Apple Country

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


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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!

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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)

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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?


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Japanniversary

It’s been just over a year since I abandoned everything I knew and loved in England, and stumbled off the plane into the overwhelming Tokyo heat with no idea what the next year would hold.

Tokyo orientation was an unsettling mix of listening to lectures inside beige conference rooms throughout the day, and getting lost in a crazy electronic colour bubble as I explored the city with other JETs at night.  I remember standing in my bathroom after I’d unpacked my things in my new apartment and wondering what the hell I’d got myself into.  But somehow a year has already passed and I have just one more before I leave Aomori.  What will happen after that, I haven’t yet decided…

It’s hard to tell how much I’ve changed, but I have found myself somehow adopting certain aspects of Japanese life into my own.  When my friend came to visit from the UK, I definitely remembered how different British eating habits are!  Since coming to Japan, I’ve really enjoyed having my meals separated into little dishes tapas-style.  The food doesn’t get soggy from the other food, especially rice, and I love being able to take a little bit from whichever bowl I feel like taking from.  I made her dinner like this when she came to stay, but she scraped everything into the same bowl and ate it like that.  I thought it was weird, but I didn’t say anything.  When we were at a restaurant in Tokyo, she picked up her bowl of miso soup to pour onto her rice.  I saw this and blurted out, “NO.”  I couldn’t help it.  We found it hilarious for ages though.  I don’t usually just shut people down like that; I get that us Brits like to mix everything up, but it would probably be like pouring tomato soup onto your sandwich?  It’s weird, and it makes the sandwich all soggy and difficult to eat!  I might make this story into a comic…  I bought a graphics tablet from a friend so I can draw my comics digitally, but subsequently left it at another friend’s house.  So I might use it at home if I’m not busy eating and appreciating living 45 minutes from central London!!

Last night I played taiko in Tachineputa in Goshogawara city, which was the first festival I saw when I arrived in Aomori last year.  The music brought back memories of getting lost among the food stalls and staring in awe at the beautifully illuminated floats that towered above the streets.  I couldn’t take any pictures of the festival this time as I was busy drumming, but it was great fun, if exhausting!  I have some impressive blisters on my hands to remind me of it.  I hope I can play again next year before I leave!

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Pushing the floats back into their stands after the festival ended.


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Spring catch up

It’s been a month since I last posted anything and the stuff I want to write about has been piling up in my brain, so since I’ve finished all my little jobs and have a free day at the BOE, I’m gonna give y’all an update.

The fact that 99% of my friends here are American means their ways of speaking are sloooowly sinking into my brain.  Our different expressions always make for amusing conversation; one time in particular was when a friend told me about something silly another friend did, and I said “What is she like!” and he replied, “Errrrrm.. she’s kinda tall and got brown hair…?”

I haven’t said it out loud yet, but the amount of times “y’all” pops into my head when I’m thinking is a bit alarming.  It’s just such an easy word.

I didn’t hear anything else from my principal about the American accent either.  He came back to observe one of my lessons but it was with the first years, and they were concentrating so hard on a writing task and taking longer than I expected, so I didn’t have to do much speaking during the time he was there.  I was praying he’d get bored and leave, and finally after like 20 minutes he did.  Mwahaha.

I went to Tokyo Disney Sea with three other JET friends that weekend.  We took the night bus on Friday and the night bus on the way back on Saturday.  I didn’t think I could do 11 hours on a bus for two nights in a row but actually I slept the whole way both times so that was a result.  Disney Sea is supposed to be the more ‘adult’ park out of the two resorts in Tokyo, the other being Disney Land, because the rides aren’t as twee and you can drink alcohol!  The park itself was absolutely stunning and I couldn’t get over the amount of detail that had gone in to making the rides and the park’s aesthetics so magical.  However this did mean that the rides lacked thrill and I found them a bit too tame.  But at least I was never bored when there were so many little things to look at in every corner.

Aomori’s cherry blossoms finally bloomed at the end of April, and the ALTs across the prefecture gathered at Hirosaki Park for a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) party.  Festivals in Japan are so much fun, partly because the food stalls are so GOOD.  Some friends told me about ‘torimochi’, which is a skewer of alternating pieces of squidgy rice cake and fried chicken with a sweet sticky glaze, apparently only sold during hanami period.  It certainly lived up to expectations!

TORIMOCHI FIGHT!

TORIMOCHI FIGHT!

It was a good day.  We laid out a huge blue tarp and spent the day drinking, eating, talking and playing frisbee.  There was an afterparty in the evening which I played piano at but I was so tired, it probably wasn’t my best performance!

The week after that I went to Beijing, so I’ll do that in another post.

Last weekend I had no plans, so I called my Japanese grandparents, Mr and Mrs Matsuura, and we decided to go to Hakkoda mountains for the day.  We drove the two hours there, had lunch and drove to the hiking start point where we drank a cup of tea for longevity.  Mr Matsuura seemed concerned about the oil in his car, so we skipped the hiking and drove all the way back, stopping off at the garage for an hour while it got fixed and we had a chat over a cup of coffee.  I hadn’t planned on spending most of the day driving around, but it was good practice for me to speak so much Japanese.  I invited them in for tea and showed them pictures of my hometown.  We had fun looking up different places on Google maps, which they thought was amazing!  Mr Matsuura is a bit of an Anglophile so he had A LOT of things to talk about.  By the end I was so tired and having difficulty keeping up with his fast Japanese, I think they caught on and decided to head home when my replies got shorter and I just started smiling and nodding…

I’ve also started weekly English/Japanese conversation practices with Bridget’s friend Toshiya, who is a barber with a passion for growing vegetables.  He offered me a space in his garden to plant my own vegetables, so on Sunday I went to the hardware store and picked up some cucumber and watermelon seedlings.  One of my students had just had his hair cut when I arrived, so I made him my garden elf and he helped me do the planting.  When I got to the BOE today, one of the guys asked me if I was a farmer because he saw me when I was buying the seeds.  Yesterday some students said they saw me running the other day as well.  Is this what it’s like to be famous?

So yeah I’ve started running every other day using the 0-5k plan on the Run Keeper app on my phone. My overall fitness and strength is good, but my stamina is rubbish so I really want to work on that.  My fishing village is an absolute delight to run around in the evenings, especially as it’s finally getting warmer, so I’m actually enjoying running for the first time in my life.

Mini updates:

  • It’s 6 months since I broke my arm!
  • I’ve applied to be President or Vice-President of a charity organisation based in Aomori called Everest of Apples, which works closely with a school in Nepal and other communities in South East Asia.  Will update after my interview!
  • I registered to take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) in July.  I’m taking N3 level which is lower intermediate (N1 is highest and N5 is lowest).  If it goes well I might aim for N2 in December, which is the lowest level most Japanese companies expect from foreign employees.  I’m thinking about possibly getting another job in Japan when I finish JET, but the Japanese work ethic is starting to appeal to me less and less…

Beijing post coming shortly!


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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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Juniko and Matsuri

10:30am is a difficult time for everyone in the office: we’ve passed the halfway point towards lunch, but there still remains an uncomfortable hour and a half of stomach rumbling and procrastinating until the town bells ring at 12 and we flock to the table to pick up our freshly prepared bentos.  It’s especially hard for me as my body isn’t used to being starved for longer than 2 hours at a time.

It was approaching 10:30 on Thursday and I could feel the energy in the office rapidly waning, so I decided it would be a good time to unveil my culinary efforts.  As soon as I produced the tin of cookies, everyone got very excited and I could hear my popularity points 1-up as I handed them round to each person.  They seemed to do the trick as we had a laugh and a nice chat, feeling more relaxed now that hunger had been staved off for a little while longer.  Food is a wonderful thing.  The cheery mood continued into the afternoon, when my supervisor suddenly suggested that we take the afternoon off to visit Lake Juniko.  I had nothing to do so I happily obliged!  Even though I looked a bit strange going to a hiking trail in my work gear.

Juniko translates as 12 ponds, but I think there are actually something like 33.  We were only making a short visit so we just walked to the two main ponds.  The first was the most famous called Aoike, meaning blue pond, and even though the water wasn’t at its clearest that day, it was still remarkably beautiful.  I have never breathed such pure, refreshing air!  Unfortunately the mozzies seemed to like it too, and I spent half the time neurotically swatting the air around my exposed ankles.

Aoike

Aoike

We then walked to the next pond, which I actually preferred.  The blue was a lighter shade and I thought you could see under the water a bit better.

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Of course it’s quite hard to see what it’s really like from a photo and there are much better photos out there than mine, but it was really magical!  I felt like I was in a Ghibli film.  On the way back we got Aoike flavour ice cream (it was blue and tasted like pear) and stopped off at the other town office for a chat with the other workers.  One lady gave me a carton of juice and said it was a bit suppai (sour), but that was a complete understatement.  I smiled and mmmm-ed politely as I took a couple of sips but it might as well’ve been a carton of vinegar and I did not feel especially great afterwards.  Meanwhile she was happily slurping away through the straw of her own carton.  I’ve noticed a lot of drinks are advertised as “suppai” but I have no idea why people drink them so much as they taste horrible.

So Thursday was a really good day; however today is not such a good day as I’m back after a 3 day weekend, I’ve finished all my lesson plans and cannot face studying anymore Japanese.  I’m starting taiko this week though and there is a sumo tournament at one of my schools on Thursday which I’m really looking forward to.  I think I could really get into sumo!  There was a match on TV which I watched a bit of yesterday.  I don’t know a lot about the rules but when the wrestlers enter the ring, they do this Haka-like performance of clapping and lifting each leg high into the air and slamming it down.  The enthusiasm of the audience’s roar grows with the height and force of the wrestler’s leg lifting.  It’s quite impressive really!  The fights themselves are fierce, with wrestlers often emerging splattered in blood, and I noticed most of them had a cauliflower ear.

On Saturday I went to a squid festival in the next town with another ALT, where there were squid curtains all along the edge of the port and people cooking them over charcoal barbeques.  The fresh squid looked a bit weird flapping in the breeze.  I asked to take a photo of a man cooking some, and he let us have a go and then very kindly gave us the squid as a present!  We bumped into him again later and he insisted on buying us cake.  Foreigner advantages.  On Sunday there was another festival in Hirosaki which was much bigger, and displayed a float from the major festivals in each town in Aomori.  My favourite was Hachinohe’s Sansha festival float, which is huge and covered in colourful ornaments which gradually emerge out of the float during the procession.  The highlight of Japanese festivals for me though is probably the food stalls… There are so many tasty things on offer and it’s hard to be disappointed with what you get, unlike when you go to some kind of outdoor event in the UK and find yourself paying seven quid for a crap hotdog.  Someone recommended that we try ika menchi, which is a kind of minced squid fritter, so we did, and it was heavenly.  Afterwards we decided to check out Hirosaki castle as it was a nice day, and took a stroll towards the park.  The park is huge and famous for its cherry trees which are everywhere, so I can imagine it’ll look really impressive when Spring arrives.

I sent some postcards out the other day, and I just overheard my supervisor on the phone to someone from the post office… apparently I got the wrong stamps (I asked for postcard stamps but the lady in the shop gave me domestic ones instead of overseas, oops) and the post office found all seven of my postcards written in English and obviously knew they were mine!  A bit embarrassing.  Well hopefully they’ll get delivered soon… Anyway I should probably do some work now.  Here is a wee gallery of photos from the weekend:

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I’m also quite scared for the referendum tomorrow.  Obviously I’m completely against the idea of Scotland becoming independent, but if it does happen, it will be very interesting to see how that turns out – but probably not in a good way!  Fukaura reminds me of Broughty Ferry a lot and I’ve actually dreamt about being there a few times since I’ve lived here.  I’m getting quite nostalgic for Dundee!


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深浦町へようこそ!Welcome to Fukaura.

It’s been a week since I left home and even though I’ve only spent 3 full days in Fukaura, it feels like I’ve been here for ages (in a good way!)  Everyone at the BOE has been really kind and helpful to me since I’ve arrived, as well as my predecessor who left me lots of nice things in my apartment.  It’s bigger than I expected!  I remember hearing that many JETs only get one small main room and a bathroom area so I’m really happy with it.  I’ve just put up lots of cards and pictures so it feels a bit more like mine now rather than someone else’s place that I just took over.

A quick update on Tokyo Orientation: the talks themselves were very interesting but I found that lack of sleep + jet lag + listening to people tell me what they expected of me for 8 hours made it very difficult to keep both of my eyes focused on the same place and to stop my head from violently jerking upwards every time I realised I was falling asleep.  But other than that it was nice to get to know the other JETs from other countries, checking everyone’s badges to see if they were going to Aomori and squealing excitedly if they were.  We had Monday evening free and I was desperate to try karaoke so a group of us went down the road and found a place near the hotel.  I had SO MUCH FUN and can definitely see why it’s such a big thing in Japan.  My voice really hurt the next day…

Highlight of Tuesday was getting ice cream with Sasha as the orientation that day was sooo tedious and we were all tired and fed up by this point of being told how to bow properly and not to drink and drive.  In the evening we went to the British Embassy where we were served drinks and canapes – so civilised!  They also had Taiko players who were ok, but nothing on Norwich’s Taiko Centre East!  We all had a go at playing after their performance and it made me realise how much I miss it.  After we got the subway back to Shinjuku we went to the top floor of the hotel to see the amazing view of Tokyo at night.

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Too much wine

Too much wine

Tokyo at night

I think I prefer it at night!

Arrived in Aomori at lunchtime on Wednesday and was met by my supervisor, head of section at the BOE and my predecessor.  My supervisor had made a lovely big sign saying “How do you do Ellen Fraser” which he was dead proud of.  The scenery in Aomori was such a contrast to Tokyo.  There were huge forests and trees obscured by mist at the back of the shabbier-looking houses lining the road, and I could definitely tell we were in the middle of nowhere!  As Fukaura is about 1:30 away from Aomori airport, we stopped off at its nearest city Goshogawara for lunch then went to a supermarket, even though I had no idea what I needed.  I got some odd looks as I was all in business attire and as a foreigner it’s not hard to attract attention to myself in a normal situation anyway… They dropped me off at my apartment and I unpacked, met my lovely neighbour (who also went to UEA!) and her two young children who are hilarious and very cute.  I then fell asleep to the sound of cicadas and other weird creatures…

Thursday was the first time I met the rest of my colleagues at the Board of Education, who are all incredibly nice and welcoming.  I had to go around the building and give my self-introduction in Japanese to each section, which was probably somewhere between 10 and 15 times?  It took a long time… everyone is really respectful of each other here and it was nice for everyone to know who I was rather than have them think I was just some random foreigner that started working there.  Which I am but oh well!  I also met the mayor of Fukaura and he gave me some kind of tuna curry-making kit which I haven’t tried yet… A lot of the people at the BOE seem to keep getting me confused with another ALT who was here about 4 years ago, as our names are very similar!

View from the office

View from the office

After getting my bank account and phone sorted out, we went to the Shirakami-Sanchi site which is where Lake Juniko is, and had a joint party to welcome me and say goodbye to my predecessor.  The food was amazing and there were about 5 courses, all of which I ate thinking it was rude to leave it even though I was stuffed, then realised that everyone else had left half of theirs.  Oh well!

The starter

The starter

I spent most of the night speaking in Japanese as no one really speaks English there, and I felt like I’d improved a lot even after one day of being there and found I can make sense of the majority of what people are saying as well as when I’m watching TV, which is a really good feeling.  It was great to get to know the people I’ll be working with more and they even said they were relieved that I could speak some Japanese; it definitely made things easier for all of us!  I had to stand up and make a speech in front of them on the spot which was scary but apparently I did ok!  Speeches seem to be a big thing here… It’s a nice way of showing appreciation for something.

When I got my phone that day the salesman chose a really simple number for it, and my supervisor could not get over how easy it was to remember… he spent half the night showing everyone and calling me on Face Time haha.  I’m worried that if I call someone they’ll think it’s a dodgy caller as it only has about 3 different numbers in it!

Yesterday I spent the morning at the BOE not doing very much, then went for a test drive in my car.  I’d never driven an automatic before but it was pretty easy to get used to.  Later I got the train to Goshogowara for the Tachi Neputa, one of the major festivals in Aomori with huge lit-up floats hence the name ‘tachi’ which means ‘standing’.

Other side of the station

Other side of the station at Kitakanegasawa

The festival was really amazing, I have never seen anything like it.  The main street was filled with dancers and performers wearing happi and playing flutes and mini cymbals, with others hitting taiko drums and pushing the floats along, occasionally twirling them round to the crowd’s delight.  The side of the road was lined with different stalls selling street food like yakisoba, takoyaki and chocolate bananas so it was really hard for me to choose what to get!

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The floats are made of washi (hardened paper) and are about 72 feet tall, depicting scenes from Japanese and Chinese legends.  Photos don’t really do them justice!

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This isn’t a very good video but you get the idea.

When I was waiting for the train home a Japanese man approached me and we had an interesting conversation for a while, which I enjoyed until he started holding my hand so I told him to bugger off.  I got home and slept for 11 beautiful hours!  I dreamt that I was meeting one of my schools’ principals and I had to stand up and bow, and realised that I had got out of bed during the night and actually bowed in my sleep… It was so nice to have a day to myself today though.  I decorated my apartment a bit and made the 30 min walk to the convenience store along the highway and got many strange looks from people driving past.  All along the road there were these little pathways that went off into the forest leading up to various different shrines.  It was kinda creepy as it seemed that hardly anyone walks up there, and the fact the pavement was overgrown with grass and bushes a lot of the time.  On the way back I walked through the town and realised how beautiful Fukaura actually is, having had this image of it being a dreary ghost town, but really it’s just a quiet little place by the sea.  I’m yet to see one of its famous sunsets properly, so that will be my plan for tomorrow evening.  So overall, first impressions are pretty good!  I’ll make sure future posts aren’t as long as this one… I’ve basically just written 15% of a dissertation.  Sorry.