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. 🙂

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. 🙂 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 Café, 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.

Tour of the Town

At first, I didn’t know what to write about this week. We’ve been busy teaching, and haven’t had much excitement going on. Weekends have been mostly filled with cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and resting. However, as I wracked my brain for possible blog topics, I realized that I haven’t showed much of the outside of my apartment and the area surrounding it. Therefore, I spent some time today walking around and taking some footage of places near my house. Below are four videos for your viewing pleasure!

 

Sports Day Videos!

And now, as promised, the videos of Funehiki Elementary School’s Sports Day. Don’t judge my video-taking skills – I’m not into video editing yet, so what I took is what you get. 🙂 Enjoy!

Japan vs. America: Schools

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile, but have been saving for a weekend that I didn’t have any new events to write about. Well, that weekend has come, so here is my first post comparing some of the differences between Japan and America. This time, it’s about schools!

#1: No shoes allowed! Yes, in schools, as in homes, you take off your shoes in the lowered part of the entry way, stepping up onto the main floor before putting on your indoor shoes. That means that when we American teachers visit elementary schools for our morning classes, we have to tote our indoor shoes with us. Slippers are provided for guests, but it’s really not all that comfortable to scuff around school in a pair of slippers. Just sayin’.

#2: Ritualized greetings. There are ritualized phrases for everything here.  When we first arrive at school and step into our office, we greet those inside with a cheerful Ohayou gozaimasu (“good morning”). When we leave mid-morning to go teach at the elementary schools, we say Itte kimasu (“we’re leaving and coming back”) and receive the response of Itte irrasshai (“go and come back”). When we come back after our lunch break, we use Konnichiwa (“good afternoon”) to greet our coworkers again. When we leave at the end of the day, we say to those left in the office Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu (“excuse me for leaving before you”). The usual response is Otsukaresama deshita (“good work” – or, more literally – “you must be tired”).

When you walk into an office that’s not your own, the rules change. That means, every time you step into or out of the office, you have to excuse yourself. Therefore, at the elementary schools we visit, when we go into the principal’s office to visit over a cup of coffee before starting classes, we say Shitsurei shimasu (“excuse my rudeness”) when entering and Shitsurei shimashita (“excuse my past rudeness”) when leaving. The teachers who pop in to go over our lesson plans with us, and the students who come in to pick us up, also abide by the same rules. In other words, there’s a lot of excusing going on. But it’s all a part of the unique culture of politeness.

#3: Ritualized cleaning. First of all, Japanese schools have no janitors. Well, I’m not sure about no janitors, but I know that students and teachers do some of the cleaning.  At the school where I work, we have someone who does a lot of the cleaning, but the other teachers chip in as well. (Students don’t clean at our school because it’s just an after-school program.) On the mornings that we don’t have as many elementary school classes to teach, we American teachers help with the cleaning, too! Usually, the task assigned to us is cleaning windows. The classrooms all have sliding doors with windows on at least one side of the room, so there are a lot of windows to clean. It doesn’t matter whether the windows are clean or dirty – on our days to clean them (usually once or twice a week), we clean them! The mentality seems to be that there is a time for doing certain things, and during that time – you do them.

#4: School lunches. Obviously, there aren’t school lunches at the after-school program where I work. In fact, I haven’t been to any at the elementary schools, either. But we have eaten lunch with the kindergartners a few times. At the kindergarten, they bring their own rice, and then each get a small tray of food to accompany it – usually meat, vegetables, a small piece of fruit, etc. The bento boxes (lunch boxes) here are the cutest things imaginable – some are double decker, and include space in the lid for a fork, spoon, and/or chopsticks.

#5: Cold water, no soap. Ah yes, public restrooms. Although the toilets can be high-tech (the one that I used in the mall yesterday made running water sounds when I sat down), the washing facilities are not what I’m used to in the States. There is often only cold running water, and many times there is no soap. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen paper towels, and hand dryers are rare. In other words, you’re responsible for figuring out how to get the water off your own hands. Generally, I believe people keep a personal towel or tissues with them. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten into the habit of it, so sometimes I end up shaking off the water and patting my hands on my pants. Also, my school, being small, has a restroom more like a private bathroom than a public one – which means I have to change out of my shoes and into bathroom slippers before entering!  Keeping the dirt compartmentalized is what it’s all about!

#6: Lack of adult supervision. This aspect of Japanese schools has probably been the most surprising to me. After being part of an American school culture that requires constant supervision of all children at all times, it’s a little strange for me to see children with no adult present. Of course, there are always teachers around, but it’s not a given that there will always be a teacher supervising students. For example, at the kindergarten where I work, students often will be playing in the halls with no adult in sight; and at the elementary schools, we will occasionally walk into a classroom where the students are waiting for us without a teacher present. It’s different from what I’m used to, but in some ways I like that the students can be more independent.

Well, that’s the end of my recap of some of the differences that I’ve found between Japanese and American schools. If there are any topics you’d like to see in future Japan vs. America posts, leave me a comment!

 

 

 

Sports Day!

Last weekend, those of us teachers who work at the English school (the after-school program) were invited to the local elementary school’s annual Sports Day. We teach several classes at their school on weekday mornings, and some of their students come to our English school, so we know quite a few of the students. At first, I was a little hesitant about spending my Saturday at school, but it turned out to be lots of fun! Although I don’t have a lot of experience with public schools in the States, it seemed quite a bit different from similar events in American schools – more organized and well thought out.

The day started off with a fireworks signal – at six in the morning! It was the school’s way of letting the townspeople know that Sports Day was still scheduled.  The festivities didn’t start until nine, but after the loud explosion I couldn’t go back to sleep!

A little before nine, we four teachers headed over to the school, about a five-minute walk from where we live. The weather was beautiful – a sparkling day, warm and clear but with a nice breeze. When we got there, the students’ families were already spread around the perimeter of the dirt-packed field in front of the school. We teachers got fortunate – we got to sit at tables under some tents, along with other visiting teachers and administrators. We even got green tea and little bags filled with snacks!

The field filled with children was an impressive sight:

This was actually less than half of the children. They were divided into two teams – the red team and the white team – and their team’s color was indicated by the reversible cap each student wore. The photo above is, obviously, of the white team.

They all did warm-up exercises before they got started:

After that, there were several races, broken down by grade and class. Then the younger students did a dance:

Some relays and other games followed. Then there was a sort of pep ceremony, where each team shouted some announcements and cheered for their team. The spirit definitely can’t be captured in a photo, but here’s one anyway.

One of my favorite parts was the marching band. They performed just after the lunch break, and they did an absolutely fantastic job.

One of the fun parts of the day was that we actually got the chance to participate a little! We ran a (very short) race with the other visiting teachers, picking up a paper grab bag on the way. Mine turned out to have cling wrap, tin foil, and individual packs of tissues. 🙂 We also went out during one of the younger students’ events to cheer them on.

So, my “Saturday at school” turned out to be a great day after all. I had fun and left feeling very impressed at the order and organization of the event! The pictures don’t really do justice to the whole atmosphere of the day, so my hope is to get some videos uploaded at some point. I’d love to share some of them with you, because, as I found out, there’s just nothing like a Japanese Sports Day!

 

 

 

A Japanese Aquarium

 

Aquamarine Fukushima

So for this post, we shall travel back in time for a couple of weeks! I gave a general report about Golden Week, but I also wanted to write about the day trip we went on to the aquarium in Iwaki. The name of the aquarium is Aquamarine Fukushima, and it is, as you can see from the photo, a self-proclaimed “inspiring aquarium”.

Actually, I didn’t find it all that exciting, although it was cool. I guess I had my hopes set too high. The only other aquarium I’d been to was a small one in southern Maine when I was 7 years old, so I was hoping for something really amazing. But I did get to see some neat sea animals. Enjoy the show!

One of my favorite exhibits – a huge tank with currents simulating those in the ocean. This was just a tiny part of the huge school of fish in the tank!

 

A ray, also part of the large tank exhibit. You can see part of the simulated current. It felt like I was re-watching parts of Finding Nemo!

 

Some cool seaweed.

 

A sleepy seal…or is it a sea lion? (Got to brush up on my sea animal knowledge!!)

 

This one’s for you, Dad! I fought the crowds just so I could get a picture of this funny-looking puffin…the inspiration for some of my dad’s fabulous artwork (although his puffins are the “normal” ones!).

 

IT’S DORY! Come back, Dory!!

 

“Do not disturb, or you will be sorry!” At least, that’s what I imagine this grumpy-looking dude is thinking…

 

In the deepest darkest parts of the ocean…

 

And now we have a…what? Yes, folks, it’s a little fox-type creature, in its own exhibit in a different building. Go figure…

Well, since my picture-uploading stamina has come to an end, so has the tour. Hope you had fun, and stay tuned for an upcoming post about a Japanese school’s Sports Day!

The Real Stuff

So, I haven’t done many introspective posts about Japan. Because, really, who wants to read all about my feelings? But as I am creeping up to the two-month mark of my arrival here (it will be a month and a half on May 15th), I thought that I would take a short pause to record what living in a foreign country is REALLY like – that is, what it is like aside from the fun travels and the new experiences. So let’s get started!

OK, number one: what is culture shock like? I think my first perception of culture shock is that it is different for EVERYONE. Everyone has had different experiences to draw from, and a personality that reacts differently to new situations. Supposedly there are four or five different stages of culture shock; I don’t even know which one I’m in. As I live through it, it’s really not that clear cut to me, and I don’t think that it necessarily will be. I still feel a sense of newness and enjoyment of a lot of the things I’m experiencing, which I think would be considered the honeymoon phase. That means some of the harder phases are coming up next (scary thought!), which brings me to the next topic…

Adjusting! It seems like I’m only just now starting to visualize my life here for the next two years. April was chock full of new experiences, meeting new people, and doing lots of traveling. The first week in May was a three-holiday week. Now we’re just starting to settle into a normal routine, and I’m gradually starting to realize that no, I don’t get a three-month break like I would as a teacher in the States, and this is the job that I will be doing for at least the next two years. It actually feels good to settle into a sense of routine, although I’m a bit nervously awaiting the feelings of homesickness and monotony that may creep in as I realize that this IS my life for two years.

Number three: communication. I felt like I knew a “good amount” of Japanese before I came – and I do know a lot of basic vocabulary, sentence structures, and symbols. But it doesn’t lessen the fact that it’s still difficult to actually communicate in Japanese. When people try to hold a conversation with me, I’m able to pick out a few words and sometimes get the gist of what they’re saying. The rest of the time, I just nod and pretend I understand. It’s really frustrating to not understand more, but it’s great motivation to continue learning the language.

Conclusion: Yep, living in a foreign country is fun. But it’s not ALL fun. I embarrass myself a lot, and feel uncertain of myself a lot. I’ve felt unsettled knowing that I’m not near ANY family or close friends anymore (although I have felt hugely supported by my team). But, on the flip side, there are so many good things about being here! I feel braver, more willing to take risks and try new things (or embarrass myself) because, well, that’s just my way of life here. I feel loved and supported by both my team and my family back home. And I feel so, so grateful to be here, because this really has been my dream almost since I was a child. It didn’t necessarily happen in my timing, but it did happen. And I’m so thankful that God led me to this opportunity, at this time. Even if I still have four more stages of culture shock to go… 🙂