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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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.