(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Inside a Kaiten Sushi Restaurant

Written (mentally) as I was sitting in my local kaiten sushi restaurant on Friday; written (actually) a few days later.

In my previous post, I wrote about my weekly challenge of eating in a restaurant alone in my city. After much internal psyching up, I completed the challenge at Hamazushi, one of many conveyor belt sushi restaurant chains that Japan is famous for. As I was, of course, alone, I had plenty of time to ponder life, Japan, and sushi. Here are those thoughts:

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(Thursday) Weekly Challenge: Eat Alone at a Restaurant

This week, I challenged myself to finally eat at a restaurant alone in my town.

Maybe you are an extravert and this challenge seems ridiculously simple. But for me, an introvert who only knows basic Japanese, the prosepect of eating alone can be daunting. Of course, I’ve done this once or twice before in Japan. On my solo adventure days in Nikko and in Tokyo, I’ve eaten alone at restaurants, because the other option is to starve for a day.

However, whenever I am home in Yuuki, Ibaraki, I’ll either cook or I’ll drop by the konbini for a quick meal. I only go out to restaurants in my own city when I’m with friends. Why? Because I’m a coward – I worry that alone, my Japanese isn’t good enough to understand the menu, to order food, to respond to questions. It’s always more reassuring to have a friend alongside who you can figure everything out with.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ate alone quite often when I lived in France. I would go out to lunch two or three times a week by myself because my schedule didn’t match up with the schedules of the other girls who studied abroad with me. I had a handful of favorite lunch restaurants in Strasbourg, the top three being 1) a Lebanese place called Le Tarbouche, 2) a brew pub called Au Brasseur, and 3) a tarte flambée chain restaurant called Flam’s. Sadly, there aren’t so many Lebanese or Alsatian restaurants in my part of Japan, although there might be a few in Tokyo. Goodness, I want to fly back to Strasbourg right now, just to eat real hummus and spätzle-choucroute…

Anyways, I don’t want to be a coward anymore, at least not about silly little things like eating alone at a restaurant. I’ve lived here for a year and a half, for crying out loud! This isn’t even a particularly difficult challenge! But these challenges are all little things to push me outside of my comfort zone, and I was nervous all the same.

So, I allowed myself some training wheels: I chose to eat at a restaurant that I was already familiar with, a restaurant where ordering food is done on a tablet and requires no Japanese speaking ability—

—Hamazushi.

Yep, I went to my local kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant after work on Friday.

What can I say? I was craving sushi. Words that I never, ever thought I would say (or write) a year and a half ago.

Anyways, I sat at the counter at Hamazushi, ordered from the tablet (the menu is in Japanese and English!) and ate a few plates of yellowtail with yuzu (my favorite) and duck “sushi” (slices of cooked duck with garlic sauce over rice). Then, I went home. In total, I was only there for about half an hour. All that freaking out for only a half-hour…

My feelings about the whole experience? Well, I was nervous at first—when I’m alone, I’m more conscious of the stares—but I got used to it fast. I wasn’t the only solitary person eating at the counter that night. I also never get sushi unless I’m at enkais or out with friends, so it was a nice chance to switch up my cuisine. And so cheap! Only ~\600 (yeah, I’m clearly not a big eater).

Will I do this again? Yes, of course. I just have to summon up a little courage and ignore the stares. Will it become a weekly habit, as it was in France? I honestly don’t foresee that happening, but I’ll be here for another year and a half, so it’s possible!

(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: Gunma

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Last September, J and I booked an AirBnB in Gunma Prefecture for the three-day Silver Week holiday. This particular AirBnB was a private room (several rooms, actually) in the house of a chatty elderly couple who lived in the countryside and were honestly amazed that anyone wanted to visit the middle of nowhere, Gunma.

One of the reasons I haven’t written about this trip before is because I couldn’t find the right words, even after weeks of reflection. They still aren’t right, but I’ll do my best. That three-day weekend was so unbelievably peaceful, and it was all due to the fact that, for those days, the couple’s historic home — over 100 years old — became our own as well.

We would wake up, roll out of our futons, and the wife would come in with our breakfasts: hot coffee, homemade bread with Hokkaido butter, and a bowl of fresh fruit; grapes from the local orchards and Japanese pear. We would go out for the day — hiking and onsening and exploring — and we’d come back in the evening, returning to this beautiful old house and our cheerful hosts for cups of hot tea and conversation.

On the last morning, we woke up to rain. We sat in the chairs that looked out beyond the sliding glass-and-paper doors and into the garden. For hours, we read our books and sipped our coffee in absolute companionable silence. It was the most tranquil I’ve ever felt.

I think many people visit Japan looking for exactly this. The smell of fresh tatami; the sliding doors and earthen floors of a traditional house; the simple, delicious homemade food; the warm souls; the mountains and the orchards; the quiet beauty of such a place. Something almost out of a Miyazaki film. There’s a magic there. At least, perhaps I came to Japan looking for this, not knowing if it existed.

And I found it in Gunma.

(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Yesterday was my 18th Jiu-Jitsu class. I choked a few guys, I was squashed by other guys, and I managed surprise a blue belt with the only combination move that I can actually complete without thinking for too long.

What in the world motivated me to start Jiu-Jitsu? Some background:

I’ve been curious about martial arts for a quite a few years now.

I almost started Judo at l’Université when I was living in Strasbourg, France—I filled out the registration forms and paid my sports fee and everything—but unfortunately the school’s beginner class filled up before I had the chance to join. When I was applying for the JET Program a year later, my heart was still set on learning Judo… I hoped there would be a beginner-friendly dojo near my future apartment in Japan.

However, when I found out months later that I was placed in Ibaraki, the home of Aikido, I decided that maybe I would learn Aikido instead. A quick internet search informed me that Aikido was a little less… intense compared to Judo, so it would probably more my speed anyway. (I’m not a badass person, as much as I’d like to be). Then I arrived in Japan to find that Aikido was born in the middle of Ibaraki (that’s where most of the Aikido gyms are) whereas I was living an hour and a half to the west…

Well, all good plans go awry.

So my first year on JET was spent wishing I could start some martial art—any martial art at this point—but doing nothing to accomplish it.

Luckily, back in October (2016), J and I decided to finally do something. One day, after lunch, we poked our heads into the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym near her house and asked a few questions. Basically, it went down like this—“We’ve never done jiu-jitsu before and we are both foreign, so our Japanese isn’t great. Would that cause any issues? Oh, and how expensive is it per month?”

We watched a few classes at the end of October, and by November, we had both bought gi (white judo gi, actually) and had started rolling with all the others.

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(Monday) Office Life: The Most Difficult Moments of Teaching ESL

I love my job. I really, honestly do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy.  Here are five of my… least favorite moments of teaching ESL in Japan.

  1. When a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) says that they understand the lesson you planned…. then you get to class and realize the JTE has no idea and is giving the students false directions. This really isn’t frustrating – depending on the JTE, we usually laugh about it together – but it does confuse the students and waste some class time.
  1. When you and a JTE stare at a silly grammar point in the textbook and try to turn it into a reasonably fun activity for students. This can become a bit of a Mexican standoff. The JTE often expects us ALTs to be bursting with creative ideas. In turn, ALTs often expect JTEs to be full of activities from all their years of teaching experience. In reality, neither of us knows what to do with a textbook that wants students to use the infinitive to begin a sentence. Examples are “To see is to believe!” and “To hear him sing is an experience.” A long silence stretches as we both wrack our brains for activities. Eventually we scrape something decent together, and usually, the lesson ends up just fine. But those long moments of planning a lesson around silly grammar points are not my favorites!

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(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

(Written Friday night, on the train between Yuki and Koga).

Last year, the choice to re-contract was easy, and no one was surprised that I wanted to stay for a second year.

This time around, I agonized for a bit about the decision. Was two years in Japan long enough? Would a third year be worth it? Have I accomplished everything that I wanted to do here? Should I start applying for new jobs back home? What is my future? WHAT SHOULD I DO?!

Yeah, I got a little dramatic there for a week or two.

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(Thursday) Weekly Challenge: Take a Walk

This week’s challenge was very very simple, so I won’t spend too much time writing about it (especially since I’m running a little behind on my posts as it is…). The challenge was to walk around my city for an hour or two.

Why did I challenge myself to do this? Well, when I first moved to Japan, I had no car, no wifi (for the first week), no friends, and not much work to do. To tell the truth, I was bored that first month here. And there is only so much reading that a girl can do. So I would spend a few hours after work or on the weekends, taking walks around my new city and exploring.

Then September of 2015 rolled around, and life started catching up with me. I finally bought car insurance with the help of a coworker and my world opened up. I made friends with J, who lived in a nearby city, and we started making plans for weekends. Students came back to school, classes started, and I became busier during the work week. Then the weather started cooling down, and taking my car to the bigger, further grocery store became more comfortable than walking to the little local grocery store.

I stopped exploring my city. I stopped walking as much as I had in that first month.

What happened? Nothing crazy, of course. I just walked around my city after work on Friday. Friday is the only day of the week where I consistently get home before sunset, and this Friday happened to have the added bonus of beautiful weather. I saw quite a few of my students (mostly from my Wednesday school, since I chose to walk in that area of my city), and we waved at each other. I also visited some of the little temples that are peppered around my city — the ones I first discovered back in the very beginning of my stay here.

It was very peaceful, to be honest. It feels wonderful to be outside in the fresh air on such a beautiful day. Such a welcome break from all the other noise — the music and the YouTube videos that I usually fill my free time with. Especially now that we are nearing spring and cherry blossoms, I might have to take a walk around town more often.

(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: School Festival

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School festivals are in the fall, so these two photos are a few months late, but I didn’t want to write a full post about it.

Basically, I just wanted to highlight my Commercial High School’s festival from back in October. I help run the English Club at that school, and the girls all worked hard to create a Harry Potter-themed quiz game for the festival. They decorated this science room and hid clues all around — inside the books and behind curtains — so guests could go on a little scavenger hunt to fill out the quiz. Guests who got all the answers correct won a small prize. Surprisingly, we had about 50 people complete the quiz, which surpassed all of our expectations!

Below are all the quiz questions in English. It’s not perfect English, but they tried really hard! Can you get all the answers correct?

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(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Secret Ibaraki Festival Gems

Silk festivals, peach blossom festivals, chestnut festivals, art festivals… lantern battle festivals that end in flames??? Yep, I’ve attended them all, and all in Ibaraki!

Okay, I know what you are thinking. Karen, what? You can’t call this an “extracurricular activity!”

But let me explain. I only have three real extracurricular activities — Community Japanese class, as I mentioned last Tuesday, and two others that I will write about in the next two weeks. Well, I also practice kimono, but I’ve already written about kimono a few times now. So, I only have three *new* extracurriulars, but there are FOUR Tuesdays in February. Hence, I decided that attending local festivals counts as an extracurricular!

One of the things I love most about Japan is that everything deserves its own festival. A particular flower is blooming? Festival. There’s a local 10k race? Festival. This town is famous for something? Festival. It’s summer? Festival.

Of course, there are the really big festivals, like the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Akita Kanto Festival (both of which I went to in 2016). These festivals are famous for a reason — they are truly amazing! But I think there is also a lot to be said for smaller, more local festivals — these are the hidden gems, the ones that make you feel like less of a tourist and more of a local.

So here is a little write-up about two of the best Ibaraki festivals I’ve attended so far:

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(Monday) Office Life: Foreign-Born Students in Japanese Schools

No, I’m not talking about international students who do a year abroad. I’m talking about students who moved with their families to Japan sometime when they were in Elementary school or Jr. High School, without ever having studied Japanese before.

One would think that this isn’t too much of a problem as Japan is a pretty homogeneous society — according to the census, 98.5% of the population is Japanese. However, my experience is different. My base school is a Flex school, which is a very special type of Japanese high school for many reasons. As the name suggests, it allows for flexible scheduling, and we have morning classes, afternoon classes, and night classes that run until 9 p.m.

One of the other things that makes my Flex school so unique is that it is much more diverse than a typical Japanese high school — I estimate that about 10 – 20 % of the students at my base school are not ethnically Japanese, and most of those students were born abroad.  The Philippines, Brazil, and Peru are definitely the most represented non-Japanese countries in our student body (probably in that order), although there are a handful of other students from various Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten to know a lot of these students (they tend to be stronger in English than their Japanese classmates, although that is not always true) and I have a few observations on the subject that I’d like to share.

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