Obon Festival

As promised, here is a post about last week’s Obon Festival! I took lots of pictures and videos, so I’ll let those take center stage. But before we move onto the festival, I just wanted to share another small piece of Japanese summer….CICADAS!! This video doesn’t actually show them – this is just the front of the kindergarten. But you can hear the cicadas buzzing in the trees, and man are they loud over here!

When we learned about the festival, one of my friends and I decided it would be the prime opportunity to dress up in our recently purchased yukata and obi!

Basically, the yukata are made WAY longer than they actually need to be – I’m not sure why, as I think the length of mine would have fit perhaps a 9 or 10-foot giant. In any case, after adjusting the yukata flaps around your torso, you hike up all that extra length, fasten it with a tie around your waist, and smooth the extra material down over the tie. Then you fasten another tie just under your bust. Then you put on the obi (belt). I was inordinately proud of my bow, probably because I never thought I’d actually be able to tie a bow that was presentable (please ignore the fact that it’s a little crooked ūüôā ):

Yep, those long pieces of fabric hanging down are actually part of the sleeves – the sleeves are deep and they come down at right angles, so you can potentially store things in them. OK, now onto the festival…

One of the important activities at an Obon festival is sending lanterns down a river. I think there’s some spiritual significance, such as sending prayers away to dead relatives; in fact I think the whole celebration has something to do with honoring ancestors, which of course I don’t ascribe to (the worshiping part, not the honoring part LOL). For those who are interested in learning more there’s a link to an informative article below. (Upon reading it for myself, I realized that there is the belief that the ancestors’ spirits come back for a visit, and apparently the lantern lighting is a way of sending them back home again.¬† So much for my knowledge of Japanese culture!)


There was a tent beside the river, with LOTS of small lanterns that people kept sending down the river. I was curious about how it works; do people purchase lanterns in the names of their ancestors, or what? I haven’t found out yet. The video below is very short, but shows these lanterns during one of the busy streaks, when there were a lot on the river at a time:

The next video shows some of the launching process.

After awhile, they started sending bigger floats down the river. Since the river was shallow and there were rapids near the footbridge (where we were watching), these floats required some guidance by men who seemed to enjoy frolicking about in the water.

Eventually I moved from the road to a location right beside the river, so I got to see some of the floats – and the rowdy float-guiders – up close. Every time a new float went by, the crowd chanted for the men to “Turn it! Turn it!” Thus the spinning. ūüôā

And here is one of my favorite lanterns:

After watching the lantern sailing, we walked to a nearby park for a fireworks show. Due to clouds and smoke, though, it was difficult to see the fireworks, so we gave up partway through and went home.¬† Fireworks here are pretty much the same as in America, anyway. ūüôā So there we have it – my first Obon festival!

I’m Back!

Well, here I am, back in the lovely town of Funehiki, Japan. I had an amazing summer break with my family. It was wonderful to get to see some of my friends and family members, although I didn’t see as many as I would have liked. I only had one week in America, and boy did it go fast!

One thing that I wasn’t anticipating when I began planning my travels was the fact that I was responsible for arranging transportation to and from the airport here in Japan. That REALLY stressed me out, especially since I don’t take public transportation in America so I’m not used to it at all. I had some long transition times and some (unwarranted) anxiety about missing my connections, but in the end it all went smoothly and safely, for which I’m very thankful.

Instead of focusing on one topic this week, I decided to post a few random adventures from my trip!

Adventure #1: Hanging out in the big city – AT NIGHT

So my flight leaving Japan was scheduled early enough that I had no option but to take the overnight bus to get down there. That meant taking the half-hour train ride from Funehiki (my town) to Koriyama (the big city nearby), then waiting there for my bus – which left at 2 o’clock in the morning. Oh, did I mention that the last train from Funehiki to Koriyama gets there at 9:15? Yeah, that meant I had about four hours to kill in Koriyama, in the middle of the night. I was NOT thrilled about that at all. However, my friends informed me that “Mr. Donut,” a coffee shop near the station, was open until midnight.

OK, I thought. That will be my first stop. Because the weather was nice and a lot of people were out, I sat in front of the train station for awhile. Then I trudged over to Mr. Donut, wheeling my luggage behind me. I bought a donut and a melon soda (a popular soda flavor here in Japan!) and frittered away my time until midnight. Then back to the train station it was. I’d heard of an Internet caf√© nearby – a place that offers computer booths and Internet service 24/7, for a modest fee. Apparently some of these caf√©s also have food and showers. In any case, I didn’t really want to go through the bother of finding the caf√© and then renting space there, so I decided to camp out at the plaza in front of the station, where there were some trees and benches.

Hanging out in front of the station wasn’t too bad. I felt fairly safe, but still a little uncomfortable, especially as the crowds began going home and the only people left passing through were the occasional office workers, bar hoppers, or groups of young guys hanging out. I wasn’t sure exactly how many of the men I saw had been drinking, but I know at least some of them were. I was consoled by the fact that I was near the taxi stand, so if anyone did try to bother me I could just holler and one of them would (hopefully) come running. I did get a couple of weird questions from younger guys (e.g. “Will you sing with us?”) but other than that I didn’t receive any attention. Still, I was very relieved when 2 o’clock rolled around and I could sleep peacefully on the bus for a few hours!

Adventure #2: Kindness of strangers (and friends)

This segment is more of a way to say thank you to all the lovely people out there who made my trip home so enjoyable. It was amazing to see my family and my home again, and to get to eat American food! I got treated to Pizza Hut, Five Guys, and Chic-Fil-A, and I was given huge bags of chocolate to bring back with me! My family and friends were the best part of the trip, but even strangers helped make the trip better. On my way home, when I got off the train in Koriyama, a man stepped up to me just as I was about to lug my suitcase down three sets of stairs. “Help,” he said, and proceeded to carry my 47-pound suitcase down all of the stairs. It warmed my heart. ūüôā

Adventure #3: Buying Japanese clothes

OK, this is not related to my trip, but it was a fun experience. Two days after I returned, we got an unexpected day off, so I decided to go to Koriyama to do some shopping and exploring. One of the things I wanted to buy was an obi (belt) for my yukata (Japanese robe). If I’d thought it through, I would have gone to one of the cheaper department stores, but since I’m still unfamiliar with a lot of the stores around, I ended up going to one of the kimono/yukata shops in a mall in Koriyama – not the best choice for getting reasonably priced clothing! I looked around for awhile, cringing at some of the prices and wondering if I needed a specific kind of belt or if any kind would do.

Finally, I asked for help to make sure I was getting the right belt. A sales clerk pointed me to the correct ones, asked the color of my yukata, and tried to help me pick out an appropriate match. After a few moments of indecision I ended up picking out a raspberry-colored one that matched some of the flowers on my yukata. “The tie might be difficult,” I told the sales lady, mostly because I was still undecided about the purchase. Some stores sell obi that have pre-tied bows, and I was thinking that as a foreigner that might be my best choice. But the lady offered to show me how to tie it, escorting me over to a dressing area with a raised mat (traditional Japanese style) and mirrors. Another friendly sales lady stood beside me and modeled the bow tying with a different obi as I copied her actions with mine. I didn’t do a very good job, but I had a blast learning how to tie an authentic obi bow. It made the cost of my pricey obi worth it…almost! Anyway, it was a fun experience, and I learned something I would not have if I had chosen to buy a pre-tied obi. It’s all about the cultural experiences, I guess!

Well, since this post is getting long, I guess that will be the end of my random memories about my awesome summer break. In a few hours, our town will be hosting its Obon festival, the largest summer festival in Japan, which occurs in towns and cities all over the nation. My friend and I are planning on dressing up with our yukata – I’ve never worn mine in public before, so that’ll be a new experience! It should be a fun event, and I’m planning on taking my camera to the festival, so look for a future post about Obon!



Four Month-versary

Yes, it really has been four months! Time has moved both slowly and quickly, as it tends to do in new situations. With this four-month mark in mind, I’ve come up with a list of four low points and four high points of the past few months:

Low Points:

  1. Feeling shell-shocked when I got here. “Everything even¬†smells¬†different,” I remember complaining to some of my teammates.
  2. Realizing that the language and culture is so different from our own.¬†Will I ever get used to the Japanese workplace culture, or the way they profusely greet/apologize/thank each other? To my American mind, it seems very surface-oriented. And yet, it’s an integral and respected way of their interactions.
  3. Realizing that two years is a LONG TIME.¬†Yep. It is. Not that I’m not excited about it – I am. But it’s STILL a long time.
  4. Missing favorite food products.¬†The top food items that I miss? Fruit. (Very expensive, meaning that I don’t buy berries and other favorite fruits that I used to eat at home. Except for apples, which I buy anyway and try not to think about the price.) Peanut butter. (Available, but expensive. And no Reese’s!) Trail mix. (SOMETIMES available in small packages. And expensive.) Granola bars!!

Four High Points:

  1. Realizing that I “took the plunge.” However difficult this experience may be at times, I am over the first (and hardest?) step of actually¬†doing it.¬†I don’t think about that fact much, but when I do, I am excited about it.
  2. Learning to do simple things. Like mail a card from the post office. Even small victories are big victories in a foreign country.
  3. Learning to do complex things. Like buying bus and train tickets. (Actually not that complex, but since I never had occasion to do it in the U.S., I was totally clueless over here). And doing things that the locals do, like getting a point card for the grocery store. Yay!
  4. Having some success with the language. There’s still SO much I don’t know, and I realize it more and more every day. But even understanding simple things, or being able to communicate a little bit with someone, is a victory.

There’s so much more I could write about, but for the sake of my readers I’ll keep it short and snappy. After this post I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog world as I set off to spend my summer break in the best way possible – visiting my family. ūüôā See you all in two weeks!

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!


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!


Going to Hawaii

This weekend I visited Hawaii! Well, not really. But I did go to a place called the “Hawaiians”¬†yesterday.¬†It’s a resort park with a Hawaiian theme, and it’s located in Iwaki city, about an hour’s drive from where I live. Our employer generously paid for our team to spend the day there – and it was a lot of fun!

The resort was really big. There was a¬†four-story building containing a huge pool/water slide area,¬†hot spring baths, restaurants, and more; there was also at least one adjoining hotel.¬†I didn’t¬†take many pictures, but I did get a shot of the inside of the building, where the main pool area was:

I tried a water slide for the first time in my life. The black one (above left in the photo) was the scariest; most of it was covered and totally dark, and it took a few unexpected turns and drops. But I loved it! We were also treated to a wonderful buffet meal, and a Hawaiian dance performance.

The water slide wasn’t my only¬†new experience, though. I finally tried – for the first time ever – ONSEN. What is onsen, you ask? It’s the Japanese word for natural hot springs, and it’s a big deal over here. The Japanese have created lots of baths that use¬†the water from the hot springs.¬†The only catch, of course, is that the baths are public and communal…which means you wear the same thing that you wear when you take a bath at home. Which is, basically, nothing. Luckily, at most of the baths (including the one I went to yesterday)¬†the genders are separated!

I’ve always been a little squeamish about the idea of¬†trying public baths, and I’d been able to avoid it on my other trips to Japan. But I knew that this time, it would be inevitable, because I am here for so long, and it is such an integral part of the¬†Japanese¬†culture. Even though I knew ahead of time that there were going to be hot springs at the Hawaiians¬†resort, I still wasn’t sure if I was going to try it. But after lunch, when some of my friends decided they were going to do it, I decided to be adventurous and take the plunge – literally!

Strangely enough, as soon as I entered the women’s bathing area and saw a bunch of naked people milling around, the idea of stripping down didn’t seem quite so terrifying. There’s something about being in a new country and out of my comfort zone that makes me feel less nervous about trying new things. It definitely felt kind of surreal, though, because it’s not something I’m familiar with. “Am I really doing this? Well, I guess so!” And that was that.

Japanese public baths are, of course, not for bathing. They’re for soaking. It’s all about relaxation and chilling out in some hot, steamy water. Therefore, you wash yourself before you get in the tub, at one of the spigots in the washing area. There’s a plastic stool to sit on, a removable shower head to hose off with, and shampoo, conditioner, and body wash provided. After that, you take your pick of the tub you want to relax in. At the onsen I went to, there were three or four indoor tubs, and one outdoors (behind a privacy wall, of course).

So what’s the verdict on bathing in a Japanese onsen? Well, it was definitely a unique cultural experience. Despite my nervousness, it was somewhat relaxing. I’ve got to admit, I don’t get a huge kick out of bathing in general, but it was fun to try the different baths, especially the outdoor one. And I noticed that my skin felt¬†better yesterday,¬†somewhat softer –¬†¬†maybe not entirely due to the onsen, but still a nice perk. Supposedly bathing at an onsen is good for you. Whether it is or not, it’s a fun thing to try if you really want to immerse yourself in the culture!

Between splashing around in the water park and soaking up the steam in the onsen, I definitely got my fill of fun and adventure this weekend.¬†I wonder what new cultural experiences lie ahead?¬†Bring it on, Japan! I’m ready for you!






Miscellaneous Wanderings

So this week’s post is another assortment of videos, meant to give a better snapshot of the area where I live. Now that I’m attempting¬†to shoot more videos for the blog, I’ve been trying to get in the habit of bringing my camera more places. I’m still not great at remembering, but in the past week or two I was able to capture some of the places I’ve been. Enjoy the tour!

First, a walk from my house to the nearest (and biggest) elementary school, where we teach classes sometimes.

A walk to one of the grocery stores.

Train ride to Koriyama, the biggest nearby city (about half an hour and 500 yen away):

The Koriyama train station.¬†It’s hard to see, but at the beginning of the video¬†there is a lady in a yukata standing on the opposite platform!

The train station in Funehiki – my town.