Apple Country

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


Kanazawa and Kobe

After five leisurely hours on the Shinkansen, I arrived at my first stop, Kanazawa.  I have always been drawn to this city for some reason, maybe because I’ve heard it being compared to Kyoto a number of times, and I love all that cobbled streets and teahouse district stuff.

Upon leaving the station, I immediately felt like I was in some kind of small but refined European city.  The buildings were glassy and sleek, cobalt and mahogany.  Sharply-dressed businessmen chatted in pairs as they walked down the street.  The thing that struck me most though, was how quiet it was.  There was hardly any traffic, and everyone went about their way in a composed manner.  I’d heard that Kanazawa was a reserved city, due to it being so hard to access from other parts of Japan until recently, which would also explain its traditional feel.

Not wanting to waste my first evening, I got a taxi to drop me off at Higashichaya district, where all the old teahouses are.  Unfortunately all the shops were shut, and it was extremely quiet, which in a way made my stroll around the area more pleasant.  The hustle and bustle of Kyoto wasn’t there, but the soft glow of light against the sliding front doors created a lovely quiet ambience.

The next day I rented a bike and immediately set off looking for a French toast place that one of the hostel workers recommended to me to have breakfast at.  (I went for the lemon curd French toast, although was intrigued by the potato salad with walnuts and honey one, which the menu assured me was “a surprisingly delicious combination”…)

Kenrokuen was next on my list, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (another of which I’ll see in Okayama this weekend).  Midday probably wasn’t the best time to go as it was absolutely sweltering, but the trees created a welcome shade and I had green tea flavoured kakigouri (shaved ice with syrup) so that cooled me down a bit.

I hopped back on me bike in search of the sushi place the guy on the train told me about.  It was a take out place with an old lady watching TV inside while she waited for customers.  I called through the glass hatch and asked for eel with cucumber, and it seemed a shame to only order one, so I got one filled with octopus and tartare sauce as well.  Maybe I should open my open shop at home?!

I pedalled off to a different teahouse district, wondering if it would be any different.  Nope, just smaller and fewer shops.  I thoroughly enjoyed riding my bike on the way through the residential areas, as there were so many streams that the houses had been built so that little bridges connected the main road to their front doors over the water.  I went to a tiny museum about a Japanese author I’d never heard of, who wrote an extremely succesful book when he was about 21, went insane from the fame it brought him and died in his early thirties.  The museum worker was very keen to take my picture sitting in the author’s living room, so that was fun.

I got severely judged when I bought a chocolate soft serve ice cream from a very posh chocolate shop where three ladies in black suits were working.  Probably because I was wearing a Marvel T-Shirt and demin shorts, also looking a bit sweaty from being out in the blazing sun, but I didn’t let their cold service ruin my enjoyment of demolishing the ice cream.  It did make me miss friendly Aomorians a little, though.

Finished the day at the 21st Museum of Contemporary Art, which I only really wanted to go to because of its exhibit, The Swimming Pool.  I made the mistake of getting a ticket for the temporary exhibition, which was about three artists from Korea, China and Japan, who created a fictitious state where people who love art could live, called Xijing.  Some of the installations were quite fun, like their Winter Olympics room, where a video showed two of the artists having a fencing match with feather dusters.  Some of it was a bit too weird though, like the room where a man in a bunny costume was lying down on the floor.  The sign said he was an illegal Korean immigrant and was being paid to lie there for seven hours a day.  I enjoyed the Swimming Pool though, both looking over the surface at the people “swimming” underneath, and getting to go under it myself so I could feel like a mermaid.

Click on the link for photos as I don’t have any room left on my WordPress account 😦

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On Wednesday I headed for Kobe where I just had one night planned.  I got there in the evening, and went off to find somewhere to eat Kobe beef.  I got to a restaurant, the first customer of the evening, sat down and looked at the menu.  There were two options: 8,500 yen (£64) beef or 10,000 yen (£75) beef.  There’s nothing more awkward than having to apologise and leave a restaurant because you’re not carrying enough cash.  I opted for a safer-looking Italian place and ordered the nicest beef they had there, with garlic butter sauce.  I had summer vegetable and eel fritters with miso sauce for starter, which was absolutely delicious.  The beef was a little disappointing; it was very fatty and took me about five minutes to chew each piece.

Eager to experience some nightlife, I walked over to Harborland to see the pretty lights and stuff.  It was a lovely area for a stroll, with lots of little shops lining the deck and the reflections of the Port Tower and other illuminated buildings reflected in the water.  As I was sitting on a bench with my iced tea, Queen’s I Was Born  To Love You suddenly began playing over to my left, and bursts of water shot up into the air in synchronisation.  There were lasers, coloured lights and pyrotechnics, all jumping out of the water to the beat of Queen like performing dolphins.  I have no idea why it was happening, and one of the workers at my hostel said she’d never heard of something like that either.

I was going to go back the next morning, but the beef didn’t agree with me during the night and I was a bit sick in the toilet of my shared hostel dorm.  I decided to have an easy morning, but it was so hot and I forgot it was a national holiday, which meant by the time I got near Harborland you couldn’t move for people.  I had a quick lunch, got my stuff at the hostel and headed to my next stop, Takamatsu, a little earlier than planned.


Despite the people on the Shinkansen from Kobe to Okayama being packed liked sardines, I managed to get a seat at my transfer and felt a sense of relief as I watched the scenery change to rice fields and trees again.  Crossing the bridge over the sea to Shikoku, seeing all the little islands and fishing boats dotted around, I realised how much big cities stress me out.  I’m so glad I got to spend two years in the countryside, even if it did seem boring sometimes.


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!


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?



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.


An Introduction to Rice Planting

Well, it was really just fifteen minutes of the mayor of Inakadate praising the crowd turnout and good weather, followed by lots of motivational rice-themed dancing with the town mascots singing “kome kome kome kome” (rice rice rice rice) before all 1200 of us were unleashed into the fields.  We had no idea what we were doing, then someone chucked us each a slab of rice seedlings, and away we went pushing them into the lines of holes that had been marked out for us.  The mud was lovely and warm and squishy on my bare feet, but unfortunately gave me hobbit feet for nearly two weeks after, no matter how hard I scrubbed.

When the rice grows, it will become a lovely piece of art!  We didn’t plant the coloured sections because I suspected we as volunteers couldn’t be trusted.  Suspicions  confirmed when teenagers started throwing the mud at each other and got a telling off from sensei.  The tradition of rice art started here in Inakadate about twenty years ago, using different coloured rice strands to create a picture which is viewed from the top of the building next to the fields.  Last year the rice art theme was Star Wars and Gone With The Wind (bit of a random combination), and this year it will be two characters from a Japanese drama I have no idea about, and Godzilla!


Cultural challenges

Occasionally I’ll come across misspelled gems when I’m marking students’ work or looking over their shoulders in the classroom during a writing task.  This week has been particularly amusing, starting with Monday when I was marking writing exercises using the passive tense.  Conjugating verbs into the passive is a pain in the arse for anyone learning English thanks to all the irregularities, so I sympathise.   I asked the students to think of a person or object and write three hints about it so others could guess what or who it is.  I’m glad I put my coffee down when I read the last one from my pile of papers, which said, “He was boned by my mother.”  It took a while until my JTE and I realised he was trying to say “borned by”.  The logic was there at least.  やっぱり英語って難しいな~。

Yesterday we were making sentences like “I (do ~ ) when I’m happy/sad/bored etc”.  One student wrote “I crap when I’m happy.”  Of course I never actually laugh at the students, but I can’t help having a quiet giggle to myself.  I feel for them though, R and L are really hard to distinguish from a Japanese perspective.

There’s one 2nd grader (13 years old?) who is hilarious and will always beckon me over for a chat when I’m walking around the classroom making sure people are getting on ok with the task.  He is so determined to speak English even though most of what he says is one word questions or mostly gestures, but despite this we end up having some pretty interesting conversations that usually just result in him asking in Japanese and me replying in English, so at least he can use his listening skills.  Yesterday he asked me what surprised me most about Japan when I first got here, and I said the level of customer service.  Japanese shop assistants treat you like a VIP, from the precise way they handle your money to the honorific language that they use.  In contrast, I told him that shop assistants in the UK might have a little chat with you and ask about your day or even compliment you on something you’re wearing.  Both countries have their negatives though; in Japan I feel like I’m being served by robots because everyone says the same few set phrases, and in the UK sometimes I just get completely ignored throughout the whole transaction.

I love these little exchanges of culture because it makes me appreciate both sides instead of just taking one for granted.  It still makes me sad though how most Japanese people I’ve met, including the students, have never left the country or just have no interest in going abroad.  We actually did a lesson on opinions the other week, and one question was “Do you think English is important?”.  I was a little disappointed to see that over half the class wrote that they didn’t think so.  The majority of the reasons were along the lines of just not wanting to go abroad, but one student simply wrote 日本人だから。 (because I’m Japanese.)  Cue eye roll.   This lack of open-mindedness does make me realise why foreigners get such bizarre treatment a lot of the time in Japan.  Yes, Japan is a special country full of interesting food and culture, but internationalisation is a thing, even if it happens more in other countries than here.  One thing that stands out is the NEVER ENDING COMMENTS about how amazing it is that foreigners can use chopsticks or eat sushi.  One of my principals spent half the evening at a teacher’s gathering asking me if I could eat such and such Japanese food, then practically wetting himself when I said yes.  He couldn’t believe it when I said we could easily buy soy sauce, noodles and tofu in UK supermarkets.  He leaned over to the other teachers and exclaimed how miraculous it was that I could eat rice.  He brought a bowl of a variety of spinach to school once, slapped me on the shoulder instead of using my name and told me to try it.  He stood behind me as I ate, saying “How crazy is it that foreigners can eat this stuff?!  She probably won’t like it.” while the teacher next to me said, “Actually, I’ve never tried it either.”

Of course not everyone is like this, and this is probably a more extreme case of alienifying foreigners, but even in a subtler form it puts me off staying here long-term.  I love my life here, but I’ll be relieved to be back home when I can blend into the crowd again and not feel like a special snowflake.


Golden Week in Bangkok and Chiang Mai

Praise Japan and its generous number of public holidays.  This year’s Golden Week had a total of four holidays, which worked out that if you took two days off work as paid leave, you ended up with a rather tasty ten-day break!  Eager to cross off the next country on my travel bucket list, I rounded up three friends and began planning a trip to Thailand: three days in Bangkok and four days up in the mountainous city of Chiang Mai, with a day in Tokyo and two days travelling/recuperating at the end.

In March I posted about the plum blossoms in Kameido Shrine and how I wanted to go back for the wisteria festival – so that’s what we did in Tokyo!  It was significantly busier, but the weather was superb for a spot of terrapin-watching and gorging on freshly baked sweet potato chips and mochi.

As our other friends booked the wrong plane tickets, Lauren and I spent the first morning wandering around town.  We had a bit of a hectic arrival at 2am when the taxi driver couldn’t find the apartment we were staying at.  We ended up getting a different taxi who tried to rip us off at the end, which I was having none of.  The first taxi cost us 350 baht from the airport, despite dropping us off in the completely wrong location, and the second didn’t put the taxi meter on so he decided to charge us 500 baht instead of the 80 or so it should have cost us.  Luckily I’d done my research and knew about this habit of theirs, so after suggesting we give him 100 baht and being consequently laughed at, I gave him 200 and an angry rant about how we were tired, annoyed and not in the mood for his shit.  Whether he understood my English or not, he got the message.  Lauren said she was going to just cough up the 500 and leave, but decided from then on she would definitely leave the haggling to me!  You don’t mess with a Fraser.

I feel like I’m going to write too much so I’ll aim for a quick summary of each day!  EDIT: Oh well I tried.

Day 1: Tried to find a cafe from Tripadvisor – failed.  Tried to find the place where you get a massage from a blind person – failed.  Someone yelled “ELLEEEEEN!” from the middle of the road, it was Mina (another Aomori JET friend) who was standing next to a car with its hazards on, parked dubiously in the middle of a roundabout.  We ended up driving over an hour north of Bangkok with her Thai friend to Ayutthaya to see an awesome temple.  It rained and the roads were flooded, which was scary, but we got to see a floating market and some weird stunt show depicting the battle between Myanmar and Thailand.  We finished the evening with a Thai massage, where my body was pulled and stretched in ways I never knew possible, then tried to find some street food for dinner.  We stumbled into a bit of local territory and couldn’t read any of the signs or menus, but luckily we came across Mina’s Thai friend who had just bought some dinner for his parents.  He ordered us all Pad See Ew for 40 baht each (about 80p), which was cooked at the front of what looked like someone’s garage and served on plastic plates from Tesco, and it probably remains the best thing I ate all week.

(The first four photos are from our day in Tokyo.)

Day 2: Sam and Alex arrived in the early hours, didn’t get off to a great start when Sam realised she left her phone in the taxi and we had to sort that out.  We got it eventually though!  Spent the day at Chatuchak market, which sells EVERYTHING, but we probably spent the most money on food and fruit smoothies.  I am in love with Thai food.  There is such a variety of dishes, everything is so sweet and spicy and fragrant, which is a wonderful change from the same dishes that get repeated over and over in Japan.  For our first lunch of the day, I ordered a spicy crab and green mango salad and shared a coconut ice cream in its shell with Lauren.

Day 3: Had a lazy morning while we packed up to go to Chiang Mai.  Decided to hit up Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha, which was too long to get a decent photograph of!  He was sort of lying behind all these pillars, so you got to see different sections of him as you walked down the side.  It was ridiculously hot, and we took shade under the trees in the temple courtyard. Caught the plane that evening and had a nice dinner at our hotel, the Rainforest Boutique.  It really felt like a holiday when we started drinking coconut rum out of a coconut with a cocktail cherry on a stick.

Day 4: Lauren suggested we go to the Royal Gardens in the morning.  We were probably the first ones there, so it felt a bit eerie walking around with the loudspeakers playing instrumental versions of Kiss From A Rose and November Rain.  We got a taxi back, which was more like a red truck with no door on the back that you just hopped in through and sat on the bench inside.  We soon realised these were the norm in Chiang Mai, and to hail one you have to ask the driver if they are going in the same direction as you.  If not, try a different one!  For lunch we all tried the Chiang Mai speciality, Khao Soi Gai, which is noodle curry soup with crispy fried noodles sprinkled on top.  Back at the hotel I got an aromatherapy massage, but wasn’t feeling great and thought I was coming down with something.  My fears were confirmed when the masseuse looked at me worriedly and said she thought I had a fever…

Day 5: I woke up feeling like crap on the day we were due to see the Elephant sanctuary, the day I’d been looking forward to most.  I almost didn’t go, even put my pyjamas back on and resigned myself to bed feeling a bit sad about my predicament.  Then I thought “fuck it” and got up and went.  Who knows if I’d be able to get this opportunity again?!  I could just sweat the fever out!!  It must have worked because when we were outside my back felt like a waterfall and I didn’t feel as bad later.  (Also probably due to it being 38 degrees.)

The Elephant Nature Park was for elephants who had been rescued from a lifetime of pain in the circus, at tourist attractions where they were forced to “paint” pictures, carry people on their backs for treks and carry logs through the forest.  We were shown a very disturbing video on the way there in the minibus of the elephants’ previous lives – I was a complete emotional wreck and couldn’t watch!  I suppose I hadn’t really considered how badly they were treated in order to become submissive enough to let tourists ride on their backs or do stunts in a show, so to know the whole truth was very overwhelming.  It made me glad I chose to see them enjoying their lives in peace, with endless supplies of watermelon and pumpkin to keep them happy.  Some were blind, some had missing ears, some had broken legs that had healed badly so they had to limp.  One poor thing had stepped on a landmine and had her foot blown apart.  There were many dogs at the park too, most of which had been rescued during the floods after the earthquake five years ago.  We were allowed to feed and touch some of the friendlier elephants, which was amazing.  We held out halves of watermelon at the beginning of the day for the elephants to take from us with their trunks – they were so rough; it was the strangest feeling!  I loved the sound their trunks made as they curled the food away into their mouths, like a huge sheet of sandpaper being swept over a smooth rock.  I loved watching the other elephants eating huge stalks of grass, lifting it up with their trunks and absent-mindedly stuffing it in their mouths at all sorts of awkward angles, then just letting it fall to the ground if it didn’t fit in properly.  We got to see a three week old baby elephant and its mum too, which was gorgeous.  At feeding time, another young elephant ran over and trampled all through the watermelon, closely followed by one of the dogs who had come to investigate.  We had an amazing vegetarian buffet lunch, then finished the day giving the elephants a bath in the river and relaxing on the viewing platform to see them play in the mud.

Day 6: Sam and Alex had plans to go to Tiger Kingdom to see the tigers, but Lauren and I didn’t fancy it (paying to see tigers in cages had us suspicious for a number of reasons) so we enrolled in a Thai cooking class (it was called Thai Orchid cooking school) for the day instead.  Our teacher was lovely and let us choose from a number of dishes.  I made fresh spring rolls, Tom Yum Kung, Penang curry, Pad Thai and a steamed banana cake with cocount.  During the break the teacher took us down to the market, where she told us about traditional Thai herbs and spices, let us try unusual fruits and have a wander around.  We tried durian, which tastes better than it smells… The texture was creamy like an avocado and it tasted like a ripe papaya with a strong hint of garlic.  Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten!  My favourite was the mangosteen, which tasted like lychee.  That evening we explored the night market and stocked up on more elephant trousers and souvenirs.

Day 7: We had no plans for our final day in Thailand. so we found a nice cafe on Trip Advisor to go to for lunch.  It was too early to eat when we found it, but we happened upon a beauty salon and decided to get our nails done while Alex went for a wander.  Our sleeper train to Bangkok left at 5, so we said our goodbyes at the hotel and headed to the station.  At about 7:30, the train guard came to make our beds, pulling out seats and compartments to make bunk beds on either side of the carriage.  It was surprisingly comfortable!  I would’ve slept better if the train guard hadn’t been in the next bunk over, making the weirdest snoring sounds I’ve ever heard in my life, like hundreds of farting butterflies were being expelled from his mouth.  12 hours of travelling down and 24 to go, we hung around at the airport until our flight back to Tokyo was ready, then when we had safely landed it was straight to Shinjuku to catch the night bus back to Aomori.  I was dreading it, but I thankfully I slept like a baby and felt only a bit gross when I finally got home.

I’m really keen to explore the southern parts of Thailand, definitely need to visit a few beaches, so I’m sure I’ll be back.  Wouldn’t mind if I missed Bangkok though – it was fun, but a typical touristy city.  I just want more mango and sticky rice.


Iwate Roadtripping

Not wanting to waste the few 3-day weekends I have left in Japan, a friend and I decided to spend one by going on a road trip around Iwate prefecture.  After Hokkaido, it’s the largest prefecture in terms of area, but its lack of any major sightseeing spots means it’s not exactly number one on the list of places to visit in Japan.  It does however offer a stunning coastline and a few really interesting touristy places that we planned our trip around seeing.  Recently I’ve started to appreciate just walking or driving around an area and taking in the scenery, pausing to explore off-road if something catches my eye.

Over three days we spent about 12 hours driving (not including the 7 hours of driving to and from Alyssa’s house that I did!) so we definitely got a good feel for the area.  Our impressions were that Iwate seemed a lot tidier than Aomori; even in the depths of the countryside, the houses were decorative and built in the traditional Japanese style, with neat thatched roofs and sturdy-looking wooden features.  In Aomori, there is a significant amount of abandoned houses, or ones that are in desperate need of some love and attention.  (I may or may not write a blog post about this, so just in case I don’t, this article explains the housing situation in Japan quite well:

On the first day of our journey we went to Goshogake Onsen up in the mountains.  We were going to go for a hike too, but the path was closed for winter due to snow, so we just spent extra long in the onsen.  The baths were fantastic, but the highlight was the volcanic mud bath, where we sat on tiny slippery stools in the water while some nice old ladies treated us to a lovely muddy massage.  We left with skin as smooth as a baby’s bum.

There was a lot of driving done that day, so we finished up in Morioka, Iwate’s capital.  There wasn’t really anything we wanted to do, so we had some dinner at a cute Hawaiian restaurant and set up our car hotel for the night.  It was my first time sleeping in a car, but with all the duvets and futons and pillows we piled in there, it was super cosy and way more fun than sleeping in a bed!  We made the mistake of parking in a car park outside the mall, which I realised after coming back from a toilet trip to see two security guards making their way over to the car with torches in hand.  We moved swiftly on to a conbini car park with no problems.

We woke at 6 and headed out straight after we bought some breakfast from the conbini next to our car.  The great thing about sleeping in a car is that you don’t have to wait  for people to get ready or pack their stuff, so we were continued off in no time.  We drove a couple of hours south to Geibikei Gorge, stopping on the way to check out an interesting shrine that Alyssa spotted, and then hopped on the first boat tour of the day.  Our tour guide was hilarious and worth the trip alone, but the only disappointment was that we came at exactly the wrong time of year, as everything was a bit post-winter-dead.   March is unfortunately too late for seeing the magnificent icicles that drape down the sides of the gorge, and too early for any greenery or flowers to give the rocky surroundings a sense of life.  I did get to try wasabi ice cream though, which I debated for a while.  Would a spicy radish really make a good ice cream flavour??  We asked the tour guide, who said he had tried all the flavours on offer, and that the wasabi’s spiciness was choudo ii – just right.  I can confirm that it was!

Our next stop was at Tono, a folk village, on the way to Miyako city.  It was interesting, but all the little reconstructed houses started to look the same after a while.  We drove on through the windy mountains before dusk towards Miyako for dinner, stumbling upon a nice izakaya where we sat at the bar and were treated generously by the master.  He tweaked various dishes for Alyssa, who’s vegetarian, and even gave us dessert and some plum liqueur on the house, because he said he was happy we came all this way to his city.  At night we drove down in the dark to the beachfront of Jodogahama, where we could just about make out the rock formations in the water in front of us.  We laid out the futon in the car and set our alarms for sunrise.

We woke at 5:30ish, grabbed a hot drink from the vending machine and found a good spot on the beach to wait for the sun to rise.  It was gorgeous and well worth the early start!  The rest of the day was spent winding along the coast, stopping at Ryusendo Caves, where we got up close and personal with some bats after I nearly bashed my head on one under a low passageway.  Driving the scenic route highlighted just how much construction work was still going on five years after the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami disaster.

Our trip ended with the nicest weather we had all weekend, perfect for the gorgeous cliffs at Kitayamazaki and some delicious cliff-shaped curry and rice for lunch.



(A month late… I will get back into posting, I promise!!)

Last year I spent the evening of my birthday drinking wine in the bath.  This year I sat in a jazz bar eating sushi and being charmed by a drunk Japanese businessman.  Both years were enjoyable, but I think I can look forward to my birthdays again if they all turn out to be as fun as this year’s!

Every Tuesday I meet my barber friend for English/Japanese practice, so I was planning on just going out for some food with him and my friend in the next town over.  At the last minute he suggested we go to his sister’s bar in Hirosaki, I imagine because the restaurant I originally wanted to go to is owned by his wife and he’s probably sick of it!  We picked up Lauren and drove over an hour through a snowy blizzard to get there.

Like a lot of bars in Japanese cities, it was situated down an alley underneath a building full of other bars; the inside was only big enough for a handful of people but didn’t feel cramped at all.  There were five or six bar stools of the worn-out suede variety, surrounding a sunken bar area where the mama in her black crochet shawl and red lipstick stood puffing on a cigarette.  She welcomed us in, chatting away as she poured us some whiskey and the other lady pottered around in the kitchen out back, bringing us little dishes of food one by one.    We had sushi, nabe, pickled vegetables and a little bowl of pork soup, followed by a kind of fruit pastry cake.  I wasn’t expecting any of it, so it was a lovely gesture and truly appreciated!

Toshiya said he wanted to hear me play something on the piano, so I brought some music just in case because I am one of those people who lack the ability to memorise any music worth listening to.  The time came, and I played my failsafe Nocturne No. 9 by Chopin; probably not the kind of thing that they hear in a jazz bar very often, but it was fun to play for people again.  When I finished, I saw that we’d gained an audience member in the form of a rather drunk salaryman, which explained the distant cheering I heard halfway through playing.  He proceeded to entertain us for the rest of the night, despite repeating half the things he’d already said, and gave the other bar mama some money to go out and buy me flowers from him.  Lucky me!

It makes me so happy to have friends like Toshiya; it’s thanks to the hospitality of Japanese people in the community that let me do things like this.  Even though I find it hard to befriend Japanese people in my tiny town, I’m glad to have met the handful of friends I do have.


Hakodate Take 2

Every year after the Skills Development Conference in Aomori City, a group of JETs jump on a ferry and head to Hakodate, a city on the southernmost tip of Hokkaido, just a four-hour journey away.  It’s known for its delicious seafood, beautiful scenic views, kitsch burger chain Lucky Pierrot, and more recently as the place where I broke my arm in an unfortunate piggy-back accident.

Despite the many hilarious jokes about broken bones thrown in my direction, I decided to try again and accomplish what I couldn’t last year.  In Japanese this is called リベンジ (ribenji i.e. revenge): a classic case of Japanglish where it’s just… not quite.  Another example of this, which I came across the other week, was when I asked my friend how I could say “repetitive” in Japanese, and he suggested ワンパターン (wanpataan i.e. one pattern).  “This song is catchy but so one pattern!”  Hmmmm maybe not.

I find it interesting how English words make it into the Japanese vocabulary, and I get where they’re coming from but it probably wouldn’t directly be translated like that.  I wonder if we use foreign words like that and don’t realise that’s not how they’re used by native speakers??  Anyway, I digress…

This time in Hakodate I didn’t break anything and I got to see all the sights I wanted and eat everything I came for, including market seafood breakfast, Hokkaido curry, teriyaki burgers, miso curry milk ramen, gyoza, ice cream and crepes.  Parts of Hakodate made me feel like I was walking around Disneyland: the cobbled streets, the tram system, the pink winter sky at sunset, the pretty pastel facades and red brick warehouses, the tinsel hanging from old-fashioned street lamps, the bustle of people by the port… it felt Western but in a weird, nostalgic, not-quite-genuine way.  It’s probably something to do with how 150 years ago, Japan’s 220 years of isolation was ended when Hakodate became the first port to be opened to the public, which brought over many Western influences.  The pale blue and yellow paneling of the old British Consulate in particular felt like a Disneyland attraction.

One night before going on the ropeway to see the night view, we walked around a hilly district called Motomachi, which was full of churches.  We came up to the Russian Orthodox church just as mass was beginning, and we got to hear the bells ring.  They weren’t like any church bells I’ve heard before, and with the clouds lit up by the moon like smoke and the trees with their spindly branches looming over us, it made the atmosphere really eerie!  Alexander and I ruined it though by projecting shadow puppets onto the side of the church.

Highlights of the trip were my 2000 yen (£11) seafood breakfast in the market  which I had twice! (freshly caught sea urchin, cod roe, scallop, squid and crab on a bowl of rice), strolling around the waterfront at night, having Japanified afternoon tea at the British Consulate, doing karaoke in a tiny bar, having an evening of games, drinking and eating in our rented apartment, seeing the night view of Hakodate, and generally being with great friends and getting to know new ones.  I’m glad this time things worked out in my favour!!


Golden Week in Beijing

Arriving in China felt very strange.  It was the first time I’d left Japan and hadn’t been to another country in Asia until then.  For some reason I expected China and Japan to be quite similar, mainly because a lot of Japanese culture has its origins in China, but apart from that I was very wrong! I got into a taxi from the airport and showed the driver my hostel’s address.  He took one look at it, then turned to me with a bewildered look on his face and let out a loud “HUH?!” in my direction.  He chewed his gum loudly while I pointed at the hostel’s address at the top of the page. I was a bit taken aback and suddenly missed the Japanese taxi drivers with their white gloves and smart caps, who smile politely and apologise gently when they’re not entirely sure where it is I want them to take me.  But on the other hand I found the people in Beijing refreshing as I spent more time there.  They aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and everywhere I went people were having lively conversations in the streets or playing checkers outside their front door, flying kites or riding bikes with speakers that blared out Chinese music as they sailed past me in the road.

One major cultural difference I did not get on with was the amount of gobbing on the streets.  I heard that unappealing sound of phlegm being hawked up and its abrupt encounter with the pavement too many times during my week there.  But at least some people had the decency to do it into a bin. What struck me most was how interesting Beijing smells; I could not put my finger on it the whole time I was there, but there was always this warm, sweet, spicy aroma floating throughout the streets and hutongs.  Occasionally it was met by the not so pleasant stench of sewage, but apart from that, if you walked through China Town in London I think it would be a similar experience; it would just lack the dusty paths, yoghurt stands and ramshackle houses that characterised Beijing’s alleyways. My hostel was located down a narrow hutong in the city, with an inviting lounge and a pretty outside courtyard where the dorms were.  The girl in the bunk opposite to me was also on JET and spending the same amount of time in Beijing as me, and we ended up hanging out a few times during our stay which was fun.  I met some other friendly travellers too, a group of English teachers based in Seoul and Hong Kong, and we all went on the same tour to the Great Wall together.

I spent every day walking and sightseeing.  A lot of major tourist spots consisted of temples, so by the end of my trip I was a bit templed-out.  They were very beautiful though, and usually the sights had other things to offer and a fascinating history to boot. On my first day I went on a bike tour led by a guy called Jerry.  His English was tinged with a British accent, he was very enthusiastic about the UK and generally a really nice guide so we got along well!  I was the only one on the tour so it was great to have a personal tour of Beijing.  We cycled through all the backstreets and hutongs, had steamed dumplings and noodles at his favourite childhood restaurant, and he gave me a very detailed explanation of the history of China, which was interesting but I found myself struggling after about 15 minutes.  I realised afterwards I hardly took any photos of the hutongs because cycling made it a bit difficult but oh well.  Later I went to an acrobatics show, then walked around Tiananmen Square at dusk.  The sheer vastness of it all, with the slightly kitsch-looking portraits of Chairman Mao and Sun Yat-sen at either end was weird.  One lady came up to me with her camera and said something in Chinese so I assumed she wanted me to take a picture, but then she stood next to me and put her arm round my waist so her boyfriend could take a photo of her with me.  So I got one with her on my camera!  Then four or five other people saw and also asked to have their picture taken with me… I felt special.  There were loads of people gathering in front of the Forbidden City (the bit with Mao’s portrait on it) but I didn’t know why so I wandered off to the night market.  I later realised they were waiting for some sort of military parade/changing of the guards type thing that happens every day at dawn and dusk.

The next day I went to Lama Temple and the Temple of Confucius.  I loved the earthy reds, greens and yellows of the Lama Temple and seeing so many people and a few monks come to pray.  The way they prayed was different to how they do in Japan, as they held a bunch of burning incense between their palms lifted above their heads, and turned to bow in each direction.  I actually find watching people pray more interesting than going in the temples! Confucius’ temple was cool as well.  There were rows and rows of stone blocks with the engravings of his succesful pupils’ names.  Afterwards I tried to find the hutongs again but got lost and went to the next restaurant I came across in desparation.  I ordered “marinated pork” and was presented with a huge plate of fat and bones, no exaggeration.  There was maybe one tiny strand of meat.  The waitress saw me scrounging for meat with my chopsticks and gave me a pair of disposable gloves, but it was all in vain.  Luckily I’d ordered a tofu dish as well so that kept me going.

I booked a tour with the hostel to the Great Wall for the next day.  We went to the Jinshanling to Simatai section, which is one of the least climbed and less reconstructed parts of the wall.  I really wanted to climb the more rugged and less touristy parts, so this 6km hike sounded perfect.  Even driving the three hours (although it took us five due to traffic) out of the city had some incredible views of the wall’s remains twisting along the mountains.  I totally underestimated the intensity of the wall; I knew it was long, but until I was standing on it I hadn’t realised the true extent of its scale.  Over 2,000 years to build, 13,170 miles long and millions of lives lost to its construction… it was kinda creepy.  I also forgot that it was built on the mountain tops, so it took us a good 25 minutes of climbing up steps before we could start the actual hike, and we were sweatin’ like.

It was worth it though; seeing the wall stretching out and fading into the distance was really surreal.  It looked like someone had piped a neat line of white icing all along the highest points of the mountains, adding a decorative peak for each watch tower.  I imagined the wall to be relatively flat, but I was wrong… the path swooped up and down with the mountains’ rise and fall, which made the climb quite challenging.  The steps up and down to each watch tower (the section we climbed had 22) were so steep we might as well’ve been scaling a wall (ha ha).  It was such an amazing experience though, and very rewarding towards the end of our hike when our surroundings were cast in the warm glow of the early evening sun.

A group of us were desperate to try the famous Peking duck at the restaurant ‘Dadong’, and seeing as the rest of them had to go home the next day we headed straight into town when we got off the bus at 9pm.  Dusty, sweaty and tired, we walked into a fancy-looking place on the top floor of a building, still in our hiking gear but too hungry to care!  The duck was super tender and served in slices, unlike the shredded kind I’ve had in the UK.  Our waitress showed us the proper way to fill the pancake, and to dip the duck skin in sugar before eating it!  It was quite nice but I’m all about the plum sauce and cucumber.

The next day I went to the Temple of Heaven, located in a pretty park which seemed a popular place for locals to come down with their mates and play board games, badminton, hackey sack or just sit on a bench and work on their embroidery together.  I think I’ll move to Beijing when I’m old!  The main building was where the emperor would personally pray to heaven for good harvests, and I got some creepy vibes when I read about the sacrificial ceremonies that they used to have.

I spent the last few days strolling around the hutongs, going to Beihai Park and having lunch at a nice courtyard restaurant with no menus, so the chef decided what to give you based what ingredients were available that day.  I got some dried mushrooms in a spicy sauce, spicy chicken, a salad, more mushrooms and a huge piece of fish which I had to take in a doggy bag!  I got a surprise when I wanted to use the toilet and they said it was broken so I should use the public toilet around the corner, only to be met with four squat holes in a row with no dividers… I knew Chinese toilets were horrible but this was just unnecessary.

I went out with the my new JET friend a couple of times, exploring the night market full of stalls selling delicious dumplings, gyoza and fruit skewers, and some not-so-appetising delicacies such as scorpions, ox tripe and whole baby birds.  We went to Mao’s Mausoleum on our last day early in the morning as it was only open until noon, and joined the masses of Chinese people dressed in their Sunday best to pay their respects.  I find it strange how many people still love him even after what he did.  It was a very surreal experience; we had to store our belongings in a special locker and went through various security checks, before entering the mausoleum building.  There was a huge white statue of Mao in front of which people were laying yellow flowers they’d just bought from the stall by the entrance.  We walked to the room where he lay all waxy-looking in his big glass box, surrounded by a beautiful arrangement of flowers.  We were shuffled past in silence by security, no stopping to gawk was allowed, and we walked out into the sunlight in a slight daze as to what we’d just seen.  He looked so weird.  Couldn’t really tell if it was real or not but with the amount of security I had to assume that it was actually him.  Still not sure how I felt about it.  You can see our reaction faces in the gallery below somewhere.

Finished up the day with a lovely meal at a vegetarian restaurant, which served many dishes stylised as meat but were actually made from tofu.  The “cumin lamb” was my favourite, along with a dish of fried tofu, peanuts and mushrooms.  I had a few hits and misses cuisine-wise in Beijing, but this was definitely the biggest hit.

Beijing was such an interesting, lively city to explore, and made a welcome break from my quiet Japanese town.  I’m not sure I could live in Beijing though, mainly because I’ve been spoilt by Japan’s pristine public toilets and don’t think I can live in a world without soap and toilet paper.  Leaving Japan for the first time gave me a new perspective on where I live now, and I actually felt glad to be “home” when I got in my car at the airport and began my drive through the mountains back to Fukaura.