Apple Country

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


Kanazawa and Kobe

After five leisurely hours on the Shinkansen, I arrived at my first stop, Kanazawa.  I have always been drawn to this city for some reason, maybe because I’ve heard it being compared to Kyoto a number of times, and I love all that cobbled streets and teahouse district stuff.

Upon leaving the station, I immediately felt like I was in some kind of small but refined European city.  The buildings were glassy and sleek, cobalt and mahogany.  Sharply-dressed businessmen chatted in pairs as they walked down the street.  The thing that struck me most though, was how quiet it was.  There was hardly any traffic, and everyone went about their way in a composed manner.  I’d heard that Kanazawa was a reserved city, due to it being so hard to access from other parts of Japan until recently, which would also explain its traditional feel.

Not wanting to waste my first evening, I got a taxi to drop me off at Higashichaya district, where all the old teahouses are.  Unfortunately all the shops were shut, and it was extremely quiet, which in a way made my stroll around the area more pleasant.  The hustle and bustle of Kyoto wasn’t there, but the soft glow of light against the sliding front doors created a lovely quiet ambience.

The next day I rented a bike and immediately set off looking for a French toast place that one of the hostel workers recommended to me to have breakfast at.  (I went for the lemon curd French toast, although was intrigued by the potato salad with walnuts and honey one, which the menu assured me was “a surprisingly delicious combination”…)

Kenrokuen was next on my list, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (another of which I’ll see in Okayama this weekend).  Midday probably wasn’t the best time to go as it was absolutely sweltering, but the trees created a welcome shade and I had green tea flavoured kakigouri (shaved ice with syrup) so that cooled me down a bit.

I hopped back on me bike in search of the sushi place the guy on the train told me about.  It was a take out place with an old lady watching TV inside while she waited for customers.  I called through the glass hatch and asked for eel with cucumber, and it seemed a shame to only order one, so I got one filled with octopus and tartare sauce as well.  Maybe I should open my open shop at home?!

I pedalled off to a different teahouse district, wondering if it would be any different.  Nope, just smaller and fewer shops.  I thoroughly enjoyed riding my bike on the way through the residential areas, as there were so many streams that the houses had been built so that little bridges connected the main road to their front doors over the water.  I went to a tiny museum about a Japanese author I’d never heard of, who wrote an extremely succesful book when he was about 21, went insane from the fame it brought him and died in his early thirties.  The museum worker was very keen to take my picture sitting in the author’s living room, so that was fun.

I got severely judged when I bought a chocolate soft serve ice cream from a very posh chocolate shop where three ladies in black suits were working.  Probably because I was wearing a Marvel T-Shirt and demin shorts, also looking a bit sweaty from being out in the blazing sun, but I didn’t let their cold service ruin my enjoyment of demolishing the ice cream.  It did make me miss friendly Aomorians a little, though.

Finished the day at the 21st Museum of Contemporary Art, which I only really wanted to go to because of its exhibit, The Swimming Pool.  I made the mistake of getting a ticket for the temporary exhibition, which was about three artists from Korea, China and Japan, who created a fictitious state where people who love art could live, called Xijing.  Some of the installations were quite fun, like their Winter Olympics room, where a video showed two of the artists having a fencing match with feather dusters.  Some of it was a bit too weird though, like the room where a man in a bunny costume was lying down on the floor.  The sign said he was an illegal Korean immigrant and was being paid to lie there for seven hours a day.  I enjoyed the Swimming Pool though, both looking over the surface at the people “swimming” underneath, and getting to go under it myself so I could feel like a mermaid.

Click on the link for photos as I don’t have any room left on my WordPress account 😦

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On Wednesday I headed for Kobe where I just had one night planned.  I got there in the evening, and went off to find somewhere to eat Kobe beef.  I got to a restaurant, the first customer of the evening, sat down and looked at the menu.  There were two options: 8,500 yen (£64) beef or 10,000 yen (£75) beef.  There’s nothing more awkward than having to apologise and leave a restaurant because you’re not carrying enough cash.  I opted for a safer-looking Italian place and ordered the nicest beef they had there, with garlic butter sauce.  I had summer vegetable and eel fritters with miso sauce for starter, which was absolutely delicious.  The beef was a little disappointing; it was very fatty and took me about five minutes to chew each piece.

Eager to experience some nightlife, I walked over to Harborland to see the pretty lights and stuff.  It was a lovely area for a stroll, with lots of little shops lining the deck and the reflections of the Port Tower and other illuminated buildings reflected in the water.  As I was sitting on a bench with my iced tea, Queen’s I Was Born  To Love You suddenly began playing over to my left, and bursts of water shot up into the air in synchronisation.  There were lasers, coloured lights and pyrotechnics, all jumping out of the water to the beat of Queen like performing dolphins.  I have no idea why it was happening, and one of the workers at my hostel said she’d never heard of something like that either.

I was going to go back the next morning, but the beef didn’t agree with me during the night and I was a bit sick in the toilet of my shared hostel dorm.  I decided to have an easy morning, but it was so hot and I forgot it was a national holiday, which meant by the time I got near Harborland you couldn’t move for people.  I had a quick lunch, got my stuff at the hostel and headed to my next stop, Takamatsu, a little earlier than planned.


Despite the people on the Shinkansen from Kobe to Okayama being packed liked sardines, I managed to get a seat at my transfer and felt a sense of relief as I watched the scenery change to rice fields and trees again.  Crossing the bridge over the sea to Shikoku, seeing all the little islands and fishing boats dotted around, I realised how much big cities stress me out.  I’m so glad I got to spend two years in the countryside, even if it did seem boring sometimes.


Let’s enjoy travelling!

The stress of leaving is over and I have started my solo travels of Japan!  My last few days in Aomori were spent getting burnt and having fun on the beach, furiously cleaning and gutting my apartment, meeting the new guy taking over my job and helping him sort out his phone and bank account, trying to sort my own bank account out to send money home, chilling at Lauren’s and trying to savour the time I had left with my friends.

I went to Goshogawara on Saturday to see Tachineputa, and couldn’t really believe it had been two years exactly since I arrived in Aomori and got the train by myself to see it.  The highlight was seeing my favourite student, who graduated to senior high school in April, dancing with his classmates in the parade.  We were on the same train from Goshogawara the day before, and he told me he was going to be in it, and I said I’d keep a look out for him!  During the parade we saw each other and waved like mad, and he kept waving whenever he turned around, then danced away with a huge smile on his face.  Another highlight was seeing Lauren and some other ALTs who were taking part, playing the hand cymbals and getting the crowd hyped up.

My last night in Aomori was spent watching the biggest most spectacular fireworks I’ve ever seen, as in to the point where the fireworks turn into multi-coloured hearts.  I got ready with Yuka at her place, and we wore our yukatas which were maybe a bit louder than most designs, but we thought fireworks were an appropriate occasion to look flashy!


Yuka took me to Shin-Aomori station the next morning, and it was only when we were saying goodbye that I started crying.  I thought I’d cry when I said goodbyes to my other friends, but having them so spread out made it feel less final, until I was actually leaving.  I got on the train all teary-eyed, but then a nice-looking Japanese couple sat in front of me and smiled when we made eye contact.  A few minutes later they turned around and struck up a conversation and it turned out they were visiting from Tokyo to see Nebuta.  The man was from Kanazawa and recommended me his favourite take-out sushi place, and we exchanged emails.  I felt a bit better then.

This is the rough route I’m doing over twelve days with my rail pass until I go to Summer Sonic in Tokyo, then fly home on the 22nd. (Kanazawa – Kobe – Takamatsu – Okayama – Hiroshima – Hamamatsu – Kawasaki – Chiba)


I’m in my hostel in Kanazawa now, and the (foreign!) guy sitting opposite me is eating cup ramen, but kind of quietly lapping the noodles up with his tongue rather than slurping them up in one go and it’s driving me nuts.  Have I turned Japanese?


Learning Japanese is as rewarding as it is soul-crushing

I took level N3 of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) on Sunday.  Considering it was the first time I’d taken a JLPT exam, I thought it went pretty well, except for the listening section.  My mind tends to drift off very easily, so the fact that we only get one chance to listen to each dialogue meant if I lost concentration even for a second, I’d miss vital information to answer the question.  The JLPT listening questions try and trip you up… the answers include everything that’s been talked about in the dialogues, but obviously only one has a slight detail that corresponds to the question.  So if I missed some information but thought I heard a particular word and saw it as one of the answers, my reaction would be to choose that one, but it’d probably be wrong!  I think that happened a few times so I’m not feeling so confident anymore… Even if I failed, it doesn’t matter too much because I don’t actually need it for anything.  I just find it more motivating to have a goal to work towards.

Anyway, before I get back into studying, I felt like posting about my experiences as a Japanese learner in Japan.  Before I came here, I had about two years’ worth of Japanese knowledge through a fairly relaxed studying regime.  I taught myself Hiragana and Katakana in my first year of university, looked at a few Japanese learning materials, then took a beginners’ course because I couldn’t get my head around the different sentence structure and verb conjugations.  Simple sentences were okay, as the order just becomes SOV rather than SVO, as it is in English.  But when things started to get complex, I struggled.  Longer sentences get a little trickier:

Just taking a random sentence out of my textbook.  Obviously they weren’t this hard to begin with, but just to show you how different the word order is!


Every day Japanese in speak try to do if, gradually skilled can speak like will become.

i.e. If you try to speak in Japanese every day, you’ll gradually be able to speak well.

(Sorry if that’s not a perfect translation, but you get the idea.)

Even though the syntax in Japanese is completely different and sounds like Yoda made it up, for some reason it just clicks after a while.  I don’t think there is a real watershed moment when learning a language where you suddenly just understand how the language works, at least in my experience, but there are definitely points when you realise how much better you are now than you were maybe six months or a year ago.  One of the most rewarding things about learning a language is when you suddenly understand something you couldn’t before.  A few days a week, a guy in a truck (always heard, but never seen) drives past my apartment babbling something through a loudspeaker and I’d have no idea what he was saying.  The other day, suddenly my brain just got it.  He was asking people to come outside and buy some vegetables from the back of his truck.

What made me feel even more warm and fuzzy was when I picked up the Japanese version of Matilda that I bought a while back, after ignoring it for a few months because it was too hard. I’d read The Little Prince before getting Matilda, and was so thrown off by Roald Dahl’s informal writing style after the gentleness of The Little Prince that I couldn’t understand any of the grammar and had to abandon it.  Three months of textbook-studying later, I tried Matilda again, and it was like 500 light bulbs went off in my head at the same time.  The random letters suddenly made sense, and I was able to understand and even enjoy the story.  It definitely helped that I already knew what it was about, but the words didn’t just sound like white noise in my head anymore.  Of course I still have to look up words a lot, but they’re always more interesting.  Like the other day I learned “tufty” – ふさふさ which made me smile.

As for the difficulties of learning Japanese, and any language probably, moving from beginner to intermediate is a struggle.  As a beginner you learn so much new stuff, you feel like you’re constantly leveling up and gaining all this Japanese knowledge.  When you hit the intermediate “plateau”, that’s when things get hard… You want to use what you’ve learned, but everyday conversation is still just beyond your reach and you’re way past self-introductions and talking about things you like.  Reading news articles and stories becomes a chore when you constantly have to look words up in the dictionary.  You find yourself understanding more and more of what you hear, but for some reason your brain won’t cooperate when you want to have a conversation in Japanese.  I still get this A LOT.  It’s the worst part of learning a language.  I can understand so much, but I get SO frustrated when I’m trying to speak Japanese and am hit by a mental block.  It’s hard for me not to constantly think, “Am I saying this right?!” and it’s embarrassing when I try to say something but I say it wrong and I have to pretend that’s what I wanted to talk about. 90% of the time, it’s only after the conversation’s finished when I’ve worked out how to structure the sentence properly, or remembered the word I wanted to say.  But I’m hoping that will get better with practice.

I think my listening has improved a lot since living in Japan, but the assumption that you can just pick up a language by living in the country isn’t always true.  I know JETs who’ve been here for 3 – 5 years and can’t speak the language at all, so studying and frequent speaking practice seems the way forward.  If you don’t practice with native speakers, it’ll take longer to progress.  I also know people who came here with a Japanese degree from university and couldn’t have a basic conversation in Japanese.  Unfortunately, even though I’m the only non-Japanese person at work, I find it actually quite hard to practice speaking.  I speak English all day to the students and when I’m talking to my JTEs, and I try to talk to the other teachers in Japanese but a) I’m shy! and b) my desk is isolated away from everyone else.  I go to my barber/gardener friend every Tuesday for free conversation practice, and I don’t have to think so much before saying anything anymore.  But there are still times when I feel disheartened after studying so much and can’t express myself properly. Basically I just want to immediately be good. Sigh.



Arriving in Sendai

Despite my little ordeal the other Friday night, I safely arrived in Sendai the next afternoon to enjoy a weekend of exploring the city and eating as many different kinds of foods as I could in the space of two days.  Once I met up with my friend who was coming from Akita, we decided our first touristy thing would be to try gyuutan.  The concept of eating beef tongue didn’t really appeal to me but it’s Sendai’s speciality, so we thought we might as well tick it off first to get it out of the way.  We queued outside a gyuutan restaurant in the shopping arcade, as we decided that if people were queuing to eat there then the food probably had a good reputation.  So the beef tongue itself was okay; it was chewy but not exactly tough.  It actually had a bit of a familiar crunch to it – if you’ve ever bitten your tongue you’ll know what I mean!  I probably wouldn’t rush to eat it again. The thought of eating a tongue still makes me feel a bit weird so I’ll move on.

A little shrine tucked away in the shopping arcade

A little shrine tucked away in the shopping arcade

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Zuihoden Mausoleum where Date Masamune, one of the most powerful feudal lords of the Edo period, was buried. (He sounded a bit fearsome, probably because of the missing eye!  Just been reading more about him here if you fancy a read.)  The original building was actually destroyed during the war, and normally when I realise that something’s a reconstruction I feel a bit swizzed; however this one was still very beautiful, in particular the puzzle-like features at the top of each corner, so I didn’t mind too much.

We only had time for one thing that afternoon as everything shut at 16:30, so we headed to the hostel which was four stops down on the train from central Sendai.  It was a lovely guest house called Umebachi, tucked away at the end of a dimly-lit street which made it look very cosy and inviting.  The owners were young and friendly, and offered us tea upon our arrival before we were shown to the dorm.  The hostel was beautifully clean and comfortable, and at £15 a night we were really amazed!  I like hostels because you get to talk to other travellers and you do meet some interesting people – Sasha and I asked a man about the giant cuddly lion he was carrying around and instead of continuing a normal conversation, he started violently squishing the lion for a while and we thought this was some kind of elaborate explanation as to what it really was, but it turned out he was just trying to shove its head inside its body.  However one of the girls in our dorm happened to come from Hirosaki so she was a bit more fun to talk to!

Guest House Umebachi

Guest House Umebachi

That evening we were craving kaiten sushi (the conveyor belt kind) so we went back into Sendai and stumbled across an alley lined with glowing bars and restaurants.  We came to a little place with steamy windows that looked perfect, where the chefs were standing in the middle of the room making sushi at the customers’ requests (rather than the kind of place where you choose food from a screen and it arrives at your table on a little train, which is also fun but we decided to have a go at the proper way!)

We weren’t really sure how to order, but it seemed that everyone was just shouting what they wanted at the chefs who would place it in front of them about two minutes later.  You can also swipe plates off the belt as they come round, and it’s very easy to end up with a huge stack of them at the end!  You can eat as much or as little as you want and it’s still so cheap… I had six glorious plates and it only came to a fiver which is ridiculous if you compare it to what you get at Yo! Sushi.



Sasha had never done karaoke before, and I will take any chance I can get to drink beer and murder classics such as Total Eclipse of the Heart to cheesy MIDI backing tracks and even cheesier budget music videos where the actors gaze wistfully into the distance in montage after montage.  We spent a good hour wailing in our karaoke room before calling it a night and crashing onto our futons back at the hostel.


Bon Jovi also made an appearance

(The next issue of GMA has been published and you can see my first contribution to Photo Corner 😀  There are also some horror nano stories written by me and some other JETs in the Wordslingin’ column “Scary stories to tell in less than five minutes” if you want to get into the Halloween spirit! )

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First 24 hours in Tokyo

Finally landed in Tokyo at 8:30 yesterday morning after a smooth but sleepless 11-hour flight from London.  Can’t believe Dad cried when I left, which made me cry too but also secretly pleased that he got emotional about me leaving haha.

Checking in ze suitcases.

Checking in les baggages.

Not sure my body enjoyed being given an overly processed cooked breakfast at 10:30pm (6:30am Japan time), it felt really wrong but when do I ever turn down free food.  Even though I’d heard about the extreme heat and humidity that slaps you in the face as you leave the airport, I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for that, and I promise never to complain about it being ‘muggy’ when I’m in England ever again!

After arriving at the Keio Plaza at midday I ventured out into Shinjuku in search of food that didn’t taste like death, and after deciding we weren’t quite ready to attempt ordering anything in a restaurant, picked up a salad at a combini (convenience store).  It was beautiful.  We also remembered that in Japan there is a rule that you don’t eat and walk at the same time, so we had to awkwardly eat the ice cream we’d just bought standing in one place and examining the plastic food on display outside one of the restaurants.  Also, there are NO BINS.  Are Japanese people so neat that they don’t actually create litter?  Where are you supposed to get rid of anything??  We walked past a pachinko arcade (kind of like pinball) and wanted to go in, but as soon as the sliding doors parted it sounded absolutely terrifying and there were all these pink flashy lights so we ran away.

We made our way back to the hotel and got our room keys, had the best shower ever and a power-nap for 30 mins before I met Yuki in the lobby.  We went to the observation tower which gives you a spectacular 360 view of the city.  The Tokyo landscape is a lot different to London in that there aren’t many particular buildings that stand out as much, but the colours are pretty and of course it has Mount Fuji in the distance… but it wasn’t clear enough to see it when we were there.

View of the shrine from the observatory

View of the shrine from the observatory

Shinjuku station

Shinjuku station

We took the train to Harajuku, and went down a street which was very crowded and full of stores selling frilly clothes and weird t shirts.  I think it’s a good people-watching place!

Apparently this is where everyone takes a photo so I felt obliged

Apparently this is where everyone takes a photo so I felt obliged

We walked on to a shrine across the road (the mass of green in the Observatory picture) which was in the middle of a kind of park with huge trees either side of the pathway.  On the way in there were these barrels of Sake but I can’t remember why!  I think they were blessings…

Sake barrels

Sake barrels

Before you enter the shrine you can purify yourself with the water using wooden ladles so we did that.  Then made an offering where you bow and clap and make a wish but I forgot to make one at the right time so it probably won’t come true!



Wishes. Quite a lot of them were about girls.

Wishes. Quite a lot of them were about girls.

Next stop was Shibuya! Walked over the famous crossing and it was getting dark by this point so all the lights and adverts were lit up and the atmosphere was really lively.  There was a constant buzz of electronic noises and excited Japanese announcements.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

We went to get dinner at an izakaya which was tucked away up a flight of stairs inside a building on the street which I would never have known existed, and were greeted by all the waiters yelling IRASSHAIMASEEEE! (“Welcome”) which I loved.  Japanese waiters/shopkeepers are so enthusiastic and friendly and they all yell at you again as you leave which sounds kinda terrifying but it made me laugh a lot.  They should totally do that in the UK…



You could get unlimited cabbage there ♥ The food was really yummy. 

Finished the night by getting mini fireworks and setting them off in the park and climbed a tree and went back to the hotel and had SUCH A GOOD SLEEP.  Sorry if my writing is rubbish, I’m quite tired! 

P.S. Martha I remembered your note, it was lovely 🙂

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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.