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…
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.
In other news, I was on my way home from evening taiko practice thinking how great it was that I hadn’t scratched my car yet this winter, when I skidded on the ice and collided with a snow bank on the other side of the road. It was dark and the ice had refrozen into a sort of cheese-grater fashion, so this jolted my steering wheel and caused me to lose control; the already terrible breaks did nothing whatsoever, so my only choice was to let the snow bank take care of the situation for me. It was over very quickly and there was no time to swerve; I just remember veering off to the side and thinking “Oh shit”, then hearing and feeling an almighty bang as I was bounced up in my seat upon impact. The airbags burst out and my hip got bashed up against the steering wheel, but I knew I hadn’t hit my head. As the car started filling up with smoke I wasted no time trying to get out, panicking slightly as my door was jammed and wouldn’t open, but managing to crawl out the passenger side instead. The smoke smelled really bad, and after remembering that the engine was in the back of the car, I knew it was just coming from the airbags. Upon realising I couldn’t see anything, and in no apparent danger, I popped back in to retrieve the glasses that had flown off my face.
An old lady came hobbling out of nowhere to see what had happened while I was on the phone to my neighbour, and her Tsugaru-ben was too heavy for me to understand properly so I passed her over to tell my neighbour where we were. Luckily we were only 8 minutes from home so it wasn’t long before they came over. Meanwhile a family from the house right by the scene came out, whose 12 year old daughter had heard the crash from her bedroom. Even though it was bloody freezing, they stood outside and waited with me, bringing me a cup of tea and generally being lovely to me. Then we looked up and realised the concrete telephone pole had cracked so that it was bending slightly from the waist. Oops!!
When the shock started to set in, I started thinking all those horrible ‘What if’s, like if there had been a person or car there, would I have injured them? What if I’d hit the pole harder and it fell down?! But there was no pavement, and I knew that I always slow down if I see another car or pedestrian coming, so I hoped that wouldn’t have been the case anyway. I was going between 45 and 50km/h, which is probably the fastest I should have been going on icy roads (even with winter tyres), but luckily not fast enough to do myself any injury. Even my supervisor said he drives faster than that on the ice.
So it turns out that despite me thinking that I wasn’t allowed to use the town car for anything except work, this evidently wasn’t the case as my supervisor appeared to have no idea why I had rented a car at all. To cut a long story short, there was a misunderstanding and I can actually use it to go anywhere in Aomori, as long as I don’t have any passengers, I buy my own petrol for long journeys and I don’t leave it where I can’t get to it easily in an emergency. I already understood this, but the difference was I just thought I couldn’t use it outside work whatsoever. Oh well! Saves me a few quid. I had to spend the day at the BOE giving a detailed report of the incident. I didn’t get any points taken off my license because I didn’t do myself or anyone else any injury, wasn’t speeding or driving irresponsibly, and it was clearly the ice that caused the problem.
The man I rented the car from was so kind though and was barely making any money from me using it. It had to be scrapped, and I felt so bad that I wrecked his car not even having had it for a month. I made him a cake. I also felt a bit better when he said that I was his third customer that day who crashed one of his cars. A teacher at my school also wrecked his car that morning on the ice. It was clearly a bad day for driving!! Naturally, the next day was gloriously sunny and all the ice disappeared off the roads. At least this time I got myself in trouble I was only eight minutes from home, as opposed to 4 hours away by train in another prefecture.
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!
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.
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…
I’ve spent a lot of time blogging about life in Japan and my experiences with cultural differences, but I realised that I haven’t really written about what I actually do when I’m at school. I’ve heard many JETs complain about how being an ALT isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While I agree that the JET Programme could really do with some improvements regarding how ALTs are utilised at school, on the whole my teaching experience has been a positive one. In this post I’m going to give you a little insight into what happens at my three junior high schools.
My Tuesday school is the closest to home, a five-minute drive away. The first years are my favourite class, whom I teach in the morning, and I go to class a little early so that we can chat together. They’re all really adorable and friendly, and one of the few classes whose students actually come to the front to talk to me before we start the lesson! One of the boys loves talking about eating meat and tries to use it in an answer wherever possible, which always makes me laugh. Sometimes I bring in my Mudkip toy (known in Japan as Mizugoro) to throw at the kids to get them to answer questions. Every morning they run to my desk to see if I’ve brought him!
I get free rein to do whatever activities I like at this school, as long as they correspond with the grammar they’re currently learning in the textbook. The 2nd and 3rd years finished their books weeks ago, so I’ve been experimenting with different games for general English review. I’m trying to be more ambitious with my activities, so I made a Mario Kart game which we played last week. I cut out Mario characters for each team to choose, and made a variety of cards using items from the video game like Red Mushroom, Blue Shell and Banana Peel. The teams who wrote the right answer on their whiteboards had to janken (rock paper scissors) for a special card. It was a lot of fun, and refreshing to do something that didn’t involve worksheets for a change. The last round ended in the most intense Mexican standoff game of janken I’d ever witnessed, with the remaining boys screaming ROCK PAPER SCISSORS at each other and launching their fists into the ring like they were cracking whips. It ended with the leading team scoring a Red Mushroom (least desirable special card) and getting one extra roll of the dice, which only gave them a 1. The game finished with them landing on the last space before the finish line which had the whole class in hysterics. Definitely one of my best lessons!!
My Wednesday school is an hour’s drive away and the smallest with a total of 38 students. The students here are by far my favourites! The classes are so tiny and the whole school is like a family. In fact all my schools are like that; seeing such tightly-knit school communities is really lovely. There is absolutely no bullying and everyone is friends with everyone. Coming from a big high school where random kids would insult each other as they crossed in the corridors, it really amazes me how the size of a school can impact student relationships. Even the low-level kids don’t get picked on like they would’ve been at my school. But my Wednesday kids are my favourites just because they’re all hilarious and really energetic. They get to work on my activities with such enthusiasm and always laugh at my stupid jokes and drawings. One of the 3rd years is seriously amazing at English. He is one of my regular letter-writers (I have a box at each school) and the other day he wrote something along the lines of “…I wanted to ask you something but I forgot. Sorry, I’m getting all confused.” And I was like… where did he learn that?! Everyone else can just about say which sport they like best. I also like these kids because even though they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have a lot of entertainment available to them, they have awesome personalities and ambitions.
I like the teachers at my Friday school the most. I sit next to a teacher who’s about my age and has similar interests to me, so she’s really fun to talk to. I feel more like I’m part of the gang at this school, as I’ve been to more social events with the teachers here and I feel like I know them quite well. One of the teachers invited me to her wedding reception dinner (not the ceremony, which happened a few months earlier) and asked me to play the piano. Even though I didn’t actually play on the day because they all thought my arm was still bad and didn’t bring a proper keyboard, she asked me to play for her after school the next week. Some other teachers and students came to watch too, so I was rather nervous… the music teacher made me come out of a little side door like it was a proper performance, which I hadn’t done since my recitals at university!
My Friday JTE used to be my least favourite, as we got off on the wrong foot on my first day when I wore a pencil skirt that was too businessy and not schooly enough, and she was pretty cold to me for a while. But since then I’ve managed to win her over and I have a better relationship with her than my other JTEs. Back in November she did a lesson on Skype with my dad, which I couldn’t actually do because I’d broken my arm the day before and was sitting in hospital haha. I took some pictures of the students’ work though which is really sweet/hilarious/scarily realistic/a bit Walter White.
“We talked to Ms. Ellen’s father who’s in the UK!”
I really enjoy teaching at these schools and although it’s not something I want to do as a career, I can see why so many people want to be teachers. For me there are two things that make this job special: the first is when a student calls my name for help. The feeling of being wanted, of sharing your knowledge even if it’s just how to spell a word, of hearing someone tell you that they understand now because you helped them is a deeply satisfying thing. The second is the letters that I receive from students. When I get 30 letters at once all asking me if I know about some kind of video game, I know the teacher has asked them to write to me. I enjoy reading them, but replying with almost the same answer 30 times in a row gets a bit boring… The ones from students who send them because they actually want to talk to me are the best ones. Even though they’re usually all in Japanese, I always reply in English. I’ve had a few portraits done too!!
I covered all my letter boxes in old Beano comics. On this one I made sure the Bash Street Kids were on the front!
*AOL voice* “You’ve got mail!”
School lunches (kyuushoku) here aren’t bad either. Most Japanese schools don’t have a canteen, so all the students eat their lunch in their homeroom classroom. Lunch typically consists of some kind of soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables or salad, fish or meat and a carton of milk (which I never drink). 90% of the time it’s really good! 10% of the time I might get something pretty horrible like a gristly slice of pork covered in oil, or soggy takoyaki.
Standard Kyuushoku (not my photo)
I’m never deprived of snacks either. Once or twice a week, I’ll be presented with some kind of Japanese sweet as a souvenir of another teacher’s travels. I like this tradition of bringing tasty local delicacies to the office until I go travelling and it’s my turn to haul numerous boxes of them back for the teachers.
So these are the best things about teaching in Japan. Of course there are plenty of negatives, many of which I agree with. I used to find having so many free hours boring, but since I’ve really got into studying Japanese again and putting extra effort into making fun lesson plans, the days go by at an alarming rate! I’ve heard quite a few stories of why JET is a waste of time, and it may not be something I want to do forever, but I’m only going to focus on the positives for the rest of my time here. Sometimes it’s far easier to complain about things than appreciate what’s good, and complaining about something only makes me hate it more. Nearly seven months have passed now and I’m well out of the settling-in phase, so for the next year and a half I’m going to make everything I do count! With this in mind, I went for a walk during my lunch break in the beautiful sunshine, posted some letters, and finally visited the little cake shop I’ve passed so many times. The lady only stared at me at first as I browsed the selection of madeleines and manju, but then she smiled warmly and we struck up a conversation. I’ve made a new resolution to visit more of the little shops and restaurants in my town, even if I am terrified of eating alone and getting stared at by a load of fisherman. I’m used to it now…
Last weekend was absolutely gorgeous, and as I had no plans on Sunday, I went for a walk to the park I’d discovered at the top of a hill a few weeks back. As I was walking up the highway, I noticed a man looking up at the mountain side and whistling like he was trying to beckon something. I stopped to work out what he was looking at, and he shouted, “saru da!” (monkeys!) and waved me over. I crossed the road and he pointed to a family of macaques peering down at us from the mountainside. I’d seen some once on my way home from my little countryside school, when two of them were just chilling in the middle of the road. My friend told me he also saw a mother macaque and her baby in the road near his house once (he lives in a rural area up north on the peninsula). The mum ran into the bushes when she saw the car coming, but the baby didn’t move, so she ran back and slapped it round the head to get it off the road. Yep, I think I can relate to that baby…
So back on the highway, naturally this was the only time I’d gone for a walk without my proper camera, and none of my phone pictures came out well enough to show you, so I’ll try again next time. After chatting to the man for a few minutes, I carried on up the road with a smile on my face, and came to the hill that led to the park. The variety of snowy footprints along the secluded pathway showed no sign of man, so I knew I’d have it all to myself again. Last time I rolled a snowball that came up to my waist, but when I got there all that remained was a sad-looking stump. I could see tiny paw prints leading up to it about a foot away, which appeared to retreat once the inquisitor had decided that my snowball wasn’t really a threat.
This time the glorious sunshine had made me slightly mad with happiness, so I got my phone out and put Beyonce on YouTube, then danced around in the snow for half an hour. I hadn’t had fun like that in ages… it was quite liberating! I don’t know what I would’ve done if someone appeared at the park entrance, but all the times I’ve been for a walk up that way I’ve not once seen another person (except the man from earlier, but I think he lived in the house right next to the road).
Pathway to the park
Aaaall miiiiine! From the map on the right, it looks like some of these trees are cherry blossoms, so I can’t wait to come here in Spring!
On the way home, I listened to the radio on my phone as I didn’t have my iPod. I’d realised that I’d had little to no contact with the media (apart from news) since I’d left the UK, and even then I had a tendency to live inside my stone age music bubble, avoiding the charts because I couldn’t deal with the modern age. Anyway I was listening to the radio in the hope I’d discover some new music and it did not let me down. The first three records that were played were new to my ears, which have been blistered by Japan’s new national anthem aka Frozen’s Let It Go. I forgot how good new music can be! Japanese music is AWFUL. I can’t think of a Japanese artist or song I’ve heard and genuinely thought it was good. Okay so I obviously haven’t heard every Japanese artist and there probably are some good ones out there (maybe) which I haven’t heard, but I’ve listened to some of the more popular artists and they’re all naff… so it’s enough to put me off the rest of the churned out crap.
Aside from that little rant, I’ve really been enjoying my quest for new music. A couple of friends have made me mixtapes, I’ve bought new albums with birthday money and I’ve listened to more classical music in the last two months than I think I did during my whole music degree… During my dissertation research, I was trying to find out what it is about music that makes us enjoy it and make us feel emotional when we listen to certain music. One theory is that the element of hearing the unexpected is what triggers the release of dopamine by the brain, giving us that good feeling. When we listen to music, the brain predicts what’s going to happen by keeping a record of the twists and turns that have already occurred. This is a bit like having a conversation, as you retain the memory of what was said a few sentences back in order to make sense of whatever is said next. When something unfolds in the music and deviates from the brain’s prediction, it arouses the listener and consequently has an emotional effect. This can explain why listening to new music makes us feel good, but what about our favourite songs? I still get that emotional feeling after listening to a song I love for the 100th time. The emotional trigger could be a key change, a sudden shift in the pitch (particularly with singers), an unexpected transition from quiet to loud. There are A LOT of theories to do with this which I won’t go into now, but basically what I’m saying is, surprises are good, and new music is good for the brain! So your task for the week is to go out and buy the new album by that artist you’ve heard recently and think is quite good… then recommend it to me 🙂
I just read 24 Things That Will Make You Re-Consider Your Entire Existence, and while I do love killing my brain with impossible questions about the universe and beyond, questioning my own actions from the past is far more tortuous. I know how simple it would’ve been to say something different or choose the other option, but I’ll never know how that would’ve turned out. (Prime example: not saying “Let’s try again!” back in November when the first piggyback didn’t work…)
Last week the cold Aomorian weather got me contemplating what life would be like further south of the country. What if I hadn’t decided to put Aomori as my preference as I had done right at the last minute? At one point I’d been considering Shimane, which is completely the other side of Japan, right at the southern tip of Honshu. I made the mistake of looking at their JET website just now – beaches, islands, surfing, snorkeling… Sometimes it’s hard not to feel bitter about living where I do and compare it to other JETs’ lives and experiences around the country. But then again, most people only shout about the things worth shouting about. And in a way, I do the same thing – I take photos of beautiful scenery and anything that I think people back home might be interested in looking at, because I doubt anyone wants to see photos of the inside of an office.
How do I know somewhere like Shimane hasn’t got half of what Aomori’s got? They’re both two of the most rural prefectures in Japan, so the lifestyle probably wouldn’t be that much different. Living in a big city like Tokyo would be fun and I’d never be short of things to do, but would the cost of living hold me back from doing them? Maybe I wouldn’t feel like I had a place there. Fukaura’s not exactly the most glamorous place, but it can be remarkably beautiful.
Mt. Iwaki was looking especially fine on my Sunday stroll last week
Living in a small town means I get a lot of attention, and even though I get tired of being stared at and pointed at, sometimes people express their curiosity in a way that reminds me how some people here might never have travelled even as far as Tokyo in their whole lives. Part of the reason I’m here is to reduce the stigma towards foreigners in Japan, so the locals are bound to be interested when they see me roaming the streets with my ridiculous hair as I take photos of their jumbled up front gardens and the mountains they’ve seen every day of their lives.
Fukaura definitely scores points for incredible scenery and I’ll never live anywhere like it again, but its isolation does make me appreciate more where I grew up; I’ve been spoiled my whole life by living so close to the buzz of London, and just as easily being able to retreat into the countryside, but only now do I realise how lucky I was. I was close to so many things and didn’t take full advantage of them. Not just places near my house, but other parts of the UK and Europe. Driving 15 minutes to a friend’s house used to seem like effort, but now I’ll drive over an hour to see someone without thinking about it. A train to central London took 40 minutes, and the nearest city to me here takes 2 hours by train, even though it’s actually more like going to Kingston. A 3-hour drive to university was only considered worth doing twice a year, but now if there’s an event on the other side of the prefecture, I’ll happily drive that far in one day! Ain’t no mountain high enough… I imagine in most cases of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, it’s too late or too difficult to go back to what you had. But as this is only temporary and I hopefully didn’t break Surrey’s heart too badly by leaving, I can go back and see it through the eyes of an old Japanese fisherwoman with the vitality of a 23 year old, so I can do ALL the things.
However I’m trying not to miss home too much, as the two years I’ll be in Japan is nothing compared to the rest of my life in the UK (unless its course changes dramatically and I go to Australia, marry a surfer with freckles and tousled hair and spend the rest of my days hanging by the beach, which I’d actually be quite happy with).
So anyway, I may have the occasional rant about where I am, but to tell the truth I do actually like it here!! I’m even starting to enjoy winter… I’ve realised that wishing it away won’t help so I’m embracing the next two months of snow. I was going to write about my coping methods in this post, but it’s getting quite long now. I’ve had this one as a draft for about two weeks but keep having more to add, so I’m gonna try more frequent but shorter posts from now on. またね！
Chinese astrology predicts that the harmonious and yielding nature of the sheep will make 2015 a year of healing and improving the balance in the world. Seeing as I can’t remember a day last year where I read the news and didn’t read about some kind of tragedy or ongoing turmoil, and even now with the horrendous attack that just happened in Paris, it seems like we could all do with a bit of sheep in our lives!
I know I’m not someone who takes horoscopes and superstition seriously, but it’s quite comforting to read about all the nice things that are supposedly going to happen to me and thinking about how I could make them work. And if they’re not nice things… well, I don’t believe in horoscopes anyway.
My first Christmas in Japan was a quiet one. I took the day off on Christmas Day because I could think of nothing worse than frittering away the hours in the office when everyone else would be spending it being all cosy and opening presents and binge-eating. I managed to do all these in the company of some good friends who were also confined to Aomori’s snowy limits, but obviously it just wasn’t the same as being at home! I did however get to spend the day in my pyjamas, watching TV (even if it was 3 hours of Dr Who specials…) eating cake and exchanging Secret Santa presents. On New Year’s Eve I played Cards Against Humanity and ate pizza with some other ALTs which was a lot of fun. I started the New Year in Japanese fashion by driving with a friend to a shrine near Hirosaki where we prayed for a healthy and happy 2015. It was lovely to see so many families out and enjoying the first day of the year together, which is probably the Japanese equivalent of Christmas Day.
Entrance to the shrine
Bridge over the frozen lake to the shrine
Hirosaki Castle on New Year’s Eve
When I first arrived in Japan I’d wanted to spend Christmas and New Year abroad, but a combination of poor communication, breaking my arm and time creeping up on me meant that this never happened. I had a train ticket that gave me five days of travelling around Japan only on local trains, but it was only after I’d bought it that I realised what a pain in the arse it would be. It would’ve taken 18 hours to get to Tokyo compared to 3 if I’d got the Shinkansen… I decided not to use it but regretted my decision when the snow got bad and made going out a less than enjoyable experience.
However I’ve learned from my mistakes and booked myself a week in Beijing at the beginning of May! I also have a week off when Lindsey comes to visit at the end of March, travelling around Tokyo, Nara, Osaka and Kyoto. I’m planning to go to Vietnam at the end of July to meet up with a friend from home, and then in August I’ve decided to go home for two weeks as waiting until next Christmas no longer appealed to me very much! So I’m not suffering too much from lack of travelling. I’ve already started thinking about next year’s holidays… It’s helping me get through a very cold and rather miserable January anyway.
On my first day back at work, a mighty storm did rage… My drive to work is thirty minutes along a single winding road, pretty much along the edge of the cliff that meets the Sea of Japan. So when it’s pitch black, I can’t see five feet in front of me for snowflakes falling the size of my fist, I’m driving on an ice rink and the wind keeps buffeting me so that I take a little slippery detour every now and then, it doesn’t half stress me out. It also doesn’t help when idiots keep tailgating me the whole way. And I know it’s not just me because I see other drivers being tailgated too, which really infuriates me, especially when I clearly can’t see where the road is going in these horrendous conditions and some prat is up my arse telling me to get a move on. Thankfully the weather hasn’t been that bad since then!
This isn’t my picture but close enough. The snow was a lot heavier!
While some JETs are still enjoying their winter holidays, I have been spending the past week at the BOE doing very little, unless you count researching holidays and reading as being productive. I bought my first novel in Japanese the other day and I saw my first film in Japanese with no subtitles last week! It was only Baymax (or Big Hero 6 as you English people call it) so it was pretty easy to understand being a Disney film, but it was one of the best I’ve seen in a while. It had me and Alex cracking up into fits of laughter the whole way through and drawing icy glares from the people sitting nearby who clearly didn’t find it nearly as funny as we did. Obviously we couldn’t understand every detail, but it was still hilarious, heart-warming and heart-breaking all at once in that classic Disney way. Would recommend!
Hoshi no ouji-sama (the star prince)
My next endeavor is to read a whole book in Japanese. It’s a struggle and I spend more time writing down new vocab than I do actual reading, but it’s worth the happy feeling I get when I understand what’s happening, even if I have to read one sentence 10 times over before I finally get it. I can’t do too much at once though because my brain actually starts to hurt after a few pages!
While I’m trying hard not to count down the days until the snow melts and I get to see my very first cherry blossoms poking their heads out, waking up in a room where I can see my breath every morning and never seeing the light of day does make me long for a bit of sun and warmth. A healthy dose of cod liver oil, fluffy blankets and giant mugs of hot chocolate is seeing me through nicely so far though. I won’t despair too much yet as I still have another two months of this to go…