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: http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/explore/calendar/may/children.html.

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: https://notesofnomads.com/white-day-japan/.

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

 

 

 

Castles and Candles

Hello readers! I’m back with another episode of my winter adventures during our long weekend in February. I posted previously about the visit my teammate and I took to Ouchijuku, an Edo-period village. What I didn’t write about is where we we went afterward…

As I mentioned before, we had wandered around Ouchijuku for awhile, eaten lunch, climbed the snow-covered hill behind the village, and taken in some dance performances. Although we could have stayed for more activities, by mid-afternoon we both felt as though we had gotten our fill of the village. So we decided to hop back on the train and take a little detour (which was on our way home anyway) to the city of Aizu Wakamatsu. It just so happened that this particular weekend coincided with the city’s painted candle festival (read more about that here), so we decided to add to our repertoire of experiences for the day and go visit that as well.

After arriving in Aizu Wakamatsu, we took a bus to Tsuruga Castle. This was the castle we had visited in the fall, when our employers brought us for a visit after the samurai parade. This was a completely different experience, however – snow blanketed the ground, and the place was lit with the glow of hundreds of candles. It was a beautiful sight!

The side of the road leading to the castle was dotted with lanterns, each containing a candle:

Since I was ravenously hungry, our first stop was at a small food shop near the castle. I bought a stick of tempura manjuu (deep fried buns filled with sweet bean paste), which I promptly devoured. Let me tell you, if you haven’t tasted one of these skewered balls of crispy sweet goodness, you haven’t lived yet. AMAZING.

Next, we ventured up to the castle grounds, admiring the different kinds of lanterns that we saw. The field by the castle was full of them:

There was a display of creations representing different schools, which were also lit up (with candles, I presume, although I didn’t actually look in any of them).

The field was surrounded by a border of pretty fluted lanterns:

View of the castle from the far side of the field:

As we wandered around, we also discovered a small area that was filled with punched metal lanterns. This was one of my favorite displays – the handiwork on the lanterns was exquisite!

After taking in the sights at the castle, we waited for what seemed an excessively long time for a bus to take us back to the train station. I tried not to freeze to death as I clutched my kairo, or heating pack. They have an abundance of these self-heating packs over here – just bend them back and forth, and they give off heat! They may have them in America, too, but I’ve never used them there. Anyway…eventually, the bus did come, and we managed to make all our train connections and arrive safely back home before it got indecently late. Even though we’d had hours of commuting time for just a day trip, we’d visited the historic village of Ouchijuku, eaten hot soba and delicious fried manju, and seen the beauty of Tsuruga Castle in the candlelight. Not a bad way to spend a winter weekend!

Japlish!

This week I interrupt the tales of my travels to bring up a new topic: Japlish. What is Japlish, you say? Well, it’s an abbreviation for Japanese English, and it refers to words and phrases that are written in English but that really don’t make sense to English speakers. Japlish can be found everywhere – for example, in translations on signs and posters or on T-shirt slogans. It is also sometimes called Janglish or Engrish.

During my time here, I’ve been trying to keep my eye out for interesting and amusing examples of Japlish. Of course, I’m not trying to make fun of Japan, because I know that the exact same thing occurs when English speakers try to use another language. Funny mistakes just happen. So with that being said, here are some snippets of my favorite Japlish findings so far.

First, the slogans found on clothing. The following are all phrases I’ve seen on my students’ shirts:

– “Real Great Team the Braver”

– “Things Are Going Great. Write in One’s Diary.” (Seen on a fifth-grade boy’s shirt.)

– “Lovery Kiss You”

Clothes are not the only source of my Japlish entertainment. Here are some sentences I found in a couple of children’s books about animals and food. First, the warning is to be careful of…the staples, I think:

Next, we have some informative headings:

Yes. Yes, they are.

This one’s a little hard to decipher, as it says the exact same thing in Japanese. I assume it means that I am not good at EATING vegetables. How did they know?

The plus side is that now I know how to say “I sweated much” in Japanese. If I ever want to.

Last but not least, I found an interesting Japlish sign during my visit to Ouchijuku a couple of weeks ago. There were lots of street vendors selling snacks, and this one was selling skewered balls of konnyaku (a gelatin-like substance made from a type of tuber known as konjac). I think they were trying to convey the idea that the skewers were packed full.

Well, that’s the end of today’s foray into the world of Japanese English! If you have any interesting examples of Japlish to share, leave a comment!

Walking in an Edo Wonderland, Part 2

Welcome to this week’s post! Last week, we left off right in the middle of the trip I took with my friend to Ouchijuku, an Edo-period village. This week, we’ll resume the tour of this beautiful, snow-covered village!

One thing we decided to do after we’d feasted on mountain vegetable soba was climb up to the overlook behind the village. Although there was a staircase, it was covered with snow, and it was packed hard from all the people who had been going up and down. Luckily, my friend and I both had boots with good tread, so we made it up without any catastrophes. The view overlooking the village was beautiful!

After taking our fill of scenic shots, we made our way back down the slippery steps. We began to walk beyond the village through a snow-covered field to a shrine, but we heard over the loudspeaker that one of the festival events was starting. It was an event I wanted to see, so we turned back and found the crowd of people near the central activity area. I wasn’t sure exactly what the event would be, only that it involved rice cakes (which I’m always eager to be involved with!). It turns out that the festival attendees were dressing a bare tree with colored rice cake balls, or dango. This activity, called dango-sashi, is a traditional event for this time of year, as this site explains: https://fukushima-guide.jp/experience/dango-sashi/. It wasn’t something I wanted to participate in, but it was interesting to watch!

After passing out what must have been hundreds of rice cakes to the festival goers, and encouraging them to keep sticking them onto the tree branches, the people in charge finally decided that the trees were loaded enough to raise. (There were actually two small trees, but it’s hard to see the back one in the picture). With lots of encouragement and interesting sound effects from the announcers, the colorful tree was hoisted into the air:

Against the backdrop of the pale blue sky, it was a pretty sight!

After the dango-sashi, we hung around for a couple more events. There were some students dressed in traditional garb, who performed some interesting dances.  After that was a Shinto dance involving two men under a sheet and a mask. Neither my friend nor I cared to watch that, so instead we wandered around the village some more, enjoying the sights. Around four o’clock, we decided to head out, so we took a very packed bus back to the train station. There, I was able to get some photos of the picturesque area surrounding the station.

Yunokamionsen Station is definitely a quaint little place. According to this site http://www.tif.ne.jp/lang/en/sightseeing/detail.php?id=354&category=1, this station is the only one with a thatched roof in Japan. Inside the minuscule station, there is a waiting area with a wood-burning fireplace, free green tea, and a few shelves of books.

There is even a foot bath right outside!

Our trip to Ouchijuku was fun and refreshing, but our day didn’t stop there! Come back next week to find out where we decided to go afterwards!

Walking in an Edo Wonderland

Well, this weekend is a three-day weekend, in which National Foundation Day is observed. According to https://study.gaijinpot.com/lesson/holidays/national-foundation-day/, this holiday “mark[s] the foundation of Japan and the accession of Emperor Jimmu.” All I know is that it gave me an extra day off, which I am really grateful for!

Most of my teammates took this opportunity to fly up to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, to attend the Sapporo Snow Festival. I thought about it, but it wasn’t something I cared about enough to spend the money on. Instead, I and the one other teacher who had decided not to go to Hokkaido took a little day trip to a place called Ouchijuku. It’s a traditional village from the Edo period, and they were having their own snow festival. It turned out to be a fun experience, although it took quite awhile to get there!

Here’s a little picture/video tour of our trip:

I have my geography mixed up a little in the video – apparently the village is located in Shimogo Town, not Yunokami Onsen (that’s the train station), and the video footage is of the entrance to the village.

The village consists of a street lined with traditional thatched houses.

Different snow sculptures, including lamps, lined the street:

There were also beautiful colored balls of ice…

…and snow houses that you could get inside!

Most of the houses served as souvenir shops and/or restaurants. One of the shops specialized in fabric ornaments, like these flowers:

My friend and I were super hungry upon arriving at the village, so we soon decided to have some lunch. Most of the restaurants sold soba and udon (Japanese noodles), so we rather randomly chose one of the shops, and ordered soba with mountain vegetables. It also came with a side of daikon pickles and some sort of fern dish.

This was the restaurant we ate at. It had the cutest old lady sitting outside!

After lunch was when the festivities started, and when we did a little hiking to get some photos of the village from a higher perspective. But that’s a story for next week… 🙂

Eating on the Go: Japan

Yesterday, my friend and I made our way to the bustling metropolis of Koriyama, which is the place to go if you want to venture from the limited selection of stores and restaurants in our small city. Our mission was to purchase some Japanese study books, but we made a couple of stops for food along the way. I realized how interesting some of these quick food options are – thus I bring you today’s post, Japanese food on the go!

My friend hadn’t yet eaten a proper lunch when we headed out, so when we arrived in Koriyama, we stopped in the station so she could grab a bite to eat. I don’t know if American train stations are the same way or not, but the larger train stations here are full of restaurants, stores, and souvenir shops. The place where we stopped was a little noodle shop, where you order by machine! There is a panel with all the menu options; you press the buttons for the options you want, insert your money, and get a little ticket that states what you’ve chosen. You bring the ticket to the counter, and the ladies behind the counter prepare your food.

Here are the pictures of the menu options, with the buttons down below:

My friend choosing her option: “I think I’ll have the kake-udon…”

This little noodle shop was convenient, but there are also many other restaurants to choose from. One choice that I thought looked interesting was a shop selling roast beef dishes – with raw egg on top. YUM.

On the way back from the bookstore, we stopped in the station again for one of Japan’s specialties – crepes! Some of the food options here surprise me, and crepes is one of them. It feels like something I’d find in France, not Japan. Nevertheless, I love crepes, so I’m not complaining.

As is common here in Japan, there are models of the different items on the menu:

I chose the “chocolate parfait” crepe, which was chocolate cake and pudding with whipped cream and two strawberry pieces on the top. My friend chose the berry “layer cheese,” which looked like cream cheese in the model, but that turned out to be basically like whipped cream. We also ordered bubble drinks, which this crepe shop specializes in. They have a wide assortment of drinks with tapioca balls in the bottom. My friend got peach tea, and I got chocolate milk. The tapioca was a lot chewier than I’d expected. For some reason I was expecting the fruit-flavored balls that they have at frozen yogurt bars, or that I’ve had before in iced tea drinks. This was totally different. It wasn’t bad, though. I just sucked up the squishy orbs with my extra-wide straw and chowed them down.

The paper in which the crepe was wrapped was covered with English slogans: “Crepes for all, all for crepes” and “We love crepes! We love crepes!”

Yes, we do:

After our sweet dinner, we caught the next train home. It had turned out to be a pretty good day, we decided, not just because of the great food but also because we each went home with some fresh study material. We both agreed that nothing is better than new books and delicious desserts!