Anecdotes 5: An Impromptu Tea Ceremony

I was wrapping up at work yesterday, preparing to go home, when the energetic cooking teacher zoomed past my desk. Seconds later, she flew by again in the opposite direction. Her eyes caught mine, and after a brief conversation about why she was so stressed, she suddenly asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure! How can I help?” I replied.

“Let’s have tea,” was her response, then she turned and was zipping back across the staff room. She returned with kinako-powdered walnuts.  “You like matcha, right?”

I followed here to the office kitchen, where she uncovered beautifully painted ceramic bowls, powdered matcha, and a set of tea whisks. She instructed me on how much powder to scoop into my bowl, and how to correctly whip up the hot tea so it froths. After a minute of preparation, we sat down to enjoy our own little office tea ceremony, complete with the kinako walnuts.

“I do this every day,” she confided in me. “It helps me relax.”

When the tea and sweets were gone, we cleaned up and she jumped into action once more. “Back to work, I have to prepare a morals lesson for tomorrow’s open house PTA day!” and she was racing off once more. The whole little tea ceremony had taken less than 10 minutes.

I love these little unexpected moments of happiness.

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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(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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(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.

(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Flashback to a Year in France

Today I was overwhelmed by memories of Strasbourg.

Summer.

Hot sticky sweltering summer nights spent rolling wineglasses on uneven picnic benches under la Guinguette’s magnificent willow tree strung up with fairy lights and dwarfing all the internationalities who sipped wine and chugged beer and discussed French literature and dared each other to dance with the hot stranger over there, all to the strange wails and guitars of live foreign bands, all by the banks of the Loire.

The greying old man with deep laughter wrinkles smiles warmly at you and begins to sing as he whips up your daily crepe, lathering generous spoonfuls of Nutella and sliced banana onto the crisp, lacy crust and handing it to you, hot and fresh and sweet, with a final hum as you slide two new coins across the glass countertop.

In the lofty white stone halls of the castle-school that you liked to pretend was marble, under brassy chandeliers and around the corner from your gold-embossed classroom with creaking wooden floors, you sit playing chess with Bridget, glass pawns fighting and flickering in the sunlight that pours through the French windows with peeling white paint as your classmates on the balcony call out to friends—in English, in French, in Italian—in the courtyard below.

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(Monday) Office Life: Inside a Japanese Teacher’s Room

One of the first things to know about Japanese schools is that the Teacher’s Room is the hub of activity. Every teacher has a desk in the Teacher’s Room—even the P.E. teachers, the school librarians, and the home economics teachers, although they probably don’t need one. Even the Vice Principal has a desk there. So if a teacher isn’t teaching or managing a club activity, he or she will probably be found in the Teacher’s Room (unless he or she popped out to the bank or the local Italian restaurant for lunch, of course).

This is in contrast to at least my high school in America, which seemed to lack a designated communal office—or perhaps it had one, but I didn’t know where it was and it probably wasn’t put to very much use. Instead, every teacher had their own classroom where they worked and taught and even ate lunch. So all the teachers are a little more isolated, at least to student’s perspective.

In this post, I’ll give you a little tour around the Teacher’s Room in Japanese high schools (aka where I desk-warm during school breaks).

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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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