Happy Golden Week!

Yes, this week is…golden. At least, Japan says it is. For those of you who may not be familiar with Japanese holidays, Golden Week is a week of several consecutive holidays. April 29, May 3, May 4, and May 5 are all holidays. Since April 29 fell on a Saturday this year, we didn’t get that one officially “off,” but since May 3, 4, and 5 fell on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (respectively), we got Wednesday through Sunday off this week!

Most of the senior teachers on our team already had trips planned, and we newer teachers also wanted to take advantage of the 5-day break by doing some travelling. It turned out that we didn’t go very far – first, because we haven’t had much time to plan and most everything this week was already booked; and second, because we’ve only been working here for a month and didn’t want to spend much money! However, at least for me, it ended up being a satisfying week.  So, what does one do on a Golden Week in which there are no major trips planned? Well, for me it went something like this:

Wednesday: Walk to the local shopping center. Eat sushi and cake at a revolving sushi restaurant (the sushi revolves, not the restaurant!). Buy soil. Lug it home, use my three planters to plant seeds I bought at the 100-yen store – tomatoes, carrots, beans, lettuce, spinach, flowers. Wait breathlessly for them to grow.

Thursday: Day trip to Iwaki (a city near the coast, and one of the places where the tsunami hit in 2011). Take the train with some other team members. Try to figure out where the aquarium is located. Decide that we need to take a bus. Take the bus to the aquarium. Spend a couple hours exploring. Ride the bus back to the train station. Ask about a hamburger place we want to visit, and find out it’s closed. (Cue some very disappointed team members.) Buy food at a convenience store and sandwich shop instead. Ride the train home.

Friday: Walk to the farthest (but larger) grocery store. Buy lots of food, and as usual, spend more than I want to. But hey! I found oats. And brown and white sugar. And vanilla. Which leads to the next activity…Baking. In the afternoon, I try my mom’s chocolate chip cookie recipe, using my microwave-sized “oven” to bake with for the first time. Partial success – the cookies did, at least, bake and taste somewhat edible. Partial failure – they taste NOTHING like my mother’s. Mom, I’m taking the next flight home!! Later, for supper, make okonomiyaki (vegetable pancakes) with two of my teammates. Total success! I’d forgotten how much I like okonomiyaki!!

Saturday: Take three of my team members and climb Mount Katasone for the second time. Everything’s a little greener and prettier now. Eat sushi at the top, and look out over our town, and at the mountains across from us. “I will lift my eyes to the hills..” Now I know why the mountains made Maria sing. And why David wrote about them in the Psalms. God seems bigger up there, and life seems…smaller.

Sunday: Try going to the local church by myself for the first time! Even though I’m nervous, it turns out to be OK, except for the fact that I can’t understand anything. But I enjoy going and lending some support to the local church, if only by being present sometimes. Japanese churches are so tiny (most of the time), and there are so few of them – this one is the only church in town that I know of! However, it’s very convenient; since it’s being held at the school where I work (until a new church can be built), it’s only a two-minute walk from where I live.

Now it’s Sunday afternoon, which means Golden Week is almost over. It’s been a refreshing week, and I’ve been able to try lots of little projects that have been on my mental “list.” But now, it’s back to the grindstone for a solid few months. No lengthy American summer vacation for me! The summer vacation is a lot shorter here; plus, I work at an after-school program, so it’s shorter for us teachers than it is for the students in public school. I’ll get about 15 days in August, which right now seems a long way away. However, there is Ocean Day – a national holiday – sometime in July. Hey, here’s an idea, America: Why don’t we have an Ocean Day? Maybe I’ll institute one when I get back. In any case, as I wave goodbye to my five days of freedom, I’ll look forward to the coming of summer. Even if I have to work, summer still means hot weather, flip-flops, ice cream, and sunny days!

 

The Hill of Many Flowers

Yes, it is the middle of the week. And I usually post on the weekend. But I’ve been gallivanting around so much lately that I wanted to take some time to record some of my travels, before they fade from my memory.

This past weekend, many of my team members and I went on a trip to Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki prefecture, about a three-hour train ride from where I live. The trip had already been planned ahead of time by the senior teachers, so we new teachers were happy to be invited since we still aren’t really familiar with the area and what there is to do. So on Saturday morning, we awoke bright and early to hop on the six o’clock train. Although the ride was long, I enjoyed it – I love riding trains (at least the ones in this area), and I got to see some of the beautiful countryside, as well as the city of Iwaki.

We arrived at the vast park mid-morning, taking a short bus ride from the train station since the walk would have been too long. The park is known for its flowers – huge patches of them, with different flowers blooming in different seasons. The flowers blooming during our visit were tulips and a blue flower called nemophila. I had never heard of nemophila, but according to Wikipedia (which we all know is thoroughly reliable), they do grow in the U.S. – but the western end, which explains why I’ve never seen them before.

First, the tulips. There was a wooded area filled with many tulip patches, of every color and variety imaginable. Unfortunately, there were so many people around that I ended up taking very close-up photos at awkward angles, as I tried to avoid humans in the background as much as possible.

Multi-colored tulip patch
Tulips, tulips, and more tulips…
One of my favorites!

After visiting with and taking photos of tulips to our hearts’ content, we moved on to the big highlight – the nemophila. Basically, it’s a light blue flower, and at this park they have planted massive amounts of it, covering several hills. In fact, when we peeked through the woods on our way there, at first glance it looked like water. The ocean actually was on the other side of the hills. But the blue that we saw was just the nemophila, thousands upon thousands, covering the ground like a blanket. The only thing that marred the sight was the people, traversing the paths like ants on a hill…

Nemophila!
A sea of blue
From the top of the hill

After a couple hours of flower viewing, we waited in some abominably long lines to buy lunch, then wandered around the adjoining kid-geared amusement park. After that, we walked to a nearby Costco, which I think for some of us was one of the highlights of the trip! We perused the aisles with excitement, eyeing many familiar American foods and basically wanting to buy it all! I ended up coming away with cereal (which is expensive in the local grocery stores, with very few varieties), dried fruit, and a 60-count box of granola bars (which I haven’t been able to find here yet!). Unfortunately, much of the snack food here is unhealthy, and the healthy things that I like (fruit, yogurt, etc.) is rather expensive. At least I now have my granola bars to tide me over for awhile…

The day ended with a snack-buying spree at the train station before we boarded the six o’clock train for home. I ended up sleeping most of the way, which seemed like a good way to finish off a fun-filled day!

An Old Old Cherry Tree

So apparently this area of Japan is famous for a landmark tree, which attracts lots of tourists. It’s a cherry tree that’s over 1,000 years old, and it’s called Takizakura, which means “waterfall cherry tree.” If you want to see the website where I got this information, or to read more guide-style info about the tree, check out this link:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7792.html

I have to admit, I had been hoping for awhile that we would visit this tree. I knew that last year’s team had gone during sakura (cherry blossom) season, and I really wanted to see those 1,000-year old blooms for myself! (Well, the tree is a thousand years old; I suppose the blossoms are brand new every year.) So, when my boss told us,  last week, that we would get to go that coming weekend, I was excited!

Then, mid-week, we were told that because of the weather (rain, I think) the blossoms were not going to be on the tree by the time we went to see them, so we would not be going. Oh well, I thought. There’s always next year.

But toward the end of the week, the report changed: because the weather had remained cold, the blossoms had stayed on despite the adverse conditions earlier in the week. We were back on!

Needless to say, I was a happy little person as our team boarded two school “buses” (which are really the size of vans) early Saturday morning. We rode for a short time – probably less than half an hour – and arrived at a school, where we parked in a huge empty field and waited for the tourist bus that was to transport us the rest of the way. After another short ride, we arrived at the site of the ancient tree! We had to take a short hike uphill to get there, walking a street which was lined with vendors selling souvenirs and sakura-themed snacks.

The tree was definitely impressive, and still in full bloom. There was a patch of yellow flowers in front of it, which made an eye-catching contrast with the white blooms of the tree. Even at that early hour (it was before 9, I think) there were lots of people. I followed the congested path in front of the tree, then walked up the hill behind it. I tried to get lots of pictures, and had some friends try to get pictures of me in front of the tree. But it was a little difficult to get head shots that had a good perspective, because of all the people we had to work around!

After exploring for an hour, we headed back down the hill – with a quick stop for sakura-flavored ice cream! What does sakura ice cream taste like, you ask? Well – nothing too out-of-the-ordinary. Some of the flavor descriptions I heard from my team members were “whipped cream” and “marshmallows.” I agreed with them – it had a nice creamy, sweet flavor, with maybe a hint of floral or spice. In any case, it was tasty!

And so ended our journey to see the very old tree. Please enjoy the pictures below, as I’m sure they’ll do way more justice than my words…

(BONUS: I also included a couple pictures of the night-time cherry blossoms on one of the streets here in town. They put up pink-shaded lights during this time of year, to go with the cherry blossoms!)

 

Climb Every Mountain (or at least the one in town)

Well, despite having a busy weekend last week, one of my teammates and I decided it was time to get out into nature! There is a small mountain in town, roughly an hour’s hike from bottom to top. Some of our team members had already hiked it, so we were eager to try it for ourselves. After all, how could we ignore an opportunity to climb a mountain that’s just a few minutes away from where we live??

The hike turned out to be a little grueling – not because it was hard, but just because I am not what you would call super athletic. It wasn’t even a hike, really – we just followed a road all the way to the top. But it just kept going UP. We stopped a few times to enjoy the view (and catch our breaths), and finally made it! There was a great view of the surrounding towns, and even some snow-covered mountains in the distance! The photo above has my town in the background. We couldn’t pick out wher, but we could locate several of the larger landmarks.

Even though it was a tiring morning, I was glad that I made the time to climb the mountain. I can’t wait to go back when the landscape is a little more picturesque – when everything starts turning green and the flowers start blooming. Maybe bring a picnic lunch? In any case, it’s great to have a get-away nearby even if I have to work to get there. I’m so glad I live in an area where there is nature around!

This weekend’s trip was also to see nature – our employers took us to a nearby landmark, a VERY old cherry tree. Stay tuned for my next post about that adventure!

View of Mt. Katasone – with carp streamers for Children’s Day in the foreground!

 

Introductions, Introductions

Well, it’s been a busy week here in Funehiki! This past week was our first full week of work. Fortunately, I was still able to observe classes instead of actually teaching them, but this week my coworker and I will be doing the teaching, and the senior teachers will be observing us! It’s a little scary but it will be good to start getting used to having our own classes. Some classes are a little more rambunctious than others, which makes me nervous, but I guess the more difficult the class, the better chance I have to practice my classroom management skills. 🙂

This weekend has been busy as well, because we’ve had several events that we’ve had to attend in order to be introduced to new people. First of all, on Saturday afternoon we all went over to the kindergarten (which is right behind our apartments, and run by our boss) to meet the kindergarten teachers. Introductions here are very formal by American standards. We American teachers all stood side by side on one end of the room (a small gym), and the Japanese teachers lined up on the opposite side. Each Japanese teacher was handed a paper with a photo and bio of each of us new teachers. Then there were introductions all around – we American teachers each gave our memorized self-introduction speech (yes, in Japanese!) – and then each Japanese teacher said his/her name and the age group he or she worked with, followed by Yoroshiku onegai shimasu (“Nice to meet you,” or more literally, “Please treat me kindly”). Of course, a lot of bowing was also involved, as each person introducing themselves bowed afterward, and we bowed in return. We new teachers were also each presented with a bouquet of flowers and gift certificates to a local grocery store!

On Saturday night,  one of the senior teachers held a meet-and-greet party, so that we new teachers would have the chance to meet some of the Japanese people that the team has befriended over the years. Although I’m not much of a party person, it turned out to be enjoyable. There were lots of great snacks, and I got involved in several interesting conversations with different Japanese people.

Today, still more introductions! This (Sunday) morning, we visited the local church for the first time, of which our boss is the pastor. It is very small, as Japanese churches tend to be – maybe a dozen or fewer people in attendance (not counting us Americans). The sermon was mostly in Japanese, but I still found it interesting to attend. Afterwards, there was a wonderful “welcome lunch” in honor of us teachers. Each person got a tray of sushi, an orange, and a beautiful slice of cake, and various homemade and store bought snacks were handed out. And, of course, each of us also gave our introduction speeches again, and the church members introduced themselves as well.

So that’s the story of my weekend of socialization. In reality, I enjoyed it all, and I feel incredibly honored and grateful to be here. Everyone here – our employers, the church members, and our coworkers – are all so generous. Even though I know working here will have its hardships, this weekend I experienced some of the great things about being here, so I’m really thankful for that!

 

Fish Eggs (And Other New Experiences)

So yesterday marked our one-week anniversary of arriving in Japan! In some ways it was a slow week, because so far we’ve had quite a bit of down time, but in other ways it has gone super fast. It has definitely been a week of new experiences. Where do I start??

Well, first of all, my new job! I haven’t actually started working yet, but this week we had two days of orientation and two days of observations. Three of my team mates will be teaching in the city’s junior high schools, while one of my team mates and I will be teaching at a kindergarten, several elementary schools, and the after-school English program. This program is held at a school run by my employer, and they usually have four teachers at a time who work there in the afternoons. (We’ll be working at the elementary schools and the kindergarten in the mornings). Originally, my boss only hired teachers to work at his school, but the city asked that he bring in more teachers to work at their junior high schools, so that is why we now have twelve teachers working here during any given year.

Wednesday was the opening ceremony for the kindergarten, so those of us who will be working there had to stand and bow in front of all the incoming students and their parents. Luckily, we didn’t have to say anything. Because it was a formal occasion, I didn’t take any pictures. I wish I had some, though – those kindergarteners are CUTE!! Maybe sometime I can sneak some pictures… 🙂

Thursday and Friday went by quickly, as I observed classes at the English school. I think I’m going to really like it – there are a variety of different grade levels to teach (from first grade through junior high), and different class sizes as well. I get to observe for about a week or so before actually teaching, so that will be helpful. I gave my self-introduction to each class, and got some interesting questions such as “What’s your favorite type of clothes?” and “Do you have someone that you like?” Some classes are quieter than others, but I definitely have to be prepared to answer questions about just about anything – my favorite food, drink, TV show, character, shape, etc.

As far as other new experiences go, I don’t think I can get by without mentioning food. So far this week, I’ve eaten sushi, dumplings, udon (thick noodles), and katsudon (pork cutlet on rice), among other things. I even decided to be brave and try the sushi that has fish eggs. I thought it would take a lot of courage, but I’ve been so thrown out of my comfort zone this week that it didn’t really feel like that big of a deal. I didn’t really like the taste, though – they were basically just gushy little balls that taste salty. My coworker took a video, but since it’s too big to upload onto this blog, I’ll have to post a couple of pictures instead:

So, that’s pretty much been my week. Meeting new people, trying new things, and trying to get both my body and my mind to adjust to a whole new way of life. Now, onto week two!

My New Home

So today’s the day for the Japanese apartment tour! It’s been almost a week since we arrived here in Japan, and I’ve settled in enough for my apartment to feel somewhat my own. It was mostly furnished, but I have made a couple of trips to the hundred-yen store to buy some small things that make it feel more like me. 🙂

So, on to the tour….

Here’s the very first thing you see when you walk in my door – the genkan, which is a small area level with the outside. You put your shoes here, then step up into the rest of the house. No outdoor shoes allowed in Japanese houses!!

Next, we have the rest of my kitchen – tiny, but functional. Notice the two-burner stove. There’s no oven, only a small drawer for grilling!

However, I do have a microwave that also doubles as an oven and a toaster. I also have a teensy-weensy fridge/freezer. The top only reaches to just over my waist…

There is an area holding a small washer and dryer, and then my compact bathroom. Normally Japanese bathrooms have the toilet and tub in separate rooms but since my apartment is so small everything is squished in together. It’s definitely a Japanese bathroom, though – the toilet has a heated seat and buttons that release sprays of water to wash yourself, and the floor is waterproof with a drain so you can wash yourself outside the tub and then use the tub for soaking, in traditional Japanese fashion. Notice how deep the tub is!

Next we have the bedroom, definitely the most spacious room in my house. I have a fairly large bed, a bookcase (yay!), a desk, and a small table at which I can eat (since I have no dining area in the kitchen). I also have a sizeable closet hidden behind two large sliding doors.

The tall windows in the picture above are actually sliding glass doors, which lead out to a narrow balcony where I can hang clothes. These doors are on the front side of the apartment building, so my view faces the street.

And there you have it…the grand tour of my new little space. I’m sure it will take awhile for it to really feel like home, but it’s already starting to feel like a comfortable spot for me. It’s nice to have a space to come back to, as I’m sure the upcoming days will continue to hold more challenges. As of yesterday, orientation is over, and I start my new job (well, shadowing at least) this afternoon! My world’s been topsy-turvy lately but I have God, my team, and my family back home to depend on, and lots of new adventures to write about. Stay tuned for upcoming posts!

We’re Here!

Ohayou gozaimasu! Good morning from Japan! After a grueling twelve-hour flight, we arrived in Japan on Saturday afternoon at about three o’clock. We were all somewhat shell-shocked, and overwhelmed by the thought that this was our new home for the next two years. After going through immigration and customs, we were picked up in a couple of vans by two of the school’s staff members, and had another three-hour drive or so from Tokyo up here to Tamura city in Fukushima.

A good night’s sleep and waking up to morning sunlight yesterday morning helped revive me a little. We had a relaxing day yesterday, exploring town with some of the experienced team members (the ones who arrived a year ago) and trying out some of the restaurants. In the afternoon, one of my other team members and I went back to the grocery store to stock up on some food. There were so many new products to explore! It will take awhile to get used to what the stores here have (and don’t have), but fortunately I was able to find some of my favorite food items.

We each have our own small apartment, although two of my teammates have to share temporarily. We all live in the same building, which is great. It is an incredibly comforting feeling to know that I have my team for support as I navigate all of these new experiences. I haven’t had serious homesickness or culture shock hit me yet, but I think I’m still living in the surreal experience of adjusting and trying to figure out exactly how I ended up here on the other side of the world. 🙂

We have one more day of exploring and relaxing today, and then orientation begins tomorrow. After two days of orientation, we officially begin our jobs, although some of us will just be shadowing and not actually teaching yet. Phew! There’s going to be a lot to take in over the next few days and weeks, but for now I am thankful that we are at least somewhat settled, and can try to start adjusting to life here.

That’s all for now, but there will be more stories and pictures to come! I’m hoping to do a post about my apartment and possibly the grocery store. If there are any topics you would particularly like to know about, or questions that you have, let me know in the comments section and I will try to address them in a future post!

Getting Ready…

Hello from Ohio! I can’t believe it’s already been one week since we arrived! It has been a full week for our team – getting to know each other, learning about Japanese history and culture, and studying the Japanese language. The setting here is absolutely beautiful; the church at which we are having our orientation is like a lodge, with a spacious upstairs area that has a kitchen, a library, a huge room with a fireplace, and a balcony with a picturesque view of the field and pond behind the church.  A very generous family has allowed us to stay in their home, which is just a couple minutes’ walk away from the church, so we get some nice walking time in as we head to the church every morning and come home at night.

View from the church balcony

The church community here is amazing, offering their support through their prayers, their kind interest, and their hospitality. Every day, someone from church brings in lunch for us, which we heartily enjoy as we give our minds a break from learning. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and love shown to us, and it’s so comforting to realize that these wonderful people will be thinking of us and praying for us as we head to Japan. I was so excited to go to Japan with the support of a team, but I didn’t expect to have the support of the whole church community here as well!

Our team has spent some quality time together this past week, even making time for a few fun activities like bowling and hiking. It’s been fun to get to know the unique personalities of each person, and to see us start to mesh as a group. Although we all have different backgrounds and motivations for coming here, it is really cool to see the focus for God that each person has, and the heart that each has for following Him into this new adventure.

This week we are wrapping up our orientation, taking three more days to study more about Japanese culture, the jobs we will have, and teaching techniques. On Thursday, we get ready to head to Columbus, where we will stay overnight so that we can head out early in the morning for our flight on Friday!

Although I have some trepidation about finally going to Japan and starting a new job there, I’m also excited. God has provided and blessed in such awesome ways up this point, and I know He will into the future. The adventure has only begun, yet already it is amazing…

 

 

And So It Begins…

Tomorrow’s the day! Well, sort of. Even though I’m headed on an adventure to Japan, the “Japan” part doesn’t actually start for another couple of weeks. However, my orientation in Ohio – where I’ll be studying Japanese, learning about the culture, and getting to know my teammates – does start tomorrow. I’ll be getting up in the wee hours (or at least by five) to head to the airport for my flight to Columbus.

The past week has gone zipping by, and it feels like the past couple of days have been on fast forward as I’ve been trying to pack in everything I need to do. My room turned into a disaster zone while I worked on organizing and packing. This is me, two days ago:

However, I’m happy to report that I was finally able to stuff all my desired items into two suitcases and two carry-ons. My room is back in order, and I have been able to tie up most of my loose ends, which I am thanking God for. I was even able to sell my car today, just in the nick of time. Yay!

Well, tomorrow will be an early start with lots of adrenaline churning around in my body, so probably the smart thing to do is to turn in for the night. I’ll bid all you blog readers a final farewell from Maine!