Only in Japan 6

Here it is, folks – the last “Only in Japan” segment.

This post’s topic is upon request from my splendid mother, who was intrigued by the idea that people in my town still walk around at night in the winter sounding out a warning for people to shut off their kerosene heaters. Not sure exactly what kind of noise they’re making, but it sounds kind of like clanging a chime and tapping wooden things together. They go faithfully round this part of the neighborhood around 11 p.m. or so. During the two years that I’ve lived here, I’ve never captured them on video, but one night last week I finally sneaked out and filmed them as they walked by. Of course, being 11 o’clock at night, one can’t really see much, but hey, at least I tried.

Here you are, Mom!

And now, a bonus video!

This January, the kindergarten held its annual “mochi tsuki,” or mochi making – a traditional activity often done around the New Year’s season in Japan. Mochi are chewy rice balls, and the traditional way to make mochi is by pounding steamed rice until it forms a glutinous dough. This year, I got to help pound for a few minutes! The students are all cheering me on by shouting “Yoisho,” a phrase that Japanese people use when exerting effort for something.

Well, that’s all for this week! Stay tuned for next week’s (final?) post!

Only in Japan 4

Today’s “Only in Japan” post actually has two segments.

First “only in Japan:” karaoke.

Now, I’ve never done karaoke in America, so I don’t know exactly how it compares to Japan, but here you rent a small room with your friends. The room usually contains a table, seats, a TV screen that shows lyrics, and a couple of handheld devices with which to choose songs. Many places offer food and drink as well.

Last weekend, which was a long weekend, my teammates decided to have a karaoke night. This team seems to really love karaoke. Me, not so much. I like singing, and I usually sing a couple of songs (think: Disney and musicals), but the inner performer in me (if there is one) just doesn’t like to make much of an appearance in public. However, I do like spending time with my friends, so occasionally I’ll tag along on their karaoke trips.

When we went last weekend, we got the unlimited plan. I figured we’d stay maybe three hours while everyone sang their hearts out. Three hours later, everyone was still going strong. Everyone except me, that is. Somewhere after the third hour, the singer in me gave up, and I looked like this:

Photo credit goes to my friend Endia! It’s only true friends who take pictures of you sleeping, right?

Well, even if it’s not my forte, it’s another Japanese experience I can say I’ve tried!

Before the second “Only in Japan” segment for this post, I have a bit of a rabbit trail. Or should I say, a snake trail.

That’s right. *TRIGGER WARNING.* Snakes. (If you don’t like ’em, feel free to skip ahead to the line of asterisks. That’s where it’s safe to start reading again!)

I’ve gone a year and a half in Japan without seeing a single snake, much to my great delight. Then, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen three – two of them in one day (that’s today).


Actually, I think I know why. The weather is finally getting cooler and dryer, so my hypothesis is that these cold-blooded creatures are venturing forth to sun themselves and warm their cold little hearts.

But it doesn’t mean it has to make me happy. Not at all.

Today, the weather was so fine that I decided to have a picnic. I trotted off to the grocery store to buy some food to take. On the shortcut path, I heard a rustle and looked down. Yes – there, on the path ahead of me, was a small snake. It was disturbed at my approach, and moved close to the stone wall that borders the path. I stopped and tried to regulate my breathing. I decided to be brave and move past it, even though I was afraid it would decide to move toward me instead of away from me. It didn’t. Crisis averted!

But sadly, my poor little heart didn’t know the danger wasn’t over yet. I brought my picnic to a nearby park, walking up the many cement steps to the grass at the top. I watched my step, not wanting to meet with another slithery creature. There was no sign of any reptiles about, so I walked to a bench and enjoyed my al fresco lunch.

Then, on my way back, as I walked down the cement steps, I heard another rustle. What?? Not again!! I stopped, startled, as another snake, this one larger than the first, reared its head up and looked at me. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Why are you looking at me like that, snake? Are you a cobra? I checked out the black and red pattern covering its back, wondering if this was an unfamiliar Japanese snake that could be poisonous. Doesn’t red and black indicate danger? Wait, no, that’s red and yellow. “Red and black, venom lack.” Or is that an old wives’ tale?

Before I could devise a plan of attack, the snake moved into the grass by the side of the path. I couldn’t see it anymore, but to make sure, I threw a piece of stick in its direction. I could then see that it definitely was moving up the hill and away from me. I continued down the steps, but not without keeping a sharp eye out for any more reptiles.

Much to my shame, I opted not to take the shortcut path home. I looked at it, knowing that I should be brave, but not willing to risk another encounter with a snake. Two is enough for one day. Actually, it’s enough for the rest of my time here. I don’t like winter, but I’m almost glad that soon the ground will freeze and put a little distance between me and slithery things. I try to look at my fear objectively, to remind myself that snakes won’t hurt me, that they’re more afraid of me than I am of them, etc., etc. But still, when I see one slinking along the ground, or even worse, rearing up to glare at me with its beady little eyes, all of my logic flies out the window. I’m sorry, snakes. I know you really don’t mean to appear creepy and evil. You just can’t help yourselves.

Anyway, back to the rest of my post…


Only in Japan, part two!

Last Monday, which was “Respect for the Aged Day” and a national holiday, one of my Japanese acquaintances took a coworker and I to a European-style coffee shop in a nearby town. It was nice to have the chance to go there, since it’s only accessible by car. On the way, we happened to pass some tanbo art displays. Tanbo art, or rice field art, is made when farmers plant different colored rice in a specific design. When the rice ripens, the design is revealed. Kind of like a corn maze, but…not.

I was actually really excited about the tanbo art, because I’ve heard about it but never seen it. Apparently there are some really large tanbo art displays in some other areas of Japan. These were quite small, but I still enjoyed seeing them. There was a platform set up in front of each display, so I clambered up each one and took some photos.

It’s Doraemon! (He’s one of Japan’s well-loved cartoon characters.)
A cute little pug.
A depiction of Takizakura, the thousand-year-old cherry tree that the town takes pride in.

Well, that’s all for this post. Between karaoke, snakes, and rice art, I think I’ve covered enough topics for one week. Check out my post next week to see about my adventures of this weekend (which happily was another long weekend!).

See you next week!

Only in Japan 3

Well, this weekend, starting on Sunday, I and six of my co-workers will be participating in an English camp for a couple dozen of the area’s junior high school students. That means this week’s post will be short – another segment of the “Only in Japan” series. But boy, have I got a post for you!

This weekend’s topic is about everybody’s favorite subject…bugs!

If you’re a Japanese child, that is.

Apparently, collecting bugs is a thing here. In the summer, my first and second graders occasionally come in with plastic cases containing various living creatures that they’ve collected. Last year, it was crickets, which made for a somewhat disruptive class when some of them started chirping. This year, one of my students had a lizard.

And the beetles. Always the beetles.

I suppose in other parts of the United States, they probably have giant bugs, but in the cold-winter climate where I come from, our bugs and living creatures stay a reasonable size. Here, though, some of the spiders and beetles are much bigger than what I’m used to, and some of these large creatures are what the students like to tote around in their carrying cases.

Take a few weeks ago, for instance. Before classes had started, I heard some shrieking coming from one of my classrooms. I went in to investigate, and saw that several of my second-grade boys had taken their beetles out of their carrying cases. One of the boys, who was either afraid of the beetles or was pretending to be, was a few feet away, ducking behind a desk and making loud noises. I started a conversation with the boys, reminding them to use quiet voices, and trying to show interest in their bug escapade. One of my boys said something to me, and I looked down to see that he had placed one of the beetles on my sleeve! Luckily, I’m not terrified of bugs, but it did startle me to have one perched on my arm!

I thought those beetles (probably stag or rhinoceros beetles) were big – until I saw the ones my students brought in the week after. I think they were the same kind, but they were like the granddaddy version! Fortunately, I thought to grab my phone so I could take a few pictures!

Here’s a pair of beetles peering out the sides of their plastic bug case:

Below, one of my second grade girls holding a bug. I trimmed the photo to protect her privacy, but you can still see her slightly-weirded-out smile!

And, in case you want to learn about raising your own pet beetle, here’s a link for your reading pleasure: “How to Care for Your Beetle”. (Note to those with weak stomachs; there are a couple pictures of “baby beetles,” which are, yes, grubs.)

Well, that’s all for this week’s “Only in Japan.” If today’s topic grossed you out and you want to read about something different – or if you liked it and want more posts about strange and disgusting topics – leave me a comment with your thoughts and suggestions below! 🙂

Caves, Stars, and Pizza – Part 2

Summer is here in Japan, which means humid weather, street festivals, summer vacation, and – homework. Wait, what?

Friday was the last day of school for my elementary and kindergarten students. (Unfortunately, the after-school English program at which I work continues for a couple more weeks!) The students were, as to be expected, a little wound up at the prospect of having time off and doing special things with their families. However, I noticed several of them equipped with cases which apparently contain their summer homework. One sixth grader told me that he was “happy and sad.” Happy, because summer break was here, but sad because he had so much homework! Apparently, the strong work ethic starts early here…

Anyway, on to the continuation of my previous post. Last week, I wrote about our cave adventure, but I didn’t get to the last part of the day. Of course, the caves was the most exciting part, but we also got to see some stars and planets and have dinner at a surprisingly unique pizza place.

First, the stars. I’ve always had a fascination with the night sky; I took basic astronomy at my university and got to visit their observatory and planetarium. This was pretty much the same experience, minus the planetarium. We spent an hour and a half or so on the roof of the observatory, looking through various telescopes and listening to a guide as he pointed out different stars with his super-strong laser pointer. It was interesting, but nothing I hadn’t done before. However, I can say that I’ve never heard the planets’ names in Japanese before!

This was the biggest telescope:

We were able to see about four different planets; if I remember right, they were Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Some of them were bright enough to see with the naked eye. I learned that Venus is called the “gold” planet in Japanese. Jupiter is the wood planet, Mars is the fire planet, and Saturn is the dirt planet, according to my trusty electronic dictionary. Not sure why they’re named after these things, though!

The observatory from afar:

Sandwiched in between the cave exploration and the star viewing was dinner. I’d been excited when our guides had told us that we were going to eat at a pizza place, but when we drove up to it, I was rather confused.

This is it?

It turns out, it was. Apparently it’s a former barn that has been converted into a pizza shop. It was small inside, with our group of thirteen maxing out the capacity. A wood fire, with which the pizzas were baked, was burning brightly, which made for a great ambiance but a rather toasty room.

We ordered a variety of different pizzas, most of which I’d never had before. First up was a margarita-style, but after that we delved into more unknown territory. Burdock? Check. Shiitake mushroom? Check. Nattou and kimchi? Why, of course.

We were also served some side dishes as appetizers – potato salad (which has a more mashed consistency here) and fried/glazed soybeans. About halfway through the meal, out came a delightful-looking bowl of jelly. Knowing that jelly is a popular dessert item here, I was pleased that we were being served something so cool and refreshing on such a hot day – until I heard the warning, “It’s not sweet!”

My friends, who agreed to be the subjects of my video, let me record their jelly-tasting adventure:

Trying the nattou and kimchi pizza was also an adventure for us Americans, who have a “difficult” time with nattou (that’s fermented beans). I’ve decided, after several tries, that I really don’t like it that well; it has a rather nasty smell, and a bit of a slimy texture. However, on the pizza, masked by the strong kimchi flavor, it was edible.

We finished off our meal with a couple of dessert pizzas. Some of the group ordered a honey pizza, while our table ordered sweet potato and anko (sweetened red bean paste). Even though it seemed like an unlikely combination, it turned out to be my favorite!

Between the caves, the stars, and the pizza adventure, it turned out to be an experience-filled day, and we were all tired when we got driven back to our apartments at about 9:30. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to visit these places, and explore more of the attractions in our area, especially since the caves was something I had been looking forward to for quite awhile! I can now cross that off my bucket list, and start planning for my next adventure – visiting my family in the wilds of Maine! See you soon, fam!

Only in Japan 2

Hello everyone!

It’s been a busy week! Last weekend was full, with the local elementary school’s annual Sports Day during the day on Sunday, and a get-together with my teammate’s adult English class in the evening. Three of my coworkers and I attended the Sports Day to cheer on the students, many of whom come to our after-school program. More on that in a later post! For today’s post, I present you with…

…only in Japan, part 2!

As I explained a couple of weeks ago, I’ll be sharing little tidbits of Japanese culture here and there between my lengthier posts. Today’s “Only in  Japan” snapshot is a photo that I took quite awhile ago at my local grocery store, and have not yet had the opportunity to share it.

Until now!

Octopus samples, anyone?

At least that’s what I think it is! When I looked at the picture again before posting it, I started second-guessing myself, not being enough of an octopus expert to readily identify it unless I can see its rather alarming-looking suction cups. If any of my readers are more knowledgeable than I, feel free to correct me!

And no… I didn’t try one! Although I have eaten octopus in the occasional takoyaki ball (see my past Thanksgiving post if you want to see what takoyaki is and how it’s made!), I can’t say that I’m a huge fan. As far as I can tell from my limited tasting experiences with it, it’s basically just a chewy, rubber-like thing to – well, chew.

There are more appetizing food samples here, though. There will often be a sample case of bite-sized pieces of fruit in the produce section, and just today, I tried a cheesecake sample from the dairy section. On the weekends, there are often store employees manning sample booths, cooking up samples just as they do in America. Last week I was accosted by an employee who was very passionate about distributing her samples of milk, so I took the milk she thrust at me, chugged it down, and tried not to get in her line of fire again. Although I do like milk, I find the taste to be a bit different here in Japan, so I usually disguise it with hot cocoa mix or something of the sort. Which of course I couldn’t do in the middle of the grocery store.

Well, it’s evening here and time to say goodbye to another Saturday. The weekends have been full lately, but hopefully sometime in the near future I’ll have time to post about Sports Day #2 (number two for me that is, since it’s my second year here!). Stay tuned for more upcoming posts about cultural experiences and travels, and of course the exclusive photos and videos you get in the “Only in Japan” series! Thanks for reading!


Only in Japan!

So as summer begins and things get busier around here, I’m starting a new blog post series called “Only in Japan.” My plan for this series, in comparison to my usual lengthy posts about travel or some cultural aspect of Japan, is to post a short snippet or photo/video about a random thing I’ve noticed here in Japan. My purpose for this is twofold: it will give me a chance to post things that otherwise wouldn’t fit in one of my normal blog post topics, and it will allow me to post something short even on the weeks that I’m pressed for time or need a break from writing an ordinary blog post. So with that introduction out of the way, please enjoy the first installment of “Only in Japan!”

Only in Japan: Colonel Sanders dressed up as a samurai!