it’s probably the most lavish house I’ve had the pleasure of visiting in Japan.  She had obviously done well for herself, and her house was beautifully decorated with rows of plants and pictures hanging on the wall; most looked liked souvenirs from her travels, including Mont Saint-Michel and Neuschwanstein Castle.  We stuck our legs under the kotatsu, drinking Kona coffee and eating fancy chocolate biscuits from the UK.  She said she’d make me a monkey out of socks (the one she already made was very cute) as a good luck charm for the year, and gave me one of those fancy oranges with a padded net protector thing.  I ate it when I got home and it was probably the best orange I’ve ever had, so now I finally understand why people pay so much money just for a bit of fruit.  Although I’m not sure if I’m willing to shell out 5 quid for that just yet.  Maybe when I’m rich and retired…



My supervisor sat me down one day in October and told me that he didn’t want me to to use the town car for personal purposes anymore.  The reason he gave was that I was  “under scrutiny” as a public servant, so I assume he was worried a member of the public might see me up to no good and rat me out to the authorities… Incidentally I have never actually caused any problems when using that car but whatever.  (Okay I crashed into a snow pole, and even when I told him about the scratch A YEAR AGO he didn’t seem bothered enough to tell me to get it fixed, so it remains to this day.)  Apparently the ALT before me parked somewhere he shouldn’t have and someone rang up the town office to call him out.  The shame, the embarrassment.

I was a bit peeved that all the other ALTs got to use the car before me, but more to the point he didn’t even offer to help me find a new one.  I think he knows I’m capable of sorting myself out, but trying to lease a car in a different language would be easier if I had someone fluent helping me and making sure I didn’t get a crappy deal.  So I put it off as much as possible, getting trains and lifts from other people, until my neighbour told me she knew a guy that could be of service… He had a garage an hour away in the deep inaka, and apparently used to loan a car to Santa Claus when he had a stint at nearby Santa Land Shirakami, which is sadly no more.

So I went to his pokey little garage and stood by the portable heater, listening to two old guys talking to each other in heavy Tsugaru dialect while he made a note of my details for the insurance.  It was originally going to be 10,000 yen a month (£60) which was pretty cheap when it includes insurance and tire service etc, but because I’m young he said it had gone up to 13,000.  Can’t argue with that!  I told him I’ll be amazed if I survive the snowy season without a scratch, to which he just laughed and didn’t seem to mind.

So here is my new automatic “bus”, which isn’t really a fan of hills and can just about handle 30mph on a good day.  Now I feel like a true countryside driver.



A bruised bum is not a happy one

If I had to sum up the past three days in one word, it would be “pain”.  Immediately after writing that sentence, I felt the surge of pain in my tailbone just from shifting to pick up my mug of coffee.  I went snowboarding for the first time this weekend, spent the majority of the two days falling on my arse, and now must master the act of moping around the office with minimum effort whilst trying not to look like I’ve got a stick shoved up there.

The last and only time I’ve ever done a snowsport was when I went on a school skiing trip seven years ago and fortunately came away unscathed.  Evidently I hadn’t washed my snow jacket since then either, I realised when I put it on, pulling two slightly disintegrated tissues out of the pockets.   It was a bit muddy on the outside but at least it didn’t smell, and that was the main thing.

We set off for the mountain on Saturday morning, about 40 minutes away, and were greeted by a lovely blanket of fresh powder from the night before.  The snow has been in unusually short supply this winter, so I was glad I wouldn’t have to deal with hard icy slopes on my first day.  I exchanged my pass from last year that I couldn’t use, bought a helmet and we shuffled off to the bunny hill for my first lesson.

After three short runs down the “hill” with the help of Alex and Sam, it was decided that we all take the gondola to the top so I can try the real deal.  I was reluctant to leave the safety of the baby slope, but I had to move on at some point!  Even after half an hour of practice, I seriously felt the burn in my upper legs already from constantly being in a half-squat, so the twelve-minute lift ride up to the top was very much welcomed.

We got to the top and I looked down into the snowy abyss in horror, Sam reassuring me that it wasn’t as steep as it looked.  I strapped my bindings on, pushed myself up and summoned the confidence to begin edging down the slope, keeping my board horizontal for optimum braking power.  The only problem with doing it like that was that my muscles got tired extremely quickly, so I had no choice but to try picking up some speed and do more of a zig-zag pattern down the slope.

I faceplanted and stacked my way down the hill, until forty-five minutes later I was reunited with the bunny slope at the bottom, finishing with style by veering off towards the side of a building and breaking my fall on a nice patch of ice.  But I did it!  I knew it would be a mistake to go up for a second time because my legs just weren’t capable of holding me up like that anymore.  The more tired I got, the more I fell, and the more I fell, the more frustrated I got, so I called it a day and went for a nice soak in the onsen.

The next day I woke up to a sore neck but was surprised that my legs were actually ok.  All that yoga and cycling must have paid off!  I went down the same route on my first run, finishing in half the time than I did the day before.  We went up again and tried a different course, which was fine but I was already tired and found myself falling over a lot, more due to muscle fatigue than loss of balance.  This is when I started feeling the effects of falling on my arse so much and I had to make an effort to try landing on my side to even out some of the pain.  It was too late though, and hauling myself up after each subsequent fall was a serious struggle!  Then I ruined it by going too fast because I was too tired to brake properly, tried to stop myself at the last second and was flung head first into the snow, arms outstretched in front of me instead of bent at the elbows like they’re supposed to be.

“That was my arm…” I groaned into the snowy ground.  I wondered how long it would be before I did something bad to my broken one.  It hurt but I could still move it like normal, so I held it to my chest and gingerly made my way down the rest of the mountain for twenty-five minutes or so.  I was tired and pissed off, which slowed me down and made me fall even more, but I went slowly enough that I could control how I landed and managed to save my arm from any more impact.  After I eventually made it down to the base for lunch, with lots of encouragement from Alex who was kindly spurring me on, I stared glumly into my bowl of steaming ramen, wondering if it had been a mistake to snowboard knowing that my arm wasn’t 100%.

Yesterday was a national holiday so I had originally planned to snowboard again with the others, but instead decided to use the time to heal my poor behind at home and not risk further damage to my arm.  I was so sore that even trying to fart caused an outcry of profanities, so I treated myself to a day of chocolate and Playstation.  Then at around 4pm (Japan time) while I was listening to the radio, the DJ said the words “David Bowie” and “death” in the same sentence.  I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t.  You just don’t imagine someone like that ever dying.  I burst into tears at the total shock of it, especially when I realised he’d kept his suffering a secret from the public, and for the first time I felt a genuine loss at the death of someone I hadn’t personally met.  I mourned by drinking gin and belting out his songs for the rest of the evening.

Now my physical pain is slowly fading and I think I’ve convinced myself that my arm is okay, probably a muscle thing rather than bone, but it was a good reminder that I really need to be careful.  It doesn’t hurt when I squeeze it, only when I outstretch it to the right.  I’m glad the metal rod is still in there in case I did end up doing something to the bone… I’ve been wearing a helmet, but I’ve just ordered wrist guards and impact shorts because I think I’m definitely gonna need ’em, and I’ll wear my upper arm brace next time.  I’ve been feeling worried about getting on the slopes again, but it is really fun and as long as I don’t get carried away I should be ok!!