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?
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.
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…
Well, it was really just fifteen minutes of the mayor of Inakadate praising the crowd turnout and good weather, followed by lots of motivational rice-themed dancing with the town mascots singing “kome kome kome kome” (rice rice rice rice) before all 1200 of us were unleashed into the fields. We had no idea what we were doing, then someone chucked us each a slab of rice seedlings, and away we went pushing them into the lines of holes that had been marked out for us. The mud was lovely and warm and squishy on my bare feet, but unfortunately gave me hobbit feet for nearly two weeks after, no matter how hard I scrubbed.
When the rice grows, it will become a lovely piece of art! We didn’t plant the coloured sections because I suspected we as volunteers couldn’t be trusted. Suspicions confirmed when teenagers started throwing the mud at each other and got a telling off from sensei. The tradition of rice art started here in Inakadate about twenty years ago, using different coloured rice strands to create a picture which is viewed from the top of the building next to the fields. Last year the rice art theme was Star Wars and Gone With The Wind (bit of a random combination), and this year it will be two characters from a Japanese drama I have no idea about, and Godzilla!
Occasionally I’ll come across misspelled gems when I’m marking students’ work or looking over their shoulders in the classroom during a writing task. This week has been particularly amusing, starting with Monday when I was marking writing exercises using the passive tense. Conjugating verbs into the passive is a pain in the arse for anyone learning English thanks to all the irregularities, so I sympathise. I asked the students to think of a person or object and write three hints about it so others could guess what or who it is. I’m glad I put my coffee down when I read the last one from my pile of papers, which said, “He was boned by my mother.” It took a while until my JTE and I realised he was trying to say “borned by”. The logic was there at least. やっぱり英語って難しいな～。
Yesterday we were making sentences like “I (do ~ ) when I’m happy/sad/bored etc”. One student wrote “I crap when I’m happy.” Of course I never actually laugh at the students, but I can’t help having a quiet giggle to myself. I feel for them though, R and L are really hard to distinguish from a Japanese perspective.
There’s one 2nd grader (13 years old?) who is hilarious and will always beckon me over for a chat when I’m walking around the classroom making sure people are getting on ok with the task. He is so determined to speak English even though most of what he says is one word questions or mostly gestures, but despite this we end up having some pretty interesting conversations that usually just result in him asking in Japanese and me replying in English, so at least he can use his listening skills. Yesterday he asked me what surprised me most about Japan when I first got here, and I said the level of customer service. Japanese shop assistants treat you like a VIP, from the precise way they handle your money to the honorific language that they use. In contrast, I told him that shop assistants in the UK might have a little chat with you and ask about your day or even compliment you on something you’re wearing. Both countries have their negatives though; in Japan I feel like I’m being served by robots because everyone says the same few set phrases, and in the UK sometimes I just get completely ignored throughout the whole transaction.
I love these little exchanges of culture because it makes me appreciate both sides instead of just taking one for granted. It still makes me sad though how most Japanese people I’ve met, including the students, have never left the country or just have no interest in going abroad. We actually did a lesson on opinions the other week, and one question was “Do you think English is important?”. I was a little disappointed to see that over half the class wrote that they didn’t think so. The majority of the reasons were along the lines of just not wanting to go abroad, but one student simply wrote 日本人だから。 (because I’m Japanese.) Cue eye roll. This lack of open-mindedness does make me realise why foreigners get such bizarre treatment a lot of the time in Japan. Yes, Japan is a special country full of interesting food and culture, but internationalisation is a thing, even if it happens more in other countries than here. One thing that stands out is the NEVER ENDING COMMENTS about how amazing it is that foreigners can use chopsticks or eat sushi. One of my principals spent half the evening at a teacher’s gathering asking me if I could eat such and such Japanese food, then practically wetting himself when I said yes. He couldn’t believe it when I said we could easily buy soy sauce, noodles and tofu in UK supermarkets. He leaned over to the other teachers and exclaimed how miraculous it was that I could eat rice. He brought a bowl of a variety of spinach to school once, slapped me on the shoulder instead of using my name and told me to try it. He stood behind me as I ate, saying “How crazy is it that foreigners can eat this stuff?! She probably won’t like it.” while the teacher next to me said, “Actually, I’ve never tried it either.”
Of course not everyone is like this, and this is probably a more extreme case of alienifying foreigners, but even in a subtler form it puts me off staying here long-term. I love my life here, but I’ll be relieved to be back home when I can blend into the crowd again and not feel like a special snowflake.
Went for a 26k ride last weekend up to Ajigasawa and back, taking a couple of photos of near where I live along the way. I know you probably think I’m a wuss for only just getting out on my bike at the end of April, but road biking in Aomori weather right by the sea just isn’t worth the pain!! Even on the way back, the headwind was strong enough to make me want to just finish the ride already. The big fat beautiful cherry blossoms and blue skies made it worth it though.
Walking around Aji with Lauren after a day of snowboarding.
View of Iwaki-san from Ajigasawa.
Surprisingly good chips we ordered whilst karaoke-ing after the formal.
Enkai with fave school teachers.
What you get when you go to a doctor’s with a cold.
Earl grey tea waffle and a cafe mocha.
Making healthy Japanese food.
Rice, spinach and tuna, chicken with vegetables, tea, carrot steamed bun, pickled vegetables.
My valentines gift from Lauren.
Dinner and film at my place!
Oden menu. Some items include: daikon (giant radish), konnyaku (devil’s tongue), boiled egg, Japanese omelette, fried yam, processed fish in a variety of forms, processed sausage, gyoza, burdock root, fried tofu, fish meatball, chicken kebab.
Cuban music and salsa night
A chocobanana eel gacha toy
Another gacha toy, I have no idea what this is but I love it.
(A month late… I will get back into posting, I promise!!)
Last year I spent the evening of my birthday drinking wine in the bath. This year I sat in a jazz bar eating sushi and being charmed by a drunk Japanese businessman. Both years were enjoyable, but I think I can look forward to my birthdays again if they all turn out to be as fun as this year’s!
Every Tuesday I meet my barber friend for English/Japanese practice, so I was planning on just going out for some food with him and my friend in the next town over. At the last minute he suggested we go to his sister’s bar in Hirosaki, I imagine because the restaurant I originally wanted to go to is owned by his wife and he’s probably sick of it! We picked up Lauren and drove over an hour through a snowy blizzard to get there.
Like a lot of bars in Japanese cities, it was situated down an alley underneath a building full of other bars; the inside was only big enough for a handful of people but didn’t feel cramped at all. There were five or six bar stools of the worn-out suede variety, surrounding a sunken bar area where the mama in her black crochet shawl and red lipstick stood puffing on a cigarette. She welcomed us in, chatting away as she poured us some whiskey and the other lady pottered around in the kitchen out back, bringing us little dishes of food one by one. We had sushi, nabe, pickled vegetables and a little bowl of pork soup, followed by a kind of fruit pastry cake. I wasn’t expecting any of it, so it was a lovely gesture and truly appreciated!
Toshiya said he wanted to hear me play something on the piano, so I brought some music just in case because I am one of those people who lack the ability to memorise any music worth listening to. The time came, and I played my failsafe Nocturne No. 9 by Chopin; probably not the kind of thing that they hear in a jazz bar very often, but it was fun to play for people again. When I finished, I saw that we’d gained an audience member in the form of a rather drunk salaryman, which explained the distant cheering I heard halfway through playing. He proceeded to entertain us for the rest of the night, despite repeating half the things he’d already said, and gave the other bar mama some money to go out and buy me flowers from him. Lucky me!
It makes me so happy to have friends like Toshiya; it’s thanks to the hospitality of Japanese people in the community that let me do things like this. Even though I find it hard to befriend Japanese people in my tiny town, I’m glad to have met the handful of friends I do have.
Introducing my first comic drawn on my graphics tablet! It’s taken a while to get finished, due to having to restart it a couple of times because A) my cartoon style sucked and B) I recently upgraded to the full version of the software I was trialing and learned that there is such a thing as LAYERS which made drawing this kinda thing a billion times easier.
To distinguish English dialogue from Japanese, I wrote what would’ve been said in Japanese in the slightly thicker ink pen style.
The older folk make enthusiastic conversation partners, but the intensity of topics tends to escalate rather quickly…
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…