Japan in the spring

Japan in the spring is a chorus of wind chimes, of rustled leaves, of bicyclists and joggers and families on foot passing by on the main street. It’s a sharp breath of fresh, clean air – a deep inhale, like coming up for breath after being underwater for a long time.

And it’s warm, like ten a.m. sunlight on the back of your neck. And you can feel it in your chest – this soft, delicate warmth – like there’s a bud in your stomach that’s just sprouted and its branches are intertwining themselves carefully around your lungs and filling, feeding you with its breath.

This warmth is constant, present, even at night when its cool. You can keep your windows open at night now, even though you haven’t opened your windows for months because of the cold; now that it’s spring, you can finally let the breeze in.

And you wake up to the breeze tickling your cheeks, whispering into your ear, then filling the whole room with the scent of it, of spring, and all at once everything smells of steeped tea leaves. Like a dandelion flower with a full head of seeds, a kiss on the cheek, Japan in the spring is a promise; the winter was long, but then spring came.

An old man at an intersection

There is an old man who stands guard at an intersection where a neighborhood road ends and turns onto the main street and every morning I pass him on my way to work. He wears a blue jumpsuit and a crossing guard vest and carries an orange baton, which he holds behind his back.

He’s a small man, short and stocky, and he stands with a slight hunch. His face is aged, lined with deep wrinkles that have set into his forehead and the outer corners of his eyes. He has a drooping face, wearied with time, but it’s gentle too and when he smiles his smile stretches into his cheeks, his eyelids turn upwards at the edges, and he looks almost like a little boy – a boy at the park, or at an ice cream shop, holding his mother’s hand.

In the span of several seconds, I approach the intersection where he stands, watch him greet the people passing – high school students on their bicycles, pedestrians walking their dogs – and then I pass him, smile, and he bows his head to me, smiles back, says good morning. Sometimes he’ll say “take care.”

One of these days, I want to stop. I want to pause at the intersection and ask him his name, where he’s from. I want to offer him a cool bottle of tea because it’s getting warmer out and ask him for his story – where did you grow up? what was your childhood like, your adolescence? who did you want to be? who did you become?

Maybe he’ll tell me that he was raised on a vegetable farm in a tiny village in Akita Prefecture, or Kumamoto, someplace far from the city. His father owned the farm and worked it himself and sometimes after school he – the old man – would help his father lay fertilizer, pick weeds, harvest the crops – turnips, eggplants, radishes. Sometimes when the harvest was good his father would bring in basketfuls of fresh radishes and his mother would simmer them in soy sauce and to this day he’s never had radishes as delicious as his father’s.

But for now he is the old man at the intersection and he is my favorite thing about the morning.

While in Okinawa: coffee on Zamami

Across from Zamami Island’s main port, there’s a neighborhood made up of several apartment complexes, a few guesthouses for tourists, and scattered homes with tiny backyards. Hidden within this tiny neighborhood are a handful of family-owned cafe/restaurants that I wouldn’t have known existed if I wasn’t looking.

IMG_8744

The first cafe my friend and I found was called Cafe Amulet. It had a sign outside that said it sold pasta and ice cream. We stepped inside. A bell rang as the door closed. A young couple standing behind the bar, who I assumed were the owners, greeted me welcome and motioned for us to sit where we wanted. I chose a table next to the shelves, which were stocked with plenty of books about travel, culture, and of course, coffee.

IMG_8748The young man brought us a cup of water and took our order. I couldn’t decide on a tea, so he offered me wine, even though it was 1pm. I opted for iced coffee.

IMG_8747For a while, my friend and I were the only people in the cafe besides the couple, and their little girl – who wandered around the cafe and took books from the shelf and read them at the bar while swaying back and forth in the swivel chair.

It was nice there, cozy and comfortable. We lingered after finishing our drinks and didn’t feel rushed to leave.

IMG_8746

A few people eventually came and went, all of whom – to my surprise – the owners knew by name. One person even brought the couple a gift (a bag of salt from the main island I think, from what I could hear), which the wife sounded pretty excited about. The way the couple interacted with the guests who stopped by made me want to stay in Zamami and become a local too, just to visit Cafe Amulet and hang out with the family and bring them salt. (And to drink wine at 1pm.)

In the end I decided against that, but here’s the address if you ever take a trip to Zamami Village and want to bring the family salt for me.

 

While in Okinawa: “smallest coffee shop in town”

The cafe was small – really small. True to its name, I suppose. I’d never been to a cafe the size of a walk-in closet before. I wondered about what kind of people frequent the “Smallest Coffee Shop in Town.” Locals, I’m sure… Maybe the owner’s close friends, friends of friends, wanderers stopping by to rest for a bit and share about how their weekends went.

There was no one there when I entered – I had to knock on the wall a few times, and then call out excuse me when, still, no one returned. I could hear jazz playing softly from a speaker somewhere near the back.

IMG_8822

 

A few chairs were lined up at the counter. I sat down at the one nearest me and waited. Kettles and coffee pots, stained and worn from use, sat on a gas stove against the wall.

It was a small space, but there was more than enough to look at; there were Okinawan hairbands for sale on a shelf beside me, jars of brown sugar crystals on the counter, stuffed rabbits sitting on the windowsill. I felt a little odd, sitting there alone, but comforted too. In a way, it made me feel like I was at a friend’s kitchen table, passing time while they finished preparing our meal.

A woman, who I assumed is the owner, eventually returned. She gave me a look when she saw me – I couldn’t tell what kind of look it was. Probably curiosity, or interest, or surprise maybe. Or, a mix of all three(?). She had crimped hair dyed light brown and was wearing a hat with a lace rim.

I greeted her good morning and asked for iced coffee. She poured her brew into a plastic take-out cup, handed me the cup and little cartons of creamer and sugar and charged 200 Yen. I hadn’t expected it to be so cheap – probably because I’d paid 600 for a cup of coffee at the cafe I’d gone to the day before, which was just down the street. The coffee was good too – strong, not bitter. I enjoyed it, and as I sipped my 200 yen cold brew I regretted that I wouldn’t have the chance to go back. But I’m grateful I stumbled upon it at least; it’s not everyday that I find a coffee shop – which happens to sell delicious, exceptionally priced coffee – that’s smaller than my bedroom.

While in Okinawa: our home for a week

A friend and I spent the last week of March in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. To cut down on the cost of the trip, we rented out an apartment, which turned out to be a better accommodation than we’d expected and a perfect fit for the two of us. The apartment was clean, spacious, well-decorated, and stocked with extra amenities like towels and dish soap, and in a way it made Okinawa feel a little like home – even though home was nearly 1,000 miles away. Here are a few pictures I took of the place when we first arrived!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Wednesdays

  • 8:10am
    • Arrive at school entrance
      • Put shoes in shoe locker
        • Slip on indoor shoes
  • 8:12am
    • Arrive at teacher’s room
      • Take off coat and headphones
        • Put lunch in fridge
      • Say “ohaiyou gozaimasu” to every teacher that passes
  • 8:15am
    • Warm breakfast in microwave
      • Eat breakfast at desk
        • Feel self conscious about eating breakfast at desk
          • Finish eating breakfast at desk anyway
  • 8:30am
    • Greet English teaching partner good morning
      • Talk about the lesson for the day
        • Designate roles
  • 8:34am
    • Wash plastic bowl
      • Attempt to find a space for bowl to dry on overcrowded rack where teachers keep their mugs
  • 8:38am
    • If time, make tea
      • Disperse water from hot water heater
        • Place tea bag in water
    • Drink tea and wait for bell to ring
  • 8:46am
    • Walk to English classroom at far end of the 3rd floor
      • Question why the English room is the farthest class from the teachers’ room
      • Consider taking the elevator
        • Remind self about the importance of exercise
          • Take the elevator
  • 8:50am
    • Turn on the heater
      • Set to 25 degrees Celcius
        • Argue with partner about the temperature
          • Compromise at 24 degrees Celcius
    • Greet students as they shuffle into the class
  • 8:52am
    • Start 1st Period
      • Teachers: “Hello everyone!”
      • Students: “Hello, Julia-sensei; Hello, *partner*; Hello, *homeroom teacher*!”
      • Teachers: “How are you?”
      • Students: “I’m … (insert sleepy, hot, cold, tired, hungry, happy, good.)”
        • Student lead for the week: “What day is it?”
        • Students: “It’s Wednesday.”
        • “How is the weather?”
        • “It’s … (insert sunny, cloudy, rainy).”
      • Teachers: “Thank you!”
  • 8:55am – 9:30am
    • Review vocabulary on PowerPoint
    • Review vocabulary on large flashcards
    • Review target phrase
      • This week: I want to be a (insert profession) because I like (insert reason).
    • Practice target phrase with class
      • Optional practice in pairs
      • Optional song
    • Play game to practice vocab and target phrase
    • Play another game to practice vocab and target phrase
    • If time, play another game to practice vocab and target phrase
    • Award game winners with cute stamps
      • (Students loves cute stamps)
  • 9:30am
    • End class
      • Teachers: “Goodbye everyone!”
      • Students: “Goodbye, Julia-sensei, *partner,* *homeroom teacher*!”
  • 9:36am – 10:20am
    • Start 2nd period
      • Repeat 1st period
  • 10:20am-10:40am
    • Return to desk during the 20 minute break
      • Make tea again
        • Drink tea
      • Talk to partner about non-work related things
  • 10:45am – 11:30am
    • Start 3rd Period
      • Repeat 2nd period
    • End 3rd Period
  • 11:32am
    • Turn off heater and lights and computer
  • 11:35am
    • Return to desk
      • Finish tea
        • Check school email
  • 12:07pm
    • Watch lunch for the teachers get distributed
      • Sneak glance at the school lunch meal for the day
        • Wonder what one of the ingredients in the soup is
  • 12:15pm
    • Warm up lunch in microwave
    • Eat lunch
  • 12:41pm
    • Wash plastic bowl
      • Attempt to find a space for bowl on mug rack again
  • 1:25pm
    • Realize lunch break is over
    • Listen to students clean the school
      • Hand out trash bags to students who request trash bags
        • Wonder how the students in charge of cleaning the English classroom are doing
  • 1:40pm – 1:55pm
    • Go to one of the first grade classes for “English Time”
      • Review vocabulary
        • Play game to practice vocabulary
  • 2pm ~ 3:30pm
    • Prepare materials for Thursday classes (3rd and 4th graders)
    • Review lesson plans
      • Review and finalize PowerPoint slides
    • Print lesson plans for homeroom teachers
      • Place lesson plans on homeroom teachers’ desks
  • ~3:30pm – 4:57pm
    • Pass the time
      • Reply to emails
      • Work on a blog post
      • Attempt to study Japanese
      • Read book from the school library
        • (Currently: the cartoon version of Anne of Green Gables)
  • 4:57pm
    • Put on coat
    • Say “see you tomorrow” to partner
    • Say “osaki ni shitsureishimasu” to passing teachers
  • 5:00pm
    • Put indoor shoes in locker
      • Slip on outdoor shoes
    • Leave school

An Ode to Winter – My First Snowman

I was born and raised in sunny southern California, where the coldest it gets in the winter is 50 degrees Fahrenheit – if you can call that a winter. But over the past few months, the temperature in Osaka dropped to about 30 degrees at its coldest – which I was neither prepared for nor happy about. After growing up spoiled by abnormally warm SoCal winters, it hasn’t been easy for me to adjust to below freezing temperatures. I often find myself day-dreaming about 75 degree weather, checking the temperature in my hometown with envy, counting down the days until spring.

But there have been a few days this bitter winter that have made the endless shivering (almost) worth it… Like the one Saturday I awoke to the ground outside my apartment covered in a sheet of white.

IMG_8347

Fresh snow might not sound too exciting, but I’d never seen anything like it before!

Without even bothering to change out of my pajamas, I threw on a coat and a pair of gloves and hurried outside to play with the layer of snow that had built up during the night with one goal in mind – to build a snowman for the very first time!

Stepping out into the snow, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to build my snowman 6 feet tall (as I’d originally envisioned it), but I did have enough to make several snowballs, which I stacked together to form its body. Then I collected a couple twigs for his arms, some seeds for the eyes, a leaf for his lips. He was no taller than a foot, and didn’t have a carrot for a nose – which I’d always imagined snowmen to have – but I was happy with him anyway.

IMG_E8358IMG_E8356

Minoh hasn’t had another day like that since, and probably won’t for the rest of this year, but I’m glad I got to experience the feeling of waking up to falling snow – and to have practiced the renowned art of snowman-building. So I suppose winter might not have been that bad after all…

Though, I am still incredibly relieved that spring has finally arrived.

Quality Dining at 7-11

A few weeks ago, I went to a local 7-11 to pick up tickets for a concert. (Oddly enough, in Japan it’s common to purchase tickets online and pick up the hard copies at a 7-11 – I don’t know why.)

After collecting my tickets, I decided to buy tea before heading home. But on my way to pick up a drink, my eyes happened to wander to the food section, as they always do…

Convenience stores always have ready-made meals available all day long, like rice balls wrapped in seaweed and bento boxes with meat and vegetables. When I first arrived in Japan, I was obsessed with the idea of convenience store food. I tried all the rice bowls, the fried fish and veggies – I practically lived off of convenience store food for two weeks! But after being in Japan for seven months now, I don’t find it very exciting – or appetizing – anymore.

But at this particular 7-11, the food on display was different: the options, the types of meals, the quality – I’d never seen anything like it before! I rarely give the food section at convenience stores a second glance, but I was so impressed by this display that I thought it was worthy of a photo shoot.

IMG_E8385IMG_E8391The shelves were stocked with just about every kind of hearty Japanese comfort food you could imagine –  soba, udon, curry, pork katsu, grilled marinated meats with a heaping side of rice… And all were a reasonable 400-500 yen, or $4-5.

IMG_E8382

IMG_E8384
Yakisoba with a hearty sesame-flavored glaze.

There were plenty of “Western” inspired options too, like bowls of Neapolitan spaghetti with sliced ham, sausage, tomato sauce, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

IMG_E8389My favorite thing about this display, though, was the abundance of meals catering to the health-conscious customer. While there were quite a few carb-heavy dishes, there were also just as many light and healthy dishes available too – like bowls of broth-based soups filled to the brim with steamed vegetables. IMG_E8388

IMG_E8386This Korean-inspired bowl with pork, tofu, kimchi proudly states that it has “1/2 serving of your daily recommended vegetables” – definitely not something you’d expect to find at a convenience store. IMG_E8392

And, of course, there were salads too – the healthiest of the bunch. But really, why buy a salad when you can buy a plate of spaghetti the size of your face?

Anyway, I think I’d still prefer my lunch to be made at home than from a convenience store refrigerator, but if I were in the mood for convenience store curry, I’d head to this 7-11 without a second thought.

20 Minutes at Tom’s Mr. Hedgie

It turns out that cats aren’t the only animal to have earned their own line of themed cafes in Japan. There are cafes for puppies, for owls, for lizards, for birds, for snakes, and more. I even heard about a pug cafe in Kyoto!

Though I can’t say that I’ve ever been particularly interested in spending my afternoon with lizards, there was one animal – my favorite animal, actually – that I’ve been hoping to visit ever since my cat cafe excursion… Hedgehogs!

IMG_E8471

On a day trip through Kyoto, my friend and I decided to stop by a hedgehog cafe called Tom’s Mr. Hedgie where you can hold, feed, and play with a hedgehog for up to an hour.

Apparently, most people make reservations in advance, but we arrived without a reservation and were seated within a few minutes. The staff member who’d led us to our table handed us rules and instructions for properly handling our hedgehog. (I asked for the English version.)

The cafe itself was immaculately clean, brightly lit, and smelled like flowers. And it was well-decorated with an impressive spread of hedgehog-themed goods: ornaments, photos, stuffed animals, and lots of miniature sized trinkets and accessories.

IMG_E8505

By far my favorite thing about it were all the warm, smiling faces! Everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the quality time with their hedgehog playmates.

IMG_E8477

After choosing a time limit (we opted for 20, the cheapest option), a staff member brought us a yellow bucket, a paper towel, and a hedgehog of our own. His name was “Paido.” He was a baby and new to the cafe, so he scared easily and didn’t enjoy being held. I only got to hold him for a total of about 30 seconds by the time he’d made it clear that he wanted to be put down. My friend had a similar experience, so we let Paido be and watched him wander around the yellow bucket for the remaining time.

IMG_8501IMG_8498

After 20 (short) minutes, Paido was escorted from our table back to his glass-walled home – which, in all honesty, he was probably relieved about.

I can’t say that 700 yen for 20 minutes is a price I’d be willing to pay again, but I’m happy to have had the chance to hold my favorite animal for the first time! (Even if it was short-lived.)

 

My daily commute on the 92

The bus comes at 7:43 on weekdays. I leave my house at 7:30 and arrive at the stop by 7:40 at the latest, depending on how long it take me to jaywalk across the main road.

There’s a convenience store next to the bus stop, a Family Mart. Sometimes I’ll wait inside because it’s much warmer in there than it is outside and I can check to see if the bus is coming from the window by the seating area. I see the same staff at the Family Mart every morning and I’m sure they recognize me by now – probably as that foreign girl who buys green tea and lingers in the seating area, who runs from the store at exactly 7:43. 

There’s an elderly man who rides the 7:43 bus everyday too and boards at the same stop as me. He’s short and balding and limps on his left foot. He has a tired, weary look in his eyes and his breathing is heavy, like the air is weighing on his lungs. When he waits for the bus to come he stands a few feet off to the side, looking down at the sidewalk, as if he’s intrigued by something on the ground. I still don’t know what it is he’s looking at. He might not be looking at anything at all.

The bus is always full by the time it arrives at my stop – or, our stop (mine and the elderly man’s). Some days are worse than others; some days I need to shove my way on board just to squeeze myself in far enough for the door to close behind me. It’s like this on Mondays, which makes sense I suppose, since its the start of the work week. The bus is less packed as the week goes on. On a few Fridays, there have even been empty seats available. But that doesn’t happen often. I’m usually lucky to get a seat at all during the 20 minute bus ride.

For the most part, there are always the same kind of passengers on the bus – people on their way to work, students going to school. The students either sleep, sitting up, their heads lolling from side to side, or they study. I’ve seen some studying English before. I’m always tempted to comment on their homework, tell them the answers. But I never do – no one talks on the bus.

I don’t usually recognize the faces on the bus. But there are a few regulars – passengers I see everyday.

There’s this one girl, probably about my age. She gets on earlier than me and always stands at the very front beside the driver. When I get on we catch each other’s gaze and smile. Sometimes, she’ll wave at me too. I think of her and I wonder if you can call someone who you’ve never met a friend.

There’s a student who reminds me of my little brother. He has a baby face and glasses with frames that don’t balance well on his nose. His backpack is nearly half the size of his body and it looks heavy, too heavy for anyone his size to carry. I want to ask him if it’s heavy. And I want to ask him if he’s tired, if he’s overwhelmed, if he’s happy. In my head I ask him these questions everyday but everyday he says nothing and gets off with the rest of the students.

And there’s the middle-aged man who boards two stops later than mine, with the satin pants and shiny black shoes. He plays games on his phone to pass the time. Sometimes he plays Pocket Camp, a game where you take on the role of “campsite manager” and decorate your own campsite with the help of visiting animals. I play it too. I think it was designed for a young, female audience, so it makes me happy to see him play. From a few feet away, I watch him tap his phone, chatting with his animal friends. I try to imagine what his campsite looks like.

I don’t know anything about them beyond that. I’ll probably never even know their names. And they will never know mine. But they are familiar, constant, and they make the ride a little easier somehow.