Another Sports Day

Wow, it’s kind of weird to think that I’ve been in Japan long enough to start experiencing things for the second time around – my second spring, my second cherry blossom season, and now my second summer. One of my recent “seconds” was the local elementary school’s annual Sports Day. I wrote a general post about it last year and included several videos, so this year I will just focus on a couple of the highlights.

In many ways, this year’s Sports Day felt almost identical to last year’s, right down to the clear blue sky and sunny weather. The program was almost exactly the same as last year’s, too, with many races and relays interspersed with dancing, the school marching band, and team spirit events. For me, the Japanese penchant for efficiency is never more apparent than at one of these gatherings, and I feel a little bit of awe at how smoothly everything runs. For the most part, everyone seems to know what they are doing and when, and even the children take part in helping to run the event.

One of the most interesting exhibitions for us Americans was the yelling contest, in which the cheerleaders (all boys) led their opposing red and white teams in whipping up a frenzy of enthusiasm. This year, the contest (not sure if it’s an actual contest, but that’s what it seems like!) took place closer to our seats than it had last year, so I was able to get some up-front footage. I’ll share several videos of this unique event below!

There was also a race in which students had to choose between a red, yellow, and blue cone. Then a color got picked at random, and the students who had chosen the selected color got to run straight to the goal, while the others had to run around another marker first. The name of this game was “What color do you like?” (in English!), and while the students ran to the colored cones there was a sound track of one of the chants we use in our English classes. I shall never hear it the same way again…

We all really enjoyed watching the events and cheering on the students, many of whom we teach at the elementary school or have in our own classes at the after-school program. It was great to see our students in an environment outside the classroom, and we felt joy when “our” students won a race! I was happy to have the chance to experience Sports Day for the second time around, and though I may not be here next year, I have lots of memories and photos stored up!

Only in Japan 2

Hello everyone!

It’s been a busy week! Last weekend was full, with the local elementary school’s annual Sports Day during the day on Sunday, and a get-together with my teammate’s adult English class in the evening. Three of my coworkers and I attended the Sports Day to cheer on the students, many of whom come to our after-school program. More on that in a later post! For today’s post, I present you with…

…only in Japan, part 2!

As I explained a couple of weeks ago, I’ll be sharing little tidbits of Japanese culture here and there between my lengthier posts. Today’s “Only in  Japan” snapshot is a photo that I took quite awhile ago at my local grocery store, and have not yet had the opportunity to share it.

Until now!

Octopus samples, anyone?

At least that’s what I think it is! When I looked at the picture again before posting it, I started second-guessing myself, not being enough of an octopus expert to readily identify it unless I can see its rather alarming-looking suction cups. If any of my readers are more knowledgeable than I, feel free to correct me!

And no… I didn’t try one! Although I have eaten octopus in the occasional takoyaki ball (see my past Thanksgiving post if you want to see what takoyaki is and how it’s made!), I can’t say that I’m a huge fan. As far as I can tell from my limited tasting experiences with it, it’s basically just a chewy, rubber-like thing to – well, chew.

There are more appetizing food samples here, though. There will often be a sample case of bite-sized pieces of fruit in the produce section, and just today, I tried a cheesecake sample from the dairy section. On the weekends, there are often store employees manning sample booths, cooking up samples just as they do in America. Last week I was accosted by an employee who was very passionate about distributing her samples of milk, so I took the milk she thrust at me, chugged it down, and tried not to get in her line of fire again. Although I do like milk, I find the taste to be a bit different here in Japan, so I usually disguise it with hot cocoa mix or something of the sort. Which of course I couldn’t do in the middle of the grocery store.

Well, it’s evening here and time to say goodbye to another Saturday. The weekends have been full lately, but hopefully sometime in the near future I’ll have time to post about Sports Day #2 (number two for me that is, since it’s my second year here!). Stay tuned for more upcoming posts about cultural experiences and travels, and of course the exclusive photos and videos you get in the “Only in Japan” series! Thanks for reading!


Only in Japan!

So as summer begins and things get busier around here, I’m starting a new blog post series called “Only in Japan.” My plan for this series, in comparison to my usual lengthy posts about travel or some cultural aspect of Japan, is to post a short snippet or photo/video about a random thing I’ve noticed here in Japan. My purpose for this is twofold: it will give me a chance to post things that otherwise wouldn’t fit in one of my normal blog post topics, and it will allow me to post something short even on the weeks that I’m pressed for time or need a break from writing an ordinary blog post. So with that introduction out of the way, please enjoy the first installment of “Only in Japan!”

Only in Japan: Colonel Sanders dressed up as a samurai!



Onsen, Ramen, and Mountaintop Views

View of the river in Iizaka Onsen, with one of the town’s bath houses on the left hand side.

Hello everyone! Happy Children’s Day! This weekend marks the last segment of Golden Week, with two days off on Thursday and Friday, and now the weekend. Today, Saturday, is the last official Golden Week holiday, and is known as Children’s Day (formerly Boys’ Day).

In celebration of our long weekend, several of my teammates and I decided to take a journey to Iizaka Onsen, an onsen town near the capital of our prefecture, Fukushima City. What is an onsen town, you ask? Well, it’s a place that contains natural hot springs, and often there are a variety of ryokans (Japanese inns) and bath houses sprinkled throughout the town. Bathing in natural hot springs is a BIG deal here, so these towns are popular tourist attractions.

Yesterday (Friday) we took an early train to Koriyama, then caught the next train to Fukushima City. From there, we took a short train ride to Iizaka Onsen. Our first priority was to look for a bath house, since a couple of my teammates were really excited about trying the onsen. Because we wanted a fairly nice place (not like the sketchy bath house I visited last year!), we spent some time wandering town, researching the informational pamphlets, and asking the friendly employees at the tourism office for help. Finally, we found a ryokan that allowed day bathers AND had an outdoor bath, which we had been particularly hoping for.

After paying the fee to use the bath (a normal rate of 500 yen per person) and being informed of the baths’ locations and rules of use, we discovered to our disappointment that the outdoor bath was on a rotating schedule between men and women, and women would not be allowed to use it for another hour and a half. Nevertheless, we decided to take full advantage of the indoor bath, and enjoyed soaking even though the water was quite hot.

After bath time was lunch time! Iizaka onsen is known for its ramen, and also for its gyoza (Chinese style dumplings). We went to a restaurant that served both, and we ordered a plate of gyoza to share and then each ordered a different kind of ramen. Before I came to Japan, I never knew much about ramen, except that you could buy it in instant form at the store for very cheap. Since then, I’ve learned that there are four main kinds of ramen flavors: soy sauce, salt, miso, and pork bone. Now that I’ve realized how popular ramen is here, I’ve made it my goal to try different types so I can become at least a little more knowledgeable about it!

For lunch in Iizaka Onsen, I chose sesame seed flavored ramen, which came topped with some fried ground meat and a little baby boiled egg.

Our plate of crispy fried gyoza! Yum!

After lunch, we went to visit a historic house that is open for visitors as a type of museum. It was quite a large house filled with tatami rooms, and also had some storage houses and a type of barn.

The gateway of Kyu Horikiri-tei, the historic house.
One of the walls in the historic house. This one was featuring some art work.
A display of kokeshi dolls, a traditional limbless doll which originated in this region.
An interesting chest of drawers built into the side of a staircase in one of the storage buildings on the premises.

Before leaving Iizaka Onsen, we decided to squeeze in one more activity. On our walking map of the town, it showed an overlook on a hill near the town, so we trekked out across the river and down some streets until we found it. The stairs going up to the top of the hill were STEEP!

We were quite tired by the time we got to the top of the stairs, but the views were amazing!

After taking plenty of pictures, we made our way back down the steps, counting to see how many there were. It turns out there were more than a hundred!

Finally, we hopped on the train back to Fukushima City. There, we bought some omiyage (souvenirs) to give to our coworkers, as is the custom here. Because giving souvenirs is so prevalent here, the train stations everywhere are filled with prettily packaged cookies and other edible goodies featuring foods from the local area.

We ended the day by picking up some snacks in Koriyama while we waited for our last train. Oddly, the zunda (edamame) specialty unique to Sendai (the city I visited last weekend) was available at the train station here, so I tried some! It was in the form of zunda mochi, which is basically mochi (rice balls) covered with zunda, a slightly sweetened crushed edamame paste. It was…interesting. It looked like baby food and tasted sort of like I imagine crushed and slightly sweetened peas would taste. It was all right, but I’ll stick with a chocolate dessert any day!!

Well, it’s almost time to say goodbye to Golden Week. It’s always rather sad to end a stretch of days off, but I suppose it will be good to get in the swing of things again. The summer will be busy with school events, Japanese classes, and hopefully some more trips to visit new places! We’ll see what new adventures await!

Down by the Bay

Golden Week is officially here!

This weekend marks the start of the holiday period, with a three-day weekend this week, and four more days off starting on Thursday. Instead of going travelling for the full vacation, I opted to take a couple of day trips. Yesterday (Saturday) was the first of my two planned trips. A couple of my teammates and I decided to visit Matsushima Bay, an area known for its picturesque views of pine-tree clad islands dotting the ocean landscape. I’ve seen the ocean quite a bit back home, but I figured it would be fun to see a new view of it. The journey to Matsushima Bay also goes through Sendai, a large city in Miyagi Prefecture (the prefecture directly north of us), and I was interested in seeing that too, since I’ve never been there before.

On Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early and hopped on the 7 o’clock train in order to catch the 8 o’clock bus to Sendai. The bus ride to Sendai is two hours long – twice as long as the shinkansen, but half the price, so that suited my budget travel mentality just fine! From Sendai, we took another 40-minute train ride to Matsushima Bay.

Upon arriving at the bay, our first agenda was to hunt down something for lunch. What we most wanted to do was to visit Fukuura Island, an island that has a footbridge built out to it. So we bought some picnic items, paid the 200-yen fee to get onto the bridge, and made our way out to the island.

The weather was perfectly summer-like, and it was a wonderful feeling to be walking out over the shimmering ocean, with views of the surrounding islands.

We ate our picnic on a broad expanse of lawn, with a tulip garden and a view of the sea:

The beach had hundreds of little shells that looked like elongated snail shells. I was going to collect some, but every one that I picked up still had a living being snuggled up inside it.

We wandered around the island and observed the bay from several outlooks.

The paths led through the forest and were pleasantly green:

Look at all the pine cones covering the boughs!

From this view, we could see several small islands, including a tiny one that contained a solitary pine tree.

After returning from the island, we wandered around town a bit more, visiting a temple that had another great outlook, including this one of the bridge:

And, of course, we also noshed on some of the local specialties. One of my teammates tried an oyster, and I had a taste of her edamame-flavored ice cream. Zunda, a sweet edamame paste, is a well-known food in this area. The ice cream was OK, but I decided to go for a strawberry/blueberry/cranberry twist.

After several hours, we headed back to Sendai, where we waited for our lengthy bus ride home. Most of our day was probably spent on the bus and trains, but it was very refreshing to see the coast and to get out and enjoy some beautiful nature. Trip number one – a success! Stop by again next week for the story of trip number two!

Goodbye Sakura, Hello Summer!

Well, it’s finally the end of cherry blossom season! Last week we did hanami – flower viewing – which is an annual tradition in Japan and basically consists of eating a picnic near blossoming cherry trees. It turned out to be a miserably cold, showery day, which put a damper on our viewing enjoyment. But at least I can say I got my hanami experience in for the year!

This week, the cherry blossoms have been slowly fluttering off the trees. We’ve had some windy and rainy days, which have contributed to the denuding of the trees. Earlier this week, there were so many cherry blossoms that there was actually a stream of them floating down the river. I thought it was pretty cool, so I took a video of it!

Yesterday I had another adventure, as one of our Japanese friends invited me to go walking with her in the nearby town of Segawa. Apparently, the town was having their second annual walking event, which consisted of paying a small fee, walking a 3-km or 5-km course, and then being served lunch at the community center. In addition to the walking, there was to be a koinobori (carp flag) raising beforehand, so we decided to participate in that as well.

The day turned out to be gorgeous, with summer-like temperatures. We arrived in plenty of time for the flag raising. Koinobori are flags in the shape of carp, which are traditionally flown this time of year in honor of Children’s Day on May 5th. You can read more about that holiday here:

The flags that were to be raised at this event were quite long. We helped tie them to a wire, which was attached to a pole at one end, and to the top of a tall tree at the other!

The flags waiting to be hung:

The flag raising:

After the lifting of the fish, we prepared for our walk. In true Japanese fashion, we spent time stretching first, moving our bodies in time to the “Radio Taisou,” a music track with stretching instructions which apparently is well known as a warm-up song here (you can watch a version of it that I found on YouTube at this link). After a proper amount of stretching, we set out for some strolling. My friend and I had chosen the 5-km course, so away we went, over country roads and through the woods and hills filled with fresh spring foliage (or, as my friend taught me to say in Japanese, shinryoku, which can be translated as “new green”).

It was a gorgeous day for a walk! This was one of the hilltop houses that we found tucked away in the woods as we walked:

The walk took about an hour, and the route we were on circled back to the community center. As we were passing under the koinobori again,  we were subjected to the rather jarring intrusion of a political campaigner. This time of year, according to my understanding, the candidates who are running for office have promotional vehicles that troll around town, with white-gloved passengers who wave at bystanders and self-advertising messages projected over a loudspeaker. I’m not sure if the person hoping to win the people’s favor is actually in the car or not. I just know that hearing these loud proclamations can get a little old after awhile!

When we arrived at the community center again, we were served the promised onigiri (rice balls) and tonjiru (pork soup) on low tables in a traditional tatami room. After satisfying our hunger, we said the proper farewells and thank yous and made our way back to the main parking lot. We finished off our day by stopping at the farmer’s market in town and buying gelato cones. We were hoping to try their specialty, green pepper gelato, but they haven’t started serving it yet this year. Instead, I chose milk tea flavor (milk tea, a sweet and creamy tea, is a popular drink over here). Since one of my food goals this year is to try some of the unique flavors of ice cream that are in Japan, I was happy to have an opportunity to work toward that goal. So far this year, I’ve had sakura ice cream and now the milk tea ice cream, so I’d say I’m off to a good start!

See you all again next week!


Sakura Time is Here Again

Yes, it’s that time of year again – cherry blossom season! Although this is my third time to Japan, the first two times I was not here in the spring, so this is only my second time seeing the cherry blossoms. This season is, for me, one of the things that Japan is all about, so I’m really trying to savor it!

The cherry blossoms came a couple weeks early this year, so even though I’ve been busy with the arrival of the new American teachers and the beginning of the school year, I’ve been trying to still take time to enjoy the beautiful blooms when I can. Our employers were kind enough to take us to Takizakura (the 1,000+ year old cherry tree in Miharu) again this year, and I’ve also taken several walks to the most scenic sakura spots in town. I tried to take lots of pictures, too, so come along with me and enjoy the tour!

The cherry blossoms in their early stages:

Different parts of the tree-lined river:

I love seeing shoots of sakura sprouting from the trunks of the trees!

And the famed Takizakura!

Last year, I tried the sakura-flavored ice cream for sale near Takizakura. This year, I decided to spring for something different, and I tried the triple-flavored cone that was advertised. The top flavor is plum, the middle flavor is peach, and the bottom flavor is sakura. It was delicious!

Every year during cherry blossom season, our town puts up a fake castle in a small park area on the side of the hill. At first, I thought it was going to be a model castle that one could actually walk around and look at, but no – it’s just a one-dimensional facade propped up with staging. However, it is quite large, so it does look somewhat real from afar, and they light it up at night, which is fun to see.

The “castle” up close. It’s quite tall, so I couldn’t get all of it without stepping backwards off the hill!

The view of my town from the park, bordered by the blossoms:

The cherry blossom season is almost over for this year, and I feel a little sad not knowing if I’ll be around next year to see them. I guess that means I just have to enjoy them as much as I can while they’re still around!

One Year In

Well, today is the day! On this day a year ago, I arrived in Japan, head swimmy with jet lag and overwhelmed with the thoughts of living two whole years in a different country. A year later, I can say that I have safely survived the effects of culture shock and the stress of starting a new job, and have learned to manage all kinds of new experiences – navigating the train system, using appropriate work greetings, and digesting things like natto (fermented beans) and fish eggs.

It’s been quite a year of wonderful experiences, tough experiences, and everything in between. So in honor of my first year here, I’ll do one of my favorite things: making a list!

Best Memory: I can’t choose just one! But the highlights would be the excitement of going into classes for the first time, the thrill of being able to manage simple things (like mailing something at the post office and using public transportation!), and participating in the students’ fun school events such as sports days. It’s also been cool to experience things that are “authentically Japanese” – things like planting rice, soaking in an outdoor tub, and making and eating soba noodles.

Worst Memory: Feeling awkward and making embarrassing cultural and language mistakes. Experiencing the after-effects of culture shock, with a dollop of homesickness for good measure…

Favorite Food: Golden, crispy tempura (battered and deep-fried vegetables and seafood). My favorites are squash and sweet potato. Oh, and I love daifuku (cream-filled rice cakes), too. Can I have two favorites?

Least Favorite Food: Natto. And fish eggs. Natto just smells, and even though it doesn’t taste bad, it can have a gritty consistency. Fish eggs are something I can get down, but the thought of what they are just kind of grosses me out.

Something I’d Like Japan to Start Using: Warm water in public restrooms. And soap. And paper towels!

Something I’d Like America to Start Using: A train system in my area. Then I would never have to drive again…

Favorite Thing About Teaching English: Playing games with my students. Seeing the faces of my sweet first-graders, happy to be there and eager to learn. (Not that I have a favorite class or anything…)

Least Favorite Thing About Teaching English: Some of the rote things we have to teach that are part of the curriculum. But I guess that’s true of teaching anywhere in the world! Also, the attitudes of students who don’t want to be there or who make snide remarks (it doesn’t matter if I can’t understand your language, I can still tell if you’re saying something snarky). Yes, I guess students are the same all over the world, too!

Looking back over the year, I am incredibly grateful for all of the things I’ve had the chance to experience, and for the ways that I have grown. I’ve adjusted little by little, of course, but I feel like I’m only just starting to feel more comfortable here and to feel a sense of familiarity with my home and surroundings. In some ways it’s been a rough year as I struggled through a bunch of mental and emotional turbulence triggered by the change. But, thanks be to God, He has been leading me through that, and I feel like I’ve done a lot of growing in the past year. As the new school year starts, we will have a new work schedule, some different students, and a new set of teachers from America!  I’m looking forward to experiencing another year in this amazing country, hopefully with less culture shock this time around!

Graduation Time!

It’s that time of year in Japan when schools are wrapping up their final term and getting ready to end the school year. Here, the school year ends in March, and a new one begins in April. So that means there’s only a couple of weeks from when a student ends one grade and begins the next one! It’s a little hard for my American mind to fathom, but that’s the way it is!

Because it’s the end of the school year, all the five-year-olds at the kindergarten where we work graduated last week. I don’t know how it is in America, but kindergarten graduation here is a BIG DEAL. I’m not sure if it’s different in public kindergartens, but at the private one here in town, it’s quite the event. The students have uniforms, and they have specific ways of marching in, walking up front, and receiving their diplomas. It really amazed me to see the time and dedication that they put in to practicing these things. No wonder Japan is considered to be such a disciplined culture!

My four coworkers and I actually got to participate in the event by handing out diplomas, which was a little nerve-wracking.  Well, technically we handed them to our boss, and he handed them to the students. But there was still a lot of ceremony involved. Each child’s name was called out by his or her teacher, to which the student jumped up and responded “Hai!” (“Yes!”) in a loud voice. Then he or she, along with one or two other students whose names had been called, marched up front, taking care to make sharp right turns. They paused before the stage, waiting for the preceding students to exit, then marched up together. This was followed by a bow to the principal (our boss) and whichever American happened to be helping him at the time (we had to take turns!). The principal and American teacher bowed at the same time. Then the American teacher handed the diploma to the principal, who handed it to the student while simultaneously shaking right hands over the diploma. The student then stepped back and waited for the other student(s) he/she had marched up with to receive their diplomas. Then, the group of students turned together and marched off the stage back to their seats.

Not only was marching and bowing involved, but good posture while sitting was also enforced. The students sat with backs straight, many of them with hands on their knees. Of course, with five-year-olds this is impossible to maintain constantly, but they at least tried!

All this, of course, was practiced ahead of time. We American teachers went to two of the rehearsals, but I imagine they must have had even more. It seemed very formal for children this young, but it was also really cute, and very heart-warming to see students we had taught all year receiving their diplomas!

The graduation itself involved several main parts. First there was the marching in and receiving of diplomas. Then there were several speeches by key figures – the principal, the head of the PTA, and the mayor, among others. The poor little five-year-olds probably didn’t get much out of that, though!

There was also a farewell greeting by the four-year-olds, who sang a song to the five-year-olds. The five-year-olds gave a choral speech, commemorating different experiences of the past year (at least that’s what I gathered from the little that I could understand). The five-year-olds also turned toward their parents, who were sitting in the back, and sang a song to them, which resulted in a lot of tears and handkerchiefs on the part of the parents.

Not only were the parents tearful, but so were the kindergarten teachers. They work with the same students for both years of kindergarten (ages four and five), so they must develop really close bonds with them.  There was a lot of weeping, and I looked over at one point during the ceremony to see two of the teachers with their faces buried in their handkerchiefs!

Since pictures are better than words, here a couple of videos showing the grand and glorious occasion!

The students marching into the auditorium:

Receiving their diplomas. I had to limit this video to protect individual students’ privacy, but hopefully this gives the basic idea:

The farewell greeting by the younger students, and a farewell speech by the five-year-olds.

The whole occasion was fun to watch, and it was an honor to be a part of it. Happily, even though the students have graduated, we will get to see some of them at the local elementary schools. We’ll look forward to seeing them again in the new school year, when it starts up again – next month!

A Very Merry White Day


This past Wednesday, March 14, was White Day. And let me tell you, it is quite a fabulous day. This is how it goes in Japan:

On February 14, Valentine’s Day, women give chocolate to men. It doesn’t have to be someone they like – it can also be coworkers or other males in their lives.

One month later, on March 14, the men reciprocate, and give sweets to the women. This is called White Day. No, it does not mean that everything one receives on that day is white! Some of the sweets can be white, or are in white packages, but gifts this day can be any other color, too. See the link at the bottom of the page for more about the origins of the name!

This year, my boss asked us to make some treats to give to different men in our work circles – our male coworkers, the men who work in the kindergarten office, the kindergarten bus drivers, and several key people at the board of education and city hall. She also gave us chocolates to give them. We made some special trips to visit everyone, passing out sugary goodness along the way. It was a little nerve-wracking, especially when we had to go to city hall. However….

…on March 14, it was our turn! We got treats back from most of the people we had given gifts to, and in most cases, each of us four teachers got our own box. That means we got quite a pile of goodies! Most of it was cookies, as that seems to be the thing to give on White Day, but we also got cake, chocolates, and other snacks, all packaged beautifully in neatly wrapped and beribboned boxes.

Here’s a picture of what White Day looked like for us. It felt a little bit like Christmas!

The biggest box contained a variety of cake. Yum!

For those interested, I did a quick search and found more information about White Day, including how it got its name! Here’s the link:

Happy White Day, everyone! Think it’s a tradition we can get started in America…?