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?
Festival season ended a month ago, but I’m finally getting round to writing this post about the best festival in Japan… Aomori Nebuta! Recently I read that Aomori is the number one prefecture for festivals in Japan, followed by Kyoto. I haven’t been to any other major festivals in Japan, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if Aomori’s were the only ones I’d get to see.
The word ‘nebuta’ refers to the floats, which are pulled along the streets at night, occasionally being turned around on the spot to show off their beautiful designs. Legend has it that a shogun in Mutsu province used taiko and flutes to attract the attention of his enemies during a battle, which is one explanation for their accompaniment in the parade, although they’re more likely to have evolved from Shinto ceremonial traditions. (…I try not to let the truth ruin my beautiful image of Japanese shogun warriors using music to brutally kill each other.)
Depending on which city you go to, the shape and concept of the floats, as well as the festival vibe, are completely different. There are over 30 villages in the prefecture that hold their own festivals, but the three biggest ones are in Hirosaki, Goshogawara and Aomori City. In Hirosaki, floats shaped like fans, which depict large (and often gruesome) pictures on the front and an image of a beautiful woman on the back, signify the triumphant return from battle. The slow accompanying music and dancing make it the calmest festival of the three.
Goshogawara’s ‘Tachineputa’ floats (tachi meaning ‘standing) are an astonishing seven storeys high, displaying designs based on Japanese legends and mythical tales. Paraders with hand cymbals spur the watching crowds on, by dancing alongside them down the street and chanting“yatte-mare yatte-mare”. Tachineputa is much livelier than Hirosaki Nebuta, and probably my favourite because the floats are seriously cool. Unfortunately I couldn’t actually take any photos of the festival because I was lucky enough to play taiko in it with a local group of festival musicians! This was the same festival I went to last year, the second day after I arrived in Aomori as a new JET. The familiar music and smells coming from the food stands took me right back to when everything was new and exciting and I had no idea what I was doing. I remember standing among the crowds of spectators, eating my yakisoba in a happy daze even though I was by myself and couldn’t find any other JETs.
The main event however is Aomori Nebuta itself, held in the middle of the city. In my opinion the floats aren’t as spectacular as in Goshogawara mainly because they’re smaller, but it’s the colourful designs inspired by Kabuki theatre, Japanese and Chinese mythology, and sometimes popular modern characters that steal the show. Watching people jumping along in the parade is so much fun, and you can join in yourself if you’re wearing the right costume! (This is to stop naughty people trying to ruin the parade.) Below is a short video of me and my friend Yukako jumping in the parade. It was the first time she’d been to the festival in about 15 years, so we were both having an absolute blast. Definitely rent a costume and give it a go if you ever come up to see it!
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
Too much wine
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
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!
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 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!
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!
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.