Apple Country

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



When people have asked me how I feel about leaving Japan soon, this was a phrase I quickly learned – a tto iu ma – “a blink of time” or literally, “the time it takes to say ‘Ah!'”

Two years feels especially short when I think about how other JETs have stayed as long as five years.  But as I wrote in my last post, the longer I stay here, the harder it will be to return home.  I guess I chose to sacrifice the short term for the long term.  I said goodbye to all my schools last week, and I was surprised how appreciated the students made me feel.  I never thought only seeing them each once a week would have that much of an impact, but when some students gave me lovely personal messages, drawings of me and even asked for my UK address so they could write to me, I realised how close we had actually got during that time and how much I’ll miss them.

On Monday night, the shock of leaving hit me really hard and I couldn’t sleep at all, thinking about how difficult it will be to see the friends I made here again.  It will be relatively easy to see my Japanese friends as I know they’ll always be here, but sooner or later, my JET friends will all move on with their lives and end up scattered around the world.  However this does mean I have a good excuse to go travelling and see them!  When I’d finally managed to get to sleep, about two hours later, the man living across from me decided 5am was a good time to start hammering away at something in his shed for an hour.  I stuck my head out the window and yelled at him, because I didn’t care about being a nice neighbour anymore with only a week left, but he didn’t hear me anyway.

Clearing out my apartment is really tedious and I hate it.  Especially when it’s hot and humid and all I want to do is lie on my sofa and eat watermelon.  I’ve also amazed myself at how much crap I managed to acquire in two years, and the CARDBOARD, oh the cardboard.  But it must be done, and I tell myself everything will come together in the end, because it always does!

Last Saturday we had a taiko performance and then a party afterwards which one of the group leaders organised for me.  I nicknamed him Boss a while ago and he was so chuffed that now he makes everyone call him that.  We decided that the guy who sort of oversees us as a group, but doesn’t really play with us, needed a nickname too, so I suggested Chief, which also turned out to be a big hit.  We got very drunk and I was serenaded at karaoke with a powerful rendition of Queen’s I Was Born To Love You featuring some hilarious backing dancers.  They are all such a fun group of people, I’m sad I only got to know them proplerly in the last six months.  I could see us hanging out together more often outside practice, but obviously that won’t be happening 😦 But I’m glad I did have those six months!  I remember how hard it was to feel like I had a place in the Japanese community, as I just didn’t click with anyone in my own town.  I’ve been so lucky to have Lauren in the next town, who’s not only been an amazing friend to have, but without her I wouldn’t have had met the taiko group and made such good memories.

I met up with my friend in Aomori city on Monday, as I had to change my visa so I can use the JR Pass to go travelling.  We went to the fish market where you buy 10 stamps and can choose whatever seafood you like to put in your ricebowl.  I got all my favourites, including ikura, unagi and a huuuuuuge juicy raw scallop.  Then she took me to an old-fashioned looking ice cream sundae place where she used to go as a teenager.  I had a “B.B.” which was apparently a “big black” sundae, with big scoops of chocolate ice cream, an oreo, chocolate covered cornflakes and sliced banana.  I couldn’t finish it though…  We looked at the UK guidebooks she’d rented from the library because she wants to visit during spring next year.  Looking at all the nice photos of English gardens and pretty shop fronts in London actually made me feel a bit better about coming home, and even more so at the prospect of showing it around to a friend.


Floating on through July

There are currently five abandoned blog posts sitting in my drafts.  Every time I try to write something, my thoughts start drifting in a completely different direction and I can’t focus on what it is I’m trying to say.  I feel bad because I have hardly posted anything in the past few months, and now that the realisation that I have such little time left in Japan is finally hitting me, I’m cycling through feelings of excitement, sadness, relief and regret.  It’s also because I’ve run out of free space for photos, which is a bit boring.

In some ways I wish I had posted more about the little things that happen every day.  Like today when the student who’s a bit of a troublemaker and hates English told me I was good at drawing, in Tsugaru-ben, I replied also in Tsugaru-ben she got really excited and proceeded to teach me more phrases in the dialect.  Or how I tried on a yukata in a shop two months ago and didn’t like it because it was a bit drab and old-fashioned (like the rest of the patterns there) so I didn’t buy it despite the sales assistant really going for the hard sell, then asking me for my phone number and address “just in case I changed my mind”.  Since then she has sent me handwritten letters asking me to come to the store and get a yukata, along with promotional leaflets, and she’s even called me twice asking me if I’m free to come into the store.  Seriously?  I couldn’t believe she was being so persistent.  I was polite the first time she called, and told her I wasn’t interested and not free that weekend anyway so I couldn’t go to the store.  Then I got another call tonight and as soon as she started talking about her effing yukatas I told her to stop harrassing me and calling my personal number, and then hung up.  I actually got a yukata the day after I first went there at a different shop.  It’s cerulean blue, printed pink all over with big slices of oranges, and I got a yellow obi to match!  I may have got the least Japanesey type pattern just to spite annoying Yukata Woman… but I actually got it because it’s so goddamn funky fresh.

When I was finishing university, all the good stuff seemed to happen at once just as my final year was coming to an end, and it feels the same way this time, except a million times better.  I’ve built some amazing friendships here and finally got to the point where I feel like I have a place in the Japanese community and enjoy hanging out with Japanese people instead of just other JETs all the time.  I love the social life I have here, and the fact that there is always some kind of event going on in Aomori that I can go to or join if I want.  I feel like I’m getting better and better at Japanese, still far from fluent, but to the point where I can spend six hours drinking with people from my taiko group and chatting about anything and everything with no struggle, then not being able to sleep because my drunk brain won’t shut up thinking in Japanese.  I am going to miss everyone so badly, and sometimes wonder if I made the right decision to leave when all my friends are staying for another year.  Then I remind myself why I did, and realise that it all comes down to making compromises.

Firstly, I CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING.  This has been my mantra for the past few days.  I had legitimate reasons to leave, and when I think about them, I know a third year here would have dragged.  I’m ready to move on from being an assistant teacher and I’m ready to leave the remoteness of where I live, even if it is ridiculously beautiful and I’ll never get to live with this kind of scenery again.  I am also extremely ready for a winter where I get to live somewhere with actual insulation and I don’t spend half the year worrying that I’m going to crash my car in the snow.  (How’s that for first world problems?)  Even if it makes me sound like a wuss, I’m looking forward to snuggling with my dog in front of a toasty fire again.

Maintaining friendships from the other side of the world is hard, too.  Tecnology has been amazing for keeping in touch, but it’s not the same and I miss my friends from school.  I know another year away would put a bigger strain on that, and even though most people have moved away from home now, I can’t wait to see everyone again.  At some point my friends in Japan will have to move on too, and it would be just as hard, if not harder, for me to say goodbye a year from now.

Two years doesn’t feel like a long time until I think back to what I did when I first got here, and suddenly it seems like I’ve been here a decade.  I feel like I’ve done a lot during my time here, and sorry for getting a bit clichéed, but I also feel like I’ve changed a lot as a person and really discovered what I’m capable of.  I’m singing and playing bass in a one-off show with three friends tomorrow in a bar… I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have done that two years ago.  I moved halfway across the world at the age of 21 and survived – thrived – for this long.  I admire the ALTs who stay longer, even up to five years, but for me the work would feel stagnant way before then.  I love who I have become and I’m excited to see where my new-found confidence and fresh perspective of the world (I have learned just as much about other cultures as I have Japan, thanks to 99% of my friends here being non-Brits!) takes me.  University was a bit of a disappointment socially; I didn’t make any lasting friendships and I regretted not joining more societies and clubs sooner.  Maybe that’s why I knew I had to make the most of it this time, because I didn’t want to close myself off to good opportunities again.

Next week is my last week at school, so I have to give a farewell speech in front of everyone.  I’m nervous because I hate giving speeches and I’ll probably get a bit teary-eyed, but I have some fun things planned for my final classes and I’m going to make lemon drizzle cake for the teachers.  One teacher has been particularly kind to me since I’ve been here, and hinted that she wanted me to draw a picture of her dog, so I’m going to do that for her too.  She took me to do a glass-blowing workshop with some other teachers, and they paid for me!  I chose to make a small vase with blue and white colouring.  I don’t get to see how mine turned out yet, because she’s making it into a “which teacher made which item?” quiz at my leaving party.

It will be hard to say goodbye, but I still have some more drinking parties,  Nebuta matsuri, then two weeks of travelling and Summer Sonic to look forward to.  I have to keep reminding myself that I won’t be able to go home until I’ve seen Radiohead, and that makes me feel a lot better.  Plus, I might even bump into them at the airport the next day…


Wrapping up my first year in Japan

I looked at my blog history the other day and realised I posted at least once a week when I first starting living in Japan.  Now it’s more like once a fortnight, and just because things have stopped being new and shiny doesn’t mean I don’t have stuff to say!  I’m just lazy.  I’m thinking about making this blog less focused on my personal experiences (I’ll still post them though) and more about general life and my thoughts on living in Japan.  I also want to start making comics about little things that happen here or that make me laugh.

I can’t really believe I’ve nearly been here a year already.  I’ve made so many great friends and it saddens me that some of them are getting ready to go back to their home countries in August.  I’m so glad I decided to recontract after all, as I would probably have gone into a deep depression if I had to leave in 6 weeks!!  I can honestly say this year has been the best of my life.  I have never had so many moments where I’ve just been walking down the street, or had someone smile at me for no reason, or been driving along the coast in the sunshine and getting this overwhelming feeling of happiness.  I know that some people on JET think that a lot of other JETs sugarcoat their experiences and just brush all the crap that happens under the carpet, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here.  Everyone glamorises their lives a little bit (some more than others, thanks to social media and overuse of #blessed) and it’s hard not to compare lifestyles with other people who won’t shut up about how great theirs is.  I could write a whole post about that but I might save it for another time as I can feel a ramble coming on.  I genuinely love my life here, and yes living in Japan and being on JET definitely has its flaws, but I have found ways to either confront them and improve the situation, accepted that that’s just the way it is and move on, or learn to cope with them differently. Some examples would be:

  • Having too much time at the BOE.  Two full days a week was unnecessary and taking its toll on my sanity, so I finally managed to get my supervisor to change it after asking him five or six times.  He said the two ALTs before me didn’t seem to mind (not true, Bridget told me they both hated it) but they didn’t do anything about it.  However if I’m going to be here another year, I’d rather not be wasting my time in a dreary office when I could be chatting to my teachers and students at school.  So now instead of going to the BOE every Monday and Thursday, I get to go to my favourite school on two Thursdays a month, an elementary school one Thursday, and only on the fourth Thursday do I have to go to the BOE again. Persistence pays off!
  • Living far away from society has its disadvantages, but I actually think it’s made me more adventurous.  I’ve got used to driving long distances and no longer mind spending two or three hours travelling to social events.  The roads here are beautifully easy to drive which is a plus, and with all that nature thrown in for me to look at, it’s not too bad really.
  • Dealing with new JTEs is always a bit awkward as you have to learn how they work and what they expect from you, and in my experience all my JTEs work differently.  When I first arrived, one of my JTEs acted cold towards me and didn’t want me to do anything in the lesson.  I was nice to her though even though we didn’t like each other, then one day I found that my desk had been moved opposite hers and she was super friendly from then on.  I spent ages making a Mario Kart game for another school and brought it every week JUST IN CASE she asked me to do something.  One day she said she had no idea what to do for the third years, and bam, I whipped out my awesome little Mario Kart characters and whiteboards and she was sold.  I also had a new JTE this year who was kinda distant with me, but last week I tried out some new ideas in my lessons which got rave reviews from the students and my JTE.  I brought in real British money, some hats, scarves and sunglasses to set up a ‘shop’ for a shopping dialogue lesson.  The students were in hysterics as one of the boys posed in my woolly bobble hat and asked the class how it looked.  Relationship with JTE (and students) magically improved!

I know other JETs have had way worse experiences, like not being used at all in school, having to find an apartment and furnish it from scratch by themselves, having a useless supervisor etc.  I’m certain your future on JET is half due to luck and half what you make of it.  I’m lucky that I live in a beautiful prefecture with an awesome JET community.  I’m lucky that my apartment is in good condition and my shower doesn’t have pipes that are prone to bursting in the winter.  I’m also very lucky that I get a free car and gas.  Being closer to Tokyo would be great just for the convenience of travelling to other places, but I honestly don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else, given the chance.  I’m so excited to begin my second year in Japan.  I don’t feel like I really made any lasting friendships at university, and the experience didn’t live up to the “this will be the best time of your life” expectations that I had when I went.  I came to Japan with fewer expectations as I knew the JET experience was very hit or miss, so I knew I had to make it work for myself.  So far I think I’ve done okay, but could do more while I’m here.  If I left now, I’d feel like I’d only done half the things I wanted to do.  I really want to make more friends in the Japanese community, but it’s hard when 80% of my town’s population is over the age of 50 and spend their days working in the rice fields.  I want to learn the koto, so I’m going to find myself a teacher.  I want to travel around Japan more.  I want to speak more Japanese to my teachers instead of relying on their English.  I want to get my language skills to a point where it would be possible to get a Japanese-speaking job.  I’m taking the JLPT N3 in two weeks so if that goes well, I’ll know I’m on my way!

Oh and… 45 days until I go home for summer 😀


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.