Summer Festivals

So apparently, in Japan, summer is the time for festivals. Two weeks ago my friend and I attended a local summer festival right down the street, and last weekend we attended (and participated in!) the summer festival held at the kindergarten at which we work. I took some photos and videos to document these occasions, so feel free to peruse them and learn more about summer festivals in Japan!

First, the local festival. There were all sorts of vendors lined up along the street, selling yakitori (meat on a stick), takoyaki (fried octopus), shaved ice, cotton candy, and more. This was my favorite stall:

Many people, especially girls, were dressed in yukata. So pretty!

The main event, it seemed, was a dance. There were music performers up on a high stage, and below the stage was the dance. ¬†The participants were mostly young children and some young men, who I highly suspect were not totally sober. Here’s a clip of the dance:

We were hoping there would be more of a variety of events, but unfortunately this was about the extent of it. The music – and the steps – were repeated over and over. And over. For more than an hour! After the dance, some people passed out candy to the kids, and then another musical performance started, which appeared to be repetitive as well. At which point we decided we’d had our fill of the festival and it was time to head home. ūüôā

The next weekend’s event, the kindergarten summer festival, was a lot more fun. Our employers asked for several of us American teachers to volunteer at a face painting booth, which apparently has been a big hit in years past. I signed up for an hour, and it turned out to be a lot of fun! I’d never even attempted face painting before, but once I got in the swing of it, I really enjoyed it. The hour I worked was the first hour of the festival, and we had nonstop lines of kids coming to get a painted design (there were three teachers painting at a time). The hour flew by and I couldn’t believe it when it was over!

Entrance to the school
Face painting this cutie while her sibling watches!

After fulfilling my painting duties, I was free to enjoy the rest of the festival however I wished. I was given some vouchers for food, so I “purchased” some bread, ice cream, and flavored milk. I also went and watched the dancing that was held in the gym. Each group of students (three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and five-year-olds, respectively) took turns dancing, with their teachers and some costumed characters as guides.

The five-year-olds, after being lined up, moved around the stage to form a circle:

The four-year-olds got to dance with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Who did the five-year-olds get….?

…why, Mario, of course!

I felt really bad for the teachers who were dancing. The gym was crowded, and even just standing and watching, I was sweating. The teachers dressed up in their yukata – and even worse, the costumed people wearing masks – must have been ready to die!

Well, now I’ve had my first taste of Japanese summer festivals. It’s so much fun to experience yet a different aspect of Japanese culture. It fascinates me how each culture can be so different and have such different traditions. I guess that’s what makes the world such an interesting place!

Conveyor Belt Sushi Tour, in Pictures

Or videos, as the case may be. I narrated most of these, so I’ll keep the written word to a minimum and let you enjoy the tour!

For the record, it tasted amazing. The “red bean jelly” – where on earth did I get THAT from? – had nothing to do with beans at all, as far as I could tell. It tasted like grape jelly, so…I think that’s what it was. Regardless, it was a great combination of flavors and I was really glad that I had tried it!

Exploring!

So this weekend, most of my team members went on an expedition to climb Mount Fuji. I did not. Not because I had no interest, but – well, I just didn’t want to go¬†enough. Between the¬†costs of traveling¬†to Tokyo and staying overnight in the city and paying for the guided tour the group decided to use, it was going to be a bit pricey. I know, I know, those moments are priceless. But, being¬†a person¬†who’s not¬†really into hiking or camping out in a public lodge on the side of a mountain, nothing about the trip sounded appealing to me except actually being at the top of the mountain. Which wasn’t enough motivation for me to go, at least this time. Next year – who knows?

However, my friend (who also decided not to go) and I did decide to plan a little adventure of our own. It’s been hot and humid here almost every day, so we were really craving a nice swim. Thanks to my friend’s research, we found out about¬†a sort-of nearby lake, Lake Inawashiro,¬†that supposedly has a place to swim. So yesterday we hopped aboard a train to Koriyama, the nearby city, and from there took another half-hour train ride to the tiny town of Joko.

At Joko, we got off the train. The station was a small waiting room on the platform. We walked to the other side of¬†the building.¬†Hm. Certainly¬†a small¬†town. There¬†were some small, quiet streets¬†and a few buildings. Some road workers. Nothing really significant. Definitely no lake in sight. The only other people to get off the train were two girls about our ages (well, probably younger –¬†I forget how old we are!). Which way was the lake? We stood around and looked at maps on¬†my phone.¬†The girls stood around and fiddled with their phones. Just about the time they started walking, we decided to start walking and see what we could find. We set out behind them, trying not to act like stalkers. They took a path that led up to a main road. We decided that was a good choice, too. No, we’re really not stalkers, I promise!

When we got to the top of the incline and reached the main road, we looked in both directions. One way seemed to lead toward mountains. The other direction looked more open, so we decided to head that way. As we started walking, we felt a tantalizingly cool breeze. It must be coming from a body of water, we thought hopefully.

We walked for a few minutes longer. Then Рwonder of wonders Рwe could see the lake through the trees! We walked around, trying to find the best way to access the waterfront, and ended up taking a path through the trees. We discovered  a nice, long beach, with very few people on it Рnot very picturesque, and with a lot of dried stalks and other debris on it, but still a beach. The lake itself, guarded by a green wooded mountain by its side, was beautiful.  Besides, all we wanted to do was swim, so it was perfect for our purposes!

But our adventures were not over yet, oh no.¬†Before we picked out a spot and got cozy, we decided, we should really use the rest room. We walked to the main entrance and around the parking lot, in search of bathroom facilities. Nothing. Well, let’s try the other¬†end of the beach. We¬†had seen¬†what looked to be public buildings over there. So we traipsed back to the other end of the beach.¬†Lo and behold, we happened upon a small campground area, and –¬†look! Porta-potties! Of course, they belong to the campground owners, so maybe we should ask. Or maybe they’ll know of another restroom nearby that we can use.

Near the entrance of the campground was a small trailer set up as a store, and in the front a man and woman were sitting at a table under the shade of a canopy. We walked over. “Excuse me, is there a restroom nearby?” I asked, trying to use my polite Japanese.

The woman looked a little surprise, but she stood up and pointed to the porta-potties. “Oh, go ahead,” she told us. She walked us over. “Are you here¬†to swim? Did you come by train?” she asked. Yes, we told her, and thanked her for the use of the porta-potties.

After exiting the potties, we decided to thank the owners again as we passed them. “Arigatou gozaimasu!” we said, bowing. We intended to just keep going, but they stopped us with questions. “Where are you from?” We started talking, and before we knew it, they were inviting us to sit in their camp chairs and pouring us iced coffee! We continued our conversation – mostly in Japanese, with some English thrown in for good effect. The couple – husband and wife – both turned out to be very friendly. We got another set of drinks (soda this time) and some bread from the package they had on their table.¬†Before we knew it, we were being invited to come visit them sometime! “I want to learn English,” said the wife.¬†¬†She offered to pay us, and even¬†to feed us Japanese food. We had a blast, talking and laughing about America, our jobs, and having a “sushi party” at their house. Who knows if that will ever come to pass – it seemed like they were serious, although it¬†was weird for me to have strangers invite me to their house upon a first meeting. But in any case, it was lots of fun to connect with new people¬†and to make some unexpected acquaintances!

We did eventually get around to excusing ourselves and doing what we came for – swimming! The water was a nice temperature, and a good depth for swimming and just lolling about in the water. The beach left a little to be desired, so after we were finished swimming, we packed up and headed back to the station, just in time to catch the two o’clock train. After heading back to Koriyama, we spent some time in the big city, and I went through some hair-raising (for me) experiences, trying to purchase bus and train tickets. (It really wasn’t that scary, it’s just something I’m not used to doing. Good thing I have a patient friend!) Fortunately, the day ended well when I was able to locate a bookstore and purchase a couple of Japanese textbooks that have been on my wish list!

So, Mount Fuji, sorry I didn’t see you this year. But even without you, I still had a great time, exploring new territory and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be in my comfort zone over here – but I also know that if I don’t push myself to do new things, they’ll always be scary for me and I’ll never grow as a person. So I’m thankful for every new experience I had this weekend, even the scary¬†ones!

 

 

Adventures in the Kawauchi Forest

So last week, my team and I went on a cultural excursion which we had been invited to a few weeks prior. A Japanese¬†acquaintance of the team had¬†organized an educational¬†field trip to Kawauchi,¬†a village about an hour away from where I live, and they were making¬†the trip¬†available to us at a very reasonable cost and even provided transportation. We jumped at the chance to go, and I’m glad we did! We got to participate in some unique cultural activities, along with some local Japanese people who¬†were also¬†interested in the trip.

The first thing we did in Kawauchi was make soba noodles. We went to a nice lodge-type building (I’m not sure exactly what it was used for…some type of camp or recreation center, maybe?) and in one of the rooms was a soba chef who had us all set up for making the noodles. The ingredients and tools were prepared, and all we had to do was mix ingredients, knead, roll, and cut. They split us in teams of four to work together. I took some photos and videos of the process:

The master at work:

Soba making tools:

A video of part of the process. Ignore the part about “my new blog camera.” What I meant was that I had completely forgotten that my camera had a screen that I could flip around to video myself with, so I was trying it out for the first time. LOL. I never claimed to be good with technology…


And here’s the cutting process. The guy at my table had some practice in making soba, so he was showing us how it was done:

The finished product! The wider noodles are those cut by us amateurs. ūüôā

Phase two of the trip was visiting a swamp, where there was supposedly a population of tree frogs. We took a bus from the lodge and drove about twenty minutes through the forest, then walked for a few minutes into the woods to a swamp/pond. As we walked, I remembered seeing, earlier in the day,¬†the yellow caution sign by the road indicating wild boars in the area. I don’t know if they inhabited the part of the forest that we were in, but luckily, we didn’t see any. ūüôā¬†We didn’t see any of the frogs, either,¬†but we did see some of their egg sacs, which they create in the branches over the swamp.

That yellow ball is a sac of frogs’ eggs!

Phase three of the trip was visiting the former residence of a famous poet, Shinpei Kusano, for whom the villagers had built a house in the woods. Now the house is open for visitors, and many of the rooms look like they’re just as he would have left them a few decades ago.

This, I was told, was an old wine storage building which was used to store some of the poets’ books.

And here’s a picture of the outside, although the light did something weird with the reflective zipper on my jacket.

Last but not least, we visited¬†the town’s¬†Amazon Caf√©, which we were told was a business in Thailand. I think this was their first store in Japan. If I remember what I was told correctly, they built the store in Kawauchi (even though it’s just an out-of-the-way village) as a symbol of hope and restoration after the tsunami.¬† The items¬†there were expensive, but delicious. I had lime and honey green tea with bubble jelly, and it had a¬†wonderful flavor. It was a great way to end our day exploring the¬†small (but picturesque) village of Kawauchi!

 

Tales of a Japanese Life

Well, I don’t have any wild adventures to report about this week. That being the case, I thought I would relate a few anecdotes that provide a glimpse into my everyday life in Japan.¬†Presenting “Tales of a Japanese Life” (aka¬†“Truths I’ve Learned From Living In Japan”):

Truth #1: You will make mistakes.¬† Trust me, I’ve made lots of these, even if it’s just¬†something as simple as my tongue getting twisted when I try to say “Otsukaresama deshita.” (That “tsukare” bit is a doozy to try to push out quickly, at least for my American tongue.) Or¬†the bloopers might be a little bigger, like the time my coworker and I went to a convenience store together on a Saturday afternoon. As we walked up to the store, we noticed some cleaning tools out front and a guy hosing off some of the parking¬†spaces in front of the store. That should have been our first clue that something was amiss. But no, ahead we barreled, just like the go-getter Americans that we are. When we entered the store, a boy was just leaving, kicking off some slippers and putting his outdoor shoes back on. The store was empty except for a couple of employees, who were also cleaning. But hey, look, there’s a row of slippers in front of the door! That must be so we don’t track in water from the wet parking lot? I changed from my shoes into the slippers and started into the store, until I realized the employees were trying to tell us something. “Oh, you’re closed? Sumimasen! Sorry!” We hastily put our own shoes back on¬†and hightailed it out of there. If the store was closed, we wondered afterward, why was a boy coming out of there? Must have been one of the employee’s children, my wise coworker guessed. But still, why were they closed for business on a Saturday afternoon? Do they clean the store like that regularly? Perhaps it’s one mystery that we Americans will never learn…

Truth #2: Japanese names are difficult (for Americans). I like to think that my Japanese pronunciation is decent. I’ve been practicing long enough, and I can spit out some of the more difficult sounds, like “tsu” and “ryo.” But when it comes to remembering my Japanese students’ names, I am a self-admitted failure. Granted, I haven’t made any focused effort to learn them – much to my shame, since a good teacher should learn her students’ names as quickly as possible! (We’ll put that on the goal list for next year.) By now, of course, I’ve picked up most of my students’ names just by using them so much. But I still have trouble remembering some of my quieter students, and I also have difficulty remembering names that are similar. “Ryusei!” I’ll say, and get no response. “It’s Ryohei,” my students inform me. Oops. I guess Ryusei is in my other class. I also have a Kotone and a Kotoha (both girls, in different classes) and a Takuto, a Takuma, and a Takeru (all boys, in three different classes). I am slowly learning to remember which is which!¬†Of course, in¬†our classes at the elementary schools, the students aren’t really “mine,” so I have no real obligation to learn all of their names. Often, if I can’t read their name tag,¬†I’ll just say something like, “Let’s ask this boy!” or “Let’s ask this girl!”¬†Unfortunately, that can pose a problem if I choose a child whose gender I can’t easily tell – like the child I called on a few weeks ago. “Let’s ask this…” I hesitated, my mind racing. Short hair. Features that could belong to a boy or a girl. Which was it? I ended up by not finishing my sentence at all, leaving the poor child dubbed as a “this.” I was hoping the other students wouldn’t notice my lapse, but¬†I heard a bit of snickering. Oh, well. What’s a stupid gaijin (foreigner) teacher¬†to do?

Truth #3: Try it…you might like it! When my coworkers suggested going to a ramen shop to get cold ramen last week, I have to admit I wasn’t very gung-ho about it. I’m a girl who likes hot food hot and cold food cold…no cold¬†leftover pizza for me, thank you. However, I was pleasantly surprised, both by the overall experience and the taste of the food. We popped into a little hole-in-the-wall ramen shop on our lunch break, and walked up a narrow staircase to a traditional seating area upstairs. The place was old, and kind of dingy, which just added to its charm. We were served by a sweet middle-aged woman who had gray hair pulled back under a¬†colorful bandana, and our bowls of ramen were chock-full of good things to eat – and picturesque, as well!¬†The ramen¬†had a pleasantly refreshing taste, and I didn’t mind a bit that it was cold! I snapped a few photos with my phone, so I could share the experience with all of you.

The seating area:

The narrow staircase:

A sign of menu items – up on the wall:

The piece de resistance!

I guess this visit to the ramen shop just confirms the lesson I’ve been learning¬†continually as I’ve been living here, which is…don’t be afraid to try new things! You might discover a new favorite – or not, but¬†at least it’s worth a shot!