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!

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!

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!






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. ūüôā 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. ūüôā 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!




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… ūüôā