Apple Country

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


A bruised bum is not a happy one

If I had to sum up the past three days in one word, it would be “pain”.  Immediately after writing that sentence, I felt the surge of pain in my tailbone just from shifting to pick up my mug of coffee.  I went snowboarding for the first time this weekend, spent the majority of the two days falling on my arse, and now must master the act of moping around the office with minimum effort whilst trying not to look like I’ve got a stick shoved up there.

The last and only time I’ve ever done a snowsport was when I went on a school skiing trip seven years ago and fortunately came away unscathed.  Evidently I hadn’t washed my snow jacket since then either, I realised when I put it on, pulling two slightly disintegrated tissues out of the pockets.   It was a bit muddy on the outside but at least it didn’t smell, and that was the main thing.

We set off for the mountain on Saturday morning, about 40 minutes away, and were greeted by a lovely blanket of fresh powder from the night before.  The snow has been in unusually short supply this winter, so I was glad I wouldn’t have to deal with hard icy slopes on my first day.  I exchanged my pass from last year that I couldn’t use, bought a helmet and we shuffled off to the bunny hill for my first lesson.

After three short runs down the “hill” with the help of Alex and Sam, it was decided that we all take the gondola to the top so I can try the real deal.  I was reluctant to leave the safety of the baby slope, but I had to move on at some point!  Even after half an hour of practice, I seriously felt the burn in my upper legs already from constantly being in a half-squat, so the twelve-minute lift ride up to the top was very much welcomed.

We got to the top and I looked down into the snowy abyss in horror, Sam reassuring me that it wasn’t as steep as it looked.  I strapped my bindings on, pushed myself up and summoned the confidence to begin edging down the slope, keeping my board horizontal for optimum braking power.  The only problem with doing it like that was that my muscles got tired extremely quickly, so I had no choice but to try picking up some speed and do more of a zig-zag pattern down the slope.

I faceplanted and stacked my way down the hill, until forty-five minutes later I was reunited with the bunny slope at the bottom, finishing with style by veering off towards the side of a building and breaking my fall on a nice patch of ice.  But I did it!  I knew it would be a mistake to go up for a second time because my legs just weren’t capable of holding me up like that anymore.  The more tired I got, the more I fell, and the more I fell, the more frustrated I got, so I called it a day and went for a nice soak in the onsen.

The next day I woke up to a sore neck but was surprised that my legs were actually ok.  All that yoga and cycling must have paid off!  I went down the same route on my first run, finishing in half the time than I did the day before.  We went up again and tried a different course, which was fine but I was already tired and found myself falling over a lot, more due to muscle fatigue than loss of balance.  This is when I started feeling the effects of falling on my arse so much and I had to make an effort to try landing on my side to even out some of the pain.  It was too late though, and hauling myself up after each subsequent fall was a serious struggle!  Then I ruined it by going too fast because I was too tired to brake properly, tried to stop myself at the last second and was flung head first into the snow, arms outstretched in front of me instead of bent at the elbows like they’re supposed to be.

“That was my arm…” I groaned into the snowy ground.  I wondered how long it would be before I did something bad to my broken one.  It hurt but I could still move it like normal, so I held it to my chest and gingerly made my way down the rest of the mountain for twenty-five minutes or so.  I was tired and pissed off, which slowed me down and made me fall even more, but I went slowly enough that I could control how I landed and managed to save my arm from any more impact.  After I eventually made it down to the base for lunch, with lots of encouragement from Alex who was kindly spurring me on, I stared glumly into my bowl of steaming ramen, wondering if it had been a mistake to snowboard knowing that my arm wasn’t 100%.

Yesterday was a national holiday so I had originally planned to snowboard again with the others, but instead decided to use the time to heal my poor behind at home and not risk further damage to my arm.  I was so sore that even trying to fart caused an outcry of profanities, so I treated myself to a day of chocolate and Playstation.  Then at around 4pm (Japan time) while I was listening to the radio, the DJ said the words “David Bowie” and “death” in the same sentence.  I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t.  You just don’t imagine someone like that ever dying.  I burst into tears at the total shock of it, especially when I realised he’d kept his suffering a secret from the public, and for the first time I felt a genuine loss at the death of someone I hadn’t personally met.  I mourned by drinking gin and belting out his songs for the rest of the evening.

Now my physical pain is slowly fading and I think I’ve convinced myself that my arm is okay, probably a muscle thing rather than bone, but it was a good reminder that I really need to be careful.  It doesn’t hurt when I squeeze it, only when I outstretch it to the right.  I’m glad the metal rod is still in there in case I did end up doing something to the bone… I’ve been wearing a helmet, but I’ve just ordered wrist guards and impact shorts because I think I’m definitely gonna need ’em, and I’ll wear my upper arm brace next time.  I’ve been feeling worried about getting on the slopes again, but it is really fun and as long as I don’t get carried away I should be ok!!



The weekend before last, Aomori AJET organised a cabin party at Hakkoda, a ski resort in the centre of the prefecture. There were about five cabins, with up to nine people staying in each one.  It was basically an excuse to drink, play games, have snowball fights and have an AMAZING breakfast the next day, thanks to the organisers who went to the American air base to get supplies.  We had bagels, peanut butter, bacon, BROWN BREAD!!!, eggs, waffles, nutella, Tropicana, cinnamon rolls… I love my daily porridge and banana but this was a very welcome treat.

The majority of people spent the next day skiing and snowboarding, seeing as we were right next to a ski resort.  Some people went a little further to Hakkoda, a slightly more notorious mountain known in particular for being covered in ‘snow monsters’.  The friend I came with had decided not to snowboard that day, so we headed over to Hakkoda to get the ropeway cable car to the top of the mountain.

It took about five minutes to get to the top in the cable car.  My friend and I were at the front of the queue to get on, so we nabbed the space at the front of the car and gazed out of the window as the trees receded into the distance and the glistening bay of Aomori gradually came into view.  It’s clear how Aomori got its name!! (Ao(i) = blue, mori = forest)


Gooooing up!


When we got to the top, we just stood and stared out at the 360 view of rolling hills and snowy forests.  I felt very at peace with the world.  Behind us, others were getting ready to ski down the mountainside.


Skiing through the snow monsters

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In contrast to the huge drop down in front of us, we turned around to see an expanse of white that seemed to stretch for miles into the distance.  Some people had strapped on mini-skis and were shuffling off for a snow hike.


The snow monsters were impressive, but up close they were beautiful.  The wind had frozen the snow into jagged crystals, which were beginning to melt in the sun.  It was so gorgeous that I joked about taking my coat off and lying down to sunbathe.  It didn’t sound as stupid once I said it out loud, so I went with it and it may have been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I found the perfect slope and lay out my coat.  Lying on the snow in my t-shirt, on a mountain, soaking up the sun in its beautiful blue sky, the only sound being the whisper of melted snow falling to the ground… ultimate bliss.  We stayed like that for at least half an hour until a cloud lurked over and it felt like the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees.  But it was lovely while it lasted.

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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!!


Blue Monday

No, not the New Order record, the other one: the third Monday of January, aka the most depressing day of the year.  It seems fitting; Christmas is long gone, it’s bleak, it’s STILL January, everyone’s given up their resolutions and Spring feels like it’ll never come.  I didn’t actually find out Blue Monday was a thing until the evening of, which made me realise why I’d had a bit of a crap day.

I had to take another day of holiday to go for a hospital checkup, but I got there early enough so that I could go back to work in the afternoon and would only need to take half a day.  (I’ve spent 7 days out of 20 at hospital so far, so I’ve come to appreciate any time I can save…)  Last time I went, my supervisor said if I got back in time I could come back to work, but it took forever so I couldn’t.  However this time I was done by 11 and could’ve easily made it back for 1.  So I rang my supervisor and told him I was coming back to work, and he basically said he’d already stamped the whole day as holiday leave so no-can-do.  He asked me if that was ok, and I was like “ermmm not really?!” but he clearly wasn’t going to do anything about it.  What annoyed me most was that he told me to “just go home and study”.  Well that’s the only thing I do at the BOE so why on earth would I do it at home on my supposed “holiday”??  I told my neighbour/colleague about it afterwards and she said she goes in and just crosses the stamp out if she decides to come back for half a day.  I was so annoyed.  Normally I wouldn’t care so much but I only have 4 days of holiday left and I kinda want to use them for doing things other than spending 3 hours waiting for someone to tell me that my arm has improved since last time.  My next appointment isn’t for another month thankfully so I really hope it’s the last one.

I’m usually terrible at holding grudges and it may seem silly to get worked up about losing half a day’s holiday, but it’s more the fact he could’ve done something about it and really just couldn’t be bothered to make a mess of his stamp book.  I’ve made sure my genki levels are lower than their usual standard/verging on bitch face.  But that’s probably more to do with the fact that my relationship with winter is beginning to suffer.  I finally felt like I was comfortable driving on the snow and ice, until I was coming back from hospital on Monday and somehow completely lost control of my car.  I’d learned when to recognise when my car was going to skid and before I’d always managed to control it, but this took me off guard (probably because I was mad about having to go home) and I veered over to the other side of the road, yanked the wheel so I could get back onto the left side, started hurtling towards a snow pole, yanked the wheel to avoid it and ended up hitting it with my rear fender before gliding into a snowy bank so I could actually come to a stop.  THANKFULLY there were no cars on the other side otherwise the situation would’ve been a lot worse… I got out of the car with a groan and gingerly prodded the area around my back wheel.  The fender was slightly loose but not enough for me to care or tell anyone.  I drove to the video rental place in a slight daze and treated myself to two of my favourite films in Japanese… Disney’s Hercules and Inglourious Basterds.

So now I hate the roads again.  They are particularly treacherous the day after a snowfall, and it takes me 50% longer to get anywhere because I now drive like an obaa-chan in fear of skidding again.  I’ve stopped caring about my loyal following of tailgaters; as long as the road feels like someone hacked up an ice rink with an axe, I’d prefer to drive slow enough that I don’t risk crashing into the side of the cliff.  Counting down the days until the snow melts at the end of March!!


Enter the Sheep

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.

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

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…

Happy new year!