Apple Country

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


Surviving winter in Aomori

I’d been dreading winter ever since November, when I found out that snowboarding was off the cards for the entire season thanks to my arm, which is how I’d planned to spend every weekend and make the cold weather as fun as I possibly could.  Even though I was gutted about having to wait a whole year until I could actually get on the slopes, I’ve somehow found myself at the point in the year when Spring doesn’t seem so implausible after all.  Having said that, it’s -7 degrees today and I drove to work in a complete whiteout.  But SPRING IS COMING SOON.  SOOOOOOON!!

Anyway, I feel like winter in Aomori gets a bit over-hyped.  Yes it’s very cold and snowy, but when I arrived with the other new JETs in August, the Aomori veterans often liked to remind us of the notoriously harsh winter that would trap the prefecture in an icy cage for half the year.  I heard foreboding tales of frozen toothpaste, ice pools in the shower, and the dangers of living with a kerosene heater; make sure you open a window every hour to let out that pesky carbon monoxide!  Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with any of these things.  Apparently my apartment isn’t that old, so I’ve never had a problem with frozen pipes, and my heater actually has decent ventilation so it’s not so life-threatening.  I keep the heater on pretty much constantly as I’ll happily pay the price for being cosy and warm, so the only time I’m really cold is when I wake up, then I run to the living room and dive under my kotatsu.  If you don’t know what a kotatsu is, it’s one of the more genuinely brilliant Japanese inventions where you put a blanket over a low table with a built-in heater, then sit under it and snuggle.  I spend A LOT of time under mine.

I’ve only had a few incidences where I’ve really got sick of winter, but overall it hasn’t been as bad as I’d expected.  (Although lots of people are saying that this year hasn’t had nearly as much snowfall as usual… eek.)  I do miss sitting by the fire with a glass of Baileys, proper central heating and Sunday roasts, but I’ve learned to love winter and adapt to it in my own way.  It’s easy to be miserable when it’s cold and difficult to get out, but to save my sanity I decided to just embrace the snow as it wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while!  So this is how I’ve beaten the winter blues:

  • Cook new recipes.  This was one of my New Year’s resolutions, and so far I’ve stuck to it.  I’ve learnt a lot of simple recipes that I can cook in a hurry if I’m teaching on Skype after work.  I realised how crap it made me feel to eat the same thing or a variation of the same thing for most of the week.  I never need to make vegetable soup again!
  • Exercise.  As much as I love watching back-to-back episodes of Community under my kotatsu, when I lose feeling in my bum I know it’s time to get up.  I recently acquired an exercise bike and I forgot how much I love cycling, even though it’s nothing compared to riding over Ashtead common.  I hadn’t done any proper cardio since before I broke my arm, and I have no access to a gym (plus the fact I hate running), so it couldn’t have come into my life at a better time really.  On the days where I have no plans, and particularly after work when I haven’t moved around much, 30 minutes of intense cycling or more really saves me.
  • Get out whenever I can.  I learned my lesson from not travelling over the Christmas holidays, so now whenever the opportunity arises, I go to some event or hang out with other people, even if the long drive in the snow makes it a hassle.  It’s even harder where I am to socialise during the months where everyone just wants to stay at home and watch Netflix, but watching Netflix with company beats watching it alone.
  • Keep motivated.  Over the past couple of months, my Japanese studying hit a slump, mostly due to the fact I lost my textbook answer booklet… So I noticed that I really wasn’t making any progress and the booklet didn’t look like it was going to show up, so I got a new fancy textbook.  It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re well past the beginning stages of learning a language, can understand most of what you hear and read, but really struggle to express yourself properly when speaking.  It’s the small achievements that keep me going though; I find that almost always when I learn a new word, I hear or read it at least once that same day, and I get a little burst of happiness when I actually know what it means.  I’m also reading The Little Prince, which is really challenging, but as I go on I spend less time looking up words and more time understanding and enjoying the story.  I’ve also started watercolour painting, for when I’ve got even more downtime at home.
  • Plan trips.  I can’t tell you how excited I am for the end of March: not only will it be Spring, but Lindsey’s coming to Japan to see me!!  It will have been eight months since I’d seen my big sister.  Then a month later, I’ll be off to Beijing!  Having something fun to look forward to is the best way for me to pass time.  I try and have one thing planned after the other, so that when the first one is over I don’t get post-holiday depression!

But until then I have some smaller events planned.  On Friday evening I went to a language exchange in Hirosaki, which was a lot of fun.  Saturday was the first day of the Lantern Festival in Hirosaki, and probably the best day we could’ve gone as the temperature had been slightly warmer than usual, which meant unfortunately some of the snow sculptures looked a bit warped.  It was a shame, but also very amusing seeing sculptures of cartoon characters with their eyes halfway down their faces.  It felt like walking through a creepy winter wonderland setting for a horror film.

Not quite up to Sapporo’s standards, but it was still a lovely evening and the pretty lights did a good job of beautifying the melted sculptures.  Hopefully next year will be a bit colder!!

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Avoiding JET preparations by blogging about JET preparations

With just 17 days to go (so soooon!) I’ve found myself having to face the unfortunate reality that I actually have to get ready to leave my country and somehow choose a suitcase’s worth of belongings to bring with me out of everything that I own.

Finding suitable omiyage is proving a more difficult and expensive task that I had thought. I have to buy small, individually wrapped, preferably edible, quintessential British souvenirs to bring for the people at my BOE, my supervisor, JTEs and probably the mayor as apparently I’ll be meeting him at some point!  So far I’ve bought 3 magnets of Polesden Lacey… I did see some nice tins of British Biscuits in M&S so I’ll probably go down there tomorrow and raid the British aisles…

Also why on earth is the 2nd suitcase issue so confusing?! It shouldn’t be, although the info they gave us at the PDO was really not that helpful and the option of shipping a suitcase with another service seems more hassle than it’s worth.  Either way I’m gonna need an extra suitcase with all the gifts I’m bringing and the fact that my huge feet = huge shoes which also take up half the space.

On a happier note, I’m having my going away party on Friday and the weather’s actually going to be nice! Yaaay.

Shoutout to my dad for learning Hiragana and my mum for trying.  As promised, pints are coming your way!

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Less than a month to go!

Even though the whole idea of living in Japan still seems completely surreal to me, things are starting to feel slightly more real now that I only have a few weeks left in the UK.
All the boring adult stuff I have to do like sort out banking, phone bill, international driving license etc is pretty much done so I think all I have to do now is start packing and enjoy hanging out with friends and family.
I’ve had such a warm welcome and plenty of information from current JETs in Aomori and from my BOE, I feel like I’ve already moved in!

Since I’ve had some time to waste on the internet, I’ve been virtually exploring the area and seeing which places I’d like to visit and anything that looks interesting to do. So far I’ve decided I’m going to try learning how to snowboard, seeing as there’s a resort 45 minutes from me in Ajigasawa. It seems like most of the action is about an hour away from me by car, so I’ll have to get used to the long(ish) drives! Although seeing as so many people have to commute an hour or more each day to work, it doesn’t seem that bad really. I think one of the things I’m most excited about is the hiking trails, so I will definitely be taking my fancy new boots for a walk around Lake Juniko as soon as I get the chance! I imagine there’ll be a whole lot of sorting things out and settling in and getting to know people when I arrive though, so my sub-adventures might have to wait a while.

When I arrive in Aomori, the Nebuta festival will be in full swing, which I can’t wait to have as one of my first memories of Japan, as I’ve heard it’s one of the best events in that part of the country. I don’t think I’ll get to see most of it because it finishes the day after I get there, but there’s always next year!

So until I leave, my plans for the month are:

  • Enjoy my last week in Norwich and perform Taiko in the city parade
  • Go to London JET Orientation
  • See Neil Young & The National play at Hyde Park
  • Have my going away party with friends at home
  • Graduation!
  • Last family BBQ
  • Take lots of photos

I don’t really know how I feel about everything at the moment… Definitely excited, a bit scared, not sure whether time is going quickly or slowly. Sometimes I think about all the things that are waiting for me in the next year that I have no idea about yet and I squeal a tiny bit.