Summer Nights, Japanese-Style

Hot summer nights in Japan call for greasy street food, dancing, drumming, and festive floats, otherwise known as a summer festival! I experienced my first one Saturday night in Kasama, and despite it being considered a relatively anonymous local festival, I found it to be a really fun introduction to this seasonal staple.

I arrived in Kasama a little earlier than necessary, and in the calm before the storm I explored the Inari shrine close by. It’s a little odd, walking around a shrine or a temple as an foreigner. For some reason, I feel like a real intruder, a disruptor of the peace. Regardless of all the times I’ve seen tourists unashamedly snap hundreds of pictures inside the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, there is some superstitious part of me that stops my photographer’s instincts when I’m at a shrine. Only when no one is looking, do I chance a quick photo shoot.

IMG_0138

IMG_0188

The sound of distant drumbeats lured me away. I arrived amidst the colorful food stalls and the curious crowds just as the sun was sinking. The festival had begun.

I’ll admit that by most Japanese standards, this was a typical local festival. Homemade floats were paraded down the street; a group of elderly ladies in yukata performed a simple, graceful dance to flute music; elementary children in matching outfits adorned with bells would jump and shout and wave for proud parents’ pictures at the sound of their teacher’s whistle. I saw my fellow JETs from Kasama sporting matching fox ears, dancing and chanting with their team.

One of the coolest parts of the festival was seeing the Nebuta. In Japanese, Nebuta just refers to a “brave warrior float” used in festivals, specifically those held in Aomori prefecture. Kasama’s festival featured two Aomori Nebuta, each of which weighed about 500 kilos (over 1000 pounds)! They really stood out amongst all the locally-made floats.

IMG_0163

IMG_0185

After an hour, the dancers fell to the sidewalks and the bearers set down their floats in the street. It was time for a rest–it was time for food. People flocked to the foodstalls selling fried chicken on sticks, fried pork on sticks, chocolate-covered bananas on sticks… basically all food on sticks. I went for one of the few non-stick options: okonomiyaki fresh off the skillet. Basically it’s a savory pancake filled with cabbage, noodles, and possibly squid, topped with a fried egg, mayo, some sort of brown sauce, and fish flakes. Not my typical dinner, but it was delicious.

I actually met up with the Kasama JETs during this period of rest. They pinned bells to my shirt and gave me a set of fox ears, and before I knew it, I was dancing in the festival right along side of them! When the whistle blew, we would get into three lines, doing a little jig by jumping from foot to foot, and crazily chanting, “Rassera, Rassera, Rasser-rasser-rassera!” over and over and over. That chant haunted my dreams Saturday night. It was fun but exhausting, and like all the Kasama JETs (who had been doing this for a whole hour prior) I began to dread the whistle. In the breaks, we would drink water and eat the electrolyte candy they passed around, fanning ourselves a little desperately with plastic fans. I wasn’t kidding when I said that festivals were for hot summer nights.

IMG_0186

Who said flashy floats were better? This dragon was my favorite — the guy in charge of the dragon’s head would weave and crouch down and snap his jaws fiercely.

It was a true Japanese summer experience, I think–from the chanting to the food-on-sticks to the sweat. I enjoyed seeing a community come together and celebrate for the sake of celebration. Unfortunately, the festival season is slowly winding down, but with any luck this won’t be my last festival of the summer!

Advertisements

A Business Trip to Fukuroda Falls

Last Monday, I took my first ever “business trip” …. to a waterfall. Yes, it was serious business.

IMG_0108

The point of the trip was to act like a foreign tourist who can’t understand Japanese (such a difficult role to play) and to have high school students guide us around the site, explaining in English any significant details. I was assigned to three sweet girls from a high school in Tokai, and I amused them all by playing up the role of “Tourist” and taking pictures of everything.

The event seemed to be a big deal. Maybe 15 high schools from around Ibaraki participated, each sending a handful of students. There was actually a camera crew assigned to this little trip as well! As one of the Tokai girls was explaining to me in nervous English how the waterfall freezes  over in the winter, the camera was shoved in our faces, filming our entire conversation. Hopefully the roar of Fukuroda Falls in the background of the footage hides the fact that she repeated all her statements twice.

The waterfall itself was amazing. It’s considered to be one of the top three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan, and it lives up to the hype. Monday, the day we visited, happened to be cool and rainy, so the green hills surrounding the falls were half-shrouded in cloud, giving the place a beautiful misty-mountain aura. And Daigo–the town in which Fukuroda Falls is located–is famous for apples, so my high school students and I enjoyed some apple sherbet ice cream cones after I dragged them on a 20-minute hike up endless skeletal mountain staircases for a different view of the falls.

IMG_0105

Overall, I thought the trip was a great way for high school students to use English outside of the classroom, in a real-world situation with foreign tourists. Plus, in the end, it was just a really fun day for everyone. Being so far away from Daigo, I was thrilled to have an all-expenses-paid opportunity to visit, and despite having visited Fukuroda Falls before, my students were all smiles.

Eating French Fries with Chopsticks

When you live abroad, everyone expects you to be doing amazing things all the time. There is an unspoken pressure to be adventurous and exciting every day, to have something to Instagram or blog about at the end of every evening. With this mindset, I think it’s really tempting to treat a year on JET as a sort of study abroad experience, round 2.

Looking back to the first few months of my study abroad in France, I remember many of the other Strasbourg girls jetting off to Spain and Dublin every weekend. Meanwhile, I spent those first few weeks walking around my new adopted city, going to a movie with my host sister, and slowly becoming a café regular. An ugly question nagged at me, though: was I wasting my experience in Europe? My first real trip outside of Alsace wasn’t until the very last weekend of September—my first ever time in Paris. By that time, most of the other girls on my program had visited four different countries!

Towards the very end of my time in France, of course, I was spending my weekends bouncing around Europe as well, cramming in trips to Italy, the South of France, Dijon, and London. But at the same time, when I left Strasbourg for good, I  felt as if I was leaving behind my second home, instead of just checking out of a 10-month hotel. I studied abroad like I ran Cross Country races back in high school—I started slow and steady, then finished with a sprint.

I suppose it’s no surprise, then, that I am beginning my time in Japan just as leisurely.

Thanks to social media, I have seen that many of my fellow new JETs have already been flying off to visit big cities and tourist attractions, while I have spent my first two weekends in Japan with few noteworthy adventures under my belt (by most standards, anyway). Mostly, I’ve been doing little things nearly unworthy of mentioning on social media, and experiencing my own minor victories almost too small to write about…

….such as successfully making rice in my adorably small, brand new rice cooker (despite the instructions being entirely in Japanese).

….such as eating French fries with chopsticks at a drinking party on Friday night.

….such as conquering the bike ride down narrow roads to get to and from the grocery store.

….such as sitting under a blossoming tree at a nearby Buddhist temple, watching as locals burn rich incense and clean their ancestors’ graves for Obon.

….such as attending a tea party and learning a few basic kanji over slices of strawberry cake.

These experiences might seem rather ordinary when compared with the sensationalism surrounding weekends exploring Tokyo and excursions to sacred islands, but they’ve been very rich experiences for me. Don’t get me wrong, though: I’m not undermining being a shameless tourist and travelling everywhere. I’m quite excited to do that, too. I know I’ll take my turn to wander around Japan before I leave–hiking mountains and eating new foods and taking a million pictures. For now, though, I’m still settling in here. I’m adjusting to the expat lifestyle of doing ordinary things with a Japanese twist… like eating french fries with chopsticks.

My First Week Went a Little Like This…

It’s official. I’ve survived a whole week in Japan. To be honest, I feel like a middle-school couple celebrating their one-week anniversary: it doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, but I’m quite pleased about it all the same.  Here are some of the new experiences I encountered along the way:

SUNDAY: Arrived at Narita Airport, shuttled to Keio Plaza Hotel. Ate Tonkatsu. Sleep. End of day.

MONDAY was a bit more interesting: from 9 to 5 we cycled through lectures and workshops about being a JET. Later that night, my roommates and I headed to the free observatory close to the hotel, and were rewarded with this Tokyo view (although the photo couldn’t do the bright lights justice if I’m honest):

photo (18)

The best orientation seminar on TUESDAY was a Q&A Panel where a 4th or 5th year JET from Jamaica described one of his first few days in town,  getting “not one-hour lost, not even three-hour lost, but FIVE-hour lost.” Tuesday night was spent with 19 of my fellow new Ibaraki JETs at a traditional all-you-can-drink izakaya (Japanese pub) dinner.

To sum WEDNESDAY up neatly : I met a lot of people, did a lot of bowing, messed up a lot of Japanese pronunciation, and ate both raw tuna and raw shellfish for the first time in my life–at a conveyor belt sushi bar, no less.

Wednesday was the day we left Tokyo and headed North to Ibaraki, stopping off briefly at Mito for a formal ceremony of signing contracts and meeting supervisors, then being whisked away to each of our respective cities. My supervisor, O-sensei, and another English teacher just a few years older than me, M-sensei,  spent the rest of the day with me,  jumping between a tour of my base school, registration at city hall, shopping for apartment necessities, and that first raw fish experience. I ended the day exhausted, with blisters on my feet and a smile on my face.

THURSDAY: after my first full day at work, I spent the evening flipping between bizarre game-shows and even stranger commercials on the television. After dinner, I decided to peruse the bookcase stuffed with old books that a string of pack-rat predecessors had left behind.

That’s when it happened; another novelty, another “first” of this first week. Lying on the couch, leafing through some abandoned novel, I noticed the lamp above me starting to swing. The mirror in my bedroom began trembling. The very walls around me were suddenly shaking. It was as if my entire apartment was experiencing heavy turbulence.

Strangely, I didn’t panic. Only two thoughts were running through my mind: the first was quite sarcastic, along the lines of “I’m screwed if this building falls down.” The second was more practical: I sat there thinking “All the earthquake pamphlets tell me to take shelter under a table… but the only table in my apartment stands roughly two feet tall, and I really can’t easily crawl under that. A total design flaw of Japanese apartments.” Then, with no further drama, the shaking ceased.

On FRIDAY: I asked a few teachers at my base school about the earthquake. Many had forgotten it had even happened, it’s such a normal occurrence here. Also, I started tallying up how many people tell me that I have a small face (a complement, apparently). We’re up to 4.

SATURDAY: I met my supervisor O-sensei at 2 o’clock and we made a trip to PC Depot to buy pocket Wi-Fi and perhaps a Japanese cell phone. A solid 5 hours later, our mission was complete. O-sensei then graciously invited me to dinner with her family, where we enjoyed home-cooked noodles, shrimp and vegetable tempura, watermelon from her mother’s garden, and the most delicious strawberry and sweetened-milk shaved ice that I have ever encountered. After three rounds of sparklers with the kids, I left for the night, smiling thanks to all the wonderful people that I have met this week.

And, of course, today, SUNDAY: I tried out the apartment’s bicycle for the first time, and apparently my predecessor was 6 to 8 inches taller than me, because my toes barely touch the ground whenever I screech to a stop. Unfortunately the seat’s too rusty to adjust. I spent the afternoon cylcing round my new little city, buying groceries and stationary like any other boring human living on their own.

One week down, and the adventure has only just begun.

Goodbye, Boston: Hello, Tokyo!

So it was about 5 a.m. in Japan when I started writing this post, and as I wouldn’t normally wake up at that time so naturally, I’m clearly a bit jet-lagged. I’ve now survived the first day of orientation (it’s a suit-and-tie affair in this fancy Tokyo hotel), but first I wanted to post about my final few days in America. Here’s a brief summary of my time leading up to departure:

3 days of condensing my life into airport-approved suitcases and cleaning out my room at home;

9 days of living out of a duffel bag as I jumped around the northeast;

13+ hours of flying halfway around the world with 20 other incoming JETs;

Countless hugs and goodbyes from family and friends;

… and 10 amazing meals.

Before I left, it became an unconscious goal to eat ALL THE FOOD. Throughout my final week in the USA, I jumped from cuisine to cuisine with my loved ones, relishing good company as well as all the flavors that I might not be able to find for a while. With my best friend since 2nd grade, a Chinese buffet and chocolate-caramel apples. With an old friend from home, a wonderful Indian meal. With my aunts, a shepherd’s pie in a pub in Connecticut. With my grandma and cousins, good old-fashioned take-out pizza. With a big group of my friends, a goodbye dinner at Fire and Ice. With my college roommates, burritos at Chipotle and Italian in Boston’s North End. With my French adventurer Kat, Spanish tapas and many, many crêpes.

Last night–my first night in Tokyo–the food continued. A few of us wandered around Shinjuku until we settled on a little tonkatsu place: fried pork with rice and curry sauce. We actually used a little vending machine outside of the restaurant to buy a ticket for our food, so minimal Japanese speaking was required! After hours of travel (plus plane food, ugh) a hearty tonkatsu meal and a stroll around Tokyo was exactly what I needed before happily falling into bed.

Some call it being a “foodie,” others say “glutton” (and admittedly I ate a lot of rich foods in past few days) but I tend to like the French word, gastronome–a lover of food. Luckily, Japan seems to love food too. The beginning of a beautiful friendship, I am sure.