My April 2017: Kimono, Missiles, and a Potato Crisis

Logically, it would make sense to pick up where I last left off—at the airport, flying off to Middle Earth, ready to go hiking in the Misty Mountains… wait, no, no. I’ve got it all wrong. The last part about the Misty Mountains didn’t happen. And… this blog post isn’t about New Zealand. (Sorry! I’ll get around to it eventually!)

Life ever since returning home from NZ has been quite crazy and there is too much to write, too much to say. I’ve been overwhelmed whenever I’ve thought of this blog recently, hence I’ve said absolutely nothing. Where to start, where to start?

Well, let’s begin on a happy note with KIMONO. My competition is over! Here’s a rundown of the hectic week leading up to that big day:

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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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(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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(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: Postcards from the Inaka

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Postcards from the Inaka I. Yuki, Ibaraki, Japan.

This picture was taken in my town, far from any of my schools. However, glancing at this photo gives me nostalgia for every single sunset-tinted evening that I leave one of my schools, laughing and waving goodbye to students who scream “SEE YOU!”, and I walk past the basketball club girls biking home, or I drive past the sports fields where the baseball team is wrapping up practice for the day. This type of sunset-tinted evening happens quite often, and although it’s a rather mundane scene, it fills me with a renewed sense of “I love my life here.”

(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Community Japanese Class

Community Japanese Class was the first extracurricular activity that I became involved in here in Japan, so I wanted to start with it.

Most decent-sized towns and cities here in Japan will have an International Society that holds free or cheap Japanese language classes for foreigners. My town is no exception.

However, I didn’t start attending the class until January of 2016, a full 5 months after I had arrived in the country. This is mostly because I was teaching myself to read and write hiragana and katakana during that five-month interim… I wanted to at least know the two basic alphabet systems before starting the class!

I’ve been attending the class for over a year now, so… how is it?

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(Friday) Thoughts from Places: My Predecessor’s Shadow

I knew the name of my JET predecessor months before I was even accepted to the program in April of 2015. I had read intimate details of the little city-town I now call home — even glimpsed into the apartment in which I now reside — long before I found out where, in all of Japan, I would be living.

It wasn’t due to anything paranormal: my predecessor had a blog. And I was one of her readers.

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The April Blues: Golden Week, At Home

And when I say “at home,” I really mean, “in Ibaraki.”

For the first part of Golden Week (which was really just a three-day weekend), my friends and I headed to one of Ibaraki’s most famous sites:  Hitachi Seaside Park! We were among the horde of hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists eager to see the Nemophila in bloom. Apparently, people even fly in from China and Taiwan just to see these brilliant flowers. Luckily, we only had to travel just under two hours by train.

We visited on April 29th, a breezy, sunny, blue-sky, late-spring kind of day.

I’m not usually one for background music, but if you like to listen while you read (or for this post, scroll through numerous pictures), I highly recommend one of my favorite instrumental pieces by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi:

Hopefully the melody will give you a sense of my mood on that brilliant first day of Golden Week. The sea breeze, blue skies, and sea of blue flowers made it more magical than I ever could have imagined.

Enjoy these April Blues!

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Probably the most photographed tree in the entire park

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Pale blue ice cream and pale blue flowers!

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Surprisingly, (or maybe unsurprisingly, after you see the photos?) Hitachi Seaside Park is pretty internet famous as one of the many places to see before you die: I’ve seen it listed alongside some of the most breathtaking locations on earth, such as in this Buzzfeed article (it’s #6)!

Moving on from Hitachi Seaside Park…

The rest of our three day weekend was spent in and around Kasama, where my friend S lives. We went to Kasama’s local  ひまつり  or pottery festival, which exceeded our expectations. Honestly, one of my coworkers told me that he and his family go to the pottery festival every year, and I brushed off his suggestion to go — why would I want to walk around and look at plates and bowls for an hour or two?

In the end, though, my friends and I  decided to check it out, only to find out that not only is       ひまつり insanely popular, it’s also a wonderful little outing if you are in the area. It reminded me of the craft shows and the art shows I used to go to with my aunts in Connecticut. Plates and bowls were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of featured pottery: there were all sorts of beautiful and crazy things made out of clay (including a few dinosaurs)!

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And aside from walking around admiring the craftsmanship of all the pottery, there was THE FOOD. This wasn’t your typical Japanese festival food, either. No takoyaki, yakisoba, and buttered baked potatoes. This was artisan food. It seems like nearly every cafe in Kasama had booked a tent at the festival, and they were serving up gourmet thin-crust pizzas, yuzu sodas, grilled teriyaki chicken and rice bowls, iced coffee, German beer and potato pancakes.

Walking through the sea of blue Nemophila and discovering Kasama’s pottery festival were by far the two highlights of my Golden Week in Ibaraki.

After that lovely three day weekend, it was back to work on Monday (unsurprisingly, there were quite a few absent students) followed by a string of public holidays on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday! My friends and I decided to take paid leave on the Friday and venture a little farther from home…

…to South Korea! But that is for another post.

Plum Blossoms, Peach Blossoms, and Cherry Blossoms, Oh my!

Prepare yourself for all the photos of various blossoms. Because Japan in the spring = flowers. You have been warned.

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Plum Blossoms

Plum blossoms are one of the first signs of spring to arrive on the scene–they range in color from white to pink, and give off a strong, sweet scent. They instantly became my favorite of the flowering trees. My friends and I celebrated their arrival at Kairakuen’s annual Plum Blossom festival back in early March. Located in Ibaraki’s capital city of Mito, Kairakuen is a top 3 famous landscaped garden in Japan, notable for its 3,000 plum trees (hence it really is the ideal place for a plum blossom festival!)

Although the festival is spread out over a few different weekends, we went on a day where they were holding an ume-shu (plum wine) tasting event! For just 700 yen, you could taste all the plum wines you wanted (140+ varieties from all 47 prefectures of Japan) within the 30 minute time limit. All the old ladies pouring the different plum wines were quite generous, filling to the brim our little thimble of a paper cup, and they were all very insistent that you try the plum wines they were in charge of!

I tasted about 27 varieties, ranging from Hiroshima prefecture and Wakayama prefecture to those made in my own Ibaraki.  Notable wines included a ridiculously spicy variety (with a devil on its label) from Fukui prefecture, a plum-wine-and-green-tea mixture from Kyoto prefecture, a rather delicious milk-and-plum wine from Fukuoka prefecture, a not-so-delicious gold-flecked wine from Gifu, and our favorite, a refreshing and sweet plum wine from Hyougo.

Peach Blossoms

Contrary to my own naive belief, peach blossoms aren’t peach-colored. Nor do they signal that fresh peaches will be available in the local markets. But I still love them.

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Following plum blossoms, peach blossoms are next to bloom, and they are absolutely brilliant: a terribly underrated flower in my opinion. The blossoms are a vibrant pink, and although they don’t have a particularly strong scent, their gorgeous coloring well makes up for it. To view the flowers, we went to a regionally famous Peach Blossom festival in Koga, Ibaraki.

One of the fun things about festivals in Japan is that they don’t always make sense. We went to the peach blossom festival expecting flowers and street food, which is exactly what we got… plus an hour-long hip-hop showcase from a local dance studio. It was quite a fun performance to watch, although there were several times where I was thankful that the kids and the audience  members alike didn’t know what the English lyrics really meant.

It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon — blossom viewing, food, and a great dance performance, all culminating in some well-deserved  peach-blossom-flavored ice cream cones.

Cherry Blossoms

This is what everyone has been waiting for, right? Cherry blossoms, a.k.a. さくら (sakura), a.k.a. the flower that Japan is internationally famous for.

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Cherry blossoms are pale pink or white flowers with a light, sweet scent. Individually, I don’t think that they are particularly more impressive than plum blossoms. However, what really makes cherry blossoms special is the fact that they are EVERYWHERE. The sheer numbers of cherry blossom trees in bloom all around Japan, to me, make them truly stand apart.

Because of this, I can’t say that I viewed cherry blossoms in any one particular place. I saw them in both Shinjuku-gyoen and Ueno park in Tokyo (along with a million other tourists from around the world), I saw them more locally in Koga, Ibaraki, and I even saw them in the tiny park across the street from my apartment.

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While the trip to Tokyo was a lot of fun, I didn’t think Tokyo was necessarily the best place to see cherry blossoms. Too many people. I had more fun at the more local festivals (one of which featured a hula performance for unknown reasons), and even at my local park, where I would see elementary school kids running around throwing fallen petals at each other, and where old friends would meet on the bench and sit late into the night, talking under the blooming trees.

My favorite part about the two weeks of cherry blossoms was a period of about two days towards the end, where the petals were starting to fall off in significant numbers, but where the trees still looked pretty full. One of these days was sunny and breezy, and it resulted in beautiful snowstorms of cherry blossom petals, just like you see in Japanese anime. It’s real, people.

These past two months have taught me that the Japanese truly celebrate all of these flowers to the fullest. The transitory nature of these blossoms is appreciated here in a way that spring has never quite been appreciated where I am from in America.

Daily conversation for the past two weeks has revolved around whether or not you have seen the cherry blossoms, and if so, where did you view them? Where did you eat and drink with friends underneath them? I feel as if the real question is, did you notice? Did you realize the importance — the sadness, the beauty — of these ephemeral things?

And I can say, yes, I did.

A Sunrise Hike of Mount Tsukuba

One Sunday back in February, a few of us decided to wake up at 3 in the morning, drive to our local mountain, and summit it in time to see the sunrise. This is what happened:

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Mt. Tsukuba is a little over an hour’s drive from any of our apartments, so we set out around 3:30 in the morning, stopped at 7/11 for breakfast… and arrived a bit later than expected, unfortunately. Although 4:50 a.m. is still a pretty impressive hour of day to be awake and standing at the base of a mountain.

The lower half of Mount Tsukuba is pretty densely forested. When you are hiking up in hopes of seeing the sunrise (aka in pitch-black darkness),  everything is so secret, and so quiet, and just a little lonely. You only hear the wind rippling through the trees, your own panting breath, and smatterings of birdsong that rise and fade in the darkness. You only see the small circle of light cast by your headlamp — all the rest is shadow, and the tree trunks look the slightest bit ghostly in the darkness. It depends on the person, but this could either be the setting for moments of inner peace….

or moments of foreboding where you start remembering all the horror movies you’ve ever watched…

Anyways, it was a fun opportunity to try out our fancy new headlamps, at least until the sky brightened. We ended up missing the sunrise by about an hour, but we still had magnificent views from the top.

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We even made a friend at the very top of the mountain!

As we were huddled up against the wind, waiting for the cable car to open for the day so we could quickly descend (spoiler: the cable car on Tsukuba only opens at 9:20 a.m.) we were joined by a ginger cat who was also a little chilly. He snuggled right up to us and started purring away. We all bought hot teas from the vending machines at the top of the mountain (because Japan is awesome like that) and every so often, when the cat began to shiver, we pressed a hot tea bottle against his fur to warm him up again.

He stayed with us until the cable car whirred into operation, bringing shop ladies up to open the summit’s ice cream stores, and bringing us down the mountain for a long drive home.

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It was an incredibly different experience to hike up Tsukuba without the jostle of other hikers. Mount Tsukuba is a very popular (very easy) mountain, so it is always crawling with people of all levels of fitness — even the occasional toddler. Especially near the top, it is easy to get stuck behind a bunch of other people. Caught in the swarm of hikers, you don’t feel very connected to nature.

In contrast,  for most of our sunrise hike, we felt like we were the only ones on the mountain. It was so quiet, so unbelievably peaceful. It was just us, and the trees, and the rocks, and the clouds, and the crisp cold morning air.

And it felt wonderful to be alive.

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