A Japanese Thanksgiving

Well, I have lived through my first Thanksgiving in Japan! I really missed my family, of course. I have so many great memories of Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house: chatting with relatives during the before-dinner appetizers, my dad carving the huge, golden-brown turkey, my mom’s perfectly sweet and flaky pecan pie, the after-dinner walk down a quiet country road. Oh, and of course the turkey sandwiches for supper!

However, this year I was able to make some new memories, and I’m really grateful for the friends that I have here, which makes transitioning to a new country so much easier. This year, American Thanksgiving just so happened to fall on the exact same day as Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday. So we got the day off! “Labor Thanksgiving Day” here in Japan is not really the same as our Thanksgiving; you can read more about the similarities and differences here, if you want to.

In any case, we Americans decided to take advantage of our day off and create our own Thanksgiving celebration! We invited some of our Japanese friends, and all 20+ of us crowded into our team leader’s three-room apartment.

It was an eclectic dinner, to say the least. No turkey – because they’re not commonly sold here, and our teensy-weensy ovens aren’t very accommodating to roasting large birds. However, one of my teammates did bake a glazed ham that was quite tasty. We also bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from the local KFC joint. We did our best to replicate some American dishes with the ingredients available to us: green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole (almost as good as yours, Aunt Pat!), and stuffing muffins were all on the menu. Oh yes, and we did have cranberry sauce, lovingly transported from America by our training coordinator who was here on a visit! Dessert was apple crisp, cookies and squares, and peanut butter buckeyes, among other things. I definitely missed some of my favorite traditional Thanksgiving food, but I found plenty of delicious new items to satisfy my appetite.

Oh – and just when we thought we were full – one of our Japanese guests decided to pull out her takoyaki maker! She had brought the things to make takoyaki (a baked batter in a ball shape with chunks of octopus in it), but decided not to when she saw all the food. However, her preschool-aged son was upset because we didn’t have any takoyaki, so she decided to make it after all! I’m not a huge takoyaki fan myself, but after she and some of the other guests made the regular octopus balls they ended up making the same dough balls with marshmallow and chocolate instead of the octopus! Kind of like a Japanese s’more…it was delicious!

Here are some photos of the great feast. The star of the show (along with the ham, of course) was good old KFC:

One of our team member’s specialties: stuffing muffins, made with stuffing, dried cranberries, celery, and cheese.

Some sort of smiley sushi (or something), brought by one of our Japanese friends:

Takoyaki in the process of being made. I’d never seen it done before, so I was glad to have the chance to observe it. The batter is poured into the pan, which has special round indentations. One’s choice of fillings are put in as well. Once the batter has cooked on one side, each little ball of dough is flipped over using a thin stick.

My personal favorite – the chocolate and marshmallow balls! I shot a video of this one:

Well, that was my Thanksgiving – not quite like the ones at home, but still a pretty good one. I missed seeing my loved ones, but I am thankful for this new opportunity that God has given me, and for the many wonderful people that I’ve been able to get to know. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I’m Back!

Well, here I am, back in the lovely town of Funehiki, Japan. I had an amazing summer break with my family. It was wonderful to get to see some of my friends and family members, although I didn’t see as many as I would have liked. I only had one week in America, and boy did it go fast!

One thing that I wasn’t anticipating when I began planning my travels was the fact that I was responsible for arranging transportation to and from the airport here in Japan. That REALLY stressed me out, especially since I don’t take public transportation in America so I’m not used to it at all. I had some long transition times and some (unwarranted) anxiety about missing my connections, but in the end it all went smoothly and safely, for which I’m very thankful.

Instead of focusing on one topic this week, I decided to post a few random adventures from my trip!

Adventure #1: Hanging out in the big city – AT NIGHT

So my flight leaving Japan was scheduled early enough that I had no option but to take the overnight bus to get down there. That meant taking the half-hour train ride from Funehiki (my town) to Koriyama (the big city nearby), then waiting there for my bus – which left at 2 o’clock in the morning. Oh, did I mention that the last train from Funehiki to Koriyama gets there at 9:15? Yeah, that meant I had about four hours to kill in Koriyama, in the middle of the night. I was NOT thrilled about that at all. However, my friends informed me that “Mr. Donut,” a coffee shop near the station, was open until midnight.

OK, I thought. That will be my first stop. Because the weather was nice and a lot of people were out, I sat in front of the train station for awhile. Then I trudged over to Mr. Donut, wheeling my luggage behind me. I bought a donut and a melon soda (a popular soda flavor here in Japan!) and frittered away my time until midnight. Then back to the train station it was. I’d heard of an Internet café nearby – a place that offers computer booths and Internet service 24/7, for a modest fee. Apparently some of these cafés also have food and showers. In any case, I didn’t really want to go through the bother of finding the café and then renting space there, so I decided to camp out at the plaza in front of the station, where there were some trees and benches.

Hanging out in front of the station wasn’t too bad. I felt fairly safe, but still a little uncomfortable, especially as the crowds began going home and the only people left passing through were the occasional office workers, bar hoppers, or groups of young guys hanging out. I wasn’t sure exactly how many of the men I saw had been drinking, but I know at least some of them were. I was consoled by the fact that I was near the taxi stand, so if anyone did try to bother me I could just holler and one of them would (hopefully) come running. I did get a couple of weird questions from younger guys (e.g. “Will you sing with us?”) but other than that I didn’t receive any attention. Still, I was very relieved when 2 o’clock rolled around and I could sleep peacefully on the bus for a few hours!

Adventure #2: Kindness of strangers (and friends)

This segment is more of a way to say thank you to all the lovely people out there who made my trip home so enjoyable. It was amazing to see my family and my home again, and to get to eat American food! I got treated to Pizza Hut, Five Guys, and Chic-Fil-A, and I was given huge bags of chocolate to bring back with me! My family and friends were the best part of the trip, but even strangers helped make the trip better. On my way home, when I got off the train in Koriyama, a man stepped up to me just as I was about to lug my suitcase down three sets of stairs. “Help,” he said, and proceeded to carry my 47-pound suitcase down all of the stairs. It warmed my heart. 🙂

Adventure #3: Buying Japanese clothes

OK, this is not related to my trip, but it was a fun experience. Two days after I returned, we got an unexpected day off, so I decided to go to Koriyama to do some shopping and exploring. One of the things I wanted to buy was an obi (belt) for my yukata (Japanese robe). If I’d thought it through, I would have gone to one of the cheaper department stores, but since I’m still unfamiliar with a lot of the stores around, I ended up going to one of the kimono/yukata shops in a mall in Koriyama – not the best choice for getting reasonably priced clothing! I looked around for awhile, cringing at some of the prices and wondering if I needed a specific kind of belt or if any kind would do.

Finally, I asked for help to make sure I was getting the right belt. A sales clerk pointed me to the correct ones, asked the color of my yukata, and tried to help me pick out an appropriate match. After a few moments of indecision I ended up picking out a raspberry-colored one that matched some of the flowers on my yukata. “The tie might be difficult,” I told the sales lady, mostly because I was still undecided about the purchase. Some stores sell obi that have pre-tied bows, and I was thinking that as a foreigner that might be my best choice. But the lady offered to show me how to tie it, escorting me over to a dressing area with a raised mat (traditional Japanese style) and mirrors. Another friendly sales lady stood beside me and modeled the bow tying with a different obi as I copied her actions with mine. I didn’t do a very good job, but I had a blast learning how to tie an authentic obi bow. It made the cost of my pricey obi worth it…almost! Anyway, it was a fun experience, and I learned something I would not have if I had chosen to buy a pre-tied obi. It’s all about the cultural experiences, I guess!

Well, since this post is getting long, I guess that will be the end of my random memories about my awesome summer break. In a few hours, our town will be hosting its Obon festival, the largest summer festival in Japan, which occurs in towns and cities all over the nation. My friend and I are planning on dressing up with our yukata – I’ve never worn mine in public before, so that’ll be a new experience! It should be a fun event, and I’m planning on taking my camera to the festival, so look for a future post about Obon!

 

 

Exploring!

So this weekend, most of my team members went on an expedition to climb Mount Fuji. I did not. Not because I had no interest, but – well, I just didn’t want to go enough. Between the costs of traveling to Tokyo and staying overnight in the city and paying for the guided tour the group decided to use, it was going to be a bit pricey. I know, I know, those moments are priceless. But, being a person who’s not really into hiking or camping out in a public lodge on the side of a mountain, nothing about the trip sounded appealing to me except actually being at the top of the mountain. Which wasn’t enough motivation for me to go, at least this time. Next year – who knows?

However, my friend (who also decided not to go) and I did decide to plan a little adventure of our own. It’s been hot and humid here almost every day, so we were really craving a nice swim. Thanks to my friend’s research, we found out about a sort-of nearby lake, Lake Inawashiro, that supposedly has a place to swim. So yesterday we hopped aboard a train to Koriyama, the nearby city, and from there took another half-hour train ride to the tiny town of Joko.

At Joko, we got off the train. The station was a small waiting room on the platform. We walked to the other side of the building. Hm. Certainly a small town. There were some small, quiet streets and a few buildings. Some road workers. Nothing really significant. Definitely no lake in sight. The only other people to get off the train were two girls about our ages (well, probably younger – I forget how old we are!). Which way was the lake? We stood around and looked at maps on my phone. The girls stood around and fiddled with their phones. Just about the time they started walking, we decided to start walking and see what we could find. We set out behind them, trying not to act like stalkers. They took a path that led up to a main road. We decided that was a good choice, too. No, we’re really not stalkers, I promise!

When we got to the top of the incline and reached the main road, we looked in both directions. One way seemed to lead toward mountains. The other direction looked more open, so we decided to head that way. As we started walking, we felt a tantalizingly cool breeze. It must be coming from a body of water, we thought hopefully.

We walked for a few minutes longer. Then – wonder of wonders – we could see the lake through the trees! We walked around, trying to find the best way to access the waterfront, and ended up taking a path through the trees. We discovered  a nice, long beach, with very few people on it – not very picturesque, and with a lot of dried stalks and other debris on it, but still a beach. The lake itself, guarded by a green wooded mountain by its side, was beautiful.  Besides, all we wanted to do was swim, so it was perfect for our purposes!

But our adventures were not over yet, oh no. Before we picked out a spot and got cozy, we decided, we should really use the rest room. We walked to the main entrance and around the parking lot, in search of bathroom facilities. Nothing. Well, let’s try the other end of the beach. We had seen what looked to be public buildings over there. So we traipsed back to the other end of the beach. Lo and behold, we happened upon a small campground area, and – look! Porta-potties! Of course, they belong to the campground owners, so maybe we should ask. Or maybe they’ll know of another restroom nearby that we can use.

Near the entrance of the campground was a small trailer set up as a store, and in the front a man and woman were sitting at a table under the shade of a canopy. We walked over. “Excuse me, is there a restroom nearby?” I asked, trying to use my polite Japanese.

The woman looked a little surprise, but she stood up and pointed to the porta-potties. “Oh, go ahead,” she told us. She walked us over. “Are you here to swim? Did you come by train?” she asked. Yes, we told her, and thanked her for the use of the porta-potties.

After exiting the potties, we decided to thank the owners again as we passed them. “Arigatou gozaimasu!” we said, bowing. We intended to just keep going, but they stopped us with questions. “Where are you from?” We started talking, and before we knew it, they were inviting us to sit in their camp chairs and pouring us iced coffee! We continued our conversation – mostly in Japanese, with some English thrown in for good effect. The couple – husband and wife – both turned out to be very friendly. We got another set of drinks (soda this time) and some bread from the package they had on their table. Before we knew it, we were being invited to come visit them sometime! “I want to learn English,” said the wife.  She offered to pay us, and even to feed us Japanese food. We had a blast, talking and laughing about America, our jobs, and having a “sushi party” at their house. Who knows if that will ever come to pass – it seemed like they were serious, although it was weird for me to have strangers invite me to their house upon a first meeting. But in any case, it was lots of fun to connect with new people and to make some unexpected acquaintances!

We did eventually get around to excusing ourselves and doing what we came for – swimming! The water was a nice temperature, and a good depth for swimming and just lolling about in the water. The beach left a little to be desired, so after we were finished swimming, we packed up and headed back to the station, just in time to catch the two o’clock train. After heading back to Koriyama, we spent some time in the big city, and I went through some hair-raising (for me) experiences, trying to purchase bus and train tickets. (It really wasn’t that scary, it’s just something I’m not used to doing. Good thing I have a patient friend!) Fortunately, the day ended well when I was able to locate a bookstore and purchase a couple of Japanese textbooks that have been on my wish list!

So, Mount Fuji, sorry I didn’t see you this year. But even without you, I still had a great time, exploring new territory and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be in my comfort zone over here – but I also know that if I don’t push myself to do new things, they’ll always be scary for me and I’ll never grow as a person. So I’m thankful for every new experience I had this weekend, even the scary ones!

 

 

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!

 

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!

 

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 Hill of Many Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Old Old Cherry Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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